Isabel Allende – The Just Hatchet Job

Maggie Shipstead in the New Republic has a long (and accurate) negative review of the new Isabel Allende novel. Unfortunately, Allende’s work just isn’t that good. I say unfortunately because as the most famous Latin American woman writer and given the propensity of critics to treat women authors differently, in other words call a novel by a woman women’s writing, her work is a disservice to the books that are really worth reading.

It has to be said that the fact that Allende’s books are translated from Spanish introduces an element of critical uncertainty. In 1987, reviewing her second novel, Of Love and Shadows, John Updike wrote that “perhaps the translator should share the blame” for the primness of the prose. At this point, 17 books in, I think the time is past for blaming the translator. Take this sentence from Maya’s Notebook: “‘So the fucking slut wants to go back to California!’ he mocked threateningly.” Its bland aggression and adverbial clunkiness would be cringe-worthy in any language. And no translator could have snuck in the cheesiness of Maya’s description of her mixed-race lover’s body: “He looks like Michelangelo’s David, but his coloring is much more attractive.” Or the exposition of the obvious that takes over the dialogue as the plot devolves into a goofy caper: “‘Good thinking, Mike,’ interjected my Nini, whose eyes were starting to twinkle as well. ‘To fly, Maya would need a ticket in her name and some form of ID—that leaves a trail—but we can cross the country by car without anybody finding out.’” Allende has lived in the U.S. for more than 20 years and speaks English fluently. She reads her English translations and offers notes on them. It might be time to accept that this style, with all its limitations, is her style.

A certain overstuffedness, of course, is one attribute of magical realism, an aesthetic that Gabriel García Marquez popularized and Allende embraced.2 Maya’s Notebook, as I read it, is a realist novel with a few fantastical flourishes that seem less about speaking to life’s absurdities and more about indulging in sentimentality. For example, a dog senses a woman is dead in her house and begins howling, which sets off all the other dogs, and the mass howling brings the neighbors running—to the correct house. There is also a ghost who pops up here and there and is treated with a certain earnestness, but there are no grand, obviously magical gestures. No one has the power of telekinesis or naturally green hair, as in The House of the Spirits; and no one ascends to heaven while hanging up the laundry, as in Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. A magical realist novel about contemporary Las Vegas that incorporates the fantastic, the dreamlike, and the mythical sounds like a intriguing idea, but this is not that novel.

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Tin House #50 – A Review

I finally finished the ever interesting Tin House this week. As usual, there were some excellent pieces and some that, while not bad, weren’t as interesting. The big piece in the issue was an excerpt form Michel Houellebecq’s newest book, The Map and the Territory. I’ve only read Platform and found parts of it interesting, this piece, as is the case with most novel excerpts, did little to interest me, or better said, I would like to read his book in spite of what I read here. On the other hand, Maggie Shipstead’s You Have A Friend in 10A mines in some way similar territory as Houellebecq, but makes it a little more interesting. Essentially, it is the story of a Katie Holmes like actress who is trying to survive the escape from a Scientology-like group. It is a dark picture of control, a story one knows or thinks one knows after passing the magazines at the checkout counter so many times. She had several rhetorical touches that made the story interesting and lifted it above the cringe worth stories of drugs and depravity that can come from this subject. Eric Puchner’s Little Monsters was a nice change of pace, telling a science fiction story of a race of young people who are manufactured and who kill any older adults who were created through sexual intercourse. It isn’t exactly a new idea, I know there is a Star Trek story along those lines, but he brought an impressionistic sensibility to what could have been cold science fiction. And as the two young characters learn to take care of a dying adult, the transformation doesn’t bring about a revolution but does cast the brutality of their lives into a new light. The best story of the fictions, though was Quintan Ana Wikswo’s The Little Kretshmar, a story about a couple learning to deal with their disabled son. What set the story apart is Wikswo strips the story down, removing all temporal and physical baggage so that it is just the actions or results of actions that exist.:

For now, the rings dangle on short strings around their necks. When they lean over the little Kretschmar, the rings swing and dangle. But the little Kretschmar cannot see them, nor can he grab at them. The rings swing in peace as the little Kretschmar rolls to the left, and then to the right.

It is all a reminder of the sauna, of Saturday, of sex and disgust and shame. He will no longer look at her rich, high breasts. She turns away when he unbuttons.

And they avert their eyes from the little Kretschmar when he cries, and tuck the rings inside their shirts.

The accumulation of the little pieces, almost devoid of emotion are more arresting, and do not weigh the story down with the extraneous details about time of day or the color of the sun.

The best piece of non fiction in the issue was Sonia Faleiro’s piece Leela, The Mumbai Bar Dancer. The opening is an excellent example of stretching the essay form. Faleiro starts off in what is third person but is really a playful first person between her and Leela, a kind of dance that Leela plays out with all her clients. It gives a great sense of Leela because it characterizes her, lets her act and speak on her own (even though this is just an illusion), instead of a description of her. She manages to capture more than just the working conditions, but a sense of Leela.