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

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eric foley2

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

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Apr 102015
 

Mai Al-NakibPhoto by Omar Nakib

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

Hidden Light Bformat HB (2)Final

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Natalia Sarkissian

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Natalia Sarkissian

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

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Apr 082015
 

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

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

Get_In_Trouble

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Benjamin Woodard

 

Woodard

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

Apr 052015
 

Kraft and Dutton original-001Richard Kraft & Danielle Dutton

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

Siglio_Here_Comes_Kitty_Cover

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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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
 

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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.

2.

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

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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.

2.

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

 

jeff again (3)

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.

Jan 062015
 

Rikki Ducornet photo

Subversive at heart and acutely perceptive, The Deep Zoo celebrates the knowledge that “Nature loves order, the beautiful, and the anomalous.” It plies us to savor the spiritual and the scatological, and not to wither in moral certitude.  —Jason DeYoung

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The Deep Zoo
Rikki Ducornet
Coffee House Press, 2015
119 pages, $15.95
ISBN: 978-1566893763

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The Deep Zoo is a seed! From this seed come our initial impulses and multiplicities. Our Deep Zoo is the place from which we dream. It is this place from which you came, the place from which you interpret the world, the place from which you create. As Gaston Bachelard, Rikki Ducornet’s favored philosopher, says, “daydreams illuminate the synthesis of immemorial and recollected. In this remote region, memory and imagination remain associated, each one working from their mutual deepening.” The Deep Zoo galvanizes us. It is potency.

The author of nine novels, three short story collections, five works of poetry, and the winner of countless awards, Rikki Ducornet has long been a star shining brightly over contemporary literature. Her writing, however, often runs counters to its trends. Refusing to be part of established realism—which she skewers for its “inescapable redundancies”—she looks for something more inward, an art that fulfills the promise and richness of the imagination. Much like Robert Coover (whom she notes as influential) Ducornet’s preoccupations are mythology and metamorphosis, and it is this richness and delight in play (an art in-and-of itself) that attracts me to her work.  (Rikki Ducornet is also an accomplished painter to boot and shows internationally.)

The daughter of a Bard College professor, with extensive travels throughout the world, including Algeria, Japan, France, and Palestine, she is steeped in worldly texts and to call her an American writer seems nearly inaccurate. The depth of her knowledge and comfort with diverse subject matter is daunting, and in The Deep Zoo alone she deals with Egyptian mythology, Werner Herzog, United States foreign policy, Marquis de Sade, and Islam among others. The opening words of The Deep Zoo might well-convey the wonder and direction of this slim volume:

In the tradition of Islam, the first word that was revealed to Mohammed was Igrá (Read!) The world is a translation of the divine, and its manifestation. To write a text is to propose a reading of the world and to reveal its potencies. Writing is reading and reading a way back to the initial impulse. Both are acts of revelation.

Comprised of fifteen essays, most of which are no more than six or seven pages long, the entire text of The Deep Zoo runs only 119 pages—work cited and acknowledgements included. But while its page count is trim its capacity for insights and range of thought between its cover is sprawling.

The collection leads with its title essay, limning Ducornet’s philosophical point-of-view toward art and literature. “The Deep Zoo” acts as a kind of foundational text, a lens to view her work and the other essays through. She writes that the Deep Zoo is a way of seeing, “the recognition of a pattern that informs the mind.” From this arena of unlimited encounters come the artist’s vision, the writer’s text. Ducornet believes in the power of language to clarify, to articulate the ineffable—its most ancient task. A writer’s duty is to “access memory, reverie, and the unconscious—its powers, beauties, terrors, and perhaps above all, its rule-breaking intuitions, and to celebrate … the mind’s longing to become lighter, free of the weight of received ideas and gravity-bound redundancies.” Often her rapturous prose leads to some heady moments.

Although the essay trades in concepts that might seem somewhat abstract, the following essays reveal what Ducornet means by Deep Zoo through examples. She explores the “mixto” paintings of Linda Okazaki and the restless sculpture of Margie McDonald. She finds ineluctable life in the flickering imagery of Werner Herzog’s The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, and delights in the gnostic vision of David Lynch. With her keen eye for the amalgamated and strange, she takes great care to highlight works awash in estrangement. In each piece of art work she analyzes, she looks for the emblematic seed, the forces which “fall into sympathy with one another,” which engenders the work, often finding them in “intangible things,” such as in Omensetter’s Luck, or in the singular “banality” of death in de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom.


last_run_1983_smallerLinda Okazaki, Last Run

Many of the essays in The Deep Zoo recount stories of Ducornet youth, where ones Deep Zoo originates. She traces her own Deep Zoo back to a dead fox she found in the woods when she was a girl; a swarm of yellow bees around its belly. She calls this “a species of animated calligraphy”; it transformed what otherwise might have seemed horrible into a thing of beauty. In other essays, she describes more practical matters to her art. In “Water and Dreams,” Ducornet gives her clearest view into the workings of her mind and writing. Originally written for Rule of Thumb (ed. by Michael Martone), it is an analysis of her novel The Fountains of Neptune. Here Ducornet dismantles the work to spotlight the rhythms and currents running through it: a demonstration of the mechanics of the Deep Zoo. She writes that The Fountains of Neptune “is punctuated by the water’s meteoric forms… consciously associated in order to suggest the many moods of the sea.” Before writing it, she says she made lists of water and sea images, but during the process of writing, she allowed the novel’s “intention [to] evolve from within,” so “the entire process had a weather of its own.”

No, Ducornet’s advice isn’t as brusquely pragmatic as ‘write what you know’—I doubt she’d send you chasing your own tail like that. Instead, her advice is far more freeing. Subversive at heart and acutely perceptive, The Deep Zoo celebrates the knowledge that “Nature loves order, the beautiful, and the anomalous.” It plies us to savor the spiritual and the scatological, and not to wither in moral certitude. Indeed, it accomplishes what the best books I’ve read always do. It opens its reader to new concepts and stirs new ways of thinking. As Ducornet has the Marquis de Sade say in her novel The Fan-Maker’s Inquisition: “What is reading if it is not dreaming? The best books cause us to dream; the rest are not worth reading.”

bainbridge2Margie McDonald, Sea ‘scape

Taken with and obsessed by the paradoxical and the mysterious, Ducornet’s honors the mutable heart of life, refuses to label the body as “fallen” or “vile,” and clearly worships the “divine.” Yet her outlook is clear-eyed and scientific, too. She won’t abide magical thinking or a good wallow in obscurity. At once a political book The Deep Zoo is also playful, as the essays do not follow any preordained structure and seem often to move with the currents of their author’s mind. One of the intriguing features of Ducornet’s essays is that they often end with smart quotations from writers she admires. But in fact, she has written a very quotable book herself, and I want to conclude here by sharing some of Ducornet’s own wise words:

It is the hidden significance of things that both explains and propels us forward with an eager intelligence. The paradox of hidden knowledge is that it recognizes—in ways that are wordless and intimate—an embrace as old as time, older than language. And yet it is also the force that leads to the impulse of word-making.

§

If naming and listing leads to a certain disarticulation of the world, it also articulates the experience of the ineffable; it allows us to consider and articulate causes and effects and even to cherish the anomalous, because when known patterns are disrupted, we are forced to consider (and to reconsider) the meanings of things.

§

I think of a novel as an unfolding landscape, an entire country waiting to be deciphered.

§

The creative impulse, Eros breathing and dreaming within us, is radical to the core.

§

The human imagination poses searching riddles, and the moment it does, poetry and science, philosophy and cosmology are born.

§

Hating and fearing the body, we turn away from knowledge of the other

§

Thankfully, art pays no attention and continues to subvert pieties and expectations, to rile fuddy-duddies and ride a brighter air.

§

A world worth wanting cherishes the risks of wildness.

—Jason DeYoung

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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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Dec 312014
 

turchi-peter-2014

“…every well constructed piece of fiction has elements of a puzzle, and every piece of fiction that means to provoke readers to a state of wonder or contemplation has at least some element of mystery. “

— Peter Turchi, A Muse and a Maze: Writing as Puzzle, Mystery and Magic —

amuseamaze-cover-final-for-pgw-2-19-14-lowres

A Muse and a Maze: Writing as Puzzle, Mystery and Magic
Peter Turchi
Trinity University Press, 2014
244 pages, $29.95
ISBN 9781595341938

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Ten days before Christmas 2014, Powell’s Books in Portland posted its online list of Best Books of 2014, prefacing the post with these words: “Here are the new releases across six categories that left us inspired, bewildered, and a little bit wiser.” Books that leave us inspired and a little bit wiser – these are the conventional guidelines for choosing favorites. Who doesn’t want that from a good book? But then there’s that other word: “bewildered.” That word makes us pause. Really? Do we want to be bewildered by the stories and poems we read?

Peter Turchi answers that question with a resounding yes in his intriguing (and, yes, bewildering and inspiring) new book, A Muse and a Maze: Writing as Puzzle, Mystery and Magic. To leave readers slightly bewildered, to leave them with some questions answered but also with the understanding that other questions are unanswerable, to challenge readers to be satisfied with uncertainty – that’s exactly what Turchi encourages in this book.

Though equally interesting for the general reader, A Muse and a Maze (the title itself is a bit of a game) is directed mainly at writers. The writer Robert Boswell in an interview for Fiction Writers’ Review says, “It’s not a craft book but a rumination on the impulse to write and how that impulse may be related to other human desires.”

So A Muse and a Maze is not a textbook, nor is it a manual. It is not divided into the usual craft-book chapters addressing point of view, voice, syntax, setting, characterization, plot (Turchi’s analysis of work by Chekhov suggests we think hard about whether stories are really just about events), and structure, though the book addresses all of those and then some over the course of its six offbeat sections (plus introductory notes entitled “The Contemplation of Recurring Patterns”):

1. Directions for Attaining Knowledge of All Dark Things
2. How, from Such Wreckage, We Evolve the Eventual Effect
3. Seven Clever Pieces
4. The Treasure Hunter’s Dilemma
5. The Line, the Pyramid, and the Labyrinth
6. The Pleasures of Difficulty

What Turchi has done in this book is examine a fiction writer’s attitude toward his material, with writers compared initially to puzzle-makers (in the style of Will Shortz, crossword puzzle designer for the New York Times, and Howard Garns, the inventor of what we now know as Sudoku) and magicians (a la Harry Houdini.) Seen from this perspective, the writer’s job is to make conscious choices about the puzzle or the illusion he or she is creating, in order to produce a certain “effect.” To be able to do that, Turchi explains, is to control not necessarily what the audience sees, but what the audience thinks it sees (and, he adds later, what the audience wants to think it sees.) Writing, like magic, is about “the creation of a credible illusion” – with the key aspect being credibility (with credibility often established by a careful writer’s observation and recognition of recurring patterns.)

