William H. Gass loved words. “A word is a wanderer,” he wrote in “Carrots, Noses, Snow, Rose, Roses.” “Except in the most general syntactical sense, it has no home.”
Gass longed to make worthy homes for words. He often chose lists.
Lists were his secular litanies. Lists allowed Gass, who always longed to be a poet, to ladle his words into natural meter.
We are lucky if we find a sentence or paragraph to hold onto—as a reader, as a writer. We write them on index cards and impale them into cork board. We let them collect dust under a lamp. We are strangely blessed if we can find a writer who can carry us even further—through a book, through a life.
I return to Gass like a pilgrimage. His final offering, The William H. Gass Reader, is a gift. Nearly a thousand pages of his essays about writers and artists, his theories about fiction, and selections from his novellas and novels.
When I say Gass loved words, I mean he genuinely, audaciously, absolutely loved words. Language seemed an infinite gift that he grasped. A typographic deity.
“I am an octogenarian now and should know better, but I recently let a sentence reach print so embarrassingly bad its metaphors seemed frightened into scattered flight like quail.” He was not afraid to fail.
“Skepticism was my rod, my staff, my exercise.” Gass was pessimistic. He was clothed in doubt.
Yet that skepticism, as it does with the best critics, gave foundation and significance to his celebrations. You cannot love words without also loving writers. Gass loved writers.
He loved Gertrude Stein. Her play, her power. “There are texts,” he writes in “Fifty Literary Pillars,” “and there are times, and sometimes both are right and ring together like Easter changes.” He thought Stein “did more with sentences, and understood them better, than any writer ever has. Not all her manipulations are successful, but even at their worst, most boring, most mechanical, they’re wonderfully informative. And constantly she thought of them as things in space, as long and wiggling and physical as worms.”
We need critics who can admire. We need critics who can feel awe.
Gass loved: Plato (“His dialogues are among the world’s most magical texts”). Virginia Woolf (Her diary “alters your attitude toward life”). James Joyce (“Finnegans Wake is the high-water mark of modernism, and not to have been fundamentally influenced by it as a writer is not to have lived in your time”). Samuel Beckett (“Beckett wishes to save our souls by purging us—impossibly—of matter”). Katherine Anne Porter (“From her first tale to her last, she was in complete command of her manner—a prose straightforward and shining as a prairie road, yet gently undulating, too”).
Gass makes us want to read more, and to read better. He believed reading was an athletic act.
He was not an athlete. But as a boy, he was a member of a speed reading team, and in “On Reading to Oneself,” in his typical self-deprecating form, he writes of how he learned to read as an act of love. He writes of how the “speeding reader drops diagonally down across the page, on a slant like a skier; cuts across the text the way a butcher prefers to slice sausage, so that a small round can be made to yield a misleadingly larger, oval piece.”
His vision of the world was always slightly bent. He turned us toward his curves.
He thought we were a mess. “Evil,” he wrote, “is as man-made as the motorcar.” He didn’t have much faith in us—our track record has not been particularly splendid—and concluded, “we shall probably be eaten by our own greed, and live on only in our ruins, middens, and the fossil record.”
He knew what we are capable of, and it scared him.
In an essay on Ezra Pound, Gass wrote of how Pound, in his later years, apologized for his anti-Semitism, calling it a “mistake” and some “suburban prejudice.” Gass’s rebuke is powerful: “The tone of that repentance is all wrong, suggesting that Pound had made some error in arithmetic on his tax forms which turned out to have unpleasant consequences. Anti-Semitism is not a ‘mistake’ or even a flaw, as if it left the rest of its victim okay and in good working order. As with racism, a little does more than go a long way; it goes all the way.”
Peel aside his play and Gass, truly, was one to trust.
What can a Catholic learn from an agnostic Protestant? More than I could ever imagine when I discovered Gass as an undergraduate—I devoured (to use his word) “The Pedersen Kid,” which is rightfully included in full within this Reader. I would never be the same. We both have an affinity for the word soul, and let me not parse our differing theologies: I appreciate the contours of his unbelief, for they live within a state of wonder.
