Adam Sternbergh, Shovel Ready (2014)

July 29th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

I kill men.  I kill women because I don’t discriminate.  I don’t kill children because that’s a different kind of psycho.

I do it for money.  Sometimes for other forms of payment.  But always for the same reason.  Because someone asked me to.

And that’s it.

A reporter buddy once told me that in newspapers, when you leave out some important piece of information at the beginning of a story, they call it burying the lede.

So I just want to make sure I don’t bury the lede.

Though it wouldn’t be the first thing I’ve buried. (pp. 4-5)

Noir is perhaps the most distinctive literary genre.  Its staccato sentence bursts, fragments compounding, syntactical gaps left for readers to fill in the blanks – these are some of its narrative trademarks.  It is also a very violent style, as the short, sharp sentences convey this sense of abruptness, of some force crashing into another.  It is a style that occasionally appeals to me, although there are times that less is not more, that I am left wanting some of those gaps filled in order to ensure that I do not miss an important bit of information.

Adam Sternbergh’s debut novel, Shovel Ready, combines noir elements with a post-nuclear, post-apocalyptic setting.  Spademan, a former garbage man who is now a hit man years after a “dirty bomb” and related terrorist attacks devastated New York City’s core, has been presented with an attractive case:  kill the daughter of a megachurch pastor.  Yet he cannot bring himself to do this after discovering that she is pregnant and that her own father was the one who impregnated her.  His mission turns from killing her to protecting her and exacting revenge on her father.  It is not the most original of tales, yet sometimes entertaining stories can emerge from stock material.

The narrative depends upon Spademan’s point-of-view to carry the brunt of the load.  Certainly this is a fascinating character, as his backstory slowly emerges in his narrative.  Hard, yes, but with a surprisingly funny dark sense of humor, as seen in this aside after a previous hit job:

The most holy relic, by the way, is the Eucharist.  The communion wafer that’s the literal flesh of Christ, transmuted the moment you receive it on your tongue.

Like I told you, I took First Communion.

If you believe in that sort of thing.

Edible flesh.

The holiest ritual.

But don’t worry.

I didn’t eat the lawyer.

But I did take some souvenirs. (p. 168)

If it weren’t for this macabre humor, Shovel Ready easily could have collapsed under the weight of its artifices.  The complex, meandering path from Spademan’s initial encounter with the daughter to his eventual arrival at the pastor’s compound takes some getting used to, as Sternbergh jumps back and forth in narrative time.  The post-nuclear setting felt a bit too contrived, as though it were only a mere plot device in order to establish the gruesome environs in which Spademan operates.  Yet despite this sense of a stock, underdeveloped setting, Shovel Ready largely works because the Spademan character is so fascinating that the reader almost looks forward in anticipation to his next witty repartée after he kills another victim.

This violence, although largely shown in its aftermath rather than the moment of its brutal occurrence, can be a bit much at times.  However, there is something to be said for narrative and audience expectations and for the most part, Shovel Ready‘s violence is within the norms of noir literature.  Certainly it is not gratuitous violence, at least not in the sense of there being relatively more descriptions paid to the deaths than to other events.  Yet the deaths are narrated in such a deadpan fashion that the reader may find herself shivering slightly after contemplating just what sort of personality type Spademan might actually be.  I myself have conflicted feelings about how this character is portrayed:  I get the point behind him and find his witticisms amusing, but part of me is disturbed by just how casual the violence is at times.  It’s not something that detracts from the flow of Sternbergh’s narrative, but it is something that made me pause a few times in reading it.

Despite this slight unease, Shovel Ready is one of the better-written recent noir novels that I’ve read.  The action moves at a crisp pace, only occasionally getting bogged down in establishing Spademan’s backstory.  Spademan’s characterization is very well-done, while the others could have used a slight more fleshing out to make them even better.  Sternbergh’s prose is effective, helping raise Shovel Ready above the clichéd story it so easily could have been.  A very good debut effort, with only a few minor flaws marring it.  Highly recommended to those who enjoy noir fiction.

Andrés Neuman, Hablar Solos/Talking to Ourselves (2012 Spanish; 2014 English translation)

July 28th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Yesterday I didn’t feel so good, I tried to take a nap, then your mum came back, I had a bad night, bah, we both did, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about when she and I met, it’s amazing to think we might have lived different lives, a life without the other, the first thing I did after I told your granddad I was leaving the company was to enrol at the university, and it was a big shock for him, you know?, my father was one of those men who chop cheese with one stroke, you know?  that’s where I met your mum, she didn’t take much notice of me at first, how can I put it, she was more interested in rich kids, she denies it, we never agree about that part of the story, then luckily she started taking more of an interest in the lousy students, I had spotted her from day one, long before we started dating, do people still say dating?, maybe I sound old-fashioned, your mum would get straight A’s, you know what she’s like, heaven forbid a B, I used to scrape through, I never went near a classroom, as soon as I found out your mum wrote short stories I quickly did some research, oh yes, dear, I crammed for that all right, it’s called doing field work. (p. 26, iPad iBooks e-edition, translated by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia)

Spanish-Argentine writer Andrés Neuman seems to be one of those writers who does not revisit previous works and styles, even when they worked for him.  Talking to Ourselves, his recently-translated short novel, differs significantly from his 2009 Premio Alfaguara-winning Traveler of the Century in structure, form, and content.  It is a short (160 pages in print, 130 on my iPad), compact novel of loss told through the eyes of three family members.  Yet despite these differences, Talking to Ourselves is perhaps just as good as its celebrated predecessor.

Talking to Ourselves deals with the father Mario’s impending death due to terminal cancer.  Bent on recording as much of himself as he can for his ten-year-old son Lito to listen to later, Mario’s chapters here are transcriptions of recordings similar to the one quoted above.  He decides that before he is too ill to travel, that he will take young Lito to the beach, hoping to provide one last positive memory of the two of them together for his son to cherish.  Lito’s chapters, narrated as though he were speaking directly to us, reflect his coming to terms with his father’s illness.  By themselves, their chapters would make for an elegantly told, poignant account of mortality and how fathers and sons come to terms with terminal illness.

