Aetherial Worlds: Stories by Tatyana Tolstaya

Aetherial-Worlds
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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