contemporary fiction

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 6.16.2017
Book from: Personal collection

Two brown girls dream of being dancers—but only one, Tracey, has talent. The other has ideas: about rhythm and time, about black bodies and black music, what constitutes a tribe, or makes a person truly free. It’s a close but complicated childhood friendship that ends abruptly in their early twenties, never to be revisited, but never quite forgotten, either.

Tracey makes it to the chorus line but struggles with adult life, while her friend leaves the old neighborhood behind, traveling the world as an assistant to a famous singer, Aimee, observing close up how the one percent live.

But when Aimee develops grand philanthropic ambitions, the story moves from London to West Africa, where diaspora tourists travel back in time to find their roots, young men risk their lives to escape into a different future, the women dance just like Tracey—the same twists, the same shakes—and the origins of a profound inequality are not a matter of distant history, but a present dance to the music of time.

Swing Time is a dense, simmering novel of ideas, with markedly artful prose: flowing, full of rhythmic momentum, and patterned after the book’s title, swinging smoothly and slyly back and forth in time. The narrator uses these swerves in time in order to conceal or displace acute moments of shame or pain; Smith uses them in order to more thickly layer themes and symmetries. I found the rhythmic flow intoxicating, and it was the main reason I finished the book at all since, two chapters in, I was otherwise so turned off that I considered quitting.

I had two difficulties with the novel. First, the narrator’s voice has a bitter, narrow chippiness to it. Though I’m often keen on unsympathetic protagonists, I object to that particular flavor of bitchiness. This narrator is pretty virtuosically passive-aggressive, a defining flaw that’s pathetic at best.

Second, reading Swing Time made me realize that I find it hard to enjoy narratives about female rivalry. It’s been such a blessedly absent force in my life that I felt acutely uncomfortable, even impatient, being asked to dwell on it at length: “IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE THIS WAY” (This realization resulted in me revising my plans to read the Neapolitan Trilogy.)

Still, the book is so rich that even as some fraction of my reading attention was always squirming impatiently, there was also always something new and prickly-interesting to be considered – an insight of character, an angst-inflected vision of ’80’s or ’90’s London, the surreal juxtapositions of Western influence amid village life in West Africa (young men wearing wristwatches with no batteries…).

Probably the most vivid element of the book to me were the sharp specificities of feeling and observation that the narrator relates as a person of mixed race. When encountering other black women, for example, but especially those with mixed families, she continually notes skin tone, facial features, the race of each parent. All these behaviors are deeply familiar to me as a mostly acculturated first-gen immigrant kid (though not of mixed race), sharing that underlying unease of “where do I fit in” and “am I _____ enough.” The moment that I remember as the book’s most heartbreaking is when the narrator sees her white father’s children from an earlier marriage to a white woman, and realize that they look like they have everything to do with her father; and her – nothing.

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 5.10.2017
Book from: Personal collection – grateful thanks to C. for this gift!

Something is rotten at Crook, the decaying English manor house that is the setting for McGrath’s exuberantly spooky novel. Fledge, the butler, is getting intimate with the mistress. Fledge’s wife is getting intimate with the claret. Sidney Giblet, the master’s prospective son-in-law, has disappeared. And the master himself – the one-time gentleman naturalist Sir Hugo Coal – is watching it all in a state of helpless fury, since he is paralyzed in a wheelchair, unable to move or speak.

The Grotesque is simultaneously a whodunnit and pageturner (though from the start it’s insisted that we believe that it was, in fact, the butler), and a thorny psychological thicket of doubles, shape-shifting, adultery, and madness. It made me think of a sniggering, Gothic cousin of Brideshead Revisited, as they share the snarled-up Roman Catholic British aristos, the homoeroticism, the acute class anxiety, and the character of an impish, loyal, dark-haired daughter. “Grand Guignol edition of Wodehouse” also covers it rather well, especially when it comes to names – Sidney Giblet you’ve seen already, and the local village is called “Pock-on-the-Fling.”

The book’s not even 200 pages long, but every page is thick with wordplay (Sir Hugo, for example, puns on his entrapment within the “grottos” of both his own skull and the nook under the stairs where his wheelchair is often left – I had forgotten that “grotesque” comes from “grotto”) and psychological feints. The narrative dodges back and forth across time – a structure that Sir Hugo claims to be a function of his increasingly unreliable wits, but of course also results in the juiciest revelations being put off for last.