What a wonder it is to make a world of words.
“Words are with us everywhere. In our erotic secrecies, in our sleep. We’re often no more aware of them than our own spit, although we use them oftener than legs.” Words “lift our spirits—these poor weak words. They guide and they coerce. They settle fights, initiate disputes, compound errors, elicit truth. How long have we known it? They gather dust, too, and spoil in jokes which draw our laughter like the flies.”
While a graduate student at Cornell, where he studied philosophy, Gass took a course with the legendary M. H. Abrams, a seminar course on Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The students read not only the Biographia Literaria—but also “every book it quotes from, mentions, alludes to.”
Gass said the method “taught me how to read, how to reread, even how to overread.” He learned “never to rely on secondary sources, but to trust only primary ones—a teaching that leads directly to this ideal: write so as to become primary.”
is a staff writer for The Millions. He has written for Rolling Stone, The Paris Review, The Atlantic, Esquire, and The Kenyon Review. His newest book is Ember Days, a collection of stories. He lives in New Jersey with his wife and twin daughters. Follow him @nickripatrazone and find more of his writing at www.nickripatrazone.com.
Early in To the End of the Land, the new, epic novel by acclaimed Israeli writer David Grossman (The Yellow Wind, See Under: Love, The Book of Intimate Grammar), an anxious and fearful Ora scans her absent son Ofer’s room, taking stock of his possessions. These include several books by postmodernist novelist Paul Auster. One cannot help but wonder whether Grossman chose to identify the books’ author as a nod to the literary tastes of his son Uri, who was performing his military service while his father labored on this magnificent and haunting novel. Uri would be killed in the Second Lebanon War in 2006, and Auster, a friend of Grossman’s, would dedicate his novel Man in the Dark (2008) to the bereaved family and the memory of their recently departed member. Grossman himself dedicated To the End of the Land, first published in Hebrew in 2008 and now translated into fluid and elegant English by Jessica Cohen, to his wife, his two surviving children, and the late Uri.
Following a prologue set during the Six-Day War in 1967, the story begins in earnest in 2000. Ofer has just finished his three-year military service, but voluntarily re-enlists in the Israeli army for a 28-day tour of duty following the outbreak of hostilities with the Palestinians. (In reality, a Palestinian intifada did erupt in 2000.) A distressed Ora embarks on a quixotic journey meant to ward off the dreadful news of Ofer’s death, which she anticipates at any moment. “She will be the first notification-refusenik.”
But Ora’s ambition is greater than that; she intends to keep Ofer alive. Unfortunately, she “rationed all her oaths and talismans to last exactly three years,” meaning that she must now devise a new means of protecting her son. Jerusalemite Ora goes to Tel Aviv, rousts Ofer’s father Avram, who has been mired in a deep funk ever since his capture and torture at the hands of the Egyptian army in the Yom Kippur War (1973), and alternately cajoles and bullies him into joining her mission. The traumatized Avram could never bring himself to meet Ofer, who was raised along with his half-brother Adam by Ora and her now-estranged husband Ilan. But a buoyant notion crystallizes in Ora’s mind; by talking about Ofer, she will shield him from harm and simultaneously coax Avram out of his shell.
During the extraordinary odyssey that follows, Grossman subtly and understatedly locates the story of Ora’s family within the Arab-Israeli tragedy in whose roiling midst it is trapped. We are treated to a multivalent exchange between Ora and a wise and wisecracking Israeli Arab taxi driver; Ora and an initially recalcitrant Avram hiking aimlessly but determinedly through the scenic Galilee, coming upon the ruins of Arab villages destroyed during the war over Israel’s founding in 1948, as well as monuments to Israeli soldiers who have fallen in subsequent wars; and the revelation of what exactly befell Avram all those years ago in Egypt. And throughout their journey, Ora tells Avram about Ofer: his wondrous first steps as a baby; his tender relationship with his brother Adam; her husband Ilan’s love for both Adam and Ofer; her feeling left out by her three men when they were all together; and her distinctly maternal wish, during Ofer’s three-year military service in the Occupied Territories, that he not get hurt and also not hurt anyone. Ora brings her son to life in words even as he may lie dying on the battlefield, and she slowly reawakens Avram’s long-dormant Lebenslust and his suppressed paternal instincts.
