Extraordinary Renditions by Andrew Ervin. Coffee House Press. 192 pp. $14.95.
It should have been a great book—three interlocking novella-length fictions, an overlapping of incident and character, an exotic (at least to me) setting, a post-9/11 glaze on international affairs, and the ironic re-deployment of that stunningly strange phrase, one of the key bits of vocab-shrapnel left with us nearly ten years after the World Trade Center attack. Extraordinary Renditions by Andrew Irwin contains all of these things, but is not, alas, a wholly successful work of fiction. These potent ingredients mix together interestingly but the result is a book that feels conceptually overbaked.
The first section, titled “14 Bagatelles,” follows Hungarian composer Lajos Harkályi on a return trip to Budapest, his hometown, after a fame-making career as a composer in the United States. A survivor of Terezín— better known by the German name Theresienstadt—where he flourished as a violinist at 14, he has embedded within his work a musical response to his own hardship—melodies wrought from misery. The occasion for his return to Budapest is the premiere of his latest opera, The Golden Lotus, to be performed on the anniversary of Hungary’s 1848 Revolution on March 15.
This first section feels a bit aimless, as we follow Harkályi around Budapest on the eve of his premiere. He visits an old synagogue that is set on fire by local skinheads, and later he has a strange altercation with an American black man who has just been randomly attacked, also by skinheads. Then, finally, he reunites with his niece Magda, who works for a Halliburton-like private contractor on the nearby U.S. military base, training the Iraqi police force and overseeing “the interrogation of political prisoners from the Middle East.” That is, the base is the location for the extraordinary renditions alluded to in the title. Harkályi is, of course, upset by her job.
This section of the novel switches back and forth between his present day visit and his Holocaust past, creating a slightly too pat and convenient political symmetry to stoke his outrage. The historical echo is turned up to eleven. Despite this thematic forcefulness, one wants to see where the story will go, if Harkályi will confront Magda, etc. But the section ends with the beginning of the concert and we never see how or even if the political outrage Harkályi feels receives an audience.
The second section, “Brooking the Devil,” follows Brutus, an African-American Marine stationed at the same U.S. military base where Magda works. In fact, he’s her “boyfriend,” alluded to briefly in the first section, though in reality they’re having legally risky, solider-civilian illicit sex in vacant boardrooms on the base. It lends the section a prurient charge, even if the affair itself doesn’t make any sense. Though Magda appears onstage briefly in the first section, here, seen through Brutus’s gaze, she devolves into a cartoon of female desire. She doesn’t really have any character, and the relationship between them, such as it is, feels forced from above by the author, a convenient coincidence, rather than the outcome of some true situational convergence.
Brutus’s section does however have more of a plot. In addition to his affair, he is blackmailed by his superior officer, Sullivan, under threat of exposing him for an invented homosexual affair using forged photographs. Sullivan sets up Brutus to run guns for him down to Budapest. The resulting road trip, where Brutus is off the base and on his own and wondering how to escape his situation (imminent death off-base, professional death back on base), is the best part of the book, the most palpably written and the most intense. Given Brutus’s racially charged situation and his unique commentary about it—his voice careens between references to Julius Caesar (naturally) and The Roots—this sections could have grown up to become its own interesting novel. This trip to Budapest culminates on the same March 15 independence day of the first section. In fact, Brutus is the beaten black man that Harkályi rescues in the subway. The section ends with Brutus making two completely self-destructive decisions—not meeting with his contact in Budapest at the appointed time and then throwing the guns into the Danube. The story quickly dissolves at this climax and never answers the question of what happens to Brutus, how or if he survives, etc.
The third and final section, “The Empty Chairs,” follows Americans Melanie and her roommate Nanette as they make their way as post-graduate expatriates in Budapest. Nan is the self-destructive, partygoing, photographer. Her claim to fame and the artwork that garners her jobs from the local daily paper is a series of self-portraits of herself, barely clothed and soaked in gasoline. She is, in short, the narcissistic, self-destructive one. Melanie, of course, is the quieter, responsible, point of view character—the studious Tina Fey to Nan’s reckless Amy Poehler. Melanie plays violin in the Budapest opera orchestra and the third section follows her version of independence day, which becomes a May Pole around which the novel coils. She recovers from a gruesome hangover, contemplates finally getting her hair cut, gets ready for and eventually performs in the premier of Harkályi’s opera.
