Aetherial Worlds: Stories by Tatyana Tolstaya

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Edition: Knopf Publishing, 2018, 256 pages.

Longlisted for the 2018 National Book Award for Translated Literature

Aetherial Worlds: Stories by Tatyana Tolstaya, beautifully translated from the Russian by Anya Migdal, is a collection of 18 short stories that skilfully cover an array of different topics such as love, loneliness, loss, travel, art, literature, the writing process, and identity, both individual and cultural.

The stories that stuck out to me the most were the auto-fiction and essayistic pieces dealing with questions of identity and the range of conflicting emotions that come with being an expatriate. Since the author has spent long periods of time travelling and living in other countries, I assume that she drew inspiration for some of the stories, such as Smoke and Shadows and Aetherial Worlds, from her own experiences. Her insightful observations on Russian identity, compared to other nationalities, were particularly amusing to read because Tolstaya has such a delightfully biting sense of humour. I just adore this type of writing that manages to be in equal parts lyrical, thought-provoking, and sarcastic.

In one of the stand-out stories, Official Nationalities, the author reflects on the three defining features of Russian people, one of them being the concept of “Let’s hope.”:

This “Let’s hope” is a built-in denial of causality, it’s a lack of belief in the material nature of our universe and its physical laws. Remember this and carve it in stone.
“We should attach this part with screws, otherwise it might fall off along the way.”
“Ah, let’s hope it doesn’t.”

In a similar way, Faraway Lands offers an interesting meditation on the behavioural differences between a Russian and a (Western) European man via the classic concept of “the drinking man:

European literature, cinema, and anecdotal observations all paint the same picture: a lonely, middle-aged man, drinking alone but with dignity […]. He is contemplating his loneliness, we surmise, the meaninglessness of existence, the impossibility of emotional attachment, and the passing of the more-or-less good ol’ days. […] Meanwhile – as you rightly know – a Russian man who is lonely and sad in a bar is unimaginable. Upon entering any establishment for the purpose of drinking, he immediately seeks out company, instantly infiltrates it, and, without delay, forges a quick, if shaky and dangerous, friendship while stepping on everyone’s toes and violating personal boundaries that his drinking buddies didn’t even suspect existed.

The characters in many of these stories seem to be longing for some kind of escape and seeking a special, magical place or, as the title suggests, aetherial world, which exists somewhere in their peripheral vision, and might be perceived, if only they looked closer and inwardly, without getting distracted by other things. Interestingly, this concept of an aetherial world appears in the collection in different forms. In the title story, Aetherial Worlds, it refers to an unfinished patio overlooking lush gardens, while in another story, 20/20, the aetherial world is described as a kind of nowhere place:

It’s the most important place in the world — nowhere. Everyone should spend time there. It’s scary, empty, and cold; it’s sad beyond all bearing; it’s where all human communication is lost, where all your sins, all your shortcomings, all lies and half-truths and double-dealings emerge from the dusk to look you in the eye with neither disapproval nor empathy, but simply and matter-of-factly.

One of my favourite stories in the collection was The Square which is a fascinating reflection on the famous painting The Black Square by Kazimir Malevich. It discusses the significance of this iconic painting in the context of art history and the development of modern art by defining the fundamental differences between “pre-Square” and “post-Square” artists.

This collection was my first read by this author, and I think it served as a great introduction to her writing. As with most short story collection, I enjoyed some stories more than others, but, overall, I highly recommend this collection and look forward to exploring more of her work in the future.

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We Sold Our Souls by Grady Hendrix

A girl with a guitar never has to apologize for anything.

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Edition: Quirk Books, 2018, 336 pages.

In the 1990s, Kris Pulaski was the guitarist of a heavy metal band called Dürt Würk, and even though the band gave their best to succeed, Dürt Würk didn’t get their big break, so, twenty years later, we see Kris, who is now in her forties and broke, working as a hotel receptionist at a Best Western, where she has to deal with annoying, drunk guests.

The premise of We Sold Our Souls by Grady Hendrix immediately appealed to me because of the heavy metal aspect and, in essence, the novel is a fast-paced, supernatural story that reflects on modern-day consumerism and looks at how far some people would be willing to go in the name of fame and success?

