cover image The Musical Brain

The Musical Brain

Cesar Aira, trans. from the Spanish by Chris Andrews. New Directions, $24.95 (360p) ISBN 978-0-8112-2029-3

Aira’s output has been a steady trickle of irrefutable genius and deepening strangeness, from the haunted architecture of Ghosts to delirious westerns set in the pampas of South America, such as The Hare. Now we have the first collection of Aira’s stories, which might be his masterpiece. Essentially 20 novelettes, this book includes the tales “A Thousand Drops,” in which the paint droplets constituting the Mona Lisa evacuate to start lives of their own, and the title story, in which Aira’s hometown of Coronel Pringles, Argentina, becomes a phantasmagoria of flying dwarves. Aficionados will recognize the author’s imitable modes: the philosophic wormhole (as the logic of numbers leads to the brink of absurdity in “The Infinite”), the comedy of coincidence (as in “The All that Plows Through the Nothing,” which begins with an overheard conversation at a gym and ends with the death of a man who claims to have “become literature” after seeing the back of a ghost), and the gnomic furniture dramas (such as “Acts of Charity,” which consists entirely of the description of a house that a priest is constructing for his successor). But there’s something new, too: pieces that comment implicitly on Aira’s process, which, like the great avant-garde pianist channeled in “Cecil Taylor,” refuses to leave “the particular for later” and which inscrutably mingles form and narrative. (Mar.)