20 March 18 | Orisa Santiago Morrice | Comments

Last week, Chad, Brian, special guest Patrick Smith, and an insightful YouTube commentator discussed part IV of Georgi Gospodinov’s The Physics of Sorrow. This section, in many ways, brought us full circle to the nature of Gospodinov’s work by introducing us to the cultural phenomena of the time capsule, and the circumstances that drive people to bury stuff they like in the ground. Through this investigation, Gospodinov sheds light into what this book is about and what he accomplishes with the short, broken pieces that make it up.

Mazes and Spirals

Through these last couple of weeks, through all the wonderful guests and discussions and through the beautifully prose of The Physics of Sorrow, we’ve had the pleasure of unravelling a dark and complex piece. From the second week and onward it feels like each conversation ends with someone saying something along the lines of “we’re returning to so much” and “we’re getting deeper into this.”

As much as Gospodinov and his work are involved in the labyrinth as a historic and emotional metaphor, the spiral finds a place in understanding both the work and our discussion of it as readers. I will elaborate on this as the post winds on.

The Core of the Spiral

The first section of the Two Month Review, which included the Epigraphy, Prologue, and “The Bread of Sorrow,” set up the themes that Gospodinov revisits in the subsequent sections—this thought something I’ve already written in previous blog posts. These recurring elements include abandonment, the minotaur, the labyrinth, life in communist Bulgaria, the mythic, fathers, darkness, basements, and the like. Obviously, well-crafted books do this: build and return to themes. But Gospodinov treats his themes like he treats his family, and his imagination: he treats them like characters that are born, develop, and are perpetually at risk of losing everything and dying. These themes are more a part of the cast and less an abstraction that is built by the behavior of his human characters—not excluding Asterius with my use of “human.”

The second section, “Against an Abandonment: The Case of M,” presented us with public defender Gospodinov and his defense for the minotaur. This section developed our understanding of Gospodinov’s obsession with myth, particular the rich history and his own speculations on the myth of the Minotaur and its relationship to his own family and upbringing.

The third section, “The Yellow House,” returned us to stories of Gospodinov and his family in Bulgaria, and, again, routed us through the themes and characters established in the previous two sections. It is important to note that beyond this coiling of each section, Gospodinov adds more events, and friends, and family members but does so, frequently, through the established themes.

This fourth section, “Time Bomb (To be Opened After the End of the World),” has Gospodinov laying his plans bare and creates a confluence between the content of the book, the themes, characters, places, and discussions, with the form that Gospodinov has created, the short and somewhat related pieces within larger sections. We see, again, the themes at play with people and moments in his life. He returns us to his grandfather, introduces us to a school-aged, rebelliously insightful Gospodinov, shows us more facets to his stylistic abilities, and all around the intense discussion of time capsules. And as he works his way from time capsules on fridges, or time capsules launched into space, or buried into the ground, and as he spirals again around the elements that are important to The Physics of Sorrow it starts to become clear that, put simply, this book is a time capsule.

Along the Loops

This week’s section opens with “The Aging of an Empath” where Gospodinov discusses the eventual loss of his ability to embed, a side effect of aging, and, I’d add, an overexposure to humanity. Most importantly, he describes that his habit of hoarding objects is an attempt to counteract the loss of his Obsessive Empathetic-Somatic Syndrome, or “radical empathetic-somatic syndrome” as he (mis)remembers.

And this isn’t the first time that Gospodinov has described collecting objects, but this provides further insight into why he does. Collecting starts in “First Aid Kit for After the End of the World,” which lushly describes a young version of himself slowly preparing a kit, of sorts, to survive a nuclear attack, with goods and kind words included. And this pattern of collecting repeats.

He writes about how he hoards apocalypse-inspired headlines, mentions Mengele’s personal journals, the disks that the Voyager and Pioneer spacecrafts carried to give extraterrestrial life a glimpse into the glory of mankind via a recording of Jimmy Carter’s voice. He also writes about time capsules throughout the world, and a need to map the location of all of them, the need for a literary time capsule of all genres and trends, and the possible dangers of future humanoids stumbling upon our time capsules.

These acts of collecting are rooted in fear, from Gospodinov’s survival kit to NASA’s strange experiment, and are attempts to ameliorate said fears. Beautifully, this section—this entire work, rather, is engaging in this process. Through “First Aid Kit[. . .],” in the light of Gospodinov losing his embedding, we see him fracture his older self from his younger self, writing on his younger self as distinct person—almost writing as though there is a death that has separated these two individuals. And in response to this fear of further loss, Gospodinov has taken to collect and preserve moments. He collects newspaper headlines and discusses massive beehive death, and birds dropping from the sky. And even the popularity of time capsules mirrors fears of nuclear annihilation or apocalypse by another means. The time capsule ameliorates our fears as even if we are wiped from the face of the the earth, the collection of materials sustains our existence deep beneath the earth, or in space, or on the page.

