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Books? Fall Apart

Tom Bissell, a writer who, among other things, wrote a heartbreaking account of his relationship with his Vietnam Vet father in the book The Father of All Things, has a review in the NYT of what en face looked to be a promising new Mexican novel. It let him down, to say the least, and the result is an hilariously scathing review in which the following summary appears:

The themes of “Season of Ash” can fairly be summarized as follows: Businessmen? Hubristic. Scientists? Arrogant. Communism? Bummer. Things? Fall apart.

I echo many a critic and writer’s exasperation at the vituperous and cranky missives shot out after some poor author disappoints Kakutani, but somehow Bissell, through his humorous, glib approach, manages to avoid making me feel sympathetic to the very author he’s lambasting. The review? Worth a read. The Novel? Surely not.

52 thoughts on “Books? Fall Apart

  1. Bissell’s potshots, like comparing some of Volpi’s dialogue to “Smeagol trying to talk himself out of throttling a snoozing Frodo Baggins,” and then likening, or rather, reducing, Volpi’s entire project as a whole as a novelization of “Billy Joel’s ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire,’” strike me not only as being unfunny, but also compel me to call into question my trust in him as a reviewer. I’d rather have seen him sample more of the text directly rather than structuring his diatribe around pop cultural references that are sure to get a cheap laugh. (I do give him points, though, for use of the words “sororal” and “agnomen.”)

    I have this book on my reviewing pile. I haven’t decided to read it yet, but Paul Doyle’s review at The Quarterly Conversation [disclosure: I occasionally write for The Quarterly Conversation] does more to inspire me to read it, or at least give it a chance, than Bissell’s easy attempt to dissuade me.

    Doyle also criticizes Volpi’s supposedly flat characterization without succumbing to cheap shots. His concluding paragraph also strikes me as fair and balanced reviewing:

    Season of Ash is an expansive work of modern history whose links create a vast, moving history of the political and scientific events of the end of the cold war, one that dispenses with the nation-state and attempts to uncover symbiotic relations between seemingly disparate interests. However, between the overload of events and the lack of character development, the novel ultimately reads like a list of events with characters attached. Season of Ash goes a long way toward demonstrating that the Latin American novel is much more than magical realism, but it stops short of being a successful work in itself.

      1. You know, I could maybe understand that kind of dismissal if it was made against a writer with zero literary merit, or better, if it was used as a way of comparing one hack musician to another. But against a serious writer who probably took several years to write his or her book and in a publication as large and influential as the NYT, I definitely find fault. I think it’s unfair to have serious work caricatured in such a way. I’d say that the Times should employ writers who will review the work on its own terms, not ones who resort to base humor and facile dismissals, especially of the hyper-caffeinated variety, as a replacement for deep critical thinking.

        I think scathing humor has its place in reviewing. Bissell’s “review” didn’t strike me as hitting the mark at all.

        1. Oh come on, you look to the NYT for “deep critical thinking?” At best, the Times fiction reviews are moderately entertaining diversions to accompany one’s weekend coffee ritual (their non-fiction reviews, on the other hand, seem to be of a higher standard).

          I trust, in other words, that Bissell wouldn’t recommend that book, but I’d never consider a Times review as final word on why, or in what way a novel falls short of its expressed goal–and neither would any other serious reader. Perhaps it’s a failure of the publication to have let itself “fall” into this current predicament. But that’s not Bissell’s fault. He’s just getting paid to play along, and I thought he did so with aplomb.

          So I think your disapproval here is–while possibly correct in the grand scheme–a little misplaced.

  2. No, I’d say the rare times the Times contains deep critical thinking is on the editorial page, if then. So no, I don’t expect much from them. But when they are lauded for what I dislike about them, then…

    I don’t know, but “getting paid to play along,” doesn’t strike me as working in Bissell’s defense, if that’s what happened.

    And it is the fault of both Bissell and the Times. And based on his review here I’m unlikely to read anything else by him. Unless of course I read a fair and balanced review of his work.

    1. I don’t get it, though. Do you dislike The Onion because they make shit up? The Times provides a pretty consistent product in their fiction reviews: light, hopefully entertaining reading by smart people.

      Dismissing Bissell because your expectations happen to be otherwise doesn’t strike me as any more fair than your charge of his own review, which I reiterate was, albeit on the cheeky end of the spectrum, well within the realm of expectation for what they deliver.

      If anything, I’d argue that the fun he had within the parameters he was given might inspire me–were I unfamiliar with his work, which I’m not–to investigate what he’d be capable of given a more expansive canvas.

      So I think you’re off on two points: firstly, your expectations for the entire section. And by extension, your comparison to a review in the Quarterly Conversation.

      That said, though the latter happened, in your eyes, to be more “fair,” the fact that they both came to similar conclusions only reinforces what seems to be the basic message here: the book is far from must-read material.

      Man, I won’t let up this morning!

  3. What I like about The Onion is when it is funny, irreverent, and absurd. They often deliver. I don’t know why you’ve brought up The Onion though.

    What I want from the Times is critical thinking. What I get from the Times is woefully unrepresentative coverage of what’s going on politically, unimaginative music and art criticism, and paint-by-the-numbers reviewing. And you’ve helped to affirm my perceptions, at least in regards to its reviewing.

    I think it’s fair to contrast Doyle’s measured criticism with Bissell’s largely (in the ways I’ve described) inane one. And though they both criticize the work, I’m not left with the feeling (based on Doyle’s review) that the book isn’t worth reading. What I do feel is that Bissell’s work needs to be avoided, unless, as I said, someone does a good job of presenting his work to me.

