How I Became a Nun

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A Departure from Reason: César Aira’s The Miracle Cures of Doctor Aira

César Aira’s novels are the narrative equivalent of the Exquisite Corpse, that Surrealist parlor game in which players add to drawings or stories without knowledge of previous or subsequent additions. Wildly heterogeneous elements are thrown together, and the final result never fails to surprise and amuse. Aira is wacky enough to play the game by himself, but the reader isn’t left out either. Instead, Aira conditions his readers, writing so that devotees — what Aira calls his “deluxe” readers — can recognize the ingenious repetitions that connect his vast and bizarre body of work. The author of more than 80 books, most of them short novels, Aira tells interviewers that he writes a page and a half each day in neighborhood cafés of Buenos Aires. He also famously denies revising anything he writes. Instead, as he explained to María Moreno in BOMB magazine, he allows real-life distractions and interruptions around him to appear in his narratives and push them along: “If a little bird enters into the café where I’m writing — it did happen once — it also enters into what I’m writing. Even if a priori it doesn’t relate to anything, a posteriori I make it relate.” This a posteriori technique of “making it relate” is a modified Surrealist technique that Aira sometimes calls his “flight forward.” It’s a creative process favored not only by Aira himself, but also by some of his characters: the title character of The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira and the Mad Scientist protagonist of The Literary Conference both mention “flight forward” as an element of their respective modes of invention. “Deluxe” readers with more extended immersion in Aira’s zany brain take delight in the metaphysical fugues that result from this madcap method: it is not uncommon for Aira’s unhinged narratives to devolve into delirious flights of reason capable of overthrowing the entire plot, just when the reader least expects it. As Dr. Aira believes: “Reason is one mode of action, nothing more, and it has no special privileges...In order to be effective, one had to depart from the purely reasonable, which would always be an abstract way of thinking devoid of any truly practical use.” Here we have César Aira’s philosophy of fiction, thinly disguised as the professional opinion of “Dr. Aira.” On a narrative level, “a posteriori” narration seems to work in at least two different ways. Sometimes Aira begins a novel by placing ambitious distance between its starting point and putative end: this is the case in How I Became a Nun, which begins with a male child narrator called César describing his first visit to an ice cream parlor with his father. Other novels begin with a highly improbable combination which Aira then relates, a posteriori, as he goes along. This is the case with The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira, which tells the story of a blundering middle-aged miracle worker beleaguered by his nemesis Dr. Actyn, a conventional MD bent on ruining Dr. Aira’s reputation by using hidden cameras to expose him as a fraud. Employing hordes of extras and elaborately staged verité snares, Actyn has made Dr. Aira’s life a living hell by subjecting him to the constant suspicion that he’s being duped. Miracle work and hidden-camera reality TV shows are far from peanut butter and jelly, but Aira’s flair for a posteriori plotting is seventy-something novels in the making. He pulls it off. There isn’t much else to the plot. Even if I revealed whether or not Dr. Actyn succeeds, I wouldn’t haven’t spoiled anything. Like most of Aira’s novels, the plot of The Miracle Cures is scaffolding. The book is mostly an erratic hodgepodge of digressive interior monologue, and the tale of the persecuted miracle worker playfully flirts at being nothing more than a metaphor for Aira’s flighty methods of literary creation. For instance, when Dr. Aira gets talked into granting another Miracle Cure after swearing them off, the narrator observes: Dr. Aira could have gotten out of it by telling them that there had been a mistake, a misunderstanding; he was a theoretician, one could almost say a “writer,” and the only thing that linked him to the Miracle Cures was a kind of metaphor... Such blunt meta-referentiality may appear tedious, but it’s actually hilarious. The joke will be half-lost on novice, non-deluxe readers, so those new to Aira ought to begin by reading a few of the other novels available in translation. This kind of readerly “training” will reveal that enjoyment of Aira’s novels has much less to do with what happens than with the digressive commentary on and acrobatic connections between what few plot elements there are. As he told María Moreno, In spite of all my admiration for Surrealism and Dadaism I never liked the mere accumulation of incongruous things. For me, everything has to be sewn together in a very conventional fashion...That sinuous thread in my novels is more interesting to me, more writeable, than a linear plot. To extend the sewing metaphor: Aira is like Penelope at the loom, but a sort of Penelope on speed. Instead of unraveling his creations in order to avoid completing them, Aira hurtles forward, churning out finished texts