MONSIEUR TESTE IN AMERICA & OTHER INSTANCES OF REALISM by Andrei Codrescu (Coffee House Press: $9.95, paper; 138 pp.).
What has America ever done to Andrei Codrescu that he should treat its readers like this? Born in Sibiu, Romania, in 1946, he came to the States in 1966, and since made a decent living churning out 17 volumes of prose and poetry, addressing the country on National Public Radio's "All Things Considered," and teaching at Louisiana State University.
Why, then, did he urge his usually more amusing Muse to such dismal excesses in this collection of tales (two novellas, six short stories) that aim (but fail) to provide a wild vatic vision of America through the prism of a wholly deranged and deregulated sensorium. The plots are impenetrable, the language is flat and uncolloquial (deliberately so, one presumes), the jokes flop, and the whole thing spins tediously out of control.
In the title story, a Codescru-like emigrant limps through a chaotic series of adventures or fantasies with a character vaguely resembling Paul Valery's Monsieur Teste. "I had known sex," he intones, "in the shadow of libraries whose shadow Teste was, I had walked to the store at 4:00 a.m. for cigarettes as Teste had in the hope of being the first one to spot 5:00 as it dawned on the clock. Our experience, different as it may have been, sprang from a common landscape like a lion and a man from a Formica sphinx." Plastic America, evidently.
In the violent, sinister novella, "Samba de los Agentes," the protagonist informs us that, "Usefulness is a restroom between concepts, a rest plaza between spins of the wheel that never stops. The concrete is illusory. Matter is a suggestion of rest, the hallucination of mind unaware of its own spin." Maybe, but Codescru is so bent on disturbing our rest, on making us feel that spin, that his incoherent cosmos leaves us with little more than literary motion sickness.