Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Dormouse Dreaming - #18

STORY: "How's Life Treating You, Viskovitz?" by Alessandro Boffa

FROM: YOU'RE AN ANIMAL, VISKOVITZ! (Vintage 2003), Trans. John Casey with Maria Sanminiatelli, Illus. Roz Chast

BASICALLY: Viskovitz takes innumerable forms. As a dormouse, he wakes painfully from his delicious hibernatory dreams to forage for acorns. He steals a nap to relish a few extra moments of dream world pleasure with his imaginary mistress, but his real world and his dream world end up colliding in the most surprising manner possible.

Oh, I do wish I had written this. "How's Life Treating You, Viskovitz?" fuses a Platonic cave of shadows with a world-weary dormouse narrator with multiplicitous dreamworld realities with wise and hilarious commentary. Viskovitz awakens as a dormouse and longs only to sleep again, grumbling in a manner both elevated and ridiculous. In his self-directed dreams, he has invented for himself a perfect dormouse companion named Ljuba (meaning "love"), but she's starting to get a bit querulous, complaining that Viskovitz treats her like a doll and doesn't let her fulfill her own desires.

Meanwhile, Viskovitz muses on the nature of reality with a distinctly dormouse philosophy. He notes that he had chosen his ugly, "depressing" mate Jana "Because only a life made up of boredom and frustration leads to fulfilling and magnificent dreams. And those are the moments that count. If the hereafter—that is, wakefulness—is hell, then life—that is, dreaming—will be paradise. Not the other way around."

Got that? Because when Ljuba suddenly enters Viskovitz's real life and reveals the role she's had in his dreams all this time, the whole philosophy is upended. But it's okay; Viskovitz gets his blissfully happy ending.

This is a story that turns on a bit of a trick rather than a plot (and part of the trick is that you think it's one trick, but it turns out to be another). I love fiction that works this way, though probably it's not for everyone. Still, there's one particular technique Boffa employs that I'd like to point out as potentially useful. Part of the charm, and much of the humor of this very short story stems from the way the author inhabits his character's point of view. On the one hand, the story is a fable, and like the animals of Aesop, Viskovitz seems very human. But Boffa interjects a number of great details particular to dormouse sensibility:

  • "As my metabolism got into gear I was tortured by pains in my joints, by dehydration, by the distress of every single cell. It was the agony of reawakening, of a torment that would last another four months until the next hibernation. At a time like this there's only hunger that gives you the strength to get to your feet—the knowledge that if you don't fatten up, you won't be able to get back to sleep."
  • "My den was the former nest of a woodpecker hollowed out of a sessiliflore oak." As far as I can tell, this is not only scientifically correct, but also is so perfect that an old dormouse would know the type of tree he lives in, just like a human would know a ranch-style from a Colonial.
  • "The problem with Ljuba was that she never wanted to do with me those things that boy and girl dormice do in dreams—that is, sleep."
  • And my very, very favorite line of all… "I greeted her with a zi-zi, our dormouse love-call. Then, coming down from a banana tree, I approached, gorgeous and indolent as a rodent god."
I would like that last one on a t-shirt. And a bumper sticker.  And tattooed as a tramp stamp.  Anyway, it greatly enriches Boffa's tale that he folds facts about real dormice into his narrative voice and uses them to advance the story. Even when our characters are, for whatever reason, left unrounded, it might be worthwhile to flesh them out with a little bit of perspective. Ask yourself, In what ways does this particular character view the world that are wholly different from how any other character would view it?  The answer might add a bit of texture... And I don't think I'm alone when I say that of anything, we want our stories to be interesting.