Friday, November 6, 2009

"the child's innocent seeing with the sorrowful knowledge of myth"

Elegy for a Fabulous World
By Alta Ifland
Ninebark Press
192 pages
October 7, 2009

Yet truth has always remained for me of an untouched brightness, which is not, as most people believe, the opposite of the colorful world of lies, for they both take their strength - the lies their color, the truth its brightness - out of hatred for the real. . . Truth is not real, and to tell the truth means much more than to present the facts as they are.
To tell the truth means to refuse the accepted pacts between facts and the realists who see them.

The title of this post comes from Sven Birkert. Similarly, Dubravka Urgesic describes the work of Alta Ifland as a universe "made of opposites: it's warm and chilly, deeply humane and strangely absurd, gentle and rough, humorous and sad." Born in Communist Romania in 1967, Ifland immigrated to the United States in 1991. She studied French literature in France, writes in both French and English (her third language), and was awarded the 2008 Louis Guillaume Prize for Prose Poems for the bilingual Voice of Ice. (Here is a sample.) Her latest book, Elegy for a Fabulous World, published in October 2009 by Ninebark Press, builds upon this earlier foundation with a series of highly poetic short stories, beginning with her childhood and homeland and ending in a small American town. Each tale is an extended, standalone prose poem. Though several characters reappear, each piece feels discrete and distinctly different from the others.

There's the opening tale of Fedea the gravedigger, who is ruthlessly tormented by the neighborhood children, creating an atmosphere of both innocent fun and menace that put me in mind of the Holocaust and other examples of brutal herd behavior. "The Nonexistence of Adelaide Bauer" couldn't be more different: it's pure surrealism, focusing on the otherwordly title character and her absurd suitor, and infused with something metaphysical - seen in the ruminations on the state of existence, on the complimentary relationship between unrelated halves, and on the relationship between words and voice. ("The more he talked, the more he seemed to become one with his words, a fictional character in a dialogue he was now writing. His body was made of dream-matter, dwelling in a galaxy of its own, in which time was nothing but matter's ceaseless longing to be. . .") "Always Onward Street" describes the ironically-named street where Ifland/the narrator grew up and, at the same time, the collective character of her Communist homeland.

Part 2, Here and There, applies the narrator's unique outlook - a blend of fantasy, realism, skepticism, and faith - to her new country. This perspective, as developed in the previous section, comes from somewhere outside physical reality. It is, as the narrator put it in "All My Aunts and Uncles," an example of the "artistic lie," of the "mystification" of events that do/did have an objective existence, but which have been processed and rearranged through the narrator's imagination. It is a Cubist way of seeing things: multiple angles all at once. From a whimsical analysis of authority in "Sawdust Power" and the ironic observation of American business/religious customs in "American China," a central theme becomes apparent, carried over from the old country. Ifland/the narrator believes in subjective honesty, a seeming incongruity that reveals itself through the double-sided nature of many of her stories. (For instance: the detached, faintly amused depictions of abuse in "My Life as an Orphan," the simultaneous coziness and alienation of "The Random Bus," and the prevalent dark humor.) She is skeptical of truths simply told to her and faithful to her own truths, which allow for paradox and dream-reality.

(Ifland is not the only narrator, of course, and not all of the stories are autobiographical. Still, each one expresses something Ifland believes to be true, I would interpret each protagonist as a variation of Ifland herself.)

Despite what appears to be an overall time-space progression (towards adulthood, to a new country), the individual stories of Elegy for a Fabulous World do not exhibit the traditional linear movement of expositionrising actionclimaxfalling actionresolution. In a blog post on Scheherazade and E. M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel, Ifland disputes the "Anglo-Saxon cause-effect logic" which Forster purports to be the universal framework of the fictional narrative. The essence of Scheherazade is not that she survives each night through the power of suspense, Ifland argues, but the perpetual growth of story out of story, altogether composing "a Borgesian labyrinthlike view rather than a linear structure underlying the logic of 'next.'" Ifland's own stories are fragments and observations which build upon one another and altogether compose a window to a world. The point, then, is not so much to tell a tale as it is to observe and reflect, and the result is the portrait of an artist.

In summation, I'm not sure if I would classify Elegy for a Fabulous World as entirely fictional. It is not the quick read it seems at first, as each story demands a rereading to catch everything going on and to discern its relationship to the other stories. I see Alta Ifland's work as prose poetry, regardless of how long each piece is, and I think what I've been describing in this review is a poet's sensibility. Overall, I enjoyed Elegy for a Fabulous World and have found it to be a work I can easily return to. It is a unique perspective on the immigrant's narrative and is valuable for its aesthetic value alone. In short: strongly recommended.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the review! This sounds really lovely.

Emily said...

Intriguing! Coincidentally, I'm reading a book right now (Peter Carey's Illywhacker) that's also preoccupied with subjectivity, lies, and personal truth. I normally shy away from short story collections, but this one sounds very tempting.

E. L. Fay said...

I'm glad you two liked this review! I was worried about how it came out. (I am SO bad at writing concluding paragraphs.)

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