Pirate Talk or Mermalade

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Staff Pick: Terese Svoboda’s Tin God

I went to an event in New York a while back, maybe a year ago, where various writers were giving readings on the theme of movies. The time limit was three minutes, although this was frequently ignored. Everyone told a personal story that was in some way movie-related — except one. When Terese Svoboda got up, toward the end, she said, “I misunderstood the assignment. I wrote a three-minute movie,” and then read, for three dazzling minutes, text that was something like a film script and something like poetry, a fragmentary series of images suggestive of a noir mystery. Something about a running man, I think, and the hands of a clock.

If she was out of step in that parade of personal narratives, she was out of step in the most sublime and interesting way. All of the readers that night were good, but I wished a few more people had misunderstood the assignment. I’d only read one book of hers at that point, the in-my-opinion-mildly-flawed but delightfully strange Pirate Talk or Mermalade. This is someone, I thought, from whom one can reasonably expect originality, and I was delighted to see this suspicion confirmed in Tin God, recently reissued in paperback by the University of Nebraska Press.

In Tin God there is a conquistador, and he’s fallen off his horse in a field of tall grass. He comes to and hears whispering all around him; a tribe of grass-dwelling people have come across him in the midst of their hunt. They’re reasonably sure he’s a god — the way he lies there in full armor like a flipped-over beetle, glinting improbably in the sun; the way his eyes are the color of the sky, unsettling to a people who’ve never seen blue eyes before — but it’s impossible to be sure, so they send him a virgin to watch how he uses her and to gather proof.

Five hundred years later, a sweet but dim-witted gogo dancer named Pork loses a bag of drugs in the same field. His friend Jim threw it out of the car, which as he points out probably saved them from certain legal entanglements given that a cop was after them, but the problem is a tornado touched down in the field in between Pork and Jim throwing the bag out of the car and Pork and Jim coming back to look for it, and now the bag could be anywhere. The field is torn up and in disarray. Pork is in a certain amount of trouble.

God watches over both narratives. God is, in fact, the first-person narrator of the book, whose opening lines are “Hi, this is God — G-O-D, God with all the big letters. I’m out here in the middle of a field.” God is everywhere, especially in the field; God knows everything; God is somewhat competitive and likes to win; God sometimes takes the form of a Nebraska farm woman who enjoys donuts and drives a pickup, because why not. (“I drive by on my route that follows Pork’s, lifting My two fingers off the wheel in traditional car greeting.”)

Tin God is confidently-written, often beautiful, sometimes profane, and strange in the best possible way. It takes some time for the two narratives to come together, but the entire picture does eventually click into place and there’s a feeling, reading this book, of encountering something that hasn’t been done before. It seems to me that Terese Svoboda is a true original.

Two Novellas

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I’ve noticed an interesting trend recently toward what seems to me to be the deliberate miscategorization of books. Specifically, an insistence on the part of some publishers that practically everything’s a novel. I understand the reasoning behind it—novels, the argument goes, are somewhat easier to sell than either novellas or short story collections, and all’s fair in love, war, and literary fiction sales strategies—but it still seems unfortunate to me.

There’s a good argument to be made that it doesn’t really matter what we call the work, so long as it’s good. I don’t entirely disagree, but all artforms thrive on diversity, and it seems to me that a diversity of form should be celebrated, not hidden. It troubles me a little to see diverse works given what seems to me to be an inaccurate label and sent out into the world in disguise.

The small press Flatmancrooked, for example, declared Emma Straub’s recent Fly-Over State (a wonderful book, praised elsewhere on this site) a “composite novel” on the book’s Amazon page, which I found puzzling: partly because the book was published by Flatmancrooked’s New Novella imprint, the name of which suggests a certain publication mandate, and partly because the edition I read was composed of a shortish novella followed by a longish short story, for a grand total of 77 pages. (Incidentally, every time I type out “Fly-Over State” I suffer considerable indecision over whether or not I should be capitalizing the Over, but that’s neither here nor there.)

It’s difficult to define the precise lines between a novel, a novella, and a short story, but the main difference, setting considerations of structure aside for just a moment, is of course one of length. There’s no such thing as a 3,000-word novel or a 70,000-word short story. Novellas occupy a shifting gray area in the middle. There are other, increasingly archaic subcategories, but who wants to get bogged down in the fine distinctions between a novella and a novelette? Regardless, the novella is among my favorite forms, and it seems to me a pity that we can’t just call it what it is.

Steven Amsterdam’s recent short story collection Things We Didn’t See Coming was, rumor has it, marketed as a novel in Australia, and here’s where the question of structure comes into play. I have a hard time wrapping my head around the idea of Amsterdam’s book as a novel—the stories, each one a clearly-defined episode in a life lived out in a dystopian near-future, are too discrete; each one stands alone, with a beginning, a middle, an end. In other words, it seems to me that it’s a short story collection, although the lines between “short story collection” and “novel” can get awfully blurry sometimes—the stories in Things We Didn’t See Coming were much more linked than the two pieces in Fly-Over State, but not as interdependent as, say, the parts that comprise Jennifer Egan’s spectacular A Visit From the Goon Squad, a work whose classification seems decidable by a coin toss: was that a novel, or a collection of tightly interwoven short stories? The book’s brilliant either way.

But then, of course, there are the books that are impossible to categorize at all, that slip through not only considerations of length and genre but through the gauze curtains that separate prose from poetry and poetry from stage plays, and the literary world is richer for them. Terese Svoboda’s Pirate Talk or Mermalade declares itself a novel on the dustjacket, which seems a stretch given certain whitespace/page count considerations—because here’s the thing: can’t we just proudly declare a novella to be a novella, when the form’s so wonderful, when there aren’t enough words between the covers to call the work a novel and it’s far longer than a short story?—but I don’t want to get too bogged down here. It’s a fascinating book and the length is the least interesting thing about it.

Pirate Talk or Mermalade is billed as a novel in voices—meaning that the only text is dialogue—about a pair of unnamed brothers who grow up by the Atlantic Ocean, raised by one of the worst cooks in modern literature (“Makes a person want to go to sea, your soup”), in a town where the hanging of captured pirates is a frequent entertainment. It’s the early eighteenth century, and the older brother has been sent to sea.

The death of their domestically challenged Ma eventually drives the younger one to the ships as well, and their lives from that point until the day they’re stranded in the Arctic are a delirious blur of hangings, mutinies, piracy, lost limbs and storms from Nantucket to the Carribean to the Indian Ocean. There is cannibalism, a talking parrot, mermaids. I’m susceptible to books about the sea—my childhood memories include harassing sea cucumbers in tidal pools and conducting staring contests with seals—and this book had me from the opening:

I’ve seen boats as big as this whale. I’ve seen gryphons the same size, with teeth growing in even as they were taking their last breath.

You have not. And not a live one.

I’ve been to sea, I’ve seen all you’re supposed to, being at sea. I’m sixteen, after all.”

Dan Chaon calls Svoboda a true American original, and I believe he’s right. I’m enchanted, and yet in the end I find my reaction mixed. I think this book has some problems. There are moments when the action is unclear to say the least, and more seriously for a novel written entirely in voices, moments when it’s difficult to tell who’s talking. The brothers’ voices are very similar; at the openings of chapters, it’s often impossible to tell who’s speaking until someone says something to identify themselves, and then you have to perform that awkward hopscotching maneuver whereby you trace every second line of dialogue back to the beginning to figure out who said what. The issue could have been fixed quite easily by giving the brothers names.

But there are also any number of moments where the technical issues are entirely unimportant, because the prose is funny and astoundingly beautiful and the characters feel fully alive. This book is something entirely new: a novella that’s also a sort of poetry, a poetry that’s also almost a stageplay. Pirate Talk is a strange and nastily beautiful book, frustrating because it comes so close to greatness, and I’m left with what must seem a strange response: I can’t say that this book entirely succeeds, but I want to read everything Terese Svoboda has ever written. In any form, at any length.

In the impressionism of the work, the gorgeous unsteadiness of form—is this fiction, poetry, a stage play?—Pirate Talk reminded me a little of Roberto Bolaño’s Antwerp, another novella in sheep’s clothing: Bolaño referred to it as a novel, but the volume weighs in at 78 pages and few of those pages are full. Here also is a sense of reading a new form, although the book’s thirty years old. Antwerp is an impossible little book, frustrating and fascinating. There is a campground, a crime, a red-haired girl involved with the drug trade. If there’s a plot, it’s well-hidden.

“The scorn I felt for so-called official literature was great,” Bolaño writes in the essay that precedes the book, and it shows. The book is composed of 56 numbered segments, some only a paragraph long. Antwerp was written in 1980, a time when a young Bolano was shifting his principal form from poetry to prose, and the transition between forms is incomplete. Some sections are slivers of narrative—“With instructions in an envelope, I left the city”—while others read more like prose poems. The first section begins:

The kid heads toward the house. Alley of larches. The fronde. Necklace of tears. Love is a mix of sentimentality and sex (Burroughs). The mansion is just a façade—dismantled, to be erected in Atlanta, 1959. Everything looks worn.

There’s a dreamlike quality to both novellas. I’m left with impressions of mermaids and polar bears, detectives, seaside highways in the rain.

Surprise Me!