Tuesday, June 1, 1999

Jorge Luis Borges’ Collected Fictions (review #2)

A Review of Jorge Luis Borges’ Collected Fictions

Originally published in the Rain Taxi Review of Books, Summer 1999

By Jorge Luis Borges
Translated by Andrew Hurley
Viking ($40)

Lamenting the exhaustion of literary forms and ideas in the wake of Modernism, Cynthia Ozick once wrote, “after Kafka, after Borges, what is there to do but mope?” She answers the question immediately with a discussion of Italo Calvino, one of the most inventive of the post-Borgesians (everything after 1944 is post-Borgesian), but the sentiment lingers. Building one of the most towering fictional—and often fictitious—catalogs in modern literature, Borges wrote with infinity in mind. Writing in Spanish, though, it took a while for his infinities to infiltrate the rest of the world’s literature, and over the years most of us have had to make do with teasing samplers and greatest-hit packages, only guessing at the labyrinths hidden just a little south of the equator. But now, with Collected Fictions, the tower of labyrinths stands tall—freshly translated and, like the encyclopedic world of “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” poised to preclude any other reality.

In truth, this volume only collects the fictions written solely by Borges himself, omitting the works he produced in collaboration. Most sorely missed are the stories penned by “H. Bustos Domecq,” the collaborative pseudonym of Borges and his friend Adolfo Bioy Casares. But at 565 pages, Collected Fictions amply attests to Borges’ singular genius. Beginning with his first fiction collection, A Universal History of Iniquity, and ending with the prose pieces from Shakespeare’s Memory—and omitting all works of poetry, essay, and autobiography—the collection focuses on what made Borges famous: his stories. A notorious trickster, however, Borges often disguises essays as fiction, fictions as essays, and tosses in poetry and autobiography everywhere so that genre boundaries are almost completely blurred.

Written with an almost mathematical rigor and employing a dizzying combination of the tangible and the infinite, Borges’ stories reveal a world of palimpsests existing simultaneously with our own. To read Borges is to feel an eerie sense of recognition—recognition of spaces and times that we always knew existed somewhere in some catalog of possibilities but which we’d left filed away because we’d been incapable of fully imagining them.

Perhaps the most representative of these possibilities is “The Library of Babel,” a mind-boggling account of a universal library containing every book with every possible combination of letters. Laying out the librarian’s tangible world with a precision reminiscent of (and inspired by) Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” the story mirrors our own world by exploring the limits of human comprehension. It’s impossible that the library is infinite, as there’s only a finite number of lexical variations, but it’s also impossible that the library could have outer boundaries, that somewhere there’s a place that the library doesn’t exist. And of course within the library are librarians, each one a Borges forced to deal with the awful parameters of his universe.

Another sense a Borges reader gets is that the stories are all variations—or rather versions. Not of the same story, but of the infinite stories that exist everywhere. His earlier works are all sly combinations of the original and the stolen, and his Internet-speed erudition links it all together in a way that makes it impossible to tell what’s made up or who made it up. Gaining momentum quickly, Borges’ second collection, Ficciones, finds him in full command of the genre, but it’s even clearer that, no matter how brilliant and original he is, he’s more of a medium for the infinite than an autonomous creator. It’s Ficciones that contains “The Library of Babel,” as well as the masterful “Funes the Memorious,” an examination of memory and the mind’s relationship to the world. Funes, a character as memorable—and elusive—as any in modern literature, serves as a metaphor for Borges’ sleepless battle with memory, his inability to forget illuminating Borges’ role as cipher for the universe’s stories.

As for this specific collection, translator Andrew Hurley has done a tremendous job with such a Babel-sized catalog. Translating Borges’ earlier, more poetic works as clearly and as sharply as his later, more pared-down ones, Hurley gives us an almost seamless view of the Borges world. Not without his idiosyncrasies, though, Hurley makes a few weird word choices (e.g. “gaol” for “jail”) and adds inconsistent (and sometimes Kinbotian) annotation. He also dismisses the word “memorious” as “Lewis Carroll-esque” (I can think of no greater compliment) and re-translates the title as “Funes, His Memory.” But these are quibbling criticisms. By giving us access to so much Borges in one place, Hurley has done an awesome service to the English language. As long as we can get over moping about how little Borges has left for us to do, this collection is likely to inspire English-language readers and writers to re-discover just what the a mind can do when faced with an infinity of fictional possibilities.

—David Wiley

Silver, by Matthew Remski

A Review of Matthew Remski’s Silver

Originally published in the Rain Taxi Review of Books, Summer 1999

By Matthew Remski
Insomniac Press ($14.99)

Rick Moody wrote in his review of Mason & Dixon that writers of his generation have exactly one author with whom they must come to terms: Thomas Pynchon. This is hyperbole, to be sure, but it’s no exaggeration to say that many of our best writers work in the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow in the way that folks like William Faulkner and William Gaddis worked in the shadow of Ulysses. William T. Vollmann and David Foster Wallace come instantly to mind, as do Carol De Chellis Hill and Richard Powers. Each of these writers is powerful enough and original enough to stand without GR as a crutch, but the influence is undeniable, and not talking about it would be like playing a game of literary Taboo. So then what’s a young, hyper-smart literary wunderkind to do but tackle the Rainbow head on?

