About Heartwood

Heartwood posts are written by a librarian interested in spotlighting older books, international authors, and small press offerings that are in various ways distinctive. For more information click on Contributors in the masthead.

Heartwood 8:3 – Fancy by Jeremy M. Davies

Fancy, by Jeremy M. Davies, ostensibly presents us with nothing more than an older man interviewing a young couple in the foyer of his house for the job of house-sitting and caring for his twenty cats. But it may (or may not) give you a better understanding of this novel to say that it orbits around quantum mechanics, ontological doubt, repetition and minimalism, the instability of selfhood, and (as Davies himself has said in an interview) toxoplasmosis. Or it might be said that this is a novel in which Schrödinger’s cat attempts to open the lid of the box it may or may not be inside of. However you cut it, this is a compelling, fluent, disorienting, and audaciously inspired work.

But to start again, the book opens with an isolated older man, Rumrill, who lives in a decaying town on the mid-western plains sometime in the pre-Internet era, interviewing a young couple in the foyer of his house as potential cat-sitters – for cats who never put in an appearance over the book-length course of the interview.

In the interview – really a monologue – we hear about Rumrill and his work at the public library, where he had trysts in the stacks with his supervisor before she left the library and moved from town. His library work also brought him into contact with a Mr. Brocklebank, who enlisted him, initially, as a cat-sitter for his thirty cats, but soon enough employs Rumrill as factotum and caregiver – full-time work (performed with active disregard) that required Rumrill to bring his library work to an end.

There are reasons for the reader to doubt the reliability of the narrative from the very beginning, and all kinds of things overlap and repeat with minor variations that bring everything into question. One begins to wonder if Rumrill and Brocklebank are not the same person living in parallel universes: both required cat-sitters for a clowder of cats whose existence is uncertain; both provide book-length cat-sitting instructions; both appear to have had a green sofa; both (apparently) were involved with women who seemed interested in having other partners; and in both men something like tape-looped obsessions cut grooves in their tenuous hold on reality.

Various madnesses or eccentricities are on display. A postal worker, having once failed to deliver his load of mail, finds himself completely unmoored, merely driving around in his mail van but unable to resume his deliveries. Rumrill is concerned that his house will not maintain its materiality if he is not there to perceive it – a situation he tries to ameliorate by creating a mirror corridor that will let him keep his house in sight even from as far away as the train station. As Brocklebank’s house burns, toward the end of the book, firemen do not extinguish the fire but instead entertain half a dozen speculative theories regarding whether Brocklebank is inside or not.

Davies has restricted himself to a form in which every longer paragraph begins with the words “Rumrill said” followed by short paragraphs (a mere sentence or phrase, often witty) that begin “He added.” In time, additional paragraphs appear, culled from Brocklebank’s cat-sitting manual, all beginning with “Brocklebank writes.” These latter pronouncements appear to be modifications of statements from 20th-century composers ranging from minimalists to serialists to avant-garde jazzmen, based on a list of sources at the back of the book.

Rumrill’s oratory is rhythmical and complex and will draw in readers who gravitate toward such authors as NabokovGombrowicz, BernhardBeckett, and Pynchon. As with books by these authors, Fancy is well worth reading, rereading, pondering, and discussing, and I’ll even boldly assert that it deserves a spot on any self-respecting 21st-century American literature syllabus. Mostly, however, the book deserves to be read for the pleasure and weirdness with which it captures the routines, locutions, agoraphobia, and perceptions of its main character – and, indeed, for allowing Rumrillian to emerge as a descriptor for the voluble expression of this constellation of existential, perceptual, and singular uncertainty.

