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Galloping on a Giraffe

From: American Book Review
Volume 35, Number 2, January/February 2014
pp. 10-11 | 10.1353/abr.2014.0007

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The Placebo Effect Trilogy consists of three brief novels which are inseparable. Each novel consists of five “mininovels” or stories knit together by themes such as screaming, dream, fear of death, alienation. The term mininovels is justified by the vast net that pulls every character and event of the fifteen mininovels into a single, ingenious, vibrating instrument of the imagination.

Novel one, Like Blood in Water:

Diction, the rhythm of narration, is exact, as painstaking as a mountaineer placing his boot toes in hopefully reliable (but never certain) crevices on the near-vertical walls of his ascension. Precise as the telling is, the course of the tales is unpredictable, risky, tangential.

In the church of “Screaming,” which the character Roark stumbles into in New York, dream and reality are interchangeable, the pulse beats through the fine scrim of the text, every breath is heavy, drawn painfully.

All three novels are written in brief paragraphs, the better to circumscribe and define their moment. The mininovels start out with precisely drawn stage-settings, details of the characters’ initial positions and attitudes are given like stage directions. Often the stories or “novels” are recounted entirely in the present tense, reading like a minute by minute witness account, extreme attention paid to detail, fastened firmly to the underpinning of reality. Then torn to shreds.

In former pianist Fitipaldos’ story, his right hand unexpectedly and unpredictably refuses to play certain passages in the midst of a recital (while his left hand continues), eventually bringing about the “former” status of the title. One thinks of Cortazar in the curious, then alarmed, and finally panicky self-observation by the pianist in this bizarre development. Whereas in the former’s stories such events take place in the narrative twists, here the language, the imagery itself joins in when the pianist’s family departs in the last scene: the children, the suitcase, his wife’s shape—are drawn out, extruded into the image itself: “stretching also her left arm as if it too were made of rubber, a two-dimensional object cut out of a rubber membrane.” Images with their inner logic take over from the reality they were purported to describe or illustrate. In the description of a lake scene, an image of the surface of the lake as if oil-painted becomes an actual component of the unfolding events, with the oil paint spreading, sticking.

Purity is a quality of this story-telling—a kind of integrity and (apparent) innocence of imagery, a clean, cool narrative, an essence of narration; the fluidity of story-telling flows Like Blood in Water, with the implicit threat of that image. The plot rolls along in the most “normal” of situations, only to mutate in highly disquieting events—always, however in the most “normal” of tones and matter- of-factness.

Obsessively realistic and exact descriptions set the stage for the most bizarre developments—as if to exorcize their madness or horror. In one such account, the character mowing the lawn of the grounds of a power station, the mechanical and material details of this most familiar task, are laboriously described, just off kilter from the meticulously described routine—which is abruptly interrupted by a huge burst of electricity, some malfunction, discharged through his skull in a revelation of underlying infinity.

The storytelling of writers as diverse as Kafka, Cortazar, and Murakami occur to me in their matter-of-factness or ordinariness—of the wholly other. One of Tarnawsky’s characters thinks, “The common thing about life is its uncommonness.” Tarnawsky’s entire fictional enterprise might be summed up in this pithy one-liner. Only an East European however could summon up such an everyday nightmarish tone.

Language often gets in the way of reality—such, as “The features like words describing her face as beautiful but not making it that.”

In “Pavarotti-Agamemnon” another of the stories (or mininovels), a theater director describes the character-actor he is looking for to play the part of Agamemnon, in his play on the latter’s murder by Clytemnestra & Aegisthus—to Pavarotti the Tailor (for Pavarotti is exactly the sort of actor he wants for the role although he is no actor). It is...

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