that seem to unravel themselves as they’re read. Over the last twenty years, Aira has made a trademark of writing at a rate that seems intended to prevent readers from ever catching up with him, a superproductivity that has also earned him criticism as a dilettante obsessed with lowbrow genre-fiction. Even for native Spanish readers in Latin America, access to Aira’s total catalog is difficult. He does this on purpose, requiring readers to search him out by favoring what he calls “those independent, almost clandestine publishers” that produce artisanal editions of his novels. This includes the cartonera presses in Latin America, which publish handmade books on recycled cardboard and paper collected by underemployed urbanites. Some of his novels, snatched up by collectors and foreign libraries, are hard to find. This means that Aira’s own method for reading — “when I start on an author I read him completely” — is unavailable to his own readers. Catching up with Aira in English translation will take even longer. Although he has been publishing steadily since the early 1980s — several novels annually in nearly every year since 1991 — English translations have lagged. The Miracle Cures is only the seventh of Aira’s books to be translated to English. This might have less to do with Aira than with vagaries of the North American publishing industry. New Directions is of course responsible for Anglophone readers’ access to Aira’s work, having published six of the seven available translations. For this we must be grateful. But they also appear to have delayed a more ambitious translation schedule for Aira until they have squeezed every last story and novel out of the desk stuffed with manuscripts that Roberto Bolaño seems to have left behind when he died in 2003. In any case, readers smitten with Aira’s whimsical philosophizing and swerving narratives need not fear further delay: Aira’s star is now on the rise among the Anglophone literati. Varamo, the most recent Aira translation, received praise from The Nation, The New Yorker, The New York Times, and the ever-hip Patti Smith. Bolaño nevertheless remains a looming presence — he is often mentioned when likenesses to Aira are sought. The comparison is perplexing, though, as the two writers have little in common from a stylistic standpoint. Descriptions of Aira as a 21st-century Borges are also inevitable; comparisons of the two Argentines are instructive, but remain inadequate. A closer resemblance might be Peruvian-Mexican writer Mario Bellatin, whose work remains untranslated but for his novel Beauty Salon and the three others collected in Chinese Checkers. Like Aira, he publishes at a frenetic rate (more than 15 books since 2001), having abandoned the modernist prerogative of the masterpiece novel in favor of larger, complex novel-systems composed of dozens of short novels that intersect and recycle characters and plot elements. Both writers also indulge in a habit of styling their protagonists after themselves, with many a “César” and “Mario” — and the occasional “Dr. Aira” — between them. These personalized novelistic universes have exploded with a Big Bang in Latin America, where writers struggled for decades to emerge from the long shadow of “Boom” generation writers like Mario Vargas Llosa and Gabriel García Márquez. Now that the reverberations are finally getting across the language barrier — and getting hyped by Patti Smith — we can anticipate an accelerated explosion of César Aira’s universe in English.

Fleeing Forward: On César Aira’s Varamo

César Aira is probably as known for the sheer volume of his literary output as he is for any individual masterpiece in his immense oeuvre. Aira publishes an average of two novels a year, in a career that has produced over 70 books, a staggering feat of perpetual fecundity. His newly translated novella Varamo takes place over the course of one evening in 1923, and follows the exploits of a government worker in Panama. After leaving his office with a pair of counterfeit bills received as his monthly salary, the novel’s eponymous character, through a series of uncanny circumstances that stem from the anxiety that the possession of the counterfeit currency engenders, ends up writing, in the hours before dawn, “that celebrated masterpiece of modern Central American poetry, The Song of the Virgin Boy.” Like some of those fabricated writers pulled from the South American air by Roberto Bolaño in Nazi Literature in the Americas or those fictional Bartleby’s that Spanish novelist Enrique Vila-Matas created to accompany the real writers who preferred not to in Bartleby & Co., Aira’s Varamo has a story that seems too good to be true, and is. Varamo is a Kafkaesque civil servant and, in his spare time, an amateur embalmer -- but one thing he is not is a writer, for “never, in all his fifty years, had he written or felt any inclination to write a single line of poetry, nor would he ever again.” Though Varamo only creates one work of art, he does so feverishly, over the course of that evening, and thus embodies, if not Aira’s unending output, at least his method of fuga hacia adelante (which roughly translates to: “fleeing forward”). Aira’s fuga hacia adelante technique is a method of writing that avoids revision. What he has written remains, and the next day's task is to take what he wrote the