Edan Lepucki, California (2014)

July 10th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

When Frida was in high school, she’d taken it to help ease her cramps.  She’d loved the little pink clamshell they came in and the way the tiny tablets popped out of their plastic sheaths.  But before her senior year began, Dada started having trouble finding work, and gas prices were rising every week, and the family began its Great Austerity Measures, as Hilda put it.  Goodbye clamshell and a menstrual cycle Frida actually kept track of.  Goodbye almost everything frivolous and easy.

By the time she and Cal had agreed to leave L.A., it seemed like no one had access to meds; only the deranged would buy a handful of drugs from a guy on the street corner.  Was that really Xanax wrapped in tinfoil?  Prescriptions, like doctors, were for the rich.  The lucky ones, the people with money, had long fled L.A. (p. 30 iPad iBooks e-edition)

For the past six decades or so since the development of atomic weapons, the notion that society could suddenly be wiped out by some cataclysmic event has sparked the rise of the “disaster” genre.  Whether or not such fictions were dystopic or post-apocalyptic in origin matters little when considering the basic character and plot elements:  an individual or small group of people confronting precipitous societal collapse.  Disaster is the ultimate in human vs. nature tales, pitting our oft-delusional selves against the implacable might of Mother Earth.  There is something fascinating about those tales, at least when they remember that conflict lies at the heart of these narratives and that deviations from this can fatally weaken the story being told.

Unfortunately, Edan Lepucki’s debut novel, California, fails to sustain any real coherent conflict, whether it be human vs. nature, human vs. society, or human vs. self.  It is an odd sort of disaster story in that while societal collapse has occurred within two or three decades of our 2014, this disaster just does not feel plausible at all.  Take for instance the passage I quote above.  Frida, one-half of a married couple, muses about her teen life a little over a decade ago and her having to suddenly abandon taking birth control pills due to a worsening economy.  While granted rising prices and higher unemployment rates over the past decade have slowed down GDP growth, the curious lack of detail hinders the reader’s ability to suspend disbelief.  Likewise with Frida’s hoarder-like tendency to carry around “artifacts” from the recent past like a shower cap or a glass turkey baster.  Lepucki apparently intends for these material objects to represent a desire for times long past, a way to preserve what has recently been taken from people, but the symbolism falls flat virtually every single time that she trots out, often in a near-identical way to the original introduction, those objects.  The result is just dull, redundant text that should have been abandoned early on, if even inserted in the first place.

Granted, a skilled novelist does not need a plethora of background details to construct an intriguing story of life during or after a societal collapse.  Chang-rae Lee in his recently-released On Such a Full Sea skimps on details behind the societal decline that led to a stratified American society centuries into the future, but he balances this out by having interesting characters interacting well with each other and their environment.  Lepucki does not manage to do this, or at least not in a skillful fashion.  For example, there is this scene about midway into the novel, where Frida and her husband Cal are talking with a traveling trader, August:

“I see.”  Cal imagined telling this to Frida; she would not take it well.  “But August is always traveling the route, isn’t he?”

“August isn’t you,” Peter said.

“What he means,” Micah said, “is that August is the best candidate to trade with the few settlers nearby and to perform a regular security sweep.”

“I don’t know about ‘the best,'” August said, “but when I tell people I’m a loner, they believe me.  Or they assume it right off.  I get special treatment.”  He brought an index finger to his cheek and tapped twice.

“Wait – why?” Cal said.  “Because you’re black?  That’s ridiculous.”

“What the fuck are you talking about?”

“I only meant – “

August winked.  “I’m just messing with you.  Come on, Calvin – that’s your full name, isn’t it?  I know you thought I was some kind of recovered addict.  I put you on edge.”

Peter, who was sitting in the pew across from Cal and August’s, shifted his body so that his legs blocked the aisle.  “We do things for a reason.”

“I’m the last black man on earth – or at least around here.”

“They should make an action movie about you,” Cal replied.

This time, everyone laughed. (Ch. 12, p. 200)

Although the intent of this scene was to make light of any possible racial tension, Lepucki presents this in such a ham-fisted way that there were times that I found myself musing on what was not seen:  non-whites, people who were traditionally “invisible” in the 20th century.  If I were more charitable, I would merely note that this was a missed opportunity to show a more “blended” society developing among these communities of people fleeing the decaying urban cores, but I think that would be too generous.  Instead, what Lepucki does here in this scene and what is reinforced obliquely in others is to make this society Frida and Cal join not a heterogeneous one, but instead a very homogeneous one.  Considering the multicultural world in which we live today, this is troubling to consider.

This homogeneity is seen not just in the names and skin tone of the community’s residents, but also in the social attitudes that Frida and Cal have.  As the two main protagonists, their supposedly different attitudes about gender roles (particularly child rearing) should make for an exciting conflict of wills.  However, Lepucki just gums the narrative gears too much with the inanity of their conversations.  What this reader at least took from their occasional arguments was that somehow, despite there being at least a decade or more of societal decline, that these two were self-absorbed, vacuous adult-children who appear to be incapable of grasping anything beyond the narrow confines of their social milieu.  This is not what Lepucki intends, but in passages like the one quoted below, there is no real sense of an “after” post-scarcity mindset, but instead a consumerist one that orients itself around material wealth and possessions;

“Jesus Christ, Micah.”  Cal didn’t know what was worse:  Micah talking about Frida’s body, or that he was right.  When she and Cal had first started dating, Frida had to buy new underwear on a regular basis.  “Oops,” she’d like to say, coming out of the bathroom.

Later, when the department stores went out of business, and they lost their Internet connection for good, and they had hardly a dollar to spare, especially on clothing, Frida committed herself to being a little more “organized.”  That’s when she realized she had a perfectly predictable cycle.  “I’m textbook,” she’d cried, delighted. (p. 231)

And so it goes, page after page, description of live past and present, until narrative time backs up like a congested septic tank.  Cal and Frida are so lost in their past selves that their present condition feels insubstantial.  Their too-frequent flashback sequences do not develop the plot; they hinder it by bogging it down with a detritus of turkey basters and their ilk.   Not only is it irksome to have any sense of true narrative tension shut down for large stretches, but it is at times almost loathsome to see what is practically an upper-middle class ethos being espoused by those who purportedly have suffered deprivations their adult lives.  The material mindset of these two, coupled with a seemingly near-total ignorance of life outside their narrow social circles makes their thoughts and feelings a chore to read.

This difficulty in having an empathy for the characters is exacerbated by the inelegant prose.  Leaving aside sentences like “she cried, delighted” that are merely overused intensifiers, there are innumerable cases where the descriptors are labored over so much that the paragraphs struggle to bear the weight of these ponderous sentences, such as this one about Frida’s brother:

But most of the people her age weren’t like Micah, who was smart.  Brilliant.  A kid who needed to get out of L.A. so he could return to save it. (p. 80)

There is an attempt to develop this important character, yes, but it feels so stilted.  I usually despise the truism of “show, not tell,” but in this particular case, too much effort was wasted in telling the reader about this character and not letting him develop through intriguing action.  This is the case throughout the novel when it comes to other characters and situations.  It makes for a hot mess, one that ruins any atmosphere that might otherwise have developed.

There is little in California to recommend itself to readers.  Ill-conceived character interactions, uneven narrative flow, pedestrian at best prose, and questionable comments on race and gender do not make for a good read.  This is perhaps the worst novel I have read in 2014.  Recommendation to avoid.

Rivka Galchen, American Innovations (2014)

July 8th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

That mirror claimed there was a substantial lump on the right side of my lower back.  An anatomically anomalous and yet familiar-seeming lump.

I would have just looked away but it was like seeing a burn victim or a really beautiful person:  I couldn’t unstare.  My hand moved to the mass.  The mass liked being touched.  I lifted my shirt.  I would say what I saw was a wow.  Even thought it was modest, maybe a B cup in size.  It didn’t need support.  It manifested all the expected anatomy, the detailing of which I feel is private.  What I saw was really textbook.  Save for its location, there on my back.  As if to hide from me.  Or as if to discreetly maintain an unacknowledged child.  Though the discreetness would work only in a world in which we meet one another exclusively head-on, or possibly in three-quarters profile.  Because in profile the anatomy really could not be denied. (“American Innovations,” p. 60 iPad iBooks e-edition)

Reading Rivka Galchen’s first story collection, American Innovations, is akin to roaming the streets of your hometown or favorite city in a dream.  Everything seems to be in its place, yet there is something odd about it nonetheless.  Familiarity in such cases breeds not contempt but instead startled surprise.  This is especially true with the most “natural” of things.  The result of such dreams is a heightened sense of reality amongst the most irreal things, but with the implicit understanding that the “naturalness” of these elements is what makes the dream elements most unsettling, not whatever deviations from the mundane there might be.

