Hardcover: 320 pages
Publisher: Melville House (January 26, 2016)
By: Rachel Cantor
Reviewed by Vickie Fang
Officially released today, Rachel Cantor’s Good on Paper is a genre-crossing delight, a madcap chick-lit book with a chick who can actually think. Hi-jinks, Manhattan living, an improbable new boyfriend, a demanding and adorable daughter, and a sustained struggle with the nature of meaning all elbow each other for room in this novel. And all somehow work together to bring a woman who turns out to be more angry and emotionally stunted than “wacky” towards a new understanding of life. The result is one of the most original books I’ve read in a long time.
Good on Paper begins with its middle aged heroine, Shira, hiding in a supply closet, desperately trying to get out of a temp job that involves stuffing twelve thousand envelopes. Her salvation comes in a most unlikely form, a telegram from Romei, a recent recipient of the Nobel prize for literature offering her a job. Having read her few short stories in a small literary magazine and the translations she published during her aborted attempt at earning a doctorate, he has decided that Shira is the ideal candidate to translate his latest work of poetry. A new life begins for Shira, one that she understandably imagines will lead to modest fame, the chance to become at least a footnote in the history of literature.
Shira ignores the trembling of her precariously situated world and plunges into the task of translating the poems that begin to arrive on her fax machine. They are a narrative cycle meant to challenge the work of Dante, written by a man at war with the whole notion of order, God, or a greater love. Sound a bit dry? Here’s what Shira has to say about the art of translating:
Translation requires a rare kind of intimacy. Like sex done right, I’ve always thought. The translator makes a holy commitment to understand, to listen with all possible intensity, to step backward, ever backward, through the labyrinth of an author’s ideas and devices, uncovering his decisions and triumphs, line by line, until she arrives, finally, at the moment of creation — and before, when words are merely phonemes and breath, and the author lies naked and drunk with his obsessions, visions, and agonizing aphasia. The translator, like one of Noah’s sons, bears witness to this primal scene. It takes a strong stomach. And an attractive host. You had to want to get close.
As for Shira, well, “Romantic events battered the pretty idea I had about God’s plan for man.” Romei the nihilist was a highly attractive host when she was a grad. student, and despite her current quibbles about having achieved a “comfort zone,” it’s clear that his “no-point-in-even-trying” siren song is still her life’s sound track. How can she not be fascinated when she thinks, “He challenges Dante to a duel, naming me, of all people, as his second — to watch his back, tend his wounds, and bear witness to his victory.”
Still, the question of meaning is in no way limited to the words Shira is struggling to translate. There is the nagging question of why, out of all the translators in the world, Romei chose her for his work. Why his poems, which he is still in the process of writing, need to be translated so quickly, why his work seems to be designed to be untranslatable. And then there are the real life questions of who really has the right to raise her daughter, Shira or the gay best friend who acts as her child’s father figure? And what about the vegan-rabbi-bookstore owner and his string of waif-like lovers? Is Shira the woman he really wants? And then there are the old wounds of childhood and abandonment. There’s no going forward without figuring them out. This very shrewdly plotted novel walks us through a labyrinth as complex as Shira’s translations to an ending that feels not forced, but sublimely inevitable. Good on Paper is delightful, startling, and weirdly subversive from start to finish.