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.

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