Skip to main content

Ways To Disappear by Idra Novey

If the whale.
If the boat.
If the rain.
You know what? I was excited to read this. That hasn't happened in a little while. It had something about it. The cover–lovely; the hook (a celebrated Brazilian writer climbs into a tree and disappears)–intriguing; the publisher–with a penchant for travel writing, this could only be particularly evocative of Brazil, a country of interest. I was excited. I don't recall who it was recommended it, and it might very well be the Amazon algorithm, but since I earmarked it to be bought and read I was grinning with anticipation.

And now I'm grimacing with consternation. First, a spirited defence of the book. It is fascinating, and although it teases with a magical realism plot synopsis it manages to steer clear of anything mystical, for the most part, and instead is deeply rooted in a convincingly tactile portrayal of Brazil–hot, unforgiving, corrupt, and completely seductive. Emma, the translator of 'her' author, the mysterious and absent Beatriz, is believable and complex enough, and Beatriz's adult children, Raquel and Marcus, add flavour, provide crisis and drama, and everyone is pleasingly flawed. Novey writes with no small craft and her experience as a translator of fiction is evident in the small ways a person might adapt to life as an interpreter of other people's words. 

Where it lost me, and this is in no way a criticism of the book or its author, is that I found I couldn't find my pace. I naturally fall into some sort of rhythm when I read, pausing where it feels natural, allowing myself time for words to sink in (if I'm not in the heat of an addictive gluttony for words–then I simply devour them without thinking). When reading this, however, with its short chapters, changes of narrative media, deliberately omitted speech marks, I found the sentences and paragraphs crashing into the next, and not in a compulsively readable, page-turning way either. I couldn't find a way to settle, I couldn't stop the words smashing into each other, obliterating themselves. I couldn't reflect. I tried to go back to find a salient quote for the picture caption and I couldn't remember one. 

And then there was poetry. I'm not anti-poetry, far from it*, but I honestly don't know what it's doing here, particularly in a scene where the book turns a little noir with Raquel trying to fend off her brother's kidnapper with her untraceable pistol. I also found the emails from Emma's estranged boyfriend Miles very irksome, unnecessary, and generally detracting from the story, the pseudo-dictionary entries trite and trying too hard to explain the joke, and the chapters from what, a gossip radio station? With the caps-lock on? Christ, what the hell was that? Just what the hell...

It was unsettling, but I suspect not in the way it was intended. For all its laudable and enjoyable verve, vim and vivaciousness, I felt that this is a novel written for someone entirely different than me, someone whose humour, opaque and odd, I would never appreciate even if I understood it. This is no bad thing as it made me stop and question whether this meant it was a poor book, or if I was a poor reader. I don't think the answer to either of those questions is yes. The book is good; clever, interesting and poignant in places, although I kind-of wish the author never came down from the tree, and I think I got most of what was going on. I'm on a different wave-length, is all.


*Not that far...

Comments

How's about that then?

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

Argh, Neil Gaiman blah blah, waffle waffle, and so on.
There, that’s out of the way.
I can’t help but equate the resurgence in popularity of the Norse mythos, Icelandic sagas, and Skaldic and Eddic poetry in all their new televisual, literal and figurative forms, to the similarly resurgent popularity of comic-book- and super-heroes. In fact, they’re two sides of the same interrogative coin: one asks, “How did we get here?” whereas the other asks, “Who can save us?” for the world needs heroes, and people to blame.
I will leave it up to you to project your own personal Them into the nice Them-shaped gap that leaves behind.
You may think it very necessary and timely to have brought out such a book. Alternatively, you may be suffering from hero-fatigue and see it as all a bit unnecessary. Or you may have been seduced by the big hammer on the cover and the lovely tactile matt-finish cover. In any case and in my own humble opinion, other than talk William Warder Norton into springing for a lov…

Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman

I can hold nothing against or up to either Neil Gaiman or the late Terry Pratchett. In respect of their fans and their work, my problems are mine and mine alone. In general, both are of the highest standard. In context however, I can only judge Pratchett’s early work, such as TruckersThe Carpet People (currently reading to my four-and-nine-tenths year old who is loving it) and The Light Fantastic etc. (all of which I enjoyed as a very young teenager). Post-Carpe Jugulum I have read exactly diddly squat, and the stage plays and TV adaptations have passed me by without so much as a flicker of interest. Whereas Gaiman continues to intrigue, chipping away at my natural scepticism with his charm and wit and style and great children’s books, and I did enjoy Stardust the movie, for the most part because of Robert De Niro, and also in spite of Ricky Gervais. Of course, were they to collaborate on a novel (not De Niro and Gervais; that would be one to avoid), then I would expect the world to…

Our Ancestors by Italo Calvino

Now is as good a time as any I suppose to admit that I regularly confuse Italo Calvino with Umberto Eco and when struggling for the name of one of them, invariably come up with the name of the other. What value does this add to a review of either’s work? None whatsoever. I just thought it would pay to be honest up front, so that if I start talking about semiotics, the discourse of literary criticism, or beards, then you’ll know my train of thoughts has switched tracks and is heading for a bridge under construction.
Of course, reading the Wiki pages on the two of them (to make sure I was talking about the right fellow) I noticed with some dread that Our Ancestors is one of the best known works of the most translated contemporary Italian writer (at the time of his death) and here I am, trying to make sense of it in my own personal context. Well, I’m always going to be treading down some fool’s heels so why should I care if it’s actually most people? Indeed, Calvino mentions in his own i…

Fairyland by Paul McAuley

Twenty-three years ago, as of the writing of this, Paul McAuley hadn't yet seen the birth of online monstrosity Google and was ten years ahead of Facebook. Only one year ago, Jeff VanderMeer was tinkering disturbingly with biotech in his [*FABULOUS] post-apocalyptic horror/sci-fi novel Borne. And yet McAuley seems to have predicted the moral and legal morass of genetic engineering (not the first, I might repeat, referencing John von Neumann etc...) misappropriated for fun, profit and warfare. He also predicted the smoking ban. And that's just in the first few pages. Whereas a lot of speculative fiction is vulnerable to senescence, Fairyland has remained surprisingly spry, aging gracefully whilst maintaining it's whip-smart wits and energy.

Perhaps building on William Gibson's classic (was it a classic in 1994?) Neuromancer, McAuley plunged into the proto-pools of his biologist and botanist background and pulled out the dolls and fairies that populate his future European…