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Thumb Drives and Oven Clocks

Issue 12

I have published a book review

I recently wrote about Stacey D'Erasmo's The Complicities for Identity Theory. This is the first formal book review I’ve published in a decade. That feels weird!

Spoiler alert: the book is excellent. It was fun to write about, even though I’m still positively a-tremble with fear that I did it wrong. So I mean, click the link to show your support and all, but also mostly just go read the book. Also her previous novel, Wonderland. I loved that book, too.

What I've been reading

Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth, by Wole Soyinka

I didn't know much about Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth, going into it, or about by Wole Soyinka, who is from Nigeria, of which country's history and culture I'm equally largely ignorant. I point this out because this book felt so deeply and rightly invested in Nigeria that I found myself wondering how much I was missing given my limited perspective. There's relatable, universal stuff in play here—power, corruption, performatively fraudulent religion—but at times it felt a bit like I was eavesdropping on a conversation for which I lacked full context. There's still value in that, of course, and I found the novel's viewpoint intriguing, throughout, but I certainly don't feel like I'm the guy to make the best case for or against this book, so take all I say here with a grain of salt.

I found the book interesting and frustrating in equal measure, and feel like I need to spoil the book's structure to explain why: it wasn't until the final ten pages that I got a handle on what Soyinka was doing. The writing is engaging throughout, but the story lacks an immediate and consistent thread. It can feel a bit hard to hang on to, in other words.

The book feels lumpy, or unbalanced. Over the first hundred or so pages, four successive characters take center stage, including a religious charlatan and a nationally celebrated engineer. One after the other each is given an extensive introduction and/or backstory, before drifting into the background. The fifth character we sync up with, a doctor who regularly treats the victims of terrorist attacks, then becomes the closest the book offers to a main character. He's not uninteresting, but he's the most even-keeled of the characters whose point of view we follow.

These issues aren't complaints, per se. Rather, they're the notes I think I'd like to drop into a wormhole to send back in time to past me, the foreknowledge I'd like to have had going into the book for the first time. Having read the book all the way through, now, having a clear sense of the overall landscape the book presents, I think I'd find it more rewarding, on a second pass. I actually originally did stop reading just before the 100 page mark, when I realized I felt kind of lost, and started the book over from the top, because I wanted to break through and into it. In retrospect, that may have been the best decision, or maybe it wasn't. What if I'd waited another fifty pages? Or just pushed through? Not sure.

I did find the story interesting, and compared to, perhaps, duller books, it certainly got me going. I liked having a lot to chew on here, and I wished I'd had it lined up for a reading group meeting of some sort. Those characters all give good story, but I think I wish they'd been layered throughout the book instead of as what felt like an opening info-dump. There's a compelling underlying plot about a shadowy organization selling human body parts that ties some of these characters together, which story reads like a ghostly, paranoid Pynchon thread. This is great stuff. And then about two-thirds of the way through the book, I was really feeling a bit antsy with the whole thing, when there was a sharp transition to a long section dealing with the movement of a human body. This was so gripping. And so weird for being so. And of course now knowing how the threads that for so long seemed like they'd be left loose are in fact not left loose does help make the book feel more satisfying.

In 1986, Soyinka became the first Black winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, and has been writing for about as long since then as he had before winning the prize. This is his third novel, his first since 1972; his work includes a large number of plays, poems, and essays, which I'd like to sample. For all that, and with all my admirations and reservations in mind, it's a tough book to blanket recommend. If you're looking for something chewy, and international, and different, it's worth checking out.

An I-Novel, by Minae Mizumura, translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter

I know language shapes the way I think. It both affords and constrains. There are ideas for which I literally lack the required vocabulary to understand or communicate. There are dark corners and bright rooms and so many unidentifiable shades and tones between.

In part because I didn't start trying to learn a foreign language until high school, in part because I was never that dedicated to it, in part because I've never needed to, I've never really picked up additional languages, or, of course, the trick of picking them up; it's a skill I wish I had, now.