Interestingly, the word “illusion” is used more often by magicians than the word “trick,” which suggest gimmickry at the heart of their work. Turchi explains that Harry Houdini, who used gimmickry (mirrors in a box) for his famous Disappearing Elephant illusion, cut the elephant out of his act when he realized the audience reaction to its disappearance was lukewarm. His admirers were much more captivated by his fabricated identity — Houdini, the exotic, bare-chested escape artist who defied death.

With most puzzles the goal is limited to finding a solution. Not so with fiction:

The composer of a puzzle means to present a challenge, but also intends for his audience to solve it. A magician presents an illusion with the understanding that, while it can be “solved,” or explained, his purpose is to disguise that solution so we can experience something that, however briefly, transcends rational understanding. It’s tempting to say that a writer, then, is a kind of magician.

Turchi encourages us to resist that temptation. He does a fine job of delineating what genre writers offers us – they are the performers, the magicians, offering us entertainment and a solution to the puzzle; in his description of this type of writing, he doesn’t adopt an attitude of superiority; as a puzzle-lover himself, Turchi appreciates a good detective novel, but he persuades us that the destination of the typical mystery is that solution to the whodunit. There is a crime, clues are dispensed prescriptively along the way. The click of the puzzle-box closing – that’s what is required by readers of genre fiction. In other words, Professor Plum killed Ms. Scarlet in the Conservatory with the candlestick. End of game.

Literary fiction (or mysteries that move a more literary direction) is similar to puzzle-building (the “strategic arrangement” of pieces of the narrative) with this important difference:

…while composing a piece of fiction is like assembling a puzzle, the finished work is not presented by the writer as a puzzle for the reader to solve. There may be puzzles within the story, elements of plot or character or imagery or meaning that require the reader’s active participation, but the story as a whole is not a problem with a solution. Like Ariadne’s thread allowing Theseus to journey into –and out of – the mythical labyrinth, a story means to lead the reader somewhere. But the destination isn’t a monster, or a pot of gold, or a bit of wisdom. Instead, the destination is something – or several things – to contemplate. The best stories and novels lead the reader not to an explanation, but to a place of wonder.

Puzzles, then, can be elegant combinations of functionality, clarity, economy and cleverness, but they are closed systems; stories (at least the kind that linger) are open.

In a recent interview Turchi said, “… one of my goals was to explore the seemingly perverse pleasure to be had from constraints, or form. The joke of Calvinball in the Calvin and Hobbes comic was that a game with no rules is exhausting.” Both puzzles and poetry can be subjected to formal constraints – the formal requirements of a villanelle, for example, can be compared to the rules of Sudoku, and Turchi obliges us with a list of said constraints for both; he is among the endangered species of people who believe constraints help, rather than hobble, beginning writers, giving them “a container to work in and against.” Leonardo da Vinci, too, was a fan of rules: “Art lives from constraints and dies from freedom.” Of course, the trick (or is it an illusion?) is to make the constraints invisible to the audience.

The book offers up discussions, too, of the fluidity of language, the multiplicity of selves, the concept of “flow state,” the idea of artistic obsession (softening the sound of that sometimes by calling it “devoted attention”) and the cultivation by writers of curiosity and observational skills; there is a stimulating section about “difficulty” in fiction, and the idea of narrative non-linearity. Turchi suggests a new openness in today’s world to experiments with structure and sees that experimentation running parallel to an increased interest in game-playing technologies. He encourages openness to the way narrative structures can be turned upside down and inside out, backwards, forwards, in fragments, in meta-textual ways, defying convention, and he has plenty of examples to support that approach – not bad for a man who also appreciates what formal constraints can teach us. Turchi is always careful to moderate his enthusiasms with a few warnings; for example, he enjoys “mystery” in the sense of a reader being left contemplating unanswerable questions and/or the darker side of our characters, but he warns us that stories should not “collapse under the weight of uncertainty.” Few stories succeed without some kind of plot line; as Turchi says “…without that horse and the snowy evening we’d care less about why Robert Frost was in a funk.”

The author takes a focused look at several writers – Herman Melville, Samuel Clemens (like Houdini, a fabricated identity), F. Scott Fitzgerald, Anton Chekhov – and glimpses at a dizzying number of other artists, including visual artists (Anish Kappor, Charles Ritchie, Norman Rockwell, Van Gogh) and verbal artists (Jerry Seinfeld); Lewis Carroll (master mathematician, puzzle-maker and writer) gets a look, as do Michael Ondaatje, James Salter, Raymond Chandler, David Shields, Graham Greene, Vladimir Nabokov, and John Updike, among others (such as the Wizard of Oz.)  One of my favorite quotations among many highlighted in the book is delivered by Tim O’Brien:

Characterization is achieved…through a process that opens up and releases mysteries of the human spirit. The object is not to “solve” a character – to expose some hidden secret – but instead to deepen and enlarge the riddle itself.

I thought often, as I read this book, of Warren Motte, whose book Mirror Gazing I reviewed in Numéro Cinq’s June 2014 issue. Turchi’s  discussion of the multiplicity of selves within each character we create made me think about the act of looking into mirrors, and how we then ask ourselves, “Who am I? How have I become who I am?” As readers or movie-watchers, what we want to see and think about are the “stress fractures in the surface of a character.” Using tangrams (there is one to cut out on the last page of the book) Turchi talks about how shapes/characters are assembled via the rearrangement of “seven clever pieces.” With Walt Whitman’s famous line (“I contain multitudes”) resounding in our ears, the answer to “Who am I?” seems to depend on who is doing the arranging. There is “no single logical sequence….only possibilities to ponder, ”says Turchi.

The author suggests his new book as a companion, not a sequel, to his equally interesting book about the process of writing, Maps of the Imagination. “Both books are, at least in part, about ways in which a piece of writing is designed. They both mean to invite writers to think differently about what we do.” He’s eager to have us remember that there is playfulness, in addition to effort, in art, and he bemoans the fact that a sense of delight in the creation of art often gets overlooked in conversations about craft. The author’s own sense of humor comes shining through – this is not dusty, academic writing. Nor does it limit itself strictly to writing advice. The author allows himself to comment on the culture at large:

The patience and willingness to embrace complexity seems particularly important these days, when much of the rhetoric of business and politics is devoted to reducing and simplifying people and problems. Easy understanding comes at a high price. One of the things fiction and poetry can do is to remind us of the value of refusing to rush to judgment, the need not just to recognize, but to accept, complexity and mystery.

In the interview at Fiction Writers Review, Turchi says, “…in talking about the virtues of obsession I’m really talking about the virtues of sustained concentration, of patience.”

Reader beware: Numerous brain-teasing puzzles are inserted into both text and margins of this book, making it difficult to turn the page before trying to find solutions. Either grab your pencil and write directly into the book as you look for the answers, or – if you’re less obsessive about puzzle-solving – move on and stick to the task at hand: reading Turchi’s text. The puzzles really do exert a pull, though, even if they reminded me occasionally of the logic puzzles I failed to solve in my Graduate Record Exams – the ones that begin “John, Daniel, Mary, Jeanette and Olivia all have flags of different colors…”  You know the type. They make my head hurt. Pages 28 and 29 involve an acrostic designed especially for the book by puzzle-man Michael Ashley – if you can solve it, you can enter your answer online and try to win a jigsaw puzzle of the cover of the book.

The cover, by the way, extends the discussion of the multiplicity of selves by portraying two young men in the same face – turn the cover upside down and you see someone with black hair, wide red lips and a golden collar; right-side-up the collar becomes a turban, and the man has a mustache and black beard. It’s amusing. And amazing. And bewildering. And fun.

— Julie Larios

Flipped A Muse and a Maze

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May 2011 - Jackson Fishing at Lake Commonwealth

Julie Larios is a Contributing Editor at Numéro Cinq. She is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets prize and a Pushcart Prize, and her work has been chosen twice for The Best American Poetry series.

 

 

Dec 112014
 

Looking-upward

The waning moon and a streetlight offered to help when I lost the silver pendant of my necklace walking my puppy in the early morning twilight. But after a moment’s search I let it hide, something precious and intimate concealed, and now it endears that part of the neighborhood to me, as W.S. Merwin’s The Moon Before Morning does with every poem. —A. Anupama

moon before morning thumbnail
The Moon Before Morning
W.S. Merwin
Copper Canyon Press
120 pages, $24
ISBN: 978-1-55659-453-3

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The waning moon and a streetlight offered to help when I lost the silver pendant of my necklace walking my puppy in the early morning twilight. But after a moment’s search I let it hide, something precious and intimate concealed, and now it endears that part of the neighborhood to me, as W.S. Merwin’s The Moon Before Morning does with every poem.

On one of the many double-dog-eared pages in my copy, in the poem “How it happens,”  the sky speaks:

The sky said I am watching
to see what you
can make out of nothing…

This poem appears in the last of the four sections of the collection and is followed by the poet’s ars poetica, “The wonder of the imperfect.”

Nothing that I do is finished
so I keep returning to it
lured by the notion that I long
to see the whole of it at last…

§

W. S. Merwin is prolific and draped with honors. His last book of poetry, Shadow of Sirius, won him his second Pulitzer Prize.  He has served as U.S. Poet Laureate (also) twice (1999-2000 and 2010-2011). He was born in 1927 in New York City but grew up in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. His influences are deep and personal. His father was a Presbyterian minister; he knew John Berryman and R.P. Blackmur at Princeton; Robert Graves’s son Merwin was his tutor for time. Now he lives with is wife Paula in Hawaii, on a 19-acre palm forest, which he planted from seed. Earlier this fall, the Merwin Conservancy announced permanent protection for the forest, in cooperation with the Hawaiian Islands Land Trust.

