Criticism & Features

NBCC Reads

Spring 2009: Long Tail #1—Gary Giddins

By James Marcus

Although we posted our omnibus summary of responses last week, we will continue to highlight individual choices through the end of this month. To kick off the Long Tail series, we have a suggestion from Gary Giddins, who won the 1998 NBCC award in criticism for Visions of Jazz.

GARY GIDDINS: I’m submitting a book I read last year during a visit to Barcelona and have been raving about ever since: Albert Sanchez Pinol’s Pandora in the Congo. This is his second novel (after the excellent Cold Skin), which was published in Spain in 2005, appeared in the UK in 2008, and finally got a less-than-stellar send off here in March as a paperback, which meant insufficient critical attention. Too bad. This flamboyantly funny, tension-driven, surprisingly romantic boy’s own flight of perverse fantasy, translated by Mara Faye Lethem, grabs you on the first page and never lets loose. Written in the adventure-memoir mode of a century past, it weds Conrad and Lovecraft, R.L. Stevenson and Jules Verne, H.G. Wells and Popeye’s goonies, and has the most memorable turtle­—named Maria Antoinette­—in literature. Everyone who reads it remembers the turtle. But it’s the surgically clever wit and whimsy with which Pinol disinters colonialism that keeps your jaw unconsciously dropped as you turn the pages, wondering where the hell he is going. He isn’t going where you think. Pinol feeds a hunger for story and makes you want to sharpen your own narrative style even if you’re writing a music review.