Galchen’s stories surprise in large part because so many of them are so familiar to readers versed in classic short fiction.  Take for instance the titular (no pun intended!) “American Innovations.”  It possesses much in common with Nicolai Gogol’s “The Nose,” with the nose being replaced with an extra breast.  So it would be natural for the reader to expect the narrator’s musings to be shaped in part by how Gogol’s narrator tells his story.  However, Galchen doesn’t fall into the easy trap of emulating or “updating” that story.  What she does is confound reader expectations, exploring different facets of the situation than what her model stories do.  Like that dream described above, it is the “naturalness” of the original becoming strange to the reader through Galchen’s subtle alterations of tone, tenor, and narrative progression.

The narrators of these ten stories are women of various ages, usually in their 20s-40s.  They are Americans, secular or religious or perhaps in that vague in-between.  They muse, they argue, they make their way through a world that seems to be against them.  As the narrator in “American Innovations” puts it:

However, the majority of the censoriousness, ridicule, and loving support was directed not at the altered beauty from a fictional dystopic 2084 in a red dress and thigh-high black leather boots but, rather, at me.  I was an ugly who needed to get over myself, or someone bravely making my own choices, or a fourth-wave feminist, or a symptom of fakesterdom, or a rebel against the tyranny of the “natural,” or a person who really, really needed help… (p. 70)

This sense of questing for understanding, or perhaps it is close to an acceptance that one does not have to have all facets of her life defined for her, might leave some readers nonplussed.  Galchen seems to argue without stating it directly that her characters, and perhaps women in general, do not exist just to be defined by others.  As one of her narrators observes in the Roberto Bolaño-referencing “Dean of the Arts”:  “Whose life was this?  Not mine.” (p. 117)

These refusals to follow reader expectations does not mean that the stories are poor or incomprehensible.  No, the opposite usually is the case.  Rather, these tales surprise the reader, leaving her to cast aside certain paradigms in order to grasp more fully what Galchen’s characters are actually stating.  The result is a challenging yet easy-to-grasp collection of stories that possess their own charms independent of the source material they reference.

Celeste Ng, Everything I Never Told You (2014)

July 8th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Lydia is dead.  But they don’t know this yet.  1977, May 3, six thirty in the morning, no one knows anything but this innocuous fact:  Lydia is late for breakfast.  As always, next to her cereal bowl, her mother has placed a sharpened pencil and Lydia’s physics homework, six problems flagged with small ticks.  Driving to work, Lydia’s father nudges the dial toward WXKP, Northwest Ohio’s Best News Source, vexed by the crackles of static.  On the stairs, Lydia’s brother yawns, still twined in the tail end of his dream.  And in her chair in the corner of the kitchen, Lydia’s sister hunches moon-eyed over her cornflakes, sucking them to pieces one by one, waiting for Lydia to appear.  It’s she who says, at last, “Lydia’s taking a long time today.” (p. 6, iPad iBooks e-edition)

Stories about a character’s death rarely ever center around that character.  Sure, the events leading to his/her death might intrigue the reader and draw discussion from other characters, but almost invariably the focus shifts from the character him/herself toward the absence engendered by that character’s death and how that affects those who were around that dead character.  The dead are rarely interesting outside of what caused them to be dead; it is the living and their flaws and wounds that attract us, make us want to know the story behind the death.

In her debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, Celeste Ng does not deviate far from this.  From the very first paragraph, she establishes the primacy of the family and their reactions to Lydia’s absence.  Their reactions, with the subtle clues planted therein (the physics homework, marked up; the silence of the younger daughter; the absence of the father), are what make Everything I Never Told You a gripping read, not the details of Lydia’s death, although those too are integrated into the larger narrative Ng tells.

The narrative switches back and forth from the surviving family members’ pasts to the immediate aftermath of Lydia’s death and funeral.  Lydia’s parents, James and Marilyn Lee, are seen two decades prior at Harvard, he a graduate student history instructor, she a junior physics major, and how they come to be lovers.  Although this might seem to be straying into clichéd territory, Ng imbues this narrative staple with some interesting elements:  a detailed and explicit rendering of the racism that James (an American-born son of “illegal” Chinese immigrants) experiences, as well as the casual sexism that threatens to overcome Marilyn as she aims to be a doctor when there were virtually no female doctors in the 1950s.  These experiences have etched the two, yet despite their near-instant falling into lust-love, each has internalized some of the prejudice directed toward them that neither one can quite confess to the other those things that actually bother them.  This mutual deception later manifests in the ways each parent treats their children.

Lydia’s siblings, Nath and Hannah, have their own burdens to bear.  Nath is too much like his father for his liking, and he tries to toughen him, to get him to be different than the social outcast he was as the only non-white to attend a Midwestern boarding school.  Hannah, even though she is a child, has learned through her parents’ mutual ignoring of her to pay extra close attention to everything that transpires around her, and she is the first to grasp not just what has really happened to Lydia, but also how the rest of the family is suffering as well.  In the flashback scenes, we see Lydia’s own burdens, not those of being ignored or viewed with disappointment by her parents.  In a sense, she represents in proxy her parents’ frustrated hopes:  James wants her to be the popular kid that he never was, Marilyn sees her as being the physicist/doctor that she had to abandon when she became pregnant and married James.

Ng moves back and forth between important events in the family’s life, showing that their insecurities and pent-up anger had been built up long before Lydia’s death and that due to the unwillingness of any family member to give voice to their fears and doubts, petty divisions have arisen.  Ng does an excellent job in not just establishing character motive, but in developing her characters.  The combination of racism and sexism that vexed their parents’ dreams in the 1950s appears in an even darker, more insidious form for the biracial children of Marilyn and James’ union.  Ng carefully layers these prejudices within possibly-innocuous actions by those around the children, but this subtle approach does not lessen the impact of these casual prejudices, but instead accentuates them, because in every finger-pushed up-turning of the eyes or lack of conversation with schoolmates, there can be seen yet another division being created solely because one looked slightly different from others around.

The weakest part of Everything I Never Told You ends up being the police procedural scenes, as the mystery of how Lydia has died pales in comparison to the probable reason why she has died.  Through allusions to parental pressure to be this and that when she just cannot match their expectations, it quickly becomes obvious what led to Lydia’s death.  However, Ng’s meticulous narration of her family’s past makes these antecedents engrossing scenes.  By novel’s end, each family member’s travails have served not just to create a crucial moment of catharsis for them, but also for the reader.  Through the course of Everything I Never Told You, the reader is put through an emotional wringer.  Thankfully, the concluding scenes reward the reader for persevering.  Everything I Never Told You may not be the easiest of narratives, but its penetrating look into the family dynamics of a 1970s biracial family makes for an absorbing read.

Evie Wyld, All the Birds, Singing (2013 UK; 2014 US)

July 7th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Another sheep, mangled and bled out, her innards not yet crusting and the vapours rising from her like a steamed pudding.  Crows, their beaks shining, strutting and rasping, and when I waved my stick they flew to the trees and watched, flaring out their wings, singing, if you could all it that.  I shoved my boot in Dog’s face to stop him from taking a string of her away with him as a souvenir, and he kept close by my side as I wheeled the carcass out of the field and down into the woolshed. (p. 9 iPad iBooks e-edition)

The graphic description of a disembowled sheep in the opening scene of Evie Wyld’s second novel, All the Birds, Singing, immediately warns readers that this will not be a safe, comfortable read.  Yet it is not a dark, brutal tale as well, or at least those elements do not predominant the narrative.  It is something in-between, certainly a mystery about the life of a young Australian woman who has come to raise sheep alone on a remote English island, but what sort of mystery it is takes the course of the novel to explore.

Jake Whyte, the woman at the heart of this mystery, narrates her tale in alternating present-past chapters that bifurcate as the odd chapters move forward in narrative time and the even go further back into Jake’s past.  Wyld carefully doles out information in these chapters, often by first making a passing reference to something in the “present,” say an odd group of scars or Jake’s reticence, before revealing the origins of those in a “past” chapter, yet with another mystery that is then alluded to in the “present.”  If done in a careless, ham-fisted manner, this drawing out of crucial information can be irritating to readers, but for almost the entire time, Wyld manages to walk that tightrope between revelation and concealment without slipping into a trite narrative or a too-opaque one.

One way that Wyld manages to keep both sections vibrant is by making them distinct and yet possess reverberations of each other.  The “present” Jake is taciturn in her scant dealings with her neighbors; she wants to find who (or what) the culprit is behind two of her sheep dying and while she makes the acquaintance with a local drifter, not much is shared.  She distrusts all around her and as she recounts the “present” investigation, her thoughts and speech slip into the past, as if it were something already passing through her mind to join the chorus of prior events.  The “past” chapters, however, are constructed differently, with a younger Jake utilizing a present-tense, more metaphor-rich narrative style to describe what transpires in her life.  Below, presented without identifying contextual descriptions, is a conversation that another has with Jake.  It is a conversation that is crucial for the events that lead to her eventual arrival on the island and it hints at some of what Jake has already experienced and how that has affected her:

