TagAndrew Kaufman

A weekend of novellas (contents may not be as advertised)

After my run of reading novellas last month, I decided to do the same again. Except some of these definitely aren’t noevllas, and I didn’t read them all at the weekend. Anyway…

KaufmanAndrew Kaufman, All My Friends Are Superheroes (2003)

This was Kaufman’s first book, and the delightful imagination that he put to such great effect in books like Born Weird is on display here, too. It’s the story of Tom, an ordinary guy who married a superhero, the Perfectionist. But trouble soon came calling: on the couple’s wedding day, Hypno, the Perfectionist’s ex, hypnotised her into thinking that Tom was invisible; now she’s flying to Vancouver to begin a new life, and Tom needs to find a way to make her see him. Kaufman’s novella is peppered with vignettes of superheroes whose powers are often based on personality traits (such as the Frog-Kisser, who can ‘transform geeks into winners’ but then loses her attraction to them; or Mr Opportunity, who knocks on doors but is rarely answered). The rest of the book has the same charming mixture of the quirkily fantastical and a heart of everyday (but is it really?) emotion.

George Szirtes, Uncle Zoltán: fragments (2014)

This pamphlet from the Belgium-based publisher MIEL is a collection of bon mots from the titular Uncle Zoltán; these are by turns whimsical, fantastical, and absurd. For example:

We had a tiled stove with wings. Occasionally it would squwak and hover a foot or so off the ground, said Uncle Zoltán.

Always pack three umbrellas, one for heavy rain, one for light rain, and one for no rain, said Uncle Zoltán. A dry umbrella is consoling.

So many of these delightful snippets send the imagination off into a sideways world where all the strangeness makes sense; one also starts to imagine what kind of character Uncle Zoltán might be, built up indirectly from the fragments of reported speech. I’m not sure there’s much more I can say, because Uncle Zoltán is very much a book that lives in the reading.

Levy

Deborah Levy, An Amorous Discourse in the Suburbs of Hell (1990)

Newly reissued by And Other Stories as an attractive little hardback, this is a poem: a dialogue between an angel and an accountant, which evokes the push and pull of the mundane and the transcendent, the heat of desire and a quieter contentment. Rather like Uncle Zoltán, Levy’s book encourages you to focus in on the language (and even, in this case, the arrangement of words on the page). AS much as I enjoyed it, though, I find it difficult to separate out a quote from An Amorous Discourse. Here’s a video (hosted by the Irish Times) of Levy reading from it instead

WhiteleyAliya Whiteley, The Beauty (2014)

Aliya Whiteley can usually be relied upon for engaging stories with a dark twist, and The Beauty (published by Unsung Stories) is no exception. It focuses on a group of men living in a time when the female population has died out (the cause is unspecified) and the details of geography and history have become hazy; the Group relies on its storyteller Nate to retain the memory of what matters. One day, strange fungus begins to appear on the graves of the Group’s women, growing into silent, faceless female figures dubbed ‘the Beauty.’ What follows is a story that leaves the reader’s thoughts and sympathies in flux – on the one hand, there’s the moral issue of how the men treat the Beauty; on the other is the question of whether the Beauty themselves are benign. The vagueness of time and place, and the starkness of the Group’s world, only add to that sense of uncertainty.

Johnson

Denis Johnson, Train Dreams (2002)

I got a very enthusiastic reaction on Twitter when I mentioned that I had this lined up to read; though I perhaps wouldn’t quite go that far myself, it’s certainly very good. Train Dreams moves back and forth through the life of Robert Grainier, a labourer born in 1889 who would go on to witness enormous change in the twentieth century. Johnson evokes the raw nature of life and landscape in Grainier’s American West; and includes memorable glimpses of others’ personal tragedies, such as that of Kootenai Bob, the old Native American who got drunk for the first (and last) time, then went to lie down on the rail track. The fragmented structure of Train Dreams serves to underline the essential; nature of Grainier’s life: unstable but enduring, haunted by the past but always with a future around the corner, for good or ill.

BarkerA,L. Barker, Lost Journey (1992)

This is one of four ghost stories which have been published in new individual editions by Galley Beggar Press. I have to admit that I’d never heard of A.L. Barker prior to reading Lost Journey, but this story was such fun that I’ll have to seek out more of her work. Barker’s narrator spots two striking figures in the street: an old woman with no legs, who travels around in an orange box on wheels; and her beautiful companion, who pushes her. Led by his libido, the narrator falls in with them; the old woman, Gerda Charles, turns out to be four hundred years old, and searching for a way to die. There’s a wry glee to this story; much of its energy comes from watching the narrator being strung along by forces outside his control, and seeing just where he’ll end up.