Heartwood 8:2 – Philosophical Toys by Susana Medina

Susana Medina’s novel Philosophical Toys is told from the perspective of a young woman, Nina, about her alcoholic mother, who died when the narrator was six; her father, who develops full-blown Alzheimer’s in the course of the novel; and the time Nina spent in London where she was befriended by aspiring artist, Mary Jane. The story pops back and forth between London and southern Spain. In one of her trips home to Almería, to see her father and to help clear out his house so he can move into an assisted living “commune,” Nina discovers ninety-five shoeboxes containing all kinds of women’s shoes. As she tries to unravel why all these shoes are there, she looks back on her mother’s life and remembers her spell of work as a “foot extra” and that she, or her feet, may actually have appeared in one of Luis Buñuel’s films. She also wonders if her father might be a shoe-fetishist.

Back in London, Mary Jane convinces Nina to be a partner in a gallery show in which Nina will exhibit her mother’s shoes. She reluctantly agrees and is surprised later on when a collector who had seen the exhibit wants to purchase a particular pair of boots. He is building what he calls The Museum of Relevant Moments which is comprised of props from Buñuel’s films, and the boots are the same make and style of the ones that appear in Diary of a Chambermaid (and may be the actual pair).

Toward the end of the book there’s a fine chapter that focuses on problems of authenticity, and it circles back to an early scene where Nina and Mary Jane are in a café commenting on a reproduction of the Mona Lisa hanging there. They observe that what makes a painting valuable is the space in which it is displayed – the one in the café could in no way be valuable due to its mundane surroundings, but the one in the Louvre is valued precisely because it is there. This is true even if it were to turn out that the café iteration is the original and what hangs in the Louvre is a mere copy.

Nina feels a sense of dislocation in language and geography, desire and longing, and her journey includes coming to terms with a mother she barely knew and a father whose memory and life is being ravaged by disease. Medina presents Nina’s world through language that feels completely comfortable and lived in, even as she delves into rather esoteric terrain such as Freudian fetishism, simulacra, and our relationship with objects.

There are many other topics touched on in these pages; in fact, Medina has constructed a narrative not unlike the roped-together shoeboxes that appear on the cover. If you like novels of ideas, with a brainy central character, and an unusually nimble literary style, you should enjoy going through the shoeboxes of Philosophical Toys.

Heartwood 8:1 – The Invisibility Cloak by Ge Fei

The Invisibility Cloak, by Ge Fei, gets its hooks into you right away and makes for a quick read. It features Cui, a man in his 40s, who builds elite tube-amp stereo systems for rich audiophiles in China. An old pal of his, Songping, helps him round up clients and mentions a man named Ding Caichen, who could be a big score as he wants to have the “best sound system in the world.” But Songping warns Cui to be careful: Ding, he tells him, has a gaze like ice, runs with the big money, and no one really seems to know who he is.

The early chapters cover Cui’s interest in an attractive woman named Yufen and their eventual marriage and divorce. He ends up living with his sister and her husband until they give him an ultimatum that he must move out. He happens to find a place he could almost afford to buy and remembers that he might stand to make enough money to cinch the deal if he contacted the client Ding. He does this and, based on a verbal contract by phone, agrees to build him a high-end stereo. Cui gives a detailed account of the experience of delivering and installing the sound system, and his impressions of this strange and potentially threatening man. Ding had previously wired Cui one third of the purchase price as an advance, but rather than paying the balance on the day Cui completed its installation, he caught Cui off-guard by saying he’d wire the balance immediately. This doesn’t happen, so more than a month later Cui returns to the house and is greeted by a woman who wears a silk scarf covering every inch of her face. Things get quite interesting from here, but I leave the details for you to discover.

The jacket copy compares Ge Fei with Haruki Murakami – and the easy-to-read, colloquial style, along with the narrator’s interest in classical music (which does not extend, as it does in Murakami’s case, to jazz) makes for a mostly accurate comparison. Fortunately (in my view), Ge Fei doesn’t venture into the supernatural, although there is mention of a powerful man who is said to show up at parties but goes unnoticed because he wears an invisibility cloak (and this man also once owned the Tannoy Autograph speakers that are now part of Ding’s sound system).

The last part of the book moves a good ways toward noir, and presents a puzzle which had me questioning what exactly had happened (this would be interesting to bat around in a book discussion group). Some readers may not appreciate this ambiguity, but I liked being left with lingering questions regarding the ending and how each alternative outcome or interpretation would greatly change what had gone before. Regardless of the true nature and background of Ding and the woman, the reader can adopt the same spirit of optimism Cui shows in the end, where he seems to have found some measure of happiness – even in the face of this unknowing.

Heartwood 7:6 – Montauk by Max Frisch

Montauk is a short autofictional novel structured around a long-weekend tryst the narrator has with a woman, Lynn, some three decades his junior. The narrator has worked as an architect, and as a writer of plays and fiction, and the events recounted in Montauk very much resemble those in the life of the author. After meeting on business in New York City regarding a U.S. book tour, Max and Lynn drive to the book’s namesake town, on the eastern tip of Long Island, where they take lodgings, share a glancing intimacy along with strained discussions, cook meals, play ping-pong, go shopping, walk on the beach.

Something about this weekend trip causes Max to want to write about it in great detail. He’d like to be attentive to everything and to invent nothing, to step free of associations or reminiscences, to simply become so concentrated in a sort of raw presence that he might begin to speak to himself as he never has in his writing or life. Of course, to discover this desire to write it up while the weekend is still underway means he is already distancing himself, stepping outside of the moment so he can observe it. And it may well be that this weekend in a foreign town, on a short-term romantic fling he knows will not last beyond these few days, triggers in the Swiss narrator the need to reflect on his life and its many messy, often unresolved, relationships.

The book is composed of interwoven fragments that fluctuate between phenomenological attention to his immediate surroundings and longer recollections of important people and events in Max’s life. These include his friend W. (since estranged), who provided intellectual and financial support, his fledgling work as an architect, his successful work as a playwright and novelist, a couple of failed marriages, his strained domestic relationship with writer Ingeborg Bachmann, and his almost non-existent relationship with a distant daughter. (I read the Wikipedia entry on Frisch after finishing this novel and was interested to see that it corroborated or clarified particular details of the narrative.)

It bears mentioning that Frisch switches periodically between writing in first person and third person, and the storytelling can be a bit challenging to track at times, as he drops one subject to pick up or return to another. But not to worry, these shifts quickly sort themselves out as you get used to the writing style, and the momentum of the story carries you along

Max comes across as neither egotistical nor self-effacing, as capable of simple joy but also tortured by self-examination. Not least, he is aware of his various failings and that he is now entering the later stages of his life. The reader closes the book on this flawed but sympathetic character with an understanding of his moods, dreams, and frustrations, and just how essential the act of writing has been to him. And indeed Frisch has accomplished something very fine here (even if it’s not strictly delimited to the present, and we are unclear about how much of it is invented): this account of his long weekend, woven with his past as it is in his many flashbacks, observations, and reflections is beautifully and attentively done.

Heartwood 7:5 – One Out of Two by Daniel Sada

When their parents die suddenly in a highway accident, Gloria and Constitución, young identical twin sisters, vow to live their lives as a pair, sharing everything equally. They grow up with an aunt until the girls are ready to strike out on their own, which they eventually do, settling in Ocampo, a small town in northern Mexico, where they set up a tailoring business. They work hard, which seems to suit them and to offer its own rewards. They also find their work can shield them somewhat from participating in the town’s typical gossip and chatter, though they still have occasion to point a knitting needle to the sign they’ve posted: “We are busy professionals. Restrict your conversation to the business at hand. Please do not disturb us for no reason. Sincerely: the Gamal sisters.”

Of course, a vow to live inseparably is going to receive challenges, and the biggest one comes when their aunt invites them to the wedding of her son, Benigno. In her invitation she notes that this will be a great opportunity for them to meet men (she has been after them to find men and get married from the moment they moved out of her house). The twins flip a coin, having decided only one of them will go and the other will stay to keep on top of their many sewing orders.

