Saturn Return is a hell of a thing. The 6th planet in our solar system takes just short of thirty years to blink through our night sky into the same position it occupied before. We are born wherever Saturn lives in our constellations and thirty years later they say we are born again. Saturn the fathergod of the Olympians, who Zeus took out himself, is usually depicted with a scythe in hand. As soon as an identity settles, Saturn returns to harvest his heads of grain, sending whoever undergoes the Return into a reckoning with who they really are.
Babak Lakghomi might not have considered Saturn when he wrote his debut novella Floating Notes, but all the signs of reaping are here. A nameless man—he calls himself “Bob” with the disclaimer that this is not in fact his name—botched some shady job that was paying him enough to support his wife and child. All that security stripped away in the backstory, and now he’s on the lam from some mysterious enemy, some threat that is never named. The early conflict arises when “Bob” peeks out the window of his attic room and a black car appears on the streetcorner. Thus begins an uncanny journey of paranoia that implicates a diverse cast of characters, from an egg-stealing Frenchman to a bucket of sympathetic lobsters.
The book is a short enough that it really ought to be read in a single sitting. The first time I tried it I picked it up and put it down, read through my commute into the city, swapped between this and whatever articles popped up on Twitter. I didn’t like it then. It didn’t make any sense. But when I returned to it later I sat in the café just like the narrator does to write in his notebooks (“When I don’t know what else to do I like to write down things in my notebook,” “Bob” explains) and didn’t leave until finished. When consumed all in one go the music of the short passages becomes apparent—they’re never longer than a page or two, and a consecutive pair almost never take place in the same setting or timeline. While at times this can be confusing—halfway through the book, the city through which the narrator stumbles is suddenly buried in pounds and pounds of snow—it grants the narrative the agility needed to dodge the gradually-escalating danger.
There are whiffs throughout of that kind of novel translated from French, Camus or one of the Oulipo writers, where exciting plot details are used as devices as meditations of life and language. Whether or not we know who this man is one thing is clear enough—his voice. Everything else stripped away Floating Notes can be read as the voyage of a voice through darkness. There’s a plot sure. It’s even somewhat pulpy. But all that is treated as secondary to the narrator’s voice, which never falters through all the various contortions he undergoes. He describes a return to a place on the river where his father and he used to go fishing. He rows out to the middle with his rod and catches sight of two men in a metal fishing boat.
The first man inserted a bare cable into the water and started the engine. The boat bobbed and dead fish floated to the surface of the water. The birds on the water froze with their wings half open.
The other man collected birds and fish in his net. He separated birds from fish and put them in a separate bucket.
The first man took a cutlass a started skinning the birds. He broke the necks first, and made two cuts into the flesh. With two movements of his hand the skins swiftly came off.
The terrain of Saturn is brutal and unfamiliar. Whoever tries to return to the site of a rosier past will find strangers there poaching his good memories.
As in the aftermath of any Saturn Return, “Bob” is tested in order to uncover his true identity. The various threats accosting him throughout the narrative—black cars on the street, a policeman who confides a costly mistake, a dirty masseuse who steals all “Bob’s” money then scrams—resolve of their own accord. One snuffs out another and the third disappears without a second thought. The one consistency in “Bob’s” life of inconsistency is his notetaking, and the novella can be considered a reading of his notebooks. The narrative is framed by two ritual cleansings—at the start “Bob” dumps the notebooks from his family life into the river, and in the end the police confiscate all of those filled over the course of the book—so what the reader’s left with are incomplete entries, punctuated moments in time that never exactly add up to a cohesive narrative. Floating Notes dispatched from a voice in despair rising from the bottom of a river or lofting on the discarded wind.
The final entry finds “Bob” in a new room at a new writing desk with a voice that has settled into something like contentedness. Maybe his family has gone, maybe his only form of income is the welfare mailed to his PO Box, maybe the four or five women he runs through in this short book have all disappeared. But his voice remains. He keeps a single reminder of his brush with Saturn—a notecard-sized painting from his first love in the novella, the waifish farmhand-turned-painter Lily who he chases through the middle section of the book. “I have the photo of the red-crowned cranes above my desk,” he writes, although nothing else of his previous self remains.
by Babak Lakghomi
Tyrant Books; 120 p.