Friday, May 13, 2016

Drew Reviews: Shantytown

Shantytown by Cesar Aira
4.5 Stars - Strongly Recommended by Drew
Pages: 128
Publisher: New Directions
Released: 2013

Reviewed by Drew Broussard

The Short Version: An immensely strong young man begins to help dwellers of an infamous shantytown in Buenos Aires with their carts and collections. But a crooked policeman believes it has something to do with the local drug cartel, he begins to follow the young man's sister and her friend - all of this leading to a massive showdown into the shantytown known as the Carousel...
The Review: In many ways, this was the most straightforward Aira I've yet read. There is an immediately coherent plot, not veering off down too many surprise pathways - although it does head down a few, don't get me wrong - and only the faintest sense of an authorial presence. Where ...Landscape Painter had the impression of Aira-as-historian and The Seamstress and the Wind obviously features quite a bit of the author's diaristic ramblings, this one features nary an "I" and I think only one (that I recall) moment of direct address to the reader.

So what, then, to make of an Aira novel that reads - at first glance anyway - like a more traditional novel? 
The simple answer is that it's still brilliant. There's a reason Aira is as popular and prolific as he is, namely being that he's a damn good writer - and, just as important, a damn interesting one. In fact, I think it's more interesting to see him working in the background, because it requires him to take on a level of distance from his work. We're not hearing an interesting guy talk or regale us this time: he's pulled back a bit and, as such, the story has to stand more resolutely on its own. And in large part, it does: I was invested in Maxi as a character and what, if anything, he might learn as he draws closer to the shantytown. I was even intrigued by the policeman, although he felt less well-defined than Maxi, operating more off of stereotype and plot than actual character development. These characters felt like characters instead of mechanisms, moving forward based on the extant logic of the novel instead of the whims of the author. This seems like an equivocation, the two things being ostensibly the same (the author, at the end of the day, is the one writing the book soooo...), but I felt less of that "flight forward" sense that characterises Aira as I understand him so far, that sense of just writing whatever comes to mind and not really caring if it matches up with what has come before.
As I said earlier, don't get me wrong: there's still plenty of unexpected coincidence, seemingly meaningless things that become crucial, and plot points that are discarded without much care. One particular standout, regarding the young maid of the building across the street from Maxi's house and a homeless man he passes on the street every morning, seemed like it was tossed in for a sort of fan service to the characters themselves, as though Aira thought: "Oh, I forgot they were supposed to meet. They're both so nice... they deserve to have in fact been looking for each other for years, as they are engaged!" It had nothing to do with the novel at hand and, accordingly, was tossed off in an aside - but it felt very much like a hallmark of Aira's writing, that sort of happy coincidence that isn't given too much thought beyond "And then this. Hooray!"

But I don't think my favorite part of the book, its ending (a pretty epic chase/showdown in a near-Biblical downpour), would've been as successful had Aira been more present in the telling. There's a car chase, a foot chase, a shootout, a murder in not-quite-cold blood... suddenly, Aira pivots away from the social examinations he'd been toying with in the first two-thirds of the novel (and there's quite a bit of that, which I ought to mention in a moment) and goes full-throttle into a crime novel. The scene of the judge, this famously ass-kicking female judge, standing in the rain surrounded by reporters over her son's dead body... it's the sort of thing that guys like Jo Nesbø and Lee Child wish they could write. I think it's all the more potent for the fact that it's relatively unexpected, this moment: it stands out because it feels like Aira has completely transformed into another writer, totally chameleonic. So, too, the revelations (or, at least, implications) about the shantytown itself - which remains, even as it illuminated (within the story, both literally and metaphorically), a mysterious and near-magical locale.
But Aira hasn't just written a cracking crime thriller. In fact, for much of the book, he's not doing that at all. The back cover copy highlights the police/drug angle, but that's not really what the book is about at all - that just happens to be the engine that drives it. (I'm learning, incidentally, that back cover copy for Aira is nearly worthless, in the best way.) Instead, he's looking at wealth and inequality. Some of this is obvious: the disparity between Maxi's life and the lives he chooses to help, the symbolism of the road suddenly widening out into an avenue before it dead-ends just a few yards away into the shantytown. But some of it is more nuanced, like the way that Maxi's simplicity - his spaciness, you might call it - makes people value him differently than they might otherwise. It's not just financial wealth but spiritual and mental wealth that Aira's interested in and, at times, I toyed with the curiosity of what a more traditional author might do with these topics. His surprising twists and turns and generally magic-madcap flow of prose challenges the reader and keeps them thinking - but it also means that the reader is never in one place for too long. It's not a bad thing, just something I'm becoming conscious of as I devour more of Aira's back catalog.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5. This might be my favorite Aira so far (having only read three, the competition hasn't yet gotten all that fierce). The shantytown is a magical invention, the descriptions of its lights - power taken straight from the high-voltage cables that power the rest of the city, meaning the lights are on eternally, creating a whole galaxy of new constellations - one of the most memorable things I've read in quite a while. And Aira delivers not only a cracking crime novel but some insightful socioeconomic investigatory work as well. Most excitingly, though, he remains wholly himself: even though all three books I've read so far have been wildly varied in tone and content and even voice... they're all, also, inimitably Aira. Here's to the next one.

Drew Broussard reads, a lot. When not doing that, he's writing stories or playing music or acting or producing or coming up with other ways to make trouble.  He also has a day job at The Public Theater in New York City.

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