Ana Maria Shua - a dystopian commentary, which borders on the absurd while making strong statements about security and travel, family and care

Ana Maria Shua, Death as a Side Effect, Trnas. by Andrea G. Labinger, Bison Books, 2010.

In Death as a Side Effect, Ana María Shua’s brilliantly dark satire transports readers to a dystopic future Argentina where gangs of ad hoc marauders and professional thieves roam the streets while the wealthy purchase security behind fortified concrete walls and the elderly cower in their apartments in fear of being whisked off to state-mandated “convalescent” homes, never to return. Abandoned by his mistress, suffocated by his father, and estranged from his demented mother and ineffectual sister, Ernesto seeks his vanished lover. Hoping to save his dying father from the ministrations of a diabolical health-care system, he discovers that, ultimately, everyone is a patient, and the instruments wielded by the impersonal medical corps cut to the very heart of the social fabric.
The world of this novel, with its closed districts, unsafe travel, ubiquitous security cameras, and widespread artificiality and uncertainty, is as familiar as it is strange—and as instructive, in its harrowing way, as it is deeply entertaining. The Spanish edition has been selected by the Congreso de la Lengua Española as one of the one hundred best Latin American novels published in the last twenty-five years.

"Shua laces her small, powerful narrative with humor, and her insight into the human condition, particularly in her vision of a city run amuck, has resonance."—Publishers Weekly

"[Death as a Side Effect is] not to be mistaken for a light, optimistic read, but the quality of writing and the deftness of characterization make it a satisfying one."—Matthew Tiffany

"Shua's poetic novel is full of ironic twists that keep the suspense high until the very end."—Dana Heather Schwartz

First published in 1997, presented here in a crackling English translation by Andrea Labinger, this razor-sharp satire by prolific Argentine writer Ana María Shua is a punishing mélange of dystopian commonplaces: a surveillance state; lawless city streets, wealthy gated enclaves, murderous vandals, lethal security forces; mythical exurban free zones; perpetual paranoia; no locus of dysfunction, no precise moment when everything went awry. Written as a lovelorn missive from makeup artist Ernesto Kollody to the mistress who left him, as he claims, to escape choosing between him and his monstrously emasculating father, Shua's novel agonizes over the inescapable horror vacui at the heart of modern displacement. Ernesto’s vocation is constructing plausible faces for corpses and ideal masks for wealthy partygoers. He likewise attempts to fill up his empty, loveless world by making up with all the denizens of his barren life, but his quest for intimacy and love is rewarded with increasingly savage alienation. Ernesto risks everything to rescue his geriatric father from a state-mandated convalescent home, but becomes ensnared and nullified by the old man’s cunning, implacable vitality. The novel’s thirty brief chapters (each a taut, toxic sketch) evoke claustrophobia, nausea, trauma, and cringing failure. One senses dystopian shadings from Swift to Atwood, but the most nightmarish moments channel Poe’s "The Masque of the Red Death," Cortázar (Ernesto and his father as roosters in a grisly cockfight), and Kafka: “the dying used to rely on the Worrysnatcher. With a deft, twisting motion that compressed the cervical vertebrae, [it] cut short the agony of hopeless patients.” Each sentence feels like a tissue-thin slice of that horrifically squeezed spine, and the endgame between Ernesto and his father makes the settlement between Orwell’s Winston and Julia seem comparatively quaint and comforting. Death is indeed a side effect for the one consigned to the baroque madness of a fruitless hope. - Brendan Riley

The Spanish edition of Death as a Side Effect was chosen as one of the best 100 Latin American novels published in the last 25 years by the Congreso Internacionalde la Lengua Española. Reading its English translation, one cannot help but be impressed with the power of Shua’s dystopian commentary, which borders on the absurd while making strong statements about security and travel, family and care. The reader follows Ernesto through a future that would once have been referred to as resembling 1984, but which now serves as an unnerving reminder of our own everyday experience. Ernesto is searching for his missing lover, for support for his dying father, and for understanding of the connections between himself, society, family, and a government that seems to be running the machine behind the curtain. It’s not to be mistaken for a light, optimistic read, but the quality of writing and the deftness of characterization make it a satisfying one. --Matthew Tiffany

