WARNING: While no spoilers for "Kalpa Imperial" are included in the review below, spoilers for HBO's "True Detective," Anne Rice's "Interview With the Vampire," AMC's "Breaking Bad," and ABC's "Lost" are there.
During the last two months I became obsessed with HBO's show "True Detective." Like so many others around the internets I bought a copy of "The King in Yellow" and scoured it for clues; I read into everything every characters said, every twitch of the eyebrow, every seemingly subconscious gesture. After the show ended, I read one post-mortem that summed it up pretty neatly: We, the media consumer public, have become so used to the idea of "twists" thanks to shows like "Lost" that it's become the twist to not have a twist. "True Detective," it's been argued, ended exactly the way it should have ended: They caught the bad guy, he got his just desserts, they moved on. Rust didn't do it, Marty didn't do it, Marty's father-in-law didn't do it, Marty's daughters weren't involved at all, and none of the other big internet theories happened. (And believe me, if I didn't explore them all before the show's finale it wasn't for lack of trying.) It was exactly the guy it was supposed to be. He got caught. The end.
While most of us enjoy a nice surprise at the end there's also certain satisfaction in a no-twist plot and ending. "Breaking Bad" lacked a surprise ending, too. I jumped on the "Breaking Bad" bandwagon late in the game, after the series had ended. I worried that I'd accidentally see spoilers all over the internet. Turns out, spoilers were a non-issue for that show. Everyone got what they deserved, Walt died, the show ended. The end.
Making this review spoiler-free is easy because there's nothing to spoil. No one returns to the island, it wasn't all a dream, Lestat doesn't show up to turn Daniel into a vampire. Walt dies, Rust and Marty solve their case, "Kalpa Imperial" ends.
I bring this up because for the first third of "Kalpa Imperial" I kept waiting for a twist or turn. At first, I theorized that the unnamed empire in each story was a metaphor for Europe or for Western culture in general. I gave up that idea pretty quick.
"Kalpa Imperial" is pure story. Sure, some writers are more concerned with craft or gimmicks, or in capturing the everyday. Me, I roll my eyes at the thought of having to hold a book up to a mirror to read it; I lack my husband's patience for David Foster Wallace's pages and pages of footnotes. In my opinion, story trumps all. I can forgive a lot of bad writing if the story itself is really good.
Thankfully, Angelica Gorodischer is a talented writer who can pack more punch into a single sentence than most writers can do with an entire novel. Each word is carefully chosen, each sentence artfully constructed, each story within the story perfect in its own way. Nothing is wasted here. This is pure, 100% story, my personal Holy Grail. It's escapism at its best, but also a mirror of our society. It's imagination and reality. There's no larger story here, just a collection of smaller bits and pieces of the fictional empire's history. In a lesser writer's hands this would come off as too dry, too textbook-like. In Gorodischer's hands the empire unfolds in lush, sensual details and characters so rich and deep you wonder they aren't really real. Like a song you know you've never heard before that, nevertheless, sounds as familiar as a lullabye, the stories in "Kalpa Imperial" feel as real and entrenched as our own society, while remaining unique, new, and imaginative. Any reader with even a small amount of intelligence will be able to figure out some of the subtler things the stories don't say -- yes, the kid's father is probably one of those two guys; yes, the narrator and the Empress probably had an affair -- but that's not what "Kalpa Imperial" is about. It's not trying to outsmart you, just entertain you with some well-told tales of this fantastical, fictional, forever empire.
Of course, a lot of this is due to Ursula K. LeGuin's masterful translation. She needs to get quite a lot of credit for translating this whole book so well. Translations, as most of us know, can make or break a book written in a language not our own. (See: Proust.) I only wish I could read this book as part of a university course, with an instructor who could help me decipher all the things I'm missing by not knowing enough about Gorodisher's life, her influences, and the context in which she wrote this.
"Kalpa Imperial" may very well be my new favorite book. I certainly plan to read it again and again. I might even get it's cover tattooed somewhere on my body. Who knows?
I have not come close to doing this book justice in my review. Please take a look at these three others who did a better job:
Now, go buy this book for yourself and read it. You're welcome.