by Jessica Anthony
McSweeney’s Books ($22.00, 243 pp)
“How are 75 at-least-half-decent books going to receive serious and discriminating reviews in the few important places remaining for serious reviews every week?” Daniel Menaker, the former Editor-in-Chief of Random House wrote recently. “They’re not. They’re simply not. These statistical circumstances make publishing into a kind of grand cultural roulette, in which your chances of winning any significant pot are very, very small.”
Menaker, now a published novelist himself, fathoms a guess that there are today at best only about a million “very good, smart, engaged, enthusiastic generalist readers in America.” Of the 150,000 new books hitting the U.S. market every year, how do you decide which one is for you?
Traditional newspapers are folding right and left or, for sure, dumping book sections and reviews. If you don’t have enough gravitas (or connections) to appear on Charlie Rose, you better be funny enough to appear with Jon Stewart. No wonder publishers are dancing in Twitterland, knocking on the door of big box stores and desperately trying to breach Oprah’s book club gatekeeper.
How do you sell too many books to too few readers?
Publishers Weekly still does 60 mini-reviews of books every week. Library Journal does its part with an equal number and websites with fractured audiences are trying to fill the gap. By far these days, the books you read are recommended by friends on Facebook or triggered by a favorable comment on the Amazon or Barnes & Noble websites.
They could be written by anyone. The author’s mother, best friend or the author himself writing under some assumed name. Rare are the ones by published writers and journalists found in print or by reviewers you have come to trust. It makes no difference. On the Internet, no one knows you are a dog.
One of the 75 books this year that somebody ought to pay attention to is “The Convalescent”, a first novel by Jessica Anthony.
It is no coming of age first novel. No sensitive story reflecting the short but angst-ridden life of a shopping queen, lost child or odd but true tale of a lost soul. To sum it up in a sentence––the book review of the future––it is the textured story of a dwarf meat seller in Virginia and the thousand years of history that made him that way.
Ms. Anthony is on the old side for a first novelist. At the age of 35, she has paid her dues in MFA writing programs, teaching at small universities, living in Virginia, Brooklyn and Maine, and traveling the world. Her family contains academics, artists, clergy, and even a number-crunching Republican. She also has a jones for Hungarian history, which finds its way into the very fabric of her novel, and no qualms about incorporating her wide range of experiences into her novel.
“The Convalescent” is told by Rovar Akos Pfliegman. “I consider myself to be a Hungarian…the name Akos is a Hungarian name…and it means ‘white hawk.’ My last name, however, is German…that means ‘flying man.’”
As the book opens, Rovar is living in an old bus permanently up to its axles in a field of mud in Virginia from which he sells meat. A dwarf in stature, he is plagued by ailments of all stripes, keeps a filthy kitchen, and feeds a disabled pet beetle he calls Mrs. Kipner after the Mrs. Kipner’s Hungarian Goulash can in which he found it.
“What’s wrong with me?” he wonders. “My left knee is bent, and drags along the road as I walk; my head is lumpy and bulges outward, like it’s made of potatoes; my stomach is uncouth and easily flummoxed, leaving me in a perpetual and contradictory state of nausea and starvation; and my skin is so dry it tends to peel on its own.”
Enter Dr. Monica, a pediatrician who takes him under wing for weekly visits to wean him of his panoply of pills. She also becomes his infatuation adding “benevolent erections” to his other physical discomforts.
With such a troll for a protagonist, it is no surprise that Anthony has a well-wrought back-story tale to explain the sad state of Rovar’s life. For this she takes us back to follow the ten tribes of Hungary (eleven if one counts the Pfliegman butchers, which of course is the point) as they evolve from nomads to European rulers to Soviet chattel. But this is no boring dates-and-events kind of history; rather, it is a story in itself with giants, miraculous births, incest, slavery, disease, war, and migration leading finally to poor Rovar as the last remaining Pfliegman.
His history is one of survival because “we believe in hiding. We believe in sacrifice. We believe that the stars are holes in the sky. We believe in the power of the swerve.” Meanwhile. Rovar’s home is under legal process from the “Subdivisionists” who are “rezoning the zoning laws” to tow it away.
While Dr. Monica has calmed his many aches and pains, his skin continues to peel and a maddening itch begins to take over his back. All his odd collection of books, Carly Simon record, and his business itself can’t bring him any relief. Strapped to an X-ray table in Dr. Monica’s office with screaming kids in her waiting room, Rovar’s final miracle takes place.
This is a fable of sorts and fabulous things happen – even (or perhaps especially) to the sorriest creatures on earth. Despite the sordid history, the graphic physical descriptions, the sadness of broken families and thwarted love, Anthony builds into her challenging, funny, poignant novel an ending with hope, indeed a sort of grandeur.
Books are commodities. Things you want to have and hold, to pass on to your children as an inheritance of what you learned (and when you learned it.) Google now wants to put all books printed into a content database. That satisfies our need for knowledge. But does it undermine our desire to have in our own personal library the books that changed our life?
“The Convalescent” comes in a typical McSweeney’s jacket of dramatic artwork and no explanation. The expected author biography and picture are missing. But there are other printing details that make it well worth owning. It is most emphatically a book, and a beautiful one at that. Remarkably, it only costs $22.00.
If the book business is going to survive, it needs to find a way to rise above Menaker’s “grand cultural roulette.” McSweeney’s and Anthony have done their part. Books are not just content. They are textured, integrated, artistic objects themselves, and we need more, not fewer reviewers who see them that way; and more, not fewer, readers who trust their booksellers and publishers to deliver the goods.