Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Fifty Shades of 18% Gray

The novel 18% Gray is aptly titled, as this is not a story painted in black and white, but rather one in which the main color is gray. Eighteen percent gray, as professional photographers know, is the "universal starting point for all light meters… the half-way point between black and white."

Gray is used to describe everything we see. Gray are the suit coats and the donkeys; gray are the offices, towns, and tunnels. "The gray houses have gray roofs," we read. "On the gray streets we passed gray people bent over gray bicycles. It was as if I had ridden into a black-and-white dream."

Despite all of this grayness, I found this book by Bulgarian born novelist, playwright and screenwriter Zachary Karabashliev – an award-winning bestseller in Bulgaria and flawlessly translated into English by Angela Rodel – to be very colorful. As someone who lived for two years in Sofia, mention of the "smell of roasted red peppers coming from somewhere in the neighborhood" brought back many fond memories. But this is not a novel of Bulgaria. This is the tale of a Bulgarian moving across the gray landscapes of America, told in three parallel plotlines.

The novel opens with the mesmerizing line "She's been gone nine mornings." Zack, a Bulgarian transplant in southern California, abandons his home and job in search of the beautiful Stella, the talented painter with whom he has been chasing the American dream.

Things get a bit complicated as Zack traces Stella's movements. He states at one point that this is a "novel… in which the main character stumbles upon a bag of marijuana." Like Zack, we are not quite sure how the story will end. "If I knew how it ended," Zack tells one of his contacts along the journey, "why would I start writing in the first place?"

The advice Zack receives in response to his statement is that "You have to know the end. Start at the end. Start there and go backwards, to the beginning." I'm not sure if author Karabashliev started at the ending when he began writing this novel, but when I came to the book's conclusion, I was in for quite a surprise.

Despite the three parallel story lines, I was never confused about what was going on. The author writes in a manner that is easy to read, even when the scenes he depicts are not pleasant to absorb. Zack is a photographer at heart; his photographs of lonely, gray Americana are appreciated by those who view them, just as readers are entranced by Karabashliev's descriptions of the settings where the story takes place.

Not knowing what to expect, 18% Gray (Open Letter, January 2013) surprised me with its originality. Readers should be prepared, like Zack, for an interesting journey, a journey in which one may end up looking at "life from the end to the beginning instead of the other way around."

Zachary Karabashliev has been living in the U.S. His debut novel, 18% Gray, is a bestselling title with 10 editions in Bulgaria; it was released in the United States by Open Letter Books, the University of Rochester's nonprofit, literary translation press dedicated to increasing access to world literature for English readers. The book won the prestigious Novel of the Year Award in Bulgaria and was chosen by anonymous vote to be among the 100 most loved books by Bulgarians in the BBC campaign "The Big Read." Karabashliev is the author of the short-story collections Brief History of the Airplane (2010), Symmetry (2011), other books, essays, and articles.

Buy 18% Gray and read it now.

1 comment:

  1. Appealing review of a book I enjoyed very much. My own review: