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New Yorker Fiction Review: "Picasso" by Cesar Aira

Issue: Aug. 11 & 18th, 2014

Story: "Picasso"

Author: Cesar Aira

Rating: $

Review: As you can see (and assuming you care) I'm doing yet another story out of order here. IDK. It's been a seriously busy autumn with trips to New York, D.C., San Francisco, and W.Va. (yes, West Virginia) all in the space of about five weeks. I've been away from home for weeks at a time, in and out of airports, jolted back and forth cabs, crammed into buses, living out of my suitcase, flopping on whatever hotel bed or spare room or couch happens to be my resting place for the night, eating too much meat, drinking too much booze, never quite getting to settle down even when I do make it home because I know I've got to hit the road again soon. And this weekend I've got ANOTHER trip, this time to Cadillac, Michigan for my good buddy and resident-expert-on-everything Andrew Soliday's bachelor party. All of which is to say: if I haven't been able to do my short fiction reviewing in sue me. As Woody Allen said, 90% of life is just showing up.

And...I wasn't blown away by this story but it was a nice, light-hearted palate cleanser, like some lemon sorbet in the middle of a particularly rich meal. The rich meal, I guess, is my life...or something? I don't know. I should have stopped before trying to explain that metaphor. Anyway, the story was refreshing and fun, if nothing else.

Basically, a guy gets visited by a genie who asks him if he wants to be Pablo Picasso or own a Picasso. The guy debates all the pros and cons of both avenues while he sits in the museum cafe. He finally decides he'd like to own a Picasso, except now he finds himself sitting in the museum cafe with an original Picasso under his arm. Quite a conundrum!

What I liked about this story was the playful tone and the way Aira takes the time to actually examine the pros and cons of each choice he has to make. He does a really nice job of taking a completely super-natural concept and bringing it down to earth. Granted, there's a whole genre of this kind of thing already out there, examples of which occasionally (read: too often) appear in the NYer. I'm thinking specifically of a recent story in which the Frog Prince and the Princess actually have to live together after his metamorphosis and find it impossibly difficult. Hell, I think there are writers who've made CAREERS on this kind of story.

Ah, works here for two reasons: 1.) because Aira doesn't cram any of the hokey, fairy-tale kookiness down our throats, and 2.) because Aira is Latin. You see, the Latin writers have an intrinsic aptitude for Magical Realism that's like the American aptitude for self-delusion or Football; it's second nature. Therefore, Aira seems as comfortable in this metier as Richard Sherman playing a game of back-yard football with a bunch of 10 year-olds. Put Cesar Aira in the same game? He's fumbling the ball, looking the wrong way, forgetting what "down" it is, or what a down even means, etc. etc. Likewise, the way it feels when lots of American writers try to do Magical Realism; they're all thumbs and left feet.

Based on this sample, I think I'd go out of my way to read another Cesar Aira story....unless a magical wind blows one through my window first. And in that case, definitely.


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