Aug 142015
 

Jeff Bursey

Jeff Bursey cover

Mirrors on which dust has fallen
Jeff Bursey
Verbivoracious Press
344 pages, Paperback $22.99 CAD
ISBN: 978-981-09-5437-6

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NOBODY WOULD ACCUSE JEFF BURSEY of being lax in his demands on literature. In much of his book reviewing and other literary criticism – including pieces published here on Numéro Cinq – Bursey argues vehemently against a prescriptive approach to fiction. He trumpets the elasticity of form; he challenges his fellow novelists to eschew tried-and-true strictures on structure; he shames those who take a paint-by-colours approach to characterization; he begs us to embrace experimentation in the truest sense of the term. Mostly, he hates it when writers make rigid statements about what can/can’t be done, should/shouldn’t be done, or must/mustn’t be done when it comes to a creative work.

This mindset is very much on display in Bursey’s own fiction. His debut novel, Verbatim, published in 2010 by Enfield & Wizenty, is written almost entirely in Hansard, the official transcriptive record of a Westminster-style parliament. The book is a kind of literary curios: in it, Bursey shows how much of the muck and mess and pulse of a place –in this case, the city of Bowmount in an unnamed, fictitious Canadian province – he can capture via the verbatim excretions of elected officials. Here Bursey hews closely to perhaps an overtired tenet of fiction (write what you know), as he himself works for Hansard in the provincial legislature of my home city of Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island.

Full disclosure: During biannual visits home from Toronto, I will summon Bursey to attend a social gathering I affectionately refer to as the Prince Edward Island Writers Mafia (members include J.J. Steinfeld, David Helwig, Judy Gaudet, Steven Mayoff, and Beth Janzen) in which Bursey’s position resides somewhere between secretariat and chief thumb breaker. Bursey and I see eye to eye on many – though not all – literary conventions and trends, and I’ve generally judged his reviews, even the harsher ones, as well above the belt. One thing is clear from both reading and socializing with him: he is adamant in his insistence that novels be, well, novel.

Which brings us to his latest offering, Mirrors on which dust has fallen, an explosively unconventional, deeply disturbing, and relentlessly original work. This is not, in effect, your daddy’s Canadian Literature. The novel is set in Bowmount in the late 1990s, same as Verbatim; and rather than dropping the reader in medias res, the opening pages provide us with both general details of the town and some specific issues of the day. One of the larger challenges the city is facing, it seems, is to engender a sense of community among a certain contingent of its populace: “Clearly, for those alleged troublemakers Bowmount was not a community but a point on a map, not a City rich in varied history but a town with a grandiose self-conception.” While these prefatory remarks appear a bit rough around the edges – why is city capitalized here? what is “self-conception”? do we mean “self-perception?” – Bursey does a good job of situating us in a fully imagined and concrete place. (With the novel opening in such a prefatory way, it is unfortunate, and somewhat redundant, that publisher Verbivoracious Press decided to include an incoherent, academically pretentious, and wholly unnecessary introductory essay by Christopher Wunderlee.)

The narrative picks up heft as we begin to meet, through alternating chapters, the book’s motley ensemble of characters. There is Loyola, a university-drop out who works a soul-sucking job at a clothing wholesaler. There is his sleazy, supremely confident friend Jules Deeka, offering all manner of temptation from the wings. We meet a deeply compelling woman named Ivy, who struggles with the onset of middle age and its concomitant frustrations. We get a view into a radio station looking to update itself with the times (at the expense of several of its employees) and we also encounter the local Catholic church grappling with a sex abuse scandal. We lounge around in perhaps Bowmount’s most down-market watering hole, Johnny Bar’s, and we learn about three cops killed in a hostage taking at the local pet shop.

Bursey presents each of these threads in fragmented form, the chapters twitching and looping and hopping from one narrative to the next. Unsurprisingly, these strands intersect in surprising ways, and we soon learn about Bowmount’s darker auras glowing just below its skein of lower-middle class normalcy. What impresses most is the level of occupational detail that Bursey weaves into these stories. He is equally comfortable writing about the logistics of clothing wholesalers and the challenges of running a small radio station as he is about the quotidian detail of Catholic ceremonies and the grit needed to keep a seedy pub afloat. Here is an example of this kind of mastery, taken from a chapter called “The priests”:

The archbishop had descended from the refined heights of Toronto and Montreal, and regarded the priests and laymen of the Catholic Church in this province as boobs. Oh yes, intelligent decisions were made now and then, but less than the law of averages allowed; and of course, good works of a highly Christian nature were performed almost every other week. But to his mind the capillaries of the local Church were clogged by the lacklustre efforts of poor priests recruited from the local population, and by the vapouring laymen and church committees.

This level of specificity helps to offset the larger challenge that Mirrors presents to readers – that of a carefully constructed and confounding set of elisions.

What form do these elisions take? Funnily enough, they are very similar to those found in his previous novel, Verbatim. When you write a book almost entirely in the language of Hansard, (not that you have, or I have, or anyone else has, as far as I know; this seems to be strictly Bursey’s domain), you create the unusual constraint of limiting nearly all of your prose to dialogue – specifically the official dialogue of a provincial legislature. In Verbatim, the novelty of this was sharp and rendered into a very believable verisimilitude. A number of our expectations get thwarted or left out as a result: these elisions include descriptive writing, internal thoughts, and other nuanced interactions between characters.

But interestingly, much of Mirrors is also written in dialogue. There are long stretches that consist almost entirely of two or more characters riffing on each other over some element of their individual narratives, with their exchanges demarcated by dashes. Indeed, like Verbatim before it, much of Mirrors reads like a transcription – and as such, it too comes with various exclusions and limitations. Through most of the book, we get very little exposition, almost no physical descriptions of the characters, and a paucity of internal thoughts or monologues. In this sense, Mirrors is like a mirror of Verbatim. But whereas the previous novel was concerned with the “official-speak” of politicians looking to put their best foot forward and get the upper hand on opponents, Mirrors concerns itself with the rough and rowdy transcript of the street. Its characters talk at length about the filth and failure and frustrations of their personal lives. They discuss thwarted ambitions, secret desires, and their often strange or uninspired sex lives. This is the opposite of politicians’ orating formality in a legislature. This is workaday people being baldly honest in the agora of the public square.

Throughout these narratives, there is one issue, one preoccupation, one motif that occurs and re-occurs. It is an obsession of Bursey’s that I failed to spot in reading his first book and his literary criticism, or in socializing with him personally – that of the human anus. The human anus is, it should be said, the closest thing that Mirrors has to a main character. It makes numerous appearances in the different intersecting narratives of the book. At one point Ivy, suffering from some kind of gastric malady, reflects back on a sigmoidoscopy she received, “its camera transmitting pictures of pink flesh, white flesh, red veins in chain lightning patterns, the camera bungling around the nooks and crannies of her intestines during its serpentine intrusion.” At another point, two men discuss how to prepare for the inevitable unpleasantness of prison life with the aid of a carrot. In a particularly provocative section, Jules and Loyola get into a debate about sex’s more cloacal joys:

– But enjoying it? With a man?

– Before AIDS, when things were safer, you went in the back door with a woman, had a bit of anilingus.

– What? Jules explained, finishing with –a pungent meat, like game, make sure you wash before and after. The fundament is one of those places you get a lot of pleasure out of. Slapping, tickling, biting, kissing, enemas if you’re into that, so why not anal intercourse? Greatest warriors in the world did that, the army, the navy, you name it. Natural. Not healthy, not now, but natural. You’re looking pink. It isn’t the chili, is it?

Of course, not all interactions with the anus in Mirrors is consensual. The book also includes a harrowing anal rape scene, recounted by its perpetrator to the fellow lowlifes who inhabit Johnny’s Bar. This man tells how he stalked a young girl whose clothes (or lack thereof) reveal a bit too much of her backside for his liking. His subsequent assault on her on an isolated bike trail is told in chilling casualness, couched as an act of prostitution because he throws the girl forty dollars before raping her. This is as dark as Mirrors gets, and many readers who find their way to this chapter will no doubt be disturbed by it. As someone who has himself included difficult scenes of sexual assault in a novel, I have no advice or solace to provide other than this: as horrific as the scene is in Mirrors, it’s important to see how it fits into the larger thematic structure that Bursey has built for us. There are many ways this novel shows how the city of Bowmount – rendered into such stuffy officialdom in Verbatim – is still very much in touch with its lizard brain. For all the macro social engineering that occurs at the municipal level, individual citizens still feel – and resign themselves to – their basest human instincts.

The rape scene in Mirrors simply takes this to an unconscionable extreme.

Yet change is coming to Bowmount. Indeed, one could argue that change is the ultimate theme in both of Bursey’s novels. In Verbatim, it takes the form of new (and somewhat corrupted) management at Hansard that actually influences the transcripts of the legislature. In Mirrors, the change comes as an unpleasant intruder into the lives of its core characters. Many of them, it seems, wrestle with the brutality that time can exact on us all and the very instability of modern life. Yet this novel ends on a surprisingly tender note in a chapter called “A new cycle.”

What awaits our intrepid Ivy as she is about to take one step toward a man that she should have been with all along? She doesn’t know, and neither do we, but what we’re left with is the knowledge that it’s probably very important to take that step forward anyway. It’s important that dust not settle on the mirrors we hold up to ourselves.

—Mark Sampson

 

Photo by Mark Raynes Roberts

Photo by Mark Raynes Roberts

Mark Sampson has published two novels – Off Book (Norwood Publishing, 2007) and Sad Peninsula (Dundurn Press, 2014) – and a short story collection, called The Secrets Men Keep (Now or Never Publishing, 2015). He also has a book of poetry, Weathervane, forthcoming from Palimpsest Press in 2016. His stories, poems, essays and book reviews have appeared widely in journals in Canada and the United States. Mark holds a journalism degree from the University of King’s College in Halifax and a master’s degree in English from the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. Originally from Prince Edward Island, he now lives and writes in Toronto.

 

Aug 032015
 

Liz Howard

Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent
Liz Howard
McClelland & Stewart
98 pages, Paperback $18.95 CAD
ISBN: 978-0-7710-3836-5

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LIZ HOWARD”S DEBUT COLLECTION of poems, Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent, is astonishingly capacious: It is an extended metaphor for the mind. It is a fiery, radiant rollick through language. It is a meditation on Indigenous lineage and muted origins. It is the type of hard, crystalline speech which illuminates the social-scape from its gutters, a song gifted by an absolute Other, eerily coalescing at the junction of race, class, and gender. The poems which make it up celebrate the natural world while simultaneously attuning themselves to the toxicity of its rivers.

The collection could be described as a supernatural invocation. It could be described as a science of Wonder, a discourse on Wonder with a neuro-scientific diction. It channels scientific language as if it were part and parcel of its mother tongue. It speaks Anishinaabemowin also. It is an appropriation of various giants: Plath and Wittgenstein, many others. It is a neural riot. It is emotionally prodigious. Like the infinite citizen it is named for, the text, too, is startled by some big thing which rattles its stars; it, too, stands with a gaping maw, gobsmacked and in love, reaching beyond itself, fearlessly.

The Shaking Tent rite, in various Indigenous traditions, is carried out by a spiritual healer for the sake of procuring knowledge from the great abyss of the beyond. The healer, the shaman, is enclosed in a tent, whose quaking movements, observed from without, signal the presence of supernatural entities presumed to assist with the mediumistic enterprise. The shaking tent, in the context of this collection, is a metaphor which rebuffs the figure of the solipsistic, self-made self: Howard’s speaker proclaims that her guiding desire is “to not be / inside my own head perpetually / not simply Wittgenstein’s girl / but an infinite citizen in a shaking tent.” Within the metaphorical tent, she is thus positioned so as to be open to a variety of ‘others’: A temporal other in the form of events which have not yet occurred (hence she can “receive / the call that comes / down the barrel / of the future”) and a human Other (an Autrui): “I know myself to be a guest / in your mind a grand lodge / of everything I long to know and hold / within this potlatch we call / the present / moment.”

These others are, of course, not quite amenable to being grasped. If they are grasped at all, they are never grasped fully. The speaker’s desire for knowledge is, as the title of the collection suggests, infinite: inexhaustible, but also asymptotic (“this is my delta my neural asymptote”). That is, the speaker approaches, verges on, that which she reveres and longs for, but never reaches it. Only desire which is asymptotic can be, along with the pleasure which accompanies desire, indefinitely sustained. Only desire which is asymptotic, moreover, is compatible with wonder: it is an active curiosity which cannot conquer, and which is thus at the same time a non-violent ‘leaving be.’ The beyond, the remainder which is never colonized but which touches these poems, at times lends the collection something like a religious quality: The text nods its head to something sacred and inhuman, almost god-like (“What auspice will lend me a sacred belt?”), and possibly imperilling (“What little there is beyond impermanence / conspires with half a mind on the original / to sew us closed”).

The poems are riddled with references to time, to standard time, to time ephemeral (“the time zone of some desperate hour”) and to time unending (“O creek, bleeding hills, census inveterate / let me sleep five more minutes just five / minutes more before we default on / eternity”). How these references fit together, or fit into their respective poems, is occasionally mysterious. This is because Howard’s lines at times defy conventional sense: “I have as much stake / in speaking this / as the water / which also / discloses futurity / in a little black dress.” Lines carve out logics which exceed those of everyday communication. Many (not all) of Howard’s poems run on semantic discontinuity, on the imaginative leap: “I remove my belt / and snap it / at the stakeholders of the commonplace / at a crucifix / at the tariff of longing / at the dawn / at my own name.”

The experimental poet Charles Bernstein has observed that sense is irreducible to connotation and denotation, that meaning’s reach is total: acoustic sense (the sense, for example, Howard’s lines make to the ear, if not to the schooled mind, which is trained to unpack propositions and carry out theme-based exegesis) is still sense,[1] even though—because at a remove from reference—it is more difficult to theorize about. The infinite citizen herself insists that “our only limit / will be of language”; “feral,” she tells us, “I enter / the court of words,” where “tangents come to take you away.” It would be wrong, then, to reduce the time-related mentions so ubiquitous in Howard’s book to anything like a series of genuinely-intended claims—which is not to say that they are never genuinely intended—and to hold their enigmatic character against them. Still, we can say that temporality exists as part of the book’s conceptual-scape. It is a conspicuous motif:

The speaker casts a casual eye toward an apocalyptic future (“we’re just friends / hanging out / in my apartment / until the world ends”). At times the world, the “whole earth,” seems to have ended already, seems to have already “retired from intimacy.” Elsewhere, the speaker is preoccupied with the present, “LOLing / in the middle / of mere existence.” Several of the poems included in the collection (e.g., “Look Book,” “Boreal Swing,” “1992,” and “Bildungsroman”) are essentially portraits of the speaker’s past, glimpses of poverty, records of the sensory impressions and memorable communications of the speaker’s youth (“This is our welfare half / a duplex with mint green / siding shrugged between / rail yard and main street”; “when I was / small and somewhere my / birthfather is drunk and / homeless, half-mad when / the cops ask him for his name / he’ll say, December”). These poems are, to a certain extent, set apart from the other poems in the collection in that they participate in a slightly different aesthetic; still, they exhibit continuity with the other poems insofar as they participate in the temporal triptych (past, present, future) Infinite Citizen is, elsewhere, constantly alluding to.

The colonial critique Infinite Citizen is carrying out is subtle. For the most part, it is not effected by explicit statements; rather, it is evoked by the politically charged vocabulary, or diction, Howard has incorporated in surprising ways into the poetry, a diction which, so-embedded, has become ambiguous without fully shedding its political resonances: Line sequences like “into the puffed metastatic coal became the water / into the affirmative action embryonic mortality / of the loon summit,” and “bioaccumulation became us Athabasca / sweet reconciliation spoke in / mercury, arsenic, lead, and cadmium” prime us, politically, without saying any one thing in particular. Isolated, creatively contextualized words in this way function as constant reminders; their associations haunt, invade, the text. We are not allowed to forget. The text refuses to be blatant, but it has found a way to do this, quite ingeniously, while simultaneously refusing compulsory silence. Even the text’s more positive incorporation of, for example, Anishinaabemowin concepts—such as the Shaking Tent—is a making-present, a kind of metaphysical assertion of a culture covered-over, if not outright killed, and of a portion of the speaker’s subjectivity which has been culturally minimized, or suppressed.

Infinite Citizen exhibits feminist preoccupations as well; the speaker, it seems, is a feminine subject; the colloquial language which, at times, erupts into what, at other times, seems like a specialist’s text (“hey, self / are you lovely yet?”; “with red needles I will ask you again / where is my good / gloss?”) calls to mind the work of writers like Margaret Christakos and Lisa Robertson, two of Howard’s former mentors. Wasn’t it Lisa Robertson, who, taking on the dead male poetry giants of the epic tradition, trying to outdo, or amp up, even their classical pomp, irreverently wrote “Hey Virgil / I think your clocked ardour is stuck…”? Both Lisa Robertson and Gail Scott, moreover, in different ways in their respective writings, have preoccupied themselves with ‘ornamentation’ and ‘surface,’ conceptions traditionally associated with femininity; they have made something out of these notions aesthetically as part of a feminist re-appropriation of writing itself (with Gail Scott producing texts which abandon plot in favour of imagistic and linguistic tangents, or, in other words, in favour of ‘ornaments’ which make up the text’s ‘surface’). Howard’s colloquial expressions, her speaker’s good gloss (deemed, by dint of inclusion, an appropriate subject for poetry), and the “punk psalms” she, at other times, refers to, elaborate and affirm a form of feminine subjectivity, as well as a politicized, dissident aesthetic which admits of only a recent history.

Throughout the text, Howard blurs the border between the subject’s cognition and the world which is external to it. The infinite citizen’s psychic geography is physical; it is made up of veins, blood paths, as much as it is populated with creatures and stones. A hare goes “to rut in the reverb / of precognition.” “The total psychic economy shimmers / a latent mouthpiece of maple.” The infinite citizen thus stands in relation to the environment as absolutely porous; the highway is ‘venous’; the snow is ‘hemodynamic.’ The mind and the body likewise reserve nothing from one another, extend into one another, become conflated with one another. In this text, there is only fluidity, never dualism; the spiritual is a good dirt; the spiritual is chemical.

At a technical level, Infinite Citizen is appropriative; the work, then, not only dismisses the boundary between the objective and the subjective, it does away with the territory lines gouged between texts. The poems in the collection help themselves to each other, as in the procedural poem “Ring Sample: Addendum,” which is made up of lines which occur in the book’s earlier poems.The words and rhythms of many other writers have made it into Infinite Citizen as well. Where Plath, for example, writes “O my God, what am I / That these late mouths should fly open,” Howard writes “could our late mouths ever know such a green word / as vertigo.” Where Plath writes “In a forest of frost, in a dawn of cornflowers,” Howard writes “in a daffodil chorus of posthumous laughter / this clapboard passport.” In one poem, Plath remarks: “All morning the / Morning has been blackening, / A flower left out”; in another, she speaks of a father figure at whom she cannot look much, since his “form suffers / Some strange injury / And seems to die.” Howard, who, seemingly moved by Plath, nevertheless refrains from embracing her totalizing bleakness, in a single poem, informs the reader: “All night the blood moon measures the dilation / of your pupil, pinprick or dinner plate / in this plenum where our attention fails to die.”

It is the plenum, nothing short of the plenum, which is, I think, the source of these new poems, as well as their resplendent infiltrator. Liz Howard has managed something extraordinary here, has managed, in fact, a number of extraordinary things: She has composed an incredibly thought-provoking, intelligent text and she has pulled this off in an impeccable, beautiful language. She has registered—expressed rather than turned from—life in its most gritty, sad, anxiety-producing manifestations. And she has managed to excite. And she has managed, also, ferociously, to marvel.

—Natalie Helberg

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Liz Howard is a Toronto-based poet. She works as a research officer in cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto. She holds an Honours Bachelor of Science degree with High Distinction from the University of Toronto and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph. Her poetry has appeared in numerous journals (The Capilano Review, The Puritan, and Matrix Magazine). Her chapbook Skullambiant (Ferno House) was a finalist for bpNichol Chapbook Award in 2012. Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent is her first full-length collection.

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helberg pic

Natalie Helberg completed an MFA in Creative Writing with the University of Guelph in 2013. She is currently studying philosophy at the University of Toronto. Some of her experimental work has appeared on InfluencySalon.ca and in Canadian Literature. She is (still) working on a hybrid novel.

 

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. See Charles Bernstein’s “Artifice of Absorption”
Jul 112015
 

Jeff Parker

At its core, Where Bears Roam the Streets aims to strike a balance between Thompson-esque madness and serious journalism. — Benjamin Woodard

Where Bears

Where Bears Roam the Streets
Jeff Parker
Harper Perennial
368 pages($16.99)
ISBN 978-1554683826

 

As an American child of the 1980s, three well-known figures essentially forged my understanding of Soviet Russia: Odessa-born comedian Yakov Smirnoff (“Why don’t they have baseball in Soviet Union? In Soviet Union, no one is safe!”); Ivan “I must break you” Drago, the fictional pugilist from the cinematic travesty Rocky IV; and former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev (though, to be honest, most of my interest here surrounded the various jokes about his birthmark).

To say that I grew up in a non-political household would be an understatement. I was a child living in blissful ignorance of the outside world, and the U.S.S.R. was simply a place with funny rules, mean boxers the size of horses, and a leader as strange as our own Ronald Reagan.

Jeff Parker, in his energetic new journal/travelogue/memoir, Where Bears Roam the Streets, admits to a somewhat different childhood. Raised in north Florida, he writes that, while his family wasn’t “tuned in” politically during his childhood, he developed a fear of the U.S.S.R. thanks to nuclear attack drills during school hours, coupled with the 1983 TV movie The Day After:

After seeing the movie The Day After, which solidified in me the understanding that Russians were my enemy, I asked my mom if we could put in a below-ground fallout shelter.

Of course, Parker expanded his worldview as he aged. A budding writer, he found appreciation in Russian literature—Gogol, in particular—and in 1999, while in graduate school, he began visiting the nation regularly to work at the St. Petersburg Summer Literary Seminars. During his first summer abroad, he bonded with Igor, a walking tall tale of a young man, and their friendship bloomed. Until the Literary Seminars shuttered in 2008, Parker and Igor spent summers together, and when Parker was back home, the pair kept in contact via Skype. Then, in the summer of 2009, as Parker’s marriage slowly deteriorated and Igor found himself suddenly unemployed thanks to an economic collapse caused by Russia’s armed conflict in Georgia, the duo decided to spend the summer traveling. The point of the trek was twofold: to unwind, firstly, but also so Parker could write about the land that scared him so in his youth. The result—Where Bears Roam the Streets—is a fascinating volume, equal parts examination of Russia culture and rowdy road trip, that rarely stumbles in its bid to illuminate the highs and lows of modern Russian life.

The book oscillates in time and location, with chapters chronicling Parker and Igor’s travels (first to the Black Sea coast, then to Siberia to visit Parker’s estranged wife) interspersed with sections devoted to a wide variety of Russian curiosities—from matchmakers to political activists—as well as Igor’s wild past. These shifts occasionally feel abrupt, derailing some narrative flow, yet all are important to understand the actions taken by those Parker encounters. Tales from Igor’s history, especially his time in England, working for pittance while being “trained” as a manager for a British muesli plant set to open in St. Petersburg, establish the man’s skepticism. Further, a brief account of Igor’s multiple comical attempts (and eventual success) to evade military service in 1999 permit the persuasive, suave Igor of 2009 to seem all the more fathomable. This story of draft dodging also resonates in the larger world when juxtaposed with Parker’s visit with writer Denis Burov and Ilya Plekhanov, both former soldiers who fought in Chechnya. When Burov, who suffered from poverty and intense PTSD following his service, tells Parker, “Service is not a noble thing here in Russia, unfortunately…Now the common point of view is a real man has to buy his way out of the service,” it’s hard not to look at Igor’s charm and persistence with a bit of disgust. Through these somewhat unrelated incidents, his character rounds out, so that as his journey continues, we feel for his triumphs and defeats.

Likewise, such encounters also bring to light some of Parker’s own unease, serving to expand his persona:

I always felt guilty around guys my age who had gone to Iraq while I prowled bars and wrote my stories. And unlike Igor, I hadn’t swindled my way out of fate…Put in the same situation [as Igor], I’d have done everything in my power—I’d have paid much more than Igor for an X-ray showing a non-existent crack in my spine.

Here, another heartbeat of Where Bears Roam the Streets is exposed, for while Parker claims his book’s overall agenda is to further comprehend Russian life, time and again his explorations prove he’s also searching for a greater understanding of his own nature. After Igor tells Parker of his own psycholinguistic method of working out problems, the author finds himself testing the technique on his own woes. Likewise, Parker chastises Igor’s treatment of women, claiming his friend suffers from a “‘man is first’ mantra,” yet the author sometimes describe the females he encounters with a touch of male gaze (it should be noted, however, that Parker does devote large chunks of his book exposing some of the horrible injustices faced by many Russian women: unforgiving romantic expectations, physical and sexual abuse). It’s in moments like these that Where Bears Roam the Streets chronicles Parker’s psyche as much as that of the world around him, a general feeling echoed about halfway through the book when Parker writes, “I wondered at the Igor part of me. And the me-part of him…” As the two roll across the land, consuming vodka, sweating in banyas, and mulling life, there are certainly times when these “parts” blur.

Gary Shteyngart, in a blurb that appears on the back cover of Where Bears Roam the Streets, calls the book “A kind of Fear and Loathing on the Trans-Siberian Railroad,” and while such a catchy quote will certainly help move paper copies, it ultimately sells Parker’s ambition short. Yes, the total amount of alcohol consumed during the author’s escapades with Igor would leave lesser writers dead, and scenes of hosting celebrations full of fellow travelers while staying in Listvyanka contain a fair share of combustible energy, but to paint Jeff Parker’s latest as a Hunter S. Thompson imitation would be a massive disservice. At its core, Where Bears Roam the Streets aims to strike a balance between Thompson-esque madness and serious journalism. As Parker speaks to his subjects, both casually and in more formal interviews, he does so with the interest of a man who truly wants to learn, who truly hopes to grow from each experience, and as readers along for the ride, we are all richer for having experienced the world via his curious nature.

— Benjamin Woodard

 

Woodard

Benjamin Woodard lives in Connecticut. His recent fiction has appeared in Cheap PopdecomP magazinE, and Spartan. In addition to Numéro Cinq, his reviews and criticisms have been featured in, or are forthcoming from, The Kenyon ReviewPublishers WeeklyRain Taxi Review of Books, and other fine publications. He also helps run Atlas and Alice Literary Magazine. You can find him at benjaminjwoodard.com and on Twitter.

Jul 112015
 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

As with any collection of essays or reviews, there are aspects to argue against and agree with, which is a sure indicator that Winters sparks interest. —Jeff Bursey

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Infinite Fictions: Essays on Literature and Theory
David Winters
Zero Books
Paper, 210 pp., $22.95
ISBN: 9781782798033

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Introduction

Readers of new writing increasingly get a fair sense of what is out there, and how it’s viewed, by going to Internet journals or blogs run by reputable, trusted figures, and less and less from the review sections of newspapers that appear dedicated to safe choices. Occasionally an individual’s contributions to book reviewing warrant publication, as was the case last year, with Dzanc bringing out John Domini’s zesty collection that showcased familiar (Gilbert Sorrentino, John Barth) and less familiar authors (Lance Olsen, Dawn Raffel), drawn from over three decades of critical thought. It’s the work of a mature writer who is also a novelist.