“Just makes it dangerous for the rest of us – giving these arseholes the idea in the first place, I mean fuck.  No respect, no thought about the future.  They don’t try to educate themselves, they don’t care where they’re livin’.”  She sucks hard on her Holiday.  “Fuck, they don’t even care if they wake up in the morning.  Well, that’s where it gets you” – she slaps her thigh, hard – “throttled and fucked and stuffed in the back of a car.”  She drains her tea and starts to unscrew the bottle again, but midway through her face loses its hardness and crumples, her mouth bowing out at the sides like a child.  “Christ,” she says, though no tears come; she catches her breath and holds her palm to her chest.  “She’s just a kid.”  A high-pitched sound escapes from somewhere deep in her throat and I take the bottle out of her hand, put my hand in its place and sit there until she can breathe again.  She pulls it together with a long sniff and looks in silence at the space over my shoulder.  “We’re not like that,” she says.  “We’ve got options – we’re smart.  Right?  RIGHT?”  She shouts a little and I nod.  She swallows.  “We’re not dependent on this.  It’s a life choice.”  I nod after every statement.  She looks at me.  “You get the chance and you go,” she says.  “Opportunity is waiting around every corner.”  So is death, I think, but I don’t say it out loud.  (Ch. 18, pp. 213-214)

What strikes me about this quote is how vibrant it feels.  Two women, with something dreadful happening near them, convinced, even if half-heartedly, that such a thing will not happen to them, that they possess some control over their situations.  This is important to keep in mind, as this attitude differs somewhat from the distrusting, aloof persona that Jake shows on the island.  But not completely, however.  Even in early scenes such as her visit to the local police station to report the damage and the officer’s responding condescending remark about how her nerves are having her see wild animals instead of the likely youth culprits, Jake’s strength of character shines through, albeit in a more muted fashion in the “present” chapters.  “How has she changed in attitude?” is what I first asked.  Then as I read on and learned more of her backstory, that question shifted to “How did she manage to maintain this strength of character in the face of such ordeals?”  It is a testament to Wyld’s talent as a character-developer that this shift in character feels organic even when the reader is confronted with alternating times and places in which Jake acts in different ways to certain events.

The concluding chapters, those that see Jake confront whatever/whoever it is that is killing her sheep and the sources of her prior sufferings, tie together expertly these mysteries.  We see the resiliency of Jake’s character not because we are told a backstory that leads into the present events, but rather in the actions of both past/present chapters, we experience through her eyes those events and the fact that Wyld doles these out in piecemeal fashion makes the reader more eager to catch another glimpse of this character and her eventual life.  This leads to an anticipatory, more active reading experience for the reader, with a payoff that is rewarding.  All the Birds, Singing is an outstanding novel, one that makes me want to read more of Wyld’s writing.  Very highly recommended.

Adam Wilson, What’s Important is Feeling (2014)

July 6th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

In college I read Karl Marx and snorted cocaine.  The Marx I didn’t much understand.  The cocaine contextualized.

I lived with four other guys.  We weren’t a classless household.  Some were subsidized:  parentally, governmentally.  Others worked campus jobs.  This one roommate – Spine, we called him, because he didn’t have one – was from that town in Connecticut where the mansions come pre-equipped with bowling alleys.

Spine was our procurer, doled to the rest as he saw fit.  He took payment in the form of term papers.  I was caught in an ouroboros of needing drugs to complete Spine’s papers, and writing papers to pay for drugs.  Spine was getting Cs across the board but didn’t care.  He had a gig lined up after grad, at a cushy desk selling commercial real estate for some blueblood uncle. (“Some Nights We Tase Each Other,” p. 59 iPad iBooks e-edition)

Adam Wilson’s debut novel, 2012’s Flatscreen, possessed a mixture of humor and wry commentary that made me curious enough to see how his first collection, What’s Important is Feeling, would work these elements into a more compressed narrative space.  What I discovered was a collection of stories that utilized a familiar set of conditions to create stories that more often succeeded than not in their execution.  Although I am a decade or so older than most of the protagonists, their experiences did remind me of my time at college and immediately afterward, and connections like this certainly played a role in my overall enjoyment of the stories.

The majority of the stories feel with frustrated, confused adolescent and young adult lust and emotion.  The first story, “Soft Thunder,” encapsulates this in its opening paragraph:

No one knows who slept with her first.  Besides, sleep isn’t the right word.  What we did:  pressed lips to closed lips, tried to slip in some tongue; buried her beneath us on carpeted floors and futon mattresses; fumbled for buckles; felt her dry skin against our sweat-wet hands; said, “Don’t cry”; wiped tears with our T-shirts; kept on because she said, “Don’t stop.” (p. 6)

“Soft Thunder”‘s tale of directionless late-teens trying to live the rock’n’roll lifestyle, whatever that might actually mean, is in turns humorous and morose.  Wilson does a good job in fleshing out his characters.  Told from the perspective of a 17 year-old, Benjamin, the story explores the mixture of privilege and rudderless action of a group of young Jews who form a band, Soft Thunder, and whose web of connections to a troubled immigrant girl, Kendra, form the core of this story.  At first, Kendra exists more as a foil for the boys, acting simultaneously as a muse and as a source of hidden tension between the bandmates.  Yet by the story’s end, what seemed to be just another story of teens confused by lust and driven apart by a young woman has morphed into something different.  It isn’t a seamless transition, but it works for the most part.

