Review of the Week – Amanda Michalopoulou’s I’d Like

Once a week we will be posting a review that we find particularly wonderful. These are cut and paste posts, and I hope you’ll use the link to the actual article. Enjoy. 

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You can find George Fragopoulos’s review of Amanda Michalopoulou’s I’d Like over at The Quarterly Conversation: http://quarterlyconversation.com/id-like-by-amanda-michalopoulou-review

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Wonderfully polymorphous—is it novel, fictional biography, short story collection, or other?—and incredibly promiscuous in its tones and registers—vacillating with ease between melancholy and joy while yoking together the profoundly metaphysical and the commonly mundane—Amanda Michalopoulou’s I’d Like cannot help but inspire in its readers a vertiginous delight (one furthered by Karen Emmerich’s felicitous and fluent translation from the Greek).

Readers of Calvino and Borges (If on a winter’s night a traveler, in particular, is a clear influence, and the blind Argentine is directly mentioned in the very last story of the text1, where a character complains that “everyone imitates him”) will find a work worthy of those precursors, especially when it comes to Michalopoulou’s use of the metafictional techniques that have characterized much of her fiction. (I’d Like is, unfortunately, the author’s only full-length work thus far available in English translation.) And while it is easy, in a sense, to locate many of Michalopoulou’s literary precursors—contemporary Greek author Margarita Karapanou is another obvious touchstone— it is not easy to locate exactly what it is that makes I’d Like so joyously unsettling and vertigo-inducing; for this reader, it begins with the form of the thing.

Perhaps the author herself should speak to that issue, from the “story” “Clarification of What I’d Like”:

My original objective was to write a few short stories to supplement the twenty or so I’ve published here and there in the past few years. When I started to write, the old stories didn’t fit in anywhere—they scurried back to the anthologies they’d come from. So a new objective took shape: to write stories that would read like versions of an unwritten novel. Or, better, to write the biography of those stories as well as of their fictional writer.

Without giving away too much of the plot (for, the way it all (partly) coheres in the last chapter (or story) of the collection, “I’d Like (Orchestral Version),” is part of the journey every reader should take on their own), Michalopoulou’s text swirls around a singular and specific axis: the fictional writer mentioned in the above quotation. The writer appears early and often in the text before we become fully aware, at the very end, of her true identity as author of the “stories” we have been reading, making it a metafictional mystery of sorts, a whodunit? of the authorial kind. Better yet, imagine an alternateDubliners where Joyce has Gabriel, in a story appearing directly after “The Dead,” admit to writing all that has come before, and you would have I’d Like.

Where Michalopoulou’s text truly stands on its own is in its splintered take on reality, experience, and existence, an acceptance of the fact that life, as the author recently told me, refuses to move in a linear manner. For Michalopoulou, linearity means not only an acknowledgment of time’s Bartleby-like refusal to concede to our terms and conditions on the issue of causality—memory, perhaps, is the closest we come to experiencing directly this non-linear existence as an actuality—but also an acceptance of how the self cannot help but fragment in the face of such nonlinearity.

Throughout I’d Like, themes and images refract and disappear, reappear in different guises, and all are interlaced throughout the text. To give an example, the very first story introduces us to a marriage that is faltering due to frustrated artistic aspirations; the theme of busted or nearly ruined marriages will be picked up again in “The Firefly Hunt,” and in “Overcome”; failed artists abound, as in “Dad and Childhood” or “The Most Wonderful Moment.” But although Michalopoulou is liberal in sprinkling signs and symbols throughout these texts, she leaves it entirely up to the reader to come to an understanding of how it all works together.

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What Michalopoulou is writing with and against is what Shakespeare in Twelfth Nightcalled “the trick of singularity.” For Shakespeare the trick comes in convincing the world and what we recognize as the self that there actually is a complete and unified “I” to speak of; as the Bard knew, this is only a front, an illusion, for there is no easily locatable self, only a myriad of fragments that at times cohere.

The novel exists through such a discourse; it is by its very nature a polyphonous or dialogic form, to use Bakhtin’s term. It is meant to be a conflicting and endless series of voices arguing for priority and viability. And this is where Michalopoulou clearly shows that her text is a card-carrying member of the Jorge Louis Borges School of Aesthetics: she takes an idea—that of the novel’s multi-vocal form and the author who resides behind such a form— and pushes it to its utmost logical conclusion, and, almost literally, shatters it, allowing for a kaleidoscopic glimpse of what the work of fiction must look like before it coalesces. (The novel itself is meant to trick the reader into thinking it is a singular entity composed of disparate and warring factions.)