Constitución wins the coin toss and prepares, among quite a bit of muted strife, to go to the wedding. Constitución does indeed meet a man there and he comes to see her in Ocampo one Sunday, the first of what turns out to be weekly visits. The twins eventually decide that they will take turns dating him, surreptitiously, on alternate Sundays. This weekly dating arrangement goes on for months and it introduces some jealousy and suspicion into the lives of the twins. I began to wonder how Oscar would not have discovered the fact that Constitución had a twin in a town noted for its busybodies and gossip, and he does indeed learn this near the end of this novella.

There are other things in this story that are clearly unrealistic, such as middle-aged twins who still choose to dress and wear their hair identically, and the deal-breaker their vow would place on individual development. So, I don’t know how I was so won over by this quirky and far-fetched story but there is something immensely satisfying about this little book. It’s partly due, I’m sure, to Sada’s warm and unusual style, which grew on me more and more as I read. But more than that, it’s the wonderful characters he has created in the twins, the sacrifice and impossible bond of their vow to be “one in two or two by now in one,” and the timeless quality of their small town life. Finally, the book is something of a paean to work: the duty of it, but also the shared, ongoing pleasure the seamstress twins seem to take in the restorative act of bringing together, of making whole and sound what had been (or could have been) torn or separate.

Heartwood 7:4 – Out of the Line of Fire by Mark Henshaw

Out of the Line of Fire is a book about a brilliant young philosophy scholar named Wolfgang Shönborn and his father, mother, and sister Elena. The book is structured as a sort of sandwich – the opening and closing sections are told by the unnamed narrator who meets Wolfi when they are both students in Heidelberg. The long middle section is compiled from a package of miscellaneous documents and photographs that Wolfi mailed to the narrator from Berlin, over a year after Wolfi disappeared from Heidelberg. This parting of the friends was an anxious one as the narrator did not get a chance to say goodbye before his own return home to Australia.

This is a novel that has everything: interesting characters along with their individual development and entanglements; a compelling plot with occasional jaw-dropping revelations; and a style that combines lyrical descriptive writing, crisp believable dialogue, and experimental episodes (such as an attempt to philosophically analyze a porn clip, and the consideration of the text that appears on a piece of newspaper Wolfi had used to wrap a photograph he’d sent in the package).

Henshaw had me in the early pages when the topic of Wolfi’s Ph.D. is revealed to be “the metonymic perception of reality.” There are quite a few philosophical tidbits in the book, including lucid passages regarding Kant as he grappled with phenomena, our sensory understanding of the world, and his notion of the noumena. And we hear how Husserl and his followers turned the phenomenology of Kant and Hume on its head. Wolfi mentions that when his father was young, Wittgenstein would come to the house to visit with Wolfi’s grandfather, and one senses that he was an important influence on his overbearing father (a father who pushes Wolfi at a young age to question how he knows anything about what he thinks he knows, and spurs in his son such a manic, sustained bout of studying that it results in a nervous breakdown). Beyond this, the direct mentions of philosophy are fairly rare. Surely the most unexpected is when Wolfi gives a very attentive and beautiful account of his first sexual experience (with a prostitute – an arrangement initiated by his grandmother) and, remarkably, describes how it seemed to him to physically embody Hegel’s dialectic.

The references aren’t only philosophical. The narrator is studying literature, and there are allusions to writers such as Kafka, Handke, Hölderlin, Pirandello, Simenon, and Camus. Indeed, the book, opens – audaciously enough – with the same words Calvino uses at the start of his book, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. The scenes beginning with the one in which Wolfi becomes aware of his sister’s blossoming nubility and her existence as an individual being, brought strongly to my mind the intimate scenes involving Ulrich and his sister in Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, a book mentioned in passing earlier in the narrative. (Incidentally, looking downstream from the original 1988 publication date of Henshaw’s book, the episodic emphasis on cinema, Citizen Kane, and the inclusion of an interview in the text made me think a little of Dana Spiotta’s novels – particularly her latest, Innocents and Others).

