How do you review a book that was not written for you?
This is the second novel by Jana Beňová I’ve read, and I was not a fan of the first, Seeing People Off. While I enjoyed Away! Away! marginally more, it was not something I would have read past the first two pages had I not made the (admittedly arbitrary) commitment to read every Slovak novel in English I could find.
But this time, it doesn’t seem quite fair to complain that the book has no plot to speak of, nor characters and emotions that compel me in the slightest. It is not meant to be that kind of book, so it’s a trifle unjust to charge it with failure. This time I’m trying to meet it where it’s at. Just be warned, if you are a reader who requires a plot, this book is not for you, either.
I think the first problem is calling the book a “novel.” I realize the point of postmodern (even much modern) literary writing is to deconstruct the whole notion of plot, character development, etc. Nevertheless, it ends up being a bit of false advertising to go under the same name.
I’m not even entirely sure the work qualifies as prose—and in good meta fashion, the “characters” have a couple of conversations about prose vs. poetry. The spacing between paragraphs is erratic (though no doubt deliberate in its erraticness), and from paragraph there is constant switching between third person, first person, narrator intrusion, and occasional outbursts or asides not attributed to anybody. A fair number of the paragraphs are longer than a Tweet, but not by much. This could be extracts from someone’s Facebook feed, or a diary by a person with a short attention span.
If anything, the text reminded me of flipping through TV channels or internet surfing, so I presume that’s the effect it’s going for—a life so thoroughly non-linear, non-narrative, and overlaid with the conventions of social media that it’s impossible to do otherwise than switch from one thing to the next. As Virginia Woolf and James Joyce gave us stream-of-consciousness writing, Beňová aims to give us stream-of-social-media writing. (Since I spend a good deal of my willpower day by day striving to avoid this kind of consciousness, I thoroughly disliked experiencing it in the book—but again, an unfair criticism if that was the book’s goal, which it achieved.)
For all that, there is something like a progression within the book. Rosa is a woman who is always leaving (hence “Away! Away!”), one place for the next, one man for the next. By the end you get a hint that somehow the person she had become with Son, the principal man she leaves in the course of the story, was stagnant and untruthful. But since there is no narrative and to all appearances no truth, there’s also no sense of how she came to this realization—only that flight was felt to be necessary.
Here and there we gets hints of Son’s perspective, and little glimpses of Corman, the man Rosa leaves Son for, and Pierre, a puppeteer, along with cameos of places and a few other people. Collectively they form a blurry mosaic of people alienated from themselves, their culture, and everyone they know. It’s post-revolutionary letdown: turns out things don’t automatically get better just because repressive communism has ended. It may be worse now, because there’s no enemy and no hope for a better future—the future is here, and it sucks, too. There is no resolution or cathartic realization at the end, just a vague sense that life will always be flight.
It’s incredibly dreary.
I know you can’t just hand someone a metanarrative and say, Hey! Life is meaningful and good, despite the darkness and suffering; join me in hope, and let’s work on rewarding relationships. But after sharing for ninety-nine pages in fractured selves, I wish it was within my power at least to put the broken pieces of personhood back together again. Not an “away,” but a “start over.”