A Croatian novelist and essayist (Have a Nice Day: From the Balkan War to the American Dream, 1995) now living in voluntary exile o’erglances the current literary landscape and does not care for the view.
In these 31 essays (completed between 1996 and 2000), Ugresic looses a variety of arrows from her rhetorical quiver, among them a sharp sense of irony, a keen sense of humor, and an edged contempt for the banality (and pervasiveness) of contemporary American culture. Some of the pieces are crisp and concise (especially early in the volume); others proceed at a more leisurely pace. And she has a number of points she makes repeatedly. Examples: There is no longer a distinction between “high” and “low” literature (only between literature that sells and literature that doesn’t). Writers are no longer a distinct species, not when celebrities (Joan Collins, Monica Lewinsky) and criminals and crackpots can write their ways to the top of the bestseller list. (Ugresic alludes three times to Collins’s oeuvre.) Writing today has become ever more outrageous, violent, sexually explicit (she notes that the Marquis de Sade now seems, by contrast, a writer for children). The earlier pieces provide some nasty fun (Ugresic compares Ivana Trump’s Jolie-esque lips to “fresh hot dogs”), and she imagines how today’s less-than-literate editors might reject book proposals for classic titles—e.g., Madame Bovary (“And forget the suicide at the end! No one would believe that”). Near the close, the essays acquire more gravity. She reminds us more than once how the Serbs destroyed the National Library in Sarajevo and how despots use books both to preach their gospel and crush their opponents. There is a powerful piece about exile and its many meanings (and consequences), and Ugresic concludes with the best essay of all about a carpenter named Roy who helped remodel her Amsterdam apartment and who had also begun writing a novel called The Seventh Screw.
Sometimes bitter, sometimes sweet, always intelligent and graceful.