“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, March 30, 2010

Book Review: Running Away

Running Away
By Jean-Philippe Toussaint

Jean-Philippe Toussaint is a Belgian author who writes in French. He has written seven novels, all shorter works that generally also have short names like Camera, Bathroom and Television (indeed, the French title of this novel, Fuir, might be more literally translated as ‘flight’ or ‘fleeing’). Running Away is narrated by an unnamed man who has flown into Shanghai for the shadowy purpose of giving an envelope filled with $25,000 in cash to a Chinese man named Zhang Xiangzhi. The narrator also quickly develops a romantic interest in Li Qi, Zhang’s female associate who also may or may not be Zhang’s girlfriend.
As the title suggests, this is a book that privileges action over detailed character development: most of the novel comprises a series of elaborate chase scenes in a variety of locations, such as a train, a bowling alley, and the streets of both Beijing and Shanghai. In one hysterically funny sequence, all three characters ride on the back of one motorcycle, driving cross-country to evade an unknown pursuer.
In many ways, Toussaint’s novel is a series of incongruities; in theory, the many different elements of the novel shouldn’t work together, but ultimately, they do creating an unusual and eminently readable book. The tension of the chase scenes is continually leavened with an absurdist, almost slapstick sense of humour that has more in common with The Three Stooges than most works of literature. But despite this absurdity, there are also beautiful descriptions of everyday objects and locations. This is one of Toussaint’s most significant novelistic gifts: the ability to make the commonplace both wonderful and strange.
The frenetic action of the book’s first two sections concludes when the narrator receives disturbing news that forces him to return to Europe. In this final section, the tenor of the novel shifts yet again, offering sweet, even touching, meditations on mortality and human relationships. But even these moments are again undercut with Toussaint’s ridiculous (and occasionally scatological) comedy.
The result is a book filled with contradictions: Running Away is a European ‘high art’ novel composed of tropes from popular entertainment (slapstick and the cinematic chase scene). It’s an absurdist novel that is filled with both beautifully rendered realist description and tender evocations of human emotion. Moreover, for all of its contradictions, Running Away is a fast-paced and easy read, with enough tension and action for it to work as a (very strange) page-turner.
Running Away would definitely appeal to those who like the novels of Haruki Murakami and the films of Wong Kar-wai, but it is a highly unusual and extremely successful novel with enough of everything to please almost everybody.

This review initially aired on Triple R Radio's Breakfasters. Buy it here.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Quote of the Day

"Deadness is the first condition of art. A hippopotamus’ armoured hide, a turtle’s shell, feathers or machinery on the one hand; that opposed to naked pulsing and moving of the soft inside of life, along with infinite elasticity and consciousness of movement, on the other.—Deadness, then . . . in the limited sense in which we use that word, is the first condition of art. The second is absence of soul, in the sentimental human sense. The lines and masses of the statue are its soul. No restless, quick flame-like ego is imagined for the inside of it. It has no inside. This is another condition of art; to have no inside, nothing you cannot see. Instead, then, of being something impelled like an independent machine by a little egoistic fire inside, it lives soullessly and deadly by its frontal lines and masses." -- Wyndham Lewis, Tarr (1918)

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Best European Fiction 2010

Best European Fiction 2010
Edited by Aleksander Hemon, with a preface by Zadie Smith
Published by Dalkey Archive Press

Just in case you’ve ever wondered what’s going on in the Macedonian literary scene, the Dakley Archive’s new collection, Best European Fiction 2010, provides the answer. Thankfully, however, it also provides a wonderful introduction into the contemporary literature of Europe. The vast majority of the stories are translated from other languages, showcasing 35 hugely talented writers, many of whom have work available in English, but aren’t yet household names. Most of the work comprises short stories, but there are a few excerpts from novels and even one poem by the Scottish writer Alastair Gray. The stories inside cover a variety of styles from the realist to the absurdist, and science fiction to historical fiction.
Julian Gough’s ‘The Orphan and the Mob’ is one of the many standout pieces in the collection. Gough has received some internet attention after posting a YouTube video in which he stole Will Self’s pig as retribution for losing out on a literary award to Self. Fittingly, Gough’s story displays his riotous sense of humour, and opens with one of the best lines I’ve read in recent memory: ‘If I had urinated immediately after breakfast, the mob would have never burnt down the orphanage.’ The rest of the story of course, explains how this situation came to pass.
Belgian author Jean Phillipe-Toussaint’s essay/story entitled ‘Zidane’s Melancholy’ is a fictional meditation on Zinedine Zidane’s infamous headbutt in the 110th minute of the final game of the 2006 World Cup. This beautiful, absurd story ultimately argues that it was ‘mathematically impossible’ for the headbutt to have occurred by invoking Xeno’s paradox.
Goce Smilevski’s ‘Fourteen Little Gustavs’, another charming and witty piece of writing, claims that the painter Gustav Klimt had 14 sons all named Gustave, and then proceeds to tell their story.
The collection serves as an excellent entry point for readers who want to learn more about these authors, providing extensive biographies and even statements of artistic intent. Moreover, it offers links to a variety of websites about the national literatures of Europe, enabling readers to learn more about world literature.
Best European Stories 2010 proves that short stories can experiment with language and form and still be both accessible and fun to read. This is ultimately a great collection of 35 ripping yarns, and we can only hope that this series continues in the future.

This review initially aired on Triple R Radio's Breakfasters on March 23, 2010.

Buy this book.