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Cover painting by Michael Hafftka

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by James Chapman
$16.00    336 pp.   ISBN 1-879193-15-9

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     Saying STET is about a Russian filmmaker during Stalin-era Russia seems like a great quick pitch-ey blurb, but it doesn't do the book justice, even though it does sound interesting. It's less about Stet, the filmmaker, than it is about everything around him, like Vyshinksy's face:
     "He has a heart-shaped face--understand, the true medical shape of a heart, lopsided, strange flaps and creases, a face anguished that it has to talk all day when it is really like a heart that wishes to stop beating and sleep."
     This book is redolent with such sentences and paragraphs, and it's difficult to choose which can exemplify the power of Chapman's prose, but I could also give the book to a wild animal and let it ravage the pages until there's one scrap left, the words on that scrap would work too.
     Personality, politics, love, art, and the stubbornness of human nature recur throughout STET, and the narrator almost harangues. The narrator is almost the embodiment of Russia, and Stet one of her victims, obsessive and extreme. The torture and beauty that co-exist within a human mind are teased, and Stet is a victim of both.
--Monika Woods, Books I Just Read

James Chapman's Stet, the story of a Russian filmmaker who draws "pictures on the only storyboard in Russia that expresses and does not communicate," is a novel of relentless beauty and bleakness.... Written in a mesmerizing, meticulous prose, Chapman's novel is a bitter examination of the artist's place in society.... His narrator is a mind-blowing mishmash of third person, second person, first person plural; he revels in narrative intrusions and direct addresses to the reader. No object is safe from the examination of this narrator--not a teacup nor a hole in a shirt nor the sun. Inanimate or animate, tangible or abstract, even the most inconsequential object is shown to have some meaning overall, some contribution to the grand scheme, though this grand scheme is persistently met with pessimism and doubt.
      In a time of few truly important novels, when most so-called literary fiction is light or escapist, Stet is undoubtedly literature. For its breadth of ideas and emotional resonance, its uncompromised artistry and its great beauty, its inventiveness and experimental playfulness, Stet is a major accomplishment which deserves the gift that the work of its title character is denied: an audience.
--Scott Bryan Wilson, Rain Taxi

"Fascinating, gorgeous...in a dense, imagistic style reminscent of Michael Ondaatje or Gyórgy Konrad... For the uncommon reader--that's you, by the way--it's definitely worth checking out."
--Benjamin Chambers, The King's English

Chapman's poetic language works to mysticize this vast terrain of subject matter, becoming entangled in virtually every deeper implication it stumbles across. Yet the novel never feels crowded--Chapman's pacing is too masterful. He manages to convey in prose the sense of a good film, shifting from subject to subject the way a movie camera mounted on a dolly might slowly move across different paintings in a large museum.
     This novel, which is unlike any novel you'll read this year or this lifetime, is many things, one of them being a probing philosophical examination of the nature of critique ­ particularly critique that is fueled by ideology. Its temporal setting is that period that marked the end of the "freedom to talk to yourself," as Chapman so beautifully puts it.
--Travis Jeppeson, Think Again , Prague

Stet is art about why Chapman makes art, and an argument for why we lesser lights should make art, too. Stet is the Life and Times of every artist to ever make something "wrong"--in Soviet times "formalist," "decadent"; in our world, "unmarketable," "not-reader-friendly"--in the face of everything "right," which might be symbolized by the Order of Lenin, or the New York Times Bestseller List. (Otherworldly) success, at the end of the book, is nothing less than the gulag....
     Six novels in, it seems that Chapman has made a "career" out of becoming himself--slowly, gorgeously, and as publicly as a small press like his own Fugue State can afford. If he is an undiscovered genius, it?s because genius can only be undiscovered. After that, all is canon, and can be worried apart into schools, influences and intentions...
--Joshua Cohen, Blatt Magazine

Stet reprises the responses to the Official Lie, which is universal: the lie that says creators can become free of the societies they create and that create them, the lie that says art is made sacred with time as the test, the lie that says criticism is the voice of loose change -- in a manner that damn near reaches summation on American soil. It is a book written by a mystic in sneakers, and is among the most outraged and sad we've had from our own -- lesser -- gulag Downtown. It tells us that if we don't represent our own damage in art, then all the Job-comforters and their mini-biographers, the squinty presidents and their multinational kitschmeisters will do it for us. They have their red pens to keep their books in the black. We have Stet.
--Joshua Cohen, KGB Bar Lit Magazine

Stet is colorful and humorous in the same way that The Gulag Archipeligo is colorful and humorous, in the darkest of senses. This is grim gallows humor...Stet is a metaphor for the artist's life, its trials, miseries, frustrations but also its joys that persist even in the miiddle of a dung heap...every artist who reads it will readily understand the novel. ...Chapman chooses a foreign culture and a retroactive one too to illustrate basic truths about the artist in society. It is oft observed that in the "socialist" countries, honest fiction and poetry were impossible to publish in the conventional way, but were eagerly read in samizdat editions. In our own beloved, philistine republc you can easily publish your writings, in the sense of printing them, but almost no one will read them. This may well be the situation with Stet, a superior piece of work which will be ignored...
--Arnold Skemer, ZYX

This novel tells the life story of Stet, a filmmaker from Soviet Leningrad, who (like the real-life Sergei Paradjanov) is sent to a prison camp in the 1960's, and who dies there without having produced much more than a single film.

The novel is narrated in an extravagant third-person voice which emulates the sound and attitude of the classic "Russian Novel." Opinionated, discursive, soulful, the voice establishes the basis of the society in which Stet lives: a place where everybody judges, everybody feels he has the right to criticize, and the State even encourages "self-criticism." Failing that, the State may even criticize you to death. The novel imagines a world where we do not live by our judgments of others, nor by our fear of what other people think of us.

Stet, a classic Russian "holy fool," does not criticize anybody, and does not defend himself, but simply works at his art without acknowledging any barriers. He does not compromise because it doesn't occur to him to compromise. The result is that he is treated brutally by friends and enemies, and is judged in every imaginable way. Yet he lives and dies as a happy man. The mystery of this is the mystery of the novel.

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