Like a hummingbird hovering in cold weather during a self-induced torpor, the protagonist of My Year of Rest and Relaxation, a 20-something Ivy League, orphaned cutie, intentionally hibernates for one year in a drug-induced “sleep diet,” hoping her soul wounds heal and trusting that the world will be a better place when she awakens. First-time Ottessa Moshfegh readers will marvel at her ability to write such a saturnine story in such a droll manner. Her witty lines entertain throughout her fourth book: “I ate some melatonin and Benadryl and drooled a little,” the narrator states. “Night was falling. I felt tired, heavy, but not exactly sleepy. So I took another Nembutal, watched Presumed Innocent, then took a few Lunestas.” At this point, the reader’s own GABA receptors and endorphins are cross-firing along with the pill-popping narrator’s. The action occurs in Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where the narrator, a gallery assistant, bought an apartment with her inheritance. Moshfegh accurately writes about the not-so-mean streets of the neighborhood—its bodegas and its proprietors (“the Egyptians”), the vacuous, spandex-wearing, Botox-injected married women, and her bulimic friend Reva. She then takes the reader downtown to the best schvitz in town, art galleries, and to weekly visits with her quack therapist Dr. Tuttle (rhymes with muddle) who has her own theory about psychotropic drug side effects: “You must have a callus on your cortex ... not figuratively. Not literally, I mean. I am saying, parenthetically.” And she said this “clucking her tongue” displaying “air” parenthesis. The narrative continues to help the reader enter deeper and deeper into the mind of an addict whose proclivity for imbibing drugs started with the death of her father, a professor, and being molested by one of his colleagues at his funeral. We also learn of her mother’s addiction and untimely end. These events make dealing with death impossible for her: My mom died, Reva said during a commercial break. Shit I said. The ghoulish voice of the TV show’s male narrator and Reva’s sniffles and sighs should have lulled me to sleep. But I could not sleep. I closed my eyes. When the next episode, about crop circles, started, Reva poked me. Are you awake? I pretended I wasn’t. In another pathetic scene, Reva purloins the narrator’s passel of drugs, and Moshfegh masterfully describes the narrator’s hunt to steal them back: “A Victoria’s Secret gift bag was tucked into the back corner of the cabinet. Inside, glory! My Ambien, my Rozerem, may Ativan, my Xanax, my trazadone, my lithium. Seroquel, Lunesta. Valium. I laughed. I teared up.” In an instant, the jonesing narrator is back in business. [millions_ad] Moshfegh’s flawless depiction of life lost in a continuous drug haze continues to shock throughout the book. The protagonist, zoned out, binge watches reruns of Whoopi Goldberg and Harrison Ford movies (her faves), occasionally toggling to a porn channel to indulge herself, leading to her signing up for a dating site (her screen name Whoopigirlberg2000). The problem with her association with the site is that, while stoned out of her mind, she sends pictures of her private parts and the inside of her mouth informing chat room participants to tie her up and hold her hostage. Moshfegh takes the reader down a rabbit hole of confusion for a year, leaving the reader to ponder: What is the true meaning of life? Is life precious enough for the narrator to survive her self-prescribed sleep diet, or will she end up in a body bag at Bellevue? Ottessa Moshfegh creates her own milieu, a New York City acid test replete with ribald passages, unapologetic dialogue, and a plot structure only she can devise. Moshfegh is not afraid of anything, and My Year of Rest and Relaxation is one of the year’s best books.
Dig deep enough into frivolity, and you just might strike substance. Sound far-fetched? Well, it is. After all, if we’re talking about books, most of the time you’ll come up empty-handed; what appears frivolous at first blush tends to be precisely that upon closer inspection. But with a combination of inexhaustible patience, superior burrowing technique, and plain old-fashioned luck, chances are that one day you’ll end up with one that fits the bill. As it happens, The Occasional Virgin, by Hanan al-Shaykh, is that book—this reviewer did the requisite digging for you—or at least one of the precious few in circulation. Al-Shaykh is a Lebanese novelist and short story writer, long resident in London, who writes in Arabic. (That said, her recent One Thousand and One Nights: A Retelling was written in English.) Because of her years in the U.K. and her frank discussion of sexual matters in fiction often set in Arab countries—see, for example, The Story of Zahra and Women of Sand and Myrrh—al-Shaykh has had to contend with charges that she has divorced herself from the Arab world she continues to mine for stories and that her depiction of Arab women smacks of Orientalism. Such overblown accusations need not detain us here. In fact, an intriguing (and counterintuitive) aspect of The Occasional Virgin is that al-Shaykh has dulled the edge of much of her original Arabic-language material. This process appears to have begun with the book’s very title. The Occasional Virgin is not a straightforward translation of an original Arabic-language work but an adaptation of two of the author’s books, an anemic novella titled Two Women by the Sea and the outwardly silly novel [The] Virgins of Londonistan, which feature the same pair of protagonists. Al-Shaykh merged the two stories, reworking, excising, and adding much material. The resulting text was then rendered into fluid and natural-sounding English by Catherine Cobham, who is not only a veteran translator but head of the Department of Arabic and Persian at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. Al-Shaykh knew full well that to effect a successful amalgamation of Two Women and Londonistan, the latter would have to swallow the former. Not just because it’s broader in scope and more consequential but because any variation on its title would prove catchier than something about a couple of women on a beach. Yet she dropped “Londonistan”—almost certainly because the term, a barb directed at the supposed cultural Islamization of London, would offend North American and British readers (who have been exposed to alarmist books such as Melanie Phillips’s Londonistan) far more than it did Arabs. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. What is The Occasional Virgin all about? Well, related by a third-person narrator equally comfortable inhabiting the mind of either of al-Shaykh’s 30-something protagonists, it’s a two-part story, with Part I adapted largely from Two Women, and Part II a reworked version of Londonistan. Following little of note in Part I, which is set on the Italian Riviera (but includes flashbacks to Lebanon), we meet up again with the pair in the U.K.’s capital a few months later. That’s where Yvonne, who owns and manages an advertising firm, lives; Huda, a Toronto-based theater director—who’s gathering information on whether she might stage a performance of One Thousand and One Nights in London—is visiting her. Al-Shaykh has them stroll through Hyde Park, where they pause to listen to the assortment of zealots haranguing people at Speakers’ Corner. What happens next sets the story in motion. Huda, whose late father was an imam, can be described as lying somewhere between agnosticism and atheism. (Yvonne, born into a Christian family, isn’t much for organized religion either, but—as becomes apparent later—retains her childhood veneration of the Virgin Mary.) Nevertheless, when brought face-to-face with Islam-bashers at Speakers’ Corner, Huda pushes back. For example, referring to the Prophet Muhammad, she insists that “God’s messenger is the one who ordered the emancipation of slaves and made them free and forbade racism.” As though Huda taking on the task of defending Islam weren’t ironic enough, al-Shaykh shrewdly finds a way to turn this encounter into—of all things—a confrontation between the spirited woman and a handsome but hectoring Muslim. While she’s at it, the author even manages to work in a dig at Islam itself. It starts with a young man’s insistence that Huda, while fully engaged in singing Islam’s praises to the assembled crowd, should take care to employ specific and mandatory terms of reverence when citing the Quran or the Prophet Muhammad. As he is insufferable, and as Huda doesn’t take kindly to his schoolmarmish ways, she doesn’t oblige. Matters escalate, and before long the guy, an Algerian-Egyptian named Hisham with whom she converses in Arabic, issues a bloodcurdling threat: “Do you know that hens are slaughtered if they cry like roosters?” What enrages Hisham so is Huda’s bemoaning of the fact that certain majority Muslim countries permit marriage between adult males and girls, “some of them as young as eight.” Left unsaid is that the Prophet Muhammad’s marriage to Aisha when she was of a similar age has long served as the justification for such laws. Hisham, of course, knows as much. Soon afterward, the two women take their leave. Yet Huda is still incensed—and vengeful. Here, at long last (we’re almost halfway through the novel), the first stirrings of an enduring and much-needed conflict are felt. The remainder of The Occasional Virgin can be neatly divided into two sections (though the author enacts no such division): The first concerns Huda’s efforts to get the better of Hisham, and the second sees al-Shaykh shift her attention to the lovelorn Yvonne, who receives mixed signals from a man she takes a shine to at a wedding party, and later must decide how exactly to handle the bewildered Hisham when he starts dropping in at her office and then her home in a bid to determine the whereabouts of a now-vanished Huda. Yvonne’s experiences, both at the wedding party and with Hisham, are nothing special and not worth lingering on. It’s Huda’s earlier encounter with Hisham that provides spark. Igniting that spark is the fact that Huda, far from behaving like the proverbial rooster this time around, uses her feminine wiles to strike back at her antagonist. Having heard Hisham say something about planning to attend a demonstration in front of the Syrian embassy that afternoon in order to protest the Syrian regime’s violence against its people, Huda, without yet having worked out a plan, resolves to waylay him there. Meanwhile, as a lark back at her house, Yvonne introduces her friend to something called a “strawberry” by its manufacturers. This, Huda realizes, is what she must use to catch her holier-than-thou bête noire in a compromising position. The “strawberry” in question is what a sexually active woman intent on appearing virginal inserts into her vagina to trigger the flow of “blood” upon intercourse. So when Huda, having homed in on her quarry at the demonstration and convinced him that she’s feeling ill, manages to get him to take her to his home, the stage is set for both a rounding out of Hisham’s hitherto one-dimensional character (a university student working as a doorman, he proves quite considerate and helpful) and the actualization of her ruse. Huda doesn’t have to exert much effort to seduce the excitable Hisham—though he catches her off guard by proposing an on-the-spot marriage. All they must do for it to pass Islamic muster, he maintains, is recite a verbal formula. After a brief hesitation, Huda accepts. The next step is for the two to consummate the union. That, after all, is the reason Hisham proposed to her in the first place. Meanwhile, Huda hopes things turn out thus: He sleeps with her, discovers she’s a virgin and regrets calling her names and treating her so hatefully, is maybe even sorry that he tried to shut her up, subdue her, sorry for believing that every Muslim woman who didn’t cover herself was a fallen woman with no place in society. As for the thorny matter of sex, Huda has girded herself. “All I’m going to think about,” she muses, “is the strawberry waiting to explode, and the satisfaction of having my revenge on him when he sees my virginal blood and his arrogance and self-righteousness melt away.” [millions_ad] Before we get to that exploding strawberry, let’s touch on another subject having to do with sex that crops up between the two newlyweds round about this time—at least in Londonistan. At one point, Huda informs Hisham that Muslim martyrs looking to spend eternity having sex with dozens of houris, the beautiful and perpetual virgins of paradise, will be sorely disappointed. According to Huda, there exists a consensus among Arab scholars of the Arabic language that the plural term houris (in Arabic, “hour,” classically rendered in full as “hour ‘ayn”) refers to grapes. Here’s the problem: This assertion was made by the pseudonymous scholar Christoph Luxenberg in a German-language book, one that has—even after being translated into several languages—hardly caught on with Arab linguists or Islamic jurists. Moreover, Luxenberg’s fascinating claim is that the term is Syriac, and that the Quran, which Muslims hold to be a God-given Arabic-language original text, cannot be understood without taking into account the Syriac roots of much of its then-newfangled terminology. Huda doesn’t go anywhere near this explosive issue. But why did al-Shaykh have her claim, falsely, that it is Arab scholars of the Arabic-language, as opposed to Luxenberg, who assert that the houris are grapes? Ignorance? Wishful thinking? Or, most intriguingly, an indirect attempt to stimulate further discussion among Arabs and Muslims of the taboo subject that is the historical origins of the Quran? Also, why is this whole exchange regarding houris and grapes missing from The Occasional Virgin? Unclear. Jumping back into the sack with Huda and Hisham, however, we discover that it isn’t the only thing that’s missing. Who would have thought that the English-language adaptation of two Arabic-language works of fiction would include less sex than the originals? In Londonistan, a priapic Hisham prevails upon Huda to have intercourse with him no fewer than four times within five hours of their “marriage.” In The Occasional Virgin, however, al-Shaykh has them sleep together just once. The result isn’t simply a tamer encounter. Al-Shaykh changes the very nature of Huda’s enterprise. In Londonistan, Huda seems to wing it; yes, she aims to seduce Hisham and have him pop her strawberry, but it isn’t initially clear to the reader (and possibly to Huda herself) how she plans to use the guy’s subsequent shock to her advantage. What she comes up with is nothing short of a masterstroke. Huda makes use of a strawberry each and every time she has sex with Hisham, who can’t for the life of him understand why she keeps bleeding anew. He deflowered her the first time, and she’s not menstruating, so what’s going on? Huda lets him stew in his uncertainty until the fourth time, when she confronts the befuddled sod with the purposely outlandish theory that she is in fact a houri. Though she ends up interpreting her supposed newfound status in different and contradictory ways, one proves especially provocative; she suggests that the virgins of paradise can no longer cope with the number of martyrs streaming through the pearly gates, so God has dispatched some of them to earth, where they might satisfy Muslim men who have yet to turn militant, let alone die. This is all absent from The Occasional Virgin, if not simply because Huda and Hisham have themselves a tumble only once. Whereas their repeated lovemaking in Londonistan provides the perpetually virginal Huda with an opportunity to ask Hisham why people believe in miracles that took place long ago but doubt those (such as her hymen reconstructing itself) that happen before their very eyes, and to imply that carnal bliss is attainable here on earth and doesn’t require martyrdom, The Occasional Virgin proves considerably less revolutionary. True, Huda has formulated more of a plan to begin with. And yes, thanks to her use of the infamous strawberry, she gains the sought-after advantage over Hisham. But because there’s no more sex, she is unable to milk it. She must content herself with berating him for having considered her promiscuous on account of her attire, manner of speech, and style of comportment. Yet there is admittedly one aspect of al-Shaykh’s paring down of the sexual element that emerges as more effective: Hisham’s crisis of conscience regarding their sham marriage, which in both versions of the story he decides he wants to turn into a legitimate union—replete with witnesses—posthaste. Because Hisham’s mistaken belief that he took Huda’s maidenhead is what prompts this sudden overriding concern (more on the reason for his anxiety shortly), it makes better sense that it should seize hold of him following a single roll in the hay, which is of course the case in The Occasional Virgin, as opposed to only after the activity’s fourth iteration. At any rate, what’s the upshot of all this, you ask? Though lacking the slyly subversive quality of Londonistan, does The Occasional Virgin leave the reader with anything to think about? It does. In our day and age, the notion that a never-married woman’s virtue derives from her virginity enjoys a good deal less currency than it once did. But it hasn’t gone bankrupt just yet. How to deal with those (not all of whom are named Muhammad, Ali, or Hisham) for whom it retains value? Al-Shaykh chooses humor—including oblique mockery. It’s all rather mild (again, the Arabic-language Londonistan is spicier), but it’s what makes The Occasional Virgin more than occasionally clever. A good thing, too, because the rest of the novel is superficial and boring. Huda is arguably at her least virtuous when pretending that intercourse with Hisham marks her initiation into sex. Hisham, of course, falls for the deception. But that’s not the half of it. All of a sudden, his opinion of Huda undergoes a radical transformation. Indeed, he comes to behold her with a kind of reverence and is consumed with guilt. He even resolves to retroactively make their sham marriage official, though it’s clear that they have no future together and that, if they do marry, divorce would constitute the next logical step. The reason for Hisham’s agitated state is simple. The guy is wrongly convinced that until he slept with the intelligent, accomplished, and attractive woman in question, she was a virgin. Why does this matter? Because it means that, despite Huda’s lackluster approach to Islam, she is still in some visceral sense loath to disregard certain of its strictures. “When I discovered that you’d preserved your virginity up till then,” explains a chastened Hisham, “I was sure you’d held fast to your religion without being conscious of it.” This in turn endears her to God. And as has by now become readily apparent, Hisham—obsessed as he is with being an observant Muslim bound for heaven—is desperate to remain in God’s good graces!
Billie Holiday appeared on the cover of the July 1949 issue of Ebony magazine; inside her essay “I’m Cured for Good Now” was a short but heartfelt testament of her recent struggles. She’d pled guilty to drug charges “on the promise of treatment for addiction” and was confined to the Federal Reformatory for Women in Alderson, West Virginia. Her intake form listed her occupation as singer, and her religion as Catholic. In the essay—likely ghostwritten by one of the magazine’s staff writers—Holiday said her “priest was extremely helpful to me in those first weeks and helped me chart the course I should travel in order to build my life upon new strong foundations.” She was “determined to remake my entire life.” This spiritual route was an inevitable one for Holiday. In Religion Around Billie Holiday, a focused, enlightening examination of the gifted singer, Tracy Fessenden demonstrates that Holiday’s Catholicism was complex and formative. Fessenden is clear that her book “is not a brief for Holiday’s piety or impiety... It is not a study of sacred themes in her work, for indeed Holiday recorded almost nothing that could be called religious.” Instead she focuses “on the environing religious conditions to which her genius responded, and in which her life and sound took form.” This is a welcome approach. Holiday’s talent has earned her status as a legend, and we often seek to remake legends in our own image. When Fessenden writes that “at various moments,” Holiday “may or may not have been a believing Catholic, a practicing Catholic, a lapsed or cafeteria or recovering Catholic,” she is not being evasive. Lady Sings the Blues, her 1956 autobiography, has been plagued by claims of inaccuracies and exaggerations. Fessenden notes that “Publicity photographs show Holiday at the typewriter, or in reading glasses, examining proofs—Doubleday insisted she initial every page—but Holiday would later claim she hadn’t so much as read the book.” The autobiography was co-authored by William Dufty and went “from conception to press in three months.” Discerning what is Dufty and what is Holiday, then, is no easy task. Rather than engage in the folly of explicating Holiday’s personal and private beliefs, Fessenden methodically documents her life in Catholic institutions, and within Catholic culture. Here the word “around” within the title is essential: “To consider religion around is to pay attention to ambient feeling and mood, to energies, pressures, frequencies, powers.” Her conclusion: Holiday “was indisputably a trained Catholic, and this training shaped her moves within what horizons of possibility were hers to navigate over the whole of her life.” Sadie Fagan, Holiday’s mother, was sent to the House of the Good Shepherd for Colored Girls in Baltimore when she was 13. Holiday described her mother as a “Mass every Sunday” Catholic “with her candles and creeping up to the altar.” Holiday herself was sent to Good Shepherd twice, in 1925 and 1927, after attending kindergarten at St. Frances Academy for Colored Girls. Fessenden does not whitewash those parochial years as anything near perfect, noting that certain, more lurid details have been shown to be apocryphal (and are likely vestiges of the convent exposé genre). To claim that Holiday was a raw talent, someone uncontrollable and nearly miraculous, is to diminish her selfhood: “As much as it discounts a taxing apprenticeship on the streets of a jazz-loving city, the myth of Holiday’s untutored genius also neglects her musical training in the institution where being a street kid landed her.” At Good Shepherd, Holiday “attended a compulsory Catholic Mass every day and sang every day from the forms set forth in the Liber Usualis, the common book of Gregorian chant used in the Mass, in daily and seasonal devotions, and in all feasts and celebrations in the liturgical year.” Holiday’s years at Good Shepherd followed Pope Pius X’s Tra Le Sollecitudini, which offered new guidance on liturgical music, including the “freshly revived Gregorian chant.” Dom Joseph Gajard, the choirmaster of Solesmes Abbey, said the new approach to the chant was such that “the rhythm, of material, becomes a thing of the spirit.” These “combined apprenticeships, convent and street, went to Billie Holiday’s distinctive undemonstrative cool, her soft parlando delivery of straight-up talk turned to song.” The influence went even beyond her music. The girls at Good Shepherd had been sent “by legal authority to the Sisters in order to remove them from evil surroundings and bad parents.” It was a place of asylum, a “setting devoted to the structuring or restructuring of a young woman’s life along a particular narrative arc.” The positives and negatives of such an approach are worthy of another book, but Fessenden’s focus is on influence: “If the stories you hear and the examples you are given make injured and suffering girls both romantic and valuable, then your idea of self, your subjectivity, will gather substance from that fact.” Holiday held on to that Catholicism as much as she held on to her rosary, “wrapped around her hand,” when she spoke to the jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams at a funeral. She held on to that faith when was driving with the jazz singer Thelma Carpenter, and the car’s brakes failed on the highway in Newark. Carpenter said, “I figured I’d hug the highway and we sort of prayed real good and finally we made it.” Holiday consoled her by turning the dying words of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux into witness: “She let some of those rosebuds fall down on us.” Williams and Carpenter were both fellow Catholics, which is a cultural note that Fessenden perfectly captures: Catholicism is a shared, visceral experience of community and ritual. “Billie Holiday’s Catholicism,” Fessenden writes, “like Louis Armstrong’s, was casual and attenuated, lived in ways that prompted neither avowal nor rebellion. But Catholicism puts them both into a larger musical conversation than the relay between rural South and urban North, between spirituals and swing.” Around 1953, Billie Holiday returned to Good Shephard for a copy of her baptismal certificate. She showed John Levy, then her manager and boyfriend, the chapel in which she was baptized, as well as the dormitory rooms. The sisters asked her to sing, and she did. Her song “My Man” includes the haunting lines “All my life is just despair / but I don’t care.” I wonder what Holiday might have been thinking when those words settled into the walls.
In a section of Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk’s Man Booker International Prize-winning novel Flights, translated by Jennifer Croft, the wife and toddler of a man named Kunicki disappear while they are on vacation on a tiny island. After a long day spent searching for them, he watches a group of men fraternizing with each other in a café. As they become more and more open and warm with each other, the narrator tells us, “The body no longer belongs just to itself, but is instead part of a live chain, a section of a living circle.” And he is jealous that these men can be so open with each other. We find out that he is self-involved and reserved, cold even, with the people in his own life, even his wife and son. Kunicki lives essentially in what the book would term an island state, “a state of remaining within one’s own boundaries, undisturbed by any external influence; it resembles a kind of narcissism or even autism.” In this novel on the increasing mobility of 21st-century life, those who isolate themselves, who want to limit their movement and interactions with others, are only living half a life. Everybody is part of a worldwide network of beings, a worldwide live chain, dependent on people they will never meet for everyday necessities, whether they acknowledge it or not. This is a particularly prescient point to have made in 2007, when the book was first published in Poland, now that we have entered this age of growing isolationism and xenophobia. Tokarczuk hopes to remind readers that we all have more in common than not. In a section titled “Unus Mundus,” a “poet friend” of the narrator’s, who has become a tour guide in the Arab world in order to support herself, tells stories about the places she works in to her tourists to entertain them. Her lack of knowledge of Arabic culture doesn’t faze her, though: “‘Let’s not kid ourselves,’ she’d say. ‘It’s just one world.’” Tokarczuk reads like a more cerebral W.G. Sebald in this work: Whereas what lingers of Sebald’s works are the emotions he conjures up, what lingers of Tokarczuk are her ideas. The mind/body problem, theodicy, the fate of the body after death: These subjects preoccupy several different characters throughout the novel, and their comments form a chorus of perspectives on these issues. This is one of what Tokarczuk calls her “constellation novels,” works made up of essays, short stories, and sketches that together form their own live chain of patterns and echoes that generate meaning more in the manner of a short story collection than a novel. Most of the novel is dominated by the nameless protagonist, a woman who, as she puts it, “clearly ... did not inherit whatever gene it is that makes it so that when you linger in a place you start to put down roots.” A perpetual traveler, she riffs on the offbeat people she meets and the insights she attains on her journeys. It is her voice that we hear in the essays, which touch upon topics as varied as Wikipedia, airports, and plastic bags. The fragments also cover the lives of searchers and dreamers from around the world, however, and the lives and deaths of historical figures such as Philip Verheyen, the 17th-century anatomist, Frédéric Chopin, and Josefine Soliman, an 18th-century Austrian whose letters protesting the stuffing and exhibition of her African father’s corpse in a cabinet of curiosities form one of the most haunting and moving sections of this novel. Although this novel encompasses a range of characters spread out through time and space, we see the same preoccupations, concerns, and even behavior over and over again. In an early section, Kunicki’s wife and son disappear for three days. Then in a later section, a Russian woman named Annushka abandons her mentally ill husband and invalid son for a short period of time. Both women, it is implied, are bowing under the weight of an oppressive home life. In a similar chain of coincidences, the protagonist describes herself in one section as a “homegrown detective, a private investigator of signs and coincidences,” and then a few sections later we read that Kunicki has also become obsessed with reading signs. “Everything means something, we just don’t know what,” he thinks as he desperately tries to solve the mystery of his wife’s disappearance. Everyone functions under the same impulses and asks the same questions; although the particulars of the lives of these characters change, the selves of these characters bleed into each other in a way that doesn’t just imply that we are all similar cross-culturally, but brings into question the notion of individuality we hold so dear in the West. Olga Tokarczuk majored in psychology at Warsaw University and worked in the field for five years. She has been obsessed with Carl Jung since that time, whose concept of the collective unconscious likely contributes to her characters’ mirroring of each other. Even more interesting than that, though, is the possibility that they mirror not just each other but also the protagonist. In an early section of the work, the protagonist admits that she started a novel but was never able to finish it because “In my writing, life would turn into incomplete stories, dreamlike tales, would show up from afar in odd dislocated panoramas, or in cross sections—and so it would be almost impossible to reach any conclusions as to the whole.” Since this sounds so much like Flights, I think we are invited to imagine that this is the protagonist’s book, so that the whole novel functions as a metanarrative, an exploration of the ways that an individual and her preoccupations, experiences, and interests filter into her renditions of others’ lives. This makes sense for an author who seems to put so much of herself into her work. Tokarczuk spent a few years living an itinerant lifestyle, just as her protagonist does. Her writing is strongly informed by her vegetarianism and her feminism, something that has often caused her to incite controversy in her fairly conservative country. One of the most memorable scenes in the novel is in fact a plea for animal rights. On one of her travels, our protagonist has dinner with a fellow traveler, a middle-aged woman with graying hair named Aleksandra, and when the protagonist asks about her reasons for traveling, she's told that Aleksandra travels to create a compendium of crimes against animals, “from the dawn of the world to our time.” She tells the protagonist: “‘The true God is an animal. He’s in animals, so close that we don’t notice. Every day God sacrifices Himself for us, dying over and over, feeding us with his body, clothing us in his skin, allowing us to test our medicines on him so that we might live longer and better. Thus does he show his affection, bestow on us his friendship and love.’” She then shows the protagonist what she considers the proof, a Jan van Eyck painting from the Ghent altarpiece called “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb,” in which Christ is depicted as a white lamb. Image: Wikimedia Commons The scene is bizarre but also incredibly moving because, as the best of literature so often does, it makes the familiar strange again. It takes the metaphorical language of Christianity and shows us how we might in fact be able to read it literally and, in the process, forces the reader to face up to difficult questions about the extraordinary privilege we enjoy as human beings and the religions that attempt to legitimate that position. Sitting in the Stockholm airport at the beginning of the scene, “the only one in the world with wood floors,” the protagonist tells Aleksandra that “it was a waste of the woods to use them for flooring in an airport.” Aleksandra calmly responds, “They say that you have to sacrifice some living being when you build an airport ... To ward off catastrophe.” Very often the things we find the most enjoyable or pleasant exist only through the pain or death of others. [millions_ad] Tokarczuk’s 2009 novel Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead also tackles the question of animal rights, in this case in relation to hunting, which fomented controversy when the film version premiered at the Berlin Film Festival. Flights also investigates the other exploitative relationships people often form, the ways the living chain of humanity and of our planet becomes tarnished and damaging. While it does touch upon race relations, most notably in the story of Angelo Soliman and his daughter Josefine, Flights concerns itself most closely with the exploitation of women by men, with the ways that women’s work and sacrifices help men thrive, with the ways that interconnectedness becomes interdependence. In a section on Frederik Ruysch, the anatomist whose work obsesses several other characters in the novel, she spends more time discussing the work his daughter Charlotta put into so many of his specimens than his own. Often, when Tokarczuk tells us the stories of successful men, she shifts the attention to the woman (or women) in the backdrop. This section gives us a detailed description of Charlotta’s rich inner life—her fascination, which the protagonist shares, with “what is flawed and imperfect,” her private business dealings with vendors of medical specimens she can embalm, her feelings after her father sells “his” collection, and her subsequent desire to disguise herself as a man and sail away on an East India Company ship, an impulse that seems to mirror that of Kunicki’s vanished wife and Annushka. The section on Chopin is also not really on Chopin but on his sister, Ludwika, who transported his heart back to Poland as per his wishes, and a later section on a brilliant classics professor is not on the professor so much as on his much-put-upon second wife, who believes that “Men needed women more than women needed men.” While men’s exploitative behavior is depicted in an unflattering light (Ruysch’s face is described as displaying “self-confidence and mercantile cunning,” and the short stories that take men as their protagonists both show us the men undergoing excruciatingly humiliating situations and emerging from them completely clueless), it’s clear that we are meant to see the women’s behavior as exemplary. A female scientist in a section titled “Godzone” tells us that the life force of our planet is “a thing that consists in bursting open, thrusting forward, in constantly going beyond.” But it is not inherently competitive: “all animate things cooperate in this growth and bursting, supporting one another. Living organisms give themselves to one another, permit one another to make use of them.” And indeed, in spite of the restrictions that society places on women throughout the centuries covered in this work, women manage to thrive, often because of the help of other women. The Chopin section focuses in part on Ludwika’s efforts to have Mozart’s “Requiem” performed during her brother’s funeral service, which nearly proves impossible because the Catholic Church doesn’t allow women to sing in its places of worship. Ludwika is devastated because she cannot conceive of the piece being performed without her favorite singer, the soprano Graziella Panini, who has permanently injured her leg in a carriage accident. Finally the Church relents, and Graziella is allowed to sing, but only behind a heavy curtain. The description of her performance is one of the most beautiful in the novel, a testament to the power of women’s work, a missive of defiance to anyone who would attempt to smother women’s voices: “Until finally [Ludwika] heard the pure voice of Graziella shooting up like fireworks, like the revelation of her crippled leg, of the naked truth. Graziella sang the best, that was clear, and her voice was only slightly muffled by the curtain; Ludwika imagined the little Italian girl straining, intent, head raised, the veins of her neck swollen—Ludwika had seen her in rehearsals—as she belted out the lyrics in that extraordinary voice of hers, crystal clear, diamond clear, in spite of the heavy curtain, in spite of her leg, to hell with the whole damn world.” Amen.
In Hamid Ismailov’s book The Devil’s Dance, one Uzbek prisoner says to another, “It’s time for afternoon prayers, I think. Are you a believer, or one of the moderns?”—a familiar and false dichotomy that intellectuals in Muslim countries have had to contend with for a very long time. From the very start of the The Devil’s Dance, Ismailov's fictionalized version of the late Abdulla Qodiriy, a celebrated Uzbek writer, lives in defiance of this dichotomy, shown to be doing his daily prayers in the cell where time seems punctuated only by prayers. There is, however, one concession given to the conventional wisdom that secular people guard culture against the believing masses: Qodiriy remembers how an Uzbek janitor beat him when he attempted to join in the Christmas celebrations in his Russian school and how his Russian literature teacher saved him. Still, Qodiriy remains a believer and one of the modern ones. His and Ismailov’s modernism, above all else, is in the way they engage with history, by bringing different strands of it together to create more of a myth than a “real version of events.” The Devil’s Dance is set in Tashkent, where Qodiriy has just been taken to prison for the second time in his life, for an offense yet to be revealed by the secret policemen who question him. The book has a third-person narration with Qodiriy as a very strong focalizer, and we watch him contemplate his life, pray, talk to other prisoners, and work—in his head—on a historical novel about the courts of Bukhara and Kokand. For the uninitiated, the ‘Translator’s Afterwords” explain that Qodiriy spent most of 1938 in an NKVD (The People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs) prison during Stalin’s Great Terror, and that the title of Ismailov’s novel comes from one of his short stories. The Devil’s Dance, as the translator Donald Rayfield says, is Ismailov trying to imagine Qodiriy composing Emir Umar’s Slave Girl, the drafts of which were destroyed by the police. As you can imagine, Ismailov imagining Qodiriy writing the novel in his head soon turns into a metaphor for Ismailov’s own writing process, and the book sometimes gets too meta for its own good. Ismailov’s book has a stellar cast. While Qodiriy gets to know his cellmates and awaits his fate, we take trips with him to the emirates of Bukhara and Kokand of the 19th century, where there is much warring and woe going on, accompanied always by poetry. There are scenes of poetry-offs in the Kokand court in particular, where Nadira, Emir Umar’s first wife, and Oyxon, the 18-year-old beauty he has just married, drop bars, as it were, about the conditions in the court—calling to my mind a particular scene from the 1960 Indian film Mughal-e-Azam, set in the court of Jahangir, who himself was the descendant of a dynasty that ruled Uzbekistan. In fact, Mughal-e-Azam becomes my go-to when Ismailov describes particularly opulent settings. In attendance are princes and princesses aplenty, who vie for power in these emirates that have not yet succumbed to Russian influence. Qodiriy composes his work by checking in often with both himself and the reader as to what ought to be in an Uzbek historical novel. He concludes that he cannot fail to include the Great Game and parades all the usual suspects before us. Alexander Burnes, Charles Stoddart, Arthur Conolly, and lesser-known characters such as Jan Prosper Witkiewicz all get a look and take on dramatic importance in the little vignettes he composes around them. Apart from these diversions, the reader struggles to hold on to the reins of the three main theaters of action in the novel: Tashkent prison, Kokand and Bukhara courts. Ismailov keeps second-guessing the reader’s efforts throughout his novel and makes Qodiriy muse about his narrative exertions: “Alas, had it all now merged into a meaningless mass? If he could set it down to paper he would never confuse Umar’s Kokand palace with Nasrullo’s fortress in Bukhara.” The book is saved from merging into the feared meaningless mass by Ismailov’s storytelling gusto and Donald Rayfield’s translation, even at points where the narrative’s back is bent with too much history and too many characters. The metatextuality of the novel straddles that line between witty and exasperating. One thing that kept me engaged as I tried not to lose the plot was the mystery of the translation itself: “As an academic, primarily qualified in Russian and Georgian, I should explain why, with little Turkish and less Farsi, I have translated this novel from its original Uzbek,” says Rayfield in the afterword. I wonder: Why does he apologize for not knowing Turkish, and not for not knowing Uzbek? Is he using the two words interchangeably? He adds that he has studied the Russian version of the novel: Fortunately, the resources available to me—the Akobirov Uzbek-Russian Dictionary, the internet corpus of Uzbek, Redhouse’s Ottoman and Steingass’s Persian dictionaries, but above all the patience of Hamid Ismailov … have I hope, been sufficient to mitigate the arrogance of my translating the novel from an initial position of deplorable incompetence. I feel an almost Persian sense of decorum seep into Rayfield’s English. This confession does nothing to clarify whether he can actually read Uzbek but is very good at giving you a panorama of the cultural and linguistic realm we are in: Uzbek, Russian, Persian, Ottoman. In a novel about the writing and rewriting of history, the language hoops that the text had to jump through before it reached me becomes even more crucial. What’s more, The Devil’s Dance is a text that actually makes constant references to the different languages and dialects spoken both in the Tashkent prison and the Turkic courts. The Uzbek language certainly is odd. You can hide yourself as a pronoun at the end, but that’s also where the emphasis lies: It is marked. But if we look at the language of Navoi or Babur, which was influenced by Farsi, we find pronoun and predicate changing places, all much earlier than the Russian influence. Abdulla’s thoughts reverted to Professor Zasypkin’s narrative or, to evoke one committed sacrilege, to Zasypkin’s narrative reverted the thoughts of Abdulla. Between me and the English translation of this Uzbek text are, moreover, the ghosts words and sayings that I recognize, that I translate back to Turkish in my head. The book is rendered into beautiful English, and I particularly appreciated Rayfield’s efforts with the long sections of poetry that Ismailov has thrown in, to give us a sense of the kind of discourse used in the courts. In fact, one of the most palpable linguistic ghosts for me was the refrain of one of the poems that Cho'lpon (another Uzbek poet in prison, and with whose poetry the book opens) shows to Qodiriy: the work of Oyxon. “What did I do to you?” sounds a bit awkward in English as a refrain, but my mind promptly translates it into Turkish, and I realize it is one of the very common supplications in Turkish folk songs. Language both as barrier and bridge is there in all the strands of the story. Ismailov imagines Conolly, the British envoy/spy sent to Bukhara in 1841 to secure the release of Stoddart (who himself had been sent there on an intelligence mission), and Oyxon flirting, enabled by the fact that the emir did not consider European men as men at all. Conolly, while still a respected guest at the court, offers Oyxon a couplet in English, but realizing she doesn’t understand the language, he puts it into Ottoman Turkish. “Then they all tried to work out the original couplet,” the narrator says, tongue firmly in cheek. Throughout the novel, characters shift their discourse as circumstance demands it. When Abdulla encounters Conolly in a dream, their exchange happens in similar linguistic humor: “I am a lover of my nation,” Abdullah put it in Farsi. The sinewy Englishman raised his eyebrows again. “I’m a nationalist,” Abdullah said, in Turkish this time. The directness of Turkish and the poetry of Persian—and Uzbek, somewhere in between—is alluded to all the time. Both Oyxon and Conolly, and indeed Stoddart, through their own stories of incarceration, are imagined as fellow prisoners in Qodiriy’s cell. As he is writing his novel in his head—no paper and pen allowed in Stalin’s prisons—Qodiriy laments time and again that he cannot access Oyxon’s writing, but he imagines what her poetry must have been like all the same, quoting stanza after stanza. He imagines Conolly might have recorded some of them in his memoirs and that these lost gems might be waiting for his discovery at the British Library among his diaries. “Here he was in prison in Tashkent, contemplating a trip to London; worrying about a lost manuscript,” he says, and I chuckle, knowing one or two academics who’ve had bad luck getting visas to look for lost manuscripts in Tashkent. Although at times it feels as if Qodiriy’s Russian teacher hangs over the whole venture, telling both him and Ismailov to “show their work,” the novel manages to transport you to all the settings that have been recreated in great detail. It made me check Wikipedia at several points to understand the Byzantine goings on at the various Uzbek courts, and it also made me realize that there is scope for a dozen more historical novels to be written about the characters that make an appearance in Ismailov’s. As another modern once said, “human kind / cannot bear very much reality,” and it is this dictum that Ismailov seems to be coming to terms with in this epic rendition of Uzbekistan’s literary history.
I’m normally not someone to pick up a novel described as “epic.” Perhaps it’s a sense that such large-scale works can’t capture the particular or that this genre is often the terrain of oversimplified, masculinist war stories. Such a large canvas has been popular of late, though, and women have been using the full breadth of their palettes to beautifully render key yet underrepresented stories about the United States. In the last year, narratives such as Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach about women during World War II in New York, Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers about gay men during the AIDS crisis in Chicago, and Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing about African-American trauma in Mississippi have embraced and transformed the genre, each in their own way. Crystal Hana Kim’s debut novel If You Leave Me belongs on that list, as it also covers 20th-century war and trauma in its epic sweep. Unlike those other narratives, though, Kim’s work makes the desires and concerns of the destructive United States a distant background to the full rendering of South Korea and its local inhabitants during and after the Korean War. This book is no narrative of triumphal imperialism or essentialized nationalism; Kim alters the expectations of the genre to include a much stronger focus on women and the multigenerational cultural changes that occur in and after a war caused by a global power struggle. Specifically, the story begins with chapters that alternate among the perspectives of Haemi, Kyunghwan, and Jisoo, who have been displaced to Busan in the newly created South Korea, a state forced into existence by the Cold War tensions between Russia and the United States. Haemi and Kyunghwan grew up together, and Jisoo and Kyunghwan are cousins. The book is situated in a clearly defined historical context of what is often labeled in the U.S. as the Forgotten War, but that history is told from the outlook of those living through the experience; the details aren’t spoon-fed. For instance, if you want to know why the Korean War is labeled the 6-2-5 War in the novel, then you will need to look up that June 25 is the date of the invasion of South Korea by the North in 1951. Still, the author gives us other details about the country that paint a memorable picture, including the metaphoric description of the nation that Jisoo is taught by his father: “When I was little, he’d traced a rabbit in profile onto the borders of Korea. The tapered ears the northeasternmost point, encroaching on China, the paws jutting out into the Yellow Sea. Seoul tucked safely beneath its belly. We the humped back, and Busan its soft tail.” Such imagery alongside elevated expectations of readers is refreshing, as is allowing the voices and lives of those directly affected by the international power games instead of the power players themselves to take center stage. In this way, the narrative tracks the long-term traumatic effects of war on those who live there. The three main characters are also in a love triangle. The two male cousins, Jisoo the wealthier one and Kyunghwan the one with a childhood connection to Haemi, are on a quest for her affections, but this love story also satisfyingly plays with our expectations of the form. The book tells a love story, but the idea develops to focus on the young woman at the middle of it, who is told that her choice of husband will determine the rest of her life. Will she marry for love or money, and is it that simple? The novel is very much about love but also spins from the singularity of heterosexual romance to being about self-knowledge, self-sacrifice, and an ambivalent representation of motherhood that is too often absent from popular narratives. Much of this gendered analysis is focused on Haemi’s growing consciousness about the limitations she faces as a woman. From the start, she knows that when she goes out at night, she should dress as a boy to protect herself and not draw attention to her socialization with a man. She perceives that women’s bodies are seen as a threat and as something shameful—something which she doesn’t observe being put upon men in the same way. This idea is extended to women being judged for sleeping with someone out of wedlock. In this way, Haemi’s story is a traditional one of maturation as she recognizes the double standard that harshly judges women for their sexual behavior and not men. Not only does she question the general sense of how sexuality works against women, however; she also begins to question her own desire to be married and at one point actually hopes that the men stay away at war so she doesn’t have to take on the responsibilities of being a wife. This overall critique of the structures of heterosexuality and its confinement of women to marriage and child-rearing draws the reader through the story—Has she made the right choice?—but also allows the reader and Haemi to question if a single choice is all that is possible. The damage caused by such limited options—gendered and otherwise—is also reflected in the beautiful but painful ambiguity of the novel’s language. For instance, when talking about her nightly escapes from the refugee camp, Haemi says, “I liked how I felt scraped clean with alcohol, painted over with indifference, until I was a wash of emptiness inside.” The feeling she “likes” is the absence of feeling, and the internal scraping of her body is potentially detrimental and perhaps symbolically hints at a desire to remain childless. After all, motherhood takes up an equally equivocal spot in the narrative, fluctuating between love and restriction. Motherhood is first embodied by Haemi’s mother, who is mostly overlooked in the story, although she is an essential instigator behind Haemi’s choice of husband, telling her suitor that he can gain her heart through caring for Haemi’s brother. Her fate is doubly tied to the restraints of motherhood since Haemi herself is a nontraditional mother figure to her sick younger brother Hyunki. Marriage and motherhood are inextricably bound as her love for him mandates much about her life, while her later relationship with her daughters also shows how love functions as a method of control even as the narrative moves to the next generation. There are some difficult truths rendered about this primary relationship that even include postpartum depression. The question for all of the characters becomes: What are we willing to sacrifice of ourselves for others? How much should we be asked to sacrifice? How much is too much? This is a grand, sweeping story that proves that an epic can yield strong, individualized characters while still developing a nuanced perspective that refuses to essentialize war, women, or national identity. The trauma of the war lingers for each of these characters even as they realize, like Jisoo does, that “We weren’t rebuilding. We were shaping ourselves into a different form.” Korea, the characters, and the narrative structure itself all show this to be true. The novel impressed me in ways I wasn’t expecting, and I’ll be keeping my eye on Crystal Hana Kim to see what she’ll do next.
