“For some time now, distances have been increasing: all other things being equal, each day streets grow longer, suburbs farther from downtown, apartment complexes farther apart.” With these words, Bernard Quiriny begins his chapter “Deglomeration,” the fifth in a category entitled “Our Era.” The Belgian fabulist’s latest book, which I hesitate to describe as a story collection, is divided into three such categories, the other two being “Ten Cities” and “A Very Curious Collection,” which lends its name to the book as a whole.
“Ten Cities” is exactly that: ten brief, fanciful descriptions of cities real and imagined, or imagined aspects of real cities, from around the world (with the exception of Asia and Africa), sometimes narrated by the author’s recurrent character, Pierre Gould, and at other times presented as personal experience. More often than not they take the form of recounted travelogues or unattributed, guidebook-style information. They range in length from a single, two-line sentence to six or seven pages.
The entries in “A Very Curious Collection,” each thematically titled, are all presented by Gould, as he introduces the narrator to another section of his unique library. These sections, each containing one kind of book (and usually its opposite), are as eclectic as they are whimsical: books their authors have forgotten they wrote (and books authors wish they could forget, and books that are forgettable altogether); the most boring books ever written (both intentionally and not); puzzle novels (Russian nesting novels, recombinatory novels) always containing more than they appear to; books authors have tried to disown or destroy (including a notebook of Gould’s containing a novel he rejected before he ever finishing it); books impossible to read except in formal attire; specialized cookbooks (recipes for stomach trouble, recipes for skin reactions, impossible recipes); books that continue to correct themselves, quietly pursuing their revision toward perfect economy (which also means they grow shorter); books that have saved lives (and taken them); books that can act as batteries and power lamps; books that have swallowed their authors, who keep writing them from within; books like yard sales full of bric-a-brac, redeemed and made endearing by an unexpected find.
As for “Our Era,” these observations on new phenomena and their effect on contemporary society range from mass resurrections, cross-gender bodyswapping, and willful name-changing to youth serums and an infiniverse of parallel realities being created every minute by every act, no matter how insignificant.
If I seem, with these categories, to have described a book so wonderful it cannot possibly exist, that is at least partly true. A fan of the author’s work, I looked forward to this book and ultimately wanted to like it more than I did. It plays like the trailer of an impossibly good movie that, alas, we will never see, because it does not exist. And so A Very Curious Collection is by turns intriguing, exasperating, brilliant, titillating, dilettantish, cavalier, but always elusive, ever pointing outward to something greater than the sum of the disparate parts it leaves you with. Its ideas are often as half-baked as they are arresting, at worst dashed-off, at best reflecting the wit, fun, and exuberance of Quiriny’s restless experimentation, lab notes from his mad lab. There are no real standalone stories in this book; rather, the closest American market category of writing to Quiriny’s is the upscale humor essay, which often departs from a whimsical premise. Quiriny, whose targets for affectionate satire are taken less from real life than from other books, is something like a feuilletoniste of experimental literature. His satire is hit or miss, buoyed along by his nonstop invention; the real trouble is that by failing or refusing to follow up on his ideas, he has made few of them memorable.
Nevertheless, there are moments of genius. “Deglomeration,” the gradual spatial expansion of the world, begins with a hand reaching out to snooze an alarm clock and missing, “the nightstand having retreated five inches in the night.” A garage grows to the size of a tennis court. Rooms suddenly larger are partitioned into smaller ones.
That it takes increasingly longer to get anywhere reflects something of the world we know: transport that once made the world smaller is subject to congestion and delays, cities recover some of their scale when foot traffic becomes the main means of locomotion. Things seem farther apart again; Quiriny has merely literalized this experience in geography. When the distance between Concorde and Charles-de-Gaulle lengthens, more metro stops pop miraculously up to divvy up the distance into more customary intervals.
And yet, Quiriny is careful to note, “Strangely, this transformation is not accompanied by any creation of new matter. From space, the Earth does not seem to grow: photos prove this.” He returns to tweak reality on the level of absurd mundane detail at which he excels. Fields for sporting events must be redrawn before each game; delivering food amounts to a cross-country rally; real estate is a wiser investment than ever, since houses grow along with their families. Ireland, Japan, and Australia are largely unaffected. England and Scotland are among the slowest growers.
Soon, Quiriny’s narrator reflects, “we will each wind up alone on our own vast stretch of land, growing farther every day from everyone else’s.” Which is as fine a metaphor as I’ve found for the isolation, the loss of community, contemporary critics blame on our increasing ability to select and filter what we receive from our environments (usually media). “Once, visionaries believe the human race, its numbers growing every day, would have to leave Earth and colonize another planet. They were wrong: in reality, all you have to do is walk a little ways to find immense virgin spaces where you can found your own personal kingdom.” Inner space; the literalization of the virtual.
Quiriny finishes by acknowledging the temporal aspect of the experience he has literalized in physical space with a joke I find oddly moving. A remix of the classic Verne novel has become a bestseller: Around the World in Eighty Years, in which it takes three generations, grandfather to grandson, to round the globe, a feat as monumental as building a cathedral. That took a village too, though not a global one.