Merwin’s new collection begins with a scene in this forest garden in a poem called “Homecoming.”

I looked across the garden at evening
Paula was still weeding

The poem is typically (for Merwin) unpunctuated. The assonance and half-rhyme between “evening” and “weeding” fold the lines together, suggesting the core thematic structure: couple and place.

Likewise, in “Theft of morning,” the beautifully described (anapests — “to the sound” — accented with alliteration and internal rhyme) palm garden grounds the meditation.

Early morning in cloud light
to the sound of the last
of the rain at daybreak dripping
from the tips of the fronds
into the summer day
I watch palm flowers open
pink coral in midair
among pleated cloud-green fans
as I sit for a while after breakfast
reading a few pages
with a shadowing sense
that I am stealing the moment
from something else
that I ought to be doing
so the pleasure of stealing is part of it

§

Stealing moments is a theme of age. In the sonnet “Young man picking flowers” the poet delights in twisting up time and age to nullify their effects. Beginning here:

All at once he is no longer
young with his handful of flowers
in the bright morning…

and then ending:

the cool dew runs from them onto
his hand at this hour of their lives
is it the hand of the young man
who found them only this morning

The couplet’s question becomes almost a non-question because of the absence of question mark and because of Merwin’s precise tightening of line and thought by the repeated words (“hand,” “them,” and “morning”). Notice that the man is “young man” at the end.

In “Beginners,” time and memory hold hands for a moment and explain the game.

As though it had always been forbidden to remember
each of us grew up
knowing nothing about the beginning

but in time there came from that forgetting
names representing a truth of their own
and we went on repeating them

After this running start in rhymes (“nothing,” “beginning,” “forgetting,” “representing,” “repeating”), he goes on repeating variations of forgetting and remembering until “the day we wake to is our own.”

§

Merwin repeats the word “frond” frequently in the first section of this collection, anchoring us firmly in that garden home. It appears first in “Theft of morning,” and then recurs in several other poems, often aligned with time of day (to be precise, of course, for the garden changes with the light and weather). “White-eye” starts: “In the first daylight one slender frond trembles / and without seeing you I know you are there…” In the poem “From the gray legends,” “the screen of fronds” appears “before daylight,” and then in the poem “One day moth” he starts this way:

The lingering late-afternoon light of autumn
waves long wands through the arches
of fronds that meet over the lane

A poem titled “High fronds” gives us the image from a distance:

After sundown the crowns
of the tallest palms
stand out against
the clear glass of the eastern sky
that have no shadows
and no memory
the wind has gone its own way
nothing is missing

In “Garden notes,” the repetition summarizes itself at its zenith, encompassing all times of day and night:

All day in the garden
and at night when I wake to it
at its moment I hear a sound
sometimes little more than a whisper
of something falling
arriving
fallen
a seed in its early age
or a great frond formed
of its high days and nights…

“A breeze at noon” brings the repetition of “frond” to a close when the moment

drops a dead Pinanga frond
like an arrow at my feet
and I look up into the green
cluster of stems and gold strings
beaded with bloodred seeds
each of them holding tomorrow
and when I look
the breeze has gone

The word “frond” shares doubled consonance with “friend,” which Merwin repeats in the poem “Footholds.” The lines, specific in their setting of time and place, favor memory over forgetting.

…Father and Mother friend upon friend
what I remember of them now
footholds on the slope
in the silent valley of this morning
Wednesday with few clouds and an east wind.

§

The word “echo” takes over as a primary repetitive motif  in the second section of the collection and beyond. Again, the repetitions shift in their references, beginning with “Another to Echo,” which offers praise to Echo, the famous nymph in Ovid’s The Metamorphoses who could only repeat the last words of others, and who loved Narcissus in vain.

you incomparable one
for whom the waters fall
and the winds search
and the words were made
listening

Later, in “Garden music,” the echo as sound and echo as memory of sound coalesce.

In the garden house
the digging fork and the spade
hanging side by side on their nails
play a few notes I remember
that echo many years
as the breeze comes in with me…

And in “Variations on a theme,” the penultimate poem in the collection, Merwin personifies memory in the line “thank you for friends and long echoes of them”.

§

In an interview with Bill Moyers shortly after The Shadow of Sirius was published, Merwin mentioned having been pleased and encouraged to hear that children had no trouble understanding his poetry. To test this, I chose a few poems from this collection to share with my five-year-old daughter. I picked “The palaces” for its clouds like “gray cliffs / icebergs in other lives” and for words like “white-knuckled,” “pocket” and “crag.” My daughter wanted more. She asked, “What comes after that?” And so I continued with  “Old plum tree” and “Old breadhouse,” which won her approval, too.

Reading the poems aloud confirmed another of Merwin’s comments in that interview: that poetry relies heavily on the sense of hearing. The poems are full of sounds — the dripping leaves, the whisper of things falling in the night, those echoes, real and figurative. However, his use of “frond” seemed to me particularly visual. I remembered learning that the filtering of light through fronds and other kinds of leaves can even act like pinhole cameras, projecting images of the sun or moon across the ground, a fact I once used for watching a solar eclipse. But Merwin turns the strong visual aspects back to sound.

In “Lear’s wife,” the speaker says twice “I looked at the world” (visual). But the poem’s hinges are fastened to “if he had listened to me / it would have been / another story” and “only Cordelia / did not forget / anything / but when asked she said / nothing” (auditory). In “Another to Echo,” Merwin begins “How beautiful you must be / to have been able to lead me / this far with only / the sound of your going away” (visual metamorphoses to auditory). In “From the gray legends,” the color and texture of Arachne’s weaving opens the poem and carries its thread through to the end, all reflected in the strong visual of Minerva’s gray eyes. The only sound here, “all night her own bird answered only / Who”, is another uppercase exception to Merwin’s usual punctuation rules.

§

The silvery language hidden in plain sight on these pages only awaits a little breath of reading to reveal the pure way that dawn itself listens.

 —A. Anupama

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A. Anupama

A. Anupama is a U.S.-born, Indian-American poet and translator whose work has appeared in several literary publications, including The Bitter Oleander, Monkeybicycle, Fourteen Hills, and decomP magazinE. She received her MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2012. She currently lives and writes in the Hudson River valley of New York, where she blogs about poetic inspiration at seranam.com.

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Dec 092014
 

Lisa Robertson Author Image 2

Is it any good is the wrong question; how is it changing the terms of our enjoyment is the right one. Cinema of the Present is a threshold experience I pin brilliant. It bites the fruit it invents and brains us, tingling. It is behind-the-scenes, pink wrench-work: It is an action on us. Now. —Natalie Helberg

Cinema of the Present Cover Image

Cinema of the Present
Lisa Robertson
Coach House Books
112 pages, Paperback ($17.95)
ISBN: 978-1552452974

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Lisa Robertson’s Cinema of the Present arrives lean and reels in intellection. It’s delicate and circumspect and gutsy at once. Like so much of her work, it astonishes the sentence. It is an attempt to pressure writing away from habitual crutches, as in the trappings of the heavy hitters, not just what we learn in Poetry 101. It is eclectic, rarified, and dense, scatterbrained and philosophical: It tells us that the stakes of writing are high, that writing sculpts subjects as much as it sculpts the domain they dwell in, and that, consequently, there is no trick-bag to rely on, no set of writing techniques we can master and remain content with. Robertson claims that she does not know how to write, each time, then begins. Cinema of the Present attests to this attitude: Writing, it insists, is the attempt to write itself: it is humility, excitation, and persistent process. It is integrity and risk.

While much of Robertson’s work—The Apothecary (1991), Debbie: An Epic (1997), XEclogue (1993), Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture (2003), Nilling (2012), and many, many other collections—embrace a lush, amped-up take on the sentence (the baroque), Cinema of the Present proceeds comparatively economically. It is close to Robertson’s 2010 work, R’s Boat, which in many ways anticipates it.

Robertson’s ‘baroque’ can seem semantically impenetrable: It arises from the creative ‘verbing’ of nouns—“rooms with no middle ground, differently foxed” (Occasional Work)—the use of “improper” adjectives—“Don’t be afraid tulip for time is fat / with our indiscretion” (Debbie)—general adjectival lavishness, or a more general clashing of unlikely but suggestive sentence-parts: “Loose-armed impostors, we’ll hone an incendiary calendar, from the still bosco contrive the days that shall give us History, that saline, perplexed crux: Day of Parked Cars; Day of Physical Secrets; Day of Consonant’s Lip; Day of Lucite…” (XEclogue). But it can also seem exquisitely clear and referential: “[A]nd then the theorist sauntering purposefully from her round hips, her heavy leather satchel swinging like an oiled clock” (Occasional Work).

If Robertson’s language-based interventions are at times rogue and rude, they are also well-informed. Robertson is somewhat of an extinct species, a bit of a Virginia Woolf figure, one of those rare writers who has had a chance to devote her life more or less exclusively to reading and writing, without the intrusion of anything like regular employment. She’s someone who’s survived by being innovative, by being communally embedded, and by scrounging.

She spent years living rent-free in a cabin on Saltspring Island, during which she gobbled up Phyllis Webb, Heidegger, Barthes, Jean Genet, Ezra Pound, and Proust, among others. She is well-read in general, and her influences are as myriad as they are motley: Virgil, Plath, Lyn Hejinian, Rilke, Lucretius, Susan Howe, bpNichol,  etc. She was involved with the Kootenay School of Writing in Vancouver for several years in the nineties, where she became acquainted with key figures in the American Language movement as well as Russian Formalism (Viktor Shklovsky and his injunction to quicken perception by defamiliarizing language), post-structuralist theory, and feminist criticism. Before the Kootenay School, she attended Simon Fraser University, where she took courses from writers like George Bowering and Roy Miki and studied the Canadian avant-garde (a few names to mention: The Four Horsemen, Erin Mouré, and Nicole Brossard).

