Ma Bo’le’s Second Life, Xiao Hong, trans. Howard Goldblatt, Open Letter, 2018.
The Bottom of the Sky, Rodrigo Fresán, trans. Will Vanderhyden, Open Letter, 2018.
Narrator, Bragi Ólaffson, trans. Lytton Smith, Open Letter, 2018.
Run from the University of Rochester (Rochester, New York), Open Letter is one of the finest nonprofit presses on this pouting rascal of a planet, and has released some of the most exciting in world literature over the last half-decade. Here are three novels from 2018 to which I have applied my readerly tongue. The first is Ma Bo’le’s Second Life, a curious “collaboration” between author and translator, the final novel from Xiao Hong (a prolific female writer who croaked at 30), an incomplete manuscript that Howard Goldblatt has completed from chapter nine onwards. The publisher, with their usual flair for mouthwatering comparisons, has likened this novel to Bouvard and Pécuchet, and others have ref-bombed similar novels feat. wartime bumblers (see Hasek or Heller), although the novel is more in the line of classic Chinese storytelling (laconic descriptions, realist, light humour). The plot follows the titular bumbler, an aimless father and husband with rich parents who stumbles around Chongqing and Shanghai and elsewhere, involving himself in various schemes, such as starting a publishing house, until the Japanese encroach and Bo’le’s bumblingness has more serious consequences. Goldblatt succeeds in blurring the line between Hong’s original and his own compositions, but the novel meanders somewhat from set-piece to set-piece, and ennui sets in towards the final stretch. An episodic, involving tale, and appreciative honks for Hong’s witty encapsulation of the period.
Next, The Bottom of the Sky. Securing the correct nouns or verbs or consovowels or whatever for reviewing a Fresán novel is a thankless hecksercise. Fresán reduces me to sounds like “haaooo” and “whaaee” as saliva oozes from my awestricken maw. The Invented Part, a kaleidopaedic encycloscope, published last year by Open Letter, was an astonishing polyphonic sprawl, a feverish ref-stuffed masterpiece running at the frantic brainspeed of DFW, with the lyricism and impishness of a Fuentes or an Infante, yet insanely modern. This novel is an homage to classic science-fiction, featuring stories yanked from the lives of Philip K. Dick and L. Ron Hubbard, and more homageful tangents than this casual SF knower can know. The blurb has the plot. What matters here is that incredible style: Fresán’s freewheeling anaphora (p’haps his signature manouevre), his lyrical list-like prose style that has a rollicking improvised feel (while reading spiffed to perfection) and that mix of profundity, hilarity, and oh-so-knowing nerdishness. Rodrigo makes the encyclopedic effortless. He is a beautiful show-off and makes erudition and fanboyism into a blissful and glorious thing. For that, I kiss his face for a long time. One of the modern prose masters whose novels have that rare quality, they make you crazily desperate to read them. (P.S. Note another brilliant Open Letter comparison—“a Kurt Vonnegut novel told by David Lynch through the lens of Philip K. Dick”—you cheeky imps!)
And last, Narrator. In this meandering novel from the former bassist in The Sugarcubes, a character named an initial (when will this Kafkan cliché ever cease?) wanders around the Icelandic capital trailing a nemesis named Aron who used to sleep with the same woman he used to (or wants to) sleep with for 150 pages. Fragments of the protagonist’s past are revealed in untantalising dribbles, and the narrative voice flips between first and third persons, calling into question the author’s ID and narratorial truthfulness (like the nouveau roman never happened), and for the most part the novel describes, in plodding pedestrian prose, a string of unremarkable events and thoughts that take place over a short timespan and serve up no concrete reasons to care about the outcome of this mercifully brief tale of ciphers. (Note: wonderful translator Lytton Smith rendered Bergsson’s Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller into exhilarating English last year, a superior monolith of Iceladnic lit, also from Open Letter).