“Now, people sell their souls for nothing. They do it for a new iPhone or to have one night with their hot next-door neighbor. There is no fanfare, no parchment signed at midnight. Sometimes it’s just the language you click in an end-user license agreement. Most people don’t even notice, and even if they did, they wouldn’t care. They only want things. So they sell their souls, and they go to sleep, and the Special Ones crawl out of the dirty corners and lap them up. They control everything, they keep us hungry, they keep us in pain, they keep us distracted. Have you noticed how soulless this world has become? How empty and prefabricated? Soulless lives are hollow. We fill the earth with soulless cities, pollute ourselves with soulless albums. When the soul is removed it leaves a hole, and we try to fill that hole with so many things—the internet, and conspiracy theories, and CNN, and drugs, and food, but there is only one thing inside that hole, Kris, and that is Black Iron Mountain. It is our jailer, and this is our jail: an eternal, insane hunger that can never be satisfied, a wound that can never be healed, an unnatural desire to consume. Our hunger traps us inside a prison as big as the world.”

As the story develops, we find out just how close Dürt Würk was to making it big, and how it all came crashing down when their lead singer, Terry Hunt, decided to betray his bandmates and go solo, while continuing to use the band’s old material. Terry goes on to achieve phenomenal fame with his metal band Koffin, and the announcement of Koffin’s epic farewell tour sparks Kris’s determination to reconnect with her old bandmates and confront Terry about the events that lead to the dissolution of Dürt Würk. Along the way, she gets involved in a conspiracy, which suggests that Terry’s stardom might have come from some kind of Faustian deal, as suggested by the title of the book. Kris sets out to uncover the truth and races against time to stop an evil force from taking over the world.

The story takes some time to gain momentum and the horror elements really start to appear only around the midpoint of the book, but, overall, We Sold Our Souls is an engrossing and spooky love letter to heavy metal music, and Kris’s passion for the genre made me quite nostalgic to revisit some of the bands that are mentioned in the book. As expected, metal music plays a significant part in the narrative and each chapter heading is a fun reference to a song title. The book also makes some strong statements about the meaning and appeal of heavy metal music, and it obviously comes from a place of love for the genre. If you’re looking for a fun, spooky Halloween read with a strong female lead, I suggest giving this book a try.

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Kill ‘Em All by John Niven

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Edition: Cornerstone, 2018, 352 pages.

…or The Art of the Deal by Stephen Stelfox.

Kill ‘Em All will appeal to fans of novels such as High Fidelity by Nick Hornby, the Vernon Subutex series by Virginie Despentes, and the film 24-Hour Party People (2002), directed by Michael Winterbottom.

Kill ‘Em All is the sequel to John Niven’s most well-known 2008 novel Kill Your Friends, that was adapted into the 2015 film of the same name, directed by Owen Harris, and starring Nicholas Hoult in the role of the main character Stephen Stelfox, a filthy rich, cynical, and cunning A&R rep. Whereas Kill Your Friends was set in the music industry at the height of the Britpop craze in the 90s, this book is set in 2017 and feels very of the moment since the events unfold on the backdrop of Brexit and the Trump era, and Stephen Stelfox feels like the poster boy of late-stage capitalism – an immoral playboy that uses any opportunity and measure to accumulate more personal wealth, and is aware of the inequalities that exist in society, but doesn’t really care about the struggles of the poor. At the same time, the  author manages to make the cynical inner monologues of a professional troll darkly comedic and fun to read, like, for example, this passage when Stephen is at the airport, preparing to board a private jet:

I send a couple of pro-Trump tweets from my troll accounts (‘#godonald! #MAGA #inauguration’) to take my mind off my pre-flight anxiety while Grahame deals with luggage and the whole check-in palaver, out there in the chill January dawn. Passport and security take all of two minutes. (‘Hi, Sir! Nice to see you again.’) When I do this, I spare a thought for you out there – the dear, the gentle – taking your belt and shoes off, furiously scrabbling through your bag for that laptop or iPad, wearily walking back through the scanner, then extending your arms skywards as the guy with the wand does his stuff, the whole thing taking an eternity because, in the queue ahead of you, there are people, who, today, in 2017, seemingly haven’t been on a plane since Mohamed Atta and his lads did their thing back in 2001. Who don’t understand about the whole laptop, belt and shoes deal. Who are utterly astonished when they are asked to take these things off/put them in a tray/ whatever. By the time you stumble out of security two hours later you’re needing that pint of Tits in the Dog and Lettuce. You’re suicidal and you haven’t even left the fucking airport yet.

