Dreams, like suicide notes, are hard to write. Or rather, they are hard to write well. Too many characters in fiction wake up sweating, too many exit poetically, too many bump into Jung, too many bleed bravely, too many encounter their pasts, and too many croak with too many words. I speak, of course, with the austere authority of the sinner. Most writers learn to use these devices sparingly. If a character croaks in a modern novel, it's usually a visual, camera-friendly event rather than a wordy, thought-heavy one. If a character dreams in a modern novel, it's either in discreet past-tense summaries or as central to the story as nuts on a squirrel. Anything else or anything less tests the modern reader's good humor.
It takes a writer with considerable chutzpah, therefore, to offer us a collection of dreams that are also suicide notes. It takes a writer who would climb Everest not because it is there but because it is not. Zoran Živkovi? is such a writer, and his Impossible Stories II is an elegant, perhaps even joyful, meditation on the existentialist's main concern: if darkness shrouds the past, and darkness lies ahead, then what is the best response to this brief interval of light? Živkovi?'s characters—all of whom with one exception have chosen, as the poet George Oppen wrote, "the meaning of being singular"—face their exits with curiosity and courtesy, with decency and clean clothes, with patience, and food morsels on forks raised to their living, breathing mouths.
The collection has the bauplan of a tri-partite insect, perhaps that of a scarab, with the soft flesh of fourteen short stories interspersed between three novellas. This arrangement is not accidental; as is to be expected, very little appears to be accidental in this work. Živkovi?'s characters are as spare as Giacometti figurines, their interactions as orderly as Feynman diagrams, and his plots move from mystery through the commonplace of the fantastic back to mystery again.
The first novella "Compartments" (2004) and the last one "First Photograph" (new here) both deal with one-way journeys, endings and beginnings. The middle novella, "The Square" (also new here), has four intersecting story-lines that expand in scope, ever wider, till parallax places them along a common horizon. The shorter stories, the soft easy-to-digest flesh of the book, are all white-room tales. In the first set, "Four Stories Till The End," people without memories are offered various experiences; in the second set, "Amarcord" (Wikipedia claims it means "I remember" in Romagnolo), people without experiences are offered various kinds of memories. As one character finds out: "Did you find someone from my past?" "No. But we found your past."
Actually, Živkovi? does not speak of dreams. Or of suicide notes. His characters have a tendency to simply vanish; they step onto darkened platforms, step through light-filled doorways, dissolve into ecstasy, lose their memories, disappear into white space. If I call their exits suicides, it's a matter of convenience, not accuracy. With some books, the characters persist well past the last page. That is not the case here. Živkovi?'s characters persist up to the last drop of ink and no more. Suicides and dreams require people, personalities, personal histories and things to lose. In these stories, the characters are, but there is no personhood. They act, but there is no behavior. They speak of memory, but memory in this book is of the most impersonal kind. A text on particle physics would probably have more rounded characters.
Almost fifty years ago, Robbe-Grillet set the tone for a certain kind of literature with his remark in In The Labyrinth that "The impulse has lost its intent and meaning. There no longer remains . . . anything except excess, strangeness and death." Superficially, it would seem this collection belongs to that optimistic French family. And yet, as I read and re-read the stories, I found myself intrigued, moved, exhausted, and occasionally, exhilarated. A Wassily chair had somehow turned into a Barcalounger.
The key to Živkovi?'s aesthetic, I think, may have more to do with Noh drama and its muse Zeami Motokiyo (1363-1443) than the modern Western anti-novel. As Peter Lamarque explained, "Characterization in Noh, as demonstrated in performance, exemplifies individuals without personality." This does not, or rather, need not, result in stereotypical or flat characters. In Zeami's conception, an old man is a "Relaxed Heart Looking Afar," a warrior becomes "Physical Strength, Splintered Heart," and so on. Similarly, rather than assembling characters out of specific attributes, characters in Živkovi?'s collection are carved out from universals: the memory of a woman reading a book, the act of waiting in a hospital, the possibility of death as freedom, and so on. True, these "universals" are only my take on the matter, but then again, it's my ass in that Wassily chair. Using only the barest of emotion-arousing situations, Živkovi? enable us to be free—to be responsible—for everything else. It's a business strategy that worked for Cosmo Kramer's pizza parlor, and I think it works here too.