Of her early, baroque approach to the sentence, Robertson has said: it is a pursuit of a particular internal sound-structure, an attempt to produce a “full knobbly quality, or a torsion or a jaggedness or a swoony kind of movement from syllable to syllable.”[1]  The resultant sentences may not mean in conventional ways, but the fact that they do not only serves another of Robertson’s professed aims: to create sentences that startle, and, in startling, produce new emotional and intellectual terrain.[2] The aesthetic Robertson adopts in Cinema of the Present is less gnarly, and yet it still glimmers; it finds alternative ways to invigorate language:

You are fundamentally forgotten and veiled or you are deeply erased and diverted.

It was a place like the farm, but near the ocean.

You were poverty shivering in an old turquoise city.

(from Cinema of the Present)

The intention animating Cinema of the Present is related: the piece is an attempt to construct a pronoun. The confessional voice that invokes the ‘lyric I’ risks sounding cliché and cheesy, but any work’s organizing pronoun, says Robertson, is in danger of becoming the site of formulaic, dry, taken for granted language; we need to trouble that site if we’re going to keep it. Cinema of the Present troubles its organizing pronoun by making it self-thematizing.

The text begins: “What is the condition of a problem if you are the problem? / You move into the distributive texture of an experimental protocol.” ‘You,’ the pronoun, a few lines down, sets “out from consciousness carrying only a small valise.” The poem, which consists of a hundred or so pages of double-spaced, one-line statements (sometimes questions, sometimes fragments), some of which are repeated in slightly altered form at irregular intervals, continues:

A downtown tree, the old sky, and still you want an inventory.

You were an intuition without a concept.

A gallery, a hospital, an hypothesis.

Pure gesture.

Many of the poem’s subsequent lines likewise explicitly qualify this ‘you’: “You are the silence they exchanged,” “You are a transitional figure who sees yourself as such,” but many do not. As in the above (“A gallery, a hospital, an hypothesis”), some are fragments which refer to the perceptual world, or just the world more broadly (“Atoms, theatres, famines”), and yet the pronoun/subject, situated with its valise at the frontier of consciousness, arguably absorbs them:

Each line that makes up the poem, though it can function independently, can also be read forward and backward (as in ‘you were an intuition without a concept: a gallery, a hospital, an hypothesis, pure gesture’); meaning can cascade forward or backward as many lines or as few as suits a reader’s fancy (you were ‘a hospital, an hypothesis, pure gesture,’ and, as the next line goes, “a gate made of carpet tape”). The poem posits consciousness as spongiform and figures poetry and poetic practice as a gate between subjectivity and objectivity. The “gate made of carpet tape” recurs throughout the poem as a figure for the mind’s immersion in the perceptual vista: it is a gate constituted by all manner of encountered materials: it becomes “a gate made of gas pumps,” “a gate made of bread and screws.”

The subject/pronoun the poem is preoccupied with, then, both surges up from and recedes back into language (“Your pronoun leaks thus”). The statements or fragments that seem to concern it least still become its tissue, and the pronoun, conversely, becomes the poem itself (“It was not your voice at all, but it can’t stop nor does it think”). It is this pivot which allows the poem to produce its meta-commentary: By the time we get to the line “You are banality,” or “You are no longer aesthetical,” for example, we can read these lines as referring to the poem itself. Besides its pronoun-anxiety, Cinema of the Present shares with R’s Boat, its precursor, a willingness to embrace what Robertson refers to as either flat, outright bad, or banal sentences, a willingness, in other words, to embrace everything—“What you wanted: total, gestural plasticity”; “You presuppose a free, opened and unlimited space”— while sequencing these materials in such a way that they come to work aesthetically (which sometimes means that the resulting arrangement has actually opened up a new aesthetic possibility: “at the edges of banality, there is sensing”).

Sequencing may be one of the keys to Robertson’s title, as well: In “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility,” Walter Benjamin notes that a reality presented through film, which is pure in the sense that it bears no sign of the technology used to produce it, is only pure in this sense because technology has purged it, has edited itself out, cutting shots and assembling shots taken at different times, while mindfully orchestrating transitions between them. Robertson has used the essay in the past to stress the extent to which writers—and this reflects a deep dimension of her own approach—are mindfully patterning, or texturing, a linguistic surface; they are arranging materials, and, like filmmakers, are orchestrating transitions between the text’s moments. The double-spaced lines which make up Cinema of the Present, the arrangement of this text as an uninterrupted sequence of these lines, and the arrangement of these lines themselves make the text, perhaps more than her other works, the book-analogue of film. It exists as the effect of a complex form of visual reduction, as well as of a cinematic sensitivity to time and rhythm.

Gertrude Stein’s “Composition as Explanation,” in which Stein offers an elusive articulation of her own approach to composition, “writing the present,” provides another insight into Robertson’s title. “Writing the present” à la Stein involves, among other things, an attention to time in the work, which is the effect of “distribution and equilibration,” or what, in keeping with the above, we might call sequencing. “To construct a velocity is what you want” (Robertson). It also entails “using everything” (as in the way both R’s Boat and Cinema of the Present do) “by beginning again and again” (Cinema of the Present, like much of Stein’s work, unfurls along descriptive axes—it makes reference to the sensory world, but also to the project itself, its pronoun and the act of writing it—and does so in a playfully repetitious manner).

Stein’s essay also affords a pre-echo of Cinema’s open-ended spirit and structure. Robertson writes, “Curiosity, limbs and momentum: because of form you kept playing,” “You carried the great discovery of poetry as freedom, not form,” and “If you speak in this imaginary structure, it’s because other choices felt limiting.” Stein writes “No one thinks these things when they are making…no one formulates until what is to be formulated has been made” and “Composition is not there, it is going to be there and we are here.”

The open structure that characterizes Cinema of the Present and the vocabulary that Robertson has let loose in the work are also relevant to the work’s thematic content. The diction in Cinema is drawn in part from philosophical sources. There is explicit reference to Nietzsche and Aristotle, an injunction, at one point, to eliminate all contradictions (which is contradicted), and the repeated mention of “the indispensable horizon of all that occurs or appears.” There is even a possible reference to Foucault, the great theorist of disciplinary spaces: “Thus you were led to describe hospitals, prisons, remote villages, monasteries.” And to Hannah Arendt: “So you came to nilling” (nilling being a passive form of willing, or an active form of not-willing).

Robertson has used Arendt as fodder before, in an essay on Pauline Réage’s controversial Story of O. In the novel, the eponymous protagonist, O, is made into a sex slave; more specifically, her boyfriend asks her to be a slave whom many other men—provided they are ring-bearing members of a certain salacious organization (at Roissy)—can make use of as his proxies. O is subjected to excruciating forms of corporeal torture; her body is mutilated, assiduously penetrated, yet at every moment she agrees to her treatment: she submits herself to it. Robertson reads Story of O as an allegory for the formation of the subject through the paradoxical form of agency that is nilling: the subject’s self-conscious self-submission to a power beyond itself (an Other), as occurs in the act of reading, during which the reading subject gives itself over to, and is transformed, however violently or benevolently, by text.

Cinema of the Present, seems, at times, to refer to this reading: It makes mention of “O, Rosy-booted.” Its organizing pronoun is said to want “to wear the feathered mask of a owl” (at the height of her subjection, O is shaved, attached to a dog-leash, and displayed naked at a party wearing just such a mask; she is afterward desecrated in the mask, on a table, as the sun comes up). The degree of permissiveness that characterizes Cinema as a curated space (it embraces banality, and anything: “What you wanted: total, gestural plasticity”), its ‘openness,’ aligns the work with Story of O (something like Robertson’s take on it), as well. O is obligated, as a slave, ordered, to remain ‘open’: her lips must remain parted at all times, for penetration, as must her legs. Cinema of the Present marks itself as likewise radically accommodating, and accommodating in such a way as to enable self-change. “Your problem is again your own transformation,” it says. “You are a transitional figure who sees yourself as such.” “Once again you acquire a new surface.”

Robertson’s whole enterprise is in this way encapsulated in Cinema. The work is concerned with writing’s (contingent and alterable) conditions of possibility, as well as with the subjective possibilities which are related to them. What it is possible to write, in a given time and place, is an index of what it is possible to be, since it is a subject who writes, or since writing is, ultimately, a subject’s possibility. To alter writing is to alter subjectivity: “Only the rhyme of discourse transforms you,” Cinema says. “Still,” it says, “you’re totally in love with subjectivity,” and “Still, at this late date in the political, you remain intrigued by fucking”:

O is fucked by her Other, entered, conditioned and created and, as a subject, beholden. Cinema is open to an Other that takes the form of un-aesthetical, flat-toned language, and, in being so open, is engaged in producing a counter-pressure to a second Other: ‘writing proper.’

In challenging and altering literary norms, Robertson has also produced new possibilities for the legitimate use of language, for language practices, and for the subjectivities that are what they are partly because they engage in these practices. Cinema of the Present persists with this Sisyphean endeavour: “It’s time for your late style”; “That your mouth lovingly damaged the language”; “You would like thought to release something other than laboratory conditions.” Is it any good is the wrong question; how is it changing the terms of our enjoyment is the right one. Cinema of the Present is a threshold experience I pin brilliant. It bites the fruit it invents and brains us, tingling. It is behind-the-scenes, pink wrench-work: It is an action on us. Now.

— Natalie Helberg

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helberg pic

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

Lisa Robertson is one of Canada’s most celebrated experimental poets. She is associated with Vancouver’s Kootenay School of Writing but also resists being associated with any particular aesthetic. Her chapbooks, one-off essays, pamphlets, and scattered poems are too numerous to list here. Her books include The Apothecary (1991), XEclogue (1993), Debbie: An Epic (1997—a finalist for the Governor General’s award in 1998), The Weather (2001), Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture (2003), The Men: A Lyric Book (2006), Magenta Soul Whip (2009), R’s Boat (2010), Nilling: Prose Essays (2012), and, most recently, Cinema of the Present. She currently lives in France.

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Kai Fierle-Hedrick. “Lifted: An Interview with Lisa Robertson.” Chicago Review (Volume 5.1/5.2, Spring 2006)
  2. Mark Cochrane. “Stuttering Continuity (or, Like It’s 1999): An Interview with Lisa Robertson at Cambridge.” Open Letter (Thirteenth Series, No. 6, Summer 2008)
Dec 022014
 

ZinkPhoto by Fred Filkorn

 It is the kind of novel that sticks to the brain, that floats on neurons long after returning to the bookshelf… — Benjamin Woodard

Wallcreeper

The Wallcreeper
Nell Zink
Dorothy, a publishing project
200 pages ($16.00)
ISBN 978-0-9897607-1-3

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With The Wallcreeper, Nell Zink has crafted a novel that’s truly difficult to summarize, for while one could say the book is a lampoon of modern relationships, or an elongated joke about eco-terrorism, or a satire concerning birdwatchers and American expats stumbling through life in Europe, each of these interpretations fails to capture the pure insanity that rockets through the narrative’s gnarled veins. Instead, the novel begs for a more naked description, one finding focus not in recapped transgressions, necessarily, but in simple adjectives: sexy, funny, strange, and clever. It is the kind of novel that sticks to the brain, that floats on neurons long after returning to the bookshelf, that demands close reading to decipher subtle verbal jabs, yet one that also remains mysterious in its rambling success, that covers so much ground with so few words that the reader is provoked to ask, “How does such a crazed book work so well?”

At the heart of the novel rest Tiffany and Stephen, young newlyweds who move from Philadelphia to Switzerland after Stephen lands a job in research and development for a shadowy company based in Berne. Their story opens with a marvelously loaded sentence: “I was looking at the map when Stephen swerved, hit the rock, and occasioned the miscarriage.” Immediately, Zink tags the reader with an immense amount of physical, spatial information—travel, pregnancy—as well as four turns in action (“looking” “swerved” “hit” “occasioned”). In a more conventional narrative, such a line would function as a springboard for a sad novel circling the loss of an unborn child, yet Zink employs this sentence for two reasons: to set the rhythm of what’s to come, and to use the trauma to simply replace the unborn child with a wallcreeper bird, the actual cause of the accident (“I thought it was dead,” Stephen claims. “I just wanted to get it off the road.”), who the couple—birdwatchers, naturally—take home and begin to nurture. The miscarriage does linger for a few pages, particularly in a sequence where Stephen tries to entice an uninterested Tiffany to have sex standing up in the kitchen, yet the couple’s lives continue forward with the same sharp efficiency of the novel’s compact opening line. Thus, it isn’t long until Tiffany strikes up an affair with a local named Elvis, the wallcreeper grows large and is released into the wild (where it meets a swift, entertaining demise), and Stephen takes an interest in a politically charged upstart committed to halting the expansion of hydroelectric power in the Rhine. The couple moves to Berlin to be closer to the upstart’s action, and as they continue to dabble in extramarital flings, Tiffany—unemployed, living off of Stephen’s income, and attempting to write a screenplay—strays toward more violent methods of invoking environmental change.

To say more about the plot of The Wallcreeper would be a disservice to both it and the reader, for half the pleasure of the novel is seeing just how far Zink will take her characters. It’s this fearlessness that makes the novel so immensely potent. Zink writes without restraint, and the result feels something like a trip through the best kind of haunted house, one where you have no idea what’s around the next bend, where you’re simultaneously laughing and cringing at the rapid fire of ghosts and goblins crossing your path. She is a master at crafting exchanges both blunt and hilarious. Take this initial scene between Tiffany and Stephen:

“Tiffany,” he said. “That means divine revelation. From theophany.”

“It means a lampshade,” I said. “It’s a way to get around the problem of putting your light under a bushel. The light and the bushel are one.”

He didn’t back away. It was one of those moments where you think: We will definitely fuck.

In just two lines of dialogue, Zink tells the reader exactly who these two characters are: the idealist and the realist; the thoughtful and the sarcastic; the astute and the naïve. This truncated conversation not only allows Zink to skip generic paragraphs of character description, but it helps to reinforce the zippy groove pace of the novel. Add to this the sequence’s final punch line—“We will definitely fuck”—and the future indiscretions of Stephen and Tiffany seem inevitable: can one truly be surprised of their flexible fidelity when sex seems imminent from such a strangely banal chat?

Zink has tremendous fun with such punch lines. Before relocating to Berlin, for example, Tiffany describes the residents there (“No one was sleek or fluffy in Berlin, not even me. In four weeks I didn’t see a single good-looking person on the street.”), only to follow up her distaste with the admission, “Accordingly, Stephen insisted we move there.” Yet while such direct guffaws are satisfying, The Wallcreeper also succeeds when looked at as a whole, for Zink binds the eccentricities of her characters with an admirable, satirical commentary on modern life. There’s a “disposable generation” quality to Tiffany and Stephen. These two hold very little close, be it apartments, lost hopes, careers, or lovers, and so it is brilliant when such a pair, so willing to toss emotional and material possessions aside, decides to change the world through environmental activism. There’s a wonderful paradox at play here, one the characters never quite realize, and it speaks to the way so many of us try to erase years of futility with a single act of generosity.

In addition, Zink pokes fun at the concept of female dependency throughout the novel. Tiffany, in need of male companionship to support her financially, willingly shuffles around Europe with her husband. Her motivation also comes from the men surrounding her, and her engagements reflect their interests. She is our narrator, yes, but even while seeing the world through her eyes, it becomes obvious that she is also a character in serious need of a jolt of independence, and Zink relishes in this awareness, commenting nimbly on Tiffany’s false sense of freedom and prodding young women to, perhaps, reconsider their own forged paths, to avoid the trap of a legacy defined by the men that enclose them. Moreover, this jab speaks to the way in which The Wallcreeper has been received by the critical mass. As is often the case when reviewing a novel from a relative unknown, one tends to compare the work to that of a celebrated contemporary, and with Zink, that contemporary quite often has been Don DeLillo (his name even comes up on the back cover blurb from Keith Gessen). While such comparisons are certainly understandable, writing wise, they also reinforce the patriarchal stereotype Zink clearly parodies in her novel. With so many wonderful, successful female writers also crafting funny, sexy, strange, clever novels, why choose to hang Zink’s debut over the shoulders of a man?

Questions like this help The Wallcreeper extend its life beyond the page. This is a novel that clicks both instantly and in hindsight. It’s rare to read a book that so fruitfully welds so many elements without flailing, especially from a debut novelist.

— 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 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.

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Nov 102014
 

Sam-Savage-author-photoPhoto by Nancy Marshall

A common feature of the five prose novels is that  Savage assumes, without being presumptuous, that what he wants to get across about interior states can be told, despite the obstacle of language and in however provisional a fashion. Clearly his narrators don’t share that hard-won assurance, and we witness how their opinions often are not so much nuanced as worried down to a nub.
—Jeff Bursey

Layout 1

It Will End with Us
Sam Savage
Coffee House Press
Paper, 150 pp., $9.99

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1.Sam Savage was born in South Carolina in 1940, and became visible as a novelist with his first prose work, Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife (2006), published by Coffee House Press. (His first novel, The Criminal Life of Effie O.: An Entertainment [2005], is in verse). It is a first-person narrative told by a Boston-born rat, living in a bookstore, which can read, an ability that, unsurprisingly, ostracizes him from his fellows. This aptitude is insufficient to make him understandable to humans since he is not able to speak in a language they understand. Comic, at first, the tale darkens as the supports of life, such as family, shared experiences, finding someone to talk with openly and the bonds of community, depart or are denied, and the story moves into territory that is genuinely affecting without being sentimental. The Cry of the Sloth (2009), Glass (2011) and The Way of the Dog (2013) share those emotions as well as certain technical elements: one narrator, a restricted setting, a set of interconnected topics that are divulged slowly if incompletely, and exactitude of language.

In The Cry of the Sloth and Glass, instead of speech we are given typewritten letters and memoirs written by lonely people. Andrew Whittaker and Edna, respectively, sit and type whatever comes to mind, with a degree of articulateness that quickly shows itself as a disadvantage instead of an asset. Their precision, wit and energy provide no abiding pleasure or comfort and are useless when it comes to dealing with the real world, coupled as they are with obsessions, narrowness of vision and an isolating prickliness. Nothing good happens for Whittaker by the end; Edna has a moment of relief from the worst of her misery, but her ways of thinking will persist. In The Way of the Dog Harold Nivenson orders his thoughts on scraps of paper; most of his views are harsh about neighbours, former friends and others, but over the course of the novel a few people insert themselves into his life, against his will, and change things for the better, at least temporarily.

One might wonder if this is limited terrain. Savage addresses that in an interview with his editor, Chris Fischbach:

Chris Fischbach: Gilbert Sorrentino once said to me, “I just write the same book over and over. I don’t really have very much material.” Given the similarilies between Glass and your previous novel, Cry of the Sloth (the setting of each being a writer sitting at a typewriter in front of a window), would you say the same about yourself?

Sam Savage: I suppose that might be one of the reasons I like Sorrentino, that he keeps digging at the same vein. But I have to confess that I never noticed the similarities among his books, I just thought each time I opened one that here was another “vintage Sorrentino,” which was exactly what I wanted. Now that you bring it up, I suppose I would say the same thing about myself. Or maybe I write the same book over because I didn’t get it right the first time.

Savage persists, but his books do differ, and It Will End with Us is about more than it initially seems.

2.

A common feature of the five prose novels is that Savage assumes, without being presumptuous, that what he wants to get across about interior states can be told, despite the obstacle of language and in however provisional a fashion (thus the revisiting of concerns, something present in the works of his contemporary, the sadly under-read Gabriel Josipovici.) Clearly his narrators don’t share that hard-won assurance, and we witness how their opinions often are not so much nuanced as worried down to a nub. Generally, the voice we spend so much time with is firmly located in an apartment or house set in a nameless suburb or city. The narrator of It Will End with Us, Eve Taggart, writes notes, though we’re not told to whom or for what purpose, on memories of her childhood in South Carolina. (In addition to being born in the same state as her creator, Eve shares her year of birth with him.)