David Winters is co-editor in chief of 3:AM Magazine, an Internet journal relied on for news about literary matters, and he is, according to his website, also “…a literary critic, currently based at Cambridge University, where I’m researching Gordon Lish’s influence on American fiction from 1960 to the present. Alongside modern and contemporary literature, I’m also interested in continental philosophy and metaphilosophy, the history of concepts, and the sociology of ideas and intellectuals.” A current book title containing the word infinite brings to mind not endless expanses but defined territories, either because the use of the word here has to be ironic or not serious, or because a contrarian approach rises up inside or is expected to be found in the pages. The three-part division of Winters’ book—“Introduction,” “On Literature,” and “On Theory”—indicates that theory, apart from its, well, apartness or maybe alien(n)ation (so to say) from literature, is an equally circumscribed and vast fiction. Hence, immense space can be conceived, but that thought often crumbles into thoughts of the continent lived on, the country inhabited, the city that hosts the seat of higher learning where metaphilosophy can be studied, or the neighbourhood lived in. In Infinite Fictions, tension exists from the outset.

I.

A banker once asked a group to help define his occupation. “What do you call a parasite that lives on parasites?” Metaparasite sprang to mind. David Markson, in Reader’s Block, wrote: “Horseflies that keep the horse from plowing, Chekhov called critics.” A review of any fellow reviewer’s collection could contain this old verse: “Big fleas have little fleas,/Upon their backs to bite ’em,/And little fleas have lesser fleas,/And so, ad infinitum.” Despite the personal nature of a large amount of literary criticism—at times the confessional tone topples over into the ridiculous—it’s useful to keep in mind that Infinite Fictions is the object in the world that’s under consideration, though imbued with some of its subject’s nature—critics don’t have, or else aren’t granted, the same elasticity with regards to creating personas as fiction writers—but while it may be impossible to divorce one’s own obsessions from the obsessions of the subject, it is also, to a degree, impractical. A literary work of any meaning—and “literary” means anything that uses words, from flyers to a high-flyer like Foucault—engages with its contemporaries, its predecessors, and future writings not yet dreamed of. Or, to speak with, against, alongside, and over fellow fleas.

Terry Eagleton’s The Event of Literature and D.N. Rodowick’s Elegy for Theory frame the section “On Theory.” This is neat bookending in the sounds, in the event closed off by a lament for the dead genre, and the seeming capitulation of theory to literature. From Eagleton’s work, as quoted, mediated, and commandeered by Winters—don’t hold that word against him, or rather, hold it against most reviewers who try, in Domini’s words, to “honor my elders,” since inhabitation of a text is at times irresistible in order to winkle something out of it and make it a fixture in the armature of personal thought—the report arrives that literary theory had its best days in the 1970s and 1980s, and its energies, approaches, and concepts, unsurprisingly, have been subsumed by cultures small and large and integrated into general discourse (such as the way your eye just passed over the word discourse without a mental blink). Eagleton “attempts to retrieve some of literature’s strangeness and singularity” by calling on theory; “…Eagleton makes a persuasive case for returning to what could be called ‘pure’ literary theory… To theorize in this sense is to reassert the centrality of close literary analysis, recovering literature as a determinate object of study, distinct from broader conceptions of ‘culture.’” Free of humility, Eagleton’s view retains its savior complex, that theory is again able and ready, even from its recumbent position, to help literature go wild.

Discussing Rodowick’s book, which “excavate[s] the fossil record of theory, rather than adding another two cents to the increasingly tired arguments ‘for’ or ‘against’ it,” Winters writes that “academic disciplines… [are] increasingly keen to deny theory’s lasting effects; thus, theory is rather ritualistically declared ‘dead,’ and we assume that we’re safely ‘after theory.’” He sees hope in Elegy for Theory: “…perhaps [theory’s] historical closure leaves it newly illuminated, in ways which weren’t possible when it was pressingly present.” (Oppressively omnipresent might be another way to put it.) In this review Winters seems more comfortable, and he is more persuaded, than in his review of Eagleton—whose work he ends by judging as somewhat “diffuse” (129)—hence his writing picks up a bit and the sentences flow better.

At certain times in this section bias overcomes the usually even-handed treatment of the book at hand. Winters’s review of Daniel Levin Becker’s Many Subtle Channels, an insider’s look at Oulipo by one of its two American members (inexplicably, Harry Mathews goes unmentioned), is slightly condescending to the efforts of this group—encapsulated in “even if, like me, you remain unconvinced by the Oulipo, an outsider looking in” (140)—that may be understandable on its own (not everyone likes restrictions and games). However, when explaining the content of Martin Woessner’s Heidegger in America—a “‘reception history’” on how the philosopher’s ideas permeated the thinking of U.S. academic institutions—Winters stays mum on Heidegger’s Nazism, though Woessner doesn’t, and the omission looks selective.

Generally, however, throughout this section of the book Winters appears knowledgeable about a variety of theoretical approaches, and writes with confidence. His appraisals of Franco Moretti and Cathy Caruth are good introductions to the ideas of both, and he has some interesting things to say about Robert Musil when examining Robert Musil and the NonModern by Mark Freed.

II.

Winters is not a writer one quotes for the loveliness of his phrasing. There are no witty expressions and few surprising word choices, or viewpoints that catch one off guard, though there is the occasional alliteration. His sentences lack a firm enough individualistic rhythm, and this may be due to frequent quotations from others, such as when he quotes Derek Attridge using one word, “singularity.” Like environmentalists spike trees with metal, Winters deploys quotations and critics as a defence and bulwark for his opinions. In “On Theory” that habit of thinking or writing choice fits in with the topics, but “On Literature” covers 21 fiction writers who possess styles that leave the quotations from Roland Barthes, Pierre Bourdieu, and others jutting out in ungainly ways.

“On Literature” opens with a review of Micheline Aharonian Marcom’s A Brief History of Yes and closes with a review of Andrzej Stasiuk’s Dukla. It is worth quoting lines from the first paragraphs of each to demonstrate that, as in “On Theory,” Winters has chosen carefully his frame works.

Writing about the work of Micheline Aharonian Marcom is likely to leave one searching for words. Each of her books has been newly, bravely bewildering, in ways that are almost beyond paraphrase. That is, these texts assert such stylistic strength that they seem to resist the language of criticism, or any language other than their own. How can prose so poetically self-reliant, so set apart from our ‘ordinary’ discourse, be faithfully described, let alone criticized, from outside? Confronted with this kind of writing, any critical review—any act of writing about—could run the risk of redundancy.

I won’t say anything about Andrzej Stasiuk, and I’ll try not to say much about myself. About Poland, I’ll say nothing. This text doesn’t need to be contextualized. Equally though, Dukla shouldn’t be subjected to a ‘close’ reading. Perhaps the words on the page aren’t worth as much as we think. What matters is the way that a work presents itself. The experience it evokes; the constellation of images it conveys.

This is not simply something linguistic. Literary language is not what makes literature literature…. Books aren’t what we as readers believe them to be. There’s something beneath the words that we read. With Dukla, one way of saying this is that language is ‘backlit.’ The book is lit up by something shining behind it.

It is unclear what that “shining” background comprises and difficult to condense poetic prose in fresh words. A looming deadline and a waiting editor, as well as the irrepressible urge to provide a partial (in more than one sense) description of what a book does to the mind, in the hope that not too much damage will be done in the rendering, often combine to push scruples out the window. Winters spends several pages on two books he is reluctant to trap, as Domini put its, in “a kind of shrink-wrap that risks suffocating the artwork under consideration.” As a professor of mine liked to say, we must eff the ineffable; it’s a compulsion.

In the review of Dawn Raffel’s In the Year of Long Division Winters offers a view of publishing as well as one of many encomiums to the Great White Wizard whose shadow stretches across this section of Infinite Fictions:

Between 1977 and 1995, the American publishing industry witnessed a burst of avant-garde activity whose cultural impact has yet to be adequately assessed. The years in question correspond to the legendary (and controversial) career of Gordon Lish as senior editor for fiction at Alfred A. Knopf. For nearly two decades Lish was uniquely placed to, as he put it, “indulge my fantasies at the expense of a large corporation.” … From Diane Williams to Gary Lutz, Rudy Wilson to Jason Schwartz, Lish championed writers who challenged fundamental conventions of style and form.

Raffel “is an author associated with what some have called the ‘School of Lish.’ Yet this crude category does a disservice to what are often… strikingly singular writers and works.” Crude it may be, but the generality is enforced by Winters’s frequent evocations of his acquaintance and references to Lish’s literary invention, consecution, which Winters makes clear, while reviewing Lish’s Peru, can be defined as “less a methodology than a metaphysic; a miraculating agent; an instance of spirit or pneuma submerged in the world.” From potential savior and midwife (a mix of Eagleton and Ezra Pound)—in the mini-history above the authors are subordinate to their discoverer—to the mind behind “a miraculating agent”—if readers are not persuaded by this near-hagiography of Lish, then that will affect their opinions on Winters’s collection.

As with most review collections, there are ones that are successful and ones that are not. The virtues of Ivan Vladislavić’s The Loss Library and Other Unfinished Stories excite Winters as he explores a text that “…is brought into being by the tension between being written and unwritten, where neither ever overwhelms the other. In this way the work doesn’t work out, isn’t resolved into a work, but rather results, inevitably, from a field of forces…,” and his admiration leaps off the page in an infectious way. “Fictive forms preserved in infinite space,” says Winters of Vladislavić’s novel; it’s a remark that also evokes his own book.

Kjersti Skomsvold’s The Faster I Walk, the Smaller I Am, a novel that deserves to be much better known, is a well-told sad story about the predicament of its lead character, Mathea. Her state, as well as the calm tenor of the prose, encourages Winters to enter more emotional terrain. Mathea “longs to lose herself in a benignly entropic universe, obeying her mind’s inward pull toward dissolution and death. But an opposite impulse calls her to cling to her life’s specificity, searching for any attributes that make her unique…” This neatly captures the yo-yoing Mathea feels, and is respectful of her movement from one thought to another.

Some reviews fail to convince. Winters declares: “Marcom is not preoccupied with plot; her writing reads more like an open inquiry into her chosen emotion… Hence narrative convention is overturned by something closer to the lived experience of loss: rather like in life, a relationship’s end retrospectively alters its memory.” This review first appeared in The Quarterly Conversation, a home for unconventional works reviewed by unconventional writers for  unconventional readers. (Regrettably, there is no clear indication exactly when and where reviews originally appeared nor is there an index.) After reading the preceding paragraphs Winters provides on the risks Marcom takes, it’s unclear what review reader would be so wedded to “narrative convention” or find Marcom so radical.

Christine Schutt, author of Prosperous Friends, and another Lish protégé, is the subject of a review that founders on a misunderstanding. Isabel tells Ned she’s “‘depressed’” and that she likes “‘melancholy,’” and it becomes clear that she treats these two terms as if they are the same. Instead of interrogating this word choice (it could be appropriate for the character) or outlining the differences, Winters leaves untouched psychology and neurological advances on the make-up of depression, turning to a literary theorist for instruction: “In this, [Isabel’s] condition recalls Julia Kristeva’s description of ‘melancholia.’” Summarizing more of Kristeva on this matter, Winters says that in her view “there’s clearly an ambiguity at the core of depression. In their inarticulate plight, perhaps depressives are like failed artists, blocked writers. But by accessing an inner world of poetic expression, each is also an artist in the making… One way of recovering,” Winters continues, “from melancholia is to craft an ‘independent symbolic object’—a work of art.” He has adopted Schutt’s interchangeable use of depression and melancholy. It’s a flawed review that never recovers.

As with any collection of essays or reviews, there are aspects to argue against and agree with, which is a sure indicator that Winters sparks interest.

III.

“Introduction” speaks about the reasons behind this book’s existence, and Winters’s experience as a reviewer. On the cusp of inviting the world to dive into a collection of his writing, he is less sure of himself than is illustrated in the attitudes and knowledge found in the pages ahead. Speaking on how reviewing can contain aspects of oneself, he make the good point (though few will agree with it) that “literary subjectivity isn’t always aligned with autobiography. Right now, I’m writing this in the first person, but I perceive that person as a perfect stranger.” It’s doubtful that “perfect” is any more accurate than “stranger,” unless Winters’s personality changes so uncontrollably it’s beyond his grasp. He elaborates: “Put simply, I’ve never known who I am. Nor do I feel securely in sync with the world. I intersect with it at an abnormal angle—my link with life is dislocated. Of course, this condition isn’t uncommon. I mention it only to emphasize that an initial alienation led me to literature.” If something isn’t uncommon then it’s not abnormal; it can be odd, eccentric, idiosyncratic, and even normal. Not to speak harshly or dismissively, but he must have his pose, as do other reviewers (though see above regarding the restrictions). “I wouldn’t say I give much away in my writing, but some of it still speaks obliquely of secret experiences: depression, religion, unrequited love.” He’s left most of his life outside the reviews, then—or to quote him, “About Poland, I’ll say nothing.” Yet if he’s a perfect stranger who doesn’t know himself, how does he know this, and what trust can be placed in his ideas? In one review he states that “personae in books are merely arrangements of surfaces, much like us.” Why, then has he assembled this book written by other David Winters, and what value does it have? He can’t be speaking from any position of grounded authority, although the reviews themselves carry a greater assurance.

The key to this work may rest in this line from the introduction: “I’ve tried to rationalize my critical practice, but finally it’s about something basic and frail: art as solace.” (Theory has a special place in his world: it is a “totem or talisman; a charm that we clasp to our hearts.”) Solace is a comfort one offers to others, in a positive way, as if to say, “Since art (or religion, or sex, or Pop-Tarts) has been a balm, for me, then maybe it can be the same for you.” This may be the impulse behind the collection. However, considering the role Lish played in getting people published—that is, in making commodities of artists’ utterances—and in furthering the careers of other writers who have gone on to earn money through publishing and/or teaching, it’s unusual that Winters regards books solely as artistic creations. He’s aware that part of a reviewer’s task is to bring notice of novels, poems, essays and such to readers so they’ll purchase them, and many are delighted when their words are placed on a book jacket. (His expression recalls a totally contrary belief voiced by Gilbert Sorrentino in The Moon in Its Flight: “Art cannot rescue anybody from anything.”) Hence (a word Winters frequently uses), the question of whether he has a blind spot here is an open one.

In the introduction’s closing paragraph, Winters talks about the “triviality” of reviews, and about “the vanity of assembling this kind of collection…. Really, they’re only records of my desperate autodidacticism.” In contrast, the last line quotes Bourdieu (a touchstone in this book) referring to “‘a collection of unstrung pearls…’” Wealth and trivia; there’s one more tension. The reviews themselves have little of this nervous throat-clearing, and show, more fully, that David Winters wants to be included in conversations around ideas, letters, and figures that are heard throughout the republic of letters. There’s no need for modesty, real or false, and no need to apologize. “In a way, to write a review is to hide behind what another, better writer has written.” Or to jump on the back of others—like a flea—and draw sustenance and courage from them.

—Jeff Bursey

NC

Jeff Bursey

Jeff Bursey is a Canadian literary critic, and author of the forthcoming picaresque novel Mirrors on which dust has fallen (Verbivoracious Press), and the political satire Verbatim: A Novel (2010), both of which take place in the same fictional Canadian province. His academic criticism has appeared most recently in Henry Miller: New Perspectives (Bloomsbury, 2015), a collection of essays on Miller and his works by various writers. Bursey is a Contributing Editor at The Winnipeg Review and an Associate Editor at Lee Thompson’s Galleon. His reviews have appeared in, among others, American Book Review, Books in Canada, The Quarterly Conversation, Music & Literature, Rain Taxi, The Winnipeg Review and Review of Contemporary Fiction. He makes his home on Prince Edward Island in Canada’s Far East.

Jul 072015
 

Robert MusilRobert Musil

Robert Musil translated by Genese Grill

Thought Flights: Stories, Glosses, Literary Fragments of Robert Musil
Translated and with an introduction by Genese Grill
Contra Mundum Press, 348pp.
ISBN 9781940625102

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T

here are writers who draw readers into their magnetic fields so that everything they write is of interest—because the author’s dreams, thoughts, questions, do not simply mirror the reader’s but take him or her through the looking glass into a secret world. Literature in this sense is not an entertainment, but an initiation. The writer may be dead, but the words still hold life and in the case of Robert Musil, whom I know only in translation, it is the electric current of thought that seems to pass from his pages to me—teasing, taunting at times; asking me to accompany him into a zone of danger. There are other great novelists at the end of whose books or stories I have found myself changed, Kafka, Proust, Joyce, Virginia Woolf, come to mind, but I confess that none have exercised the continual hold on me that Musil does. And yet, Musil remains for all his frankness, elusive, perhaps because he often found his own existence and mind so.

If I begin with my own experience of Musil’s hypnotism, it is to explain why Thought Flights, the most recent publication of Musil’s work is such a valuable addition to his published work. The handsome edition of Contra Mundum Press has a long, thoughtful introduction by Genese Grill. She speaks both to the complexity of translating Musil and to the psychology of his prose, particularly in the feullitons, short pieces which make up a significant number of the pieces in this collection. They may seem at first glance as Grill remarks, using a critical phrase of Musil’s like “soap bubbles,” or “shenanigans,” Spielerei, but in fact like his major opus, The Man without Qualities, they attempt to explore “the other condition.” She defines Spielerei in her introduction as, “timeless states hovering between decision and act, like Kafka’s.” I have to admit that as a storyteller it is the short narratives that fix themselves most in my imagination. Musil with a few short strokes gives, a portrait of young girl hovering between childhood and womanhood in the stare of a man fascinated by her; the tale of a young man who lures an older woman, married woman to a room in a country inn, where his game of eroticism turns dizzily from poetry to clichés, to a final madness. The method of the short essays where the unexpected jumps out at us like a jack in the box is operating in these fictions. One can witness Musil setting up the spring of his plots for the longer stories and his unfinished masterpiece, The Man Without Qualities. I have read several of these short narratives before (published in the magazine I edit, Fiction), but joined to others not available before in English they come into a further focus. Thought Flights by bringing together a number of these short pieces makes clear what is not so evident when one reads in isolation a story like “Susanna’s Letter” about a woman watching a man on a train watch her through his monocle—that Musil, the writer as scientist, is deliberately experimenting with what happens as you shift the lens of narrative. So in the brief pages where the author watches the fourteen year old, for a few moments on a streetcar, “Robert Musil to an Unknown Little Girl” and imagines her as a child then as a woman; or the man who sees a pony and begins to tells the story of boys who steal a wagon and pony and in doing so finds a way to glimpse something of what he defines as his soul. We follow what are both narratives and investigations. What Musil is trying to do in these brief stories, reflections, essays, is to question the nature of reality. Like the other important writers of the Twentieth Century who absorbed the idea of Relativity, fiction and the essay are tools to try to understand, or see into a universe that is apprehended as forever shifting. The bantering laughing voice of the “shenanigan,” masks the serious intent of the attempt.

Genese GrillTranslator Genese Grill

There is of course another way to view Musil’s insights—and writers who have pledged their vision to right the wrongs of this world will relish the political edge of Thought Flights or the sharp eye for Viennese social manners and smugly ignore Robert Musil’s curiosity about “the other” world. Genese Grill’s critical volume on Musil, The World as Metaphor, challenged the conventional portrait of Musil as merely a social realist and detailed the mystical and philosophical influences on his fiction. Thought Flights exemplifies an intuition she articulated in The World as Metaphor, “Musil, although he did not completely reject the existence of a shared, measurable and to some extent repeatable a priori reality, was fascinated by the idea of a magical relation through human action, thought, artistic creation, and the real physical world, a relation wherein what a person does, says, and even thinks, affects and even co-creates a shifting reality.” Whether it is language as in “Talking Steel,” fashion in “There Where You Are Not,” or the taboos of murder and cannibalism, we can observe Robert Musil in this collection searching for clues to his own elusive persona.

The translation has many happy moments when Musil’s laughter is revealed. Among my favorites, is the characterization of an out of work theater director, met accidently in the street, “Human sorrow can collect in the worn-out knees of a pair of pants. His face looked like a cornfield cut with a sickle.” And I would be remiss in remarking on Thought Flights, if I did not mention the careful notes that illuminate the many specific references to individuals and events in the articles and glosses. These provoke one to return to its riddling moments and read them again as I did in “Page from a Diary” where Musil writes to define what flashes between himself and a woman, M, as they recall fragments of childhood and emotions tied to moments that can no longer be experienced since the context for them has vanished. Learning from the notes that M is Martha, Musil’s wife, I realized that he is giving us access to their intimacy, a sense of what passed between them through the medium of stories. To do so is to catch the writer as his thought turns magical in his mind.

—Mark Jay Mirsky

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Mark Mirsky

Mark Jay Mirsky was born in Boston in 1939. He attended the Boston Public Latin School, Harvard College and earned an M.A. in Creative Writing at Stanford University. He has published fourteen books, six of them novels. The first, Thou Worm Jacob was a Best Seller in Boston; his third, Blue Hill Avenue, was listed by The Boston Globe thirty-seven years after its publication in 2009, as one of the 100 essential books about New England. Among his academic books are My Search for the Messiah, The Absent Shakespeare, Dante, Eros and Kabbalah, and The Drama in Shakespeare’s Sonnets, A Satire on Decay. He edited the English language edition of the Diaries of Robert Musil, and co-edited Rabbinic Fantasies, and The Jews of Pinsk, Volumes 1 & 2, as well as various shorter pamphlets, among them one of the poet, Robert Creeley. His play Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard was performed at the NYC Fringe Festival in 2007. His latest novel, Puddingstone, can be found on Amazon Books, both in digital and print-on-demand editions.

He founded the journal Fiction, in 1972 with Donald Barthelme, Max and Marianne Frisch, Jane Delynn and has served since then as its editor-in-chief. Fiction was the first American journal to publish excerpts in English from the Diaries of Robert Musil. Subsequently it has published translations of plays and other materials of Musil.

Mark Jay Mirsky is a Professor of English at The City College of New York.

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Jul 062015
 

R W Gray

Gray is deconstructing the weight-bearing walls of the Western canon, subverting its appeal, questioning its meaning. Homer and Joyce and Christ himself are fair game, because in many ways, we remain trapped by these myths. Using an uncanny narrative, Gray reminds us that great stories can never be fully told or defined. We have wandered into the wonderful, swirling stew of entropy, where Gray challenges the very expectation of what a short story can do. —Richard Farrell

Entropic FC

Entropic
R.W. Gray
NeWest Press
200 pages, $18.95

 

The principle of entropy quantifies disorder in a system. The study of entropy is an attempt to comprehend the incomprehensible, to express the ineffable, to measure the un-measurable. Entropy isn’t chaos per se, but rather is an interrogation of the forces where chaos reigns, where ordered intentions and organized actions hold less sway. Much like dreams or poetry or love, entropy dwells in numinous spaces, pressing beyond the workaday din, spreading into territories where mystery and possibility still exist. Outside the well-ordered, rational world we often mistake as reality, another more resplendent, magnificent world exits. What a wonderful place for a talented writer to cast his net.

“The bodies of fishermen all wash up on this beach eventually,” R.W. Gray writes, an apt image for the ten stories in Entropic. Inside, Gray explores characters, ideas, and emotions all washed up on various strange shores. A massage therapist’s magical touch causes her clients to burst into tears. A son searches for his missing father on the grainy images of a VHS porn tape. A woman edits her flaws by erasing them from videos. Two former lovers stalk and then seduce a younger version of themselves. Gray’s characters occupy liminal spaces, teetering on the brink of transformation, or salvation, or damnation.

This is Gray’s second story collection, just out with Edmonton’s NeWest Press. Gray—a Canadian author, filmmaker, professor, and poet—leans on these varied disciplines to craft his work. The resulting stories are cinematic, lyrical, tightly structured affairs, carefully infused with intelligence, imagination, and meaning. Gray often repurposes myths, or re-imagines canonical texts with archetypal characters to tell his tales. And yet his characters are thoroughly original. They are recognizable men and women trapped in modern dilemmas, filled with desires and longings. Under Gray’s steady hand, we penetrate the unsteady scrim of ordinary reality and emerge far better for the journey.

In “The Beautiful Drowned,” two ostracized women, Lilly and Cora, wander the remote shores of a British Columbia fishing village. Lilly is searching for her inveterate, philandering, drunkard excuse of a husband. She dodges the stares and bitter gossip of the cannery women, the very same women who once burned Cora’s home and drove her to the grisly beach. The mixed-race progeny of a Japanese father and Tlingit mother, “Cora, they say, like all monstrous woman, had been a threatening beauty once.” Now she is a ghoulish shadow of her former self. Nightly she gathers the jetsam and flotsam on the shore, along with the dead bodies of local fisherman thrown back from the ruthless sea.

After a week of searching, Lilly finally stumbles upon her husband with a local girl, in flagrante delicto. Lilly reaches for a rock while the lovers reach for their britches.

And there he is, his white naked ass a grotesque mushroom in among the tree roots, rising and thrusting, a woman’s legs spread awkward shaking branches either side of him. Scramble of legs, her bare feet on gravel as she pushes out from under him and stumbles, falls to grab clothes, covering herself before the second rock hits the gravel next to them, Lilly reaching down for a larger one. She’d so expected she was going to be a widow, but instead she’s just a stupid girl with this skinny white assed, stray dog, poor lay of a man wailing, blurry drunk with his little erection, angry red rhubarb nub in spring.

Gray tempers the shock of the moment with a pastoral beauty. His flirtatious and fecund metaphors—coupling a naked ass with a mushroom, an erection with a spring rhubarb—simultaneously conjure high drama, humor, and ecstasy. By the story’s end, Cora and Lilly have ascended into mythical status, latter-day versions of Demeter and Persephone.

The story works by pitting these two women in parallel but reversed narratives. A wonderful inevitability guides to their twinned fates, laden with powerful sexual overtones and themes of exclusion. Through shifts in point of view, Lilly’s story moves forward in chronological time, while Cora’s story is told mostly in flashback. The effect is a dazzling meander, with the two plot lines winding their way toward a dramatic intersection.

In “Sinai,” a much longer story at forty pages, three travelers break down on the road into Cairo. The protagonist, Eric, clambers up a nearby hill to take a piss and then spots “a red cloth billowing in the wind.” Inexplicably, he sets out across the open desert. Cut off from the road and his companions, he loses his way back. The red cloth turns out to be a mysterious woman, who lures him further from the road.

The flag is not a flag at all. He stops in his tracks, face white, as the woman turns, wraps the billowing venous red cloth around her shoulder once and then again, drawing in the slack, then ascends the ridge and falls away from him. She must have stood there, still as a caryatid in the desert, for half an hour. She must have seen him. So why did she quit him now? And what could she be doing out here in the desert?

Who is this mysterious woman? What is her allure? Why does he keep going? Gray sprinkles in a few clues. Eric has been reading The Odyssey. The story’s epigraph comes from Joyce’s “The Dead.” And so we think we are onto the gist of the plot: Eric recast as the latter-day Ulysses.

But then this strange story descends (or ascends) into the surreal when a first-person narrator interrupts the on-going scene. The narrator, we soon learn, is no less than Lazarus himself, brought back from the dead but condemned to an eternal, sand-blasted decay, a hardening of body and soul but not consciousness. “A delirium of days passes over my face like flies.”

The two points of view continue to alternate, but eventually the Lazarus story takes over, as Eric wanders further into oblivion. The mysterious and elusive woman appears to be Mary Magdalene. “She is ellipses too, like me, an open-ended story, bleeding.”

