[the book rat project] Week 15: A Beautiful Bolero



It's time for another installment of the Book Rat Project, the sustained experiment in which a book critic (my Phoenix colleague Eugenia Williamson) attempts to act as a human algorithm for a willing subject (me). This time around Eugenia picked Cubop City Blues by Pablo Medina. She based her pick on two simple facts: I’m a fan of Paul Auster (this book is set in fictionalized New York), and the author is a professor at Emerson College. So how did she do?


Very, very well.



Cubop City is New York seen through the eyes of a blind Storyteller: an urban landscape of jazz, alienated romantics, displaced souls and broken stories. At twenty-five our narrator— home-schooled on Arabian Nights, The Bible and Encyclopedia Britannica—is forced to care for his bedridden and cancer-stricken parents. With no knowledge of the outside world, beyond the stories he’s heard and read, the Storyteller creates a history for places he can only imagine. Through his stories he eases the suffering of his parents and eventually discovers the strength to explore the shadow world outside his door.


Cubop City Blues ultimately reminded me more of Diaz’s Drown, or even Calvino’s brilliant If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler than of anything by Auster. For Auster, New York is forever tinged with noir sepia; any street, apartment, or ally might unravel a comfortable life. In Cubop Medina gives readers something very different: a colorful, if somewhat mysterious, land of jazz and immigrant families scrambling to build new lives while missing their old ones.


Structurally Cubop City Blues is composed of stories and fragments populated by characters fractured by loss, immigration, adultery and love. Some of the Storyteller’s meta-yarns are a few pages in length, while others are parceled out episodically across the length of the novel—though not always with brilliant results. Several feel unnecessarily, even unnaturally truncated, while others are broken at almost arbitrary points only to be resumed at other equally random moments. But despite its somewhat jarring construction, Cubop City Blues succeeds more often than not. Occasionally Medina even manages to approach the dizzyingly lyrical with


powerful broad-stroke sentences desperate to capture the world all at once.


But this leads to what became, over time, my greatest complaint: when Medina failed to overwhelm me lyrically, or connect with me emotionally, it’s was often due to an overwhelming sense of artifice—in Cubop City even the stories of the wounded and destitute are proffered with the veneer of a power-ballad. Tragedy is defanged by the relentlessly beautiful.


The Book Rat Letter Grade: A-

[CORRECTION: The original review stated that this is Pablo Medina's debut novel. He has, in fact, writtten twelve works of fiction.]

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