Saturday, July 29, 2006

Forgetfulness by Michael Mejia

When I was gathering my big stack of contemporary fiction titles to read this summer, this was one of the ones I held up to my husband and said, "Oh, for heaven's sake, get a load of this." I thought it was one of those books, that makes you work so hard to "get it", and gives you half a sneer in return, and I won't put a finger on what I'm talking about or give an example, but you KNOW you have read them, I think I've even written some short stories like this, and so I know what I'm rolling my eyes about.

Here's a description from the back jacket:

The first part of Forgetfulness is a fictional monograph on the life of the Austrian modernist composer Anton von Webern (1883-1945).The collage-work monograph unfolds in a Webernian sequence of events and silences combining quotes from Webern, his friends and associates, and various historical and literary figures with short scenes, monologues, dialogues, newspaper articles, and theater and film scripts. The result is a lyrical panorama of early twentieth century Vienna.

The second part of the book takes place in Vienna on May 1st, 1986, shortly before the election of Kurt Waldheim as President of the Austrian Republic and shortly after the Chernobyl disaster. The three simultaneous, intertwining monologues of an archivist, a retired opera singer, and the author of the monograph, revisit the themes and events of the first part, commenting on postwar conceptions, analyses, and revisions of the period during which Webern lived, while continuously haunted by the specters of Waldheim and Chernobyl, the persistence of crimes that are immanent, unpaid for, or only dimly, disingenuously recalled.
There was more. Also, flipping through it, I saw that part of it was divided into three sections on the page, between "Soloist" and "Composer" and "Archivist" and I anticipated a fractured narrative, with time jumping around, and thought it would be a pain in my ass. I MUST BE GETTING OLD. I ADMIT. I WAS CRABBY ABOUT IT! I wasn't really jumping up and down, anxious to crack into it.


I read this book while I was coming down with the flu, and as sick as I was, and as miserable as I was, and as much as I just wanted to close my eyes and think of clean snow, I COULDN'T PUT IT DOWN. I have never had a reaction like that to a book this experimental. I've thought they were funny before, brilliant before, even engaging, but I have never read a book without traditional characters or plot with such avid determination from cover to cover.

This book is gorgeous. I can't explain it properly, but... it's incredible. That three section part that I was so belligerent about reading was genius. Instead of feeling distracted and irritated, it was actually fun to kind of read around on the page, then turn it, then read around on the next page... the formal experimentation totally worked. And all the mixing of different texts and characters and times and places really WORKED. It formed a picture, at the end of the book, that could have been rendered in no other way. And that's the point of experimental fiction, right, to do something in a new way that couldn't be done in the old way.

It was beautiful, beautiful, ever word on purpose, every image worth looking at, every page a study. This book offers the reader a massive pay-off for the diligence involved in reading an experimental form. The thing is... the challenge in this book is not even like work. Go buy it, read it, see how it's done.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Girl Beside Him by Cris Mazza

I'm three chapters into this and have a few things to say as I trot along:

1. The book is so much easier to read than the others I've read in this summer challenge that it's like eating yogurt after eating mueslix.

2. I think I've figured out Mazza's strength. I've read a few of her other books, most recently Indigenous which was about growing up as a Southern California native. That book is REALLY interesting, for the same reason I think I'm interested in this one: Mazza takes you into an unfamiliar world -- like the interior of an orchestra, or life in marching band, or working in a hospital, or in this case a ranching town in Wyoming. Instead of filling you in, in some patronizing irritating way, on the way things are, she just lets the way things are penetrate the text. So, you have this feeling of keeping up with the book, and figuring things out as you go. Like playing a game without a manual, and you know you'll just figure it out. the novel is very confidently, firmly written, so you don't have to think, well what's this lingo? What's going on? You just get immersed. It makes her books very memorable too, because you feel like you learned something -- that sounds so dumb -- but you feel like you learned something via experience, not via information.

3. All three of the novels I've read have to some degree been about filing in the lines of a mystery that's in the past. In this case it's something with the main character's sister and mother. It makes me very aware of the line being tread between giving the reader a mystery to unravel, and playing "What have I got behind my back" with the reader, rationing out clues and past scenes in just the right doses. This novel is coming from a lot of different directions -- it can kind of make you feel like skipping forward through the past sections. I suppose that's what it's like with any book where the past is a mystery.


Reading a book by Cris Mazza is like being set down into someone else's life. This is what novels can do for you that non-fiction books can never do. It's what novels should always do, of course, but Mazza does it so expertly that picking up another of her books is like preparing to go on a trip. There's that same anticipation. Whether it's the world of dog shows, or inside a rehab hospital, or playing in a symphony, or in this case doing wildlife research in the badlands, the immersion is immediate, complete, and seamless. Instead of holding your hand and patronizingly explaining the details, Mazza just slides you in next to one of the characters, and the life you're living unfolds with the natural progression of the plot. Would I ever have known all the details of playing in a marching band, without reading Cris Mazza? Would I have ever thought it could be that interesting?

Another experience this book affords is the ability to like and understand someone that in your usual life you would either ignore or reject. Mazza's main character in _Girl Beside Him_ is rough, irritable, and unpredictable. He's violent and sometimes mean. By all indications, he should be the most unlikeable main character in the history of novels. Not only do you not like the guy, but reading along, you have no doubt that if he met *you* he would definitely *not* like you either. However, by the end of the novel, I was really cheering for this guy, really wanting him to have something resembling a normal, healthy interaction with another human being. I'm not sure, in the end, if I got that, and I'm not entirely sure I understood the ending. However, putting the book down, I felt like I'd been somewhere and had seen something that I never would have looked at before.