Dust BY Arkadii Dragomoshchenko. edited by Thomas Epstein (translator), Evgeny Pavlov (translator), Shushan Avagyan (translator), Ana Lucic (translator). Dalkey Archive Press. Paperback, 92 pages. $10.

The cover of Dust

“Length is measured by the speed of a moving shadow. Is seaweed beautiful? A change in a narrative’s temporal modality rids us of our Cartesian arrogance—it’s autumn now, but back then it was spring. Is it possible to say that seaweed is much more beautiful than the dryness in your mouth?” These are lines from the first paragraphs of Arkadii Dragomoshchenko’s Dust, a book of essays that is certain to rid its readers of any Cartesian arrogance when it comes to narrative.

Dragomoshchenko’s prose doesn’t read quite like prose as we know it. If its lines were broken up, they might easily be poetry. (Indeed, he is the author of several books of verse, including volumes translated into English such as Description [1990] and Xenia [1994].) His novel, Chinese Sun (2005), isn’t conventional, either. Both it and Dust offer accounts and arguments that dart around like balls of mercury, dispersing at random and re-forming occasionally into pools of meaning. The author tells us that his words “exist only as ghosts appearing at certain moments of weakness, working in optical shifts, when the phases of the moon coincide and release vapors that gently change the optics of round mirrors.”

The subjects in Dust include photography, cities, friends, and other writers, such as Gertrude Stein and Paul Bowles; the author writes without sentimentality about dreams, existence, and the passage of time. Birds often appear, whether in passing (“The swallows are back under the roofs, and the sparrow orgies at five in the morning have stopped”) or as a striking image that incites a new line of thought. Most of the essays contain stories from his life—experiences teaching in New York, moments with lovers, conversations with friends—and sometimes he morphs into someone else: “You can call me Scardanelli. A few seconds ago our bodies started changing—something was added, something else was subtracted: to deprive is to refuse,” he writes, later invoking Narcissus, whose “reflection stops following its object. The elements of reflection are no longer connected.”

These essays proffer stark observations amid long wanderings in “not here” and “not there.” In the title work, Dragomoshchenko writes: “It’s easy to get accustomed to a wealthy lifestyle. It’s much harder to forget poverty. Everything around seemed so real that one wanted desperately to wake up.” His arguments don’t build on one another, except via diagonal, cross-dimensional allusion, and he often describes the time and place of his writing—providing a brief anchor in longitude, latitude, and history— only to send the reader to some proverbial Timbuktu in the next paragraph. As soon as he strays into a qualitative judgment, he spins the top again: “Obviously, all conversations about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in this context are inappropriate.”

The writing in Dust isn’t merely digressive, however; Dragomoshchenko invites his readers to engage with him, not just to consume his narrative. Indeed, we feel like we are on a scavenger hunt with the author. As the scenery passes, occasionally folding into his arguments, Dragomoshchenko leaves spaces in his narrative— conceptual leaps—inviting a conversation of sorts. He tells you: “My intention here is quite obvious; a traveler on the northern border of oleography. Without palm trees, Lermontov, or profits, but ‘at work’ with a cigarette in my hand. Coming from everywhere. Coming like the science of water and rust come together in a textbook. Almost now.”