I wanted to like Rachel Cantor’s Good on Paper a lot more than I finally did, but it just never really came together for me. Cantor’s central theme is translation and transformation…of texts, of signs, of people and of life. But Shira, the narrator, never felt like a real person…and her overly precocious daughter, her best friend and roommate, and her Rabbi neighbor and lover, are made of even thinner stuff. The characters felt like a pretext for exploring intellectual questions.
But that’s also where the book shines. From the mechanics of translation to the philosophical implications of what translation means—or even if it’s possible at all—to where translation becomes transformation, this is a novel of fascinating details. If these questions interest you, or you are a fan of Dante, you’ll probably forgive the novel’s many other faults as an entertainment.
Cantor’s novel is rife with characteristics that might have rung my bell (and that might, even in list form, send many running the other direction): erudition, hyper-literate dialogue, postmodern juxtaposition of the story lines and delving into the intricacies—and the questions of—translation. I think Cantor is trying to explore how the act of translation, and being a translator, intersect with and form and deform the narrative we call our lives…and how the postmodern idea of life as a text both fails and is vindicated in the foundering of our words, spoken and unspoken, written and unwritten. Interesting ideas though, unfortunately, the book itself is better on paper.