This is exactly what Matthew Remski does in his new novel, Silver. Not just a Pynchon-esque novel, Silver is a long improvisation/meditation on Gravity’s Rainbow and its author, written almost exactly in Pynchon’s style. Hardly coy about his approach, Remski names his main character Tyrone Pynchon, fusing GR’s protagonist Tyrone Slothrop with Pynchon himself, and sets him down in pre-War Germany as an erudite, paranoid, and dissolute correspondent for the News of the World. Pynchon gets his NOW assignments through elaborately cabalistic means, sent by editors he’s never met, and the novel begins with him finding instructions tattooed in a Lewis Carroll-like spiral around a chance lover’s asshole: “Go to Berlin. Check out Mengele and the violinist, plus the Riefenstahl virus. Also look into the bunny trade….”

Resigned, Pynchon heads for the Reichstag, where his journalist’s credentials allow him to observe all manner of Nazi perversity. The violinist in question is a young Jew named Ghimel whose hands have been amputated and switched, his ability to re-learn the violin proving Mengele’s theory of the “ambidextrous and therefore unnatural, lawless, and uncentred nature of the Semite.” Ghimel serves as entertainer/lackey for the Nazi revelers, and his wrist wounds set up a powerful crucifixion motif that Remski explores throughout the rest of the novel.

Present in various capacities are Leni Riefenstahl, Josef Mengele, Klaus Barbie, and Hitler, as well as Hans Hugo Heffner, rabbit breeder, and Andrei Lupus Weber, Party composer. Mixing these historical and quasi-historical figures together, Remski addresses another of the book’s central motifs: the pornography of image, as illustrated by everything from film and propaganda to children’s toys (i.e. “Barbie” dolls). If there’s a central image to Silver, the way the Rocket is the central image to GR, it’s the Shroud of Turin—or more accurately a specific negative photograph of the Shroud, which Remski portrays as the ultimate pornography. The silver of the novel’s title refers to the silver used in photography, and the “Riefenstahl virus” is a cloud of silver that surrounds our Nazi pornographers, infecting everyone with whom they come in contact.

What’s interesting about the novel’s structure is that it surrounds Gravity’s Rainbow like Riefenstahl’s cloud of silver. The first forty-five pages all take place before GR, and, excluding a two-page “WWII Segue,” everything else takes place in GR’s aftermath. And true to Pynchon’s vision, Remski charts the Nazi diaspora all over the world. Weber and Eva Perón hit it off when the Nazis go to Argentina, the composer becoming her chief propagandist, and when burger-meister Ray Krok enters the picture, sights begin to be set on the ultimate destination: the States.

Around this point, the novel begins to break apart considerably, following the Rainbow’s trajectory downward into fragmentation. Tyrone Pynchon heads for America, aboard the U.S.S. Television, but he gets sidetracked by Their meddling, and as we see him fall more and more under Their control, he begins to disappear from the novel, à la Tyrone Slothrop. Taking several leaps in time, Silver follows the disparate storylines as they diverge and recross in masterfully orchestrated lurches toward modern-day America. We see Ghimel’s child born and then emigrate to the States. We meet wholly new characters—most notably doomed “Playgoy” bunny Dorothy Stratten—and wait for them to intersect with the rest of the crew. And, most importantly, we watch the Nazi aesthetic infiltrate and infect America.

As in Gravity’s Rainbow, however, there are counterforces at work, if only fatalistic ones—namely the authors Pynchon and Remski themselves. Not nearly as self-indulgent as it sounds, Remski turns the novel into a profound examination of authorship and identity, and even when it gets a little wanky, Remski has volumes to tell us about the nature of reading and writing.

So the question is, with all this rampant Pynchania, is it possible that Silver is a great book? None of the setting or subject matter is Remski’s own, nor are the prose style or pacing. Some of his themes and motifs vary from Gravity’s Rainbow, although not by much. For all of its lack of originality, though, I’d have to say that Silver may be one of the most wildly brilliant—and weirdly original—novels in recent memory. Like the premise of Borges’ story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” Silver is an astonishing experiment in mimesis. The prose style is so outrageously Pynchonlike that a few times I thought it was Pynchon and that Matthew Remski was just one of his characters. And when Remski really gets going, he can pull off feats so outlandish that they rival some of Pynchon’s best bits.

Overall, however, Remski is no Pynchon. Nobody is. As brilliant as Remski may be, his vision is much smaller, and his scope far narrower. For all its plenitude, Silver often finds Remski doing the things we expect and understand Pynchon to do—and usually stopping before things get too dense and the counter-counter-counter-plots get too confusing. Nevertheless, Remski is an out-and-out genius. And even though it contents itself with remaining under the Rainbow, Silver just might be a great book.

—David Wiley