I enjoyed the heck out of this elegant mess, and read the first half especially with slightly unhealthy speed. I had to do a bit of thinking about why I didn’t utterly love it, and I think it comes down to the style: I crave continually surprising language, which in Gothics tends to translate to “really florid.” McGrath’s writing is very fine, with physical descriptions of characters being especially sharp and memorable, but for me, the imagery only rarely and the language never hits the heights of the sublime. This might be a constraint of character, as Sir Hugo prides himself on his cold-blooded propriety of thought; I’d have to read more McGrath to see whether his style has broader range.

The freshest and most lastingly troubling element of this book for me was the thematic stuff around ontological confusion, with Sir Hugo’s background as a gentleman naturalist, and his morbid embrace of the physical facts of reproduction and decay, providing fertile grounds for elaboration on this sense of “the grotesque.” The grotesque is also “a 16th-century decorative style in which parts of human, animal, and plant forms are distorted and mixed.” Sir Hugo, the paralyzed would-be paleontologist, is neither animal nor vegetable nor mineral: described as involuntarily grunting like a pig, and “a vegetable,” and “ossified,” he eventually converges with the looming figure of his beloved dinosaur fossil, which by the end of the novel has grown to be lichen-infested due to neglect and damp. Sir Hugo’s neurologist dismisses him as “ontologically dead” – internally, Sir Hugo shoots back that “I was, I believe, the most ontologically alive person in that room.”

All these uneasy mutations and meltings of category are artistically impressive, but also simply, humanly sad. The most cutting scene of the book for me was the one in which Sir Hugo reflects on how quickly his household writes him off after his accident. Setting aside the fair question of whether Sir Hugo, bastard that he is, might deserve much of what happened to him, this is really sharp, sad writing about the emotional reality of human disability and decline: “In fact, it was one of the most striking aspects of that first stage of my vegetal existence, the experience of seeing my family’s reactions shift from grief and compassion to acceptance and apparent indifference in a remarkably short period of time. Thus, I notice, are the dead forgotten; thus are persons in my state rendered tolerable… Our kinship with the grotesque is something to be shunned; it requires an act of rejection, of brisk alienation, and here the doctors were most cooperative, for they permitted Harriet and the rest of them to reject my persisting humanity by means of a gobbledygook that carried the imprimatur of – science! … [S]cience proposes, this is how I had lived, but science also disposes, and now I find myself frozen, stuck fast, like a fly in a web, in the grid of a medical taxonomy. My identity was now neuropathological. I was no longer a man, I was an instance of a disease…” This furious sorrow struck me as some of the only genuine emotion in a narrative otherwise composed mainly of self-absorption and guilty half-truths.

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 1.28.2016
Book from: Personal collection

John Darnielle is the Mountain Goats, one of my very most favorite bands, a band-of-my-heart. Wolf in White Van was his first full-length novel, and was nominated for the National Book Award when it came out. (And, great recent news: his next novel is slated for release early next year.)

John Darnielle - Wolf in White Van

This is tragic and beautiful, a dreamy tissue of all of the themes that constitute a sort of home base for Darnielle’s work, the source from which he is always elaborating: family dysfunction in Southern California; teenage alienation, intense to the point of being inarticulable; and its expression in the potent, feral paraphernalia of 70’s-80’s Goth/metal/fantasy – skull emblems, Conan the Barbarian, late-night television programs on Satanic backmasking, bags full of cassette tapes, arcades, dreams of bone thrones and infinite wasteland.

Darnielle’s protagonist begins in a sort of mild rubble. Following a terrible incident as a teenager, he became a shut-in; he now makes his living by running a play-by-mail apocalyptic RPG. He’s just exited the legal trial that investigated his potential culpability for a tragic choice made by two of the players of his game – two of his favorite players. From here, he moves backward and inward to the scene of his own teenage trauma. He paces through a flowing series of vignettes: chance encounters with strangers who break his present-day solitude, almost imperceptibly cruel past conversations with his parents, childhood imaginings, all exuding talismanic significance.

These express simultaneously a piercing sense of humanity, and an inviolable disconnection. He is happy today, in his own way (I’m always drawn to characters who are self-made, faintly holy hermits), but still we step back and back to the black, black place of his trauma. Life is soft and sweet and bitter, and there’s a black vein running through it all.

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“One by one I’ve started hunting down those hazy figures of my past, the children hiding in the bodies of adults, tucked away in pockets of the countryside like witnesses in a protection program.”

Kerry-Lee Powell’s “There Are Two Pools You May Drink From” (Boston Review) is an excellent read for an evening when you’re feeling quiet and tired and maybe a little bit sad for ill-defined reasons (she said from personal experience). The title is terrific, to begin with – lovely, ominous, with fairy-tale echoes – and the story plays out that sense of unsettling stillness and depth, keeps it pouring on and on.

