Dying Laughter

Adam and Evelyn

by Ingo Schulze, translated from the German by John E. Woods
Knopf, 288 pp., $27.95
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Carsten Koall/Getty Images
Ingo Schulze at the Leipzig Book Fair, Germany, March 2007

Romance and comedy are old allies. The combination of intense emotional investment on the part of the lover with inadequate knowledge of the beloved sparks off charming misunderstandings and heartrending separations, which the power of mutual attraction then reassuringly overcomes. The reader is left with the happy impression that egoism has surrendered to the need for affection and even, in this most conservative of genres, for family and children. In their adherence to such a plot Ingo Schulze’s Adam and Evelyn and William Giraldi’s Busy Monsters are very similar. In every other respect they could hardly be more different.

Schulze is German and his fluently translated story is set in Eastern Europe just before the fall of communism and the Berlin Wall; his lovers’ vicissitudes have largely to do with their differing attitudes toward East and West. Giraldi is an American teaching creative writing in Boston; though taking us on a picaresque journey through contemporary America, his tale is most characterized by an extravagantly mannered, probably untranslatable style that blends cartoon hyperbole with an onslaught of literary allusion, parody, and spirited self-reference. If Schulze keeps the attention mostly on his characters, content to raise a smile from time to time, Giraldi never lets us forget his authorial performance, demanding a laugh, if not a giggle, every paragraph.

In his early thirties, the Adam of Adam and Evelyn is a bespoke tailor in an East German town south of Berlin, much sought after for his ability to dress women who no longer have the perfect shape. The year is 1989. Such is Adam’s attention to the female form that he feels it is part of his work to bed his clients, overweight though they may be, during their fitting appointments. When Evelyn, his twenty-one-year-old girlfriend, walks out on her waitressing job and returns home to catch Adam in flagrante, she leaves him in disgust and sets out with her friend Mona and Mona’s older cousin Michael on a long-planned vacation to Hungary for which visas have been procured in advance. Adam, however, does not accept his exclusion from the group. He gasses up his old Wartburg, one of those boxy 1980s testimonies to the technology gap between East and West, packs a tent, sleeping bags, and the couple’s pet turtle, and sets out in pursuit.

Adam is an obsessive, as his occupation might suggest, an attentive observer of everything to do with clothes and style. We learn little of his thoughts or plans but watch him make meticulous preparations, filling his coffee thermos, removing fuses from the electrical system in his house, writing postcards to customers to cancel appointments, making sure the turtle has appropriate bedding and food, collecting a straw hat that Evelyn has forgotten. When he catches up with the others he seems more concerned with the way his girlfriend is dressed and how Michael looks after his car’s …

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