Boundary-Pushing Books for Fans of Narrative Experiments

Boundary-Pushing Books for Fans of Narrative Experiments


NATURAL HISTORY
By Carlos Fonseca
Translated by Megan McDowell
303 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $27.

Fonseca, a Costa Rican-Puerto Rican novelist and academic, follows the curator of a New Jersey museum of natural history, whose article on the wing patterns of tropical butterflies catches the eye of a celebrated fashion designer, Giovanna Luxembourg. They discuss a collaborative exhibition but their clandestine meetings lead nowhere.

When Luxembourg dies seven years later, the curator receives a set of manila envelopes filled with notes and images from their failed project. An insomniac vigil spent with these materials releases the flickering apparitions of Luxembourg’s past: a photographer who creates maps of ruined cities, a child prophet possessed of apocalyptic visions and a performance artist who emerges from a South American jungle to test the permeability of art and law.

“Natural History,” ably translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell, appropriates from the great metaphysicians of postmodern fiction. Its plotting and Delphic aura suggest the paranoiac glitter of Don DeLillo, the cosmopolitan dread of Roberto Bolaño and the imaginative elasticity of Ricardo Piglia, to whom the book is dedicated. But Fonseca makes an arid geometry of these vectors. Despite an interlocking, puzzle-box narrative, there is a curious inertness to the proceedings. The assembled characters are flattened by the exigencies of plot contrivance: They are like painted cutouts behind which some vast work of stagecraft has been erected. The cumulative effect is one of labored intricacy, a Rube Goldberg machine of a novel that, for all its ambition, seems designed primarily to signify its own complexity.

AVOID THE DAY
A New Nonfiction in Two Movements
By Jay Kirk
370 pp. Harper Perennial. Paper, $17.99.

The subtitle of this slanted memoir signals both its musical preoccupations and its cleaved and chimerical structure. Kirk accepts a journalism assignment investigating the mystery of a missing Bela Bartok manuscript. His booze- and pill-addled odyssey takes him to the hinterlands of Transylvania, where Bartok recorded the peasant works that furnished his modernist compositions with the rich idiom of folklore. When this search reveals itself to be a dead end, the second of the book’s two asymmetrical movements finds Kirk and a filmmaker friend on an Arctic cruise where, as in “Frankenstein,” “creator and monster come to fight it out in the end.”

Kirk writes textured, chewy prose. Potluck cooks are “radiant fat-witted women with steaming red arms.” Slabs of glacial ice tilt “like massive white piano lids.” A copse outside a mine stands “coated in a marmoreal haze.” While these flourishes can sometimes read as farcical (does an Arctic caldera really look like “a large granite vulva”?), Kirk’s rhetorical excess usually works in his favor, flecking each page with the froth of consciousness.

Experience is the book’s persistent crisis. Kirk fears that his journalist’s eye, ever framing and parsing, siphons the energies of his life before they can be properly assimilated. Perhaps this is why he is hesitant to commit to anything resembling a satisfying narrative arc. Reading “Avoid the Day,” one has the sense of two still-writhing limbs being sewn on to a torso. Still, when an arm happens to twitch, it gives off the thrill of unnatural animation.

CROSSINGS
By Alex Landragin
359 pp. St. Martin’s. $27.99.

A choice is offered at the outset of Landragin’s debut: Read the three mysterious texts it contains straight through or follow a prescribed sequence that snakes back and forth through the book, a narrative game reminiscent of the forked paths of Julio Cortázar’s “Hopscotch.” (The similarities end there, unfortunately.)

“Crossings” is presented as a found text. A wealthy baroness tasks a Parisian bookbinder with the binding of a manuscript. When she dies before collecting her text, the bookbinder reads the remarkable contents in disbelief: There’s a ghost story ostensibly written by Baudelaire, a noirish Paris romance with Walter Benjamin in the role of leading man and the story of a precolonial Pacific Islander who inhabits the souls of others in order to pursue her lover through time, himself in the soul of a European doctor.

The novel’s formal gambits and transgressive literary figures lend a bit of highbrow window dressing to an otherwise anodyne romance. Imagine a slightly elevated Dan Brown thriller, or a sequel to “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” and you’re mostly there. Netflix would do well to option it immediately.

LITTLE SCRATCH
By Rebecca Watson
202 pp. Doubleday. $23.95.

In the unfixed blur of this urban miscellany, little profundities gleam beneath quotidian surfaces. Watson’s debut inhabits the mind of a young woman as she goes about the business of an ordinary day. The nameless protagonist, haunted by a trauma I won’t spoil here, offers consistently sharp and often melancholic treatments of contemporary existence: the theater of joy and disappointment represented by text messages, say, or the depressive signifiers of corporate office life.

Watson depicts her protagonist’s consciousness by way of striking formal structures, using typographical tricks to illustrate the cacophonous complexity of inner life. There are helixes of thought that coil down the page, fields of white space, columns of present progressive verbs, calligrams, all-caps sentences and bracketed exclamations. While this could be distracting, or even indulgent, in lesser hands, Watson’s experiments serve to both deepen our immersion and reify the buried pain at the novel’s center.

While comparisons will be made to Lucy Ellmann’s “Ducks, Newburyport,” I was reminded of the experimental English novelist B. S. Johnson’s “House Mother Normal,” with its adventurous typography marking the convulsions, stutters and silences of the mind (albeit the geriatric variety). “Little Scratch” absorbs the more fragmented forms of attention and makes of them something rich, assured and sad.



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