    As I said before, it is Bissell’s jokey, around the water-cooler-type dismissals, and not necessarily his conclusions, that I find uninteresting and ultimately worthless. I didn’t find it “light,” I found it thin. I didn’t find it “entertaining,” and I certainly didn’t find it to be a reading by a smart person, his use of “agnomen” and “sororal” notwithstanding.

    1. Wow. Well, I’m not going to defend NYT or Bissell any more than I have. You certainly sound like you’ve been deeply let down–betrayed, even, given the intensity of your feelings–and I’m not sure I really blame you. But as I’ve said above, there seems to be a little transference going on here.

  4. Hm. Free papers tend to be smaller…we build big ass fires. Although, suggestions are welcome. I’m going to read the Bissell review online though now because of your discussion…

  5. I sort of believe that the book is not good. But the bio of Bissell with “Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter,” being his next book—just no. Is he really writing a book about why video games matter? That is such a magazine article turned into a book thing. I hate those.

  6. I sometimes vanity Google myself when I have a new piece or review out, to see if anyone’s addressed it (oh, what sorrowful Saturday afternoons writers have), and I couldn’t resist answering this thread, because it goes to the heart of what I believe is my responsibility as a critic and a writer. What I’ll say is this: I wanted, and tried dearly, to like Season of Ash. I expected to like it, and I believe the Times asked me to review it because they figured it would be up my alley. Thematically, it was. As I read the book, however, I went from hoping it would improve to figuring out ways to write a mixed review to wondering whether I should be reviewing it at all to finally turning against the book so completely and resolutely that my only option, at the end of the day, was to describe exactly how I felt about the book, which was to say I couldn’t stand it and felt betrayed and angered by it. I agonized, and agonize, over how Jorge Volpi is going to feel about it, because I do, in fact, respect him as a writer. But this book, in my opinion, is awful. Now, I have some faith in my own opinion. Not because I think it’s without flaws but because I don’t have a lot agendas or literary or ideological fixations. I’m pretty catholic in my taste, and have written a lot of positive reviews in my day, and like–no, love–spreading the word about books I love. This review was not intended as glib; it was intended to reflect my intensely non-pleasurable experience of reading Volpi–and, of course, to be an entertaining piece of writing itself, for which I won’t apologize. (You should try to write at least as well as the book you are reviewing, after all.) That said, I took zero pleasure in writing it, and asked myself several times whether I should hide my disdain or write something more temperate but less honest. Had the book’s failings been less spectacular, I might have done that. For me, though, that proved impossible. My review may not be pleasant for Volpi, or John, to read, but the thing I take most seriously as a critic is honesty, with consideration for a writer’s feelings coming in at a distant but not meaningless second place.

    1. Hey Tom,

      Thanks for checking in and for taking time to comment.

      From your comment here, I do get the sense that you wanted to like this book, and that, perhaps, you weren’t predisposed to not liking it. This feeling wasn’t transmitted in your review, at least for me. The distancing of yourself in your first paragraph is evinced by your saying that “Season of Ash… is also a book one very much wants to like.” Why not, as you did in your comment above, use first person singular? And frankly, saying that Volpi’s novel is “thoughtful, has epic sweep and contains many notionally appealing characters,” is read, by me, simply as sugar to help the medicine go down. Unfortunately, it did not go down in the most delightful way.

      I don’t think your review in any persuasive way demonstrated how the book wasn’t “surprising, involving or at all interesting,” or how it lacked any “occasions of arresting language or appreciable drama.” And frankly, the lack of quotation marks hardly counts as a measure of a work’s merit.

      Your second paragraph doesn’t illustrate for me Volpi’s failure either. You don’t adequately reveal how his lack of quotation marks or use of line breaks in dialogue results in your confusion. You write: “So most Spanish-language literature translated into English has them added by the translator. Why Mac Adam has not continued this (as it turns out) exceedingly helpful Spanish-to-English convention is anyone’s guess…” This doesn’t at all show exactly how the translation fails. And then, in one of your review’s worst moments, you resort to insulting, to glibness rather than analysis: “but the result reads like Smeagol trying to talk himself out of throttling a snoozing Frodo Baggins…” If this isn’t glibness, what is it?

      And then there is this offhand remark: “On page after page of Season of Ash, novelistic eccentricity plows headlong into harebrained modernism.” What are those “novelistic eccentricities” anyway? What is this “harebrained modernism” that you’re writing about? This strikes me as a kind of biased remark, a prejudice, and as such it sounds largely empty of meaning.

      While the next paragraph certainly engages the text with more rigor than anywhere before (the “erotic passage” you quote from does seem overwrought), your conclusion that the preservation of “the decorousness of Volpi’s Spanish” fails because “the intimacy of novelistic English is best served by descriptive frankness,” and that the “effect, at any rate, is less decorous than ridiculous,” goes a long way to illustrate your biases and, perhaps, why you were not the right reviewer for this book. You return to glibness and then snarkiness here: “It has been a long time since a novel of such unmistakably serious intent has been this unintentionally hilarious. That more or less ends the laudatory portion of this review.” Did you really have to go there?

      And then your next paragraph shows more bad form. In the end, you express your irritation with Volpi’s collection of historical events by likening it to a Billy Joel song. If that’s not glib, then what is it?

      I’ll end my review of your review by saying that while your conclusion that Season of Ash “may well mean to challenge fiction’s conventions,” but that “in its failures, it grimly confirms them,” may be true, your review did not persuasively demonstrate this conclusion. And you didn’t show your respect for Volpi at all.

