THE CONVALESCENT by Jessica Anthony

Book Quote:

“ It is not always easy for people to move from one region of the world to another and make a fresh go of it. It is not always sufficient to live in an unpopulated field, or even an entire unpopulated freshwater basin, and call it your own.”

Book Review:

Review by Doug Bruns (DEC 12, 2009)

Earlier this summer  I went to a book reading here in Maine where I live. The author, Jessica Anthony was local, and that always brings in a nice crowd. We have a lot of good writers in Maine. Of course there is Stephen King, up in Bangor, whom everyone knows; and there’s Phil Hoose, who just recently won the National Book Award. But there are a lot of writers around here who aren’t as well known, and many of them are very talented. I had not heard of Ms. Anthony, but I was obviously in the minority, for she seemed a favorite of the crowd the evening of her reading–and it was a crowd. Chris, the owner of the bookstore, introduced her, calling her brilliant and her book brilliant too. But Chris says this about a lot of the writers he introduces. They are either brilliant, or if not brilliant, their book can’t be put down. Sometimes it’s one or the other. Tonight, it was both–and the book was brilliant too, as I said. Ms. Anthony approached the podium and said hello to her many friends in the audience, talked briefly about the book, and began to read.

As she read, I was first struck by the quality of the writing. It was assured and confident. It had heft to it, like you want from good writing, like the difference between a sauce reduced from ingredients on the stove and a one poured from the jar. This writing seemed measured and lovingly created. Good writing catches my eye, or I should say ear, like nothing else. Like pornography, it is difficult to describe, but I know it when I see–hear–it. This was good writing like that. But it was the story that truly hooked me. The Convalescent is the story of Rovar Ákos Pfliegman. Here is Rovar giving a brief description of himself: “I’m barely human. I’m a hairy little Hungarian pulp. An incongruous mass of skin and blood and hair. I am a sorry gathering of organs. That is all.” See what I mean?

Rovar lives in an abandoned broken-down bus in a field on the banks of the Queenconococheecook River in Northern Virginia, from which is sells meat. He is a butcher who hails from a long tradition of butchers–and he is the last of the line. He is a species unto himself. He is diminutive, midget-like, and has a leg which drags behind him. His skin peels off in flakes. He is mute and writes, when he infrequently feels like communicating, on a tablet. He only has one set of clothes, including the stained and foul pink Disneyland sweatshirt he always wears. He is bearded and unkept. He is, by any measure, repugnant. Indeed, even his name–”It is a Hungarian name. It’s pronounced RO-vahr. It means ‘insect’”–brands him. He lives his life with general equanimity despite it all, seeking only one solace, Dr. Monica, the local pediatrician. She sees Rovar every Tuesday, against the wishes of her staff, amidst the stares and gawking of the patients, “the Sick or Diseased children,” who fill the Doctor’s reception area. She treats his skin, massages his trachea, alters his diet, counsels him. She tries to do what doctors do: heal. But Rovar is beyond healing, something we have sensed from the outset. Rovar is hardly human, enough human to lend plausibility, but lacking thereof in a magical way. As the novel progresses his condition deteriorates. He hallucinates, grows paranoid and generally decays. Or so we think. But this story is not just any story. It is a story laced with super heros, and giants, great rivers born streaming from birthing women and humans who perhaps aren’t.

Ms. Anthony said in an interview, that she usually does “not write strict realism; but nor do I consider myself a magic realist–I think I sort of float between the two, in some murky, absurd realm. Let’s call it Absurdorealism.” There is the experience, while reading The Convalescent, of being like an insect, airborne and tasting one flower then the next, one sensation following on the heels of another. Everything makes sense, then not, then you wonder: Is this absurd, or literal? It is great fun. It is not a coincidence I use the flying insect metaphor. Insects are in evidence here. Rovar keeps one as a pet in a can and feeds it bits of rotten food. As a young boy, or more properly, as a young Pfliegman, Rovar as he “lies in bed watching a fly hurtling around the edges of the window screen…wishes he were an insect. If he were an insect, he thinks, he would be invisible. O, to be a fly, a flea, he thinks, observing the small things about his room. The things that insects observe. The curl of paint on the window ledge. The jagged fray of the blanket. The sound of bees throwing themselves at the window screen. He pinches his arms and watches the hairs rise up. He presses his fingers on the his eyeballs until globes of light appear behind the eyelids, each taking the triangular shape of the wings of a butterfly–” If only Gregor Samsa had had so much desire, rather than dread.

Perhaps this reader’s delight was most in evidence in the chapters tracing Rovar’s ancestry, or rather the “Evolution of the Pfliegmans.” Interlaced with the straight-absurd narration of Rovar, we are treated to an absurdorealism walk through the history of Eastern Europe, cave-man to present. It is simply wondrous. Here is an example, from early on. Rovar is asked by Dr. Monica to open up, to communicate, as best he is able, using his writing table, to “write what I feel.” And so the Pfliegman mythology unfurls:

“Although it is difficult for me to write how I feel, I can tell you how Aranka felt as she lay on her side in front of a fire amidst the pungent, simmering remains of Enni Hús. She felt thirst, but there was no water. She felt the weight of isolation, of inevitability: this child would take her, or she would take the child. She gazed up at the uneven flaps of the tent, listening to the purring sounds of a hundred dozing Pfliegmans–she was savagely alone. Most Plfliegman fetuses, she knew, did not survive birth. As though they could sense it, as though they could see their whole lousy future before they even had a chance to live it, they hoped for better luck in the next conception and gave up in the womb. If they managed to be born, the babies were often so small they looked like little blue fish. Babies born off-color, with elongated heads, mealy skin. Feet that hung inward in hackneyed flippers. An aura of general malaise.”

This book, like a great myth, can be read on many levels. It can read as a tracing of existential nausea, a modern farce, a tract on the consequences of modern living, a quasi-adolescent coming-of-age fantasy memoir. It could be all this, none of it, or something else entirely. Mostly it is fun and witty and sharp. I would say how excited I am by this new voice of Jessica Anthony, but like Rovar, I sense the voice is an old-soul, not new at all, but one that has sprung afresh from an ancient mist.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-5-0from 7 readers
PUBLISHER: McSweeney’s (June 1, 2009)
REVIEWER: Doug Bruns
AMAZON PAGE: The Convalescent
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Another  interview with Jessica Anthony
EXTRAS: Excerpt

A short story

MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Other brilliant debuts:

Wonder When You’ll Miss Me by Amanda Davis

And Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris

The Book of Salt by Monica Truong

Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer


December 12, 2009 · Judi Clark · One Comment
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: Amanda Davis, Contemporary, Debut Novel, Literary, Speculative (Beyond Reality), US Mid-Atlantic, y Award Winning Author

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