The Black Box by Alek Popov, translated by Daniella and Charles Edward Gill de Mayol de Lupe
Unlike so much literature of the displaced foreigner (from classics like the work of Isaac Bashevis Singer to the contemporary novels of Jhumpa Lahiri), Alek Popov's comic novel The Black Box details the anomie of the Eastern European immigrant through two Bulgarian brothers that seem pretty well assimilated into US culture. The shadow of their homeland's communist past may hang over this novel, but with all the menace of a fast-fading aftertaste.
Set in Bulgaria after the demise of the communist party but before expedient economic reforms have taken hold, a prologue introduces Ned and Angel Banov, who have just received the titular box said to contain the ashes of their absentee father, a math professor with dark moods and a penchant for alcoholic benders, who had been teaching in the American South. Fifteen years later Ned is a high powered executive at a New York firm and a self-defined SBA, or "Successful Bulgarian Abroad" (an acronym that is bandied around with enough frequency that I had to Google it to see if it is a real term; it isn't). Ned's singular interest lies in making money and spending it with reckless bravado. We meet him in 2006 at dinner with a colleague and two young women they have picked up as dates, as the two corporate hotshots make a game of how much they can rack up on the company credit card. Dispirited by the paltry $870 tab, rounds of cognac are ordered at $100 per glass. Sick on truffles, Ned appears to derive a greater sense of achievement in puking up $500 worth of food than in consuming it.
Ned is joined by Angel, who is determined to make a living in New York, devoid though he is of the drive and the skills it takes to make the ranks of the SBAs. In fact, he succumbs to future failures before his plane even touches down in New York. The snorts and sniffs of a snotty toddler in the plane's cabin alerts him to the presence of a virus "far more dangerous than anthrax or the plague [...] the failure virus," which Ned is certain he has contracted, though he knows not where or when. He takes a job with a dog walking company, where the yapping Zucchero is entrusted to his care. Soon he is embroiled in warring dog walkers' unions, animal theft, and an affair with a woman that Popov challenges us to identify as friend or foe (not very difficult).
Meanwhile, Ned is dispatched to his homeland to locate a colleague who has cut off all contact with the company. Pointedly named Kurtz (though not the laconic Brando of Conrad and Coppola), he is located among the proletarians in Bulgaria's factory towns, huddled in a forklift and surrounded by gutted sofas and other "relics of Socialism and Communism." A millionaire several times over, Kurtz has been living among the workers as a rabble-rousing economist and half-baked minister, preforming marriages and eating spit-roasted pigeon with his toothless comrades. In the novel's greatest passage, Kurtz delivers a Dostoevskian monologue concerning world finance and the protean nature of money (like matter or energy, it cannot be created or destroyed, but only changes form, moving from one state to another, from pocket to pocket). Only to someone as rich as Kurtz can money be reduced to such an abstract concept: "Time is money, but money is not time." To the proletariat (that is, anybody selling their time), "Time is life. Because after that there is no time at all." It is the most thorough investigation of communism The Black Box delivers, where making and spending are one and the same.
In a course of implausible events that almost push the novel's tone into the comic grotesque territory of Bulgakov or Gogol (to whom Popov has been compared), both brothers have occasion to gain new insight into their father from very different sources on opposite sides of the Atlantic. For all of the intrigue surrounding the box of ashes that opens the novel, we gain little insight into the man whose life, like his death, hangs over the brothers, and therefore the novel, like a mystery that prevents either from advancing beyond their respective stages of development and keeps true intimacy at bay. (Students of psychology would delight in observing either brother as they struggle within both the Freudian and Eriksonian models of development.) Their reunion in New York instigates a cockamamie third act complete with spraying blood, a sinister meat grinder (a kind of cousin to Stephen King's devouring mangler), and, in the ultimate dog-eat-dog business scheme, a plant that processes dogs stolen from shelters or dog walkers to produce pet food.
But when the flying fur has settled, the brothers are still left to sort out the many loose ends surrounding their father's demise. With the remains called into question, we begin to comprehend the box's sense of purpose as an unreliable relic of Bulgaria's communist regime, a device for drawing the brothers closer in their old man's ignominious death, and the reassessing of the meanings of numbers as they pertain both to money and to the magical, abstract concepts that constitute the mathematical mysteries that so fascinated him: "When calculations do not add up the worst that can happen is you lose money," Ned reflects, "You do not lose purpose." Maybe old Dad has something to teach his boys yet.