      And I think that your claim that you were being “honest” is disingenuous. I’ve never asked you to be dishonest. I’m just wondering why you chose to replace criticism with snarkiness, why you confused entertainment with insulting distractions.

      I don’t expect laudatory reviews, just reviews that give books a fair shake. Like Doyle’s review of Volpi’s book that I linked to above.

      Thanks again Tom for checking in. And I hope to someday read something else from you. And if this does happen, it probably will be because I read something from someone who gave you a fair shake.

      1. Thank you for this, John. I don’t have Volpi’s book near me, unfortunately, and I read it long ago now (several months), and thus I can’t answer your points one by one. I’ll try to speak generally: How do you give a fair shake to something you honestly hate from a purely aesthetic point of view? The fact is, I gave the book a fair shake, in that I went into it wanting to like it. The fair shake, for me, is the starting point, not the end point. As for in-depth treatment and citation to back up my points, you only get so much room in a Times review; they’re not meant to be comprehensive, or scholarly; it’s criticism only in the most belle-lettristic sense: one mind publicly responding to another in a necessarily abbreviated format. You’re given a book to review, cruelly limited space, and you do your duty. I’ve reviewed something like ten books for the Times. Seven of those reviews were very positive, one was mixed, and two were harshly negative. I’m not a hit man, and don’t want to be.

        So. Here’s how the book failed. It’s not written very well, for one thing, with tons and tons of overblown dialogue and really lazily sketched characters. (Really, I implore you to read the book if you don’t believe me. And I’m aware this could be the translator’s fault rather than Volpi’s.) But some stuff is clearly Volpi’s fault: the treatment of history is both horribly forced and didactic, and it feels as though Volpi had a checklist for every recent historical event of note, which he then connected to the appropriate character in the most implausible way. The Billy Joel joke, believe it or not, is being kind, because Billy Joel was not saddled with having to make a narrative out “We Didn’t Light the Fire.” The book is foundationally misguided. Imagine a book with half a dozen central characters who have to come into firsthand contact with half a century’s worth of crucial historical events. Would that book strike you as a bad idea? Maybe not, if it were like Zelig. This book is not. It’s 100 percent brow-wrinklingly serious, which is the biggest problem. The author never seemed to get a sense for how silly the proceedings were becoming. The sillier the book grew, in fact, the grimmer and more serious it became.

        His novelistic eccentricities I think I explain, given the space I had, and chief among them are his agnomens and tendency to have hugely dramatic moments between characters who have been inadequately introduced. It happens over and over again, which I why I described one of those moments. It’s representative. The harebrained modernism refers to a generally wooden density of diction and humorlessness of approach. (I’ve always wondered if Modernism is not just pre-sense-of-humor Postmodernism. But that is probably glib.) There was literally not a single way in which the book seemed to me to succeed. It was boring, its language was unremarkable, I frequently fell asleep while reading it, and the characters were preposterous. I’m not sure how I could have said that without using some humor myself. I either had to write a scathing review in a high dudgeon of condemnation, or a scathing review with a more lighthearted tone. I didn’t want to condemn Volpi, or claim my reaction was more indicative or important than what it is: my individual reaction. The review, I will remind you, is not for Volpi. The review is for the readers of the TBR, who are looking for interesting prose and arguments about books they may or may not want to read.

        I guess I’m not that sensitive to the idea that writing a book may well get you mocked. I’ve been mocked in print, a few times, and it sucks, and it’s painful, but it’s part of the bargain of being someone foolhardy enough to want to publish a book. I don’t feel great about publicly hating this book, but my conscience is clear. I read something I wound up hating and then tried to write as entertaining a piece as I could about the experience of reading it and my reaction. Critical sobriety is not always a virtue, and just because Volpi is a serious writer does not make him immune to criticism, and just because it’s criticism does not, at least to me, mean that it has to be some form of critical point-counterpoint. A lot of reviews drive me bananas due to their schoolmarmish, gold-star-here, dunce-cap-there tone. But I’ve gone on too much, and I suspect we’re never going to see eye to eye on this.

        I took the book seriously. I take Volpi seriously, and wish him well, though I imagine he’ll want to punch me in the face if we ever meet, and I won’t complain if he does. That’s part of the bargain, too, of writing a review like this.

  7. I live in a household of gamers. But writing a book about “why they matter”? I can’t get behind that. Egregious dumbness.

  8. Video gamese as a potential for the future of literature. haha. My own sons who love video games and play them whever i let them for as long as they can even know that they consititute brain rot. Brain rot has its place in life. I’m a big fan of football, hockey and pretty much any sport minus curling on my huge flatscreen tv, law and order reruns and vampire movies. But I don’t defend them.

    1. Well, his idea, as I understand it, has little to do with what video games are today. More with the potential of the medium itself. Interactive narrativity.

      But like I said, I’ll see if he’ll write something up. Sure to provoke some outrage among the purists.

  9. I said nothing against curling, but admit that I don’t watch it. I mocked my sports watching, rightly so. I watch too much TV and too many sports and even if someone gave me a 200,000 dollar advance to write a book about “why that matters”, I would know deep in my heart that brain rot matters- in various forms- but does not deserve a serious discussion. Also, Steven Johson wrote a book called “evertyhing that’s bad for you is good for you” which I think defended video games and so forth and we just don’t need another one of those books. Bissell is collecting his check. I envy him.

  10. Also, had the delmoico steak for two last night at City Hall (keene’s was booked solid til 10:30). I’m still digesting.

