Dinaw Mengestu, All Our Names (2014)

June 30th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

I arrived in the capital poorly prepared.  I had read the same Victorian novels a dozen times, and I assumed that was how proper English was spoken.  I said “sir” constantly.  No one I met believed I was a revolutionary, and I didn’t have the heart to claim I wanted to be a writer.  Until I met Isaac, I hadn’t made a single friend.  With my long skinny legs and narrow face, he said I looked more like a professor than a fighter, and in the beginning that was what he called me:  Professor, or the Professor, the first but not the last name he christened me.

“And what about you?” I asked him.  I assume, like others, he had another, more public name that he wanted to be known by.  He was shorter but wider than me, each of his arms tightly laced with muscles and veins that ran like scars the length of his forearms.  He had the build but not the face and demeanor of a soldier.  He smiled and laughed too often for me to imagine he could ever hurt someone.

“For now, ‘Isaac’ is it,” he said. (p. 10, iPad iBooks e-editon)

Dinaw Mengestu’s third novel, All Our Names, is a tale that revolves around the issues of identity, or to be more correct, the stripping of and rebranding of identities.  There are two main narrative threads here, one set in late 1960s/early 1970s Uganda and the other sometime later in a Midwestern town, likely somewhere near Chicago.  In the first, we see the budding friendship between this recent Ethiopian youth’s arrival in Uganda and his friendship with the quasi-Revolutionary Isaac; the latter details this man’s complex relationship with the relief worker assigned to help him adjust to life in the US.  There are some interesting parallels between these two narrative tracks and Mengestu’s alternating scenes brings these connections close to the reader’s mind.

The Isaac/Africa chapters in particular are chilling to read.  Mengestu develops the Isaac/youth relationship very well, showing through their deepening friendship how Marxist rhetoric has begun to take hold in Uganda, especially as Isaac becomes close to one of the revolutionary leaders, Joseph.  Although his name is not mentioned directly, Idi Amin’s specter looms large over the latter Isaac chapters, as the seemingly naive Marxist university revolutionaries begin to try to enforce their mudled visions of a socialist, perhaps pan-African society on a resistant populace.  The list of atrocities mount as these dreams shift toward something approaching a societal nightmare.

The Helen/America chapters serve not only as brief interludes between this mounting violence, but also as a look into the changed youth, as his previously-created identities have been stripped from him (the reasons for this are revealed in the Isaac chapters).  He and the social worker Helen become close, but she, too, is another Isaac, one who finds herself wanting to rebel against a racially polarized society yet not really understanding the import of her increasingly flamboyant public appearances with the youth entail.  Mengestu shows these looming pitfalls in subtle ways, from the glances not understood to terse yet poignant comments made over the course of a fateful meal at a local diner.

Each of the two tracks, although separated by years of narrative time, build upon each other thematically.  As the youth and Isaac see their idealistic dreams mutate into something horrific and as the killer in one threatens to become the killer in the other, so too does the Helen/youth dynamic shift as her vague, perhaps naive perceptions of what an interracial relationship might entail changes into something deeper, something where self-identity becomes more central.  At first, these thematically parallels are not obvious, but by story’s end, Mengestu has constructed his narratives so well that the two blend into one another almost seamlessly.

The prose here strengthens the power of these thematic explorations of identity.  Mengestu does not reveal as much as he alludes and yet these allusions do not feel annoying as much as they become mysteries to be solved or at least explored.  The youth’s shedding of identities can be seen as a metaphor for immigrants perhaps, choosing (if not forced) to take on a new identity now that the old one cannot/will not serve them.  Or perhaps there are parallels to the experiences of those from the socialist-inspired regimes of East Africa of the 1970s and 1980s who managed to survive the violent changes to life and society during that time, albeit not unscathed by the rapid abandonment of traditional socio-economic systems for an imported model whose failed implementation cost millions their lives.

All Our Names is a captivating novel, one that blends together good prose, excellent characterizations, and strong themes into a whole that is stronger than the sum of its parts.  It is, however, a story that does not answer all of its mysteries, but then again, those mysteries are part of what adds to its appeal.  It is Mengestu’s best novel to date and hopefully a sign that he will continue to produce excellent fictions that force readers to consider closely how they and others view the world around them.

Emma Donoghue, Frog Music (2014)

June 29th, 2014 § 3 comments § permalink

Blanche has got the left gaiter off now, and the boot below it, but the laces on the other one have snagged, and in the light of the single candle stub she can’t find the knot; her long nails pick at the laces.

Dors, min p’tit quinquin,
Min p’tit pouchin,
Min gros rojin… 

Sleep, my little child, my little chick, my fat grape.  The old tune comes more sweetly now, the notes like pinpricks.  A silly Picard rhyme her grandmother used to sing to Blanche in the tiny attic in Paris.

“‘Dors, min p’tit quinquin, min p’tit pouchin…‘” Jenny slides the refrain back at her like a lazy leaf in a river.

It still amazes Blanche how fast this young woman can pick up a song on first hearing.

“How does the rest of it go?” Jenny asks, up on one elbow, brown cheeks sparkling with sweat.  Her flesh from nose to brows is puffy, darkening.  She’ll have a pair of black eyes by morning. (p. 6, iPad iBooks e-edition)

Irish-Canadian writer Emma Donoghue’s previous book, Room, was a finalist for the 2010 National Book Awards, capturing readers’ attentions with her use of (confined) space in order to tell a story of a kidnapped and sexually-abused mother and her five-year-old son.  In her latest novel, Frog Music, she takes an 1876 San Francisco murder-mystery and constructs a tale of love and lust, of gender-crossing roles and rebellion, of xenophobia and the brutal reduction of orphanages to industrialized “farms” where lives were cheaper than pennies and she creates a moving, often musical (there are over thirty samples of historical lyrics found within its pages) story that is much more than the sum of its parts.

