Prizewinning Polish novelist/journalist/playwright Masłowska returns with a grotesque phantasmagoria of consumer excess set in a nightmarish American city.
First published in 2012 and now translated into English by Paloff, this novel is less concerned with plot than with the construction of its relentlessly miserable surreality, a near-future America courtesy of Hieronymus Bosch. But to the extent there is a plot, it is the dissolution of a friendship between two young woman, Farah and Joanne, who had “hit it off fatally right from the get-go.” But then Jo falls in love with a “pathetic—yes, pathetic, in Fah’s opinion—salesman at a kitchen and bath store, allegedly with a degree in Hungarian studies,” ditching Fah for her new coupled life of extreme public displays of affection. This repulses Fah for several reasons—it is not only that, in this new world order, Fah barely exists, but also that Jo has what Fah does not, which is cosmically unfair given that Jo isn’t even attractive. And so Fah is left to traverse the vapid maw of a city mostly alone but having “resolved unequivocally to open herself to the richness of existence” thanks to a book—“A Life Filled With Miracles: Learn to See the Magic of Existence in Just 14 Days, by Manfred Peterson, Ph.D.,” which she’d found, by chance, in her building’s laundry room. Masłowska’s (Snow White and Russian Red, 2005) critique of manic hypercapitalism has the subtlety of a battering ram: The young people who hang out on “Bohemian Street,” for example are viciously wealthy; poverty is now a high-fashion aesthetic. There are ads promising “Free brain reduction with every enlargement (penis or both breasts)” and headlines offering tips for sexier abortions. Mostly, this breezy cynicism is exhausting without feeling especially fresh, but Masłowska does occasionally reach darkly delightful new heights: A description of a trendy cafe offering “little tables where dogs can sit down with their MacBooks” is so absurdly extended—and so deranged in its detail—that it’s genuinely funny. Likewise, her analysis of human behavior is, every so often, shocking in its precision. If only it happened more frequently.
An often obvious, generally unpleasant novel studded with glimmers of brilliance.