The Fata Morgana Books

By Jonathan Littell


Two Lines Press
November 2013

Reviewed by Veronica Popp


Jonathan Littell's The Fata Morgana Books takes the reader on a strange, sensual, and existential journey. These novellas are not for the weak-minded or faint of heart. Littell's last work repulsed critics from the San Francisco Chronicle and the Washington Post. He is the winner of the Bad Sex in Fiction award from the Literary Review in 2009 for his incest scene in The Kindly Ones. The Fata Morgana Books is no different. The diction is pornographic in nature, calling to mind the Marquis de Sade, and ultimately, Littell's work concludes that while the individual has power and freedom, the body, in itself, is not anything to celebrate. The four distinct narrators all lack empathy as societal outcasts.

The book begins with four connected short stories titled "Etudes." They are the instrumentals that introduce the motifs of surrealist loneliness and despair before the big production is finalized in the stirring novella closing the collection, "An Old Story."

"A Summer Saturday," the story opening "Etudes," starts with a description of a lackadaisical, but happy, day. However, the tone quickly shifts when the narrator describes his joy that the city is closed because of war. He's "being haunted all over the city by the shrill whistle of the mortar shells and the obscene noises of their detonation." Then the narrator discusses how the summer rages on while the war does too. He finishes the story by remarking on his desolation, repression, and anxiety; he created a second skin for himself and finds it slipping.

The next story, "The Wait," turns gloomier. By giving us the narrator as he waits for his transfer from work, Littell asks how defined we are by our jobs. The narrator's waiting draws him into a downward spiral that includes alcoholism, self-harm, illness, and an isolated sexual encounter. What pulls our narrator out of "The Wait" is the promise of love through letters; however, he concludes, his wait is cyclical, and the depression will return.

"Between Planes" is the strongest of the "Etudes" and perhaps the most engaging piece in the entire collection. It begins by describing a love affair in very mechanical language; the narrator becomes "tangled up in the workings of this machine." He is hobbled by an injury in his foot and geographically divided from his lover, C. He falls for C. quickly, but is rarely able to see her. Military interventions and work commitments keep them apart. When he tries to see her, the city or airport is closed. C's affection remains mysterious; she is often busy at her job, distant and cold. The ambiguity of her feelings troubles the narrator dearly and due to planes being re-routed because of holiday and service commitments, they do not see other again. In Littell's work, there is no email, Facebook, or Twitter—letters and personal visits are the only format of communication. This distance does not make them closer, it only divides them further. Love is lost before it is ever started.

The final piece in "Etudes" is "Fait Accompli." Translated literally, it means "accomplished fact" or "something that already has been done." An entire discussion plays out, without dialogue, on solutions for situation 1-4, though the situation or context is never mentioned. The reader is unaware of what the discussion is even about. Nothing else is mentioned and nothing is accomplished. The work ends with a revision of the cliché, "eating your cake and having it too."

The next novella, "Story About Nothing," discusses a party and a long, drawn-out drug, alcohol, and sex binge. Our narrator is in poor health. He is given a pornographic film by a friend and finds power in female submission, though he feels hopeless at his own lack of choices and possibilities in life. Later, he attends a party and has sex with a young girl, while still in love with another. The story concludes on "the bitterness of life."

"An Old Story" starts with the narrator putting on his gray tracksuit, his "uniform" through life and his countless sexual escapes that dot Littell's final shocking novella. This is the most controversial of all of the pieces. Our nameless narrator is not one to sympathize with; he is a rapist, war criminal, and absent father. He waltzes through different scenes, different women, and a warzone. To ground the story in suburban banalities, he often faces questions about the electrical units in his building. They have constant problems and the narrator recalls the complaints or is shocked out of a sexual encounter only to consider his electrical tribulations.

Littell is fearless in his descriptions of sex, masculinity, and femininity. In one encounter, the narrator has sex with a woman who wears a strap on and proceeds to use the toilet. While still wearing it, she states, "I like having a cock. I think I'll wear it all day." There is no gendered body in Littell's work, everything is fluid.

The tales are sensual, but with no longing. None of the sex is sexy. The most romantic tale, "Between Planes," hardly describes sex at all, but desire and intimacy are paralleled in the distance between the two characters. Littell's work is similar to Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch in its discussion of isolation, alienation, and disillusionment. While Tartt's narrator has his painting to hold on to through the impasse of his life, however, Littell's narrators have nothing.

Tonally, The Fata Morgana Books seems more in line with the work of Kafka, especially The Trial. Each narrator is trapped by an unknown element, usually revolving around law, order, and military intervention. Sex and drugs are used as an escape from current circumstances. Shy readers may need to turn away from the coarse descriptions of sex. Overall, living in this absurd world is meaningless. Littell's novellas of the terrifying yet hollow world are magnificent in their description. Littell foreshadows the end of the world, war, death, famine and pestilence, but in this case, the famine and pestilence is of the soul.