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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

    

Same Same

by
Peter Mendelsund


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Same Same



Title: Same Same
Author: Peter Mendelsund
Genre: Novel
Written: 2019
Length: 482 pages
Availability: Same Same - US
Same Same - UK
Same Same - Canada

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Our Assessment:

B+ : clever variation on The Magic Mountain -- and cleverly more

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times Book Rev. . 10/2/2019 Andrew Ervin


  From the Reviews:
  • "Peter Mendelsundís first novel manages to be breezy and profound in equal measure. (...) In inviting a comparison to Mannís masterpiece, Mendelsund has set a difficult task for himself. Percy Frobisher is no Hans Castorp; nor, it must be said, is he meant to be. Same Same reaches literary heights of its own, even if it occasionally punches down at some easy targets. (...) Same Same is a substantial book about emptiness." - Andrew Ervin, The New York Times Book Review

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Same Same begins with Percy Frobisher's arrival at 'the Institute', a spectacular sort of bubble -- in every respect -- built in a Gulf state ('the Freehold') desert by some: "local oligarch (or sheikh or some such) who has paid for all this" who: "wishes to furnish the desert with creatives". The fellows who come here are a:

creative aristocracy: enfants terribles, singularities, radical highfliers from leading universities, captains of industry, prodigies of nature, mavens
       They are provided with the facilities and opportunities to work on their projects here, both artistic and more mundane; one of the first people Percy encounters is:
A moneyman, pursuing his work at the Institute's Business Center. "Derivatives. Derivatives of derivatives, actually. Topological models of markets. Mining data sets.
       Percy, too, has a project -- though for the longest time he isn't very clear about what it really is. He claims to be working on it -- there is considerable pressure from the administration to produce results -- and he does seem to try to be creating something, but it takes him a long time even just to become fairly certain of what it even involves.
       As Percy admits, he wound up here both rather spur of the moment and by sheer luck: finding himself in a rut -- "a juncture in my life when I found myself in need of reinvention" -- he applied and this tremendous opportunity fell into his lap, a radical change from everything leading up to it:
The submission, the awarding of the fellowship ... It all arrived just in the nick of time, and I accepted it without question. A change of state, a change of charge and velocity. Regeneration; reinvention. Finn-e-gan, begin a-gain. It had been time to go.
       And yet he has trouble fully embracing the opportunity; trouble even just settling in. If not a fraud, he certainly continues to feel -- and, in many ways, act -- like a visitor rather than a fellow. He explores -- and participates where he has to -- but he has great difficulty getting to any actual sort of work. He arrived confident that he would quickly complete his project, but for the longest time it doesn't even have any contours. Eventually, he starts mapping it out -- defining it, and his plan, in a series of 'Fundaments of my Project' that he continues adding to until near the end -- but even that is just a sort of blueprint, or guidelines. He has no difficulty conceiving it ambitiously; it's the specifics -- and the actual realization of the concept -- that proves more problematic:
Fundament 1. The project shall have many channels. The project shall have multiple modes. The project shall be polyphonic. Heteroglossic. The project shall be a total work.
       Percy did not bring much with him to the Institute, but he did bring one book which he's been meaning to read, and struggles with throughout his stay:
I am just tucking back into that enormous (obstinately tedious and difficult) novel I am, obstinately, against my better judgment, still attempting to read
       The book is Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain -- never explicitly identified, but clearly recognizable (and, at one point, quoted from at some length). As author Mendelsund notes in his Acknowledgements: "This book was heavily influenced (rather obviously) by Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain" -- with even most of the chapter headings taken from it. And, indeed, Same Same (very deliberately) echoes Mann's novel in many ways, from the unusual isolated institutional setting to much of the action; Percy even tries to scale the local indoor glacier in a scene almost right out of Mann's novel (part of the way ...). Characters have counterparts, and there are amusing variations on pieces of the story -- and Percy, who always thought his stay would be a brief one, finds, much like Hans Castorp did, that stay becoming very much prolonged.
       The Mann-book also continues to be a prop and reference, Pecy not quite seeing the parallels but certainly, presumably, sensing them, unable to let go of it as well:
Resting on my knees, also semi-reclined, is this novel I can't finish, though god knows I keep trying. This is one seriously tedious read, and it's winning the war we are fighting. There's only so much one can take. Hundreds of pages of (albeit transcendent) sick-lit. The protagonist: a real boob. And all the other characters: flat as can be. Worse, they are mere mouthpieces for the author's abstract interest. Wooden, all of them. It is all handled so clumsily. Though I must admit that the book does have a kind of cumulative effect. A nimbus of late times -- dying worlds, the corrupt breath of the grave. For what it's worth (and apropos of the "cumulative effect," I am beginning to wonder if all of these clumsy characters are meant to form, collectively, a single conceptual apparatus. Idk.) I/a/c, or "main guy" here is, at this very moment in the text, semi-reclined as well. He's lounging about, staring into space -- which is all he seems to do, frankly -- and once again the question arises: Why should I care about this idiot and his woolgathering ?
       Of course, practically all of this applies to Same Same, too.
