Dance, Recover, Repeat
by Alasdair Duncan
Choppy, vacuous, and slapdash -- in a tone that's more blog-oriented, or conversational, than literary -- Dance, Recover, Repeat is young Australian novelist Duncan's attempt to embody the form and language of contemporary cyberspace in a print medium. Stylistically the book alternates between a screenplay and an e-mail transcript -- a form that lends itself to disorienting, switchback prose, Gertrude Steinish one-word sentences, and graphic gay porn scenes that zoom in and fizzle out as unerotically as pop-ups on your computer screen. The main character is Calvin, a salty, not-so-likable sixteen-year-old caught in the vise-grip of an Internet romance, and floundering through an underworld of cute hipster boys and speed-oriented drugs. If you're not seduced by Calvin's dizzying pop-culture references, the character's most redeeming quality is his obsession with committing all aspects of his life to print. In writerly, geeky fashion, Calvin totes a notebook with him everywhere, archiving every random thought, e-mail, or scrap of conversation, and giving you a portal into his hypermodern, digital world. The result reads like three hundred pages cribbed from an angsty teen's hard drive: a fusillade of chat-room conversations, characters with names like "sweet*Prince," and chapters that open with headlines like "Cut Ahead to Friday Night," but vaporize while you blink.
-- Rachel Swan
No Man's Land
By Dong Thu Huong
This novel begins in Vietnam in 1975 after Saigon fell, as a peasant woman named Mien returns to her village to discover that the man she married fourteen years ago has returned and wants to claim her. "Mien, I'm back," Bon says over and over, as if repetition might shatter his wife's trancelike shock. Mien has good reason to need a moment. Bon had been reportedly killed in the war, a martyr, gone forever. It was this knowledge that allowed Mien, unlike The Odyssey's Penelope, to remarry and start a new family. But now it vanishes: Social pressures force her to take this weakened stranger back into her life. It's a familiar plot twist, but like Ha Jin's superb 1999 novel Waiting, No Man's Land works because it gives a point in time a powerful emotional dimension, and does so without ever lecturing the reader into submission. Unfolding in long flashbacks which are lyrical yet never overripe, the narrative chronicles Bon's war years and his painful journey home. It also brings to life the inner world of Mien's second husband, Hoan, conjuring his tortured past and a present in which he must learn to live without his life's true love. The result is a prismatic novel that maps out the terra incognita of a country battered by war but wanting to move forward.
-- John Freeman
By Kathryn Shevelow
Henry Holt, $27.50
Few premodern women had opportunities to merit biographies, but notorious 18th-century English actress Charlotte Cibber Charke boldly made her play. She has been rewarded with period scholar Shevelow's vibrant retrospective, which places her vividly in the sociopolitical milieu of her lifetime. How did Charke, who enjoyed a brief but tumultuous career before an Act of Parliament gutted the theater form and limited her to occasional, quasilegitimate stage work, earn opprobrium? In an era when woman were treated as little more than chattel, she thrived in breeches and travesty roles (in which actresses played, respectively, women disguised as men, and male characters). But in real life offstage, Charke was a cross-dresser who, in a man's guise, entered into a lesbian "marriage." Acclaimed and vilified for her roles in pre-Tom Jones Henry Fielding's scathing satires and other playwrights' highly politicized works, she was anonymously immortalized in William Hogarth's engravings but achieved true posterity with her autobiography, a rare feat for a woman of her time. Now, thanks to Shevelow's meticulous research, we can take a much more comprehensive look at a remarkable figure from the past.
-- Mark Nichol
The Vanished Hands
By Robert Wilson
Inspector Jefe Javier Falcón is in therapy and recovering from the trauma he suffered in Wilson's previous work The Blind Man of Seville, but Falcón's investigation of the murder/suicide of a construction mogul and his mentally unstable wife soon has him struggling with his inner demons again. With little solid evidence to go on, he seeks answers from the victims' neighbors, each of whom is closely guarding his or her own shameful secret. When several more suspicious suicides and some cryptic personal threats follow, Falcón is forced to rely on his keen insights into human behavior to uncover the truth. Like Wilson's other mysteries -- a gritty and bloody series, set in Africa -- this isn't a hard-boiled police procedural: It simmers with psychological drama and slowly unveils a world where the living are as much victims as the corpses. Unfortunately, Wilson bogs down this engaging character study with a labyrinthine backstory involving prostitution, a pedophile ring, and the Russian Mafia. The Blind Man of Seville fans will want to find out how Falcón fares, but new readers might find this new aventura dauntingly complex.
-- Michael Ansaldo
How Evan Broke His Head and Other Secrets
By Garth Stein
Stein has set out to paint a portrait of the late maturing of a 31-year-old lone wolf, a closet epileptic whose band scored a hit in the grunge era, and who has been coasting ever since. Unfortunately, what the author creates instead is a superficial snapshot of a group of characters whose outer lives seem plenty interesting, but whose inner workings remain hidden. Everyone from Evan's wealthy, image-obsessed parents to his hot-stuff engineer girlfriend to the smart-ass fourteen-year-old son he struggles to be a father to after a lifetime of absence comes across as a mere list of traits rather than a character you can care about. Even the indie-music milieu within which Evan moves won't ring true for anyone who has run in those circles before -- even as he is sabotaging his own happiness, everything clicks for Evan, never affected by the pretension or desperate dark side that provide the fabric for scenes like that. And despite being a man who has always kept his deep traumas locked up inside, Evan himself wears his stories on his sleeve, telegraphing his emotions and tangled-up agendas for the reader, never allowing us space to dig in and get curious about his secrets for ourselves.
-- Stefanie Kalem
If This Be Treason: Translation and Its Discontents, a Memoir
By Gregory Rabassa
New Directions, $21.95
A good literary translator's mind is a marvelous thing -- yet, despite his ingenuity and skill, he always lives in the shadow of giants. With Rabassa's two-part memoir -- "The Onset of Perfidy" is a short explication of how he became a translator, while "The Bill of Particulars" is a blow-by-blow description of his translations -- we peek into a world where words always have at least two meanings and betrayal is never more than a syllable away. The title is a play on the Italian pun traduttore, traditore (translator, traitor); Rabassa is ever aware of the caution he must use with the works with which he has been entrusted -- among them Gabriel García Márquez' Cien años de soledad and Julio Cortázar's Rayuela. To transmit anything less than the meaning, style, and a host of other intangibles present in the original would be treachery indeed. Yet our protagonist keeps his writing playful, unable to keep from spinning off tangentially on the meanings or origins of favorite words, using crowd-pleasing bons mots like Kyrgizenaugen and yclept without so much as a how-d'you-do. It's a delightful read for any word lover, and though the second half of the book is much more interesting if you've read the works in question, Rabassa's treatment may be sufficient to interest you in doing so.
-- Nora Sohnen
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