Praise for the Spanish edition: "Because of its depth and searing drama, this novel places Ana Maria Shua at the forefront of Argentine literature. The book is deep and perturbing, and it is narrated in a limpid prose, infused with profound lyricism and subtle compassion." Jose Miguel Oviedo, Cuadernos Hispanoamericanos, Spain "Shua masterfully employs black humour and exceptionally well-crafted dialogue to create an innovative work." Fernando Mascarello, Paradoxo, Brazil "This is a book written with the talent of an author who gazed into the depths of her country and added that blaze to this brilliantly written inferno." - Elizabeth Subercaseaux 

 “No one can humiliate you like your parents. No one else in the world has that tremendous power: the same power we have over our own children.” So declares Ernesto, the antihero in Ana María Shua’s latest novel, whose relationship with his father is marked by as much petulance, impassioned, well-articulated animosity, and resignation as that found in Kafka’s Letter to His Father. Death as a Side Effect similarly portrays a narrator wrestling with an imposing personality as well as with himself, revealing the psychological games that have characterized their encounters for decades.
Selected by the Congreso de La Lengua Española as one of the one hundred best Latin American novels published in the last quarter-century, Shua’s novel pits Ernesto’s cruel, pragmatic, yet honest desire for his father’s death against daily events in a society in which travel must be conducted by armored taxis, and where the threat of convalescent homes, the rise of tell-all documentaries, the Suicide Channel, and attacks by professional thieves are commonplace. Though the premise is simple—beginning with a reflection on Señor Kollody’s tumor and slowly navigating toward Ernesto’s realization that his father is not only surviving, but recovering from surgery—it is further enriched by secondary characters such as a transgendered television personality; a “genius” filmmaker whose project is constantly under revision; and the absent lover to whom the entire work is addressed, among others. Shua forgoes campiness in favor of a more shaded approach, combining humor with gravitas, and allowing absurdities to flourish alongside the problems of a family fractured by its own dysfunctional habits.
Readers familiar with Shua’s earlier microfiction will recognize some of her hallmarks: hints of eroticism; gentle stabs at masochistic characters (exemplified by Ernesto’s sister, Cora, who has never untangled herself from the household and whose pleasures in life are seemingly few); settings that are firmly grounded in reality even as they are subtly altered to seem otherworldly; and the enticing, dark sensibility that allows serious events to vault off the page, such as the institutionalized care of an aging pater familias serving as fodder for a staged kidnapping, or the aftermath of a home invasion leading to a girlfriend’s affair. All plot twists aside, however, Shua’s finest moments occur when she portrays individuals confronting the spectre of death in their own very personal ways, or as a son’s initial resentment ultimately dissolves when he discovers an epistolary—and far more enduring—means of escape.

