Saturday, January 01, 2005

Ready, Stet, Go!

The Crowd, by James Chapman
Facets: a Literary Magazine

Chapman's piece is an excerpt from his novel, Stet. The eponymous main character (if one can call a character who barely shows up in a story a "main" anything) -- Stet, we mean, is a Soviet filmmaker. We gather that much, anyhow, from this excerpt, in which he manages to be born. This excerpt, however, is not concerned with anything so boring as a mere birth, and cannot be tied down so prosaically. Instead, we are treated to brief introductions to (among other things) Leningrad, Russian snow, the destruction of two complaining statues by German artillery, and the impact of film on how Russians perceived the world and their place in it -- all this in a dense, imagistic style reminscent of Michael Ondaatje or Gy├│rgy Konrad.

Take, for example, the wayward narrative strategy on display here:

…perhaps the Comedy Theatre is an unsuitable example, and we should move down the street to the Komissarzhevskaya Drama Theatre, opposite the bank-like department store Gostiny Dvor, where after rehearsals you may buy everything from a House of Friendship and Peace bath towel to the kind of wooden chair that suicides use to kick out of the way as they hang, and wives use to stand on as they hide their husbands' bottles of drink, everybody owns a chair like this, what is a chair compared to the art of the theatre? A play may reveal your whole life to you, while the chair you sit on is merely reality, a chair has no soul, it is despicable.

Chock full of such pronouncements, "The Crowd" is fascinating, gorgeous, and disappointing. Is it just us, or does its first sentence have an agreement problem?

... and the people of his city that morning put their feet onto the cobblework carefully, like a defendant who accidentally sees the judge smooth his robes, alone, before emerging to announce his decision.
Either way, the switch from plural "people" and their many feet to "a defendant" is a jarring way to begin. Combine that with "The Crowd's" determined avoidance of anything like profluence, and you have a piece that will frustrate the common reader. But for the uncommon reader -- that's you, by the way -- it's definitely worth checking out. We might even buy the book.

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