Open Letter Books Take Risks, Deliver Huge Rewards

Open Letter Books is publishing some of the best novels I’ve read in years.

While at AWP in Boston in March, I stopped by the Open Letter table, stunned by the most superficial of things: the covers of their books. Simply designed and featuring bold colors, the books seemed unpretentious, focused, and inviting. The way they felt in my hands, with their soft matte covers and crisp pages, made me want to hold them longer. Sappy, I know. But the descriptions of the stories seemed interesting, so I bought four of them. And I’m so glad I did.

Tirza coverTirza by Arnon Grunberg is the story of a man who slowly loses his mind. Jörgen Hofmeester has lost a fortune after the September 11th attacks, and now his daughter, Tirza, is dating a man who looks, to Jorgen, a lot like Mohammad Atta, one of the September 11th hijackers. Jörgen himself is seething, but he’s barely aware of his anger, or any of his feelings, which is why, when he goes crazy and commits a horrible crime, we’re barely aware of it until long after it happens. When I discovered what Jorgen had done, I had to read that passage twice, just to be sure I understood what had just been revealed.

From Tirza, I went to 18% Gray by Zachary Karabashliev. In this novel, the protagonist, Zachary Karabashliev, is struggling to make sense of his life after his wife Stella walks out of it. He drives from the United States to Mexico for some self-destructive debauchery and, through a few strange twists, ends up with a huge bag of marijuana. Somehow he crosses back into the United States with the marijuana and decides to take it to New York City to sell. Along the way, he takes photographs of the people (18% gray is a photography reference).

Eighteen_Percent_Gray-web-194x30018% Gray is useful for writers because it uses what MFA programs typically advise you not to use: flashbacks. This whole novel depends on italicized flashbacks—conversations between Zachary and Stella as he takes pictures of her. As I read these flashbacks, I couldn’t help but remember the advice of a famous author I studied with: “Avoid flashbacks whenever possible.” Apparently it wasn’t possible to avoid them in 18% Gray, and thank goodness Karabashliev didn’t try to write around them, as I often do.

By the way, this novel has a twist at the end, too—but I won’t spoil it for you.

Finally, there’s Scars by Juan José Saer. This novel breaks the mold. It’s so far from the MFA model of storytelling that you may want to read it just to wash the repetitive three act structure out of your brain (although you could argue that this book has three acts, too). The story revolves around an event that we witness only in the fourth and final part of the book: a man shoots his wife in the face with a shotgun. The first part is the story of a young man who lives a troubled life with his mother and witnesses the murderer’s suicide. The second part features an attorney obsessed with baccarat. A judge creates a “superfluous” translation of The Picture of Dorian Gray in the third part. And then the murderer tells his story in the fourth.

scars_highresScars makes you work as a reader in ways that American novels today do not. I pushed through long passages in which the lawyer explains his baccarat strategy, searching wildly for the gleaming nugget of truth. I struggled to follow the judge as he drives to and from work, coldly describing people as “gorillas.” There is a reward for all this work—the sense that you have vicariously experienced life as another person. What else can you ask of a good novel?

I’ve yet to read the fourth and shortest of the novels I picked up at the Open Letter Books table: A Short Tale of Shame by Angel Igov. I’m looking forward to reading it.

Did I mention that all these novels are translated from non-English languages? Tirza was written in Dutch; 18% Gray, Bulgarian; Scars, Spanish.

Perhaps I found these novels so refreshing because they came from so far away. These did not feel like American books. These books take risks. As writers, we gain so much by reading writers who remind us that risk-taking is more than just possible. Risk taking is desirable, because the rewards to readers, as these books demonstrate, are enormous.

About Peter Biello

Peter Biello is the host of All Things Considered on New Hampshire Public Radio and a writer of short stories, novels, book reviews, and essays. He's also the host of The Bookshelf, a series of interviews with authors from or writing about the Granite State.
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