Friday, June 14, 2019

Heartbreak Tango, pure genius

Heartbreak TangoHeartbreak Tango by Manuel Puig
My rating: 5 of 5 stars ////  If I could give this book 5,000 stars I would do it without hesitation―even if I had to click an extra 4,995 times to get the job done. Maybe a better formula would be to assign the book 5 stars, as custom dictates, and assign the remaining 4,995 stars to me as a rating for my writer's envy.

It's not going to be possible for me to write objectively about Heartbreak Tango, and that's the highest praise I can give it. When a work of art swallows you whole, like a Venus flytrap, you are not in a good position to describe it from the outside.

In his career-best novel, Puig presents a collage of personal letters, diary entries, newspaper clippings, advertisements, tragedy-tinged tangos played on the radio, overheard one-sided phone conversations, dispassionate glimpses of daily activity observed from on-high (think CCTV footage), and much other flotsam and jetsam, snippets, shreds and scraps of everyday life in a small town, laying them out for the reader to tell a complex tale of love and betrayal and memory and betrayal. Others have tried this narrative technique and succeeded, but none of those efforts come close to succeeding on this level in my reading experience.

Expect to laugh, to be shaken, smacked and shocked, to be dismayed, annoyed, fearful, uncomfortable, and much more. Here is a story of numerous women of various ages in love with the same young man, juxtaposed with a counter-story about that very same rogue―outwardly robust, vibrant, and virile, inwardly somewhat immoral, corrupt, and shallow (but not evil)―and even more inwardly, suffering from a soon-to-be-fatal case of tuberculosis. His eventual demise is a given from the start because it is discussed many years after the fact via correspondence between one of his former girlfriends (seeking to relive the romance of her life) and his bereaved mother. We think we know how it will turn it because we are told at the outset. Except we don't know.

Prepare yourself for one of the most jaw-dropping twists in plot I can remember encountering in my life. And the ending? Not only are the last paragraphs the best example of romantic writing I know of―fully justifying the two words in the book's title (heartbreak and tango)―a miracle is made to happen in the last paragraph, where, out of his magician's top hat, Manuel Puig pulls forth a group of sentences that are―taken all on their own―a perfect scrapbook microcosm with which he ends his scrapbook macrocosm of a novel. It's pure genius.

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