Thursday, November 12, 2020

Vignette Book Reviews - Cities, Dreams, Afterlives, Odysseys

Current events have really depleted my attention span and my ability to focus. One solution, for me, has been to read books, not just of short stories, but of SHORT shorts, essentially vignettes.
I actually started out trying to read Felix Feneon's Novels in Three Lines, thinking those might be about the right length, but almost all the news-in-brief items that Feneon wrote that became part of this collection are murders or suicides, and there are an awful lot of them. The book might easily have been called Obituaries in Three Lines instead. It was just too much death for me to read this year.
Zenobia by Enrique Palacios
Zenobia by David Fleck
The first vignette collection I actually finished reading recently - well, re-reading, if we're being honest - was Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities. I had in mind that I might try writing up mini-dungeons, or neighborhood adventuring sites, or something, based on Calvino's descriptions. The thing that I'd forgotten is that while every vignette is about what cities are like, only a few of them are about what cities look like. My favorite of those is Armilla from "Thin Cities 3", which is like a skeleton made up of nothing but plumbing and pipes with no buildings around them. The rest of the stories are more about what cities feel like, how we think of them and remember them. 

One recurrent theme is the way that we experience only a small part of any city, so that the versions that live on in our heads are much simpler, and involve more repetition of elements, than actual cities really do. Another is the emotion - often disappointment or disbelief - that accompanies the dissonance between the real city and the cities inside our heads.

Calvino's cities are organized by theme, and the themes are then braided so that you alternate between different themes as you read through. It's a skillful structure, and it reminds me of Calvino's Mr Palomar, which is similarly regimented. I don't know that there's exactly a trend toward modernity, but in the last section especially, the cities go from being timeless to being explicitly contemporary, somewhat belying the premise of Calvino transcribing stories that were told verbally in the 13th century.

The braided stories are divided into sections, and between them are interludes of Marco Polo and Kublai Kahn talking about cities. Some of these are obvious, functional framing devices, some are about the difficulty of communicating, and some are like Calvino's own meta-commentary about possible ways for us to interpret the stories, bit like Borges does in "The Immortal" and some of his other stories. He does something similar between the chapters of If on a Winter's Night a Traveler. I'm not sure if the interludes get worse as the book goes on, or if I just get more tired of them. I do have an intuition that if Calvino didn't include the interludes and explicitly instruct the reader to look for possible and contradictory interpretations of the vignettes, the book as a whole wouldn't have been quite so well received by critics.

Although it's not my favorite vignette in the book, for a variety of reasons, the story of Melania felt like the only one I could choose for this moment.

Cities and the Dead 1 -

"At Melania, every time you enter the square, you find yourself caught in a dialogue: the braggart soldier and the parasite coming from a door meet the young wastrel and the prostitute; or else the miserly father from his threshold utters his final warnings to the amorous daughter and is interrupted by the foolish servant who is taking note to the process. You return to Melania after years and you find the same dialogue still going on; in the meanwhile the parasite has died, and so have the procuress and the miserly father; but the braggart soldier, the amorous daughter, the foolish servant have taken their places, being replaced in their turn by the hypocrite, the confidante, the astrologer.

Melania's population renews itself: the participants in the dialogues die one by one and meanwhile those who will take their places are born, some in one role, some in another. When one changes roles or abandons the square forever or makes his first entrance into it, there is a series of changes, until all the roles have been reassigned; but but meanwhile the angry old man goes on replying to the witty maidservant, the usurer never ceases following the disinherited youth, the nurse consoles the stepdaughter, even if none of them keeps the same eyes and voice he had in the previous scene.

At times it may happen that a sole person will simultaneously take on two or more roles - tyrant, benefactor, messenger - or one role may be doubled, multiplied, assigned to a hundred, a thousand inhabitants of Melania: three thousand for the hypocrite, thirty thousand for the sponger, a hundred thousand king's sons fallen in low estate and awaiting recognition.