Yet the true center of Talking to Ourselves is the wife/mother, Elena.  Her reactions to Mario’s illness display a range of conflicted emotions that force the reader to set aside any notions that this is another sappy, Hallmark TV-esque telenovela.  She finds herself distancing herself from Mario, even going so far as to beginning a sexual relationship with his doctor, Ezequiel.  But this is but one point on the spectrum of her conflicted emotions:  she also turns to reading literature, meditating on what Chekhov, Atwood, Aira, Bolaño, Marías, Garner, and others have to say about life and loss.  As she integrates their written thoughts into her own patchwork emotional defense, the story becomes deeper, as Neuman teases out deeper, more unsettling layers out of this compact novel of loss.

The prose for the most part is superb.  Each character possesses his or her own unique style.  Whereas Mario’s chapters possess all of the hems and haws of transcribed recordings, Lito’s direct yet naïve thoughts serve to provide a sense of innocence and exuberance to counter-balance the darker turns in his parents’ chapters.  Elena’s chapters are more philosophical in tone, keeping with tune with the works that she quotes and also with her wavering emotional state as she tries to forge a new life in preparation for the end of her husband’s.  There are times perhaps where possibly a little bit more could have been said by each of the three, but for the most part, it is their silences and circumspect speech that supplement the revelations that they do make, creating a short yet intricately-woven narrative tapestry that should appeal to most readers.

Scott Cheshire, High as the Horses’ Bridles (2014)

July 25th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

But first they sit.  They face the empty stage, awaiting the opening song and prayer, the first speaker of the day to take the stage.

Not just any stage beneath any painted sky.  Up there, you’ll find no less than the heavens of Venice.  You want proof – the famed Rialto Bridge, one tenth of its original size, a reconstruction, spans the top width of the stage.  The favorite bridge in a City of Bridges, burned once, twice fallen, and both times a crowd collapsed with it.  Down they fell under the waters of Venice.  Which means the audience, here, in the grand Queens Howard Theater, tucked on a wide city street between a mechanic’s garage and a Mexican takeout, are assembled in something like a dry canal.  More than four thousand worshippers sitting, and anxiously waiting for the day’s first prayer for His Kingdom Come on Earth as It Will Be in Heaven, and the long falling rain of salvation, falling stars, blackened sun, and fiery burning rain, for the coming of His Holy War and Christ.  They pray for Armageddon, End of Ends, Great Bringer of all meaning in Death.  And the worshippers are both a sum and parts, a throng, a sea of people beneath a decorative replica of the real-world Rialto.  But, sure as any day, you can walk this bridge spanning the Howard’s stage, and some actually do, mostly maintenance men tending to the delicate bridge’s woodwork.  Like a painted crown it spans the stage beneath the stars of Venice, City of Bridges, of Water, of Light.

Howard Theater, Theater of Lights, every heavenly star is here. (pp. 4-5)

For many of us today, there is another F word.  It may not trigger Parental Advisory labels or bring down the wrath of the FCC if uttered on American TV, yet open discussion of it can make people as skittish as if they had to discuss their sexual history.  Yet Faith, to capitalize this particular F word in order to underscore its quiet loudness, is a key part of so many peoples’ lives even in secular societies.  It may be something that we think we have abandoned along with beliefs in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, but in moments of crisis it lurks, waiting to burst our internal dams and flood our emotional states.  Yet faith is something that rarely is explored in depth in fiction.  Sure, how someone lacks faith or loses it can make for great literature, but that central element of faith is usually circumscribed.  This perhaps isn’t as much due to authors not having clue to what it entails, but more likely due to a reticence to exploring something so personal and yet so universal.  In a day and age when various conceptualizations of belief and non-belief are thrown about as though they were competing sports teams or political parties, complete with ready-made commercial jingles to condense any nuances into marketable, memorable catchphrases, it seems at times as though discussing faith of any sort is fraught with peril.

Therefore, my interest was piqued when I read a blurb for Scott Cheshire’s debut novel, High as the Horses’ Bridles (the title is taken from a passage in Revelations concerning the depth to which the blood of unbelievers would flow).  The author, a former Jehovah’s Witness child preacher, has written a tale of a former child preacher in Queens who decades later has come back to New York to take care of his ailing father after his mother has died.  Much has changed in the life of young Josiah/Josie from that fateful day in 1980 when he gave a powerful sermon to 4000 congregants.  He had a crisis of faith and abandoned his church while his father went the opposite way, becoming more and more fervent in his faith in the Bible and the “codes” for life and apocalypse that might be embedded within it.  Too easily this could have been a book about how family members split over widening differences in belief or it could have been a tale of too-easy reconciliation and a facile patching-over of disagreements.  Yet this book is neither one of these things and for that, it possesses an inquisitive, reflective quality to it that makes for a thought-provoking read.

High as the Horses’ Bridles is divided into three main sections, two of which, 1980 and 2005, deal with Josiah/Josie and his father at different points in their lives.  In truth, the 1980 section comprises only a tenth of the novel and it is different in tenor, being more an encapsulation of fervent youthful faith told through vivid images, such as the scene quoted above.  The second comprises four-fifths and deals with Josie’s conflicted feelings about his childhood and how the issue of faith seems to have separated him from his now-ailing father.  This section is more mundane in its description, as there are no clarion calls to await the Second Coming.  Instead, there are scores of flashbacks to the intervening years, as the material world has slowly eroded Josie’s faith.  He is not left feeling hollow, per se, but he has difficulties in reconciling his childhood with his present life.  As he resumes the care of his father and the two are in close physical proximity, issues that Josie had forgotten or presumed were buried slowly flood his thoughts.  Thoughts of the Howard Theater, thoughts of what “high as the horses’ bridles” meant, questions about how do the remnants of faith guide us in ways that we never really consider until after the fact.  While the type of thoughts are not especially original in origin, there is such a tender earnestness to both Josie and his father’s thoughts on the issue of faith that it is refreshing to see an effort made to explore these divides with understanding and not correctness being the primary goal.

