Updated: Mar 12, 2021
by Anjanette Delgado
What is it about the ugly, the scatological, that has such power to break us open? To clear our defenses and preconceptions and allow us to see beauty in places until then unsuspected?
As in the writings of German Pulitzer Prize-winning author Herta Müller, the gross, the disgusting, the intrinsically ugly in the following novels, which I originally reviewed, pre-pandemic, for the New York Journal of Books, act much like the pinch of salt that brings out the sweetness of chocolate. Or like the teaspoon of sugar that does away with the acid in a bubbling pot of tomato sauce. Their ugliness serves to highlight and illuminate the beauty found in dirt, in mold, and sometimes even in the death of cold experienced as lunacy within the confines of a cardboard box in winter, trying to be a home.
Aviaries by Zuzana Brabcová, Translated from the Czech by Tereza Novická
(Twisted Spoon Pressm 2019)
What does it look like inside a mind ravaged by depression and loneliness? Is there transcendent beauty to be had from the harvesting of such a mind, from the culling of its experience of the most abject poverty and loss of self? In Aviaries, Zuzana Brabcova’s last work before her death in 2016, the Czech writer uses intricate storytelling patterns to credibly recreate her protagonist’s advanced lunacy, her hallucinations, and even her occasional life-saving awareness, while very clearly answering both questions, the latter with a resounding yes.
The novel is composed of the entries in Beta’s diary, begun on December 20, 2011, two days after the death of Václav Havel. The uncertain political scenario lends the tone of improbable hope amidst the dread of reality that matches Beta’s financial, physical, and mental situation, and that is at the center of the story.
And when I do have to go out, there’s a bloom coating the people I pass, a frost blurring their features. I can imagine they don’t exist, and in this way love them. All that exists just disrupts and mars, as if somebody had graffiti-tagged The Night Watch. Václav Havel died the day before yesterday. In his sleep, in the morning. So its reign extends beyond night.
Bêta is trying to come to terms with all she has lost. She is basically homeless, a squatter of sorts in heatless rooms in which her ghosts, loved ones past and present, visit her in dreams that read like a succession of beautiful, surrealist short films.
His buddies started to roar with laughter and scattered across the expanse of the Sacré-Coeur, not caring about the marvelous, unusual view it offered of Prague, a city full of injustice that nobody ever got used to, not the nation, not the private individual. In short, they’d become sour and plunged their arms elbow-deep into garbage cans, and when they pulled them out again, they were the color of melted chocolate.
Her mind assaulted by regret and loneliness, she’s unable to find her way without the identity she is losing to hunger, age, and illness. And yet she cannot help but love. She cannot help but give of what little she has.
Her story moves forward with glimpses of daughter Alice, who comes to her mother in dreams while dumpster-diving for basic necessities with beau Bob Dylan (“only his parents are to blame for his name”), a lit headlamp her only hat.
You’re three months old, sleeping in your crib, clutching a rattle in your tiny fist. Andrei is just leaving for his night shift in a boiler room . . . My God, I pray over you, I feel nothing at all. Who are you, you unfathomable creature? Where did you come from? You are a guest. I have given birth to a guest.
Later, when she dreams Alice needs her and wants to come home, love brings lucidity and the truths of the heart: “‘Return to my belly,’ I requested, ‘I’ve already got Grandma’s grave in my chest.’”
We see Bêta’s selfless love for Melda, a stuttering homeless man she picks up. He builds her a “cardboard palace” that is really a room of cardboard inside the outer cardboard of thinner walls, before leaving her in darkness, colder than before: “This rude stranger for whom I’d bought whatever he pointed to at Tesco just a few days before was now parading around in his grandiose cardboard box butt naked, and the scars that furrowed his body looked like riverbeds through which time streamed instead of water.”
It would be easy to confuse Brabcová’s work with loosely linked ramblings, but that would be a mistake. If we pay attention, readers will discover every clue she deliberately sets up for the finding, the rounding of each story to completion, just not the one we expected.
Aviaries is anchored in history, politics, satire, and humor. Stalin, Mozart, and even Proust lend height and sound to its metaphors. In turn, the news of the day, of every day in every place, lend the dose of reality against which all minds must end their race to feel. But what is most important about this, the last of Brabcová’s gifts, what makes it deserving of a place in the most minimalist of bookshelves, is its honest, overwhelming beauty, its celebration of language, imagery, and humanity, and its tribute to all of life, observed.
Flowers of Mold by Ha Seong-Nan, translated from the Korean by Janet Hong
(Open Letter Books, 2019)
The stories in Ha Seong-Nan’s Flowers of Mold are an acquired taste. Fortunately, taste for them can be developed awfully fast.
