3 July 17 | Chad W. Post

On this week’s Two Month Review podcast, we’ll be discussing the fourth part of The Invented Part (“Many Fêtes, or Study for a Group Portrait with Broken Decalogues,” pagest 301-360). As a bit of preparation, below you’ll find some initial thoughts, observations, and quotes.

You can also download this post as a PDF document.

As always, you can get The Invented Part for 20% off from our website by using the code 2MONTH. It’s also available at better bookstores everywhere.

And be sure to join the Goodreads group and subscribe to the Two Month Review Podcast on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts.

As has been mentioned time and again—in posts and on the podcast—each of the seven sections of The Invented Part operate under a different style and literary technique. Sure, there are similarities in voice and general outlook, in recurring stories, themes and ideas, but Fresán keeps experimenting with different approaches to this material throughout the book. It’s probably not completely wrong to say that this novel is as much concerned with cataloging various literary styles and structures as it is with the plot. (More on that coming!)

Last week we had the internal monologue section, with The Writer thinking his time had come and being unable to shut off his brain while in the hospital undergoing an MRI and waiting to learn his fate. By contrast, this week’s section (“Many Fêtes, or Study for a Group Portrait with Broken Decalogues”) is much more fragmented and discontinuous. (Warning: That’s what this post will likely be as well. Buckle up?)

Specifically, the rubric for this section is the “biji.”

The biji (筆記) is a genre of classic Chinese literature. “Biji” can be translated, roughly yet more or less faithfully, as “notebook.” And a biji can contain curious anecdotes, nearly blind quotations, random musings, philosophical speculations, private theories regarding intimate matters, criticism of other works, and anything that its owner and author deems appropriate.

As you’ll hear in Thursday’s podcast, Brian likens this section to a puzzle being put together. Even more than that, he sees this section as building the frame to the novel as a whole. And we do get a lot of plot pieces in this part, providing the emotional outline of The Writer’s life—especially in relation to his parents, which reminds me that I would like to write a long post about the parent-child relationships running throughout this book. I’ll just make a note of that here so that I don’t forget.

As you’ll also hear on Thursday, we weren’t sure what the daggers before every “biji” or fragment represented. We are dumb. We are also lazy. Here’s what I found in four seconds of using the Google.

The dagger is usually used to indicate a footnote if an asterisk has already been used. A third footnote employs the double dagger. Additional footnotes are somewhat inconsistent and represented by a variety of symbols, e.g., parallels (‖) and the pilcrow (¶), some of which were nonexistent in early modern typography.

One of the echoes from an early section that shows up here is the recurring phrase “have you read all these books?”

(In relation to this book and the daggers and the asterisks in the previous section, a better question might be: have you read all the footnotes AND the footnotes to the footnotes?”)

In 1998, the Modern Library put Tender Is the Night at number twenty-eight on the list of one hundred best novels in English of the twentieth century. The Great Gatsby is number two, after Ulysses by James Joyce.

Has he read all of those novels? Just those one hundred novels?

He looks on the Internet and finds it and—memo for the girl from the beginning—he discovers that yes he has read ninety-three of the one hundred on the list.

And says to himself that that is something.

Then he thinks that Christmas is coming.

This is very much a book in conversation with other books.

Actually, that’s not quite right. It’s a book steeped in a world in which books matter. There are books that are books for writers. (“He sure is a writer’s writer!” “You mean his books don’t sell, but people go to his panels at AWP?”) But this is a book that’s maybe a bit of that, but a bit more of a reader’s reader book. A book for the people who believe in books and are surrounded by them.

“Have you read all those books?”

I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned this here, on the podcast, or solely in conversation with myself, but I take great solace in being surrounded by way more books than I will ever read. It’s probably 50-50 that I’ll make it through the titles on my “to read soon” shelves. And I’m good with that. In no way will that reality prevent me from buying more books, being swayed by the new shiny authors, and the promise of some mind-altering literary experience. If life is mostly managing anxiety, and if I am being honest, I’m way more anxious when I feel like I don’t have too many books physically around me. I take four times the number of books I need to on every flight, breaking my back mainly because I’m scared of being on a plane and not liking the one and only book I took with me. What would I even do?

The way in which Christmas is dropped into that excerpt above is at the crux of what I think I want to write about this week: the way this novel is almost inverted in its aims, condensing the plot into little information dumps while unfurling a near-endless investigation into the mystery of how literature is transformed from facts into something more.

How the “invented part”—which is the best part, the magical part—comes to be. And why that matters.

This is the story: Christmas Eve 1977, his parents and their friends, models and artists and publicists and beautiful people, storm a prestigious department store branch and, within a few hours, are “subdued by the forces of order.” [. . .]

And “subdued by the forces of order” means that the army comes in with tanks and bazookas and many people die, among them several customers who were there buying Christmas presents. [. . .]

