Sunday, February 19, 2012

Shulpyakov’s Fez: It’s in the Head, Not on the Head

Fez isn't about a hat.

First, a bit on expectations: Gleb Shulpyakov’s Фес (Fez) isn’t about cylindrical red hats with tassels, though Fez’s part-time narrator does cover his head with a fez at one point in the book. And Fez doesn’t seem to take place in Fez, Morocco. But who knows? The most important exotica here—despite mentions of specific places like Moscow and Vienna—is abstract and spiritual, a place in the consciousness.

A summary of this short, novelesque work with a broken narrative might start with something like this: An unnamed Moscow publisher with business troubles takes his wife to the birth house, goes home, and somehow ends up a prisoner in a basement in an unidentified place. A place one might think is Fez.

Those of you who watch my “Up Next” notes may have observed that my own journey with Fez zigged and zagged: I first found the book oddly beguiling (or beguilingly odd) then hit a slow patch then thought Fez was shaping up then concluded by considering it a “a somewhat disappointing up-and-down experience.” Looking back today, I’d edit out the “somewhat.”

Fez’s allegory of unnamed man’s journey to rebirth, which occurs roughly simultaneously with the birth of his child, had lots of potential—he’s a prisoner, he escapes, he seems to be in a boat with a Charon-like guy, he reflects on his life, he meets a woman and they talk about freedom, and he comes to terms with what’s happening—but I thought the book’s end message felt too usual, too expected, too close to hokey, particularly because most of Fez seemed intentionally cryptic. And Shulpyakov didn’t win many points from me for his inclusions of dreamy states, doors leading to new lives that avoid former emptiness and constraints, and eastern themes. These are elements I’ve seen a lot, elements that are only interesting if a writer gives them unexpected angles.

Shulpyakov sometimes manages to do that: he’s also a poet, and his uses of language and imagery were the biggest positives in Fez. Small highlights included a memory of a Soviet-era building in Minsk, self-deprecating humor, and a lovely vision of morning lights. But there weren’t nearly enough of those moments to perk up all the familiar material, especially since the literary devices in Fez—which contains sections with first-person and third-person narrative, chronicle-like passages, a few pages in what appears to be Arabic (I have no idea if it’s a logical text), and a page with only lines of dots/periods (an excerpt: “………………………….”)—struck me as self-conscious attempts at creating something postmodern rather than ways to add true depth, wisdom, or intellectual excitement to the book.

My primary impression of Fez is that I went into the book thinking it sounded like yet another parallel reality novel, which it is on a certain level, and came out of Fez reminded of commenter Alex’s mention of “stories about careworn middle-aged Russian men finding satori” in the comments about my post on Oleg Zaionchkovskii’s Happiness Is Possible. I think I’d recommend Fez most to readers who have much more patience than I with the combination of spiritual material and literary devices that Shulpyakov employs. Fez just isn’t my kind of book but, to be fair, Shulpyakov’s Web site displays positive critical reviews, some of which contain gargantuan spoilers.

Up Next: Alisa Ganieva’s energetic, colorful long story Салам тебе, Далгат! (Salam Dalgat!), a nice antidote to Fez: the story presents a down-to-earth portrait of a young man’s day in Dagestan. I’ll combine Dalgat with a brief trip report since Ganieva is in the Debut Prize group I’ll hear speak in Cambridge, MA, on February 22. Then a translation roundup and Roman Senchin’s Информация (The Information).

Image credit: topfer, via stock.xchng


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