Let's Get Weird [Two Month Review: The Invented Part]

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.

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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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