It was never clear if his parents died during the retaking of the department store or if, weeks later, they were thrown from a seaplane into the waters off that beach where they used to take him on vacation and where one time he almost drowned without them noticing.

Imagine another book. A book written by a writer concerned with using words to represent events in cinematic ways on the page. A QWERTY writer. (That’s an in-joke for the Rochester translation community, but I’m letting it stand.) A writer who has a name like “Jodi Picoult.” A writer who would take those three paragraphs and make them ride for a hundred pages. With emotional crescendos, endless details about the politics and emotional background that led The Writer and Penelope’s parents to “storm” a department store, a really muscular descripton of the “forces of order” shutting things down, and a charged denounment involving parents, children, and broken dreams, this imaginary book would be a lot more than three paragraphs.

Instead, here are three other paragraphs from the same “bijis” that point to what Fresán is really up to.

Another note: This part of the novel (and it will be very complex) will be built around the testimonies of hostages, between terror and wonder, seeing themselves subdued by “that couple from those ads on a sailboat.” Some of them won’t be able to stop admiring the perfect cut and tailoring of their guerilla-chic style uniforms. Someone will ask for their autographs and to take a picture with them. And his parents, of course, will comply. And they smile at the camera. And that oh so Murphian photo will appear on the front page of daily and weekly newspapers in the coming days and weeks. [. . .]

The attack is filmed by news cameras and (not long ago he saw those shaky scenes again) the quality of the film is curiously similar to the postcards of battles from World War One. Something that looks much older than it actually is. [. . .]

An inconfessable confession, inadmissible admission: he’s increasingly convinced that he’d benefitted from his parents’ disappearance. And not just because it made him seem so much more interesting when he published his first book where his parents’ disappearance made an appearance. [. . .] His parents, on the other hand, hadn’t even left behind good-looking corpses. His parents were like dead stars whose light still twinkled a little, from so many dark years of unfathomable cosmic distance. His parents were, yes—a good story. [. . .]

It’s trite to point this out, but this is just as much a book about making books as much as it is a book about the life and times of its imagined characters.

Two more long quotes!

“Wuthering Heights Revisited” tells the story of a beautiful and romantic young woman who, obsessed with gothic novels, marries a rich yet bohemian heir who has come to Europe to find success as an artist. Her husband falls seriously ill and both of them return to his family’s home, on the other side of the ocean. There, the young woman suffers and, discovering that she is pregnant, runs away without saying anything to her in-laws out of fear that they won’t let her leave and will claim her child for the heir. The young woman, without a home, lives with her brother. The boy is born and the young mother, sensing that she’s going mad, discovers not only that the boy won’t ever love her, but that in addition, as the years go by, he’ll love her brother more and more. One night, the young woman takes her son for a walk along a beach that leads into a forest. And the young woman comes home alone and smiling. And she says she doesn’t know what happened, that she doesn’t remember anything, that she was “possessed by the ugliest of all the Ugly Spirits,” and, when questioned about the boy, she sings and sings and doesn’t stop singing.

“Dear: dear, dear, dear . . .”

In a paragraph and a sentence, we get the whole crushing story of Penelope’s life. And that line, “sensing that she’s going mad, discovers not only that the boy won’t ever love her, but that in addition, as the years go by, he’ll love her brother more and more.” Fuck. That’s so much more poignant than a chapter trying to capture her inner emotional states.

I’m just spitballing ideas here, treating this blog like a private notebook, but in a way, this book works really well by inhabiting a world of books, a world of books that the reader is also familiar with, and allowing the stories and aspects of those other books to fill in the outline of this book’s plot. In a less convoluted way: I don’t need more of Penelope’s story, because with this one line I realize that I’ve read it before somewhere. Or if not exactly read her story, I can imagine having read that story. Or seen it, or heard it.

What’s the fun in trying to write a story that’s all plot and characters and neo-realism? We’ve all seen that, we’ve all read better versions. Creating something new in the world of contemporary realism seems so daunting . . . and not nearly as enriching and inventive and exciting as what Fresán’s doing. Especially since there still is so much heart and emotion and meat to this novel.

Although to be honest, anyone who would ask “have you read all these books?” would probably also ask, “why do you read?”

What could his parents—in full-on process of deterioration, their morale broken—have seen in Tender Is the Night? What could their systematic serial reading of the novel—as if searching for a secret code, an explanation for everything in their world—have helped them with? Maybe, seeing themselves reflected in the Divers just as the Murphys (though they deny it) saw themselves reflected in the Divers, his parents were able to understand themselves better and maybe forgive themselves. Or perhaps, to the contrary, the bourgeoisie and comfortable image reflected back to them by that black and magic mirror—the warning from a Lost Generation that under no circumstance should they lose their generation again—did nothing but harden their respective positions and they read that book the way other people read Sun Tzu or Von Clausewitz. As a call to arms.

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