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.

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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).

*

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

 

Searfoorce small pic

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

 

Julian_pic

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

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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.

Kitty_page_28_11.5_

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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Mar 042015
 

perec

Meaningless, nothingness, lack of understanding, and events sans repercussions. As translator David Bellos makes clear, this novel captures more than a taste for graphic death. It reflects a substantial debate, summed up in a work on authenticity and inauthenticity by Jean-Paul Sartre titled (in English) Anti-Semite and Jew. –Jeff Bursey

il condottiere

Portrait of a Man Known as Il Condottiere
Georges Perec
Trans. David Bellos
University of Chicago Press
Cloth, 144 pp., $20.00
ISBN: 9780226054254

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1. OVER THE LAST number of years small presses have been addressing gaps in the knowledge of English-language readers when it comes to the shorter works of the acclaimed French writer Georges Perec (1936-1982), best known for his novel Life A User’s Manual (1978; translated into English in 1987), by issuing An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris (2010), The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise (2011), La Boutique Obscure: 124 Dreams (2013), and I Remember (2014). Now we have his first novel, Portrait of a Man. In 1960 it was rewritten for the publishing house Gallimard, who had issued a contract and paid royalties ahead of receiving the completed work. According to David Bellos, when Perec finished revising it he affixed these words to the typescript: “YOU’LL HAVE TO PAY ME LOADS IF YOU WANT ME TO START IT OVER AGAIN.” Even after that effort the manuscript failed to succeed, and it gradually fell out of sight until rediscovered by Bellos while he wrote Georges Perec: A Life in Words (1993; rev. 1995). In 1960 Perec predicted that his first novel would experience one of two fates: either he would revisit it in later years and turn it into a “‘masterpiece’” or he would “‘wait in my grave until one of my faithful exegetes comes across it in an old trunk… and brings it out.’” There’s no word on if the former approach was tried, but as Bellos says, “it’s not like anything else that he wrote,” and perhaps there was no way for the Perec we are more familiar with to venture back to that earlier version of his writer self. (What goes unexplained is why it took until 2012 for the novel to appear in French.)

The plot of the book is simple. Gaspard Winckler, a forger of painters, works for a group run by the shadowy Anatole Madera. After 12 years in this occupation, preceded by four as an apprentice to Jérôme, an older forger who also works for Madera, Winckler chooses, as his next task, to create a painting supposedly by Antonella da Messina, based on the latter’s Portrait of a Man known as Il Condottiere (1475). This new work would have to come from Winckler’s soul and not be a technical exercise, yet having inhabited for years the habits and work of other painters, it is not going to be easy for him to find out who he really is. In addition to burying himself in studies of the esoteric natures of painting, wood, and visual perspectives over the ages, Winckler has been cut off from people and world events since he started his career as a posturer in 1947. What he runs into is a blunt fact: masterpieces can’t be willed into existence, and originality doesn’t emerge based on wishes. The failure of his attempt leads him—or rather, it may be one of the reasons—to rebel against his employer, and to do that he must commit an act that irrevocably cuts him off from his former life. He kills Madera, and then flees the isolated house that contained his laboratory.

Portrait of a Man is divided into two parts: the first describes Gaspard’s attempt to escape from his past; the second is comprised of a set of chapters where he tries to describe, to an inquisitive friend named Streten who is sheltering him, what he had done and why, how he entered into a lucrative career, and what propelled him out of it. Part I is filled with action and pell-mell sentences, and for a while it seems like this novel will fall into a pattern found in the “detective novels” Winckler reads now and then for mental release from the pressures of work. (This puts in mind We Always Treat Women Too Well [1947] by Raymond Queneau, written under a pseudonym, Sally Mara. Apart from being set in Dublin in the mid-1910s and using names found in James Joyce’s Ulysses, this novel ramped up, in protest and with deliberate irony, the violence and sex present in gangster novels then popular in France. Perec and Queneau were friends and members of Oulipo.) The opening lines of Portrait of a Man are startling for their pulpiness:

Madera was heavy. I grabbed him by the armpits and went backwards down the stairs to the laboratory. His feet bounced from tread to tread in a staccato rhythm that matched my own unsteady descent, thumping and banging around the narrow stairwell. Our shadows danced on the walls. Blood was still flowing, all sticky, seeping from the soaking wet towel, rapidly forming drips on the silk lapels, then disappearing into the folds of the jacket, like trails of slightly glinting snot side-racked by the slightest roughness in the fabric, sometimes accumulating into drops that fell to the floor and exploded into star-shaped stains. I let him slump at the bottom of the stairs, right next to the laboratory door, and then went back up to fetch the razor and to mop up the bloodstains before Otto returned.

On the novel’s cover a cascade of crimson obscures the top half of the Antonella painting that gives the novel its title; and that passage, with its shadows, the descent, and that dance, brings to mind the fondness the French have for murder mysteries and Edgar Allan Poe.

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As Bellos makes clear, this novel captures more than a taste for graphic death. It reflects a substantial debate, summed up in a work on authenticity and inauthenticity by Jean-Paul Sartre titled (in English) Anti-Semite and Jew. The figure of the forger bundles that thorny topic together with Perec’s “extensive learning” in art history, the controversy in 1945 surrounding the arrested Dutch art dealer and forger Han van Meegeren (readers of William Gaddis’ The Recognitions [1955] will recall that name and his importance in the creation of that novel), and, to my mind, looks directly at uncomfortable historical events: in the 16 years covered by Winckler’s training and output to his abrupt retirement—so, beginning in 1943—France endured, among other things, the Occupation, collaboration with Nazi Germany, the role of its citizens in sending Jews to death camps, the Resistance, and the violence of the Algerian War (1954-1962). In these atrocities, state scandals, and actions some Frenchmen led false lives. Also, during the Second World War Perec’s father was killed in battle and his mother died either in Auschwitz or on the way to it. It’s impossible to read this book, which in the second half turns into a confession-cum-self-exculpation, without wondering, in a cautious and limited way, how Winckler’s half-life symbolizes an absence within Perec (what he might have been like if his parents had lived) and within the soul of his country.

Unlike the bloody events and fevered prose of Part I, the second part is hesitant and revolves around a set of intellectual and emotional questions. Asked by Streten why he killed Madera, Winckler replies: “‘But I had to wake up one day … It didn’t matter when or where … It happened, it had to. It happened because of Mila [a girl he had some interest in], but it could have happened because of something else. It doesn’t matter.’” Further along Winckler will say: “‘My own story written down once and for all, in a closed circle, with no way out other than dying ten or twenty or thirty years on. Needing to go on to the end without meaning, without necessity …’” Streten, in his search for precise answers—he comes off as a character who has been placed in the wrong novel—pursues what he sees as a vital question:

“Why did you kill Madera?”

“I don’t know … If I knew, I wouldn’t be here … If I’d known, I suppose I wouldn’t have done it … You think it’s easy … You commit an act … You don’t know … you can’t know … you don’t want to know … But after a while it’s behind you … You know you did it … and then …”

“Then what?”

“Then nothing.”

“Why do you say ‘you’?”

“No reason … It doesn’t matter … I killed Madera … And then? It doesn’t make things any simpler … A last act, the least act of all …”
“Just to see …”

“As you say … Just to see what would happen …”

“And what did happen?”

“You can see for yourself … Nothing yet … Perhaps one day something will happen … Something worthwhile …”

Meaningless, nothingness, lack of understanding, and events sans repercussions (Bellos points out that Winckler reappears in Life A User’s Manual)—these are themes returned to, with variations, particularly in Part II. Streten insists this or that “‘doesn’t make sense,’” acutely observes that Winckler “‘pretend[s] to be a victim,’” and repeatedly demands that there be explanations for why his friend behaved as he did, which Winckler argues against: “‘You’d like there to be a solid point of departure, a sudden insight […] There wasn’t any turning point in my existence … There wasn’t a story … There wasn’t even an existence … Of course, if things had been logical […]’”

(As an aside, Perec uses ellipsis to slow the momentum of the second part of Portrait of a Man, and it’s worth noting how the same device, in the hands of Louis-Ferdinand Céline, achieves the complete opposite: in his books those three dots act like stones that trip you down an endless set of stairs at breakneck pace, leaving you breathless, dizzy, and bruised at the fall of the last line.)

Inside the “false world… a world without sense…” occupied by Winckler, where there are no narrative arcs, where he is cocooned from national and world events, where other countries exist as study locations (galleries, libraries, museums) or vacation resorts, where nothing is connected, where the insignificant and the significant weigh the same, and where fate is first invoked and then denied, the forger fitfully dreams of the possibility of a cohesive existence: “To be at long last, in your own right, the captain of your soul and the world in an irrefutable ascent, a single movement towards unity.” Winckler believes he can achieve those aims by painting a new Antonello, with its subject a man who is kin to the Condottiere—a figure who “…has nothing to lose: no friends, no enemies. He is brute force.”—yet who is sufficiently distinct so that experts will accept the forgery. How the painting turns out is not predictable (like so much else in a novel that relies on the words logical, perhaps, nothing, and so on), and the result shows Winckler what he needs to know about himself:

I looked at myself in the mirror in the middle of the night. That was me. That was my face, and my year of struggle and sleepless nights, that oak board and that steel easel, that was my face too, and so were those pots and those hundreds of brushes and the rags and the spots. My story. My fate. A fine caricature of a fate. That was me: anxious and greedy, cruel and mean, with the eyes of a rat. Looking like I thought I was a warlord.

It might be this revelation that is the impetus for the murder and the escape, but as Winckler states numerous times, it could be any reason, or simply something that just happens; even the notion of fate, shaky though it is, could be why his life went along as it did. No final justification or motive will be found, and that debate is a sizeable portion of the content. What is easier to conclude is that in this novel Perec, via Winckler, tends to explain everything (while answering little), leaving less of the pleasurable ambiguity readers might prefer. As Bellos observes: “This is a novel, not an essay. Almost.” The action of the first part is replaced by rambling talk in the second, yet nevertheless, Portrait of a Man is at times an engrossing read, with early hallmarks of the later author—a fascination with exactitude, on painting techniques and on numbers, an intellectual apparatus that undermines the structure of the novel—as well as unusual features that Georges Perec fans will want to encounter for themselves.

—Jeff Bursey

 

Excerpt from Portrait of a Man Known as Il Condottiere
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Bellos makes clear that Perec started educating himself in visual art in the mid-1950s, and proceeded from there. He “visited exhibitions and galleries in Paris and made a trip to Berne to see a large collection of works by Paul Klee,” studied general and scholarly works and catalogues, and engaged in discussion with “Yugoslav art historians he had befriended in Paris…” Using these sources and his imaginative powers, he invested Gaspard Winckler with the language and thought processes that get across the practical, physical, and mental aspects that lie underneath the act of painting, as this extract shows.

—Jeff Bursey

The hardest part obviously was that celebrated tautness in the jaw. It was impossible to pastiche without creating a double, and there was no sense in that. In the end I settled for using Memling’s portrait as my model: a very thick and powerful neck, with the first minute signs of a double chin, very deep eyes, a line on each side of the nose and a fairly thick mouth. I would put the strength into the neck, into the articulation of the head, in the very high and straight way it was held, and in the lips. It was all fine on the drafts. On the trial paintings in gouache it even turned out rather splendidly: a complex melange of Memling and Antonello sufficiently corrected, with a very pure look in the eyes, immediate contours that yielded easily at first and then thickened, became impermeable, turning hard and merciless. No cruelty, no weakness. What I wanted. Pretty much exactly what I was after . . . It was another month before I started really painting. I had to get my pots, brushes and rags ready. I took three days’ rest. I began to paint sitting in the armchair, with my palette within easy reach, and the panel set on the easel with its four corners wrapped in cotton wool and rags so that the metal angles that held it in place would leave no mark. I had an elbow support and a crutch to keep my hand steady, a huge visor to keep the glare of the spots off my eyes, and wore magnifying goggles. An extraordinary set of safety devices. I would paint for twenty minutes and then stop for two hours. I sweated so much I had to change three or four times a day. From then on fear never left me. I don’t know why but I had no confidence at all, I never managed to have a clear vision of what I was trying to do, I couldn’t say what my panel would be like when I’d finished painting it; I wasn’t able to guarantee that it would look like any of the dozens of more or less completed drafts lying around the room. I didn’t understand some of my own details, I was unable to get a grip on the overall project, to recognise it in the smallest touch, to feel it taking shape. I was stumbling onwards, despite the innumerable safeguards I’d set up. Previously, I’d been able to paint any Renaissance picture in a couple of months, but now, after four months’ work, in mid- September, I still had the whole face to do . . .

Reprinted with permission from Portrait of a Man Known as Il Condottiere by Georges Perec. Published by the University of Chicago ©. © 2012 by Éditions du Seuil Introduction and English translation © 2015 by David Bellos. All rights reserved. Published 2015.

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Jeff Bursey is a Canadian literary critic and author of the political satire Verbatim: A Novel (2010). He 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.

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Mar 022015
 

Tom McCarthy
By allowing us to extend our perception to multiple images simultaneously, the image pattern creates a sense of multiplicity, a feeling of participation in a larger, more complex process than our experience in the present allows. That is one of the great rewards of reading, and when a story is crafted with the care and attention to detail like Satin Island, then sometimes, for brief moments, we might recognize something familiar, yet beyond; something we know is true, yet are unable to express. —Frank Richardson

satin-island-cover

Satin Island
Tom McCarthy
Alfred A. Knopf
Hardcover, $24.00, 192 pages
ISBN: 978-0307593955

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S

ATIN ISLAND BEGINS, appropriately, with an epigraph from Stéphane Mallarmé’s “Limited Action.” Beyond anticipating themes and motifs, this epigraph is felicitous for two reasons: first, Mallarme’s symbolist poetry prefigures Tom McCarthy’s multilayered, intricately patterned novels, and second, like the French poet, McCarthy is hailed as his generation’s avant-garde. Now in his mid-forties and living in London, Tom McCarthy has been described as inheriting the literary mantle of unconventional authors such as Alain Robbe-Grillet, Maurice Blanchot, and J. G. Ballard.

Author of the acclaimed novels Men in Space, Remainder (winner of the 2007 Believer Book Award), and C (shortlisted for the 2010 Man Booker Prize and Walter Scott Prize), McCarthy has also published a book of literary criticism (Tintin and the Secret of Literature) and numerous essays. In 2001 McCarthy, with friend Simon Critchley founded the International Necronautical Society, a “semi-fictitious” organization of artists, writers, and philosophers that promotes a diverse range of art projects. McCarthy calls the INS “a literary project . . . played out through the art world.” McCarthy’s newest novel, Satin Island, a palimpsest of meditations on life in the twenty-first century, is as ambitious as it is rewarding.

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The Construct

For now, let’s call the book a novel, the only subtitle not crossed out on the cover of the US edition. Some of the nixed ones? Confession. Treatise. Report. Confession comes closest, for that is the tone that the first-person narrator, known only as U., adopts. U., a 40-something man living in London in contemporary time, an anthropologist by training, works as a corporate ethnographer for “the Company” – the type of business whose least sinister operation might be the personalized pop up ads on your web browser. Consider how U. describes the Company’s Koob-Sassen Project:

It will have had direct effects on you; in fact, there’s probably not a single area of your daily life that it hasn’t, in some way or other, touched on, penetrated, changed; although you probably don’t know this. Not that it was secret. Things like that don’t need to be. They creep under the radar by being boring. (12)

Between U.’s single-initial name and organizations like the Company, the influence of Kafka’s legacy is clear.

Apart from his daily work for the Company, U. has been charged with creating a “Great Report,” a document that will be, in the words of U.’s boss Peyman, “The First and Last Word on our age,” a summary vision of the world, a “brand-new navigation manual.” Flummoxed by his exuberant boss’s request, U. spends most of his time compiling vast dossiers on subjects as diverse as oil spills, parachuting accidents, and the rituals of native Pacific Islanders. Eventually, his research begins to merge with the assignment, and he becomes lost in a quest of anthropological hermeneutics:

What fluid, morphing hybrid could I come up with to be equal to that task? What medium, or media, would it inhabit? Would it tell a story? If so, how, and about what, or whom? If not, how would it all congeal, around what cohere? (71)

U.’s attempt to complete Peyman’s mandate is the nominal plot of the novel. The chronology moves toward a notional present from a moment a few years in the past when U. was stranded in the Turin airport. Except for a few dips into the past, the narrative time is linear. The novel’s form, although of the memoir type, feels scientific, like entries in a lab notebook: fourteen numbered chapters are subdivided into numbered paragraphs designated by decimals (e.g. 1.1, 1.2). There are no other section breaks. The only dialogue is summarized by U. or reported within his paragraphs without quotation marks. As arid as this may seem, it is this very style that McCarthy mines for this novel’s greatest rewards. Like a Chuck Close portrait composed of a thousand painted squares, McCarthy’s mosaic of paragraphs has a gestalt quality – the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Chuck Close, Self Portrait, 1997Chuck Close, Self Portrait, 1997

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Call me U.

McCarthy said in a 2011 interview (The White Review) that his character Serge in C, like Leopold Bloom in Ulysses or Slothrop in Gravity’s Rainbow, is “a kind of prism.” The same could be said of U. – he filters information. When he introduces himself, McCarthy’s protagonist borrows the form of another famous eyewitness with the sentence “Call me U.” But U.’s occupation forces him beyond mere observation of the world; Peyman expects him to synthesize a meaningful interpretation of it. Inevitably, U. fails at his Great Report, for what could U. achieve that would satisfy Peyman’s requirements? Uncertain how to proceed, U. moves from day to day through a haze of depression and mounting obsessions (a signature characteristic for McCarthy’s protagonists). Besides his boss, U.’s only interactions are with his colleague Daniel, his friend Petr, and his girlfriend Madison. U.’s tone can be terse, clinical, the tone of a scientist. For example, when Peyman texts him the news the Company won the lucrative Koob-Sassen Project, U. replies:

Good, I texted. The answer came more quickly this time: Good? That’s it? I deliberated for a few seconds, then sent back a new message: Very good. (7)

But this isn’t U.’s sole voice, and while he may be a scientist by training, his musings are by turn philosophical:

People need foundation myths, some imprint of year zero, a bolt that secures the scaffolding that in turn holds fast the entire architecture of reality . . . (3)

poetic:

as I slipped into a flecked and grainy sleep, oil seemed to lie around the very cloud-patches the wing-lights were illuminating: to lurk within and boost their volume, as though absorbed by them, and to seep out from them as well, in blobs and globules that hovered on their ledges, sat about their folds and crevasses, like so many blackened cherubs. (11)

and mystical:

That final spur, the one that carried skydivers across the threshold, out into the abyss, was faith: faith that it all—the system, in its boundless and unquantifiable entirety—worked, that they’d be gathered up and saved.[1] (78)

Although haunted by the ghost of Camus’s Meursault, especially in his apathetic interpersonal relationships, U.’s character is buoyed up by sentiments such as these and his genuine desire to find meaning.

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A Choir of Images

Several of U.’s favorite subjects are present in the quotes above. The subjects and words McCarthy chose are not accidental. Regarding Ulysses, McCarthy said:

Everything becomes this huge network in which any division between outer space and inner space collapses. There’s a total consistency and continuity. And I love that – it’s what life is actually like. It’s what literature should try and somehow produce. (The White Review)

In Satin Island, McCarthy delineates his own network. U. is obsessed with buffer zones and with domains both outer and inner: a parachutist falls from the sky, oil bubbles up from below, and both meet in the present. Between the poles of outer and inner extremes, U. searches for connections, for the networks that link them together. He compiles dossiers and connects literal strings between images pinned to his walls. The question is, will some “this is it” coalesce? This is what Peyman wants for the Great Report. He wants U. to “name what’s taking place right now” (57).

McCarthy is a master weaver of recurring images, and he does so to great effect in Remainder and C. Repetition of words and ideas in a novel creates patterns of images that lend structural coherence to the story and suffuse it with a poetic quality. Satin Island is a tour de force of interwoven image patterns. The central image pattern is of something lying beneath, some mystery that might be revealed. On the first page, U. is shown thinking about the shroud of Turin, and how the image of Christ (or so it was supposed at the time) emerged after people examined photographic negatives. U. tells us that “We see things shroudedly, as through a veil, an over-pixellated screen” – a metaphor that recurs at the end, framing the novel. If the allusion to Corinthians is extended, then U. might hope, despite seeing the world through a glass darkly, to someday see clearly. Indeed, this is his primary conflict: how to make sense of the world, to see it clearly, to reveal the underlying, secret substrata of existence. While working in his basement office U. hears noises through the ventilation, finds patterns in them, and indulges his imagination:

Sometimes these patterns took on visual forms, like those that so enchanted eighteenth-century scientists when they scattered salt on Chladni plates and, exposing these to various acoustic stimuli, observed the intricate designs that ensued – geometric and symmetrical and so generally perfect that they seemed to betray a universal structure lurking beneath nature’s surface . . . (15) [my emphasis]

Stephen Morris, Square Chladni plateStephen Morris, Square Chladni plate

Such musings on underlying structures, on something hidden beneath a surface occur repeatedly throughout the novel. For example, U.’s job is to “lay bare some kind of inner logic” (21); regarding his hero, the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, U. writes:

Describing sunsets, he saw spun webs of lit-up vapour [sic], a whole architecture of reflective strands that both revealed and hid the source that lay behind them; even landscape seemed to him to withhold, in its layers and strata, some kind of infrastructural master-meaning of which any one layer was a partial, distorted transposition. (28)

Revealed patterns, buried layers, structures hidden beneath – this is the language of McCarthy’s central image pattern. U. imagines giving a presentation on oil spills, claiming “Beneath all these dramas . . . there lies a source code” (103). The oil image repeats often; here in context with Petr’s cancer:

the dark lumps were still pushing up from under the skin’s surface, clouding it . . . . If Petr’s flesh was turning black it was because he’d let the world get right inside him, let it saturate him, until he was so full of it that it was bursting out again . . . (133-134)

All the Company’s actions “creep under the radar,” beneath the perception of the people it affects. Even in rare descriptions of physical movement, McCarthy capitalizes on the pattern: “We pulled into a docking bay beneath this building, parked beneath huge arches and got out” (93). Intersecting with this backbone, this infrastructure, are the recurring images of a different type of mystery, the mystery of faith: parachutists and Vanuatans taking literal leaps of faith; the shroud of Turin; Muslim pilgrims performing the Hajj.

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Mysteries

From U.’s obsessions McCarthy composes a mosaic of images that forms the backbone of the novel. This harmony of images, more than a conventional plot, gives Satin Island its coherence and its poetry. Direct assaults on the mysterious, the ineffable, rarely yield anything but sentimentality. The image patterns that McCarthy creates are a method of approaching the mysteries of the human condition – what U. tries and fails to tap – indirectly.

By allowing us to extend our perception to multiple images simultaneously, the image pattern creates a sense of multiplicity, a feeling of participation in a larger, more complex process than our experience in the present allows. That is one of the great rewards of reading, and when a story is crafted with the care and attention to detail like Satin Island, then sometimes, for brief moments, we might recognize something familiar, yet beyond; something we know is true, yet are unable to express.

McCarthy has spoken of Remainder, C, and Men in Space in terms of the protagonists’ failed transcendence (Interview Magazine). And so it goes for U. But his loss is our gain, for in the wake of his failure to write the Great Report, comes “this not-Report you’re reading now, this offslew of the real, unwritten manuscript” (114). Where U. fails, McCarthy succeeds in letting image patterns work their peculiar magic. Here we can stretch our sensory perception from oil oozing from a cracked pipeline to the cancerous tissue bubbling up under Petr’s skin; here we can imagine a parachutist plummeting to his death at the same time a Vanuatan plunges off a tower in a jungle clearing; here we begin with the image of Christ emerging from the shroud of Turin and end with the image of a ferryboat crossing the river Styx. Here we might make a connection with the mysterious, with some meaning lying beneath the surface of our lives. McCarthy leaves us, not with a confession, manifesto, treatise, or essay, but “a novel.” He might equally have borrowed another line from Mallarmé’s poem and called this peek behind the curtain “a choir of pages.”

—Frank Richardson


Frank Richardson bio pict 2

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.

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Hear McCarthy reading this excerpt in a clip from a promotional film made by the author in collaboration with Johan Grimonprez.
Feb 132015
 

JayRogoff

…a book of love poems with a capital L. Yes, lover to lover, parents and children, but also love of – and honor, respect and compassion for – the earth and all it contains: art, music, birdsong, poetry. Love of the spiritual too  – life itself, including birth and death. —Mary Kathryn Jablonski

RogoffVENERA-cover

Venera: Poems
Jay Rogoff
Louisiana State University Press
84pp. Paperback. $17.95
ISBN9780807154298

 

ON ALL LEVELS, JAY ROGOFF’S VENERA embraces the sacred and profane, beginning with its title, which suggests the extremes of both “venerable” and “venereal.” For those savvy about such obscure things, Venera is also the name of the series of Russian spacecraft that explored the planet Venus. Rogoff has described Venera as a book of love poems, parents and children, lover to lover. The book is a tour de force intellectual rollick through Italy, in terms of its art history. And much more.

