Shelf Defense: A Better Angel, The Seamstress and the Wind

In late 2011 I decided to comb through the unread sections of my library in alphabetical order. It was a silly, semi-self-destructive idea, and it will take forever—so I’d better get moving. Shelf Defense is my occasional notebook about what I dig up, from Alphabet Juice to Point Omega.

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CHRIS ADRIAN, A BETTER ANGEL (2008)

WHY DO I OWN THIS?: Because I saw it remaindered in Chapters the day after I heard Adrian sound so charmingly awkward on KCRW’s Bookworm earlier this year.

THOUGHTS: This was a test balloon. I was pretty sure Adrian would be an elegant and thoughtful writer, but that’s never a sure thing for me. His novels sound just sad as hell. This collection is, too—achingly so—but it’s also got fierce glints of the contemporary, the darkly comic, and an emotional intuition that’s so fine-tuned it’s scary. Frankly, I’m blown away. Two stand-out elements: Adrian’s ultra-vivid descriptions of pain, and his talent for character names, especially when they come in pairs. Con and Caleb. Peter and Tercin. Calvin and Colm. “Stab” had my stomach in constant knots; it’s as good a story as I’ve read all year. Angels and devils play recurring parts, as does the distantly looming spectre of 9/11. Somehow it works. The whole thing is so tasteful and fluid that it’s hard to believe these stories were scattered over the course of a decade. But what sad-as-hell novel do I turn to next?

KEEP OR SELL: Keep.

* * * * *

CÉSAR AIRA, THE SEAMSTRESS AND THE WIND (1994, TRANS. ROSALIE KNECHT)

WHY DO I OWN THIS?: Because I made a vow to buy more Aira every time I put in a special order.

THOUGHTS: My second Aira novel (following The Literary Conference), meaning that now is about when I get over my fanboy response to the broad strokes of his lunatic talents and look more closely. This one is about a mother’s frantic road trip in pursuit of her son, who gets accidentally locked in a cargo truck and driven into Patagonia. Also: monsters, an amorous wind, truckers’ labyrinthine sleeping quarters, and a writer named César Aira in a string of Paris cafes, struggling with a novel called The Seamstress and the Wind.

Foolproof, right? Well, not quite. The disparate parts are still as confident as a coyote running over a cliff edge, kept aloft by sheer force of will, but they didn’t add up to quite so much this time around. Dunno. Purely a gut feeling. But I’d still definitely recommend it, tracking Aira’s magpie mind sentence by sentence. And, in the end, I’ve still drank the Kool-Aid for this man. In fact, if there’s anything left in the pitcher, I could go for another glass—this one only made me thirstier.

KEEP OR SELL: Keep.

  1. kelsfjord said: "Stab" is easily one of my favorite short stories ever. You really really should read The Children’s Hospital! Sad as hell, but worth it.
  2. booksinthekitchen posted this