Cheshire’s prose eloquently captures the power that faith can have over lives.  His descriptions of the father becoming more and more like a religious ascetic contrast well with his son’s rather non-discrepant appearance sets the stage for the deeper, more personal differences.  The certainty of the father’s faith, balanced by the son’s questioning of where he lost his, is captured excellently in this passage near the end of the second part:

His long hair moved, and a sleepy medicinal smell of bedclothes and of days long ago home sick from school, and of that terminal air you find in waiting rooms and clinics, and of my mother’s soft and hairless camphorous head filled up my senses.  I steadied myself and set him down on the sofa.  Even if I could get to know all the space in my own skull, I’d never get inside of his.  I combed back his hair and looked at his face.  This was not a gullible man, not at all.  I saw a man who was hungry and cunning in his own curious way, and was stubbornly still here, his lost and lank body afloat there on the mystery of the world. (p. 262)

It is this passage where Josie has a breakthrough.  It is not a profound one, not something that changes his life, but rather it is a recognition that who he was and who he is are parts of something greater, something that he might not fully understand, but regardless is powerful.  As the scene closes with an end, there is a sense of a new beginning, of a personal apocalypse that has just been unveiled.  This then dovetails into the third section, set two centuries before during the Second Great Awakening, which retells much of the themes of the first two in a way that ties lives and faith together into a captivating mystery.  At first, it seems incongruous to have a final section with different characters, yet this coda works because it revolves around the true central character, not Josie nor his father, but instead that ultimate F word.  The theme of High as the Horses’ Bridles may not appeal to everyone, but for those willing to give it a chance, it might just be one of the more powerfully-written debut novels published this year.

Can Xue, The Last Lover (2005 Chinese publication, 2014 US edition)

July 24th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Joe heard this chatter and found the man disagreeable.  He picked up his book to read again.  He couldn’t understand its contents, and even the characters’ names had changed.  The plot seemed to speak of a serving cook avenging herself on her unfaithful lover.  The cook’s name was also strange, Yi Zhi Mei (or Iljimae, “a plum branch”).  The lover went to eat at a small restaurant.  Yi Zhi Mei threw a bowl of boiling soup at him.  The soup didn’t touch the man; all of it splashed onto her own boy.  Within a second, her skin and flesh fell to the floor and all that was left was a skeleton standing in the restaurant.  The man stared fixedly at the bones in front of him…Continuing, there was an explanation of the name Yi Zhi Mei.  The book said that it was “Eastern.”  The serving cook came from some island nation in the East, these things had happened in ancient times, the cook’s status was somewhere between a prostitute and a respectable woman, and the lover was in truth a patron of brothels.  That lover, after seeing the cook’s accident, went completely insane.  He brought the cook’s bones back home, made a glass cabinet, put them inside, and locked it from outside.  From then on every time the lover fooled around with a woman, his eyes saw the objects inside of the glass cabinet.  The glass cabinet was set next to the bed for a long period.  Joe read this and started to smile.  He felt that the novel was too hyberbolic.  However, he still wanted to know the whereabouts of that glass case, and imagined the look of the skeleton wearing a light, graceful summer kimono. (pp. 112-113, iPad iBooks e-edition, translated by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen)

Can Xue is one of those rare writers whose stories I enjoy reading yet when I finish them, there is little for me to say.  This is not because her stories aren’t memorable, no, far from it!  Instead, they possess such a combination of narrative form manipulation and wild, billowing metaphors and sublimely weird scenes that if I were to attempt a review that wasn’t a full-blown literary analysis, I would be tempted to quote copiously and say, “Yes, this is wicked cool, no?” over and over again.  Yet despite numerous stories appearing in publications like Conjunctions, her latest novel, The Last Lover, is only her second novel to be translated into English.

The Last Lover begins innocently enough, with a manager named Joe working for the innocuous-sounding Rose Clothing Company.  But even in the very first paragraph, there are some interesting shifts that foreshadow the ride ahead:

His pale green eyes sometimes have a blank expression, either because he’s absentminded or because he’s eccentric.  He often harbors thoughts of madness.  Joe has a mania for reading, and for years he’s read one book after another, muddling all the stories in his mind.  His memory is of the kind that’s excellent at making choices – a grafting memory – so the pathway of his thought is always clear. (p. 8)

This shift from a fairly typical character description straight into questions of madness before caroming off into discussions of his reading habits and memory signals right away that this will not be a typical narrative.  His wife, Maria, a talented tapestry maker, likewise possesses strange qualities, often blurting out comments that are totally out of left field.  Joe and Maria comprise one of three couples whose perspectives Xue explores in The Last Lover and as she switches from one to another, the scenes become ever wilder.  Of particular interest to Xue is that of country depictions by outsiders.  Although she eschews having actual country/city locations, it is clear through the context just which countries are represented by “Country A” and “Country C.”  In passages like the one quoted at the beginning of this review, Xue delves into the issue of story constructions and how stories transmogrify as they cross linguistic and cultural boundaries.  Certainly the quasi-US that Joe and Maria inhabit is not a “realistic” portrait of this country, but by Xue flattening out certain details and expanding upon others, she has created an impressionist version of the US, one where actions and reflections cast new refractions through these warped interpretative prisms.