To those familiar with Rogoff’s many books of poetry, including, The Art of Gravity (Louisiana State UP, 2011), The Long Fault (Louisiana State UP, 2008), How We Came to Stand on That Shore (River City, 2003), and The Cutoff (Word Works, 1995), his verse is known for its formality, intelligence, and exactitude. He has been the dance critic for The Hopkins Review since 2009. As Visiting Assistant Professor at Skidmore College, he teaches courses from Shakespeare to Modernist Poetry and has published his poems extensively in journals, including Agni, The Georgia Review, The Kenyon Review, The Paris Review, and The Southern Review. 

While Rogoff’s poetry is generally accessible, it can be at times challenging. Having said this, however, it can also be, even in the same erudite, elegant, complex poem — playful, erotic, and at occasional moments, raunchy. Surely, this is not without intent. Upon closer inspection, the reader uncovers complex meter and rhyme structures, including internal rhymes that weld the poems, and clever slant rhymes that unconsciously fuel the senses.

This emotional, intellectual, acrobatic play weaves a tapestry that is quite thrilling. Venera is split exactly in two, and I would submit that the first section, titled “Only Child,” a variety of poems in theme and in structure, is not unlike a seduction, a type of foreplay. It beautifully prepares the reader for the second half of the book, which unfolds as measured, steady and strong. Section one shows the range and versatility of the poet, engages and prepares the reader for the full experience. It is a display comparable to the astounding mating dance of the Bird of Paradise of Papua New Guinea: at times elegant, elaborate, perfected; other times, humorous, yet powerful, in your face even.

Rogoff begins the sequence exploring not only a portrait of the Virgin Mary, but the way in which we view the feminine, in self and other, and in relationship. The poet seems to be subtly coming into a certain sense of social responsibility in his poetry. Indeed, he has remarked about this at recent readings. This maturity can be felt throughout the collection, in which the poems are placed in a larger (art) historical or social context. He does distance himself from engaging in first person emotional drama. This is not to say that Rogoff has lost his ability to be vulnerable and to emotionally engage the reader. For example, his poem “No Dream” maintains its reserve while taking us in a series of questions through the conceit of the dream undreamed. Was it real, or did we imagine it? The poem accomplishes its compelling task in couplets that almost go unnoticed because of deft enjambment and slant rhyme (dream/perfume, erect/conduct, swallow/vanilla, skin/sun, etc):

My lips brushed it – or did I dream
that nape exhaling such perfume,
those fine hairs wicking it erect
in my breath’s breeze to conduct
odors too thick, too sweet to swallow,
pregnant with roses and vanilla?

In section one of Venera we are taken back and forth from the otherworldly to the mundane: from the realm of piano music and paintings to the silverware drawer, from a symphony of birds to the primal bed of intercourse, overheard by a child. In a piece titled “Mother and Child,” he begins in an everyday tone, “Hell of a place to start a family” and later in the poem uses elevated language as beautiful as “They kneel crystal with offerings, their waters / distilled in the effulgence of her face.” Further along it changes again with language describing birth as coarse as “simply undivine, unbearable / a watermelon bursting through her cunt.” Shocking, to experience this shift in the same poem. Surely the poet’s intent.

Rogoff concludes the first section with four poems that squint at our love of life and hint at death. Stellar poems. Like “Life Sentence,” in which a murderer tends daffodils, with grace. It is not only Rogoff’s precise word choice, but also the expert pacing of this poem that is remarkable. And when one is given a life sentence, isn’t it time that is, and should be, notable? The poet writes with authenticity, having worked in prison writing programs in the past. In “Dirty Linen” the absence of the leading character is noted through scent in the poem, primal indeed. And in “Only Child” a woman wakes in the night from a bad dream, and the poem employs a circular rhythm and dialogue between the figures that is magical, almost melding them, concluding on a note that reminds one of the utterly vulnerable tone the poet was able to achieve in his early chapbook Firsthand (the text of which was reprinted in How We Came to Stand on That Shore). A voice one might have missed in the mature poet. Yet it is Rogoff’s restraint that distills the emotion here as it ends the poem:

MMMImagine:
the only child to get you up at night for water
MMis the small child of this visitation —
MMMvoice jingling
MMMlike smashed glass, hand dangling
an eyeless bear —
MMMour child. I cradle you, your back
and bottom sweating in the dark.
MMWe breathe together,
MMMMand the dark at my back
cradles me.

Section one of Venera concludes with “Laughter,” a poem in seven sections, each a tightly woven sonnet. The overall theme is the competition in Florence for the relief bronze Baptistry doors, which were to illustrate the Bible story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac. Like the Renaissance artists demonstrating their skill at its height, so too, the poet shines, and his demonstration of the sonnet form prepares us beautifully for what is to come in section two of his book. The poem’s sequence imaginatively includes a call for entries, a play on the name of Isaac meaning laughter, a description of the scene cast in the doors, a vision of the boy as an animal, and a persona sonnet spoken by Isaac. It is notable how seemingly easily, how expertly, the poet takes on the voices his characters throughout the book: an ex-husband, a kindergartener, a son, a husband, Isaac, and later the Virgin Mary, and the angel in the Annunciation.

And the much-anticipated second section? Here the poet hits his stride. In section two, titled “Venera,” Rogoff delivers 24 sonnet-length poems all with two-word titles the first word of which is “The.” The section begins with three bombshells: “The Reader,” “The Mother,” “The Whore.” All, of course, descriptions of the Virgin Mary – and more. They are also descriptions of a detail in the Ghent altarpiece on the book’s cover, Mary Enthroned, by Jan van Eyck. Other poems in this section examine details of the painting as well. The altarpiece, an early 15th century 12-panel painting has had a compelling history, including fire and theft. Some aspects about it remain a mystery.

As in a number of the poems in this book, Rogoff skillfully takes us from the historic to the contemporary in “The Whore.” He begins with the “Behold the painted woman on her throne” turning the reader’s attention to the historic painting, but Rogoff quickly leaps to a fantasy description of the book on her lap instead (a highly unusual element in the painting), imagining she reads about “angels breathing on the phone, / falling to weightless knees”. As he continues in his cheeky eroticism, we assume the poet addresses the oil painting, “if I could prime under your oily glazes / till your book smacked the floor, I’d wring a cry / from your high throat. Throw off your diadem. / Apprentice me beneath your jeweled hem / to labor in profound, unpainted places”.

Like the altarpiece itself, or any substantial artwork to an avid collector, Rogoff’s poems reveal more with each subsequent reading, and one often gets the feeling that there are subtleties beyond one’s ken that perhaps with research or additional careful study of the work, or simply given time, one could grasp. This is an exciting feeling, a feeling that compels one to read each poem repeatedly, deliberately. An example, which may or may not have been intended by the poet, can be found in the sequencing of the three Mary poems, which begin the second section of the book. They are so powerful together in this position that one almost cannot help but think of them as a female version of the Holy Trinity. When one reads about the Ghent Altarpiece, there is much written about the central panel, Deity Enthroned (immediately to the right of the Mary Enthroned panel), and the debate as to whether the figure there is Christ, God the King, or a representation of the Holy Trinity, marked by the three-tiered crown upon his head.

Masterful, too is the overall sequencing of the poems in this book. There is little to fault. If section one holds one or two weaker poems, perhaps too personal in reference to easily place in the larger context of the book (Who are “Barbara” and “Malcolm” the reader wonders momentarily?), section two has no such issue. The beautiful dénouement of section one, preparing us for the second half, is duplicated in section two, where Rogoff concludes with a beautiful climactic sequence. The poem “The Fountain” is a tribute to the feminine, an absolute Venus poem, which begins, “All things flow from her. We know her tears / create the stinging sea”.

“The Garden,” “The Mirror,” “The Bride,” “The Table,” “The Mirror,” and “The Lover” round out the collection. Art historians reveal that Mary Enthroned shows the Virgin Mary dressed as a bride, and Rogoff speaks of marriage as a mirror in “The Mirror,” when he offers us a redux of many of the images from earlier poems. He sees the Ghent altarpiece painting of the Virgin Mary as a mirror reflecting a mystery and longing for her to “swing her eyes suddenly up”.

