Long is the road

18% Gray by Zachary Karabashliev. 2008. French title: 18% gris.

 “Listen my friend. This isn’t a script for a thriller. This is a story about…” I try to calm down and sound convincing. “Actually, this is not a story about drugs. This is a story about a guy who loses his talent…”

“His…what?” Elijah’s eyes narrow, puzzled.

“And loses his faith,” I keep going.

“Ay, ay, ay.” He shakes his head mockingly.

“…loses his appetite for life…”

“Existentialism?” Pure disgust.

“…loses his love…”

“So you’re writing a love story?” Sarcasm, plain sarcasm.

“…himself…”

“And he finds a bag of ganja? Genius!” Elijah slams the table with his fist.

“But one night, one crazy night, as if in a dream, he stumbles upon a bag of marijuana”.

Stella has been gone for ten days and Zach is lost. He’s in a ain’t-no-sunshine-when-she’s-gone kind of mood when he tries to lose himself in booze in Tijuana. This is where he accidentally comes in possession of a bag of marijuana. He decides to leave California behind, drive through the country and sell the weed in New-York. That’s the starting point of the book.

As he drives away from California, Zack follows three paths. The first one is in the present. The second path is the chronological story of his life with Stella. The third one is a journey down memory lane, snippets of conversations with Stella. The three paths are visible in the form of the novel. The present is written in normal script and lay out. His life with Stella is in italic. The snippets are in low-case letters, on the right side of the page, like this:

-look at me

-i’m thirsty

-look at the camera

-i’m cold

-c’mon, please

-i need coffee…

-we’re almost done

-i want to get dressed already…

-this is the last roll of film and i swear we’re done

-the last one?

-the very last one.

The present is a road trip between San Diego and New-York. Zack and Stella are immigrants from Bulgaria. They came to America as students, never left but their whole set of values was formed in their home country. 18% Gray was translated from the Bulgarian and the main character has the same name as the writer. I assume the author poured part of his experience into the book. The road trip is an ode to the American myth. Zack is a photographer who gave up on photography when he couldn’t find a job in his field. He buys a camera for this trip and starts taking pictures again. 18% gray is a technical term for photographers, the equivalent of a diapason for musicians.

I now realise that my American West was not a geographical place, but a secret territory in my dreams. Perhaps everybody has their own Wild West. From a very young age, I knew with certainty that one day I would live in mine. I’d caress the yellow prairie grass and the wind would kiss my face. When did I lose all that? How did I manage to desecrate my West by replacing it with the plastic version of what I’ve been living in for the last few years of my life?

This road trip confronts the real America to his dream America. Despite all the years he’s lived there, he still looks at America with the starry eyes of a European. And yet, what he describes corresponds to the idea I have of rural America. Motels. Poverty. Wilderness. Dinners. Strange characters. People stuck in small towns. Ghost towns abandoned when business went somewhere else; I’ve never seen a ghost town in Europe. All sort of weird encounters happen on this trip and Zack copes with everything that falls down on him. He also takes the opportunity to visit friends scattered on the way. As the book progressed I felt closer and closer to Zack, probably because I share part of his European dream of America and part of his perpetual puzzlement at some American habits:

I try to find a radio station that doesn’t irritate me. I know that every ten or fifteen minutes I’ll have to deal with the next attack of ads—something I have never learned to ignore after all these years in America. Most likely I never will. The locals handle this as if they have an implanted chip that switches their attention on and off during commercial breaks. Maybe the mechanism is formed in the first early years of television watching. I’m missing the “first seven” in this respect. I grew up somewhere else, with a different kind of television.

Karabashliev_grisAfter saying this, he stops to buy CDs and listen to his own free-of-ads music. When we visited California, we did the same. The radio was unbearable and we bought CDs. The TV was unbearable as well. It’s not music or a show with ads, it’s ads with music or shows. We wanted to watch TV and listen to the radio, you learn about a country that way, but we couldn’t. Zack points out the same things that attract our attention as being different from Europe: the huge size of everything, the greasy food everywhere, the preachers on TV or on the radio, the religious stickers on cars, the trailers or the mail boxes in the middle of nowhere.

I also felt close to Zack when he relates how he abandoned his dreams and how it probably cost him his relationship with Stella. Zack drives and thinks about Stella. We learn how they met in Bulgaria and their relationship was based upon a strong connection. When he was a student, Zack wanted to be a rock star but failed, the band disintegrated as its members started to grow up. He learnt photography in Ohio, after they moved to America and it became his passion. Stella’s passion was painting. She had always wanted to paint. When they moved to California, they couldn’t find a job, Zack started to work for a pharmaceutical company and Stella gave lessons. He made good money and lost himself in the process. Stella stuck to painting.

