Monday, April 11, 2011

A Half Book Review: Tim Horvath On Extraordinary Renditions

Today and tomorrow we'll be featuring Andrew Ervin's collection of novellas, Extraordinary Renditions. Tomorrow I'll post my interview with Ervin, but today we start with a new kind of thing, a half review. What is a half review? I'm making it up, but I see it as a discussion of a book in response to a book review. The half reviewer is Tim Horvath, the author of a novella, Circulation, which can be ordered from sunnyoutside press or found in some libraries. His collection of stories will be published by Bellevue Literary Press in 2012. He teaches Creative Writing and Literature at Chester College of New England, Grub Street Writers, and the University of Massachusetts-Lowell.

Tim Horvath's post originally appeared on Goodreads, and he graciously allowed me to post it here (only slightly altered).

The traditional review could be a slam of the gavel, anointing with glow or burying with tepidness, and often somewhere in the middle. Once upon a time, when one read a review with which one dissented, the reaction might be slamming down one's coffee in outrage, reading passages out loud in disbelief to anyone lucky or unlucky enough to be in earshot. Occasionally, the author her or himself would fire back in in the letters page a week later, and generally the conversation stalemated there. Nowadays, though, it makes sense to put forth one's dissent, to keep the conversation alive. And thus, the para-review (not to be confused with the Paris Review).

After mopping up his spilled coffee, Tim did precisely that, seeking to reconcile a reviewer's impressions with his own, vastly different take on things. (Only the term I'm going with is the "half review", at least for now.) Here's Tim:

This is a quintessential example of a book review being misleading, specifically Robert Hanks's in The New York Times Book Review. I'm a fan of the NYTBR in general--witness the great pieces in this same issue by Dale Peck on Bernhard or Ed Park's fine survey of single sentence novels, or Justin Taylor's thorough, rigorous take on Barry Hannah; I was practically weaned on TBR, frankly. Unfortunately, Hanks misses the mark--or rather, fortunately for us, because Hanks makes it seem as though Extraordinary Renditions isn't worth reading, which it assuredly is.

Hanks's points of contention just aren't borne out in the book. Consider his claim that "gratuitous cultural references are dropped with embarrassing freedom: on the first page, Harkalyi [a composer] hobnobs with the great Hungarian composer Zoldan Kolady, 'his old friend and mentor'; later, Brutus, a former philosophy student, reads Frantz Fanon, Paul Ricoeur, Marx, and Shakespeare." So one composer is interpersonally linked with another--is this really implausible? Brutus has read three philosophers and...Shakespeare? What truth, exactly, is being stretched? What makes these gratuitous? In fact, Ervin makes it clear that Brutus has read his Shakespeare, as has the superior officer who threatens him and invokes Julius Caesar ominously as a means of intimidating him. This, in fact, is among the details that coalesce to make him a "plausible character," not merely a bearer of themes, as Hanks would have it.

What about Hanks's other digs? He calls the Brutus chapter "incongruously thrillerish." How about the fact that 60 pages into the book we're introduced to an brand-new storyline that gets our pulses pounding and sustains that level of suspense and reader engagement for its 70-odd pages, complete with the twists and turns one hopes for in a thriller? The book's ability to switch gears here is inextricable from its successes.

Hanks writes that Ervin's invocation of the concentration camp of Terezin "feels more like a clumsy attempt to persuade the reader of the author's seriousness than a genuine attempt to grapple with the horror of the Holocaust." Yes, that is, if one ignores the entire characterization of Harkalyi, the composer-protagonist of part one, whose very musical trajectory has been shaped by what happened at Terezin. In fact, what sets the story apart from previous Holocaust narratives is its grappling with the specific conditions at Terezin through the prism of Harkalyi, another "plausible character[.]"

One final point to take issue with is Hanks's assertion that Brutus's narrative "is written in a flat-footed ghetto speak that, with its swipes at 'the Man' and 'the pigs,' is more reminiscent of '70s blaxploitation movies." A simple quote or two from the chapter will serve to dispel this mischaracterization of the style. From the section: "The disembodied Voice of America also provided five minutes of English-language news at the top of every hour. It spoke of the lingering effects of a cyanide spill that had polluted the Tisza River and 'devastated the livelihoods' of fishermen and chefs of Szeged's famous fish soup; there was an update on the ongoing debate, unresolved after a decade of legal mumbo jumbo in the Hague, about a dam on the Hungary-Slovakia border; and of course there was talk of more summits and of bright prospects for eternal peace next door in the once and future Yugoslavia." Or how about, "He took exception to the army's division of labor, and, as an intellectual exercise, even flirted with Marxism now and then, but had yet to consummate the relationship." All this, mind you, is in Brutus's perspective, his free indirect speech. If this sounds like the screenplay of "Blacula" to you, well, I can't help you. Perhaps Hanks is referring to some of the dialogue, such as "Me and the boyz will be moving into her house and there's a room for you when you come home. James put all your books in boxes and they're already over there in the basement up on some wooden pallets for when it floods."? But even this--the use of the slang "boyz" does little to conjure up the cartoonish stereotypes and funky soundtracks of the Blaxploitation genre; when slang is deployed here, it is generally strategic and understated.

Ervin's book isn't perfect; I find Brutus's voice to be less credible than Harkalyi's, for instance, less fully inhabited. And while Hanks takes issue with the book's structure, all he does is make light of the ambiguity as to whether it is a novel or short stories. A more worthwhile question to ask is whether the book might have been more effective if its storylines had been intertwined, if we shifted back and forth between them, drawing out the suspense and allowing the contrapuntal nature of its themes to hang in the air longer and with greater frequency. I'm not sure of the answer to this, but it would've been an interesting critical angle to pursue, rather than simply scoffing at the structure.


Alma said...

I thought Hanks's review was wrong, period. I haven't spent as much time in Hungary as Ervin, but have some experience with the US military installation mentioned in the book. Ervin's book was transporting to me; it reminded me of the wonderful country and people I knew. I found nothing unrealistic of his portrayal of the US serviceman (unfortunately). Fill disclosure: Ervin and I share the same agent. I read Ervin's book because I'd heard wonderful things about it from many sources and they're all accurate. I'm inclined to think Hanks let some of his own prejudices and misconceptions lead him astray.

Kyle said...

Thanks for your comment, Alma. I have no military experience myself, but I thoroughly enjoyed the book. To me, it seems very real in its rendering of the people in each story, and they, in turn, seem to be so organically placed within the setting: Hungary.