She is not a first-time writer—“I once wrote an entire book that I called A History of My Suicides”—and this collection of reminiscences of the mid-20th century South, often of only one- or two-sentence paragraphs, are not strung together to present a clear history:

Now that I am at my desk again for more time than it takes to write a postcard, I am fond of mornings in particular, especially when the sky is clear and the white of the building across the way is splashed with sunlight, splashing back onto my face.

Writing on typing paper in pencil. A little something, even if only a sketch.

On the first page Eve reveals that this is not the first time she has tried to set down thoughts on what her childhood and family were like. “I wasn’t going to begin again, having stopped, apparently, and started up again, foolishly, too many times already, attempting to write about my family and Spring Hope and myself there with them and later there without them.” (The commas indicate lingering indecision.) We slowly learn about the gradual decline of her family: parents Iris and an unnamed father, both dead, and her two siblings, Edward (perhaps dead, perhaps missing) and Thornton. The family home in Spring Hope has flaking paint, holes in the screens and mushrooms growing out of the wood; the father runs a furnishings store and instead of being able to build upon the successes of past generations must, like his predecessors, start from the bottom up; the land the house is on, and in the region generally, is in rough shape.

Images of unpainted shacks and tumble-down sheds in small acres of poor-looking fields, mules in paddocks, hogs in makeshift slab pens, and strange dirty barefoot children my own age standing among the wandering chickens in the yards, looking up at our car, staring, unsmiling usually but sometimes waving, unsure, flow through my mind the way they flowed past the car.

I remember looking out the rear window at a cloud of dust curling behind us, and coming to a stop and the dust catching up with us and rolling over the car.

While the father runs a failing business, and spends more time dismantling parts of the house instead of fixing anything, the mother, Iris, an artist in her heart who favours lavender-coloured dresses, fills notebooks with poems that are seldom published. “I was fifteen when I finally understood that my mother’s poems were not literature,” Eve notes. These two people—one mercantile and brutal, the other not temperamentally equipped for a provincial, hardscrabble life—do not comprehend the extent of their personal decline nor that of the surrounding area, and consider themselves above others, passing this false notion on to their children. “I remember always knowing that we were superior to other families of our acquaintance,” (86), Eve writes; “I thought of us vaguely as ‘illustrious.’”. Yet the evidence of their true station is everywhere: tattered fabrics or chipped paint can seem irrelevant when placed among other considerations, but in this way Savage shows, before being explicit, how Eve’s life in Spring Hope started in ruin and became worse, though she herself may have escaped becoming either her mother or father.

Told through haphazard recollections, It Will End with Us portrays the Taggarts as troubled by the father’s offhand brutality (arguments with his sons, bloodying Eve by dragging her across a schoolyard) and the mother’s unraveling mind (tearing out her hair, and almost daring her husband to shoot her), located within dire economic and environmental conditions. The myth of the fertile South is replaced with the reality of a parched region losing its resources—dusty land can’t bear crops, neither Eve nor Thornton produce children (the family line likely expiring with their generation), and the crumbling family home a rebuke to the prosperous Big House frequently featured in Southern history. Savage’s foray into Southern fiction bears some resemblance to Faulkner in its capturing of the deterioration of a self-important family and its host culture, but in Eve there is a larger theme at work, to my mind, than that of the decline of the South. She does not look back with self-pity. Whether we can trust her is open to question.

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Like Modernist and Postmodernist writers, Savage prefers to dislodge certainty from its purchase rather than provide sudden plot twists. Eve sums it up: “If I had to describe my situation in a word… it would be indeterminate” (italics in text). To unsettle the narrative, Savage supplies details that look unrelated and, more obviously, removes the possible validity of Eve’s memories when, alongside having her say she imagines this or that or repeatedly uses the phrase “I remember”—books by Joe Brainard (I Remember [1970]) and Georges Perec (I Remember [1978]) come to mind—he has her confess: “I suspect a number of my early memories might actually belong to Thornton or even to Edward, and I just took them over, ingested them, so to speak, after hearing one or the other talking about them.” Iris is the name attached to her dead mother and to “a phantasm of no fixed or definite shape that draws and clusters to itself a host of other images like filings to a magnet [that was] born with the first opening of my mind onto the world and will die with me, finally.”  The concrete world vanishes, the real world is subordinate to what the imagination constructs, and we are asked to accept, and trust, a simulacrum of recall. What can be trusted when the memory is Eve’s and yet not hers, and who is Eve, really?

The integrity of the main character and of the story told, fascinating topics deftly handled, lead into another aspect of her that is equally rich. A character named Eve who focuses on a childhood when her family was intact invites us to entertain the possibility that this novel, certainly at one level about the mythical/real South, at a deeper level plays with religious myths through the creation of a Biblically-named figure from Spring Hope—a debased name for Eden—who is trying to retrieve a pre-lapsarian world that never existed. Throughout It Will End with Us we are told of dead bears, dried-up swamps, vanishing trees and other decimations of the natural world. After Eve declares that “National Geographic magazine is the saddest thing I have ever read” we are given lists of animals extinct and endangered, and ones more numerous in Spring Hope than the undefined “here” where Eve currently lives. Cats “kill two billion birds every year in the United States” creating “Dead Bird Mountain” on what Eve calls “Planet Dearth.”

Eve is the bearer of the names of creatures but does not bear children nor remember the names of classmates; her father’s killing of stray dogs illustrates the hardness of the male heart; and she mulls over the concept of the soul, eventually giving up this pursuit, but not before tying together the small and large themes of the novel with resignation: “The world seems to me such a poor and barren place, I can’t imagine what a soul would find to live on here.” This Eve, containing impressions of scarcity and imminent death—as the title suggests—and who is scarcely more, in her mind, than a mingling of “figments” named Iris, Spring Hope, and so on, is a figure we must consider taking seriously, and if we do, what happens then? Sam Savage, once more, elicits our admiration and aesthetic appreciation for reminding us not to be complacent, and to interrogate what Eve terms the “inner reaches”—our inner selves—and what we believe, in a compact with others, to be the real world.

—Jeff Bursey

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

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Nov 062014
 

lodovico

The narrator depicts a Milan where everything is a carefully constructed series of symbols, never representing anything more profound than the artist who made them, the store they were bought from. It’s a Milan that “exists only as much as the name of a city stamped on a luxury brand shopping bag,” where self-actualization isn’t any sort of expression of a fundamental self, but a recurring fashioning and refashioning. —Charlie Geoghegan-Clements

Nicola Milan

Nicola, Milan
Lodovico Pignatti Morano
Semiotext(e) Native Agents, 2014
$14.95, 127 pages

Lodovico Pignatti Morano’s Nicola, Milan is in many respects a coming-of-age novel, but it affects less a traditional bildungsroman and more a postmodern shrug. A novel about a young man who moves to Milan “to steal someone or something’s cultural authority,” it is a search for meaning in a milieu made up of only surfaces, where identity appears to be little more than a snakelike change of skins. The dubious triumph of Nicola, Milan’s narrator amounts to a forfeiture, a realization that his feelings of emptiness and barren insignificance which characterize the book’s world are indicators that the present is thinning at the elbows, pointing toward the next attractions in postmodern capitalism’s perpetual changing vogue.

Restless and unnamed, Nicola, Milan’s narrator is a twenty-five year-old expatriate from London, who works as a “brand strategist,” but this is mostly titular since he never seems to work at all. The narrator meets Nicola at a party, and quickly becomes obsessed with him. Nicola, in his thirties, is the creative superior to Morano’s narrator. He has access to all the parties, drugs, and new artist; he has age, experience, and connections that the narrator doesn’t. Almost immediately the narrator imbues Nicola with mystery and power. Indeed, Nicola has the “cultural authority” the narrator covets, and the older man becomes a role model of sorts. Early in the novel, the narrator begins consciously aping Nicola’s behavior: “I try to familiarize myself with [Nicola] descison-making process, to get comfortable with his intuitions…I try to find situations similar to his and superficially behave the same way I observed him behaving.”

And much of the book continues this way. Nicola moves, and the narrator follows, watching his every move, puzzling over who he is, what his motivations are, and what, if anything, they mean. In the way that echoes the Existentialist fiction of the earth 20th century, Nicola, Milan is a novel of a young man’s experience of meaninglessness and alienation. But unlike the existentialists’ discovery of authenticity in profound freedom and individual responsibility, Morano’s narrator comes to the realization that there’s no essential self to be alienated from, and no significance more meaningful that pulling off a daring new fashion.

In 1967, French social theorist Guy Debord described our world in his influential text Society of the Spectacle as one where “everything that was directly lived has moved away into representation.” Morano’s world could just as accurately be described in this way, and it comes as no surprise that Morano’s publisher is Semiotext(e), which has been long at the forefront of publishing writing on capitalism and the individual under the shadow of Debord and other likeminded theorists. Morano’s description of Milan seems to draw directly from Debord’s understanding of the contemporary world—what he called a “spectacular society.” For Debord, all individual activity is mediated by capitalism and the to-and-fro of commodities. Finding meaning outside of the market is impossible. For Morano’s narrator, this takes the form of his inability to find any sense of himself or Nicola as an individual outside of purchase and affectation.

Mid-way through the novel, the narrator and Nicola discuss a jacket that Nicola is having custom made. The jacket will have “all my personal references, the things people know me by, my hotel room number I always take, my old nickname, the logo of my more famous blog from when I was in L. A….” Nicola’s jacket is emblematic of the spectacular form of identity itself. He is attempting to create some stable sense of self through designing his own commodity. And soon, after this discussion, the narrator imagines himself wearing the jacket, becoming Nicola, but in doing so, realizes that there’s nothing beneath the symbolic spectacle that Nicola uses to represent who he is, that his life is no less a playacting than anyone else’s: “‘Anything he can do I can do,’ I tell myself, believing it sincerely, somewhat moved by the truth of the statement I’ve made to myself…It is true, a profound realization, another shifting of the ground bboreeneath my feet.”