In his new novel Immigrant, Montana, Amitava Kumar’s narrator admits to considering at least three other titles for the book we are now fortunate to hold in our hands. One: Migrants, clear and simple. Another: The Man Without a Nation. The third: The History of Pleasure, a phrase borrowed from another writer for whom sex was an essential topic, Philip Roth. These graveyard titles are three of the major columns on which Montana, Kumar’s second novel, stands (he is also the author of many works of journalism and one book of poetry). The result is an intelligent and intimate novel which employs the increasingly popular techniques of auto-fiction and melds the bawdry humor of Hanif Kureishi with a W.G. Sebaldian wandering consciousness that cannibalizes—and analyzes—every image, cultural object, and idea it encounters. Montana charts the intellectual and sexual becoming of Kailash, a recent arrival to the United States from eastern India. Kailash—often called “AK” by Americans who have rechristened him first “Kalashnikov,” then “AK-47,” and, finally, “AK”—is a graduate student at Columbia studying under a leftist Pakistani transplant (who is a buddy of Edward Said’s). At the start of the novel, Kailash is a goofy virgin in a Delhi hostel room inquiring about the escapades of his sole sexually initiated friend. At its close, Kailash has loved, lost, and hurt several women. Oh, and he’s an American citizen. For every dip Montana takes into pleasure, it wades deeper into politics, displaying a concern for larger questions of exile. (In the latter, it’s reminiscent of Kumar’s friend Teju Cole, to whom Montana is both dedicated and stylistically indebted.) Kumar explains early and forcefully why these subjects—geopolitics and sex; geography and desire; history and lust—should share pages. In an enormously funny yet simultaneously dark recurring device recalling Roth’s Portnoy addressing his psychiatrist, Kailash speaks to an imagined immigration judge whom he pictures adjudicating both his status in America and his libidinous proclivities. Sex, Kailash tells us, is the “crucial part of humanity denied to the immigrant. You look at a dark immigrant in that long line at JFK...you look at him and think that he wants your job and not that he just wants to get laid.” Indeed, Kailash finds his humanity in love. There’s Jennifer, who “recognized a hidden part of me.” There’s Nina: “I have entered the body of America,” Kailash mischievously tells his judge of sleeping with her. “I have spoken filth in the ear of one of your fair citizens when I was inside her.” Nina “gave me a map of the world in which we lived!” The couple road trips through Middle America; later Kailash learns they traveled near the town of Immigrant, Montana (Kumar’s invention, though Emigrant, near Bozeman, is real). There’s also Cai Yan, a Chinese student who does fieldwork in India; Kailash in turn spends a semester China. Both new immigrants, they chart American idioms and form a touching if temporary life together. Kailash finds a home in other surprising places—he gives thanks to the cult leader Osho: “An Indian was holding forth on the English language, offering a sermon from below, an unholy discourse on how sex was the new divine, and all the white people couldn’t have enough of it! Fuck, we belonged!” While Montana expertly reveals how desire houses us, it also explores how the same desire estranges us from our roots. Kailash’s family remains distant the whole novel, mere memories and voices on long-distance AT&T lines; they can never understand his new life, which contributes to Kailash’s protracted boyish self-centeredness. And Kumar always reminds us that belonging is fragile. The same Jennifer who “recognized” Kailash jokes that he’ll have his fill of white women and return to India for an arranged marriage. Late in the novel, at a point when a more sentimental book would have let the protagonist be happy already, Kailash returns to an English translation of a book he once read in Hindi. “I felt stranded in language. I had become a translated man, no longer able to connect with my own past. What else had I forgotten?” A page later, after weeping onto Cai Yan’s shirt, he calms as they fuck. There it is: the balm of sex, how it tends the wounds of exile. An obvious critique of Montana is of its use of women’s bodies as metaphors for nationhood. I was prepared to lodge such a complaint upon seeing the table of contents, which I presumed to be a catalogue of the women Kailash seduces. And while some chapters are organized around a love affair, others address the book’s more surprising, yet no less affecting, erogenous zones: those of radical political history—India’s, America’s, and China’s. A corollary arises to Kailash’s assertion that to be recognized sexually is to be afforded belonging: “the plot of history is advanced through the acts of lovers,” he tells us, in writing about a priest and nun who fall in love over their shared anti-Vietnam politics. The sentiment is echoed in the chapter “Agnes Smedley,” as Kailash narrates the story of an American woman besotted by the Indian independence struggle. Ah, and then there are the pleasures of the novel’s form and style, which befit its subject matter. Many lovely and satisfying immigrant novels by authors like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie or Sunjeev Sahota have hewn to traditional narrative structure. Kumar’s is a different, not necessarily superior but certainly refreshing, stylistic approach. He pleasantly crowds Montana with found objects (recalling another Sebaldian inheritor, Ben Lerner): snippets from Kailash’s (Kumar’s?) own notebooks, snaps of the Indian sex columnist on whom Kailash grew up, an ekphrasis on the photographs of Raghu Rai, auto rickshaw signs, Economist clippings, Gandhi and Gramsci quotes, letters from the anti-colonial revolutionary Har Dayal, Satyajit Ray’s sketches for the film Pather Panchali. Particularly pleasurable are the idiosyncratic celebrity cameos: Said plays Bach; Grace Paley leads a teach-in against the Gulf War. Here is Cole, in Open City: “To be a writer in exile is a great thing. But what is exile now, when everyone goes and comes freely?” At a moment when protectionist and populist politics worldwide threaten free going and coming, Kumar sets the immigrant novel loose on our beds and base impulses. Kailash’s thesis advisor Ehsaan tells him he must “remain mindful of the present moment” and its politics even as he explores archive and fieldwork. Kumar has heeded this advice. Without mentioning the politics of 2018, he responds to our present moment. He liberates the immigrant mind, and the immigrant artist, to move freely through geographies, bodies, and memories. Kumar affords Kailash the right to both be angry at American intolerance and to respond to what modern readers might call microaggressions with irreverence. The book contains India and America, nostalgia and humor. Ambitious artistic undertakings like Kumar’s are how the literature of exile secures its place in the new country, becoming not immigrant novels but free American novels.
When I was a child growing up in Guatemala during the Civil War, my mom took me to play at my friend’s house late one night. She told me not to ask any questions. “Just play,” she said. While our mothers sat downstairs talking in hushed voices, my friend took me into his closet to tell me quietly that armed men had surrounded their car earlier that day, threatening kidnapping or worse if they did not pay. We sat in the dark closet, crying, shooting our toy guns at nothing and everything, afraid and angry. My friend’s family fled the country. Some time later, men dressed in army fatigues kidnapped a cousin in our family for ransom. They returned him without physical harm, but not without emotional damage—his wife passed away not long after and our cousin hired security personnel. You could never be sure whether these were military, paramilitary, guerrilla, or mercenary cells targeting families. I had yet to read an account that could begin to touch on the looming presence of dread families suffered when political violence invaded private life in Latin America in the late 20th century until I picked up Ingrid Rojas Contreras’s novel Fruit of the Drunken Tree. She weaves a tender-yet-gritty tapestry of the Santiagos, a family who lives in Bogotá, Colombia, during Pablo Escobar’s narco-terrorist reign. While most works about Escobar perpetuate the drug lord’s myth by attempting to understand the man, Fruit of the Drunken Tree unpacks the collateral damage the origins of this very myth inflicted on families and provides an understanding of their personal loss. The shortlist of works inspired by Escobar’s life out today—ESPN’s The Two Escobars and Netflix’s Narcos, the films Blow and American Made, and memoirs from former associates and family members—are mostly from men and about men, guns, and cocaine. But Rojas Contreras exposes another reality, one of strong women and girls who survive the Escobar years. Born in Bogotá, Rojas Contreras holds an MFA from Columbia College Chicago, and Fruit of the Drunken Tree is her debut. A family story at heart, Fruit is told from the dual perspective of 7-year-old Chula Santiago and their young and impoverished maid, Petrona. The novel opens with Chula contemplating a photograph depicting Petrona, her son, and her husband. Readers learn it’s sent in secret from Colombia, as the Santiagos now live in California as refugees. Chula misses her friend and tries to remember how they ended up in a foreign country, separated from their family. What follows is a retelling that begins with this whisper of a memory and ends with a guttural yelp of personal loss that refuses to be silenced. Chula and Petrona’s accounts give readers a look into how an unassuming middle-class family could become embroiled in political violence extreme enough to fracture social classes. While Petrona lives in the invasiones—shack communities along the outskirts of Bogotá—Chula’s mother has made it out of this poverty years earlier and marries well. This sets up Chula’s connection to and fascination with Petrona. If women stand front and center in Fruit, men remain in the periphery, though ever powerful. Chula and her sister grow up in a “kingdom of women, with Mamá at the head, perpetually trying to find a fourth like us, or a fourth like her.” The fourth becomes Petrona. Her joining the family creates a female nucleus, the father working for an American oil company and often gone on business. Though men remain at a distance in the novel, they retain their influence over women and country: Most conversations Chula and the family have with their father are on the phone, as the girls eagerly await his return. Mamá decorates her room with posters of presidential hopeful Luis Carlos Galán, lauding him as the savior of Colombia. Escobar dances on the tongues of news anchors and on the typewriters of journalists. Even Petrona’s boyfriend who joins the encapotados—gangs loosely affiliated to Escobar associates and paramilitary cells—walks in and out of shadows at night both in the invasiones and when in Bogotá. Men seem unreachable, mythological, yet always desired. Men also orchestrate violence, unpredictable and bloody, from a distance. So it is this “kingdom of women” that must rise above, in spite of men, in order to survive. What grounds Fruit is how it destroys these myths the closer we get to the violence. As Chula goes from obsessing over the gory images she sees on TV to hearing of gory images near her home to suffering through gory images themselves, both reader and character find the gory reality of violence kills and hurts. After watching a news clip about a recent car-bomb explosion near their neighborhood, Chula never rids herself of the image of a girl’s dismembered leg with a “blackened red shoe and a smoky white sock.” She recognizes the street and makes a connection, violence no longer a figment of her imagination. In response, she and her sister decide to prepare backpacks in case of a bombing. They play with their Barbie collection, tearing off their limbs for storylines. Petrona, who rarely speaks more than a sentence, joins this play and connects with Chula through the re-enacted violence (not long before, her little brother Ramón had been shot dead at a park near her home in the invasiones). But it’s not until violence reaches her home that it becomes real to Chula. Until then, she participates in myth-making, even after she, her sister, and her mother witness Galán’s assassination at a political rally. She enjoys the attention she receives when she retells escalating versions of her experience: “The news didn’t say this—but Pablo Escobar was there, in flesh and blood. I saw his face lit up by the fire of his own machine gun.” There’s something alluring in adding to Escobar’s myth. When a car bomb explodes outside their home one morning, however, and glass rains down on her from the shattered bedroom window as she sleeps, Chula begins to understand how much she doesn’t understand. Rojas Contreras shines most when she uses Chula’s naïve child perspective, emulating Colombia’s own conflicting obsession over and disgust with Escobar. The images Chula sees on television, in person, and then experiences conflate into a strange amalgamation of reality and myth. As readers, our hearts break as we witness her come of age and as the Santiagos suffer through an onslaught of violence that comes after the car bomb. Even when Rojas Contreras explores religious myths, a topic often untouched yet of great importance in Latin American culture, she places the reader at a discrete aesthetic distance through Chula’s eyes. In one scene, Chula watches from a church pew as Petrona takes her First Communion and listens to the priest: “the Father opened his arms and asked for all the kids to be possessed by spirits: some nice, like the Spirit of Wisdom and Intelligence, but some dubious, like the Spirit of Holy Fear.” The reader experiences life with Chula at a discrete aesthetic distance, as characters commune within religious and socio-political myths. Through Chula and Petrona, Rojas Contreras delivers a story told with honesty and empathy for her characters. As such, Fruit reads like a third novel, not a debut—confident in its delivery, earnest in its subject matter. It also bolsters a female, Latin American voice that must be heard loud and clear. Rojas Contreras joins an emerging set of Colombian writers whose work reaches across geographic borders and looks back on the late 20th century with a critical eye. Similar to the Spanish “postmemory” movement that rummaged through the effects of the Spanish Civil War on families—helmed by Javier Cercas’s Soldados de Salamina and Dulce Chacón’s La voz dormida, among others—Rojas Contreras, Juan Gabriel Vásquez (El ruido de las cosas al caer), and Laura Restrepo (El leopardo al sol) rummage through their own memories of narco-terrorism and its effect on Colombian families. It’s difficult to speak of Colombian literature without mentioning Gabriel García Márquez’s magical realism, or women writers in general without the likes of Chilean-born Isabel Allende and later Cuban-born Cristina García in Dreaming in Cuban. These authors write about myth to explore family and politics, and they pay special attention to the role of mothers and women in society. But it’s worth returning to Julia Álvarez’s experimental novel How the García Girls Lost their Accent, which retells how a family flees from Trujillo’s dictatorship in the Dominican Republic to the States, in order to arrive at Fruit and grasp how Latin American and LatinX people have developed beyond magical realism and explaining myth. Rojas Contreras carries the torch forward by deconstructing the myths that have tethered the cultural fabric of Latin America through an investigative realism.
