The Placebo Effect Trilogy:

Like Blood in Water
The Future of Giraffes
View of Delft


By Yuriy Tarnawsky


JEF Books
August 2013

Reviewed by J. Andrew Goodman


Yuriy Tarnawsky's The Placebo Effect Trilogy embraces the strange minutia that inhabits our lives and turns them into points of pride and solidarity. He turns our rituals, the traditions we've learned to trust, into the surreal. When we can no longer believe in the systems we've set in place, where else do we look? Tarnawsky lays bare the human need for faith, not necessarily in religion, but in some ready comfort. Perhaps it's not faith exactly, but a notion that dilemmas can always be resolved. This notion, Tarnawsky says in the foreword, is an ingrained placebo effect we willingly submit to.

The trilogy explores how we rationalize our actions, whether we do it consciously or subconsciously. Often, Tarnawsky's characters are reacting to death or some other loss: a limb or a lover. Their acts of reconciliation appear odd, but we feel a similar anxious relief with them. The strange becomes real and, tonally, it effects the underlying tension of the trilogy.

Form plays an integral part in Tarnawsky's work as well. Each novel in his trilogy consists of five mini-novels, which are further divided into sections. These could be scenes, vignettes, or even poems, and are not to be mistaken for chapters. The novels sometimes read as a collection of short stories or novellas because none of the mini-novels are connected by characters or events; they are unified by thematic elements like imagery and tone. The same can be said of the entire trilogy, which does not have a continuous or chronological narrative arc and, thus, no recurring characters.

Furthermore, Tarnawsky implements what he calls negative text: text omitted that the reader is obliged to fill in, finishing the work with her own imagination. Tarnawsky provides allusions and metaphors and directs the tone of his mini-novels to suggest certain scenes and conflict. Much of the trilogy relies on implication. The advantage of this methodology is that the novels' scopes are widened to the limits of the readers' imagination. Where some novels or short stories are open-ended, Tarnawsky's work feels simply open. The reader observes and creates. Although seemingly arduous, the reader is rewarded by contributing and taking part ownership of the suggested narrative.

The first book of the trilogy, Like Blood in Water, initiates readers to Tarnawsky's tone, style, and his integration of different forms. Tarnawsky develops a pattern among the mini-novels by creating subtext through repeated images—the colors blue and white, gladioli that appear in clouds, and explosions—and with allusions to famous visual artists, writers, singers, and composers. The repeated images work to make Like Blood in Water seem cohesive, to make it appear as though a flower or a color's later appearance suggests a connection to its initial introduction. The allusions suffuse the mini-novels with possibility. For instance, in the mini-novel "Pavarotti-Agamemnon," someone familiar with Homer or Aeschylus could expect Agamemnon's character to be murdered. This particular mini-novel is the most moving because of its fated, thought still unpredictable, ending. Also, it contains one of the most rapturous love scenes in prose I've read since Jeanette Winterson's Written on the Body.

Tarnawsky's overall style, on the other hand, reminds me of Haruki Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Both are masterful in their economic use of language. They describe the minutia of daily life—the precise layout of a room or the correct way to prepare blood soup—in such a way that it feels imperative to the story. The level of detail affects the novel's tone. Sometimes it feels monotonous; if Tarnawsky's trilogy were a painting, there would be many swaths of grey.

Tarnawsky frequently uses simile and metaphor to further contribute to the tone he creates in each piece. His trilogy not only lacks an overreaching narrative arc, but its scenes rely on contemplation and tone rather than action. There is an inherent tension, an anxiety he creates with tone that carries readers to the end. For instance, in the first two mini-novels, "Screaming" and "Former Pianist Fitipaldo," the story is dominated by a palpable silence; in the former, the silence is broken by primal screamers, and, in the latter, the growing quiet intensifies the pianist's diminished ability to play. Through clever suspense, the stories are able to crescendo without using derivative or contrived action.

The Future of Giraffes is perhaps my favorite book in the trilogy. All of its protagonists are children. They're still forming their notions of the world and discovering what their stakes are in it. More and more they are characters just learning what it is they have to lose; tragically or ironically, it isn't much.

In the first mini-novel, "A Day in the Life," a boy is abandoned by his family, then, he discovers, by the entire town. In his desperation, he runs and yells as loud as he can for anyone or anything. Not even an echo returns. This type of aloneness sets a precedent for the other mini-novels. The children are largely autonomous, making the impact of their situations more tragic, though thankfully not maudlin. The second mini-novel reintroduces Tarnawsky's themes of existentialism and death, which also feature prominently throughout the trilogy. This mini-novel is unlike several of the others, because it follows a character over many years of his life and its formal elements surrender to more traditional storytelling methods.

"Your Childhood" best exemplifies what a mini-novel is—a series of negative texts with the scope of an entire novel. Most of the other mini-novels don't contain such an explicit conflict of desires: an economy of sex, an inherent brutality that informs the decisions of boys and men, and the guise of innocence that's corrupted or exposed by desperation and want. Tarnawsky captures the awkwardness of adolescent lust and sexual discovery, complete with dirty German limericks. In a particularly well-written scene, Franz and his friends are performing the crucifixion of Christ for an audience of other friends. They capture a rat, who serves as Christ, and two mice, who are the thieves that flank him. In horrific detail, Tarnawsky explains how each one of them is nailed to makeshift crosses in the alley. As the rodents die, the children sing church hymns. When they don't remember the words, they fumble through Christmas songs. Failing to make sense of brutality, yet believing it necessary, Tarnawsky offers a poignant commentary on a human lack of empathy or the consequences of misguided faith.

In another scene, Franz throws a stone at an albino boy playing the violin in front of his house. Tarnawsky portrays albinism in the trilogy as a physical manifestation of death, and his characters react differently to it. Mostly, they're impotent in the face of death and fear it otherwise. But, Tarnawsky also cleverly uses albinism as an element of otherness, echoing the chapter in Moby-Dick about the albatross and whiteness as unusual in its pureness. In the mini-novel's context, Franz throwing a stone at the albino boy could be a rejection of faith. It could also be the volatile nature of ignorance, how we react violently to the things we don't understand. This is Tarnawsky's plan for negative text: making connections that may not exist, but that still enhance the experience of reading his work.

The last two mini-novels read more like philosophical exercises. They are observations on the nature of the mind with and without faith, and what it will construct within the limits of imagination. "The Quarry" is about a boy who has known nothing outside the quarry where he resides, placed there and observed by outsiders. He knows no one and has never seen another person. He hunts rats and eats what others consider garbage. While playing, he creates soldiers out of sticks and they fight, suggesting that war or conflict is the expression of our inner struggle to reconcile the world around us. Violence appears to be inherent to our ability to survive and thrive, but two soldiers observe, "It's a silly child's game." The final mini-novel is a touching conversation about faith, death, and relationships between a boy and his father.

The final book of the trilogy, View of Delft, is more concerned with the nature of death than the others. In fact, one could argue each of the five mini-novels is similar to the five stages of grief and loss. Examination and reactions to death appear frequently throughout the trilogy—the tailor in "Pavarotti-Agamemnon," the albino boy in "Your Childhood," Nora in "Sunday Morning"—but it is typically through abstraction.

In the last mini-novel of View of Delft, the reader enters a school where students are essentially preparing themselves to die. There are classes on remaining still, on remaining quiet, on growing pale. Tarnawsky does a remarkable job conveying the concentrated efforts of the students. They're encouraged by teachers to chant and inspire the others: "Turn white, white, white." Some students complete the impossible task. Others become embarrassed and blush. The last story is the ultimate existential expression, and, if the students don't quite succeed in their practice, they learn to accept death. By learning what it means to die, they no longer fear it.

The different reactions to death and loss may be the central theme to The Placebo Effect Trilogy. In the foreword, Tarnawsky says the ingrained belief that tomorrow is guaranteed is itself a placebo. Despite the pervading gloom of Tarnawsky's statement, the trilogy isn't vapid introspection. His inclusion of the mundane and the odd details in the everyday lives of his characters is a subtle way of telling us not to forsake the small things that inhabit our periphery. The weird will surprise us. The unusual will sober us. Our days are long and the strange may yet save us.