I’ve spent most of the year exploring (dictionary in hand) French and Italian contemporary literature, including Adeline Dieudonne’s La Vraie Vie. This engrossing, horrific coming-of-age tale involves a tyrannical father, taxidermy, time travel and the mortal dangers of ice-cream trucks. Luckily, the English translation, Real Life, is coming out this February. On the Italian (and as-yet-untranslated) side, Ezio Sinigaglia’s Il Pantarei features a young writer composing an idiosyncratic account of the 20th-century novel. It is about how novels shapes not only one’s style but also one’s life, and it doubles as a neat little primer on literary history. Il Pantarei, originally published in 1985 and reissued this year in Italy, would make an excellent addition to the list of an Open Letter Books or Dalkey Archives Press.
In the Uruguayan Mario Levrero’s Empty Words, a man embarks on a regimen of “graphological self-therapy” on the suggestion of a “crazy friend.” The idea is that beautifully formed characters reflect, or help shape, a beautiful character. His goals are both modest and comically ambitious. On the modest side, he hopes to replace his “microscopic scrawl” with a “large, expansive handwriting”’ and to write a “continuous” cursive in which the pen never leaves the page, thereby aiding the “continuity of thoughts.” His more outsized hopes are delivered with an irony that undercuts the project even before it begins:
I know these daily exercises will do wonders for my health and character, transforming a whole plethora of bad behaviors into good ones and catapulting me blissfully into a life of happiness, joy, money, and success with women and in other games of chance.
The narrator is a Tristram Shandy figure diverted from his ambitious course of self-improvement by a stream of interruptions: “I live from one urgency to the next.” He is perennially distracted by his obligations as a writer and crossword setter, the misadventures of his dog, Pongo, and his girlfriend, a “fractal being,” so much so that he develops a persecution complex: “I know full well that every step I take toward self-affirmation on the inside is harshly punished on the outside.”
Sometimes, the pestered cruciverbalist distracts himself, neglecting his graphology to program a computer to make chirping noises. And yet he perseveres with heroic resolve, sounding eerily like A Confederacy of Dunces’s Ignatius J. Reilly: “…I decided to prioritize this [handwriting] activity and put off—at no small personal sacrifice—my lunch.”
When the narrator does set down to work on his handwriting, another problem surfaces. Nature, and narrative, abhors a vacuum. Despite his resolute efforts to keep the exercises as mechanical as possible—pure exercises in calligraphic style—content, or “discourse,” seeps in. His “narrative urges” overwhelm his self-discipline. Or as he puts it in terms to which even the non-creative can relate: “The blank page is like a big chocolate pudding; I’m not allowed to eat it because I’m on a diet, but I can’t resist.”
Writing crosswords is the opposite process in a way. In that work, he constructs a hidden order out of blankness; in the writing exercises, he blindly stumbles up against an unknowable order:
I feel trapped inside a mechanism I know nothing about, gripped by the magical fear that my apparently private, personal, and innocent act has put me in touch with a formidable and dangerous world, a world I can’t control and can only barely, uncertainly, feel is there.
Then, at the very end, he matter-of-factly reveals a crucial piece of information that explains some of the anxiety, depression and self-loathing (he sees himself as physically and psychically grotesque) that motivated the project in the first place. After reading this self-referential twist on the self-help book, I’m awaiting the forthcoming translation (also by Annie McDermott) of another of Levrero’s works, The Luminous Novel.
From a narrator who forces himself to write, we move to one who is compelled to write, despite his yearning for silence. Sam Savage’s debut novel The Cry of the Sloth was an epistolary blaze of literary rancor; “My Life in Writing: A Confession in Fable,” one of the most memorable pieces in his posthumous collection An Orphanage of Dreams, is another lament of, or curious paean to, the writerly life.
The narrator is a thoroughly Beckettian figure: a clochard accustomed to “proddings and nudgings administered by guardians of the law.” He stumbles along in search of a former lover whom he wouldn’t recognize even if he should come across her. Because of “erosions of time and blows to the head,” he has forgotten, among other things, his name, though one fellow traveler informs him he looks like a Ned. He is never without at least one notebook, a pencil and a sharpener. The notebooks contains either 44 or 48 pages, presumably because of a production inconsistency, which prompts the narrator to wonder whether he has been ripped off or has cheated the shopkeeper with each purchase: “I never know whether to count my blessings or curse my fate.” This is also the key question surrounding the true, that is inescapable, literary vocation: is it a gift from the gods, a torment, or, as suggested by this fable, both?