Blanche Beunon is a young French prostitute who has come to San Francisco with her lover and his friend to set up shop.  She is of a higher status than the majority of San Francisco streetwalkers, as she enjoys patronage and has enough wealth to enjoy the finer things in her life.  However, things change when she comes to know a pants-wearing woman named Jenny Bonnet, whose rough edges (she was rumored to be in a thieves’ den) and flamboyant behavior, coupled with her side-business of frog gigging, make her an appealing contrast to her lover Arthur and his friend Ernst.

Over the course of the novel, Donoghue charts their developing friendship and sexual tension against a backdrop of everyday activities that would horrify most 21st century readers:  race riots against the Chinese; a smallpox plague; girls as young as 10 forced into prostitution in order to survive; refuse left openly on the streets; and babies, not all of whom are orphans, being sent to “baby farms,” where the mortality rate could approach 90%.  As events move inexorably toward Jenny’s murder, Donoghue’s detailed descriptions of these activities deepens the murder-mystery further, making the tale not just that of a doomed societal rebel, but of a clash of attitudes toward race and gender that makes Jenny’s unsolved murder a compelling read.

Donghue’s characterizations here are first-rate.  Her care in developing the setting and establishing key scenes is equaled with her fleshing out of these historical characters.  Passages such as the one I quote above from the opening chapter reveal a bantering Jenny, one who can easily dismiss the batterings she has taken in her desire to learn more, here a French lullaby, there personal matters.  Blanche too receives character development.  Too easily she could have taken the passive “observer” role, narrating Jenny’s life and death against the backdrop of 1876 San Francisco life, but Donoghue makes her be more than a recent immigrant, more than just a whore, but a woman who is conflicted by what she experiences with Jenny and how Jenny’s refusal to kow-tow to societal expectations may be grounded in something that has made Blanche herself uneasy.

The two men in Blanche’s life, Arthur and Ernst, are more shadowy characters and Donoghue uses the fuzzy historical details about their lives to construct two characters that in some respects are the antithesis of Blanche and Jenny.  Their conniving, rapacious leeching reveals men who seek to game the present societal system, as they thrive off of their exploitations of others around them.  Their actions, which become entwined with the mystery lying at the heart of the novel, feel real, as there is a sense of sliminess about them that the reader cannot readily shake off.  Donoghue utilizes this to great effect in the latter half of the novel, when the murder occurs and Blanche’s infant son by Arthur disappears.

Frog Music is one of the better historical novels that I’ve read recently.  Donoghue here has written a tale that differs in significant ways from Room, but not at the expense of excellent characterization, interesting themes, and very good prose.  It is a nearly pitch-perfect historical/murder-mystery novel and it is a story that most readers should enjoy reading, time and time again.  Highly recommended.

Thomas Ligotti, The Spectral Link (2014)

June 28th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

My instructions were to follow a sequence of absurdly simple acts and to keep the operation secret.  First, I was to make my way into the assigned environment; second, I would depart in the most natural manner, undetected if possible, though that part was not essential.  Such was the basic framework of the dream.  Nevertheless, my sense was that the orders I was carrying out would have repercussions in a far greater scheme.  While feelings of this kind often inhere in night visions, their quality on this occasion seemed of a nature surpassing anything I had previously experienced in the world of sleep. (“Metaphysica Morum”, p. 11)

It has been several years since Thomas Ligotti has received a new collection of stories.  Although his latest, The Spectral Link, contains only two, “Metaphysica Morum” and “The Small People,” it is a strong collection, as each tale, when unpacked, contains as much within them as many larger story collections.  Those who have read Ligotti’s previous work will find certain themes being revisited here, but there is evidence that the shift from physical manifestations of horror to a more metaphysical, almost existential, sort of estrangement that was most evident in his 2010 non-fiction work, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race.

“Metaphysica Morum” begins with a narrator reflecting on a past action.  Or is it a dream?  Despite the statement in the middle of the opening paragraph, there is enough fluidity here that talking about dreams as a sort of fictional state of non-being would risk distorting the tale, yet the import of what transpires is perhaps a bit too much for mere “reality.”  One of the more striking elements of this story is its use of the ordinary to upend conceptions of the everyday.  The narrator enters into a sort of showroom, with a “Dealer” who is nearly twice the narrator’s height, offering to show the narrator what he seems to be seeking, saying, “If I understand you correctly, sir, you are in the market for an all-new context.” (p. 12)

Within this too-real dream-reality, the story proceeds to a discussion of “metaphysical mutants,” those who see beyond the frills and trappings of mundane existence, peering into the horribleness that lies beyond.  This concept has been treated by Ligotti before, particularly in The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, but here in this story, it takes on new contextual layers, as the story shifts through levels of conceptual reality to arrive at this chilling point:

Those who contest demoralization as the inexorable way of universal deliverance have failed to see what is before them.  They have lagged behind in the evolutionary ideal of our species.  That ideal is a beneficial mutation.  If nothing else, the demoralized are fortuitous mutants.  From the day that marked our kind’s awakening to life, such mutants have borne the common task of attaining for the world its true status and to announce its arrival in a time to come.  Now it has fallen to demoralized mutants to enunciate their closed-off future. (p. 43)

