César Aira’s The Mu­si­cal Brain: And Other Sto­ries

BOMB Magazine - - CONTENTS - by Ryan Chap­man

New Di­rec­tions, 2015

César Aira’s first story col­lec­tion to ap­pear in the US fol­lows the pub­li­ca­tion of ten short nov­els in nine years, all from New Di­rec­tions. Trans­lated into English by Chris An­drews, many of the sto­ries are dated, as if each had been com­posed in a sin­gle day: March 21, 1993; June 12, 2011. De­spite this al­most twenty-year range, there’s a stub­born con­sis­tency to Aira’s prose. One ex­pects a pro­gres­sion in style. Per­haps the sui generis Aira was al­ways thus?

The Ar­gen­tine writer’s pro­lifi­cacy is well known to his grow­ing read­er­ship. He’s writ­ten more than the stu­dents of a dozen MFA pro­grams com­bined, and while such out­put isn’t of­ten con­sid­ered a literary virtue, he makes it ap­pear al­most heroic. Aira might be the world’s best prac­ti­tioner of au­to­matic writ­ing. He’s like the camp­fire racon­teur whose sto­ry­telling prow­ess (hap­pily) over­whelms the par­tic­u­lars. Whether it’s a tea party hosted by God or a sen­tient shop­ping cart inch­ing un­no­ticed through the gro­cery aisles, his imag­i­na­tive­ness is in­fec­tious and ad­dic­tive.

The pieces in this col­lec­tion move at a jog­ger’s pace, with fre­quent cir­cum­lo­cu­tions and comic switch­backs. His sen­tences are rife with their own nega­tion, a se­ries of un­fold­ing con­tra­dic­tions that, in their un­fold­ing, plumb new tri­an­gu­la­tions be­tween logic, story, and in­ven­tion. (Ge­off Dyer also shines at this.) The Mu­si­cal Brain in­ves­ti­gates these tri­an­gu­la­tions from sev­eral an­gles.

A dis­tracted nar­ra­tor ad­mits in “The All that Plows through the Noth­ing” that he’s ter­ri­ble at small talk, and fre­quently eaves­drops on two strangers whose con­tin­u­ous chat­ter in­trigu­ingly de­fies the rules of con­ver­sa­tion. We soon learn this is a red her­ring: the en­tire story is a de­lib­er­ately shaggy first draft by a writer in the act of “be­com­ing literature,” which proves com­i­cally fa­tal. In “A Thou­sand Drops,” the Mona Lisa dis­ap­pears when its oil paint es­capes and de­cides to ex­plore the world, see the sights, and have some fun. We hop­scotch be­tween the dif­fer­ent drib­bles’ ad­ven­tures—run­ning multi­na­tional cor­po­ra­tions, se­duc­ing the Pope—un­til, in an inspired turn equal parts Ionesco and Mark Leyner, the drops wrest con­trol from Aira and spin the gyre of the plot into a nau­se­ated frenzy. ( Trust me, it works.)

“Acts of Char­ity,” one of the more al­le­gor­i­cal pieces, is a first- per­son ac­count of a young priest’s ar­rival in an im­pov­er­ished vil­lage. With the mon­strous logic and se­duc­tive speech of pro­pa­ganda (and advertising in gen­eral), the par­son be­gins di­vert­ing funds to build an elab­o­rate man­sion for his even­tual suc­ces­sor, rea­son­ing that the next priest may then de­vote him­self to al­le­vi­at­ing poverty with­out hav­ing to worry about the needs and up­keep of his abode. Aira lists the ar­chi­tec­tural con­sid­er­a­tions and dec­o­ra­tions in a cease­less, so­porific ac­cu­mu­la­tion, lead­ing the reader to con­sider lo­cal­ized in­stances of sim­i­lar mad­ness in her own life.

The ti­tle story adopts the fa­ble-like tone of mag­i­cal re­al­ism, an un­in­tended ef­fect of the pro­tag­o­nist’s fuzzy per­cep­tion of time, space, and his own mem­ory. The straight-faced tone could be read as ei­ther nos­tal­gia or satire—it might ruin you on Gabriel Gar­cía Márquez—with an off-the- cuff ease also seen in Aira’s stel­lar Varamo.

A few sto­ries read like the sim­ple flex­ing of mus­cles. “Pi­casso” doesn’t rise above its O. Henry twist, and “The Crim­i­nal and the Car­toon­ist” is lost to its pret­zel logic. These are the ex­cep­tions. Aira read­ers know if they’re not taken with a par­tic­u­lar story, another is just a day away. — Ryan Chap­man is BOMB’s man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of mar­ket­ing and dig­i­tal projects and the au­thor of Con­ver­sa­tion Sparks.

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