Popov's device of a constant narrative switch between the brothers from chapter to chapter lays down the framework for a linear chronology that is welcome in its ability to move the plot along at a refreshingly reliable, evenly paced clip. Unfortunately, the contrivance is lost here, washed out by two nervous, conversational narrative voices that are similar to the point of being indistinguishable. Ned may sound slightly more stiff, with his cohesive grasp of financial markets and businesslike detailing of his acquisition of sex from "desperate, ambitious bitches with polyvalent vaginas" that populate Midtown offices, but Angel's voice can hold its own in the realm of crass descriptions with a tinge of the poetic ("I flew into her dark female insides like a paper swallow").
Brief excerpts such as these speak to the role of sex in Popov's world, and to pass over them would be to deny a major facet of the novel. Like a frustrated adolescent's fever dream that is forever interrupted, the sex act is dismally played out as perfunctory, distracted, and usually unfinished, preformed between people among whom there is little trust, let alone anything resembling love. There seems to be a spate of male writers aping brief, frenzied descriptions of the sex act -- no matter how fumbled or pathetic -- who may credit Phillip Roth as one of their great forerunners. The point is arguable, but it is safe to say that no one writes about sexual ambivalence like Roth does. While Michel Houellebecq has already surpassed the great American in regards to loving but charmless descriptions of sodomy (no mean feat), Popov's conspicuous fixation on blowjobs still has some catching up to do. For all of the sucking going on, there is little reward for the reader or the recipient. We can read Popov's cheap similes -- "Her orifices looked like gun barrels under the thin sights of her pubes" -- as disarmingly honest and innocent, no matter how much we may cringe, but if humor is its aim, we are light years away from the effortless ribaldry of Roth or a heavy like Henry Miller. Still, the conversational voice, with its liberal scattering of the poetic, is above all believable, the more so for its awkwardness. Other lengthy passages prove less receptive to this artlessness, such as heaven envisioned as an elite golf course resembling something like Dante's Purgatorio built over a life-sized Candyland: "The most exclusive golf club in the world." These cinematic conceits come off as familiar and tired, the device of countless comedy films' ultimate afterlife fantasy.
The translation may nag at readers for its Briticisms: "Jerry can," "lorry," and "wanker" seem out of place in New York, let alone Chattanooga (though isn't it time "wanker" was made universal?). Though the British spellings are easily overlooked -- the English edition of The Black Box was published by the UK's Peter Owen Publishers and co-translated by the respectively Sofia- and London-born Daniella and Charles Edward Gill de Mayol de Lupe -- colloquially the novel's entire tone is set slightly askew for this inchoate language and presentation, which, to its credit, create an unintentional but similar sense of cultural discord in the reader to that of the characters.
For all of the apt but trite descriptions of sex, there are others that grab the reader and linger, at least for a while: "A bright red handkerchief peeks out of her breast pocket like a freshly ripped-out tongue"; "The sun clings to the sky like a tick, sucking its colors." From sartorial adornments to grand acts of nature, the underlying violence of language is always at play. Placed among the dog walkers in Central Park, we sense the presence of the sinister just below the surface (think of David Lynch's teams of ants desiccating a mouse under freshly-mown grass in Blue Velvet). As to the potential for bumbling sexual outbreaks and petty cruelties in the corporate offices, there is little that can surprise the American reader. But The Black Box is laced with far too much humor to keep us in anything resembling a state of suspense. We feel no sympathy for the brothers' separate or collective plights, nor would they want us to. For all the desperateness of their situations, they float through the tale with an insouciance that suggests no action is so permanent as to be irreversible, even though they couldn't be more wrong, and their lack of concern is a bit off-putting. Alas, the tone of the novel suggests that the stakes never climb too high, and we are simply shown two thin slices of lives that have been temporarily rocked by the fall of a regime, but which have recovered with passive, aloof resiliency and assimilated into Western culture without looking back. And why would you look back when you can shift your attentions to the supposedly straightforward ebb and flow of making and spending money?
The Black Box by Alek Popov, translated by Daniella and Charles Edward Gill de Mayol de Lupe
Peter Owen Publishers