The second story, “The Small People,” contains more explicitly grotesque imagery, especially in the description of the eponymous small people:

I noticed that even if they weren’t moving very fast, they did seem to be moving as fast as they could, as if they were hurrying to get somewhere.  Their arms and legs shifted around in the manner of prosthetic limbs, making them look almost crippled, though not crippled so that you felt sorry for them, I should say, but maimed in a way that made you want to keep your distance, af if they could infect you with some dreadful condition. (p. 66)

This story, like the one before it, works on several levels.  On one, it is a confession of a man to an unseen doctor.  On another, it is a profession of all that we humans do not grasp, especially our futile attempts to conceptualize what is “real.”  As the patient/narrator attempts to gauge what constitutes these grotesque small people, he sees within this a metaphor of sorts, an allegory for our own existences.  Who is the more real, humans or the small people?  Who possesses substance?  And just what might be “the spectral link” between the two?  Ligotti does not provide answers to these questions as much as he forces us to consider whether or not we are ever going to be ready to accept just what those answers about life, the universe, and everything just might be.  That sort of conceptual estrangement is much more chilling and horrifying than mere physical mutilations or psychological torture could ever hope to obtain.

Sean Ennis, Chase Us (2014)

June 27th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Clip and I run Pennypack Park with a carton of cigarettes, knocking over the joggers. He goes for the ankles from behind. When the joggers fall, he hangs over them and blows a lungful of smoke in their faces. The joggers cringe into little balls, waiting for a second hit that never comes. Then I follow Clip off into the woods.

We keep running.

I light two cigarettes in my mouth and hand him one. We both have the same cold sores from sharing, but in opposite corners of our mouths. Mine has gotten especially bad, and I can’t open my mouth all the way. We hope to achieve good health from all the running because the park is hilly. But we’ve go no air from the smokes. We wheeze. (opening to “Chase Us,” p. 93)

The other night at work, I regaled some co-workers with a few stories from college, some of which involve incidents, such as “going Krogering,” that perhaps could have led to a few misdemeanors if caught. It is perhaps natural for middle-aged people (and I am resigned to the fact that I’ll be middle-aged “officially” later this year) to reflect back on youthful pranks and malicious behavior and regale others with these stories. It’s not so much that most of us are proud of these events (after all, knowing that I easily could have been charged with felony assault once is not something I’d like to share with younger relatives), but that these passages of youth, rocky and smooth alike, are the stuff of which we are made (pace Shakespeare). As Dylan sang, “I used to care, but things have changed.”

These qualities are present in Sean Ennis’s debut story collection, Chase Us. Set in Philadelphia and stretching from the unnamed narrator’s preteen years through to early middle age, these tales are not as much a sequential narration of a band of friends’ developments as they are variations on certain themes related to “growing up,” or whatever that terms really might mean. Brash yet timid, obnoxious yet strangely affectionate, the internal conflicts that abound in male youth are illustrated excellently here in these stories. There are times that the reader might wish that a particular character or two might just be punched in the face or roughed up, but I think that is precisely the point behind having such characters populate many of the tales. Below are a couple of quotes from one of the longer and more moving stories, “Saint Kevin of Fox Chase”:

The night Kevin was killed, I was out there running, too. For weeks, he had been trying to convince Clip and me to hang out at the Fox Chase playground on Friday nights. The older kids were buying beer and selling cups for a buck. The girls who came were getting wild, dancing to the music blasting out of car stereos and flashing their chests at the boys.

I was skeptical. The guys who hung around the playground at night were not my friends; they were bad news, got in fights, smoked. I knew some of them from soccer, and we had a tenuous truce because I could play. But I didn’t want to tempt things, and didn’t care too much about drinking beer. Seventh grade is a tenuous time. (p. 35)

***

Roger ran home at this point, told his parents nothing, probably swore into his pillow over and over that, of course, he never raped anyone. But we know that this was when Kevin was killed. On a busy street, under our saint, traffic whizzing past the frenzy, headlights aiming straight ahead. Some of the other kids limped around after that night, eyes shining black and their edges: they had fought a little and run, but these were not trophies anymore. (pp. 61-62)

Reading this tale made me pause several times. The subject matter is coarse, that of seventh graders trying to figure out what it meant to “give” a blow job while altering church hymns to be more vaginally-centric, but there is a vulnerability here that is more present than in most of the other stories. A teammate, a friend is killed due to the insensitive (it is never specified if the alleged crime happened; it is presumed, however), if not criminal, actions of another kid in the neighborhood. The narrator has to confront a host of confusing issues, ranging from a girl from across town seeming to like him to whether or not he should help Kevin or just run like hell. Ennis does an excellent job in developing the setting, as I could easily picture the scene of that fateful night. The narrator’s confusion adds to the palpable tension here and while the teen boys-centric nature of the story leads to certain story elements being questionable in their treatment (such as the almost-cavalier attitude toward women), but that too seems to be part of the larger point behind constructing a series of tales showing boys trying to find their way in the world.

One of the few weaknesses in Chasing Us might be the few tales that touch upon the characters as adults. Not so much that Ennis does not continue to develop their characters, but after the escapades of youth, the problems of adulthood feel diminished somehow. There is something about youth, whether it is our own, sometimes exaggerated, memories of our exploits or the intense fears and doubts we weathered, that makes that time so special to us. This is why stories, like those found in Chasing Us, that help us remember so vividly our youthful selves are so enjoyable to read, even when the subject matter might make us squirm a little and chuckle a little nervously. After all, fart jokes never quite go out of style with men, n’est ce pas?

