Cover Image: The Delivery

The Delivery

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Member Reviews

Thank you to NetGalley and Farrar, Straus and Giroux for this copy of The Delivery by Peter Mendelsund. 

What an interesting, strange read The Delivery is. In The Delivery we meed the delivery boy, who spends his days zooming around on his bike making his assigned deliveries. There are other characters but this book almost exclusively shares with the reader the trips that the delivery boy makes in his familiar city. After making what seems to be an innocuous mistake the delivery boy is sent on the longest delivery of his career, forcing him to find the outer limits of his endurance and testing his understanding of the life that he leads. 

I really enjoyed The Delivery. The author does an amazing job of mirroring the speed with which the deliveries take by writing very little to describe the short, normal deliveries and then diving deep into the details of the final delivery. It's a brilliant way to make the routines of the delivery boy's life come alive for the reader. I was very impressed by the style of writing and will be on the lookout for future titles by Peter Mendelsund. Fans of literary fiction will adore this quirky little gem.
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In an interview for The Believer, graphic artist turned novelist Peter Mendelsund elaborated his own approach to literature by using a surprising comparison to another art: puppetry. The audience of a puppet show is observing two stories simultaneously, “the diegetic material that the puppets are performing, and the actions the puppeteer is performing.” In other words, they’re watching both the puppets on stage and the puppeteer pulling the strings.

In Mendelsund’s hands, this simple observation about puppetry makes for an experimental approach to novel writing. In his new novel, The Delivery, the results are often frustrating, but will be thought-provoking for readers who are interested in how such an approach can shape the novel form.

The plot—what the “puppets” are doing on stage—is seemingly simple: The Delivery tells the story of a character as he transports packages from a warehouse into the hands of well-to-do city residents. The Delivery Boy is hassled by building doormen, ignored by customers, and abused by his Supervisor. The work is alienating and exploitative, even more so than the real-life gig work like Grubhub or Uber that it resembles—it is revealed that the Delivery Boy is essentially an indentured servant, given lodging and a bike by the shadowy company that “employs” him.

But the solitary, repetitive work, which involves traversing the city and near constant waiting, affords the Delivery Boy plenty of time to take refuge in his own mind. Mostly he thinks about two things: his efforts to learn the language of the city in which he finds himself, and his affection for N., a dispatch girl who is cold towards him but seemingly protective of his fate.

It is against this backdrop of the protagonist’s thoughts, observations, and desires that the reader can make out the puppet strings and the silhouette of the puppeteer. Mendelsund’s first technique for disrupting the plot is breaking up the narration with a barrage of parentheticals, line breaks, and horizontal rules. Sentence fragments give snapshots of what the protagonist sees in his day, and each short chapter might contain a single scene, or a cluster of observations. The first chapter simply reads “Delivery 1: ★★”

The unconventional use of syntax slows the pace of the book, and imitates the rote, hurry-up-and-wait work of the protagonist. Later in the book, as the protagonist gains fluency in the language of the city, the book’s style swings from fragments to long sentences that run on for pages. Here Mendelsund eliminates the incessant line breaks but keeps in the parentheticals, which weave in the perspective of an omnipresent, first-person narrator, distinct from the Delivery Boy yet familiar with his story.

The puppet analogy is most literally realized in the interplay between the Delivery Boy’s narrative and the voice of the narrator. The narrator, who has been for the duration of the novel silently pulling the strings of the narrative, is now so participatory as to interrupt the Delivery Boy’s quest with his own parenthetical story:

“The delivery boy peered into the darkening orchard and saw
(A picnic.)
(No.)
(Sorry.)
(That doesn’t go here.)
(But still.)
(It was the fall, and I was with my parents. Beer foam on my mother’s upper lip …”

The technique is frustrating, in no small part because the story of the narrator is in many ways more descriptive than the story of the book’s ostensible protagonist. The book never fills in key details about the Delivery Boy (his name, most notably), instead opting for a conscious erasure of the character. Just as the Delivery Boy is invisible to the customers he serves, he is invisible to us, the readers. In the end, Mendelsund is more interested in exploring the complexities of narrative and less so about fleshing out the life of his protagonist. 

