“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, October 5, 2010

Book Review: The Convalescent

The Convalescent
By Jessica Anthony
Hunter Publishers

Jessica Anthony’s debut novel, The Convalescent, is a wildly imaginative comic fiction that combines two narrative strands. The main narrative focuses on one Rovar Pfliegmann, a hairy, mute midget with a bad leg who lives in a field in rural Virginia and sells discount meat out of a broken-down bus. Along with recounting the details of his own life, Pfliegman, who considers himself to be the last descendent of a lost and persecuted Hungarian tribe, tells the story of one his forebears named Szeretlek (which means ‘I love you’ in Hungarian), who accidentally saved the Hungarian nation in the 10th Century A.D.
            Anthony does an incredibly effective job taking this exceptionally absurd premise and making it both fun and easy to read: as a narrator, Rovar is both engaging and wonderfully unreliable; the book is populated with a cast of comically idiosyncratic characters; the deft pacing enables smooth narrative shifts; and more often than not the comedy is legitimately funny. But despite these many exceptional qualities, there’s something about this novel that doesn’t completely work for me.
            Part of the problem is internal to the book. Anthony slightly mishandles the main narrative strand: as a character, Rovar is a static figure who is constitutionally incapable of true change, and so Anthony ends the book by relying on a magical realist device (although, to be fair, it could be read as something else entirely—but I won’t say what), which feels like a bit of an easy out. Moreover, the hidden truths about Rovar’s past that emerge at the story’s end are so explicitly telegraphed earlier in the novel that their revelation lacks any real surprise.
            But despite these qualms, this is a book that is largely successful on its own terms. My larger reservations are external, and ultimately about what kind of book it is. Anthony first rose to prominence by winning McSweeney’s Amanda Davis Highwire Fiction Award and The Convalescent was originally published by McSweeney’s in the United States. Ultimately (in a gesture that’s also probably deeply unfair to Anthony as a writer, since I’m using her book to stand in for a broader kind of ‘literature’), this book serves as an excellent cipher for my larger concerns about McSweeney’s: while I very much respect their socially progressive good works, the aesthetic physical beauty of their publications, and their ability to draw in a larger readership that draws on a younger demographic, I simply don’t like the kind of literature McSweeney’s publish.
            The Convalescent, to me, exemplifies the problem with McSweeney’s conception of literature. The book has all the outward signifiers of a literary novel, as its many allusions and jokes suggest: Pfliegman is clearly a pun on ‘phlegmatic’, for example (they Pfliegmans are described as having ‘An aura of general malaise.’), and the store Big M that Rovar goes to in the contemporary narrative is mirrored in the ancient narrative when Szeretlek meets a giant horse also named M. Rovar, in his panoply of physical disorders, recalls the protagonist of Beckett’s The Unnamable, and his unreliability as a narrator is distinctly Nabokovian. Another late moment in the book is a (particularly unsatisfying) gloss on Kafka’s long story ‘The Metamorphoses’. But these references don’t ultimately add up to anything greater, and for all of its outward cleverness, The Convalescent is a surprisingly simple book.
            In this sense, The Convalescent is, without a doubt, an effective and intelligent entertainment, but it’s too lacking in complexity to be literary in the way that it seems to want to be (Note that I’m not simply using a standard high-art definition of ‘literature’; the best ‘genre’ writing—and I’m thinking here of writers like China Mieville and Neal Stephenson—is both ‘literary’ and considerably more complex than The Convalescent). In this sense, the ‘McSweeneys novel’ (which this book represents) strikes me as the literary equivalent of American indie films, like Sideways and Little Miss Sunshine; we get ‘inventive’ premises and a cast of lovably ‘wacky’ characters, but for all of these embellishments, there’s something surprisingly conventional and ultimately trivial about these tales. And for me, as for many readers, there’s something about this experience that is slightly unfulfilling.
            That being said, what you get out of The Convalescent will ultimately depend on what you are expecting: for all of its playfulness and seeming erudition this novel isn’t really a work of art. But The Convalescent is a witty, diverting entertainment, and will make for perfect light reading on the tram, if that’s what you’re looking for. 

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