Short Story Review – Rodrigo Fresán – Snatching Bodies (trans. Will Vanderhyden)

…to make memory is to unmake time

I come to Rodrigo Fresán the way most will in 2018 – via the enthusiastic bombardment of events and information from Chad Post, the publisher of Open Letter Books, and one of the driving forces behind Three Percent, the attached blog.  I believe I have Fresán’s latest novel, which at the time of writing is The Bottom of the Sky, winging its way in the post, and it will be the first full work of Fresán’s I have read.  This story was published by Three Percent as a taste test of the writer, and as something of a companion piece or ancillary work to the novel.

And here we go.

The narrator is remembering back to when he was young, a teenager, living with his parents, when the movie The Invasion of the Bodysnatchers was in the cinema, when nuclear war seemed a possibility, when memory hadn’t yet frayed the experience of being young and bright and bursting with possibility.  Remembering isn’t exactly a framing device, as the narrative jumps back and forth and is commingled in a way which allows Fresán to comment on and build upon both time periods, but it does serve as a strong anchoring point.  We know this is an older man looking back.

I like the kind of text which makes me feel as though I have climbed up inside the author’s mind and have become nestled in their brain, listening to their thoughts, aware of their heartbeat.  Snatching Bodies is far more than associative writing, but at times it feels as though the narrator is letting his thoughts run away with him, following them where they go, remembering.  And it’s great, it works.

I do believe that we all contain a universe within ourselves, and also that most people struggle to express any of it to anyone, including themselves.  But for those who are able to do so in written form, we become privy to the thousand million connections and references which make up a person’s life, all of the meaning-ful and -less comings and goings of media, people, thoughts, dreams, sights, smells.  None of it means anything on its own, but the accumulation of it all creates a fascinating me.  Whoever that me happens to be.

And I leave the theater—“Just like any Saturday morning,” someone on the screen said—and return home and I’m cold. A new kind of cold. An extraterrestrial cold. And my mother is in the kitchen preparing herself a martini with the face of I Married a Monster from Outer Space! and I look at her with the face of My Father Glows in the Dark! and the residential neighborhood where we live isn’t called Santa Mira—the town in California where Invasion of the Body Snatchers is set—but it might as well be the same place. The different name—Sad Songs—is not enough to alter the lifestyle, a way of understanding reality and on TV, on the news, someone says “they are everywhere and they won’t rest until they infiltrate positions of power and destroy our beautiful and powerful country.”

The narrator describes this movie, and other movies, with the informed obsession of the very young.  All little boys and girls have something they delve deep into and know everything about, their attention absorbed for hours, days, months, as they attempt to understand it all.  Very often I suppose it is a cinematic universe, a book series, a television show – media of some kind.  For me, it was The Wheel of Time and Magic: the Gathering cards.  For the narrator, it’s 1950s movies and the fascinating unfolding possibilities of science fiction, and monsters and horror.  He is so enamoured with all of this that it bleeds into his understanding of reality, colouring his perception of complex, sophisticated situations like the cold war, America’s stubborn insistence on its spheres of influence and soft and hard power, the omnipresent threat of fallout and nuclear war.

The narrator’s father is the second touchstone to the story, and alongside The Invasion of the Bodysnatchers it’s clear that he was exceedingly formative for the teenage narrator.  Of course – it’s his father.

They come and take my father away. They take him away in a big car. A few days go by before I resign myself to the fact that no, they aren’t going to bring a double or replica of my father to substitute for the defective model that now they have hidden—or eliminated—who knows where. I go up to his room and look under his bed to see if there’s a pod or larva or something like that. There’s nothing. I ask my mother where they’ve taken him. My mother says to a hospital. I ask her when we can go visit him. My mother tells me, like all her answers, that the hospital where they have taken my father isn’t one of those hospitals where you can go visit the patients and that my father prefers it that way, that I not see him yet, until he is better, she adds looking at the kitchen wall where there’s nothing to see but a Coca-Cola calendar, where she’d rather look than look me in the eyes.

The mother fares less well.  She exists to provide information and a kind of commentary, but her personality isn’t particularly distinct.  The father, though, looms large, and at times the movie and the parent become confused, merge, come together.

The powerful final part when the narrator questions his father’s life in an effort to understand the man, how he came to be who he was and how his life had ended up the way it did, is an extremely strong piece of writing which, on its own, would be effective and intense.  The questions go on and on, each one their own paragraph, piercing the veil of intimacy, of history, of privacy, in a way that a son should never do, the way a son always wants to know.  To be a better man himself, or at least to avoid repeating the same mistakes.

Snatching Bodies reads somewhat like the attempt of an older man to understand his younger self, and how the latter eventually became the former.  But this is such a reductive way of understanding the story.  It is, instead, a constricted universe of possibility, a freewheeling intellect constrained to describing, comparing, and attempting to understand two distinct and important facets of the character’s life.  The constraints bulge, but they hold.