The second story, “The Long In-Between,” is the only one written from a women’s perspective.  It is a mirror of sorts for the passions explored in “Soft Thunder,” but in this case, there is no troubled youth, but instead a twenty-something young woman and a two decades-older former professor of hers and their unequal, occasionally exploitative relationship.  In this tale, even more than the others, Wilson examines some of the internal contradictions that secular American Jews have with their ethnicity, especially in regards to the Israeli-Palestinian situation.  It has an interesting twist ending, but otherwise is one of the weaker tales in the collection.

One of the strongest tales is “We Close Our Eyes,” where a high school boy has to confront the return of his mother’s cancer, his father’s nocturnal absences, and his younger sister’s sex tape being leaked to the student body.  This description might sound rather hum-drum, as such familial conflicts (OK, maybe not the sex tape part, but that is minor compared to the first two) are often the fodder of contemporary fiction stories, but Wilson does a good job of developing the protagonist’s character and his confusion is illustrated well.  There are a few twists, however, that also help in making this more than just another sad “coming of age” tale.

The story I quoted at the beginning, “Some Nights We Tase Each Other,” is perhaps the most emblematic of What’s Important is Feeling‘s stories.  It is a tale of strung-out college kids, desiring something that they do not understand themselves, finding fleeting parallels with the material they study, before just drifting, drifting away from whatever it was that they thought they wanted.  The humor here accentuates the vague heartache that many of us perhaps recall from our college years.  Yet like the other tales, there is a sense of dissipation by tale’s end, like a dream fading before we can grasp its import.  What is left is a sense of dissatisfaction, but of a sort that is hard to put into words.

The eponymous story differs from the others in that it is not set on the East Coast and while the first-person PoV does display some of that confused lust of others, the focus is more on a crazed set of actors and film personnel who have assembled in Texas to film a movie despite a clash of personalities and desires.  Wilson here penetrates more deeply into his characters’ neuroses and conflicts, presenting with little comment a memorable menagerie of “lost” souls who do not realize the plights in which they are caught.  It is my favorite story and one that I suspect might point to a new direction for Wilson to follow.

Despite liking most of the stories, like the characters at the end of their tales, I felt an odd sense of deflation after completing What’s Important is Feeling.  Although Wilson is a sound narrative plotter that mixes humor and disaffection adroitly into his stories, there was perhaps too much uniformity in these tales.  It is not simply a matter of similar characters or situations, as many writers have mined deeply their environs, but rather more that with the exception of “What’s Important is Feeling,” that there just really isn’t even a substantial variation in theme.  Read separately, most of these tales might engender a chuckle or a sigh, depending on what past self the reader recalls.  However, when read as a collection, the overall effect is numbing, draining many of these tales of their ability to make us “feel” because we had already experienced this before in a slightly-different form a story or two prior.  What’s Important is Feeling is perhaps best viewed as a snapshot, of where the author is before he “matures” and takes his promising mixture of narrative elements and makes something memorable out of them.

Smith Henderson, Fourth of July Creek (2014)

July 3rd, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Sexual deviancy came as little surprise anymore.  Nymphomania, satyriasis, pedophilia, coprophilia, telephone scatologia – there wasn’t a particular paraphiliac that hadn’t crossed Pete’s path at one time or another.  He’d worked with a six-year-old girl who’d been so sexualized that she would grab at passing groins, grope and cop feels like a brazen pervert, and could never be left alone with other children.

At first, he was shocked to discover whole rings of kids who practically orgied in group homes and psych wards, doubly shocked to find out how uncommon it wasn’t.  There were kids he worked with who’d routinely been molested by parents, teachers, and staff at various institutions, as if some dark chaperone escorted them from consort to consort.  He’d worked with panty thieves, serial peepers, and Lolitas who found and fucked Humbert upon Humbert on the way to school.  Not a few of them touching him on the leg, trying to tongue his ear. (Ch. 7, p. 81, iPad iBooks e-edition)

