Wanting to know a bit more about me and the site? I’ve been interviewed at the literary community site LitMinds. In this interview you can find out the answers to such burning questions as why I started the blog and how it got its name. And for the truly obsessed Millions fans, they’ve even managed to score a picture of me to adorn the interview.
In Russian, the term ostranyeniye means “the act of making strange.” In the early twentieth century, the idea was coined and used by Russian Formalists, authors and artists, who sought to make the familiar seem foreign — to make those who consumed their art question everyday words and forms.
Still Here, the third novel by Moscow-born Lara Vapnyar, bears very little resemblance to any of the experimental works by those Russian Formalists. But though her book may have more in common with the works of Jane Austen or Claire Messud, her satire is its own form of ostraneniye, as it successfully points out that the essential strangeness of what are now some of the most common elements of American life.
Still Here is the story of four Russian immigrants in New York City. There’s Vadik, certain only of what he doesn’t want; Regina, a formerly famous translator who has married a wealthy American man; Vica, stuck in Staten Island with her son and husband but certain she’s “pure Manhattan”; and Sergey, Vica’s husband, a former prodigy who dreams of developing an app — “Virtual Grave” — that allows people to communicate with the dead by preserving and recycling what they said online in life. Virtual Grave is Sergey’s final chance to prove himself the brilliant man he was always expected to become. Given his difficulty holding down a job, it’s a last shot at providing for his family — and so a point of tension in his already troubled marriage with Vica. The characters’ respective stories unfold and intersect as they, as a group, try to come to terms with death in a way that enriches life.
Vapnyar is not the first to use something like Virtual Grave in art. A short story in Adam Johnson’s excellent collection Fortune Smiles centered around a very similar concept, as did an episode of the hit television show Black Mirror. What makes Vapnyar’s book unique is neither the idea of the app nor the use of four friends trying to make it in New York City (Vica is obviously the Carrie Bradshaw of the bunch), but rather how these elements — a slightly forward-looking app and the perspective of four very different immigrants — are used together to “make strange” the modern world. There’s always someone having more fun on Facebook; always a better match out there on Tinder or OkCupid (in the book, the app is “Hello, Love!”); always someone wittier on Twitter. Except that, of course, there isn’t.
The book, like each of Vapnyar’s key players, is not without its faults. It’s a fresh take on an old theme, but it is nevertheless an old theme, and one that uses some old tropes—about New York City, about immigrants, about social media, etc. And there are points at which it feels more beach-read than smart satire. Of Regina, Vapnyar writes, “Being an introvert, she had trouble making friends.” It is the sort of sentence at which she herself might smirk elsewhere in the book.
Such shortcomings aside, Vapnyar ultimately offers a literary representation of the way we live now. She shows us America, the beautiful and absurd, managing to satirize it without ever losing sympathy for the people living in it, and certainly not for her four main characters. At one point, Regina, sure that today is the day she’ll start reading and writing again, puts off work to watch television; with the help of an app called “Eat’N’Watch,” which recommends the right food-show binge combination, she wastes hours and winds up disgusted with herself. In another moment, Vadik recalls the one-night-stand he had in New York City, who he left the next morning and who, he later realizes, he may have loved. The morning after, Vadik remembers that he had left his copy Hell Is Other People at the diner where he met the woman: “He had no idea where that diner was. He would never be able to find it again. He would never be able to go back there. Vadik felt a surge of panic and regret, so bad that it made his heart ache.”
The book gives us plenty on which to reflect. Would we want an app like Virtual Grave? What would it mean to control our own online presence after we’re dead? If we aren’t exactly living in the book’s universe of constant app updates and addiction, how far removed are we? It makes strange the world we think we know. But even within that — in the bounds and bonds of satire and reflection and ostraneniye — it manages to remind us of the humanity that existed before there was an app for that. One that will remain, we can hope, once we’ve moved on.
Barnes & Noble is buying used books. They’re marketing it as a way to sell your old textbooks, but they’re buying other books too. They’ve set up a simple site that lets you check titles and find out if they’ll take them and how much they’ll pay. You then send your books to Barnes & Noble and they cover the shipping. As far as I can tell, the prices are fairly comparable to what you might get selling your books to your local used bookstore, maybe even a little better.