To be sure, the heady swirl of emotions often proves enervating, while the focus on quotidian family matters inevitably creates boring stretches, especially when elongated by the story’s languid pace. Yet the payoff is worth it. When fully explored, as it is by Grossman in this novel, the drama of the human condition enthralls more than the most gripping action sequence.
Much of Israeli literature remains plagued by a lingering triumphalist strain born of the whitewashed and mythologized Zionist enterprise. To the End of the Land is not the first Israeli novel to depart from that rigid and jarring narrative, but it is arguably the finest. For even as Ora remains impervious to the militant and totalistic anti-Israel ideologies engulfing the Arab world and beyond, she defies Israel itself, the state that has “nationalized her life” and demands that she acquiesce in its jingoism and its greedy claim to her son.
Indeed, To the End of the Land is, above all, a bold restoration of humanity’s primacy over ideology and politics of any kind. At the same time, the novel unabashedly embraces the life-affirming splendor of the mundane. This is Ora in her kitchen, enveloped in the bosom of her family: “Listen to the soundtrack, she thinks. Believe in the soundtrack. This is the right tune: a pot bubbles, the fridge hums, a spoon clangs on a plate, the faucet flows, a stupid commercial on the radio, your voice and Ilan’s voice, your children’s chatter, their laughter—I never want this to end.”
For Americans who have plowed through Munro’s Selected Stories and are looking for a broader taste of Canadian literature — or CanLit, as it is called here — I offer a partial and admittedly idiosyncratic “Beginner’s Guide to Canadian Literature.”
When I encounter readers who’ve read all of David Sedaris’ books and are pining for more, I often point them to Fraud by David Rakoff. I based this recommendation on his frequent and frequently amusing appearances on This American Life, and a general idea that he and Sedaris share a certain world view for whatever reason. Well, now I’ve read the book, and I think it’s fair to say that Rakoff is a reasonable substitute for Sedaris, should no Sedaris be available. But they are not the same writer. Rakoff frequently pens a sort of meta-article in which he talks about the particulars and relative merits of his assignment as he embarks on that assignment. I have no idea if the essays that appear in Fraud were published in the same form in magazines or if for every article he crafted a meta-article with which to entertain himself (and us). Either way, the reader feels invited in for a behind the scenes look at what it is like to be a disaffected, overly-qualified, under-ambitious journalist as he takes on his fluffy assignments. In this way he differs from Sedaris, who writes almost exclusively about himself, with no artifice in between him and the reader. The fluffier the assignment, the more devil-may-care Rakoff becomes. He takes jabs at Steven Segal’s new age retreat, a New Englander who walks up the same “mountain” every day, and, most often, himself. At times the persona wears thin, too much cynicism and self-awareness, as when he writes about portraying Sigmund Freud in the window of Barney’s department store. But he redeems the collection with the final two essays in which he lets the reader see his more human side. In “Tokyo Story,” he returns to the city fifteen years after being forced to leave and start over his life after being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease. Returning, he finds no haunting demons, but instead paints a funny and endearing portrait of a unique city.I have been so relieved to find that the city in and of itself is not enough to unlock the sadness of my younger self. To the contrary, I have been unable to wipe the smile from my face since I arrived, giddy with a sense of survival. It’s not even clear to me that that old misery is still housed in my body anymore. I have been avoiding a monster behind a door for thirteen years, only to find that it had melted away long ago, nothing more than a spun-sugar bogeyman. It’s definitely not the first time in my adulthood I have realized this, but it never fails to cheer me to have it proven yet again that almost any age is better than twenty-two. The final essay, “I Used to Bank Here, but That Was Long, Long Ago” is about Rakoff’s bout with Hodgkin’s. Here he is at is best, and his typically casual vulgarity is more important to the plot, which revolves around a long lost sperm sample from his cancer days. Ultimately, he revisits his illness, long tucked away after he beat it, and we realize that the cynical Rakoff isn’t so cynical when he’s willing to be brave.
