The One-Sentence Zone Review

It was bound to happen, and Garth Risk Hallberg has done it.

A few thoughts: I’m not one for taking the form of my review from the form of the book under review. That just cuts too close to the book under consideration for my tastes (I prefer for my reviews to be independent responses that spring from the forehead of the book, Athena-style), but if anyone can make the review-as-derivation work, I think Garth can. Read it for yourself and decide.

Also note that, buried within Garth’s single sentence, there is some fairly provocative criticism of this book. To wit:

. . . questions whose answers were at first hard to see, as from a train it’s hard to see the trees for the forest, the forest in this case being that enormous formal dare – the novel as single sentence – which should (again, in theory) have killed both Zone’s chill and its heat, yet the more I thought about the novel’s form, the more it, too, started to seem like a kind of Maguffin, every bit as conventional in its own way as that briefcase (paging Ving Rhames!) or, say, as your average act of stunt-reviewing—and here I’m referring not just to Énard’s particular high-Modernist, comma-spliced rendition of stream-of-consciousness, which in less adroit hands than the translator Charlotte Mandell’s might feel at this stage in the history of the European Art Novel positively fustian, but also to the novel’s two least successful gambits, viz., a pattern of Hellenic allusion likewise cribbed from Ulysses (chapters keyed to Homer, recurring epithets, invocations of those Bronze-Age gods), and the irruption of a short story that Francis is reading into the text—herrings whose conspicuous incarnadine distracts us from Énard’s deeper debt, which is not to 1930 but to 1830, which is to say that Zone really makes its bones where the hoariest Balzac novel does, in the steady concretion of detail, from Francis’ recollections of his mother, a fiercely patriotic Croat who “would have made an excellent soldier” (she applies her iron fist instead to teaching piano and browbeating her son, until it seems to him that “with her no, no, no, not so fast, not so fast, from the neighboring room,” she is “directing [his] masturbation”) to his time as an enlistee in the Balkans (where he sneaks across Serbian lines with a comrade to drag back a stolen pig and later must drag that same comrade’s body to a funeral pyre); to alcoholism and depression in a Venice so cold Francis sleeps rolled up in an old rug . . .

The reference to Balzac is dead-on; despite Zone’s rather heady conceit, this book really wants to be character- and plot-driven, and it does share something of Balzac’s zoological aspirations. That makes it something a little different from those great modernist forebears, who were much more interested in making the portrayal of consciousness itself the protagonist, rather than any characters or plot actions.

Regardless of what you think of a one-sentence review of Zone, Garth’s critique of the book is well worth your time. I didn’t find Zone to be a perfect book, but I did find it a book whose flaws contributed to making it a much more interesting book than it already was. That is, it was sufficiently intriguing and good to make me want to understand why the parts that felt lackluster felt so. Oftentimes, those are the books that last the longest and that give rise to the best critical responses.

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