November 2012

Elvis Bego

features

Dr. Aira: In Defense of Short Books

Last April, I was at the Bosnian Embassy in Copenhagen, where a friend of mine was giving a reading from his debut novel. One of the ambassador's helpers stood up to eulogize the author, a Bosnian writing in Danish, saying, to my delight: "Your book not only has quality, but quantity too. It's a thick one."

I kid you not. The size was achievement in itself. Thick books, it seems, come with their own forbidding aura. They demand respect the way a fat boy cries out for pancakes: brutishly, with the confidence of volume. Conversely, thin books appear flimsy and quiet. But when done right, a small book has a concentrated power beyond its bulk.

César Aira's The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira is certainly a small book. When I was preparing for this piece, that Wilde quote came to mind: "I never read a book I must review; it prejudices you so."

Relax. I read it. But let it be known: I came to the book and its writer entirely unprejudiced. You might call him The Man Who Wrote Too Much. A note on the author tells us that César Aira has produced "more than seventy short novels and books of essays." Proportionally, that makes this reader rather unprejudiced, although this book will surely have me delve further into the preposterous library of César Aira.

Dr. Aira finds himself in middle age at war with himself and the world. A somnambulist, "half-absent, half-present," he roams the streets of Buenos Aires. He ruminates. He talks to trees. The world is a constant puzzle to him. In a way, he incarnates Schopenhauer's dictum: "Men have an absolute need for an interpretation of life."

For him it's not a need, but a rage. His hunger for understanding of self and the real is so deep that it is a kind of sickly paranoia. It is not entirely clear what his supernatural powers consist in. They seem literally abstract. At any rate, he no longer practices them. The miracle cures of the title operate on such a subtle level that their beneficiary may not even notice a change. But a miracle nonetheless. Makes me think of Borges and Menard's all new, yet all identical Quixote.

Dr. Aira has an archenemy. Where Aira is poor and ascetic, Dr. Actyn is his opposite, a man of limitless worldly power, a ludicrous, mad scientist, determined to persecute and embarrass the other. Is Actyn real or a figment in the overheated mind of Dr. Aira?

Much has been made of César Aira's compositional methods. He apparently does not revise much, and believes in a propelled forward motion, hurtling toward completion of the text. I think this might account for the genuinely surrealist undertone here. Even if he refrains from directly surreal representation, apparent logical disconnections produce the Freudian unheimlich:

An ambulance siren broke through the quiet morning air of the neighborhood, apparently in a great hurry but also apparently taking a quite roundabout route, coming and going through those small and empty streets as if it couldn't find its way.

Notice the circularity, "like in a nightmare that is never consummated." A felicitous phrase that, even if somewhat dense. The prose here generally is dense, but not heavy. The philosophical passages are punctuated by twists and pages of action.

And what about the style? It is of course dangerous to talk of such things in regard to a translated work: but the book at hand is charming. Charm is one of those things nobody seems to give a shit about anymore. Also, one man's charm is another's harm. Aira's charm is subtle, unobtrusive, it doesn't try to seduce with cheap likeability. He takes a leisurely stroll through his scenes. It's as if Machado de Assis got redrafted by Bolaño and edited by Anatole France. France (disastrously underrated and under read in English) is one of those writers who believe in the dignity of storytelling and in the writer's honorable service in that line. Aira does too. Literature, for everything else that it is, is also in the business of pleasure. But there is existentialist philosophy here also, and offhand magic reminiscent of Marquez. The book is a taut little thing, its muscles firm, its tissue nurtured; its blood has the right numbers. I mean, compared to one of those middlebrow behemoths the publishers love to peddle in huge numbers: those flabby, potbellied, pleonastic miserables.

*

I want to ask the question I implied at the beginning: Why is the short book so ill-loved in American letters? Dr. Aira is a translation. Obviously. Germany, France, Italy, Spain, all have libraries of hundred-page masterpieces. There are some Americans too, but these days, it is well-known, an American publisher is not likely to want to touch a novella without asbestos gloves and one of those Plague Doctor noses from the pantomime. Happily, an American publisher is churning out César Aira. But the point stands.

The style I talked about, I also associate with short books. Big books, big Novels, as Martin Amis diagnosed long ago, seem inherently an American addiction. America, vast in space and in ambition, seems to goad its writers to impose a brazen intentionality onto the marketplace. The American writer's appetite must be omnivorous, his palette the trunk of a sequoia, his cast not smaller than a minor duchy, a perversion of Dostoevsky. And yet how often you read one of those baggy monsters and there's nothing there but explosions of trivial pleonasm. The imagination slumbers, the talent something that happened to other people. That's one tendency. On the other hand you have those endless, sentimental, middleclass novels of domestic interaction, a perversion of Chekhov. Whether it is the vastness of the country or its multifariousness, each year brings a thousand thousand-page bricks, each usually a tomb for dead language, and a desiccated, catastrophically pious imagination. For each DeLillo, a thousand of these others, for each McCarthy another thousand tumble forth in unison.

