Philipp Meyer, The Son (2013)

September 2nd, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

It was prophesied I would live to see one hundred and having achieved that age I see no reason to doubt it.  I am not dying a Christian though my scalp is intact and if there is an eternal hunting ground, that is where I am headed.  That or the river Styx.  My opinion at this moment is my life has been far too short:  the good I could do if given another year on my feet.  Instead I am strapped to this bed, fouling myself like an infant.

Should the Creator see fit to give me strength I will make my way to the waters that run through the pasture.  The Nueces River at its eastern bend.  I have always preferred the Devil’s.  In my dreams I have reached it three times and it is known that Alexander the Great, on his last night of mortal life, crawled from his palace and tried to slip into the Euphrates, knowing that if his body disappeared, his people would assume he had ascended to heaven as a god.  His wife stopped him at the water’s edge.  She dragged him home to die mortal.  And people ask me why I did not remarry. (p. 1)

Today, it is almost quaint to say that a writer has attempted to write “the great American novel.”  A glance at the bestseller lists and heavily-promoted books reveal book after book devoted to the picayune features of our lives:  reflections on mortality, sexual desire, the seeking of something that is beyond our grasp or our ken.  Writing something of a “national” or even regional nature is to try to write something that fell out of vogue decades ago.  Yet occasionally there appear novels so powerful in their characterizations and their portrayal of themes that simultaneously are universal and seemingly unique to a nation that grandiose terms such as “great American novel” do not feel out of place when describing the narrative at hand.  Philipp Meyer’s second novel, The Son, just very well may be one of those rare contemporary novels that manage to capture an essence larger than that of a singular person or group of persons.

The Son covers a span of nearly two hundred years, from the founding of the Republic of Texas in 1836 to the present day.  Six generations of a fictitious Texan aristocratic family, the McCulloughs, are seen through the eyes of three key members:  Eli, the titular son (and the first male child born after the establishment of the Republic of Texas) whose story encompasses the mid-to-late 19th century and beyond; his disgraced son, Peter, whose diaries from the 1910s narrate a tumultuous time along the US-Mexico border; and Peter’s grand-daughter, Jeanne Anne, who has established a different sort of empire from that of her great-grandfather.  Each of these narrators captures within their accounts segments of a grand sweeping narrative that encompasses decadence and renewal, of empires rising and falling.

Of the three narrators, Eli’s most immediately grabs the reader’s attention.  Readers familiar with Western narratives (especially Cormac McCarthy’s The Border trilogy) will find certain elements of Eli’s narrative familiar to them.  Captured as a teen by a marauding Comanche band, Eli’s description of his three years with the Comanches is eloquent in its contrasts between nature and civilization, between the values of community and solitude, between a code of honor and a code of commerce.  Here is an example of the cultural clash that the teenaged Eli (or Tiehteti, as he was known among the Comanches) observed:

To white ears, the names of the Indians lacked any sort of dignity or sense and made it that much harder to figure why they ought to be treated as humans rather than prairie niggers.  The reason for this was that the Comanches considered the use of a dead person’s name taboo.  Unlike the whites, billions of whom shared the same handful of names, all interchangeable in the end, a Comanche name lived and died with a single person.

A child was not named by his parents, but by a relative or a famous person in the tribe; maybe for a deed that person had done, maybe for an object that struck their fancy.  If a particular name was not serving well, the child might be renamed; for instance, Charges the Enemy had been a small and timid child and it was thought that giving him a braver name might cure these problems, which it had.  Some people in the tribe were renamed a second or third time in adult life, if their friends and family found something more interesting to call them.  The owner of the German captive Yellow Hair, whose birth name was Six Deer, was renamed Lazy Feet as a teenager, which stuck to him the rest of his life.  Toshaway’s son Fat Wolf was so named because his namer has seen a very fat wolf the previous night, and being an interesting sight and not a bad name it had stuck. (p. 232)

Meyer fills his narrative with these asides, virtually all of which serve to reinforce the themes of cultural clashes and decadence/renewal.  There is a subtle economy of images here, as Meyer uses these little details to compress his narrative, allowing him to skip months, if not years, in the narration of Eli and his progeny’s lives by relating important events and self-discoveries in short, incisive passages.  Here the Comanches are seen less as an “other” and more as people who follow an alternate, perhaps more honest path than those of the white settlers.  This contrast of beliefs appears again and again in the three narratives, with subtle changes occurring within each of the three that lead to surprising twists near the end of the novel.

