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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Delivery

Peter Mendelsund

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To purchase The Delivery

Title: The Delivery
Author: Peter Mendelsund
Genre: Novel
Written: 2021
Length: 284 pages
Availability: The Delivery - US
The Delivery - UK
The Delivery - Canada

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Our Assessment:

B : clever in its construction -- which ultimately proves more drawback than blessing

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times Book Rev. . 21/2/2021 Andy Newman
Publishers Weekly . 7/12/2020 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "In lapidary chapters often just a few sentences long, Mendelsund conveys the worker's nearly wordless attempts to simultaneously learn a language, a culture, an industry, a cityscape and its dangerous streets, and, perhaps most puzzling, the laws of social interaction. (...) Unfortunately, the novel picks up an annoying passenger: the narrator, who goes from unobtrusive chronicler to unruly guest at his own dinner party, sidetracking the reader" - Andy Newman, The New York Times Book Review

  • "The author's playful sense of form and command of language make for an original and provocative novel." - Publishers Weekly

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:

       In roughest outline, The Delivery is a workplace-chronicle, describing a refugee delivery boy's on-the-job experiences. New to the country, the delivery boy starts out with essentially no knowledge of the local language, and the account also begins at a basic level, with the description and observations clipped bits and pieces: the first chapter reads, in its entirety: "Delivery 1: ★★". The account is (mostly) in the third person, and the language itself is not basic, but for much of the novel it is very piecemeal, strings of short passages -- a few words or sentences --, rather than a conventionally unfolding narrative; it does, however, grow in complexity over its three parts: in the second part, chapters extend to sequences of paragraphs and more closely resemble conventional narrative, while the final part is -- after a few brief opening statements and questions -- a single long sentence/paragraph.
       We can slowly piece together at least some of the delivery boy's background. He comes from a country ruled by a tyrant, a typical strongman-leader of a repressive regime. The delivery boy was in a youth orchestra, and he was a student of languages (though, inconveniently, not of the one of the country he winds up in). He fled his homeland, a trip that involved traveling by ship, and he wound up in this unnamed metropolis, where he works off the debt he owes for his path to freedom -- an arrangement stacked against him and all his co-workers who are in the same position, basically ensuring that they find themselves in positions resembling indentured servitude, with little hope of ever being able to pay back what they are said to owe.
       From when he arrived, the delivery boy has been helped by one of the dispatchers, N., who shows him the ropes and provides not only the necessary basic support but also extends her help beyond that ("N. gave him the promising jobs"). She remains something of a mystery to him, too, as she maintains some distance -- she's often gruff on the job -- but clearly there's a connection. And the delivery boy is drawn to her.
       Language and communication is central to much of the story, and its telling. In this new country, the delivery boy must learn a new language, and only slowly comes to understand some of the nuances; his job means that it is a very specific vocabulary that is fundamental -- "N. taught him: Customer, block, delivery, doorman, sidewalk, elevator, manor, house, tenant, stoop, Supervisor, "stay dry", so on". Communication can be both basic and direct -- the specific instructions regarding place and time of delivery -- and much more subtle; among the lessons the delivery boy learns early regarding his interactions with N. is:

(Which is to say that the delivery boy knew -- that she was speaking to him through the dispatches themselves.)
       Much of the novel simply involves the day-to-day experiences he has on the job. The delivery boy delivers food and meals but also other goods; he has a power-assisted bicycle. He deals with traffic, doormen, and customers, fears the Supervisor, and wonders about N. Occasionally, there are memories of his homeland and of his fleeing it.
       The first part, covering almost two-thirds of the novel, slowly fills in all this background about the delivery boy's past and his situation and day-to-day life now -- but the novel is, after all, titled The Delivery, and that's what it gets to in the second and third parts. After the quick glimpses of so many different delivery-experiences, the story settles down and focuses on a single one. Four bags that N. gives him, to take on: "A very long delivery". And the warning: "Do not look in the bags".
       In a sense, The Delivery has been a quest-tale from the start, but in the circumstances -- flight; adapting to a new country and job -- the delivery boy has long been able to do little more than muddle through to get by in the moment. Now, he is sent on an extended delivery and journey, which takes up the rest of the story -- arduous and with no small amount of adventure as well, but also leading elsewhere, beyond the usual routes (and not just because it is such a distant destination he is sent to).
       The Delivery is not just about its story, it's also about its telling. There is, in fact, a first-person narrator, who very occasionally comes to the fore, in parenthetical asides of commentary but also personal disclosure -- "When I was a boy, I lived on a hill". The identity of -- and reason for such -- a narrator are one of the novel's puzzles, a curious shadowy presence showing itself in the narrative on occasion. Beyond that, as noted, the form of the narrative changes over its three parts. Each part comes with an epigraph, taken from Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations, which then, in a sense, governs the form of the respective sections, Mendelsund taking his cues and inspiration from Wittgenstein's notions.
       This all works quite well, but does also give the work the feel of a concept-novel -- and one that is, in its execution, very enamored of its concept. It's clever, a neat riff on Wittgenstein, in a sense, and a neat example of what can be done with story-telling and where it and language can lead. Still, it ultimately also feels a bit too coldly neat, too -- not necessarily helped by Mendelsund's choice of a naturally emotionally wrenching refugee-story to build it on. Yes, it 'works', but it also suggests even more strongly the constructed feel of the whole, the workings all too obvious.
       One can certainly appreciate what Mendelsund has done here, but the novel impresses mainly for its formal accomplishments and doesn't achieve the emotional response it also seems to be looking for.

- M.A.Orthofer, 3 February 2021

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The Delivery: 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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© 2021 the complete review

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