(Minneapolis, MN: Coffee House Press, 2019)
With a quill dipped in satire and tongue lodged in his cheek, Robert Burton wrote The Anatomy of Melancholy in the early 17th century. Ostensibly a medical text, he instead opined on the philosophies of the learned and lettered: Seneca and Pliny, Democritus and Hippocrates (the former described by the latter as a “wearish old man, very melancholy by nature”). He took his scalpel and wit to the common and the coarse as well, discoursing on topics from hawking to horse riding, to the ill-effects of forcing an undesired marriage (the sons would be thieves, the daughters harlots) to the general psychological conditions of men. Fittingly, Haber quotes Burton in the epigraph, “A most incomparable delight it is so to melancholize, and build castles in the air…”
In the novel, Reinhardt’s Garden, melancholy is theme, context, and practically a character. Around it, Haber constructs an enchanting story of satirical wit, dark humor, and luminous creativity. He is a contemporary absurdist, a smart satirist. The influences of writers he admires hover over his pages: Bellow, Nabokov, Barthelme, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Aira, and Woolf. Similar in voice to his collection of short stories, Deathbed Conversions published in 2008, his eccentric characters navigate ludicrous predicaments that expose elemental human virtues and vice. Haber’s love for Latin-American literature in translation informs his aesthetic as well as influencing his publications. His literary criticism of César Aira, Enrique Vila-Matas, and Andrés Barba appears in LitHub, Music & Literature, and The Rumpus. He also served as a juror for the National Endowment for the Arts translation grant and the Best Translated Book Award.
The author isn’t interested in the mundane. His characters live; the obsessive Jacov Reinhardt abandons his home in Croatia, crosses Hungary, Germany, and Russia, plunging finally into the jungles of South America to find the man who inspired his life’s work, Emiliano Gomez Carrasquilla: the lost philosopher of melancholy. His loyal secretary of eleven years follows, promising to transcribe the multi-volume treatise Reinhardt has been writing for eleven years, in his head. In the Stuttgart estate that he calls a castle, Reinhardt leaves behind Sonja, his one-legged lover and former prostitute as housekeeper; her duties include caring for the property and preserving, not cleaning, the dust. Accompanying the men on their doomed journey is Ulrich, a German who breeds attack dogs for fascists for a living. The young Vita appears in memory throughout, Reinhardt’s twin who died from typhoid as a child; the loss of his nine-year old soulmate haunts him for life. In 150 dense pages, the characters reveal themselves by their relationship to Reinhardt’s quest, as well as their own misguided desires and peculiar delusions. It’s difficult not to compare the novel’s journey to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness –– a jungle expedition, a tale of obsession. The comparison would be apt had Joseph Heller created the character Kurtz, Franz Kafka narrated the journey into the Congo, and Marlow been a cocaine addict.
In stream-of-consciousness style, Reinhardt’s Garden is written as a single paragraph, driving to a surprisingly fulfilling, perhaps inevitable end. It’s hard not to search for conceit in the unconventional narrative, if not metonymy, then at least form as function –– mimicry of Reinhardt’s relentless obsession, unrelenting narration, without pause or breath, until the story’s end. Regardless of intent, Haber’s execution is nearly flawless. Point-of-view remains clear, each character’s voice is discernible with few dialogue tags and fewer quotations, while they tell stories from past to present and back again. Additionally, the narrator inserts direct observations while others are made from a free indirect point of view:
Defending himself from imagined slights, Jacov paced the study and tugged at his smock; why wouldn’t I examine something as miraculous as dust, he pondered, something that returns as soon as you’ve gotten rid of it, which, of course, you haven’t since nothing could be more perverse, nothing more idiotic, nothing more revolting than the belief you’ve eradicated dust. Nothing is as dogged, in fact, as unimpeachable, in fact, as thoroughly ubiquitous, in fact, as dust. Dust and melancholy. And thus, Jacov spent a considerable amount of time studying the relationship between dust and melancholy and then melancholy and dust…
Though melancholy pervades every corner of this novel, Haber’s work is anything but doleful or dispirited. It is the opposite –– an exhilarating grand adventure of passion, obsession and lunacy. “…Jacov was always rapturous and methodical, always ecstatic about his masterwork because, in a sense, thinking about melancholy, studying melancholy, writing about melancholy made Jacov delirious with joy.”
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Laura Calaway is an ardent reader, a persistent writer, a lifelong Texan, holds a BA in creative writing from the University of Houston, and an MFA from Fairleigh Dickinson University in fiction. She writes fiction, tweets, and posts to Instagram, not necessarily in that order, @lauracalaway.