Love Today

There were many signs that Maxim Biller — a prolific German author, playwright, and journalist — should offer a highly lauded American debut. Two short stories appeared in The New Yorker in the span of two months. For his first full-length English collection, his German was reshaped by noted translator Anthea Bell, who brought English speakers a delicately valenced version of Sebald?s Austerlitz in 2002. Biller, who is Czech born and emigrated as a child, typically captures cosmopolitan, post-Wall German cities populated by Turks, Poles, Israelis, Egyptians, Germans, and what seems to be a pervasive (and perverse) sense of malaise. Love Today speaks to the apparent alienation of these spaces, exploring the way a hydroponic hypermodernity conspires with a self-chosen rootlessness to make “love today” impossible. Characters — be they Israeli, Greek, Turkish, Iranian, or German — fail to love, fetishize, cheat on, and abandon one another against the bleak backdrops of Frankfurt and Berlin. In stories with titles like “Seven Attempts at Loving” or “The Maserati Years,” people disappear into veils of rain or screen themselves behind hard, glassy facades while watching strangers. In “On a Cold Dark Night” an Israeli man congratulates himself for the lie he?s told to get a woman into bed, thinking with savagery about damaging her pale German skin. In “We Were Sitting at Cibo Matto” a married man tells his friend about the orgies he is having, then disappears into a club to have more. There are obviously many precedents in literature for urban mythologies of the oh-so-modern and tragically bleak. Unfortunately, this one fails either to rivet or shock — instead, Biller?s formulae of alienation seem so repetitive as to grow merely rhetorical. “She stopped, shed tears, and then went on again,” ends one story. “I felt very cold,” ends another. Grimly, in the next story, the ennui resumes.