Saturday, July 29, 2006

Forgetfulness by Michael Mejia

When I was gathering my big stack of contemporary fiction titles to read this summer, this was one of the ones I held up to my husband and said, "Oh, for heaven's sake, get a load of this." I thought it was one of those books, that makes you work so hard to "get it", and gives you half a sneer in return, and I won't put a finger on what I'm talking about or give an example, but you KNOW you have read them, I think I've even written some short stories like this, and so I know what I'm rolling my eyes about.

Here's a description from the back jacket:

The first part of Forgetfulness is a fictional monograph on the life of the Austrian modernist composer Anton von Webern (1883-1945).The collage-work monograph unfolds in a Webernian sequence of events and silences combining quotes from Webern, his friends and associates, and various historical and literary figures with short scenes, monologues, dialogues, newspaper articles, and theater and film scripts. The result is a lyrical panorama of early twentieth century Vienna.

The second part of the book takes place in Vienna on May 1st, 1986, shortly before the election of Kurt Waldheim as President of the Austrian Republic and shortly after the Chernobyl disaster. The three simultaneous, intertwining monologues of an archivist, a retired opera singer, and the author of the monograph, revisit the themes and events of the first part, commenting on postwar conceptions, analyses, and revisions of the period during which Webern lived, while continuously haunted by the specters of Waldheim and Chernobyl, the persistence of crimes that are immanent, unpaid for, or only dimly, disingenuously recalled.
There was more. Also, flipping through it, I saw that part of it was divided into three sections on the page, between "Soloist" and "Composer" and "Archivist" and I anticipated a fractured narrative, with time jumping around, and thought it would be a pain in my ass. I MUST BE GETTING OLD. I ADMIT. I WAS CRABBY ABOUT IT! I wasn't really jumping up and down, anxious to crack into it.


I read this book while I was coming down with the flu, and as sick as I was, and as miserable as I was, and as much as I just wanted to close my eyes and think of clean snow, I COULDN'T PUT IT DOWN. I have never had a reaction like that to a book this experimental. I've thought they were funny before, brilliant before, even engaging, but I have never read a book without traditional characters or plot with such avid determination from cover to cover.

This book is gorgeous. I can't explain it properly, but... it's incredible. That three section part that I was so belligerent about reading was genius. Instead of feeling distracted and irritated, it was actually fun to kind of read around on the page, then turn it, then read around on the next page... the formal experimentation totally worked. And all the mixing of different texts and characters and times and places really WORKED. It formed a picture, at the end of the book, that could have been rendered in no other way. And that's the point of experimental fiction, right, to do something in a new way that couldn't be done in the old way.

It was beautiful, beautiful, ever word on purpose, every image worth looking at, every page a study. This book offers the reader a massive pay-off for the diligence involved in reading an experimental form. The thing is... the challenge in this book is not even like work. Go buy it, read it, see how it's done.

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