Even as Henshaw weaves in these references to other thinkers and writers, he never forgets that his main purpose is to tell a story, and he does so marvelously. He’s clearly interested in how fiction and philosophy both struggle to present a world free of misunderstanding and ambiguity. And it may be for both philosophy and fiction, or at least for the book under consideration here, that so much of the reader’s pleasure comes from dawning realizations, where earlier conceptions are redefined and attain clarity – even if only to be upended again by subsequent revelations.

It’s difficult to say much more about what happens in the book without giving too much away. It features a strong plot, mostly interesting subplots, quite a bit of mystery and some surprising twists, but the striking developments within the Shönborn family are at its center. If you like stories that are amazingly well-told, that have flawed, intelligent characters, and that veer toward the mythologically tragic, Out of the Line of Fire will not let you down.

Heartwood 7:3 – The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt

About a year ago, New Directions rereleased Helen DeWitt’s long out-of-print novel, The Last Samurai, which was accompanied by quite a bit of publicity, including this post on LitHub featuring glowing testimonials from various booksellers. But the buzz seemed to die down quickly in the months following, at least in the online spaces I haunt, so here’s my small effort to call attention once again to this remarkable book.

The cover of the reissue features an extreme-wide-angle, upside-down-and-tilted photo of subway cars in The Tube. It almost shouts challenging text ahead, which both increased my anticipation and made me a bit nervous, but I breathed a little easier as I flipped the pages of DeWitt’s Prologue which is immediately immersive, intelligent, and a bit snarky – it ends with a bang, promising great things ahead. I challenge anyone to read the Prologue and not be tempted to dive into the rest of the book.

At its most stripped-down, the story is about a single woman (Sibylla) who is raising and educating a genius child (Ludo) in London. She supports them by doing low-wage data entry work at home – work that is frequently interrupted to field the many questions from her precocious son. I don’t think there are many novels out there that could be considered page-turners which also, in the course of the narrative, explore the rudiments of Greek and Japanese, the educational ideas of John Stuart Mill, the artistry and deeper meanings beneath Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, or touch on such subjects as solid state physics, the principles of aerodynamics, or Schoenberg’s Theory of Harmony.

But a page-turner it is. This is one of those books I could hardly wait to get back to every time I had to leave off reading. That’s not to say, however, that it won’t rub any number of readers the wrong way. I was put off at times by Ludo’s extreme braininess, and by Sibylla’s occasional pedantry and condescension. Others, I imagine, will be skimming the lessons in Greek, Kanji, and the “distributive principle of multiplication.” Stylistically, you should be prepared for paragraphs that simply trail off, a variable use of quotation marks to indicate dialogue, and the use of all caps when Sibylla gets worked up (especially against barbarism and the aesthetic excesses of certain writers and painters). And if you respond as I did, you may well come away from this regretting the quality of your own education and feeling that you wasted your youth (though also inspired, somehow, that maybe it’s not too late to catch up).

As Ludo grows up he becomes more obsessed with discovering who his father is, and though Sibylla will not help him with this, he corners her into dropping clues and making slips which he then pursues. With the film Seven Samurai always playing in the background, it may not surprise you to learn that Ludo has narrowed the field down to seven possible candidates. Much of the impetus for Ludo’s wide-ranging study comes from the specialized interests of these seven men, as he prepares himself to potentially encounter his father as a worthy opponent in the spirit of a samurai. The last half of the book includes Ludo hunting down these individuals, and these diverse tales should certainly please readers who enjoy following a character through various adventures and storylines.

I’m not sure how actively I’ll be attempting to teach myself Greek, but you can add my voice to those who found this an ambitious, inspired, unique, and totally successful piece of writing.