  11. Every now and then I also check Google. Especially after reading such a nasty review as the one published by Mr. Bissell in the NYT Book Review. I will not try to defend my own novel, but I just want to share with you some reviews published in other countries, particularly France and Germany. One of them is written by Jeacques-Pierre Amette (Prix Goncourt) and others were published in main literary publications such as Le Point, Lire or Le Figaro (There are even others in El País, Le Monde, Die Welt or Die Zeit). I certainly hope that some of you can read Spanish, French or German in order to contrast Mr. Bissell’s opinions and get a better understanding to assess my book.

    I happened to meet Mr. Bissell last year at the Étonnantes Voyageurs Festival in Saint-Malo, France, where we both were invited to share a panel and present our latest books, both of which related to the former Soviet Union. American readers of his review deserve to know that Mr. Bissell’s novel “God lives in St Petersburg” was also published in France within four months as mine and for reasons unknown to me “Season of Ash” was largely praised in the main French literary press, whereas Mr. Bissell’s book, as far as I know, did not receive the same attention.

    Either way, his reply shows the worst a critic should do: absolutely despise the work of a colleague only because his idea of what a novel should be is different from his own. Mr. Bissell’s arrogance reaches unexpected levels when making succinct judgments without proving any of his affirmations. This is perhaps the disadvantage of having a novelist, and not a critic, to write reviews that could define the future of a book in such an influential newspaper as the NYT.

    As a writer, I have never aspired to receive only positive reviews, but I hope to receive reviews that at least show a minimum respect for our mutual profession. In my opinion, Mr. Bissell’s text represents precisely what a review should NOT be. One good review—positive or negative—must present a book in its context, lay bare its objectives, and of course point out its strengths and weaknesses. Instead, Mr. Bissell uses his wit, mocks the book and fills his review with easy and offensive jokes, makes clumsy statements (in Spanish we use as many quotation marks as in English) and irrelevant opinions (he affirms that there is no prose in the novel; I would say there is no criticism in his review). And taking advantage of his position of power, decides to shred a novel just because its reading has irritated him—or perhaps reminded him of his own flaws.
    Regrettably my opinions or those of a dozen of critics that in Spain, Latin America, France and Germany have enthusiastically or respectfully evaluated “Season of Ash” will never get to the literary supplement of the New York Times, where easy wit, mean jokes and arrogance of only one reader, Mr. Bissell, will prevail.


    Jorge Volpi

    From L’Express

    Le Carré a un fils et il est mexicain

    La récente affaire Alexandre Litvinenko, ancien membre du KGB empoisonné au polonium 210, nous rappelle que la guerre froide continue. Jorge Volpi y plonge en grand artiste.

    Jacques-Pierre Amette

    Un écrivain de 40 ans, né à Mexico, Jorge Volpi, juriste de formation, s’est épris de cette guerre froide dont John le Carré fut le chroniqueur.
    En 1999 paraît « A la recherche de Klingsor ». A 31 ans, Volpi réussit un roman qui raconte comment les services secrets américains ont traqué l’identité de l’homme qui dirigeait le programme nazi nucléaire, celui qui portait le nom de code « Klingsor ». Les portraits fouillés des physiciens de l’époque, Niels Bohr ou Erwin Schrödinger, mais aussi la qualité de la documentation scientifique, la construction du récit (composé comme une superbe partie d’échecs), le classicisme de l’écriture, tout cela avait contribué à placer Volpi très haut.
    Et voici « Le temps des cendres », roman encore plus ambitieux, qui prend pour cadre les relations Est-Ouest des années 50 aux années 90. L’URSS de Staline à Elstine… Manipulations politiques, course aux armements biologiques, programmes militaires confidentiels, propagandes, transformations économiques, mise au pas scientifique, enfermement des dissidents : l’auteur travaille en journaliste à spectre large. Explorant, côté Ouest, jusqu’au fonctionnement du FMI.
    C’est un malin, Volpi. Pour rendre bien concret cet affrontement, il invente trois héroïnes. Irina Granina, biologiste mariée à un dissident, une fonctionnaire du FMI, Jennifer Moore, Américaine qui aide la Russie à s’intégrer au libéralisme mondial, et Eva Halasz, Hongroise émigrée aux Etats-Unis.
    L’auteur a un goût pour la recherche scientifique. Il nous familiarise avec le travail de certains labos discrets. On découvre que les complexes militaro-industriels cassent beaucoup de matériel humain. Beau sujet que Volpi traite avec délicatesse. Mais le morceau de bravoure, c’est l’évocation de l’atmosphère d’une Union soviétique en éclatement. Là, Volpi évoque comment les hommes « s’hébètent » animalement dans un climat de suspicion. La perestroïka et la glasnost barbotent dans l’hivernage moral.
    La partie consacrée aux Etats-Unis est plus conventionnelle. L’auteur est davantage fasciné par Moscou : cité onirique, épaisse, morne, couvée, boueuse, comme si l’ombre diabolique de Staline restait maléfique sur les toits de la ville. Contrairement à John le Carré, Volpi n’essaie pas d’être linéaire. Il juxtapose célébrités et personnages anonymes, images pour la télévision et manoeuvres de coulisse.
    On comprend alors la manière dont les problèmes qui agitent une génération s’éteignent avec la suivante, non pas parce qu’ils ont été résolus mais parce que la béate ignorance de la nouvelle génération les contourne. Volpi fait tomber ses personnages dans une sorte d’absorption profonde dans le tragique. Du très grand art ! (A great work of art!)

