FEBRUARY 10, 2016
“NOT EVERYTHING can survive translation,” said Shira Greene, when confronted for the first time since graduate school with an Italian manuscript and a blank page. “Hence the age-old notion that she who translates is both translator and traitor to the text: traduttore e traditore.”
Translation is the guiding metaphor through which Rachel Cantor explores themes of love, loyalty, and transformation in her second novel, Good on Paper. Drawing parallels between literary translation and romantic partnership, Cantor dives head first into the “chasm between languages” and the chasm between people, to ask: Can one ever bridge the gap?
In her lively and absurd sci-fi debut, A Highly Unlikely Scenario (2014), Cantor sent a pizza parlor’s customer service representative back through time on a quest to save the world. She now anchors Good on Paper in her adoptive home of New York City in the late 1990s, and even returns to Rome, where she spent much of her childhood. This more personal, realist novel at first feels radically different from Unlikely Scenario, but the reader soon discovers that Shira Greene’s scenario is just as unlikely, her quest just as consequential.
Shira is a doctoral dropout who abandoned her Dante translation (of La Vita Nuova, or New Life) during a traumatic breakup. She’s been temping ever since, and raising her young daughter Andi with her friend Ahmad, a gay Pakistani economics professor. Across the street from their spacious university apartment on the Upper West Side is a groovy bookstore and café called People of the Book, run by a part-time rabbi named Benny with whom Shira has developed a flirtation.
Shira’s life hasn’t gone according to plan. She didn’t plan on falling in unrequited love at 16, didn’t plan on marrying for convenience and divorcing for self-preservation, and didn’t plan on returning from an Indian vision quest at 37 with a new baby girl. When we meet Shira she is 44, and life has begun to quiet down. She has stopped making grand plans.
Despite leading a life she didn’t imagine for herself, Shira resolves to be the mother she never had. (Her own mother left abruptly when Shira was seven.) She and little Andi enjoy ice cream at Cohn’s Cones, playtime at Slice of Park, and cake at Cuppa Joe’s, all within the boundary of Shira’s Comfort Zone. Shira tells herself that she put away loftier goals of love and success years ago — with her dissertation and several short stories — in order to properly parent.
Then one day Shira gets a Joseph Campbell-esque Call from a Nobel-winning postmodern poet, asking her (her!) to translate his upcoming Dante homage, Vita Quasi Nuova. The possibility of starting a (Semi) New Life as a successful, published translator is seductive, and Shira accepts the challenge. But when the fax machine starts delivering Romei’s pages, their stubborn untranslatability and uncanny familiarity unleash more than just cosmetic changes. Shira does leave her Comfort Zone for a New Life — just not the one she had planned.
Cantor’s prose is witty, poignant, and surprising, and the conversations between Shira and Andi feel vital and fresh. The author also reveals an impressive command of theory, history, and religious literature, and her apparent mastery of Dante’s La Vita Nuova and deep understanding of the perils of translation all make for an engaging, cerebral read.
But the novel’s intellectual vigor is also its Achilles heel. Good on Paper is, at its core, about the struggle for intimacy, between authors and readers, between writers and translators, and, especially, between lovers. Cantor is particularly focused on the limits of language and communication, and Shira is plagued by what gets lost in translation, in her work, and in her life.
Unfortunately, the novel itself suffers from a lack of intimacy. Raw emotions are contained in short bursts of lyricism, while most of the narration is cool and sardonic. I sometimes felt like a voyeur with a translator: I was told that decisions were being made, but not why, that actions were being taken, but without the urgency of being there.
This stubborn feeling of emotional distance may be true to life, but I suspect it’s mainly due to the fact that the reader’s attention is split between two texts: Good on Paper and Romei’s Vita Quasi Nuova. An improv teacher once cautioned me to “never make the scene about a different scene.” Good on Paper is too much about Shira’s past and Romei’s poetry collection. The narrator’s backward glance undercuts the drama, and the translation project at the novel’s center overwhelms the reader with secondary texts and heady themes. There’s a playful payoff at the end — but you have to wait too long to get there.
Perhaps Good on Paper is not its best self on paper. For a book about books, the novel already feels a lot like a movie, told mostly through dynamic two-hander, dialogue-driven scenes and some key narrated flashbacks. The problem is that, unlike a film, which is a visual medium, the book features more telling — and re-telling — than showing.
As a movie pitch, it’s a romantic dramedy about a middle-aged woman after she goes to India. This is a unique idea for a film, but is ultimately a frustrating moment in which to set a novel. By the time we meet Shira, she’s started life over a number of times and feels she has finally settled down. She believes that her whole life is behind her and is unlikely to change: “There is no new life. Not for me.”
This proves untrue, but it remains effectively true for the reader. Though we hear mention of past traumas and adventures, the reader gets none of the excitement, and all of the moody reflection. For example, Shira makes fleeting references to her epic grad-school flameout, which was stoked by a fraught relationship with an unrequited love named T. In the aftermath Shira discovered Romei, a poet whose cynicism and nihilism resonated with her, and made her hate the effusive, self-oriented lover Dante. Cantor writes:
My dissertation […] devolved into a disquisition on the impossibility of love, the impossibility of translation, our shameful, sham-ful enterprise. I published the essay, what there was of the [Dante] translation, and married. And never loved again.