How does all this make itself felt in the text? One answer: through the weaving of particular images and metaphors; take almond blossoms, for example:

On her way to the bank her jacket got stuck on a branch that was sticking out from some stranger’s garden. The branch, weighed down with almond blossoms, had thrust its way through the chain-link fence, refusing to be contained. Her thoughts returned to the advertiser. Please, let him come back. She twisted the branch in her hand to free the button on her jacket. The blossoms quivered and fell. . . . She looked down at the white and pink blossoms on the sidewalk. So neglected. Cut off from the context that gave them meaning.

I boiled some water for chamomile. I poured it into my favorite mug, the one with the almond blossoms on it.

The dust that had gathered in her hair started to dance. I looked again at the nail. It was pointy and would leave a big mark, just like in the icon. Luckily, Mom was wearing her bikini top with the almond blossoms. And her eyes weren’t yellow.

Your sister is packing her suitcase. She stuffs her cotton underwear with the little almond blossoms into the side pockets.

And this is another example of the ways in which Michalopoulou’s text moves so masterfully between tones and registers: each mention of the almond blossoms—and all four from different “stories” in the collection— builds on the previous one, and yet context, as the first quote makes clear, is what is most important. Not every mention of the almond blossoms is of equal value. In the first quote, the blossoms represent the lost lover and a feeling of disconnectedness; the second quote is an off-the-cuff mention, almost as if it is there to simply bridge one allusion to the next, the continuation of the thread; the third mention comes only moments after a character has had her calf and ankle pierced by a nail in a pseudo crucifixion. The fourth quote—and notice again how the blossoms appear on clothing—makes a direct connection between the physically wounded character of the third quote and the emotionally distraught daughter of this one. The singular image of the almond blossoms is weaved through the text by the fictional author and references quickly multiply; it is an excellent example of how Michalopoulou is writing for and against the constant tension of a self which constructs and tears itself apart over and over again; the trick of singularity.

But where Michalopoulou breaks from the work of Borges or Karapanou is in her sincere empathy with her fictional constructs. Michalopoulou uses metafictional playfulness to better elucidate who her characters are and not to simply have them run a literary gauntlet of sorts. These are not only aesthetic positions, I maintain, but ethical ones as well. As Zizek has provocatively argued, and I agree with him in such an assessment, our relationships with others are the stuff of fiction: we often fool ourselves into thinking that we have a clear understanding of who or what someone is, never paying attention to the fact that it is the narratives we construct that come to such conclusions in the first place. An emotional attachment to an object, place, or person cannot exist without a narrative to go along with it; hence the essentially ethical stance of much metafiction, which makes us consciously aware of how storytelling affects our everyday lives.

In I’d Like, Michalopoulou confronts such ethical issues regarding what we owe to the other within the domestic sphere. Our fictional author, we come to realize, is member of a deeply troubled family, a dynamic which eventually culminates in these rather staggering moments, where our protagonist comes to realize that stories and dreams are sometimes all that remains:

You close your eyes and think about the characters in your dreams. They all resemble you. They hug their knees to their chest; they touch objects warmed by other hands; they can’t stand the ticking of a watch . . .

If someone were to bore a hole into your head and write your dreams down, you would accept them all as the carefully planned elements of a narration, not of reality. . . .

You’ve invited everyone you ever loved—and they come without an “I don’t know,” a “We’ll see,” or a “Maybe next time.” They slide into your head down a chute of otherworldly light. [She] brings you a porcelain cat, its pieces perfectly glued back together . . . she says, “don’t overdo it, okay?” And here’s Dad, drinking his vodka and scattering cigarette ash everywhere, with the grace of an elephant. Mom gets up out of her wheelchair and tried her new pointe shoes. You’re the Holy Family. A dance troupe, starring in Sleep Lake.

In that immeasurably vast expanse, the four of you touch the stars and they don’t burn you because your own heat is hotter than anything in nature, hotter than anything that has yet been discovered by man. Your heat could burn fire itself.

If only for a moment, and if only through the power that dreams provide, all is well with the world. The family is once again whole, at peace with itself. The ethical exists not only in coming to terms with that which exists outside of the self but also with an understanding that moments of complete empathy and peace are not extravagant dreams but tangible possibilities. Michalopoulou’s work is filled with such moments, moments where fiction allows us to fully grasp the possibilities that existence itself provides.

 

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