The first thing I broke was the cream-colored ceramic sugar bowl. Smashed to bits. I’d been at my friend’s flat in London for less than a day, and left to my own devices, I innocently placed a cup in the dish rack, and like a collapsing house of cards, the contents of the rack began to shift, and through an unnoticed gap in the front of the rack, the sugar bowl escaped and smashed onto the floor. My first-day settling-in disaster.
But I wasn’t done. My destruction cut a path from the kitchen to the bathroom where I didn’t fully comprehend that the shower fixture didn’t want to turn the way I wanted it to turn, and with superhuman strength, I bent it, rendering it unusable. It took hours, and a toolbox, for me to fix it.
Then it was on to the den – my bedroom for the visit – where I thought I’d broken the TV. I’d switched it off with the remote, and no amount of maniacal and increasingly haphazard button-pressing would turn it on again. (It took my friend all of two seconds to locate the on/off button on the side of the set – a button that I swear wasn’t there earlier – and bring the BBC back into our world.)
Then back to the kitchen a few days later where I desperately tried to open the clothes-dryer door after the cycle had ended, unaware that the door would not, could not, open until a full minute had passed. A minute filled with thoughts of wrenches and hammers and whatever I may require to force open the door and rescue my clothes.
That’s me, staying with a friend for two weeks in London, a city I’m somewhat familiar with, in a country whose language I share.
So Philip Graham and his family can be excused for their “first-day settling-in disasters” at the start of their year in Portugal, alone in a Lisbon apartment struggling with the flat’s lighting system. Dispatches, detailing their disasters – and triumphs – previously appeared in McSweeney’s online, and now the wonderful collected memoir of the Graham family’s year in Portugal The Moon, Come to Earth: Dispatches from Lisbon is available in print.
In 2006, author and teacher Philip Graham uprooted his family – his anthropologist wife Alma and their 12-year-old daughter Hannah – and transplanted them to Lisbon. Reading the dispatches, I felt as if I were with this family every step of the way, through every day-to-day adventure and every settling-in disaster, as they walked that fine line between fitting in and remaining on the outside.
“I do and I don’t feel at home here,” Graham writes. “I oscillate between comfort and unease.”
Language of course is a big barrier and while the whole family does its best to learn and communicate in Portuguese, it proves to be a challenge.
“There’s so much to remember in building a Portuguese sentence,” Graham writes, leading in to an account of a morning reading of a Portuguese newspaper, and how a single word – andar (to walk) – can be used in so many different ways. “One lousy verb, so many subgestures.”
A recurring theme in Graham’s book is “Saudade,” a complex emotion “that combines sorrow, longing and regret, laced perhaps with a little mournful pleasure.” Saudade colors all aspects of Portuguese life – from its fado music to its soccer matches to its underdog sensibility.
This being a family memoir, food and drink naturally have a strong presence and the wines and fish and other delicacies linger on the tip of the reader’s tongue. When I finished reading The Moon, Come to Earth, I asked my parents – who had spent a few days in Lisbon some years ago – what image lingered the most. Without missing a beat, my mother replied “the grilled sardines.”
Here is the opening phrase of the opening line of the opening dispatch in Philip Graham’s book: “The grilled sardines, lying in my plate…”
The Moon, Come to Earth lifted me up from my humdrum life and transplanted me into the Graham family’s Lisbon adventure. It was a day-to-day adventure, full of the familiar, full of new routines and small struggles. It was a bit sad to leave it all, a bit of saudade creeping into my own life.
A week or so after reading it, I was in London, wreaking havoc in the flat, and trying to make the unfamiliar familiar. Fighting the good fight. And delighting in the small triumphs.