Roxane Gay, An Untamed State (2014)

June 25th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Once upon a time, in a far-off land, I was kidnapped by a gang of fearless yet terrified young men with so much impossible hope beating inside their bodies it burned their very skin and strengthened their will right through their bones.
They held me captive for thirteen days.

They wanted to break me.

It was not personal.

I was not broken.

This is what I tell myself. (p. 7, iPad iBooks e-edition)

The beginning to Roxane Gay’s debut novel, An Untamed State, is one of those rare introductions that summarizes a novel’s content in such a fashion that not only is the reader informed of what the story will be about, but also how it will be presented. I found myself pausing for several minutes, bracing myself for what I thought would follow next. How mistaken I was, as An Untamed State defies easy categorizations. Like our lives, traumas, and rebuilding efforts, it is not a neat, cut-and-dry affair. Instead, it is visceral, making the reader confront a whole host of issues, including sexual violence, that s/he might rather leave aside for another day.

The story opens with a young couple, Mireille, a daughter of a rich self-made Haitian constructor and a Miami-based lawyer, and her Midwestern-born husband, Michael, and their son, Christophe leaving her parents’ gated mansion when their car is almost immediately surrounded by three black Land Cruisers. Mireille is taken captive and a message is sent to her father, pay $1 million in ransom or else.

For the first half of An Untamed State, there are alternating chapters between Miri’s captivity and the depravations (gang rape, burns, mutilations) that she endures and the “before” of her life, especially how she came to fall in love with a white engineer while she was in law school. Gay is unsparing in both the captivity and in the story of her courtship, showing flawed yet dynamically human characters. Take for instance this scene about a third into the novel, where one of her captor/rapers has a conversation with her about class and Miri’s reaction, after being repeatedly tortured/raped for days, to this:

When he reached me, he traced the bruises on my face. “I’ve always wondered what it would be like to be with someone like you. I see you women, how you wear your designer clothes and your beautiful shoes and your dark sunglasses, your French perfumes. It’s like the shit of this place doesn’t touch you. You never see me but I am there, watching. You are all so beautiful.” He pressed his lips against mine. I shrank from him, from the insistent heat of his tongue, the way he wet my mouth with his. “You are beautiful,” he whispered, hotly.

He kept caressing my face. The gentleness of his touch over my broken skin made me shiver, broke me further. He kissed my forehead. His lips were cool. His fingers were soft and warm. If I closed my eyes, it would be easy to pretend the man before me was a lover, that our bodies belonged together.

I fought him. I swallowed the pain. I did not close my eyes. (p. 79)

Too often sexual abuse can be a cheap plot device, something that is inflicted upon some poor, unfortunate woman, with the focus being more on how the men around her act and not on her own internal conflicts during and after the assault/s. This is not the case in An Untamed State. Graphic as the sexual and physical assaults are, they serve a purpose other than showing a broken doll, one that is to be avenged/mourned over by others. Miri endures these assaults, struggling as much as she can to keep some part of herself “alive.” She believes herself to succumb in the end to “the Commander’s” wish to break her to spite her father for his intransigence in refusing to pay her captors the ransom that they have demanded.

Yet Miri is both stronger and weaker than she realizes. After she freed, the second half of the novel details her struggle to rebuild herself, to live again after “dying” in Port-au-Prince. Her husband and father do not understand her; she struggles to love the former and has become estranged from the latter. The relationships that Gay developed in the flashback chapters of Part I take on new forms in Part II. Here, the reconstruction of a life shattered by horrific sexual traumas rises to the fore. Gay does not skimp on the struggles Miri endures in the years following her kidnapping and gang rapes. The reader wants to feel empathy for Miri, but Gay does not make it easy, as she confounds reader expectations about how the aftermath of rape will unfold, showing us instead loving characters who unwittingly wound each other gravely. It makes for an unsettling, uncomfortable read, but one that is an eye-opening experience for those who have not loved someone who has endured such abuse.

Typically, such detailed description of a novel’s plot progression can weaken the reader’s subsequent experience with the story, but in the case of An Untamed State, the way Gay has constructed her scenes and characters insures that no matter how much information is provided beforehand, the reader will likely find herself stunned by the emotional power within its pages. The prose and characterizations are so directly eloquent and “true to life” that reading An Untamed State is more an act of witness than a reading of a text. It is one of those rare novels that seems to have seared itself upon my memory and that perhaps is the greatest compliment that I can pay to it.

Rene Denfeld, The Enchanted (2014)

June 24th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

This is an enchanted place. Others don’t see it but I do.

I see every cinder block, every hallway and doorway. I see the doorways that lead to the secret stairs and the stairs that take you into stone towers and the towers that take you to windows and the windows that open to wide, clear air. I see the chamber where the cloudy medical vines snake across the floor, empty and waiting for the warden’s finger to press the red buttons. I see the secret basement warrens where rusted cans hide the urns of the dead and the urns spill their ashes across the floor until the floods come off the river to wash the ashes outside to feed the soil under the grasses, which wave to the sky. I see the soft-tufted night birds as they drop from the heavens. I see the golden horses as they run deep under the earth, heat flowing like molten metal from their backs. I see where the small men hide with their tiny hammers, and how the flibber-gibbets dance while the oven slowly ticks.