Snatching Bodies is a short story by Argentinian writer Rodrigo Fresán, and was translated by Will Vanderhyden.  You can read the story online at the Three Percent blog, which is part of Open Letter Books.

Author Rodrigo Fresán
Title Snatching Bodies
Translator Will Vanderhyden
Nationality Argentinian
Publisher Three Percent (Open Letter Books)

Please visit the Short Story Reviews page to see all of the available reviews.


I Remember – #894

I remember Christ telling me that it was time for him to leave Livingstones, and that he was going to try to make it in London.  We were eating ramen at Taro’s Ramen, and his mind was aflame with thoughts of consulting for his day-job, and designing icons at night.

-3 March 2017

This post is part of the I Remember series.

Remembering Philip Roth

Philip Roth died today.

I was, fittingly, at a bookstore when I found out.  I was searching for the 11 or so books on the Miles Franklin longlist, and when I checked my phone to make sure I had the right spelling for one of the authors, a New York Times alert came up – Philip Roth had died.  He was 85.

Philip Roth, whose novels about Jewish life, sex and death made him one of America’s greatest novelists, dies at 85.

Philip Roth was my first deep literary love.  His writing affected me greatly in my twenties, and for a very long time after that I read him assiduously, returning again and again in particular to the works I considered his greatest – The Human Stain – American Pastoral – The Plot Against America – Sabbath’s Theatre.  There was a time when I had his writing on permanent rotation alongside John Updike and Saul Bellow, reading first one, and then the next, and then the last, again and again in a constant cycle of (what I considered) their four best books.  I wanted to absorb everything they could teach me.  I was wrong – there were other writers I needed to discover yet – but at the time they all meant everything.

And now the last of them is dead, and I am a good deal more shaken up than I expected.

2006 – 2009 was the period in my life when I read his works the most.  I was 24 to 27, and I suppose that is a fine age to discover his writing.  I was young, angry, brash, intelligent, and I wanted to be a writer.  Of course his work appealed to me.  I was sexual and sexually active, and proud of my masculinity, and this, again, is something which would draw a young man to Roth’s work.  He explored all of this so well, with such rage, such passion.  And he was funny.

Some numbers:

  • In 2006 I read 16 of his books (all including rereads)
  • In 2007 I read 19
  • In 2008 I read 13
  • In 2009 I read 7

And then I read nothing until 2012, then nothing until 2015, then nothing until, likely, tonight.  The incandescence of his influence was from 2006 – 2008, with a small tail in 2009.  I read him and I read him and I read him.  Over and over.

As I became older, I gained a distaste toward his obsession with sex.  This happened also with Updike, a writer for whom I hold little affection for beyond his Rabbit books, though not so much for Bellow, although he was just as randy as the others.  The sex I could do without, but the power and the force of his writing remained appealing and attractive even as I went further and further away from American history and American writers.

I remember keenly the passage in American Pastoral where the process for making a glove is detailed enthusiastically, fascinatingly, juxtaposed neatly with the dread of knowing that the protagonist’s daughter had killed someone with a bomb and then disappeared.  I remember the orgasmic energy of Portnoy in Portnoy’s Complaint.  I remember gleefully commingling the narrators from My Life as a ManThe CounterlifeThe Ghost Writer, and Zuckerman Unbound with Roth himself, and hoping one day to mix myself with my literature as much as I could.  It was all so new to me, and though I would say that the Continental writers I love now have explored these concepts further and better, Roth was the first.  My first.

I remember reading American Pastoral, The Human Stain and Sabbath’s Theatre and believing that he had written everything, that every aspect of human life had been encapsulated in those three weeks. I was wrong, of course, but at the time he had revealed universes.  I daydreamed about receiving a letter from him to say that he had read my first (unpublished) novel, and that he liked what I was trying to do.  That never happened, of course, but I liked to imagine that one day it might.

And now one day it won’t.  And I haven’t wanted it to, not really, for almost a decade now.  I had forgotten I even ever wished for this until today, and now I am sad that it is an impossibility.

I’m going to raise a glass to Roth tonight, and I will definitely crack open one of his books.  Right now, I want to read everything, from his earliest to his last, but I suspect this feeling will fade as the pages turn.  I’m a different reader now, and he has remained the same writer.

I appreciate that this post is a lot about me and not much about him.  In a lot of ways, I feel as though he helped form the man I was in my twenties, so I have to write about myself with this.  He had little to do with who I am now, and that isn’t my way of saying that I am better now, though I hope I am.  I’m sad, sadder than I thought I would be, and at times I stand outside of myself and shake my head – how could I be this affected?  You haven’t thought about Roth for years!  Calm yourself, man!

