22 June 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week, Speculative Fiction in Translation founder and Best Translated Book Award judge Rachel Cordasco joins Chad and Brian to talk about the nature of time, deals with the devil, conflagrations, and writerly desires, or, in other words, the third part of “The Place Where the Sea Ends So the Forest Can Begin” in Rodrigo Fresán’s The Invented Part. A very elegant section of the book following the wild, giant green cow bit that came before, the three hosts enthusiastically break down some of the plot clues included in this section, and what makes this book so damn good. (Stay till the very end to hear Rachel’s enthusiasm take her over!)

Feel free to comment on this episode—or on the book in general—either on this post, or at the official GoodReads Group.

The Invented Part is avaialble at better bookstores everywhere, including Volumes Bookcafe. You can also order it directly from Open Letter, where you can get 20% off by entering 2MONTH in the discount field at checkout.

Follow Open Letter, Chad Post, Brian Wood, and Rachel Cordasco on Twitter for more thoughts and information about upcoming guests.

And you can find all Two Month Review posts by clicking here.

Next week we will be back to discuss “A Few Things You Happen to Think About When All You Want Is to Think About Nothing” (pages 231-300).

The music for the first season of Two Month Review is Big Sky by The Kinks.

21 June 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

You can read the first part of this interview here, the second here, and you can click here for all Two Month Review posts.

Special thanks to Will Vanderhyden for conducting—and translating—this interview.

Will Vanderhyden: Your fiction wears its influences on its sleeve, but not only do you fully acknowledge your literary forbearers, you repurpose, and—à la Borges, when he wrote: “Every writer creates his own precursors”—(re)create them. Your books, both in form and content, revolve around and play with the work and lives of other writers, both real and invented: your narratives are full of ersatz and factual stories of great artists and writers; your writing is riddled with quotations, allusions, and rewritten/recycled/re-contextualized ideas. But out of this bricolage of references you create your own sensibility, your own voice—an undeniably original style. Can you talk about what style means to you and where you think it comes from?

Rodrigo Fresán: Ah, that is the great mystery. Over the years I have come to realize that personal style is nothing more than the way in which the wounds of successive failures stop bleeding and scar over. Out of all those things that never turn out how you thought or hoped they would, if you persevere, in the end your own style will emerge, inside of which, yes, in my case (and in everyone’s case; I just don’t have any problem admitting it and acknowledging it) many other voices coexist. I am a referential maniac. And I’m very proud of it.

WV: Even this idea of “referential mania,” is itself a reference. In his story Signs and Symbols Nabokov uses the term to describe a psychological disorder suffered by the institutionalized son of an elderly couple of Russian Jewish émigrés. This disorder causes the patient to imagine that “everything happening around him is a veiled reference to his personality and existence” and that: “Everything is a cipher and of everything he is the theme.” You’ve turned referential mania into a literary device, a way to harness information overload, to make stories out of the multitude of stories that have been personally meaningful to you at different times in your life. Is there a particular moment or experience that kick started your referential mania?

RF: I think I talked about this somewhat in response to previous questions (early exposure to 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life,” etc.). But maybe the Big Bang . . . I remember perfectly my father coming home with the freshly released, the first, and automatic favorite Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and looking at that cover and wondering who all those people were and what were they doing there, and feeling already how that image was setting in motion a referential mania that would become the incurable and delightful pathology of all my future books.

WV: The Writer has theory about the formation of the reader/writer. Can you describe that theory? And while we’re at it: who are your readers?