For Lazarus, resurrection represents a cruel and unending fate, a story with a hell of a beginning but no ending. “It seems I can’t die. There isn’t even that to wait for.” But this story turns out to be about ancient grudges, when Gray creates one of the most compelling love triangles ever. Lazarus and Mary both harbored romantic feelings for the unnamed savior (the Christ figure is only referred to as ‘he’ and ‘him’ throughout). And two millennia do little to heal broken hearts.

The man we loved, his hands were soft, tiny. You wouldn’t know he worked with them. I remember his hands in his lap as he sat across from me in my mother’s yard. He was not disgusted, not sickened by my rotted flesh, the disease about me, and this somehow made my condition worse. I could have borne him not looking at me, eyes averted, but he looked right at me, right into my eyes, so I averted mine.

Gray is deconstructing the weight-bearing walls of the Western canon, subverting its appeal, questioning its meaning. Homer and Joyce and Christ himself are fair game, because in many ways, we remain trapped by these myths. Using an uncanny narrative, Gray reminds us that great stories can never be fully told or defined. We have wandered into the wonderful, swirling stew of entropy, where Gray challenges the very expectation of what a short story can do. He reexamines form, whether taking the conventional love story and twisting it into a macabre meditation on Christ, or turning the Odyssey into a journey with no end. You will walk away shaken, unsteady, but absolutely enthralled.

In the title story, “Entropic,” a man, M, is cursed with great beauty. “Strangers passing on sidewalks gaze up the length of him, in cafés and grocery stores they caress his back, his forearms, press into him on buses, the sighs of women inhaling against him on the subway and in elevators.”

M enlists the help of his more ordinary friend, the story’s narrator, to challenge notions of what beauty means. M has conceived a plan. He will rent a warehouse. The narrator will drug M unconscious. Guests have been invited. They will have forty minutes exactly to come and do as they wish while he sleeps. The narrator’s job is to wait outside the room and ensure that the guests are never alone. When their time is up, the narrator will wash M’s skin, check his pulse, and prepare for the next visitor.

There are echoes of Marina Ambrović here, and Matthew Akers’ award-winning documentary, The Artist is Present. In the film, Ambrović waits at an empty table in New York’s Museum of Modern Art, while patrons arrive and sit across from her. Subject and object begin to merge, opening a strangely intimate, disturbing, mesmerizing space. A similar transference occurs in Gray’s story as well, as one guest after another arrives to gain a tangible experience of beauty.

They are allowed to touch him. To even hit him if they need to. But nothing that will damage or alter his body. I police this. A baseball bat leans in the corner in case I need it. But he’s asked me to hang back, appear invisible if I can. He wants each of these people to feel alone with him.

Gray has mined deeply into the human psyche. Our fascination with beauty. Our covetous nature. Our objectification of the flesh. Behind this story stands a rhetorical inquiry—what would you do? Some cry, some masturbate, some sit frozen in awe. The implication is that the gap between our dreams and our reality remains forever unbridgeable, the finger of God eternally reaching toward the finger of man. Such longing, such indescribable curiosity, has plagued man forever.

In Gray’s stories beauty, hope, and possibility are set in opposition to a backdrop of modern life, hidebound by conventional thinking. Gray refuses the shackles of the ordinary. He privileges imagination over verisimilitude, wonderment over banality, entropy over order. He destabilizes the form just enough to leave us pondering, yearning, and forever searching for the lingering pulse that reminds—there must be something more out there. And through it all, Gray still tells a damn good tale.

—Richard Farell

NC

Farrell2

Richard Farrell is the Creative Non-Fiction Editor at upstreet and an Associate Editor at Numéro Cinq (in fact, he is one of the original group of students who helped found the site). A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, he has worked as a high school teacher, a defense contractor, and as a Navy pilot. He is a graduate from the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work, including fiction, memoir, essays, interviews and book reviews, has appeared in Hunger Mountain, New Plains Review, upstreet, Descant, Contrary, Connotation Press and Numéro Cinq. He teaches at Words Alive and the River Pretty Writers Retreat in the Ozarks. He lives in San Diego.

Jun 142015
 

Colin-Winnette-photo-cred-Jennifer-Yinn

Haints Stay is a snaky western with characters cut and formed by the elements, with wandering plots that get chopped off by murder or misunderstanding, only to rise anew out of strange circumstances or twisted events. A brutal book of lost souls trying to survive cannibals and stampedes and marauders, it reminds us no one gets out alive, and that there is always something more evil out there. —Jason DeYoung

WINNETTE-Haints Stay-cov

Haints Stay
Colin Winnette
Two Dollar Radio
211 pages; $16.00

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“There was no logic to life and no road that could take you straight to elsewhere. Living was all winding around and doubling back.” Such are the lives of the characters in Haints Stay, thus is its philosophy.

Written in unhurried, cool prose without traditional chapter breaks—just double space returns—Haints Stay is a snaky western with characters cut and formed by the elements, with wandering plots that get chopped off by murder or misunderstanding, only to rise anew out of strange circumstances or twisted events. A brutal book of lost souls trying to survive cannibals and stampedes and marauders, it reminds us no one gets out alive, and that there is always something more evil out there.

But Haints Stay isn’t a traditional western, nor is it Cormac McCarthy-lite. Colin Winnette is already the author of four well-received books of fiction, including Revelation (2011), Animal Collection (2012), Fondly (2013), and Coyote (2015), which won of the prestigious Les Figues’ Nos Book Contest. Instead of the anti-pastoral of the afore mentioned McCarthy, Winnette has fed his vision of this earthy genre through his own sensibilities, one influenced by Oulipo, to arrive at something playful and visceral and acidic.

Haints Stay opens with two hapless killers, Brooke and Sugar, brothers, returning to an unnamed town, where they discover their employer’s bar has been burned to the ground. Looking for baths and beds, they are brought before a tiny man behind a desk. This tiny man doesn’t care very much for them, and at first tries to kill them, but Brooke takes the killer down with an ashtray, after which the tiny man offers them begrudging hospitality. It’s all stage setting for a novel in which—as we are blithely told by a dispassionate narrator—“things change… They changed often. There was not use fighting it.” These words in a way telegraph the novel’s narrative, prepping us for the shifting fortunes and wild plot maneuvers ahead. Indeed, Haints Stay with its circular narrative and relentless doubling lies somewhere between David Lynch and Alejandro Jodorowsky.[1]

The brothers are run out of town, and when they wake the next morning a naked male child is lying between them. The child has amnesia, and doesn’t know how he got to the killers’ camp, or from where he came. He does speak English, but that’s his only asset. The brothers take it upon themselves to try to return the child to his parents or guardians. But before they can get very far on that quest, faceless marauders rob them in the night of their food, gear, and blankets, and “avenging the blankets” supplants retuning the child, whom they call Bird.

Once the blankets have been avenged, and the marauders’ teeth cut out of their mouths and buried—‘So [that they are] buried with their ghosts’—the brothers take the child to a graveyard, where Sugar and a thin man in a suit, sitting upon a rock, have a strange conversation regarding Bird’s future. As the conversation progresses, however, we realize that the words are coded and that Sugar and the thin man are discussing something quite different:

“You should keep the baby this time,” said the man. “The woods are crying out with all you’ve left them.”

He looked up and around, as if at nothing in particular.

“There is no baby,” said Sugar. “Enough about the baby.”

“Nothing’s gone away. You know that as well as I do.”

The thin man wants Brooke and Sugar to keep Bird as their own child, and he also wants Sugar to keep a forthcoming baby. All along we have been given hints that Sugar is not a man, and we’re left to ponder his gender for much of the novel. Later it will be revealed that Sugar is biologically female, but lives as a man, and he is pregnant, perhaps by his own brother.

Sugar is angered by the thin man’s insistence that he keep both children. Enraged, Sugar stabs Bird, and upon stabbing the child a stampede of horses thunder through their camp, taking with them the wounded Bird.

It’s at this point the novel shatters. There’s a sense that it does so because Sugar has disobeyed the thin man, who is…. what?…. a small god, a spirit, a shaman? We’re never told, and we are never told whether the stampede was the thin man’s doing. After Bird is carried off into the dark by the horses, Brooke and Sugar try to search for him, but end up in a dry town, only to get arrested and separated. Brooke is convinced his brother is dead; Sugar is convinced likewise; and the three main characters never see each other again for the rest of the novel.

At its core Haints Stay is very much a novel built on ignorance and of the unknown. Characters knowingly enter fake marriages, shift identities, hold secrets, and practice mysterious customs, which impart a sense that there is more in this world than we could ever fathom. When Brooke and Sugar avenge their blankets the last living marauder spits out that “There will only be more men like us….You will only kill and kill until you are overcome.” We’ll hear these words repeated later in the novel, reminding us that there is something greater out in the abyss that we won’t see until it’s too late: “Between each of the towns was pure wilderness, and what came bearing down upon civilization was beyond imagination.”

In this envenomed wilderness, Bird will come face-to-face with a man who has gone to beast, and eats much of the skin off one of Bird’s arms. Bird’s savior, a man named John, will be gunned down. Why? Don’t know. But the “remarkably nondescript” men who come to do it claim vaguely that they are there to “collect.” Often characters don’t even begin to understand their own plights just the tireless maliciousness of survival, where their faces are rubs in the fact that “we are always in the wilderness. Beneath everything is the wilderness and there is no end to it.”

Bird is something of an anomaly among the characters, not even Mary, the other child in the novel, comes close to his naiveté. A kid, around twelve or thirteen years old, Bird is in some ways fresh from the unknown, but has no recollection of it. What we see over the course of the novel is how he grows as a person. At first trusting Brooke and Sugar (especially Brooke), and then after Sugar stabs him, the stampede, and the cannibal’s torture he looses his memory again or it’s all mixed up (or he could be lying). He tells John it was two brothers who killed his family and he vows to avenge them. In many ways, Bird’s path through the novel, his progression and accumulation of knowledge and ethics (or lack thereof) is the most interesting because it is his dumb soul that is rung out through the cosmic stew of violence and consequences, and still he comes out full of bloodlust. For all its humor (yes, there’s humor here) Haints Stay is a bleak tale.

Even with its sinuous plots, Haints Stay is a damn good read and it does a lot well. The use of backstory here is particularly interesting. Brooke recites to himself his and Sugar’s life history to keep sane while he is in the wilderness. Because it’s so integral to Brooke’s survival, this history become a kind of hybrid form of forward moving action. Winnette also is careful not to divulge much about his world, which heightens the suspense and mystery. It takes confidence and rigor to deploy this level of subtle surrealism and leave so many questions unanswered and still deliver a satisfying novel. But the element here that is so well done and surprising is Winnette use of dialogue, and he offers a showcase of dialogue forms to admire:

Parrying:

“How old are we, Brooke?”

“Why would I know that?”

“You seem to know so much about our life and how we should live it. I thought you could tell me a thing or two about how old I am, why your body’s like that and my body’s like this. I thought you could answer one honest question.”

“We’ll get two new horse. They will be stronger and livelier than the old ones.”

“Henry and Buck.”

“Then Henry or Buck, yes, and they’ll serve us well and we’ll love them as we loved Henry and Buck, and then they’ll die and we’ll get more horses. And on and on, Sugar. Now sleep.”

Philosophical:

“Have you ever caught anything before?” said Brooke….

“I don’t know,” said [Bird].

“Let’s say you haven’t,” said Brooke. “You’re going to feel a certain kind of pride, a sense of accomplishment. But you’re also going to feel uneasy with that, as if there’s something wrong with it. There isn’t. It’s as natural as breathing. That guild tis all fear, anyway. Fear that one day you’re going to be on the receiving end of a blow, and the sudden wish that no one had to do that kind of thing ever. You can rid yourself of all that if you just accept what’s coming to you in a general sense, and work to prevent it in the immediate sense. No matter what you let live you’re going to die and it’s just as likely it will be a rock falling on your head or getting a bad cough as if is that someone will decide they want you gone. So accept it now and move on.”

“Okay,’ said the boy

Insistent:

“Did they take anything? What did they want?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“Why?”

“That’s not how this works.”

“Why?”

He was crying again.

“Because we are always in the wilderness. Beneath everything is the wilderness and there is no end to it.”

“What do you mean?”

“You know exactly what I mean, and that is why you’re scared.”

Witty:

“I’m Brooke,” said Brook, “and this is Sugar.”

“Twice the fee for two,” said [the hotel manager]

“Same as two rooms?” said Brooke

“Same,” she said.

“That doesn’t seem exactly fair,” said Brooke

“Maybe it isn’t,” she said

On whole, the prose doesn’t contain much internal monologue. Rarely do we get much in the way of what the characters are thinking until they speak. The stark absence of much thought leaves us again in the unknown, but the dialogue delivers us somewhat, and Winnette uses it to great effect to draw his characters, their thoughts and their desires. Additionally, the snappy heat of these exchanges adds a measured balance to all the killing and gore that haunts the pages.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

After the characters are scattered by the events of the stampede and capture, the novel uncoils with various plots. After John is gunned down, Martha, his wife, leaves Bird behind to seek revenge for her husband’s murder. Bird lives out a snowstorm with John and Martha’s daughter, Mary. Bird has the notion of becoming a hired gun because within that role he believes he’ll finally find safety. Mary argues that its a foolish ambition, and eventually leaves him after they reach civilization. Brooke wanders the wilderness looking for his brother, and eventually meets a very sick Martha, whom he nurses back to health. Sugar’s baby is brought to term, and delivered by a drunken and manic doctor, who along with the sheriff kidnaps the newborn. Sugar eventually breaks out of prison, and slaughters everyone in sight while looking for his daughter. The novel ends on a safe plateau for most of the surviving characters, but as the novel repeatedly informs us: innocence dies easily, evil lives on.

The story closes in the same saloon and with the same villain—the tiny man behind the desk—it opens with. He is hiring Bird to hunt Brooke and Sugar. The pessimistic vision of Haints Stay is captured in this moment with the Sam-Elliott-tinged statement: “Left to their own devices, people will live out every possible variation of a human life.” These words are spoken derogatorily about Sugar, but there’s something more interesting at play here. It is the unnamable that Winnette seems to be chasing in Haints Stay. It isn’t who we project to the outward world, but that lost soul underneath. Not one character can live out their “possible variation” because civilization (as it is known within these pages) won’t tolerate it and the wilderness is too cruel to allow it to flourish. In the end, Haints Stay tells us that it is only “safety” that its characters can aspire to, satisfaction is impossible.

—Jason DeYoung

NC
Jason DeYoung

Jason DeYoung lives in Atlanta, Georgia. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous publications, including Booth, REAL: Regarding Arts & Letters, Corium, The Austin Review (web), The Los Angeles Review, New Orleans Review, Monkeybicycle, Music & Literature (web), 3:AM, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Best American Mystery Stories 2012. He is a Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq Magazine.

 

 

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. In general, I don’t like comparing novels to movies, but in an interview with Two Dollar Radio, Winnette explains that while finishing Haints Stay he secluded himself in a “California Knockdown,” where he “just wrote and wrote and read and watched westerns.” So, if he doesn’t mind confessing that he was influenced by movies, I don’t mind saying his novel reminded me somewhat of El Topo.
Jun 132015
 

McKay
My main intention here, anyhow, is simply to say,
Go read the work. — Sydney Lea

McKayBook

Angular Unconformity: The Collected Poems 1970-2014
Don McKay
Goose Lane Editions
584 pages ($45.00)
ISBN 978-0864922403

 

Someone once said of art historian E.H. Gombrich that it seemed pretentious even to praise him. That phrase, whose origin has disappeared from memory, swam back into my ken as I considered the forty-plus years of work contained in Don McKay’s collected poems, Angular Unconformity. While I might not hyperbolize to quite that degree, I do confess to feeling daunted in the face of such unusual achievement as this poet’s, and am somewhat embarrassed that we, his neighbors to the south, seem to know so little of it.

Even if I could adequately consider the whole of this hefty volume, to do so would demand more time, frankly, than I have just now. Though retired, I am all but frantically busy raising funds—against an imminent deadline—to complete a conservation project in a part of Maine dear to my heart. This latest acquisition will be the final tile in a mosaic of protected land—some private, some state, some (in New Brunswick) crown—amounting to 1.4 million acres.

There are many so-called ecological reserves among these holdings. In our own latest case 7100 acres of fabulous wetland are set aside, including a rare domed bog of almost two thousand acres. This zone will be immune from human alteration whatever until the end of time, and will provide nesting and feeding grounds for any number of bird species.

Don McKay, I believe, would approve. Indeed, I first came upon his work over twenty years ago on a visit to Montreal, when I picked up a used copy of his Birding, or Desire (1983), whose principal speaker, like McKay, is an avid amateur ornithologist. (As I indicated in a blog post some time ago, I then unaccountably forgot McKay until lately reminded by another fine Canadian poet, John Lee.)

Not that birds are McKay’s only wild interest. For all its complexity—or perhaps because of it—I highly recommend his philosophical essay collection, Vis à Vis: Field Notes on Poetry & Wilderness (2001), which, far more than I’ll do in this short compass, may provide insights into McKay’s poetics and poetry. Indeed, prior to considering Angular Unconformity, I think it useful to make a brief divagation into Vis à Vis, because McKay increasingly sees himself as one of several fellow Canadian “ecopoets,” keenly attentive both to the natural world and to its crisis in our time.

It’s all very well for the hip, urbanized postmodernists to dismiss such concerns, no matter their own domains will likely be the first and worst to suffer, as appropriate only to bumpkins or sentimentalists. As McKay himself notes in “Baler Twine,” the penetrating initial essay of Vis à Vis, “admitting that you are a nature poet, nowadays, may make you seem something of a fool, as though you’d owned up to being a Sunday painter…. By this time ‘nature’ has been so lavishly oversold that the word immediately invokes several kinds of vacuous piety, ranging from Rin-Tin-Tinism to knee-jerk environmental concerns.”

McKay seeks another path. His acknowledgment of the postmodern stance, however, is crossed by resistance, for reasons that are “merely empirical: before, under, and through the wonderful terrible wrestling with words and music there is a state of mind which I’m calling ‘poetic attention.’ I’m calling it that, though even as I name it I can feel the falsity (and in some way the transgression) of nomination: it’s a sort of readiness, a species of longing which is without the desire to possess, and it does not really wish to be talked about.”

The author distinguishes between his poetic attention and romantic inspiration; in the case of the latter, McKay notes the aptness of the Aeolian harp to the romantic author’s poetry, such poetry yearning for perception to become language. This is less, he points out, a celebration of nature itself than of the creative imagination for its own sake. “Poetic attention,” on the other hand, “is based on a recognition and a valuing of the other’s wilderness; it leads to a work which is not a vestige of the other, but a translation of it.” The author who pays such attention is in search of an awareness released, however incompletely, from the “primordial grasp” involved, say, in building a home; he or she will pay tribute to the wilderness of the other.

No matter its density, Vis à Vis is a joy simply from a stylistic point of view. For example—and I could find scores—“whenever I see (a raven), I feel absurdly gregarious, and often find myself croaking back, hoping it might decide to perch a spell. Yes, there’s a kind of reverence in this. I do imagine receiving wisdom from this creature, but not packaged as wisdom. It’ll come dressed as talk, palaver. And it will have content, unlike, say, the pure lyric of a white-throated sparrow.”

This prose work is not merely to be read; it is to be re-read and re-read. The same can be said, even more emphatically, of Angular Unconformity. I make no claim, as I’ve already conceded, to having considered each of the book’s hundreds of pages: I have, with a sort of willful non-muscularity, roved through it, and I savor the notion that it will always be close at hand, for even to rove here is to encounter abundant pleasure and challenge.

McKay’s “A Note on the Title” defines angular unconformity—savaged as a title term in a smug, self-indulgent, and stupendously wrong-headed rant against the whole book by gadfly Michael Lista (National Post, October ’14)—as “a border between two rock sequences, one lying at a distinct angle to the other, which represents a significant gap—often millions of years—in the geological record… It might also be described as a fissure through which deep time leaks into history and upsets its authority.” The realms that fascinate this poet, then, are so vast and so imponderable that, as in Vis à Vis, no mortal man or woman may dream of containing them, not even in the 554 pages that go into this grand collection.

I mean, therefore, to “review” Angular Unconformity in an entirely unorthodox, even a dilettantish way, but one which may, I hope, indicate certain abiding themes and motifs, not to mention the sustained high quality, of this poet’s oeuvre. Just as if, in fact, the book lay at my bedside, I’ll dip at literal random into portions of the collection, not even responding to every last one, or, in some cases, responding with mere generalities, and ultimately snapping shut in the interest of space.

My main intention here, anyhow, is simply to say, Go read the work.

I preface what follows with a poem from Strike/Slip (2006). In several ways, I believe, it synopsizes a good deal of what I’ve been discussing. The poem’s omni-referentiality, in fact, may account for the publisher’s decision to replicate it on the dust-jacket:

Astonished

Astounded, astonied, astunned, stopped short
and turned toward stone, the moment
filling with its slow
stratified time. Standing there, your face
cratered by its gawk,
you might be the symbol signifying eon.
What are you, empty or pregnant? Somewhere
sediments accumulate on seabeds, seabeds
rear up into mountains, ammonites
fossilize into gems. Are you thinking
or being thought? Cities
as sand dunes, epics
as e-mail. Astonished
you are famous and anonymous, the border
washed out by so soft a thing as weather. Someone
inside you steps from the forest and across the beach
toward the nameless all-dissolving ocean.

Such an utterance, like so many of McKay’s, illustrates (how impoverished a verb!) that radical distinction of poetic attention from Aeolian Harpism, to call it that, in which the natural and the imaginative are presumed to be deeply correspondent—so much so as ultimately to become one. McKay eschews any such notion as Emerson’s “transparent eyeball,” whose possessor dares to say “the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me.” In the moment “translated” by the poem above, otherness is so radically other that it parries even such billowy, Emersonian definitions. True, every “border” is “washed out,” but this leads to no seamless interfusion, to nothing like what Coleridge describes, precisely, in “The Aeolian Harp”:

O the one Life within us and abroad,
Which meets all motion and becomes its soul,
A light in sound, a sound-like power in light,
Rhythm in all thought, and joyance every where…

As one often introduced as a nature poet myself, I equally often hear that I take my inspiration from the natural world. But if I am “inspired” (a term at best equivocal to me anyhow)—if I’m inspired at all, it’s because, like McKay, I contemplate nature as otherness, a dimension in which our fixities and definites are idle, and anthropomorphisms simply Disneyesque. As the poet asks here, “Are you empty or pregnant,” “thinking/or being thought”? And of course these rhetorical questions themselves subside at length into the unanswerable, into “the nameless all-dissolving ocean.”

The trouble is, and none is more aware of it than McKay, the moment we say a thing about that otherness we have at least partially removed ourselves from it. Our “translations,” however hard we try, are always partial and rough. To that extent, the lit-theorists have made much of a truth, usually rendered in inscrutable prose, quite evident to any “nature writer” within the first day of his or her career: as McKay knows full well, to mouth or write the word raven, say, is instantly to depart its mystery for a human construct, to enact what he—again in Vis à Vis—calls our “primordial grasp.”

From this self-evident datum, the theorists elaborate, however variously, perspectives that are ultimately nihilistic. Since the very gesture of articulation compromises some putative, absolute truth, then the world from protozoon to planet is one big carny gig, and absolute truth the silliest sort of pipe dream. The poet, however, or at least the poet who like McKay resists such inclinations, finds beauty and even, yes, meaning in the provisional truth to which he or she is reduced perforce. Wallace Stevens, in a poem aptly called “Of Modern Poetry,” described poetry’s actual subject as “the mind in the act of finding what will suffice.” That nothing will ever suffice entirely is merely a goad to keep trying for that unattainable sufficiency, to write more poems.

I’ve always found it strange that contemporary theory bothers with arguments at all, since those arguments must surely be susceptible of deconstruction themselves; and it’s nearly amusing that it costs so many (cloudy) words to demonstrate the inutility of words. To proceed from that sense of inutility, to go on from insufficiency: that is the mission of so-called creative writing, and not just of the naturalist variety.

Yet of course the natural world is McKay’s principal bailiwick. Notice how he responds, for example, in this excerpt from an early poem in Long Sault (1975” called “Off the Road:”

The kids float sticks
down the creek behind the campsite
while we sip our coffee by the fire.
The moon
hangs over the tent like a neutral traffic light that leaves us
uhh just about to say something that
we don’t–

Dusk is almost better than a word.

I recognize that scene: something as fabulous as the moon may move us to verbal response that, even when lyric or clever or both, seems banal, premised as it is, say, on some simile from our quotidian world, such as “like a neutral traffic light.” It might indeed be the better option, as here, not to “say something” at all, for “Dusk is almost better than a word.”

It is, however, that almost I batten onto, because if dusk—or any other natural phenomenon—were entirely better than a word, then we would have no poetry at all, and in Don McKay’s case, we’d lose something which I’d hate to be deprived of.

I’d be deprived, among other things, of his gift not only as lyric but also as narrative poet. Indeed, had I space, I’d quote sections in many of his volumes that contain marvelous, straightforward prose accounts, which are poetic only in the sense that by his very instincts this author must make them so.

“Along About Then,” again from Long Sault, begins like this:

Along about then this new Mountie, Macmillan,
MacDonald, something like that come down here
Sayin how he’s going to clean up all the stills,
And they was plenty in the township.
…………The others grinning steady, they’ve
…………heard it from uncles or grandfathers
…………in kitchens scrubbed like this one with a Scot’s
…………ferocity…

That is to say that, all through their lives, everyone on hand has heard this story unfold, with various modifications. The cultural studies crowd would call these versions, even the originative one, factitious (or some such), and to that extent, I suppose, lies. But McKay has been exposed to what remains of oral culture in North America. So have I: I know such kitchens or log landings, or campsites, or lumberjacks’ cabins, though in my case the vestiges of those cultures are to be found particularly in northern Maine. McKay is aware that these men (and women?) know the “truth” of a story to be all but irrelevant. What counts is, precisely, its facticity, the degree to which it is a made thing, but one that, almost like a natural organism, has evolved over time and has therefore become, in effect, community property.

It is not the Mountie but the game warden who uncovers the local trade in bootleg booze. The warden walks right up to a deer and touches it, whereupon the animal falls over. Dead drunk.

…old Lalonde and his boys been getting lazy and just
tossed their mash across the fence.
Probably polluted half the game in the township…

Listen to how the poet renders the audience response:

The chuckle’s more a rumble deep down. Everybody
has a sip of beer.
Now the story
will be mulled and tinkered with a rickety
contraption made of names
……………………………..names
……………………………..names like the roads
they cut and stomped and rode…

In recent decades, the very notion of narrative has been viewed with opprobrium by certain scholars, regarded as a vehicle for all the usual suspects (for elitism—no matter the importance of story to all tribal cultures—and racism and colonialism and sexism: ism after ism). Indeed, many a contemporary poet shares that disaffection, for similar reasons or others. And one can’t help thinking that to this poet himself the conversion of experience—especially wilderness experience—to tale-telling is a blasphemy against that revelatory realm that lies beyond words.

But even if they be guilty pleasures for McKay, I, who don’t entirely share such scruples, am happy he makes time to indulge them. His austerer vision is the one for which this poet may remain most remarkable, but praise be, like a health food nut who sneaks to the 7-11 for an occasional Moon Pie, he now and then resorts to this one. Indeed, even in the “new poems” section of Angular Unconformity, and in the latest full volume preceding it, Paroxides (2012), the author persists in including those prose narratives.