As time passes the roles, too, are no longer exactly the same as before; certainly the action they carry forward through intrigues and surprises leads toward some final denouement, which it continues to approach even when the plot seems to thicken more and more and the obstacles increase. If you look into the squares in successive moments, you hear from act to act the dialogue changes, even if the lives of Melania's inhabitants are too short for them to realize it."

- from Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, translated by William Weaver
Valdarda by Enrique Palacios
Einstein's Dreams was one of the first collections of vignettes I ever read, and only later did I realized that Alan Lightman was emulating Calvino's premise and technique. These stories are supposedly dreams that Albert Einstein had while he was working on his theory of relativity. They resemble some of the thought experiments Einstein explicitly posed to both develop his theory and understand its implications. The "dreams" are like more fanciful, more poetic versions of those gedankenexperiment, and they seem largely truthful to what we know about relativity.

The stories I remembered best before rereading were the ones where some facet of time-dilation becomes a central feature of social inequality. Time passes more slowly the further you go from the center of the Earth, so everyone lives as high up the hills and mountains as they can, and the wealthy build their houses on enormous stilts. Time passes more slowly inside a fast moving vehicle, so every house is on wheels, cities are just fleets of racing buildings, and the wealthy drive the fastest houses of all. 

Other stories are more about the span of life, or about the subjective experience of time, especially during moments of great importance - some of these imagine that objective time works the way subjective time feels, others that subjective time feels the way objective time works. Some stories work by taking some feature of relativity and magnifying it so that it works at the scale of human life, rather than only being noticeable on the scale of planets and stars and the speed of light. Instead, it all matters at human size and human speed. Someone could probably write a successful collection of vignettes that do the same thing with quantum mechanics. All the stories are set in Bern, Switzerland, so we see the same city transformed over and over by different facets of time.

Aside from the structure of the collection, with dreams instead of cities, Lightman also references Calvino by occasionally interspersing a daytime meeting between Einstein and his friend Besso. These interludes seem largely historically accurate, and seem to be mostly an excuse to include biographical details that help contextualize what Einstein's life looked like before he was famous. None of these interludes annoyed me the was a few of Calvino's did, but they're also arguably less important to the meaning of the book.

15 May 1905 - 

"Imagine a world in which there is no time. Only images.

A child at the seashore, spellbound by her first glimpse at the ocean. A woman standing on a balcony at dawn, her hair down, her loose sleeping silks, her bare feet, her lips. The curved arch of the arcade near the Zahringer Fountain on Kramgasse, sandstone and iron. A man sitting in the quite of his study, holding the photograph of a woman, a pained look on his face. An osprey framed in the sky, its wings outstretched, the sun rays piercing between feathers. A young boy sitting in an empty auditorium, his heart racing as if he were on stage. Footprints in snow on a winter island. A boat on the water at night, its lights dim in the distance, like a small red star in the black sky. A locked cabinet of pills. A leaf on the ground in autumn, red and gold and brown, delicate. A woman crouching in the bushes, waiting by the house of her estranged husband, whom she must talk to. A soft rain on a spring day, on a walk that is the last walk a young man will take in the place he loves. Dust on a windowsill. A stall of peppers on Marketgasse, the yellow and green and red. Matterhorn, the great jagged peak of white pushing into the solid blue sky, the green valley and the log cabins. The eye of a needle. Dew on leaves, crystal, opalescent. A mother in bed, weeping, the smell of basil in the air. A child on a bicycle in the Kleine Schanze, smiling the smile of a lifetime. A tower of prayer, tall and octagonal, open balcony, solemn, surrounded by arms. Steam rising from a lake in early morning. An open drawer. Two friends at a cafe, the lamplight illuminating one friend's face, the other in shadow. A cat watching a bug on the window. A young woman on a bench, reading a letter, tears of joy in her green eyes. A great field, lined with cedar and spruce. Sunlight, in long angles through the window in late afternoon. A massive tree fallen, roots sprawling in the air, bark, limbs still green. The white of a sailboat, with the wind behind it, sails billowed like wings of a giant white bird. A father and son alone at a restaurant, the father sand and staring down at the tablecloth. An oval window, looking out on fields of hay, a wooden cart, cows, green and purple in the afternoon light. A broken bottle on the floor, brown liquid in the crevices, a woman with red eyes. An old man in the kitchen, cooking breakfast for his grandson., the boy gazing out the window at a white painted bench. A worn book lying on a table beside a dim lamp. The white on water as a wave breaks, blown by wind. A woman lying on her couch with wet hair, holding the hand of a man she will never see again. A train with red cars, on a great stone bridge with graceful arches, a river underneath, tiny dots that are houses in the distance. Dust motes floating in sunlight through a window. The thin skin in the middle of a neck, thin enough to see the pulse of blood underneath. A man and woman naked, wrapped around each other. The blue shadows of trees in a full moon. The top of a mountain with a strong steady wind, the valley falling away on all sides, sandwiches of beef and cheese. A child wincing from his father's slap, the father's lips twisted in anger, the child not understanding. A strange face in the mirror, gray at the temples. A young man holding a telephone, startled at what he is hearing. A family photograph, the parents young and relaxed, the children in ties and dresses and smiling. A tiny light, far through a thicket of trees. The red at sunset. An eggshell, white, fragile, unbroken. A blue hat washed up on shore. Roses cut and adrift on the river beneath the bridge, with a chateau rising. Red hair of a lover, wild, mischievous, promising. The purple petals of an iris, held by a young woman. A room of four walls, two windows, two beds, a table, a lamp, two people with red faces, tears. The first kiss. Planets caught in space, oceans, silence. A bead of water on the window. A coiled rope. A yellow brush."

