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This novel tells the life story of Stet, a filmmaker from Soviet Leningrad, who (like the real-life Sergei Paradjanov) is sent to a prison camp in the 1960's, and who dies there without having produced much more than a single film. The novel is narrated in an extravagant third-person voice which emulates the sound and attitude of the classic "Russian Novel." Opinionated, discursive, soulful, the voice establishes the basis of the society in which Stet lives: a place where everybody judges, everybody feels he has the right to criticize, and the State even encourages "self-criticism." Failing that, the State may even criticize you to death. The novel imagines a world where we do not live by our judgments of others, nor by our fear of what other people think of us. Stet, a classic Russian "holy fool," does not criticize anybody, and does not defend himself, but simply works at his art without acknowledging any barriers. He does not compromise because it doesn't occur to him to compromise. The result is that he is treated brutally by friends and enemies, and is judged in every imaginable way. Yet he lives and dies as a happy man. The mystery of this is the mystery of the novel. James Chapman's Stet, the story of a Russian filmmaker who draws "pictures on the only storyboard in Russia that expresses and does not communicate," is a novel of relentless beauty and bleakness.... Written in a mesmerizing, meticulous prose, Chapman's novel is a bitter examination of the artist's place in society.... His narrator is a mind-blowing mishmash of third person, second person, first person plural; he revels in narrative intrusions and direct addresses to the reader. No object is safe from the examination of this narrator--not a teacup nor a hole in a shirt nor the sun. Inanimate or animate, tangible or abstract, even the most inconsequential object is shown to have some meaning overall, some contribution to the grand scheme, though this grand scheme is persistently met with pessimism and doubt. In a time of few truly important novels, when most so-called literary fiction is light or escapist, Stet is undoubtedly literature. For its breadth of ideas and emotional resonance, its uncompromised artistry and its great beauty, its inventiveness and experimental playfulness, Stet is a major accomplishment which deserves the gift that the work of its title character is denied: an audience. --Scott Bryan Wilson, Rain Taxi
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