I’m struck by the story’s intense sense of gaze – a level, magnetic gaze. The narrator seems all gaze, determinedly empty of particularities of self, extroverting with quiet, furious energy only her hunger for others’ experience, the “kind of hunger [that] never really leaves.”

But then again, there are those sudden emergences of an articulated “I,” beautifully placed to startle amid the stream of vivid remembrance. “I know you can never really go back. I have lied to people myself and watched them nod in agreement and say, yes, that’s just how it was.” “I have come all this way, I wanted to say, and across all these years for you to tell me whose face it was that loomed over yours while you cried or pretended to sleep. I wanted her to tell me so that I could then tell her about some of the things that had happened to me.” It was for these effects of consciousness that I really loved the story, more than for any of the suggestions of plot that gradually emerge. The plottier revelations – as lightly handled as they are – felt expected, a little tired, compared to everything that surrounds them. (Maybe I’m just tending toward some ridiculous vanishing point where I’ll finally lose interest in anything but atmosphere in fiction; more seriously, and specifically to the story, I do think that I’m impatient with or jaded by certain kinds of narrative convention around sexual trauma.)

Thinking more, I’m reminded suddenly of Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily;” these two stories fit together well, with their ethic of small-town Gothic, and intense foregrounding of the act of witnessing.

– E

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Rikki Ducornet, “Wormwood” (1997)
Available in the Iowa Review and in Ducornet’s collection The Word ‘Desire’

Strange, jagged, haunted, heated – like an animal taking little bites out of a freshly killed rabbit. Two children whisper dark stories and dirty, childish love-words to each other as a grandfather lies dying and a terrifying sculpture presides. The last batch of short fiction that I read by Ducornet – her collection The One Marvelous Thing – tended to the precious, in my opinion. I much preferred “Wormwood” for its rawness, its closeness to nightmare or fever-dream.

Stephen King, “A Death” (2015)
Read for free online: The New Yorker

The jury took an hour and a half. “We voted to hang him on the first ballot,” Kelton Fisher said later, “but we wanted it to look decent.”

A spare Western tale of moral doubt and casual miscarriage of justice. I admired its extreme tautness of language, and darkly funny dialogue. I had to read it two or three times before I’d satisfied myself that I’d explored plot possibilities other than the most obvious one presented at the story’s end.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Apollo” (2015)
Read for free online: The New Yorker

and

Rikki Ducornet’s “Bazar” (1991)
Available in the Chicago Review and in Ducornet’s collection The Complete Butcher’s Tales

These two get filed together on account of both being stories of repressed homosexual desire – one narrated by a Nigerian man revisiting his childhood friendship with his parents’ houseboy, and the other set in the heat and clutter of a bazaar in French Algeria shortly before its war for independence in the 1950’s.

“Apollo” is quietly tragic; disappointed affection turns into a moment of severance, of irreversible cruelty; this brings us back round to contemplate things initially unsaid by the the adult narrator. The story is also very much about class, and about the wary orbit that children maintain around their parents, and about reevaluating things seen at a distance (parents included).

Speaking of orbiting: Adichie relates in the accompanying interview that the etymology for “Apollo,” a colloquial term for conjunctivitis, might have to do with the Apollo-11 mission, and the American Academy of Optometry confirms so here. In the body of the story itself, no etymology is mentioned, and so I loved the term’s potent mysteriousness – its bittersweet glow, its intimations of an idealized, youthful homoeroticism, and of health and healing. (On revisiting the story, I noticed that the houseboy who preceded Raphael has the similarly suggestive name of “Hyginus” – also Greek, and having to do with health.)

Ducornet’s “Bazar” is almost explosively cruel by comparison – further explosions being foreshadowed by the impending Algerian War – though interspersed also with extremely funny dialogue between the bazar-owner and his bossy, canny American-expat friend. As with “Wormwood,” there’s a nightmarish viciousness to it; Ducornet’s trademark baroque language tumbles, slithers, lurches, and plunges among the crowded topography of the bazar, and the pitfalls of its proprietor’s psychology.

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I went on a mini-binge of podcasts and radio shows this past spring while finishing up some bookbinding projects; here are readings of three dark tales that I particularly enjoyed back then.

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Ira Sher, “The Man in the Well” (1996)
Listen online: Act 2 of This American Life episode The Cruelty of Children

Wells again, this time as a metaphor for the infinitely strange distance from which children can regard adult suffering. Perfectly chilling, and a perfectly paced reading.

In a “Lottery”ish turn, the original broadcast did not explicitly state that the story was fiction, leading to outraged calls from lo, many listeners.

