October 5, 2010

Book review: "Almaty-Transit," by Dana Mazur

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Almaty-Transit, by Dana Mazur

By Dana Mazur

As I've said here many times before, although in general I'm proud of CCLaP's standing policy to review any book that any person takes the time to send to me (with some exceptions, of course -- see the center's submission policy for more), I also recognize that the quality of these books by and large match the circumstances behind their publishing, with 95 percent of the self-published novels I receive not able to hold a candle to 95 percent of the ones published by large mainstream presses; so it's always a cause for celebration when coming across one of these titles from that five percent that can easily stand up to any other book on the market, much like for example Dana Mazur's new Almaty-Transit, an unassuming little ebook I received with almost no fanfare from the author a few months ago, and that has been slowly climbing to the top of my reading queue until finally getting there last week. Oh, but don't assume that Mazur is some untrained newbie, which I suppose is an early sign that this is to be a quite different self-published literary debut than normal; raised in the former Soviet nation of Kazakhstan and the holder of a theatre degree from there, she already has several stage productions and a short film under her belt, and through exchange studies in school is thoroughly versed in and comfortable with Western culture as well, even eventually helping to create the first version of MTV Russia.

And indeed, it's no surprise I think that an excerpt from this novel has already appeared in a past issue of global-minded hipster touchstone McSweeney's, because of it being chock-full of the kinds of things that McSweeney editors love -- an ingenious plot that takes place half among adult-contemporary jazz musicians in Los Angeles and half among a working-class family in the author's native Kazakhstan, this can really only be described with the nebulous term "New Weird," a true blend of different styles and tones that lets it dip its toes into several different genres without ever fully becoming any of them. Because despite what you might hear in other reviews, this is not simply a magical-realism tale along the lines of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, although it's easy to see why people think that at the novel's beginning; bringing together the two above-mentioned environments literally through marriage, it's the story of one of these drug-addicted LA jazz producers, always positive that her first big hit CD is just around the corner but never actually in reach, and her Kazakh husband who was a microbiologist back in Asia but now a cabdriver in the US, who very near the beginning of the book is killed in a freak accident while out with the adored mixed-race son of the two, the moody preteen Sultan.

In what at least sounds, then, like a riff on traditional Kazakh mythology (but which could be entirely made up as far as I know), the dead Aidar sticks around as a main character for the rest of the book, transported back to his birth city of Almaty in spirit form but with a hitch, that his dying wish (required to be honored by Anatole, Kazakh lord of the dead) is to travel back to LA to watch over his son and wife, creating a paradox of sorts when it comes to the usual rules governing the newly dead. So not only does the novel hop from West to East within the construct of social realism, as we compare the fates of Merry, the junky wife left behind (who falls into a complicated relationship with a crooked doctor hired by the same jazz-club owner who Merry works for) and Aidar's old-fashioned mother over in Almaty (who slowly has a breakdown over her son's death and subsequent possible ghostly sightings, then literally gives all her possessions to a fake/real psychic and Russian lesbian known only as Black Shaman, in the hopes of strengthening the signal of these spiritual visions she's been having); but then there's a whole complicated story going on simultaneously on the metaphysical side of things, with it turning out for example that Anatole's ghostly wife is none other than a woman who Aidar once jilted in his youth, back when they were both alive, with this adding yet more complexities to whether or not Anatole is ultimately going to honor Aidar's dying wish or not. And this of course is not to mention Anatole's jackal-headed assistant Nube, or the two pig-faced freak-of-nature children that Anatole and his wife have had together in the afterlife, or the fact that the incestuous, older-than-they-appear children have had kids of their own, which are born at first into the physical world as repulsive-looking all-white rotten apples, who only grow into humanoid form by being marinated in dishes of milk and sugar, two of which have inadvertently been eaten by humans while in embryo form, which then gave these humans supernatural powers while still on Earth.

This is why I say that Almaty-Transit isn't actually a magical-realism novel, because large sections of it (including the entire last third) dip straight over into legitimate magic, out-and-out urban fantasy tales where both the living and dead cross back and forth through highly symbolic portals like Anatole's haunted-house of a mansion, even as other large sections trudge ahead in perfect social-realism style, showing the real-world repercussions of an addict artist who's suddenly been left to raise a mischievous child on her own, plus of course just the benign ins-and-outs of daily life in Kazakhstan, which ironically comes off as exotic itself to American eyes and was smart of Mazur to include in her book. And yes, I'll be the first to admit that this mish-mash of styles and themes could easily become an unreadable trainwreck in another person's hands; but under the deft literary management of Mazus, instead all the pieces come clicking together by the end, in so tight and inventive a way that you wonder why everyone isn't writing a US/Kazakh New-Weird-magical-realism-urban-fantasy hybrid these days.

Granted, if this had come out on a major press, I probably would've given it a score only in the 8s -- you absolutely need to be a fan of the New Weird to really love it, for example (and not just that but a fan of the New Weird's outer edges, people like Sebastien Doubinsky and Robert Freeman Wexler), plus for all her attention and effort, Mazur still gets maybe two dozen English words slightly wrong in this manuscript, and could've greatly benefited from having a native English-speaking editor. But also as I've said before, part of what determines a score here is how much a book either falls below or exceeds the expectations behind its publishing circumstances; so for a self-published book by a foreign writer to be as good as this one is, in a format where you usually count yourself lucky if a manuscript is even legible, is enough to push its score into the low 9s today, especially considering that such books need all the promotional help they can get. It's just the ticket for those who like their literature bizarre, beautiful, international and unclassifiable, and there's almost no doubt that Almaty-Transit will be making my experimental-novel best-of list here at CCLaP at the end of the year.

Out of 10: 9.1

Read even more about Almaty-Transit: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari

Filed by Jason Pettus at 4:38 PM, October 5, 2010. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |