Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Another Dimension
  Book Reviews by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro
February 2019

Title: Mouthful of Birds
Author: Samanta Schweblin
Translator: Megan McDowell
Publisher: Riverhead Books

The titular story of Samanta Schweblin's superb collection, which appeared in the Argentine author's native Spanish tongue a little over a decade ago, and which now sees its first publication in English, courtesy of a fine translation by Megan McDowell, contains the following question: "Do you like exotic species, or do you prefer more household ones?"

One might be tempted to think of it as a comical yet throwaway moment in a memorably crafted tale of familial estrangement and the intrusion of the bloody macabre into the everyday, and yet we can repurpose the question to talk about Schweblin's own work. Based on the sampling of the twenty pieces here on display, we might be tempted to conclude that Schweblin's literary predilections are for the exotic rather than the household, but I think she manages a more interesting feat than such a placement would suggest: a stupendously artful engagement with the household-as-exotic, the absurd-as-real. Time and again throughout these pieces, situations which appear to arise in defiance of ordinary logic are supported by an extreme plausibility of psychological reactions and conveyed in a stripped-down, utilitarian prose that in its cadences and almost pathological candidness borders on the child-like. Like that old riddle about footsteps, the more of Schweblin's words you read, the more you leave behind. The more you tune in to her voice, the quieter she gets, leaving the oddities of her characters center stage. In a later story, "A Great Effort," a character muses that "maybe that's what adolescence was all about: the invention of a couple of unforgivable events that help you leave home"--he should probably have a conversation with Sara from "Mouthful of Birds."

Besides the eponymous story, "Irman" is one of my favorites. A seemingly ordinary couple pull over at an empty-looking truck stop because the narrator is thirsty. As soon as the exceedingly short waiter appears, something feels off. At first Oliver and the narrator poke gentle fun at the server's apparent ineptitude and slowness, but when they uncover how dire and classically pathetic the situation is, their divergent reactions make for a riveting and heart-breaking study in trigger points vis-à-vis compassion. The story leaves a lasting bad taste in one's mouth, and Schweblin's genius is in making it impossible to determine exactly how or when it arises.

"Toward Happy Civilization" likewise provides ample fuel for Kafkaesque nightmares: a man named Gruner at a train station has lost his ticket and lacks precise change to purchase a second one, on which grounds the station agent refuses to sell him another and signals the train not to stop. The difficulties mount and Gruner is soon unable to leave the station altogether, entering instead into a cult-like arrangement with the station agent's family and others who have likewise become trapped there over the years. One of Gruner's reflections seems central to many of these stories' conceits: "He has the notion that the dogs of the world are the result of men who have failed in their attempted journeys."

Time and again we see variations on this motif of interrupted quests and truncated metaphysical metamorphoses: the school-children who may or may not manifest as butterflies in "Butterflies;" the birds being consumed by Sara in the title story; the grudge-holding hounds of "The Test;" even the hole that may represent part of a character's psyche in "The Digger." Guner's situation itself recalls that of women left behind at a station in the collection's opening story, "Headlights;" his fate is a fascinating one, the story's final lines containing a mortifying, implacable sense of desolation.

Two other standouts are "The Size of Things," in which Enrique Duvel, a man desperately avoiding his mother, seeks refuge in a toy store and, as a newly-minted employee, proceeds to reorganize its entire contents by color; and "On the Steppe," whose trance-like power derives largely from not knowing at all what entities the protagonists and their neighbors, denizens of a remote community, are obsessing about, yet feeling as they do the urgency of contact with such creatures.

For five runners-up I wouldn't hesitate to recommend "Headlights," which I've already mentioned, "Preservers," a bitterly dark assessment of how far we might be willing to go in order to force the world to conform to our sense of appropriate timing, "Santa Claus Sleeps at Our House," whose age-skewedness of perspective generates real pathos, the also-aforementioned "The Test," and finally "The Merman," whose deceptively simple encounter with the tale's protagonist offers the possibility of far greater depths than at first meet the eye.

Dislocation through dysfunction; fatalism via fabulism; magic realism in which the magic has expired and gone sour; casual grotesqueries alongside irreverent mordancies; dispatches from disturbia that toggle from the disconsolately errant to the melancholic motionless. Adolfo Bioy Casares reimagined by Depeche Mode, or perhaps Joyce Carol Oates tangoing with The Cure: Samanta Schweblin's cagey, often bruising, stories force us to revisit that profoundly disconcerting quandary raised so many years ago by Jorge Luis Borges: "Nobody knows whether the world is realistic or fantastic."

