A Mosaic of Music
By Cheryl Morgan
The latest mosaic novel by Zoran Živković will be the first and last book I review from a new small publisher that is causing a few waves in the industry. Aio Publishing has to date produced only four books. However, one of them, The Summer Isles by Ian R. MacLeod, has won both a Sidewise Award (for alternate history novels) and also a top book design award at the Chicago Book Clinic Book and Media Show. Živković, while guest blogging for Jeff VanderMeer, has been enthusing about how happy his is with his new publisher. Of the Aio edition of Seven Touches of Magic, he said:
"…it is without doubt the most beautiful of more than eighty foreign and Serbian editions of my prose books. I can now only humbly hope that the contents won’t betray the perfect form..."
Having received a copy of the book, I begin to understand. In the genre publishing industry we are used to cheap-looking books. The mass-market paperback has been a staple of the industry for a long time, and even hardcovers are now beginning to be produced with miniscule type so as to save money. A few top authors, such as Susanna Clarke (see elsewhere in this issue) get top quality production. But the majority has to put up with what they can get. As for us reviewers, we often get sent proof copies of books with production standards that are even poorer. If publishers really wanted to bribe reviewers then they would send us books of the quality that Aio produces.
The finished version of Seven Touches of Music is a masterpiece of understated style and elegance. The cover is in varying shades of black and gray, with the title picked out in green. The pages are edged in black as well, and the whole product oozes quality. This book, Aio is saying, is not just a collection of stories; it is a work of Art. Any author would, I think, be proud to have their work showcased so beautifully.
But what of that content? Does it fulfill Živković’s humble hopes? Well, it kind of depends on whether you are a Živković sort of reader.
Seven Touches of Music is another “mosaic novel” of a form and style that Živković readers have become familiar with over the past few years. The book consists of seven short stories linked by the theme of music. In each of them perfectly ordinary people have their lives touched in some way by bizarre and unusual events, each of which is brought on in some way by music. Furthermore, the characters tend to be of a type that is something of a Živković specialty. They tend to be older, to be loners, to be eccentric in a very reserved way, and to be very particular about how they live their lives. One is tempted to speculate that the typical Živković character is a borderline Aspberger’s sufferer. Here is an example:
Mr. Adam did not behave like the ordinary sort of visitor, who just wanders around enjoying himself. First he found out which animals were housed in the zoo, then he drew up a schedule of visits. Each animal was allotted a whole day. Few of the zoo’s inhabitants were worthy of such dedication, but the systematic patience with which Mr. Adam approached everything he did would not allow him to act otherwise.
Quite why Živković is so fond of characters like this is a mystery to me. Perhaps he thinks that science fiction readers like to read about people who share some of their personality traits. But it is probably more likely that people with strongly fixed ideas about how their lives should be lived — with strong and somewhat eccentric personal morals, and rigid habits of behavior — are more likely to be convincingly disturbed by the odd things that happen to them than us more laid back types. Maybe Živković thinks his characters deserve what happens to them; maybe he thinks that getting jolted out of their routine will do them good, although often it appears that it does not.
In any case, things happen. Živković writes the sort of short story of which more populist critics might complain, “nothing happens”. Traditionally stories are supposed to have conclusions, but Živković stories often do not. Things happen to the characters — often very odd things — but then the oddness ceases and the reader if left on her own to imagine what it all meant. Where did all that strangeness come from? What effect did it have on the protagonist? Živković often does not say. In his stories things just happen.
It so happens that this is just the sort of short fiction that I like. Živković stories are impressionist rather than realist. They convey mood rather than meaning. They are disturbing rather than comforting, but strange rather than frightening or disgusting. If you like that sort of fiction then, like me you will continue to seek out Zoran Živković’s work wherever you can find it. If, on the other hand, you prefer stories with some neat and surprising denouement, or the sort of sentimentality-and-cats fiction that seems so popular with voters in the short fiction category of the Hugos, then you should give Živković a miss.
Unless, of course, you have an adventurous streak to you. You never know: you might discover, if you give his work a try, just how good he is. And besides, who would not want to own such a beautiful book?