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The Literary Conference (New Directions Pearls) - César Aira

I like weird books. What can I say? I like books of the sort that cause some to roll their eyes and wonder “WTF is this? People read this shit?”—the sorts of books that are hard to place by genre, other than that anti-genre sometimes called Literary Fiction. The ones that frequently provoke one-word reviews: Boring! The sorts of fiction that prompt sneers of ‘book snob’ or, in my case, ‘dilettante’ (it’s cool, I’ve been called worse).

I don’t care so much about the story. I do, of course, care about the story, but I don’t read to find out how a book will end. My interest isn’t of the ‘what happens?’ variety, but rather of the ‘how is it conveyed?’—not the tale, but the telling of the tale. When reading, I’m more inclined to think: Look what the author is doing here, rather than: Look what this character is doing. I can be held rapturous while reading Henry James or Javier Marías, Cormac McCarthy or Toni Morrison, Thomas Hardy or Roberto Bolaño. That is all to say, give me your words FIRST, then your stories. I’m certain there’s a vocabulary which speaks to my interests: narratology, rhetoric, aesthetics, style, capital L-literature, etc.; my inadequacy with these vocabularies when writing about these topics confirm my own sense of ‘dilettante.’

As a consequence of these interests, I find myself drawn to fiction about writers, ghost writers, translators—people who give voice to others, people who have a voice but not necessarily his or her own, people for whom their multiple voices are at odds. Weird shit.

Which brings me to The Literary Conference, a brief, little novella that should have been a piece of cake to read, should have been a breeze, taken an hour or so, a fun little stint with a book. As it turns out, this ‘quick-read,’ this extended short story, this read-me-now-and-add-me-to-your-nagging-2011-Book-Challenge ditty, has taken a staggering two weeks to accomplish. How can that be?

To begin, this is a title very easily put down. Even with the author’s endorsement by Roberto Bolaño, even after my own experience with the author, this was one that I kept finding myself thinking: Huh, look at that! (whenever the author impressed me in some way), and then setting it aside. It took a while to find the book’s pace. The story, such as it is, is a bizarre (bizarro?) tale of the narrator’s solution to the Mancuto Line-treasure mystery which enables him to pursue his other interest in world domination. His home-grown experiments in cloning had reached a point where a single cell could be developed into multiple copies of whatever living thing the narrator chose to replicate. The narrator, César (César Aira?), is also a playwright, who attends a literary conference with the intention of retrieving a cell from a ‘genius’ to clone and commence his ultimate goal. His target—a cell from the body of Carlos Fuentes.

Now, if this doesn’t pique your interest as a fan of bizzaro, perhaps appeal can be made to your literary sensibilities—remember that the narrator is a Mad Scientist (perhaps, establishing him as an unreliable narrator)—Mad but not evil—AND a playwright, one whose theory of literature is made explicit over the course of his narration which includes, among other things, a discussion of vampirism, B-movies, amnesia (wow!), every man’s unique potential, metaphor—in other words, it also a book about literature. Oh, yeah, I almost forgot to mention, it features HUGE blue worms converging on the city where the literary conference is held. Poor César! (César Aira?)

This is one of those good books that simply isn’t for everyone. I say that, not in terms of others’ abilities or inabilities, but in terms of their interests. Even with the novella’s bizarre/bizarro storyline, it won’t, necessarily, appeal to everyone or even fans of the bizarro genre. For some, it will be—oh, no!—dare I say it?—the unforgiveable—the intolerable—friends, it might seem … wordy. In the right hands, the hands of a gifted screenwriter, this would make a great film. Maybe in the hands of César (César Aira?) Try it; you just, might, like it.