RF: I’ll quote myself again or, better, quote The Writer from The Invented Part: “A theory of the reader/writer: As far as the formation and/or deformation of a writer, I believe the process is a lot like the formation of the reader. When we start writing, as children, the most important thing is the hero, identification with the hero. We fall in love with the boy or girl in the story, and then take it upon ourselves to find out if they’ve starred in other adventures. So, stacks and stacks of comics and Sandokan, the Musketeers, Nemo, Jo, etcetera. And there/here is as far as most readers go (and they can stop here, no problem). To continue the adventure, into the jungle, a new kind of reader appears. A slightly more sophisticated reader, with a particular interest in the structure of the adventures and, later, a particular fascination with who created them and under what circumstances—with that living ghost called author and with the distinct possibility of other similar authors. The final and most evolved stage of reader—and writer—is one who, in addition to all the foregoing, is also concerned with and enjoys a particular style. That’s the only way you can fight back and make peace in our digital and pluralized times, electrified by writers who narrate but don’t write, by writers who simply recount but on whom you can never count when you need them the most. And there are few writers—the truly great ones—who make their style come through in their prose and, also, in what their prose tells. And thus, the miracle of a plot and a style all their own—unique, nontransferable. If there is a goal, it is certainly that—to have plot and style make space and time for a new and personal language. That the invented part of what’s told also be the way that fiction speaks and expresses itself. But—warning—never forget that the style you achieve is always—though a posteriori you try to convince yourself of the opposite, that everything was coldly calculated—just a detour along the path. Style ends up being nothing more than the hangover following a bender. What’s left behind and provokes a headache and so let’s see what we can do with this. Style is the successful distillation of a failure, the glorious, unforgettable accident. A laboratory problem, like in The Fly, like in The Hulk. That’s the only way to understand the expansive yet Prussian digression of Saul Bellow or the novelistic mutation of Shakespeare in Iris Murdoch. A thing you find when you’re looking for something else entirely.”

As far as my potential readers go, I’ve always said that I like to imagine them as people who are a lot like me but slightly more intelligent.

WV: There is a symbolic/mythic space that exists in The Invented Part and throughout your fiction called “Sad Songs.” Though its function and location seem to shift from one book to the next, I feel like it has something to do with nostalgia, with childhood memories, and with the origin of lifelong obsessions. Can you talk about this idea and it’s role in your fiction?

RF: I wouldn’t say that it’s nostalgia, rather that the past is increasingly interesting. And also increasingly big. Because yesterday keeps getting fatter, tomorrow keeps getting skinnier, and the present keeps sneaking away to purge in secret. Of all times—and I get this from Proust no less—the past is the place that’s best written and the one you can write best. It’s a place where we already were but that we can always go back to. It’s not “a foreign country: they do different things there,” as L.P. Hartley wrote, but the country where all of us were born and that we leave behind just so we can go back. In the future, we will all die in the past. Maybe that’s why they say that our entire life passes before our memory’s eyes in a matter of seconds, in the moment of our definitive goodbye, right? When it comes to childhood, everything happened there and everything that happened there keeps happening to us because—as readers or writers—we will always be animals that can only fall asleep if, first, someone comes and tells us a story. The idea of Sad Songs is, on the one hand, a joke/homage to certain tics of magical realism and, on the other hand, a very convenient and functional strategy: when I can’t think of where to go, I go and go back to Sad Songs. And Sad Songs can be anywhere in the world and even—like in The Bottom of the Sky—on another planet.

Check back in on July 12th for the fourth part of this interview—a screed about screen culture!—and in the meantime, be sure to check out the podcast and other Two Month Review posts!

20 June 17 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is a piece by Jason Newport on The Dispossessed by Szilárd Borbély, published by Harper Perennial.

Here’s the beginning of Jason’s review:

To be, or not to be?

Hamlet’s enduring question is one that Szilárd Borbély, acclaimed Hungarian poet, verse-playwright, librettist, essayist, literary critic, short-story writer, and, finally, novelist, answered sadly in the negative, through his suicide in 2014, at the age of fifty.

Loss of life, voluntary or otherwise, permeates Borbély’s writing, evoking a preemptive grief for what must pass away—often violently and suddenly. Yet framing the loss and stitched inextricably through it is all the gusty, aching richness of life lived in spite of its inevitable transience; the animating spirit of its time, for good or ill. This same “epoch-making” quality that author Péter Nádas identifies in Borbély’s poetry was embraced in Borbély’s fiction by the Hungarian public upon the sensational publication of The Dispossessed (2013), Borbély’s first and only novel, which topped the country’s best-books-of-the-year lists and prompted widespread conversation by ruthlessly stripping the mask of collective nostalgia from the brutal face of intractable poverty in rural villages.

For the rest of the review, go here.