In the novel’s present, Shira and Romei both finally return to Dante — which seems to symbolize a return to a prelapsarian belief in love, forgiveness, and flux. But that feeling lives only in fragments of wistful narration. I wanted Shira’s memories to be seen in true flashbacks, unedited, confrontational, and free from the judgment of hindsight.
Ditto Romei’s poems. Cantor constructs two fictional worlds — Shira’s life in New York and Romei’s earlier life in Rome — which she ultimately weaves together. But the reader quite literally experiences Romei’s world through an interpreter. Because Shira is engaged with his poetry on a purely intellectual level, so is the reader.
Translating Romei’s collection poses numerous problems for Shira: it’s filled with idioms that can’t be re-created faithfully in English, and his abundant puns and hidden meanings are obvious only to a bilingual translator, or perhaps only to Shira herself. The reader struggles alongside Shira to make sense of it all, and to glean some significance from these granular dilemmas. When she finally does translate Vita Quasi Nuova, Shira uncovers some very personal hidden meanings. Her revelations give the novel a welcome jolt of intrigue, and several rogue elements finally fall into place, as Romei’s past becomes part of Shira’s present.
But these revelations render most of the novel mere prologue. The novel ends prematurely, before the reader can witness Shira’s long-awaited confrontation with her past. The brief forays into Romei’s world feel tangential until the deus ex machina finally comes down.
In my imaginary film adaptation of Good on Paper, Romei’s poems are instead cutaways, which grant the viewer two fully-explored narrative arcs. This was done successfully in the second season of the Amazon series Transparent, which alternates between present-day Los Angeles and Weimar Germany. Similarly, those parallel stories connect only thematically until one final revelation unites them personally. But because the Weimar scenes feel present and dramatic, the juxtaposition of a Nazi book burning and the radical feminist shunning of a trans woman provokes both an emotional reaction and an intellectual response from the viewer.
Good on Paper excels at the latter: Cantor weaves an intricate web of themes, texts, and symbols that I cannot wholly unravel here. Though some themes are over-annunciated, Shira’s internal monologue raises interesting questions about change, faith, and love in mid-life.
The novel’s central question is about transformation: Is it possible? desirable? It depends whom you ask. While Y2K crazies prepare for the end, Shira, staring up at Andi’s Metamorphosis mural, muses: “We don’t change. We never change.” On the flip side, other people constantly threaten to change us. Shira likens the relationship between author and translator to the relationship between two lovers, maintaining that it is impossible to bridge the gap between two texts or people without betraying one or both. Inevitably, things will be misinterpreted, misunderstood, ignored. For Shira transformation, like translation, implies a betrayal of the self.
Guided by Romei’s poetry and rabbi Benny’s counsel, though, Shira makes a Pilgrim’s Progress toward accepting the flawed nature of intimacy. Biblical references and images abound: Shira lives in New England; she is named Shira (“song”) after the Song of Songs; Shira’s daughter Andi is seven years old, her mom left when she was seven years old, and the novel comprises seven books. Romei’s pen name literally means “pilgrims to Rome,” and Shira goes on her own meaningful personal journey to Rome. Most strikingly, the millennium looms over New York, as nervous wrecks await the apocalypse.
Shira’s own emotional transformation is its own apocalypse, couched in images of flames. In one of Romei’s primary source texts, the Bible’s Song of Songs, only the “great God-flame” of love can defy the treacherous separation “between two subjects, a subject and object.” For Shira, New Life means a return to earnest faith in love and translation. And she ultimately succeeds on her quest for re-unification — with her daughter, with old friends, with family, with romance, and with literary translation — by walking in to the flame.
Good on Paper begins with an epigraph from a wonderful Galway Kinnell poem about the phoenix, which famously rises from its ashes to enjoy a new life. Kinnell insists that we humans are not the bird; rather, our “one work” in this life is to “become the flames.” In the novel’s final moment, the implied “you” whom Shira addresses throughout the novel is finally revealed to be her mother: “I have leapt into the chasm, I have walked into the flame; I hope to meet you halfway.” Shira embraces the flame of love, vulnerability, and self-doubt in order to bridge that pesky “chasm” between people.
When Shira allows new beau Benny to reinterpret one of her short stories — her song (shira), her self — she learns the difference between a faithful translation and being translated faithfully. In her story Shira reflects on her lost love T.: “I still imagined new life with that old love — a fairy tale that began in Rome when I was fifteen and danced for him in the chem lab, imagining myself his Salomé.” Benny rewrites her, insisting that she’s really an “innocent” Shulamite who “loves easily,” and not a “calculating” Salomé. Benny’s new translation is an act of love, even though, or especially because, it transforms the original. Shira learns that the act of translating, or loving, is always vital and rewarding even if all translations, or relationships, end up imperfect. Truly New Life requires some creative destruction; Shira must allow aspects of her self and her past to get lost in translation, in order to connect.
As an interpreter, I have left out of this review whole storylines and entire thematic threads from Cantor’s jam-packed second novel. There is much more to explore. As Shira tells us, “not everything can survive translation.” Good on Paper is at its core a heartfelt celebration of reading, writing, and transformation. I only wish I could have joined Shira in Rome as she embarked on her New Life.