While the big publishing houses continue to fret about the future of the book, Dan Holloway just keeps on going. Founder of the Year ZeroÂ¸ Writers collective, Holloway preaches free e-books and otherwise self-published items. Much of what he and his fellow collective members are fighting for is the continuation of literary fiction, a piece of the publishing pie that gets smaller and smaller as sure-thing profitability becomes less and less likely.Something’s working right on the Internet, though, as self-publishing starts to become less stigmatized (Steve Almond’s bold foray probably hasn’t hurt) and finds a comfortable home with the DIY crowd.
Which is how we get to Songs from the Other Side of the Wall, Holloway’s second book. Songs is the story of seventeen-year-old Szandi who “belongs neither in the West nor the East”, but in the middling place where “two worlds spend eternity almost but not quite brushing against each other — hearing the occasional whisper from somewhere they couldn’t quite place; but never leaving even the smallest footprint on each other.”
As the novel opens, Szandi is called to the apartment of her fellow-artist girlfriend. Yang is the drug-fused whirlwind to Szandi’s grounded sorrow.We soon learn of a dead girl named Claire and a time and place a year before that had Szandi headed in a different direction, which we spiral back toward after Szandi receives a letter about her father’s ailing health.
In threads that shimmer like the novel’s central image of petrol-colored silk, what could have been weaves itself into every situation. The day the Berlin Wall falls, Szandi’s mother, Jennifer, abandons her week-old daughter. They do not meet again until Szandi is a teenager and Jennifer comes back to the Hungarian vineyard to research migrant workers, bringing along her English assistant Claire, who is possibly old enough to be Szandi’s mother herself. Though Szandi and Claire lock eyes through a window only once, it is love on both sides of the glass. Before they can talk — or Szandi and her mother can reconnect — Jennifer and Claire disappear once more. A New Year’s Eve explosion leaves Claire and her brother, Michael — a friend of Szandi’s — dead, and Szandi on the long trail of the love that never was. After taking a journey to London to see her mother and experiencing her father’s initial heart attack, Szandi snaps with the realization that she should be an artist, bringing her to Budapest and Yang. Throughout it all, she receives unmarked packages containing loose pages from Claire’s journal as well as a love letter from Claire.
Holloway writes Szandi with a winsome compassion. Think a European, lesbian Perks of Being a Wallflower, except Szandi is perhaps the one teenage girl in literature who has a good relationship with her father. Holloway also — and this is very much a compliment — writes of Szandi’s sexuality and relationship with Yang without coming across as a creepy guy who just wants to see young women naked with each other. The book successfully integrates the complicated, ethereal world of Internet communities, as when Szandi starts out as somewhat of a big shot on Michael’s band’s website. Szandi narrates:
But under the surface, in the part of the site that really mattered, the user groups and interfaces, it felt like a holiday resort in autumn,”Â Â Szandi narrates in a voice indicative of the novel as a whole. “A few people were still hanging around, catching the last rays of a splendid but fading summer. They’d carry on going through the same routine, seaside tourists looking at the same postcards every day, eating the same ice cream every afternoon even when it was really too cold. But without Michael the heart of the site was shutting down.
For all its good, there are a couple troublesome elements in Songs. Â When the story cycles back around to where the novel began, Szandi and Yang seem to have an entirely different relationship dynamic (one that changes their personalities somewhat), which leaves me unsettled. Also, one of the plot points is that Szandi knows Michael’s father — but Michael did not know his father. Â I am perfectly willing to accept the father lurking on Michael’s website, unsure of how to reach out to his son; I have a much harder time believing the big reveal involving the father, which is frustrating. There are too many nuanced and well-layered elements throughout the novel to overlook such a clunker so close to the end.
Otherwise, Songs captures the dire intensity of being a teenage girl and how easy it is to become mired in the meaning of every fluttering movement and thought. As an American reader, I also found myself caught in the downright romantic notion of Szandi’s European independence. (She’s seventeen and tells her dad she’s going unaccompanied to London, and he more or less tells her to have a good time. In America, that’s called a fat chance.)
Songs is free as an e-book on smashwords.com and runs for a standard trade paperback price print edition on lulu.com. (If you’re lucky enough to live in London, you can also find it at a handful of bookstores.) The entire Year ZeroÂ¸ enterprise is perfect for e-readers, but I’m a grad student and thus had to come up with a less satisfying way of reading the book. Regardless, if the publishing revolution brings about more polished DIY books, then I am there with my nose pressed up against the screen.