    « Le temps des cendres », de Jorge Volpi, traduit de l’espagnol par Gabriel Iaculli (Seuil, 532 pages, 22,80 E).

    From Lire

    La chute de l’URSS
    Par Alexandre Fillon (Lire), publié le 01/02/2008

    L’auteur mexicain enchevêtre avec brio les situations et nous conte l’histoire de la Russie des vingt dernières années: de la chute du communisme jusqu’au triomphe du capitalisme.
    Le meilleur roman russe de récente mémoire est l’oeuvre d’un Mexicain! Avec l’extraordinaire Temps des cendres, plus de cinq cents pages qui ne se lâchent pas et vous embarquent jusqu’au bout de la nuit, Jorge Volpi raconte rien de moins que l’effondrement de l’empire soviétique, la fin du communisme et le triomphe du capitalisme.
    Le gandin n’est pas inconnu de nos services. Né à Mexico en 1968, Volpi, qui fit des études de littérature et de droit avant de devenir avocat puis écrivain, est l’auteur de six romans et d’un essai sur l’histoire intellectuelle de 1968. Cet ancien attaché culturel à l’ambassade du Mexique à Paris s’est fait connaître au moment de la parution d’A la recherche de Klingsor (Plon 2001, repris en Pocket), lauréat du prestigieux prix Biblioteca Breve en 1999, une récompense précédemment attribuée à des maîtres tels Mario Vargas Llosa ou Carlos Fuentes. Dense mais gouleyant, A la recherche de Klingsor mêlait habilement roman policier et récit philosophique en imaginant une intrigue à partir du procès de Nuremberg, ce qui valut à son jeune auteur d’être comparé à John le Carré et à Umberto Eco. Volpi maintint le cap avec Jours de colère (Mille et Une Nuits, 2001) et La fin de la folie (Plon 2003, repris en Pocket) où il s’attaquait à l’utopie socialiste et au structuralisme français à travers les mésaventures loufoques d’un psychanalyste.
    Fruit de trois ans de travail, Le temps des cendres a été entamé à Rome et terminé entre Puebla au Mexique et Saint-Sébastien en Espagne, après une escale à Ithaca dans l’Etat de New York par moins 30 degrés. De toute évidence, Jorge Volpi a encore progressé dans l’art d’entrecroiser les histoires et de faire évoluer des personnages crédibles. Surtout, que le lecteur ne se laisse pas rebuter par le nombre des participants, les allers et retours entre l’Est et l’Ouest, les multiples noeuds de l’intrigue! Les pièces du puzzle s’assembleront à mesure qu’il tournera frénétiquement les pages.
    Tchernobyl, les USA et quatre héroïnes
    Le rideau s’ouvre en 1986 à Tchernobyl, lorsque l’alarme se déclenche après que le réacteur numéro 4 de la centrale a commencé à donner de sérieux signes de faiblesse. Entrent aussitôt en scène les trois protagonistes du roman. La première, Irina Nikolaïevna Granina, est russe et biologiste. Après trente ans de vie commune, elle vient de quitter Arkadi Ivanovitch Granine, membre de l’Académie des sciences de Russie et candidat au prix Nobel de la paix. Jeune, Arkadi s’était fixé comme but d’être le meilleur en tout, «ou du moins en tout ce qui lui serait possible». Scientifique qui a mis son savoir au service du communisme en contribuant à la production d’armes bactériologiques, Arkadi fut accusé de trahison et envoyé en «exil intérieur» pendant cinq ans. Libéré, le dissident devint un célèbre défenseur des droits de l’homme avant de se rapprocher du pouvoir et d’y perdre son âme. La deuxième des héroïnes du Temps des cendres est américaine, blonde et nerveuse. Fille d’un sénateur, Jennifer Moore a choisi «de faire partie du club exclusif de ceux qui dirigent, commandent, de ceux qui savent». Cette reine des négociations du Fonds monétaire international a épousé l’infâme Jack Wells, carriériste arrogant et cynique doublé d’un businessman spécialisé dans les biotechnologies, qui n’a pas tardé à la tromper. Jennifer a une soeur, la rebelle et iconoclaste Alison. Toujours à la recherche d’un sens à donner à son existence, elle militera au sein de Greenpeace, avec des extrémistes écolos d’Earth First! – le mouvement inspiré par le radical Edward Abbey, l’auteur du Gang de la clef à molette -, ou s’en ira prêter main-forte dans un camp de réfugiés en Cisjordanie.
    La troisième de ces dames, Eva Halasz, est une Hongroise émigrée aux Etats-Unis. Sous-directrice d’un département de bio-informatique, spécialisée dans le génome humain, Eva entamera une liaison avec Jack Wells. Comme les trois mousquetaires, les femmes du Temps des cendres sont en réalité quatre. Presque aussi présente que ses aînées, Oksana est la fille d’Arkadi et d’Irina. Gamine meurtrie, terrible ange noir du roman, elle trouvera un piètre refuge dans la poésie et l’automutilation.
    Tout cela, nous le savons grâce à notre narrateur, «créature amère et cruelle». Né à Bakou, Iouri Mikhaëlovitch Tchernichevski a suivi des études d’ingénierie avant de faire son service actif en Afghanistan où il a été blessé à la jambe et à l’oeil gauche. Journaliste et romancier, il a publié A la recherche de Kaminski, thriller politique sur les nouveaux entrepreneurs russes. Un best-seller écoulé à des milliers d’exemplaires et traduit en vingt langues qui fit de lui le plus grand ennemi de la puissante nomenklatura de son pays…
    Avec un souffle peu commun et une manière d’assimiler sa documentation qui peut rappeler le Tom Wolfe de L’étoffe des héros ou du Bûcher des vanités, Jorge Volpi remonte implacablement le fil du temps, s’attaquant tour à tour à la chute du mur de Berlin, à la réunification de l’Allemagne, aux changements entrepris par Gorbatchev, «pasteur d’hommes» auquel succédera ce Boris Eltsine «aux bras forts», jusqu’au triomphe des oligarques et de la corruption.
    Comment bascule-t-on d’un monde à un autre
    Véritable chef d’orchestre qui dirige sa troupe d’une main très sûre, le Mexicain se glisse avec autant d’aisance dans chacun de ses héros. Le lecteur les voit, les entend. Il a la sensation de les connaître et de les comprendre. Brassant l’économie, la science et la politique, Le temps des cendres parvient également à montrer comment l’on peut rater sa vie en la délaissant au profit d’une cause, aussi louable soit-elle.
    «Mon point de départ a été l’exploration de la fin d’un monde», explique Jorge Volpi lorsqu’on l’interroge sur la genèse de son projet. «Pour moi, poursuit-il, et pour mon narrateur aussi, la chute du mur de Berlin et la disparition de l’Union soviétique peuvent être regardées comme la fin de Troie par les anciens Grecs (en ce cas, le cheval c’est le libre marché introduit par Gorbatchev). Je voulais comprendre comment le peuple russe a pu survivre à un changement tellement rapide, de l’autoritarisme communiste au capitalisme sauvage en moins de cinq ans. Le temps des cendres, c’est l’histoire du triomphe radical du capitalisme dans le monde, soit dans la conception de la vie politique et économique, soit dans les rapports personnels, soit dans le monde de la science.» Entre les mains de Volpi, les cendres se transforment en or. (Between Volpi’s hands, ashes turn into gold).

