This week in my literary quest to become a better person, or at least a better-read person, I’m visiting an author by the name of Kazim Ali.
On my bookshelves, Mr. Ali comes after one of the better modern authors, Sherman Alexie. I have a few of Alexie’s books, and I particularly recommend his short story collection Ten Little Indians. One of Alexie’s biggest strengths is his wide range of interests—he doesn’t just stick with short stories or adult novels; he has written screenplays and young adult fiction as well. Also, his technique is brilliant. He’s a writer who will make you laugh and care and think about the world—how unfair and how beautiful it can be. Yes, I recommend Sherman Alexie.
Another thing I should explain up front is why I’m reviewing a second book by Etruscan Press within two weeks (yes, the infamous Zarathustra Must Die was put out by them, too). Trust me, Etruscan Press is not paying me to review their books (I don’t know if they have the budget for things like that). The explanation is: a few years ago, when I was still an undergraduate, I won a one-page story contest for a great journal called the Penguin Review (shout out to their former editor, Tom Pugh), and part of the prize was the near-complete collection of Etruscan Press books published up until that point. Most of what EP puts out is poetry, but they’ve done quite a few novels, too. My whole point is, this is not the last time I will be reviewing one of their books.
I’m not saying that Etruscan Press puts out poor-quality books; I like their books, for the most part (last week’s selection aside). They are small and relatively obscure, but I think we need more publishers like them. Why? They don’t compromise. I get the sense that most of EP’s authors are full-time professors who, because of the fickle nature of modern universities, have to keep publishing, or else they perish. These writers don’t care about sales, but they do care about putting out a good product, according to their exacting, sometimes quirky standards. That’s honorable. I would love to have that option someday. EP realizes that literature is about more than entertainment—sometimes it’s about trying to wrap your mind around the things in life that are hard to understand.
Speaking about things that are hard to understand, let’s get down to this week’s book. The Disappearance of Seth is everything I was just talking about—uncompromising, hard to follow, daring you to try to understand it. And it still manages to be successful, being easy to read at the same time as being hard to follow. How does that happen? I have a theory: Ali is a poet, first and foremost—he writes like a poet, in clipped, beautiful phrases that sometimes don’t even make it to the level of sentences. He uses odd punctuation and weird tense shifts, and they actually work, most of the time. My theory is that Ali’s book is easy to read because he uses small, beautiful sentences and his section breaks push the momentum—this book is designed to keep pushing you forward, even if what you’re reading doesn’t become clear all at once, or at all.
Momentum is key in this book, because the plot is not linear, and it’s also key because of the subject. Seth is about 9/11. For something so heavy and humorless as 9/11, we need the pace to be quick, otherwise we bog down in our own sorrow and personal memories. Ali does a good job of keeping us moving, even though it’s tough for anyone to read a book about something as politically loaded as 9/11 in the way it was intended. And are we too far away from that day to remember it in all its rawness? I guess what I’m asking is, can this still be an effective book? If this were just a book about something as broad as 9/11, I don’t think it could, but it is about more than that—it is personal. The “Seth” of the book’s title makes it personal.
Our main character, Seth, has died in the Twin Towers, or so the other characters think. Seth is the thread that connects all of the book’s characters together, and really the only thread that connects the book together. The other characters reflect on how he has touched their lives, and what he meant to them, and how he has changed them. The book becomes a meditation on loss and how trauma affects us, and it becomes a meditation on the things we cannot say—how we handle grief. As such, it’s a beautiful story, if unclear at times, and the way that the death is only indirectly approached echoes how we try to avoid coming to terms with loss in our own lives.
Seth is thoughtful, deep, and potent, and Ali writes his characters’ thoughts so well that their reflections become the biggest emphasis of the book. These are thoroughly developed characters, never feeling anything less than real.
That is not to say that this book does not have flaws, because it does. Ali’s use of odd punctuation and tense changes mostly work, but sometimes this technique just comes across as though he needs an editor. Need an example? “He stops by a dusty car parked at the curb and fumbled with his map, trying to unfold it” (p. 175). Most of the time I try to leave technical issues like this alone, but in Seth it happens too frequently to ignore. Trying to figure out Ali’s reasoning in these cases distracts from the rest of the book, especially when these slip-ups do not look like artistic decisions as much as they do mistakes.
Another flaw in the book is the “twist” at the end, which I won’t reveal, in case you decide to read it. Good literature, I’ve found, does not need twists to make it interesting—the writing is interesting enough. This twist is not deep enough to change the meaning of the story, and it feels a bit tacked on.
Other than those problems, however, I gladly recommend The Disappearance of Seth. It’s for you if you enjoy difficult texts that reward your effort. It’s also for you if you want beautiful, koan-like paragraphs that you can really sink your mental teeth into.
Ali, Kazim. The Disappearance of Seth. Etruscan Press, 2009. 197 pages.
Each week Drew Wade will attempt to read and review a book by an author who’s new to him, and then he’ll tell you if it’s worth your time or not.