Title: The Dreamers
Author: Karen Thompson Walker
Publisher: Random House

The premise of Karen Thompson Walker's newest novel is devastatingly simple: What if a new airborne "sleeping sickness" arose that cast the afflicted into permanent slumber? And what if the brain continued to function during that permanent dormancy, casting its patients into a ceaseless dreamworld? Sooner or later we all need sleep, so in a situation like this no amount of awareness or precautions would prevent us from having to confront the possibility that relinquishing consciousness each time we started to doze off might be a terminal act.

Walker exploits the dramatic possibilities of her premise through a wonderfully-wrought series of interweaving character situations. Equally aware of and informed by actual Ebola case studies, like Richard Preston's The Hot Zone, and literary probes into the psychology of loss through epidemic apocalypse, as in José Saramago's Blindness (which Walker's novel epigraphically acknowledges), The Dreamers blends an almost journalistic floating omniscient point-of-view with a poetically rendered series of highly subjective observations. The shy student Mei, whose roommate Kara is the first observed victim of the epidemic, must overcome anxieties and stigma in order to survive; the young teenage sisters Sara and Libby must decide whether the predictions of their doomsday-preppy father ("sooner or later, something big is going to change. Things can't go on as they've been") have at last come to pass; Dr. Catherine Cohen must do her best to investigate the first patients' symptoms while missing her own child; new parents Ben and Annie must decide what the best course of action is to try and protect their infant daughter; and so on. "Resurrection, like politics, makes strange bedfellows," wrote Philip José Farmer; this is true of contagion as well, which brings out the worst in human beings but also taps into unsuspected reservoirs of character.

From the very start of her novel, Walker manages the tricky task of dually building momentum by focusing on the epidemiological logistics of her fictional disease and by getting us hooked on the rich inner lives of her various viewpoint characters, who are already contending with serious problems before the new pandemic erupts. Falling prey to the sleeping sickness is compared to being "drowned in a dream." Expectations, we learn, are often upended. When Mei's fellow students, for instance, are confronted by the loss of their friend, they don't panic or become accusatory; rather, "a new generosity flows between them. How small their other concerns begin to seem, how meaningless, compared." Despite having a background in physics, Annie's optimism is accompanied by the realization that "You can't always distinguish between reason and hope." Many of Walker's best descriptions revolve around sleep and dreams, as in for example Ben's reflections about his and his wife's lives since having a baby:

"For seventeen days, they've been sleeping different sleep: short and sudden, and like sipping salt water for thirst--they wake more in need than before they closed their eyes. Every hour is needed, every moment put to use. It is exactly what he has always feared would happen with a baby. But what he didn't understand before, what he failed to imagine in advance, is how much pleasure there is in being so consumed."

Eventually, the twin strands of science-oriented chronicle and sensitive exploration of intimacy intertwine explicitly in the storyline involving Rebecca. Some readers may feel that during these last few chapters the emphasis is misplaced, and that the plot therefore sputters out rather than resolving with a true sense of conviction. While the narrative does an admirable job of integrating elements of moral philosophy, biology and neuroscience, its allusions to multiverse theory seem more contrived. Still, there's something fascinating about the non-linearity and circularity of dreaming which Walker's last-act storytelling choices conjure up, in a sense dissolving the barriers between the inner and outer worlds. "Everything in nature is just as relentless as a virus," Walker writes, "replicating itself again and again without end."

A question often asked when discussing apocalyptic novels--whether the disaster be full-on or partial--is why, as consumers of stories, we appear to have become so fascinated with them. The Dreamers suggests that perhaps one of the genre's perennial pleasures is a simple one: "There is a comfort in thinking up something worse than what is." I particularly like how this book's pathway to exploring human vulnerability relies on a reversal of the typical outward confrontation with devastating forces, positing instead an inexplicable retreat into interiority which is simply an extension of our natural biological need for rest. "Isn't every sleep a kind of isolation?" Walker asks. "When else are we so alone?" Indeed. When we sleep we are at our most exposed. From the legend of Rip Van Winkle to Stephen King's Doctor Sleep, from the myths of Morpheus to the otherworldly fugue states of Robert Silverberg's Tom O'Bedlam, tales of unnatural repose and oneiric potential tap into ancient fears and fantasies about a little-understood activity that swallows up a third of our lives, and The Dreamers skillfully addresses these preoccupations anew. Consider, for example, how the unrelenting sunshine and the dropping waterline of the lake in Walker's novel might relate to allegorical readings of the Sleeping Beauty fairytale, in which the sleeping princess is often identified with nature itself. Perhaps our contemporary culture, with its manic tendencies towards brashness and loudness, is inspiring a new art of literalized recession into the self, the ultimate quietude. For the inhabitants of The Dreamer's fictional town of Santa Lora, sleep becomes a prison, but for the protagonist of Ottessa Moshfegh's My Year of Rest and Relaxation, chemically-induced dozing represents the ultimate liberation. If Kafka were alive today, would he write "The Sleep Artist"? Of such stuff dreams are made of.

Read more by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro

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