2014 National Book Award Fiction longlist: Molly Antopol, The UnAmericans (2014)

March 25th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

I knew the second Katka saw any of this onstage it would all be over, but I couldn’t think about that now.  Because for this moment Daniela looked as if she believed every word.  Or probably just wanted to badly enough.  Her gaze was fixed and wide, as if she were watching television.  I couldn’t tell which of us had scooted closer or if we’d done it simultaneously.  But she was so near our elbows were almost touching, and as I continued to talk, I wondered if any of what I was saying would begin to feel like the truth.  It didn’t yet, but I was just getting started. (from “The Quietest Man”)

From the time I first heard about her debut collection on The MillionsThe Great 2014 Book Preview back in January, I have been eager to read recent National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 author Molly Antopol’s stories.  The short description provided in the link above made me curious about how a relatively young writer would go about exploring those “characters lost in the labyrinth of history.”  What I discovered is that Antopol is indeed a rising talent, one whose stories contain fascinating characters placed in untenable situations.  Sometimes, these tales work wonderfully and, at worst, they merely explore already trodden ground.  But on the whole, The UnAmericans may be one of the strongest collections in a 2014 publishing year that has seen several excellent story collections (two of which I’ll be reviewing later this week).

The UnAmericans is a themed collection, revolving around the identity issues of those who consider themselves (or in a few, more sinister cases are considered to be such) to be “un-American.”  Whether the stories revolve around characters who live outside the US, in places like Belarus, Ukraine, or Israel or if they are immigrants to the US, each of the eight stories focuses on aspects of life or character that set these characters apart from their times.  Although there are times that Antopol comes close to repeating motifs explored in previous tales, for the most part, reading each of her stories led to a sense of reverie, albeit not a “pleasant” one.

Antopol’s characters are often simultaneously active and passive in relation to their environs.  Some, like the narrator for the first story, “The Old World,” find themselves caught in the confusion of the times, wondering if the world of which they were so certain was slipping past them.  Others, like the father in “The Quietest Man,” quoted above, seek to manipulate personal (and perhaps by extension cultural) history in order to present a desired narrative for others.  Yet ultimately there is this sense of each of them wallowing in a mire of the past and conflicted futures.

In the hands of lesser writers, this could lead to a narrative morass from which the reader might have to struggle mightily in order to escape.  Antopol for the most part manages to establish narrative bridges that enable the reader to focus more on the individual characters in relation to their plights and not so much on the murky plights themselves.  Sometimes she achieves this through the establishment of strong personalities whose force of will manages to captivate the reader.  Other times, it is just the simple beauty of her prose, the mixing of creative metaphors with direct, emotionally raw and honest discourse that carries the stories to fitting, if not always fulfilling, conclusions.

While there are occasions where the narratives appear to be straining to contain the disparate elements within them, on the whole The UnAmericans is a powerful collection whose weaknesses mostly can be excused as those of a newer writer finding her voice and whose strengths will make readers eager to read her next work, whether it be a novel or another story collection.  Certainly a writer worth paying attention to in the future.

2013 Booker Prize Finalist and 5 Under 35 Author: NoViolet Bulawayo, We Need New Names

October 6th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

Soon we are all busy drawing country-game on the ground, and it comes out great because today the earth is just the right kind of wet since it rained yesterday.  To play country-game you need two rings:  a big outer one, then inside it, a little one, where the caller stands.  You divide the outer ring depending on how many people are playing and cut it up in nice pieces like this.  Each person then picks a piece and writes the name of the country on there, which is why it’s called country-game.

