In the Forests of the Night

The Taiga Syndrome by Cristina Rivera Garza

If you’re looking for Inside the Outsider, my conversation with Ryan Bradford about Episode 3 of HBO’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novel The Outsider, please go to AwkwardSD (and definitely subscribe). This week we discuss grief, trauma, and supernatural ejaculate. Inside the Outsider will return to Message from the Underworld for Episode 4.

I don’t always have patience for books that begin with a strong, plot-driven premise and end ambiguously, but The Taiga Syndrome, written by Cristina Rivera Garza and translated from the Spanish by Suzanne Jill Levine and Aviva Kana, is a remarkable exception. 

The narrator is a failed detective who spins her unsolved cases into novels. She’s hired by a man to find a woman who has disappeared into the wilderness, though disappeared isn’t the right word. She was last seen in a dance hall with another man and has been sending telegrams to the lover she left behind, alerting him of her whereabouts. The trail goes cold in the taiga, a sub-arctic snow forest. 

The title of this slim novella refers to a phenomenon that causes people of the taiga to be consumed with a sudden, unquenchable desire to flee. This desire can lead to isolation, madness, and even death by exposure to the unforgiving elements. The lesson here seems to be that if you’re not ready for the journey, it can kill you. Nevertheless, the detective takes the case, and with the help of a translator, enters the forest. It would be easy to say, “and then things get weird” but it’s a strange book throughout. 

If you read The Taiga Syndrome as a detective story, your expectations will be frustrated by the sudden appearance of a gray wolf, a feral child, little tiny sex robots, and other things even more challenging to describe. In fact, the final chapter suggests the entire novel may be nothing more than a fever dream. 

I didn’t read Garza’s book in the original Spanish, but a translation of it by Levine and Kana. The detective’s adventures in the taiga are also filtered through a translator, and there are many opportunities for distortion. At times it feels as though the detective is reifying these distortions in her report to her client. Just as the client will read the detective’s report through the lens of an abandoned lover, the reader comes to The Taiga Syndrome with her own preconceptions. The question isn’t, “Is this really happening?” but “What do I think is happening?” which leads to a more immersive reading.

I was fascinated by the imaginative leaps Garza makes not only from chapter to chapter, but sentence to sentence. Beside being a kind of detective story and travel adventure, it’s also a rumination on loss, a consideration of fairy tales, and so on. But on the sentence level, it sometimes feels as if Garza took short breaks between the composition of each sentence, and then brought new images and ideas to the novel when she returned. What a fascinating way to write a story! 

I’m not suggesting that the narrative elements of The Taiga Syndrome don’t cohere, because they do, or that it doesn’t communicate with itself, because it does, almost to an obsessive degree. For example, many chapters begin with the word that: “That it had been a long time since I investigated anything was not a lie.” I love the double meaning here: is this the confession of an ex-detective being blunt with a client, or the lament of an individual considering an unexamined life? I think it’s both. 

One line that is repeated at least three times in the second half of the novel goes, “It is difficult to describe what is impossible to imagine.” That seems obvious, but what is Garza saying in relation to the story? 

Over and over the narrator frames the description of her search for the couple in the taiga in terms of how she will report it to her client. (Later, she envisions naming the report “The Taiga Syndrome.”) She repeatedly imagines how her experience will be received in much the same way we sometimes wonder how a photo will be perceived when we post it online—even as we’re taking the photograph.

I think Garza is suggesting we erect barriers that prevent us from imagining things that are just outside our understanding. The Taiga Syndrome is a dispatch from the other side of those barriers, inviting us to slip into another kind of reality, have a look around, and see what we make of it.

It’s a journey I can’t recommend highly enough. 

Punk in Public

Programming Note

I wrote a profile of Michael Chabon that’s scheduled to run in the Los Angeles Times on Sunday, so please look for that. We talked about his stint as a showrunner for Star Trek: Picard, his future as a novelist, and fandom. In next week’s newsletter I’ll have some behind-the-scenes anecdotes about our conversation.

Lit Picks for January 23-29

Here are my recommendations for literary events in Southern California this week.

Thursday January 23 at 7:30pm (LA)

Caroline Zancan will discuss her debut novel, We Wish You Luck, with novelist Aja Gabel at Skylight Books. Although campus novels aren’t usually my thing, comparisons to The Secret History have me intrigued. 

Friday January 24 at 8pm (SD)

Verbatim Books will be hosting a square dance with caller Robin Fischer. (Yeah, I don’t get it either.) Suggested donation $10. 

Saturday January 25 at 2pm (SD)

Weston Ochse will sign and discuss Dead Sky at Mysterious Galaxy. Remember, the bookstore is now located at 3555 Rosecrans Street, Suite 107 (corner of Rosecrans & Midway).

Sunday January 26 at 3pm (LA)

Chris Dennis will discuss his collection of short stories, Here Is What You Do, with Katya Apekina, at Book Soup. 

Monday January 27 at 6:30pm (LA)

Greg Hurwitz will celebrate the launch of his new thriller Into the Fire: an Orphan X Novelat Diesel Bookstore in Brentwood. 

Plan Never (SD)

Jeanine Cummins, author of American Dirt, will be reading at Warwick’s Books. The bookstore will likely be filled to capacity even though the novel has been castigated by critics as a hot mess of a novel that traffics in blatant stereotypes that are harmful to the people the book attempts to humanize. What’s particularly galling to me is how the publishing industry continues to push the book even after numerous critics have sounded the alarm about the problems with the novel. That publishers and people like Oprah care more about money than ideas is a sign of a culture in serious decline.

Tuesday January 28 at 11:45am and 7:30pm (SD)

Yangsze Choo will be the guest of honor at Warwick’s Author Luncheon at 11:30am, which will be followed by a reading at 7:30pm. Choo will celebrate the paperback release of her novel, The Night Tiger, which was selected as Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine pick in April 2019 (whatever that means). Call the Warwick's Book Dept. (858) 454-0347 for more details.

Wednesday January 29 at 7:30pm (LA)

Andrew Perry will discuss his new essay collection, Some of Us Are Hungry Now, with Roxane Gay at Skylight Books. Although I’m not familiar with Perry’s work, I’m a big fan of his publisher Two Dollar Radio. Also, Roxane Gay sure does a lot to promote writers.

Be kind to yourself. Maybe avoid looking at social media for the rest of the week?