Whenever he feels overcome by the “thicket of words” crowding his brain, the narrator writes them down, an “orderly production and disposal of dreams and memories”:
So I go on writing, laying down one sentence after another. I lay them down like sponges hoping they will soak up the noise, the howling, the mumbling, the creaking, the chattering, that they will become swollen with the noise, grow fat on the absurdity of the noise, and come to an end.
Afterwards, he crosses out the text (but not completely), rips out the page and tosses it on the street, sibylline leaves scattered to the wind: “I leave them legible out of vanity, I suppose, or loneliness, imagining as I walk along that somewhere behind me someone will pick up the page…” Some people do, as it turns out, but mostly because they think it’s litter.
So what then, causes him to forge on, despite the obstacles (“bad luck, a bad leg, a lost bike, blows to the temple, tendencies to inebriation and sloth”) and despite the clear view of all those promising ephebes who came, and failed, before him (a “mountain of carcasses”)? The answer is simple: the hope, inexhaustible if quixotic, for some glint of recognition, a readerly communion:
…a person reading it, if there is such a one, will be looking at my soul through the wire of its cage, or the other way around, that my soul is peeking out through laced fingers at the mystery of the world.
In Peter Mehlman’s #MeAsWell, Arnie Pepper is a wise-cracking sports columnist for the Washington Post with a growing disdain for sports (“The NFL’s biggest impact on society is that now dumb people donate their brains to science”), media coverage (“Turn to ESPN and there’s so much laughter, you’d think Rodney Dangerfield is giving the scores”) and fans, “putrefying savages” with a “wantonly false sense of entitlement.” Kibitzing with other reporters at Marlin’s Park during batting practice, he delivers a one-liner about an injury-prone basketball player: “How long does a guy usually stay on the injured list for a hysterectomy?” The male reporters find it funny, but then someone posts the joke on social media, landing Pepper—“content and carefree as a white, wage-earning, statin-popping, middle-aged American male could be”—at the center of a minor controversy.
After the joke stirs up moral outrage, a protester using the nom de guerre Bruce Bader Ginsburg sprays Pepper with “artisanal estrogen mist…with a drizzle of Malaysian sterilization powder.” Worse, the Post brass call him up to the carpet for what could be the end of his career. But what, Pepper protests, of his impeccable bona fides? “I named my daughter after Althea Gibson, for Chrissake!” and that’s just for starters. His columns have earned the admiration of stars like Martina Navratilova, Danica Patrick, and Brandi Chastain: “I’ve been on the right side of their every issue…NOW cited me as an example of forward thinking in the primitive tar pits of Sports Journalism,” he cries.
The novel would be less convincing if it merely echoed complaints about cancel culture. “Giving people a break has become un-American,” says Pepper for example, bemoaning a population high on “Moral Outrage Oxycontin.” Melhman’s humor saves the novel from being an enervating lament—I should note here he wrote for Seinfeld—and because Pepper’s righteous anger is tempered by doubt, a sense that his self-pity might be overblown. Indeed, his patient but exasperated daughter delivers the sagest hot take on l’affaire Pepper: “This is the world now and you’ve finally gotten your first taste…a tiny taste….life is unfair, but if you hang around, you can still steal a game here and there.”
The novel is also too busy to descend into bathos. Pepper gets a scoop involving one of the Trump administration’s odious members saying something odious; a Madoff-like friend on the lamb contemplates a return; he receives a mildly credible death threat; and dips his toes in the dating pool. And as if to prove the notion that sports are the great uniter, over one 24-hour period, the maligned sportswriter comes into contact with Kirsten Gillibrand, Bob Woodward, a prelapsarian Les Moonves, and, wait for it, Jamal Khashoggi.
The turmoil shakes Pepper but doesn’t affect his antic garrulousness, and indeed his voice—wisecracking and quick-witted—makes the novel. Ironic, then, that Pepper’s breakthrough involves him discovering his “inner mute button.”
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