December 2013

John Wilmes

fiction

Everything Happens As It Does by Albena Stambolova, translated by Olga Nikolova

In this, Albena Stambolova's first novel -- written a decade ago, translated now from the Bulgarian -- the author introduces herself quite clumsily. Two overcompensatory epigraphs set the tone, one a Ludwig Wittgenstein quotation: "All propositions are of equal value. The sense of the world must lie outside the world. In the world everything is as it is, and everything happens as it does happen: in it no value exists -- and if it did exist, it would have no value."

And the other, a presage of the stark, lesson-less narratives to come:

This story considers itself the story of everyone. I don't know if this is true. You will be the one to decide.

I myself am certain that all stories are love stories, so I have refrained from classifying it as such.

It is simply the story of women and men who are mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, loved ones and friends... or, in a nutshell, of people who are tigers and lions, oranges and lemons.

This story is neither funny, nor sad. It is simply a story that takes place somewhere on the border between the world we know and the world we are no longer very sure about.

Open Letter released the book, and one wonders why. The nonprofit outfit had the admirable agenda of bringing a great parity of international literature to the States, sure; but Stambolova's later novels, or the work of some other Bulgarian, must be more developed and worthwhile than Everything Happens as It Does.

Here Stambolova's fascination with fairy tales (she is currently writing a book on the topic) pokes through, but only enough to take form in a slew of on-the-nose insect metaphors -- the largest of these being that of "the web," the seemingly inevitable, vaguely celestial design that her rotating cast of characters variously accept and fight. This chief narrative non-conflict of fatalism is conveyed to us in the title, and all that follows seems to be Stambolova's effort to earn this message.

But I wasn't fighting her on it, and who would? She's the author, she's the god of her world, the only judge of what shall happen to these people. She should have expelled more energy on making this universe less didactic and more rewarding to inhabit, on filling in the lack of veritable flesh in her remote characters. Each of them feels like a puppet, an incredibly thin veil between ourselves and the author. Her fictive parable, one long expounding upon of the Wittgenstein quotation, lacks the zest, panache, bluster, warmth, and life... it lacks the energy required to justify taking place as fiction.

Stambolova's anti-style prose seems afraid to invest in anything, to risk anything. She seems scared to try entertaining us, and failing -- either that, or she's quite intentionally unentertaining. As such, why write a novel? Why not disassemble this puzzle of characters and events, and better explain oneself in an essay? The tone struck in the author's primer note is infinitely more engaging than the scene craft attempted within, which lands awkwardly with lines like "It was a true grip of friendship" and "They looked at each other as if they had never looked at each other before." Stambolova is more forceful, more pressing on the page in one brief moment as herself than she ever is as the arranger of her self-created Tetris mess of bodies.

This is contemporary case number 1,000,000,000 of Dreadful Minimalism. Stambolova is merely one in a long line of Fictionists more careful about hiding the color of their humanity than they are about the prospect of not showing it to us. Only one in the teeming mass of those erring more toward the gray language that fails to maximize the medium -- which barely scrapes the unique landscape of the page -- than toward the purple words that might instead subject one's true, weird and shaggy self -- and not their learned, workshopped craft, not their borrowed, re-filtered morals or ideology -- to ridicule and critique.

Everything Happens as It Does by Albena Stambolova, translated by Olga Nikolova
Open Letter Books
ISBN: 978-1934824849
120 pages