Friday, May 16, 2008

"They had met only a few hours before."

I came to New York on Tuesday with five books, which was too many.

I'm leaving with ten.

The silliest part is that four of them were bought when I was in full command of myself, during visits to St. Mark's, Book Culture (the former Labyrinth), and McNally Robinson, at times when, despite knowing that I had a book (or several) in my bag to read, I found things on the shelf I'd been thinking about . . . and now my luggage is that much heavier.

But perhaps at least tonight's book can be excused? I'll set the scene: I spent much of this rainy, rainy evening at the extremely welcoming cocktail bar Death & Co., having three drinks (two of which were not martinis, which should give anyone who knows me a sense of how convincing the bartender's skills were), with only my marathon-honed willpower steeling me against the desire for a fourth. As I drank, I read Oblomov, which led the aforementioned bartender to recommend Maxim Gorky, whom I've not read. So on my wander back to the subway I stopped in St. Mark's. They didn't have Gorky, but in the place where Gorky might otherwise have been was a very slim volume in Northwestern University Press's Writings from an Unbound Europe series, And Other Stories (2007) by Georgi Gospodinov. As someone who will remain forever grateful to that series for introducing me to Mesa Selimovic, I'm perhaps extra-susceptible to its charms . . . so I walked out with the book.

I work in publishing, so I know the considerations that go into the pricing of a book. The cost of production comes into play, but the overriding consideration is what the market will bear: how are other books of this ilk, aimed at this audience, priced? Can we get a price near that and still make money? But as a reader, there are times when the price I pay seems to bear absolutely no relationship to what I get from a book--what price Anna Karenina, after all? Or Labyrinths? In Search of Lost Time?

I of course wouldn't claim, on the basis of the one story from And Other Stories that I read twice in succession on the subway tonight, that this volume is on a level with those works. But there's no question that that lone story, "Peonies and Forget-Me-Nots," was all by itself more than worth the $14.95 I spent. Extremely brief--less than 1,500 words--it relates an airport encounter in Bulgaria between strangers: a man, who has a package, perhaps illicit, that is to be delivered to America, and the woman who is to carry it for him. As Gospodinov explains, "It was a five-minute job," but the two hit it off, and they talk and talk as the time until her flight leaves winds down:
And the silence was becoming unseemly. The small table in front of them was piled with empty plastic cups that had acquired most unexpected shapes after being fumbled at for hours. The coffee stirrers had long been broken into the smallest possible pieces, the empty sugar bags turned into tiny cornets and little boats.

It occurred to him that he could turn this table into a ready-made object, an installation, so to speak, that he could title An Apologia for Embarrassment (plastic coffee cups, stirrers, empty sugar bags, a white table.)
Inexplicably--and certainly unexpectedly--they've found something, someone.
"Let's talk," she said, as if they hadn't been talking nonstop for two hours.

The remaining hour was too little time to be wasted in beating around the bush and making boats. But since he wouldn't start talking, she said simply, "We have to accept it that sometimes people just miss each other."

"The whole irony of it is that they realize it the moment they meet," he said.

"Maybe we've met before. We've lived in the same city for so long. It's not possible that we haven't passed each other at some traffic light or other."

"I'd have noticed you," he said.

"Do you love her?" she asked.

"Do you love him?" he asked.
It's a formulaic conceit, unequestionably, and that, along with the sheer unlikeliness--these things don't, after all, happen, right?--should sink the story. But Gospodinov's spare language and emotional restraint affords the scene a melancholy, almost chilling power. The crux of the story comes just after the midpoint--after the pair have acknowledged their mutual attraction--when Gospodinov unexpectedly propels us into an already dimmed future:
Later he couldn't even remember who was the one who had come up with the life-saving (or so he thought then) idea of inventing shared memories, to make up a whole life together before and after their meeting.
That very concept ought to be laughably cliched, reeking of low-level fiction-writing classes--but the blunt parenthetical, "(or so he thought then)," throws the whole story into heartbreaking relief, making us believe--and care about--the pair's futile efforts to pretend their lives have been different. The rest of the story serves as a coda to that moment, agonizingly recounting their sincere, doomed efforts to cement their unexpected connection.

It's a hell of a story, and a good way to end a week in a city I've come to love but don't live in. See you next time, NYC.


  1. Easier to love NYC when you don't live here, I think, when it's an airport encounter full of longing and not a once-passionate marriage where you're just staying together for the kids and the house. Then again, there's something to be said for that too, I guess. How bad is the name "Book Culture," though? I miss Labyrinth and its logo and walking by its pretty banner on the corner of 112th & Broadway every day.

  2. "...doomed efforts," this lill' vid points to the fact (Perhaps - theory - both are doomed) that that is all of us