A. G. Mojtabai Essay - Critical Essays (Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Mojtabai, A(nn) G(race) (Vol. 5)

Mojtabai, A(nn) G(race) 1938–

Ms Mojtabai is an American novelist.

"Mundome"—the title is a grammatically impossible juxtaposition of the Latin words for "world" and "self"—is an extraordinarily pure novel, pure as the contained landscapes inside glass paperweights in which the snow falls endlessly on minute figures, preserved from dust and decay by the absence of air. It is a novel singularly free from designs upon the reader; it tells its story, but unlike the similarly hypnotic Ancient Mariner it appends no sermon. Like its central characters, it asks only that it be allowed to express itself without being meddled with….

"Mundome" is a gem of a book: small, brilliant, cut with lapidary precision, and static. It is a novel in which little happens but much is said, and it is said remarkably well…. The writing is flawless, by which I mean that moments of clumsiness and disbelief are not allowed to intrude. A. G. Mojtabai writes like an angel, but as a knowledge of angels may suggest, her book is somewhat bloodless; it is a little like a sampler, an illustration of mastered techniques. Flourishes of language embellish the central characters, but neither engages our sympathy, and each would scorn to try: to do so, in this vacuum of a world, would be to risk contamination. (p. 6)

Margaret Atwood, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 12, 1974.

[Mundome is a] first novel of extraordinary originality and purity which beautifully, if often obscurely, portrays a world of tenuous human connections and lost meanings. On the surface, it is about a man, Richard Henken, a nine-to-five archivist at a large New York library (his specialty is "ephemera and fugitive material"), who spends all his free time caring for his mentally disturbed sister…. In the course of the book, most of what Richard thinks is exposed as illusion; his distinctions between healthy and unhealthy, good and bad, and even sane and insane are constantly mocked or deflated by his sister's childlike responses to the world. As the book progresses, we see that, in fact, he shares many of her perceptions. More than that, he admires them, and longs to leave the "real" world and enter hers. In the hopeless, damaged relationship of the sister and brother, the author creates not only a kind of schizophrenic cosmology but a brilliant, challenging fictional form. (pp. 108-09)

Mrs. Mojtabai's language is stark, playful. The terrain is something like Nabokov's, something like Beckett's, but without Nabokov's sensuality and without Beckett's lyricism. One misses both qualities. The book's single failing is that it mirrors dysfunction and disaffection somewhat too exactly. One feels pressed into a black, glittering cave that offers almost no air or light—nothing but darkness. (p. 109)

The New Yorker (© 1974 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), June 3, 1974.

A reviewer for whom I have the highest respect has described A. G. Mojtabai's Mundome as "Nabokovian." That did not occur to me while first reading the novel, but in large measure it is accurate. Mrs. Mojtabai … does write with a touch of the Nabokovian manner, and her novel is very much a psychological puzzle of the sort he likes to play. But I have little affection for the work of the Master, finding much of it to be cold-hearted and self-indulgent—and neither of those weaknesses bothers Mundome. (p. 540)

It is a real pleasure to encounter fiction that is written with the intelligence and command of language that A. G. Mojtabai has brought to Mundome. Madness, need it be said, has been widely used as a metaphor in postwar fiction, and by no means only by American writers, but rarely has it been as effectively—indeed devastatingly—employed as in this novel. Mundome is brief, enigmatic, and fascinating. It is not easy fiction to read because it constantly challenges the reader's own imagination, but meeting the challenge is immensely rewarding. (pp. 541-42)

Jonathan Yardley, in Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1974 by The University of the South), Summer, 1974.