The Book We're Talking About: 'Black Vodka' By Deborah Levy

The Book We're Talking About

Black Vodka: Ten Stories
by Deborah Levy
Bloomsbury USA, $23.00
Publishes June 10, 2014

The Book We're Talking About is a weekly review combining plot description and analysis with fun tidbits about the book.

What we think:
Deborah Levy's last book, Swimming Home, was nominated for the Man Booker Prize in 2012. It was easily the most peculiar of the nominees that year, and struggled to find a home among larger houses before being acquired by English publisher And Other Stories. Like many of this summer's literary blockbusters (Emma Straub's The Vacationers, Herman Koch's Summer House With Swimming Pool), it centered on an uncomfortable family vacation. Two families already struggling to enjoy themselves arrive at a villa in the French Riviera, and are met by a stuttering yet beautiful and very naked girl who has already made herself at home there. Further alarming scenes play out in Levy's detached, realistic style, lending the story a dreamlike, David Lynchian air.

Like David Lynch, Levy is a master of many mediums. Her writing career began with theatre -- she's written a handful of plays that were produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company -- which is evident in her ability to craft immersive scenes. She's also a novelist and poet. Black Vodka is her second collection of short stories, and with it she seems to have rediscovered the form that best showcases her psychologically poignant observations. Levy's stories are very short -- 10 are packed into about 120 pages -- but each manages to quickly construct its own specific mood. Atmospheric writing tends to shirk the importance of fully realized characters, but Levy manages to create those, too.

The first and titular story, "Black Vodka," follows a man with kyphosis -- the overcurvature of the upper back -- on a date with an anthropologist, whose interest in him may or may not be strictly clinical. What begins as a brazen diary entry about the toils of misfit-dom ("people sink their eyes into my hump for six seconds longer than protocol should allow") morphs slowly, almost imperceptibly, into a broader, relatable commentary on our desire for acceptance, and the anxiety that comes with "the promise of love." Levy's humor comes in the form of quotidian absurdities, mentioned in passing: the pear liqueur ordered by the couple "strangely, does not taste of pear."

The story ends with the protagonist's heartbeat going "berserk," setting the pace for the remainder of the collection. Levy's terse sentences build into high-pitch scenes. In "Shining a Light," protagonist Alice has landed in a foreign country, and "she knows before it is completely certain that her bag will not appear." The ensuing vacation is dreamlike, funny and bizarre, as Alice dances and swims her way across Prague, all while wearing the same blue dress. Again, Levy humorously fuses the absurd and the commonplace: "The composer tells her his name is Alex but that she can call him Mr. Composer if she likes. And then he doesn't say a word for the entire journey."

The strongest of the collection might be "Placing a Call," a three-page, anxiety-inducing story that skirts the line between fiction and poetry. The narrator describes her dissolving marriage, likening the feeling to a jarring, ringing telephone. In this story and the others, Levy harkens Lydia Davis's undulating, dreamlike style, moving quickly between tender observations and abrupt actions. A character may race bumblingly to answer a ringing phone in one sentence, and contemplate the rain in the next. Levy stitches such seemingly contradictory scenes together seamlessly to create an abstract, evocative collection.

What other reviewers think:
The New Yorker: "The ten stories in this collection have an air of secrecy. Their characters live in closed-off, private worlds, and even their intimate encounters feel like mere brushes."

The Guardian: "Like their protagonists, these stories do not give up their secrets easily, although they are by no means difficult to understand. But they are powerful because they are fragmentary, elliptical; because they interrupt and disrupt themselves, and refuse to settle down into something immediately recognisable."

Who wrote it?
Deborah Levy is the author of several plays and novels, including Swimming Home, which was nominated for the Man Booker Prize in 2012.

Who will read it?
Fans of very short stories, à la Lydia Davis.

Opening lines:
"The first time I met Lisa I knew she was going to help me become a very different sort of man."

Notable passage:
"When she looks at her watch she wonders if Alex might have got lost. Has something happened to him in the wood? She thinks something is about to happen. This is how she felt at the baggage reclaim. A feeling of dread in her stomach when she knew her bag had gone missing. Strange thoughts occur to her now as she waits for him. She wonders if there are people hiding in the woods because they have lose their country and their home and their children and their sister and cousin and she thinks Alex might have lost his brother and father because of something he said earlier. She thinks about the form she had to fill in at the airport and the official who looked bored when she listed all the things she had lost."

Rating, out of ten:
8. Levy's stories acutely and poetically portray the experiences of outsiders -- visitors in foreign countries, men with physical deformities. With short fiction, she seems to have found her strongest medium, even if the occasional cliché disrupts her spare prose.

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