Of note in this too-brief section is the gorgeous poem “The Table,” in which the poet envisions the Annunciation from the angel’s point of view:

The angel is in love with her. He wants
to break his contract as the messenger.
He wants to speak for himself. But what terror
in choosing the dreck of human romance,
to feel wing-feathers scatter to the winds;

The poet, as ever, employs enjambment and rhyme with ease and skill. His 10-syllable lines seem like conversational bytes in iambic pentameter, seem human. The exceptions to this meter reveal the angel’s exasperation. The internal rhymes play on the reader’s subconscious mind (break/contract/speak/dreck): the poem is tied together just as the angel is tied to his duty, which he must carry out. If the first section contained poems that alternated sacred and profane, section two more often seems to meld the sacred and profane within the single poem, as seen in these two examples, a painting of a virgin we imagine to be reading a racy novel, exciting the poet (simultaneously exciting us?), and the notion of an angel who wants to be human so that he can fall into earthly love.

In “The Lover” Rogoff concludes the book with a poem that harkens back to the Shakespearean tradition, which has been subtly building with each sonnet in the collection. Familiar to almost all of us, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day”), arguably one of the most exquisite love poems of all time, ends: “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, / so long lives this, and this gives life to thee.” Shakespeare implicates the poem’s power in keeping the beloved alive.

Similarly, as Rogoff ends his collection, we again we see him plead with the figure in the painting to look up. Then he turns the tables upside down and imagines her engrossed in the reading his very poems! But wait. Is he speaking to the woman in the painting or to us when he says, “Lift your … eyes off that page”? And so we think of the poet imaging the reader (us!) also absorbed in the poems. There is sublime transfiguration here. An amazing climax – leaving us both thoroughly satisfied and wanting more.

Lift your luxurious eyes off that page.
Nothing there can save us from the ravage
of the skin’s quick touch into bones – old themes
crumbling our entwined bodies downward grace-
lessly. What remains! – absorbed by your face
absorbed in the reading of these poems.

While the poems in Venera may seem at first glance to be ekphrastic, Rogoff instead uses the Ghent altarpiece as a touchstone for the poems, allowing him to play with sacred themes. This is a perfect fit for the sense of responsibility to the larger world he hopes to address through his work as he matures. To call Venera a book of love poems is an oversimplification, for it is a book of love poems with a capital L. Yes, lover to lover, parents and children, but also love of – and honor, respect and compassion for – the earth and all it contains: art, music, birdsong, poetry. Love of the spiritual too  – life itself, including birth and death.

—Mary Kathryn Jablonski

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Mary Kathryn Jablonski

Mary Kathryn Jablonski is a Contributor at Numéro Cinq, a gallerist in Saratoga Springs, a visual artist and a poet, author of the chapbook To the Husband I Have Not Yet Met (APD Press, 2008). Her poems have appeared in numerous literary journals including Salmagundi, Slipstream, Beloit Poetry Journal, and Blueline. Her artwork has been widely exhibited throughout the Northeast and is held in private and public collections.

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Feb 122015
 

Susan Paddon

This is a reminder that it’s foolhardy to demand like-ability or noble stoicism from our narrators, because one of the strengths of this book is Paddon’s depiction of Susan’s growth from a figure of self-pity, to one who is both sympathetic and sympathizing. —Patrick O’Reilly

Two Tragedies cover

Two Tragedies in 429 Breaths
Susan Paddon
Brick Books
96 pp., $20
ISBN 1-926829-94-8

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THE MOTHER IS DYING, and soon. There are few new memories to be made, no place to keep them, and no time at all for rehashing half-forgotten romances and arguments. But what Susan wants most from her mother is a finished story, a memoir ideally, which could adequately sate her own curiosity. As the mother’s death draws urgently near, it becomes clearer and clearer to Susan that she is not going to get it, that whatever secrets, stories, even anecdotes her mother has will go with her. Like anyone else, the mother is both finished and uncompleted, leaving Susan with the fragments of a story and no satisfying conclusion. This lack of finality may be why Susan has become so consumed by Anton Chekhov, a playwright whose own life was both celebrated and scrupulously edited by his executors.

This is the parallel that drives Two Tragedies in 429 Breaths, the debut poetry book from Susan Paddon. Chekhov and Susan’s mother, both victims of respiratory illness, are imagined by Susan as similar figures: important, intriguing figures whose lives are the victim of redaction (self-imposed or otherwise), the details of which Susan is itching to discover. Other figures from Susan’s life have Chekhovian counterparts as well. Her withdrawn father and pregnant (and therefore reasonably preoccupied) sister share the role of Olga Knipper, Chekhov’s inconstant wife. Even Chekhov’s curious, admiring visitors are represented by Leona, the lonely next-door neighbour. The parallel strongly established, but also fairly flexible, allowing the characters to sometimes step out of their roles and exist as themselves.

It might have been tempting for Susan to cast herself as Chekhov in the ongoing drama, but she wisely identifies with Masha, Chekhov’s sister, to whom the opening poem of every section is addressed, and who protected Chekhov in life and death,. It may be that Susan’s frustrations stem from the fact that without answers to her questions, she is unable to protect, and control, her mother’s legacy as Masha did with Chekhov. These questions are elaborated on in the poem “Yellow” (34-35): “Who was Penny again? Why did you leave Fort Lauderdale? / Did dad ever write you letters? Are they under your bed?” Without these details, Susan is forced to focus on “record[ing]” the more observable aspects of her mother’s life. Susan soon reveals “I have already imagined after,” a telling line from a speaker who often alludes to her own authorial aspirations, adding a layer of meta-narrative to the book itself.

In reality, the mother is not an especially mysterious figure, and the answers are gradually meted out later in the text: a few youthful flings, maybe, a long-lost friend, nothing that rewards this level of curiosity from Susan. Instead, Susan chafes against her mother’s hesitancy to answer any and all questions; it confounds her, spites her, when Susan considers all she has given up to be at her mother’s side. Before returning to rural Ontario to care for her mother, Susan had lived an implicitly bohemian life with “J.” in Paris. The series of “Unsent Letter” poems, addressed to J., aim to establish a kind of Prozorovian nostalgia for the Paris Susan left behind. Unfortunately, these are generally unsuccessful. “Unsent Letter #2” reads

Today is the Ouvres Portes. On your way up the hill, you will pass three / boulangeries with meringue in their windows, resist each time because there / are milles feuilles on Boulevard Simon Bolivar worth holding out for. The street / cleaners will spray the sidewalks as you pass. (45)

The second-person voice, the future tense, the abundance of unnecessary French, all contribute to a sense of speculation, implying a Paris that is more imagined than experienced. Ultimately, the “Unsent Letter” poems only add to an already lengthy list of diversions from the main text, and reiterate Susan’s self-absorption.

Susan’s frustration is clear not only to the reader, but to her family as well, to the point that her mother, dependent though she is, suggests “Why not / get your hair cut? How about / giving Tammy a call?” (54). From Susan’s perspective, her father is only minimally attentive. The sister’s absence, encouraged by the mother’s insistence on not worrying her with details while the baby is due shortly, reawakens Susan’s impressions of favoritism and sibling rivalry, as depicted in the two poems titled “My Sister” (38, 64). Left with the burden of single-handedly caring for her mother, and without at least the compensation of a startling revelation from her mother, Susan’s resentment is understandable, but no less obvious.

This is a reminder that it’s foolhardy to demand like-ability or noble stoicism from our narrators, because one of the strengths of this book is Paddon’s depiction of Susan’s growth from a figure of self-pity, to one who is both sympathetic and sympathizing. Susan’s development comes as steadily and surely as the mother’s death (another parallel), and pays off with the one-two punch of “Jacksonville” and “The Minister’s Visit.”

“Jacksonville” finds the mother in the hospital. Susan, sitting at her mother’s bedside, begins musing on her mother’s beauty, both her physical beauty and her inner beauty. As she’s thinking, a handsome young doctor comes in to tend to her mother. Susan identifies him as someone who could be swayed by her mother’s beauty, even by something as simple as the taste of her blueberry pie. She begins to imagine herself bargaining with the doctor, convinced that her mother’s beauty and her own grief should be enough to halt the train. For the first time, we sense how imminent and undeniable the mother’s death really is. For the first time, we see the depths of Susan’s fear and desperation, previously obscured by the daily business of caring for her mother. The bargaining gives way to a list which emphasizes her panic, a show of desperation and dependency which echoes the mother’s. “I want,” Susan says, “to show him the Jackson / shot to see if your beauty can inspire a miracle. / I want to shake him in to God” (91).

