Book Review : Pedro Proença - Benjamin (2015)
"Son, are you my amanuensis?"
"Don't judge a book by its cover" is a well-known platitude because we've been repeating it to everyone who wants to hear it for as long as commercial fiction has existed, yet we keep doing it, hence the need to repeat it over and over again. Last occurrence for me came when I dismissed Brazilian author Pedro Proença's debut novella Benjamin as "probably quirky and cute magic realism" solely because of its cover. Turned out I could've have been any more wrong. Benjamin is an avant-garde folktale about the fleeting nature of reality. It's short and wildly surreal, yet deceptively dense. Needless to say, I was charmed.
The first mistake you might make upon starting Benjamin is thinking the story is about the boy. Oh no! It is very much a story about the balloon. A floating consciousness trapped in a spherical prison of yellow rubber. The boy tagging alongside Benjamin is actually a nameless and headless kid running his errands in the physical realm (yeah, we're still very much into bizarro fiction territory). Our two protagonists are trapped in a deadly shopping mall haunted by a supernatural presence that may or may not be trying to tear the very fabric of reality apart. Benjamin and the boy need to first save reality if they want to save themselves.
Wow. Where should I start with this bad boy? I've read Benjamin on a two hours plane ride between my home town and Montreal and I highly suggest reading it in such state of suspended reality. The first thing about Benjamin I really enjoyed was that Pedro Proença subverted the stereotypical "good vs evil" narrative and turned the discussion into "existence vs non-existence." Benjamin and the boy are caught somewhere in between in that damned mall and it (perhaps unwittingly) ushers other ideas like: what is evil? and what is at stake if reality is engulfed by a terrifying monster? Benjamin might be short, but it proposes one of the most satisfying reflections on the nature of evil I've ever read in fiction.
"What are you?" Benjamin asks.
"I am your father, Benjamin." He says the word Benjamin in an imitation of Karen's high, weepy voice.
Benjamin turns to the Boy.
"No, but I could be. I mean, I'm just a disgusting, reality bending toilet monster, but I could be your father. What the fuck do you know about yourself, balloon?" the man says.
Benjamin is bizarro fiction, yet it doesn't feel like it. It has a playfulness to it and a philosophical boldness that reminded me or avant-garde writers like Donald Barthelme and John Barth. Pedro Proença's take on consumerism and its constructed realities also reminded me of personal favorite J.G Ballard. I'm not even getting into the spectacular, Lynchian surrealism of Benjamin here. Top these with Proença's terrific, deadpan sense of humor (I chuckled every time Benjamin called someone "son") and you've got yourself the recipe for an intoxicating little tome. There is both a rich network of influences and a vibrant originality to Benjamin.
I loved Benjamin to death, but I'll admit it's kind of an acquired taste. It will require you to work with the book and do your research to a certain extent and some readers might be put off by that. Literary enigmas lovers (like myself!) should be enchanted by this challenging and effervescent little book. Benjamin has the making of a cult book and the reason why it was barely read since its release last Fall is mind boggling to me. This book deserves a movie and a rabid, conspiratorial fan base. Benjamin is bizarro, but it's not only bizarro. If you're into bold, trapezoidal and challenging literature, you ought to keep an eye on Pedro Proença. That guy is the real deal.