After making a ton of money from an American Idol-type reality show, Stephen Stelfox is semi-retired at the age of 42 and is living the high life of the ridiculously rich, while also spending some time doing consulting work in order to avoid thinking about the fact that his life is essentially empty. One day, Stephen gets a call from his old friend James Trellick, president of a big US record label Unigram, asking him for help in dealing with a potentially huge blackmail scandal that is about come to light involving the ageing pop-star Lucius Du Pre. Stephen agrees to help and comes up with an elaborate and outrageous plan to “fix” the situation, but when it becomes clear that things will not go according to his plan, Stephen is forced to improvise…

Behind the fast-paced, over the top plot, somewhat stereotypical characters, and very dark humour, the book offers a scathing critique of the misogyny, racism, populism, greed, and abuse of power that seems to be thriving in modern-day society. It’s also a very compelling satire of the modern music industry and celebrity culture, but definitely not a book for readers, who are easily offended.

Although this is a sequel to Kill Your Friends, the novel stands on its own, and I thoroughly enjoyed it even though I haven’t read the previous book, and I will definitely need to pick that one up at some point in the future.

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Wait, Blink by Gunnhild Øyehaug

She looks at the cursor that’s blinking. She identifies with the cursor! Waiting, blinking, and without any real existence in the world, just on and off between blink and blink. Is this her light in the world?

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Edition: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018, 256 pages.

Longlisted for the 2018 National Book Award for Translated Literature

Wait, Blink: A Perfect Picture of Inner Life by Gunnhild Øyehaug, translated from the Norwegian by Kari Dickson, provides an intimate snapshot into the lives of a group of characters, mainly focusing on three women – Sigrid, a sheltered young literature student, Linnea, an aspiring film director, and Trine, a provocative performance artist. Written in very short chapters and constantly shifting between the different, loosely connected characters, Wait, Blink is an introspective, meandering novel that explores the inner lives of these people, their desires, hopes and fears.

Somewhere deep inside her body there’s a cry, which if it were replicated in color and not sound would be painted sheer black, the kind of darkness that might exist in a universe without stars. If it were a sound, you probably wouldn’t hear it, even though it’s loud, more like a howl, as it would still be locked up, as though inside a mountain. It’s the cry of loneliness.

Sigrid is a twenty-three-year-old woman, who feels lonely and adrift in life, and compares her isolated life to “a boat that’s frozen in the ice“. She worries that she has unwittingly become a recluse and that her adult life hasn’t truly started yet. She spends most of her time overanalyzing things and is trying to write a paper on the strange cliché that can be often observed in literature and film, whereby a woman is shown wearing an oversized man’s shirt as a way of conveying the idea of emotional vulnerability.

[…] wearing an oversized man’s shirt was a cliché in her opinion, a typical expression of male aesthetics, male perception, a perception that specifically objectivized women, he would make her into a cliché by doing that –  making her pad around being fragile and vulnerable in an oversized top and thus live up to all the myths – and, not least, by complying she would thereby undermine her own intellect and capacity for criticizing metaphors, wouldn’t she?

As a side note, curiously enough, I just saw this cliché used in a ballet production – a modern take on Shakespeare’s comedy The Taming of the Shrew. When Petruchio finally manages to win over the stubborn Katherina and make her “let her hair down”, she was portrayed wearing an oversized man’s button-down shirt, so there might actually be something to this theory, and I’m guessing that, from now on, every time I see this cliché, I’ll be reminded of this book.

Aspiring film director Linnea is also frustrated with her life. She was involved in an affair with a much older, married university professor, and tries to use the medium of film to express her feelings. She is basically longing to recreate the concept of Before Sunrise (1995) & Before Sunset (2004) in her real life. At the same time, the brazen and provocative performance artist Trine struggles to balance her artistic work with the responsibilities of motherhood both in practical and emotional terms.

The novel includes many references to music and films, such as Lost in Translation (2003), Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003), and Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004) that play an integral part in the narrative, as well as reveal the true mindsets and emotional states of the characters. I was particularly pleasantly surprised to find so many references to songs by one of my favourite musicians – PJ Harvey. I think the best way to read this book is while listening to PJ Harvey records, so that is exactly what I did, and it was fantastic!

Not much happens in this book in terms of plot but it offers some very interesting reflections on art, loneliness in modern society and the conflict between people’s expectations, mainly derived from clichés which are perpetuated by the media, and the realities of life. The characters in this book feel the need to hide their true inner selves and constantly fail to honestly communicate their feelings to each other. I think, in essence, the book tries to highlight the impossibility of establishing a meaningful connection with someone while also keeping your true inner self mostly hidden.

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Vernon Subutex, 2 by Virginie Despentes

“We are the defeated – and we are thousands. We are searching for a way.”

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Edition: MacLehose Press, 2018, 336 pages.

I picked up the first book in the Vernon Subutex series by Virginie Despentes, translated from the French by Frank Wynne, because I was drawn in by the synopsis that promised sharp social commentary of contemporary French society and references to 90s music. Moreover, Vernon Subutex, 1 made it onto the 2018 Man Booker International Prize shortlist, and while it wasn’t among my favourites from the shortlist, I was still curious to find out what happens next.

The second volume in the series seamlessly picks up where the first volume left off and follows the adventures of Vernon and the colourful group of characters from the previous book, while also providing some more insight into their backstories and introducing some new characters.

While it seems that the main purpose of the first volume was to provoke strong emotions in the reader, the narrative of the second book feels much more focused and controlled. Despentes has a great ear for dialogue and, although the book features quite a lot of characters (there’s even a helpful index at the beginning of the book to remind the reader who everyone is, in case you get lost), each of their voices is sufficiently distinct so that I never got confused by the consistently shifting narrative that switches from chapter to chapter between the different points of view. This book also provided that long-awaited sharp social commentary on present-day French society that I was expecting and didn’t quite get from the first book. By giving a voice to this assortment of characters from diverse backgrounds, the author unflinchingly tackles various complex issues such as race, class, poverty, privilege, corporate greed, violence against women, marriage, loneliness, political ideology, generational conflict, ageing, and mental illness. The most notable theme in this series that persistently comes up in the first two books is class struggle, and how oppression affects the mental state of the population. As one character observes:

The working class has been so brainwashed over the last decade that the only thing they care about is spewing hatred about bougnoules. They’ve been stripped of the self-respect it took centuries to win, there’s not a moment of the day when they don’t feel like they’re being fleeced, and they’ve been taught that the only thing they’ve got to make them feel a little less shit is to bang on about how they’re white so they have a right to put down darkies. In the same way that kids in the banlieue torch the cars outside their own tower blocks and never invade the sixteenth arrondissement, the Frenchman in dire straits takes it out on the person sitting next to him on the bus.

Vernon is still homeless and living rough, however, he seems to have become a sort of mad poet and spiritual leader for the group of his unhappy/frustrated friends and acquaintances. They flock to the Rosa Bonheur bar located in the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont in northeastern Paris just to see Vernon spin a set as the DJ, and suddenly you get a scene with some neo-fascist nutjobs, ex-porn stars, and a lesbian biker dancing to James Brown’s The Payback or singing along to David Bowie’s Heroes, while “off in a corner, lit by a pale green light, Vernon looks out at them, his eyes half closed, an enigmatic smile playing on his lips. He has become a sphinx.” This series is such a wild ride! 🙂

This book also finally reveals what exactly is on the much-coveted tapes featuring the final interview with the deceased rock star Alex Bleach which starts out quite poetically and acts as a catalyst for some of the events in the second half of the book.

WE ENTERED INTO ROCK MUSIC THE WAY YOU ENTER A CATHEDRAL, remember, Vernon, and our story was a spaceship. There were so many saints everywhere we didn’t know who to worship. We knew that as soon as they pulled out the jack plugs, musicians were human beings just like everyone else, people who went for a shit and blew their noses when they caught a cold. We didn’t give a fuck about heroes, all we cared about was that sound. It transfixed us, floored us, blew our minds. It existed, we all felt the same way in the beginning, Jesus fuck this thing exists? It was too big to be contained within our bodies.

Overall, I’m glad I gave the second book in this series a try. I found it much more enjoyable than the first volume, which I was very conflicted about. However, if you absolutely loathed the first one for the controversial or offensive opinions and coarse language, I wouldn’t really recommend continuing on with this series. For those of you who haven’t read the first volume, I would honestly suggest waiting until all three of the books have been published because this series is basically one long, continuous story that has been divided into three volumes, and, given the large cast of characters, I think it’s a good series to binge-read all the way through. I’m certainly looking forward to reading the final volume and finding out how all this is going to end!

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The Last Children of Tokyo by Yōko Tawada

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Edition: Portobello Books, 2018, 144 pages.

Winner of the 2018 National Book Award for Translated Literature

The Last Children of Tokyo by Yōko Tawada (published in the US as The Emissary), translated from the Japanese by Margaret Mitsutani, is a dystopian novel set in a near-future Japan that has isolated itself from the rest of the world, and gone even further by deliberately erasing foreign-origin, particularly English, words from the Japanese language and replacing them with alternatives. The ability to understand English is actually considered as evidence of old age.

Long ago, this sort of purposeless running had been referred to as jogging, but with foreign words falling out of use, it was now called loping down, an expression that had started out as a joke meaning “if you lope your blood pressure goes down,” but everybody called it that these days.