Within a few pages, the mother has died, disrupting the parallel. Susan is no longer Masha, or Chekhov; With J. leaving Paris for Egypt with her own mother, Susan is no longer even the Susan who writes in her journal and ruminates on her worldly past-life. Instead, in “The Minister’s Wife,” she assumes a third-person voice centered on Leona, the nosy neighbour. Leona is sitting on her couch when the minister arrives. She’s been expecting him (she had already assembled the ingredients for a consolatory quiche), but his appearance provides a concrete image of finality, a cause for external grief. “Oh, God no. Oh, God no.” she says. The speaker continues

….When she is finished, she cries
for everything bad that has ever been.
Not because this loss
is so great, but because loss
is a reminder of other losses. (96)

This is the apex of the book. Susan’s resentment and self-absorption are completely washed away by Leona’s tears. Through the actions and emotions of a (literally peripheral) other character, Susan comes to understand her grief as not hers alone. It is one grief of many, significant, but not singular.

These are strong poems, and when they appear they have real emotional impact. However they are two bright lights in a technically troubled book. Two Tragedies reads very much like a novel, to the point that calling it a “collection” feels inaccurate. Though this isn’t bad in and of itself (“novel-in-verse” is a genre for a reason), it leans uncomfortably close to prose. The poems push forward in a punchy, journalistic writing style, steadily chugging toward their destination, but there is none of the precision, and none of the metaphorical illumination, of truly great poetry. Whatever could be gained through metaphor, surprising enjambments, or complex metrical shifts is missed here. Any allusion to Chekhov’s life is inevitably underlined by the direct explanation of that allusion. Take, for example, “This House,” in which Susan compares her mother’s house to a stage:

No two props set more than three steps apart,
the distance she can travel now
without a pause. I am her leading stagehand,

Danchenko: driver, bodyguard. (20)

It’s a clear case of over-telling, drawing didactic lines to Chekhov in a way that overwhelms the poems. The sentences are concise to the point of fragmentation, and still somehow too heavy.

It would be more charitable to say that Paddon is as committed to telling Masha and Chekhov’s story as she is to telling Susan’s. Occasionally this leads to some stirring moments, like the catharsis of “Dearest Maria” (97). More often, it leads to the intrusion of epigraphs, allusions, and diversions from the more urgent contemporary narrative. Paddon makes frequent use of epigraphs from Chekhov, but these are not often in service of the poems, and sometimes appear to their detriment. “Chekhov’s Bishop Dreams” uses another favourite tool of Paddon, the bridging title. This first-line/title is immediately followed by an epigraph from Chekhov’s “The Bishop”, thereby interrupting the poem to no apparent purpose. It’s a glaring technical misstep, and the poem suffers.

The truth is Two Tragedies is a little overstuffed, indecisive of just which story it should be telling and how much to tell. Another pass of the editor’s pen, a stronger focus on Susan’s own story, and the omission of some less-effective poems and epigraphs (three before the first poem even starts), could have greatly served the book. That Susan finds solace in her reading and her writing is important to her character, and to her story, but it’s not the whole story. Nonetheless, when she’s focused, Paddon is capable of some of the most touching, human poetry I have seen in a while. It is her first book, and I’m more than willing to chalk up any missteps to earnestness, enthusiasm, and commitment to the idea.

—Patrick O’Reilly

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Paddy O'Reilly

Patrick O’Reilly was raised in Renews, Newfoundland and Labrador, the son of a mechanic and a shop’s clerk. He just graduated from St. Thomas University, Fredericton, New Brunswick, and will begin work on an MFA at the University of Saskatchewan this coming fall. Twice he has won the Robert Clayton Casto Prize for Poetry, the judges describing his poetry as “appealingly direct and unadorned.”

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Feb 042015
 

Charles D'Ambrosio

D’Ambrosio has led us into a new sphere of understanding—that of our intimate human connections and what binds us together, all through intelligent narrative, or what he calls “scrappy incondite essays.” The essays here are anything but scrappy—they are a curiosity with a sense of doubt and unknowing at the root of each piece along with an under-layer of irony and despair. — Melissa Matthewson

Loitering, Charles D'Ambrosio
Loitering: New & Collected Essays
Charles D’Ambrosio
Tin House Books, 2014
368 pages, $15.95
ISBN 9781935639879

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To loiter is to linger aimlessly, to make purposeless stops in a journey to a particular destination. In Charles D’Ambrosio’s new book, Loitering, this is what we do, we linger—on ideas, in places, with people—and though at times the essays lack some sense of purpose or direction, we trust that eventually we will arrive where we are supposed to. And even if we don’t come to a finite ending, even if we find ourselves off the beaten track, it doesn’t matter because D’Ambrosio has led us into a new sphere of understanding—that of our intimate human connections and what binds us together, all through intelligent narrative, or what he calls “scrappy incondite essays.” The essays here are anything but scrappy—they are a curiosity with a sense of doubt and unknowing at the root of each piece along with an under-layer of irony and despair.

Charles D’Ambrosio is best known for his two short story collections, The Point and The Dead Fish Museum, which won the Washington State Book Award for Fiction in 2007. D’Ambrosio’s fiction has appeared in the New Yorker including such stories as “Screenwriter,” “The High Divide,” and “Drummond & Son.” Some of the essays that appear in the new collection have also appeared in the New Yorker, though under different titles. D’Ambrosio has won many awards for his writing including the Whiting Writers’ Award, a Lannan Foundation fellowship among other prestige.

Overall, D’Ambrosio has created essays that act as containers of promise, as collections of ironies, troubles, joys, and heartache expertly driven by an empathetic and confident narrator all within the context of idiosyncratic subjects. Many of the essays were previously published in Orphans from Clear Cut Press, which sold out of its first print and was never reprinted, along with the addition of six new essays. In this work, D’Ambrosio writes about Seattle, whaling, suicide, Salinger, Richard Brautigan, family, money, Chicago, furniture warehouses, gambling, among other subjects.

D’Ambrosio’s essays are small journeys—episodic, anecdotal, rambling—but, also ruminant and ironic. They are addictive not only for the strength of D’Ambrosio’s humor and insights, but also for the language, syntax, and rhythm of each sentence. Let’s take the title essay “Loitering,” in which D’Ambrosio takes us to Belltown in Seattle lingering as a bystander in a standoff between police and a gunman who has taken hostage his girlfriend. The opening sentence exemplifies how D’Ambrosio decides to portray himself as a narrator for the entire collection to come. “This is totally false, but for the sake of the story let’s say the events in question begin around 2:00 a.m., just because that’s when I show up on the scene.” Here, D’Ambrosio unapologetically lets the reader know that he’s forging details, and in this honesty, he opens the essay up, invites the reader to take part by allowing for trust as he leads us down a narrative path of which the main goal is to illuminate all the tender and banal strands of humanness that thread us together.

The essay meanders, not necessarily in terms of physical space, but intellectually as we hear from D’Ambrosio about Alaska (“I came back from salmon fishing in Alaska”) to his bed where he has been recovering from atopic dermatitis (“Half the reason I’m at the crime scene is I haven’t had any human contact for awhile”) to our shared histories and uniqueness (“I suppose it could also be said we’re known to the extent that we’re dull and orbital about our life, that what’s quotidian about us is more easily shared than the exuberances and passions that push us out of the predictable.”) As any essay should do, the incident is a bouncing point for exploring how we portray ourselves to each other—through “what’s dullest and worst about ourselves.” He does this by using the characters, strangers, vagrants he encounters on the scene to take him into these insights as well as interjecting with “preambular” thoughts from himself. In another meta-technique, D’Ambrosio reports from the scene, but humorously admits he’s not a journalist, but ironically, he is reporting, thus creating a dramatic structure for the essay, making himself into another character on the scene and pushing against typical journalistic tendencies.

My main problem vis-a-vis journalism is I just don’t have an instinct for what’s important…My first note was about the old alleys in Seattle, those island places where sticker bushes flourish and a man can still sleep on a patch of bare earth, where paths are worn like game trails and leave a trace of people’s passing, and how these naturally surviving spots are systematically vanishing from the city, rooted up and paved over mostly because they house bums—an act of eradication that seems as emotionally mingy as putting pay slots on public toilets, but is probably cost-effective in terms of maintenance, since bums generate a lot of garbage in the form of broken glass and wet cardboard…Also my notes bleed black ink and blur in the rain as I write them. I don’t write a note about that.