Faltering health care systems. Gang violence. A middle class beset by economic conditions.
Sounds like the content of a modern U.S. newspaper. Perhaps indicating that some issues are universal, these are the conditions that confront a future Argentina in Ana Maria Shua's biting dystopian novel, Death as a Side Effect.
Survival is one of the underlying themes here, both personal and economic. The rich live in gated neighborhoods with 24-hour surveillance and security guards. The average person lives in "no-man's-land," avoiding the "occupied zones" controlled by criminals and dangerous thugs. Marauding gangs make the streets of Buenos Aires so unsafe the average person takes armored taxis to get around town and to go to protected areas for walks. Thus, when "vandals" break into the apartment below him, Ernesto Kollady's reaction is ingrained:
When I heard the banging and explosions, I did what we all do: I made sure the security features in my apartment were working. I played music full blast so I wouldn't hear the screams. I locked myself in the bathroom and turned on the shower.
Ernesto, like others, must deal with life in a society where life seems cheapened. Paparazzi with video cameras crowd around hospitals hoping to get footage of someone dying. The Suicide Channel is one of television's more popular offerings. Only the poor go to hospitals, where the "franchise owners" require patients' families to provide the food to ensure a profit margin. Both physicians and families, meanwhile, are required to report the declining health of older people so they can report to "convalescent homes," paid for by selling what property the individual has. As a result, people pay doctors under the table to be their "secret" physician because an "official" physician would be required to report them.
Yet while Death as a Side Effect has abundant social commentary, Shua does far more with the narrative. At bottom, the dystopia she envisions is essentially a stage upon which a larger and more common literary theme plays out — human relationships. Told in the form of Ernesto writing to the mistress who abandoned him, this slim narrative examines family relations, particularly that between Ernesto and his father. Although impacted by this society's mandates, particularly the convalescent homes, the family issues here are not necessarily unique. Ernesto is a seemingly ineffectual everyman. His father on the other hand is a powerful, controlling figure who seems to have always found joy in humiliating Ernesto. Yet Ernesto has a somewhat kinder view of his father than his sister, who never really had a life outside the family home and in whom a searing hatred has grown. Their mother, meanwhile, has descended into Alzheimer's-type dementia.
When a large intestinal tumor forces Ernesto's father first into a hospital and then a convalescent home, his mother's dementia and his sister's enmity leave Ernesto responsible for his father's fate. Thus, although Ernesto's own children are no more than passing references in his writing, he is required to come to grips with the archetypal father-son conflict. Despite his father's long history of demeaning him, Ernesto also confronts the preservation of personal dignity in a society seemingly devoid of the concept.
Originally published in 1997 and translated into English for the first time by Andrea G. Labinger, Death as a Side Effect uses dark satire to effectively meld societal and personal tribulations. Although the Spanish edition of the book was selected by the Congreso de la Lengua Española as one of the 100 best Latin American novels published in the last 25 years, its themes and issues are universal. - Tim Gebhart
Picture an urban dystopia, where disparate gangs of marauders own the streets, armored taxis are the only safe mode of transportation, and lock-down gated communities and 24/7 personal security guards are the norm for a struggling middle class. Bunkered inside their own homes, a citizenry that is both numb and on perpetual red alert watches The Suicide Channel and waits for something bad to happen. Meanwhile, a for-profit government stays afloat by kidnapping elderly people, liquidating them of all their worldly assets, and whisking them away to jail-like convalescent homes, never to see the light of day again.This is Ana María Shua’s Argentina in Death as a Side Effect. Our man in Buenos Aires is Ernesto Kollady: jilted lover, son of a man who hates him. That man also happens to be dying of an intestinal tumor. In this slim, visceral novel, Shua takes the reader deep into Ernesto’s life as he grapples with the responsibility of his father’s fate. It’s a sociopolitical satire, it’s a thoroughly modern (and realistic) dystopia, but above all things – a distillation of what truly cuts through the novel – it’s a love story.