That said, we can read all books as being time capsules of sorts—these obscure collections of thoughts and images that contain an interpretation of a past time for a future time—sure. But from the exchange between Chad, Brian, and Patrick, I’m convinced to separate The Physics of Sorrow from the over encompassing speculation of “books are time capsules” to the more accurate “The Physics of Sorrow by Georgi Gospodinov is a time capsule.” This idea was set up beautifully by a comment from Patrick, when he said, paraphrased, “the brokenness of the form is built for destruction.” Chad followed up by adding that missing a section—I’d argue referring to either the larger section of the books or the smaller units within each section—is ok (obviously read the whole thing, it’s good). The Physics of Sorrow is this greater vessel of smaller fragments, all related in some way yet distinct enough on their own, and—better yet—crafted with this comprehension of a bleak, possibly apocalyptic, future.

The Pioneer and Voyager disks contained fragments of mankind at a certain temporal locus, just as the Westinghouse Time Capsules, and the time capsule from the young Gospodinov’s school in Pleven. And The Physics of Sorrow is doing just what these time capsules are. Each fragment of each section standing on it’s own with its own commentary with its relationship to the characters and themes. The themes are sustained not by just one piece, but by many, just as the many characters come and go through the sections. Hypothetically, should the capsule crack, and most of the contents be destroyed (should you rip out a chunk of the book), the individual fragments elaborate on another so often, that missing one doesn’t destroy a reader’s ability to understand what Gospodinov accomplishes throughout the whole of The Physics of Sorrow. The minotaurs, the labyrinth, Bulgaria, Communism, abandonment, World War—all these elements repeat and deepen from fragment to fragment to create a sustained understanding of the book itself considering the threat of mass destruction.

Gospodinov’s Arc

This confluence of form and content that I’ve been speaking to is the most blunt with the paired sections of “Noah Complex” and “New Realism.” “Noah Complex” suggests that a encyclopedic time capsule of writing should be created including:

[. . .] monologue through Socratic dialogue to epos in hexameter, from fairytales through treatises to lists. From high antiquity to slaughterhouse instructions. Everything can be gathered up and transported in such a book.

This would contain writing from all times, and different styles and authors. And after all his tongue-in-cheek commentary on time capsules, each entry dripping with a quiet criticism of the futility, he writes in this section:

Only the book is eternal, only its covers shall rise above the waves, only the beasts inside, between its pages swarming with life, will survive. And when they see the new land, they will go forth and multiply [. . .] And what is written shall be made flesh and blood and shall be brought to life in all its perfection. And “the lion” shall become a lion, “the horse” will whinny like a horse, “the crow” will fly from the page with an ugly croak . . . And the Minotaur will come out into the light of day.

Adopting a sort of mystic prose, he places his faith in the book to be a suitable vessel for realities, relying on the readers imagination—a proxy for his own experienced embedding—to bring the worlds contained in this Noachian encyclopedia to life (as corny as it sounds), to change the animals, in quotes, into animals in flesh. I even feel a nod to his own work as he imagines the Minotaur out in the light.

Gospodinov gives us just that in this following section “New Realism,” where he drops us into a beautifully written realist narrative. Defined as “a faithful representation of reality” or “verisimilitude,” this section speaks to just that, as Gospodinov shifts styles yet again to make a point. I don’t even really know where to draw from to give the “best” example of his writing—the whole narrative speaks to that. It’s important to note that many of the authors from his Epigraphy were realists in their national literatures, and, relatedly the epigraphs from Flaubert and St. Augustine speak to the ability to embed and being able to suspend the fleeting moment as so that it may be experienced, at the very least, a second time.

This is the moment of union for this work, as a whole, between its form and content. Gospodinov, considering a singular death at one end and apocalypse at the other, collects a series of fragments to hopefully survive and be reopened. With his wit, he might even fear what the results may be, as we see in “Future Number 73,” where future humanoids find his Communist Youth Brigade inductee letter create a yearly bloodletting. I must say, I’m curious what a society of people who worship the ‘doctrine’ of “New Realism” would accomplish.

And Back Again Through the Spiral

This confluence of form and content, while emphasized in this section has been going on the entire time and I believe we can assume it will continue. Obviously, we can look at each section as these collections of ephemera, something to understand Bulgarian history following the death of the 2015 version of Georgi Gospodinov, but, specifically, there are sections throughout the book that mirror his time capsule form.

In the Prologue we saw that collection of entities, all seemingly alone if not interrelated by their isolation. In “The Bread of Sorrow” sections like “Trophy Words,” which documented the Hungarian words that his grandfather kept through national shifts and relocations, “Crumbling Language” and “G,” which both highlighted Gospodinov’s own adventures with language acquisition, and “A Short Catalogue of Abandonments,” which listed cases of abandonment from various myths around the world.

“Against an Abandonment: The Case of M” had the “Dossier” and “Myth and Game,” which were lengthy collections of (mis)representations of the Minotaur, while “Child-Unfriendly” and “Devoured Children in Greek Mythology (An Incomplete Catalogue)” both list injustices against children, in and out of myth.

“The Yellow House” featured a series of these catalogs, from “A Catalogue of Collections,” to “From a Catalogue of Important Erotic Scenes” to the various collections of accounts from the 1980s.

But this most recent section brings all these to the surface and discusses them head-on. And this is where I return to the spiral. A participant in the chat from last week’s podcast, one gabbiano117, wrote:

This really is the perfect book for reading and rereading again and again. The way it retreats and advances and circles and gets lost in itself again and again and again.

Gospodinov is writing something that coils upon itself, but also builds. He started the piece by explaining how his world works, and from that point provided examples that affirm his construction. And as we go onto the next section, I’m excited to see how else the spiral will progress, and how what form the Minotaur takes in another place and time.

11 January 18 | Chad W. Post | Comments

“Why am I reading this?” I ask myself this almost constantly. Sometimes the answer is obvious: when the book is a masterpiece, when the pleasure is so deep or constant that there’s little else I want. I treasure those books, but if it was the only reason I read a book, I wouldn’t read much. There are novels where the concept is grand and exciting, so I want to follow it through to the end, generous with my judgment of the execution. There’s the craft option: Jean Echenoz is going to be worth reading for the quality of his finely crafted sentences. In last week’s post, Adam Hetherington pointed out how pace can dominate a book, and that too can be the single reason to stick with a novel. Sometimes it’s that the novel is the single best work focused on a slice of life or culture, the best baseball novel, the best restaurant novel, etc.

Reading for BTBA, it becomes an even more important question, because I need a damn good answer to keep on reading. So why the hell did I keep on reading Wu He’s Remains of Life? The jacket copy opens with

On October 27, 1930, at a sports meet on an aboriginal reservation in the mountains of Taiwan, the Atayal tribe rose up against the Japanese colonial regime, slaying one hundred and thirty-four people in a headhunting ritual.

Am I reading to educate myself about this event? I didn’t even realize that Taiwan was one of the places Japan had a colony. No, fuck no. If that’s the answer, I’m putting that book down. Besides, this would be the wrong damn book for that. As that same copy says later, “Written in a stream-of-consciousness style, it contains no paragraph breaks and only a handful of sentences.” Not the type of style that lends itself to historical or cultural edification, though one I’m a sucker for. I love Bernhard and By Night in Chile may be my favorite Bolaño. So stick with Remains of Life because its stylistic prose is compelling and unrelenting? Well, no.

I’ll stop being coy and cut to the end. I don’t know why I stuck with this book. I don’t know why I’m still thinking about it. So, that’s the reason why? Because even though I wasn’t in love, even though the answer to each reason to stay was “No, not that,” I still didn’t want to walk away, and that confusion itself fascinates me. I have no idea the last time I was so uncertain in my response, so willing to continue to work and engage and struggle, hoping to crack through to deep pleasure. There have been times I’ve done that work for pages upon pages and realized no breakthrough would come, so I dropped the book. There’ve been times it did happen, suddenly and intensely: Shishkin’s Maidenhair comes to mind.

I want to talk about that prose style. However difficult Bernhard’s prose can be, and his mood so fiercely off-putting, it’s hypnotic, and that takes readers in. There’s repetition, there are base phrases and the sentences use them like breathing, a way for the reader to fall as with a tide. Remains of Life gives you no such thing. The narrator is not the madmen so common to Bernhard’s works but he is a man adrift in his thoughts and in his pursuits, and sees no distinguishing one avenue from another. Commas are a brief break, and may come when you need them, or take you by surprise. At other times, you need one and there’s nothing there.

He’s a man living in a reservation village, fascinated by the way contemporary history views the tribal uprising and subsequent slaughter by Japanese troops. His neighbor identifies herself as the granddaughter of the leader of the headhunt and from there his unbroken narrative begins. In Wu He’s afterward he identifies three topics, which I’ll rewrite to my own understanding as: the historical investigation, and the possible interpretations of that history; the lives of the people, their connections to and dissociations from both past and the contemporary; and the life of that neighbor, known as the Girl, and without quite recognizing it, coming to fall in love with her. He can write about any one or all three at any given moment, and a subtle switch from one to another can occur across the space of a comma. The scarce periods are his way of resetting completely. Of finally shutting down a stream, needing to switch from one of these topics to another. Even when he is focused, thought carries on from thought. Prior to this is dense and intricate political, ideological, and moral thinking about his research and the headhunt, then the period to clear his mind:

By the time I wrote down the words A Politicized Headhunt I prepared a hodgepodge hotpot with sardines and flowering cabbage and hastily ate before crawling into bed and passing out into a deep sleep, after I woke up I sat down in the living room, the mountain mist felt like it was right on my front doorstep, in my daze I seemed to still be stuck on those “two questions,” I already forgot if there was anything I had written that could destroy one’s dignity, but I know that strong white spirits can destroy one’s awareness, I paced back and forth in front of the kitchen cabinet, rummaging through all the items inside, until I actually did get my hands on a bottle of some kind of hard liquor, it took only one look to see that it was 66 proof, probably one of the Ancestral Spirits secretly stashed it there before going home, after all there is nothing wrong with preparing for an emergency, I’ll be sure to give it back to him a little later once it is dark when he comes back with his bag full of white spirits, I took a sip and the primitive flavor wasn’t bad, by the time I took my second sip a well-dressed woman with long black hair and a cool gaze had suddenly appeared outside my screen door, I waited for her to say something but after three seconds she was still dead silent, I had no choice but to sip my way over to the screen door, the woman with the long hair grinned and I immediately recognized that it was the Girl and she was wearing a tight dark-green dress, she was so well dressed, all so that her breasts would really stand out, I raised my cup to her but she shook her head, “I came over to invite you to observe the ceremony the day after tomorrow,” her breasts were pressed right up against the screen door, I told her to be careful not to get her shirt dirty, “It’s okay these are my pajamas,” I almost wanted to tell her that it was no big deal, my birthday suit is my pajamas, “I’m going to Christmas morning prayer and joining the church, you wanna come,” wearing your birthday suit to bed is much more convenient as you can wear it both summer and winter

Like Girl, most characters don’t have names, instead an identity the narrator gives to them, based one something about their life, their physicality, their personality, and this can shift, without warning, as his conception of them does. It both distances him from them, and creates intimacy, in line with his role in the village. He’s an outsider, but he’s the most honest outsider they’ve encountered, because he knows that’s his role. He lives alone, he wanders, he visits people and they visit him. It’s an independent pattern of life that they all recognize and respect. He pressures no one. Many have come to research the Musha Incident, but he may be the first to simply live there.

The narrator himself may explain my uncertainty about Remains of Life. He is unsettled: in his own identity, in his role in the village, in the village’s role in his life, in what his future will hold, in his understanding of the past, in culture’s understanding of the past, and on and on. He may not have many answers, and answers he finds are slipping away, to be replaced. In a book as complex as this, with a narrator so willing to confront uncertainties, maybe it’s not surprising that’s mostly what I’m left with. Throughout the novel, he talks to as many people as he can, in conversations both long and short, about whatever the other person wants. In that spirit, I want others to read this, so conversations can come, and maybe I’ll figure out what I make of it all.

21 September 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week Patrick Smith (Best Translated Book Award judge, The Scofield) joins Chad and Lytton to talk about this incredibly powerful section of the book, which raises all sorts of topical ideas about adhering to national myths and the problems of masculinity. This is also the section where Hitler shows up, and where a character literally eats himself out of house and home. And this podcast is a crucial one in helping frame the way this novel simultaneously holds up and undermines a variety of dangerous, unpleasant ideas. After listening to this, we hope you will have an even broader and more nuanced understanding—and appreciation—of this great novel.

Reminder! On September 30th, we will be recording the final episode of this season of the Two Month Review at Spoonville & Sugartown in Brooklyn as part of Taste of Iceland. The First Lady of Iceland, Eliza Reid, will kick things off at 2pm with a lecture and reading, then at 3pm, Lytton and Chad will discuss the final section of Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller (and take audience questions), followed by a recpetion at 4pm. It’s free to attend, so come on out and see us do this live!

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

Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller is available at better bookstores everywhere, and 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, Lytton Smith, and for more thoughts and information about upcoming guests. And follow Patrick Smith for a variety of literary insights and other commentary.

And you can find all the Two Month Review posts by clicking here. Please rate us on iTunes and/or leave a review!

The music for this season of Two Month Review is Long Year by The Anchoress.

22 January 15 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week’s podcast is all about Denis Johnson’s “The Laughing Monsters,” which came out last year and is “a high-suspense tale of kaleidoscoping loyalties in the post-9/11 world that shows one of our great novelists at the top of his game.” Writer, critic, and Johnson fan Patrick Smith joined us for this book club discussion, which goes off in a few different directions—how everyone’s untrustworthy and willing to sell each other out, how Johnson got all this detail about Africa, etc.—with the general consensus that this is a pretty great book and one that fans of Graham Greene and/or spy novels and/or well-crafted fiction in general would like.


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