Book ReviewDecember 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.
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