#tobyreads: The Surreal is the Familiar


Earlier in the month, I came across Jo Walton’s glowing review of Angelica Gorodischer’s Kalpa Imperial. (The English translation is by Ursula K. Le Guin.) Then I read Sofia Samatar’s write-up of the same book, and realized that I should probably give it a proper read, as it had been glaring at me from my to-read shelf for a while. And, sure enough, I found it to be terrific. Largely organized as a storyteller recounting the long history of an empire, from its origins out of the ruins of an older society to the storyteller’s own involvement in certain events. 

There are certainly archetypes here, but skewed somewhat: resourceful characters are able to achieve success and rise above society’s expectations, but not without sacrifice. The empire itself is presented as a constantly-shifting thing (and there are hints that it might well exist at some point in our own future.) It acts as a kind of echo to the history of our own world; challenging and mysterious, upending the familiar where the familiar is expected.

Echoes of the familiar in the surreal can also be horrific. I’ve been reading a lot about trigger warnings this week; I’ve seen a fair amount of smart, compelling pieces on both sides of the debate. Having just read Jerzy Kozinski’s Steps, I’m pretty sure that any theoretical trigger warning given before reading this book would have to be along the lines of what awful things it doesn’t include. This short novel’s deadpan narrator is so meticulously controlled that it takes a moment for the full horror of his actions to register. Told in short vignettes, it’s the story of a man whose actions of cruelty and violence echo the warlike and authoritarian society around him. But there are also quiet moments of reflection in here, and the pair of scenes that close this novel suggest interesting interpretations of the work as a whole.

Word came earlier this month that Joanna Ruocco’s next book would come out via the fine people of Dorothy, A Publishing Project. That reminded me that her first novel, The Mothering Coven, had been on my to-read shelf for longer than I’d have liked, and I opened it up. What I found was a quietly surreal and mildly absurdist narrative, told via short fragments, about the residents of a house planning a hundredth-birthday celebration for one of their number. In a number of ways, it read like a spiritual successor to Leonora Carrington’s The Hearing Trumpet — which, as far as I’m concerned, is a fine reason to check it out. (And I stand reminded that I need to read more from Ruocco.)

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