Starting with the collection’s title, the image they evoke at first is fuzzy, dark, and unfocused, making of our entrance into the world they present an exercise in ambivalence, so that we look at them in the way we regard things that fail to attract us immediately, things that unsettle us the moment we happen upon them. (Is it really the face of a feral cat I’m seeing in the folds made by that garbage bag in the street? Wait, why am I looking at garbage bags?)
Here she is in “Waxen Wings,” the book’s opening story: “For the first time in your life, you witness the moment life escapes from a living thing. All the visitors leave, but you continue to stand there, even after the concession clerks have gone home. The sun starts to set, and everything quickly grows dark. All the pigeons have flown off except for the one by your feet. Rigor mortis has set in.”
And it’s not just dead pigeons and garbage bags. It is maggots, vomit, insects, caked food on walls, three days’ old, blood, the stench of lifeless flowers, and, yes, mold.
But it is also people. People who love, who desire, who act out of an uncontrollable impulse for connection and do so in the very ways that will ensure they never get it. These actions seem to happen somewhat repetitively in Flowers of Mold, a certain lunacy born of longing and its consequences always on display.
There is also much high-stakes drama here, and it is successful in its goal of disconnecting us from our immediate reality, our hearts racing, disquieted, as if something dystopian had sprung from the pages housing these ten stories and were lurking about, threatening our normalized lives with events happening in muted colors—faded yellows, the blues and greens of neon letters that no longer light up, dark grey cement raining over everything.
It helps that Seong-Nan’s prose is clean and the stories well-constructed. Also that translator Janet Hong does a fantastic job of preserving the mood, tone, and elegance of the author’s poetic syntax, and of making sure that meaning is precisely rendered. A very good thing because time, too, is fluid here, yesterday and tomorrow the same thing, all of it ultimately enchanting and brilliant in its own exhausting, at times purposely confusing, way.
Thus any initial impulse to scrunch our nose and turn away from the smell gives way as the images come into focus, the sense of distance disappears, and we are involved, engaged, even interested in the life of some of the loneliest people we will ever hear of, as in these lines from the collection’s title story:
Bean shells, seesaw, monkey bars, boy, puddles. The man writes down a few words that will help jog his memory. Later, the shells she shucks will become the only clue in identifying her garbage bag from the others. He doesn’t know which unit out of the 90 she lives in. Luckily there’s only one apartment building.
Two distinct devices appear to help create this trance of interest and investment as we read. One, Seong-Nan’s ability to break down a moment until it reveals its urgency, as in this passage, also from the story “Flowers of Mold”:
The child is catching his breath before swinging from the third bar to the fourth. If he wants to land on dry ground, he has no choice but to go all the way across. His pants are slipping down, and his shirt rides up to reveal a patch of pale skin.
The second method is her commitment to delivering big enough moments in exchange for our patience with her breaking down of a second, a gesture, a glance, the most fleeting of thoughts, as in this scene from “Onion,” the book’s final story, in which the title refers more to the story’s structure than to anything that happens in it:
She sees an empty corner seat with a jacket tossed on it. She pushes it aside and sits. She feels something soft and hard under her bottom, like a purse. She closes her eyes. She hears endless whining, intermittent howls from the injection room, and soda cans falling in the vending machine. The younger child, who is coming down the slide, crashes into the older one, who has climbed up the wrong way. ‘Teacher!’ the smaller child screams, bursting into tears.
She awkwardly gets to her feet, and glimpses something like a reddish lump out of the corner of her eye. What she had been sitting on wasn’t a purse at all, but a newborn baby. Smothered by her rear end, the area around the baby’s eyes and nose has already turned blue. She makes eye contact with a young woman coming back from the pharmacy counter with a prescription in hand. The woman walks in her direction, her body still showing signs of postpartum swelling.
In this way, what began by repelling us, has brought us to our feet by curtain’s close, clapping and grateful that this complex off-Broadway play has forced us to experience the loveliness of all that rots, and the value of sitting still to watch it die, never for a second able to look away.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
(Penguin Random House, 2019)
Ocean Vuong’s debut novel, On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous, has been named one of the most anticipated books of 2019 by The Los Angeles Times, The Millions, The Guardian, Publisher’s Weekly, Boston Globe, The Rumpus, Entertainment Weekly, Buzzfeed, O, The Oprah Magazine, and others.
Here is the breathtaking way in which it begins:
I am writing to reach you—even if each word I put down is one word further from where you are. I am writing to go back to the time, at the rest stop in Virginia, when you stared, horror-struck, at the taxidermy buck hung over the soda machine by the restrooms, its antlers shadowing your face. In the car, you kept shaking your head. ‘I don’t understand why they would do that. Can’t they see it’s a corpse? A corpse should go away, not get stuck forever like that.’
I think now of that buck, how you stared into its black glass eyes and saw your reflection, your whole body warped in that lifeless mirror. How it was not the grotesque mounting of a decapitated animal that shook you—but that the taxidermy embodied a death that won’t finish, a death that keeps dying as we walk past it to relieve ourselves.