19 June 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

On this week’s Two Month Review podcast, we’ll be discussing the third chapter of the second part (“The Place Where the Sea Ends So the Forest Can Begin”) of The Invented Part . 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% 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 Three Percent Podcast on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Following the long, more digressive section about Penelope and the Karmas, we return in this part to The Young Man and Young Woman who are staying outside of Penelope’s house (paid for with the diamonds she found when fleeing the Karmas) and making a movie about The Writer. A much more concise, direct section, these 30 pages include a lot of hints about the overall plot of the novel (e.g., allusions what happens to The Writer, another reference to Ishmael Tantor, Penelope’s destruction of the house) while continuing to dwell on the nature of being a writer.

Or, to be more specific, The Young Man’s burning desire to be known as a writer.

The Young Man would sign in blood any microscopic-clause-crammed contract to be worthy of such questions, to be published, to be a “cult writer” or a “writer’s writer” or whatever. But, please, let it be in print, black on white, and let it have a beginning and an end, and later on let him see it on display for a while in bookstores where he’ll reposition it in a prime location and ask the employees—disguising his voice and hiding his face—what they think of it, whether or not they liked it, and walk out worrying that they might have recognized him and are laughing behind his back, but it doesn’t matter, hopefully they recognized him and . . .

This is by no means uncommon (I suspect half of the attendees of the AWP Writers Conference would sign anything to be a published author), but will stand in stark contrast to The Writer’s relationship to being a writer, which we’ll get more info about in the next chapter. But in the meantime, I think it’s interesting to see how The Young Man almost fetishizes the idea of being a writer, even to the point that, when he finds a video of The Writer praising him (The Young Man) as being one of his all-time favorite writers, The Young Man doesn’t outwardly worry about how this is even possible (given that he hasn’t written a book), but instead jumps immediately to the idea of how to get this out there into the world, so that everyone can hear The Writer praising him:

I have a lot to do, The Young Man says to himself. Suddenly, ecstatic, he has a map, instructions to follow, an objective in reach, a goal so near. The first thing—with a rapid dance of his fingers across a keypad—will be to upload that video from The Writer’s camera, launch it into the space of the Internet and wait for it to, inevitably, return to that planet of shipwrecked astronauts and spread like a virus and come back to him and to The Young Woman. And The Young Man can almost see The Young Woman’s surprise—her mouth half open, the circle of her lips letting out an: “Oh!”—when she sees and hears his name as one of The Writer’s favorites. Then her love, her adoration for him, will be inevitable, The Young Man says to himself. And then . . .

Again, not uncommon! Along with political tweetstorms and sharing Game of Thrones rumors, drawing attention to yourself and your accomplishments—so that friends and fans can heart and retweet—is one of the main reasons Twitter exists.

Even as someone who’s not a writer, I can sympathize with this urge to be in print, to see your name on the front of an actual book, to be on a bookshelf, or, even better, to see someone enjoying your creation on the subway, but at the same time, the process of being a writer is all-consuming. It’s not a job like any other, which The Young Man does acknowledge:

The Young Man thinks too much. The Young Man wishes he could think less. The Young Man wishes he’d wake up one day and discover that his thing was really the law or industrial design or odontology. Professions that you can disconnect from once you get home—professions that are left far and away, like certain animals mislabeled domestic—and that aren’t pulling at your sleeve all the time, calling your attention and obliging you to imagine what Julien Sorel or Christopher Teitjens or Jay Gatsby would have done (automatically recalling, another symptom of the same troubling affliction, that the real name of the latter was James Gatz) in this or that situation. Much safer and more relaxing professions that—when people ask what you do—don’t generate other questions, uncomfortable ones, like “What are your books about?” or “What’s your name?” or “Are you well known?” or “Were any of your books made into a movie?” or ultimate classics with a complicit wink like “I’ve got a great story . . . want me to tell it so you can use it?” and “Being a writer you must meet a lot of interesting women, huh?”

It’s worth noting that the next section of the book—the first in which we get to meet The Writer, fully grown up—is called “A Few Things You Happen to Think About When All You Want Is to Think About Nothing.” I don’t want to spoil this section for anyone reading along with the podcast, but this part revolves around the inability of The Writer to shut down, to turn off his creative impulses.

