NOVEMBER 5, 2016
IN 2008, the putatively permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy Horace Engdahl explained why he thought Americans rarely win the Nobel Prize in Literature: “The US is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature […] That ignorance is restraining.” While it is tempting to imagine what this statement might imply about the Academy’s decision to award this year’s prize to singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, I will limit myself to observing that Engdahl was being too honest — he ceded his title two months later. However, his sentiment is easy to appreciate, and not only in the sense that American authors tend to write about American characters in American spaces. Even when American authors look abroad, the real concerns often lie at home — this dynamic is neatly illustrated in Jonathan Franzen’s novel The Corrections, in which the character Chip Lambert’s misadventures in Lithuania (involving a fictional coup) amount to little more than a romp with his Lithuanian doppelgänger in a realm based heavily on Chip’s own French theory–based political fantasies. Of course, Ann Patchett, Roy Scranton, Ben Fountain, and others have recently written works of fiction that attempt to transcend the limits of the American actor’s perspective. But in general, American novelists and short story writers (including non-realists) tend to write what they know, at least insofar as region, culture, and visionary scope are concerned. This is an old story: Sinclair Lewis claimed in his 1930 Nobel Lecture that American writers were disadvantaged by a culture opposed to acknowledging, let alone telling, core truths about modern life. A less cynical observer might note that the sheer size of American lands and the varieties of human life within them provide an oversupply of narrative material. And now the theory of intersectionality tells us that clusters of identitarian factors precede and define our subjectivity, such that it is very difficult, if not impossible, for us — especially those of us with relative degrees of political and economic privilege — to see beyond the ends of our noses, much less around the globe.
It is probably natural for creative writers to chafe at the idea of limitations. Fortunately for those of us annoyed by the thought that American letters are predestined to cultural solipsism, there are new and recent books that prove some American authors are toiling on the assumption that the Roman playwright Terence was accurate in saying nothing human was alien to him. Take Anne Raeff’s new collection The Jungle Around Us, 2015 winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction.
Set in New York City, the Bolivian jungle, rural Paraguay, Moscow, Coatzacoalcos (Mexico), and Granada (Nicaragua), with flashes of Albuquerque and prewar Vienna, the nine stories in this collection depict an impressively diverse cast of characters from different times and places with compassion, delicacy, and confidence. Two sisters grow up in New York, their lives intersecting frequently with those of European refugees; the child of Austrian doctors who’ve fled Nazi genocide to South America finds herself more at home in the Bolivian countryside than in her hometown of Vienna; middle-aged interracial lovers in 1968 attempt to maintain a discreet relationship while beset by the racism of two children and an expatriated intellectual; a born New Yorker descended from Viennese refugees crosses the American border with Mexico and finds a new sense of sexual identity and self; a gay African-American photography student staying with a host family in Nicaragua discovers a perhaps startling truth about the ambiguous relationship between sexual desire and interpersonal ethics.
Throughout the book, a theme of crossing boundaries works its magic in unexpected, challenging, and satisfying ways. Raeff is especially capable of controlling point of view, and some of the stories here will affect readers with a force that will evoke feelings of both sympathy and shame. To avoid ruining any of these effects — each of these stories contains pleasures supplied initially through some element of surprise — I will limit myself to saying that the author has found a way to make a reader’s awareness of cultural, racial, and psychological borders coincide with her characters’ discoveries of those borders, and of what lies outside them. Raeff’s characters bump into the limits of perspective the hard way, and they do not necessarily learn from their shocking glimpses of things beyond their comprehension; sometimes the gap between what the reader perceives and what the characters comprehend is wide enough to cause one to reflect on the limits of one’s own perceptions.
Raeff’s authorial concern with interpersonal exploration is heightened through her collection’s preoccupation with two families, the Buchovskys and the Cohens, across generations and individual lives. All but one of these stories follow characters from these two families, both of which have been strongly affected by European anti-Semitism. This historical element anchors the collection’s titular conceit of “exploring a jungle” and provides a political vision that readers from any country with a history of displaced peoples — in other words, all countries — will appreciate. Like most modern people everywhere, Raeff’s characters are destined to inhabit a civilization that proves itself foreign when examined in close detail.
The storytelling: Raeff is very good at it. She writes with a light but sure touch, and her sentences define the necessary parameters of each tale without wasting a reader’s time on trivial details or autotelic wordplays. Raeff strikes and maintains a balance between writing lyrically and making each sentence serve the story being told. The result is that one wants to stop to marvel at the prose but simultaneously wishes to keep reading, not simply to know “what happens next,” but to grasp the fullness of what Raeff is putting on display for her readers. She is as unwilling to flash revelations twice as she is to mince words; her world reveals itself in brief, temporary gestures, and as in life, one must pay attention closely if one is to understand what is going on in one’s surroundings. Take, for example, this delicate and fleet rendering of a young gay man’s socially risky play with the girls he babysits and has secretly been teaching to dance, in “Chinese Opera”:
At the end of the dance sessions, they had always put the furniture back exactly right, so their father wouldn’t notice, though he would not have minded, would have been happy to know they were having such a good time with Danny McSwene. Still, Danny had made them promise not to tell anyone, and they never did, not even after he was dead.
Raeff’s matter-of-fact telling coupled with precise turns of phrase and simple nouns give her prose the straightforward verve of a fairy tale. She leavens this texture with a lightning-bolt lyricism that calls to mind the less ethereal and more controlled sentences in James Salter’s collection Dusk and Other Stories, as in this passage from “Maximiliano”:
Outside Simone could hear the sound of millions of insects, and it reminded her of being in a snowstorm. Eventually she discerned other sounds besides the insects — men’s voices, leaves rustling. Something was scrambling around in the bushes. It smelled of meat cooking, of barbecue.
An attentive reader will note some of the same alchemical wordplay that Salter used to make stories like “Via Negativa” shine: “Morning. The dentists are laying out their picks. In the doorways, as the sun hits them, the bums begin to groan.” Don’t be fooled into thinking you know what you’re looking at, Raeff reminds us with these surprise gestures: the world is a shapeshifter.
My favorite moments combine wonder and horror in revelations that promise to stay with readers long after they have closed the book. In “Maximiliano,” enormous emotional violence lies hidden behind the unhappily composed façade of the family of Juliet, one of the Buchovsky sisters. The other sister, Simone, accompanies them to her powerful brother-in-law’s favorite scenic view: “They came to an open space and there was the falls — a giant wound of gushing red water.” Struck by the strangeness of this sight, Simone recalls that “Juliet had dismissed the falls as a tourist destination in her last letter,” just before her sister tells her they come here most weeks, adding, “Raul likes the falls. Sometimes we stand at the railing for two hours just watching.” This grim, Dalí-esque puzzle leads a reader, or at least this reader, to wonder what the future holds for them (and, perhaps more importantly, for real people like them).
It is not often that I encounter a collection so compact, ambitious, accomplished, and delightful to read. Reading these, I was very much reminded of Joy Williams’s “Eight Essential Attributes of the Short Story and One Way It Differs from the Novel.” Raeff’s stories exhibit them all, especially Williams’s second attribute: “an anagogical level.” A spiritual plane is not easily come by in much of today’s short fiction, but Raeff sets her aims there in each of these stories. She hits her mark consistently, never letting generic boundaries of ethnicity or gender obscure her Levinasian vision of characters who are infinitely other yet endlessly knowable, be they strangers or the people one knows best.