From there, time travels forward and backward and sometimes in circles, appearing to repeat itself, but only in order to find a deeper truth, to highlight yet another layer just remembered or relived or reimagined in an effort to understand the inexplicable cycle of abuse in which those abused become abusers, in which the used become users.
It is structured as an extended letter from a battered only son to the mother who will never read his words because she cannot read, much in the same way she appears unable to abstain from hurting him at every turn, even into his late twenties when he writes this book of a letter to her.
The main characters are few if you don’t count the missing, the fleeting, the abandoners (from the Old French à bandon, at will, at discretion), but each is heartbreakingly X-rayed and rendered in all their violence, their lunacy, their compulsion, their cruelty, but also with all their heartbreak, all their context, the Vietnam war and the themes of immigration and domestic violence hovering over the “why” of things as if the narrator or the author (you would be forgiven for thinking it is a memoir and not a novel) wanted to excuse it all, and to have, himself, an excuse to keep loving.
It is written in the second person, a difficult point of view to sustain for 200-plus pages, especially when the you is a real you (the mother), and not a substitute for “I,” the one-way correspondence at times reading like a ledger of brutalized innocence, the secret diary of a young man’s days as a burnt-to-the-ground spirit, as in this scene of what happens when the narrator, then an immigrant child, tells his mother of the violent bullying he had endured at his Hartford Connecticut school earlier that day:
That night you were sitting on the couch with a towel wrapped around your head after your shower, a Marlboro Red smoldering in your hand. I stood there, holding myself.
‘Why?’ You stared hard at the TV.
You stabbed the cigarette into your teacup and I immediately regretted saying anything. ‘Why’d you let them do that? Don’t close your eyes. You’re not sleepy.’
You put your eyes on me, blue smoke swirling between us.
‘What kind of boy would let them do that?’ Smoke leaked from the corners of your mouth. ‘You did nothing.’ You shrugged. ‘Just let them.’
I thought of the window again, how everything seemed like a window, even the air between us.
You grabbed my shoulders, your forehead pressed fast to my own. ‘Stop crying. You’re always crying!’ You were so close I could smell the ash and toothpaste between your teeth. ‘Nobody touched you yet. Stop crying—I said stop, dammit!’
The third slap that day flung my gaze to one side, the TV screen flashed before my head snapped back to face you. Your eyes darted back and forth across my face.
This scene is a good illustration of Vuong’s mastery in choosing the second person to bring the raw intensity needed to render real the highly emotional world of this, his first foray into fiction. It works because it is not used as a gimmick. It is not an exercise in creative writing. Here, instead, it is the only possible point of view for a novel whose narrator must denounce at full-scream, unflinchingly confronting his torturer on the page.
And so On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous is, indeed, a gorgeously written novel about race, about class, about street life and gender and the ragged ways we have chosen to define it.
In narrating the days of a sad bewildered childhood and its subsequent coming of age into a world just as hardened and difficult as the place from which it sprang, Voung creates a world of scenes that, together, function as a crushing example of what kindness must endure to survive cruelty and of the, sometimes, hopeless odds of the human enterprise.
It is also a novel about family, about survival and displacement, about drugs, identity, and love that endures. But, perhaps, most of all, it is a book about the grueling lifelong exercise of forgiving ourselves by forgiving our parents:
“That’s so good to know, baby.” You stared off, stone-faced, over my shoulder, the dress held to your chest. “That’s so good.”
You’re a mother, Ma. You’re also a monster. But so am I—which is why I can’t turn away from you. Which is why I have taken god’s loneliest creation and put you inside it.
*Reprinted with permission from The New York Journal of Books (https://www.nyjournalofbooks.com/). All rights reserved.
Anjanette Delgado is a Puerto Rican novelist and journalist. She is the author of The Heartbreak Pill (Simon and Schuster, 2008), a 2009 winner of the Latino International Book Award, and of The Clairvoyant of Calle Ocho (Kensington Publishing & Penguin Random House, 2014). She is the editor of the anthology, Home in Florida: Latinx Writers and the Literature of Uprootedness, forthcoming from University of Florida Press. Her work has appeared in numerous anthologies, as well as in The Kenyon Review, Pleiades, Vogue, The New York Times, The Hong Kong Review, NPR, and HBO, among others and she is a reviewer for the New York Journal of Books and the Women's Review of Books. Anjanette writes about heartbreak and social justice. She is a Bread Loaf Conference alumni, the recipient of an Emmy Award for her feature writing, and served as judge for the Flannery O'Connor Short Fiction Award in 2015. The following year, she was a Peter Taylor Fellow in Fiction, and in 2020, she was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Anjanette has taught writing for the Center for Literature and the Miami Book Fair at Miami Dade College, for Florida International University, and for writer’s conferences from New Jersey to Mexico City and Puerto Rico. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Florida International University, and lives in Miami.