The plain fact is that, like an Edward Abbey’s, McKay’s oeuvre exists in an area of tension between his affection for narrative and his propensity toward what is now often called Deep Ecology. The work may stray into one realm now, into the other next, and back again. That’s its very nature.

The volume succeeding Long Sault, it seems to me, explores this tension in a unique way. It is a sustained narrative—which persistently questions the validity of narrative, at least as we understand such a format as westerners. Lependu (1978) is immensely complex, and it would be an insult simply to synopsize, not to mention an impossibility. The historical premise (even if the poem at large pokes holes in the notion of any history that’s authoritative) goes as follows.

In 1829, Cornelius Burley, an illiterate and impoverished citizen of London, Ontario, was convicted of murdering a city constable. He may have been prodded into confession by a Methodist preacher named James Jackson, who may in turn—or so at least McKay insists—have shaped the supposed confession to his own ends, especially a love of publicity. (Jackson read the confession to an assembled crowd and later made it into a handbill, which he sold for considerable profit.) The hanging took place in the courthouse square in the summer of 1830.

A grotesque aspect of the whole affair was that a Yale medical student got ahold of the victim’s skull; a budding phrenologist named Orson Fowler, he displayed it all over North America, showing its various bumps and cracks as indications of Burley’s murderous temperament. What remains of the cranium is now on display in a box at London’s Eldon House, along with other relics.

The poem’s speaker visits that house at the outset of Lependu (French for the hanged man, and the epithet by which McKay usually refers to his protagonist). He sees

Hallways lined with trophies, the skulls and antlers of
………………………………………………………exotic animals:
Hartebeest, Waterbuck, Sable Antelope…
………………………………………………………and (slight pause) Cornelius
Burley.

In “The Confession: notes toward a phrenology of absence,” McKay writes,

Burley, your silence is the wound in our
speech.
We have to climb inside,
into the box we built you, armed with ears
to scavenge and invent…

By way of such scavenging and invention, the poet transforms the pathetic Burley into the mythic Lependu, who comes to epitomize everything in the universe that will not fit into any of our boxes. Various characters throughout the poem, the poet included, will now and then be “inhabited,” however briefly, by his ineffable energy:

When Lependu flu hit Western U
there wasn’t an allusion free from the phlegm
that fell from the air,
Scoffed at profs.
Chalk him not meet blackboard
square but ugh– squawk– sending
shivers of où sont les neiges d’antan
down each individual backbone.

Among other things, Lependu recalls not only a pre-colonial continent (suggested by the pidgin “Chalk him not meet blackboard”) but also a pre-human one. In “Shadow City Shadow City,” the hanged man

lays the absence of his body on the city like a long
black negligee, wakens the buildings
softly, so the bricks remember
being earth.
So in our bones a new
Precambrian weight begins.

The feeling of that weight—which is really a temporary absence of weight—marks, I believe, the typifying moment of McKay’s “poetic attention,” referred to earlier on. Under the influence of Lependu, anyone can experience such moments—and won’t be the same thereafter. There is a prose sector here, for example, called “The Report of an Old Man Whose Life Was Changed After Briefly Becoming Lependu Back in 1946.” The unlikeliness of the title character betokens the omni-availability of these revelations, provided we get out of those boxes of ours; the old man has been on a days-long bender, puking his guts out until “I threw up everything that tied me down… I hung above myself, the zinging moving through like a breeze without a message, asking and making nothing of itself, a time not long but round, still round in my mind when I think back.”

“No message” in the “zinging”—only, as we recall from Vis à Vis, areadiness, a species of longing which is without the desire to possess.” The prospect of such readiness arises over and over in Lependu. It’s the untying that matters. At poem’s end, the author notes that when the hanged man invades our consciousness,

the only writing is the writing of the glaciers on the rocks
the only thinking is the river slowly
knowing its valley

until the city, seen
in a stutter of light between the branches
nests in the river’s crotch
our own tongues
speaking in a slightly different language and our heads
antlered with images

Now here I am, all these pages later, and I have not even made it halfway through McKay’s collected poems. So I will now accelerate, again with the advisory that anyone interested in contemporary poetry of international importance give this book more time than I can allow myself.

So as I warned, I leap ahead—first, to the volume that caught my attention more than two decades ago, Birding, or Desire (1983). I have spoken of the tension in this poet’s sensibility between an affection for story and an attraction to the natural world’s inarticulable vastness. In Birding…, I think, that tension is especially conspicuous. On one hand, the author is a birder in the Audubon Society sense, field guide in hand, seeking identification, a mark of the desire his alternate title names. (There is erotic desire in this collection too, but I’m scanting that, as so much else, for economy’s sake). Yet he simultaneously longs for the natural domain’s pure otherness. In “A Morning Song,” for example, as he drives to his professorial job, he thinks how

Soon I will be erasing Latin declensions left by the night class
while the dog, sleeping in the kitchen
nurtures my huge laziness in dreams
which are deep and cold
and speckled with uninhabited islands.

The poet has his own Latinisms (in a later collection, for instance, he’ll entitle a poem not “Starling” but “Sturnus Vulgaris”) but his further dreams, like his animal companion’s, are wild and uncatalogued. His “laziness” lies in his sporadic refusals to count and to list. As he says in another entry, “Audubonless/ dream birds thrive…/undocumented citizens of teeming/ terra incognita.”

The urge to document and the longing for pure abandonment to the unspeakable will persist, I suspect, so long as Don McKay writes—a long, long time, I pray—even, or especially given the world’s eco-crisis, in which we

…watch the nesting instinct of the Bald eagle weaken
shells grow thin
its brilliant mind go dim with pesticides.
Let’s tell cuckoo eagle jokes, e.g.
“Why did the cuckoo eagle forget where she laid her eggs?”

Let’s train the kamikaze starlings.

Let’s plan the street map of Necropolis
let’s have statues of everybody.

Let’s learn our own
dead weight.

We may well not recover from such crisis, as McKay suggests all through the poems from 45 years ago to now, and certainly won’t until we gain awareness of that Audubonless world, the world personified by Lependu, or by, for instance, the peregrine falcon in “Identification.” On seeing the bird,

I write it down because of too much sky
because I might have gone on digging the potatoes
never looking up because
I mean to bang this loneliness so speech you
jesus falcon
fix me to my feet and lock me in this
slow sad pocket of awe because
my sinuses, those weary hoses,
have begun to stretch and grow, become
a catacomb my voice
would yodel into stratospheric octaves
……………………………….and because
such clarity is rare and inarticulate as you, o dangerous
endangered species.

The speaker “might have gone on digging the potatoes / never looking up” locked in his quotidianness, which includes the desire to possess. But as I remarked at the outset, the very desire to possess is implicit in the very act of writing things down: this makes for the frustration in the process—

I mean to bang this loneliness so speech you
jesus falcon
fix me to my feet and lock me in this
slow sad pocket of awe….

True clarity, truth itself, exists in a realm as “rare and inarticulate” as the soaring falcon’s. Given such a reality, a lesser mind would retreat into silence, or perhaps into what I’ve called the nihilism of many recent literary commentators. McKay knows that an utterance adequate to the monumental world of nature, or perhaps to any world, is beyond him. But he moves on from such awareness of insufficiency. He does so not altogether happily, though we as readers should be more than happy for his persistence.

— Sydney Lea

 

SydneyLea
Sydney Lea
 is Poet Laureate of Vermont. He founded New England Review in 1977 and edited it till 1989. His poetry collection Pursuit of a Wound (University of Illinois Press, 2000) was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Another collection, To the Bone: New and Selected Poems, was co-winner of the 1998 Poets’ Prize. In 1989, Lea also published the novel A Place in Mind with Scribner. His 1994 collection of naturalist essays, Hunting the Whole Way Home, was re-issued in paper by the Lyons Press in 2003. Lea has received fellowships from the Rockefeller, Fulbright and Guggenheim Foundations, and has taught at Dartmouth, Yale, Wesleyan, Vermont College of Fine Arts and Middlebury College, as well as at Franklin College in Switzerland and the National Hungarian University in Budapest. His stories, poems, essays and criticism have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New Republic, The New York Times, Sports Illustrated and many other periodicals, as well as in more than forty anthologies. His selection of literary essays, A Hundred Himalayas, was published by the University of Michigan Press in September, and Skyhorse Publications just released A North Country Life: Tales of Woodsmen, Waters and Wildlife. His eleventh poetry collection, I Was Thinking of Beauty, was published in 2013 by Four Way Books.

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Jun 102015
 

richardweiner

The narrator moves through these phantasmagorical settings, a diorama of his mind, with remarkable savoir faire, as if he knows he is in a dream, and instead of being afraid, he is curious; in fact, he states the same: “I was walking through a so-called living dream, a quite truthful reality, and thus, as they say, a zone of truth, where there is nothing with which to deceive oneself . . .” —Frank Richardson

game-for-real-web-1000

The Game for Real
Richard Weiner
Translated by Benjamin Paloff
Two Lines Press
Paperback, $14.95, 256 pages
ISBN: 978-1931883443

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Richard Weiner was one of Modernism’s great outsiders. Born in 1884 in the small Bohemian town of Písek in what is now the Czech Republic, Weiner began his adult life as a chemical engineer, only to abandon it for belles-lettres. In 1912 he moved to Paris and began writing poetry, but made his living writing articles for the Czech newspaper Lidové noviny. And he was Jewish. And he was gay. And then there was his fiction—abstract, surrealist explorations of guilt and shame and fear; metaphysical mysteries that undermined logic and reason, that simultaneously employed and rejected narrative techniques of verisimilitude to create psychological spaces at once disturbing and beautiful. Weiner’s last prose work, Hra doopravdy, now available in English for the first time in Benjamin Paloff’s translation The Game for Real, exemplifies his descent into the subconscious, his attempt to expose those regions of the human psyche most would prefer to keep hidden and locked away.

Completed in 1933, The Game for Real arrived at the apex of Modernism, into a world still reeling from the Great War—a war into which he was drafted. When he returned to Paris, in quick succession he published three volumes of short stories including Lítice (Furies), one of the first books in Czech about World War I. By the late twenties Weiner had become close friends with a splinter group of surrealists (including René Daumal, Roger Vailland, and Roger Gilbert-Lecomte) who called themselves Le Grand Jeu (The Big Game), and in 1929 he published Lazebník (The Barber), subtitled “A Poetics,” a collection of stories prefaced by a long lyrical essay. It had been a heady decade for fiction with the publication of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and Orlando; James Joyce’s Ulysses; William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury; and from Weiner’s homeland, Karel Čapek’s play R. U. R., Jaroslav Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švejk, and Franz Kafka’s The Trial and The Castle. Weiner’s experimental, psychological fictions are products of their times, poetic stream of consciousness investigations inspired by surrealism, organized not according to plot or character, but through theme and imagery.

Benjamin Paloff describes The Game for Real as a “novel-in-two-novellas” and as “thematically intertwined detective stories,” and perhaps this latter description should suffice over conventional genre labels. In fact, depending on whom you read, The Game for Real will be described as a novel, or a collection of two novellas, or a novel and a novella. Semantic debates aside, The Game for Real contains two long fictional works—the first, The Game of Quartering, is 100 pages long; the second, The Game for the Honor of Payback, is 180 pages long. Each can stand alone; however, the stories share themes and images that suggest a unified novel, although whether they share a single protagonist is, finally, unclear. That the book’s unity is questionable is only the beginning of the mystery, and presenting the nominal plot of each is an exercise in hilarious futility; nevertheless, Weiner’s surrealism isn’t automatic writing, the book is carefully constructed, and there is method in his presentation of madness.

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The Puppet Theater

The Game of Quartering opens simply enough, it is after midnight on a Paris Métro train and the first-person narrator, initially alone, describes a man boarding at La Trinité. The narrator, a middle-aged bachelor and self-described “hack,” is on his way home from the theater. He doesn’t know the stranger, but feels like he’s being followed, and when he disembarks, the stranger follows him to his apartment where another stranger, a woman, waits by the door. He knows, intuitively, they are from the “same team,” and the strangers follow him past the concierge’s door to his apartment where they flank him as he slots his key and turns the lock. The narrator presents his tale in the past tense from some notional present, though no indication of a date is given, and the events he describes could have taken place days, weeks, even years in the past.

Although not designated by chapter breaks—there are only occasional double line breaks—the story consists of four episodes that together complete a circular timeline, i.e. it ends at the beginning in a manner reminiscent of Julio Cortázar’s short story “Continuity of Parks.” The second episode begins when the narrator enters his apartment and his observers are transplanted from the hall to inside the apartment. They don’t follow, they are just present. Weiner often uses such sudden transpositions, a dream-effect with characters appearing and disappearing. The male stranger is afraid, cowering and mute; the female stranger is doll-like, her neck jointed. Struggling to make sense of his visitors, the narrator speculates that they are manifestations of himself:

Who knows, maybe that’s just the sort of horror that makes us sweat whenever, out of nowhere, we’ve run into ourselves, as I did today when I ran into my apartment; who knows, maybe there is constantly residing within us this sort of unexpected eternal visitation . . . (28) [Weiner’s italics]

And so we speculate with him—are these strange characters figments of his imagination, personifications of alternate selves residing within his psyche? Weiner doesn’t let us off so easily. The features of the strangers begin to merge into a combined likeness, prompting the narrator to examine why he was so late coming home, and the narrative begins its third and longest episode.

Earlier in the evening he arrived at a tavern where he finds his friend Fuld arguing with Mutig (German for “courage”) over their mutual acquaintance Giggles, who observes silently. The characters are in profile, like shadow puppets behind a scrim. The narrative shifts between the protagonist’s speculations and the overheard conversation of Fuld, Mutig, and Giggles, much of which is presented in the style of a stage script (a nice touch since it reinforces the idea that we are watching a play, something false, a fiction, probably a dream). Lights go up and down and the stage set—and he uses the word “stage” to describe the scene—changes many times.

pup

In this section, more than any other, the dream-like qualities of Weiner’s narrative technique are apparent. People and objects appear from nowhere and disappear as quickly. Memory blends with reality (assuming anything is real). Locations morph from the streets of Paris into gardens into aquatic landscapes stretching to infinity. It is a world of “impressions” and “projections”—a world where an entire scene takes place inside the chest cavity of a “blackamoor.” The narrator moves through these phantasmagorical settings, a diorama of his mind, with remarkable savoir faire, as if he knows he is in a dream, and instead of being afraid, he is curious; in fact, he states the same: “I was walking through a so-called living dream, a quite truthful reality, and thus, as they say, a zone of truth, where there is nothing with which to deceive oneself . . .” (84).

The last episode begins when the narrator finds himself where he began, in the Métro. He designs an experiment to test whether or not he is in a dream, but when the result indicates he is awake, he discounts it, and his final conclusion—before he plunges back into dissociative meandering—is “who knows?” for “certainty is only a word.”

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The Outsider

In The Game of Quartering we follow an unnamed protagonist down the rabbit hole of his own mind. The Game for the Honor of Payback also features an unnamed protagonist, but his story is presented by a first-person omniscient narrator. Or is it? One of the mysteries of this tale is whether the first-person narrator and the protagonist are the same; furthermore, whether this narrator is the same as the narrator of The Game of Quartering.

The story begins with a dream, a nightmare to satisfy any appetite for existential imagery. When the dreamer awakens, he is described as an “isolated” person, a “nameless” person, a man whose name is “Shame.” The man is alone in his rented room at the Benedictine Mill Inn. The events of the previous day play through inchoate thoughts, and Weiner’s circumlocutions capture the man’s drowsy, dreamy world, his tenuous grip on reality, his psychological agitation, and his anxiety. Here, he regards his reflection in the mirror, a reflection that assumes its own identity:

He saw someone who was unwelcome; he was, however, expectedly unwelcome. A foreigner. He sized him up with tepid animosity; he judged him with gestures and facial expressions. That one there performed them with him: both of them ironic, but with an irony so unsuspiciously innocent that it was disarming. A hand, sullen with a sullenness that lacked substance, ran across ashen stubble; squeamish fingers unearthed the degrading vegetation of the sparse, coarse hairs sprouting all the way up to right beneath his eyes, and the irritated flash in his eyes reproached them for this meddlesomeness . . . . He scowled at him, and the little person paid it back to him so faithfully that neither of them dared pull his eyes away: for they hated each other . . . (120-121)

Riddled with enough self-loathing to warrant comparisons to Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov, the man sees himself as an outsider, a foreigner—a prominent theme in The Game for the Honor of Payback. We learn of his actions the previous day, his altercation with the affluent Mr. and Mrs. Steel, and the nucleating event of the plot: the theft of Mrs. Steel’s bracelet. Everyone in the inn assumes the nameless man is the thief, and he is eventually expelled. The narrative, like a rock skipping across a pond, alternates between long stretches of third-person narration of the man’s internal world and brief dips into dramatic real time.

Weiner continues to explore the outsider theme through a homosexual encounter the man has while spending two days in a neighboring town (before continuing to Paris). Throughout both tales Weiner’s imagistic narration adds to the surreal nature of the story. In this excerpt, the protagonist watches as a young man, “fleeing from Sodom,” approaches:

He was encouraging this rottenly ripening beauty with a harvest of smiles that feigned indifference and fished around for someone to whom they might hungrily appeal; he was disdaining it with a lattice of long, groomed, pasted eyelashes that denied the presence of lust no differently than a valet who’s been slapped around denies the presence of the master with a guilty conscience. . . . but when the other fellow spotted him, he flared his nostrils, already just as much on the scent, but till then indecisive. But now they were certain, and from beneath the shadowy eye sockets an unabashed, masterfully aimed harpoon had been hurled; it sank into the pupils of the seated man. Its thrower was drawing near; the rope with the barbed hook was being reeled in . . . (186-187)

Nathalie Sarraute used similar imagistic detail in her novel The Planetarium (1959) to slow the narrative rhythm and represent consciousness metaphorically[1]. Weiner’s poetic imagery extends to characterizing the nameless man’s specific emotions. For example, while on the train to Paris, the man obsesses over his unhappiness, an unhappiness that is “self-sacrificing,” “inscrutable,” that “answers for mistakes and blunders,” is a “screen,” a “sacrificial lamb,” the “confessor with absolution”; his unhappiness is “broody, but not dismayed; poor, but tidy; weak, yet not cowardly” (218-219).

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In his Manifeste du surréalisme, André Breton defined surrealistic writing as “automatism . . . in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.” Contrary to this definition, Weiner’s The Game for Real displays a carefully crafted narrative with clear concern for aesthetics. Like contemporaneous painter Salvador Dalí, Weiner used the techniques of realism to create a symbolic effect.

the-persistence-of-memory-1931.jpg!BlogSalvador Dalí, The Persistence of Memory, 1931

In this strange and compelling novel—or however it is defined—the settings and characters morph and blend in a constantly shifting phantasmagoria of existential angst. True to their surrealist heritage, these stories undermine reality and the self-assurance of a scientific world that made the First World War possible. Weiner, who had already rejected science for poetry, rebelled into the surreal and produced one of Modernism’s true gems, and, ironically, through his creation he gave us a view of the world that has rarely looked so honest, so human, so real.

—Frank Richarson

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Frank

Frank Richardson lives in Houston and is pursuing his MFA in Fiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts. His poetry has appeared in Black Heart Magazine, The Montucky Review, and Do Not Look At The Sun.

 

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Cohn, Dorrit. Transparent Minds: Narrative Modes for Presenting Consciousness in Fiction. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1978. Print.
Jun 062015
 

Georgi Gospodinov

Even if, as G [the narrator] writes, “the classical narrative is an annulling of the possibilities that rain down on you from all sides,” Gospodinov reminds us that there are other ways to construct a story, and we are devising new blue prints all the time. — Geeda Searfoorce

Physics_of_Sorrow_Cover_2

The Physics of Sorrow
Georgi Gospodinov
Translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel
Open Letter Books
275 pp; $14.95
ISBN: 978-1-940953-09-0

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B y interlacing Greek myth, autobiographical and ancestral stories, and reflections on growing up in Bulgaria during the latter part of the twentieth century, Georgi Gospodinov constructs The Physics of Sorrow, a novel of fragments that reads like a playful hybrid between a frenetic roman à clef and a collection of diary entries untethered by chronology. The book’s unifying image—the halfling Minotaur imprisoned in a labyrinth—underscores the protagonist’s struggle with acute melancholy and provokes the reader to consider how individuals struggle in the wake of larger political transformations. And its structure—replete with interruptions, digressions, visual imagery, and anecdotes—is necessarily labyrinthine in order to immerse the reader in its protagonist’s experience of attempting, through fits and starts, to simultaneously escape and return to his homeland and in the process rediscover himself.

One of Bulgaria’s most translated authors since the country’s shift to post-communism in 1989, Gospodinov has won critical acclaim for his work, which includes four poetry books, his first novel, Natural Novel (published in English by Dalkey Archive Press, 2005), a collection of stories titled And Other Stories (published in English by Northwestern University Press, 2007), two plays, several screenplays, and a graphic novel. His skill working between genres is evident from the beginning of The Physics of Sorrow, first published in 2011 and newly translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel, and several of the nine—yes, nine—epigraphs alert the reader to abandon any previously held preconceived notions of the constrictions of form.

What follows—in nine chapters bookended by eight prologues and eight epilogues—is a nonlinear recounting of various tales by a narrator, named Georgi Gospodinov (sometimes referred to as “G”). After embarking on an extensive period of travel to attempt to moderate his profound mid-life melancholy after his grandfather’s death, his father’s dementia, and his divorce, G returns for an extended visit to his boyhood hometown, staying in one of the many basement apartments his family inhabited during his youth as they worked toward a more solvent financial future which never materialized. He takes up residence in a “gloomy birthright of a basement,” wanders the town, encounters an old classmate, now working in a dilapidated “kitsch emporium” filled with tzotchkes that once enchanted G’s childhood imagination, and gazes at the “sullen, tired, and expressionless” people who are struggling in a Bulgaria that has been transformed during the last two decades of the twentieth century and at the dawn of the twenty-first.

G devotes himself to compiling his grandfather’s stories, along with the tangible records of his life thus far—myriad lists, newspaper clippings, a gasmask “filled with the exhausting fear of atomic and neutron bombs, of air raid sirens being tested,” an excerpt from a sex scene in Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, a sharp retelling of Little Red Riding Hood in which old age is the wolf that devours the grandmother, and books with their “old socialist price tags”—and other memories and ephemera from his childhood and young adult life that would disappear if it were not for his doggedness. He wants to create a time capsule for posterity and fill it with everything and everyone he has ever known. The implication is that this time capsule will forestall annihilation, a fear that has plagued G from an early age.

“Some books need to be equipped with Ariadne’s thread,” G writes, referring to the tool Theseus used, in the Greek myth, to navigate his way through the labyrinth to kill the Minotaur and restore peace to Crete. Gospodinov offers a few strands to guide the reader through the labyrinth of his novel. The first thread is the notion of story itself—its vital importance in G’s life and its necessity throughout history. Even if, as G writes, “the classical narrative is an annulling of the possibilities that rain down on you from all sides,” Gospodinov reminds us that there are other ways to construct a story, and we are devising new blueprints all the time. Materials are forever being tested and retested and combined in new ways. Midway through the novel Gospodinov offers a primer for how the reader can enter it. In Chapter IV “Time Bomb (To Be Opened After the End of the World),” G writes:

Since other capsules depicted the world like a postcard—kind, pretty, dancing, endlessly inventing various trinkets—the capsule in my basement had to contain the signs and warnings, the unwritten stories, such as “The History of Boredom in the 1980s,” or “A Brief History of the Ephemeral,” or “An Introduction to the Provincial Sorrow of Late Socialism,” “A Catalogue of the Signs We Never Noticed,” “An Incomplete List of Fears During 2010,” or…my grandfather, the abandoned boy, the stories of all those coming of the void and going into the void, nameless, ephemeral, left out of the frame, the eternally silent ones, a General History of That Which Never Happened…. I imagine a book containing every kind and genre. From monologue through Socratic dialogue to epos in hexameter, from fairytales through treatises to lists. From high antiquity to slaughterhouse instructions. Everything can be gathered up and transported in such a book…. (140)

Lists and catalogs populate the novel to form another thread. With them Gospodinov displays G’s predilection for conflating world events with personal history—the engine upon which the book builds its momentum, albeit fitfully:

First kiss (with a girl).
Brezhnev dies.
Second kiss (different girl).
Cherenkov dies.
Third kiss…
Andropov dies.
Am I killing them?
First fumbling sex in the park.
Chernobyl.
A long half-life of exponential decay ensues. (103-4)

The backdrop for G’s “half-life” is modern-day Bulgaria, a country he deems is running on a “physical and metaphysical deficit” and which he describes through images of darkness, rust, and concrete even as it draws him back from his travels abroad. In Chapter VII “Global Autumn,” an annotated list of places G travels is preceded by a statistic: “Eighty percent of Bulgarians had not left their native country before 1989.” A startling observation, but no less so than the fact that in just fifteen years after the collapse of communism over one million mostly young people left because of the economic crisis that enveloped the country still in transition.

Gospodinov, who lives in Sofia, Bulgaria, has witnessed firsthand the tumult of his native country during the years following Bulgarian Socialist Party leader Todor Zhikov’s resignation in 1989 after thirty-five years. Democratic reform since the Autumn of Nations has led to widespread corruption and a stagnant economy that have caused a wide swath of the population to feel caught in a system that seems to be perpetually teetering on the brink of ruin.

The principal organizing image for The Physics of Sorrow—the famed Minotaur of Greek myth—is a creature with the body of a human male and the head of a bull. “I have not found any compassion for the Minotaur in all of the classics,” G tells us. “No departure from the established facts.” G begs the readers’ empathy for the Minotaur and, as the labyrinth of the story unfolds, it becomes apparent that the human/animal is not only G’s psychological doppelganger, whose salvation may ensure G’s ability to emerge from the labyrinth of his misery, but also a stand-in for Bulgaria.

Even as G’s misery threatens to overtake him, Gospodinov’s humor is at play throughout the book, often amidst passages recounting brutality or injustice. In Greek mythology, the author notes in the second chapter, children “insofar as they exist…are most often devoured by their fathers. Any left undevoured will devour their fathers.” This observation is followed by a section titled “Devoured Children in Greek Mythology (An Incomplete Catalogue)” and a “P.S.” that depicts a “wacky echo in modern times” of a staged photo of a baby jokingly posed on a baking pan about to enter an oven, exposing the link between this classical motif and a modern family endearment (“You’re so sweet, I’m going to eat you up with rice.”). The chapter then ends with a fragment of “The Minotaur’s Speech in His Own Defense”—an alternately quirky and dire polemic, written in hexameter, during which the ostracized human/animal asserts his humanity (“I’m kin to all you all”) before King Minos orders his son locked up again.

Gospodinov employs repetition and ellipses to create an elegiac rendering of G’s past. Through these devices, Gospodinov asks the reader to consider not only images but the idea of language as an incantation, meant to simultaneously conjure G’s memory and release him from it. But the sheer number of memories conjured in the book are at odds with the desire to linger that the language creates. In one section, recalling his youth spent as a latch-key kid of socialism, awaiting his mother’s return from work and studying survival manuals in preparation for the atomic annihilation that racked him with fear as a child of the Cold War, G repeats the line, “We bang around like Mintoaurs in these basements…” Rather than unraveling the implications this metaphor carries with it, G decides it should be included in his “catalogue of epiphanies” and tucked into the capsule along with all the detritus he has stockpiled and saved for posterity and the reader is led toward another fragment.

