March 2013

Christopher Merkel

Unamerican

The Gray (un)American Novel

As of the opening of 18% Gray by Zachary Karabashliev, it's either the day of or the day before Zachary's birthday, and Stella has been gone for nine mornings. Zachary is Karabashliev's action man, and Stella was his wife. On the night after that ninth morning, Zachary gets into the sports car he had given Stella as a gift the year before and drives to the Mexican border. He parks Stella's car at a McDonald's and walks across the border in Tijuana. He gets wasted, gets shown to a "donkey show," walks out of said show, and then interrupts a beating. His interruption gets him a beating of his own, but when the two men whose beating he had interrupted try to get him into their van, Zachary stabs one of them in the throat with the broken margarita glass in his pocket. (The glass, which he'd stolen as payback for the second watery margarita that had been forced on him at the bar before the donkey show, had broken during his beating.) Blood geyser.

Zachary gets into the van that his would-have-been kidnappers had been trying to get him into just before and drives away. It might still be before midnight on the night after that ninth morning, or it might be the early hours of the tenth morning, but when Zachary gets to the border, it's his birthday. The border patrol officer who checks his passport gives him a stern caution but lets him back into California. Back at McDonald's, Zachary is relieved to see that the giant plastic bag in the back of the van is not a corpse. No. He can tell from the smell that it's marijuana. After probably forgetting to wipe down the van, he puts the giant bag into the back of Stella's Mercedes and drives.

But he doesn't drive home to San Diego. He goes to L.A. to talk to a friend who knows a guy. Unfortunately for Zachary, the guy can't help him sell what's in the bag from the van. Zachary has to make a decision. "It's still Friday. It's still not too late to call Scott the manager," he reasons about his absence from work. "I'll forget about my Tijuana adventure and about the bag in my trunk. Everything will be fine. I'll bandage my heart and get back into the traffic on my way to work." But he hangs up on Scott and calls a friend of his and Stella's in New York. He decides he's going to drive Stella's car cross-country and sell the marijuana there.

Karabashliev's novel unfolds with Zachary's narration of his trip, the progress of which is narrated in tandem with his narration of his and Stella's journey from "a small country far away" (as he tells the border patrol officer when he's asked where he's from) to graduate school in Columbus, Ohio, and then to the West Coast. Both stories are interspersed with bits of conversation between Zachary and Stella, as the latter is posing for her husband's camera. Before the couple lived in San Diego, they lived in Los Angeles, and before Zachary was hired by big pharma as a clinical trials inspector, he aspired to be a photographer. Zachary gave up photography, but Stella continued to paint. And as Zachary took more site visits to make more money, he grew the distance between him and his wife. He'd do anything to get her back, and now he's driving her car (in the stylishly urgent present tense) to New York to sell a giant bag of weed.

18% Gray opens like a familiar piece of contemporary southern Californian pulp -- à la, maybe, one of the character stories from Seven Psychopaths, except without the overblown meta-narrative and not tempered by the unassured, alcohol soaked remorse of the Hollywood barman narrator of Ablutions by Patrick deWitt. Zachary has been a barman too, in Columbus, where he and Stella both got their master's degrees in order to get out of Bulgaria. But it isn't until he's given up his artistic aspirations and left on an almost endless business trip that he starts to lose his own wife. As more of the couple's history gets told -- and although the pulp and the stylish urgency of Karabashliev's book (which stays soaked in dirty martinis and triple espressos) never entirely fade -- it becomes a bit more Love and Other Drugs -- although never entirely. (Stella's being gone has nothing to do with Parkinson's.) And by the time that Zachary has made it from California back through Columbus and all the way to New York, the question of art has been raised many more times than once, a question that is various questions about art, its feasibility, its marketability, and the feasibility of the art market, questions that had become paramount to the success of Zachary and Stella's relationship and that expand the range of 18% Gray to include something of the likes of The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq (although without the overblown meta-narrative).

