Book Review

December 12, 2006 at 7:46 pm | Posted in backstory, books | 7 Comments


Stet by James Chapman. Available through Fugue State Press.

I really, really wanted to like this book, for several reasons. For one thing, I want to believe that people who work outside mainstream publishing can occasionally produce works of surpassing beauty. I’m also interested in books about Russia, particularly Soviet Russia — there are so many depths to plunder there, so much still unsaid about that strange, brutal world.

From the first paragraph, it seemed that Stet would say all those unsaid things — acerbic wit and sinister surrealism working together in defiance of fascism’s absurdities:

Opinions are unbeautiful, but we all speak them. Opinions, creeds, advice on how to live, these seep from our pores in this land, and no one is exempt from judgment. Perhaps your feelings have been hurt. If they have been hurt for year upon year, that is not unusual, you are probably an artist or some sort of idiot. But to hurt the feelings of millions, for whole lifetimes, this is Russian, it requires our own special language.

It was an auspicious beginning, one that made me grin. But the deeper I got into the book, the further that ideal of the New Russian Novel seemed to drift away.

Ultimately, reading Stet reminded me of when, as a kid, my mother took me wading in Utah’s Great Salt Lake. From a distance, it looked like an ordinary lake, shallow and inviting at the edges, mysterious and unfathomable in the middle. But it turned out that the edges were not so inviting: the shore prickled with unforgiving salt chunks that dug into the soles of my feet, making any progress a chore rather than a pleasure. More disappointing still, the lake had no depth at all — just endless shallow, as far as I could bring myself to wade.

Now, it’s a big lake, and I admit that I did not wade all the way across. I did, however, wade a good quarter mile in, and even after all that wading, the Great Salt Lake still reached no higher than my calves. So I don’t know: maybe, somewhere in the middle, the Great Salt Lake turns out to be great indeed, and deep, and mysterious. But I didn’t have the will to find out.

Please excuse this obnoxiously extended metaphor, but the same is true of Stet. I so wanted Stet to be profound and amusing, to fill me with dread and hope and fear and loveliness. But as far as I waded (and, no, I didn’t make it all the way through), I found only the same shallow, aphoristic phrases, which, although sometimes maddeningly evocative, held more promise than they could possibly deliver.

“[M]usic exists because there’s no such thing as silence.”
“When you die it is always your fault.”
“In a zone where every citizen despises himself and desires to disappear, the greatest value is placed on entertainment.”

Maybe, somewhere within this book, there is something deep and moving — some brilliant undercurrent that ties the disparate elements together and makes a complex statement about the search for beauty in the face of oppression. I didn’t find it.



  1. Hey Amy — you can’t force yourself to like something, no matter how hard you try. And you shouldn’t have to! As a critic, you have to be honest with yourself and with those who might be reading you or looking to you for some insight, advice, etc… I think you’ve done a good job here — you’re frank, straightforward, and yet you’ve really expressed yourself well. I think this is really where I see your writing gifts shine through! This is really well composed. (well, in my humble opinion anyway!)

  2. OK, um, sorry for all those “reallys”. You can tell I’m short on vocab. here this morning… I told you this job was turning my brain into mush!

  3. Alice – thanks for the compliment.

  4. At work, the word “stet” usually works as a reversal. For example, you bar out an entire paragraph from a document and then OMG! you decide that you didn’t want to do that, so you write Stet next to it and the paragraph will remain unchanged by the next word processor.

    Sometimes it’s hard to figure out if it is worth going on or not. I recently just finished a book that was fairly ludicrous going in. After 300 pages “The Sot-Weed Factor” still did not make much sense but was mildly entertaining so I kept at it. It ended up being a very good book.

    Your metaphor reminded me of the underwater “park” I visited in the south of France. The shallow end was littered with vicious rounded rocks that made it impossible to walk into the water. You had to shimmy over them. But when the water got deep enough and you put your snorkel on, the view down there, the boulders and the brightly coloured fish were amazing.

    Though if those quotes above are any indication, I think your instinct was right on the money. Better to close a lousy book rather than toss it across the room in disgust when you’re done. Something I’ve done. Not very satisfying feeling at all.

  5. All the arts are the same, you compare with what ‘you would have done’, so it’s hard to give what you feel is an honest crit when you are so close to it. If you had lived in Russia and experienced the trageties put upon its population, I’m sure you would have gotten into the ‘debths’ and not the shoals.

  6. Jolli — I hope you will buy a copy… I’d be interested in what you thought. I may not have represented it very well.

  7. Yop is available in Canada

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