In the middle of his fifth collection of comedic short stories, Hits and Misses, Simon Rich writes a story from the perspective of a court jester named Havershire. “I’ve developed what the French might call une reputation,” the clowns says as introduction. Havershire, we learn, believes he’s disliked because his “barbs have bruised the breast of many nobles.” In fact, it’s easy to see—he’s hated because he’s unfunny. “But thus is the jester’s lot!” Havershire concludes. The jester’s lot: fame, celebrity, delusions of grandeur. Rich has always written comedy as tangential autobiography. “When I was 25, 26, the only thing on my brain was dating, and that’s why I wrote all those love stories which became The Last Girlfriend on Earth. And then for a year or two I was obsessed with class and privilege and turning 30, and Spoiled Brats is the result of that,” he said in an interview with Longreads. And now, Simon Rich is kind of famous. Rich is multi-hyphen-able: show creator (Man Seeking Woman and the upcoming anthology series Miracle Workers on TBS), screenwriter (work on Inside Out and on the upcoming Willy Wonka), and novelist (What in God’s Name, Elliot Allagash). He was part of a “dream team” as the youngest writer in Saturday Night Live’s history. He started this career at 17, when he left his role as editor of the Harvard Lampoon with a two-book deal from Random House. But even more uniquely, Rich is one of the few people in America we call, unironically, a “humorist.” The publicity materials for this new collection dredge up reviews comparing him to James Thurber, P.G. Wodehouse, and Douglas Adams—the youngest of whom was born in 1951 and all of whom are dead. Rich is 34. He writes funny, short, inventive, breathtakingly precise pieces. He regularly publishes them in The New Yorker, where a few pieces in this collection have come out already. But so do a lot of people. We are being hit by a comedy avalanche. The New Yorker uploads at least one piece of humor a day—same for McSweeney’s. Plus, there are everyone’s tweets. Most of it isn’t good (count me as an offender). Or it’s part of a daily churn. A lot of it’s too on-the-nose, or comedy as jeremiad, or not personal, or so personal it feels fake. The joke is often in the title of the piece. Right now, you can go binge the YouTube videos, the podcasts, the GIFs, the stand-up specials on Netflix. Somehow late-night TV now is both losing ground because it’s not fast enough to be funny and gaining importance—a recap each morning in the New York Times—because a vacuum has been left by politicians for believable moral platitudes. Everyone’s a comedian and comedians are now also comparing themselves to preachers. All of this could be mocked. But we know that story. Instead, it serves as backdrop in Hits and Misses. Rich, despite being a wunderkind, chooses to focus on the good-hearted losers. His characters include: a novelist whose baby is already outwriting him in the womb, Paul Revere’s horse that never got credit, a former rocker trying not to “relapse” into making art, and sundry Hollywood never-beens bumbling through the mid-30s question of how to quit (or what it means that they did quit). In his world, Thomas Edison is ignored after inventing the kinetograph and Adolf Hitler gets the GQ profile treatment. The point: Fame is ridiculous. Especially his own, however minor it might be. When Rich does write about a Hollywood “winner,” it’s usually the character “Simon Rich”—self-caricature as the laziest, most narcissistic and petty man in the world. “There’s nobody worse than me,” Rich said discussing a previous book, Spoiled Brats. That collection featured the astoundingly funny novella “Sell Out”—in which a Rich ancestor appears in modern-day Brooklyn via long-term preservation in a vat of pickles and reveals all the faults of the modern-day Rich. A higher judge looks down on him in Hits and Misses. In the piece “The Book of Simon,” God has given a faithless comedy writer in Brooklyn named Simon Rich everything and so the Devil starts making fun of our Lord. Satan’s bouncing on God’s cloud, saying, “’Sup now?”; Satan’s showing God Bill Maher clips; Beelzebub takes special delight in reading to Yahweh the writings of Rich—ever the nonbeliever, despite God blessing and blessing Rich in a reverse-Job gambit. By the end, Simon Rich, the character, is so detestable that God and the Devil form a union. Now, this is how you do self-hatred! Yet it never feels indulgent. When writers write about their writing process—or artists talk about their art—it can veer into the self-serious, boring, or pretentious. Rich makes it funny. The pitch-perfect mimicking of Old Testament verbiage certainly helps: “Now, there was a wicked Hebrew in the land of Brooklyn named Simon Rich.” (I repeat this phrase to myself all the time. I find it so amusing.) “I was definitely reading the Torah through a comedic mindset, especially through The Simpsons and Looney Tunes,” Rich once said of his bar mitzvah process. “When you read the Torah—especially when you’re 12—it definitely leaves you with a sense of fear. I think in almost all my writing, I’m telling the same story over and over again. I do see it as a Jewish story: We’re small, God is big.” Big and small. It is what comedy is made of. Kurt Vonnegut once paraphrased Aristotle and wrote, “If you want to be comical, write about people to whom the audience can feel superior; if you want to be tragical, write about at least one person to whom the audience is bound to feel inferior.” Not to step on Aristotle or Vonnegut, but I often find Rich’s characters both tragic and comic. His “creatives” in Hits and Misses are failures of all stripes—personal, professional, spiritual. We feel pity for them. And yet they’re so confident, or thrown into situations so bizarre, they end up silly. Isn’t that life? Feeling big and small at once? Whatever Rich picked up working at Pixar shows through. The stories end in cliche. Not flimsy or ridiculous cliche—lovely, age-old themes spelled out clearly. What if we cared for one another? What if stopped being so selfish? What if our actions reflected our morality? Rich’s stories aren’t mean. At times, they have genuinely moved me: particularly a longer piece titled “Hands” in the new collection, about a monk who wishes to be famous by torturing himself the hardest for God. This is surprising—because comedy is better at destroying than creating. Imagine a house blocking your view of a vista. Comedy is the bulldozer that can tear down that old structure to let us see the truth of the horizon. But rarely can it be the thing that builds a new house. That’s not a bad thing, necessarily. There’s a ton of bullshit in the world to take down. Yet at times, in the ruins, we don’t feel glad for the destruction of the old order—we miss structure. Rich’s insistence on hope, love, and that people (other than himself) are basically good is refreshing. People are not evil; they’re oafs, idiots, self-serving. But they can learn. Havershire, that dolt of a jester, does. “It occurred to me I had lived my whole life as a man stuck in a maze, sprinting headlong down some futile trail,” he discovers near the end of the story. “And now, for the first time ever, I was standing on a hall, watching myself from above, and all my years of struggle seemed so foolish, so absurd, that I couldn’t help but laugh.”
