The Ugly, by Alexander Boldizar. Brooklyn, New York: Brooklyn Arts Press, September 2016. 372 pages. $19.95, paper.
Even courageous readers have likely never encountered a character with the overwhelming physical mass and intellectual presence of (northern) Siberian oaf, and oversized tribal chief, Muzhduk Ugli the Fourth. Muzhduk is the three-hundred-pound blond-bearded protagonist that propels Alexander Boldizar’s oddly unforgettable debut novel, The Ugly, to its fairytale end.
The novel ostensibly details the life and epic adventures of the unlikely hero as he journeys in earnest from his home village to Harvard Law School to learn how to fight “with words” the American lawyers who have claimed his family’s land back in Siberia—purchased from the Russians he is told—to host tourists. Muzhduk goes then as he must, on foot, to climb Mount Harvard. Once he arrives, after scoring a perfect score on the LSAT, he takes the place of another student who received a perfect score, Peggy Roundtree, but who never showed up to admissions.
This narrative, told in the second person, focuses largely on Muzhduk’s fish-out-of-water experience at Harvard Law School, where his marginally primitive habits—social and otherwise—are in direct conflict with the hyper-tense norms of the law program itself. The narrative is used also to deconstruct the nuances, and ridiculousness of Law (capital “L”), academics, and in ways, human behavior. This we will call Story A.
Story AA then describes a separate journey—curiously told in the first person by Muzhduk—as he embarks roughly a year after the Harvard narrative, on a separate mission to Mali to, we learn later in the novel, rescue Peggy (up until then the character is identified only as “she” or “her”), who’s been identified as a terrorist by various African governments. Muzhduk and Peggy are enmeshed in many dangerous scenarios as they are swept up in the Tuareg revolution occurring in Mali at the time.
In this world, Peggy and Muzhduk are often not just under the threat of violence, but victims of it, where conflicts and confrontations are resolved through physical blows, and gunshots. Story A and AA unspool as two separate, concurrent—but at times overlapping—threads, alternating back and forth within chapters; some sections are several pages, where others are a sentence or two. The apparent “cultured” climate of Harvard contrasted with the violent altercations in Africa is a theme that should not go ignored.
The novel’s scope and its sheer verbosity is as imposing as its featured star. Muzhduk is described as both a brute, but is also perceived by others as similar in appearance to Fred Flinstone. And he’s not the only cartoon character referenced: Winnie the Pooh—in one of the novel’s most magical realism indulgences—is a minor character who speaks to Muzhduk as a kind of adviser or Buddha figure, as Muzhduk seeks his counsel at the popular but now destroyed Pooh House in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In The Ugly, both the real and the imagined achieve equal authority.
Praise heaped towards The Ugly implies—with its absurdist tendencies, severe distrust of institutions (government; language; academics; politics; law), and attempts at humor (some more successful than others)—a postmodern and distorted Catch-22. But there are too many ideas packed here for such a casual, dismissive characterization.
The novel opens gracefully with the prologue: I, Muzhduk. An expertly described scene, Boldizar’s reach doesn’t extend his grasp—as it does so frequently and frustratingly throughout the book. But here he hits the right tones of surprise, the detailed rendering of a primitive culture with its own set of values and protocols, conveyed typically in feats of strength and endurance.
This opening paragraph takes on a mythic quality, a scene describing the exchange between Muzhduk and his opponent, Hulagu, known as perhaps the strongest Slovak in the tribe, as they compete in a ceremonial battle, the Dull-Boulder Throw:
Muzhduk stepped into the path of the flying boulder. It was the size and shape of a small woman curled up in a ball, but much heavier, and it came at him like a canon shot.
Muzhduk leaned forward to meet the boulder, knees bent, hoping to absorb the impact with his legs. He staggered backward with the fore of the blow, but did not drop the big rock.
The audience erupted with cheering, and a cloud of yellow butterflies scattered from the noise.
This section was nominated by the Breadloaf Writers’ Conference as representative of Best New American Voices, which presumably encouraged the author to pursue the act of publishing his first novel (a different version of mountain climbing), which was inevitably submitted as his Harvard Law School thesis.
There are true moments of tenderness laced throughout the novel, with both intimate relationships Muzhduk has with the female leads. In the African narrative, Muzhduk shares this moment with Peggy:
I was about to start an argument, but stopped. Her eyes looked red and wet. Despite the dry heat, somehow the water didn’t just evaporate.
“Why are you angry?”
She hugged me. She was shaking, just a tiny bit, almost imperceptible under the painful bouncing of the Jeep. The government man watched, smirking. The plume of dust didn’t get any closer. I felt like I should say something, but didn’t know what.
I wiped a tear away and said, “You’re wasting water.”
Peggy laughed, muffled into my shirt. “You’re so stupid.” When she looked up, she was smiling through her tears. “This is the best use of water.”
Boldizar’s strength is his ability in writing confidently and intimately of these two drastically different, and equally foreign, worlds. His amusing, diverse biography, coupled with the requisite Author’s Note, indicates at least portions of the novel were either drawn directly from, or inspired by his own life. The surfeit of geographic, historical, political, and legal details bear this out. Seen in that context, the reader trusts the author’s authority, even as the respective narratives unfortunately become too obscure, too willfully eccentric to be sustaining, or satisfying.
But behind the political machinations of the competing story lines, at its heart is a mildly affecting love story, of Muzhdu’s rescue of the woman he loves, the vulnerable Peggy. (Muzhduk’s other romantic interest sits predominantly in the Harvard narrative, in his unique pairing with Oedda, an instructor at the Law School whose ideas on relationships border on the physically and emotionally abusive.)
A layering sometimes occurs wherein the two storylines intersect, either directly through characters appearing in the other thread, or through more subtle ways, such as a mirroring of character’s names, or as in this transition from one section to another, where Muzhduk is questioning one of his Harvard instructors, Professor Sclera:
“Um, should I argue the obscenity case too? Or the professor-pupil contract?”
“We ask the questions here,” Sclera answered.
This section transitions nicely into the beginning of the next one:
“First question,” the commander said, pointing to me. “Why are you here?”
“For her.” I pointed at Peggy.
“For her what?”
“It’s a romantic thing.”
A stylistic device that shows an author thoughtfully constructing his work. However, there are ample times where both plot lines become obfuscated by a litany of words and concepts that detract. The novel’s greatest weakness is ultimately Boldizar’s ambition, as it is less than the sum of its parts.
With the heavier hand of an editor, it could be twice as rewarding at half the length. Three quarters through, this paragraph signified the moment the two related stories went off the rails. Indicative of the kind of language that dominates the last section of the novel, this debilitating text is spoken by Oedda to Muzhduk. She claims the Law is:
“…autoheteronomous, nonsituational, a cold appropriative madness in search of ipseity. The nomolgical circle totalizes because at its center is an aporia.”
A difficult terrain to maneuver for even the bravest of readers.
“In the end,” says Oedda to Muzhduk, without prompting or provocation, in a different scene, “everything explicit is weak.” Boldizar boldly tests this aphorism, for better or worse, to story’s end.
Ray Barker is the Chief Archivist/Librarian for Glenstone, a private, modern art museum in Potomac, Maryland. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Pitch, Music & Literature, The Collagist, Full Stop, The Los Angeles Review, and elsewhere. He lives with his wife and daughter in Washington, DC.