Why I Killed My Best Friend by Amanda Michalopoulou – A Review

Why I Killed My Best Friend
Amanda Michalopoulou
Open Letter 2013, 257pg

Amanda Michalopoulou’s short story collection I’d Like was a particular favorite at By the Fire Light, so it is particular excitement that I review her newest book to come out in English, Why I Killed My Best Friend. Originally published in Greece in 2003, it is at once a reflection of that time and the current troubles in Greece. The political events that take place in the book make this a departure from I’d Like’s more literary explorations, nevertheless, Why I Killed My Best Friend has some deft touches that make the book resonate.

Briefly, the story follows two friends, Maria and Anna, from childhood to adulthood. Maria comes from a middle class family who is part of the establishment, and her best friend Maria comes from a revolutionary family, whose parents teach revolution and do not lead anything like a middle class life. It is a friendship filled with conflict, Anna dominating the relationship with her certain positions on politics and life. Even at an young age, Anna repeats leftist political slogans and criticizes Maria for her lack of commitment. The bond is so strong that as they grow and Anna becomes more and more mercurial, Maria becomes the one who commits herself to politics, letting her art become subservient to activism. Maria is the one who goes to the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999. Anna? She marries and architect who says he is a radical in his designs, but it ultimately sounds as if he is just spouting some cultural theory that justifies in action.

From this brief sketch, we have two conflicting lives that are bound with a friendship that is at times intense other times spiteful. It is Anna who always steals Maria’s boyfriends—she is the better looking of them, according to Maria. Neither finds in their rebellion much success. Anna, is more mercurial, listless, uninterested in the politics that Maria has dedicated her life to. Maria, is fighting the good fight, but as much as she loves Anna and the struggle, she is always finding herself in a disadvantageous position. All her battles end in a certain failure and if the political ones can be absorbed, the personal ones that have seen her defeated at the hands of her best friend, leave her unhappy. You get a sense of frustration that permeates what is ostensibly a story of friendship. With friends like these…

While the relationship is interesting, the politics are not so much as uninteresting, but unconnected. They are a mini reportage of the movements of the 80s and 90s, but they appear as name dropping. Perhaps that is the point, that Maria’s reasoning behind her actions are less thought out and are more a reaction to Anna. In this sense the politics do not feel a strange reminder of battles forgotten, as much as battles unexplained. For the reader they are a backdrop, not the raison d’entre of the novel, and in this sense they are interesting, a kind of greatest hits.

Ultimately, Why I Killed My Best Friend secedes as a story of friendship. As a story of modern Greece, it is less successful. It is not as successful as I’d Like, but it is a good effort.

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Interview with Etgar Keret at Words Without Borders

Words Without Borders has an interesting interview with the short story writer Etgar Keret about his process and what he thinks of creative writing programs and craft. I am a big fan of his stories and he has been one my most interesting finds in the world of short stories over the last year or two along with Amanda Michalopoulou and Hipólito Navarro. Because his works deviate from the more American tradition of epiphany and craft, I find his work quite refreshing. His take on craft, something I was taught in my earliest creative writing classes and still seems to haunt me like some tedious specter, was interesting. 

DH: Do you think there is an essential difference between what people think a good story is in contemporary American literature and in other parts of the world? I mean, do you see a difference between what is considered a good story here and, say, in Israel?

EK: I can’t speak for the rest of the world, but what I can say about the US is that there are many readers and creative writing professors who are into the tradition of the “well written story,” which is something I completely dislike because it focuses on the craft machine. I tell my students that they should focus on writing “the badly written” good story. There is something paralyzing if you are thinking all the time about the form; it can stop you from focusing on the true passion and emotion. Here I can see that some people could characterize my stories as “shaggy dog stories” because they say, “OK, this is about a guy who went to a bar, etc., but this is not literature” because I don’t write the typical New Yorker story. I think this is very American because it goes with the Protestant work ethic: when you read a story you should see that someone worked very hard on it. But when I write something I want to hide my effort. I want people to feel that I am speaking to them. If it took me two months to write it I want it to look as if I didn’t make any effort. This is something that clashes with the American tradition. If you compare Bob Dylan singing a song with someone from American Idol, the latter sings better, he has a better voice. But the guy from American Idol is thinking about “singing well,” while Bob Dylan is thinking about the song. So the American kind of “well written” story is about creating an American Idol kind of story.

DH: I believe in that, and it makes sense, given the fact that your stories are not premeditated, but they start based on sound or rhythm. Now, you are a writer that in this country we read in translation, so there is problem with that.

EK: The problem is that English is 30/% longer than Hebrew. In Hebrew you can really construct very short sentences. In know this because I work with two very, very creative translators. And many times I don’t want them to be loyal to the text, but to the meter. For example, I have a story that begins with a series of compliments about a guy; but when my translator translated the story, it didn’t work because she wanted to translate the word, but the rhythm didn’t work. So, I told her, “Forget about the word! It should be ta-ta-ta.”

