Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Dreams and Stones | Review

If ever a book to serve as a transition from solving physics problems to reading literature, Magdalena Tulli's Dreams and Stones (tr. Bill Johnston) is it. This short book - and I hesitate to call it a novel, for reasons I'll soon elaborate - has so many delightfully physics-y moments, shining in its cool appraisal of this world we live in.

Dreams and Stones is hands down one of the most quotable books I've ever read. Filled to the brim with brilliant lines about momentum, or about specific cities, or about the nature of stones, or about the nature of man, it was hard not to spend the entire book just highlighting away and writing "BRILLIANT" in the margins (eBook, of course, because I doubt I would ever highlight a print book, no matter how quotable it may be...). Individual sentences were so clever, so intelligent and so well-observed that I couldn't help but view the book altogether very positively right from the start.

And yet I don't think overall I can call this a particularly good book. Because though the writing is fairly brilliant when viewed through a microscope, the bigger picture shows a very disjointed work. I really loved each individual bite of Dreams and Stones, but the overarching narrative was loose and fairly lacking in cohesion. It's abstract writing at its most vague, its most scattered, and its most frustrating.

That said, Tulli did manage to hit on some themes fairly strongly. There were the fairly obvious hints against a totalitarian, overbearing state (and the subsequent counter-city concept), but Tulli also seemed to tackle the Holocaust through this very specific, blurred lens. This section - near the end of the book - felt a bit more directed than any of the other ideas bandied about, but it also may remain open to interpretation. With my own personal experiences, I was only able to understand it as Tulli's method of acknowledging Poland's national shame... but perhaps other readers will view it differently.

I hesitate to call this a novel for one simple reason - there isn't really much here. Dreams and Stones is a meditation: a long, hardly interrupted monologue about the growth of cities and thoughts on their subsequent influence on humans. There are no characters (except perhaps the residents of the city, but they provide as much emotional connection as the stones do), there is no plot, and there is very little in the way of emotional pull. It's a book based on ideas, but unlike others of its kind (the oft-compared Calvino, Borges), the lack of a personal dimension placed it a bit further out for me.

There is one final comparison I must make. A few months back, when I reviewed the truly astounding Kalpa Imperial, I mentioned that that novel had one of the greatest thirty pages of literature I had ever read. Those thirty pages belong to the short story "Concerning the Unchecked Growth of Cities". While reading Dreams and Stones (which is obviously longer than Gorodischer's phenomenal story, but not by that much), I couldn't help but compare the two. Both look at the changing face of a city, yet while Gorodischer's city sprawls and shrinks and we get a pure, clear image of it over thousands of years, Tulli's gaze is turned too deeply inwards. I could easily see Gorodischer's city in my mind's eye, but despite spending much longer with Tulli's, it remained vague and evasive. This is clearly indicative of the two author's differing styles, but I definitely preferred Gorodischer in this case (also: everyone should read Kalpa Imperial).

It's not that I disliked Dreams and Stones. It's an extraordinarily intelligent and thought-provoking book, brilliant in its individual passages and overall hits many of the right notes for me as a reader. But after having read "Concerning the Unchecked Growth of Cities", having read Calvino, and in general having read enough books that do abstract without just being vague, I couldn't help but feel Dreams and Stones disappointed somewhat. I'm definitely going to read more of Tulli's books, but I hope that her others have a bit more to them than just isolated brilliance. Obviously a talented writer, but as a clear, coherent novel, I'm not sure Dreams and Stones really works.


  1. I'm still a bit confused about what the content is, exactly, but I'm intrigued by the thought of a book of ideas, it sounds one to try just for the style. That said I'm not surprised it doesn't quite work as a novel. I suppose it's experimental in a way.

    1. It's definitely experimental and way more about the style than the actual content, which explores the concept of a city growing and changing through time. And then these changes are sort of held in place by the ideas of "dreams" and "stones".


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