WAYS TO DISAPPEAR uses the contradictions of modern Brazil to explore the ways we translate everything in our lives

Idra Novey -- Ways to Disappear

Ways to Disappear

By Idra Novey

Back Bay Books: Jan. 17, 2017

$15.99, 272 pages

This review was originally posted on May 23, 2016 and is being re-posted because the book has recently been issued in paperback. And because I think you should read it.


Ways to Disappear, poet and translator Idra Novey’s debut novel, is an absorbing exploration of the dichotomy between the perception and reality of a writer’s life. Novey’s protagonist, Emma Neufeld, translates the novels of the critically acclaimed Brazilian writer Beatriz Yagoda. But Emma is more than just professionally engaged in Yagoda’s work; she is obsessed with her writing and intrigued by her personal life.

When she learns that Yagoda has disappeared, she is convinced she knows what makes Yagoda tick in a way no one else does and can help find her. She flies from Pittsburgh to Brazil to help Yagoda’s suspicious daughter, Raquel, and charming son, Marcus, search for her and discover why she went into hiding. But, as you might expect, young and naive Emma encounters an even greater mystery in Brazil itself and ultimately learns that there is both more and less to Yagoda’s work than she could have imagined.

Emma’s well-intentioned belief that she is uniquely qualified to serve as a private investigator leads her on an unpredictable search through Yagoda’s personal and creative life that exposes her to Brazil’s hard brown underbelly. She faces off against a loan shark named Flamenguinho seeking to recover a debt owed by the writer. Yagoda’s publisher, Roberto Rocha, offers eccentric suggestions and financial support, once he learns that Yagoda may have a work in progress for him to publish.

Raquel plays antagonist to Emma’s meddling, while Marcus is more receptive to her interest in his mother and, before long, him. Together and apart, they chase down clues that lead them to the city of Salvador on the central coast.

Interspersed throughout the narrative are transcripts of reports from Radio Globo, desperate emails from Emma’s fiance back in Pittsburgh, and witty dictionary entries of words and phrases that shed light on Emma’s adventures (including sample sentences referencing Emma’s fraught circumstances). These additional voices add perspective to the careening narrative, as Emma searches for Beatriz, copes with Raquel, falls for Marcus, and negotiates with both Flamenguinho and Rocha.

Novey, who translates works in Portuguese and Spanish (including the work of Clarice Lispector), has concocted a savory Brazilian dish that puts literary traditions as diverse as noir, magical realism, and romance to use in clever and surprising ways.

Ways to Disappear is as complex and enchanting as modern Brazil itself, alternately breezy with fish-out-of-water humor and manic plotting, and humid with portent and mystery. Novey knows how to spin a multi-faceted tale with a love of language and literature at its heart. Like Emma, we are all engaged in the act of translating an author’s work to suit our own needs, completing the writer’s work through reading. Novey’s auspicious debut marks the arrival of a writer worth meeting halfway.

Update: Ways to Disappear won the 2016 Brooklyn Eagles Literary Prize for Fiction and was a Barnes & Noble “Discover” selection. NPR named it one of the Best Books of 2016 and it was a New York Times Editors’ Choice. The book is currently a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in First Fiction, which will be awarded at the Times’ Festival of Books on April 21.

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WILLFUL DISREGARD a potent Swedish novel that takes a psychological scalpel to romantic delusions

Willful Disregard

Willful Disregard

By Lena Andersson

Translated from the Swedish by Sarah Death

Other Press: Feb. 2, 2016 (paperback original)

$15.95, 196 pages

 

Lena Andersson is a well-known newspaper columnist, social commentator, and novelist in Sweden. Willful Disregard, her fifth novel and winner of Sweden’s highest literary honor, the August Prize, is her first book to be published in the U.S., and it is an impressive introduction to a writer with keen insight into love in both its universal characteristics and its modern trappings.

Andersson probes the mind of thirty-one-year-old journalist Ester Nilsson, who becomes infatuated with artist Hugo Rask when she is asked to write an in-depth profile of the semi-legendary older man. From their first interview, they seem to be intellectual kindred spirits, and Ester is entranced.

Over the following weeks they meet for meals or drinks and their long conversations about art, philosophy, and culture continue. Ester is smitten and believes Rask returns at least some of her affection despite the relationship’s platonic nature. It appears he is involved with another woman, at least in some fashion. Ester is so enamored of Rask and so convinced that her future lies with him that she leaves her long-term boyfriend. Undoubtedly, Ester reasons, Rask is disengaging from his other commitment as well. Ester hangs on Rask’s every word, gesture, and action, obsessively analyzing each for its true meaning with regard to his feelings and their burgeoning relationship. She squeezes impossibly rose-colored interpretations out of the most minor of words and deeds.