 

Finding a way out: Andrew Kaufman and Viola Di Grado

Andrew Kaufman, Born Weird (2013)
Viola Di Grado, 70% Acrylic 30% Wool (2011/2)

I enjoy fantastic literature in all its forms, but to my mind there’s a unique elegance to works that bring the lightest touch of fantasy to the mundane, and do it well. It takes a fine hand to make that slight supernatural element feel essential but not inadequate. Andrew Kaufman has that sort of hand, and his new novel Born Weird might be his most fully achieved work yet.

When the Weird siblings were born, their grandmother Annie gave each a blessing: Richard would keep safe; Abba would have hope; Lucy wouldn’t get lost; Kent would win a fight; and Angie would always forgive. As is so often the way, though, these ‘blessings’ turned out to troublesome. Now, Annie Weird knows that she is about to die, and instructs Angie to bring her brothers and sisters together in the hospital at Annie’s moment of death, when she will undo her work.

Born Weird then becomes a novel about being trapped in your family’s shadow, which manifests in a very tangible way for the Weirds. Angie is angry with her grandmother in the hospital at first, but forgives her as soon as she’s down the corridor – not because she wants to, but because she can’t help it. Likewise, the other Weird siblings have been constrained in some way as to what they could do or who they could be – by both mundane and supernatural phenomena. The dexterity with which Kaufman moves back and forth across that line is a delight to behold.

The author also deploys humour and eccentricity with great effect. When Angie unites with her sister Lucy, she is struck by the latter’s bizarre haircut. We soon find out where it comes from: Nicola, the Weirds’ mother, has dementia, and believes herself to run a hair salon in her care home; her children may be customers, but she no longer knows them. This is the flipside of the supernatural: an all-too-real fantasy world from which there will be no return.

The Weirds’ lives may have a thread of magic, but their familial frictions (and joys) are very much grounded in reality. Born Weird is alive to the strengths and limitations of both approaches, and balances the two wonderfully.

***

Viola Di Grado’s first novel, 70% Acrylic 30% Wool (translated superbly by Michael Reynolds), also has a protagonist who feels trapped by her family situation, and, though there’s nothing overtly supernatural about it, the book has a hallucinatory quality all its own. Our protagonist is Camelia Mega, a young Italian woman who has lived in Leeds ever since her journalist father brought the family over to England a decade earlier – the same father who subsequently left to live with his mistress and then died in a car accident.

Camelia feels stranded in Leeds, and has the sense that winter just drags on and on:

Leeds winters are terribly self-absorbed; each one wants to be colder than its predecessor and purports to be the last winter ever. It unleashes a lethal wind full of the short sharp vowels of northern Englishmen but even harsher, and anyway, neither one of them speaks to me. (p. 9)

Whether it really is always winter in this version of Leeds is beside the point, because Camelia’s perception is what counts here. That paragraph I’ve quoted shows how fluidly her narration slides between the outside world, her inner world, and ruminations on language itself. Camelia has woven herself a kind of net out of language, and she can’t get out – she keeps comparing things to her father’s accident, as though she can’t bring herself to move on from it.

There is a glimpse of light on the horizon, though, in the shape of Wen, a boy from a local clothes shop who takes it upon himself to teach Camelia Chinese. This is a different kind of language for Camelia, where a word can change its meaning entirely depending on the tone in which it’s spoken. This gives her a sense that she can look at (and be in) the world differently, though Camelia doesn’t necessarily find it easy to let herself do so.

The Chinese system of writing with ideograms is also an ironic companion to the way Camelia communicates with her mother Livia: after her husband’s death, Livia became mute; she and Camelia now communicate via looks – though it’s not clear how much of it is really two-way, and there is the sense throughout that Livia mother is living her own life beyond her daughter’s knowledge, which contributes to Camelia’s sense of lacking control. Di Grado paints an incisive portrait of a character caught between holding on and letting go, unsure which is worse.

Three novellas: Kaufman, Finley, Villalobos

Andrew Kaufman, The Tiny Wife (2010)
Toiya Kristen Finley, The Legend of False Dreaming (2011)
Juan Pablo Villalobos, Down the Rabbit Hole (2010/1) 

If you lost part of yourself, what would you become? What if you didn’t even know what you had to lose? Andrew Kaufman’s novella The Tiny Wife (now given a UK edition – a beautiful little hardback – by The Friday Project) begins with a bank robbery where the thief demands, not money, but that each person in the bank give him a possession of great sentimental value to them. By taking these items, the thief  explains, he is also taking more than half of each person’s soul: ‘This will have strange and bizarre consequences in your lives,’ he warns, ‘learn how to grow them back, or you will die’ (p. 9).

Strange things do indeed happen to the victims of the theft. For example, one woman’s tattoo of a lion comes to life and chases her relentlessly. The bank’s assistant manager just has to imagine being underwater in his office, and it comes to be. Stacey Hinterland (whose husband David is our narrator) begins to shrink with strict quadratic progression; the very mathematics which has been one of Stacey’s touchstones for navigating life may now prove to be her undoing.

