All Those Vanished Engines, by Paul Park

18490622I am left with one question after reading Paul Park’s tripartite novella, All Those Vanished Engines. That question is “What the fuck?” All my other questions about this strange book can be summed up in that one useful phrase.

All Those Vanished Engines is the most meta novella (or novel) I have ever read. The stories layer back on each other in an innumerable regressions. They weave in and out of Park’s own family history. They even enter the stories of Park’s creative literature students. And the various strands are slippery as hell. As the novella progresses, it gets harder and harder to tell what’s going on and which of Park’s various ancestors is being discussed. In the first section, two narrators end up telling each other’s stories. In the second, you have one of Park’s students tries to “kill him softly” by writing about his life via in some creative nonfiction. In the third, everything breaks down.

The best explanation of the structure of the book comes in part three. Park (the author as character) remarks on the nature of autobiography:

Without alternatives we resort to telling stories, coherent narratives involving chains of circumstance, causes and effects, climactic moments, introductions and denouements. We can’t help it.

This is even before we to make things up…memory cannot be separated from ordinary thinking, which is constructed in layers, rather than sequences…Both memory and history consist not of stories but of single images, words, phrases, or motifs repeated to absurdity. Who could tolerate reading about such things? Who could even understand  it.

But stories once they’re started are self-generating. (Part III, Chapter 2*)

The first part was the most interesting for me. Paulina Claiborne writes stories to alleviate her boredom after her grandmother bans her from all books. She writes about an alternate 1967 in which martians have invaded. The main character of that story starts telling his own tale about a girl named Paulina who lives in an alternate South where the Civil War ended in 1864 with a truce between the two belligerents. As their stories went on, it became clear that they were creating each other. It was fascinating to watch.

In the second and third parts, where Paul Park takes over narration duties, I found myself losing interest. But the last fifth of the book, I was skimming. This novella did not work for me. The structure was too unwieldy to sustain a coherent narrative. I could see what Park was doing—and I salute him for his boldness—but the last part felt a lot like cheap therapy. (I know that’s a snarky thing to say, but it’s the truth.)

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for a fair review. It will be released 1 July 2014.

* From the advanced reader copy, kindle edition.

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