This fundamental hollowness of the individual is mirrored in Morano’s dispassionate style of writing. At times his prose reads like the disengaged notes of an ethnographer writing a study of the moneyed and schmoozing members of Milan’s creative class: “He’s wearing a white suit, it probably cost a million euros.” There is a semiotic allowance made for these Tweet-like observations of who’s present at dinners, bars, and parties, what they are wearing, what Nicola is doing and with whom as Morano shows how each person who populates this Milan has carefully crafted their exterior personas. Morano never gives away any more than the characters do, never dips into omniscience. As the narrator says when describing Nicola’s apartment: “Things appear as signs, they exist in a descriptive capacity.”

In this way, the narrator depicts a Milan where everything is a carefully constructed series of symbols, never representing anything more profound than the artist who made them, the store they were bought from. It’s a Milan that “exists only as much as the name of a city stamped on a luxury brand shopping bag,” where self-actualization isn’t any sort of expression of a fundamental self, but a recurring fashioning and refashioning. To read Morano’s short, sharp book is to follow a narrator in a fruitless quest for something more, some kind of agency beyond the spectacular world. In a sense Nicola, Milan is a search for a round character in a sea of flat ones, which makes for somewhat disconcerting reading, as the emptiness of everything is described literally, and yet through the seeking eyes of Morano’s narrator, potentially hiding significance. This terseness, combined with the narrator’s suspicion that there is some depth beneath the façades resemble the tension and suspense felt in the best literary thrillers.

Late in the novel, the narrator stalks Nicola online, finding pictures from Nicola’s mythic time abroad—in Mexico, China, and Los Angeles. Despite the narrator vividly imagining Nicola in these places, the pieces never fully fit together to form a whole person. The narrator’s obsessive Goggle-ing also leads him to a blog that refers to a man whom he presumes to be Nicola. The blog outlines a sadomasochistic relationship between Nicola and the blog’s author:

The girl writes about things that, as far as Nicola’s image is concerned, never happened—and this makes me nervous as I sit in front of the computer, reading material freely available to the public, with nothing but a genuine curiosity; they are the zones one never sees in him. It dawns on me that these things she describes actually happened with him, in Milan. And later, as I begin to attach his face to the action, I grow perturbed.

After so long seeing only surface it finally seems the narrator has found some sort of hidden self to Nicola: an identity or a core, an essence. Like a ball of mud rolling down a hill, as the narrator obsesses over Nicola’s online artifacts, imagining him in all manner of situations beyond his ken, the Nicola-fetish picks up more and more significance completely independent from reality. In studying Nicola, the narrator begins to see how the styles and affections don’t cohere and form a whole, cogent identity. When, beneath it all, the narrator discovers a private life to Nicola—a somewhat transgressive one, but still essentially common love affair—he is thoroughly disappointed and quickly begins to fade away from Nicola’s circles in Milan.

It is perhaps no accident that Lodovico Pignatti Morano has made his narrator a brand strategist. After graduating from London’s Goldsmiths University, where he studied Fine Arts, Morano moved to Italy to work in the cycling industry, working with such legendary Italian bicycle brands as Cinelli and Columbus. Although Nicola, Milan is his first novel, Morano is the author of the book Cinelli: The Art and Design of the Bicycle and the editor of a monograph on the Italian Sportswear pioneer Massimo Osti. As Morano explores the emptiness and ciphers of the Milanese creative class in his identity thriller we sense that he knows firsthand the banality of corporate branding, the fiction behind commodities, all of which he dramatizes in Nicola, Milan. These fictions, these banalities are at the core of Nicola’s betrayal because it isn’t that there was another hidden and more significant life, but that it was just as lacking in depth as the surface life which Nicola publicly enacted. When the fetishized commodity is truly viewed up close, it can be seen as the imperfect object it is.

Morano’s narrator’s dissatisfaction that beneath the surface of Nicola is nothing less quotidian than secret sex is also at the heart of the fast changing, never significant, setting of the novel. Fundamentally, dissatisfaction is built into the world of this book, for if a brand (or identity) were to satisfy, the consumer would never need to buy another, or another, or another. Nicola, Milan is a search for the unmediated, and the acceptance that doesn’t exist. And this tense and somewhat fatalistic book is a bored sigh, the resignation that in a world structured by the fickleness of postmodern identity there is no “self” putting on the clothes, just a person-shaped rack.

—Charlie Geoghegan-Clements

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Charlie Geoghegan-Clements‘ work has been published with theNewerYork, Marco Polo Quarterly, Tin House, 3:AM Magazine, and Versal. His short story collection Superhero Questions is available from ELJ Publications. More information can be found at ACrannog.com.

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Oct 132014
 

Han Dong

Remember heroic Buck from Jack London’s Call of the Wild or Lassie in Elizabeth Gaskell’s heart-wrenching short story “The Half-Brothers?” In Han Dong’s lean forty-three-page novella, A Tabby- cat’s Tale, we meet another unforgettable animal, but unlike Buck or Lassie, Tabby could never be classified as courageous. In fact the very opposite is true: Tabby’s unruly behavior is the basis of a wonderful comedy about a Chinese family’s obsession with their “morbidly” antisocial cat. —Melissa Armstrong

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A Tabby-cat’s Tale
By Han Dong
Translated by Nicky Harman
Frisch and Co.
Ebook, 43 pages; $2.99

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Remember heroic Buck from Jack London’s Call of the Wild or Lassie in Elizabeth Gaskell’s heart-wrenching short story “The Half-Brothers?” In Han Dong’s lean forty-three-page novella, A Tabby- cat’s Tale, we meet another unforgettable animal, but unlike Buck or Lassie, Tabby could never be classified as courageous. In fact the very opposite is true: Tabby’s unruly behavior is the basis of a wonderful comedy about a Chinese family’s obsession with their “morbidly” antisocial cat.

Han Dong’s Tabby may not be the stereotypical hero, but he nevertheless derives from a line of similar characters in literary history. The author’s portrayal of Tabby fits quite nicely alongside the hilarious and often eyebrow-raising wit J.R. Ackerley employs in My Dog Tulip. Published in 1965, My Dog Tulip describes the tumultuous but unconditional sixteen-year love affair the narrator shares with an untrained and sometimes downright stubborn Alsatian bitch — who bites, barks excessively, gets booted from several public places, including a veterinarian’s office and a grocery store, and delivers a litter of pups in a London flat.

In Han Dong’s story, separated by thirty-five years and seven thousand miles, we meet Tulip’s soul mate, a cat named Tabby that lives and dies on a seventh floor apartment in Nanjing, China. In A Tabby-cat’s Tale, we follow a Chinese family’s eight-year plight, taking care of their feline, who despises people, doesn’t use a litter box, has fleas, and often displays violent behavior. At one point, the cat scars the sister-in-law for life when he swipes her nose with his “fearsome claws.” But, amusingly, instead of finding another home for Tabby, the family goes to extraordinary lengths to make life comfortable for the cat, cooking him special fish-gut soup and starting a war with the neighbors so that Tabby can live on their apartment complex roof.

Like Ackerley’s portrayal of his dog Tulip, Han Dong hilariously depicts Tabby with vivid descriptions of the cat’s bad habits. In terse, sometimes lively (vulgar) language, Han Dong exposes all of Tabby’s faults, such as his failure to use a litter box:

With his change of personality, Tabby became doubly incontinent, pissing and shitting all over the flat and carefully concealing the evidence. It was my sister-in-law’s duty to clean up after him; this was unpleasant enough as it was, but having to find the mess made it even worse. Tabby was a master of hide-n-seek and could easily tuck himself out of sight; hiding a much smaller pile of crap wasn’t a problem at all. As for a tiny puddle of pee, that was almost indiscernible. My sister-in-law had only the stink to go on.

Or his flea-ridden coat:

My sister-in-law sits at the table, Tabby in her arms, all four paws in the air, revealing his pale tummy. She’s engrossed in picking off his fleas, cracking each one between her fingernails and dunking it on a bowl of fresh water at her elbow until, after half-an-hour, or so the surface of the water is black with Tabby’s fleas.

Ironically, the cat’s incontinence and fleas don’t stunt the family’s affection one iota. If anything, as the cat’s eccentricity increases so does the family’s obsession. At the crux of this irony — the crease between the family’s growing tenderness and the cat’s oddities – is where Han Dong achieves some of his greatest comedic moments.

Tabby’s story is told by a first person narrator, but over the course of the cat’s eight years, he has four different caretakers, the sister-in-law, the brother, the narrator, and his fiancée Xulu. Each character shares the same desire: to care for Tabby. In fact, people’s extraordinary reactions to Tabby’s weird habits are as comical as the cat’s behavior. The sister-in-law, the feline’s first steward, relinquishes all household responsibilities, working afternoons then returning directly home, in order to cook fish-gut soup for Tabby and rid his coat of the dreaded fleas. When the childless sister-in-law dies – on her deathbed — she bequeaths the orphaned cat to her husband.

In turn, the brother treats the feline like a son. The narrator relates: “After that, no matter how much my mother complained about the fleas and the cat’s crazy behavior, ripping the sofa to shreds with claws and eating all the plants on the veranda down to their roots, my brother turned a deaf ear.” At one point, the brother, realizing that his care can never equal the standards of his wife’s maternal instincts, searches for a replacement with qualifications to serve as a stepmother to his feline. The family’s fixation with their pet cat pinnacles when the narrator and his fiancée move into the seventh floor flat and become so obsessed with Tabby that they forego everything else in their lives.

There was clearly something wrong with the way we were living our lives. I wondered if Tabby had put a spell on us. He looked so young, and I had never seen a more handsome cat. The markings on his face gave him an aloof beauty, and it was this, rather than pure boredom, which absorbed our attention. We would spend hours at a time on the balcony, forgetting to eat or go to work.

Born in 1961, the author Han Dong lived through China’s Cultural Revolution; as a child, he was exiled along with his family to the countryside to live and learn among the peasants. This experience heavily influences his first novel Banished!, which won the Chinese Novelist Prize in 2003, a PEN Translation Award, and was long-listed for the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2008. Before Han Dong pursued a full-time literary career, he studied philosophy at Shandong University and subsequently taught in Nanjing and Xi’an. Currently, he’s known as a poet, editor, screenwriter, essayist, short story writer, novelist, and blogger.

