A Review of: Things in the Night by Mati Unt

CENTRAL QUESTION: Can an Estonian write the great American novel?

A Review of: Things in the Night by Mati Unt

Thom Blaylock
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It’s time he finished his novel, a follow-up to a moderate success. It’s about electricity, a topic, he admits, much too general to be worth a damn. It will be written “in dialogue form, where it remains unclear who is who.” Stay with him here, this narrator in the prologue. About the style he has chosen for his novel he says, “it amused me a good deal at first, in an egotistical way, of course—for what else can such amusement be?” The reader finishes the prologue and, forewarned, turns to “The First Chapter of the Novel.” It is what our narrator promised—the first chapter of a novel all in dialogue spoken by characters difficult to pin down. A middle-aged Estonian man gets interrogated (by a reporter? a cop? an old friend?) about his plan to destroy the Liikola Power Station. The man’s hope: the beginning of the end of modernity. A single act of terrorism will start the downward spiral of civilization, the age of electric imperialism. This man is convincing, and some readers will be thinking, “Here it is at last—the apocalyptic, post-Soviet, metaphysical, political thriller I’ve been waiting for.”

But wait, the next chapter is titled “Reality.”

The writer from the prologue returns. The novel he has begun frightens him; it surprises. Where does this come from, he wonders. Might he actually want to blow something up? He believes a long-dead uncle had been a revolutionary in Estonia’s 1918 independence movement. He finds proof in the abandoned house of his childhood. Have his genes been dormant till now?

After “First Chapter of the Novel (Cont.)” comes “Susie” and what seems to be the beginning of the novel’s (not the novel-within-the-novel’s) main point of tension. The narrator’s nihilism, pessimism, and inability to bridge his inner with his outer life cause him to lose a woman he almost cares for. His thoughts are all Susie, and he can’t finish the pesky novel. Then, like a force of nature, the unfinished manuscript begins to work its way into the narrator’s reality. Unexplained power outages, packs of angry dogs running wild, urban cannibalism, and eventually a man with the wherewithal to shut the power off will force the narrator to decide whether to get in, get dirty, and endure, or retire completely from modern life.

Sound confusing? Sound familiar? Things in the Night is neither. Unt annihilates genre expectations, employing autobiography, poetry, theater (yes, theater!), letters, first person, second, third, past tense, present (often in the same paragraph), conversations heard on the train, and a long series of facts about electricity that would give John D’Agata a heart attack. Despite all the book’s experiments with structure and voice, not once does it seem gimmicky. There are books that tweak the mind and might even affect the electric impulses in the brain, ever subtly, for the better. Things in the Night might be one of those books if, for nothing else, its ambition.

Most great books have a certain something not easily fingered, but it has to do with passion, maybe even mania, something that pulls you in: the book simply must be read. Readers feel the unstoppable force of such a book. Things in the Night almost has it. It’s a good book, a damn good book, that wants to be great. Perhaps one of Unt’s books that has yet to be translated from Estonian fully realizes his artistic ambition and radical approach to the novel.

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