The most wonderful enchanted things happen here – the most enchanted things you can imagine. I want to to tell you while I still have time, before they close the black curtain and I take my final bow. (p. 4 iPad iBooks e-edition)

Some books you remember in terms of “before” and “after,” as your reading of them has such a profound change on your world-view that there is a singularly clear demarcation of that shift. For myself, I remember reading Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song in December 1997, just after I finished grad school and was preparing to take coursework to become certified as a grade 7-12 teacher. Mailer’s reconstruction of death row inmate Gary Gilmore’s life leading up to the execution-style murders that led to his sentence to death and later to Gilmore’s abandonment of appeals affected me greatly. Although I already had some unease about the application of capital punishment in the US, reading The Executioner’s Song led me to believe that the punishment itself is cruel and unusual.

Therefore, when I read about the subject of Rene Denfeld’s debut novel (she’s published several non-fiction books and journalistic pieces, many of which concern her experience as an investigator into death penalty cases), The Enchanted, I immediately listed it as a 2014 release that I would buy on release date. At first glance, its more fantastical treatment of death row seemed jarring, but as I read on, the stories being told took on a deeper, more personal touch than what might otherwise had been achieved if it had been written in a strictly realist narrative mode. This, combined with the lives awaiting death being characterized so well, made The Enchanted an absorbing read.

The Enchanted alternates between the first-person PoV of one of the death row inmates and a close third-person PoV of those around the protagonist. The characters largely are described rather than named, such as “the lady” or “the fallen priest.” The primary narrator uses several metaphors to contrast the conditions within the prison with those of the world outside, such as this bit, also taken from the opening paragraphs:

The lady hasn’t lost it yet – the sound of freedom. When she laughs, you can hear the wind in the trees and the splash of water hitting pavement. You can sense the gentle caress of rain on your face and how laughter sounds in the open air, all the things those of us in this dungeon can never feel. (p. 4)

In passages such as this, Denfeld not only establishes sharp contrasts between prison life and those who are free to move in and out of it, but she develops her characters from these poetic comments. Already the reader can sense that the main narrator is acutely aware of the world around him and that he has a love of language and imagery that frequently shines through his narrative. Yet The Enchanted is much, much more than a prisoner’s unique take on his environs. Instead of being just an inventive narrative, the somewhat fantastical musings of the narrator (commenting on the “flibber-gibbets” that lurk, waiting to feast on still warm remains from the crematories) serve to create a different set of contrasts, that between the reader’s sympathy for him and the later, likely revulsion at what he had done in order to land on death row.

By this point near the novel’s end, the beauties the narrator has found within the confines of death row serve to remind readers of the persistence of hope within the bowels of despair, of our desire to find beauty in the midst of such ugliness and depravity. This does not lessen the import of what these prisoners have done, but they do deepen their tales, making them perhaps mostly fully human in that their flaws and crimes, hideous as they may be, a bit more understandable for those of us who may be moved quicker to justice than to mercy or at least empathy. The Enchanted is not the sort of story that is best analyzed for its prose and characterization, although each of these is well-done, but more for its treatment of theme. In this particular case, The Enchanted‘s look into the dreams of those who are sentenced to death provides a view on the entire enterprise of capital punishment that many of us may not want to think about but which is important to consider nonetheless. One of the better debut novels released so far in 2014.

Ishmael Beah, Radiance of Tomorrow (2014)

June 23rd, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

She had returned home because she could not find complete happiness anywhere else. She had scoured refugee camps and the homes of kind strangers for some sort of joy that didn’t need entertainment, something she knew existed only on the land she now stood upon. She remembered an afternoon not so long ago that had followed days of hunger and finally an offer of a sumptuous bowl of rice with stewed fish. She ate, at first vigorously, and then her muscles slowed down, straining the movements of her hand to her mouth. The pepper tasted different from the one her memory still held on to, and the water she drank was not from a small calabash that smelled of the clay pot that had cooled the water for her household since she was a little girl. She finished her food and drank to stay alive, but she knew there was more to living than these temporary acknowledgements of life. The only satisfaction that remained after finishing the food was the memory of the sound of pepper pounded in a mortar and, with it, the biting fragrance that took hold of the air around the compound and the laughter that ensued as men and boys would flee.

“It is so easy to drive them away,” her mother would say as the other women continued laughing, their eyes and noses not showing any sign of discomfort as the men’s and boys’ did.

She looked at the bones again, her eyes moving beyond the piles to find strength to leap forward. “This is still my home,” she whispered to herself and sighed, pressing her bare feet deeper into the earth. (pp. 8-9, iPad iBooks e-edition)

Sierra Leonean writer Ishmael Beah’s first book, the memoir A Long Way Gone, captured in prose the experiences of many of his nation’s youth, pressed into war while still boys, supplied drugs in order to keep them fighting during the vicious 1990s civil war. Here in his second book, the novel Radiance of Tomorrow, Beah takes a look at those who returned home after the fighting had ended and their struggles to rebuild what seemed to be irreparably broken. These stories, so often lost amidst the tales of carnage and violence, can, if presented effectively, move the heart and spirit. Radiance of Tomorrow, despite a few hiccups, largely manages to achieve this.

The story begins in the burnt village of Imperi. One of the village’s elders, Old Mama Kadie, wanders back to the ruins after fleeing years before. There, she comes upon another elder and the two begin washing the charnel, preparing the human remains for a proper burial. All the while, she reminisces on the events during the civil war that led to her family fleeing the violence. Beah easily could have made this the singular scene of the novel and it would have made for a fine short novel, but he expands upon this scene of women and the men who accompany them cleaning the rubble, taking in stories of hope and redemption in the midst of despair and destruction.

Beah’s prose is direct and to the point. His characters narrate scenes, some of them gruesome in nature, unflinchingly. Take for instance this scene taken from around the halfway point. After the returning villagers have struggled to establish a modicum of social life, re-founding a school and working toward the reconciliation of former warring factions within the village, their fragile livelihoods are threatened by the manipulations of the government and their cronies. The villagers are not passive observers; they do resist the encroachment of the foreigners, sometimes in a violent fashion:

Sure enough, one of the foreigners came to urinate. Colonel attacked with several blows to the man’s temple that made him faint. Colonel dragged the foreigner to the back of the bar, undressed him, and tied his penis with a rope that he attached to the branch of a mango tree. He tore the fellow’s shirt and trousers and used the strips to bind his hands and legs, and gag his mouth. The fellow came to after Colonel was done, and each time he moved, the rope tightened, elongating his privates. His eyes watered but his voice couldn’t go anywhere.

Colonel did the same to two others, tying them to the same tree. But the last man, a local, stayed in the bar longer than Colonel expected. Finally, watching him inside the brightly lit bar from where he stood in the darkness, Colonel’s anger got the best of him. He needed to finish this before people saw the three men. So he took his bayonet from his pocket and held it tightly behind his back. He went into the bar and sat next to the fellow.

“Did you happen to run into a young woman today who has some tribal marks here and is quite beautiful?” he asked, touching both sides of his cheeks to indicate where the marks were on Salimatu.

“So what if I did? I run into girls and women all the time. Are you the police, small boy?” The man rose up from his chair and stood over Colonel.

“She is my sister, and I am better than the police.” Colonel pressed the bayonet against the man’s side, not wounding him but letting him know he would, and he asked the man to walk outside. The man thought about refusing, but he changed his mind as he felt the knife about to enter his flesh.

He was treated the same way as the others.

Colonel had a parcel of sugar that he sprinkled all over them. Then he took the keys from their pockets and left.

They weren’t aware at first what he had done, but they soon found out, as killer ants started arriving and climbing all over their naked bodies, biting them everywhere, until their bodies became red, swollen, and numb. Meanwhile, using their keys, which bore the names of their quarters and room numbers, Colonel crept into their living spaces and set their rooms on fire, burning everything in them. (p. 79)

For some readers, this may be a disturbing passage, not the least for the clinical fashion in which the tortures are described. But for those who have experienced similar depredations, particularly the mass rapes of female kin and neighbors, this treatment of suspected rapists is viewed more as an effective deterrent than as anything cruel and barbaric. Beah does not skimp on describing such scenes. But he does not exaggerate them or dwell upon their horrificness. In doing so, he shows respect to those who in real life did suffer so not only by not being silent about what they endured, but also by describing the retributions sought without seeming to praise the perpetrators of such grisly revenges.

Yet Radiance of Tomorrow is not solely about the struggle to endure even after the direct violence against them is over. Within the midst of the villagers’ toiling is a clear sense of optimism, that things will be better, that with effort, life will improve. This can be seen in the way they describe the world around them, their love of narrative, and especially in the closing lines of the novel, as one villager sings:

It is the end, or maybe the beginning, of another story.
Every story begins and ends with a woman, a mother, a grandmother, a girl, a child.
Every story is a birth… (p. 145)

And it is within this hope that Radiance of Tomorrow not only takes its name, but also its exuberance for life in the aftermath of death and suffering. It may not be technically perfect, as some scenes do seem to be redundant, but by story’s end, it is a gripping narrative that leaves the reader wanting to know more about what happens next. If only more stories could possess this quality.

Porochista Khakpour, The Last Illusion (2014)

June 23rd, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Zal knew he had to make all the moves.  He stepped up to her and pressed his body against hers.  He thought of the porn scenes; he thought of Willa.

They kissed with a wildness he hadn’t experienced since…since nothing.  He let her go wherever she wanted with her hands, and he did the same.  He eventually, like one porn guy, threw her on the bed.  He tried to say the things the guy had said to the woman he was having sex with, but the words were getting scrambled in his head, threatening to distract him, and he could not, would not, no way in hell, let himself lose it, lose this.  He focused, he breathed, he thought of her, that other her, and he moved in and in and in.  She moaned in the way the girl in the porn scenes did, and he thought that was good.  He moaned, too, like the man had, and he thought maybe it helped, those sounds.

The funny thing was that they did not sound human at all, even less so than the humans in pornography. (p. 133, iPad iBooks e-edition)

Iranian-American writer Porochista Khakpour’s latest novel, The Last Illusion, takes as its inspiration the medieval Persian epic, the Shahnameh, or the Book of Kings.  In that tale, there is an albino boy, Zal, who is abandoned at birth and raised by a mythical bird, the Simorgh, before he later returns to live with humans.  This legendary Zal, who goes on to become one of Persia’s greatest heroes, is the namesake for another bird-raised boy who has spent the first ten years of his life stuffed in a bird cage, eating as the birds do, because his mother could not bear the shame of admitting that she had given birth to such a white-skinned monster.  In The Last Illusion, Khakpour traces young Zal’s life from his adoption by an American to his growing up in 1990s New York, all the while trying to understand what it means and feels to be human instead of an approximation of a bird.

