American Fugue opens with the protagonist, a writer, on a flight from Greece to the U.S. He is at the lowest point in his life, so when he receives an unexpected invitation to participate in a literary program at a university in the U.S., he takes the opportunity to leave his past behind and make a new beginning. Arriving in the “New World”, he begins an experiment with himself as the subject—the “canary in the mine.” However, things in America do not go any better than they had been in Greece. The writer feels even more lost in the small college town, and neither an ocean nor a continent has succeeded in creating enough distance between him and the past which still torments him. When his personal crisis deepens, he takes off for the West in a cheap rental car, seeking to lose, rather than find himself. When his car breaks down somewhere in the Arizona desert, he is picked up by Marcelo Diaz, the reckless driver of a black Mustang. Heading back east, he gleans from Marcelo’s disjointed conversation that he is traveling from Los Angeles to Hannibal, Ohio (Mark Twain’s home town) to meet Laura, a woman he had met on the internet. When Marcelo dies suddenly of a heart attack, the opportunity for the writer to transform himself by doing what he does best is too good to pass up: he takes on Marcelo’s identity to re-write his own life story, create his own narrative. In the most classical sense of tragedy, however, this act, by its attempt to refute the set order of things, constitutes hubris and cannot go unpunished. By exchanging identities with this casual acquaintance, the writer enters one of his own stories intentionally but without any knowledge of the consequences. He inherits Marcelo’s car, his laptop with dozens of e-mails to and from Laura, and a mysterious black box. The e-mails set the foundation for a love affair with Laura that is more intense than anything the writer has ever been through, and the black box is at the center of an intrigue that renders him a fugitive, running for his life. His journey, a flight through both the interior and external landscape, follows the pattern of inexorable movement and increasing complexity of the fugue. The internal quest of the writer to emerge from his past—his mother’s suicide (for which he subconsciously blames himself as much as he consciously blames his father, with whom he has not spoken for eleven years), his divorce, and his six-year long writer’s block—so that, once again, he can fully experience the present, examines the dangers to one’s psyche of attempting to shed one’s past rather than coming to terms with it. His journey through the American landscape during the intense 2004 election campaign season (from Iowa to Arizona and back east to Chicago and New York) reveals much about the national psyche because it is seen with the fresh perspective of the outsider.
Alexis gives an overview of the book:
The “City of Numbers”
Friday, October 29 2004
The George Washington Bridge looked, on that Friday night of October 29, 2004, like a dark net thrown by some contemporary Spider Woman over the surface of the world, in order to collect a representative sample of both the beauty and the ugliness of this planet. He was entering Manhattan Island, entering the capital city of the world, this crystal arc of postmodern time, with its eight million souls squeezed in its stern, its prow and its hold. As the Mustang drove through the tunnel of air and he looked at the steel cables that supported it—heavy and proud, oiled with purpose, as if they were tied to a harpoon that some technocratic Ahab was ready to drive into the invisible Moby Dick of the Hudson River—he felt that reality was being transfigured, dissolved, and reconstructed into a string of an imaginary guitar. The string was held taut by a mysterious power, setting a false time, a disguised present, out of which he had to escape once and for all. He was entering a city that was both a comparison and a fact, at once the truth and its parody, a “City of Numbers,” as Devdan had said. A city of mathematical emotion, where each building was an algebraic equation and a poem’s metrical line as well.
This succession of glass shapes and sparks that he was facing looked like a rational coil which, instead of moving along a corkscrew trajectory, creating a structural DNA strand, an architectural application of the fundamental substance of life, launched straight into the sky like a wedge, revealing at the same time a forgotten, subterranean place where the foundations of night, of numbers and of knowledge are located. Down there, at the deepest gate, the world’s deepest city, at the innermost layer, where memory lodges. He had at last reached the mine.
After all, the canary had managed to stay alive; it had escaped from the cage and had crossed the tunnels one by one. Only the last tunnel was left to cross before it could emerge reborn, victorious, into the fresh air.