Holy Crap! Have you been into a bookstore lately; have you noticed how good books look these days? When I go to used book stores, I find that all the books released during a particular decade tend to look like one another with not much variation. But now you walk into a book store and each new book looks like a work of art. Some remarkably attractive books have come out over the last few years, and book design has come into its own as an art form that it is peculiar adventurous considering the publishing industry’s ever tightening ties to multi-national conglomerates. A lot of this is marketing. Many of the companies that own the publishing houses also have major entertainment divisions, and they tend to use the same marketing style to push both their movies and their books. Hence, book covers have gone the way of movie posters and trailers; they seek to grab the attention of the reader with an alluring display of eye candy. Every day, I see people buy books simply because of how cool the cover looks. You would be surprised at how often it happens. Which brings me to another reason why book covers have become more adventurous: people are ready for it… they need it even. People are constantly bombarded by interesting and strange visual imagery on television, in movie theaters, on billboards. If every book looked the same, people wouldn’t buy as many books, no matter how amazing the contents. It’s kind of sad, but not entirely. Though a result of the pervasive marketing that seems to have taken over our culture, the good looks of these book covers are still a good thing. Where else do graphic designers get such freedom in such a corporate setting? Where else is art combined in such an interesting way with the written word? If you want it to be, you can now treat every visit to a book store like a trip to an art gallery. Walk slowly down the aisles and admire the artwork, take the books in your hands and inspect the detail as closely as you want, then buy whatever it was you came in for. You’ve just turned an everyday act of commerce into an experience in art appreciation.Which brings me to Chip Kidd. If there is any one person who is at the forefront of forward looking book design, it is Kidd. As a book designer for Knopf, he has designed literaly hundreds of covers, and, as a result, has been heralded as the best in the business. To celebrate his work Yale University and Veronique Vienne have come together to produce a very attractive volume collecting and celebrating some of Kidd’s many covers. It is entitled, appropriately, Chip Kidd. Here are a few of Chip Kidd’s book covers:
In one of my favorite sequences of Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera, you see an editor splicing film offset with shots from the footage being cut. Normally, when we watch films, we take a series of unrelated shots and project causality between the images. Vertov, along with other montage theorists like Sergei Eisenstein, wanted to interrupt this process, forcing us to come to an overarching picture out of conflict and collisions. Simple narrative just couldn’t be revolutionary.
In The Revolutionaries Try Again, debut novelist Mauro Javier Cardenas writes renegade political fiction that would have made Vertov proud. Stream-of-consciousness and meta-fiction meet radio plays, phone conversations, and spliced up pop-lyrics. The tone varies as often as technique: pages and pages of interior monologue with no punctuation, enough em-dashes to look like line divides, sections entirely in Spanish, references to ABBA and The Exorcist alongside Pablo Neruda and Julio Cortázar. You’re never directly informed about what counts as revolution and who in particular is trying to achieve it. Instead, The Revolutionaries Try Again dissects a decade of Ecuadorian austerity and idealism through often jarring and always stunning literary montage.
Cardenas’s novel centers on three alumni of a Jesuit school in Guayaquil: a writer, a bureaucrat, and a playwright. Antonio left Ecuador over a decade ago for Stanford and is writing a memoir about a crying baby Jesus. His best friend Leopoldo, left behind in Guayaquil, takes a job with the pro-austerity government. As the novel begins, Leo has just persuaded Antonio to return to the city, and together they’re supposed to help a friend run for office, which never really happens. Meanwhile, we get oblique connections to their poor classmate, Rolando, who with his girlfriend Eva attempts to rouse people to action by staging a series of radio plays.
But all of this feels like an aside, and whatever revolution we thought would be staged isn’t.
No political campaign, no people taking to the streets. But The Revolutionaries Try Again is just as much an attempt to sort out why telling feels so futile: as a writer, as an undocumented migrant, as a person. Rolando never tells Eva that his sister was almost raped while working as a fifteen-year-old maid. Eva never tells Rolando about how her brother was abducted during her youth. Instead they have imaginary dialogues with the siblings they love but don’t speak to, replaying conversations that can’t, and won’t, happen. Nor are they alone. Leopoldo and Antonio are extremely close friends, but don’t have an easy emotional intimacy. Antonio dreams up, time and time again, what it will be like to see Leopoldo for the first time in over a decade, thinking about what he might like to say but won’t. What’s the point, the suggestion is, of recounting things when things can’t be adequately characterized by words?
To search for the source of his impulse to return to Ecuador by revisiting the night the baby christ cried was pointless, Antonio thinks, just as it’s pointless for him to teach English to immigrant women at El Centro Legal for one measly hour a week, photocopying pages from an ESL book at the last minute and hoping they would smile at him in gratitude, knowing he was fooling himself into believing he was being useful— if all the NGOS and nonprofits of the world ceased their activities, Antonio had asked a British art critic during their first date, would anyone notice?
Many things in the book are described as pointless: Antonio’s baby Jesus story and his tutoring, but also Rolando’s radio plays, Jesuits serving the poor (and, for that matter, the very existence of the lord above), and the unrealized political campaign that brings Antonio back to Guayaquil.
But what Cardenas does so adeptly in his debut novel is highlight conditions against which feelings of pointlessness emerge in the first place. Economic, political and social violence are senseless, and render us unable to tell neat linear narratives about injustice and protest. We’re left with montage, one that resists neat stories about revolutionaries taking on their oppressors, left with weeping statues of baby Jesus, rape, false accusations, and economic sanctions.
Amidst violence, one worries that words too will be twisted and appropriated to serve other ends. But silence is too easy, as Alma reminds Antonio: “I did say you’re an imbecile of course everything’s pointless we’re all going to die doesn’t matter we’re still here/ I’m still here.” That injustice may be here for a long time, is all the more reason that Cardenas’s book should too.