The most enjoyable part of reading D’Ambrosio’s essays are his rhythmic, long sentences. He references this in his preface even: “I relied on my ear to a ridiculous extent, trusting that if I got the sound right—the music, the mood, the feel of things—then sense might eventually make an appearance.” For example, in the same title essay “Loitering,” D’Ambrosio has boarded a Metro bus in Seattle for people who have been evacuated or flushed from crime scenes in order to keep warm on a cold night. D’Ambrosio admits that “everybody in there’s fucked up in some heavy way.” He goes on,

They’ve been ripped out of their bedrooms and are dressed mostly in nightwear, which is something to see—not because I have any fashion ideas or big thesis about nighties and pj’s, but rather because, this surreal dawn, the harsh, isolated privacy of these people is literally being paraded in public. The falling rain, the bus going nowhere, the wrecked-up passengers dressed for sleep, the man with the gun—these are the wild and disparate components of a dream, and I haven’t slept, and it’s just weird.

In this first sentence, D’Ambrosio begins with the description of the vagrants, and admits it is an occasion to take notice, but it’s the light of day that makes the people vulnerable and that’s the significant part of this sentence. D’Ambrosio uses an interjection half-way through the sentence to set off the real thought he’s searching for. In the next sentence, he uses a list of details to create rhythm set off by an em dash which creates the next beat of the sentence with his understanding of these details and his thoughts on such a thing.

D’Ambrosio’s essays are successful also for the way he provides commentary on ordinary subjects that at the same time illuminate some other human despair or failing. In another essay toward the middle of the book titled “American Newness” D’Ambrosio visits a facility where various manufactured homes are on display. As D’Ambrosio considers the way manufactured homes are imitations of the authentic home, he tell us, “It’s that inserted layer of sincerity that rings false. It’s evilly unAmerican to say aloud, but real divisions exist between people, and the houses themselves try hard, desperately hard, to obscure those difference.” D’Ambrosio tries hard to get on board with the manufactured homes, but can’t seem to see pass the imitation. “…I was just walking around in the factory faking my enthusiasm and hiding a creepy low-grade horror. Normally I don’t like my meaning ready-made, but by the time I headed out to my truck I was in total despair.” As he continues on his tour, he finds the loneliness in the homes, and the people who live there when he visits a local bar and names the local characters singing karaoke where “Divorce and treachery and betrayal were in the air but so was desire…” Finally, he visits one home where the fake pictures of families jettison him into total despair for the kind of life that’s being created. “Who are these blonde women with unfading smiles? Whose bright kids are these? What happy family is this? In the kitchen two ice cream sundaes sit on the counter. Those sundaes will never melt, nor will they be eaten.”

In Loitering, D’Ambrosio gives us “the soulful texture, the nap of personality” of places, people, and life all over the world through poignant essays that are impressive and complex in their enduring value. Loitering is one of those books where each sentence is a tonal and syntactical adventure, where every page contains a new surprise—you’re never sure what you’re going to get, though indisputably, you know it’s going to be good.

—Melissa Matthewson

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Melissa Matthewson

Melissa Matthewson lives in the Applegate Valley of southwestern Oregon. She holds degrees in Environmental Studies from UC Santa Cruz (BA) and the University of Montana (MS). She is currently pursuing an MFA in creative nonfiction at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She is an Assistant Essays Editor at the The Rumpus. Her essays have appeared, or are forthcoming, in Bellingham Review, River Teeth, Defunct, Pithead Chapel, Numéro Cinq, Under the Gum Tree, and Terrain.org among others.

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Jan 102015
 

Lennon, J Robert

It is impossible not to be intrigued by some of the plights featured in this or that story, thanks in part to the kinetic and assured momentum of the sentences and word choices, but thankfully, there is no pressure or encouragement from Lennon to regard any character as a person. —Jeff Bursey

cover

 

See You in Paradise
J. Robert Lennon
Graywolf Press, 2014
236 page, $16.00/$18.50 Canadian
ISBN: 9781555976934

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1. Since the appearance of his first novel, the award-winning The Light of Falling Stars (1997), J. Robert Lennon has built a reputation on taking ideas and, in novels and short stories, bending them to form alternate versions of the world. What starts off as a shared comprehension quickly dies a jolly death, though that pleasure is restricted to the chamber containing the narrative; outside a consideration of the structure itself, the substitution of Lennon’s vision for the actual world dislocates his characters and, by extension, Lennon’s readers. Put bluntly: I believe the world is such-and-such, but if I take to heart what See You in Paradise says is the way things truly are, then my naive perspective is overturned with an attentive and genuine malice.

After reading this newest collection of short stories, in addition to two earlier works, Pieces for the Left Hand (2005), a set of 100 stories, and Familiar (2012), a novel, it seems to me that, unlike Wordsworth’s resigned statement that the “world is too much with us,” Lennon believes the contrary: people are not concentrating sufficiently on what the world contains, are too comfortable (or complacent, or distracted) to look at it with their own eyes, are ill-suited for it, or are immature and therefore incapable of comprehending what is going on. His disapproval is present everywhere, but it is humorously presented, a point to which I’ll return.

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Lennon positions the reception of this book with the first story, “Portal.” It dwells on the ramifications felt within a family of a feature discovered by the two children on the property. Jerry, the father, starts off:

It’s been a few years since we last used the magic portal in our back garden, and it has fallen into disrepair. To be perfectly honest, when we bought this place, we had no idea what kind of work would be involved, and tasks like keeping the garden weeded, repairing the fence, maintaining the portal, etc., quickly fell to the bottom of the priority list while we got busy dealing with the roof and the floor joists. I guess there are probably people with full-time jobs out there who can keep up an old house in great shape without breaking their backs, but if there are, I’ve never met them.

My point is, we’ve developed kind of a blind spot about that whole back acre.

Jerry and his wife, Gretchen, are having marital difficulties, and their children, Luann and Chester, are typical youngsters, complete with mood changes and late-night phone calls from unidentified friends. While it’s stated that the family’s adventures in the portal start to change each one, Jerry is either unaffected or doesn’t have the awareness to look at his own conduct. His description of their property’s features and problems (one and the same) is amusing for its absence of abiding wonder. After the first few excursions to worlds with hovercrafts, robots, and faceless people, the portal comes to resemble a clapped-out amusement park attraction. Much like the raising of the dead in a later story, “Zombie Dan,” attempts at a scientific explanation are left out or only hinted at, and the conceit works because Lennon doesn’t expend any energy making this freak of Nature probable; it just exists, like the story itself, and has the same reality.

Confidence is required to place those opening lines at the beginning of a book. This story of a worlds-travelling device, one that hums and sputters, provoking Jerry to consider it as “out of whack” and “[l]ike an old guy in denial about the onset of dementia,” is a story about, among other things, story-telling itself. Chester gets lost in Xbox, and Luann spends hours out of the home. The portal can’t compete. What is Lennon saying about his own efforts, and about the regard for writing nowadays?

It is a sign of control, and of a firm hand in fashioning this book, that while its contents were written over the span of fifteen years, it is as unified as if it had been composed within a shorter time. With that in mind, it’s worth indicating certain themes, techniques, and moods present throughout the 14 stories.

3.

Categorizing people is important for Lennon, and for the characters in his fiction. Considering the previous owners of his home, Jerry tells us that they “looked like indoor types, frankly. Not that Gretchen and I look like backcountry survivalists or anything.” Edward and Alison in “No Life” vie to adopt a particular child with an older couple, the man a judge, “an honest-to-God member of the privileged class”; in the title story a hapless man is threatened by the rich father of the woman he’s somewhat interested in, and forced to take a job he’s never considered. Not everyone can resume life as “restored-life individuals” (italics in original) in “Zombie Dan”; it’s only for the privileged few: “The rich had been getting the goodies for millennia—why should that change now?” In one of the most harrowing tales—and many can qualify as Twilight Zone-like—bearing the evocative title “A Stormy Evening at the Buck Snort Restaurant,” a brother and sister are “running out of money” and people in those parts know there’s “something wrong with them…” Yet no one intercedes.

Examples of people slotting others above or below them are found throughout the book, with the most extended and naked assertion of difference saved for the final story, “Farewell, Bounder,” where two characters can see from outside the people gathered for the unusual party that’s underway, and which they are about to join:

… the town’s activists can be seen affecting solemnity, their caftans and rimless spectacles and gaunt, squirrellike bodies moving through the emptied front room. Here is Lydia Speyer, who lies down in front of idling bulldozers. There is Paul Waller, architect of the local scrip, earned in local health food stores and restaurants and redeemable at same… They are all here, the editor of the anarchist newspaper, the brewer of medieval beers, the used bookstore owner, the wan naturopath.