From the moment he left the farm, he felt twinges of remorse for all those innocent people he’d gotten embroiled in this adventure, in this affair—which had sprung out of his need to get away, to change, to forget; which became more complex with the disguise, the lie, the flight; and which only God knew where it would end. He felt guilt for young Lance who had been wounded, for Landy whose hospitality he had repaid with that awful incident, for Devdan, lying at this moment in his tent with a wounded hand and, most of all, for Laura, whom he had linked to a gloomy fate which was not even his.
These people had not only not betrayed him, but had erected a mirror in front of him, in which, behind the borrowed image of Marcelo, he was gradually beginning to see himself. Landy and Devdan had given him a valuable life lesson, Phoenix had touched something that had been repressed deep inside him, and Laura... Laura had offered him something priceless: she had opened a door in his soul, a door that until then he had thought was permanently locked.
Laura. Her eyes. Eyes, only the eyes of memory... Laura. Laure, Laura, Lauro: laurel, l’auro: gold, l’aura: a breeze. Laura: the laurel emanating from her body, the gold of her hair, the breeze of her presence.
However it all might turn out, one thing was for sure: he was entering the last chapter of this story, and his life—independently of “claimants” and “interested parties,” Marcelo and black boxes—had changed. And that was something he owed entirely to people, living beings, relationships.
Nevertheless, all this had started from a disguise, a role, a lie. A lie, however, constructed from truth. His story in America was a living fiction, a collage of contradictory—real and invented—sub-stories that blew up like fireworks inside a hermetically sealed hiding place, inside a secret, silent box—like the one he was carrying in his tote bag, on the back seat of Marcelo’s Mustang as he entered New York City, having smoked a full pack of Marlboros during the trip, and with the sound of old blues playing on the car radio.
Fate had chosen the perfect place to solve the puzzle, to let him finish with this dark comedy, so that he may finally rid himself of the alien shadow. The same fate that had driven Doc to Landyland; made the little blond boy emerge from inside a tree as he was making love to Laura; let Devdan offer him an ageless, timeless key; let Landy whisper to him his latest masterpiece, condemned to be erased; let Laura surf the Internet in a hopeless prayer. But above all, it was that same fate that had sent Marcelo to him as an angel of God in a cloud of dust, in a desolate wilderness in an amnesiac country, which at that very moment was waging an irrational war on the other side of the world.
An adolescent country, ten thousand miles away from his own, the country-foundation that had created everything—philosophy, theater, literature—ten thousand miles away from that provincial flagstone courtyard where he, as a child, had just discovered that clouds moved across the sky.
He tried, for a brief moment, to figure out what, out of all of this, was true. And for a second, he felt that the only real person in this whole story was Marcelo, a dead man.
As he drove over the George Washington Bridge, he could feel the shadows of all the people he had met the last few weeks chasing him. He was a fugitive—a fugitive from his country, a fugitive from himself, a fugitive from Marcelo, a fugitive from the “claimants” and the “interested party,” a fugitive from Martin, a fugitive from Landy, a fugitive from Laura, a fugitive from all of them. He was a fugitive at the center of a crazy chase, in a crazy place—a chase in the “Land of Freedom.” An American fugue.
Although the undulating crest of the skyscrapers, which he could see in the distance as he reached the end of the bridge, looked like the endings of musical symbols in an imaginary sheet of music, he knew that he was still writing the score. He, himself, was the composer. He was creating in space and time. Only instead of notes he was using words, notions, feelings. He was weaving his own plot. He was composing his American fugue.
(transleted by Diane Thiel and Constantinos Chadjilambrinos)
Alexis Stamatis is a well known Greek novelist, and poet born in Athens, Greece. He studied Architecture at the National Technical University of Athens and took postgraduate degrees in Architecture and Cinematography in London. He has published eleven novels. His second novel...