Bottled Goods by Sophie Van Llewyn is a “novella in flash” about life under the watchful eye of the secret police in communist Romania.
Last week I shared Sophie’ article on the “novel in flash” as a form. I’m not completely convinced that it is an entirely different form from say, a novella that happens to be slightly experimental throughout. Yes, each section could be read as its own flash fiction, but I think that applies to a great deal of novels anyway. Cut up almost anything and you could have flash fiction
It’s a lovely, slight, book as you’d expect. And it rattles along because many chapters switch form or perspective from the last. We have lists, chapters where the title is longer than the body of the text, a table, quotes with commentary, diary entries and times countdowns.
Here’s an example:
It has the filmic quality of most modernist novels that flick between the formal stations without a flash of static between. There are some quite normal chapters, where the changes are simple switching of perspectives, or something spoken from a different character from the protagonist.
Later, a magical realist twist is very pleasing. I won’t spoil it, because it’s a lovely turn in the book.
One of the main conflicts is between Alina and er mother, and the way that the mother does not approve of the life that Alina had chosen for herself, including her husband, who is from a much poorer family. A class struggle exists within the confines of the communist theatre — which is what the location of many of the events feels like. Everything everyone does in this worlds is in reference ot the secret police, to the favours and pardons that are required at all levels to get what they want.
I feel in a lot of ways this could be read alongside another short book, Omon Ra — which is about the way in which the soviet’s believed that even if they were faking a moon landing, there should be an amount of effort expended somewhere to ensure that there is a kind of balance. The soviet idea that everything must be accounted for somewhere. In this story Omon Ra becomes a cosmonaut in everything but reality.
Something similar is happening here, in Bottled Goods, there is a sense of everything being bargained for. Whether that’s the mother’s love for the daughter with mismatched eyes or the secret service for safety.
This is the sense of there being no objective reality in these worlds — because the truth can simply be changed at any time by the government. Like the chapters and scenes themselves, their format is entirely changeable in a moment — there is a cat and mouse with reality and the state — trying to avoid being caught out and trying to avoid the reality they are trapped in. And you certainly don’t want to have an accident witht he cat.
Thanks for reading Etch To Their Own. We’re into our third digit. We’re two away from and hand’s worth. I’m very pleased to have come this far with it — nearly two years later we have a nice little community of people who don’t mind my typos so much. This is one of the things I do to try and keep myself human, and for keeping me human, I thank you. This weekend I am wandering around looking at sculptures in Yorkshire, where they keep many of them in a kind of sculpture prison. This stops them wandering on to motorways and causing traffic jams, or into libraries and making too much noise. It means a great deal to me that you’ve ever read a word I have written down, in the order I put them in ❤