Always someone turns up you never dreamt of. This is a refrain repeated frequently throughout Enrique Vila-Matas’s novel Dublinesque. It is a line originally found in the “Hades” episode of James Joyce’sUlysses, and is used there to describe an unnamed “lankylooking galoot.” That nameless minor character in Ulysses is often given the title “the Man in the Macintosh,” and he has become quite a mystery in Joyce scholarship over the years. He shows up in Joyce’s novel a handful of times, but scholars have never been able to agree upon his identity. Yes, always someone turns up you never dreamt of; and sometimes just as quickly he vanishes, remaining a ghost, a mystery. Literature has always been fascinated with these uncanny entrances and exits, the comings and goings that in life are so commonplace, but that, on the printed page, we often imbue with such significance. It is in mysteries such as these — in the catalogued coincidences and connections, the inquiries and epiphanies, that we seek out the patterns of life, create meaning in the chaos of existence, and confront and embody that Beckettian maxim: “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”
In the Internet age, after the heights of Joyce, and beyond the depths of Beckett, there is, it is sometimes argued, not much left to explore in literature. Story is suspect, for every story has already been told (or so the banal argument goes). Yet even if Enrique Vila-Matas can’t go on telling new stories, he’ll go on writing, mining the past to communicate the present; and we’re all the better off for it. The Spanish novelist is a master of that problematic enterprise of literature: the death-defying highwire act of telling the truth through lies, of invoking reality through fiction. In his newly translated novel, Dublinesque, successfully rendered into exquisite English by Rosalind Harvey and Anne McLean, Vila-Matas treks across the literary landscape from Joyce to Beckett, from Gutenberg to Google, rubbing one allusion up against another, and colliding both fictive and actual worlds.
Samuel Riba, the retired literary publisher who takes center stage in Dublinesque, is a character with an “exaggerated fanaticism for literature” who “has a tendency to read life like a literary text.” Therein lies a clue to reading the book: as the novel opens, life and text are already intertwined, confused, inseparable, and it only gets more complicated further on down the rabbithole.
In his retirement (and sobriety), Riba has retreated further into himself, sitting in front of his computer, Googling things for hours on end, like a Japanese hikikomori. He only ever really leaves this position in front of his computer at the behest of his wife, with whom he has a strained relationship that is only being strained further as he turns more inward and she turns more toward Buddhism, or in order to visit his parents and keep up the pretense that he is still a literary publisher (as he has chosen not to clue them in on his retirement). It is in one of these awkward visits with his parents that the idea of traveling to Dublin emerges.
Two years before the start of the novel Riba had a dream about that Irish city, and so when his mother accuses him of not having any plans, he “lets Dublin come to his rescue,” and makes up the lie that he’s been planning a trip there all along. Rather quickly he becomes obsessed with the idea of visiting that city of Joyce and Beckett, the Dedaluses and the Blooms, and mysterious men in macintoshes. He is determined to go to Dublin and, intentionally mirroring the funeral of Paddy Dignam in Joyce’s “Hades” episode, he will perform a funeral for the age of print, for “the Gutenberg galaxy,” as the digital age comes fully into being.
In many ways, both physical and metaphysical, literal and metaphorical, Dublinesque is haunted by ghosts. But these ghosts take different forms, and most often they are in the form of allusions. As Joyce writes in Ulysses, and Vila-Matas reiterates in Dublinesque:
What is a ghost? Stephen said with tingling energy. One who has faded into impalpability through death, through absence, through change of manners.
Like the novel itself, Riba’s head is filled with ghosts — filled with the cobwebs of literary quotations, artistic allusions, bits of stories, trivia about the lives and works of authors and artists. Besides Joyce and Beckett, whose spirits remain a presence throughout the book, there are references to Paul Auster, Jorge Luis Borges, George Perec, and Philip Larkin (whose poem “Dublinesque” provides the novel with its title), in addition to extensive mentions of the films of directors John Ford and David Cronenberg. These and many other artists haunt the book like specters. Riba’s obsession with artistic and literary trivia may not be quite as all-consuming as it is for David Markson’s Reader/Writer/Author/Novelist in Markson’s final four novels (The Notecard Quartet: Reader’s Block, This is Not a Novel, Vanishing Point, and The Last Novel), but it is about on par. Indeed, David Markson seems like someone Riba would have wanted to add to his catalogue of published authors, had he not been retired: “Isn’t a literary publisher a ventriloquist who cultivates the most varied different voices through his catalogue?”
