WEBS, nets, mosaics, tapestries--the 10 stories in Julio Cort,azar's new collection We Love Glenda So Much and Other Tales deal with the human need to impose order and sense on imperfectly connected phenomena: what the narrator of "Return Trip Tango" calls "that baroque necessity of the intelligence that leads it to fill every hollow until its perfect web has been spun and it can go on to something new."
Cort,azar often presents these webs by means of the fantastic which he calls "the dominant feature of my work." In the title story, the film fans of Glenda Garson decide to alter and re-edit her films in order to make them perfect. They have money, power and immense energy. They scour the world, stealing the copies of every movie, then change them in their secret laboratory until at last "Glenda's image was now being projected without the slightest weakness." What drives them is the desire to make certain that "she alone was saved from what the rest of us did imperfectly."
Born in Brussels in 1914, Cort,azar was raised outside of Buenos Aires in a large house that he once described as a "gothic stage set." In a lecture several years ago, he said, "From the time I was very little I learned that werewolves came out when there was a full moon, that the mandrake was a deadly plant, that in cemeteries terrible and horrifying things took places, that dead people's hair and fingernails kept growing interminably, and that in our house there was a basement to which nobody had the nerve to descend--ever."
Cort,azar's love of the fantastic dates from this period and from his reading of Edgar Allan Poe whom he later translated. But in his own rejection of realism, he was influenced by the early 20th-century French writers Alfred Jarry and Guillaume Apollinaire and by what Apollinaire called "surnaturalism" which was the mixing of the fantastic and realistic in order to make the reader challenge traditional definitions of reality. One of Cort,azar's most famous early stories, "Axolotl," begins, "There was a time when I thought a great deal about the axolotls. I went to see them in the aquarium at the Jardin des Plantes and stayed for hours watching them, observing their immobility, their faint movements. Now I am an axolotl."
This is a political sense of literature. Cort,azar wants to jolt people out of their self-complacency, to make them doubt their own definitions of the world. In an early essay, he described his writing as "seeking an alternative to that false realism which assumed that everything could be neatly described as was upheld by the philosophic and scientific optimism of the eighteenth century."
Cort,azar is one of the world's great writers. His range of styles, his ability to paint a scene, his humor, his endlessly peculiar mind make many of his stories wonderful. His novel Hopscotch is considered one of the best novels written by a South American, while his first collection of short stories in English End of the Game constantly startles and moves the reader by its brilliance. Unfortunately, that earlier collection is still superior to this new book We Love Glenda So Much.
What partly made the stories in End of the Game so good was that they dealt with people in states of extreme loneliness, isolation, separation from the world. One cared about these characters and was moved by their difficulties. The problem with too many of these new stories is that while they may be striking, one doesn't care about them.
This is best seen in the story "Clone" which concerns eight men and women who tour South America singing madrigals and whose perfect singing relationship is destroyed by a complicated love triangle within the group. In a note at the end of the story, Cort,azar explains the structure was based on Johann Sebastian Bach's A Musical Offering, that the eight characters match the eight instruments and that "the development of each passage tries to resemble the musical form." The result is brilliant but not very satisfying. There is nothing to prop up the story's intricate surface with the result that it seems to tumble in on itself.
A more successful story, "Text in a Notebook," deals with a man trying to impose sense on a passenger survey of the Buenos Aires subway after he learns that on one day 113,987 entered the subway and only 113,983 came out. Actually, the story is about the narrator's need to make sense of this unexplained phenomenon which leads to madness when he decides the subway system is being taken over by thousands of people who go into the subways but never return: "I spend so many hours in the subway . . . that I can immdiately spot them among the crowds all jammed together in the station; they're so pale and so sad, almost all of them are so sad."
The narrator's inability to accept the idea that the difference was accidental damages all his definitions of reality. This certainly becomes more interesting than the situation itself. When Cort,azar transcends the fantastic to the human, the stories stop being surface and one comes to care about them. This happens in the best stories like "Graffiti," "Return Trip Tango" and "Stories I Tell Myself." In others, however, he seems so concerned with challenging the reader's definitions of reality, the story doesn't go past that original challenge. One is aware of brilliant writing and brilliant structure but most of the stories aren't emotionally engaging.
One of the reasons that people read is to find evidence of human life which jars them out of their own sense of isolation. With the fantastic it is all too easy for the situation to overwhelm that evidence of human life. The needdto impose order on disorder, to see patterns where none exist is a common enough human need but too often the stories don't go past the situation which exemplifies this need. The fans of Glenda Garson end up creating for her a perfect body of work. Like the man dealing with the subways of Buenos Aires, they are driven to increasingly extreme behavior in order to protect their definitions as to how the world should be. This also becomes Cort,azar's weakness: to challenge our accustomed ways of seeing the world, he is forced to use ever greater degrees of the fantastic. The problem is that after having got the reader's attention, many of the stories don't take him anywhere. The reader responds as he might to a shout in a library reading room. He glances up, then after a moment returns to his book, his business and the usual definitions of the world.