Andersson proceeds to probe Ester’s thoughts and emotions with laser-like intensity. The ruthlessly unsentimental narrator sees through Ester’s pretensions and rationalizations into her true motives, flawed thinking, and overwhelming need to “only connect.” In doing so, Andersson has written one of the most accurate explorations of the self-deception and madness of new love that I have ever encountered. In that sense, it reminds me of Scott Spencer’s brilliant Endless Love (although her prose style is tersely analytical where his is richly nuanced and Romantic).

In fact, if there is a writer Andersson puts me in mind of, it is Elena Ferrante. As with the Italian novelist behind The Neapolitan Quartet that begins with My Brilliant Friend, the writing is distinguished by a fierce and unrelenting psychological dissection of every character and relationship. But Andersson also displays a sharp wit and the ability to find the bittersweet humor in most situations. I can’t recall the last book in which I was tempted to highlight so many pithy lines of description and explanation.

A few examples should suffice.

At one point, Ester awaits Hugo’s call, which is not forthcoming. “She had to occupy herself with something while waiting for her life to start. She looked at the phone. Perhaps she had it on silent by mistake? No. No one had called, and no text message had arrived unnoticed. She rang herself from her landline to check her mobile was working. Sent herself a text. Everything worked as it should.” Later that day, the narrator notes, “It was three o’clock and he had not called. She had coffee in a cafe and an extra-large pastry with it, on account of the situation.” Both observations are bitterly true, full of pathos, and from a distance, undeniably funny.

When Ester believes Rask has lied to her, she sends him a ferocious text message. “It was a highly condensed communication, as strained as dread and panic become when they conceal themselves behind haughtiness. Its tone exuded contempt rooted in self-respect. It was a message you could cut yourself on. And she censured him with all the justification of the scorned.” [I’ll pause to allow you a moment of recognition.]

Not surprisingly, Rask pulls away in response. When, later, she and Rask discuss this situation, Ester discovers that his view of their relationship, and relationships in general, differs significantly from hers. Her naivete is astonishing for someone her age, who is clearly not inexperienced in matters of the heart. Is she simply irrational about love despite being coolly rational about everything else? Is this her first great infatuation? True love? Or does her delusion rise to the level of mental illness? (For the record, this is not “Fatal Attraction” territory.)

Is it so strange that “[S]he chewed endlessly over what had happened, with herself and with anyone who would listen, going through what she could have done differently at such-and-such a time or on such-and-such an occasion, if only she had known things would turn out as they had”?

When Ester has no choice but to conclude that the “relationship” is over, she suffers intensely. “Grief cannot remain acute indefinitely,” the narrator informs us. “It soon gets moved to the day ward and the rehabilitation clinic. Ester anaesthetized herself with company and people she would not have spent time with had she been harmonious rather than half dead. She did everything in her power to avoid being alone with herself…She was not stoical but in shreds, totally frayed.”

Although Andersson never introduces Ester’s friends individually, she makes effective and drily humorous use of them as a background character. “The girlfriend chorus was kept very busy. It interpreted, comforted, soothed, exhorted and indicated new directions of travel. She had to break free, it said, and she repeated: I’ve got to break free from this idiocy.”

A brief encounter with Rask months later rekindles her not quite extinguished hope. She decides to call him. “She was ringing because the itch was back, the malarial love itch that is always latent once it has invaded the cell system, lying ready to break out at any time.” This is exactly right. We have all been there, male and female alike.

Andersson perhaps puts this concept best when the narrator observes that “everything in existence wants to live, and hope is no exception. It is a parasite. It lives and thrives on the most innocent of tissue. Its survival lies in a well-developed ability to ignore everything that is not favourable to its growth while pouncing on anything that feed it and help it to live on.”

While Ester Nilsson is uniquely flawed and misguided in love, she is often Everywoman, at least as far as I can tell from observation and experience. I suspect that most readers will experience conflicting emotions when they read Willful Disregard. They will think, This woman is crazy. She is nothing like me! I would never do that! Mere pages later they will think, Oh my God, I’ve done that! That is so true. What was I thinking?

As I read Willful Disregard, my reactions ranged from cringing and shaking my head in disbelief, to laughing and nodding my head in agreement — all in recognition of its essential truth. Alice Sebold (The Lovely Bones) sums up this cherry bomb of a novel best when she says, “Willful Disregard is a story of the heart written with bracing intellectual rigor. It is a stunner, pure and simple.”

