A Review of Alina Bronsky’s
Just Call Me Superhero
by Alina Bronsky
Translated by Tim Mohr
New York, NY: Europa Editions, 2014.
240 pages. $16 (paperback)
If you have never before read the fiction of Alina Bronsky, you should start with her wonderful novels Broken Glass Park and The Hottest Dishes of Tartar Cuisine. Her third book, Just Call Me Superhero, is not very good.
Bronsky is a Russian-born author who lives in Berlin and writes in German. Tim Mohr translates her fiction into English for Europa Editions. Bronsky is an extraordinary talent. Her first two books are vivid, immersive, sharp. They seem designed to be consumed in one breathless sitting. Traces of humor thread through the imaginative tales of confrontation and connection. The distinctive voices of her characters ring in your mind long after you set the book down.
Just Call Me Superhero shows glimmers of Bronsky’s native ability. But it feels far less potent, and far more hastily written, than the earlier work. The story itself is an interesting one. Our protagonist is Marek, a sulky seventeen-year-old boy in Berlin who has been severely disfigured after being attacked by a Rottweiler a year earlier. While he had once been a popular and charismatic young man in the spotlight of his local theater group, we meet him after he has isolated himself. He cannot face another person without hiding his face (partially) in sunglasses. He is sarcastic, casually cruel, and terribly bored. With a bit of engineering on his mother’s part, Marek begins attending a support group for young people with disabilities, led by a well-meaning, nervous man known as “the Guru.” Or, as Marek puts it, he begins attending a “goddamn support group for cripples with some pathetic wannabe showman in charge.” (16)
Marek is intelligent and insightful, but he is also cocky and emotionally brittle. He does not have faith in the Guru, but he keeps attending the group because he has a crush on the only girl in the room: a young woman named Janne. She has another admirer as well, a poised blind boy that Marek immediately loathes. But the drama of the support group has scarcely progressed when Marek’s estranged father unexpectedly dies in a mountaineering accident. He is compelled to travel to his father’s home in Frankfurt, where he lives with his second wife — Marek’s former nanny — and the little brother that Marek refused to ever meet. In sorting out the details that come after dying, logistical and emotional, Marek is forced to face not only his own vulnerability, but the vulnerability of others. What does it mean to be needed? What does it mean to need others?
With a quick pace and a sharp eye for detail, the novel reads briskly and with warmth. Bronsky crafts a story where a mix of decisive action and occasional coincidence spurs the cause-and-effect of the plot. Her trademark dark humor is still here, too, leavening the sooty material of life lived after tragedy. This is a book about suffering — not in the immediate aftermath, when empathy is easy to come by, but over the long haul, when your suffering becomes boring to others, and to you too. Anger and impatience build up as everyone waits for you to “get over it.”
But Bronsky, so subtle in portraying the emotional development of precocious Sascha in Broken Glass Park and wily Rosa in The Hottest Dishes, is too on-the-nose in her new book. The first-person point-of-view brings a hollow ring to scenes that Bronsky means to be revelatory. Here is Marek early in the novel, shortly after meeting Janne:
Janne shook my hand and forced me to bend down so she could give me a kiss on each cheek. Little devils danced in her eyes. I suddenly understood why someone might want to strangle a girl he was in love with. (64)
And here is Marek later on, as he pushes Janne’s wheelchair through a crowded party:
The view of Janne’s delicate, white, frail neck was unobstructed, and suddenly, for the first time in my life, I thought that people were more than their shells. (213)
Okay, then. Exposition in the form of self-reflection is not easy. Writing from the first-person with a character like Marek — unlikable and not inclined to be emotionally honest with himself — is a challenge, exacerbated by setting the story a year after the accident with the dog. (The reader only learns exactly what happened that day in a series of brief glimpses prompted by other characters.)
But what is strange is that Bronsky was on similar ground with Broken Glass Park — Sascha is a seventeen-year-old just like Marek, and she, too, has an attitude, and she, too, recently experienced a terrible tragedy: Witnessing her stepfather murder her mother. But Broken Glass Park is riveting, surprising, confident. It succeeds where Just Call Me Superhero does not.
Why is that? Part of it may be that Bronsky was simply less at ease in writing from the perspective of a male character — her descriptions of Marek’s lust and sexual life feel clumsily straight-forward and tacked-on. Similar scenes in Broken Glass Park are emotionally rich, more attuned to the multiple motivations of Sascha. Part of it may also be that Marek’s unlikability is more aggressive than Sascha’s — he is homophobic, and he is almost never seen sharing any kindness or compassion or even a joke with any other character. Whereas we do see Sascha, guarded as she is, motivated by love for her mother from the outset. Even when it is revealed late in Superhero that Marek once did something extraordinary for someone else, something brave and life-changing, the revelation is instantly undercut. Marek insists — credibly — that he was motivated only by selfish reasons. Okay, then.
Most of all, in the novel’s finale, Bronsky swiftly ties together the storylines of Marek’s family and his support group in a most unlikely fashion. Without giving much explanation to the reader, a secret is revealed that lays an extraordinary backstory upon the events we have just read. The secret upends the meaning of almost every detail that came before, and not only does it feel unearned — as if the plot of another novel noisily interrupted this one, like a crossed wire — but it makes the reader wonder if the author did not trust the story she was telling. It feels like she was as aware of the aimlessness of Superhero as anyone, and tried shortcut her way into something that felt “weighty.”
That all said, Bronsky gets credit for taking a risk with this book, breaking out of the mold of her previous successes. With a male narrator, an ensemble cast, and a new level of prickliness in our main character, Bronsky was brave to try to to create something new. Just Call Me Superhero is probably best read as a coming-of-age young adult novel — and I mean that without condescension. I love YA fiction. The author’s lighter touch and looser plotting is better suited to that genre, and, had the book been billed as such, it would have been more comprehensible to adult readers.about the author