The strongest thread is comprised of a handful of fragments scattered throughout the book describing G’s daughter Aya in beautifully simple language as a source of joy amidst his melancholy. He writes, “While I’m writing about the world’s sorrow’s, Portuguese saudade, Turkish huzun, about the Swiss illness—nostalgia…she comes to me, at two and a half, and suddenly snatches away my pen.” (177)

By interweaving all these threads Gospodinov offers G the possibility of deliverance from the sorrow gripping him, along with reminders that he can always duck down a side corridor for respite or if he’s worried that he’s lost his way. Because ultimately the “stories coming out of the void and going into the void” are what will lead him and Bulgaria—and the reader—through a maze dense with memories to a new idea of what it means to return home.

— Geeda Searfoorce

 

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Geeda Searfoorce is a graduate of the MFA in Writing program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She writes fiction and plays and teaches through the Vermont Young Playwrights program. Her work is forthcoming in Short Fiction in Theory and Practice.

Jun 032015
 

AdlerRon Galella/WireImage

…her seemingly effortless grace and courage have already made her a model for future generations. — Julian Hanna

After_the_Tall_Timber

After the Tall Timber: Collected Essays
Renata Adler
New York Review of Books
528 pages ($29.95)
ISBN 978-1590178799

 

Looking back, Renata Adler’s journalistic career and the era it spans appear almost as the stuff of dreams. Our own age, which can seem like a nonstop Gawker feed of the horrible and the miserable, stands in stark contrast to the four glorious decades captured in After the Tall Timber: Collected Nonfiction, which covers Adler’s career as a staff writer at The New Yorker and ‘serious intermittent critic’ for The Atlantic, Harper’s, Vanity Fair, The New Republic, The American Spectator, The New York Times, and The New York Review of Books. Adler covered most of the defining issues of the day, including issues that she had the uncanny sense to know would come to be age defining. Beginning with the march from Selma and the counterculture in the 1960s, Adler went on to cover Watergate in the 1970s, the resurgence of the Republican right in the 1980s, the Lewinsky scandal in the 1990s, and the legal wrangles surrounding the US presidential election in 2000. But more than that, she covered these stories from the front lines: following Martin Luther King, Jr. to rallies in the South; filing a “Letter from Israel” from the Six-Day War; reporting from the war torn fledgling nation of Biafra shortly before its inevitable fall; and covering key trials, including impeachment proceedings against two presidents. As Jonathan Clarke recently pointed out, Adler’s career is unique, a one off, and moreover in the present climate her fierce independence is best viewed as a cautionary tale: “These days, a journalist can want her autonomy, or she can want health insurance, but she had better not want both.”

Throughout her writing career, in fact, Adler bears witness not to a golden age but to the steady decline of serious journalism and a serious readership in America. Resistance to this perceived decline is one of the defining features of this collection, seen perhaps most famously in her attack on fellow contrarian (and former colleague) Pauline Kael. Adler’s attempt to end what she saw as Kael’s reign of “brutality and intimidation” as the longstanding house critic for The New Yorker pairs her description of journalism in decline with her struggle to counterbalance abuses of power and to check corruption and complacency in institutions of all kinds. By choosing this uphill battle, Adler necessarily courts controversy and makes herself a target for attacks. Perhaps that is why Adler, who was educated at Harvard (under I. A. Richards and Roman Jakobson), the Sorbonne (under Claude Lévi-Strauss), and Yale Law School, and who is the author of two difficult, dazzling, boundary-exploding novels, Speedboat (1976) and Pitch Dark (1983), so often appears to be writing from the margins. Despite her success and centrality to contemporary American letters, Adler always works against the cultural grain. This collection divides roughly into three sections. First is the intellectual It Girl decade from the mid-sixties to the early seventies, made up entirely of New Yorker pieces; then a short middle section covering cinema; and finally what I might call—and many would no doubt disagree—the rest: covering Adler’s essays for a range of publications from the mid-seventies to the early noughties.

The early pieces in the first section are compelling for their eyewitness accounts of key historical figures and events. But on a deeper level, their power lies in the disruption of familiar historical narratives with the all-too-human: the messy and complicated reality behind even the most sacred historical moments. When MLK takes the stage in Montgomery, Alabama to rapturous applause, for example, Adler records someone muttering: “This personality cult is getting out of hand.” The opening essay, from the introduction to Adler’s first collection of New Yorker essays in 1969, sets the tone. She describes the politics of her between-the-cracks generation as progressive, empathetic, led by heroes like Hannah Arendt; yet always aloof, sceptical, cautious, and focused on the word (“we are the last custodians of language”). The second essay (“The March for Non-Violence from Selma”) exemplifies this “radical middle” approach: hopeful yet retaining a critical view. The mood on the historic march, for example, is described predictably as one of “jubilation.” But that is not all: there is also “tedium” and “inaudible speeches,” fear of attacks from local rednecks, bad food (“three tons of spaghetti” served from “garbage pails”), and fashion-conscious hipsters trivializing the meaning of the event (“Which demonstration are you going to? Which one is the best?”). The atmosphere of the march is beautifully recorded from moment to moment: the changing light, the temperature and humidity, and the shifting mood of the crowd, “at once serious and gay.” Adler conveys the feeling of the vulnerability among the marchers as they camp by the roadside in hostile territory—there are frightening rumours of “bombs and mines”—as well as the carnivalesque, proto-Woodstock atmosphere on the last day when stars like Nina Simone, Joan Baez, and Tony Bennett perform.

The diversity of the civil rights movement—black and white, north and south, urban and rural—is an underlying theme, and clueless interlopers are a constant trope. One student marcher complains to the Reverend Andrew Young, who is giving instructions on non-violent protest: ‘Man, you’ve got it all so structured.’ Another expresses a fear of Maoists, who are confused with Kenyan rebels: “Maoist. You know. From the Mau Mau.” But despite occasional indulgences in “Talk of the Town” style light humour, Adler does not spare us from shocking facts. In one oddly contemporary use of surveillance technology, white bystanders are seen taking photographs of marchers, “presumably as a warning that their faces would not be forgotten.” (Later the marchers turn the tables and begin to photograph the roadside hecklers.) Statistics are used sparingly but effectively: one county on the route, for example, is said to have “a population of fifteen thousand, eighty per cent of them blacks, not one of whom had been registered to vote” because of fear of reprisals. Actual violence is absent from the story, but there are several tense moments. At one point Adler describes a gang of crewcut local boys who jump out of their cars and surround a group of marchers, but they turn out to be menacing only in their aimlessness and ignorance.

After the report on Selma comes a series of essays that form a striking picture of the turmoil of the late sixties. On the lighter side there is the rebirth of the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles (“Fly Trans-Love Airways”), which in early 1967 was “practically deserted” except for “evangelical bands of elderly squares and young longhairs.” Adler reports from the scene in the guise of a hip and slightly jaded older sister: I imagined her standing among the love beads and ragged Confederate jackets in an open-neck white shirt, like the Avedon portraits. The essay ends with an erratic performance by Arthur Lee and Love that perfectly captures the time and place. But even in this seemingly light, “youth of today” piece, Adler manages to delve into the economics and polarized politics of LA, and from there to the growing polarization of America as a whole. She describes the widening “split” between “the Yahoos, on an essentially military model, occupying jobs,” and “the longhairs, on an artistic model, devising ways of spending leisure time.” (And it was ever thus.) In the next essay, “The Black Power March in Mississippi,” Adler provides an anatomy of the key players in the civil rights movement. She lists “the drones” (white marchers “with only the fuzziest comprehension of issues”), “the press” (rushing to “cover one of the last of the just wars”), “the white supremacists” (aptly described as “Stock characters out of the southern bestiary”), “the local blacks,” and finally “the leaders.” Adler downplays white fears of black violence: the only marcher advocating violent revolution is “a white college graduate, unemployed, wearing a baseball cap,” a fashionable Marxist whose propaganda is met with derision by black marchers (“I don’t know what to say to you”).

Adler is similarly dismissive of white middle-class revolutionaries when she covers the 1967 National Conference for New Politics in Chicago (“Radicalism in Debacle”). “The conference presented, from the first,” she declares, “a travesty of radical politics at work.” While the nation is gripped by “the problems of war, racism, and poverty,” the self-absorbed delegates of conference radicalism are portrayed as the least likely remedy for the nation’s ills. Part of the problem is, once again, the “persistent debasement of language”: the word “revolution,” for example, is used to express “every nuance of dissent.” As things grow darker and the decade slouches toward its heavy conclusion, Adler turns to a critical history of the National Guard in the wake of the Kent State massacre. Like many of the pieces in this first section, this essay (“But Ohio. Well, I Guess That’s One State Where They Elect to Lock and Load”) has powerful echoes for the present crisis in America. Adler repeats the findings of a damning report by the FBI: “the National Guardsmen at Kent State were not surrounded, had not run out of tear gas, had not been hit by rocks or subjected to sniper fire, and were not in any way injured when they killed four students and wounded thirteen others on May 4.”

One of the most affecting reports comes at the end of the first section. “Letter from Biafra,” a gem at the heart of this book, is a devastating story of idealistic promise and backs-to-the-wall hopelessness. The article was published in October 1969, just months before the Nigerian army crushed the secessionist movement that for three years had kept the fledgling and largely unrecognized Republic of Biafra alive. The conflict resulted in a death toll of between one and three million from war and starvation between 1967 and 1970, higher even than the war in Vietnam that overshadowed Biafra in the Western media. The forces behind the war sound eerily familiar: a war for oil, with the interests of Shell-BP defended through British arms shipments to Nigeria; the promise of a 48-hour “surgical action” that turns into years of chaos and bloodshed. While she acknowledges the complexity of issues leading to the conflict, Adler is clearly moved by her experiences with those engaged in the struggle. Many of the people she encounters on the Biafran side are intellectuals trained at British and North American universities who returned to fight for their homeland; as Adler notes, Biafra (Eastern Nigeria) was one of the most densely populated, highly developed, and highly educated regions in Africa.

In one surreal moment a young surgeon, apparently mystified by the world’s indifference at his country’s suffering, tells Adler: “We have always done well on exams.” Many of the conversations recorded in the essay are unsettlingly calm, as literary topics interweave with death and famine and life under siege. Adler describes a mood of “crazed, articulate, sometimes even irritable courtesy, in the face of an absolute desolation closing in.” One of her interlocutors is Chinua Achebe, author of Things Fall Apart (1958), who later wrote about his country’s brief history in There Was a Country (2012). (Kurt Vonnegut also speaks to Achebe in his own heartbroken account, “Biafra: A People Betrayed”.) Near the end we catch a rare glimpse of Adler appearing in her own story. Alone in the dark, her invincibility slipping for a moment, she admits: “I was scared, not of violence … but of not being able to get out.” (This was not an irrational fear: Nigeria had shot down Red Cross and other aid planes.) But she did make it out, and like Vonnegut and a few others reported what she saw there. If there is a silver lining to the atrocity it might be found in the words of General Ojukwu, who says of returned intellectuals like himself that whereas they used to look down “on those who stayed at home,” they now felt pride in the attempt—even the failed attempt—to establish “the first viable black republic, able to compete on an equal basis with white nations of the world.” But the very threat it represented to the status quo only hastened its demise. The colonial lines of the tragedy are clearly drawn by another interviewee, who tells Adler: “The West brought us good tidings, but it wouldn’t let us expand on them. Now we are suffering this strange mercy killing at the hands of the British.”

Earlier in 1969, under less dramatic circumstances, Adler visited Cuba. Her “Three Cuban Cultural Reports (With Films Somewhere in Them)” were published on the very last day (February 11) of her yearlong stint as chief film critic at The New York Times. The position, which the still twentysomething Adler was offered despite having neither written nor read much film criticism, was to replace old guard critic Bosley Crowther, who was finally pushed out after he mounted an unfashionably fogeyish attack on Bonnie and Clyde. From the start the job was an uncomfortable fit: Adler was used to reporting on events in “Selma, Harlem, Mississippi”; she “detested” the New Journalism with its emphasis on “the personal,” which she saw as “a new variant of … yellow journalism.” So the task of giving her personal opinion on films she cared little about—“Hollywood produced scarcely any movies of any value” in 1968—was awkward at best, at worst liable to provoke an existential crisis. In contrast to long-form journalism, writing under the constant threat of deadlines felt to Alder like “catching your sleeve in a machine.” So she took the scandalous decision to return to The New Yorker, opening a rift with The Times that has never quite closed.

Film criticism—already well covered in A Year in the Dark (1970)—comes up only once more in this collection, but it is the book’s bravura performance. You have likely heard of “House Critic” (originally “The Perils of Pauline”), Adler’s infamous scalpel job on New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael. It has the reputation of being a journalistic bloodbath—is it really so bad? And why does Adler have the knives out for Kael? First of all, yes, it is so bad, thrillingly bad: a watch-through-your-fingers gore fest, a thorough dismemberment of America’s then most famous film critic. The review is fascinating to witness for two reasons: Adler starts from a position of shock and disbelief—she claims that her revelation, that Kael is not in fact a great critic but the worst kind of hack, comes upon her suddenly when she tries to swallow Kael’s latest collection (When the Lights Go Down) whole. This rhetorical approach makes the description of her epiphany very convincing, as we follow her through the carefully arranged evidence. And then there is the fact that while Kael is exactly the kind of critic to write a bloody hatchet job—just as she wrote effusively about slasher films—Adler is not. She turns the hatchet on Kael, to great effect: in Adler’s hands the hatchet becomes a scalpel, and Kael’s language is dissected word by word (here Adler’s training under a master of close reading like I. A. Richards, as well as her legal training, becomes apparent). The book “is, to my surprise,” she insists, as surprised as we are, “without Kael-like exaggeration … worthless.”

As for why Adler has the knives out, Kael seems to represent all that is wrong with writers and readers in America, and ultimately what has gone wrong with America itself. Kael’s writing style, her “affectation of straightforwardness,” relies on a vulgar and limited vocabulary and employs every kind of “hyperbole, superlative, exaggeration.” The readership the book posits is not much better, being “composed partly of people who know nothing about the movies, and partly of people who read only film reviews.” Worst of all, Kael—who became a film critic at The New Yorker the very same year Adler took a leave of absence to do the same job at The Times, in 1968—“has ceased to care” about films. The critic, like the one time revolutionary hero, has become a despot with a sadistic lust for power. The whole situation is, Adler tells us with a degree of understatement following her lacerating remarks, “an extreme case of what can go wrong with a staff critic.” As for America, the example of Kael cautions us to be on our guard against the little dictator, the institution run wild, and the exchange of substantial language for the high fructose corn syrup of sensationalism.

The third section of the book includes much of the legal and political reporting for which Adler, who completed her J.D. at Yale in 1979, is so uniquely qualified. Many of Adler’s hardcore fans will no doubt consider this section the highlight; I must admit I found it an uphill climb. There were bright moments: revisiting the Starr report from 1998 was certainly more fun than it sounds, with Adler providing a deft analysis of the “utterly preposterous” six-volume report on presidential blow jobs. Other moments in this section, however, made me want to swipe. I could only muster faint enthusiasm, for example, at the prospect of a lengthy analysis of the scandal surrounding failed Reagan-era Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork. Nevertheless Adler, more than any other reporter, manages to make this material seem urgent and compelling: the fundamental theme here, she makes clear, as elsewhere in the book, is the “self-perpetuation,” the “determination to eradicate dissent” and the “commitment to a notion of infallibility” that so often marks institutional behaviour, whether it is the Office of the President, the chambers of the Supreme Court, or the film desk at The New Yorker. At the end of the book Adler finally begins to appear embattled, surrounded by powerful enemies. She has pissed off most of her peers and former colleagues at The Times, The New Yorker (which she rather prematurely declared “dead” in her book Gone: The Last Days of the New Yorker), and elsewhere. But does she care? Not much, it seems.

In “A Court of No Appeal” (2000), Adler depicts her war with, and “institutional carpet bombing by,” The Times. “The issue,” Adler writes, “is not one book [her own] or even eight pieces [attacking her in The Gray Lady]. It is the state of the entire cultural mineshaft, with the archcensor, still in some ways the world’s greatest newspaper, advocating the most explosive gases and the cutting off of air.” At the time, the collapse of the old media establishment seemed imminent. As it happens, the present decade has seen these venerable institutions, to varying degrees, adapt and regain some of their lost power. The Atlantic looks stronger than ever; The New Yorker is still on the town, a ubiquitous presence; The Times seems to be doing all right. Yet the predicted cultural shift, of which Adler’s mineshaft canaries sang (or rather failed to sing, and fell silent), has taken place: American intellectuals today are as likely to turn to their Twitter feeds or swipe through The Guardian or listen to a Slate podcast or even leaf (yes, leaf!) through a copy of n+1 or any number of little magazines to get the latest word on the latest thing. So where does that leave us? Selma just passed its 50th anniversary, and the ever-vital Adler is now an astonishing 76. Michael Wolff, whose introduction to this volume tends toward provocative overstatement more than Adler ever has (with statements like “journalism is not a writer’s game anymore”), nevertheless argues convincingly that Adler more than anyone else “has violated the clubbiness of the literary and journalistic world.” Despite the fact that present-day writers may be unable, in practical terms, to achieve such a long and distinguished yet singularly outspoken career, her seemingly effortless grace and courage have already made her a model for future generations.

— Julian Hanna

 

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Julian Hanna was born in Vancouver and is currently self-exiled on the island of Madeira. His research on modernism and digital storytelling appears regularly in academic journals; his creative writing has appeared in The Atlantic, 3:AM, Flash, Minor Literature[s], Cine Qua Non, and elsewhere. Find him on Twitter @julianisland.

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May 312015
 

Mark Jarman Story- St. John RiverMark Anthony Jarman

…in the end the strength of the writing itself is like magic, few authors can pull this off, and the final impression is absolute: Italy – dry, beautiful, graffiti strewn, tourist ridden, sexy, fake – and the narrator – lost, bored, amused, searching, lustful – are far too complementary and this is no haven for lost souls seeking redemption, and no one will be rescued from firestorms of ash and lava. —Lee D. Thompson

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Knife Party at the Hotel Europa
Mark Anthony Jarman
Goose Lane Editions
HC 285pp.; $29.95

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The twelve short stories in Mark Anthony Jarman’s fifth collection, Knife Party at the Hotel Europa, form a strange, wandering, quite aimless narrative that runs throughout the book. I almost wrote “throughout the novel,” because by a third of the way in, as characters and settings reappear, it begins to feel like a novel, though not a typical novel. The sections do work as short fiction, and Jarman, one of Canada’s most-respected short story writers, is no stranger to the form, and the stories here have all appeared separately in journals or online. So, is this a story collection, or a novel? Well, it’s a bit of both, really, and it also feels like a travelogue, though this is no Fodor’s Guide to Italy.

Not that I think it’s important what category Knife Party at the Hotel Europa fits into. This lack of definition is part of the appeal and likely Jarman’s design.

As is the aimless narrative, the wandering narrator.

This narrator, who is never named, this I in Italy, is in turns all mind, and all… cock.  Can I say that? Well, I already have. He is on a vacation, or in exile (it’s hard to tell), renting an apartment in Italy, where there is something he is trying to forget (so says a gypsy woman). He’s down, he’s dour, he has unconvincing thoughts of snuffing himself, but he’s invited to join an ‘art group,’ a tour run by one Father Silas, who owns an illegal art school in Italy and is a friend of the narrator’s aunt. The nature of the art group or school is never really specified (but you’re in Italy, so there’s art, and there are tours), but does act is a kind of binding thread to the collection, as do the few recurring characters on the tour. We never get to know Father Silas, or Ray-Ray, or Tamika much, or the narrator’s dear aunt, but we need bearings, even if the actual viewing of art seems of little importance to the narrator (but he catches on, follows, drifts away). Adding to the man-adrift theme is the narrator’s current life-mess: he’s middle-aged, in existential crisis, separated/divorced from his wife, reeling from the loss of an all-consuming affair with Natasha (who had cancer, but also left him), and suffering a general lack of direction.

The book’s themes are ones of wandering, of gypsies, tinkers.

And decay, and false idols.

It’s a dense, rich book, but the opening story, “The Dark Brain of Prayer”, hides little:

My tainted life, my travels: vaguely free to travel to Italy, Ireland, Death Valley, to ski distant peaks on a whim, mobile, but always a trade-off, no stable home life, no one to depend on. Perhaps because no one can depend on me?

A strong story in its own right, “The Dark Brain of Prayer” also serves to situate the reader in the narrator’s life. We see that he’s Canadian, lives in a city with streets called Queen and King and travels to towns with names like Sackville.  These touches serve to keep us close to the narrator, who, like Jarman, appears to live in Fredericton, New Brunswick, a city of flooding rivers, fiddleheads, and crab-apple blossoms.

“Butterfly on a Mountain” follows. It’s meditative, mostly plotless, meandering, funny. And, importantly, we meet Eve. She’s all old world temptation to his new world snake.

Eve is the narrator’s cousin, though their relationship is never explained beyond that, she lives in Switzerland  and she comes in and out of the stories (in the recursive Eve entries and with the occasional return also of Natasha we can see how the collection has been purposefully linked, though it’s not quite a novel, but right, that’s not important), meeting up with the narrator, and they stray from the tour, and she, inevitably,  becomes his lover (but there’s no sin here, sin in their minds having been worn to rubble like ruins in Rome). Eve is well drawn, sophisticated, educated, unpredictable.  The narrator can never get to know Eve, he muses, just as he can never get to know Italy. But he is, once again, infatuated, and Jarman’s stunning prose captures it all.

The bone-green air between the tree trunks, the green shadows between the trunks; who owns that property? I feel Eve owns any part of the world where my eye strays.

Introduced to Eve, we come to the book’s glittering gem, the harrowing, surreal, and utterly believable story “Knife Party”, a nightmarish, drug-induced excursion to a party of strangers, of cocaine and Italian testosterone and a crazed neighbor with a staple gun. There’s a menace throughout the story, and as the title lets us know, it won’t end well, but Jarman’s ability to introduce both humour (“I want to start a new dance craze […] do the Lazy Lawyer, do the Dee-vor-cee dividing his assets into shekels.”) and suspense (“The neighbour makes it to the door, but falls in the hall like a Doric column. He has bled out. […] Spying blood and a body, the woman dials her silver phone, whispers, Madonna save us.”)  gives the story a gory, car-crash appeal. We can’t turn away; it’s too lurid, too new. Too life affirming?  A strange thought, but in the quieter, meditative story that follows, “Hospital Island (Wild Thing)”, a retreat to Rome, the narrator does feel this trauma has somehow lessened the impact of the loss of Natasha, providing “gruesome perspective,” he says.

But disaster now follows the narrator and Eve, as if they’ve been cursed in their journey (in fact, the narrator is cursed by a gypsy woman in the opening story, though he complains that her curse is far too unspecific to be believable). They flee the knife party into the night, only to stray into the next story, another of the book’s highlights. “Adam and Eve Saved from Drowning” is a story that muses on Canadian soldiers and tanks in World War II rolling through Italy, on a dear uncle killed in battle in Ortona, and where our less-than-adamant narrator and his Eve stroll upon a Roman explosion, a mail bomb at an embassy and man’s lost hand, and where, later, a brilliant day of sea kayaking leads to a small cove and men fishing men from the sea, fishing drowned boat people, migrants to a country that allows so many migrants, yet seemingly welcomes none. The bodies are lain upon the shore:

Men with mustaches and suitcases with wet sand glued to their black coats; this crescent beach was not their destination, but now they are stopped on the sand, their mouths stopped, now they are at their destination. Their skiff sank in riptides, and long lines of spray, their hands let go and their mouths let in sea and sky.

This is a turning point. At the end of the story, Eve leaves at handwritten note under his door while he’s away, writing that while the thought of never seeing him again is intolerable, it might be best. “You do make me happy, but I can’t seem to feel calm.” The narrator then muses:

Eve said I was detached, difficult, maddeningly stubborn.

I thought I was easygoing.

It’s this introspection that gives the book much of its uncanny appeal. Do we even like the narrator? Yes, we do; everyone does.  Throughout Knife Party at the Hotel Europa we see a mind at work, a mind that’s endlessly male, musing, heat-addled, a mind made vivid through Jarman’s jazzy, poetic, associative prose. We see his mind’s inner workings, the intimate thoughts, the fantasies, the reveries, the trivia. In a book of travels, Jarman often goes farther afield in his head than on the map, and the book at times takes on the feeling of a confessional stall.

Take, for example, the final section/story, “The Pompeii Book of the Dead”, a near novella-length story that for all its surreal touches, has the feeling of non-fiction, but it’s as if Orwell, before writing one of his book of travels, came across a clump of peyote and found narrative liberation. When approached by a prostitute in Pompeii (at a cafe called Irish Times), the narrator muses:

I flirt with the Croatian maid, I flirt with the cryptic Spanish woman, I stare at my cousin’s form, I stare at every waitress. Then a woman and I share a tiny table in Italy, in Europe, on the planet, and for a handful of Euros I can do certain things for a certain time. How perfect it no longer seems.

There is a young American traveler, an attractive Iraqi refugee, there are women at every corner, in every dream. But Jarman, before getting too deep in his narrator’s self analysis, pulls us into a surreal section involving the narrator and several small statues (come alive from his apartment windowsill and which include a distractingly priapic Priapus) and sends us prowling the alleyways for deep-fryer grease with this ridiculous gang of lard thieves:

The Italian PM must pay his estranged wife a hundred thousand Euros a day; how can he have that much and we don’t? The grease in our alley reeks. Lewd Priapus is with us, but he is not doing well, is not popular, his huge phallus gets in the way of lugging the sloppy plastic drums.

Why does this work? Why can certain writers lead us down a path of folly and not lose our interest? There’s something always on the cusp with Jarman’s fiction, beauty quickly turns to horror, play turns tragic, reality loses all meaning, and we accept that this world, his world, is unstable. It makes for thrilling reading.

In this final story, a masterpiece of pacing, tension, and setting, we also have Jarman’s most haunting touch, the narrator’s observation of a young Italian couple in love. They could have been plucked off a postcard, or tourism billboard. He observes their tenderness, their perfectness as they lie on a bench above a cliff, and wonders if anyone (Natasha) had ever been as tender with him. But he forewarns us, tells us they will die when his tour bus collides with their scooter along the Amalfi Coast. When the scene comes pages later we still hope for another outcome. Surely he won’t? But the young lovers die horribly, almost tragicomically. Jarman seems to be saying there is no postcard Italy, just as there is no postcard love, everything is throwing itself into the sea.

So Knife Party at the Hotel Europa is not a  novel with a happy conclusion, and it shouldn’t have one. The narrator does appear to have learned something about himself, but it’s a vague, sloppy realisation. He is who he is.

Does the book have flaws? At times Jarman’s riffing may be predictable (not in what’s written, but that it’s coming), something that works for an individual story can seem repetitive after 285 pages. The tendency to go off on tangents till reason falls off a cliff, or add an absurd third thing to a previously serious list, might wear on a reader. But in the end the strength of the writing itself is like magic, few authors can pull this off, and the final impression is absolute: Italy – dry, beautiful, graffiti strewn, tourist ridden, sexy, fake – and the narrator – lost, bored, amused, searching, lustful – are far too complementary and this is no haven for lost souls seeking redemption, and no one will be rescued from firestorms of ash and lava. Like Pliny the Elder rowing to Pompeii, there’s not much he can do to save the situation, but it’s quite the spectacle and well worth watching.