Taken as a whole, The Invented Part is about the idea of being a writer, about creativity and where the “invented part” comes from. About the way in which writing, thinking about writing, being a writer, shapes a life, and about what might come next. For most people I know in the book industry—and I’m including publishers, booksellers, writers, translators, agents, etc., in this—books are more of a lifestyle than a profession. You rarely have the chance to turn off, to not be thinking about the book you’re reading/about to read/just read/should read, or how that connects to everything else you’re doing. It’s like this ad for Major League Baseball: If you’re not writing a book, you’re reading a book. Or you’re thinking about writing, or reading about writing, or talking about writing, or writing about reading.

Given the all-consuming nature of writing and books, why would anyone want to be a writer? And what does being a writer do to you?


The flipside of being a writer is being a character. There’s a great story by Felipe Alfau called “Identity” in which a writer’s friend begs the writer to make him a character in a future story. His life has been insignificant, people never pay attention to him—or even notice him, to be honest—he hasn’t amounted to much or anything. BUT, if his friend puts him in a story, then he’ll be immortalized! A story about the most insignificant person makes that person significant. (Isn’t there a paradox about this? That the least interesting fact is interesting simply by being the least?)

But not everyone wants to become a character. It’s risky for authors to put elements of their friends and lovers into print. See the relationship between the Murphys and F. Scott Fitzgerald post Tender Is the Night. Transforming experience into art is all fun and games until someone recognizes unflattering aspects of themselves in your prose.

And that’s the last thing I want to include this week—Penelope’s desire to get out from under her brother’s shadow. When she appears at the end of this section, there are three things that define her: the need to not remember a particular thing to the point that she wants to forget that she’s forgetting, her initial desire to be a character like Cathy Earnshaw, and her current desire to escape from her brother’s influence and reputation.

Since I love how these bits are woven together, I’ll end with this really long quote:

Sure, it’s been years since she accepted the fact that she’d never be a combative Cathy Earnshaw. Not even a Jane Eyre. But with every bit of the little strength she has left she refuses to end up like an exotic and foreign Bertha Antoinetta Mason, mad and burning in the attic of Thornfield Hall, throwing herself from the flaming roof, her infidelities and alcoholism and hallucinations forgiven, chalked up to a genetic disorder. Bertha, who sacrifices herself to leave the path free and open for the marriage of the blind Edward Fairfax Rochester and the servant Jane Eyre. Penelope doesn’t want to be the lame and boring device of an envious sister—because the merely very talented Charlotte was always intimidated by Emily’s rare genius, and didn’t hesitate to lovingly sabotage her memory, imposing the survivor’s official version—that neatly ties up the plot. And everybody’s happy.

But no—that’d be too easy.

To the contrary, the role that Penelope has fallen into is that of the lone survivor. Everything and everyone around her dead or disappeared. And the responsibility of telling the story is hers and hers alone. And, truthfully, she never wanted to be a writer. She just wanted to have and to live a good story. And now she’s so tired. So tired that, if she had a rifle, she wouldn’t hesitate to empty it into The Young Man’s body. To fill him full of lead and defend herself by saying she’d thought he was a burglar. And end up exonerated or in jail. Either way. Anything so long as the small storyline of her life diverges from the atomic and particular saga of her brother, who absorbs everything and rewrites it. Including the only thing that, she assumed, was hers and hers alone and that she—not for revenge but out of desperation—tore out the way you tear the page from a book that, though you never open it, you’ll always know is missing a page and that it’s that page.

15 June 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In case you missed it, last week Can Xue was profiled in the New Yorker. This is so well-deserved—Can Xue is a treasure—and proof positive that the New Yorker has good literary taste. (Especially on the Page Turner blog.)

The only other thing I want to say is that the author of this piece, Evan James, discovered Can Xue when a reading copy of Frontier arrived at Three Lives, where he works as a bookseller. Intrigued by the cover, he picked it up and fell into Can Xue’s mesmerizing, layered, world. Then he pitched this piece, read everything, talked to everyone, and wrote a great article about a giant of world literature. Booksellers are the best.