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Clark Ashton Smith, “The Ninth Skeleton” (1928)..
Listen online: Pseudopod #331. (Or read online here.)

Smith is one of the big old Weird Talers whose work I’m less familiar with; this story puts some satisfyingly weird shit on display – a suggestive phantasmagoria whose horror conflates motherhood and femininity with corruption and death (for men). God forbid! The repeated description of the lissomely prancing lady-skeletons is just so ridiculous, and so sinister.

Vis-a-vis the lady-horror, I felt a bit of resonance with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” i.e.,

“…and, by the blaze of the hell-kindled torches, the wretched man beheld his Faith, and the wife her husband, trembling before that unhallowed altar.”

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Christine Brooke-Rose, “Red Rubber Gloves” (1966).
Listen online: Pseudopod #329

This is almost physically painful to listen to, both because of how mentally demanding it is to focus on the repetitive narrative form, and because of how much tighter and tighter and tighter the suspense is drawn via the winch of that repetition. The sterility of the images grows increasingly alien, glaring, and menacing; likewise the voice of the narrator – one woman* in confinement watching another – seems, increasingly, not unhinged, but simply dissociated from reality, moving with inhuman detachment amid an assemblage of flat, hot, arid shapesWhen the horror finally breaks, its volume seems insignificant in comparison to the cumulative effect of all the seeming nothing that has come before.

* I just realized that I assumed that the in-story narrator is a woman because Pseudopod’s narrator is; I can’t remember whether there were any explicit cues in the story as to the narrator’s gender, but I suspect that the narrator’s implicit identification with the observed housewife, and the parallels with “The Yellow Wallpaper,” would have had me guessing female anyway.

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Date Read: 11.11.10

Book From: Personal Collection

Reviewer: Kakaner

Ugh. Father and son try to survive in a post-apocalyptic world that is apparently strewn with limbs, covered with ash, and– just in case we didn’t catch it the first 50 times on the first page– one that is repeatedly described as “bleak” and “gray”. The Road was highly unimaginative, riddled with stilted dialogue, contained no real character development, and lacked true substantive merit. Having never read Cormac McCarthy before (my only exposure being a viewing of No Country for Old Men), I was expecting an epic survival story in the ranks of Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead or something along the lines of Y: The Last Man. Nothing happens. The writing is wholly unspectacular, and the greatest annoyance was McCarthy’s inability to come up with new phrases to describe (in all fairness) a neverchanging landscape. Particular pet peeves were “smoothed his dirty/filthy hair”, “the landscape was dark/bleak/gray”, “there was ash everywhere”, and ending every. single. conversation with “Okay”. This next bit is mildly spoilerish, but for a novel all about the depravity of mankind once the restraints of society have been lifted, the ending is frustratingly inappropriate– almost a “deus ex machina” resolution. I will, however, grant that The Road was extremely cathartic in that I felt personally choked with raw suffering and despair after only 15 pages. But that alone was definitely not enough to save the book, and it was simply more of the same overbearing emotion for the next 150 pages. In conclusion, hype is a cruel thing and The Road was a waste of time.

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Cormac McCarthy: bio and works reviewed

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Date Read: 9.07.10
Book From: Personal Collection
Reviewer: Kakaner

Summary

Beautiful Children brings together several perspectives of Las Vegas life– a lower middle class suburban family, a couple involved in the sex industry, a barely-capable artist, and a pack teenage runaways — unified by the themes of depravity, exploitation, and failure. One day, 12-year-old Newell, a comic-obsessed loser of a kid, disappears after going out with a friend. What ensues is an exploration of the grief of those affected by Newell’s disappearance, and a string of other interactions leading up to (but not necessarily connected to) the event.

Review

Uggggh. Where do I begin?

Beautiful Children was an impulse buy, something I almost never let myself get into. But once in a while, say, at a Harvard Independent Bookstore Warehouse Sale, I’ll pick up random remainders, convinced by the price and New York Times Bestseller stamps, and then never read them. This is because reading them has worked for me Very Few Times, and unfortunately, Beautiful Children was yet another reminder of why I should never let myself waste money like this.