previous day, and, whatever box he has written himself into, improvise a way out of by fleeing forward through propulsive improvisation. This concept of improvisation is central to Aira's work, and takes a thematic forefront in Varamo: Intending to be natural was, in itself, contradictory and self-defeating. In his case, it was condemned to failure from the outset, because if he intended to improvise his course of action, he would have to act as if he were really improvising, and at the same time he would, also, really be improvising, which was no more feasible than moving in two opposite directions at the same time. This is precisely what Varamo does: it moves in two opposite directions at the same time. The titular character’s inspired night, which begins, as only an Aira novel could, with counterfeit bills and an undead fish, and ends with an avant-garde poem, reads as an explication of the fuga hacia adelante method: In the interval between that moment and the dawn of the following day, ten or twelve hours later, he completed the composition of a long poem, from the initial decision to write it up to the final period, after which there were no further additions or corrections. And yet, throughout the book, it becomes obvious that Aira is not merely using Varamo’s story as a guidebook describing his literary method, but rather that Aira is mocking these radical ideas of textual production in the same sentences in which he is defending them. In addition to this complicated two-way view of textual production, Aira also posits an equivalent muddle of interpretative technique. As an improvised and counterfeit example of literary criticism (of a non-existent text by a fabricated writer), Varamo idealizes the notion that a true account of the producing mind can be discovered through a thorough reading of the text which that mind produced. Halfway into the 88-page novella, the narrator embarks on a lengthy aside, proclaiming that Varamo is “a work of literary history, not a fiction,” and explaining why the “free indirect style” is useful in his presentation of the “facts” of that evening in Varamo’s life: But our invasion of Varamo’s consciousness is not magical or even imaginative or hypothetical. It is a historical reconstruction. The difference is that we have presented it backwards, starting with the final results of our research. All the circumstantial details with which we have been coloring the story of the character’s day and making it credible have been deduced (in the most rigorous sense of the word) from the poem that he finally wrote, which is the only document that has survived. However, the obvious impossibility and imprecision of such a herculean task undermines this proposition, and instead of critical sincerity, humor pervades the pages. After all, how could it be that “all the critic has to do is translate each verse, each word, backwards, into the particle of reality from which it sprang?” Could a “true” history ever be created through interpretation by working backwards, into the particle of reality from which it sprang? It depends on a definition of the word “true,” as later a definition of the word “realism” becomes important in an interpretation of Varamo as well. Jorge Luis Borges and (Aira’s mentor) Osvaldo Lamborghini are the touchstones here, of course, but the most interesting influence may be found in the way the writing of Polish émigré Witold Gombrowicz, who lived nearly half his life in Aira’s home country of Argentina, sneaks into Aira’s internal landscapes. A reimagined Gombrowiczian obsessional fantasy underpins Aira's Varamo. Bolaño, who called Aira “one of the three or four best writers working in Spanish today,” also saw this Gombrowicz connection, writing: “His novels seem to put the theories of Gombrowicz into practice, except, and the difference is fundamental, that Gombrowicz was the abbot of a luxurious imaginary monastery, while Aira is a nun or novice among the Discalced Carmelites of the Word.” Varamo has been cast as a lesser work in relation to some of the other Aira already in English translation -- namely How I Became a Nun and An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter -- and though this may be true, to overlook Varamo would be a mistake. As other great Spanish-language writers like Borges, Bolaño, and Vila-Matas have done, Aira shapes new worlds with his fiction -- but he does this in a unique style that is full of infinite possibility. As is written in Varamo, “Everything was possible, as in a world about to take shape.” Aira sees the world, and reality, in his own idiosyncratic way, and fashions the worlds of his books through the filter of that perspective, but as with all great writing, there is still an important component connecting it to reality, to “realism.” Though something like “free indirect discourse” may seem like a move toward the “magical,” and away from conventional realism, it is merely an attempt to get at a “truer” reality. This is the kind of “realism” we find in the novels of César Aira: Perhaps, said one, “the time has come for realism.” The other two disagreed vehemently: the time for realism would never come. To which the reply, and here they were all in agreement again, was that it depended on how realism was defined. The time for realism in that sense (to be defined) was always now.

