by Paul Doru Mugur
Short stories translated from the Romanian
by Sanda Ionescu and Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno,
reviewed by Jan Schmidt
When I started reading Paul Doru Mugur’s book of short stories, Psychonautica, I thought I probably wouldn’t finish it. The first story, titled with an email address, began with such a rush of names in such a disjointed world that I couldn’t keep anything straight. I skipped it, read on, and my perseverance was rewarded. With each story in Psychonautica, the writer rocketed me to the fourth dimension of the modern mind while grounding me in physics and fables, and in the process, brought me full circle, allowing me to decode that first piece.
For the second story, “The Psychonaut,” Mugur guided me more gradually than the first into his fractured world and I began to connect to his rhythm and humor. Speed—speed of films, speed of access to the web—is the mechanism for his character to access a strange dark website whose introductory page works almost as an introduction to Mugur’s work:
“Welcome to Psychonoautica, the first site specializing in mind travel.” Then a series of explanations followed:
“The first psychic speed is 10 to the power of 18 bytes per second, about ten times higher than the processing ability of a normal human brain. That’s what got you onto this website. No big deal. A couple of doses of speed, a few good reflexes and here you are! But only if you manage to cross the barrier to the second psychic speed of 10 to the power of 19 bytes per second, that’s when your journey begins in earnest. But drugs won’t help you there. To start your initiation, you need to have a special calling. Reaching the second psychic speed in not for world record hunters or thrill seekers, it’s only for those who are truly committed to exploring their inner world.”
The next story, “Home Alone 5.0,” has a surprise ending in which the story turns back around on itself, like a snake swallowing its tail. The next story, “The Pessoa Syndrome,“ is where I got completely hooked. The narrator clicks on a website for a book by Pesso and tells us, “The review stated that the guy was an eccentric who had created 80 or so alter egos, each with their own name, profession and personal habits. Pessoa had invented a different style to fit in with the idiosyncrasies of each of his characters.” With this, Mugur takes us on an internet journey with characters created by his character, and by the end, I was so swept up in its convoluted intertwining realities, its disorienting and associative patterns, that I felt I was in an M.C. Escher painting, one hand drawing itself, fish turning into birds.
But something annoyed me. One email persona invented by the narrator in this story is a hyper-sexed character, self-named LATIN—LOVER. The stereotyping grated, but then I feared I was reacting too quickly, like a cancelling woke person, not taking in the full context. I thought of NY Times writer John McWhorter’s article with the lengthy title “The default should be to extend grace to those who’ve breached woke etiquette.” He wrote: “It’s an all-or-nothing kind of thinking that, in the guise of insight, teaches a form of dimness. We seem to spontaneously understand this in some instances. We need to extend that basic common sense, that basic ability to make distinctions and see the whole picture, when evaluating trespasses by people of all walks of life and across time.” With that, I let go of my annoyance and reevaluated my thinking within the whole picture.
The longest story of Mugur’s book, “The Simulator,” at fifty-six pages, has a seemingly straightforward, realistic form. The narrator, with a physics background, leaves his job, moves to Canada, and works with a Maple Syrup company, which, of course, becomes a metaphor. Even his lengthy discussions about quantum physics turn out to be riveting. The narrator talks about his “career progression as steady as a fired bullet” the story also flows along, “steady as a fired bullet.” Without his job he says he “discovered that secret lab where I could access any experiment at any time of day or night. That ideal lab, the geometrical locus of all my fantasies, my mind.”
The narrator of “The Simulator“ is searching for the Unified Field Theory, or TOE, Theory of Everything. “Maybe time is like the wind, with variable intensity, at times flowing slowly, at times faster, in gusts. Pulsating time, like a heartbeat. Bradycardia, tachycardia.” On a journey by car, he meets an Inuk, who tells stories from his culture, including evil spirits who are “Attracted to happiness like a shark to the smell of fresh blood.” Then everything shifts and we are no longer in a linear story, but moving through hallucinatory Space-Time, in a future world of robots, AI, and computer mind-control set side by side with stories from ancient Inuit fables of gods and humans. In a state of vertigo, we’re afloat in mysticism, physics, universal spirit, immortality. Again, I saw this story as a painting; this time a cubist vision in which the mass and volume of representational figures are refracted and contorted to form a new way of seeing.
When I finished the book, I went back and read the first story. This time I had no trouble in identifying the characters, the storyline, the ideas. Having seen the other stories through the lens of surrealist, Dada-esque, or Cubist paintings, I now saw this lead story as a collage, which helped me “read” it. By this time, I had gotten used to the way Mugur’s stories pile up meaning. Using past and future settings, private thoughts, and time, he arranges them in the manner of a “modern” or “contemporary” visual art work that creates meaning with shape, color, form, and brush strokes. His stories transform into a Unified Field Theory that explores the inner world of his mind’s lab—and mine.
With this, I have to offer my deepest praise to the two translators, Sanda Ionescu and Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno who took the Romanian humor and pop culture idioms and rendered them in English. In the same way as I was able to understand the stories through the medium of painting, they had to construct a language universe that could render one thing into another. They apparently have a “special calling.”