#18: The Invisibility Cloak, by Ge Fei (trans. Canaan Morse)

Just as I’ve found that novellas often focus intensely on a sole protagonist, it seems they are also well-suited to narrowing in geographically and temporally, providing a detailed sense of a given place and its social mores. Ge Fei’s The Invisibility Cloak (translated by Canaan Morse and published as NYRB Classics Original), at an estimated 40,000 words, takes us into the urban spaces of modern Beijing as we follow the troubles of Mr Cui, an audiophile who makes money sourcing, building, and installing high-end custom stereo systems for wealthy clients.

Geographically, the novella charts a course around Beijing, from the opening page where a residential apartment complex “sits on the eastern edge of the Winter Palace, with its northern face hugging the flyovers of the north Fifth Ring Road”, to traditional and renovated inner-Beijing hutong, the central shopping district of Wangfujing, the Maliandao tea market, and the city’s outskirts where the wealthy, “even at the edges of a foul, trash-infested city […] always find a way to hunt down the last patches of pristine territory and claim them as their own.”

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#2: Feathered Glory, by James Lasdun

“Feathered Glory” is a seventy-page novella by James Lasdun, published in the latest issue of The Paris Review (Issue 212, Spring 2015). I’d never heard of James Lasdun before, and I didn’t have this novella in my planned list of conquests, but I do read The Paris Review, so I came across it by accident, as a pleasant surprise.

Following the serial publication of Rachel Cusk’s novella Outline last year over four issues (to be covered in a future post), I didn’t expect to find a complete novella inside this issue of the magazine. At this length though, which I estimate at around 25,000 words, it’s very manageable and doesn’t dominate this issue, which also includes many other stories plus poetry and interviews with both Hilary Mantel, Lydia Davis and Elena Ferrante.

“Feathered Glory” follows the marriage of Richard, a school principal in a small town 100 miles north of New York, and Sara, his wife who dabbles in weaving and animal welfare. Their quotidian existence is contrasted from the first page with that of Richard’s friend Victor, a music journalist “leading the disorderly and, in Richard’s private opinion, increasingly depressing life of an ageing bohemian.”

At nearly 50, Victor is recently married to a younger woman named Audrey; they are raising a young daughter. We learn about Audrey from Richard’s perspective, defined in relation to Victor rather than in her own right. Lasdun’s narration privileges the men in most parts, and I was ready to fault him for this: the women are talked about in the opening pages, but the men decide to go out for dinner alone—”Sara won’t mind”—and it’s through their conversation that their stories are presented. However the perspective does shift to Sara in the middle of each of the novella’s three chapters, and it’s in these sections that the prose shines most brightly (while also providing the opportunity for some enjoyable moments of dramatic irony).

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