Social work and its satellite professions so easily can wreak havoc on a human soul.  The ideal of helping a “troubled youth” find his or her path in life, of “rescuing” them from abusive relationships or from substance abuse is such a noble idea that its siren’s call lures so many idealistic people to perdition.  Few are prepared for the long hours for little pay, the tongue-lashings and beatings that angry adults (and some children) unleash on those sent to “help” them.  The events they witness can crush a spirit like a gnat:  starved children chained to beds;  girls (and occasionally boys) forced to be their father’s (and sometimes mother’s) sex slave; cut and burn marks on their bodies; children grabbing at their genitals, promising sex in return for a morsel or a bauble.  The institutions are often even worse, with boys and girls alike being abused, sometimes sexually, at the whims of those who have suffered such maltreatment themselves.  Betrayal lurks behind every confidence, every expression of the desire to escape.  Escape, to what?  The smoke of a bong, the drawn-out coke lines, the cooked teaspoon of smack?  How can those who seek to better the lives of others endure witnessing such depravities while coming to realize that they are largely helpless in the face of such monstrosities?

In Smith Henderson’s debut novel, Fourth of July Creek, a 1980s Montana state social worker, Pete, has to confront these sordid realities.  Traveling across a state filled with those who seek their distance from any hint of the government, Pete is daily confronted with scenes such as the one that occurs at the beginning of the book, where a teen boy has to be separated from his mother before one of them kills the other in front of others.  There are no “redeemers” or “redeemed” in this world, just a society full of flawed people, blindly groping their way through their drug- or alcohol-induced haze to find something, anything, that will numb the pain of their everyday life.

No, actually there is a bit more to this taking place in Fourth of July Creek.  Henderson also shows how even Pete himself, a divorced father whose fourteen-year-old daughter has run away, suffers from the general malaise that has gripped the lives of those with whom he has come in contact.  As he tries, often failing, to “save” the lives of those around him, is it in part due to wanting to redress the harm he feels he has caused his daughter?  What about those whose idea of “saving” comes not from human agency but from a firm belief in the apocalypse?

These questions set up the main conflicts in Fourth of July Creek.  Pete’s case load brings him in contact with a religious visionary-hermit, Jeremiah Pearl, and his son, Ben.  As he works to protect the son, he comes to know, all-too-closely, the father.  Henderson sets up these scenes very carefully, slowly developing their characters while furthering that of Pete.  And in the midst of these chapters are interludes from another lost soul, the one who perhaps burns Pete the most to reflect.  Her tale, told in short Q&A-style interview segments, serves as a thematic complement to the larger ones unfolding within the Pete/Pearls narrative arc.

Henderson’s mixture of direct, plain-spoken Montanan talk with deep, penetrating analyses of his characters’ motivations creates a riveting text that is lyrical without being poetic, brutal without descending into graphic suffering.  Pete’s motivations for continuing to work in a profession that has left him divorced and drinking to forget the pain of his daughter running away are illustrated superbly.  Likewise, the Pearls are not treated as whackos or delusional crackpots, but instead as caring, humane people in their own right and way.  Henderson’s ability to create dynamic, realistic characters makes the unfolding action all the richer for the motivations being not just comprehensible but also sympathetic for the reader.  This mixture of rough, tough, yet occasionally sensitive souls reminds me most of the characters in Donald Ray Pollock’s fictions, but there are also strands of Cormac McCarthy’s juxtapositions of human and nature, of fate and free will, within these characters.  This is not to say that Henderson is derivative in any shape or fashion of these two writers, but instead that each of them brushes against certain societal touchstones that make their sometimes violent tales not just palatable, but something to which we all can relate.  Fourth of July Creek is truly a powerful debut, one that hopefully signals the rise of another strong voice in American literature.  Very highly recommended.

2014 National Book Award Fiction finalist: Rabih Alameddine, An Unnecessary Woman (2014)

July 2nd, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

For most of my adult life, since I was twenty-two, I’ve begun a translation every January first.  I do realize that this is a holiday and most choose to celebrate, most do not choose to work on New Year’s Day.  Once, as I was leafing through the folio of Beethoven’s sonatas, I noticed that only the penultimate, the superb op. 110 in A-flat Major, was dated on the top right corner, as if the composer wanted us to know that he was busy working that Christmas Day in 1821.  I too choose to keep busy during holidays.