KARATE CHOP brings Danish writer’s dark, droll stories to U.S. readers

Karate Chop_Dorthe Nors

Karate Chop: Stories

Dorthe Nors (Translated by Martin Aitken)

Graywolf Press: Feb. 4, 2014

104 pages, $14.00

Dorthe Nors’s Karate Chop is one of the few books that truly deserves to be described with that overused adjective, “unique.” The Danish novelist’s first collection of stories is a short, sharp shock that hits you like, well, a karate chop to the neck.

In fifteen stories that run from three to eight pages, Nors examines key moments in the lives of her quirky, very human characters as they struggle to make sense of other people in their surreal world. She gets right to the central conflict, stripping everything else away. It’s probably cliché to say, but there is a palpable Scandinavian coolness and efficiency to her stories. Her prose is crisp and economical, with nary a word out of place. She has polished these diamonds to an icy sparkle.

The best stories are glimpses into strange lives or at least strange moments that lead to unexpected results. “Mutual Destruction” examines the relationship of two friends, Henrik and Morton, who hunt together and have agreed to shoot each other’s dogs when the time comes to put them down. But Morton’s wife Tina has left him, and there is clearly something amiss as Henrik watches Morton and his dog from just inside a stand of trees on a hill above Morton’s property.

“They’d always been friends, but there was a lack of balance in it,” Henrik thinks…. “Now it was the last of them, the last dachshund, going about the yard at Morton’s heels down there. A man and his dog in the twilight, but something more. He had to take it in. Take a good look, because that’s how it was: there was something in Morton that shunned the light. Something Tina said was a kind of complex. He didn’t know what it was.” Nors leaves much unsaid, relying on the reader to infer the other relationship that goes all but unmentioned in Henrik’s narrative.

“The Buddhist” follows a corporate type as he climbs the ladder to the top, where things don’t go quite as he planned. The narrative voice is so cynical and knowing, so droll, that what might be a dull and predictable series of incidents in the hands of a less talented author is instead taut and suspenseful.

In “Female Killers,” a husband feeds his addiction to weird websites. “When she goes to bed, which is earlier and earlier now, he stays up at the computer.” That opening line is pregnant with possible meanings. He visits a variety of websites. “People who can predict things. Clocks that stop when someone dies. Calves with two heads, and women who kill people.” He becomes obsessed with one serial killer, Aileen Wuorno, who was eventually executed. “The odd thing about Aileen,” he notes, “is that she was the kind of person you could have had fun with in a bar when you were young, if the chance came around.” The story concludes simply but with import. Nors makes her readers think.

“The Heron” features some of Nors’ sharpest writing and an especially weird and wonderful opening. “I won’t feed birds, but if you must, then you should do so in Frederiksberg Gardens,” the story begins. “There are tame herons in Frederiksberg Gardens, and the park authorities have placed the park’s benches at some distance from one another so as not to attract too many birds to one area. There are problems at the end of the park where the alcoholics sit, particularly with ducks, but I never go that way, and you can see the herons everywhere. Of the heron itself, one can only say that from a distance it looks impressive, but this doesn’t apply when you get close up. It’s too thin, and tame herons in particular look malnourished. Most likely all that bread gives the herons of Frederiksberg Gardens bad stomachs and is to blame for their not making an effort to fly. Last winter I saw one slouching on the back of a bench with its long, scrawny neck.”

The narrator goes on to ponder the discovery of a dead woman’s body in a suitcase by a man walking his dog by a pond in the park, mothers pushing strollers, and childhood games he played there with his friends.

The title story is one of the most powerful and haunting stories you are ever likely to encounter and should be widely anthologized. Annelise, a school psychologist, is dating Karl Erik, the father of a young boy she counsels. He told her when they met that “he had a temper, was something of a coward, and a poor father to boot,” but “she never believed what these men said about themselves. Mostly, she had considered this self-deprecation, if not a form of politeness.”

But Karl Erik had not lied to her, and as the story progresses, we find Annelise looking at her naked body in the mirror, locating bruises and marks. “Sitting there on the edge of the bed, she considered that she had most likely seen her worst and her best now.” Pressures and misunderstandings in their relationship had reached a head, and she had applied a metaphorical karate chop to the problem. The ramifications of her course of action remain unmentioned, and the last paragraphs reverberate in the reader’s mind.

These concise, elegant, and disturbing stories require (and reward) rereading. This slim volume packs quite a punch – and you’ll feel it for quite a while.