That’s all I have to say, so here’s a longish quote:

Can Xue takes pride in her total commitment to what some have described as “difficult” literature. “Everyone knows the experiment in fiction I have been conducting for over thirty years has been an experiment without an escape route,” she recently wrote, in “A Short Piece on Experimental Fiction.” I was reminded of this characteristic statement while reading Frontier, in which one senses the rigorous forward motion of Can Xue’s technique forming her vision as the narrative develops. One of the most intriguing relationships in the book is between Liujin and a dark-skinned man from Africa who goes by the name of Ying and who works at the Design Institute. From one of their early encounters—a walk around the landscape by the Institute, during which they talk about subjects including snakes, Liujin’s mother, and “a rag-picker who’s been circling around this office building for more than ten years”—I sensed an affection in their often gnomic exchanges, a mutual fascination and tenderness. Ying’s connection to Africa ignites Liujin’s imagination; she is filled with “complicated feelings.” But Can Xue is soon dancing on to other characters, and when Liujin next encounters Ying, a few years have apparently passed. He looks “older and a little humpbacked,” and the two talk as reunited friends. The scene, like many others in Frontier, unfolds in a strange and intimate way: Ying’s voice is “as soft and pleasant as before,” but his conversation feels abstracted. (“Ever since the old director died, work has turned into a hobby for everyone. This institute of ours hasn’t had a leader for a long time: it’s more a concept that’s leading us,” he says.) Ying appears again, briefly, near the end of the book, but none of the relationship’s ambiguity is resolved. By that point in the novel, any conventional resolution would have felt like a betrayal anyway. The open-endedness of Frontier, its sprawling tapestry of intricately interconnected phenomena, becomes its own pleasure, which also feels like a surrender.

Buy a copy of Frontier from your favorite local bookshop or online retailer, or directly from Open Letter.

15 June 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Coming out in August, Island of Point Nemo, Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès latest book, is an incredible trip. It’s made up of two story lines: one about the crazy (and semi-evil) workers at a ebook manufacturing plant, the other a Sherlock Holmes-style globetrotting story built out of references and allusions to all sorts of famous adventure novels.

To give you a better sense of the wacky energy of this book, here’s the complete jacket copy:

A stolen diamond and three right feet, wearing shoes of a non-existent brand, that wash ashore in Scotland set into motion the first plot of Island of Point Nemo, a rollicking Jules Verne-like adventure narrative that crosses continents and oceans, involves multilingual codes, a world-famous villain, and three eccentrically loopy detectives.

Running parallel is the story of B@bil Books, an e-reader factory in France filled with its own set of colorful characters, including the impotent Dieumercie and his randy wife, who will stop at nothing—including a suspect ritual involving bees—to fix his “problem,” and their abusive boss Wang-li Wong, obsessed with carrier pigeons and spying on his employees.

With the humor of a Jasper Fforde novel, and the structure of a Haruki Murakami one, Island of Point Nemo is a literary puzzle and grand testament to the power of storytelling—even in our digital age.

Click below to enter to win a copy!

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Island of Point Nemo by Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès

Island of Point Nemo

by Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès

Giveaway ends June 30, 2017.

See the giveaway details at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway

15 June 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week’s episode is all about Penelope and her experiences with the Karmas. (And a Big Green Cow.) A lot of the Odyssey, Wuthering Heights, and William Burroughs are in this section, which is hilariously dissected by Brian, Chad, and their guest, Tom Flynn, the manager of Volumes Bookcafe in Chicago. One of the funniest—and most free-flowing, almost beat-like—sections of the book to date, this section explains a lot of the causes for Penelope’s madness, while parodying an ultra-rich family of backstabbing, self-involved, frustratingly funny characters—many of whom make great material for a novel . . .

Feel free to comment on this episode—or on the book in general—either on this post, or at the official GoodReads Group.

The Invented Part is avaialble at better bookstores everywhere, including Volumes Bookcafe. You can also order it directly from Open Letter, where you can get 20% off by entering 2MONTH in the discount field at checkout.

Follow Open Letter, Chad Post, Brian Wood, and Volumes Bookcafe on Twitter for more thoughts and information about upcoming guests.

And you can find all Two Month Review posts by clicking here.

The music for the first season of Two Month Review is Big Sky by The Kinks.