But first we have to fight over the names because everybody wants to be certain countries, like everybody wants to be the U.S.A. and Britain and Canada and Australia and Switzerland and France and Italy and Sweden and Germany and Russia and Greece and them.  These are the country-countries.  If you lose the fight, then you just have to settle for countries like Dubai and South Africa and Botswana and Tanzania and them.  They are not country-countries, but at least life is better than here.  Nobody wants to be rags of countries like Congo, like Somalia, like Iraq, like Sudan, like Haiti, like Sri Lanka, and not even this one we live in – who wants to be a terrible place of hunger and things falling apart? (pp. 50-51)

Zimbabwean-American writer NoViolet Bulawayo’s first novel, We Need New Names, very easily could have been dismissed for being one of “those” novels:  those tales that are set in a poor land (usually a developing country in Africa or Asia) and whose characters’ plights serve to reinforce Western notions of Third World poverty and deprivation.  Yet there is very little pandering, if any, to Western bourgeois expectations here.  Instead, Bulawayo’s tale, set in an unnamed African country that most likely is a stand-in for her native Zimbabwe, explores matters of survival and adaptation in ways that alternate between being funny, profound, and unsettling.

Darling, the first-person protagonist, is a ten year-old girl living in a shantytown named Paradise.  She and her friends invent all sorts of games.  They sally forth into other shantytowns named after famous cities and they forage for material for both their stomachs and their imaginations.  They display a keen awareness of the inequalities in the world, but there is also laughter and an ability to shrug off the pains and travails of everyday life.  The chapters in We Need New Names are episodic, detailing key moments in Darling’s young life, such as this chapter, “Shhh,” on her returning father, who had returned home after several years seeking work in South Africa:

Father comes home after many years of forgetting us, of not sending us money, of not loving us, not visiting us, not anything us, and parks in the shack, unable to move, unable to talk properly, unable to anything, vomiting and vomiting, Jesus, just vomiting and defecating on himself, and it smelling like something dead in there, dead and rotting, his body a black, terrible stick; I come in from playing Find bin Laden and he is there. (p. 91)

This passage, like several others in the book, casts in almost poetic prose the mixture of emotional turmoil and carefully-developed detachment.  Darling knows there is something wrong with the man who has suddenly re-entered her life, but she presents it as a witness, as someone who is forever reporting what has happened around her.  There are moments in which she speaks through her heart, but for the most part, she recounts what she has experienced as if she were one extra degree removed from the action.  This is not a failing of her character, but rather a way to underscore just how Darling has chosen to cope with the situations occurring in her life.  This mixture of matter-of-fact reporting and eloquent prose serves to deepen the importance of the narrative’s events instead of weakening their impact.

As powerful as many of the stories are within We Need New Names, the weakest section might be the chapters devoted to Darling’s emigration from her homeland to live with her aunt in America.  It is not that these chapters are devoid of interesting insights (there are many), but rather that these chapters do not feel as integrated into Darling’s life as the earlier chapters (and flashback sequences toward the end).  More development here in showing Darling’s adjustment to life in the US would have strengthened the already very good narrative even stronger, as it would have made the final chapters, those that detail Darling’s struggle to find a new self-identity, more powerful.  But on the balance, this lack of development late in the novel does not make We Need New Names a weak novel, but rather a strong tale that falters toward the end.

Yet despite this, We Need New Names was an excellent choice for the 2013 Booker Prize shortlist.  It is a smart, engaging novel with an intriguing protagonist.  The plot development for the most part is handled well and the prose is a joy to read.  Outside of the weakness noted above, it succeeds admirably in describing a character and a land in a way that few non-Africans could ever hope to accomplish.  We Need New Names is a very good novel that hopefully signals the beginning of a very long and successful writing career for Bulawayo.  Well worth the effort in tracking it down.

2012 National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 author: Claire Vaye Watkins, Battleborn (2012)

November 19th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

The day my mom checked out, Razor Blade Baby moved in.  At the end, I can’t stop thinking about beginnings.

The city of Reno, Nevada, was founded in 1859 when Charles Fuller built a log toll bridge across the Truckee River and charged prospectors to haul their Comstock silver across the narrow but swift-moving current.  Two years later, Fuller sold the bridge to the ambitious Myron Lake.  Lake, swift himself, added a gristmill, kiln and livery stable to his Silver Queen Hotel and Eating House.  Not a bashful man, he named the community Lake’s Crossing, had the name painted on Fuller’s bridge, bright blue as the sky.