The narrative too takes on an impressionist, almost surrealistic quality.  As these characters, Joe, Maria, and others associated with them, like Reagan and Ida, interact with their world and their thoughts, seemingly mundane things take on new contexts, such as this odd proximity between a wasp’s nest and a Tibetan travel book:

When Joe entered his office he saw the wasps.  An enormous wasps’ nest was tied to the air conditioner, where they massed into squeezed, black piles.  But these little insects didn’t make any sound at all, which was unusual.  Joe opened a drawer, took out a Tibetan travel book, which he hadn’t seen for ages, and turned to the middle.  He couldn’t read a single one of the Tibetan words, nor did the book have any pictures, but over a long period of time he had turned its pages one by one.  What was inside this book?  He didn’t know.  He only knew that perhaps inside there was a world, an unfathomed place.  As he fixed his eyes on the Tibetan script, a wasp dropped onto the surface of the page.  The Tibetan words suddenly leapt up like flames burning the little insect.  It struggled for a few minutes and then didn’t move. (pp. 288-289)

In other novels, a scene like this might be utilized to show a disconnect between narrator and reality.  Yet Xue is not concerned with this as much as she is in exploring the ways that humans of various cultures can dream of other cultures while still seemingly awake and engaged with everyday life.  As her three couples move in and out of their imaginative/real worlds and their lives warp and weave like one of Maria’s tapestries into each other’s lives or dream selves, the overall effect is one of sheer admiration for just how well Xue (and by extension, her translator, who has done an excellent job in making this feel as though it were originally composed in English) has created a narrative that has to be experienced before any analysis could make much sense to the reader.  It seems that I did indeed quote copiously and said “this is wicked cool” after all.  But yes, it is, and yes, it is the sort of work I would recommend for those who like experimental fictions that succeed because the narrative joins are so expertly hidden within interesting characters and fascinating scenes.

Cristovão Tezza, O Professor (2014)

July 23rd, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Acordou de um sono difícil:  sobre algo que parecia um leito, estava abraçado ao inimigo, que tentava aproximar os lábios dos seus.  Não quis ser ríspido, entretanto, empurrá-lo para longe, como seria o óbvio, talvez agredi-lo com um soco; apenas desviou o rosto, dizendo algo que agora não conseguia mais ouvir, na claridade da manhã.  Mas eram movimentos gentis, ele percebeu; tentava afastar-se dele com delicadeza, como quem desembarca de uma cama em que a mulher dorme e não deve ser acordada.  O inimigo:  sim, ele imagina que teve um, durante a vida inteira, e agora ele vinha assombrar até seus sonhos, com a sua proximidade pegajosa.  Ficou intrigado, no gelo de quem acorda, com o fato de não se perturbar com a evidente sugestão sexual, aqueles lábios envelhecidos quase tocando os seus, uma imagem tão forte que não conseguiria mais esquecê-la, não esqueceria jamais, ele se assombrou, como se tivesse um interminável futuro pela frente, relembrando o sonho que viveu em 1952, criança, caindo de um desfiladeiro e salvand-se com a força de um grito – a mãe veio velà-lo, e lembra-se nitidamente daquela mão protetora nos cabelos, mais de 60 anos atrás.  Jamais passou a mão nos cabelos de seu filho, mas os tempos eram outros, mais duros – ou apenas ele é que sempre se imaginou uma pessoa dura.  Ora – e ele sacudiu a cabeça, voltando ao início.  Quanto tempo?  Setenta – e olhou os dedos, movendo-os lentamente, sentindo a breve dor que acompanhava os gestos ao amanhecer.  Não importa.  Chegando aos 71, ele corrigiu a si mesmo.  A imagem da queda permaneceu, e era como se novamente caísse, o vazio no peito, a sombra do pânico, a montanha-russa na alma.  Tudo é química, disse em voz alta em defesa, tudo é química, esses comprimidos, ele acrescentou, a voz baixinha agora, que ninguém ouvisse, tudo é química, eu sou vítima desses experimentos em pó em forma de comprimidos – e enfim sorriu, como se a simples explicação suprimisse toda a cadeia de desconcertos do amanhecer. (pp. 6-7 iPad iBooks e-edition)

Woke up from a difficult dream: over something that looked like a bed, he was hugging the enemy, who tried to bring their lips to his. Did not mean to be harsh, however, push him away, as would be  obvious, maybe hit him with a punch; he just looked away, saying something now that could not be heard, in the morning lightBut they were gentle movements, he realized; trying to get away from him with delicacy, as if disembarking from a bed in which a woman sleeps and should not be awakened. The enemy: yes, he imagines that had one, for a lifetime, and now he was coming to haunt his dreams, with its sticky proximity. He was intrigued, in the ice which wakes him, with the fact unperturbed with the obvious sexual innuendo, those aged lips almost touching his, such a strong image that he could no longer forget it, would not ever forget it, he marveled, like he had a long future ahead, remembering the dream that he lived in 1952, growing up, falling from a cliff and saving himself with the force of a shout - the mother came sailing in, and remember that sharply protective hand in hair over 60 years ago. She never ran a hand through her son‘s hair, but times were different, harder - or just that he’s always thought hard. Now - and he shook his head, returning to the beginning. How long? Seventy - and he looked at his fingers, moving them slowly, feeling the brief pain which accompanied his movements at dawnIt does not matterReaching 71, he corrected himself. This fall remained, and it was like falling again, an empty chest, shadow panic, a roller coaster of the soul. Everything is chemical, he said aloud in defense, everything is chemical, these pills, he added, a tiny voice now, that no one would hear, everything is chemical, I’m a victim of these powder experiments in pill form - and he finally smiled, as the simple explanation abolish the entire chain of the disconcerting dawn. (my rough translation)


What memories do the near-elderly have of their lives.  Looking back, do they confound desire with memory, memory with fact?  Should we, at any age, trust ourselves to recall “how it truly was,” as Leopold von Ranke was fond of saying?  Brazilian writer Cristavão Tezza’s latest novel, O Professor (The Professor), explores these questions in an engaging fashion.  His protagonist, the newly-retired history professor Heliseu, is about to be honored with an award commemorating his decades of service to his university.  It is a prospect that frightens him, being so used to observing history and not taking on the role of being a living relic of a passing Brazil.  Over a period of hours leading up to the actual award presentation, he reflects back on his life, touching upon cultural events that still influence Brazilian society today.