The Aira Effect

About mid-way through César Aira’s novel An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, its protagonist, the German master of documentary painting Johann Moritz Rugendas and his assistant are crossing the Argentinean Pampas somewhere between Mendoza and San Luis.  They ride over a vast, featureless plain.  Soon they come to an even more desolate landscape. On the third day they came to expanses resonant with emptiness.  The sinister nature of the surroundings made an impression on the Germans, and, to their surprise, on the Gauchos too.  The old man and the boy talked in whispers, and the man dismounted on a number of occasions to feel the soil.  They noticed that there was no grass, not the least blade, and the thistles had no leaves: they looked like coral. It takes them some time to realize that this “lunar ocean” is the work of locusts who had swept through the land, leaving nothing behind.  Rugendas sets out in search of water and fodder.  Soon clouds gather: The storm broke suddenly with a spectacular lightning bolt that raced a zig-zag arc clear across the sky.  It came so close that Rugendas’ upturned face, frozen in an expression of idiotic stupor, was completely bathed in white light.  He thought he could feel its sinister heat on his skin, and his pupils contracted to pin-points.  The thunder crashing down impossibly enveloped him in millions of vibrations.  The horse began to turn beneath him.  It was still turning when a lightning bolt struck it on the head.  Like a nickel statue, man and beast were lit up with electricity.  For one horrific moment, regrettably to be repeated, Rugendas witnessed the spectacle of his body shining.  The horse’s mane was standing on end, like the dorsal fin of a swordfish. That’s what reading Aira is like: you don’t know where you are or what you are looking at, but the air is full of electricity. César Aira was born in Argentina in 1949, in the wonderfully named town of Colonel Pringles, the Wikipedia page of which promises visitors an Arbor of Historical Trees that was one visited by Jorge Luis Borges.  Since 1967 he has lived in Buenos Aires.  He is a writer of immense productivity, having written over sixty novels in addition to translations and works of criticism.  Only four of his works are currently in print in English, which makes it difficult to evaluate the totality of his output except on the principle of the iceberg: there’s a lot more under the water than what we can see. Roberto Bolaño called him the “one contemporary writer who defies classification,” but Anglophone readers will naturally tend to group him in the loose circle of writers who seem to move in Bolanño’s general orbit.  Besides Aira, this informal Bolaño-kreis would include the Salvadorean writer Horacio Castellanos Moya and the Catalan Enrique Vila-Matas.  But while the links between these two and Bolaño are reasonably clear – Moya shares his fascination with urban violence and the sinister underside of Latin American politics, and Vila-Matas his interest in creating a fully recursive literature – the connection to Aira is harder to specify. Aira considers himself an experimental novelist.  His working method relies on internal momentum, using what he calls the “continuum” or the “constant flight forward.  This procedure allows him to overcome self-censorship and the burdens of traditional form.  He writes a page or two a day, without revising or going backward until the book assumes its desired shape.  This technique results in strange, brief novels which oscillate between the mundane and the fantastic multiple times over their short spans.  The four available in English are works of compression, detail and mystery in which tightly controlled surfaces of prose are deployed in the service of haphazard curlicues of plot.  In fact, it might be easier to treat the novels like ballads and summarize them along the lines of Harry Smith’s liner notes to the Anthology of American Folk Music: An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter – Savage Indians and facial trauma await an artist in the pampas. How I Became a Nun – Poisoned ice cream and illiteracy complicate a girl/boy’s first year of school. Ghosts – Nudist specters urge a teenage girl to join them for a New Year’s Eve feast. The Literary Conference – Pirate treasure helps poor writer clone an army out of Carlos Fuentes. Of course, this doesn’t really do justice either to the books’ intricacy or to their wildness.  But that’s all right, because plot is always a secondary concern in Aira.  His novels are always about something in addition to themselves. An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, Aira’s masterpiece, is on the surface just what its title says it is: the story of a brief episode which marked a turning point in the career of the real-life German artist Johann Moritz Rugendas.  Rugendas’ specialty was a now-forgotten branch of landscape painting propagated by Alexander von Humboldt and called the “physiognomy of nature,” which aimed to document the infinite forms of nature and resolve these into a discrete number of primary types.  Following Humboldt’s advice, Rugendas comes to the New World in order to find landscapes worthy of his brush.  