The late reporter Ryszard Kapuscinski covered many of the wars and revolutions of the second half of the 20th century for state-run Polish newspapers, earning himself several death sentences. When asked how he escaped, he would say he tried to make himself seem like he wasn't worth the bullet. But he would return with his notes and write a series of books-Shah of Shahs, The Emperor, and The Soccer War, among others-that turn his daily reports into something transcendent, rhapsodic, and literary.
It was difficult not to think of Kapuscinski when reading There, the debut book by Baltimore's Heather Rounds. The book is called a novel-a wise move, as even Kapuscinski has lately been criticized by accusations of fabrication-but the author's note at the beginning makes it clear that, like the book's heroine, Rounds traveled to Iraqi Kurdistan, where she worked for an English-language newspaper. "This book consists of events, incidents, sentences formed from Moleskine notes, anecdotes, oral histories, people-all of it carried a far distance." And that distance that occurs in the "way recollection lives on, separate from experience," is in many ways the subject of this remarkable book.
Though it is, in a sense, a work of reportage, Rounds' book is also a meditation on possibility and subjectivity. After the author's note, there is an epigram from Ludwig Wittgenstein, as he reflects on language games and possibility. "If a lion could talk, we could not understand him," and a couple pages later, when the protagonist is asked "Why go there?," she responds, "Because. She decided to think things were possible, despite anything and everything she knew. The word possible nuzzled, nipped, until a hole began and crawled through to where, over twenty some years, she'd slowly gone buried under herself."
So the "There" of the title is Kurdistan, but the book is more about the subjectivity of a young American confronted with Kurdistan and the possibilities that she finds. And though it is written as prose, it is not quite a traditional novel, structured as it is in a series of page-long vignettes which detail her life at the paper and her desire for a Kurdish reporter who never reciprocates her feelings.
Like Kapuscinski, Rounds writes these passages almost as if recounting a dream of otherness. Virtually no one has a name, only an initial-which is fine if you are, like Kafka, talking about K. But it is frustrating when most characters are marked by nothing more than a letter. The "B"s and the "AZ"s can blend together, faceless. Rather than initials, her would-be lover is referred to as the Man of Small Vital Facts: "That's what he is: facts. Not so much small, or even vital-but the kind that usually remain hidden in a place like this. The kind that require effort to unearth. Facts."
On the one hand, Rounds' sequence of prose poems, as one might think of them, have the sense of the alienation and even fever that can come from being "there," away, foreign, unknown, not home. They are filled with beautiful passages and descriptions and a phenomenological attention to what is happening in her own mind. On the other hand, one wishes that Rounds might have followed the model of Kapuscinski a bit more closely and revealed more of Kurdish life, more of the characters she met, incorporated perhaps some of the reporting that she did for the newspaper she was working for, as limited as she felt it was. The dreamlike, rhapsodic feeling of the narrative is both beautiful and intense, but would be more so, would accumulate a greater power, if it had been set off against more fleshed-out narratives or external descriptions. Even the man who "causes something to burrow between her legs. A throbbing"-the non-affair which constitutes most of the book, in a beautiful The Sun Also Rises, "isn't it pretty to think so" way-never entirely comes alive except in his relationship, or non-relationship, with the unnamed protagonist.
But it is wrong to compare Rounds with Kapuscinski, who produced some of the great works of the 20th century. She is a major new voice in Baltimore's literary scene, and There is a work of both beauty and courage. What you want more of is a result of the things Rounds does so well. You close the book hoping that she has it in her to undertake another adventure, that she might find another "there" to invest with her possibility. Not enough writers work in the vein she is mining, which is not only that of Kapuscinski but also of Bruce Chatwin, Paul Theroux, Jane Bowles, and Joan Didion. (In fact, Didion's Salvador might be the most stylistically close antecedent, as frustrating as it is beautiful in the lack of concrete detail about the lives of the characters other than the protagonist.) Ultimately, there is a vitality in Rounds' voice that becomes more intense as the scenes she wrote keep reappearing, more vivid than when you first read them, proving there is a there There.
Heather Rounds reads from There at Atomic books on Oct. 24 at 7 P.M. For more information, visit atomicbooks.com