Deserves an “F”

Night School: A Reader for Grownups
By Zsófia Bán
240 pp. Open Letter Books. $16.

How many bad short stories do you read through in a collection before you decide to just give the whole thing up?

The first story is given a fair shot to impress, the second one too, but if the first two aren’t any good, you’re going into that third one a bit more warily. And if the third one’s bad? Well, in my case you start skimming, and then skipping, until you get to the story about Laika the dog and realize, after reading through that one, that you should have skipped it too.

If you like this sort of thing, you might classify “Night School” as postmodern literature. I would classify it as a serious waste of time.

Why the very well-regarded Hungarian writer Péter Nádas would pen the afterword to this I have no idea, perhaps he felt obligated since he somehow figures as a character in one of these stories.

The concept, as you might be able to gather from the title, is that each story serves as a “lesson.” You’ve got “Geography/history,” “French,” “Health/Homeland,” etc etc etc. The story I was most looking forward to reading, teased on the back of the book, was, as I mentioned earlier, about Laika the dog (the dog the Soviets sent up into space that ended up basically burning to death). That story, entitled “On the Eve of No Return” is the “Russian” lesson (naturally), but it’s located at almost the very end of the book, which means you have to first plod through all the other really dreadful stories to get to a story that is also dreadful, but that may have fooled you into reading it thanks to its more intriguing subject matter.

Oh, and there are little thumbnail sized photos on every page of this thing, which, as I was initially flipping through, I thought was cool, sort of Sebaldian, but that in fact serve no purpose at all since many of these photos often have nothing to do with any of the “stories” (if one can call them that). Why they’re there is anyone’s guess … to make this whole thing feel more … postmodern? To divert attention away from how boring it all is?

If these were actual lessons, given at an actual school, of the day or night variety, they deserve a failing grade.

These are classes you’re better off skipping.

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