The novel picks up in the middle of his travels across the continent, narrating a trip from Santiago to Buenos Aires which has to be cut short by a gruesome accident. Over the course of its eighty-seven pages, Episode exposes readers to a Baedeker’s-worth of scenic spectacle and local color: hallucinatory vegetation, snow-capped peaks, lightning storms, Indian raids and endless plains.  The effect of all this detail and incident on such a small canvas is vertiginous, like reading an epic poem etched on a grain of sand. I’m making the novel sounds like something by a Latin American Larry McMurtry, but Aira’s method is closer to that of a miniaturist than a painter of history.  Telling the story through Rugendas’ eyes, Aira’s prose acquires a rare intensity of vision.  Here he is describing one of the immense carts used for hauling loads across the pampas: Because they had only two wheels (that was their peculiarity), they tipped back when unloaded and their shafts pointed up at the sky, at an angle of forty-five degrees.  The ends of the shafts seemed to disappear among the clouds; their length can be deduced from the fact that they could be used to hitch ten teams of oxen.  The sturdy planks were reinforced to bear immense loads; whole houses, on occasion, complete with furniture and inhabitants.  The wheels were like fairground Ferris wheels, made entirely of carob wood, with spokes as thick as roof-beams and bronze hubs at the center, laden with pints of grease. I love those upturned shafts, which turn the humble cart into a Jacob’s ladder bridging earth and heaven, while the carob-wood wheels and bronze hubs call to mind something between a lumberyard appliance and a Viking trousseau.  Looking at the cart, Rugendas feels compelled to follow it across the plains: “He felt it would be like traveling in time: proceeding rapidly on horseback along the same route, they would catch up with carts that had set off in other geological eras, perhaps even before the inconceivable beginning of the universe.” As the novel moves forward, Rugendas, and Aira through him, comes closer and closer to an ideal of art as unmediated vision.  The cost is considerable.  Rugendas’ accident leaves him with a grotesquely deformed face and prone to terrible migraines, which he treats with tinctures of opium.  It also intensifies his ability to see: “He had never seen better in his life.  In the depths of that mantled night the pinpricks of his pupils woke him to the bright day’s panorama.  And powdered poppy extract, a concentrated form of the analgesic, provided sleep enough for ten reawakenings per second.”  By the end Rugendas is something not quite human, a “waking nightmare,” the star of a horror film whose monster is the Emersonian eyeball. Ghosts shares Episode’s preoccupation with the visible world, if in a less frenzied key.  The entire action takes place over the course of a single day, New Year’s Eve, in and around a Buenos Aires construction site.  The night watchman, a Chilean immigrant, and his family live in the unfinished building as squatters.  The father, Raúl, is a good worker, but a bit of a drunkard.  His wife, Elisa, is a levelheaded housewife, “that anomaly, not nearly as rare as is often supposed: a mother immune to the terrifying fantasy of losing her children in a crowd.”  Their daughter, Patri, quiet but philosophically “frivolous,” spends the day wandering through the empty structure.  All of them see the ghosts which haunt it: portly naked men covered in fine cement dust whose members stretch like accordions.  The ghosts float between floors and sit on the satellite dishes “on which no bird would have dared to perch.”  Raúl uses them to refrigerate his wine; inserting a bottle into the ghosts’ thorax not only cools the wine, but also transmutes it into an “exquisite, matured cabernet sauvignon.”  Elisa does her best to ignore them.  But Patri is drawn to them by a strange attraction, and they to her, swarming around her head in a “luminous helix.”  Toward evening, they invite her to their midnight feast, though without mentioning the price of admission. Between hauntings, Ghosts is filled with Aira’s beautifully precise observation of the texture of everyday life.  Most of the novel is occupied with the description of a workday, the preparations for a lunch, the problem of getting change in a grocery store, the difference between Chilean and Argentinean hair styles, laundry.  Elisa uses an inordinate amount of bleach in her washing, with the result that her family’s clothes “were so faded and had that threadbare look, humble and worn, yet beautifully so.  Even if an article of clothing was new, or brightly colored when she bought it, for the very first wash (a night-long soak in bleach) it took on the whitish, delicate and somehow aristocratic appearance that distinguished the clothes of the Viñas family.”  Viewed from this close, ordinary existence opens out to other dimensions.  Aira is a master at pivoting between the mundane and metaphysical.  In the middle of Ghosts, Patri takes a nap during the siesta and dreams of her unfinished building.  Her dream turns into a disquisition on the problem of the unbuilt in the arts, on the philosophical underpinnings of architecture in different cultures, and finally, a blueprint for Aira’s brand of literature, “an art in which the limitations of reality would be minimized, in which the made and the unmade would be indistinct, an art that would be instantaneously real, without ghosts.” How I Became a Nun begins with a cone of poisoned ice cream, part of a wave of lethal contaminations which was “sweeping Argentina and the neighboring countries that year.”  Despite appearances, it is another attempt by Aira to create a literature of unmediated experience. This is a quest which runs through all of his work.  Near the end of Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, Rugendas experiences something like it with regard to the visible world while in the grip of an opium trance:  “We come up against the words, and before we know it, we are already emerging on the other side, grappling with the thought of another mind.  Mutatis mutandis, the same thing happens with a painter and the visible world…. What the world was saying was the world….Reality was becoming immediate, like a novel.”  Aira’s strange framing conceits work like the inverse of Barthes’ reality effect. Grounding his novels in the extraordinary gives him the space to tunnel into the everyday world, Francis Ponge by way of Kobo Abe. How I Became a Nun is a novel about childhood.  It also contains one of the best sentences and the worst pun in recent literature.  The sentence is an unprovable conjecture about semantic limits of sign language: “In the language of gestures, the dwarf must be unsayable.”  For the pun, you’ll have to read the book to the end.  After the poisoning, it settles into an episodic narrative about a year in the life of a child, a girl named César Aira, whom the world seems to regard as a boy.  Very little is made of this ambiguity.  Even less is made of the vampire plague which pops up in the background. For the most part, little César’s childhood is fairly normal.  After the second chapter, César’s father is in jail and her mother struggles to provide for the family, but otherwise he/she undergoes the usual adventures of being a seven-year old: learning to read, making a friend, listening to the radio, playing make believe.  Aira has a gift for inhabiting the particular logic of children, with its excess of thought without sense to guide it.  César alternately under- and overreacts to events, throws fits, tells strange, pointless lies, misunderstands wholes sets of concepts.  She arrives in school after a three month absence and doesn’t know how to read.  The process appears to her as an “abstract mimicry,” a “recondite algebra in which the teachers specialized for reasons that were none of my concern.”  Visiting her father in prison she hides for a day and a night, fantasizing about the search provoked by her disappearance.  Asked by a doctor about her symptoms while recuperating in the hospital, César launches into a typically elaborate dishonesty: An urge, a whim or a manic obsession that not even I could explain impelled me to sabotage the doctor’s work, to trick him.  I pretended to be stupid…I must have thought the opportunity was too good to waste.  I could be as stupid as I liked, with impunity.  But it wasn’t simply a matter of passive resistance.  Doing nothing at all was too haphazard, because sometimes nothing can be the right response, and I was determined not to let chance determine my fate.  So even though I could have left his questions unanswered, I took the trouble to answer them.  I lied.  I said the opposite of the truth, or the opposite of what seemed truest to me. This passage gives me a pang of recognition.  César’s convoluted rationales recall the dimly remembered reasons behind various childhood decisions, like building a fort and then destroying it to keep it from being destroyed, or hiding for hours among the women’s wear racks in a Value City in hopes of raising an alarm.  In its own way, it’s a triumph of psychological realism.  Certainly it’s a tremendous relief after years of American fiction in which are children are confined to the axis of angel, savant and thug. In The Literary Conference, the most recent and most antic of his novels to appear in English, Aira is once again his own protagonist.  This time he is an adult, and male, an author of middling renown and a struggling translator.  He is also a master of genetics and genius at solving nautical puzzles, a skill which he uses in the prologue to raise an ancient treasure from the Venezuelan seafloor.  Still, César is afflicted by the same mental hyperactivity that plagued him in How I Became a Nun: “Everything is a metaphor in the hyperkinetic microscope of my psyche, everything is instead of something else.” This torrent makes it hard for him to unwind.  In between the raising of the treasure and the fulfillment of his diabolical plan for world domination (or Latin American literary respectability), he takes a brief vacation at a literary conference, but he can’t relax, distracted by the “thousands of tiny incidents, all full of meaning” that happen “while nothing was happening.”  At one point he tries to measure the velocity of his thoughts: I am trying a method of my own invention: I shoot a perfectly empty thought through all the others, and because it has no content of its own, it reveals the furtive outlines – which are stable to the empty one – of the contents of the others.  That retrograde cloned mini-man, the Speedometer, is my companion on solitary walks and the only one who knows all my secrets. He could be talking about his own work as a writer.  Everything in Aira has that Mad Scientist feel to it.  His novels are eccentric clones of reality, where the lights are brighter, the picture is sharper and everything happens at the speed of thought.