- from Einstein's Dreams by Alan Lightman

Sofronia by Enrique Palacios
Sophronia by David Fleck
The first time I read the vignettes of possible gods and possible afterlives in David Eagleman's Sum, it reminded me of a series of thought experiments I read in my college philosophy class (either Plato's Phaedo or one of David Hume's essays on Natural Religion) - what if god is an automated universe-building robot left behind on autopilot by an earlier inventor god? what if god is a vegetable and only cares about the existence of plantlife? what if our god is the youngest, weakest, most foolish member of a vast pantheon, and all the others created superior universes? etcetera ...

Some of Eagleman's vignettes imagine different versions of god, others imagine different versions of the afterlife, still others are really about different images of what the universe is and how it was made. Quite a few deal with the purpose of existence, which consistently seems to be something like achieving a lasting romantic love. There are recurrent themes of fallible gods being frustrated by their inability to fully understand or control the universe, and of human souls being disappointed with the afterlife. A few visions of reincarnation involve people alternating between modes of existence, each of which is intended to compensate for the flaws of the other.

The title story, "Sum", reminds me so much of Stanislaw Lem's "One Human Minute" that I wonder if Eagleman was inspired by it. The afterlife in "Metamorphosis", where people wait in a sort of heavenly antechamber until they are finally forgotten by everyone still living, strikes me as very similar to the starting premise of Kevin Brockmeier's A Brief History of the Dead. There are a number of stories with alien creators, like Deep Thought in Douglas Adam's Hitchiker's Guide trilogy, who built both the Earth and human beings as a type of living computers.

The best stories here help you to think about life in a different way, or the many varieties of loss, or the many ways that adulthood involves becoming disillusioned with something that seemed simpler and purer when you were a child. The worst stories are typically too simple, too pat, too self-satisfied, invoking romantic love as some sort of compensation or cure-all for all of life's disappointments.

I found myself unable to pick between these two stories, both of which, I think, speak to the current moment. 

Microbe -

"There is no afterlife for us. Our bodies decompose upon death, and then the teeming floods of microbes living inside us move on to better places. This may lead you to assume that God doesn't exist - but you'd be wrong. It's simply that He doesn't know we exist. He is unaware of us because we're at the wrong spatial scale. God is the size of a bacterium. He is not something outside and above us, but on the surface and in the cells of us.

God created life in His own image; His congregations are the microbes. The chronic warfare over host territory, the politics of symbiosis and infection, the ascendancy of strains: this is the chessboard of God, where good clashes with evil on the battleground of surface proteins and immunity and resistance.

Our presence in this picture is something of an anomaly. Since we - the backgrounds upon which they live - don't harm the life patterns of the microbes, we are unnoticed. We are neither selected out by evolution nor captured in the microdeific radar. God and His microbial constituents are unaware of the rich social life we have developed, of our cities, circuses, and wars - they are as unaware of our level of interaction as we are of theirs. Even while we genuflect and pray, it is only the microbes who are in the running for eternal punishment or reward. Our death is unnoteworthy and unobserved by the microbes, who merely redistribute onto different food sources. So although we supposed ourselves to be the apex of evolution, we are merely the nutritional substrate.

But don't despair. We have great power to change the course of their world. Imagine that you choose to eat at a particular restaurant, where you unwittingly pass a microbe from your fingers to the saltshaker to the next person sitting at the table, who happens to board an international flight and transport the microbe to Tunisia. To the microbes, who have lost a family member, these are the mystifying and often cruel ways in which the universe works. They look to God for answers. God attributes these events to statistical fluctuations over which He has no control and no understanding."

Ineffable - 

"When soldiers part ways at war's end, the breakup of the platoon triggers the same emotion as the death of a person - it is the final bloodless death of the war. This same mood haunts actors on the drop of the final curtain: after months of working together, something greater than themselves just died. After a store closes its doors on its final evening, or a congress wraps its final session, the participants amble away, feeling that they were part of something larger than themselves, something they intuit had a life even though they can't quite put a finger on it.

In this way, death is not only for humans but for everything that existed.

And it turns out that anything which enjoys life enjoys an afterlife. Platoons and plays and stores and congresses do not end - they simply move on to a different dimension. They are things that were created and existed for a time, and therefore by the cosmic rules they continue to exist in a different realm.

Although it is difficult for us to imagine how these beings interact, they enjoy a delicious afterlife together, exchanging stories of their adventures. They laugh about good times and often, just like humans, lament the brevity of life. The people who constituted them are not included in their stories. In truth, they have as little understanding of you as you have of them; they generally have no idea you existed.

It may seem mysterious to you that these organizations can live on without the people who composed them. But the underlying principle is simple: the afterlife is made of spirits. After all, you do not bring your kidney and liver and heart to the afterlife with you - instead, you gain independence from the pieced that make you up.

A consequence of this cosmic scheme may surprise you: when you die, you are grieved by all the atoms of which you were composed. They hung together for years, whether in sheets of skin or communities of spleen. With your death they do not die. Instead, they part ways, moving off in their separate directions, mourning the loss of a special time they shared together, haunted by the feeling that they were once playing parts in something larger than themselves, something that had its own life, something they can hardly put a finger on."

- from Sum by David Eagleman
Diomira by David Fleck
The last book of short-shorts I finished recently was The Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zachary Mason. These actually aren't all vignettes, and have the most variation in length. Both the shortest and longest stories across these four books are here. 

Some are retellings of parts of the Odyssey from different viewpoints - like in "Death and the King" where 'Paris' is the personification of Death and 'Ilium' is the City of the Dead, or in "The Iliad of Odysseus" where Odysseus deserts the war just before its conclusion and spends the years before returning to Ithaca disguised as a traveling storyteller, who invents the story that we know as the Odyssey to mythologize himself. Others are just interesting stories that involve the familiar characters - the best of these are like Greek myth themed episodes of The Twilight Zone.

Moreso than Calvino, I think Mason is particularly channeling Borges here. The book itself claims to be a series of translations of fragments of apocryphal versions of Homer's Odyssey found in an Egyptian rubbish heap, which is the sort false attribution that introduced so many of Borges' stories. "The Guest Friend" and "Agamemnon and the Word" in particular also feel like they're about Borges' preoccupation with ideas becoming reality, and with attempts to create a perfect language, respectively.

If Eagleman's weakest stories are too trite, Mason's are too obscure. I think this is especially true in the stories where he leans into the "fragment of a longer document" premise, but there are a handful of vignettes here where I don't really understand what effect Mason was hoping to achieve, and don't think I was moved in the way he might have hoped. 