The opening paragraph, translated quickly and perhaps not as elegantly as it could be after a few drafts, signals to the reader just how nuanced and evocative Heliseu’s thoughts are going to be.  In reading it, I could not help but notice some structural similarities to some of William Faulkner’s writing, not surprising consider Tezza has written at length on Faulkner in the past.  In particular, it is the continuing problems of time and memory and how Tezza incorporates them into this free-flowing, almost stream-of-consciousness writing, that reminds me at times of Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!.  Yet while elements of O Professor may resemble Faulkner’s approach toward untangling that Southern historical-cultural version of the Gordian Knot, it is very much its own creature, exploring a society that is not only dealing with the aftermath of the mid-20th century dictatorship, but also with a rapidly-changing 21st century culture that is becoming more “global” and perhaps less rooted in Brazilian history.

Heliseu’s thoughts are a mixture of regrets, stalled hopes, and flashes of hope.  As he recalls his years of teaching history, especially that of the archaic Portuguese language of the 10th and 11th centuries, curious, almost dream-like elements appear.  He especially has difficulties coming to terms with his son’s homosexuality and how the stigma of previous decades has largely faded, changing into something else that he doesn’t quite grasp.  It is an exquisite portrait of an old man feeling lost in the present, yet with a past that he himself distorts into something that it quite wasn’t.  

With these shifts in topic and perspective, it can be difficult at times for the reader to keep track of what all Tezza is narrating through this professor’s reminiscences.  Yet perhaps that is precisely the point, that in having a meandering narrator slowly unpack his recollections for display, more pointed social commentaries can be embedded in a deeply personal narrative.  Certainly by novel’s end, when he holds the commemorative paper in his hand, Heliseu’s story feels complete, yet with that sense that there has been more told than what the narrator himself has realized.  O Professor was a challenging read for me in my third or fourth language and doubtless there were elements that I missed due to the fact that I’m not a Brazilian native, but from what I glimpsed, this was a very well-constructed and written tale that perhaps serves as a metaphor for how we all may feel when we sense age, and history with it, overtaking us, consigning us to its dustbins. 

Lydia Davis, Can’t and Won’t: Stories (2014)

July 22nd, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

The dog is gone.  We miss him.  When the doorbell rings, no one barks.  When we come home late, there is no one waiting for us.  We still find his white hairs here and there around the house and on our clothes.  We pick them up.  We should throw them away.  But they are all we have left of him.  We don’t throw them away.  We have a wild hope – if only we collect enough of them, we will be able to put the dog back together again. 

– “The Dog Hair,” (p. 11, iPad iBooks e-edition)

On Thanksgiving Day 2011, my family lost our dog, Ally.  Nearly 14.5 years old, she was a mixed-breed with extremely thick black fur that would turn brown during the summer.  It took months for her to shed this coat and clumps of fur would be found all around the perimeter of the house (she was strictly an outdoors dog who hated the thought of ever being inside).  I remember seeing her really ill that November day, laboring to breathe, much less move, when I left for an aunt’s house for Thanksgiving celebration.  Three hours later, I was the first to arrive back home.  She had limped over to her favorite hollow and she was stretched out, as if she were sunning herself (I remember it was a partly cloudy, relatively warm day).  I called her name, several times, then I went over to where she was.  Her mouth was slightly open, as if in a half-pant, half-smile, eyes glazed over.  I called my brother and told him that she had passed.  He and my parents left the family gathering then and we gathered around her (I have an aversion for touching dead bodies and wouldn’t pick her up).  We got an old shower curtain and wrapped her in it and then we dug a shallow grave underneath a pine tree, near the fence where she used to lie down and bark at the cows.

Yet for months later, it was like she had never left, as we would find well into the spring clumps of her fur sticking to a stick near the detached garage or trapped under a pile of leaves being raked for spring cleaning.  In reading “The Dog Hair” from Lydia Davis’s latest collection, Can’t and Won’t, I was reminded of that feeling of nearness in loss, of a semi-presence of the dearly departed.  It was the first of her dozens of short, sometimes flash fictions and poems that I bookmarked, because it encapsulates so well in one short paragraph the emotions that I felt during the half-year after my dog’s death.  It also serves as a good example of the sorts of stories Davis narrates.

If the stories of our lives were to be made into fictions, almost invariably they would be tales of moments, of choices made or abandoned, with the uncanny mixing with the quotidian with reckless abandon.  In stories like “A Woman, Thirty,” we might find ourselves thinking of people we know that are similar to this woman who doesn’t want to leave her childhood home, doesn’t want to risk being in an unloving relationship, and yet who also yearns for some man, any man, to at least regard her in some fashion.  Davis has that rare talent of capturing in just a few lines the conflicted emotions that we feel everyday.  Sometimes, the stories, such as “The Execution,” turn a dark mirror toward us, forcing us to confront the more violent, sordid feelings that we collectively possess.  We so often are, as she states here, charlatans, hiding the worst (and sometimes best) of ourselves from others, attempting to make all blind to what has just occurred.

Some books demand thousands of words for its depths to be plumbed.  Can’t and Won’t, however, is not one of those works.  It is such a quotable, memorable collection that a judicious quoting, followed by noting that Davis utilizes short, penetrating passages to explore facets of humanity, is sufficient.  After all, these stories are short because like ourselves, they are bundles of moments in which we later unpack, deriving meanings that may or may not be independent from how we interpret the world around us.

Shane Jones, Crystal Eaters (2014)

July 21st, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

It feels good to believe in one hundred.

They walk through the village wondering how many they have left.  Everything is hit with sun.  Tin roofs glare.  Wooden structures glow.  The city appeared at the horizon like a mountain range decades ago but it’s close now – dangerously close and growing closer by the day – and believing in one hundred is a distraction.  A long road connects the village to the crystal mine.  A man named Z. mumbles his number and walks by the home of Remy.

