Masquerading as a novel, this latest from Polish experimentalist Tulli (Dreams and Stones, 2004, etc.) is actually a brain-teasing meditation on the conventions of fiction and the strategies of grammar.
In an unspecified, presumably Eastern European city, in an unspecified contemporaneous time, a handful of vaguely menacing, deliberately generic characters—a businessman, a red-haired woman, a “grinning hipster in a studded leather jacket”—behave like gnomic ciphers. Spinning the tale, such as it is, is a completely baffled narrator, straight out of a kind of Kafka-meets-Beckett spoof. A nose gets punched, a love affair probably occurs, cabs depart—as will any reader hoping for any kind of conventional story. Here, plot, character development, emotional catharsis and dialogue are sacrificed to Tulli’s arcane musings about how her narrator can’t rein in the words that threaten to erupt and seize control of the narrative: “All he can do, and that only to a certain degree, is to govern grammatical forms, especially as concerns the verbs, which are constantly striving to escape into open space.” In the 1980s, when poststructuralism was the rage, this sort of metafiction at least was startling. Now, it’s merely perplexing. After a while, however, once the thorny commentary about subordinate clauses is hurdled, Tulli’s snapshot vignettes—of trains covered with “bright zigzags of graffiti,” of “a fur that gives off the oppressive smell of mothballs,” of a hobo who “rakes cigarettes out of his hair”—can be read as lapidary, Cubist poetry or a word collage that’s amorphously if resonantly evocative. Evocative of exactly what, however, is the question.
Erudite fans of postmodernist language games may find this thrilling, but it’s a decidedly acquired taste.