Byron used to say that he never saw a doctor without thinking, Here's a man who missed his vocation. For me, a trip to the bookstore does the same, once I've read a page or two of almost any of the fat new books huddling on the shelves. So much misplaced ambition. So much banality. Often you see material perhaps sufficient for a five-page story stretched to six hundred of the soporific best.

Who writes these things?

Often, it seems, it's some person burnt out in the workplace, hoping for an easy career change. Imagine, I can sit at home, and get paid to make shit up! And the air thins along with the crowns of trees.

I also think about all those MFA programs in, gasp, Creative Writing. (Are there other kinds of writing? Even The Da Vinci Code is some sort of creative writing, so why the modifier?) Are they improving or simply flooding the bookstores? Are they too narrow in their catechism? Do we have too many writers?

I am reminded of that story by Will Self, "The Quantity Theory of Insanity," and the idea of a finite amount of mental equilibrium. Does talent not figure in the same way? There are only so many good and great writers at any time.

Let us assume that a thousand new-minted writers exit the universities with their writing diplomas each year. Of these, reasonably, only a fraction can be good, good meaning necessary, the rest adequate. Don't get me wrong, I think a genuinely gifted writer could use a few years intensely scrutinizing his work with other gifted, literate people. Above all, with other gifted readers. But how many are those? And the art (not the habit) of reading is as endangered in academia as out of it.

Now, many of the best and most prestigious literary journals are run by MFA programs, edited by MFA writers, filled by MFA writing. Notice the circularity, like in a consummated nightmare.

*

Having spent some time lately reading American journals, I would say that much of the writing is of a high caliber, there is plenty of fantastic thinking in fiction out there, but one also notices in too many places something like a common house style. A style learned, pruned from the lectern. Too many writers keep building a clearly programmatic, indoctrinated structure, peopled with programmatic, indoctrinated gestures toward the heart. The prevalence of rhetorical pathos through fiction, a cornucopia of sincerity. Sincerity is prolix. And once that first novel is contemplated, the forests rustle in terror. Here's another "sweating, free-dreaming maniac with another thousand-pager," as Amis put it.

Sincerity is inelegant, it doesn't know condensed articulation. It always ranges exclusively horizontally and settles flat around its subject. It does not and cannot penetrate, though it may try. It may be adequate, polished, but one is tempted to ask: is it necessary? Is it urgent?

Authentic fiction is not sincere; it transmogrifies fantasy into truth. But truth and sincerity are not synonyms. Fiction wants to leap into the space of meaning and self, even when the setting is panoramic, horizontal. W.G. Sebald, whose books really mostly consist of short prose fictions, is always relentlessly arcing inward this way, and a page of, say, The Emigrants yields more in the way of cerebral stimulation (the heart too is pinched, but not cheaply, not feebly) than a thousand of those other, earnest, sincere ones. The sincere artist itemizes easy facts and turns them into easy truths. Or rather, does not turn them into anything: they stand there naked, never having been dressed.

And all these educated writers: there is something vulgar about all that competence. Although I'm not sure authentic writing can be taught, it is certainly possible to teach all the right-sounding, writerly, artisanal gestures. Curiously, the preoccupation with Voice produces an amazing amount of very similar narrative voices: all those cute first-person narrators.

On the other hand, there is something charmingly amateurish about Aira's refusal to revise, a transgression against professional competence of a writer. Needless to say, The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira is told in third person.

*

The short book affords the opportunity for that condensed articulation. It also lends itself to a single sitting, something more and more urgently needed in these days of infinite distractibility.

There is something reassuring and even restorative about a voice that is not too encroached upon by the intricacies of the world, anxieties of psychoanalysis, or the implications of a mechanized disenchanted planet. That is to say, the sculpting of the prose itself is not deranged by the catastrophes that surround us, though the catastrophes may or may not be present in the representation of the world. There is stoicism in this model of storytelling. Affability too. Faith in creation. Lack of faith all too often produces an ironizing narration, a distancing of the author from his tools and spawn. Sheepish authorial embarrassment, pointing giddily at the fictitiousness of fictions. Is that a remnant of capitalist, bourgeois prejudice against mere made up stuff stinking of idleness?

When Susan Sontag renounced irony, it was really about the irony of the artist toward his own art. Aira, and before him, Theodor Storm (master of this short form), Pushkin, Leskov, Kafka, Bellow (whose Seize the Day is a great short book), Isaac Bashevis Singer, and thousands others did and still do believe in the primal importance of storytelling, its very necessity, its urgency. The short book, somewhere between short story and novel, should not be ignored, and more writers ought to consider it. The house of fiction has many rooms, and the necessary big novels will continue to appear as well as urgent short stories. But it's that middle unloved hermaphrodite I want to embrace and accost with murmurs of love. This is why the Paris Literary Prize and The Art of the Novella series from Melville House are important developments right now.

César Aira's is a fine short book, imaginative and entertaining, but finally and essentially, it's not about the size, it's about the transmogrified truths, the art of the prose and its necessity.