Meyer’s characters frequently face moral dilemmas, such as how to make one’s way in a hostile world without falling too much into the trap of operating purely on expediency.  Eli’s decisions, hinted at in the narratives of Peter and Jeanne Anne, are often brutal, at least for those of us who have grown up in more “civilized” times.  Yet as these events unfold, the consequences are shown in no lesser detail.  As Eli bitterly notes in the first chapter, his disgraced son Peter is “[s]eed of my destruction.”  How this comes to be, how Peter’s actions contain the seeds for the destruction of Eli’s land/cattle (and later oil) empire of 250,000 acres, occupies most of this 561 page novel.  It is a testimony to Meyer’s skills as a writer that a novel of this size does not feel bloated but instead seems to be brimming with energy.

Beyond the three McCullough narrators (to describe in detail Peter or Jeanne Anne’s subplots would give away too much), Meyer adroitly connects their decisions and actions to greater, more American issues.  Although Eli is the titular “son” of this novel, it could be argued with some supporting evidence that the “son” could also be expanded to include those “sons” of the pioneers, those children who took the wilderness that their forebears knew and who corralled it, tamed it, and broke it in the profane name of “prosperity.”  This certainly would be a view that Eli himself would have supported and it most definitely would be a concern of his son, who walked away from the blood-soaked empire bequeathed to him.  This is perhaps as “American” of a theme, the subjugation of nature and the twisting of human ideals to support avarice, as any of the previous four centuries.  That Meyer is able to argue this within a clear, flowing novel is a testimony to his strength as a writer.  The characterizations are never shallow, even when some (such as Peter) seem to be overwhelmed at times by the beguiling power of Eli.  The Son may perhaps be one of those rare novels that will capture readers’ attentions decades removed from its initial publication.  It certainly has the feel of a novel that will be lauded for years to come (and rightfully so) for its treatment of theme and character.  Very highly recommended.

Matt Bell, In the House upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods (2013)

September 2nd, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

Beneath the unscrolling of the new sun and stars and then-lonely moon, she began to sing some new possessions into the interior of our house, and between the lake and the woods I heard her songs become something stronger than ever before.  I returned to the woods to cut more lumber, so that I too might add to our household, might craft for her a crib and a bassinet, a table for changing diapers, all the other furnishings she desired.  We labored together, and soon our task seemed complete, our house readied for what dreams we shared – the dream I had given her, of family, of husband and wife, father and mother, child and child – and when the earliest signs of my wife’s first pregnancy came they were attended with joy and celebration. (p. 3)

For a single person such as myself, the tugs and pulls of marriage is something that is barely grasped in a second-hand fashion.  The competition of wills trying to forge a melding of personalities into a harmonious relationship can threaten to rift any partnership, no matter how strong the couple may believe their bonds to be.  Who dominates?  Who submits?  Who blazes paths and who smooths them?  Mix in various levels of desire for offspring and the complicated chemistry becomes even more fragile and liable to be dissolved into acrimony.  Or so it seems to some who have not yet succeeded in discovering the magic formula that will weather these assaults on companionship.