    From Le Figaro

    28/01/2008 | Mise à jour : 16:45 | Ajouter à ma sélection

    Dans son époustouflant roman « Le Temps des cendres », l’écrivain mexicain raconte la chute du communisme à travers le destin de femmes. Entretien.

    Bonne nouvelle pour les fans de Douglas Kennedy ou de Tom Wolfe. Ils n’auront pas à attendre le prochain livre de leur écrivain préféré pour étancher leur soif de romanesque. Jorge Volpi, un auteur mexicain né en 1968, publie en ce début d’année un roman dont l’habileté narrative et la richesse des personnages n’ont rien à envier à celle de ses illustres aînés. Le Temps des cendres est un « roman total », comme le qualifieraient les puristes. En cinq cents et quelques pages, l’auteur raconte les derniers jours du communisme, sa chute et ses répercussions, non seulement sur les êtres humains qui l’ont subi, mais aussi sur ceux du « monde libre ». De 1950 à nos jours, deux histoires se répondent dans cette saga construite par un virtuose de la mise en abyme : celle écrite par des figures connues (Staline, Beria, Khrouchtchev, Brejnev, Gorbatchev, Lissenko, Sakharov, Eltsine, Poutine) et celle mettant en scène des personnages créés de toutes pièces par le romancier. Parmi eux, beaucoup de femmes : côté Est, Eva Halasz, une Hongroise émigrée aux Etats-Unis, spécialiste de la bio-informatique ; Irina Nikolaïevna Granina, l’épouse d’un illustre scientifique russe travaillant à la production d’armes bactériologiques avant d’être déporté ; et leur fille Oksana, poétesse et chanteuse. Côté Ouest, les soeurs Moore, Jennifer, fonctionnaire au FMI chargée de convertir la Russie au capitalisme ; et sa cadette Alison, militante altermondialiste. Un homme fera le lien entre toutes ces héroïnes : Iouri Mikhaïlovitch Tchernickevski, ancien appelé en Afghanistan, journaliste et écrivain enquêtant sur les oligarques russes, qui n’est autre que le narrateur du Temps des cendres. Une chance pour le lecteur : ces personnages sont aux premières loges de l’Histoire. Ce qui permet à Jorge Volpi de s’immiscer dans les coulisses d’une multitude d’événements, de la mort de Staline à l’explosion de Tchernobyl, en passant par la chute du mur de Berlin, les découvertes sur le génome humain et même le sabotage du Rainbow Warrior. En même temps qu’il décrypte les bouleversements historiques, l’écrivain aborde des questions auxquelles chaque individu est confronté dans son existence : le poids de l’héritage, le désir d’enfant, la fidélité, la jalousie, la foi en quelque chose qui nous dépasse… Le Temps des cendres est si dense et si haletant qu’on ne s’arrête pas sur sa traduction parfois déconcertante et ses quelques tics d’écriture récurrents – les noms propres suivis d’une métaphore. Les pinailleurs diront que les héroïnes sont un peu stéréotypées. Question psychologie féminine, Volpi n’est pas (encore), il est vrai, aussi calé que Douglas Kennedy. Mais tout cela n’est que vétilles comparé à l’immense plaisir que l’on éprouve à la lecture de ce roman prodigieux.

    Jorge Volpi, Le Temps des cendres, Seuil, 533 p., 22,80 euros. Traduit de l’espagnol (Mexique) par Gabriel Iaculli.

    From NPR

    1. Wow. Thanks for weighing in so mightily, Jorge Volpi. As indicated in my comments above, I am in wholehearted agreement with your assessment of Tom Bissell’s review.

      I hope that the exchange continues here or in some other context.

