Anita Konkka, A Fool's Paradise, tr. A.D. Haun and Owen Witesman. Dalkey Archive Press, Normal, Illinois, 2006. tpb. 133 pages. $12.95
Dalkey Archive's back-cover copy for A Fool's Paradise places the novel "in the great tradition of Jean Rhys and Violette Leduc." That's fair enough, if one chooses to classify novels according to the socio-economic status, lifestyle, and character of their protagonists. But the description fails to recognize that stylistically, the novel bears a greater affinity to work by Anna Kavan, Jane Bowles, and Lenore Carrington than to Leduc and Rhys. Although… Certainly, for the first several chapters of the book (all of them short), the clarity and spareness of the prose gives the illusion to first-time readers that the novel is offering a straightforward (albeit psychologically) subjective realist story. As a case in point, consider a passage on the fourth page of the text that I mistook for the usual excursion into playful imagery that ornaments current "literary" fiction:
During the night my alarm clock shifted over to the time of some unknown planet. It's 53:90 and the news is on the radio. The population of mother rabbits has increased and unemployment has decreased. The clock moves ahead ten minutes at a time. Maybe it's showing the time on Mercury. The light on the wall grows stronger. The colors in the picture start to come alive; the yellow gladioli glow for a moment. The sun is on its way toward the south; the globe turns on its axis, and in space the solar systems rush toward unknown destinations. It's already 74:20. I woke up in the middle of an exciting dream...[description of dream cut, for length] They gave a special storm warning for the Gulf of Finland on the radio during the day. They said that there would be dangerously powerful gusts of wind. But the storm changed its mind and went somewhere else. The sky was clear. Jupiter shone above the trashcans and the Big Dipper was dimly visible behind the insurance company building.(10-11)
The statement that her alarm clock had "shifted over to the time of some unknown planet" is not the narrator's playful way of noting that her alarm clock malfunctioned sometime after she went to sleep and before she awoke: likely, she imagines she is actually offering an explanation for how the clock could give 53:90 as the time and why it moves ahead in ten-minute increments. By the end of the novel, the phrase "During the night" has become a familiar cue for the reader; the events in the narrator's dreams, which are key, are not always distinct from the events of her waking life. And so the description of her dream (which I've cut from the quote, for length) is not incidental, as it would be for another narrator; rather, the narrator accords what happens in her dreams the same degree of importance and reality as she does her waking experience. Moreover, the narrator's statement that the "storm changed its mind" is not a figurative anthropomorphism, but a literal (to her) statement of why the storm did not materialize in the city. As for the narrator's noting the turning of the globe on its axis, the southward journey of the sun, solar systems in space, and the presence of Jupiter and the Big Dipper in the night sky: these are not random details that happen to have occurred to the narrator as she visualized what happened (outside her dreams) in the night just passed, but what she takes as significant facts, clues for explaining the past and predicting the future. And just so, in the very next sentence, the narrator notes that the banks in Japan "have their own astrologers, who predict changes in the relationship between the dollar and the yen from the movements of Mercury and Uranus."
The narrator, that is, emerges as an interesting if sometimes irritating combination of New Age folderol and incisive insight:
*She is defiant in her guilt-free enjoyment of being unemployed (which is apparently not the correct attitude for a proper Finn to have);
*She believes in astrology, reincarnation, signs and portents, diverse forms of divination, ghosts, angels, animism, prophecies, oracles, sorcery, and the power of dreams;
*She devotes a great deal of time and energy to keeping herself permanently unemployed;
*She endears herself to her natural audience (viz., readers like me) when she says of Claude Simon's Georgics, which she checks out of the library: "Judging by its stiffness, it had never been opened. People are peculiar about wanting to borrow the same books as everybody else…Whenever I see someone reject a book, I hurry over to it. That's how I found Rilke's Notebooks of Malte Lauridis Brigge, Yeats's memoirs, and, most recently, Ceare Pavese's diary"(33);
*We can surmise that the most formative experience for the person she has become was being rejected at the age of 18 by the boy she fell in love with, who wrote poetry. Certain he was lonely and too shy to call her, she called him; because this annoyed him, he told her she wasn't his type and was "too forward." And so now, at the age of 38, she passively waits-for her lover to divorce his wife; for her destiny to find her; for revelations to guide her. "After researching fate, I've come to the conclusion that it works every seventh year. It waits in every person for its moment, like egg cells waiting in a woman, but not every cell produces a child. You can prevent your fate from being fulfilled if you live an orderly life, walk along the same streets you've always walked, don't change jobs, stamp your time card, eat and go to sleep at the same time, spend your vacations in the same place, and avoid talking with strangers."(39)