—Lee D. Thompson.

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Lee D, Thompson.

Lee D. Thompson was born and raised in Moncton, New Brunswick. His fiction has been published in four anthologies, including Random House’s Victory Meat, New Fiction from Atlantic Canada and Vagrant Press’s The Vagrant Revue of New Fiction, and in more than a dozen literary journals across Canada and the US. Lee’s first novel, S. a novel in [xxx] dreams, was published in 2008 by Broken Jaw Press. An e-book, Diary of a Fluky Kid, appeared with Fierce Ink Press in February 2014. In addition to writing fiction, Lee is a guitarist and songwriter who records under the name Pipher..

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May 072015
 

A koan- or haiku-like style of description in bursts of short sentences…Lish’s writing is as composed as a soldier: methodical, precise, on mission. —Tom Faure

Preparation for the Next Life
Atticus Lish
Tyrant Books, November 2o14
417 pages, $15.00

Many challenges can assail the lost person in a single given night—when there’s no bed, no radiator nor space heater, no roof nor figurative womb to enfold and heal the daily shredded spirit. The forgotten characters of the night wade through a dark terror punctuated by McDonald’s arches, Chinese calligraphy, imperfect halogen, and harsh sounds like billy clubs dragging down fence railings and cash register ka-chings tearing at the tired mind’s fractious sense of reality.

Such muddled, taurine-riddled minds are front and center in Atticus Lish’s outstanding debut novel, Preparation for the Next Life. Released in November by boutique publisher Tyrant Books, the novel just won the 2015 Pen/Faulkner Award for Fiction. Lish’s characters live on the margins, but this is not a pity party. If anything, it’s an introduction to globalization. We do not distinguish between the empty roads of Queens and those of Mosul. Nor their trash-filled alleys, nor their migrant workers, nor their deceptive blue skies. The difference is not even clear to the well-trained eyes of Brad Skinner, a stop-lossed, three-tour Iraq War veteran who sees IED risks even in the tumbleweed saunters of an empty plastic bag. Now in the United States, Skinner and an undocumented fast food busser, Lou Zei, are star-crossed lovers trying to get by in the melting pot of Flushing, Queens.

Skinner and Zou Lei (Thunder, in her Uighur dialect) are from near-opposite worlds, but Romeo and Juliet is not the only analogy to draw—Lish’s protagonists are a Beauty and Beast who discover each other literally in an underground food court, an apt crossroads for an aspiring illegal worker and a traumatized, depressed soldier. Lish’s touch is so deft that he does not come off as cloying or contrived in choosing an overtly fitting setting like a black market for these lovers struggling to survive in the shadows of the crumbling towers of the American dream. On the contrary, the novel, while deeply empathetic, seems uninterested in heartstrings. It is caring, but unpitying and unforgiving.

Looking for work early one day, Lou Zei walks from neighborhood to neighborhood, noting that Roosevelt Avenue’s graffiti changes every few blocks, but what does not is the steady sound of locks pulled down and shutters pulled up—of business, the great Sino-American common ground, cranked manually by the working poor in the liminal limbo between twilight and dawn. The lucky ones still are senseless, hearing nothing: they are asleep. The rest are senseless, too: they are exhausted. The problem for Zou Lei and Skinner, ultimately, is that this melting pot of multicultural poverty does not mix well. Violence spills over, not willing to spare young love.

The most devastating aspect of Preparation for the Next Life is not its rich, understated description of wealthy nations and poor people in the Age of Terror. It’s the love story. It’s the characters in general—convicts, cops, veterans, immigrants, and the many combinations thereof. Everybody’s just trying to get by. Skinner rents a basement room, goes to the gym, and relives the horrors of combat on the internet. He sees mangled corpses in folded pizza slices; he holds his gun to his head and dreams of relief. His landlord’s son returns from a ten-year stint in prison; the house is not big enough for the both of them.

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How to explain Atticus Lish’s prose? It reads first as if he is overly fond of sentence fragments—but he actually does not use fragments in abundance, save for the occasional litany of descriptive images. The seeming effect comes from a koan- or haiku-like style of description in bursts of short sentences, as well as the omission of dialogue indicators. A typical passage intertwines calm eddies of four- to eight-word sentences driven by rich, concrete verbs, with the occasional hypnotic sentence that stretches into Fitzgerald-like lyricism, employing active participles and gerunds to string images and observations together in a style resembling almost the stream of consciousness—though his prose does not suffer from the hectic spasmodic urgency of Beat sentimentality. Lish’s writing is as composed as a soldier: methodical, precise, on mission:

His body jerked. He moaned. […] In his dream, he knew what was happening. When they had first arrived, they hadn’t known, having yet to learn. Their unit had provided security for a colonel on daylong sector-assessment missions called SAMs that lasted into the night, and they had seen very little action. If this is war, I’m disappointed, Nowling said, pulling security in the spectacular heat. […] It was hard to sleep. People said I miss my girl. I wanna get some. They manned a checkpoint and shot up a car. Their doc from Opa-locka poured a bag of clotting factor in an Iraqi’s chest. Mom’s head was gone. White-faced, Sconyers ran and got a beanie baby for their daughter.

[…] In the basements, they found electronic equipment, stiffened rags, a crumbling prayer book. Children stared at them. The corpses were few at first, but then they started finding bodies every day. Some were mummified by fire. A bomb went off and spit a person out of a doorway. That smell is burning hair. A truck drove by them full of men with beards and satisfied expressions. Why are we letting them go? Sconyers asked. I don’t get it—Sconyers who carried a copy of the Report of the 9/11 Commission in his assault pack.

Because this is the army. Because this is their country. Because this isn’t supposed to make sense.

Lish’s writing is allusive without lacking concrete immediacy. The description mixes panoramic observations with implied exposition. Implied—because, he laces new expository detail into his scenes without pause or explanation. This is expertly done and contributes to the unsentimental tone of the novel. Take for example this revelation that Skinner has proposed to Zou Lei:

When she came outside in the purple dusk at quitting time, he was waiting. They ate pizza slices while the streetlights came on, went down past the gas station and walked along the river.

She was so moved she didn’t talk for nearly a mile.

What are you thinking?

You have a great heart, Skinner!

He liked it that she was happy

Just you say you will marry to me, it’s incredible.

Lish has suggested he avoided seeking help from his father Gordon—the renowned author, editor, and Raymond Carver’s blue pencil—but there’s something Lish-like here. Maybe it’s in the blood. The answer to this authorial originality question doesn’t matter. What the link does, rather, is illustrate how this author still early in his career is well on his way to becoming a master of story-telling:

The house was two houses. On the first floor, there were the lace curtains and plastic on the couch, the kitchen had a cuckoo clock on the wall, and there was a velvet picture of Elvis looking handsome above the couch his mother sat on. The saints and elves were in the yard. The rooms upstairs were a mess of clothes and junk where his mother and Erin lived among bottles of perfume and shampoo and tarot cards and curling irons and maxi pads and beer can empties and cigarettes and photo albums. You could open a drawer in a broken dresser and find a stack of Polaroids of people and scenes you did not recognize, then look at yourself in the mirror and wonder who you looked like.

He begs rereading.

I don’t know exactly when it was—maybe page 40, maybe 50—but I started rereading some of Lish’s pages backwards. I would reread each of its sentences in reverse order. This reading contained a strange wisdom. Here’s a glimpse of a typical Lish page in which we see the city, the lovers, and his writing style:

When she went back into his room to get her jeans, she saw what they had done to the bed, the mauled sheet. His camouflage gear and clothes were all over the floor. He slept in his poncholiner. On the bedside table were his pills and his lifter’s magazine and a strip of four condoms with blue wrappers. The room smelled like him and her, their sweat, latex, and tobacco. All about the room were empty beer cans he used as ashtrays. Under the bed, there was a used yellow wet latex condom. Another one was twisted in the poncholiner. Her eyes scanned over his cigarettes, his jeans. His boots were lying where he had kicked them off. A pair of blue faded cotton panties had fallen on them, hers.

He came up behind her and put an arm around her waist and put his face in her neck. She held his hand. His face smelled like tobacco. They rocked back and forth like that.

[…] They went out into the quiet night and started hiking down Franklin Avenue until the small American houses gave way to ghetto buildings and then the huge cathedral of Chinatown, over the hill through the dark trees and down the longblock that extended out to the freeway like a jetty.

Now you have to go all the way back, she said.

That don’t matter. I can’t sleep anyway.

[…] The sheds were built open at the top like changing rooms, and when she pulled the chain, her light disturbed her neighbor, who muttered behind the plywood. She switched the light off and kneeled down on her broken mattress, on her coverlet bought in Chinatown, showing teddy bears in bowties. By feel, she plugged her cell phone into the charger, her link to him, and the screen lit up indigo in her hands for several moments shining through her fingers.

Combined with the other characteristics of his writing style, the unified yet non-linear nature of Lish’s prose reminds the reader of the vast multitudinous nature of the various wars the characters are facing. There is no one voice in control, there is no up or down, no central organizing order or clear causality, no beginning or middle—but there is an end. A devastating end.

—Tom Faure

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Tom Take 4

Tom Faure received his MFA in Fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work has appeared in Waxwing Literary JournalZocalo Public Square, and Splash of Red. He lives in New York, teaching English and Philosophy at the French-American School of New York.

Contact: tomfaure@numerocinqmagazine.com

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May 022015
 

AliceFulton_Hank De LeoPhoto Credit: Hank De Leo

The subject matter itself is often grim. And in their way, these lines can take on a bleak dimension of their own, a nihilistic push off the cliff of linguistic certainty. But silence, once it has been confronted, must be pushed out. — Patrick O’Reilly

barely composed_978-0-393-24488-5

Barely Composed
Alice Fulton
W.W. Norton & Company
112 pages ($25.95)
ISBN 978-0-393-24488-5

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Robert Pinsky once wrote against “the stupid, defeatist idea that poetry, especially modern or contemporary poetry, ought to be less ‘difficult.’” After all, he argued, “people still read the poems of [Marianne] Moore and [Wallace] Stevens because they don’t wear out, because they surprise and entice us—and maybe, in part, because they are difficult”[1]. Difficulty takes on many forms, and comes with its own rewards.

Barely Composed is a difficult piece. It is Alice Fulton’s first new book in more than a decade and in some ways I am still waiting for it because it continues to reveal itself in increasingly exciting ways. Employing virtually every linguistic trick there is, and lighting on themes from art to love to death to time, the poems of Barely Composed demand the reader parse the lines again and again in new and creative ways. In that sense, the book’s title is a taunt to the reader, a challenge: catch me, if you can.

The most striking feature Fulton’s writing is her maximalist approach to language. Barely Composed is built on a fragmentary style where shrewdly broken lines constantly heighten ambiguity. As they go, Fulton quotes Shakespeare and Celan while dropping in the occasional emoticon or snatch of Esperanto; puns and nonce-words abound. Repetitive artificial forms and meandering vers libre are equally welcome. High and low language coexist harmoniously, but not peacefully. One result of this approach: there is not a single page of this book in which I couldn’t find an astonishing line or image. I’m not sure I’ve ever read a poet who adventures through language so broadly and enthusiastically. Lines like these, from “Wow Moment,” exemplify the book’s usual tone:

……………………………..The gentle interface of yawn and nature.
It would soothe us. It would soothe us. We would be soothed
by that slow looking with a limited truth value. See

how the realtor’s lens makes everything look larger
and there’s so much glare the floor looks wow
under the smartificial xmas tree.

……………………………………………………………(24)

A Fulton line seems as effortless and thrilling as a Muhammad Ali spar session, but it can be just as dizzying if the reader is not paying attention. A tribe of disembodied pronouns roam across the landscape, and the purposeful ambiguity of the phrasing can send the reader on the wrong track unnoticed for lines at a time.

This difficulty isn’t frustrating if one is willing to be taken wherever the words lead them, and find an individual meaning in every line. Even a passive reading of this book offers more than the usual amount of surprise. This play-impulse becomes a powerful argument in its own right: what is poetry for, if not to test the limits of language, to bend things to the point of breaking, then cobble them back together? And certainly, a number of poems, such as “The Next Big Thing” and “’Make It New’” attest to poetry’s inherent value. As a defense of poetry, or of “art for art’s sake,” Barely Composed would stand just fine on its own. However, as Fulton writes in “Triptych For Topological Heart,” “Without ardour, / theory suffers” (19), and there is a more stable bedrock below the swift current.

Barely Composed is not merely a case of style in lieu of substance; the dense verbiage can occasionally obscure, but not replace or negate, the somber contemplation at the book’s core. For example, the longer poem, which begins the book’s second section, “Forcible Touching,” questions the ability of art to respond to trauma. True to form, the poem weaves a variety of narrative voices together, including the advice of a children’s grief counselor, a children’s story about death, the anecdote of an animal control officer whose voice is “Un-American,” and a modern re-telling of the story of Philomel[2]. Throughout, however, more conscious poetic voice lurks within the text:

……………………………….The voice of the shuttle = =

as on a clumsy native loom she wove a brilliant fabric,
working on words in red. When the child colors One day
…………Chipper’s mom told him his sibling
…………had died it is all right
…………to suggest crayons for the blotchy insides
…………of the ears and the blank circles in the eyes
…………that indicate reflection. Unmellow Yell-
…………ow Cool and Crazy Blue. The Animal Control

guy trembled in the one tongue
…………that must do for all his days. I hear the animal soundings.

…………Cage cage scream scream. So pain.
…………In this point I scared. I sad

…………I’m gonna lose job here after.

………………………………………………….(30)

The blend of clinical jargon with broken English, and the application contemporary language to an ancient narrative, plays to the imagery of the Philomel story, while also conforming to the established style of the book (at least in the sense that one can “conform” to a style the strength of which is constant motion, incorporation, and evolution). More importantly, these stylistic jumps enact and reaffirm the impenetrability of narrative, forcing the reader to interrogate just how well narrative can convey trauma, let alone repair it. Nonetheless, the poem concludes “It is a good idea. It is quite surprising” (34).

No subject is explored more thoroughly than parental death and abandonment. The image of a dying mother recurs throughout the book, and especially in the fourth section, which deals with the topic most directly, and which is comprised mainly of elegies; the linguistic experiments, while present, are more restrained here than anywhere else in the book. These poems become a record of the mother’s passing and the child’s anxiety, a perspective in which “the future is a room / so small you can sit in the middle and touch / all the walls” (“Doha Melt-Down Elegy,” 73-74), and where the speaker passes time in the waiting room, editing “a sweat of student essays, changing is to was” (“Still World Nocturne,” 66). The language here becomes conspicuously scientific, making allusions to nuclear energy – a slight tonal shift which emphasizes the cold, post-traumatic space of the clinic. The grief swells and warps, reshaping all previous imagery; by the time the book reaches its ending, the “quietude” and “snow crystals” invited in the opening poem (“Because We Never Practiced With The Escape Chamber,” 11), are invaders, colonizing forces, best kept at bay by writing (“Personal Reactor,” 60); “Make It New,” 83).

The subject matter itself is often grim. And in their way, these lines can take on a bleak dimension of their own, a nihilistic push off the cliff of linguistic certainty. But silence, once it has been confronted, must be pushed out. The “gift” imagery which appears throughout the book reassures the reader, and the speaker as well. A continual appraisal of what a gift is, its purpose and reason and significance, begins in the very first poem and lasts to the very end. It is often mirrored by a self-reflective discussion of writing itself. Having spent the book refining the idea of “gift” – “Love is a gift” (“Triptych For A Topological Heart,” 19); “A gift cannot be cynical / unless the giver is” (“Triptych For A Topological Heart,” 21); “giving it away / doesn’t make a thing a gift” (“Malus Domestica,” 37) – Fulton concludes this thread with the lines “and when you said I gave you what I wanted / myself I gave you what I didn’t want” (“You Own It,” 92). That gift is grief, repurposed into language. Writing becomes a response and a salve for pain, “the fire / that burns fire” (“A Lightenment On New Year’s Eve,” 88). Seeking solace in reading, the speaker of “Doha Melt-Down Elegy” remarks “It was a good book to be lost with. I began taking notes / and by the end realized I’d transcribed every line” (76); that statement is such an accurate description of reading Barely Composed, one cannot help but see it as an anecdote about writing the book, as well. This book, more than most others, has not been completed until it has been read.

The fifth and final section of Barely Composed is fixated on newness – the newness of poetic language, and the newness that defines aftermath. One poem takes its title from Ezra Pound’s famous modernist axiom, and declares “New / breaks the reckoning frame and rests / in pieces,” before requesting “Let me collect its DNA / from the tears on your desk” (“’Make It New’,” 84). “End Fetish,” the last poem in the book, is made up of that DNA – the final line of the previous poems. Taken together, the end-lines serve as an inventory of what it took to crawl through grief, and an index of the gift now being given.

It happens sometimes that a reviewer encounters a book which is smarter than he is. He knows it’s good somehow, but articulating the reason or root of that good-ness is beyond his capability; he is overwhelmed and hyperactive, leaping from one highlight to the next, never pitching down anywhere just long enough, and must be satisfied to say “trust me” until he finally learns his way around. I’ve read Barely Composed a half-dozen times now, maybe more, and I like it a little more every time – each time, the darkness becomes a little more palpable, the structure more instinctual. But the language never becomes less surprising; I plan to reckon with it a few more times at least. Whatever work the reader puts in is well-rewarded here. Trust me.

— Patrick O’Reilly

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Patrick O'Reilly2

Patrick O’Reilly, from Renews, Newfoundland and Labrador, is pursuing an MFA in Writing at the University of Saskatchewan. He earned his BA at St. Thomas University (Fredericton NB), where he was a three-time winner of the Robert Clayton Casto Prize for Poetry. His poetry has appeared in Qwerty, untethered, and Numero Cinq.

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. “In Praise of Difficult Poetry,” Slate, April 23, 2007.
  2. In the story of Philomel, the titular woman is raped by her sister’s husband, who cuts out her tongue; she reports the assault to her sister by weaving the narrative into a tapestry.
May 012015
 

karl ove

Knausgaard peels back his more youthful self’s skin to reveal confusion, desire, and ineptitude without once asking for pity. —Jeff Bursey

MyStruggleBook4_CatCover

My Struggle: Book Four
Karl Ove Knausgaard
Translated by Donald Bartlett
Archipelago Books
Cloth, 485 pp; $27.00
ISBN: 9780914671176

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1. Near the end of the latest installment of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s remarkable auto-fiction sequence collectively titled My Struggle, the nineteen-year-old narrator, angered by his family’s lukewarm reception to his short stories, makes a vow:

I’ll damn well show him [his brother Yngve]. I’ll damn well show the whole fucking world who I am and what I am made of. I’ll crush every single one of them. I’ll render every single one of them speechless. I will. I will. I damn well will. I’ll be so big no one is even close. No one. No. One. Never. Not a chance. I will be the greatest ever. The fucking idiots. I’ll damn well crush every one of them.

I had to be big. I had to be.

If not, I might as well end it all.

Born in 1968, Knausgaard won the Norwegian Critics Prize for Literature for his novel Ut av verden (Out of the World is a literal translation; it’s not available in English) in 1998, marking the first time the award had been won by a first-time author. A little over one year after the bulk of the events in My Struggle: Book Four Knausgaard had, if not crushed his family, established that he had talent. Six years later he proved the first book had not been a fluke when his second novel, En tid for alt (2004)—published by Archipelago as A Time for Everything (2009)—was nominated in 2005 for the Nordic Council Literature Prize, and other awards. He had become a notable writer on the Norwegian scene. The ego on display may be repellant or appear ridiculous, but for many writers the fierceness to exceed expectations can be ugly, and is often phrased in crude ways that most choose not to reveal. This passage, like so much else in the book, displays both the separation of a male teenager from his family as he sets out on his own for the first time, with only himself to rely on, and a confessional quality, without the shadow of catharsis often implied when we term poetry confessional. The statement that he’ll “crush every one of them” reminds us subtly that Min Kamp, the Norwegian title, is Mein Kampf in German, and is uttered with the earnest despair found in teenagers everywhere.

What put Knausgaard on the world stage, where he has been considered for the Nobel, the IMPAC, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, and other prestigious literary trophies, and seen his books published by Archipelago Books in hardback and in paperback under the Vintage brand, is the sequence of startlingly candid (or candid-seeming) works that, as has often been reported, took Norway by storm when they first appeared. Some are doubtful they are read with such intensity elsewhere. English novelist Tim Parks, resident grump for the New York Review of Books, in July 2014 wrote an article looking into how popular Knausgaard’s books are in English, and by implication questioning if they should be:

The curiosity with Knausgaard, then, is that the impression of huge and inevitable success was given not with the precedent of previous international success, but solely on the basis of the book’s remarkable sales in the author’s native Norway. Norway, however, is a country of only 5 million people—a population that is half the size of London’s—and of course the whole tone and content of My Struggle may very well be more immediate and appealing for those who share its language and culture; it is their world that is talked about.

Parks may have been quite right on the sales figures at the time of his article, but he ventures beyond statistical analysis. It’s always good to be reminded, particularly by an Englishman who has lived in Italy for over thirty years (and translated Italo Calvino and Alberto Moravia), that London embodies the British Imperial standard for literature worldwide. The expression “their world” makes it seem that Norway is Mars and its population so unrepresentative and odd—never mind the rhetorical ruse “may very well”—compared to everyone else that their experiences scarcely resemble what people elsewhere go through. By these standards, English readers everywhere can dismiss Grass and Bolaño, Dostoevsky and Goethe. Yet on a trip in February I noticed, in various Canadian airport bookstores, the first three volumes of My Struggle in paperback, clearly meant for a mass audience, perhaps drawn in by the photographs of Knausgaard on the cover of each volume (already repackaged with explanatory titles for the mathematically fearful as, respectively, A Death in the Family, A Man in Love, and Boyhood Island; now there is Dancing in the Dark).

There are at least three notable constants about these books: they have enlivened the spring release season due to the writing power within them; they contain tension even in those passages, or pages, that some might consider editing out; and they set readers off in either the Zadie Smith way (“I just read 200 pages of it and I need the next volume like crack,” she has been reported as tweeting) or with skepticism about the literary merits of depicting seemingly dull affairs. There seems to be little middle ground. The latest volume will not bring those two ends together.

2.

Focusing on his time in a fishing village called Håfjord (population 250) in northern Norway, where the eighteen-year-old Karl Ove, as he is referred to, takes up a job as a first-time school teacher (who “hate[s] all authority”), My Struggle: Book Four explores several themes: the effects of isolation, especially as the hours of darkness increase; the proximity of females both contemporary and underage (thirteen-year-old students); the break-up of his parents’ marriage and the navigation required in two households; his sexual dysfunction; the importance of music and literature; and drinking. This is by no means an exhaustive list. It might be argued that any good novelist could take two or three of those and consider that sufficient material. Knausgaard is nothing if not ambitious, as his own words indicate, and as the preceding volumes have demonstrated he is able to juggle and combine complex topics as well as banal details.

In Book One the narrator freely moved from addressing one time period in his life to discussing others. (This is a feature of all the books.) Among other topics, that volume introduced his first marriage, his feelings towards his children by his second wife (which we see more of in Book Two), and his views on art. But its two main topics take in different stages of his life: the teenage years—bands he likes, friendships, and drinking, with the lowering shadow of his father present at all times—and, in the last two hundred or so pages, how an older Karl Ove and his brother Yngve deal with the death of their father, and the mental decline of their paternal grandmother, in the wretched house they shared. Few pages have stayed with me in the same way as those. A seemingly sad and normal thing—going through a dead man’s possessions and tidying a home—are packed with insights, incident, drama, believable mood swings, and the fear that their father may not be dead at all, with excellent pacing. In Book Two the father is placed to the side, and the emphasis is on how Karl Ove presses ahead with writing against the demands for more time with the family from his second wife, who he loves, and the requirements of their children. This time the narrator has friends with whom he can talk writing, and his world has expanded. As in the first volume, there are scenes of drunkenness and self-denigration. Book Three is about his childhood, and here we are shown, more visibly than before, the cruelty visited on Karl Ove and Yngve by their father, and how their mother rarely intervened.

In each of the previous books there is one major line of tension that runs throughout. In the first and third volumes this is provided by the presence of the father (even when he is absent), and in the second it is generated by what might be termed as the intransigence of Karl Ove to bow to society’s demands that he embrace the role of father and husband above that of an artist. In the newest volume the strain is provided by his actions when teaching (he often feels nervous) and when drunk; he can’t be trusted not to make a misstep or to do something cringe-worthy. Knausgaard peels back his more youthful self’s skin to reveal confusion, desire, and ineptitude without once asking for pity. Karl Ove regularly embarrasses himself by drinking too much and not being able to recall how he got home, and he ejaculates prematurely with every girl he is fortunate enough to have sex with (and for that reason avoids spending too much time with some of them). His attempts to hide the evidence of his emissions from them and from his mother, who does the laundry, can be seen as pathetic or laughable or, usually, somewhere in between. There are frequent scenes where he is sneaky, belligerent, or a thief, and he is prone to tears when caught or called to account for his behaviour. When two male villagers come by his home he is acutely aware of their masculinity, “it filled the whole flat and made me feel weak and girly.” He regards himself as “a kind of freak, a monster…” Only a portion of this can be attributed to normal teenage angst.

Karl Ove is a social misfit who nevertheless becomes quite popular in Håfjord with the young girls he teaches. Lessons begin well enough, but he doesn’t have the training to keep his composure. When three of his thirteen-year-old students, all girls, visit him at his home—a common practice in a small place where children and teenagers look for escape from boredom—he is discomforted. He has already had to hide erections in class. That he is a virgin, a state of affairs he is desperate to change, sharpens the edge of his appetite. Given the Scandinavian setting, one is inclined to think a porn movie will break out at any moment. There are many lines like this one: “[Liv] was walking beside Camilla as I arrived, and she sent me a stolen glance as she turned into the corridor. I eyed her slim firm backside, formed to perfection, and a kind of abyss opened inside me.” Balancing this, he is trusted by a young boy named Jo when they’re out walking the school grounds. “Didn’t he understand how this would look to his classmates, walking around hand in hand with the teacher?” The unpopular boy draws comfort from his teacher, something that Karl Ove notices, and he does not withdraw his hand despite reservations on Jo’s behalf. It requires work on the part of the sensitive teacher to create distance.

Despite his growing interest in one student, Karl Ove does not cross the line. His more important struggle is with what he wants to do with his life. On his first day as a teacher he emerges from a classroom “almost jubilant” at how things went only to realize, a few moments later, that “this was not what I wanted, for Christ’s sake, I was a teacher, was there anything sadder than that?” Against that he sets aside time to write those short stories his family will read, but that time comes between parties and binges, walks and short trips to other communities, and humiliating himself.

3.

Music and literature play significant roles in My Struggle. Book Four shows Karl Ove deepening his appreciation for both, partly as a way of keeping some semblance of familiarity around him in new surroundings, and partly in an effort to extend his knowledge of what is happening in both fields. At age sixteen he had started writing a new music review column for newspapers. “Thanks to music I became someone who was at the forefront, someone you had to admire, not as much as you had to admire those who made the music, admittedly, but as a listener I was in the vanguard.” He brings Roxy Music, Fripp and Eno, David Bowie, Talking Heads, the Smiths, and Simple Minds, as well as Scandinavian bands, to Håfjord, though in his temporary home there are few who regard his taste with the appropriate respect, “but there were circles where it was seen and appreciated. And that was where I was heading.” In literature, his preference is for regional writers and figures more familiar to English readers (Hubert Selby, Jr., Jack Kerouac, and Charles Bukowski), but he wants to be more aware of new thinking about fiction, such as the innovations of Jan Kjærstad in The Big Adventure. When Karl Ove encounters an article on Ulysses for the first time he slots that unread book alongside works by Hermann Broch, Robert Musil, Arnold Schönberg, Thomas Mann, and Knut Hamsun.