You know a novel is going to be bad when it’s a bestseller you haven’t heard of it in any personal literary circles, and by page 150, there is more talk of sex than there is storytelling. At one point, there were literally 10 straight pages detailing the minutia of a father’s obsession with porn and all its accompanying activities, and while it was clearly there to illustrate the state of a broken marriage, it was entirely ungraceful and unwarranted. I think what frustrated me the most was how utterly uninspired the whole novel seemed– it was wholly inorganic and Bock simply didn’t bring anything new or fresh to a hackneyed setting. The characters were bland, predictable, and stagnant, which served to augment the faults of an awkwardly moving plot. And then there was the uncomfortable feeling that Bock had pulled out all the stops with this debut novel, pouring forth all that he had been waiting to tell the world about everything, whether it be rock music or TV commercials or pornographic preferences, and had pretty much drained his next novel’s potential to zero– a pity because Bock clearly demonstrated a great command of the English vocabulary, but not language. With some more polishing and a real story, he could probably produce something decent. A couple more descriptors: disjointed, clumsy, pretentious, contrived, and distasteful.

Although I have much more I could and want to say… it’s simply not worth the effort. I’m definitely going to play it safe and keep to pre-researched books for a while so I can save myself some brain cells and support better authors. Off to scrub my brain out and retreat into a corner to rejuvenate with a comforting childhood favorite. I’m thinking… A Wrinkle In Time.

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Charles Bock: bio and works reviewed

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Date read: 6.8.10
Book from: Borrowed from my brother
Reviewer: Emera

Since I’ve been wasting too much time trying to write summaries and not enough actually reviewing, I’m deploying a back-cover summary here:

Somewhere in South America, at the home of the country’s vice president, a lavish birthday party is being held in honor of the powerful businessman Mr. Hosokawa. Roxane Coss, opera’s most revered soprano, has mesmerized the international guests with her singing. It is a perfect evening – until a band of gun-wielding terrorists takes the entire party hostage. But what begins as a panicked, life-threatening scenario slowly evolves into something quite different, a moment of great beauty, as terrorists and hostages forge unexpected bonds and people from different continents become compatriots, intimate friends, and lovers.

So my main difficulty with Bel Canto laid in the fact that it’s halfway a rapturously romantic fable about the power of art – opera in particular – and love, and halfway a grim tragedy. Now, that’s basically the story’s selling point, that the author plays on the tension between romance and realism, but it left me feeling a little cold and mostly troubled throughout. The romance reaches such giddy heights, with character after character discovering hidden talents and unexpected love, that my suspension of disbelief (which is notoriously generous) just gave up and wandered away about halfway through, leaving me reluctant to be really convinced and moved by any of it. (I still teared up at the ending, though.)

This despite Patchett’s coolly, dreamily elegant and often funny prose, the artfulness of the entire set-up, and my wanting to really care for the characters, all of whom are very human and carefully drawn. There’s a French ambassador who just wants to go home to his wife, a vice president who throws himself with increasing satisfaction into his role as maid to captors and captives alike, a translator who’s forced to find words of his own for the first time in his life, a weary Red Cross negotiator who watches the breakdown of the hostage-terrorist divide with growing unease… I did think that their development suffered from the fact that the cast is so large, so that many don’t get much further than sketches, even if those sketches are evocative.

All in all, I found the book pleasing in style and admirable in craft, but as a whole it just didn’t click for me.

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Ann Patchett

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Date read: 2.13.10
Book from: Personal collection
Reviewer: Emera

Bear and His Daughter is a collection of enormously depressing short stories about unhappy people with unhappy pasts and, frequently, drug dependencies. There’s a washed-up poet in Mexico trying to escape his need for the validation of his strung-out friends as they hustle him up the side of a volcano on a putative spiritual quest (“Porque no Tiene, Porque le Falta”); two war veterans struggling with fear and confusion (“Absence of Mercy” and “Helping”); a trepidatious drug-runner (“Under the Pitons”); a hippie mom who has an unnerving encounter with a dolphin at an aquarium (“Aquarius Obscured”); and a widowed woman who channels her grief and anger into macabre nighttime undertakings on behalf of the anti-abortion movement (“Miserere”). Oh, and another washed-up poet, a relapsed alcoholic taking a cross-country trip that draws him closer and closer to his estranged daughter, an erratic, poetical junkie and park ranger who spins myths about the caves where she gives tours (“Bear and His Daughter”).

All told, there’s a lot of rage and fear and aimlessness and rejection of meaning or acceptance of the lack thereof, and the stories end in senseless fistfights on subway platforms or gunshots or suicides or drowning or people otherwise hurting themselves and others. BUT for all that, I did enjoy (…not quite the right word) reading it. Stone delineates his characters’ psychology with finesse, and I was a little in awe of his prose: it’s incredibly lean and stripped-down, with descriptions, particularly of landscapes and seascapes, that are piercingly vivid in their concision. There’s a kind of architectural purity to his writing, coupled with an intense attention to details of setting and sensation.

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