If you don’t already subscribe to Two Month Review/Three Percent Podcast you can find us on iTunes, Stitcher, and other places. Or you can always subscribe by adding our feed directly into your favorite podcast app: http://threepercent.libsyn.com/rss

14 June 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Delayed for a couple weeks due to travel and work schedules, Chad and Tom are back to talk about the inaugural Albertine Prize (won by Antoine Volodine’s Bardo or Not Bardo, translated by J. T. Mahany), Houellebecq’s no show, and BookExpo and the forthcoming New York Rights Fair. They also talk a bit about the Two Month Review—the new subpodcast you can find in this same feed—and Tom’s forthcoming appearance on the show. There’s also witty banter galore, a bit of NBA Finals talk, and more!

This week’s music is Unicorn Tolerance by The Mountain Goats.

As always, feel free to send any and all comments or questions to: threepercentpodcast@gmail.com. Also, if there are articles you’d like us to read and analyze (or just make fun of), send those along as well.

And if you like the podcast, tell a friend and rate us or leave a review on iTunes!

If you don’t already subscribe to the Three Percent Podcast you can find us on iTunes, Stitcher, and other places. Or you can always subscribe by adding our feed directly into your favorite podcast app: http://threepercent.libsyn.com/rss

13 June 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Today’s Two Month Review post is a bit unusual. What you’ll find below is the working list of cultural allusions that Jeremy Garber found while preparing for the podcast that he was on. Creating a list of all the allusions found in the entire book is probably too much for any single person to construct, so if you identify anything in the book that should be added, just send it my way.

For ease in identifying what Jeremy found (in the first chapter), I’ve just listed everything alphabetically by title or author, depending. This is probably not terribly helpful; it is likely impossible to catalog all the references Fresán has in this novel. That all said, if you want to add to this list, just email me at chad.post [at] rochester.edu and I can keep dropping things onto this post as the Two Month Review goes along.

But, for now:

Challenger explosion
Dante, Inferno
Donald Duck
Edward Bulwery-Lytton, Paul Clifford
F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender Is the Night
King Kong
La garoupe
Lex Luthor
Mickey Mouse
Miss Universe
Patty Hamburgers & Maggi mashed potatoes
“Penelope,” Joan Manuel Serrat
Sarah & Gerald Murphy
Saul Bellow, Herzog
Shakespeare, Hamlet
Shakespeare, Henry V
Shakespeare, Julius Caesar
Shakespeare, Macbeth
Sugus (candy)
Toy Story
Wil E. Coyote

12 June 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

On last Thursday’s Two Month Review podcast we covered the opening to the second section of The Invented Part, and coming up later this week we’ll be covering pages 99-207—the second section of “The Place Where the Sea Ends So the Forest Can Begin.” 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% 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 Three Percent Podcast on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Last week I was at the New Directions party for BookExpo and ran into a reviewer who has been reading The Invented Part. He’s greatly enjoying the novel so far, but thought that this particular section—focusing on Penelope’s interactions with the Karmas—would be the most off-putting to average readers.

At first, I was sort of taken aback. This section? The one with the most tragi-romantic plot? The funniest section so far? The one that takes potshots at the sort of rich and awful and awfully rich family we all love to hate? The one with the glowing green cow? This one’s the most difficult?

Short of Finnegans Wake, I don’t like to think of books as being “difficult.” I think that certain types of books subvert existing expectations about what fiction can—and should—do, and that that gives some people fits. When you’re used to getting a certain type of information in a certain way, with a certain sort of end goal in mind (narrative closure, the answer to the mystery laid bare, happiness), books that provide different info in unexpected ways might well frustrate you. They can be “hard to figure out.” In other words: not all readers like weird shit.

This could turn into a long post about style, altering reader expectations, books that teach you how to approach them, and other differences between novels obsessed with plot and those that focus on form. But instead, I just want to go over some of the aspects that complicate this section of Fresán’s novel.

1) What’s Up with the Two Narrators?

One of the first things a reader will notice about this section is that it’s written in two different fonts (Times New Roman and American Typewriter) that seem to represent two different narrators. They both advance Penelope’s story at different times, but for the most part, Typeface #1 (Times New Roman) provides the bones of her story (falls in love, husband ends up in a drug-induced coma on their wedding night, she has to go live with his crazy family, from which she eventually escapes) and Typeface #2 gives additional commentary, like the color man on a sports broadcast.