The latter plays more than one role here. The quiet, and natural-seeming, introduction of Hamsun occurs in a book that includes the opinion Karl Ove’s paternal grandfather has on refugees: “‘We’ve slogged our guts out and we’ve done well, and now they want to take over. Without lifting a finger. Why should we allow that?’” (171) Unlike his father, Karl Ove is open to helping the refugees. Hamsun’s own views were racist and right wing, in line with many Norwegians of his time and with the ideology of Nazi Germany. “Tolerance has never been Norway’s strong suit,” wrote Adam Shatz in the London Review of Books, discussing two books on the Norwegian mass killer Anders Breivik, who used a bomb and bullets to murder 77 people on 22 July 2011 (injuring many more) in an effort to staunch, in the words of Hugh Eakin, “‘Islamic colonization’ of the country abetted by the Labor Party’s ‘multiculturalist’ immigration policies.” Karl Ove and Yngve drive by both Hamsun’s “Nørholm property” (259) that the narrator remembers visiting with his ninth grade class, and “the old Hotel Norge, where Hamsun had done some of his writing…” He reads Pan (1894) when sixteen and living with his mother. The most substantial literary reference has Karl Ove preferring his countryman over Milan Kundera because “no one went as far into his characters’ worlds as he did, and that was what I preferred, at least in a comparison of these two, the physicality and the realism of Hunger, for example.”

Reviews of earlier volumes of My Struggle (let alone readers of Norwegian) already know that the sixth and final volume has extended essays on Paul Celan and Adolf Hitler. In Knausgaard’s own words, it “…really does end in Norway, with Anders Breivik killing sixty-nine children on Utøya Island. This happened while I was writing… And the novel ends there, in that place, in that collision of the abstract heaven we have above us and our own physical earth. Which is what Breivik’s killings were.” Much of the content of My Struggle seems to have been written in an associative style, but it is hard not to view the use of Hamsun and, by implication, his political views as foreshadowing a castigation of Norwegian attitudes about people who are considered too different from them.

In a recent Paris Review interview with James Wood (No. 211, Winter 2014), Knausgaard speaks directly on matters in Norway:

There is a new kind of moralism evolving, where the obligation is to the language—there are some words you can no longer say and some opinions you no longer can express. This is a kind of make-believe. It makes everybody comfortable, they feel good about themselves, because they mean well—while at the same time there is a whole generation of immigrants locked out from education, work, and privileges and there is anger growing in the part of the population that doesn’t have its voices heard, or whose opinions are considered evil and kept out.

While ideology has little part to play in Book Four, occasionally there are mentions of politics (but not ideology), and Karl Ove sees himself as a radical. He likes to read Hamsun, too. Another contradiction in a work filled with them.

4.

As he states in the quotation at the top of this review, the price of failure to achieve Karl Ove’s sizeable goals is high: “If not, I might as well end it all.” That can’t be taken lightly. His fellow countryman and contemporary, Stig Sæterbakken (1966-2012), wrote: “The need to become intoxicated bears a close affinity to the desire for death. Which itself is in the same family with an incurable Unfähigkeit [inability], […] vis-à-vis the realities of adult life.” At different points Karl Ove describes his blackouts: “…I was in the void of my soul…”; “we slowly but surely got drunker until in the end everything disintegrated and I drifted into a kind of ghost world.” His reliance on alcohol, from age sixteen to nineteen, to make him at ease in the world, could push him down the road to death his father is already traveling. It’s a coping strategy or inheritance he never explicitly notes, preferring to justify (rationalize doesn’t seem quite the right word) drinking to excess: “I drank though, and the more I drank the more it eased my discomfort.” He recalls one “alcoholic high” as similar to “a cool green river flowing through my veins. Everything was in my power.” The kinship to his father is ignored: “It didn’t matter to me that Dad had clearly split into two different personalities, one when he was drinking and one when he wasn’t… it wasn’t something I gave much thought.” (249) Further: “I wanted to steal, drink, smoke hash, and experiment with other drugs… But then there was all the rest of me inside that wanted to be a serious student, a decent son, a good person. If only I could blow that to smithereens!” It isn’t a surprise that the young Karl Ove does not examine the resemblance of his divided nature to that of his father’s; the farthest he can go is to acknowledge that, like his father, he is seen as “unreliable.”

Amid the teaching and the socializing there is fiction to write. Brief summaries are provided of a few of Karl Ove’s stories, and his thinking about how to write matures as time goes on. He vehemently rejects capturing what a friend and fellow teacher calls “‘God’s wondrous creation! All the colors! All the plants!’” Karl Ove replies that nature is “‘a cliché,’” yet that doesn’t mean he refuses to appreciate his surroundings. As the bus he’s on approaches Håfjord, emerging from a tunnel, he has an emotional reaction:

… Between two long rugged chains of mountains, perilously steep and treeless, lay a narrow fjord, and beyond it, like a vast blue plain, the sea.

Ohhh.

The road the bus followed hugged the mountainside. To see as much of the landscape as I could I stood up and crossed to the other row of seats…. The mountains continued for perhaps a kilometer. Closest to us, the slopes were clad in green, but further away they were completely bare and gray and fell away with a sheer drop into the sea.

The bus passed through another grotto-like tunnel. At the other end, on a relatively gentle mountain slope, in a shallow bowl, lay the village, where I would be spending the next year.

Oh my God.

This was spectacular!

There are many such passages that evoke the beauty, and the smallness, of this village, and of the natural beauty that rings it. Perhaps thinking about nature is not as clichéd as writing about it.

5.

During the course of his interview with Knausgaard, James Wood remarked: “It’s obvious enough that in your work the insane attention to objects is an attempt to rescue them from loss, from the loss of meaning. It’s a tragedy of getting older.” (75) There could be more to it than that. Drinking to the point of oblivion, hypersensitivity to the moods of colleagues, friends, strangers and his pupils, hypervigilance when it comes to determining, on an instinctive level, who may be a threat—“Everything that came from the outside was dangerous”—and the compulsion to remember and recount everything, as if doing so would flush out that one memory or insight that would provide an answer to crucial questions, might indicate something else. Towards the end of Book Four, when recalling his time in Håfjord years after he left, Karl Ove wonders: “Did terrible things happen there? Did I do something I shouldn’t have done? Something awful? I mean beyond staggering around drunk and out of control at night?” It’s impossible to say, but taking into account all that he has said in four volumes, and his general nervousness, Karl Ove’s upbringing appears to have been traumatic.

In this book his father’s dictatorial ways diminish in intensity due to alcohol consumption, but the eighteen-year-old Karl Ove is right to remain wary in his company “…because when I observed him, and his eye caught mine, I could sense he was still there, the hardness, the coldness I had grown up with and still feared.” There are many unpleasant scenes, witnessed by the two brothers, involving their father and his new girlfriend, Unni, who becomes his wife. A family discussion between the two brothers and their mother occurs, and in it the mother admits she had blindly followed her husband: “‘…I always saw it from his side, what happened.’” Despite what happened in the past Karl Ove commits to being a good son. That could be regarded as the father having control without even needing to reinforce it, keeping him in line no matter what he did, or it could be an earnest desire to be a better man than his role model. In Knausgaard’s tactile, tumultuous, at times feverish, world both things could be true at the same time. Lines from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” come to mind: “Do I contradict myself?/ Very well then I contradict myself./ (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”

In My Struggle: Book Four Karl Ove Knausgaard has given us yet another packed work about a fragile, fragmented young man who has his first warranted moments of self-belief, but who slips back from confidence into a miserable dungeon of his own making. There are two volumes left, and though we leave Karl Ove in a changed state, with an acceptance at a writing school in Bergen, thanks to the previous volumes we know an easier life does not lie ahead despite material successes. That may be the best news for those enthralled by this universally appealing and astonishing set of works.

—Jeff Bursey

NC
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Jeff Bursey is a Canadian literary critic, and author of the forthcoming picaresque novel Mirrors on which dust has fallen (Verbivoracious Press), and the political satire Verbatim: A Novel (2010), both of which take place in the same fictional Canadian province. His academic criticism has appeared most recently in Henry Miller: New Perspectives (Bloomsbury, 2015), a collection of essays on Miller and his works by various writers. Bursey is a Contributing Editor at The Winnipeg Review and an Associate Editor at Lee Thompson’s Galleon. His reviews have appeared in, among others, American Book Review, Books in Canada, The Quarterly Conversation, Music & Literature, Rain Taxi, The Winnipeg Review and Review of Contemporary Fiction. He makes his home on Prince Edward Island in Canada’s Far East.

Apr 112015
 

19Max Blecher

Adventures in Immediate Irreality is a short, powerful dispatch from the heart of European literary modernism—part idiosyncratic coming-of-age novel, part prose poem to the terrifying intensity of the everyday. The book traces, in retrospect, a series of internal crises a young man undergoes in a provincial Romanian town of the 1920s. —Eric Foley

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Adventures in Immediate Irreality
Max Blecher
Translated by Michael Henry Heim
New Directions, 2015
112 pages ($14.95)
ISBN 9780811217606

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In his Journal 1935–1944: The Fascist Years, Mihail Sebastian recounts a visit he paid to his fellow Romanian writer Max Blecher in September of 1936, the same year Blecher’s first book, Adventures in Immediate Irreality (Întâmplări în irealitatea imediată), was published:

I left overpowered and exhausted. He lives in intimacy with death. Not with the abstract, unclear, long-term death. It’s his death, precise, defined, known in every detail, just as an object . . . I wanted to burst into tears a few times when looking  at him. At night I heard him moaning and screaming in his room, and I felt that there was another person at home with us, maybe death or faith—I don’t know who.

At the time of Sebastian’s visit, Blecher had just turned twenty-seven. He had less than two years left to live.

Born in 1909 in Botoşani and raised in the town of Roman, Max Blecher belongs to a remarkable group of Romanian writers who came of age in the 1930s—a generation that included, among others, Mircea Eliade (b. 1907), Mihail Sebastian (b. 1907), Eugene Ionesco (b. 1909) and Emil Cioran (b. 1911). Like his friend Sebastian, Blecher was born a Romanian Jew, yet neither man was fated to die from the fascist exterminations that demolished nearly half of Romania’s more than 700,000 Jews during World War II. Sebastian survived amidst increasing persecution only to be hit by a truck mere weeks after the Nazis surrendered, dying on May 29, 1945, while Blecher succumbed to spinal tuberculosis at age twenty-eight on May 31, 1938. Blecher had contracted the disease nearly a decade earlier while studying medicine in Paris. Thereafter, he spent his adult life confined to various European sanatoria, and finally to his parents’ estate outside of Roman. His condition required him to wear a painful body cast; the majority of his work was completed while reclining in a state of partial paralysis.

blecher2Max Blecher

Adventures in Immediate Irreality is a short, powerful dispatch from the heart of European literary modernism—part idiosyncratic coming-of-age novel, part prose poem to the terrifying intensity of the everyday. The book traces, in retrospect, a series of internal crises a young man undergoes in a provincial Romanian town of the 1920s. It’s the kind of place that gives the unnamed narrator “the vague feeling that nothing in the world can come to fruition,” and a time in his life when he has nothing to do “but saunter through parks, through dusty clearings burnt by the sun, desolate and wild.” Although they coincide with the onset of adolescence, the narrator’s crises have little to do with the usual growing pains. Rather, they stem from a profound confusion between his internal and external worlds. The crises arise particularly through the young man’s interaction with objects, what Blecher refers to as brute matter. “I had nothing to separate me from the world,” the narrator tells us, “everything around me invaded from head to toe; my skin might as well have been a sieve.”

Eugene Ionesco referred to Blecher as “the Romanian Kafka,” while others have compared his work to that of Bruno Schulz, Marcel Proust, and the French Surrealists (Blecher corresponded with André Breton, not to mention André Gide and Martin Heidegger). Adventures in Immediate Irreality reads like a searing combination of Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground and Sadegh Hedayat’s The Blind Owl (a book Blecher could not possibly have read), yet Blecher also possesses a great deal of originality as a writer. His use of similes, for example, brings an unexpected depth to his images. As Herta Muller points out in her introduction, “Blecher’s eroticism of perception requires the constant comparison of one thing with a hitherto unimaginable other.” You know you’re reading an unusual work of literature when the narrator doesn’t bother to describe his appearance until the book is more than half over:

I was tall, thin, and pale. My spindly neck rose awkwardly out of my tunic. My long arms hung from my sleeves like newly skinned animals. My pockets so bulged with papers and objects that I could scarcely extract a handkerchief to wipe the dust off my shoes when I arrived in the ‘city center.’

The simile here—arms that hang like newly skinned animals—is visually appropriate, in keeping with Blecher’s death-haunted prose, while simultaneously conjuring the image of a boy who feels he has been violently thrust into adolescence. The simile also evokes the narrator’s extreme sensitivity: this is a young man who lacks the ordinary layer of protection between himself and the world that others possess. Earlier in the novel, he tells us: “It was what was most humdrum and familiar in the objects that disturbed me most. The habit of being seen so many times must have worn out their thin skins, and they sometimes looked flayed and bloody to me—and alive, ineffably alive.” If the narrator’s arms are like flayed animals, so are the objects that surround him. Both are skinned yet “ineffably alive,” forced beyond their comprehension to participate in this thing we call life. Nearly all of the objects the main character perceives so intensely come from the human world. Even the landscapes he interacts with have been shaped by people:

There was another cursed place at the other end of town on the high, loose banks   of the river where my friends and I would go to bathe. At one point the bank had caved in. Just above it there was a factory that made oil from sunflower seeds. The workers would throw the discarded seed husks into the section of the bank that had caved in, and over time, the pile grew so high that it formed a slope of dry husks extending from the top of the bank to the water’s edge.

My playmates would descend to the water along that slope, cautiously, holding one another by the hand, sinking their feet deep into the carpet of rotten matter. The walls of the high bank on either side of the slope were steep and full of outlandish irregularities—long, fine channels sculpted by the rain, arabesque-like but as hideous as poorly healed scars, veritable tatters of the clay’s flesh, horrible gaping wounds. It was between these walls, which made such an impression on me, that I too climbed down to the water.

One of Blecher’s great themes is the intensity of perception, particularly as regards the faculty of sight. His prose wrestles with the call and the challenge of the visible world: “Such is what I had to struggle with, what implacably opposed me: the ordinary look of things.” An individual of the narrator’s uncommon sensitivity might have encountered such crises in any era, but Blecher came of age in the 1920s, and his book is awash with reference to the technologies, old and new, that proliferated at that time; photography, cinema, chemical experiments, mirrors, and waxworks all provide the narrator with reflections of the unreality that surrounds and inhabits him. They also provide him with the opportunity to repeatedly, playfully, interrogate the process of mimesis. Blecher’s narrator sees imitations as paradoxically more “real” than life itself: “The bullet-riddled, blood-stained uniform of a sad, sallow Austrian archduke”, he tells us, “was infinitely more tragic that any real death.”

Early on, in what could stand as a central trope of the book, the narrator watches a young woman apply her make-up. “The mirror was so old that the polish had completely worn off in places and actual objects showed here and there through the back of the mirror, merging with the reflected images as in a double exposure.” This is only one of numerous occasions where Blecher presents us with an image of a world that consistently breaks through the attempt to represent it. Blecher’s acute awareness of such crises of perception and representation, as well as his articulation of the necessity of searching for new means to express them, is one of the hallmarks of modernism:

Ordinary words lose their validity at certain depths of the soul. Here I am, trying to give an exact description of my crises, and all I can come up with are images. The magic word that might convey their essence would have to borrow from the essences of other aspects of life, distill a new scent from a judicious combination of them.

Throughout the book, Blecher blurs the line between representation and what is represented, calling into question both the act of perception and the act of rendering what one perceives in language. In the context of this interrogation of mimesis, it is perhaps worth remembering that 1936, when Adventures in Immediate Irreality was published, was also the year Erich Auerbach began teaching at the Turkish State University in Istanbul, where he would eventually write his epic Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. For Blecher, mimesis is always deliciously bound up in materiality. Here is how the narrator describes a movie-going experience in his hometown:

One day the cinema caught fire. The film tore and immediately went up in flames, which for several seconds raged on the screen like a filmed warning that the place was on fire as well as a logical continuation of the medium’s mission to give the news, which mission it was now carrying out to perfection by reporting the latest and most exciting event in town: its own combustion.

Scenes like this have led Andrei Codrescu, rightly, to call Max Blecher “a recording diagnostician of a type the twentieth century had not yet fully birthed”.

Blecher’s episodes flow not according to chronology, but via the associative logic of memory. By the end of the book, the narrator has even undergone a change of sorts, thus satisfying the requirements of a conventional narrative, yet this is hardly the point of the book. The real pleasure of Adventures in Immediate Irreality lies in how miraculously and minutely Blecher conjures a series of vanished surfaces—bringing an idiosyncratic collection of people, places, and objects to life while remaining focused on the question that Beckett’s Molloy asks: And what do I mean by seeing and seeing again? The “seeing again,” of course, refers to the process of memory.

If the provincial town the narrator inhabits seems at times excessively strange, perhaps many places were once so, before globalization. Indeed, one of many reasons to read this book is for a glorious reminder of just how unusual our planet once was. Blecher excels, in particular, at portraying how one layer of reality can quickly give way to another:

Once, as a child, I was present at the exhumation of a corpse, a woman who had died young and had been buried in her wedding gown. The silk bodice was a mess of long filthy rags, and what remained of the embroidery had mixed with the soil. Her face was more or less intact, however, and one could make out nearly all her features even if the head had turned purple and seemed modeled out of cardboard that had been soaked in water.

Someone ran his hand over the face as the coffin was being raised out of the ground. All present were in for a terrible surprise: what we had taken for a well-preserved face was nothing but a layer of mold about two inches thick. The mold had replaced its skin and flesh down to the bones, thus reproducing its form.  There was nothing but the bare skeleton underneath.

This is a world that will never come again, a world that may never even fully have existed except inside of one young man, but the beauty of literature is that it has been preserved for us, so that we may partake of it repeatedly, in all its strange melancholy.

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One further reason to read the newest edition of Adventures in Immediate Irreality is to witness a literary translator at the height of his powers. This was one of the last projects Michael Henry Heim completed before his death in 2012. In order to demonstrate the degree to which Heim has succeeded in breathing new life into this English version, I’d like to take a closer look at the passage from Blecher’s original where the narrator finally gives a physical account of himself:

Eram un băiat înalt, slab, palid, cu gâtul subțire ieșind din gulerul prea larg al tunicei. Mâinile lungi atârnau dincolo de haină ca niște animale proaspăt jupuite. Buzunarele plezneau de hârtii și obiecte. Cu greu găseam în fundul lor batista pentru a-mi șterge ghetele de praf, când veneam în străzile din „centru”.

Here is Alistair Ian Blyth’s respectful, highly competent translation, published as Occurrence in the Immediate Unreality by University of Plymouth Press in 2009:

I was a tall, thin, pale boy, with a slender throat poking from the overly large collar of my tunic. My long hands dangled below my jacket like freshly flayed animals. My pockets bulged with objects and bits of paper. I used to have a hard time retrieving a handkerchief from the bottom of these pockets to wipe the dust off my boots, when I reached the streets of the ‘centre.’

And here, once more, is Heim’s version:

I was tall, thin, and pale. My spindly neck rose awkwardly out of my tunic. My  long arms hung from my sleeves like newly skinned animals. My pockets so bulged with papers and objects that I could scarcely extract a handkerchief to wipe the dust off my shoes when I arrived in the ‘city center.’

As we can see, Blyth is much more faithful than Heim to the syntax of the original, following Blecher almost word-for-word. In Blecher’s second sentence, for example, the Romanian word “Mâinile” unquestionably means “hands”, while “proaspăt” would indeed most commonly be translated as “fresh.” Heim inserts a period in the first sentence where Blecher employs a comma, and he omits the word “boy” (băiat) altogether. Interestingly, Heim turns Blecher’s final two sentences into one long one, thus retaining the same number of sentences (4) in the paragraph. Yet in taking such liberties, Heim arrives at a version that reads more crisply and elegantly in English. I would also argue that he succeeds more fully in transmitting the intensity and idiosyncrasy of Blecher’s prose.

“My struggles with uncertainty no longer have a name”; the narrator of Adventures in Immediate Irreality tells us; “all that remains is the simple regret that I found nothing in their depths.” Indeed, life often is sad. We don’t know why we’re alive, or for how long. One goes out for a walk in the street and feels baffled by each thing one sees. Yet sometimes, reading marks left by others on a page or screen, it’s possible to be lifted cleanly away from one’s confusion. Sometimes, if the vision is intense enough, we feel ourselves become more fully alive, our faculties of perception realigned. In such moments the act of existing even acquires a kind of momentary meaning. At the end Adventures in Immediate Irreality, I found myself looking up from the page like Blecher’s narrator:

I would peer around me wide-eyed, but things had lost their usual meaning: they were awash with their new existence. It was as if someone had removed the fine, transparent paper they had been wrapped in till then, and suddenly they looked new beyond words. They seemed destined to be put to new, superior, fantastic uses  beyond my power to divine.

The miracle of Blecher’s writing is the miracle of literature itself: that strange human endeavor that always must occur in “the immediate irreality.”

—Eric Foley

NC
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Eric Foley holds an Honours BA in English and Literary Studies from the University of Toronto and an MFA from Guelph University. He was a finalist for the Random House Creative Writing Award and the Hart House Literary Contest, also winner of Geist Magazine and the White Wall Review’s postcard story contests. You can see his work at Numéro Cinq and InfluencySalon.ca. He divides his time between Toronto and Eastern Europe.

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Apr 102015
 

Mai Al-NakibPhoto by Omar Nakib

Perhaps the strongest element the author shares with her characters is the overwhelming desire to recreate and re-imagine the place where she grew up: a brave, cosmopolitan, outward-looking land that existed not so long ago. —Natalia Sarkissian

Hidden Light Bformat HB (2)Final

The Hidden Light of Objects
by Mai Al-Nakib
Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing, 2014
Winner 2014 Edinburgh International Book Festival First Book Award
US release January 2015
237 pp. $25.00

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KUWAITI AUTHOR MAI AL-NAKIB’S fiction debut, The Hidden Light of Objects—a collection of ten short stories set largely in the Middle East—transports the reader to a land of memory and secrets by way of objects. A Chinese apple, Mr. Potato Head’s smile, a packet of playing cards wrapped in fuchsia paper, a melted candle stub, a carved wooden bear, a stamp, a Kashmiri shawl—all these have the power to whisk readers off to a place or a time that no longer exists. As the narrator in the first story of the collection, “Chinese Apples,” explains:

Story objects are cobwebs across space and time. When you think it has never happened to anyone else before, a story object proves you wrong, though you won’t always know you have been proven wrong. Most people’s stories are hidden away. Objects may provide the only chance—unlikely, impossible though it may be—to unravel kept secrets. [10]

Thus Al-Nakib proceeds to unravel secrets in the stories of the collection using the trope of objects as her lens. In “Echo Twins,” for example, a long-hidden object is both metaphor and synecdoche and answers a central mystery. At age 18, yellow-haired, pale-skinned Kuwaiti twins Mish‘al and Mishari finally receive their absent British father’s legacy: a locked box. On the night of their mother’s death, they sit in the courtyard of their mud brick home, the box between them:

At midnight, in the white light of a moon turning waves into plains of snow, the twins carefully unwrapped their legacy. The muslin, brown from years of wind storms and rain, disintegrated to dust between their fingers. The tin was rusted, the lock no longer locked. The brothers caught their breath as they removed from the box a heavy object not immediately clear in the shadows along the shore. Mish‘al held it up to the moon. [52]

As they pass the long-anticipated object back and forth under the moonlight, they understand that they hold their peripatetic, long-gone father in their hands.

In “Amerika’s Box,” an allegorical tale of Kuwait’s quixotic relationship with the United States, charred objects symbolize the residue of a great loss. When their daughter is five years old, the Ahmeds change their daughter’s name to Amerika, in honor of the nation that routed the Iraqi invaders in the First Gulf War. Amerika soon finds that people are generally exuberant and approving. Only her religion teacher frowns. “An infelicitous name for an infelicitous little girl. You are doomed, my dear.” [197] But Amerika, who pronounces her name “Amreeka,” shrugs off the teacher’s omens. Instead, she watches satellite television, reads Nancy Drew and collects all manner of Americana, twenty-five objects at a time. A Baby Ruth bar, green jellybeans, a folded page from an Archie comic, an Abraham Lincoln penny. She secrets these in a handmade box with twenty-five compartments.

Then the Twin Towers come down and everything changes. Suddenly Amerika’s name and her objects trigger rage and fury. When war comes to the region again, Kuwaitis—now less sympathetic—stay inside, dodging Scud missiles from Iraq. But not Amerika. She dances on the beach with her box full of treasures, tempting fate:

Amerika pulls her box to her chest and dances harder, the wind knitting lace with her hair. She twirls and dips and kicks up her heels, always the letter k at heart. [211]

In the title story, “The Hidden Light of Objects,” a series of objects symbolize and evoke a stolen past. A Kuwaiti mother is abducted by retreating soldiers after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Held in captivity in Iraq for ten years, the mother’s belongings, the objects she loved and left behind in Kuwait, save family members from utter despair. The girls have memorized where their missing mother kept her Betty Crocker cookbook, her string of pearls, her hand-painted champagne flutes. They are meticulous in caring for these things,“[t]heir broken, damaged lives held together by the painstaking placement of objects that belonged to their lost mother.” [236]

Meanwhile, their mother, in her cell in Iraq, remembers the things that belonged to her—her “fine lace pieces from Burano, clumps of silver jewelry from Peshawar, […] [her] mother’s string of delicate pearls.”[234] Each of these objects “embalm[s] the kernels of [her] life.” [234] Thinking of them daily—as if silently worrying prayer beads—offers her hope:

Every one of us had something in that windowless space […] that stood for home. For me it was counting objects. Not quite counting them. Naming them, sorting them into categories, telling their histories, and trying to remember where they would be in my house. […] A litany of objects. My home for a decade. [226-227]

Objects provide the only chance to cling to what is irrevocably gone. In addition, they serve as signposts to chart the future. As Al-Nakib states in a recent interview in Jadaliyya:

Feelings or affects are composed through our encounters with bodies—both animate and inanimate. We often do not pay sufficient attention to the ways in which inanimate objects intersect with animate life or, even further, the ways in which the division between inanimate and animate is a normative construction rather than an essential opposition.

Many of the ten stories involve characters who are either Kuwaiti or are connected to the country. The stories weave familiar events (from the invasion of Kuwait, to the Israeli Palestinian conflict, to the civil war in Lebanon, to the war in Iraq) into their tapestries. However, the focus is not on politics, but on the lives of the people of the region as they are touched by these events.

The stories are framed by ten vignettes that function, as the author herself says, “like Joseph Cornell boxes, little memory capsules” [in an email from the author]. In other words, the vignette/boxes become echo-chamber objects themselves. They revisit moments of the past in order to heighten the narrative that follows. Vignette II, for example, which precedes “The Echo Twins,” describes an age of lost innocence. In the pre-1991 halcyon era, Kuwaiti middle-schoolers take boat trips to the Kuwaiti island of Failaka, with its marble ruins built by Alexander the Great. Continuously inhabited since Alexander’s time, Failaka was forcibly depopulated and mined during the 1990 Iraqi invasion. Likewise, in “The Echo Twins,” innocence is lost; two brothers learn something about their father, and they must move on.

Throughout the book, Al-Nakib’s language of loss is unsentimental yet striking and lush. The author—whose mother tongue is English (it was her Kuwaiti mother’s first language as well)—evokes the land and its inhabitants with unusual juxtapositions, proximities and linguistic contrasts:

Mama Hayat stopped breathing in the early evening, around the hour the sun turns the sky above the horizon the color of a bruise. [29]

In the middle [of the courtyard] was a sheltering sidr tree ringing with sparrows and red-vented bulbuls. [30]

Abla Nada was tightly wound, a pinprick of a woman, with a face as thick as coffee. Her head was securely bandaged in black, a hijab covering her hair, her forehead down to her eyebrows, half her cheeks, and most of her chin. [197]

But she is possibly most exuberant when she writes about language itself:

The grandest thing Amerika learned was the language. Not just English…American. She rolled her tongue around its rs like a parrot, owned its nasal crescendos and punchy confidence. American pried open a world of wonder for Amerika. [199]

This book celebrates Al-Nakib’s love of the English language. Although born in Kuwait, Al-Nakib was just a few months old when her parents moved to London, then to Edinburgh, then to St. Louis, Missouri. When she moved back to Kuwait at age six, her parents enrolled her at the American School of Kuwait. She received a bachelor’s degree in English literature from Kuwait University and then a PhD from Brown University. She is Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Kuwait University.

Much of Al-Nakib’s academic scholarship focuses on cultural politics in the Middle East in relation to the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze. She has absorbed his ideas, “his negotiations about how to live in the world,” so completely that they are part of who she is. “Some people turn to religion to give them faith. But for me it has always been literature and Deleuze.” In her fiction, it is Deleuze’s affirmation of literature as life—as indeterminate becoming and openness—that is most prominent She also identifies Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida as an influence on the collection, though not one she recognized until it was already complete. In Camera Lucida, Barthes tries to recover his dead mother through photographs, accidentally discovering her essence in an unfamiliar picture. Ultimately, the search “is a melancholic exercise,” Al-Nakib explains, “rather than a process of mourning, because you continue to want to hold on to the lost object, to never let it go.”

Although the stories in The Hidden Light of Objects are not strictly autobiographical, the author says that they include autobiographical elements. Perhaps the strongest element the author shares with her characters is the overwhelming desire to recreate and re-imagine the place where she grew up: a brave, cosmopolitan, outward-looking land that existed not so long ago. The author and these stories—her objects—are a pathway to locate the glimmer, the light, the truth of what was and what still may be. These stories are our ticket there and her way home.

—Natalia Sarkissian

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Natalia Sarkissian

Natalia Sarkissian has an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts, an MA in art history and an MBA in finance from The University of Texas at Austin. She has worked at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC and at the Huntington Art Gallery in Austin, Texas. Her writing and photographs have been published in the US and Italy by the University of Texas Press, IPSOA publishers, Numéro Cinq MagazineCorriere della Sera, Tuscany Press, and others. She has been an editor and contributor at Numéro Cinq since 2010.

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Apr 082015
 

Kelly-Link-final-Copyright 2014 Sharona Jacobs PhotographyPhoto Copyright 2014 Sharona Jacobs Photography

Throughout Get in Trouble, Kelly Link dares her characters to make tough decisions, whether it’s stepping into a hurricane or fooling around in an abandoned amusement park, and while these choices vary in their reward for the author’s protagonists, they continue to shock, move, and amaze the reader. — Benjamin Woodard

Get_In_Trouble

Get in Trouble
Kelly Link
Random House
352 pages ($25.00)
ISBN 978-0804179683

 

Fans of her earlier work are well aware of Kelly Link’s ability to transform seemingly straightforward narratives into twisty, haunted masterpieces without tripping over clunky genre switches or bloated reveals. As a writer frequently delving into alternate realities, Link conditions the reader to accept the unexpected through subtle shifts and hints: an unusual moment here, a strange encounter there. Never in her stories do moments of verbal whiplash surface. And, as opposed to the fates of her characters, this storytelling ability has nothing to do with mystical interference: Link simply understands the mechanics of writing at its simplest, structural form, as well as the value of efficiency in language. In fact, she frequently subscribes to a very traditional first act composition—a simple structure perfected in her latest, the superb Get in Trouble—and it’s this skillset that allows her to leap into the fantastic with ease, dropping protagonists in ghostly communities, a superhero’s arms, and pocket universes, while also exploiting various genre tropes to comment on societal issues.

To see Link’s mastery of form in action, look no further than Get in Trouble’s leadoff story, “The Summer People.” Here, Link introduces characters, conflict, and motivation within the story’s first few pages, using nothing but simple, direct first act structure, before introducing the story’s otherworldly elements. Yet, at the same time, she threads small moments of the unusual within these paragraphs to prime the reader for what’s to come. The story: young Fran lives in a vacation town, and as her narrative begins, she is sick with the flu and left home alone after her drunkard father travels to attend a prayer meeting. Before leaving, he instructs her to clean and stock the local summer homes for soon to be arriving out-of-towners. (This, it should be noted, all unfolds in four brief paragraphs.) Soon thereafter, Fran attempts to return to school, yet her fever forces her to take leave, and she receives a ride from her classmate, Ophelia, a “summer person”-turned-full-time-resident of Fran’s town. The pair work together to fix up a vacation house and, upon dropping Fran off at the end of the day, Ophelia decides to act as the sick girl’s nurse.

Up to this point—about 30% of the story has passed—the structure of “The Summer People” efficiently follows a traditional setup. The reader knows the characters, their shared predicament, and their motivations. There are no real stones left unturned. And it is at this point that Link’s writing takes a turn for the strange. Fran plucks three hairs from her head, places them in an envelope, and sends Ophelia to a mysterious house, where she is to leave the hair in exchange for a remedy. Over the next five paragraphs, the narrative jumps lanes, taking the form of a classic haunted house story, full of secrets, magic, and premonitions. However, this transformation feels natural thanks to a combination of elements: Link’s strong commitment to introduction and organization in her first act structure, as well as little oddities sprinkled like powdered sugar in this opening to whet the reader’s appetite. A man on TV throws knives; Fran’s father is described as “a dark shape in a room full of dark shapes;” a toy known as a monkey’s egg wobbles about. Each of these quirks last no more than a passing mention, yet as they pile up, they ready the reader for the eerie circumstances to come.

Several of the stories in Get in Trouble take shape using this method of affixing an uncanny appendage to a rather time-honored frame. “The New Boyfriend” takes the discomfort of teenage love and mistrust into the near future by inserting robotic boyfriends into the mix. In “Secret Identity,” what begins as a tale of an underage girl traveling to meet a much older man takes a sharp turn when she arrives at their rendezvous only to find a convention of dentists and superheroes. And even when Link shifts into a less linear mode of storytelling, like in “I Can See Right Through You,” she clues the reader into the narrative’s unfamiliar path. The story opens with a discussion of filmmaking, and it includes the following:

Film can be put together in any order. Scenes shot in any order of sequence. Take as many takes as you like. Continuity is independent of linear time. Sometimes you aren’t even in the same scene together. (44)

While this commentary ties into the relationship between two characters, who once starred together in a vampire film, it also doubles as a form of metacommentary on the part of Link, who essentially tells the reader to expect an atypical structure. This warning comes early, in the story’s fourth paragraph, and, like her other narrative winks, helps usher the reader through Link’s imagined world.

Perhaps the best story in Get in Trouble is “The Lesson.” It may also be the collection’s most accessible narrative, focusing on Thanh and Harper, a gay couple, their quest to have a child via surrogate, and their trip to a remote island to attend a friend’s wedding. Their surrogate, Naomi, is on bed rest, and Thanh fears that if they leave town for the wedding, “something terrible will happen.” Nevertheless, he and Harper fly off, finding themselves eventually on Bad Claw Island without cell service. The isolation of the environment, combined with the chaos of the upcoming wedding (the bride insists everyone wear wedding dresses to go on a hike; the groom is nowhere to be found, though his colleagues, a shifty bunch, linger about; Bear Claw Lodge, where Thanh and Harper stay, is full of leaks from recent rain, as well as spooky bumps in the night) convinces Thanh that trouble awaits them on the mainland. And as his premonition comes true and Naomi goes into premature labor, this island pandemonium takes on an allegorical meaning: the helpless fear that courses through Thanh’s veins. He has put himself in a powerless situation. In his mind, he has made the wrong decision. Throughout Get in Trouble, Kelly Link dares her characters to make these kinds of tough decisions, whether it’s stepping into a hurricane or fooling around in an abandoned amusement park, and while these choices vary in their reward for the author’s protagonists, they continue to shock, move, and amaze the reader.

— Benjamin Woodard

 

Woodard

Benjamin Woodard lives in Connecticut. His recent fiction has appeared in Cheap PopdecomP magazinE, and Spartan. In addition to Numéro Cinq, his reviews and criticisms have been featured in, or are forthcoming from, The Kenyon ReviewPublishers WeeklyRain Taxi Review of Books, and other fine publications. You can find him at benjaminjwoodard.com and on Twitter.

Apr 052015
 

Kraft and Dutton original-001Richard Kraft & Danielle Dutton

Like a dream, it slips off the binds of the mind, building up structures which differ from those present upon rational waking. — Natalie Helberg

Siglio_Here_Comes_Kitty_Cover

Here Comes Kitty: A Comic Opera
Richard Kraft with Danielle Dutton
Siglio Press
64 pages, Hardback $32.00 CAD
ISBN: 978-1-938221-08-8

 

Richard Kraft and Danielle Dutton’s Here Comes Kitty, a collage project (Kraft’s) with written interludes (Dutton’s), beautifully, wantonly, defies review. Like a dream, it slips off the binds of the mind, building up structures which differ from those present upon rational waking. The images it combines are unlikely bedmates. What it says, if it says anything, it says without concepts. It channels disparate locations and histories into singular, pressurized, visible forms. It could be read in terms of densely layered symbolism, but it would be wrong to side with Freud and insist on an authoritative parsing. How could we render this work which consists of carefully staged collisions, of artful incoherencies, coherent? How could we render the visible using words? We delimit and inevitably limit the unlimited, prodigious thing. We elaborate on it and hope to illumine. We describe and impose analysis. We suggest, even though these genealogies are uncertain, links to what has come before.

In 1933, the Surrealist and former Dadaist Max Ernst travelled to Italy with a suitcase full of wood-engraved illustrations. Some, he had excised from lurid French novels, others, from books on natural science and astronomy. There, over a three-week period, he fused these materials, breaking with his earlier approach to collage by using particular illustrations, in their entirety, as base pictures, which he reconfigured through the superimposition of other images, other bits of paper. The resultant pieces, violent, sexual, and suggestively eldritch—each, in line with the Surrealist spirit, and not unlike Kraft’s collages, ‘a fortuitous encounter of disparate realities’ on a plane ill-suited for them—became the content of Ernst’s Une Semaine de Bonté, which was framed as a collage novel.

Une Semaine is structurally chaotic; this is true of Here Comes Kitty as well. In keeping with the Surrealist’s embrace of Freudian dream-logic and loose associations, there is, to all appearances, no reason for the particular order of pieces found within each of Une Semaine’s seven chapters; in the case of Kraft’s work, there is no reason for the ordering of panels and pages found within the chapter-less text. No reason, but perhaps a rhyme. Repeated characters, symbols and settings lend a degree of coherency to the chaos of the pictorial, seeming anti-narrative in Une Semaine. Here Comes Kitty similarly recycles its motifs; in doing so, it orchestrates a clashing of tropes associated with birth and death, with innocence and sleaziness, with mirth and barbarism.

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While Ernst used multiple found illustrations as base texts for the pieces making up his novel, Richard Kraft has used a single Cold War comic. The comic pits a Polish infiltrator against the Nazis. Here Comes Kitty is then literally built on the back of, and saturated with, a militaristic image repertoire. Yet each subtly bellicose comic panel is also ornamented with images large and miniscule from far more sanguine and even sacred source texts. Kraft has designed each panel loosely on the model of Indian miniature paintings; they are essentially for the eye which craves detail, which wishes to look closely and stall the motion forward that is the narrative impulse. Butterflies and birds, bright red lips and other playfully mismatched body parts are rife. Indian gods and goddesses are present. Mammals, domestic and exotic, run amok. Phalluses are in abundant supply, along with their only slightly less discrete symbols.

Ernst’s collage text is framed explicitly as a novel, but Kraft, punning, has framed his as a ‘comic opera.’ That is, Kraft’s collage looks the part of a comic, though it does not read like one. It is a comic whose panels are abused boundaries. Some images span multiple panels, occluding their borders. Some thought bubbles and speech bubbles do the same. The work’s various word bubbles contain fragmented, sometimes biblical, sometimes utterly random, sometimes oddly fitting, and sometimes onomatopoeic language: A swinging couple is pasted over an officer; the woman twirls in her green dress; her smile looks like it’s about to break; her partner exudes happiness. The officer’s speech reads “THOU DUMB AND DEAF SPIRIT, I CHARGE THEE TO COME OUT OF HIM…” Choir-boy heads from a single source-text, moreover, are scattered throughout to remind us, with a wink, that the text is ‘meant’ to be sung:

Kitty_page_13_11.5_

As collage, which is to say by its very appropriative nature, Kraft’s work sets itself afloat on a sea of references. In this respect it is not unlike a comic opera. Like a comic opera, it satirizes; it renders ideological authority—whether in the text this takes the form of religious icons, particular political figures, or green uniforms—absurd. For Here Comes Kitty, sacred cows are comestibles. Beyond this, the work paints red lipstick on the horrible. It snatches up the horrible and hands it a drink and incorporates it into a Dionysian revel.

Though the book is not, like Ernst’s, divided into formal sections, Danielle Dutton’s poetical prose does disrupt Kraft’s thirty-two-page collage at regular intervals. There are four textual interludes, each of which consists of four pages of writing. The written pages carry on the same associative (or dream) logic that characterizes the collage pages, only of course in a different medium; they also riff off of some of Kraft’s motifs. Each of Dutton’s pages functions as a contained unit with an abstract narrative of its own; a given page’s content only loosely resonates with that of adjacent (written) pages. The sentences which make it up are subtly discontinuous:

I’d begun to feel a direct relation to each of the words I spoke. Mushroom. Angel. Destroyer. Had all this happened before? A small man took my bag. “Think of it as a hotel,” a man with a mustache advised. A chorus of boys was singing. I was sure it had happened before. “Their voices are the voices of angels,” someone called. This was a kind of sickness. I was standing on the grounds. In a certain spot in Germany,” I told the morning group, “you’ll find the longest earthworms in the world.” Someone passed a bottle, but the doctors never saw. “No arms, no legs, no bones!” I cried. One doctor had a headache. One doctor had no neck. “Be happy you’re not dead!” the handsome doctor recalled.

In working with the page as her principal organizing unit, Dutton was also coordinating her contribution with the larger project: Kraft used the page-spread as his unit when designing the ambient “comic”; each panel had to have visual appeal when considered as part of this larger, two-page unit consisting of multiple panels, in addition to capturing the eye on its own. Kraft was also working with a second version of the collage, a bird’s-eye, or god’s-eye version, in which all pieces could be viewed together simultaneously, rather than one after the other, as we would view them in the necessarily sequenced, though decidedly repetitious and non-linear, book form of the project.

Even this book version of the project, however, insofar as, like Ernst’s chapters, it is irrational, insofar as it is not logically apparent why this panel follows that panel, why this page was deemed the rightful successor of that page, dissents to time. Relatedly, it invokes pursuit and voyage as themes, yet confuses procession: The title, Here Comes Kitty, announces the arrival of a possible mammal, a possible guide: “KITTY IS HERE” announces a panel. “Look, it’s a cat!” cries a choir-boy, though there is no cat to be found. Eventually, a recurring cat image is given a speech bubble: “FOLLOW ME!” The collage is riddled with motion motifs. Miniature soldiers and other figures march to and fro, with or against the left-to-right grain of the read. Bodied and disembodied hands are perpetually pointing the reader in incompatible directions. Speedboats and other ships circulate, though they are never navigationally in sync; whatever voyage we have been enjoined to partake in, dizzies: it takes us from land to sea, to land, to sea.

Alchemical tales often begin with journeys. Some feel that the overall structure of Ernst’s Une Semaine is in fact less arbitrary than it appears to be, that the succession of chapters symbolically mirrors the steps involved in the alchemical procedure; alchemy had captured the imaginations of the Surrealists working in the earlier part of the twentieth century. Ernst’s novel explicitly appropriated alchemical symbols, the images associated with its elements: lions and men as the representatives of earth, dragons to evoke fire, women and the sea to bespeak of water, birds to signify air and the seven stages of the alchemical process more generally. Very similar elemental and zoological dimensions are discernible in Here Comes Kitty. Birds are ubiquitous, as are tides and conflagrations. Lions are not alien to this territory, nor is sun and moon imagery.

In the alchemical symbolic, the sun is yoked to sulphur and the moon to mercury. The alchemical process is supposed to culminate in the integration of the sun and the moon, of the masculine and the feminine, into a single androgynous figure. Both Ernst’s novel and Kraft’s comic opera achieve this amalgamation through the free combination of male and female body parts, and Kraft additionally through gender-bending thought bubbles (a male officer’s reads “I am a big girl. I sing! I sing!”). Ernst’s novel also consciously (and cannily) aligns alchemy and collage in order to exploit the former’s allegorical pertinence to the latter: in alchemy, a base of primary matter is destroyed, recombined, and purified to produce gold or silver. In collage, essentially the same thing occurs, only it is a source text which is aesthetically re-particularized. Here Comes Kitty is not interested in rehashing this connection, for the idea has been done already; however, it does stand at the edge of itself, emanating a related but original form of molecular intensity:

Kitty_page_11_11.5_ (2)

There is a kind of unbridled pleasure circulating through Here Comes Kitty. Its intrigue is addictive. It is serene and cataclysmic. It is spiritual, yet sinister. It is all delinquent-joy and death-drive, and yet it is equally inexhaustible, incessantly generating: There is a choir-boy’s head on the last page, gobbling wieners. He seems to be in a wooded area. The white rabbit says “HURRAH! LET US PLAY.” The owl says ‘abandon ship.’ The panel commands us to ‘set fire,’ and then to hush up and wait.

— Natalie Helberg


Richard Kraft
is a multi-disciplinary artist based in Los Angeles. He has produced video, collage, photography and performance art. His work privileges open fields of meaning; it defamiliarizes by making use of incongruity and paradox. Kraft has exhibited in various galleries (Charlie James, LA Louver, Rosamund Felsen) and non-profit spaces (the Portland Art Museum, Bemis Center for Contemporary Art, the Photographic Resource Center, and the Laguna Art Museum). Richard has also co-authored a chapbook, In the Air (2013), with Peter Gizzi, which was released by Manor House.

Danielle Dutton is the author of Attempts at a Life, a collection of lyrical narratives, and an experimental novel, S P R A W L, which was a finalist for the Believer Book Award in 2011. Her work has appeared in numerous journals and has also been anthologized in A Best of Fence and I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing by Women. Dutton has worked in the capacities of managing editor, production manager, and book designer for Dalkey Archive Press. In 2010, Dutton founded the acclaimed experimental small press, Dorothy, a publishing project. 

helberg pic

Natalie Helberg completed an MFA in Creative Writing with the University of Guelph in 2013. She is currently studying philosophy at the University of Toronto. Some of her experimental work has appeared on InfluencySalon.ca and in Canadian Literature. She is (still) working on a hybrid novel.

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Mar 112015
 

AVT_Edouard-Leve_8970

Few proper names appear in the book. No dateline attends the stories. Locations generally unspecified. It’s a newspaper, sans columns, a readymade novel, one event follows another. And like any daily newspaper, Newspaper can be riveting reading, and at other times dry (deliberately so) to the point of numbing.
—Jason DeYoung

Newspaper

Newspaper
Edouard Levé
Translated by Jan Steyn & Caite Dolan-Leach
Dalkey Archive Press, 2015
$13.95

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“Approximately twenty people have died in a suicide bombing at a seaside resort hotel.”

“Two young people, ages sixteen and eighteen, are being investigate for the rape and murder of a sixty-night year old grandmother.”

“High-speed trains are once again running late.”

“A simulated airplane crash has gone badly wrong.”

“Internet site seeks numerologists and astrologists. Work from home, flexible hours. Urgent.”

“The rains that have been sweeping over the west since early this morning are moving across the region.”

Such is the news in Edouard Levé’s Newspaper, a 124-page fictional newspaper packaged as a book. Organized into eleven sections—International, Society, Economics, Science & Technology, Classifieds, Weather, Sports, Arts & Culture, etc.—each part is comprised of individual news stories or items of interest. Few proper names appear in the book. No dateline attends the stories. Locations generally unspecified. It’s a newspaper, sans columns, a readymade novel, one event follows another. And like any daily newspaper, Newspaper can be riveting reading, and at other times dry (deliberately so)  to the point of numbing.

Newspaper is Edouard Levé’s second ‘novel’ but his fourth book to be translated into English and published by Dalkey Archive Press. The first book was Suicide in 2008, followed by Autoportrait in 2012 (which I reviewed for Numéro Cinq) and Works in 2014. Owing a self-acknowledged debt to George Perec, a founding member of the Oulipo (short for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle—”workshop of potential literature”) Levé’s work is often formal experiments that reframe reality and bring into focus the fragmentary nature of memory. In his books Suicide and Autoportrait, he writes pointillisticly, without the traditional patterns and techniques of fiction, and the sentences seem written down at random. Works is a catalogue of 533 ideas for future art works—some he completed, most he didn’t (Levé committed suicide in 2007). What these singular books explore is a kind of aesthetics of the incomprehensible as it acknowledges the multiplicities within its author and his world.

As a book, Newspaper plays with some of these same ideas, and stands as an intriguing testament of life in the early aughts (it was first published in France in 2004). Themes of power and death and terrorism dominate the international news. Suicide, murder, rape, pedophilia, robbery, white-collar crime fill out the local news. The economic report is all about interest rates and household consumption, worker strikes and worker rights, money laundering and a downturn in the market. Science & Technology fills us in on meningitis scares and radiation exposures, experiments with human cloning and risings in average yearly temperature. And so on, with the banality of good and bad weather, triumphs and letdowns in sports, the weirdness of the classifieds ads, births and deaths, the smallness of arts and culture reporting. Finally the book peters out with its Entertainment Guide and Television listings. How do you want to spend your time? Naval sculptures in the morning, a film about parallel universes in the afternoon, and tonight we can check our lottery number at 8:25 before getting to the sports update and then falling to sleep while watching the nine o’clock movie. What’s it about? A woman who is “a member of a narcotics agency, [who] picks up a little extra money serving as bate for the vice squad.” I hear she’ll be scantily clad and heavily made up.

It could easily be today’s paper.

Like most of Levé work, Newspaper leads to speculation about how to read it: it is one thing that pretends to be another after all, and the mind wants to resolve this discrepancy. Before the publication of his novels, Levé was better known as a conceptual photographer. His photographs were often composed scenes that were not as transparent as their titles would suggest, as in his collection Pornography in which models, fully clothed, contort into sexual positions, or his collection Rugby, a series of photographs of men in business attire playing the titular sport. In both, the photos represent an action but are not the real thing. As Jan Steyn points out in the Afterward to Suicide: “We cannot see such images and naively believe in the objective realism to which photography all too easily lays claim: we no longer take such photos to show the truth.”

eEdouard-levésperet1Edouard Levé, Pornography

The college-like, frame-by-frame structure of a newspaper surely appealed to Levé’s sensibilities. In Autoportrait he says his own memory is like a disco ball, and in Suicide he goes a bit further in explaining his understanding of perception:

A dictionary resembles the world more than a novel does, because the world is not a coherent sequence of actions but a constellation of things perceived. It is looked at, unrelated things congregate, and geographic proximity gives them meaning. If event follow each other, they are believed to be a story. But in a dictionary time doesn’t exist: ABC is neither more or less chronological than BCA.

As with a dictionary, the daily newspaper is a fragmented view; instead of the potentialities of words, however, it’s a portrait of worldly and local events. Just as with his photography, Newspaper rejects “objective realism,” ironically by posing as something we often consider (perhaps incorrectly) to be the realest of the real. But the map isn’t the territory. Newspaper is an artifact that represents the on-goings of the world… as determined by whom?  In many ways, Newspaper reminds me of Alfredo Jaar’s Newsweek.

As a formal experiment, Newspaper is worth reading. Unlike common novels, its impartial and unadorned prose evades interpretation, while still revealing a human comedy. Here are two examples:

…The former dictator is coming back into style. The municipality, in agreement with the hotel-owner’s union, is promoting this image, hoping that this ‘fashionable’ dictator will attract tourists to the area. The leader’s former residence, which was commandeered from a rich family whose son committed suicide rather than collaborate with the regime, has been transformed into a five-start hotel wherein delighted tourists pay the equivalent of one month’s salary to spend one night in the ‘big man’s’ bedroom suite. The national poet responsible for writing all the dictator’s speeches lived nearby; his former chateau welcomes two hundred thousand visitors each year.

The government has stepped down from the power and the departing prime minister has formed a new cabinet. This new government, in which the prime minister is also the minister of defense, no longer includes any deputy prime minister. The ministers of home affairs and of foreign affairs have switched roles. The ambassador to an important nation has become the new head of diplomacy, and the home affairs minister’s chief of staff is now himself the minister.

Yes, there’s humor here, yet it doesn’t come with a gentle touch, but as an unsteady a last resort. By removing the context from these stories (and removing himself as a narrator) Levé shows a kind of stark gory truth about people—their avarice, chicanery, vice. There are very few stories here about kindness or selflessness. But the daily newspaper doesn’t report that anyway. Conflict, hopefully bloody, is what readers want, right? All the same, words like terrorist, minister, dictator are tossed around, but we are not made privy to who decided upon these terms, and the lack of history and understanding puts us at odds with what we’re reading. Ambiguity turns this world on its head. One of the things Newspaper seems to ask is do we really have understanding of our world or just a craving for spectacle.

In a small essay called “Approaches to What?” George Perec writes: “Has the newspaper told us anything except: not to worry, as you can see life exists, with its ups and its downs, things happen, as you can see.” Perec had a scornful view of daily newspapers, and I wondered while I read Newspaper if Levé didn’t feel similarly. The ‘novel’ didn’t move me in any way except toward the bigness of life and its confusion and its ultimate banality. What Newspaper provides is an oblique view of a ghostly and incomplete world. We all know more goes on that what is reported. What’s been left out? I cannot say whether I liked Newspaper. It’s not that kind of book. Like and dislike don’t really seem to matter, just as with a regular newspaper—generally criticized for its coverage and less as an entertainment.

—Jason DeYoung

NC

jason

Jason DeYoung lives in Atlanta, Georgia. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous publications, including Booth, REAL: Regarding Arts & Letters, Corium, The Austin Review (web), The Los Angeles Review, New Orleans Review, Monkeybicycle, Music & Literature (web), and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Best American Mystery Stories 2012. He is a Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq Magazine.

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