4 out of 5: Pigeon Post, a novel by Romanian author Dumitru Tsepeneag, challenges our underlying assumptions about novels and their writers. Rejecting traditional narrative structure, Pigeon Post instead is made up of fragments ostensibly composed by an anxious writer, named Ed, struggling to write a novel. Bits of dialog and memories mingle with recipes for herbal teas, a story involving a chess master, and descriptions of scenes Ed glimpses from his apartment window. To enliven his novel-writing project, Ed turns to three longtime friends (Edward, Edgar, and Edmund) and solicits memories from them to add to his novel-in-progress. In this collaborative writing project, it’s never clear what’s real and what’s imagined, what’s part of Ed’s novel and what’s part of Ed’s daily life. Indeed, it’s quite likely Ed’s three “helpers” are nothing more than facets of his own imagination, each with a distinct artistic vision for the novel. In an interview in June 2008, Tsepeneag likened Pigeon Post to "a creative writing workshop.”
Slowly, out of the tangle of seemingly unrelated fragments, several cohesive story lines emerge, but they are never fully explored. Nor does Pigeon Post offer much in the way of thematic development (in that same interview, Tsepeneag admits to no more than “the shadow of a theme”). Early in the novel, in a passage where Ed describes his writing project, Tsepeneag signals what kind of reader he’s hoping to reach:
When all’s said and done, I’m piecing together a puzzle that doesn’t exist. In the insane hope that when I’m through, I’ll manage to put forward a more or less consistent story. I’m counting a little on the reader here, on the kind that’s capable of hanging in there to the end, or remaining active and alert like a detective in a dentist’s waiting room.
Pigeon Post is frustrating and unsatisfying on many levels, mostly those related to our desire to read a good tale in an accessible form. Viewed as an experiment in structure and identity, however, this novel is a deliciously complex subversion of our expectations, right up to the elegant twist at the very end.