A Year in Reading: Scott Esposito

Scott Esposito is the editor of The Quarterly Conversation and the host of the literary blog Conversational Reading. His writing on books has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Chattahoochee Review, and the Rain Taxi Review ofBooks, among others.I'm a big advocate of the test of time - often I'm favorably impressed by a book right when I finish, but in the ensuing weeks and months, when I have a chance to look back through a book and see how it ages in my mind, many books that I once thought were good begin to lose their luster. So, in order that you can attach the proper grains of salt to each pick, I'm going to do my favorites for 2007 in the order in which I read them.Chris Adrian's The Children's Hospital, the third book I read, reads like a grand old mannered novel that got stuck with a 21st-century premise: there's a new Biblical Flood, and all that survives is a children's hospital. The story unfolds as the staff and the tiny patients figure out what God has in store for them. If this sounds overly religious and fantastic, it isn't - Adrian builds amazingly realistic characters while telling a tale that, although it certainly includes elements of fantasy, should satisfy any devoted realist. Adrian's an amazing talent, and for more info, read my review of this book.A couple books later I read what might be my very favorite novel of the past few years: Life: A User's Manual by Georges Perec. This novel simply describes the rooms in a Paris apartment building, but in these descriptions Perec ranges all over the world, telling all kinds of amazing, intricately crafted stories. The whole book is too complex and well-built to ever do justice to in a small paragraph like this - so, please, just read it.At number 15 is The Savage Detectives, another book composed of discreet, story-type units. This book is generally agreed to be Roberto Bolano's masterpiece (either that or the never-completed 2666), and in it Bolano simply traces the lives of two poet-youths as they and their forgotten generation age. Though the book is innovative and stylistically challenging, it still delivers realistic characters and deep emotion.About ten down we come to Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian and the first book of Proust, both of which I won't bother to write about as readers probably know about them already, and then at 28 Raymond Queneau's Witch Grass, a wonderful, playful book that one might legitimately say is about "nothing." Some have said that this is Queneau's gloss, in novel form, of Descartes' "I think, therefore I am," but regardless of how you interpret it, this is a plain old joyful read, as Queneau's prose is continually fresh and entertaining. In my blog, I wrote a little about it.At 36 is Austen's Sense and Sensibility, which made me wish I had read her earlier; Edith Wharton's Age of Innocence follows at 37. Then we get onto some works of criticism: Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism, in which he lays out his famous theory of myths and tries to pin down the basic kinds of stories people tell. Though this book is sometimes dense, there's a lot here, and it certainly changed the way I looked at narratives. A little after that I read Wayne Booth's The Rhetoric of Fiction, in which he looks at how works of fiction are built. As erudite as this book is, it's highly readable; Booth meant this as the definitive book on rhetoric in fiction, and though he tried to bite off more than he (or probably anyone) could chew, this is about as good an attempt as you're going to get.After that I dipped into a little Spanish, reading Cesar Aira's How I Became a Nun and Enrique Vila-Matas's Bartleby & Co. The Aira is a subversively funny work about a little boy (or is it girl?) who has a completely crazy experience when his father takes him out for his first taste of ice cream; the Vila-Matas is an un-novel that is composed entirely of footnotes to a book never written about writers who stopped writing. It's a very clever book that transcends mere cleverness, and for more about Vila-Matas, whom I think is an amazing writer, have a look at my essay on him.After that there was Iris Murdoch's masterful The Sea, the Sea, which I blogged about. In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin, the unforgettable Tristram Shandy, Alex Ross's fine overview of 20th-century classical music, The Rest Is Noise, George Eliot's Middlemarch (which I can't recommend highly enough), and, most recently, the Renaissance work of 100 stories, The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio.Though the last was written in the 14th century and may seem a little old and musty, I hope people give it a look. These stories are clinics in how to compose a short work of fiction, and reading them compared to something written by a more contemporary author is as refreshing as listing to a Bach sonata after taking in a symphony by Shostakovich. Moreover, these are just plain fun - Boccaccio's swipes at the church make you realize that people always have, and always will, have axes to grind with politicians and those in power, and his stories are bawdy enough to make you laugh out loud at his boldness.More from A Year in Reading 2007
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