The Tiny Wife works as well as it does because there’s a matter-of-fact quality to its telling, which both provides an effective contrast to the fantastical happenings, and grounds them; what might have come across as overly whimsical instead becomes real, and carries the dramatic weight of a problem to be solved. The process of counteracting the effects of the theft is also one of overcoming whatever’s holding the victims back in their lives; we see several characters manage to do so (though others fail), and it’s affectingly done by Kaufman.

***

The characters in The Tiny Wife lost parts of their selves in a single event, but it’s the continual harshness of her life that has taken its toll on Rue, the protagonist of Toiya Kristen Finley’s The Legend of False Dreaming (published by Pendragon Press). In the midst of hitchhiking home, Rue (down to the last of her money, and with no wish to make payment in another way) is abandoned in Bronson, a run-down, worn-out town in the south of New York State where the locals are suspicious of outsiders and a strange fog keeps people from leaving. A boy named Mack is the only person to show any consideration towards Rue; buts he is suspicious of his intentions, and wants nothing more than to find her way home.

If there’s a lightness to the tone of The Tiny Wife (more in the way it’s told rather than what it tells), The Legend of False Dreaming is, in contrast, darker and dense with sensation. Finley conveys the atmosphere of Bronson through constant reference to the town’s sights, smells and tastes; the cumulative effect of these is to underline how hard it is to escape this place, how difficult to ignore where you are. For that’s the kind of place Bronson is: a once-prosperous industrial town that’s now going nowhere and has left its people with nowhere to go. This finds an echo in the life of Rue, who was trapped by the violent relationship she had with her father (still is trapped, in a way, by what that made her as a person), and now hopes to rescue her brother Bobby from their father’s violence.

As in The Tiny Wife, there are supernatural elements in Finley’s novella; and they, too, are treated matter-of-factly. But the effect is different: strangeness intrudes on the world of Kaufman’s book, and he makes it normal; the magic in The Legend of False Dreaming feels as though it’s already part of the book’s world, and is not wondered at because there’s no room left in that world for wonder. The fantastic elements of Finley’s tale represent Rue’s anger and Bronson’s secret shame; they add another layer to a very satisfying read.

***

There’s nothing fantastical in Juan Pablo Villalobos’s Down the Rabbit Hole (now given its first English-language publication as one of the launch titles from And Other Stories), but its protagonist is rather like a Wonderland inhabitant, in that he is trapped by the limitations of his own perspective, and is not even aware that those limitations exist. Young Tochtli is the son of a Mexican drug baron, who lives happily in his father Yolcaut’s palace, with his own private zoo, his tutor Maztazin, and a few other staff. The only people Tochtli knows are those who live in or visit the palace; what he wants most of all at the moment is a Liberian pygmy hippopotamus for hor his menagerie – and what Tochtli wants, he shall have.

Life in Yolcaut’s palace is, of course, all that Tochtli has ever known; this leads him to say things which come across to us as rather chilling, such as: ‘One of the things I’ve learned from Yolcaut is that sometimes people don’t turn into corpses with just one bullet’ (p. 8). But Tochtli’s narration is also bitterly poignant at times, when it shows up just how little he really knows. Take the opening of Down the Rabbit Hole, for instance:

Some people say I’m precocious. They say it mainly because they think I know difficult words for a little boy. Some of the difficult words I know are: sordid, disastrous, immaculate, pathetic and devastating. (p. 3).

Tochtli does indeed know those five words, and uses them repeatedly throughout the book. But, as the pages go by, it becomes less clear whether he really knows what they mean; they start to feel more like empty placeholders that emphasise the boy’s ignorance (I should add that Rosalind Harvey’s translation is excellent, really bringing the protagonist to life through his voice). There’s also an irony in Tochtli’s saying that he thinks he’s ‘precocious…in discovering secrets’ (p. 21), and his repeated assertion that ‘gangs are about not hiding things and about seeing the truth’ (p.47), because it’s quite clear from the events of the plot that Tochtli is wrong on both counts.

It takes some effort to reach Tochtli, because his subjectivity is so strong; there’s also a leap to be made between each of the book’s three chapters (the middle section, where Tochtli, Yolcaut, and Maztazin travel to Liberia under false names in search of a pygmy hippopotamus, is particularly striking; Tochtli never indicates directly who has taken on which name, and I was surprised at how effective this simple technique turned out to be at disorienting the reader). Yet it’s precisely this which makes Down the Rabbit Hole so rewarding; the book bodes well for both its author’s career, and its UK publisher’s future titles.

***

Reviews elsewhere
Of The Tiny Wife: Read Between the Lines; The Book Whisperer; Gaskella.
Of Down the Rabbit Hole: Winstonsdad; Nicholas Lezard for The Guardian; Lucy Popescu for The Independent.

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