The 1860s were boom times in the western Utah Territory:  Americans still had the brackish taste of Sutter’s soil on their tongues, ten-year-old gold still glinting in their eyes.  The curse of the Comstock Lode had not yet leaked from the silver vein, not seeped into the water table.  The silver itself had not yet been stripped from the mountains, and steaming water had not yet flooded the mine shafts.  Henry T.P. Comstock – most opportune of the opportunists, snatcher of land, greatest claim jumper of all time – had not yet lost his love Adelaide, his first cousin, who drowned in Lake Tahoe.  He had not yet traded his share of the lode for a bottle of whiskey and an old, blind mare, not yet blown his brains out with a borrowed revolver near Bozeman, Montana.

Boom Times. (pp. 1-2)

 

Claire Vaye Watkins is one of two writers on the 2012 National Book Foundation’s list of 5 Under 35 authors who has yet to publish a novel.  Her debut collection, Battleborn (2012), however, is one of the more impressive collections of short fiction released this year.  In stories such as the opening “Ghosts, Cowboys,” Watkins is in full command of the stories she desires to tell, often intermingling stark and sometimes violent histories with the personal (for example, her own father, who once was associated with Charles Manson before the Manson Family turned violent) to create vividly-told stories replete with memorable settings and a cast of rogues and would-be saints and heroes.

Watkins’ ten stories reflect the clash of dreams and harsh realities.  From the silver-poisoned lands polluted by the miners of the Comstock Lode and other such mines in Nevada to the sometimes brutal desert sun, the landscape is the antithesis of verdant pastures and pastoral dreams.  Consider the passage quoted above from “Ghosts, Cowboys.”  The “curse” of the Comstock Lode, the image of silver being “stripped” from the mountains – these are precursors to suicides after the dreams fail, the suffering of those who strive to change their worlds.  Watkins’ prose here and in many other scenes in the other stories is sharp, cutting with its parallels to nature and its pollution.

The characters are reminiscent of those found in Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy or Blood Meridian without being direct copies.  There is the woman who tries to assuage her guilt over leading her friend years before to a brothel and a sexual assault.  There is the daughter who gets stoned while trying to remember an important person in her life, before deciding to smoke more, to smoke until a temporary oblivion overcomes her.  There is the sense, such as this little passage from “The Past Perfect, The Past Continuous” that civilization itself is but a veneer that is slowly being rubbed off, as proprieties dissolve into desires and needs:

 

She babbles on like that, and the boy seems to like it.  That’s the difference between the ranch and a strip club.  Here, some men come in just to talk.  Sure, they want a piece of ass so bad that they’re coming out of their skin to pay for it.  But there’s something that brings out the lonesomeness in them.  Maybe it’s being so far from civilization.  Manny’s heard them afterward, over the intercom.  Old men, young men, men with wives or steady girlfriends, men who’ve never had anybody in their whole pathetic lives.  They listen to their date chatter until the hour is up, and when she reaches for her clothes or the white wedge of towel on the nightstand to wipe herself, they hold her tightly and say, so softly it might be mistaken for a blip of static over the wires, Wait. (pp. 84-85)

 

Although several of these situations might seem at first glance to be bleak, there are signs of life blooming, or at least transforming itself, under the surface.  The “West” (and Nevada in particular, over the course of its most recent 164 years) has long been in the literature of the Westerns been a place of futures, of people setting out to obliterate their old lives and to forge new ones.  In Watkins’ stories, which span the period between Nevada’s creation as a state in 1864 to the present day, there certainly is that sense of characters creating something new out of an apparent wasteland of nature and of humanity.  Violence often is used as a metaphor for these changes as well as being a commentary on the depravities of humanity.  Watkins utilizes violent imagery and actions sparingly but almost always to great affect, crafting tales that feel as though they could have existed for decades, if not two centuries, while almost feeling fresh and original.  It is an impressive balancing act that she pulls off with virtually no missteps.

Battleborn is a collection that should appeal to those who have enjoyed Cormac McCarthy’s take on Westerns, although it should be noted that the thrust of Watkins’ lyrical prose differs in certain key elements from McCarthy’s.  There is as much discussion of the deserts of our hearts and our desires to make them bloom as there are on the more traditional Western tropes of man versus nature or man versus man.  Battleborn simply is a series of battles that unfold within and outside the characters’ ken and the result is one of the strongest debut collections released in years.

