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Reigning odds & ends

Museum of Useless Efforts by Cristina Peri-Rossi

In this peculiar and unsettling collection of short stories, Uruguayan expatriate Cristina Peri Rossi curates a fiction exhibit of human futility fully engaged with the promise of the title piece, Museum of Useless Efforts. Originally published in 1983 (and more recently translated into English), these narratives reveal minute cosmologies within everyday contemporary urban life, addressing the uncertainties that disturb it.

The parched, anti-septic weave of the author's prose fashions textures of being as strange and abstract as any museum display dedicated to failure. Additional elements like arbitrary plot shifts and anonymous protagonists further Peri Rossi's effort to convey-as mentioned in the disorienting travelogue, "Notes from a Journey"-"the symbols of an ambiguous condition."

The experimental quality of the author's writing is most evident by its focus on objects, surroundings and clichés as the means of telling a story. "Keeping Track of Time" and "Between a Rock and a hard place" each present a prose-constructed list of observations related to such trite figures of speech. That they express nothing beyond a muted range of meaning suggests the dim existential horizon this collection reaches for.

More engaging is the protagonist in "Full Stop," who finds something of a holy grail in a doorstop entrusted to his care by a lover. Similarly, "Deaf as a Doorknob" celebrates the effort of restoring discarded objects through a lonely man who refurbishes a scarred and unhinged door.

As the condition of anonymity pervades this fiction collection, nameless narrating protagonists relate much about the world that surrounds them, but reveal very little about themselves. "Up on the Rope" features a youth with an obvious Peter Pan complex who spends his formative years perched on a high wire in his bedroom. The tale takes this fact of the story as granted without addressing the how or why of his ascendant character.

Another frustrating narrator appears in "The Bathers" as an isolated beach dweller who takes a protective, even antagonistic, stand against a busload of inlanders who visit the coastline each summer. At the expense of building a character with depth, the story wavers between an ecological survey of the beach and a useless Pavlovian exercise. "The next year, in November, they were back. Although I was unhappy about this, I was less perturbed and saw their presence was part of a cycle I would have to accustom myself to…." The behaviorist concern meanders around questions about knowledge, fantasy and reality. Still the jetty-lurking protagonist remains as elusive as at the beginning of the piece.

Setting aside obscure characters, there is much for this collection to recommend itself. What appears as the outer reaches of consciousness to the hyperbole-spouting world of sports media, plays out as a stop-the-world appreciation of one's surroundings in "The Runner Stumbles." Here, the story thwarts the certain outcome of a foot race when the expected victor takes a fancy to the outdoors:

                            He was on the verge of breaking a record. And then, the
                            ecstasy of slipping off the track, just a few meters from
                            the end…slipping calmly to the ground and raising his
                            head, oh those tall trees, the blue sky, the slow clouds,
                            the curly branch ends, the leaves fluttering…the measured
                            flight of birds….

Building the anticipation of the runner's first-place finish into a reversal of tangents-pitting a foot race against an individual reveling in the splendor of nature-is the inventive question Peri Rossi raises about the spectacle of sports.

The experimental quality of the author's writing, to the benefit of this book, does not prevent her from engaging more traditional forms of fiction. Making use of allegory displays the most amusing and provocative dimensions of her work.

A ship having set sail on a voyage without a charted destination scripts the premise of the fable "The Inconclusive Journey." The story begins with a burst of chaos that builds into a dance of abandon. "Pandemonium broke out when it was discovered we were on a one-way voyage to nowhere. Screams, pleas, and unanswerable questions were heard, crowds gathered on the deck, scuffles erupted."

It may well be read as a microcosm of civilization, which grasps desperately for order in times of crisis. "In this atmosphere of general confusion and despair, someone decided to take on the role of captain…." As a Hebrew prophet once declared, without a vision the people perish. What were the passengers to do as they faced an assured demise? "'Not lose hope,' said the speaker, his eyes fiery."

Exposing the filament of ever-reviving human effort, the narrator observes that "No one was going to lose hope, but if that were to happen say by mistake, no one was going to admit to it." In a world tossed at sea, hope becomes the very illusion by which civilization manages to carry on.

Near the end, this collection picks up a creative, thematic momentum that doubles back over the range of plots, motifs and symbols previously plied. In "The City," the elusive and anonymous protagonist (who of course goes unnamed) unloads his misgivings about identity onto an ambiguous, undetermined presence in his dreams.

                             And always, at one point or another in the dream, the
                             feeling that an unknown (or simply unrevealed) presence
                             was following him…. It was there…it had an obscure
                             relationship to him, a relationship he had forgotten, and
                             one of his failings was precisely that he couldn't say what
                             the relationship was.

The compelling mystery of this presence to the dreamer turns out to be the gender of the figure (incidentally or not, some of this collection's protagonists are depicted without mention to a specific gender, provoking much commentary from sexuality-and-gender critics). Having known for an instant, but unable to recollect it, the main character scours personal relationships from his waking hours for clues. This thriller thoughtfully explores the dimensions of memory, identity and gender, which lead to an existential meltdown.

With a weary eye lurking over the scope of her work and how critics might receive it, Peri Rossi presents "Casting Daisies to the Swine" as a cathartic gesture that rounds out this collection of short stories.

In this parable, a youth describes his chore of feeding pigs with a heightened sense for the details and ambience of a rural setting.

                            The fields are still dark, a big gray cloud is parked
                            overhead, but the patch of white daisies flutters in the
                            wind, resplendent. Over to the right is the wooden pen
                            where the pigs…sleep wedged against one another with
                            their weird hooves sticking out.

Picking daisies that grow in the nearby field is a caprice that becomes the lad's habit of feeding flowers to the pigs.

When questioned by his mother, he offers only a slant of a rationale:

                           'It's a big field,' I told her. 'I've only planted daisies, I
                           don't think there's anything else growing there…. The
                           secret of the daisies is that they don't know themselves,
                           which gives them their beauty and humility.'

The youth elaborates the base feeding frenzy that follows his tossing of daisies into the pen-"The pigs raise their heads up and squeal into the air. But then again they would probably do the same thing if instead of daisies they were going to be fed thistles"-adding later on "You have to pick a lot of daisies to satisfy the pigs."

Tacking on such a tale at the end of an often-confounding collection of short fiction compels a question about the author's confidence in her own work. For certain, Peri Rossi's stories radiate with a blissful self-indifference similar to the daisies. A reader need not look any further than to many of the central characters trafficking references every which way except toward the self.

"The Museum of Useless Efforts" for almost its entirety envisions a universe composed of obscure, disturbing dimensions rising from mundane surfaces of contemporary life. Regrettably, Peri Rossi's commitment to the "resplendent" world of her own fiction falters when confronted with critics who may not read her work as favorably as she regards it. Amongst her collected "daisies," there is definitely one rotting of self-pity, but not rank enough to spoil "beauty and humility" of the entire bunch.

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