on Mr. Gwyn, a novel by Alessandro Baricco, tr. by Ann Goldstein (McSweeney’s)

In an essay about the avant-garde impulse in fiction, the Argentine novelist Cesar Aira suggests that the mainstream novel has become congealed “in a state of perfection that cannot exceed its premises … To take even a single step further requires colossal effort and the sacrifice of an entire life.” Uncongealing, a young writer’s aberrant fiction often gets tagged as “experimental.”

For Aira, “avant-garde” pertains to writers who make procedure their main tool, a mode “which will always seem a little irresponsible or barbarous.” But the taking of that single extra step is not an act reserved only for the iconoclast. What unites all over-steppers is the valorization of the event of language, the disruption of formal and sonic expectations in order to express or embody the density of existence and the mystery of the actual.

Such valorization does not require the narrative to deprive the reader of ordinary pleasures and recognizable gestures, or to place expression over collusion with the reader’s involvement. Aira himself has proven this through his empathic, ludic stories. Strangeness derives from language wedded to the clarity of a tilted mind. The French writer Hervé Le Tellier and the Spanish novelist Enrique Vila-Matas also come to mind. Current American innovative fictioners generally seem more invested in strangeness as technique – think of the detached, flat-speaking narrators of Kathryn Davis’ Duplex or Lucy Corin’s A Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses, both sonically accomplished works if absorbed with and within their own boundaries.

In Italy, Alessandro Baricco has taken on the mission of injecting refreshed narrative language into the literate mainstream. He has no American analog. As an unconventional novelist, he is mentioned as heir to Italo Calvino, while his film and performance work connect him to Pasolini. A widely recognized cultural figure, he is a charming media celebrity whose lively and surprising opinions on the arts are widely appreciated. His presence illuminates creative possibilities and cross-genre relations that a mass readership can meaningfully experience, and they do so avidly.

BariccoRepubblica.jpgBorn in Turin in 1958, Baricco earned degrees in philosophy and music, wrote ad copy for an agency, and then emerged as a music columnist for La Repubblica. Soon he was hosting television shows on opera and literature. In 1991, his first novel, Castelli di rabbia (Castles of Anger), was published by Rizzoli and won the Prix Medicis. More novels appeared, all selling very well despite their eccentric characters and departure from conventions of commercial fiction. They have been translated into many languages; five have appeared in English.

In 1994, he wrote and staged a theatrical monologue, selling out every performance. Ten years later, he read his adaptation of The Iliad to packed audiences. He directed a film on Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and recorded an album with the French band Air. While all this was occurring, he founded and directed a creative writing institute, Scuola Holden in Turin, offering courses in narrative techniques for novels and short stories to screenwriting and video games. The school’s name evokes J.D. Salinger’s famous character.

BariccoCover.jpgIn Mr. Gwyn, his latest novel translated for Anglophones, the title character is a “quite fashionable” English novelist who suddenly decides at the age of forty-three to give up writing books because “it no longer suited him.” Jasper Gwyn announces his decision in The Guardian and phones his agent, Tom Bruce Shepperd, with the news, adding that he will instead become a copyist. Unsure of what comprises the job of a copyist, he soon determines that the work consists of preparing a written portrait of a human subject, his paying customer. However, Gwyn senses that the project requires an approach and form yet to be discovered or invented. He rents an industrial flat, hires a composer to produce a looped ambient soundtrack, installs a 32-bulb lighting system that shines for exactly 32 days (each day one bulb dies until the copying is finished), and brings on Tom’s staffer Rebecca as an aide. Experimenting with her as his first subject, he specifies that the work sessions will require her to disrobe.

Jasper and Tom discuss this reckless abandonment of a successful profession: “They went on talking for a while, and it was a wonderful phone call, because they ended up discussing the profession of writing and things they both loved. Jasper Gwyn explained the circumstances of the portrait appealed to him because they compelled him to force his talent into an uncomfortable position. He realized that the premises were ridiculous, but that was precisely what appealed to him, in the suspicion that if you removed from writing the natural possibility of the novel, it would do something to survive, a movement, something.”

The narrative voice aligns with the mind of Gwyn: unsettled yet patient, firm in aspiration yet open to happenstance, gently but persistently obsessive. Mr. Gwyn trades in metafiction – the text consists of two linked novellas, the first on Gwyn’s copyist venture, and the other a mysteriously related tale. But the mildly comic tone and the attuned consideration of human relations comprise Baricco’s generosity to the reader. Mr. Gwyn conjoins its subject and its technique: the reader proceeds to discern and enjoy Gwyn’s copyist project while simultaneously detaching from the armature of the conventional novel. The Englishman’s terseness is craftily devised by Ann Goldstein from the Italian original.

Baricco.jpgGwyn goes on to create “portraits” of seven other subjects. But it is the first, of Rebecca, that triggers thinking about the relationship between artist and subject, and author and reader. After 32 days of nakedness with Gwyn, Rebecca says, “It might seem stupid to you, but at the end I would have expected you to at least hug me … Look, don’t get the wrong idea, I’m not in love with you. I don’t think – it’s something else, and it has to do with that particular moment, that darkness and that moment. I don’t know if I can explain it, but all those days when you are basically your body and almost nothing else … all those days set up a kind of expectation that something physical should happen, at the end. Something that rewards you. A distance that’s filled in, I’d like to say. You fill it in by writing, but I? …”

The reader, too, has expectations for fiction and often expects a “reward” by way of conclusion and a sense that something significant has been exposed. Baricco leads the reader to an alternate set of gratifications. For Gwyn, the challenge is clear: “He had to go back to remember the purity of what he was looking for, and the cleanness he wished for, in the heart of his own talent. He did it calmly, letting the joy he knew re-emerge by itself – the desire. Then, gradually, he went back to work.”

For the reader, the story moves forward “while we are elsewhere” – writer and reader are always on the brink of recognition. Keeping us suspended there is tricky work and risks the leakage of attention and dilution of narrative energy. Baricco is reaching for something – a story that will illuminate the sensation that “we are all a few pages of an unwritten book.”

Reviewing novels by A.L. Kennedy in The New York Review of Books, April Bernard writes, “When a writer has only an incidental relation to the reader but is instead shaping a story entirely in answer to personal need, and so in effect is talking to himself, the odds are against the odds succeeding; and the writers we admire who have written chiefly from this inner compulsion, among whom I would include Kafka, Melville, and -- in poetry – Dickinson, are extraordinary in part because they are able to carry off the nearly impossible.”

If I read Bernard correctly, she regards “personal need” and “inner compulsion” as suspect impulses one must cautiously regulate; only a few masters succeed in writing “chiefly” out of these renegade urges. Implying that the success of most novels springs from a heedlessness to such unruly beckonings, she warns unless you are celestially talented, you may expect to create a gulf between yourself and the reader if you violate conventions.

Yes, there’s a risk. But what a narrow and dispiriting point of view.

[Published July 8, 2014. 150 pages, $18.00 hardcover at the McSweeney’s Store.