Monday, August 01, 2005

Stories to Make You Go, "Huh?"

I had originally wanted to read Centuria: One Hundred Ouroboric Novels by Giorgio Manganelli just republished by McPherson & Company, but my library did not have it. It did have his book All the Errors however, so I went with it. I had no idea what to expect, but sometimes, especially when the book comes from the library, it's good to be surprised. Turns out the book is short stories. It is, to put it succinctly, a difficult book. The writing is wonderful and the long sentences and paragraphs several pages long put me in mind at times of Henry James. All of the new vocabulary words put me in mind of Eco. That said, I have no idea what most of the stories were about. The first story, "Leave-taking", gave me confidence. It is about a soul about to be born taking leave of the gods. The soul is not too happy about the situation either. The second story, "Lovers", was just plain depressing and went on for more pages than I thought necessary. The narration of the story switches back and forth between the woman and man. Each are attempting to explain what ties them together. Here is a sample:

What ties me to this man is a catalog of things of slight account, precisely in the sense that they could be neither bought nor sold, and there is no attic in which to store them; things that bear a whiff of shame, which is a feeling I love. If I examine my life and his life, these two lives that form no arithmetic sum, shame is the acutest sign I see, the blazon and trademark. This is what led us to believe we loved each other, but shame was our constant companion. Wasn't it then that we decided, unawares, that we ourselves would somehow be vehicles of shame? Shame revolved around us, and now it stands again where it stood at the start, directly in front of us, an habitual mirror.
It is a story about two dysfunctional people in a dysfunctional relationship neither of them has any interest in fixing or leaving. It is the dysfunction of it all that they find strangely appealing. After that story, the rest of the stories get stranger. "Travel Notes" is about a man who does nothing but walk along a road. When he is tired he stops at houses that are empty but which he peoples with a wife and children he doesn't have. He makes up a story about his imaginary family. At each house he imagines a different family, but also the same family. Eventually the road he travels on runs out. The end of the road is the end of the road for him too. As he contemplates this he comes to the conclusion "I am dreaming myself." The next two stories, "The H Point" and "System" are so abstract that I have no idea what they are about. These stories are followed by "The Self-awareness of the Labyrinth" in which a labyrinth contemplates itself and the meaning of its existence. The final story, "Betrothal", is about a man on his wedding day setting out to walk to the church because that is the tradition. Along the way he has several surreal experiences. When he finally arrives at the church he finds that he is too late. There is an explanation about why he is too late but I didn't even come close to understanding it. I wouldn't say that it was an error to read this book. There were moments of clarity as I read, but on the whole they were obscured by my lack of comprehension. If you enjoy good writing but don't require understanding, then give this book a try. If you like to understand what you read then you might want to skip it. If my library ever gets a copy of Centuria I will still give it a try, I just won't expect all of the "novels" to make sense.