Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Convalescent by Jessica Anthony

I literally just finished reading this book today during my morning commute on the train. Still not quite sure how I feel about the ending, but I loved the rest of the book. I suppose the ending is kind of amazing because it's so bizarre (although that certainly isn't the only part of the book I would describe that way).

Anyway, The Convalescent is about a small ugly man named Rovar Pfliegman who sells [stolen] meat out of a broken down bus in the middle of a field in Virginia. The narrative jumps back and forth between the history of the Pfliefman's and Rovar's day to day existence and occasionally also his childhood. All of these aspects are seamlessly woven together to create a portrait of a simultaneously humorous and somber existence.

I could probably ramble forever about all the little things in this book that were interesting and funny and contribute to making it totally-worth-reading. However, one thing in particular has been nibbling on my brain as I've been thinking about this book. Rovar is a strange narrator. About 3/4 of the way through the book, he gets a look at his folder in Dr. Monica's office, and sees her notes about him: "Pseudomaniacal tendencies...Invents various illnesses for personal attention...PHYSICALLY, THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH HIM" (187). This blunt note comes as a surprise, as Rovar laments his unfortunate physical state repeatedly throughout the narrative. Is it all a lie? Or do others simply not perceive his pain? Are his claims of disfigurement not physical but rather a metaphorical reflection of himself, or society?

Rovar's reliability as a narrator comes into question, but it's not quite as simple as just that. Since throughout the book he also is relating the history of his people, Rovar's narration also represents a construction of history--an untold history, no less. And with Rovar as the supposed last remaining Pfliegman, he is the only source for this history aside from a book given to him by his grandfather: The Rise and Fall and Rise of the Hungarians by Anonymus (sic) (as for the title...I think that's about right). Throughout the book, it is implied that the weakest members of a society, those whose history is forgotten and left untold, are often the ones who hold society together, the ones who create an invisible skeleton upon which the epic "mainstream" version of history can be constructed. Perhaps not a novel concept necessarily, but Anthony presents it with enough humor and fantasy to make one really wonder what could be missing from our history books, and how that history was decided on.

Aside from the epic question of HISTORY, The Convalescent also simply calls attention to the small things in life--whether the small things are actually things, or even people.

It's a beautiful book and I highly recommend it. The book design and bookjacket are also wonderful so even if you hate reading it, I'm sure you'll at least enjoy holding it.

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