 

2012 National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 author: Justin Torres, We the Animals (2011)

November 18th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

In December 2011, I wrote the following short review of Justin Torres’ debut novel, We the Animals, which I selected as my Most Notable 2011 Release:

At 128 pages the shortest book on this list, We the Animals belies its brevity with its ability to pack an emotional punch.  It is an autobiographical novel featuring three boys of a mixed-race marriage of two working class individuals who struggle with their situations.  Told from the perspective of the youngest child, the novel unfolds as a series of short, sharp vignettes (rarely more than three or four pages) that show the casual brutality of their lives.  Take for instance this passage devoted to the narrator’s seventh birthday:

In the morning, we stood side by side in the doorway and looked in on Ma, who slept open-mouthed, and we listened to the air struggle to get past the saliva in her throat.  Three days ago she had arrived home with both cheeks swollen purple.  Paps had carried her into the house and brought her to the bed, where he stroked her hair and whispered in her ear.  He told us the dentist had been punching on her after she went under; he said that’s how they loosen up the teeth before they rip them out.  Ma had been in bed every day since – plastic vials of pain pills, glasses of water, half-drunk mugs of tea, and bloody tissues cluttered the floor around her bed.  Paps had forbidden us to set foot in the bedroom, and for three mornings we had heeded, monitoring her breath from the doorway, but today we would not wait any longer. (p. 12)

So much is contained within this paragraph.  We see the lies that parents will tell to cover up their abuses, the mystery surrounding what could have led to it (the actions of both parents continually puzzle the children throughout the novel), the combination of curiosity and quick acceptance of what the father says – an entire other story laying beneath what is outlined here.  Torres does not linger upon the many events of this childhood; we see the traumas and the brutalities and the humiliations that parents and children alike endure and we may paint for ourselves according to the numbers embedded within the plot.  Torres’ decision to pare We the Animals down to its narrative bones allows readers to develop their own conclusions.  For myself, being a teacher of emotionally and behaviorally disturbed children, what he describes resembles what so many of my former students have told or hinted to me over the past three years.

We the Animals is a searing reading experience.  We see the heartaches, the confusion, the outburst of tempers.  We see children neglected for most of their lives.  We see the struggles that the narrator has with his own sexual identity as he ages and how that impacts the family.  Torres easily could have provided a nice, pat ending where either everyone comes together or some other emotional/developmental milestone is reached.  Instead, he purposely concludes at the point where the narrator begins a new stage in his life as a young adult.  These lingering questions about how casual violence can be, how neglect occurs, and how children deal with traumas have no easy answers; sometimes, there are no answers at all.  We the Animals is one of those rare novels that captures the darker sides of families without becoming mawkish.  It simply is the most brilliantly executed novel published this year that I’ve read and therefore the most notable 2011 release.

***

Re-reading this book nearly a year later, there is little that I would change about my opinions regarding the novel, but there are a few things that I would like to note.  The first is that the use of the first-person plural for most of the novel is a powerful device, as it is meant to show how the narrator and his two older brothers, Manny and Joel,  are so very tightly close-knit for most of their childhood and early adolescence before the narrator (presumably a fictional stand-in for Torres himself, as many of the details late in the novel appear to resemble those that he had experienced in his young adulthood) marks the widening gap between them in the short chapter “Late Night,” in which the narrator goes off away from his brothers after a fight and “is made,” with consequences that tear the family asunder for a bit.

The second addition would be noting Torres’ portrayal of relationships, those of his brothers and himself and well as between the three and their parents (and briefly, those of other families that the narrator encounters late in the novel) tread a fine middle ground between happiness and tragedy; many families experience moments of division and reunion over the course of the members’ lives and while We the Animals concentrates on narrating the widening split between the narrator and his family over matters of education, mannerisms, and sexuality, there is a glimmer of hope present at the very end that there will be a reconciliation of sorts afterward.  The novel ends just when it seems that the narrator’s adult story is about to begin, but sometimes (and that is certainly the case here) that provides a “hook” of a different sort, one that makes the reader consider carefully what has transpired and to imagine what followed after.  Having re-read the book for the third time in 14 months, We the Animals is one of those rare books that seems to “grow” with each passing re-read.  Torres certainly is deserving here of his selection to the 2012 National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 author list.

2012 National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 Author: Jennifer duBois, A Partial History of Lost Causes (2012)

November 17th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

If you’re interested in stories about what can be done in a short lifetime, the history of chess is not a bad place to look – it’s populated almost entirely by people who were at their best when they were barely out of adolescence.  There’s Bobby Fischer, of course, thought hat story ends badly (with lunacy, exile in Iceland, and anti-Semitism) and Alexander Alexandrovich Alekhine, though that story ends badly, too (with alcoholism, erratic behavior, and more anti-Semitism).  Then there’s Aleksandr Kimovich Bezetov, who was the USSR chess champion by the time he was nineteen, and the world chess champion by the time he was twenty-two.  His is a sad story, too, in some ways, although I didn’t know that when I ran away to Russia to find him. (p. 18)

“How does one proceed in a lost cause?”  With this question, first asked by co-narrator Irina Ellison’s father years before his death from Huntington’s Disease to chess champion Aleksandr Bezetov, Jennifer duBois’s debut novel, A Partial History of Lost Causes, derives not only its name but also its raison d’être.  Some of best stories involve those who know that they have no hope, yet they proceed on their course regardless of their inevitable failure.  It is that act of spitting into the wind of failure that makes for compelling literature, as character qualities often shine brightest in these sorts of situations.

A Partial History of Lost Causes tells two intertwined stories, that of the 30 year-old English lecturer, Irina Ellison, and the former chess champion Alexander Alekhine (who is strongly based on Gary Kasparov’s life, both in chess and in politics), who in 2007 is in the midst of launching a quixotic presidential campaign against Vladimir Putin.  Each is faced with insurmountable odds:  Irina knows that there is a 50% chance that Huntington’s symptoms will appear by the time she is 32; Alexander knows that the entire Russian political system is tilted in favor of Putin.  Each struggles to make a life out of these bad odds.

The novel covers a span of nearly 30 years, from 1979 to 2007.  We see the political orientation of Alexander develop under the shadow of a celebration of Stalin’s centennial and its aftermath.  Irina’s search to understand her late father’s life and how he dealt with Huntington’s leads her to discover a photocopied letter that he, a chess enthusiast, mailed to Alexander years before, asking him how he would proceed once it became evident that the match was lost.  The lack of a response leads Irina to investigate further, eventually moving to Russia in 2006 in order to contact Alexander and seek an answer.

duBois does an outstanding job developing both Irina and Alexander’s characters.  Using the metaphor of the chess match (there are some echoes of Nabokov here, which duBois acknowledges in an interview at the back of the book as being a literary influence), the two narrators’ lives unfold in a fashion that resembles the clash of calculation and intuition that often marks a battle between chess masters.  duBois writes in an economical fashion, with each paragraph having import for the overall story.  There is never the sense of maudlin dross; Irina and Alexander are determined, nearly fearless optimists who strive to do what they believe is right even when such a course is doomed for failure.

Earlier in this review I used the adjective “quixotic” to describe Alexander’s presidential campaign.  Quixotic does not mean that one is blind to reality, at least not in this case.  Here, it refers to a nobleness of cause that forces one to champion a “lost cause” all the way to its end, bitter as it may be.  The events of the final third of A Partial History of Lost Causes are action-packed as the pawns are on their way to being crushed, yet due to the excellent character development, the two’s plights end up being memorable, with a very touching conclusion to both arcs.  A Partial History of Lost Causes is a very accomplished debut novel, one of the best that I have read this year.

2012 National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 Author: Haley Tanner, Vaclav & Lena (2011)

November 16th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

The power of saying good night each night to Lena is great.  On the first night that Lena was gone, Vaclav said good night to her, put the good night out into the scary, lonely darkness, and meant each word in a very specific way.  Good night.  Good night.  He wanted her to have a good night.  Not a scary night.  Not a dangerous night.  Not a cold or lonely or nightmare-filled night.  He filled the words with all of his love and care and worry for Lena and launched them out to her, and like homing pigeons, he trusted them to find her, and he felt, that night, that his words would keep Lena safe, that if he thought about her and cared about her and showed this to the universe, then bad things would not happen to her.  Vaclav was not asking an omnipotent god to grant him a wish.  He was stirring in himself his own very true emotions, his pure feelings, and pushing them, birthing them into the universe, giving flight to a powerful energy that he trusted would do what as a child he was powerless to do.

