Monday, June 24, 2013
Read: 17 January to 18 February 2013
5 / 5 stars
Okay. Let's all take a second to appreciate that this was both written and translated without a single instance of the letter "e." You have to respect that kind of lipogrammic dedication on both the author's and translator's parts (translating the puns to be relevant in another language deserves additional kudos). Its effect on the dialogue, narrative and story itself is a wonder to behold in its own right.
This is a hard one to review because most of what I want to say would divulge too many spoilers and I just can't ruin something this good. Y'all need to experience this wonder firsthand to appreciate how mind-bogglingly fantabulous it is. Cop out? Perhaps. Cheap ploy to encourage even one other person to read this? Hell. Yes.
The back-cover blurb calls this "a metaphysical whodunnit"; Wikipedia posits that its total absence of the fifth letter acts as "a metaphor for the Jewish experience during the Second World War"; the author states in his postscript that this novel and its constraint were born of a haphazard bet; I say that it is proof of how my life had no real meaning before my introduction to Georges Perec. And possibly that this is the book Pynchon would have written if he were a crazy-haired French dude (seriously, stop and take a gander at GP's photo on his profile page -- this is exactly the kind of book one ought to expect from a bloke who looks like the very personification of mad genius). His trademark paranoia, obscure allusions and hysterical-antics-hiding-a-deep-melancholy are all but oozing from these pages of another man's work.
In the first 24 pages alone, references are made to (among other things) various operas, international political figures, Warner Bros. cartoons, James Joyce, biblical parables, Franz Kafka, Monty Python, Malcolm Lowry, Moby Dick, Gone with the Wind and Virginia Woolf (specifically Orlando); the rest of the book is just about as schizophrenic and far-reaching as the allusions and parallels it invokes in just its first two chapters.
At the heart of this, underscoring the madcap detective story, is an unfolding revenge plot that, like Moby Dick, is thoroughly Shakespearean in its unrelenting quest for so-called justice, and is driven by a deep understanding of the extent that both self-preservation and familial, friendly and romantic love can all impel individuals to the same degree of action (or in-), much like The Bard so masterfully demonstrated so many centuries before. The rendering of Willy Shakes's "To Be, Or Not to Be" speech as "Living, or Not Living" is as inspired as the novel to its very end, where those left standing even extend some closure to the audience as the curtains fall.
It's worth nothing that the body count is downright nihilistic but the detours necessary to sidestep any use of "e" (as well as Perec's adeptly applied sense of humor in detailing God-awful tragedies, which is apparent just halfway through the novel's preface) as if the second vowel were a strategically placed turd create such finely tuned hilarity that I couldn't help but laugh when I should have been nursing a punch in the gut. I like my humor like I like my coffee (i.e.: almost too black to be palatable), so witnessing gallows humor used to an awe-inspiring extent was an unexpected bonus appealing specifically to my dark and demented tastes. That's not to say that the truly sad moments aren't drenched in heartache, because they do try to rip the reader's heart out through the most painful means necessary.
Whether this is novel is brilliantly insane or insanely brilliant, the ride is an absolutely incredible one that is brimming with breakneck twists and meticulous construction, both in its language and its plot. And it's made me absolutely certain that, if all of Perec's stuff is as tight and compelling and beautiful as this, I need to stuff my head with all of his works I can find. You should consider doing the same.