I loved this book, the three paths and lay-outs weren’t artificial. I loved the story, the encounters on the way, the honesty in Zack’s description of his failed marriage. I loved the voice behind the characters of this novel and I had wonderful hours reading it. This is a book I owe to Guy (again), so Guy, a thousand thanks for this. You can read his review here.

PS: The title of this post is a song by French singer Jean-Jacques Goldman. The lyrics talk about the American dream of each immigrant knocking on America’s door, the dream of success and the disappointment that often follow. You can read the lyrics here.

  1. August 15, 2013 at 6:55 pm

    This sounds really great. At first i wasn’t sure when you wrote about the different timlines but then I thought if done well, it can be quite interesting. the voice is key and you seem to have liked this. I see, I missed an opportunity when I was in the US. I didn’t watch TV nor listen to the radio. I already don’t do it here because I hate those ads. It made me think a bit of Americanah. Ngozi Adichie’s latest novel. I’m quite tempted to read it but this sounds so good. I don’t think I’ve read any Bulgarian writers.

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    • August 16, 2013 at 4:06 pm

      He was my first Bulgarian writer too. I think you’d like it.

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  2. August 15, 2013 at 9:22 pm

    I’m so glad you liked this Emma–I thought you would. I think this book has a different appeal for foreigners than it has for Americans. I too loved the descriptions of the sad little towns with their sad little shops and bad coffee. I hope this author does more.

    The book reminded me of a time I was in a bookshop and overheard two people talking about how they’d ‘lost’ themselves when they first came here. Something happened to their values, they said. Anyway, i think the author captures the sense of a foreigner living in America very well.

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    • August 16, 2013 at 4:08 pm

      I wish we could see Zach’s pictures of his trip. I also hope he will publish other books. I’ve seen he’s written the scenario for the film version of 18% Gray.

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  3. August 16, 2013 at 3:23 pm

    Well, this has been hovering in one of my Amazon wishlists for a while now, and this bumps it over into a purchase.

    The ads thing is strange isn’t it? The worst I’ve encountered was in India. I was there working, and each night tried to watch the same film (Blade 2, it was on the same channel at the same time every night that week) and each time lost track because the ads went on for so long that by the time they’d ended I’d completely forgotten what was happening. It wasn’t a complex film.

    The US wasn’t that bad, but even so a 23 minute show fills a 30 minute slot, a 42 minute show a one hour slot. That’s 42 minutes of show and 18 of ads and trailers, incredible. I can’t listen to their radio or watch their tv either.

    I do wonder if we have a new myth of the US forming though, if the idea of stultified small towns and weird encounters and ghost towns and all has replaced older expectations. Then again, the only bits of the US I’ve been to are New York and Washington DC, so what would I know about it?

    It is odd, as Europeans, how we get this mirror-cracked reflection of the US viewed through their omnipresent media, itself an intentional exaggeration of their culture created purely to entertain. It feels as if one knows the place, long before one’s ever been.

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    • August 17, 2013 at 4:15 pm

      I’ve never been to India, but when I go, I’ll remember to skip TV! In France, the regulation is strict on ads. TVs and radios can’t do what they want and only one ad break is allowed during a movie. (I think now there aren’t ads after 8:30 pm, but I’m not sure. I don’t watch TV)

      Perhaps you’re right, there’s a new American myth made of these small towns in the middle of nowhere. The post-Bagdad Café syndrome? In California, we drove on roads in the middle of nowhere. There were mailboxes but only very poor trailers around. We wondered if the electric network went to their homes. There were the road, the occasional mail boxes, Joshua trees and nothing.

      “It feels as if one knows the place, long before one’s ever been.” Exactly. The first time I stayed with an American family, I thought it wouldn’t be like what I saw on TV. Sure, it wasn’t like films but sitcoms weren’t that far away.

      Perhaps the American also have their French dream. They think that Paris is like in Amélie Poulain, that the province looks like a postcard version of Provence, that we eat frogs and snails on a regular basis.

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  4. August 18, 2013 at 8:42 am

    Wonderful review, Emma! This looks like a very interesting book. TV programs where the programs come when the ads take a break – this is very sad. I remember when i was growing up things were different – the programs took centre stage while the ads came in between programs. But these days the American style TV ads are spreading here too. It is interesting to know that you couldn’t identify with what the book says. It is very nice when a book does that. Thanks for this wonderful review, Emma. I will look for this book.

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    • August 19, 2013 at 10:40 pm

      Thanks Vishy, I hope you’ll like it.
      When I was a kid, there were only three state-run channels on the French TV. Commercial TV started in the mid-eighties.

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  1. August 22, 2013 at 12:16 am
  2. December 27, 2013 at 12:07 am

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