       Percy has some difficulty getting with the Institute-program, as it were -- in no small part because he has difficulty getting anywhere with his project, until it finally begins to coalesce. He continues to feel like an outsider -- more visitor than fellow, as he admits -- but also plays the part, exploring on his own and also venturing further than he is supposed to -- leaving the protected bubble that is the campus and going into the Freehold's capital itself, for example.
       His reason for stealing off at first is an unfortunate accident: fellows are provided with a kind of uniform, identifying (and marking) them; "it's not optional", he's told. Oddly, they're also in rather short supply -- and so: "You only get the one". And Percy promptly stains his. All attempts to clean it prove futile, but he gets the address for a place in town that might be able to help: a storefront called Same Same, where there's a ritual of depositing an object, repeating the magic formula -- "Same same" -- and, if the proprietor "agrees to take your case" ... well, eventually a perfect duplicate results.
       Percy becomes hooked -- eager to see if there's something that can't be replicated (for a while he's obsessed with figuring out ways to defeat it), but also taking advantage of everything that can be, down to the device (his smartphone/iPad equivalent, the ubiquitous modern connector) that he smashes up, his passport, and even money. Unsurprisingly, Same Same is very much about re-producing: copying, imitating, re-presenting works of art in new (or identical form) -- a fictional commentary also on Walter Benjamin's The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction in an age of even more advanced reproduction. So, for example, one of the projects by a fellow at the Institute is to recreate some grand fundamentalist-destroyed statues (think the Buddhas of Bamiyan) -- which he does, both perfectly and entirely differently. And, of course, Percy's own project eventually arises out of this as well.
       The Institute, where everything runs smoothly and efficiently when Percy arrives, a climate-controlled bubble plunked in a very hostile desert environment, also begins to fray the longer Percy is there. He contributes to some of the decline -- notably with the fluttering and then flood of paper flying over from Same Same that he seems to have set off, which clogs up everything. Nature, too, bears down on the site, with storms threatening even this technological wonder.
        As Percy notes and wonders:
     Things are getting shabbier.
     Have we underestimated the storm ? Become overconfident in the metastructure's capacities ? Either way we have grown complacent.
       And, of course, this isn't just a reflection on the happenings-in-the-novel, but also on both this specific novel and 'the novel' per se -- including its metastructure -- and the reader's part in all of this .....
       And so the novel frays a bit, too -- even as Percy's project takes on more definite shape. Unsurprisingly, he eventually realizes his project involves writing -- but it continues to be a struggle:
     Yet despite all of this, I've been wribbing. Writching. Writing. Writing.
     I've been writzing writing, see.
       Typically, Same Same offers its own sort of summing-up (which, of course, applies equally well to The Magic Mountain):
It doesn't really, it's hard to ... well, there isn't really a story, not in the normal way. No real 'short version.' And it isn't really, like, 'a novel,' not in the traditional sense. It is kind of a grab bag. There is little in the way of development. No dramatic turns of event. And the narrator may be unreliable.
       Mendelsund handles this all cleverly and quite entertainingly. There are some longueurs along the way -- but then that's also part of the point, part of the journey -- and once things are on shakier ground at the Institute and it is no longer manages to be quite the neat, orderly, and regimented place Percy arrived at, things very much do pick up again. Along the way, there are some amusing adventures and experiences, and the supporting characters, though mostly background material, are entertaining enough too; with regards to them, especially, the echoes of The Magic Mountain are particularly enjoyable. There's also considerable good fun to be had with the Institute -- and its driven director -- and the projects the 'creatives' conceive, with Percy admitting at one point: "Many other pieces are so highly conceptual that I cannot even begin formulating responses".
       This is a clever, playful work of fiction about art and authenticity, and 'copying' in its broadest senses, from (would-be) perfect duplication (yes, there's a nod to Borges' Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote) to fundamental reworkings that are nevertheless clearly built on familiar foundations (in the way Same Same is a 'copy' of The Magic Mountain).
       Even as it works with other forms of copying, Same Same is also then very specifically about fiction, and writing, and the making of a novel; Percy continues to collect 'the fundaments' of his project until near the end, by which time he amusingly also comes to:
Fundament 28. Write what you kn
      Complicate traditional notions of authorship through deploying strategies of
       So, yes, a lot of this is also ultimately spelled out for the reader, and while Same Same is a sort of puzzle it doesn't prove all too puzzling, with Mendelsund providing the key(s) in not-entirely-but-close-to-it plain sight. It's all done rather neatly and adroitly, nicely woven together to (re)create this agreeably odd novel, making for an interesting and more re/active reading experience than usual.
       Enjoyably thought-provoking and entertaining.

- M.A.Orthofer, 10 February 2019

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Links:

Same Same: Reviews: Peter Mendelsund: Other books by Peter Mendelsund under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary American fiction

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About the Author:

       American author Peter Mendelsund is also well-known for his book-cover designs.

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© 2019 the complete review

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