[Typeface #2 starts after the asterisk.]

Not long now, just a little while, all landing is inevitable, and Penelope’s ears are covered, and, in back of the aircraft, watched over by a doctor and nurse, her husband breathes mechanically, deep in a coma for two weeks now. * The story, of course, doesn’t begin here. But this is a good starting point, as good as opening—like in those black and white films of Hollywood’s golden age—with a map filling the whole screen and, across it, a line that draws itself from one point to another. And, like in those same movies, lines of text rising from the bottom of the screen and climbing, like a sunrise, to the highest point, explaining everything that happened before, a long time ago in a galaxy far far away. But all at the same time, as if all times were the same time. Backward and forward and up and down and, also, to the right and the left and at oblique and sharp and steeply ascending and descending angles. A lot like the tumbling, head-over-heels deluge of speech that spews forth after drinking multiple liters of truth serum, but, also, like the panoramic and encompassing way the gods think, leisurely reflecting on a landscape where past and present and future occur simultaneously. “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” Who said that? Francis Scott Fitzgerald?

This is a fairly unusual strategy, and one that takes a little while to adjust to, mostly because

2) Who Is the Second Voice?

There are a lot of hints in here that this second voice—the American Typewriter typeface—is The Writer, Penelope’s brother:

[Typeface #2 starts after the asterisk.]

Sing, O goddess, the wrath of Penelope. A ruinous wrath that caused her family countless sorrows; but that was, it seems, of great inspiration to her brother, who’s now more particular than ever. A brother transformed into particles, courtesy of the God particle and now, all of him, stardust, blowin’ in the wind, floating here and there and everywhere, high above in the Big Sky looking down at this little Earth. * And like the dysfunctions in satellites provoked by hysterical solar storms, he appears, without warning, like those parentheticals directing a histrionic and operatic ghost to enter and exit the most innocent of crime scenes. Lo, here he is, incorporeal yet omnipresent, interfering and interceding and—sheltered by the alibi of le mot juste and all that—obsessively repeating ideas and judgments. Projecting himself like the loop of a video that no search engine can locate to download and edit; a video from a security camera where he enters the frame and, after overpowering a fragile scientist, shuts the door and, alone and inside a laboratory, as everyone first orders and then begs him not to, presses a button so that everything, including him, is set in motion and spins and spins and spins until it provokes a nauseating vertigo behind the eyes. Being a nuisance, yes. [. . .] Nothing more and nothing less than that instant, suspended between nothing and everything when a writer spends an eternity of seconds thinking of what he’ll subsequently put down in writing. A map of unfathomable distance separating the measures of the cerebral score from the arrival of the fingers to the goal of the keyboard. Coming out of the same body but from a different source, in a different font. And, to state the obvious, that font is American Typewriter, right?; because that was the script on his first typewriter. And because Penelope’s brother was (is?) a writer, always, with a particular and often criticized interest in American literature, and over and out for a while and . . .

Based on that little bit, it’s possible to read these two voices as both coming from The Writer. Maybe Typeface #1 is his original attempt to write out Penelope’s story, and Typeface #2 is his voice from wherever he is now. Which bring us to

3) What Happened to The Writer?

We more or less lay reference to this in the jacket copy, but sticking to the part of the book that we’ve read so far, this is the closest we’ve gotten to an explanation:

[All from Typeface #2.]

Here, again, he feels the temptation to modify and literarily enhance that hospital Penelope was moving through with the description of a different hospital. A hospital in the city of B where, later, he’d go with an emergency, a red pain biting his chest at the height of his heart. And going even further: to add additional details about the laboratory/accelerator near Geneva where he’d be transformed into what he is now. [. . .] And here he follows her, her brother, who, not dead but yes disappeared, part of the air and everywhere, watches her not on a TV screen of the netherworld, but as if he were reading her; as if she were a character in a book, that book he never managed to write but that he can’t stop thinking about or wondering about or playing with sometimes complex and sometimes not so complex possible choices, like the one that a flight attendant with the enigmatic smile of a sphinx presents Penelope with now: “Beef, chicken, fish, or pasta?,” she asks.

That more or less clarifies everything, no?

4) Is This Magical Realism?

