What Can I Do When Everything's on Fire?: A Novel BY Antonio Lobo Antunes. edited by Gregory Rabassa. W. W. Norton. Paperback, 480 pages. $19.

The cover of What Can I Do When Everything's on Fire?: A Novel

The work of António Lobo Antunes is held in such high regard that when José Saramago was awarded the Nobel Prize, in 1998, there was grumbling that it had gone to the wrong Portuguese writer. Only about half of Lobo Antunes’s sixteen novels have made it into English, though. Now, Gregory Rabassa has translated his 2001 What Can I Do When Everything’s on Fire? in a version so (predictably) elegant that at times I wondered whether the lowlife drag queens and junkies who people it sound so immaculate in the original.

The style is poetic stream-of-consciousness, with voices melting and melding into one another. The principal narrator is Paulo Antunes Lima, son of the transvestite showgirl and prostitute Soraia (or Carlos, when he isn’t in his blond wig) and the alcoholic teacher-turned-whore Judite—in other words, a young man screwed from the start. At the novel’s opening, he has been hospitalized in a condition of near catatonia, circumstances suggesting a debt to Benjy Compson, though Paulo is no idiot. And while Benjy’s interior monologue at the beginning of The Sound and the Fury recalls the facts of his world as he remembers them, Paulo and the other narrators are constantly drifting into might-have-beens, making it hard to distinguish memory from fantasy. Dashes set off bits of dialogue (as in Joyce), and occasional italics signal a change of time or scene (as in Faulkner), but What Can I Do When Everything’s on Fire?, unlike Ulysses and The Sound and the Fury, doesn’t hotdog through a variety of styles. It’s way too somber for that.

The narrative is a stew of bad memories—badgering specters of betrayal, mortification, cruelty, disease, and death. (The air is somewhat freshened with an overlay of floral imagery.) Carlos spends most of the novel grimly dying as he suffers over his vexed relationship with Paulo and recalls his brutalization at the hand of various lovers and johns, the last of them a suicide. Paulo has an unhappy affair with a maid and torments the Couceiros, the meek, poor couple who took over from his hopeless parents and raised him like a son after the death of their little girl. They’ve brought flowers to her grave every Saturday for thirty-two years, and they maintain their expensively framed photograph of her like a relic—so you can bet it’s going to break. Confused, scared, miserable Paulo is given to telling the kindly couple things like

—I’m all you’ve got since your daughter’s dead
I’m all you have and I detest you
—I’ll bet you’d like to have me die the way the other one died.

As I squirmed through these passages, I kept thinking of another dead child: Leopold Bloom’s son, Rudy, whose one spectacular appearance, at the end of the Nighttown chapter of Ulysses, glitters with pathos precisely because up to then Joyce has kept him hovering, a barely felt absence, in the background of Bloom’s thoughts. Lobo Antunes wields sadness like a frying pan to hit you over the head with.

He has made a study of junkies and their rites, but drag queens elude him. Evidently, he’s using both populations because he thinks they represent the very lowest you can sink; his views lie somewhat to the right of the prophet Jeremiah’s. In his vision, transvestism is a horrible, chronic malady, something like a combination of psoriasis and original sin. Though his drag queens dance and lip-sync at a nightclub, there’s no sense that they enjoy what they do or that their audience does, either. They might as well be circus geeks. Paulo calls them clowns.

While I admit that years of life with a drag queen may have biased me, I can say confidently that the one trait common to every transvestite I’ve known—and that I’d venture is all but universal in (because essential to) the species—is a sense of humor, something entirely missing from these 608 pages of bleak stream-of-consciousness drone. Genet and Céline at their darkest can still be funny. Even Beckett’s disembodied, agonized consciousnesses know how to crack jokes. I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel more desperately in need of a few cheap laughs. The campy promise of the title (it actually comes from a sixteenth-century poet) turns out to be empty. Nothing here is on fire. It’s molding, rotting—“smelling of dried urine and mildew.”

All this misery rings phony after a while. To depict a world devoid of every last atom of levity is to skew it in one direction as fakely as The Sound of Music skews it in the other. I recognize that Lobo Antunes wants to wrap these scuzzy losers in his embrace, to show us that nothing human is alien to him. But insisting on their humanity is, in fact, a way of dehumanizing them. As a reader (and as a human being), I would gladly have him love them a little bit less and appreciate them a little bit more.

Craig Seligman is a critic for Bloomberg News and the author of Sontag and Kael: Opposites Attract Me (Counterpoint, 2004).