This is both true to life—who does not know that special someone who brings a guitar to rallies and sings made-up lyrics to popular tunes?—and almost underhanded in the undercutting of the commitment of these progressives. Lydia lies down only in front of bulldozers that are idling; the anarchist editor socializes instead of setting off an incendiary device somewhere; the unhealthy looking practitioner of healthy eating likely redeems Waller’s food-snobbish currency. And what comes to mind if the adjective “used” when applied to the bookstore owner is viewed as operating in parallel function to “wan”?

Class matters a great deal (this is also seen in Pieces for the Left Hand). The rich return from the dead and, like the judge in “No Life,” pick their descendants—extending their lives in ways not open to others—while everyone else stumbles along to extinction (like the brother and sister in “A Stormy Evening”). In “The Wraith” this is located in fantastical terrain: the depressed Lurene miraculously separates into lighter and heavier selves. Her husband, Carl, must accommodate the two halves, a sheer impossibility, especially as his efforts are half-hearted. The result of his failure is horrific and throws Lurene back into desperate confusion. Margaret and David in “Total Humiliation in 1987” are separated by her ambition to do more with her talents as a chef and his contentment at raising their two daughters, Lynnae and Lyrae. Whether it’s politics or money, domesticity or regeneration, career demands or accidents of birth, the lesson is that the great divide separating the majority of people from the minority cannot be crossed. In these stories society is not breaking down; that has already happened.

What would unite the two main groups? If an answer to that question was revealed, still it would be useless, in the end, for the prime agents here are not so much flawed as inadequately formed, resembling creatures out of the cosmogony of Empedocles. See You in Paradise is replete with women without a childhood that prepares them for adult life, men who have not emerged out of late adolescence (the train-obsessed narrator of “Weber’s Head” may be a candidate for Peter Pan Syndrome) and those who, like the teacher Luther in “The Future Journal” (who wants to classify his second grade students’ reading habits along evolutionary lines), are incapable of considering the impact their ideas might have on others. Nothing will go quite right or as expected.

It is impossible not to be intrigued by some of the plights featured in this or that story, thanks in part to the kinetic and assured momentum of the sentences and word choices, but thankfully, there is no pressure or encouragement from Lennon to regard any character as a person. The menace present throughout the collection, built up from “Portal,” exists on the atmospheric level, and doesn’t transform the figures into objects deserving of compassion. (Think of Joss Whedon’s The Cabin in the Woods [2012].) Though the opening line of “Total Humiliation in 1987”—“We rose at four in the morning—Margaret, the girls, and me—and zombied into the already-packed van to depart on our final family vacation…”—portends trouble, and a burial occurs, it isn’t a sentimental tale. Lennon’s roster of players includes failures, liars and whiners, the inept, the incurious, and those who are high maintenance but not high performance. What they are made to go through is fascinating, but if you stopped to think of them as your friends, you’d conclude that they’re dead losses.

Perhaps it’s needless to say that, for me, such a disregard for the importance of characters is a positive aspect to See You in Paradise.

4.

At the start I mentioned Lennon’s disapproval, and malice. These are motors that power most of the best stories. (When missing, as in “Ecstasy,” “Flight” and “The Future Journey,” the result is less interesting). These two features can be presented under the guise of geniality—in “Portal,” Jerry foregoes being a pioneer in favour of restoring an old house—and can also be sharply worded. The prickliness takes many forms. In “The Accursed Items,” a list of damned objects or memories, each described in a sentence that begins with upper-case letters and ends without a period, Lennon writes: “THE ORANGE TOBOGGAN whisking her to her death”. When former lovers meet due to a travel mishap in “Flight,” the woman offers the man a place to sleep at her apartment: “‘There’s a patch of cold floor with your name on it,’ she said.”

Apart from the phrasing of lines that bring out rueful laughter and leave a sting, Lennon has branded his characters in a way that opens them to ridicule. Though names contain importance for the characters—in “Hibachi,” Philip and Evangeline correct “anyone who mistakenly called them Phil or Angie”—they work here in specific ways, when characters are given one. A name will appear in more than one story, as though it’s been shoved in there for our convenience; a name can be dull (John, Dan); or in the case of Lurene, Ruperta, Lynnae, and Lyrae, names serve as markers of someone’s failed attempt at uniqueness. This dismissal of a convention highlights the inferior position identity has in relation to what is going on.

All that, in addition to the action, the shifting perspectives, the ambiguities, and the clever, entertaining, and unanticipated conceits that fill See You in Paradise, while important, would not be enough if J. Robert Lennon didn’t posses a fine command of tone. This is a rich collection that will repay rereading.

—Jeff Bursey

 

Excerpt from “Zombie Dan”
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One of the main features of See You in Paradise is the way Lennon pays attention to language as he makes his various points. (By points I mean, in part, that he has his fixations, like most writers.) In the excerpt there is an appeal made to Dan’s friends on this basis: “as friends and neighbors and decent, compassionate Americans.” That there is nothing special about these people—they are as “thoroughly debased” as the narrator of “Weber’s Head” says he is—becomes obvious. But the appeal to their patriotism works on multiple levels: it’s amusing, and seems a ridiculous way to enlist people; it is rhetoric that the speaker, the rich Ruth Larsen, Dan’s mother, believes can clinch the deal; and it aims to elide the distinctions that separate her from the undifferentiated friends, who would never be her neighbors. It also speaks to the higher stature of Americans when compared to people in other countries. American exceptionalism, then, is class snobbery on the nation-state level, and that fits in with many other remarks and observations in this collection. In “Zombie Dan” money’s reach extends into the grave, putting a spin on the term voodoo economics. None of Dan’s friends stand up to Larsen because they are further examples of the half-formed men and women, those without a strong inner core, who populate Lennon’s collection. Maybe they are the truly dead.

—Jeff Bursey

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Excerpt from “Zombie Dan”

They figured out how to bring people back to life—not everybody, just some people—and this is what happened to our friend Dan Larsen. He had died falling off a yacht, and six months later, there he was, driving around in his car, nodding, licking his pale thin lips, wearing his artfully distressed sport jackets and brown leather shoes.

​Dan’s revivification was his mother’s doing. Yes, it was his father, Nils Larsen, who greased the right palms to get him bumped up in the queue, but his mother Ruth was the one who had the idea and insisted it come to pass, the one who called each and every one of us—myself, Chloe, Rick, Matt, Jane, and Paul—to enlist our emotional support, as friends and neighbors and decent, compassionate Americans. When Dan revived, she explained, he would need to rely upon the continuing attention and affection of his loved ones, and it was all of us—his old high school chums—whom he would need the most.

​Of course we agreed, how could we not? Dan’s mother brought us all together in the living room of the Larsen penthouse—a place of burnished mahogany, French portraiture, and thick pink pile carpet which none of us had ever imagined we’d see again—and told us what was about to happen. We stared, petits fours halfway to our gaping mouths, and nodded our stunned assent. A thin, bony, almost miniature woman of sixty with an enormous dyed-black hairdo like a cobra’s hood, Ruth Larsen gazed at each of us in turn, demanding our fealty with hungry gray eyes. The procedure would take several days, and then Dan would need a few weeks to recuperate—could we be counted on to sit at his bedside, keeping him company in regular shifts? Why yes, certainly we could! Were we aware just how important a part of the revivification process it was to remind the patient of his past, thus effecting the recovery of his memory? And did we know that, without immediate and constant effort, the patient’s memory might not be recovered at all? And so would we commit ourselves to assisting in this informal therapy by enveloping Dan in a constant fog of nostalgia for the entire month of March? Sure, you bet!

​Excellent, Mrs. Larsen told us, her papery hands sliding over and under each other with the faint, whisking sound of a busboy’s crumb brush.

​What remained unspoken that day, and went largely unspoken even among ourselves, in private, as we waited for Dan to be brought back to life, was that we had pretty much gotten over Dan since the funeral, and could not be said to have greatly missed him. Indeed, by the time Dan reached the age of twenty-five, the year of his death, we had basically had all of Dan we could ever have wanted. He was, in fact, no longer really our friend. The yacht he’d fallen off of belonged to some insufferable blueblood we didn’t know—that was the crowd Dan had taken to running with, the crowd he’d been born into, and all parties concerned had seemed satisfied with the arrangement. Dan’s being dead was no less acceptable to us than his having drifted out of our circle.

But Ruth Larsen didn’t know this, and so we were the ones she called upon in Dan’s time of need. Either that, or the insufferable bluebloods had refused. At any rate, we agreed to do what Mrs. Larsen demanded, and for better or worse he would be our friend once again.

—J. Robert Lennon

 

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Jeff Bursey is a Canadian literary critic and author of the political satire Verbatim: A Novel (2010). He 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.