It could, however, be feasibly argued that Karabashliev shares with Houellebecq other of the... more disagreeable traits that are often ascribed to the sensation of that French author. At the Mirador motel, somewhere still inside California, Zachary calls the front desk and asks for a knife. Later, "Somebody bangs on the door -- a plump Mexican woman in a blue uniform with a huge knife in her hand." It's Juanita. "The knife's blade flashes, and for a spilt second," Zachary says, "I see in it Juanita in her home village somewhere in Mexico, a knife in one hand, a chicken in the other, walking confidently toward a stump. Dust, cackling, feathers, blood..." There's a flashback to the day that Zachary and Stella closed on their house in San Diego. Still in his room at the Mirador, Zachary remembers that "We were supposed to be getting more house for less money. While the agent cornered Stella and chatted on in that unbearable tone of voice adopted by supposedly successful, independent American women, I walked away, wandering through the empty rooms." Was Stella thinking the same thing as Zachary wandered away? And, later, would she have depicted the slovenly, extortionist Persians at the impound lot in New York in the same way as her husband?

Of course, it's certainly not to expect of any author that his or her characters conduct themselves always with flat, politically correct composure -- however galling the clichés into which they might otherwise lapse. (Keeping things interesting is, in many ways, an author's management of the balancing act in between.) The character of Zachary is, after all, necessarily limited to his perspective. And he's certainly apologetic for his flaws (even if he might not acknowledge possible racisms or misogynies as being among them). It's also worth noting that the character of Zachary has also once tried his hand at screenwriting, and that the reason that 18% Gray attracts such plain comparison with Hollywood movies is that its style does often approach what might be clichéd as screen-written dramatics. What might be intentional clichés and stereotypes in Karabashliev's book may be no less galling for that admission, but maybe it suffices to say that the very purpose of using an eighteen percent gray card in monochrome photography is to bring out the sharpest contrast between black and white (and that said with no double entendres intended).

The important question, however, isn't even about art but about representation. Karabashliev's novel is about a couple of Bulgarian immigrants, but it was also originally written in Bulgarian. That's worth noting because it's easy to forget. In its setting and its framing alone, 18% Gray is remarkably American -- to say nothing of its extralegal road-tripping adventure and the bright lights dreams versus big city cold shoulder underpinnings of its themes. In his acknowledgments, Karabashliev writes that "Most of the literature that shaped me as a reader and as an individual, and later as a writer, was in translation... This translation of 18% Gray... is, in a way, my chance to give back what's been borrowed, a raindrop returning to the ocean it came from."

And that raindrop -- as it has come back in English translation by Angela Rodel -- reads very much like an American novel. (The only point at which Karabashliev casts doubt on his own credentials is when he mentions something about Columbus and the banks of the Ohio River. Had he lived there like Zachary and Stella, surely he would have known that the city is at the confluence of the Scioto and the Olentangy.) Indeed, Zachary's final appeal for a return to the naivety of quotidian beauty isn't dissimilar in spirit from that of the image of the catcher from The Catcher in the Rye (or from the entirety, of, well, American Beauty). So: are the clichés and the stereotypes in Karabashliev's book so galling because they represent a Bulgarian author's depiction of America to a Bulgarian readership, or because, in English translation, an American readership is galled at recognizing them as not uncommonly American?

In that sense, 18% Gray, both the book that it was in Bulgarian and its English translation, are equally unique but characteristic pieces of world literature; and the processes and passages of the world of literature by which both were (distinctively) created -- as well as appreciated -- are the very reasons for which the translation of literature is an urgent and exciting practice. Then there's also just the welcome exposure to original entertainment: "Under my lids -- fire circles and golden stains. [Zachary is in a gas station restroom in Pamona after stuffing himself with handfuls of unwashed cherries.] I open my eyes -- shit all over." And then there's the original beauty: "The girl smiles and leaves. I want to embrace her and sleep with her... This girl who will kiss me, will kiss me, will kiss me with tobacco kisses and will fall asleep on my chest, listening to my mad, barbarian heart... Love is a stranger-waitress." And maybe the rest is just verbosity and pomposity, but then the beauty is still there:

"-- do you sometimes think that everything is meaningless, zack?

-- i don't think in paradoxes

-- what's a paradox?

-- a statement that seems logical but contradicts itself

-- where's the paradox in everything is meaningless?

-- you see... the statement everything is meaningless is part of

everything. hence, it is also meaningless. which means that

everything is not meaningless. a paradox

-- this won't be in the picture, right?

...

-- relax, it's not in focus"

Zachary isn't ultimately after redemption per se, and, lost in a place called America, that's ultimately how he's redeemed.