Like the first section, the final section feels paradoxically slack, narratively diffuse despite its focus on one specific day. Melanie finally makes the hair appointment and then flees the salon once her hairdresser arrives. She musters the strength to make her concert that night and gets through the performance only to be moved to such heights by the music itself that she begins improvising recklessly on her violin at the end. She begins maniacally riffing as the opera makes its somber dissolution, which of course completely horrifies her conductor and everyone else in the orchestra. The only person who seems amused by her transgression, of course, is Harkályi himself, who approaches her afterward and gives her his phone number. Melanie, it turns out, has suddenly discovered that she is a composer too. She has music “in” her and this musical transgression at the concert is the vehicle for this discovery, and the story ends—spoiler alert!—rather happily with Melanie determined to leave the destructive (and now bewildered) Nan, to return to America, contact Harkályi, and begin composing her new music. It is, in short, her Independence Day.
The problem with this final section, which becomes a problem for the entire book, is that I don’t believe a word of Melanie’s sudden transformation. Her vision that she has while performing the opera is particularly puzzling:
The basses creaked and moaned like floorboards and the drums flagellated themselves mercilessly over her left shoulder to punctuate the entire event. Melanie watched her bow repeatedly stretch itself out from her body and recline again, hitting on the ridged strings, the bottom rim of her violin gauged into her collarbone but she felt nothing. She possessed no I capable of feeling, and from that absence she was reborn into some kind of vision.
Melanie’s body remained anchored to her chair—she never completely lost touch with her physical presence, yet a different part of her self became unmoored. Some kind of dream-self came removed from her body and hovered near the stage. She looked at herself there—here—playing the violin, and then she floated over the heads of the crowd and ventured through the front doors of the church. She followed the path of the river north to Margit Bridge and went down to the island, an oasis of groves and fields and footpaths. She sped over the tops of the trees. Colors appeared exceptionally vivid, yet somehow misaligned like she was wearing a pair of wine-red lenses. She arrived at an enormous oak, one she had never seen before, and recognized it somehow as her home. She belonged in it. She joined a flock of eagles and hawks amid the branches, which elsewhere also contained bats and owls and pelicans and parrots of every color. It was the woodpeckers however that got her attention. Hundreds of them—woodpeckers of every variety, tap-tapping an intricate tribal rhythm. It was mesmerizing. The immediate sense of comfort overwhelmed her, like the familiarity of her own clean bed after a long trip. The voice of her violin joined the choral din of birdsong and roused her from her trance. Looking down, she nearly screamed, shaken not by the height, though she sat far higher than the top of any natural tree, but by a series of human bodies: black men dangled from the branches on ropes. They had been lynched and left to feed the amassed birds. The tops of their heads bobbed and swung heavily. Their dying moans sounded like upright basses and antique cellos tuned to some ungodly foreign scale. They accused Melanie of complicity.
So by the alchemy of Harkályi’s music, which is itself inspired by political torture, Melanie becomes sensitized to a particular strand of American political, racist torture, which thematically recapitulates Brutus’s own racially persecuted situation with Sullivan and the U.S. Marine Corps. Thematically, it makes sense, but like the coincidental overlappings between the sections, this realization on the part of Melanie feels too quickly convenient, merely a way for the author to tie up his thematic loose ends. It doesn’t feel like anything Melanie would actually think on her own. There’s no dramatic preparation that she should be, or that she would be, blamed for political violence, either at home or abroad. And it’s neat that Harkályi’s music can do that work (even though the opera itself is about the practice of Chinese footbinding, an entirely different stripe of abuse), but the result is a somewhat fraudulent political symmetry, a novel stuck together with Bondo.
I wonder if the failures of this book in particular speak to a larger literary condition. There is a desire, within the privileged and self-selecting ghetto of American literary fiction, for internationally inspired content, infused with the shrieking politics of the post-Global War on Terror, which speaks to and recognizes the increasing multicultural focus of the civilized world, and which contains an artfully fractured narrative that at the same time soaks itself dutifully in the historical terrors of the first half of the twentieth century. Call it the High-Concept Historical Epic, which Extraordinary Renditions flirts with but doesn’t fully commit to (mainly because of its length). The consequence is that we get a lot of books that sound great in summary, but which don’t come off as actual books of fiction, as authentically artful pieces of literature. Instead they come across like the diligent homework of the politically conscientious. It leaves one almost wanting fiction that’s less well-informed, less civilized, less eager to knit together divergent political experiences, and one that’s more committed to its own unfashionable passions.
Barrett Hathcock is a contributing editor to The Quarterly Conversation. His first novel, a series of linked stories called The Portable Son, is forthcoming from Aqueous Books this fall.
Read More on this Subject:
More from The Quarterly Conversation:
- The Path of Minor Planets by Andrew Sean Greer It doesn’t take long for the reader of Andrew Sean Greer’s first novel, The Path of Minor Planets, to know that the titular minor planets refer to both this book’s comets and the earthlings obsessed (some more than others) with them. The novel proceeds to corroborate the connection of these...
Related posts brought to you by Yet Another Related Posts Plugin.
Read more articles by Barrett Hathcock