Like Calvino, Mason includes a few stories near the end of his collection with anachronisms that subvert the supposed provenance of the writings, and in both cases I found the effect, used in small doses, to be humorous and enjoyable. Many of the latter stories are especially short, and many contain a fragment of a story within a fragment of a story. This story reminds me a little of the first vignette I selected up at the top of the post, and has the sort of Twilight Zone ending that I enjoyed in so many of Mason's stories.
The Other Assassin -

"In the Imperial Court of Agamemnon, the serene, the lofty, the disingenuous, the elect of every corner of the empire, there were three viziers, ten consuls, twenty generals, thirty admirals, fifty hierophants, a hundred assassins, eight hundred administrators of the second degree, two thousand administrators of the third and clerks, soldiers, courtesans, scholars, painters, musicians, beggars, larcenists, arsonists, stranglers, sycophants and hangers-on of no particular description beyond all number, all poised he serene, the etc. emperor's will. It so happened that in the twentieth year of his reign Agamemnon's noble brow clouded at the thought of a certain Odysseus, whom he felt was much too much renowned for cleverness and renown he preferred to reserve for the throne. While it was true that this Odysseus had made certain contributions to a recent campaign, involving the feigned offering of a horse which had facilitated stealthy entry into an enemy city, this did not justify the infringement on the royal prerogatives, and in any case, the war had long since been brought to a satisfactory conclusion, so Agamemnon called for the clerk of Suicides, Temple Offerings, Investitures, Bankruptcy and Humane and Just Liquidation, and signed Odysseus's death warrant.

The clerk of Suicide, etc. bowed and with due formality passed the document to the General who Holds Death in His Right Hand, who annotated it, stamped it, and passed it to the Viceroy of Domestic Matters Involving Mortality and so on through the many twists and turns of the bureaucracy, through the hands of spy-masters career criminals, blind assassins, mendacious clerics and finally to the lower ranks of advisors who had been promoted to responsibility for their dedication and competence (rare qualities given their low wages and the contempt with which they were treated by their well-connected or nobly born superiors), one of whom noted it was a death order of high priority and without reading it assigned it to that master of battle and frequent servant of the throne, Odysseus.

A messenger came to Ithaca and gave Odysseus his orders. Odysseus read them, his face closed, and thanked the messenger, commenting that the intended victim was in for a surprise, and that he was morally certain no problems would arise on his end.

On the eight succeeding days Odysseus sent the following messages to the court as protocol required:

'I am within a day's sail of his island.'

'I walk among people who know him and his habits.'

'I am within ten miles of his house.'

'Five miles.'

'One mile.'

'I am at his gate.'

'The full moon is reflected in the silver mirror over his bed. The silence is perfect but for his breathing.'

'I am standing over his bed holding a razor flecked with his blood. Before the cut he looked into my face and swore to slay the man who ordered his death. I think that as a whispering shade he will do no harm.' "

- from The Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zachary Mason


  1. The Other Assassin is exactly the kind of story I love.

    1. You'd probably like "The Lost Books" then, or at least the early stories. A lot of them that sort of cruel twist.

  2. I enjoyed If on a Winter's Night a Traveler quite a bit, but it does get to be a bit much by the end. His writing is so evocative and poetic, really excellent, and I think there was probably a lot of depth and subtext to the book that I didn't totally understand. But in some ways it's a victim of its own success to me, in that, I enjoyed many of the vignettes so much, that I'd get frustrated when I didn't get to see them all the way through, which was of course the point, or at least I think that was the point 0.o.

    Anyway, Invisible Cities sounds very much up my alley, just impulse bought it on kindle on your recommendation (it happened to be on steep discount, great timing!). Ever since reading Grant Morrison's Invisibles, or I think that's where my interest in it started, the concept of cities and how people interface with them has intrigued me, and it's a topic that I think has clearly permeated into some of my more recent work especially.

    1. I think part of fully enjoying "If on a Winter's Night" is being familiar with the author's Calvino is imitating that you recognize the imitations and feel that spark of enjoyment from figuring something out.

      I liked "Invisible Cities" better, honestly.

      I have some more books about cities in my reading list, I'll make sure to review them here.