Each night thereafter, he had carefully sent this good night into the universe for Lena, and each night after that, he had known if he did not take this precaution, that if he forgot or neglected or was insincere in his wish or in his mind or in his heart, that the good night might not come to Lena, and that would mean that Lena might have a bad night, and for Vaclav this meant that her life might be in danger. (pp. 144-145)

It is too easy when one reaches the advanced age of 38 to dismiss “true love.”  After all of the heat of lust and the fires of passions have cooled down somewhat and the ashes of relationships have begun to accumulate in your heart, it is hard to remember when each loving moment was new, much less that such moments felt “pure” and “wholesome” in and of themselves.  You may find yourself ready to scoff at such notions as a teenage “enduring love,” as if such a thing were more fanciful than a hippogriff.  But perhaps a part of you does recall the hope you may have harbored that if your own “true love” isn’t true nor love, that maybe there is another couple out there whose young love story will endure and make others around them smile.

Haley Tanner’s debut novel, Vaclav & Lena (2011), is a story about a love that endures a seven year-long separation undiminished by what has changed in the lives of the dual protagonists, the young Russian emigres, Vaclav and Lena.  Opening in the Brighton Beach community in Brooklyn sometime in the late 1990s or early 2000s, the novel traces the relationship between the talkative and vivacious Vaclav and the reserved and painfully shy Lena from their beginnings as students in an ESL class to Lena’s sudden disappearance before their eventual reuniting seven years later.  There are four main sections to Vaclav & Lena:  their early years together as 9-10 year-olds; Vaclav’s post-Lena years; Lena’s post-Vaclav years; and their chance encounter that reunites them.  It is a simple yet effective structure that permits Tanner to show their burgeoning love while being able to withhold crucial plot information until it is needed at novel’s end.

Often, the characterizations in these youth romance novels can be thinner than Bible paper.  Yet neither Vaclav nor Lena possessing weakly-developed characters.  There is more to each than their professed love for one another; the actions of each, both together and later, when they are apart, show that theirs is not a mindless affection, but rather something different.  Tanner captures their very different personalities well in their individual sections. Vaclav’s is more outwardly-oriented, focusing more on his confused relationship with another teen girl, Ryan, while he still harbors hopes that he will one day re-encounter Lena and that the promise to her that he made when he was a magician-to-be and she his assistant would come to fruition.  Lena, on the other hand, is terser in tone, as befitting her reluctance to speak.  There is a shadow that looms larger and larger over her life pre-Vaclav as the novel progresses, as the event alluded to at the end of the first section, that of Lena’s sudden removal by Protective Services, becomes more sharply defined through her halting interactions with others.

This secret, which Vaclav eventually learns, is at once what gives the novel a gravitas that it otherwise would have lacked and something that might to some appear to be too awkwardly developed.  There certainly are a few hints here and there within the novel that indicate that Lena’s past, both in what happened to her and what was her mother’s fate, is very dark and which might also explain her desire for a certain sort of affection.  Yet Tanner’s integration of this event into the love plot is rough in places, as though the need to keep the main reveals (that of the mother’s life and why Lena was placed in Protective Services’ care) until the story’s end was greater than fitting these elements of Lena’s life into her current relationship with Vaclav.

This lack of a seamless integration is Vaclav & Lena‘s weakest element.  Otherwise, Tanner’s evocative prose, which is almost pitch-perfect in its rendering of adolescent love/lust, and well-developed characterizations of both Vaclav and Lena, would be outstanding.  As it stands, Vaclav & Lena is a flawed yet very promising debut novel which achieves most of Tanner’s ambitious goals.  I shall be curious to see what direction she takes in her upcoming second novel, as she certainly has the potential to be a very good writer for decades to come.

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