By Constance A. Dunn
Reviewed by Karl Wolff
ApartFrom by Constance A. Dunn taps into the tradition of random meetings and connections found in such disparate films as Babel and Magnolia. In the book, we follow three protagonists and their misadventures. Each has connections to the other. The further one reads, the more the connections become apparent. There is Bettina living in Bulgaria, Cedric in Spain, and Ricardo in Toronto. Each of these non-natives has strange encounters. Bettina meets a strange girl before taking a train to Vienna. Cedric meets and has conversations with an enigmatic man named Hardy. Ricardo, a Spaniard, goes clubbing and meets a girl with a golden tooth.
The novel’s atmospheric tone gives each city a haunting quality that verges between realism and surrealism. Sofia, Bulgaria feels crowded and archaic; Spain feels hot and dusty; and Toronto feels cold and hyper-urban. Each character moves towards his or her destiny with an unknowing urgency. This forward momentum receives added impetus with the novel’s structure. Instead of traditional chapters, we get a series of mini-scenes, each punctuated by how much time elapsed. Confounding this forward momentum are flashbacks, thrusting the character into another place. The non-traditional narrative structure demands extra attention from the reader, especially for those wishing for something more linear.
The writing itself aims for the dream-like and highly sensual. We see and experience these places through the perspective of the character, despite the fact they aren’t narrating. As with the films of David Lynch and the Coen Brothers, Your Mileage May Vary. What one considers dreamy and poetic, another reader may find pretentious and over-written. For those more preferential to genre fiction, you’ll have to adjust your expectations. Bettina describes her memory of the strange girl:
“The girl’s eyes were also remarkable so she thought of those instead, something between sinister and sublime. Her eyes stood still as the scenery behind her sped past, evolved and disintegrated; eons of time spit out of a vacuum and brushed past like a stray cat. They were dark blue of deep water where demonic-looking fish hunt for their prey without having to hide.”
And Cedric puzzles out the meaning of the stranger named Hardy by making a mental inventory of the name “Hardy,” including the English author Thomas Hardy and hipster apparel brand Ed Hardy, among many others. Unlike a mystery or a thriller, where every sentence is taut and tight, leading inexorably towards the climactic fight and/or revelation, ApartFrom luxuriates in jangly, ragged, dreamy passages. This is more “actors hanging out in exotic locales” of Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Twelve, not the tightly wound Swiss watch of Ocean’s Eleven. (For the record, I liked all three movies.)
While some passages did become a little precious for my tastes, I found the novel overall to be worth the experience. The accumulated effect of ApartFrom is a kind of exoticized dream-like doom. After all the meanderings and musings, the full force hits home in the last pages. A similar situation occurs in Roberto Bolano’s magnificent novel, The Savage Detectives. ApartFrom is a fascinating literary experiment, exploring the experience of being a stranger in a strange land.
Out of 10/8.0