  12. I too read the Bissell review, and wondered if he and I had read the same book. The Season of Ash strikes me as an interesting prism on the 20th century, using touchstones that may not be on the top ten list of events of the 20th century, but which are emblematic–you are convinced–of the era: Chernobyl, Bhopal, an African nation in economic freefall and so forth. All of this told through the eyes of interesting, engaging, characters/witnesses/participants. The novel is quirky yet taps into the mainstream realities we’ve lived through. I look forward to Volpi’s next books to appear in translation, fervently hope that the NYT review doesn’t stall any of those projects. Or maybe I’ll just have to keep plugging away at my Spanish so I can read Volpi in the original.

  13. Jesus, Shya, nice can of worms you’ve opened here. But an interesting one, nonetheless, for it touches on so much of what I see as wrong with the current landscape of literary criticism in America. That is: that there’s hardly any true “criticism” left out there. The other night some friends and I were talking about the death of traditional (periodical) book pages, and someone argued they’d been more than adequately replaced by blogs, and literary websites, and even the next generation of print. There’s truth to this, yes, but the mission of many of these newer review forums–places like The Rumpus (where I’m a contributor), The Believer, etc.–far from being an unbiased examination room, is, rather, to serve as a kind of literary hospice, where the diagnosis has already been delivered and all that’s left now is to soothe the suffering patient with pleasant sounds. In other words, they present themselves as advocates for the literature that’s left, and review-wise, this means that positivity necessarily carries the day.

    So what’s wrong with sites–or magazines–that print only good reviews? I’m not sure exactly. Certainly, I’ve been steered to wonderful books–many by small presses–from reviews I’ve read on The Rumpus, The Millions (which does pan books occasionally, if pleasantly–read Edan Lepucki’s almost kind takedown of Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs) and any number of other smart blogs and websites. Still, something about enterprise strikes me as…what…undemocratic? Is literature really in so much trouble that dissent, that true “criticism,” must be suppressed?

    Look no further than this back-and-forth right here. It’s pretty damn interesting, and it was necessarily spawned by a negative review. I side with Tom in this thing–I believe the review was harsh but fair, and his follow up comments have convinced me even more–but John certainly has some valid points. I think one of the problems here is that in this new critical climate we, as readers, are no longer used to tough reviews because there are so few of them (and there’ll be fewer still without Kirkus). That the Times–yes, in a limited capacity and for a general audience–still encourages reviewers to respond to a book solely on its merits allows me as a reader to approach both the laudatory and desultory in an unbiased fashion (taking into account the subjectivity of the entire enterprise, of course).

    In the end, a balanced critical playing field has got to be better for the writer, too. Because it makes the positive reviews that much sweeter, no? As for the negative ones, as Tom said, they go with the territory and sometimes we, as writers, have just got to suck them up. The worst thing a writer can do–it’s Rule #1 in all this–is RESPOND to the takedown. It didn’t work for Mailer, and it’s never worked for anyone else. Seriously, Jorge, what are you doing? Every one of these sad, defensive responses starts with “I will not try to defend my novel,” and ends with just that–and worse. And for God’s sake, don’t attach your positive reviews–in any language. Ugh. Like grade school, this business. Every book writer I know gets felled from their lofty–if impoverished–perch now and again. The reviews for my first book–it was a memoir, sorry–were going quite nicely until the Wall Street Journal published what I considered a titanically unfair hit-job by none other than Toby Young. He didn’t understand the book, he’d taken quotes out of context, he’d attacked me personally, blah, blah, blah. I wanted to punch that little bald jackass, and I still do, but I wasn’t about to write a Letter to the Editor about it. Or complain on someone’s blog (actually, wait, that’s exactly what I’m doing, but I’m trying to make a point). Now, a few years later, it’s the first review I show people, a kind of badge of honor.

    So suck it up, Jorge Volpi, there’ll be good ones down the road. And, hopefully, now and again, a bad one to keep us all honest.

    1. Thanks for adding your two cents David.

      Rather than reiterating what has already been said ad nauseam, let me reiterate what has already been said ad nauseam:

      I haven’t asked for reviews to be celebratory, what you are calling a “positive” review. Here’s what a positive review should look like:

      A positive review is not necessarily defined by its conclusions. A positive review can ultimately determine that a work is a failure. A positive review is one that responds to the text at hand on its own terms. In other words, a positive review is just a fair hearing. Ideally, the review is just as inventive as it is demonstrably critical. It would be great if the reviewer had some notion of the vast continuum of literary criticism.

      Noticeably absent from positive reviews are cheap shots, facile dismissals, and glibness. Ingratiation, fawning praise, and facile compliments are also missing from positive reviews.

      Bissell’s review is negative not because it determined that Volpi’s book was a failure. It is negative because it was poorly written, that is, it was glib, insulting, nasty, and did not persuasively demonstrate the faults of the book. It wasn’t even remotely funny, at least not to me. It was both a hack job and a hatchet job.

      When it comes to reviewing, we all need to take notes from Susan Sontag and William Gass. Their criticism is still worth reading, long after the books they looked at were published. That’s what writers need to reach for.

        1. Ha! Well, come Judgment Day after Sontag reminds him that the myths of heaven and hell are ways of “accommodating to and negating…the perennial human anxiety about death,” he’ll at least get a fair hearing, and his past actions have a good chance of not being misinterpreted.

      1. There’s as much room for a variety of tonality, humor, and depth in criticism as there is in literature itself.

        This comment is like saying all writers should reach for Dostoyevsky and Gaddis. Well, not all writers want to write like Dostoyevsky and Gaddis.