Forgive me for being cynical, but an original, realistic, gut-wrenching love story, completely devoid of sap, is hard to pull off these days. But Shua does it.
We never meet the object of Ernesto’s affection. We know she’s married, and that her long-standing adulterous relationship with Ernesto is over. And we know that it’s her absence that defines Ernesto, not the relationship he had with her. In that way, we don’t really need to know anything more about her.
The novel is essentially an unsent letter to this disappeared lover: Ernesto’s desperate attempt to become real to himself without her. “For many years I lived to tell you what was happening in my life, and my every action or thought was transformed, at the very moment it was happening, into the words I would use to describe it to you.”
Without this relationship, Ernesto is haunted by questions, but not for his lover, for himself: “What did your absence demolish, what did it leave still standing among my emotional possibilities?”
I wouldn’t call it obsession, or even longing. I’d called it physics. The pain his lover’s physical absence causes for Ernesto: it is both the frame of his life, and everything inside the frame. He cannot separate himself from it. Even as he goes digging through his dying father’s things, Ernesto is looking for her:
“I searched among the remnants, among the traces of his life, for proof that he, too, was human, inconsequential, weak, proof that he has once had a moment of madness or passion…I was searching for you. Once again, as always, I was searching for something or someone that could have meant to my father what you meant to me: something absurd, unsuitable, a crack. I found nothing. I’m sorry.”
Ernesto’s mother is senile, his sister ridiculous, so when his father is sent to a convalescent home, the decision rests on Ernesto’s shoulders: let him die in a rundown medical prison, or rescue him to die in dignity, and risk getting in serious trouble. But what is the risk of trouble when you don’t know what you’re living for? One of the interesting parallels between Ernesto’s love story and the scope of a dystopic narrative is the cheapening of life, the slackening of identity that results from these arcs. “What’s crazy is the stupid logic that insists identity must remain the same through time and misfortune: as if, without you, I were still the same person.”
As the end approaches for his father, Ernesto worries about what will come next. For, as complicated and difficult as it is to watch your father expire slowly and painfully, for Ernesto, at least it’s a distraction. But what after? “Free at last of the image of my father drowning in pain, I’ll be thinking of you again, as usual: once again, as usual, I’ll imagine your face, contorted with pleasure; again, as usual, I’ll feel your female form in the hollow of my hands in the fleeting visions of my insomnia. My father will have died a happier death than he deserves. And once more, as usual, my life will have no meaning.”
But finally, as he barges ahead with an insane plan to give his father the death he deserves (I won’t ruin that one for you, but it’s good), our man finally gets it. He finally discovers, by doing it, the one thing his lost lover can’t take from him: his words.
“I don’t know what your life is like; I don’t know what I’ll find when I see you, but I know I’m going to look for you to find something you won’t be able to deny me: so that all this writing will have meaning. So you will read me.”
Maybe Ernesto’s deluding himself, thinking he’ll be free if only he can tell her, if only she will hear him out. But I hope not. I don’t think so. I think, more likely, as he looks for her, he’ll realize it doesn’t have to be she who reads his words. It can be anyone. Ernesto is a writer, looking for a reader. - Morgan Macgregor