But I won’t, not yet.  I’ll let myself be sad.  And I’ll read him tonight, and I’ll remember.

Goodbye, Roth.



Short Story Review – Nadia Villafuerte – Happy Box (trans. Pennell Somsen)

She wanted to know something beyond the end of her nose…

Wanderlust.  It doesn’t strike everyone, but when it does, and when that desire isn’t satisfied, unhappiness reigns.  It’s impossible to be truly satisfied with staying at home when your feet are itching to move.

For Key, wandering from town to town, drinking Budweiser and having fun, dancing and staying up late – that was the dream.  She was living it.  She had made it.  For now, at least, her dreams were in the process of being lived and experienced.

Or, rather, then.

Life has changed.  A mistake – such a common, tiny, little, simple, easy mistake.  So many people make it.  She wasn’t supposed to be like ‘so many people’, but here she is: married to a husband she dislikes, raising a child she didn’t want.

Prior to the mistake we see its catalyst, which reads very much as rape and is one of the most powerful paragraphs in the story.  It is a paragraph of commingled relief that she isn’t going to be murdered, horror about what is occurring, and the realisation that life now was going to be very different from what it had been. And here it is in full:

The line of trucks. The way he gouged her. The trailer full of bags of sugar. Just darkness and sugar when they closed the doors. She was almost asphyxiated. She was going to die and become one more fatality in the news. Three illegals died. Her death would be sweet and hot. The sweet world penetrated her pores, overpowering her. Until the doors opened and she saw shadows again. Then, after taking her money, before letting her go, the driver. There was no half moon. No barking of dogs. No crickets. Just the vast silence, of the desert, of the lonely road. The driver stunk of booze. She wanted to get away. He knocked her down with one slap. Then she opened her eyes. She saw the clean blue of the night. Whoever said that in situations like that the best thing to do is to go limp and give in can eat shit and die. Above her leg the hot air of the engine and a thick trickle. The man said she should be grateful that he had charged her very little for crossing more than half the country. If she made it to the other side she would wash herself for an entire day. If she managed to get there she would never have anything to do with a Mexican.

The short sentences grind us down.  They wear us out.  It’s exhausting to read, deliberately so, paced to reverberate in our minds.  This experience rocks her, changes the way she feels.  Of course it does.

The narrative speeds up.  Soon she is married and the unwanted mistake-child arrives.  She never wanted the husband, but her world had been shattered by the above experience and she basically fell into it.  She met him after a ten hour shift and was already drunk when they started talking.  Far too drunk, and very quickly pregnancy appears and marriage becomes a foregone conclusion.

The way the story is written alters between referring to Key as ‘she’ and ‘her’, and then ‘Key’.  This is all expected (how else would a story refer to a named female character?) but the way it is handled is odd, off-kilter.  The choices are unsettling.  When we expect to read ‘she’ we instead read ‘Key’, and the other way is true, too.  The sentences are just slightly wrong, and they act to distance the reader and the character from what is happening.  Everything occurs as though perceived through thick panes of glass, in rooms stuffed with soundproofed insulation.  Nothing is close enough to touch.

Key clearly detests her current life.  She fails to recognise that her friends would not, years later, still be wandering Latin America drinking and screwing and having adventures.  Or, sure, they might, but those kinds of activities are less appealing when you are older than when you are young.  For Key, though, it was all ripped from her before she was ready to voluntarily give it up, which has created deep resentment in her, a dark well of feeling which expresses itself as disdain and hatred towards her husband and child, who deserve none of it.

The child in particular.  Suny.  Towards the end of the story Key is so caught up in her resentments that she accidentally (well…) over-medicates her daughter and mixes up ingredients.  At first, it seems as though the girl might die, but it soon becomes clear that rather than that, she will in fact simply be made horribly ill.  In some way this is worse, because Key doesn’t much care, and considers mostly that the stained toilet is yet another thing to be cleaned, and yet another reason to dislike Mexicans.  That it is stained because her daughter is extremely unwell is only distantly recognised.

This is a strong piece, written in an extremely effective style which manages to convey quite a lot in a small amount of text.  The sense of place within the story is strong, and as much as Key is kept separate from us via the odd sentence structure and word choice, we really develop a clear understanding of the kind of person she is, and how a woman such as her might easily exist within the world.  How many such depressives are there?  How many men and women who see in their lives only opportunities missed and lives not lived?  Too many, I’m sorry to say, and Key is hardly unique or special at all in this respect, as much as one day she wanted to be different.

Happy Box is a short story by Mexican writer Nadia Villafuerte, and was translated by Pennell Somsen.  You can read the story online at Latin American Literature Today.

Author Nadia Villafuerte
Title Happy Box
Translator Pennell Somsen
Nationality Mexican
Publisher Latin American Literature Today

Please visit the Short Story Reviews page to see all of the available reviews.