        Your attempt to reduce criticism to a finite set of “valid” features just ends up reducing criticism as such–this is to say nothing of the distinction between “reviews” and “criticism”, which is another argument in itself.

        People respond to things in the way they act in the first place, which is to say, with limitations, strengths, failings, and above all, distinct personality.

        If you don’t like a review, fine. But seriously, wishing that all writers would adopt your subjective definition of “good” criticism is misguided.

        1. Re: “There’s as much room for a variety of tonality, humor, and depth in criticism as there is in literature itself.”

          My thoughts exactly, which is why I chose Sontag and Gass, both of whom have (or did in the former case) precisely that kind of depth and range. I agree that there is room for humor and disparate tones. When did I suggest otherwise?

          I never said that anyone should write like Sontag and Gass, just that most reviewers, if not most writers, might consider taking notes from them. Bringing up Dostoyevsky and Gaddis, in this context, doesn’t fit at all here as neither of them have the kind of explorative range, the versatility of Sontag and Gass. This is not to say these are weaknesses, by any stretch. Their respective projects were different. I would also say that most writers would probably benefit from taking notes from those two writers (Dostoyevsky and Gaddis) as well.

          Any evaluation necessitates some kind of reduction.

          Distinctions must certainly be made between reviews and criticism. A review obviously falls under the umbrella of criticism.

          Re: “People respond to things in the way they act in the first place, which is to say, with limitations, strengths, failings, and above all, distinct personality.”

          Fine. Who would ever disagree with this?

          Having limitations, strengths, and failings is part of the definition of being human. Every writer has to negotiate them just like anyone else. Bissell, in his review, managed to display his “limitations, strengths, failings,” and what you, perhaps, would call a “distinct personality” more than his strengths, which I would be happy to know about. I’d rather not have to parse my way through a reviewer’s multiple failings in a review.

          What you’re not addressing here is what I’ve said the review’s failures, failures that I’ve directly indicated a few times.

          Even taken on its own terms (a superficial gloss of a serious book, complete with glib asides, base humor, and insults, meant to get laughs), Bissell fails. If it was meant to be funny, I didn’t laugh. I didn’t find it to be clever either (I’m repeating myself).

          Re: “If you don’t like a review, fine. But seriously, wishing that all writers would adopt your subjective definition of “good” criticism is misguided.”

          First of all, I’ve never said I wished that all writers would adopt my “definition of ‘good’ criticism”.

          This is what I said:
          “When it comes to reviewing, we all need to take notes from Susan Sontag and William Gass. Their criticism is still worth reading, long after the books they looked at were published. That’s what writers need to reach for.”

          Not all writers write reviews. I was speaking of reviewers. And while that last sentence should still be taken in the context of remarking about reviewers, I still stand by the idea that writers need to reach for the same quality. I mean, that is, unless you want to be a hack writer.

          1. I want to be a hack writer! I think of it as a genre.

            I also think you should gather your thoughts about this and write a follow-up post about your approach to reviews, what you look for when reading them, what you take into consideration when writing them, etc. I know you’ve said as much throughout this thread, but I think it would make an interesting post in itself. Obviously, I’ve been playing a bit of the gadfly here, but I think you’ve got some points that deserve their own platform, rather than being buried in the comments section of a week-old post.

            1. Ha! Ever the provocateur. I suspected as much, especially after reading your recent posts that seemingly seesaw between distinct ways of approaching the writing of fiction.

              And yes, a post about reviewing in general would be fun to write.

              1. Usually I’m annoyed by self-avowed provocateurs, contrarians and “devil’s advocates” because I dislike when people don’t own their own position in a conversation, but Shya for some reason doesn’t bother me at all… so far, I really appreciated him. He never comes across as douchey.

                1. I’m glad to hear I’m not pissing you off, I guess. Perhaps that’s in part because I’m honestly working these things out. I’m not sure how certain John is of his position (he seems pretty certain), but I can’t say I have a fixed point of view. So I’d call my position, here as elsewhere (though not everywhere), playful, rather than provocative. If I take an argument too far in one direction, it’s because I’m feeling out my own limits, my comfort level. Which fluctuates.

      2. John,

        I very much agree with all that (though I’d use different terminology: you won’t find too many writers that would call a pan a “positive review”). I guess, given the reviewing constraints of the TBR, I just felt that Tom’s review, while certainly harsh, and perhaps a bit over the top, was fair. And well written. Which, oddly enough, was Shya’s take way back in the beginning of all this (but it’s been fun, no?).

        Also, I didn’t mean to insinuate that Big Other was one of the websites that tends toward the positive (or whatever we’re calling it) in their reviews. I’m not that familiar with the site. And I don’t know what your editorial outlook is. That said, seems your doing a pretty good job of engagement. You’ve found at least one reader here.

  14. David: what level of discourse do you suggest is appropriate for reviews and conversation about such matters? “Suck it up Volpi” doesn’t rise to what I’d hope to see. To weigh in on matters such as you have I’d think that you’d actually read the book. What is missing from this discussion, starting w/Bissell, is opinion grounded in examples. Otherwise it’s just snark.

    1. Oh, man. Obviously, Grant, I’m not weighing in on the book and it’s literary merit or lack thereof. I haven’t read it. Maybe it’s great, maybe not (though clearly you have a horse in this game). What I have read is Tom Bissell’s REVIEW of the book, and John Medera’s reaction to that review. That is what this string of comments is about. I found it to be an interesting–and lively–debate and I tried to put it in something of a larger context. I apologize for using the word “suck.” Twice.

      1. If you conclude that the review was “harsh but fair,” how do you decide if you haven’t read the book?

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