 Death as a Side Effect is set in a modern Argentina where public security has almost completely collapsed. The narrator, Ernesto, tries to travel only by armored taxi, and attacks on shops, institutions, and apartments are common. When a neighbor's apartment is attacked he just turns up the music and cowers in the bathroom until it is over; when he wants to walk out in the fresh air among his few options is joining in with the 'Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo' -- this once proud "international symbol of the struggle for justice and freedom" that has now "degenerated into just another tourist attraction."
       Ernesto is a talented make-up artist, though at the beginning of his account he earns good money as the would-be screenwriter for a wealthy director's grand (but unlikely to ever get filmed in the current conditions) project. Still under the thumb of a domineering father, his feelings of filial duty complicate his life when his father requires surgery for a growing intestinal blockage (that threatens to block him up entirely, so that his own shit would eventually blow him up). Among the novelties of this alternate-world Shua offers is that those who can not care for themselves any longer are shunted off to for-profit Convalescent Homes. These are now mandatory, and Ernesto's father would be sent off to one of these after any operation -- something both he and Ernesto want to avoid.
       Meanwhile, Ernesto's mother is quickly losing her mind (and she also winds up in a Convalescent Home), and he also has a sister. Among his few acquaintances is his neighbor, Margot, who is very actively trying to seduce him -- and even he wonders: "I myself don't understand why the plan hasn't produced the desired effect".
       One reason may be that he still harbors strong feelings for another: his married lover, to whom he addresses this account -- a woman so out of reach that she is a safe confessor.
       Ernesto's father defies the odds on survival, but after his operation is, of course, brought to a Convalescent Home. Ernesto works to spring him from it -- an almost impossible task, given how valuable patients are to these institutions. Even if a patient does escape, they are willing to go to great lengths to recapture them and bring them back home.
       Ernesto's manipulative father has many more tricks up his sleeve than Ernesto can foresee -- even after knowing the old man for so long -- and it is dad that gets the best of him and everyone else in the not-quite-happy ending. But things could be worse for Ernesto, who hasn't really gotten that far in his life. As he complains at one point:
Who was I ? What did I want ? What was I feeling ? What did your absence demolish, what did it leave still standing among my emotional possibilities ? What a temptation it was to become a sentimental tango figure, to determine once and for all that life is just an absurd wound.
       Shua's slice of dystopia focuses mainly on the institutionalized medical malpractice of the system in place there -- and the constant threat of violence (and the precautions taken because of it). Some of the scenes -- and Ernesto's make-up talent in action, whether fixing up a corpse or preparing guests for a grand costume party -- are very effective and impressive, but the novel as a whole offers only a very narrow picture (and little context -- of the social and/or political change that allowed for these changes). With Ernesto generally in over his head, the reader's guide is too hapless a fellow too.
       It makes for an interesting take of what might become of society, but overall Death as a Side Effect does fall somewhat short. (It probably did feel more immediate and powerful around the time of its writing, in the Argentina of 1997.) - M.A.Orthofer
  Ana María Shua's Death as a Side Effect is a perfectly pitched, darkly comic satire, set in a dystopian near-future Argentina. Politicians perform comedy routines on television, the streets are no-go areas, infested with gangs of marauding vandals, and neighbours are strangers, drowning out evidence of each others' presences with blaring music. Against this backdrop, Ernesto, a sometime make-up artist, script writer and undertaker who has lost his lover, is forced to take control of his family when his apparently terminally ill bully-of-a-father enters a sinister retirement home. Ernesto is effete and absurd. Although middle-aged, he is still mercilessly humiliated by his father, a charming monster. His sister, Cora, is equally ineffectual, and his mother's dementia means that Ernesto bears the burden of deciding his father's fate.
Shua's novel is short, but it contains a plethora of satirical barbs. Her dystopian vision of Argentina describes a place where society has ceased to function, and interactions with other people are filled with fear. However, her sights are chiefly set on the collapse of the nuclear family. Ernesto's family are no comfort to him, being a constant source of humiliation and a reminder of how little control he has over his own life. His father is brutally manipulative, and their interactions are told with a twisted Catch-22esque humour. Ernesto, the nursing home and Ernesto's father all battle for ownership of the right to control the latter's death. The nursing home offers a slow passing attended by stupefying medical care because, as the owner puts it, "I don't know how much your father's life means to you, but it means a lot to me because my job is at stake". Ernesto can only offer his father death, because he can no longer distinguish revenge and love where his family are concerned. His father, on the other hand, might just decide that he isn't really that ill after all.
Death as a Side Effect strikes a brilliant balance between the downbeat subject matter and the dark humour running through the whole novel. It is absurd, bleak and funny. Ernesto is an everyman character who is both frustrating to observe and easy to sympathise with, and his father is compelling and repellent in equal measure. For all its craziness, Death as a Side Effect is an accessible satire about ordinary family life, and a book that should be added to those holiday wish lists.- Karen Rigby
 Argentinian author Ana Maria Shua’s novel Death As a Side Effect is set in a near-future dystopia of armed gangs, social disorder and governmental incompetence that vacillates between scary intrusiveness and near-criminal negligence. Despite this Clockwork Orange type of setup, however, the novel’s social milieu is far less compelling than it might be.

