Experimental Reading (and Reviewing): ‘Ava’ by Carole Maso

Review of:  Ava by Carole Maso

Reviewed by:  Brian C.

This is the latest in a series of reviews of experimental fiction written by BookPeople Brian C. and Jenn S. 

Brian and Jenn have made it their mission this summer to open up their reading lives to the weird, the odd, the curious, the avant garde, and the totally out-there in the world of fiction.  The previous review in this series, Amelia Gray’s Museum of the Weird, is available HERE.


A common critique of writing which can be called experimental, Avante Garde, Modernist, PostModern… etc. is that the focus on the structure of the writing takes away from the soul of what’s written. It’s a common critique because it contains some truth. Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy is brilliant, but cold. Ulysses may be the crowning achievement of 20th century literature, and my greatest reading achievement, but it’s not something everybody will like, and not something that everybody should read. Everybody should read Faulkner, Welty, Dostoevsky, and Didion, but Joyce, Woolf, and Stein aren’t necessary, they’re just genius. Carole Maso’s unparalleled novel Ava fits somewhat awkwardly within this rubric of soul versus structure because it has a nonlinear plot with a jittery focus, it’s a collection of loosely connected sentences that jump quickly through time, space, fantasy, reality, pop culture, and God, which, with a lesser artist would come across as a cold and silly game, but, I swear to you, the book is accessible, universal, funny, poignant, and above all soulful. All the things I love about the possibility of books live in this novel.

A simple premise:  thirty-nine-year-old Ava Klein is dying. This book is her thoughts on her final day. Her thoughts shift from love, death, literary criticism, war, family, and doctors. It’s a rambling, disconnected process that might be confused for Woolf’s stream of conscience style, but Maso doesn’t write a stream, because Ava’s thought’s aren’t streams, they’re specific memories or pontifications that only make sense to each other in that they come from the same source, Ava. Ava’s day isn’t a stream, it’s more like raindrops on a tin roof. Each hits as a single thing, with its own sound, but those individual drops add up to a wonderful symphony.

It’s harder to explain than show. The book is really just a collection of sentences, and here are some of my favorites:

Come lie with me for a moment in the room called Joie de Vivre.
The light is so beautiful. And there are finches in the feeder. (93)

We live once. And rather badly. (95)

After everything there is to be said,
Our lives still counted for something.
Beautiful flying things. (122)

Let us celebrate, while youth lingers, and ideas flow
And the seduction that is, that has always been language. (227)

The sentences rattle on, with a rhythm that soothes you into a trance, then smacks you awake with the realization that this woman has lived an incredible life, but that doesn’t make her immortal. She’s going to die in a hospital bed, and we’re going to watch it happen. It doesn’t matter to her life that we read her thoughts, and it doesn’t matter that we don’t understand her narrative, we are witnesses to the end, and that bears some responsibility. If you move through this book, skipping pages, the only thing you’ll miss will be those pages, but, because Maso is so brilliant, missing even one comma becomes unthinkable and tragic.

Although the sentences produce a polyphonic feel, there are some thoughts strung together into longer passages that feel weightier to me, I’ll end with an example of my favorite. This passage touches on the impossibility and scientific certainty of dying, Ava’s fear of war, and her ability to think until thoughts no longer come:

Are you sure, Ava Klein, that no one is bringing you experimental
drugs? Strange blood counts. Mysterious fevers.

The president draws a line in the sand.

Strange blood counts now.

Ava, he says, live. Where we might have gone together, I can’t go

This is what I would like

In the end, my parents standing at my bed, singing me gently into

As they sang me into life,

All I can hope for.

He says, Live, against a pulsing field of extraordinary music.

The more you look the less certain you are of what is going on.

I am afraid there might be war.

Memories blend. Memories fail in the end.

Pray the sound of bombs dropping does not become a kind of
silence there.

I don’t want them to confuse the sounds of bombs dropping for
silence. (143-144)

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