Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Review: Tell Borges If You See Him.

Tales of Contemporary Somnambulism. Athens, U of GA press 2007. By Peter LaSalle.
ISBN 0820329983

Michael Sedano

Peter LaSalle’s chosen a provocative subtitle for his volume of eleven very modern short fiction. Is there a traditional somnambulism? Idle speculation it turns out, for the “contemporary” refers to the writing itself, and “somnambulism” for the nightmarish reality LaSalle’s narrators treat so matter-of-factly.

It’s a pretty joyless reality for these characters. LaSalle’s male narrators form an unprepossessing lump, not a winner in the lot. Women characters come in for short shrift as frail, hapless victim or self-destructive loser.

The most interesting story is the title piece, fifth in the middle of the book. It’s written mostly as one long sentence that LaSalle breaks up by inserting ellipses here and there to incomplete a thought and move along its 25 page length. The broke, down-on-his-luck Vietnam vet has been lured into laundering Argentine cash for a taste of the action. The scheme blows up and the narrator escapes back to the States, leaving behind an Australian fitness instructor whose jealous stalker turned in the plot.

The opening story, “Where We Last Saw Time”, sets the tone for the book as it jumps around from time to time. The middle-aged narrator was a Harvard student with a term paper due in the morning and date with his girlfried. The first person narrator talks about wandering the streets avoiding the meeting as if that would prevent what eventually befalls the dreamy coed, death from amoebic infection in Cameroon.

LaSalle pulls the wool over his reader’s eyes in The Actor’s Face. The writer makes the petty narrator just mild enough that we’re pulling for him to get the girl despite the obvious bias in the narrator’s description of his rival’s faded presence. When the girl gushes that she’s just read the review of a fabulous novel, and the rival just happens to be the author of that novel, the narrator doesn’t realize she’s just exposed the depths of his own pettiness.

The one sore spot I had in going through the stories is the Mexico set “The Christmas Bus.” I hope the broad portrayals are meant as counter-stereotypy that didn’t work—the piece reeks of ethnic stereotypes such as the bus driver who daydreams of the teenaged prostitutes waiting for him at the turn-around, or the bicultural chicano who loves the colorful antics of his Mexican gente.

In “French Sleeping Pills” the self-destructive waif is a Seven Sisters student on the Paris semester abroad. She’s abandoned her classes, her boyfriend, her contact with reality. Her film professor asks if he can take advantage of her and she meekly says “OK”. When things turn kinky she says meekly, “OK”. The medicine starts to wear off and she panics.

“The Spaces Inside Sleep” reads like a conventional moment of truth story. A failing bookseller has a chance to make a windfall but won’t sell to a drug dealer. Later, he has a chance to help a decent but eccentric friend take advantage of a woman, but doesn’t. The somnambulism for this tale is its Austin setting, an imputed surreal political landscape controlled by a corrupt dictator, and routine armed attacks by Barnes & Noble destroying high profile Borders stores.

Some stories finish themselves, even if LaSalle doesn’t finish the stories. Instead he suggests alternatives and leaves it to someone else to work things out. The sleeping pill story, for example, when the woman realizes the depravity she’s about to wallow in, she knows it’s too late to get dressed and just leave this man’s bedroom, go find some more pills. She instead imagines she’s just stepping onto campus that morning, she takes a different turn, life is different…

I found Peter LaSalle interesting yet so taxing I renewed the volume twice and have it now overdue from the Pasadena Public Library. I’ll return it, pay my fines, and hope the new titles shelf has something.

That’s the Tuesday word at La Bloga! The last Tuesday of January 2008. Interestingly, it’s the first Tuesday of my retirement. Monday marked the beginning of Friday every day for me. All those projects I’ve been touting now have no impediments.

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