Inside Remy’s home Harvak the dog is on the table.  With each breath his stomach balloons pink skin.  His left eye drips crystal (Chapter 5, Death Movement, Book 8) and his count lowers.  Remy thinks about lying face down and entering a place where she wouldn’t hurt.  She pets Harvak’s head ten times but nothing happens.  She touches a Harvak hair on his leg longer than the rest.  When she pulls the hair like a rope attached to an anchor, fingers over fingers instead of hand over hand, the end result is a hole with zero inside.  She spins the hair into a wreath.  With one finger she taps the hole ten times but again nothing happens. (p. 183)

Shane Jones’s latest novel, Crystal Eaters, is one of those novels that defy easy description.  It is a novel of growing up, but no, that’s not really it, as the focus is not on increases but decreases, as the chapter and page numbers illustrate.  It might be just a novel about mortality, but then there are references to urbanization and familial life that do not jibe well with just this.  It would be easy to dismiss it as merely a dreamscape, a surrealist piece that doesn’t really connect with our quotidian lives, but those connects do exist.  So what should we make of Crystal Eaters?

The key, I suspect, is not to “make” anything of it, but to take it in as it is and consider its various parts as possessing an internal consistency that might not be readily apparent.  The core of the narrative revolves around a young girl, Remy, who has a sick mother who seems to be on the verge of death.  She, along with the people of her local village, have this belief that objects possess a number of “crystals” (this may or may not be metaphorical, as there are real crystals as well) at birth that can be lost through various accidents or just natural aging that eventually lowers the count to 0, or death.  Humans are born with 100, dogs with 40, for example, and as the book begins its countdown, Remy’s dog, Harvak, has reached his end.  Remy spends part of the next few chapters fretting over the accidents that lowered his crystal count before shifting her worry to her mother.  She narrates the legend of a black crystal that may have the mythical power of reversing the crystal loss, prolonging a person’s life.  The majority of her narrative arc focuses on discovering this crystal and feeding it to her mother.

This alone would make for an interesting allegory, but Jones adds more layers to the narrative that deepen it and make it far more complex.  Remy’s brother, Pants, is in prison for something akin to dope running.  It turns out that he has indeed discovered the mythical black crystal and has figured out that when ingested, it does do some interesting things to the human mind and body.  Later, as his discovery spreads, the effects are shown in some very interesting ways.  Jones in particular utilizes heat and vision descriptors to narrate these physiological changes.  This creates an oddly distorted view of what is transpiring, as if the narration were viewed through the prism of a tweaker.

This is especially apparent with the rapid encroachment of the now-nearby city, with buildings sprouting up daily as though they were bamboo.  This, along with the belief that the sun is steadily drawing closer to the black crystals that seem to be bursting upwards to embrace it, comprise two village beliefs.  Jones revisits these beliefs through character observations about changes in horizontal perspective and in the shimmering quality of the heat as it plasters itself to the villagers.  His vivid descriptions enhances the hallucinatory aspect to the narrative, making for a twisted reality that encompasses several elements at once without it ever seeming as disjointed as it should if it were told in a more traditional narrative form.

It is almost useless to discuss elements such as plot progression and character development here, as Jones’s narrative plays more freely and loosely with time and space.  There is a compression of both that occurs here, similar to that what many experience in their dreams.  Readers subconsciously supply many of the details, not so much for events as for what their import might be.  The result is a hazy story that contains elements of several allegories:  death-fear, familial crisis, drug addiction, climate change, and urbanization dangers.  Yet this list really does not get at the heart of Crystal Eaters.  For that to occur, the reader herself would need to take it all in and twist it around a bit to suit herself.  This may not be what many readers want to do, but Crystal Eaters is that rare sort of story that depends upon active reader contemplation in order for it to achieve its full effect.  It certainly is one of the weirder stories that I’ve read this year, but it is one that I am glad that I read.

D. Foy, Made to Break (2014)

July 16th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Christmas Eve word got out Lucille had been taken by the real world, of corporate jobs and big-big coin.  Christmas Day the scene was on.  As for that affair, the only thing I know for sure is some time close to three or four we laid into a mound of dope.  But now the New Year was two days off, and what had been a mound of dope was just a dirty mirror… (p. 10, iPad iBooks e-edition)

D. Foy’s debut novel, Made to Break, begins with a bang: a group of five friends get together during the Christmas-New Year’s week of December 1995 to celebrate one of them, Lucille, getting a high-profile job after working as a painter.  For them, it was only natural to get some blow and binge-snort during that week at the Lake Tahoe cabin of another one of the circle, Dinky.  While this drug-fueled mournful celebration of Lucille’s departure for the “real world” might seem to be the perfect set-up for an examination of a coming-of-age story for post-grad middle class young adults, what transpires in Made to Break is something harsher, more biting, and yet ultimately more meaningful than if it were simply a tale of bickering friends getting to recognize consciously the qualities that make those around them their friends.

Although the drug use sets up the type of relationships that these five friends, three men and two women, have, it is a specific event, a torrential rainfall that causes mudslides that isolate the group inside Dinky’s cabin, that acts as a catalyst for both plot and character development.  The narrator, AJ, is the most self-conscious of the lot and it is his recounting, some years later, of the events surrounding New Year’s 1996 that tinges these days with a mixture of reflection and blithe obliviousness that makes Made to Break a compelling trainwreck to witness.  After AJ and Dinky make a failed attempt to drive down the mountainside for supplies, with a crash that leaves Dinky seriously injured and unable to get prompt medical attention, the action shifts toward a mixture of the trapped friends recalling old grievances and malicious gossip from their younger days.  The passage quoted below deals with AJ’s tortured relationship with a former bandmate, Basil:

But later, in the clarity of my regret, I saw the canker in the bloom.  Basil had “fired” me (that was the expression he used once he started talking smack) from what he obviously had considered “his” band.  In a dull autumn noon veined with dull autumn smog, we sat over a mound of pad thai and confessed our interests had suffered a rift.  He felt, or so he said, I could do better elsewhere.  Get out on my own maybe, he’d been stifling my creativity and such, he said.  But even the midst of these shams we both knew he was wonking through his bullshit tulips, making a farce of protecting my ego while disguising the rage of his own.

