Good on Paper by Rachel Cantor

Good on Paper BY Rachel Cantor. Melville House. Hardcover, 320 pages. $25.
The cover of Good on Paper

“Translation requires, and generates, a rare kind of intimacy,” says the narrator of Rachel Cantor’s novel Good on Paper. “Like sex done right, I’ve always thought.… You had to want to get close.” Shira Greene was once a graduate student translating Dante, but she has, at the beginning of the novel, mostly abandoned her literary calling. Convinced that all texts are ultimately untranslatable, and waylaid by divorce and pregnancy, she has veered off track. Now forty-four, she works as a temp and raises her seven-year-old daughter Andi with her gay friend Ahmad, a professor, in his Upper West Side home. These days, she jokes, “I don’t need to be famous! I don’t even have to have a future!”

The effort to build a family with friends is a well-trod theme, and Cantor’s collegiate Manhattan setting will be familiar to most, but Good on Paper’s tangle of literary intrigue and domestic drama soon becomes far stranger than it initially appears. It opens when Shira receives a mysterious proposal from a Nobel Prize–winning Romanian poet named Romei, who wants her to translate a new work he has not yet written, based on Dante’s little-known Vita Nuova—the very text that Shira once started to translate in grad school but had to stop before she finished, because “it became impossible for me to translate his noble love with a straight face.”

Shira accepts the assignment and quickly succumbs to the allure of a new life: “It was suddenly so easy to imagine: exchanging insights and recipes for tiramisu with Romei at the Hungarian Pastry Shop, the translation published to mammoth acclaim, authors calling, begging for my help. I’m booked till 2020!” The charm of a fresh project fades, however, when she starts to receive Romei’s faxed pages—pages that rekindle her conviction that translation is impossible.

Shira worries over how to translate a scene in which Romei calls Esther, the American woman he loves, and finds her Italian-speaking husband also on the line: “If I translated the Italian and Romanian into English, there’d be only one language on the page, not three. The terza rima—or Romei’s approximation thereof—would collapse, as would the meaning of the poem.” Another passage is littered with “words in one language that trick you into thinking they’re related to words in another,” such as “fame, which in Italian means not fame but hunger.” She wonders whether these are intentional, Romei’s attempt to “prove that I was right about the futility of translation and, in the process, break me.”

Indeed, Romei exhibits a peculiar interest in Shira, and an apparent desire to reverse their roles. His text contains what appear to be references to Shira’s autobiographical short stories, bubbles of her life injected into his narrative. She wonders, Is he trying to seduce her with her own words? Is her life his ur-text? He also asks her to weigh in on the art of translation. “You think fidelity is possible?” he asks over the phone. She responds, “Of course not. There’s always a rupture, always an abandonment. The translated one is always betrayed.”

Cantor’s passages on the practice and theories of translation are a geeky pleasure to read, but it’s the odd overlaps she creates between Shira’s work and life that lend the book its rich, neurotic character. Shira’s obsessive grapplings with the Romei project begin to bleed into her everyday observations, as though her life is a novel in need of thematic order and line-by-line parsing. She notices her daughter working on “laboriously perfect block letters,” her errors “scratched out furiously with a dull pencil.” When Ahmad oversteps his role as a surrogate parent, Shira repeats a Dantean formula for penance—“He needed to apologize: confession, contrition, reparation, change”—though she doesn’t give herself the equivalent task of actually forgiving him. Meanwhile, when Benny, a local bookstore owner and soulful flirt, asks her what it would take to make peace with her mother, who abandoned her when she was young, Shira responds with a chiasmus: “There’s nothing she could do after forty years to make up for forty years of doing nothing.”

Shira’s attempts to make sense of her life through her craft illustrate the real question driving Good on Paper: Can we, as humans, translate ourselves, even to people who speak the same language? Can we ever communicate our hurts and desires seamlessly, without losing something along the way? Shira, still reeling from an absent mother and disastrous first love, thinks it’s hopeless. And if, like Shira, we are inclined to give up on making the scary leap between ourselves and others, how, then, do we grow? “Metamorphosis was overrated,” she says. “Look at me … the thought of my mother turned me into a weeping seven-year-old.” But her life and her relationships are moving forward, whether she wants them to or not. Ahmad, fiercely dedicated to Andi, proposes a rattling change to their living arrangement, which the prickly Shira chooses to take as a massive affront. Benny, refusing to fit neatly under one label (friend, lover, intellectual adviser), attempts to nudge her into more emotionally vulnerable terrain.

Given her tendency for her work to inform her life, Shira’s literary proclivities initially hold her back: She sees straightforward narrative as a form that describes transformation—a scoundrel finally goes straight, or a prodigal parent returns to the fold—and therefore inherently romanticized, unrealistic. “Were there any pilgrims left, I wondered, journeying with confidence toward a happily ever after? Weren’t we all homebodies now, couch potatoes eschewing narrative?”

Shira finds herself pulled more deeply into Romei’s work, and discovers the real reason he has hired her—a story far more personal than she could have imagined. As she becomes a bigger character in his text, she realizes that her preference for treading water, and her assumption that translation is futile, may no longer be viable life creeds.

What she chooses to do with her growing knowledge makes up the animated, final third of the novel, when she decides to set her own life in motion. As Shira says of the narrative structure of myths, “The hero eventually has to come around, though, or there can be no story. He makes his commitment, crosses the threshold, and thrusts himself into story.”

Occasionally, Cantor lays the overarching translation metaphor on too thick. But she does use a fine web of plotlines to illustrate, humorously and compassionately, how many human acts are translational ones, carrying with them the possibility of a slight or betrayal or in some cases, a simple misinterpretation. We might not ever be truly understood, but there is, Cantor suggests, understanding nonetheless. Empathy can arrive from an unexpected direction, and truth can emerge from translations—even from the mistakes.

Jane Yong Kim is an editor and book critic who lives in Queens and tweets at @janewhykim.