I’d Like – A Review

I’d Like is not just a collection of stories, but a way telling them that is fresh and reinvigorates the form. Amanda Michalopoulou has constructed a reinforcing set of insights into story telling that is not consumed in the tediums of art about itself. The focus on reworking how stories are told does not hobble the stories, though, instead it adds an element of mystery and metaphysical shifting as if the epiphanies and narrative truths that so permeate the genre once reached are then undone as the story is revealed to be part of something different. The revelation shifts the meaning of the stories and ultimately the conclusions one can draw about the stories.

Michalopoulou, though, is writing neither theory nor dense esoteric investigations. Instead she uses a sparse prose that features fleating references to other stories or other characters. She seldom describes the environment her characters inhabit; description would distract from the multiplicity of voices and root them into conventional frames. She also uses first person only to make the stories float into each other. It is not always clear at first who is speaking. Is it a character in a story as it is in the eponymous I’d Like, or is it the character of the author who talks to her story—one surprisingly similar to I’d Like—in a restaurant and argues about whether it is full of clichés? It is an instant critique of what seemed like a good story of a marriage grown tiresome and an escape to New York. There is an air of disappointment in her thoughts

Ever since she was born I only read short stories. Novels are like murals would take a lifetime to finish one. And poetry makes my hormonal issues even worse. I sit there and cry because Hermes, who wanted to be a perfumer, suddenly dies at age twenty-seven, in a Syrian seaport. Or because the sy is a blue and gold mistake.

Short stories suit new mothers who love to read. They open the back door for you, let you peek in at reddish beards, chambermaids, women who turn into tables. You sign into an imaginary neck and it’s over.

Clearly, Michalopoulou is interested in story telling, yet there is a connection not only to the everyday experience of the reader, but the experience of the characters of her stories. The story is grounded in the actual, but still how the story is told is important.

I’d Like also uses reoccuring images to to work the conections between the stories into the reader’s mind. The connections are subtle and serve to add curiosity—didn’t that appear a couple stories ago—rather than function as clues to that weave a complete narrative together. A red barrette, for example, is stolen from the top of a corpse on a gurney. It is a impulsive act, but in most stories it would be just a stream of consciouses moment that doesn’t mean too much. Latter, though, the barrette appears as the trademark hat of a beloved sister. The sister though, is based on someone the writer knows. The barrette functions, then, as a narrative image for the stories that are written by the character of the author, the influence that links the character of the author’s reality with her stories, and a narrative image for the reader that links each of the different realties—the fiction and the meta fiction—to each other.

Thematically, Michalopoulou’s stories revolve around the lives of the character of the writer and two sisters and their family. The two sisters come and go through the stories at different ages and phases of life. The glimpses are brief and give just enough of the tensions that exist between siblings. The tensions, though, are not banal or insipid, but reveal the way siblings interact in simple every day ways. The writer’s theme is about writing, not so much about what makes good writing, but what it is from one’s own life that becomes writing. Michalopoulou, too, is interested in how the writing reflects back on to the writer. If a story effects the reader, can’t a story effect the writer. Again, it is the criss crossing of narrative realties that becomes one of the themes.

Michalopoulou can be a funny writer and Light is the best and funniest story in the collection. One of the sisters loses her sister in a car crash and the day she learns about the accident two Mormons come to her door. Feeling lonely, she invites them in and they talk. She doesn’t know anything about mormonism, but she keeps having the Mormons back to her home to talk and pray even though she doesn’t really care that much. At the end of the story her sister returns in a dream. She ask sher sister

“Did Moroni send you?”
“No, your gulability did.”

The levity underscores the tension between the sisters, whose separation has been much trouble for the survivor. The balance between the humor and the sadness is perfectly balanced and quite funny. It is part of the playfulness of the stories that make them so good.

I’d Like is a great collection of stories that blends genres and styles to create a unique collection of stories that moves short story writing past the problem becomes realization formula.

Amanda Michalopoulou in Context

Dalkey Archive’s magazine Context has a good interview with Amanda Michalopoulou. She talks about I’d Like and it sounds as interesting as I have heard. I can’t wait to read it, although I have a couple more books lined up before it.  She said a couple of interesting things.

Characters are the vehicles of ideas, but they have to work as characters. If not, you’re writing theory, not literature. The idea behind the characters in this book is that family can be a mechanism of oppression. I guess all my characters feel very clearly that they are obeying other people’s wishes. Writing can be a true act of disobedience, so the desire the younger sister has to write these stories down is a step towards salvation. I believe that writing can and should do that: save characters who are suffering, and, possibly, their author as well.

And later

Helping people to be alone in a room, alone in the world, and yet surrounded by so many human beings inside their head. This is one of the greatest joys in life. And I say this as a reader now, not as a writer.