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Ceridwen

Ceridwen

You kids get off my lawn. 

A Perfect Vacuum - Stanisław Lem, Michael Kandel I can have a socially unfortunate sense of humor sometimes, and have gotten myself into trouble on a number of occasions with inappropriate laughing. Never was this more pronounced that when I was pregnant with my first kid and stewing in the hormones and nervousness of impending parenthood. My husband and I took one of those birth-and-parenting classes together, and it was a nightmare of people who were totally not my speed, anxious to-be-mothers and tortuous folding chairs. (Oh, my back!) On at least two occasions, I had to go out into the hall and belly-laugh into calmness: once, when the instructor was describing the effects of various narcotics, and I flashed on the “worst toilet in Scotland” scene in Trainspotting, and another time when all the other mothers burst into tears about the recent death of Mr. Rogers. I swear, Mr Rogers dying is not funny, but six weeping pregnant ladies is. I nearly alienated friends at a birthday party when the funniness of the word “puma” robbed me of breath and sent tears down my cheeks.

This book has been bringing out my inappropriate laughter response. My husband read the first chapter before I did and then quit the book. After I started in, he asked me about it: wasn't I irritated that it was a review of the preface, and didn't actually give the text of the introduction? He wanted to read the actual introduction, dammit, not this critical examination. Bah! At this point I start giggling like an idiot and explaining incoherently. But it's a book filled with book reviews of books that were never written! Of course the preface would be a review of a non-existent preface! Giggle giggle. His response: you're not making fun of me in a GoodReads review. Don't even think about it.

Whoops. Although this is the thing: I'm not making fun of him. I can see why this wouldn't be someone's bag. I mean, come on, GoodReaders, aren't you troubled by the sense that we're second-order beings, not quite parasitic, but lamprey-ish in our digestion of greater beasts? We're moons of larger bodies, tracing paths around works of heavier gravities? I'm not making fun of us either. (Giggle giggle.) But, just to drive this metaphor into the edges of credulity: aren't astronomers enumerating the pantheon of strange, alien planets using the gravitational wobble of planet and sun, locked in their elliptical relationships? Billions and billions of stars, and a corresponding number of variable bodies circling them in packs, planets made from the stardust of stellar fusion, bouncing light off the albedo of our surfaces.

(More giggling.)

This is totally overblown, I know, and mired in silly profundity. Just review the book, dammit, and quit telling anecdotes and laughing! Okay, I'll get to it. The book is really a collection of short stories, written in that strange critical detachment of the reviewer. The books it reviews don't exist, and in several cases, couldn't. This is maybe one of the failures of the books, but it's structural, not existential. The critical stance tends to aspire to a lack of emotion – at least it certainly did in the early 70s when this was written – so the prose is somewhat airless and detached. It's pleasures derive from the jarring sensation of the reality of the review with the non-existence of its subject. (More giggling.) But your brain fills in the gaps, because narrative is something we're all wired to do, and you end up lighting the fusion of those incorporeal suns from the aridity of the comments and the lightning in your own brain, like a forest fire. (Metaphor officially out of control. Must read most recent copy of Scientific American to troll for celestial metaphors.)

Lem has a pretty firm hand over his reviews, unlike certain reviewers – ahem – I can think of. The voice of his narrator/reviewer is very credulous, which lends a weird slyness to the proceedings. One of my favorite reviews was of a sort of uber-Finnigan's Wake, Gigamesh. Unlike Joyce, the fictional author Mr. Hannahan, “provided his book with a commentary, which is twice the size of the novel itself (to be exact, Gigamesh runs 395 pages, the commentary 847).” The reviewer struggles with this throughout the review: is this the height of literary wankerism or really really funny? Is the fictional Mr. Hannagan making fun of us, or is he making fun of himself? When it turns out the the arrangement of the commas in Gigamesh can be used to lay the blueprints of a cathedral, that's when you know that Lem is giggling inscrutably through his hand.

That's the thing though, about this book. I don't think Lem is making fun of us any more than he's making fun of himself, which is most obvious in his review of his own preface. His imaginary critic reviews the words he imagines himself to write:

“Contrary to what the Introduction says, the critic does not have to be chained to the book 'as the convict is...to his wheelbarrow': the critic's freedom does not lie in raising up or tearing down the book, but lies in this, that through the book, as through, he may observe the author; and in that case A Perfect Vacuum turns out to be a tale of what it desired but is not to be had.”

If this sets you to giggling, then this is the book for you. But much as I enjoyed it, a couple complaints: Books of short stories, in general, have better and worse selections. This one is no different, and the review of the philosophy book especially left me cold. Due to the critical detachment of our narrator, there's not a lot of heart or emotional connection to be found, if you're into that sort of thing. The exception, for me, was the chapter on Gruppenfuhrer Louis XVI, a glowing account of a tale about Nazis fleeing to the Argentine rain forests after the war, and setting up a Sun King-like estate. They don't really know history all that well, so it's mostly cobbled together from pulp fiction, and half-remembered romances. This is doomed to go badly, and it does, but there's a realness to the characters that shines through the opaque prose. (This kind of reminds me of AS Byatt's story-within-a-story in Babel Tower Anyone know what I'm talking about?)

And a last remark: Lem is, I think, writing in Polish, but I have to give mad props to the translator for not dumbing it down or clunking it up. While I was reading, I began noting words that I had to look up on a piece of paper now lost in the general mayhem of the house. I love this! I can still make a list, from memory, of a few I especially liked: onanize, auto-de-fe, exegesis, malamuk. Try using them in a sentence next week! (Giggling.) Don't blame me if you get fired though.