Coincidences abound from the very beginning of the novel, as there are countless threads connecting his parents to the text of Ulysses. Riba — and Vila-Matas- — weave a tangled web of allusions and intersections between literature and life, between fiction and reality. This is typical Enrique Vila-Matas territory: in his novels, reality and fiction are forever blended. Real people populate their pages as often as fictional ones, and a confusion between the two always invokes problems. Like Montano in Montano’s Malady, another Vila-Matas novel available in English translation, Samuel Riba has a kind of literature-sickness.
Bloomsday, a holiday that the book focuses on, embodies this mix of fictive and real elements. After all, it is a holiday in the real world, but celebrated because on that day, in a novel, a fictional character, based on a real person, wanders around Dublin, a real city, which the author, Joyce, wanted to capture so perfectly that if the city were to be wiped off the face of the planet it could be recreated using his novel. There is no better holiday for an Enrique Vila-Matas novel to engage itself with.
Furthering the insufficiency of reality, Riba constantly questions whether he is in a novel, dreading the possibility that he might be. He makes it abundantly clear at various points that “in no way does he want to live in a novel.” He may not want to be a character in literature but he keeps bringing up the possibility that he may very well be, a possibility he feels, even if he can’t quite explain it.
Surely it would be useless to explain that he’s not crazy, and that all that happens is that sometimes he senses or picks up too much, he detects realities no one else perceives.
But Riba’s greatest dread, the ultimate disappointment in his life, is that he hasn’t yet found the great writer of genius that he always assumed he would. Enter a mysterious figure. He first appears during the funeral procession for the Gutenberg era, and Riba deduces, with very little reasoning or evidence, that this must be the writer he has waited for his entire life. Is the figure Joyce’s “Man in the Macintosh?” Or is he a young Samuel Beckett? Or is he just a local Beckett lookalike? Or might the figure actually be a ghost with Dracula’s ability to disappear into a fog? Or could this man in fact be Vila-Matas himself- — the author of Dublinesque and the creator of Riba? Appearing in his own novel, just as Vladimir Nabokov claims Joyce appeared in Ulysses as that “Man in the Macintosh?” Is it possible also that the macintoshed man is an embodiment of the “old whore” literature herself? In a way, this mysterious figure is all these things and more. There isn’t a precise logic to it, it just makes sense in the confines of literature, which is a reflection and a refraction of life itself — a thing full of mysteries, ultimately unexplainable.
What logic is there in things? None really. We’re the ones who look for links between one segment of our lives and another. But this attempt to give form to that which has none, to give form to chaos, is something only good writers know how to do successfully.
If nothing else, Dublinesque secures the position of Enrique Vila-Matas on the list of writers who know how to give form to chaos. Just as he tells the story of the Gutenberg age giving way to the Google age, and catalogues a literary trajectory from Joyce to Beckett, Vila-Matas finds a perfect middle ground, the apex between these two pillars: Dublinesque reflects the sparseness of Beckett and the intricateness of Joyce, but more importantly it provides the mystery and depth of both. As two sides of the same coin, doppelgangers of one another in one way, and yet polar opposites from another vantage point, Joyce and Beckett show up through the text, finding a number of ways to haunt its pages. Always someone turns up you never dreamt of.
In spite of decades of ultra-totalitarian politics and extreme isolationism—or, perhaps, because of them—there is something fascinating about Albania, a fascination that Francine Prose, in her superb novel My New American Life, locates in the person of Lula, a 26-year-old Albanian woman living in America on an expired tourist visa.