The narrator often talks about her dreams as though they actually happened. "Last night I tried to make love to my father, but he ran away from me, terrified."(45) "During the night, Anneli fired me from my job."(48) "Now I've changed into a man completely. I walk through the village and drag behind me a bundle of twigs."(56) Although she occasionally adds a cue ("Three women in black hats visited me in a dream"(104), most of the time the tone and the lack of preface or contextualization she uses to relate dreams are exactly those she uses to relate her waking experience: "The world has been saved again. The people who did it were standing side by side on television, telling jokes and smiling, pleased with themselves"(86); or "On Father's Day I walked from one end to the other of a road that I call West Street, but which no longer has that name on the map."(59)
For many chapters I experienced no difficulty picking up on the difference between the narrator's dream-life and waking-life. But after reading three sentences at the beginning of Ch. 16, I realized that what I'd taken for a dream was waking life and found myself backtracking to start the chapter over, after which I continued smoothly, without hitch. But it was at this point at which I began to be unsure of the difference between dream- and waking-life for the narrator, even when she offers clear indications. "My heart is knotted up and things fall out of my hands all day," the narrator says. "A glass of milk crashed to the floor and shattered, a knife escaped under the table, and I sat down on a frying pan with spaghetti sauce in it. I'd left it on my chair. Dreams confuse my feelings. During the night I participated in a swimming competition and came in first… but the judges didn't certify the result; instead they announced that the winner was a woman who'd come to the finish line after me." (73) The woman who was announced the winner "swam diagonally across the pool, breaking all the rules." On waking in the morning, the narrator knows that the woman who unfairly won was Vera, the wife of her lover, Alexander. After she tells him, a book falls from his shelf, and he tells her that the sentence it opens to is meant for her: "A thousand reasons to worry, a thousand reasons to be shy--they bind the fool, not the wise man."(74) Though the narrator generally assumes such "signs" bear powerful significance, in this case she rejects the "wisdom."
Significantly, the distinction between dream and waking reality blurs most often when the narrator is talking about Vera, the estranged wife of the her lover, Alexander. Perhaps this is why I haven't been able to believe that a long narrative that begins with the sentences "Last summer I visited Melnikova Street. I had Vera's telephone number, but didn't care to call her and I thought that I'd go and see what kind of building she lives in"(82) is something the narrator actually did, especially since first, her account of it is interrupted by a fantasy she has while riding the subway to Melnikova Street about what will happen when she arrives at Vera's building, and second, she experiences dream-like difficulty in finding the building, and finally, she describes a pedestrian walking past her and fantasizes that the pedestrian is Vera. How, reading the words of a narrator whose personal ontology and epistemology places as much emphasis on dreams as waking, can signs and portents, dreams and reveries be distinguished sharply and clearly from "real" events and "facts"? And yet, at that particular point in the novel I continued to think that probably the narrator did go to Melnikova Street and that however dream-like the narrator's life had become, careful reading would uphold the boundary between the externally real ("facts") and the internally real (thoughts, dreams, fantasies).
My ability to do this, however, broke down about twenty-five pages from the end. The narrator says that she "looked at the future by pouring melted tin in cold water on New Year's Eve."(109) She then describes seeing Vera and says she didn't believe what she saw, but that Alexander's son "confirmed it." And for two pages she not only speculates about what she saw, but also notes "Alexander blames himself" (110). I reread the passage several times, trying to find the place where what the narrator "saw" in the cold water ended and "reality" began. When I realized that I'd never be able to do it, that the text refused to separate the two, I read on, hoping for more "facts" about Vera's condition--and found nothing definitive. The narrator's (inexplicit) conversation with Alexander on p.127 could be taken as corroboration that her vision was true. But other passages allow the reader to infer that she might be projecting her own condition onto her detested rival. In short, the narrative forces the reader to teeter between the two interpretations.
"Surrealism," Penelope Rosemont observes, "begins with the recognition that the real (the real real, one might say, opposed to the fragmented, one-dimensional pseudo-real upheld by narrow realisms and rationalisms) includes many diverse elements that are ordinarily repressed or suppressed…. [S]urrealism is an immeasurably expanded awareness"(Penelope Rosemont, "Introduction: All My Names Know Your Leap: Surrealist Women and Their Challenge" in Penelope Rosemont, ed. Surrealist Women: An International Anthology, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1998, pp.xxix-lvii at xxxiii). The conventions of realism, which put a rationalist spin on the lives it portrays, haven't a chance in the world of portraying the reality of someone like Konkka's narrator. In a realist version of A Fool's Paradise, the narrative would unambiguously distinguish conscious experience from unconscious experience, New Age prognostications and signs separate from facts, the subjective from the objective-and thereby render the "reality" thin and either pathetic or derisory. The life described in A Fool's Paradise is neither.
This review originally appeared on the Now What blog, August 21, 2006.Seattle