The Last Illusion is full of unique characters.  Leaving aside Zal’s own struggles (the quote above, dealing with his first sexual experience with a woman), the story also devotes time (albeit seen through the prism of Zal’s somewhat questionable evaluations of people around him) to his adopted father, his therapist, an illusionist, Bran Silber, and a woman, Asiya McDonald, who may or may not be a clairvoyant/mentally disturbed.  In his interactions with them, Zal ends up making discoveries about himself that a more “normal” and less “feral” man-child may have glossed over.  Take for instance the quote above.  Not only do we read of an outsider’s bare understanding of what sex entails, but it also can act as a commentary on how many youth have come to equate the act of sex, emotions and lust and all, with the mechanistic action of pornography.  Although there is some humor in this scene and in others like it (such as the detailing of a beating endured), there is also sharp commentary on social ills that afflict people today.

The action of the novel unfolds in a gradual yet steady pace.  As Zal matures and discovers how to love, how to rebel, how to question in ways that humans do, he also discovers those moments in which his bird-raising has made him an outsider, someone who does not fully grasp what is occurring.  Whether it is his attempts to become attached to Asiya or his fragile bonds with his father and Silber, or his frustrations with the obtuseness of his therapist, Zal is constantly left feeling as though he has to go through the motions of acting, of pretending to be something that he has not yet become, if he ever will, fully human.

In stories such as this, if the characters are not developed to become complex, dynamic personalities, the entire story can fall flat.  The Last Illusion, however, avoids this, as Zal and the people in his life are drawn with a wryness that adds contrast to their actions and words.  When Zal talks with his father, the conversation may at first seem rote, yet there are enough subtle twists to it that makes their conversations feel realistic.  The same goes with most of the other characters, minus a minor character, Zachary, whose anger and bullying make him less complex and therefore less interesting than others that Zal encounters.  Outside of this, the characterization in The Last Illusion is very well-done and adds greatly to the unfolding story.

Zal’s story arc appears to follow that of his legendary namesake in the sense of becoming integrated into a world utterly alien to them.  Yet this fictional Zal also represents an innocence of sorts, an innocence that is lost on the final day of the story, a day in which the “last illusion” set to occur at 8:30 AM in New York becomes all too real.  Although the setting and the timing of events leads readers to realize that there is an inexorable march to this calamity that awaits them all.  As Zal and his father have one final conversation related to the Shahnameh, it foretells so eerily the event to come:

“I didn’t remember a magician,” Zal said.

“Funny, neither did I,” Hendricks said.  “We rarely got this far into it.  It’s nearly done.”

“What happens to the magician?”

Hendricks paused, skimming ahead with his eyes.  “He’s killed.  Beheaded right then and there.  Those were his final words.”

Zal nodded.  Somehow it made sense, context out of context, and yet how startling it was.  That must be the key.  There was magic, there was miracle, there was madness, all untethered, and all one.  It was this moment, this moment before. (p. 257)

And as that calamity unfolds, there is a sense, not of closure, of but a chapter ending and a new one beginning, that comes over Zal.  No, not just Zal, but also the reader.  It is a powerful emotion, one that makes the previous scenes all key steps to the end.  The result of this is a poignant, moving tale that combines sharp writing with a keen insight into our emotions to create a novel worth reading and re-reading for years to come.

David James Poissant, The Heaven of Animals (2014)

June 21st, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

The first time Brig saw her, he was sure she was Kate.  She had Kate’s dark hair, Kate’s eyes, Kate’s taut swimmer’s build.  She was not Kate.  Kate was long gone.  Were Kate here, she wouldn’t look like this girl, or Brig didn’t think she would.  Three years change a person, and who, at thirty, could still pull off twenty?  Brig couldn’t.  He hair was the give-away, sideburns silvered, the gray spreading like racing stripes over his ears.  He needed to dye it.  He needed glasses.  He needed to lose the gut that had lassoed his middle.  Would Kate know him now if she saw him?  Would he know her?

The girl who looked like Kate but was not Kate sat on a curb, her back to a lamppost, hair gauzy beneath the bulb.  She wore denim shorts and a red sweatshirt, the pullover kind with the kangaroo pouch in front.  There was no moon, but lamps lined the sidewalks and lit up the U of the apartment complex.  A pool glowed blue at the horseshoe’s center.  It was late, the parking lot crowded with cars. (“Amputee,” p. 28, iPad iBooks e-edition)

Short stories, even more so than novels, can deceive readers with their opening lines.  A story that begins with such description-filled expository prose as that quoted above can turn quickly into something not expected, something more gut-wrenching than navel-gazing.  In David James Poissant’s debut collection, The Heaven of Animals, the majority of the 15 stories deal with characters who possess some crucial flaw, something that denies him or her their desires.  No, that does not cover the extent of these characters’ personalities and experiences.  There is a quality to them that forces us, the readers, to confront our own expectations and to contrast those with what Poissant presents in his stories.

“Lizard Man” and the eponymous “The Heaven of Animals” bookmark this collection of stories originally published between 2007 and 2013.  In these two tales, a father, Dan, has thrown his then-teenaged son, Jack, through a first floor window after learning that his son is gay.  The repercussions of this event are what drive the two tales and in them, we see anger, frustration, resentment, confusion, and hesitancy spin rapidly through Dan’s head as he tries to make sense of how he feels about his son.  Some writers might have taken the easier path and shown a rapprochement; Poissant, however, shines a light on character motivations that many readers might find to be uncomfortable, if not distasteful.

These moments of expectation confrontration/twisting are not just limited to these two tales.  In others, including “Amputee” and “Last of the Great Land Mammals,” acts that typically would be viewed with scorn and disgust, if not then followed by a call to the police, are shown with such tenderness that the actions that are engendered by the characters’ desires for something else, something beyond their perhaps-wretched existences become somewhat more sympathetic for the reader, albeit something that would not perhaps be condoned.  It is a testament to Poissant’s skills as a writer that his characters, no matter how flawed they may be, contain just enough sympathy to them for readers to latch onto.

