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book review

Pasha MallaMichelle Siu/The Globe and Mail

For anyone wondering "how to write a short story," the Internet offers more than 340,000 suggested strategies. These include advice from Wikihow, and Kurt Vonnegut, and often tend toward strictures: "Every character should want something," "Stories need a beginning, middle and end," and that supreme mantra of the creative-writing workshop, "Show, don't tell."

Few non-commercial art forms are treated with such structural rigour, and the result is a strange formulation: One doesn't learn the craft of story-writing so much as begin with its template. Versus the arduous work of the literary novel, or the clandestine practice of poetry, maybe it's the short story's relative feasibility that has fostered such a defined rubric for both its creation and evaluation.

Of course, many prominent practitioners of short fiction don't adhere so strictly to conventions. Alice Munro often flouts traditional modes of storytelling, jumping around in perspective and time and writers such as Ali Smith and George Saunders – or, in this country, Zsuzsi Gartner and Douglas Glover – have made careers pushing the boundaries of the form.

Even so, the English-language short story remains essentially, even rigidly, tied to the individual: A protagonist moves through space and time and emerges in some way touched or changed. These characters serve as proxies for the reader and as such, regardless of any eccentricities of language or form, they're expected to offer a shared, sympathetic experience. And, for the most part, contemporary authors deliver.

But then there's Cesar Aira. The author of close to 90 books since 1975 (let that number sit with you a moment), Aira is known to anglophone readers for 10 novels in translation, which swerve wildly between genre parody, philosophical treatise and surrealist fantasy, sometimes in the same paragraph. Comprising stories written from 1993 to 2011, and seamlessly translated by Chris Andrews, The Musical Brain is Argentina's most prolific writer's first collection of short fiction available in English. It also might be his best book to date.

Describing the plot of any of these stories is like trying to relate an especially bizarre and disorienting dream. It isn't so much what happens as how it happens, and how we as readers are swept along. So to explain that in A Thousand Drops the Mona Lisa evaporates into tiny globules of paint, one of which opens a media agency in rural China and uses extreme methods to coach a local basketball team, another of which takes up residence in the Pope's colon, etc., or that in God's Tea Party the titular fete (for primates) is crashed by a subatomic particle, can at best suggest the lunacy of events, but fails to capture the delight and exuberance one feels while reading.

Cesar Aira has described his process as a "flight forward" into the unknown: He begins with an idea, an image or a line and writes – feverishly, one imagines – without backtracking or editing until the piece reaches some adequate ending. As a result his novels can be overwhelming, and occasionally feel more abandoned than completed, but in The Musical Brain the short form less constrains his imagination than focuses it. Though the madness and unpredictability of Aira's longer fiction remains, the meandering tangents have mostly vanished, and each narrative or tonal twist is utterly compelling. Almost every entry here is a thrill-ride of invention, from the wild title story's forays into memory and the supernatural, to the absurdist counting contest played between kids in The Infinite: "Thinking back," says the narrator, "I've always seen the game as a blend of invention and practice. Or rather, I see the practice of it as permanent invention, without any prior idea. … There were no rules."

One finds these loosely coded statements of purpose throughout Aira's work, and The Musical Brain contains pronouncements on the value of secrets, improvisation and the unknown. But the major theme of the book is play. "When children play, though they're amusing themselves, they take it very seriously," Aira's countryman Julio Cortazar told The Paris Review in 1984. "Literature is like that – it's a game, but it's a game one can put one's life into. One can do everything for that game." Yet Cortazar conflates terms between which our own Robert Kroetsch makes a necessary distinction: "The two words contradict each other in a signifying way. Play resists the necessary rules of game."

Aira has made a game of his literary career, the rules of which seem to bend and shift with each new project. And the stories in The Musical Brain are remarkable for their profound capacity for play, especially within a form so often bound by codes and parameters. The results are hilarious, thrilling, terrifying and strange – sometimes simultaneously – and seem to be continually leading us, his readers, along to greater and more boundless possibilities. This isn't just the short-story collection of the year, it's an exhibition of intensely unbridled imagination like few works of art in recent memory.