After flirting her way through Immigration and bailing on her supposed destination, Detroit, for New York and a gig waiting tables at a restaurant in the Financial District, Lula is hired by an economics professor-turned-sell-out Wall Street economist—a sad-faced man she insists on calling Mister Stanley—to look after his son, a sullen teenager named Zeke who doesn’t need her to do anything more than feed him microwave pizza and keep him company watching TV. Mister Stanley wants someone around because his wife, Ginger, bailed on them on Christmas Eve, casting a pall over the house. Lula leaves the closet-sized Alphabet City apartment she shares with her (crazy but fun) Albanian friend Dunia for Mister Stanley’s lugubrious home in the Jersey suburbs. It is a stupefyingly dull job. Because she can’t drive, she spends most of the day puttering around the house, occasionally writing stories on Zeke’s laptop.
Then one day, out of the blue, three Albanian “brothers” in a black Lexus SUV show up with a gun, which they ask her to keep for them. Although this is a flagrant violation of her pact with Mister Stanley—and the gun’s discovery may well jeopardize her U.S. citizenship—Lula agrees, mostly because she thinks the lead “brother,” Alvo, is cute. The rest of the plot—essentially a metaphorical collision course with Lula’s Albanian past and her American future—stems from this imprudent if understandable decision. If the book has a weakness, it’s that the conflict is too restrained, the stakes too low; even when the Chekhovian gun goes off, as it must, there is never a sense of danger, never a hint that something terrible might befall our heroine.
But then, we don’t want anything bad to happen to Lula. She’s a thoroughly delightful invention. Like all great characters, she’s a collection of contradictions, an Albanian paradox: She’s street smart and experienced yet somehow innocent, unlike the corrupted Dunia; trapped like a nun in Mister Stanley’s chaste house—where neither of the other two occupants seem hip to her beguiling beauty—she’s nevertheless sexy, with a healthy if repressed libido (as her romancing of Alvo demonstrates); she’s a fantastic storyteller, so much so that Mister Stanley and his immigration-lawyer friend Don Settebello encourage her to write about her experiences—My New American Life is the working title of Lula’s memoir—but most of what she writes is either folklore masquerading as fact or straight-up plagiarism of the work of the Albanian poet and novelist Ismail Kadare.
The novel is presented in third person, from Lula’s point of view. In Reading Like a Writer, Prose extols the virtues of elegant sentences, citing Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, and Phillip Roth as some of the masters of the craft. In My New American Life, Prose is on top of her game in this respect, the fluidity of the prose surpassing, I think, her work in Blue Angel. Here is a random sample from a book full of gorgeous sentences:
No one saw the Range Rover pull up in front of Mister Stanley’s house, and though Dunia moved as if on stage, Lula and the driver were the only audience for Dunia’s theatrical scowling at each crumb of snow that menaced her beautiful boots.
All Dunia’s painstaking olfactory research results were instantly corrupted by the unforeseen variable of Alvo’s strong cologne.
Before leaning over to kiss her again, Alvo considerately pushed the buttons that heated the seats, and the warmth beneath Lula flowed into the warmth inside her.
Through Lula’s eyes, Mister Stanley and Zeke—and, by extension, we readers—see the United States in a new way. She becomes a de facto ambassador, hipping us to Albanian culture (even though much of it is Lula’s invention) and adding her own perspective on America in 2006. Prose sets up a subtle compare and contrast between America and Albania (there’s more in common than at first blush, especially during the Bush years, when the story takes place):
Yesterday night, as always, she’d felt sorry for the president, so like a dim little boy who’d told a lie that had set off a war, and then he’d let all those innocent people die in New Orleans, and now he was anxiously waiting to see what worse trouble he was about to get into. He seemed especially scared of the vice president, who scared Lula, too, with his cold little eyes not blinking when he lied, like an Eastern Bloc dictator minus the poufy hair.
Throughout the book, Prose has fun with the idea that the two countries are not as different as they seem. “‘If Hoxha and Milosevic had a baby,’” Lula jokes to her immigration lawyer, Don Settebello, “‘and the baby was a boy, it would look like Dick Cheney.’”
My New American Life is an assimilation story, in which Lula merges (literally, as it turns out) with the American citizenry. It’s a commentary on immigration; in addition to Lula’s own struggles, Don Settebello is actively doing pro bono work at Guantanamo. It’s a nod to the absurdist comedy of Kadare and other Eastern European writers. But above all, it’s a wickedly entertaining read.