“Such are the perfections of fiction...Everything it teaches is useless insofar as structuring your life: you can’t prop up anything with fiction. It, in fact, teaches you just that. That in order to attempt to employ its specific wisdom is a sign of madness...There is more profit in an hour’s talk with Billy Graham than in a reading of Joyce. Graham might conceivably make you sick, so that you might move, go somewhere to get well. But Joyce just sends you out into the street, where the world goes on, solid as a bus. If you met Joyce and said 'Help me,' he’d hand you a copy of Finnegans Wake. You could both cry.” – Gilbert Sorrentino, Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Book Review: Ilustrado

By Miguel Syjuco
Random House

Miguel Syjuco’s debut novel Ilustrado, which won the Man Asian Prize for an unpublished manuscript in 2008, tells the story of a young Filipino expatriate, also named Miguel Syjuco, who is investigating the death of his mentor, the writer Crispin Salvador. But this metafictional novel, which is clearly influenced by – and even explicitly references – such authors as Nabakov (the fictional poet, John Shade, from Pale Fire is named and the first line of Lolita quoted by a character) and Borges (who is directly referenced, as is his story ‘The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim’), is not a straightforward narrative at all. What most readers of Ilustrado will note right off the bat is its playful and eclectic literary style; almost half of the novel is actually made up of ‘excerpts’ from Crispin Salvador’s novels, essays, and interviews. Other forms of writing, including blog posts (with comments!) and jokes, recur as well. Syjuco displays an exceptional mastery of these various devices, which often serve to contextualise, frame and ironise the main narrative of the work itself; in one passage, for example, the narrator states that ‘The thing is to write a straight narrative. That’s the trick: no trickery,’ a piece of advice the novel wilfully ignores.
But these gestures aren’t just virtuoustic literary trickery – they are extremely funny, inventive and engrossing all on their own. I was particularly impressed by Syjuco’s ability to effectively portray blog culture in novel form; I’ve read many novelists attempt this without success, but Syjuco succeeds by revelling in the comic miscellany of blog discourse, where insightful political commentary can sit next to banal assertions and advertisements. Ilustrado is also full of great one-liners; one character, for example, is described as being ‘kind in the way only the ungenerous can be.’
But there is also a more straightforward narrative in the book, which tells the story of the fictional ‘Miguel’ as he returns to the Philippines in search of Crispin’s final manuscript, his masterwork entitled The Bridges Ablaze (but typically rendered as the acronym TBA, as in ‘to be announced’). But, for all of its intrigue, the narrative actually ends up being less compelling than Syjuco’s metafictional tropes for a few reasons. For one thing, the fictitional Miguel in the book isn’t a particularly sympathetic character (although it remains unclear to what degree he’s meant to be sympathetic); ‘Miguel’ is the son of a wealthy political family who has an apartment in Trump Tower in Manhattan. Although he has suffered hardship – including the deaths of his parents, drug addiction, and heartbreak – he seems to take his own privilege largely for granted in a way that most readers will find alienating. But, of course, this fact is both acknowledged and ironised in the novel when Miguel’s own writing is described as ‘bourgeois angst’. There are a few other minor problems as well: the novel loses a little bit of cohesion midway through as the detective story at the heart of this narrative disappears. The introduction of a romantic interest for ‘Miguel’ at this point also feels unlikely and forced, and the woman in question seems to be a one-dimensional vehicle for his desire of the ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’ variety (and while these aspects are acknowledged through irony in the novel, this acknowledgment still doesn’t mitigate their problematic nature).
But this very minor stumble also precedes what was, for me, the absolute highlight of the entire novel: a dinner party scene written as a dialogue that contains some of the funniest writing I have read in recent memory; this is ultimately a testament to the strength of Syjuco’s work: even if he loses you for a few pages, his relentless invention and humour draws you back in. Most impressively, the ending of the novel, itself, reveals an incredibly clever and well-conceived formal conceit to the novel that is simply wonderful to behold. As its prize-winning pedigree suggests, this is a very good novel that most novelists would be lucky to write – that Syjuco has managed a first novel this good is even more exceptional.

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