There are very few “misses” in The Heaven of Animals.  There are four flash fictions that differ in style from the longer narratives and perhaps are the most fantastical tales, but they are interspersed and do little to break the rhythm of reading the stories in successive fashion.  Thematically, many of the stories are united by the specter of death and how it looms large in the lives of those dying and those who have lost loved ones, especially infants.  The two-part “The Geometry of Despair” may be the highlight of this collection, as it traces two episodes in the lives of a married couple following the sudden death of one of their infant children.  Poissant writes these two parts, “Venn Diagram” and “Wake the Baby” in such a fashion that the parents’ grief and their moments of anger and guilt feel palpable.

The Heaven of Animals‘ mixture of realism with a few moments of surrealist qualities (especially seen in “The Baby Glows” but also in more mundane tales) makes the majority of the tales stronger for this mixture of elements presented in such a personal fashion.  While the characters on the whole do not find answers or solutions, enough space is left at the trailing moments of their stories that the reader can envision several realistic paths that they may follow.  This, too, is a strength of Poissant and coupled with his keen ear for dialogue makes The Heaven of Animals one of the strongest collections I have read so far this year.  Highly recommended.

Chang-rae Lee, On Such a Full Sea (2014)

June 20th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

It is known where we come from, but no one much cares about things like that anymore.  We think, Why bother?  Except for a lucky few, everyone is from someplace, but that someplace, it turns out, is gone.  You can search it, you can find pix or vids that show what the place last looked like, in our case a gravel-colored town of stoop-shouldered buildings on a riverbank in China, shorn hills in the distance.  Rooftops a mess of wires and junk.  The river tea-still, a swath of black.  And blunting it all is a haze that you can almost smell, you think, you don’t want to breathe in.


So what does it matter if the town was razed one day, after our people were trucked out?  What difference does it make that there’s almost nothing there now?  It was on the other side of the world, which might as well be a light-year away.  Though probably it was mourned when it was thriving.  People are funny that way; even the most miserable kind of circumstance can inspire a genuine throb of nostalgia. (p. 1)

Chang-rae Lee’s latest novel, On Such a Full Sea, is set in an environmentally-devastated United States hundreds of years in the future.  Urban cores are all that remain of certain American metropolises, with the former suburban communities now walled-off sections called Charters and the rural areas now known as Counties.  Within these remnants of the urban cores are labor settlements, where the descendents of imported labor work making products and raising food for consumption in the affluent Charters.  While some might be quick to label this a “dystopia,” it is but merely a setting through and around which the themes and action of On Such a Full Sea occur.

At the heart of the novel is a disappearance of Reg, a young man who seems to have a natural immunity to a number of genetic disorders, known here as C, and a young woman’s, Fran, search for him.  It is not, however, a quest narrative, at least not in the sense of Character A seeking out clues to Character B’s whereabouts, but rather a search for understanding on several levels, whether they be personal or societal in nature.

In the link I provided above to a commentary I wrote several months ago regarding a particular review of On Such a Full Sea, I devoted part of the article to discussing how this novel should not be evaluated along the lines of a genre SF novel, despite the commonalities between it and certain SF novels, especially those of a “dystopic” nature.  Months later, those points largely stand.  Readers accustomed to reading works set in a dilapidated future setting might presume certain things about that setting that would make such a novel “work”; On Such a Full Sea diverges from those expectations.  Below are two snippets from my earlier comments on the book:

What Lee does within his book is question several premises:  how do those living within a stratified system that is gamed against them adapt to their environs?  Why do we seek change when there is the possibility of personal failure at best and fates worse than mere death at worst?  Do we have even the illusion of free will in these settings?  How do we narrate our lives when we are ignorant of so much?  Does religion have to lie at the core of matters?  These are questions that have been addressed by several other writers over the centuries, of course.  Yet what Lee does here is raise them within a multi-faceted story in which place/environment does not matter as much as the humans that are living within these bounds.

***

 This raises a larger question:  does the setting within a presumed dystopia have to be meticulously constructed in order for the story to be effective?  In stories that aren’t strictly dystopic, such as Charlotte Gilman’s Herland or Voltaire’s Candide, the settings/premise frequently take a back seat to human interactions and development.  If one examined their “worlds” too carefully, no doubt there would be inconsistencies and dodgy “world” dynamics that would “ruin” the “realism” of these imagined places.  Let me say that again with greater emphasis:  would “ruin” the “realism” of these imagined places.  Ay, there’s the rub.  Lee is not as interested in the “realism” of his imagined setting as he is in exploring concepts within the framework of Fan’s search for Reg (and the ancillary issues discussed by the anonymous narrator who jumps back and forth in literary time to address certain points from a variety of viewpoints).

This does not mean that On Such a Full Sea is a perfect novel.  On the contrary, the narrative loops in and out of the “literary present” in such a fashion that narrative momentum is often lost in the digressions.  There are times where the characters could have been developed better in order to achieve Lee’s desired effect.  Yet his balance of searching questions with well-articulated prose and halfway-interesting characters makes On Such a Full Sea a satisfying read.  It may not fit others’ criteria for a dystopia, but its questions about our own lives and how our present inequalities may be carried forward into the future does make it a thought provoking read.  Sometimes, that is all some might ask of a tale and Lee here manages to provide that and extra.

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