For all the emotional power conveyed in certain nightmarish aspects of this future—the treatment of the elderly foremost among them—this book is ultimately a meditation on the bonds between grown-up child and aging parent. This focus has effects both good and bad. While avoiding the contrivances of a cheesy, Logan’s Run-like flight from the authorities, the reader can’t help feeling that an opportunity was missed.
Ernesto is the novel’s narator, a marginally-employed makeup artist whose elderly parents are either batty (Mom) or aggressive (Dad). His sister Cora is ineffectual and his lover Margot seems barely interested in him; the strongest relationship seems to be with Goransky, a grandiose and possibly demented film director who has taken him on for his latest project.

Ernesto lives in a Buenos Aires, which is formed of a patchwork of unsafe neighborhoods, privately barricaded safe zones, and entirely autonomous neighborhoods run by criminal gangs. The government is a minimal presence in this Argentina, and citizens’ encounters with prfessional thieves and amateur marauders are an everyday occurrence. Shua extrapolates from contemporary reality, with its armed guards, private security agencies, and gated communities, to imagine what such an environment might look like 20 years or so in the future. It doesn’t look too good.
Warning: this description makes the book sound more engaging than it actually is. Shua gives these elements relatively little attention in the course of the story. Ernesto, reasonably enough, barely notices them; they are facts of his life, not elements of fiction. Like most of us, he goes through his day thinking about the relationships that define and limit him, not the societal milieu that surrounds him.

So Ernesto concentrates on his father’s failing health. In this dystopia, the elderly are forced into nursing homes whether they wish it or not, and are kept alive as long as possible so the homes can collect their fees. Age has become so repugnant to the population at large that it’s become common practice to call the police on the elderly for the crime of being old. Only the extremely wealthy can avoid this fate, and neither Ernesto nor his father is extremely wealthy.

The bulk of the novel’s action is spent with Ernesto as he wrestles to prevent his father from falling into a similar trap as so many of his countrymen. For this, he calls in favors from nearly every character he comes across.

Shua’s writing, translated by Andrea G. Labinger, keeps things moving along efficiently through the course of the book’s 164 pages. Ernesto is not the most relaxing of narrators, as his social paranoia reinforced as it is by the anxiety about his father. “In my desperation to share everything that’s impossible to share with you, I often told you about my father,” he says early on to the unseen audience that he addresses throughout the novel. “You listened without hearing me, although not impatiently, and I never could quite figure out if you were bored.”

There is engaging writing to be found here, but there is also a certain flatness, a bloodlessness which is surprising considering the potentially powerful material.  “Someone must have reported her, because a social worker showed up at Mama’s apartment with two guards from a Convalescent Home. Cora had a long chat with her while Mama stared at them bug-eyed.”
Elsewhere, describing his work, the narrator says that “I enjoy giving people the gratification of seeing themselves look more like their ideal image for a while. The expression of joy on my clients’ faces when they look in the mirror is part pf my own happiness.” But this happiness, like the narrator’s other emotions, feels distant indeed. Maybe it’s the translation, or perhaps Shua is trying to reflect the distant reserve that one might adopt in such a situation. Either way, it makes for less than compelling reading.

Ultimately, this book hinges on the relationship between father and son, and frankly, that’s some mighty familiar territory. Everything from Hamlet to Star Wars is built around that trope—hell, last night I Netflixed the Indian film Such a Long Journey, based on the book by Rohinton Mistry. Guess what it was about?

The dull writing is a real shame given the unique setting, at least for English readers—I dare you to name another dystopian novel set in South America. This flatness is especially puzzling as Shua is no newcomer. She’s written over 40 books, and this novel was chosen as “one of the one hundred best Latin American novels” of the past 25 years.