Moreover, for a reader who is passionate about translated fiction, the most terrifying thing about this near-future world is the fact that books, even picture books, are no longer being translated…

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As a result of an unexplained disaster, the elderly in this futuristic Japan seem to be immortal, while the younger generations are weak and disabled, and have very short lifespans which basically means that the aged have to do most of the physical labour and are forced to watch their grandchildren and great-grandchildren die. The first part of the novel mostly focuses on Yoshiro, a centenarian who is taking care of his very fragile great-grandson Mumei. For Mumei, performing even the smallest day-to-day tasks, such as putting on clothes and chewing his food, is very tiring for his weak body, so he heavily relies on his great-grandfather’s help. In the second half of the novel, the author introduces more characters, but their individual storylines were fairly underdeveloped. Also, very late in the novel, the author introduces a potentially interesting plot point, which kind of explains why the US title of this book is The Emissary, however, soon afterwards, the story just ended…

As you can probably tell by now, unfortunately, this book didn’t really work for me. The narrative felt disjointed at times but, more importantly, I thought that this book fell into the same trap that many speculative literary novels have fallen into before, whereby the various science fiction elements are used only as metaphors to make some kind of point and make little sense otherwise. I didn’t expect this to be hard science fiction, but I think that these types of speculative novels, as opposed to those that are labelled as genre fiction, are lacking in coherent world-building. I have a similar problem with the majority of literary fairytale retellings that have come out in recent years, in which the authors can often get away with lazy world-building by relying on the justification that the book is meant to be read from a literary standpoint, even though it includes science fiction or fantasy elements. I won’t really go into that here because that might be an interesting topic for a whole separate post.

Despite my issues with the book, Tawada is a skilful writer, and it’s a beautifully written novel that had a lot of potential. I’m willing to accept that I didn’t really get it, but it seems to me that the interesting futuristic setting only served the purpose of conveying, in a rather blunt manner, a message about the dangers of isolationism, environmental pollution, and exaggerated attempts to please everyone by, for example, renaming public holidays.

‘Labour Day’ became ‘Being Alive is Enough Day’

Clearly, the judging panel of the 2018 National Book Award for Translated Literature saw something more in this novel so you may want to give this one a try for yourself.

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Love by Hanne Ørstavik

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Edition: Archipelago Books, 2018, 180 pages.

Shortlisted for the 2018 National Book Award for Translated Literature

Set over one cold winter’s night in Norway, Love by Hanne Ørstavik, translated from the Norwegian by Martin Aitken, is a short and eerie story about a single mother, Vibeka, and her eight-year-old son, Jon, who, for reasons that never become entirely clear, have recently moved to a remote village in northern Norway.

The relationship between Vibeka and Jon is rather strange. They seem to be almost unaware of each other’s comings and goings, and their day-to-day interactions are very limited. The next day is Jon’s ninth birthday, and it soon becomes clear that Vibeka, who is preoccupied with her own concerns such as making herself look good and finding a man, has forgotten all about it. While throughout the book Jon often returns in his thoughts to his mother, daydreaming about the surprises that she might have planned for his birthday, Vibeka appears to be completely self-absorbed and shows almost no interest in the whereabouts of her son. It feels as if they’re both living it their own separate worlds and there is a palpable emotional distance between them.

She reaches out and smoothes her hand over his head.
   “Have you made any friends yet?”
   His hair is fine and soft.
   “Jon,” she says. “Dearest Jon.”
   She repeats the movement while studying her hand. Her nail polish is pale and sandy with just a hint of pink. She likes to be discreet at work. She remembers the new set that must still be in her bag, plum, or was it wine; a dark, sensual lipstick and nail polish the same shade. To go with a dark, brown-eyed man, she thinks with a little smile.

Beneath the seemingly mundane adventures of the central characters over the course of a single day there’s a layer of danger that keeps you, the reader, constantly on the edge of your seat. Both Vibeka and Jon are lonely souls longing for affection who, instead of communicating with each other, seek a connection with complete strangers. We see them interact with other people in the village, some of whom evoke a strong sense of unease that is heightened by the bleak and cold atmosphere of the setting. In all of their encounters with strangers, both of them come off as somewhat naive and overly trusting and that made this seemingly simple story into a very suspenseful read, in which something tragic might happen at any moment.

Ørstavik manages to successfully manipulate the reader and maintain a constant sense of tension by revealing the story in brief, alternating paragraphs that shift back-and-forth between Vibeka and Jon at the most dramatic points in their narrative, which leave the reader anxious to find out what happens next.

This short, haunting novella, written in spare and beautiful prose, will stay with me for quite some time, and now I’m also intrigued to check out her novel The Blue Room (translated by Deborah Dawkin) that was published by Peirene Press about a complicated mother-daughter relationship.

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