That he knew I knew he knew I knew all this made it the more obscene.  His head had grown bigger even than Dinky’s, which wasn’t to say my own had shrunk.  I’d risen from the glop of my tyro swamp, having begun my apprenticeship in music just five years back.  Now a producer chose my song from a group of twenty-plus that Basil and I’d mostly co-written, claiming it the stuff of hits.  But that didn’t justify anyone calling me greedy, not like they could Basil.  The cat couldn’t share a stinking thing – not money, not women, not smokes, not booze, not cars, not drugs, not nada.  Why the hell would he share the title Creative Genius – whatever that meant:  more groupie sex?  a solo name-drop in the Chronicle‘s Pink Section or BAM magazine? – even though he’d already taken all but the glamor-light itself with his singing and playing both?  People by then were comparing him to stars like Paul Westerberg and Chris Cornell and Sting.  Did that matter?  Not a stewed red penny.  A shadow’s shadow threatened the kid.  The shadow itself nigh on crushed him.  And the thing that made the shadow, when it came too near, it might as well have been King Kong.  We sat there stabbing at our shrimps, hoping the waiter would bring us the check so we could go get drunker than we were. (p. 42)

Foy’s characters are very vicious, insecure child-adults.  Yet in scenes such as the one quoted above, he has them cut deeply into what underlies the skeins of friendship:  the mutual needs despite objectionable qualities in both parties, the desire to be superior in order to avoid being inferior by comparison; and the lies that we tell others and our own selves in order that we might be able to enjoy the company of others.  Yes, this is shallow, self-absorbed, and stupid, but yet when I think back on some of my old friends, there are similar traits, albeit not quite to the level shown here.  But yet there is more to it than the rehashing of old grievances and the rupture of old friendship fault lines and this is seen later in the novel, after Dinky, who had already assumed the role of the corpse at a wake, passes away:

Peaceful is not the word.  Dinky’s face was not peaceful.  That, I thought, was the big untruth, this business of peace suffusing the dead.  But though it looked nothing at all like peace, my friend’s lifeless face, neither did it look sad, nor helpless, nor anguished, nor anything of the sort.  Content, perhaps.  Or perhaps nothing is more like it.  More like it, yes, Dinky had a face of nothing, a face no longer burdened, with worry, with fear, with anything to speak of, desire, anger, rage – that was all.

I wiped my mouth.  I wiped my eyes.  My fingers shook, and my hand.  But then I made that hand touch him, his face, his mouth, his eyes, everything he’d been, my damp hand on his dead face, which wasn’t cold but cool.  And that was all.  It rested there, I let it, my hand on his brow, and then I began to sob, and everything left me, all my thoughts and all my words swallowed up by that good cry.  You son of a bitch, you, you beautiful mother fucker, you, who couldn’t stand another day.  I pulled the sheet to his chin and made it straight.  I shouldn’t thank you, I thought, but I can’t help it.  Thank you, Dinky, thank you Stuyvesant Wainright, IV.  And then I pulled the sheet over his face and smoothed it again, and then I said, Thank you, again, I said, thank you…  Yes, I said, thanks, I said, you old bastard, thanks. (pp. 116-117)

Although this passage might be the most eloquent in Made to Break, it is not the only one.  Perhaps, you might think, Foy tries a bit too hard, uses so many parallel clauses to tie complex emotions together.  Perhaps.  But in this case and generally for the novel, this mixture of direct and ostentatious internal dialogue underscores just the sort of character AJ is and, by extension, his four friends.  They can be cruel to each other, display incredible callousness, yet ultimately there is something deep within them that binds them together.  They are far from perfect souls, but in their imperfections placed on full display, we might recognize just a bit about ourselves and how we truly interact with our friends.  Made to Break is raw, visceral, yet all this ultimately reveals a vulnerable aspect to these characters that makes this a sobering, powerful read.

Tom Rachman, The Rise & Fall of Great Powers (2014)

July 14th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Tooly intended to walk the entirety of New York, every passable street in the five boroughs.  After several weeks, she had pen lines radiating like blue veins from her home in the separatist republic of Brooklyn into the breakaway nations of Manhattan, Queens, and the Bronx, although their surly neighbor, Staten Island, remained unmarked.  Initially, she had chosen neighborhoods to explore by their alluring names:  Vinegar Hill and Plum Beach, Breezy Point and Utopia, Throggs Neck and Spuyten Duyvil, Alphabet City and Turtle Bay.  But the more enticing a place sounded the more ordinary it proved – not as a rule, but as a distinct tendency.  A few rambles had frightened her, past bombed-out buildings and dead-eyed boys.  In Mott Haven, a pit bull darted into the road in front of an oncoming truck, was struck, and died on the sidewalk before her. (pp. 12-13)

There are two main types of narrative mysteries:  discovering what will happen next and how things happened in the past.  In his second novel, The Rise & Fall of Great Powers, Tom Rachman’s focus is predominantly on the latter.  Spanning three time periods (1988, 1999-2000, 2011) and three continents (Asia, North America, and Europe), the focus is on a early-30s woman, Tooly Zylberberg, and on an urgent message she receives from an ex-boyfriend to come back to New York to see her father before he dies.  Her preparation for travel from the Welsh bordertown bookstore where she has ensconced herself for the past two years triggers a series of flashbacks to when she was 10 and 21 years old.

Having over half of a narrative being told in flashback can lead to all sorts of narrative trouble for an unskilled writer.  Thankfully, Rachman manages to balance out characters and events along the three time periods that each manages to help the reader construct a composite image of Tooly and those who enter and leave her life.  Rachman is very skilled at developing memorably unique characters.  From the father figures in her life (Paul, Humphrey, Venn) to bumbling, blustering fools to the enigmatic Sarah, Rachman’s characters are quirky yet easily understood.  The only character who is loathe to reveal any secrets is Tooly herself and it is this reticence on her part that makes the mystery of her past and how she came to roam about in Bangkok and New York such an enticing one for readers.