Some of Živkovi?'s stories have symbolic appurtenances—wooden dummies with pierced heads oozing liquid fire, checkroom attendants with three-fingered hands, piano playing that evokes the color of lemons—that urge, begs, the reader to undertake Easter egg hunts. It is an urge to be resisted, I think. The sort of Davenportian reading, in which retrieving nuggets like the fact that the Latinate "Gracchus," meaning grackle or blackbird, yields "kavka" in Czech, and that Hermann Kafka's business logo was a blackbird, and that the large tasseled Victorian silk shawl used to cover the Hunter Gracchus may have been imaged on Wilkie Collins' carpet in Armadale with its "flowers in all colors of the rainbow" et cetera, is now best left to search algorithms. In fact, Živkovi?'s surrealist streak, timid and Egyptian, can be a distraction; at a climactic point in the first story, "Compartments," passengers are turned into a wax button, a wooden dummy, a horned egg, a chocolate basin and a glass corkscrew. Indeed.
My imagination ran into other difficulties. No amount of responsible striving could save several of the memory-themed stories in the Amarcord set from banality. In "Vanity Fair," the author has a character, a minor artist, steal "the secret of inspiration" from a great one. In "Great Expectation" the author opines—no other word will do—that "Life does indeed become more cheerful when a man has some expectations." In "Dead Souls," Živkovi? noisily hints that being alive is a career liability for great artists. The ending in "Lost Illusions" is as implausible as that in any Bollywood movie, a credit to be sure, but Balzac's portly ghost had jittered me into the wrong state of mind.
Such missteps aside, Živkovi?'s stories can be read as a refutation of Robbe-Grillet thesis. His characters are sociable creatures, given to conversations, seeking company, and displaying nothing of the "fantasy autism," as Lance Olsen put it, so evident in the characters of Borges, Kafka and Robbe-Grillet. He also does not, unlike so many fabulists, transmute the fantastic to the commonplace. To do so only strips the world of wonder. As David Mitchell remarked in a talk on the use of dreams, " . . . Surrealism may make a strong first impression . . . but by the fourth or fifth Magritte or Dalí in the museum, I'm afraid my twenty-first century eyes glaze over." Zoran Živkovi? does something different. He transmutes the meaningless to the commonplace and in doing so makes the world more meaningful. It is a humble semantic shift, perhaps the kind of cognitive act most of us do so ceaselessly and so efficiently, that like seeing or imagining, we're scarcely aware we're doing anything at all. We stub our toes exiting the subways and we swear; a Tiresias hands us an apocalyptic pamphlet and we head towards the twin towers; we lie in hospitals waiting and joke about Stephen King movies; we step off platforms and simply disappear, turn into mud, food, theorems, butterflies. There is so much meaning in Živkovi?'s worlds that characters who come face to face with that truth, as they do in "The Square," run the risk of dissolving into pure experience. The existential puzzle is not that the impossible cannot happen or that there are impossible things but that things are possible at all. Consider, as Živkovi? does, the ladybug on a yellow flower, the tracing of a memory to the womb, or our ability to find pleasure in chanting: "Infantry cheese in gunpowder eucalyptus sauce, three bayonets olives filled with almond shot, rocket liver commando style." We could go out into the night, gaze at the coruscant stars, and wonder that it is all just so. Or we could read Zoran Živkovi?.
Anil Menon worked for about nine years in software R&D worrying about things like secure distributed databases and evolutionary computation. Then he shifted to a different kind of fiction. His stories can be found in magazines such as Albedo One, Chiaroscuro, Interzone, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, New Genre, Strange Horizons, and anthologies such as TEL: Stories, Shockwave, and From The Trenches. He was nominated for the 2006 Carl Brandon Society's Parallax Prize and the 2007 Million Writers Award. His YA novel The Beast With Nine Billion Feet (Zubaan) is scheduled to appear in Fall 2009.