Saturday, 6 April 2013

Book Review: Black Vodka by Deborah Levy

'Have you ever had that weird feeling in an airport when you panic and don't know what to do? One screen says Departures and another screen says Arrivals and for a moment you don't know which one you are. You think, am I an arrival or am I a departure.'
From 'Pillow Talk' 

A sense of displacement and atomisation dominate the ten stories collected in Black Vodka. They feature characters in limbo: in foreign lands or stuck between who they are and who they want to be. They believe in love as the means of self perfection and yearn for sex and madness and the chance to lose themselves in others. Yet they pull away from that which they most crave, afraid of the uncertain ground that intimacy entails.

It's classic atomised society, and Levy composes her stories well. They are slight, unembelished, and often largely plotless. These are character shorts that create a unspecific feeling of uneasiness and loss. Deborah Levy's writing is crisp and simple, quite different from the lyrical fireworks that made her Booker shortlisted novel Swimming Home such a electrifying read. Yet she suits this territory well, her style creating transitory stories, perfect reads for reclaimed moments in busy lives.

Levy is purposefully calling to attention a range of authors, from Murakami to Sofia Coppola's film Lost in Translation. But she doesn't just reflect this listless atomisation of life, she also demands that it be noticed and reinforces it. When expressing their aloneness, she gives her characters rare eloquence: they turn to the metaphoric, the awe-inducing, conjuring a sense of wonder in the vast magnificence of the universe and an image of unfathomable depth in the people they are with. Characters talk of air molecules 'forged in the furnace of a star,', a woman seeks a sex change opperation to turn herself into the woman she wants to be, a man becomes an imposter in his bosses history. Levy turns the characters into romantically enigmatic visions of perfectly imperfect people, people we yearn to be and people we yearn to be with. But they are also people we can never be worthy of, people we can never be. And in that, she creates in the reader those same feelings of atomisation that her stories reflect.

Some of the stories are slight to a fault. Others, the slightly longer ones, such as 'Black Vodka', 'Stardust Nation', 'Cave Girl', and 'Simon Tagala's Heart in 12 Parts' - are fantastic snippets flashes of life in transition. Black Vodka is a quiet and subtle book of encounters and possibility. Its difficult to pin down and this is both rewarding and, at times, frustrating. Overall, it lacks the sparkle that made Swimming Home one of my books of 2012, but its a swift, affecting, and, at its best, brilliant.

'There is do much of the world to record and classify, it's hard to know how to find a language for it. So I am going to start exactly where I am now. Life is beautiful! Vodka is black! Pears are naked! Rain is horizontal! Moths are ghosts. Only some of this is true, but you should know that this does not scare me as much as the promise of love.'

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