Rachman’s prose is rich with literary allusions.  Scarcely a section passes without some character or another alluding to some history, philosophy, or work of literature.  Rachman ties these works, or rather the surface-level blusterings about their importance, to certain characters in order to emphasize their character shortcomings or pretensions to be what they are not.  There are also some thematic connections between a few of the works the characters mention, such as Dickens’ Nicholas Nickelby, and plot developments.

Humor may not be high on the list of things readers expect to find in a character identity-mystery, but it plays an important role in fleshing out the characters and in balancing out some of the darker elements.  Rachman skewers his characters, especially the more self-absorbed ones, brilliantly at times.  In addition, the bumbling, lovable lugs show their affection for Tooly through their babbling comments and struggles to speak what they truly felt.  This humor is never overplayed, instead flowing like an underground current, yet always seemingly bubbling up whenever it was most necessary.

Yet the heart of The Rise & Fall of Great Powers, Tooly, possesses a darkness about her that she herself does not understand.  As she reflects on her past, recalling important moments as she bounced from place to place, with people moving in and out of her life, she has become quietly cynical, not quite ready to struggle to understand how she had become forged into the person she now was.  She is not a character who readily yields any secrets and it is this slow unveiling of her youth that makes for an anticipatory reading discovery.  The humor, the memorable secondary characters, all these elements serve to occupy the reader while Tooly’s character reveal unfolds languidly.  Yet by novel’s end, what is revealed makes the wait worthwhile.  While some readers might not have the patience to read nearly 400 pages to get to the heart of the protagonist, for others, The Rise & Fall of Great Powers is an occasionally delightful and continuously absorbing character-based tale that rewards those who pay close attention to what is occurring behind the scenes.

Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See (2014)

July 10th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

“Papa says curses are only stories cooked up to deter thieves.  He says there are sixty-five million specimens in this place, and if you have the right teacher, each can be as interesting as the last.”

“Still,” he says, “certain things compel people.  Pearls, for example, and sinistral shells, shells with a left-handed opening.  Even the best scientists feel the urge now and then to put something in a pocket.  That something so small could be so beautiful.  Worth so much.  Only the strongest people can turn away from feelings like that.”

They are quiet a moment.

Marie-Laure says, “I heard that the diamond is like a piece of light from the original world.  Before it fell.  A piece of light rained to earth from God.”

“You want to know what it looks like.  That’s why you’re so curious.”

She rolls a murex in her hands.  Holds it to her ear.  Ten thousand drawers, ten thousand whispers inside ten thousand shells.

“No,” she says.  “I want to believe that Papa hasn’t been anywhere near it.” (p. 52)

I’ll be honest:  most World War II-set fiction released in recent years has bored me.  There are only so many ways that one can treat the Nazis, after all.  I can only handle so much cartoonish bad guys goosestepping with jackboots threatening to undercover some arcane secret that will turn the tide in their favor.  I also am not enamored with most “boy meets girl” stories, as too many authors settle for the clichéd instead of trying to develop interesting, complex, dynamic characters.

And yet Anthony Doerr has combined the two in his latest novel, All the Light We Cannot See, and it is worlds better than the setting or premise would have led me to believe.  Yes, it is set in France and Germany during the 1930s and 1940s and yes, it does feature a boy and girl meeting, but how this occurs and more importantly, what this encounter means makes All the Light We Cannot See that rare sort of novel that works equally well on several levels.  Casual readers who prefer “light fare” will get just as much enjoyment out of this novel as readers who love intricately-constructed prose and scenes full of symbolic meaning.

All the Light We Cannot See alternates between two youth:  a blind French teen-aged girl, Marie-Laure, the daughter of a locksmith who constructed elaborate miniature models of the Parisian streets so she can be as independent as she can be, and Werner Pfennig, a diminutive orphan who manages to escape the mines by demonstrating an affinity for radio transmission and repair.  Their chapters are brief, usually less than five pages, but there is rarely that jolting sense that comes with rapid movement between perspectives.  Doerr has created certain parallels between objects and characters, with the latent symbolism becoming more apparent as the reader progresses.  Elements such as a mysterious blue diamond that according to legend had a curse on it add to the effect, as these tales and other events, like an old series of science-related shortwave transmissions in the 1930s, add layers of meaning without distracting readers from focusing their attention on the characters.

Marie-Laure and Werner are very dynamic, well-developed characters.  Doerr shows each in various stages of development, Marie-Laure as she learns to read again and to become a young scientist despite her disability, Werner as he resists becoming dehumanized by his forced enrollment in the Hitler Youth.  The connections that eventually lead the two to meet in August 1944 in Brittany are subtle at first, consisting more of seemingly trivial events and conversations that only years later are revealed to be important.  It isn’t until the final hundred pages or so that the two meet, but due to Doerr’s excellent development of their characters, their meeting in the midst of the Allied invasion does not feel forced in either the timing or in how the two interact.

Moreover, Doerr resists taking the easy route in completing their story.  Wars devastate, changing lives on several levels.  The time he spent establishing Marie-Laure and Werner’s characters pays off in how the postwar events, leading up to 2014, are described.  By the time the final, bittersweet scene ends, their tale has become a rich, textured one, full of memorable turns of phrase and vivid portraits.  It is not just another World War II-based novel, not just another “boy meets girl” love story.  It is a story of two lives, lives that are worth reading about, and it is a tale that can be re-read several times without any loss in enjoyment because of the care Doerr took in developing all aspects of this novel.  I have purposely resisted going into detail about most of the symbols embedded in the text because analyzing them here might lessen the joy new readers might have if they read the novel later, but All the Light We Cannot See works because the symbols are clear in hindsight and they complement well the fascinating characters.  It is a novel I shall revisit in the future.