Of the sections we’ve read so far, this is definitely the one that strays the furthest from so-called “realism.” There are the allusions to the author as a disembodied voice commenting on and editing the story, possibly from some ethereal beyond, and then, if that weren’t enough, we get this:

And her most recent “achievement” (because Hiriz’s disasters, somehow, end up being flexible conversations at tense dinner tables) has had something to do with her thinking that she can develop a special food for cattle. A diet that, she swears, would make them bigger and more productive. It makes no difference that Hiriz knows nothing about cows, or bulls, or about what they eat, or even what they are for and what they do. Hiriz invested “a little funds, a little savings” in a hundred head of cattle (Penelope hears about this on the way from the airport to Mount Karma, Mamagrandma’s matriarchal mansion) and created, all on her own, a race of colossal mutant bovines the color of emerald fluoride. A fierce and anabolic breed that reproduce at a vertiginous rate and have developed an insatiable carnivorous appetite, prompting them to laughter each other with raw bites and eat each other in a revelry of bovine cannibalism.

Giant green cannibalistic cows. Like the narrators say at the beginning, “Fasten your seatbelts. Turbulence. Deploy the landing gear. Flaps down. * Here we go.”

5) What’s Up with the William Burroughs Stuff?

So, in the middle of this section, amid discussions of—and jokes about—the Karma Family, there’s a long expository bit about William Burroughs’s time in Mexico with Jean Vollmer, including a description of the fateful night when Burroughs shot and killed her. This digression is sparked by the performance of Lina, Penelope’s one friend in Karma Land:

On the stage, with a red hole in the side of her head, Lina is sitting in front of a TV that broadcasts nothing. Lina is Joan Vollmer, sitting in front of a TV, broadcasting her death and life from the depths of the pre-Columbian netherworld. In the body and voice of Lina, Joan Vollmer is hating on the beatniks and refusing to resign herself to be a minor member in the body of the beat.

Typeface #2 immediately comments on this performance:

Lina isn’t doing justice to the person that Joan Vollmer was and the character that she could be. Joan Vollmer as a sort of Megamix, where parts of Penelope and parts of Hiriz and parts of Lina mix together: the fury of the centuries, the eternal dissatisfaction, the artistic temperament that’s nothing but a single, unrelenting bad mood, functioning as a kind of tormented manifesto of aesthetics and ethics. Joan Vollmer as the universal woman (this really does seem to him to be Lina’s great idea, an idea that he’ll guiltlessly rob) and goddess of the afterlife watching over everything, her face illuminated by the cold phosphorescence of a screen that tunes in a single channel, broadcast from a celestial and ancient and circular hell.

If Fitzgerald and Tender Is the Night is the spirit hovering over the first section of the book (“A Real Character”) and part of the second, Burroughs is the one that takes over the second. I see this whole part (pages 97-207) as the Beat Section. In terms of style, this section is much more free-flowing than the earlier ones, filled with jazzy riffs, all running on for page after page, em-dash after digressive em-dash, in basically one long paragraph that can occasionally feel like a processing of the raw materials of art. As if the first narrator is just getting down all the main points, the bulk of the story, and the second narrator is reworking it, molding it, adding in the appropriate facts (“Or because the protagonist in one of her brother’s favorite books was also the son of a comatose father and a restless mother and that book was called . . . * The World According to Garp [1978] by John Irving.) or pulling new observations out of the initial material.

All of these various elements—the dual narrators, the addition of more non-realistic elements, the essayistic bit on Burroughs, the way the whole section sort of provides a reworking-in-progress of the main story—all set this section apart and force the reader to readjust. (The first of many readjustments, to be honest.) But everyone reading this should remember that this section also contains a lot of fun. The Karma bits are wild—Mamagrandma always riding her horse!—and hilarious, and too recognizable. It’s a long tale of Penelope that has all the aspects of a great story—love, tragedy, humor, a miracle ending . . .

In closing, there is one quote from this section that sticks with me, though, that’s less fun, and more ominous:

And one thing is certain, undeniable: you must be very careful of the spirits you invoke for the love of art, the ugly spirits, the malignant spirits always given to poetic justice and tragedy. It’s not good to mess with the reality of the dead. Rewriting their reality is like playing with a loaded gun.

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