Readers curious about contemporary trends in South American literature, especially speculative literary fiction, might want to give this a look. But be warned: futuristic or not, the story may feel all too familiar.- David Maine
If we were to ignore for just a moment the fact that Death as a Side Effect was originally published (in Spanish) in 1997 in Argentina, we might be tempted to read it in the context of recent healthcare reforms and debates in the United States, with the world painted by Ana María Shua nestling easily among the nightmares of death-panel-phobes. Luckily, this book is much more than that.
As Ernesto struggles to come to terms with his dying father, he discovers that the world he lives in is ruled not only by violent gangs of vandals and professional thieves who make even simple activities like walking outside so dangerous as to be unthinkable, but also by the medical professionals at state-run hospitals and Convalescent Homes that strip their patients—or maybe more like prisoners—of any say in their own healthcare. In the meantime, his mother is going crazy, his sister is of little help, and his girlfriend has left him. Add to this the fact that the entire narrative is told by Ernesto and is explicitly directed toward his absent (read: already lost) lover—think one-sided epistolary tale, or a novel-length version of Elena Poniatowska’s “El Recado” (in a somewhat less neurotic voice and with much more really going on)—and you have a main character buried in layers of complications that make his world difficult, if not nigh impossible, to navigate. (No wonder he occasionally flips to the Suicide Channel on the television.) It is, in part, precisely these multiple layers and their expert unfolding in narrative time that make this novel so compelling. Having read the book with only the jacket copy as preparation, I found it to be far more intriguing—and on many more levels—than I had expected.
Death as a Side Effect is a book about aging, death, absence, coldness, fear, and entrapment—which, taken as a group, makes it sound like a horribly depressing read. It isn’t, though, because even amid the darkness there are bright sparks of humor. Take, for instance, a bit of Ernesto’s evidence of his mother’s going crazy: “Yesterday Mama threw a pot of stew down the stairs,” or his comically erudite description of a part of his reaction to having witnessed an act of violence: “As the car had new upholstery, I was circumspect enough to vomit on the street before I climbed in.” It is especially in such careful word choice and construction of tone that Andrea G. Labinger’s translation shines, as the prose seamlessly shifts among the range of emotions in this novel, as in Ernesto’s darkly humorous reflection on his dying father’s belongings:
Sadly, I realized there was nothing, absolutely nothing there that I might want to keep, except maybe that naked, reclining woman, whose oversized breasts were salt and pepper shakers and which struck me as the most touching symbol of my father’s bad taste and his enthusiastic vitality.
In addition to the temporary—and incomplete—lightening of mood afforded by these periodic dollops of humor, there are also moments of hope—hope for some kind of freedom—such as this dream of Ernesto’s:
I fell asleep. I dreamed I was flying. With a single leap, I gained altitude and soared through the air, very high above the city. It was pleasant, and it filled me with immeasurable pride. In my dream, I realized that flying was very unusual. Only I, among all men, could fly, only I in the entire history of the human race. I advanced effortlessly, feeling the breeze against my face, floating with an ease I never had in water. Then, without any transition, we were in the country, and I had gathered together a group of acquaintances to watch me fly. I ran and leaped, trying to rise, but my leaps were just that: enormous leaps, twenty or thirty yards long, that lifted me quite a bit above the ground. No matter how hard I attempted to run full speed, to try every which way, it did me no good. In real life, these boundless leaps would have been extraordinary. In the dream, they were simply proof that I couldn’t fly. The observers began to play poker.
His freedom is imperfect, its exercise incomplete, the outcome laughable and a touch unsettling; but still, the dream hints that there may be something beneath the surface that threatens the fearsome authority of the dystopia, something that flirts with a sort of balance in Ernesto’s world that could, perhaps, make it tolerable after all.
In the screwed-up world of Shua’s novel, perhaps the only sanity rises from Goransky, the film director with delusions of grandeur for whom Ernesto works as a scriptwriter and later as a makeup artist. Goransky has made only one successful film: a short documentary set in Antarctica. Still, he has dreams even bigger than he—“an enormous, heavy man with the brightest eyes you could ever imagine, in constant motion, a hippo on amphetamines, a bear hypnotized into thinking he was a squirrel”—dreams of making the great feature film of his era, a film also set in Antarctica. He throws a party to support his film project—a Coldness-themed party, which is at once over-the-top decadent and ridiculous, as well as strangely comforting in its absurd play at an alternative world:
There was a tea for Arctic foxes. And a cluster of Lapp huts, where exquisite dishes were served, not always in keeping with the central theme of the party as far as ingredients were concerned, but authentic in their presentation. The roofs of the huts sloped to the floor, and in the terribly hot interior, attractive, sweaty men, bare-chested and dressed in reindeer hide pants rolled up to their knees, served oysters shaped like snowflakes with white sauce and meringue, and extra-tender unborn veal steaks rotating over a fire, as if they were a single slab of flesh stuck to the enormous femur that served as a central skewer: a bear leg.
By turns horrifying, touching, thoughtful, comical, and even absurd, Death as a Side Effect is not likely to disappoint. And at just over 160 pages, you can probably still squeeze it into your summer reading mix.- Emily Davis



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