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the way the narrator’s philosophical — almost scientific — commentary turns a quirky tale of an odd cat into a sophisticated story about the fascination and frustration of communicating with animals. A Tabby-cat’s Tale and My Dog Tulip are anecdotal accounts of the puzzling behavior of a cat and a dog, but simmering beneath the antics of these animals is the complex problem of language. How can we understand creatures that don’t speak?

Early in A Tabby-cat’s Tale, Han Dong concedes that people can never truly comprehend animals because we don’t share a language. When the novella opens, Tabby acts like a playful kitten, but after an afternoon spent with a neighbor, Tabby returns home transformed into an antisocial feline. The narrator is away when Tabby changes; he’ll never be able to simply ask the cat what caused his drastic personality switch. And yet:

…the truth is that even if I’d been at home, I couldn’t know everything that happened to Tabby. He was just a cat, to be found under the bed or along the walls, living a life that was completely separate from mine. Besides, he couldn’t speak our language, and a cat’s thought and needs can never fully be understood by humans, no matter how carefully they pry.

This grasping for meaning outside the conventions — and freedoms — of a shared language replays itself over and over again throughout the novel and appears in every character entangled with Tabby. Whether it’s the neighbors rummaging through the feline’s perceived hiding spots on the roof or the fiancée hanging her clothes above cat feces so they absorb the smell, each character tries to predict the animal’s motivations but fails. When the narrator becomes Tabby’s primary caregiver, he sheds all daily tasks and begins writing A Tabby-cat’s Tale, while his fiancée manically fills their flat with doodled drawings of felines. Yet, ultimately, even they can’t truly comprehend the object of their fascination.

The theme of frustration with communicating outside language also appears repeatedly in My Dog Tulip. In scene after scene, whether deciphering the dog’s preferred pooping spots or finding a stud for Tulip to mate, Ackerley struggles with his inability to understand what his beloved dog is trying to say. And even though both authors understand the futility of their efforts, they never cease yearning to discern the unknowable.

In the last few pages of Han Dong’s novella, the tone turns deeply philosophical as the narrator, at his obsessive peak, contrasts his humanity with Tabby’s nature. Afraid the cat has cast a spell over him, the narrator discovers pleasure in Tabby’s ordinariness, such as when the cat tries to cover his “turds” with invisible cinders or when the fiancée catches him “wanking.” As the narrator struggles with his fanatical attraction, he also succumbs to the mystery of it.

And yet, in the end, the narrator answers his own preoccupation. When the cat “threw up violently,” instead of calling an ambulance that would have whisked an ailing human to a hospital, he lets Tabby’s illness linger until it’s too late, and he dies. After all, he’s only a cat.

—Melissa Armstrong

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Melissa Armstrong lives outside Nashville, TN with her husband and five dogs. Currently, she’s working on her MFA in creative nonfiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts and writes a blog, TheFarnival.com, about her efforts to rescue and rehabilitate animals in the rural south.

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Oct 122014
 

daniel-kehlmann-5

Brisk, utterly readable, yet with philosophical drifts drawing from Zeno to Kant to Baudrillard, F is a powerful, unassuming novel exploring the contours of absence and the hallucination of truth, while refreshing the family novel with wonderfully drawn characters and plots awash in humor and irony. It is an unusual novel with familiar faces. —Jason DeYoung

F

F
Daniel Kehlmann
Translated by Carol Brown Janeway
Panthenon, 2014
$25.95, 256 pages

F is “for people who don’t trust family novels,” Daniel Kehlmann said recently in an interview. F is for fate and family and father and fake and fraud and forgery, too. Brisk, utterly readable, yet with philosophical drifts drawing from Zeno to Kant to Baudrillard, F is a powerful, unassuming novel exploring the contours of absence and the hallucination of truth, while refreshing the family novel with wonderfully drawn characters and plots awash in humor and irony. It is an unusual novel with familiar faces.

Daniel Kehlmann is famous in Germany, roughly a wünderkind, with something akin to the American readership of Donna Tart. His first novel was publish when he was twenty-two, while he was working on a doctoral thesis on the sublime in the works of Immanuel Kant. His novel Measuring the World (2005) became the best selling novel in Germany since Patrick Süskind’s Perfume (1985). Just thirty-nine, he’s written five other books, many of which have been translated into English by Carol Brown Janeway, including Me and Kaminski and Fame. But he doesn’t have the readership in America that he might deserve. The superb F might change that.

Broken into six sections, each part of F operates both as its own story and within the context of the novel. The opening scene sets up the family dynamics. Arthur Friedland is taking his twin son’s—Ivan and Eric—from a current marriage, and an older son, Martin, from a previous marriage, to see a traveling hypnotist show. Arthur is something of a stay-at-home dad who writes novels no publisher will take. He has a particular itch for quoting Nietzsche and a child-like disposition for arguing with his sons about animated movies and Yoda’s speech patterns.

The boys are set at odds by marriages and brotherhood. Martin is clearly intelligent but shy with his younger half-brothers whom he looks upon distrustfully because of their close bond. Eric, already at thirteen years old, is well-aware that his father is pitied by others for his failure and unemployment, and has resolved not to be like Arthur. Ivan is steeped in insecurities, worries about talent and intellectual gifts, and wonders how people without them “put up with their existence.” These opening pages subtly portray a fractured family, members who don’t know one another very well.

At the show, the hypnotist will call Arthur to the stage. Arthur will tell him that he cannot be hypnotized. But something happens, because after the show, Arthur will leave his family. In fact, he leaves them so swiftly, Martin is left stranded.

When we next meet the brothers, it’s some twenty-five years. Each brother gets his own section in F, and each section takes place on one day—8 August 2008. Martin is the first brother examined. Overweight and obsessed with the Rubik’s cube (an obsession he’s carried from youth), he has gone into the priesthood, yet his reason is too strong, and he’s not entirely certain he has faith in God. Eric has pursued money, but has committed fraud through a pyramid scheme, and he’s on the verge of being caught by his biggest investor. Lastly, Ivan has become a painter, who begins to paint pictures for a mediocre artist, yet Ivan adds innovative turns into the artist’s work, and this strange form of forgery grows the older painter’s reputation and makes him famous. With patient characterization and expansive narrative, Klehmann dramatizes each son’s fakery, each man’s simulation of their profession. The irony the brothers share is the belief that others—colleagues, family—can “see through them,” see their dishonesty and their small “wounded” selves. Of course, their sham is too convincing, their fake is too good.

Moving in and out of the novel’s story lines is Arthur who since leaving his family has gone on to write a number of successful, experimental novels, one so bleak and powerful as to cause a few of its readers to commit suicide. Whether it was the hypnotist’s doing or Arthur’s true character, we are never made privy to why it is he left his family. The hypnotist holds that a person under hypnosis will never do something he or she doesn’t want to do, but it’s a strange moment in the book, full of uncertainties and doublespeak, when the Great Linderman puts his hand on Arthur’s shoulder and says: “This is an order, and you’re going to follow it because you want to follow it, and you want to because I’m ordering you, and I’m ordering you because you want to me to give you the order. Starting today, you’re going to make an effort. No matter what it cost.” The “effort” referred to is Arthur’s ambition to be a novelist, the profession he tells the Great Linderman he’d failed at doing.

Perhaps he wanted the order, perhaps not? But unlike his sons, Arthur doesn’t have the same pretensions—he is not faking. Later in the book Martin will confront him about it. “Obligations,” Arthur says, “we invent them when required. Nobody has them unless they decide they have them.” Still, he will tell Martin that he had to learn to live with the guilt and regret of leaving.

Inspired by the work of Roberto Bolaño and magical realism, the novel acknowledges without examination a supernatural or otherworldly presence within our own. Martin is convinced that the devil attacks him on the subway; Eric sees cloven feet disappear around hedges; Ivan is met several times by different people trying to tell him his future. Ivan’s experience with the supernatural is particularly interesting and delves into the book’s more metaphysical issue. Is fate true or an illusion? F’s response in this instance is that it is true, as the universe is trying to tell one of the twins “not to get involved with the three,” which turns out to be the novel’s wicked subplot. As we are told in the beginning, the twins lose track of which one is which. The universe, however, doesn’t know the boys accidentally switched places (Eric and Ivan might not know it either) and thus the message goes to the wrong brother, and for one of the twins life ends tragically.

Although the central questions of the novel are the same ones we’ve been dealing with since our beginnings, F handles its material with originality and modern sensibilities, offering responses to the questions about fate and meaning, but not real answers. As Kehlmann himself has said: “Novels are all about ambivalence.” While F is built on traditional plot mechanics, it does have some experimental turns. For example in the third section of the novel, we have a short story written by Arthur about a linage of fathers. Working from his own generation back to the Middle Ages, it operates like the information dump found in traditional family novel. While Kehlmann might be satirizing the tradition, the actual story (which does disregard traditional plot structure) tells something far more horrifying about our lives—when they are all written out, they’re all unhappy in the end, that if our ancestors hadn’t survived there would be “others in our place, others who regarded their existence as inevitable.”

Yes, something of Tolstoy’s comes to mind here, but this is also integral to the novel’s overall ambiguity, and Kehlemann’s storytelling. Fate is part-and-partial with the sublime and ineffable. As Ivan asks late in the book: “What if you could read the universe? Perhaps that’s what is behind the terrifying beauty of things: we are aware that something is speaking to us. We know the language. And yet we understand not one word.” (By the way, the only ancestor in Arthur’s story who lived contentedly was a man who accepted that God had sent him on a “mysterious path” which he walked without complaint.)

Daniel Kehlmann said that with F he wanted to write a character-driven novel, a novel for which he had no clear destination for, just a general notion of wanting to write about three brothers and their various social milieus. The success of F lies partly in the fact that it is one of those rare philosophical novels that doesn’t shackle its story to a preconceived theory but sets its characters adrift with their own conflicts and demons, allowing them to have their own life-altering insights, even if those insights are contested, if not made fun of, by the other characters. Told slowly with gradual assemblage of deceptive details which are revealed in the end to be masterfully constructed, F is the best kind storytelling, filled with doubles and switchbacks, it constantly playing with what we know and what we think we know to bare witness to how many lives are built on that shakiest of foundations: faith.

—Jason DeYoung

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