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Spanish-Argentine writer Andrés Neuman’s latest collection of short fiction, “The Things We Don’t Do,” can indeed be said to concern itself with “not doing.” The conditional tense—“would’ve could’ve should’ve”—is the main aesthetic program undergirding the stories. Plots are given their pattern not by achievement or definition so much as frustration and self-contradiction. A shy adolescent believes he is about to get “lucky” with his fantasy girl at a beach, but his amorous dream soon becomes a watery terror; a man recalls how his dying grandfather, unaware of the surprise that awaits him at the last, sank to an intended death in his bathtub; a widower tries to forgive his enemies, only to feel unnerved by the actual difficulty of making amends. Each piece seeks to enlighten by disorientation. Sometimes this repeated administration of electro-shocks works well: stories snap and purr felicitously around staged disruptions of familiar experience in a way that recalls the rousing tactics of Brechtian theater. But in general, Neuman’s promising enthusiasm is too roundly spent upon his insistence on whimsy in his tales. They aim so often at provocation alone, that a sense of balance or fullness chronically eludes the work.
The strength of the best pieces lies in Neuman’s adeptness at psychological documentation of the ways people change their minds or how they get lost in good intentions and never make it to their destinations—whether in a conversation that missed its goal of reconciliation, in a physical journey, or in life. In “a line in the sand,” a married couple on vacation find themselves physically at odds with each other when the discontented wife, seized by a fit of anger, draws a line in the sand and dares her outraged husband not to cross it. The husband is hurt that she is “playing silly games” with him, and goes along with it “halting,” fumbling, trying to get through to her. But is he such a saint? “There isn’t one line,” the wife says at last. “There are two, do you understand? There are always two. I see yours. Or at least I try to see it. I know it’s there, somewhere.” It is hard to conceive of an image that more humorously or helplessly conveys the concept of personal boundaries, nor one that could be more brilliantly turned on its head by Neuman’s whip-fast revelation of who has really shut out whom. Yet even this, one of the more relatable episodes, has some less credible moments. Take the exchange between the spouses, at their argument’s climax: “‘All I’d love is for you to look a little bit beyond your own territory.’ ‘All I’d love is for you to love me,’ he replied.” Such dialogue is weary, cardboard, and unjustified.
As illustrated by this case, Neuman’s stories don’t quite stand up to comparison with Borges, who he has been paired with by some critics. There is less arabesque in the former’s style, less erudition, less a Shakespearean sense of ripeness. Granted, here as in other places Neuman is still entertaining on his own terms; his writing is erratic yet vigorous. There is an unsettling coldness to his prose, a sharpness of cut that proves refreshing in some moments but is, in many others, unfulfilling. In particular, his descriptions of objects and physical features are consistently hit or miss. At the beginning of “secondhand,” for instance, Neuman introduces a woman who is about have her period: “her period was going to start: an insistent dagger below her navel and a feeling of irritation at everything were signs.” Doubtful metaphors like the “insistent dagger,” or elsewhere, descriptions like “the rushing sound of his own blood, the pounding of his veins, the electric buzz of the lamps trained on him” prove just a little too blunt to be convincing.
It is an additional and concomitant disappointment that often the point behind a story—neither wholly didactic nor purely formal—seems too much to order its progression, and the turns feel exaggerated. The so-called twist behind “how to swim with her,” a narrative about a boy who wants to awe his male friends by swimming out to sea with an attractive girl, is unimpressive even as it startles, for example. The greater logic that holds together most of the improbable visions seems to be a feeling of karmic retribution which has likely been earned by Neuman’s unfortunates for not having said or done “the things,” those invisible but ineluctably important deeds, of the book’s title. If this logic were allowed more space to wander in the stories, they might linger in the mind, but as it is, Neuman fails to crystallize an environment specific enough to harbor deeply evocative ambiguities and real tragedy.
Perhaps a fairer standard by which to judge this work is that of stand-up comedy. Neuman tells a good joke. He waits for laughter. He tells another: not so good. Eh. Toss that, try again. And again. Such authorial relentlessness is surely stirring, just as the ingenious energy of an accomplished comedian’s sheer personality may always command genuine applause, independently of the success of any one wise-crack. Neuman’s dynamism in these attempts does seem to have its own inspirational virtue, and it illustrates bravely—if self-consciously—the heroism that Samuel Beckett famously conferred upon writers when he coined the stoic mantra “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
—Staff writer Victoria Zhuang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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