Matt Bell tackles this complex, complicated issue in his third book (and debut novel), In the House upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods.  Bell easily could have chosen to cast this story of a newly-married couple and their pitfalls and (little) triumphs in a more traditional narrative in which the interior monologues, peppered with brief yet incisive dialogue, could convey to readers the stresses of this marriage.  Yet Bell eschews this, instead choosing to create a narrative that feels fabulistic in tone and universal in its theme.  This is a riskier approach to take, as readers accustomed to strict realism may find the imagery to be too unsettling for their tastes.  However, for the most part Bell manages to achieve most of his literary ambitions here.

In the House upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods frequently employs metaphors to convey the emotional divide between the husband and the wife.  In the paragraph quoted above (taken from the first page), Bell connects song (and through it, communication/language) to creation of new, wondrous things within the new household.  He later reinforces this with the previously-alluded to creation of a new moon:

There my wife again began to sing, and with some new song – on more powerful than any other I had yet heard or imagined – she took something from me, and also a similar portion from herself, and into the sky she lifted what she had taken until it took on some enlarged shape, until it became a heavenly body with its own weight and rotation and orbit:  At the request of her melody, our flesh became a new moon, a twin to the one already hung.

Beneath the new light, my wife explained that her moon was a shape meant not to reveal the sky but perhaps to split the dirt, to destroy what house I had built, its shifting walls.  Not a memorial to her sorrow, but at last a way to end it:  With the crashing shatter of the moon, the lake would empty its waters, and the woods would burst into flame and even the cities across the far mountains might shake with the horror of our divorce.  The moon would someday fall – this she promised, regardless of her pregnancy’s outcome, for the sky was not made to hold its weight – but with song she could delay its plummet into the far future, for the sake of this new joy in her belly. (p. 22)

There are many conceptions embedded within this moon metaphor.  Where the reader might at first be tempted to connect the moon to femininity, Bell seems to be striving to create new associations.  The taking from each partner implies a creation that is akin to but separate from its progenitors, but with the threat of this new creation, this new light reflector, being torn asunder.  The wife’s song moreover serves as a connector.  It is through her voice, her communication of desires and wants, that this “moon” is able to sustain itself.  In this sense, it is her singing (which occurs repeatedly throughout the narrative) that embodies the central conflict of this novel:  the voicing of different aims and desires.

Granted, Bell’s extensive use of allusion and metaphor makes it more difficult for readers to wrest meaning from the narrative.  This, however, is not a condemnation nor a criticism; it merely notes that the narrative does not easily yield its riches.  If the reader is diligent and considers not just the imagery but also the emotions that exist around the symbolic speech and action, then she will discover a wealth of poignant scenes and powerful moments.  However, there are times where the metaphors fail to convey suitable nuances of intention.  Although relatively small in number, there are occasions where Bell’s metaphors fall flat, as though he tried too hard to infuse his narrative with symbolic portents, leading to scenes that feel depressed, crushed under the weight of their metaphors.  Furthermore, rich as most of his images are, there are occasions that it seems that a more direct, less allusive approach might have yielded even greater emotional impact.

These, however, are issues that only dampen slightly the impact of Bell’s narrative.  The conclusion is rendered near pitch-perfectly, leaving readers believing that the effort that they put into processing and deciphering Bell’s symbolism-laden text was more than worth the effort.  In the House upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods is a debut novel that shows that its writer is beginning to realize the promise shown in his previous shorter fiction.  Looking forward to seeing what Bell produces in the future, as this is one of my favorite debut novels released so far this year.

Matt Bell, How They Were Found (2010)

September 2nd, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

How They Were Found by Matt Bell is the debut collection by a talented story writer whose work often straddles the gap between realism and fantasy or horror. Formally innovative, his fiction has appeared in Conjunctions and Best American Mystery Stories. The stories range from the tale of a nineteenth-century minister creating a mechanical messiah to the documenting of a strange and failing military outpost. In advance praise for the collection, Laird Hunt called it “fierce, unflinching, funny.”

This is the second book selected for review by Larry Nolen, Paul Charles Smith, and Jeff VanderMeer. You can read the entries on this book by the other members here and here.  Originally posted on The OF Blog in November 2010.

To begin, a key:  ⦾ is the place where the cartographer first met the girl. ⦁ is the place where they kissed for the first time.  ⊙ is any place he told her he loved her, anywhere she once said it back.


Even the compasses that break, that learn some new way, none never point him to her.  At least not yet.  It is not their fault, but his.  He is making the wrong kind of map, knows he is, but can’t stop himself.  All the maps he’s made since she left have been wrong, but the cartographer does not know the kind of map he needs. (“The Cartographer’s Girl,” p. 14)

I have followed Matt Bell’s career for the past couple of years with some degree of interest.  I found his 2007 story, “Mario’s Three Lives,” (republished in Best American Fantasy 2) to be thought-provoking, quick-hitting, with a wry observation about life when the cameras are not on and we do not have to perform in front of a crowd.  One of the stories in his recently-released debut collection, “The Cartographer’s Girl” (quoted above), made my longlist of stories I had marked for consideration for inclusion in the aborted Best American Fantasy 4.  And yet despite the excellent stories he has written over the past few years, How They Were Found proved to be a surprisingly problematic read.

The highlight of this collection definitely is the first tale, “The Cartographer’s Girl.”  Originally appearing in the journal Gulf Coast, this story immediately captured my attention soon after I began my series editorship for Best American Fantasy 4.  From the first paragraph, with the cartographic symbols used to signify the narrator’s relationship with his ex-girlfriend and the times and places where they moved into, through, and out of each other’s life, to latter passages where it felt as though narrative was beginning to dissolve into an intense, interior mindscape, Bell’s story captivated me.  The deliberately formal, detached narrative set the stage well for the story to explore an interior vista where the symbols expressed on a map correlate precisely with the emotions that the narrator experiences as he explores where he became “lost,” both in the symbolic landscape of his romantic past and also in regards to his current position.  Bell’s more intense, forceful conclusion reinforces the sense of distant confusion and slight obsession that are hinted at in the beginning.  “The Cartographer’s Girl” is one of the better-structured and executed short stories that I have read this year and it certainly is a testament to Bell’s potential as a writer.

However, several of the other stories in this thirteen story collection are much weaker than “The Cartopgrapher’s Girl.”  The second story, “The Receiving Tower,” starts off promising, as there is a hint of a deceptive identity within the first-person narrator’s point of view, but Bell drags out its execution, weakening the power of the narrative.  “The Receiving Tower” is also emblematic of some of the weaknesses in Bell’s short fiction here, as there is so little variation in the PoVs of the characters that populate his stories that after reading several of them in a sitting, the overall effect can be monotonous, dulling the impact that might have been felt if some of his narrative techniques (detached, cool characters, horrific situations couched in ordinary language, intense moments clouded by off-hand, sometimes wry narrative asides) had not been repeated so many times in these stories.

When I began writing this review, I remember having a generally positive impression of these stories as a whole.  But as I began re-reading the passages, I began to remark to myself that beyond occasional glimpses, the stories lacked a sense of vitality.  There were no memorable characters, with the possible exception of the cartographer.  Everything felt cold, precise, clinical even.  Bell certainly marches his characters through their situations, intriguing as some of them might be, but too often it was as if I were watching robots trudging along, devoid of the spark of life that would enliven these competently-created narratives.  Perhaps this is what Bell aimed to achieve, this sort of detached view of reality, where the characters’ near-total lifelessness juxtaposes with some truly unsettling situations.  Sometimes, such stories work and to some extent, Bell’s stories do create some passing interest.  However, on a re-read, there was nothing truly substantial behind the well-crafted story structures.  There was no “punch,” no metaphorical kick to the junk that would make the reader pay close attention.  I do believe there is quite a bit of potential for Bell to expand his narrative palette, to develop more life-like characters to fit in with his narrative choices, but for now, I am left lamenting that the technically good How They Were Found contains too few gripping moments to help make each story stand out as a vital narrative.

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