A reader’s enjoyment of The Delivery will mostly depend on if they share Mendelsund’s interest in these meta-fictional techniques. For my part, I found the most damning failure of the book was that its method of erasure-as-portrayal extended to its discussion of migration within the Delivery Boy’s life. It is not just that the Delivery Boy is unnamed; so too is his home country, his native language, and the nature of the conflict that forced him from his home.

By excluding any specific cultural details, the Delivery Boy’s story is unmoored from history. Rendering the book ahistorical necessarily leaves it apolitical as well. There isn’t any specific story the book wants to tell about the political violence in the protagonist’s past, nor is there any apparent relationship between his home country and the metropole. It’s disappointing that this book has nothing of substance to say about, for instance, the over ten million undocumented immigrants working in the US today in similar conditions to the book’s protagonist.

The Delivery is a unique novel that devises clever ways to tell its story, but fails to ground itself in basic techniques of character development and plot. This experimental novel creates a compelling new world, but it’s hard to parse what exactly it wants to say about ours.
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weird book! i feel a little misled by the publisher's summary, which calls it "harrowing and hilarious." harrowing i kind of get, but hilarious?? no. may be on me for missing the joke, but i just didn't see the humor in the what's really a sad reality for so many immigrants/refugees. mendelsund did make me care about "delivery boy" but i didn't really get the first-person interjections, and had trouble finishing it. it could all be reader error, but this one wasn't for me.
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Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on February 9, 2021

Over the course of The Delivery, we learn that the character known only as the delivery boy came from another country, a nation ruled by a leader he calls “the Stongman.” The delivery boy was smuggled to the United States and must eventually repay the cost of his passage and bicycle repairs and rent for the bunk on which he sleeps. He knows his debt will never be paid but he dutifully makes bicycle deliveries while he learns English and the ways of American consumers, one delivery after another, each described to varying degrees, some routine, others an adventure.

This delivery boy, like all the others, is known only as the delivery boy, just as Supervisor is known only as Supervisor and the manager is known only as Uncle. It seems that people who are smuggled into the country are not entitled to an invidual identity, but are part of an amorphous mass. The delivery boy lives in fear of the Supervisor, who controls his fate. If customers make too many complaints, the delivery boy might be fired and lose his only means of survival as an undocumented alien. He also has a not-so-secret crush on N., the dispatcher from his native country who also controls his fate by giving him easier or more difficult assignments. For the most part, N. acts if the delivery does not exist apart from his job, although he assigns deep meaning to her occasional acts of kindness.

The delivery boy seems to have accepted his life and does not feel much sorrow when, for example, he loses his lighter, because it is just another hardship, “another lost article in a long list of lost articles.” He accepts rude drivers and rule doormen and rude customers as if they are his due, but he feels a sense of wonder when he receives a good tip or a kind word, the same wonder he feels when he pauses during the day to look around, to appreciate beauty and to marvel at the way other people live.

The Delivery is a charming novel. The simplicity of the story hides its depth. Many background details are omitted — in what city does the delivery boy make his deliveries? what is his country of origin? — because they don’t really matter. The delivery boy is an every-delivery-boy, an undocumented worker who is readily exploited, performing unrewarding labor that leaves him unnoticed, unable to image a better life for himself (beyond imagining that N. might one day like him) because his life, unsatisfying though it might be, is better than the lives his parents face under the rule of the Strongman.

The delivery boy’s hopes and aspirations, small though they might be, are touching. Like all immigrants, his ultimate yearning is to be free — free from the Strongman, free from the Supervisor, free from those who would exploit or control the vulnerable. The novel’shopeful ending suggests the possibility that by taking a chance — another chance, apart from being smuggled into a free country — the delivery boy might ultimately attain his dream.

RECOMMENDED
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A weird and groovy and welcome addition to the genre of books-about-a-futuristic-dystopia-that-we’re-kind-of-already-living-in. A lot of big swings here, with the earlier sections being really machine gun fast, and the last sections being really heady and legato and kind of abstract (truly my kingdom for a period in the last chapter). I most enjoyed the middle where it fell kind of between, and I got to savor the world that was being built, but there’s a lot of good things going on here, and also fuck Prop 22.
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Thanks to Netgalley and FSG for the early ebook. The Delivery Boy, as he’s identified in the book, has escaped one troubled nation to live in a warehouse of delivery men who are out on the streets of this unknown city delivering everything that can be transported on a simple bike and trying to get tips and five star ratings. Almost as important for Delivery Boy is to stay in the good graces of N., the dispatcher who is slowly teaching him English and gives him the best assignments, but when Delivery Boy shows her any affection, he gets shot down and has to slowly win her back to his side. The early part of the book is made up of super fast and short chapters as we see delivery after deliver and bike riding on crowded city streets and even the rules for living in the delivery dorms. When Delivery Boy runs afoul of the dreaded Supervisor, he’s sent on a distant delivery, through dangerous neighborhoods, that might change his life forever. Such a smart fable, told with a very sharp eye and sly wit.
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Being a graphic designer myself, the name Peter Mendelsund conjures up his impressive catalog of book cover designs. Having not read his previous literary effort, I'm pleasantly surprised to find his writing also evokes the same 'aesthetic' as his visual work—deceivingly simple at first glance, but upon inspection is extremely layered with purposeful intricacy.

Peter Mendelsund not only writes his story, but also considers its visual form; you can literally see the narrative scope expanses as pages getting progressively filled. The Delivery opens on a minimalist note (Chapter 1 has less than 5 words), and closes with a seemingly endless passage spanning over 20 pages. Typesetting is an invisible design decision with substantial psychological impact on the reader; large text with generous line spacing makes you turn pages faster (thereby feeling like you're reading quicker), and small text with little to no spacing can be anxiety-inducing. It's an enlightening exercise seeing principles of graphic design being incorporated as a part of the storytelling.

Narratively speaking, The Delivery evokes fable storytelling in the likes of Italio Calvino, focusing on a delivery boy as he goes through the motion in an agnostic urban city. The simple premise gradually builds upon its foundation, layering in discussion on immigration, suppression, and optimism. As if that's not enough, the story ultimately goes 'meta', breaking the fourth wall and becomes a commentary on storytelling itself. This rule-bending plot structure might frustrates readers seeking a clear three acts read, and rightly so, even I find the (intentional) meandering writing in the last section a little dense to comprehend fully. But as a commitment to what the book sets out to be, I think it pulled it off quite flawlessly.

Perhaps I'm a little bias, being someone who had devoted his master degree thesis on exploring the physical book as a storytelling device. But I find The Delivery a very compelling execution of this concept, where word, and form of word, aligns and informs the story.
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The Delivery presents an impressionistic view of life from the point of the person who performs the thankless chore of making life possible, specifically in these days of lockdown.  I don't know when this was written, if it was before the pandemic turned this activity from luxury to necessity, and some of the revelations make me think it was earlier and with a different message in mind.  It can be read with both interpretations in mind, and is an interesting take on the situation.
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This was a strange book. It's quite different from what I usually read and not what I was expecting. The story takes place in an unnamed city in an unknown country, with a main character known only as "delivery boy" and his dispatcher N-. He works for an unnamed company as a bicycle messenger, taking unknown packages to people around the city while hoping for tips and 5-star ratings. 

I kept reading even though the book didn't seem to have much of a plot at first, partially because of the way it was written (a sentence or two followed by a paragraph break) and partly because I wanted to see whether something was going to happen. I'm very glad I kept reading. It was about 805% into the book when I finally "got" it, but suddenly I was racing to find out what happened.

It takes a skillful writer to make a reader care about unnamed characters, but by the end of this book I definitely cared.

3.5 stars
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The Delivery is a different kind of book about a delivery boy who makes a living bring people their packages by bicycle. He is mass market delivery personified and gets star ratings based on his performance. He is a refugee who is learning how to navigate the culture of his new society that strives to thrive on the backs of migrant labor. This is a compelling, experimental book about class exploitation. Oscillating between being humorous and stark, it reads like a parable that shines a light on our current culture of immediate gratification. Captivating and interesting, this book is like nothing else I’ve read. Thank you to Farrar, Straus and Giroux and NetGalley for the advanced review copy.
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