All of which baggage I carried in to my reading of An I-Novel by Minae Mizumura, a melancholy story about a moment of transition, a wintery meditation on place and placelessness, with a focus on language and limitation, coming from the perspective of someone coming to English from another language, while struggling to resist English's powers of global homogenization. It's a slender but weighty book, though never heavy, rippling with undercurrents of anger and hope, the humanity of processing confusion and potential.

I've read Mizumura once before, having greatly enjoyed Other Press's lovely presentation of A True Novel, a Japanese riff on Wuthering Heights, but actually good. Where A True Novel was intended as a work of pure fiction, I'm going to rudely and perhaps inaccurately equate the concept of the "I-novel" with the in-vogue, Western concept of autofiction. And then quickly back up and say I don't actually know what I'm talking about. But maybe I'm on to something? But also even thinking about Minae Mizumura and Sheila Heti in the same breath makes me feel really really weird so maybe not. Anyways.

An I-Novel effectively takes place over a single day of the life of the narrator, Minae Mizumura, in the 1980s, as she commits herself to completing graduate school studies in America before returning to Japan to begin writing novels in Japanese. From that slender thread Mizumura spins out webs of memories, about moving to America when she was young with her parents and her sister, through to the dissolution of her family as her mother takes up with a younger man and her father is confined to a care facility, all while Mizumura reckons with her troubled relationship to Western culture and language, her grappling with her desire to resist English.

The original An I-Novel was bilingual—Mizumura mixed common English language into her Japanese narrative. For the translation to English—the one language in the world, Mizumura notes, in which the effect of the original could never be replicated—Juliet Winters Carpenter left the original English language portions alone; here, they are printed in a different typeface from the surrounding, translated, English. It's a fairly subliminal effect, perhaps raising more questions than it can easily answer. What made the movement between languages work in the original? What flavors are we missing, when a word appears both in original English and translated English? What's it like, I wonder, to be able to blend thoughts like this? Does it feel good? Concerning?

For Mizumura, it certainly seems concerning; it sounds like many of the ideas she explored in this novel went on to inform her non-fiction book, The Fall of Language in the Age of English. She feels conflicted, in An I-Novel, as she contends with her desires while realizing her resistance can present as a rejection of a privilege, a ripe opportunity to immerse herself in a truly global language. And yet.

Slow-paced, thoughtful, thought-provoking. Two thumbs up.

Trilogy, by Jon Fosse, translated by May-Brit Akerholt

Trilogy, by the Norwegian writer Jon Fosse, left me feeling devastated and unmoored.

I had no idea who Jon Fosse is when I picked it out. I was pre-ordering Miss MacIntosh, My Darling, by Marguerite Young, from the newly relaunched Dalkey Archive Press, and because I'm constitutionally incapable of ordering a single book, I tossed Trilogy into the cart on a whim. I did not know that Fosse has written like a thousand things, or that, like Wole Soyinka, he's also got major playwright cred, or that he is the sort of writer whose name is tossed around when it comes to the Nobel prize. I guess it's nice to know a thing or two about the guy emotionally sucker-punching you in the gut.

The story starts with a young couple, pregnant, struggling to make their way in a cold world; a wet, dark world, an uncaring, blind world. Things go poorly. And then they go worse. There's a trail of bodies and the story unspools as an unsettling mood piece through tumbling, rhythmic, run-on sentences that stretch and repeat and cycle back upon themselves, drawing you through a mythic landscape set in a dateless past that inspires with primal power.

Though it's hard for me to imagine the first book, Wakefulness, ever having been the start and end of a story, it was originally written as such, until Fosse later got to wondering what happened to his characters; publication of the second and third books were held back until both were complete. Taken together, they feel complete, of one piece.

There's guilt. There's fear. There's pain. I loved it. Perfect choice for when you're in the mood for some real mood.