Dear Reader, envision that Village which grew upon the southern strand of that isle of Manhattoes: a Lenape settlement purchased for 60 guilders and named for Amsterdam, later to be acquired by gunships of King James, and her wooden-legged governor relieved of duty; a frontier town in that Era of Enlightenment, though a hearty fragment of some 7,000 souls clinging to that huge, dark, and mysterious continent; and which, upon the fresh-green breast of the New World a mighty metropolis to rival Babel or Byzantium would grow. Here, in the dusk-laden twilight of empire, let us contemplate our origins as we live out our endings, and ask which original sins have cursed our posterity? As this land was a fantasy of 18th-century people, dreaming in the baroque vernacular of that sinful and glorious age, an era which saw the twinned gifts of mercantile prosperity and the evils of human bondage, it befits us to speak in the serpentine tongue of the era, mimicking the meandering sentences and the commas and semicolons heaped together as high as oranges or coffee beans from the Indies sold in a Greenwich Village shop in 1746: something that the essayist Francis Spufford accomplishes in his brilliant account Golden Hill: A Novel of Old New York (which, if not available yet in quarto form, is now for purchase in the equally convenient “paper back”). Reminiscent of novels like Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 (with its fake Jacobean play), Charles Johnson’s postmodern picaresque Middle Passage, or Eleanor Catton’s Victorian Gothicism in The Luminaries, Spufford returns us to when “New-York” (as it was then spelled) was a middling colony on the largest harbor in the world. Still smaller than Philadelphia and not yet as culturally significant as Boston, New-York was poised by virtue of geography and diversity to ultimately become America’s greatest city. Spufford’s main character describes his native London as “a world of worlds. Many spheres all mashed together, to baffle the astronomers. A fresh plant to discover, at every corner. Smelly and dirty and dangerous and prodigious,” an apt description of New-York’s future. As of 1746, the city was only a hundredth the size of London, and “Broad Way” was a “species of cobbled avenue, only middling broad,” but where even her modest stature indicated the Great White Way which was to come, populated as it was with “Wagon-drivers, hawkers with handcarts and quick-paced pedestrians…passing in both directions.” Burnt and rebuilt, paved and repaved, built tall and torn down, there is (unlike in Philly or Boston) scarcely any evidence left of colonial origins. Golden Hill conjures that world for us, the literary equivalent of visiting Independence or Faneuil Hall. At a reeking Hudson River dock we skid over “fish-guts and turnip leaves and cats’ entrails, and the other effluvium of the port,” and in a counting office we smell “ink, smoke, charcoal and the sweat of men” as in domestic rooms we inhale the odor of “waxed wood, food, rosewater and tea-leaves.” Spufford allows us to glimpse New-York as it was and proffers explanation of how our New York came to be. What results is a novel about novels themselves and about America itself as the greatest example of that form. [millions_ad] Golden Hill follows the perambulations of Richard Smith, a mysterious Englishman arriving with a bill of order for £1,000 from a venerable London firm, to be fulfilled by a New-York creditor. Smith’s arrival throws the town into consternation, for what the stranger hopes to accomplish with such a large sum remains inscrutable. Denizens of the town include Greg Lovell and his daughters, namely the acerbic ingenue Tabitha, the delightfully named assistant to the governor, Septimus Oakeshott, and a whole multitude of Hogarthian characters. Spufford has digested the canon of 18th-century novels, when the form itself was defined, and in the winding, playful, self-aware sentences of Golden Hill one reads an aperitif of Sarah Fielding’s The Governess, an appetizer of Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders, a soup of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, a supper of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela or Clarissa, a dram of John Cleland’s Fanny Hill, and of course a rich desert of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. Spufford’s bildungsroman is a celebration of those door-stoppers, and he liberally borrows their conventions, imitating their social sweep and tendency to knowingly meditate on fiction’s paradoxes. Conventions are explored: not just the marriage plot subversions of Richard and Tabitha’s courtship, but depictions of an elegant dance, the performance of Joseph Addison’s omnipresent pre-Revolutionary play Cato, a smoky game of piquet, a snowy duel, an absurd trial, and a squalid prison sentence (as well as a sex scene out of Cleland), all constructed around the rake’s progress (and regress). Tabitha contends that novels are “Slush for small minds, sir. Pabulum for the easily pleased,” but Golden Hill proves that in their finely attuned imitation of consciousness and construction of worlds both interior and exterior, novels remain the greatest mechanisms for empathy which language has ever produced. True to the form’s name itself, novels are about self-invention, and as such Richard Smith is a representative example of the bootstrapping characters of his century, the protagonist (and his creator) intuiting that there is significance in the first page’s freshness, where “There’s the lovely power of being a stranger.” A particularly American quality of the very form of the novel itself. Smith explains that “I may as well have been born again when I stepped ashore. You’re a new man before you, new-made. I’ve no history here, and no character: and what I am is all in what I will be.” The religious connotation is not accidental, for in that most Protestant of literary forms, the novel always accounts for a conversion of sorts, for what else is self-invention? In the 18th-century Letters from an American Farmer, the French settler J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur posited that the American was a “new man,” and as the novel constructs identities, so, too, could the tabula rasa of the western continents, for Spufford’s protagonist was a “young man with money in his pocket, new-fallen to land in a strange city on the world’s farther face, new-come or (As he himself had declared new-born, in the metropolis of Thule).” Because of both chronology and spirit, America is the most novelistic of countries. Novels are engines of contradiction, and nothing is more contradictory than America as Empire of Liberty. Anyone walking a Manhattan street adorned in both unspeakable luxury and poverty can sense those contradictions. America is just slightly younger than the novel, for despite notable precedents (such as Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote), the form was an 18th-century phenomenon; as a result, we’ve never been as attracted to the epic poem, preferring to find our fullest encapsulation in the ever-elusive “Great American Novel.” Long-form, fictional prose—with its negative capability, its contradictions, and its multivocal nature—was particularly attuned to that strange combination of mercantilism, crackpot religiosity, and self-invention which has always marked the nation. If Golden Hill were but a playful homage, it would be worthwhile enough, but the brilliance of Spufford’s narrative is that he makes explicit what was so often implicit in those books. Literary critic Edward Said brilliantly read Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park for sublimated evidence of English colonial injustice, but in our era, Spufford is freer than Austen to diagnose the inequities, cruelties, and terrors which defined that era and which dictate our present lives as well. From Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko through Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno and into the modernist masterpieces of Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and Toni Morrison, race has always been integral to the novelistic imagination, and America’s original sin has oft been identified as corollary to myths of self-invention, indeed that which hypocritically made such self-invention for a select few possible. From his Broadway hotel, Smith hears someone “sweeping the last leaves, and singing slow in an African tongues as if their heart had long ago broken, and they were now rattling the pieces together desultorily in a bag.” When Spufford describes New-York in the midst of a nor’easter as being “perched on the white edge of a white shore: the white tip of a continent layered in, choked with, smoothed over by, a vast and complete whiteness,” he provides an apt metaphor for the fantasies of racial purity which have motivated those in power, and of the ways in which white supremacy smothers the land. Far from being only a Southern “peculiar institution,” the bondage of human beings is what allowed Northern cities like New-York to grow fat, where for creditors like Mr. Lovell it was “every stage, every transaction, yielding sweet, secure profit, and those profits in turn buying a flood of Turkey-carpets, cabinets, tea-pots, Brummagem-ware toys and buttons, et cetera, et cetera.” That dizzying array of comforts and luxuries purchased with “Slaveries, Plantations, Chains, Whips, Floggings, Burnings…a whole World of Terrors.” Not content to let the central horror of slavery elude to the background, Golden Hill demonstrates how the wealth of colonial New-York was based on an economic logic which admitted that though the “slaves died in prodigious number…there were always number still more prodigious from Africa to replace them in the great machine, and so the owners kept on buying, and eagerly.” Golden Hill is as much about today as then, for despite its playfulness, its readability, its love of what makes old novels beautiful, it’s fundamentally an account of American darkness—from the Guy Fawkes Day bonfire, which might as well be the Charlottesville rallies of last summer, to the capturing of our current fevered paranoia by invoking the so-called “Negro Plot,” when some five years before the setting of Golden Hill, over a hundred enslaved Africans were hung, immolated, or broken on the wheel in southern Manhattan, having been implicated in a nonexistent conspiracy to burn down the city. Leave it to an Englishman to write our moment’s Great American Novel, who with sober eye provides a diagnosis of American ills and, true to the didactic purpose of authors like Richardson and Defoe, provides a moralizing palliative to the body politic. Spufford’s novel concerns invention and passing, wealth and poverty, appearances and illusions, the building of fortunes and the pining for that which is unavailable—not least of which for what some liar once called the “American Dream.” In one of those moments of unreliability which mark the novelist’s art, Spufford writes that the “operations of grace are beyond the recording powers of the novelist. Mrs. Fielding cannot describe them; nor Mr. Fielding, nor Mrs. Lennox, nor Mr. Richardson, nor Mr. Smollett, nor even Mr. Sterne, who can stretch his story further than most.” But we’re not to take such an argument at face value, for despite Tabitha’s protestations, novels have always been conduits of moral feeling. Golden Hill proves it. The only different between Spufford’s diagnosis and those which focus only on the degradations of the individual is that the rake whose fallenness is condemned in Golden Hill is America itself.