Briefly Noted – June 2014

Quick-to-Read Monthly Reviews

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Vol. 3 Issue 4. June 2014. Ed. Paul Clark.

Conversations by César Aira (trans. Katherine Silver) | Reviewed by Jeannie Vanasco

The Keys to the Jail by Keetje Kuipers | Reviewed by Gabrielle Bates

The Dark by Sergio Chejfec (trans. Heather Cleary) | Reviewed by Jack Hill


César Aira (trans. Katherine Silver). Conversations. New Directions, 2014

Reviewed by Jeannie Vanasco

César Aira's latest novella Conversations is a story in which nothing happens, and yet it is a story in which everything happens. Like Kafka, Aira makes logical analysis—the enemy of narrative movement—part of the narrative movement. Let me explain.

Two intellectuals are sitting in a café, arguing about a Hollywood blockbuster that they watched on television the previous night. In the movie an illiterate Ukrainian goatherd wears a gold Rolex watch, and the unnamed narrator tells his friend, Wasn’t that odd? And the unnamed friend says, No, not at all, of course movie stars can afford Rolex watches. The reply leaves the narrator wondering, Could my friend be that dumb? “The actor is not the character,” he tells his friend. But his friend doesn’t seem to understand.

And so, as the two men philosophize about the anomaly’s significance, their conversation delves into notions of fiction and reality, and the movie’s storyline (which, by the way, neither man followed that closely) soon evolves into a fantastical conspiracy for world domination involving killer algae.

Aira—a prolific Argentine writer and translator (seventy or so books and counting)—has said in interviews that rather than edit his work, he takes a “flight forward” (fuga hacia adelante), winging any plot problems as he goes. What happens is, his plots convince us not by their plausibility but by their absurdity; what is improbable or impossible becomes—in its context—profoundly right.

Keetje Kuipers. The Keys to the Jail. BOA Editions Ltd., 2014

Reviewed by Gabrielle Bates

If there is a tightrope slung between ferocity and tenderness (and I think we all know there is), The Keys to the Jail by Keetje Kuipers stands firmly in the middle, gripping the line with trembling toes.  These poems feel determined—to defy gender stereotypes, to capture loneliness in image, to give voice to what has been lost. And we listen, in rapture, because the language is so rugged and yet somehow magical too, constantly twisting and turning in ways we don’t expect.

And it’s no wonder that Kuipers is able to thrive in such harsh places. This is an author who has contended with nature and loneliness in ways few of us can claim. As a Margery Davis Boyden Wilderness Writing Resident, Kuipers spent half a year in Oregon backcountry, two hours from the nearest town, with only her dog for company. She’s handy with a chainsaw, and her poems read that way. All the dead and heavy wood has been chopped away; only the necessary bones are left standing.

In these poems, the speaker dares a number of feats that in the hands of a less talented poet would make us cringe. “Speaking as the Male Poet,” for example, thrills us with its smooth audacity. Nature, too, breathes through these poems, guiding, absorbing, and haunting the various speakers we encounter.

This book is the marriage of beauty of ugliness, that which is found around and within us all. By turning the key inwards, Kuipers frees us to roam the landscapes of our own broken places and, perhaps, find the exit we’ve been searching for.

Sergio Chejfec (trans. Heather Cleary). The Dark. Open Letter, 2013

Reviewed by Jack Hill

Sergio Chejfec's novel, The Dark, immerses the reader into an obsessive recounting of a relationship with Delia, a partnership which had gone awry due to an unwanted pregnancy. Delia exists only in the narrator's memory, which serves as our unreliable guide. Through his skewed view, notions of fringe spaces, holes or spaces between spaces, and borderlands, are present throughout the novel. In one such instance, the narrator notes that he dislikes how factory work has changed Delia “because it turned her into something else, something outside herself, setting her feet in yet another border.” Like Delia, the narrator exists in his own sort of borderlands in the shape of a figurative hole from which he observes Delia from afar and recounts his story. It is in this hole that he refuses the alleviation of forgetting and allows the traumas and obsessions of the past to drive his story. In one such minuscule instance of memory, the hole reveals a gushing, yet bleak and self-alienating world where doldrum sameness is averted through the details: “I would bury my face in her armpit . . . into her intoxicating scent . . . I felt I had accessed a truth that otherwise would have remained hidden.” The Dark is subsuming in its flood of such details, calling for the embrace of the narrator's unreliability and existential insight, and demands that memory threads through the holes that are sometimes forgotten.

Jeannie Vanasco lives in Brooklyn. Her other writing can be found at The Believer, The Times Literary Supplement, Tin House, and elsewhere. She is currently writing a book of nonfiction involving necronyms, mental illness, and an artificial eye. You can find her at Gabrielle Bates is an M.F.A. candidate at the University of Washington and serves as designer and coordinating editor for the Seattle Review. Jack Hill edits Crossed Out Magazine ( and is a first year creative writing M.A. student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

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