Over these last fifty years I’ve translated fewer than forty books – thirty-seven, if I count correctly.  Some books took longer than a year, others refused to be translated, and one or two bored me into submission – not the books themselves, but my translations of them.  Books in and of themselves are rarely boring, except for memoirs of American presidents (No, No, Nixon) – well, memoirs of Americans in general.  It’s the “I live in the richest country in the world yet pity me because I grew up with flat feet and a malodorous vagina but I triumph in the end” syndrome.  Tfeh! (pp. 11-12, iPad iBooks e-edition)

It should go without saying that there are many reasons for a reader to read particular books.  A “good” book can have an exciting, memorable plot where each sentence ratchets up the tension until an explosive climax acts as a cathartic release.  Or a wordsmith can craft a tale that is so exquisite in how each word “sounds” that one can get lost in a flood of sounds and images.  Perhaps a character-driven book, even if its prose is only middling-to-good and its plot solid but unspectacular, can grab a reader’s attention and not let go.  Then there are those rare books where it is not so much the character or word usage or plot that makes the entire thing click.  There is something about the subject or theme that transcends any perceived action taking place, something that speaks so directly to a reader’s interests that she finds herself utterly entranced by what the book treats.

Lebanese-American writer Rabih Alameddine’s latest book, An Unnecessary Woman, is precisely one of those latter tales.  There is no real apparent plot:  a seventy-two year-old Lebanese woman, Aaliya, has for the past fifty years completed thirty-seven translations of books from European languages into Arabic and then has stored them away, not tempted to submit them for publication.  It is a breezy, conversational sort of narrative, in which Aaliya mixes in observations from her life growing up in mid-20th century Lebanon with the books she has read and translated over the years.  For those who expect a straightforward narrative in which Aaliya’s life dovetails nicely into her translation work, An Unnecessary Woman seemingly confounds those expectations, as Alameddine uses this reflective, almost musing style to make strong observations about life in mid-20th century Lebanon.  One excellent example is Aaliya’s reflection on her divorce and her response to her mother’s suggestion that she could remarry to a gentle widower or someone who has been repeatedly rejected:

Fortunate?  For my mother, being a pathetic suitee was a cut above being a neglected second wife.  She couldn’t conceive of a world in which my husband didn’t hold all the cards.  In her world, husbands were omnipotent, never impotent.  Mine thought of me as the cause of his humiliation and probably continued to blame his other wives.  He couldn’t risk having his women talk to one another. (p. 20)

Aaliya then goes on to quote Kant’s The Science of Right before making a snide reference to the fact that like a host of philosophers before and after him, his philosophical views on marriage are belied by the fact that he never formed an intimate relationship or raised a family.  This happens frequently in the course of the story, as the books Aaliya reads or translates are tied to events in her life, but not always in direct, narrative-forwarding fashions.  One example of this is a story of an artistic cartographer who created a painting of Beirut as if it comprised the whole world, with longitudinal distortions in the north and south adding to the effect.  As Aaliya recounts this event, she remarks that the streets of a camp, Sabra, were not as well-labeled as the other parts of the city:

“I tried,” he said, “but everything worked against me.  The streets were impermanent, transmogrifying at night into something else as if to trick me.”  The books behind the glass window were witnesses to what he said next:  “The streets and alleys of Sabra multiply at night like rats – like rats, I tell you.”

He had painted the Sabra camp a very light blue, like the Siberian tundra in some maps.  The cartographer must have been loath to include the camp in his map.  I considered giving him Bruno Schulz’s book, which negotiates a similar situation.  Schulz wrote:  “On that map…the area of the Street of Crocodiles shone with the empty whiteness that usually marks polar regions or unexplored countries of which almost nothing is known.”

Ah, Cinnamon Shops is still one of my favorite books.  That map of Beirut still hangs on my bedroom wall.

Sabra?  I haven’t been back there. (p. 36)

Those who are familiar with the stories that Aaliya cites are going to see more and more parallels between the fictional and real than perhaps those who have to depend solely upon contextual clues.  While in some cases, this can be disorienting if not downright frustrating for readers, Alameddine is a skilled enough storyteller that even when the reader is not fully cognizant of the allusions being made within these literary citations, she can sense something deeper than mere appreciation is taking place.  It is tempting to claim that An Unnecessary Woman is about the application of literature toward a biography of one’s life, but that would fall short of what Alameddine accomplishes here.  Rather, An Unnecessary Woman incorporates these literary renderings into not a retelling of Aaliya’s life, but rather as a supplement to it, a supplement that expands her life story (and that of the Lebanese) into something that is at once literal and metaphorical.

This is very tricky to accomplish and there are occasions where Aaliya the narrator and Aaliya the reader of books gets submerged within the narrative the other is telling through reflection and action.  But on the whole, Alameddine switches almost effortlessly between these two facets of Aaliya’s character and her stories of her life as a woman growing up in a rapidly-modernizing Lebanon before the 1970s-1980s civil war are reinforced by her sharp analysis of the books she has translated.  As her story continues, the title takes on some interesting nuances:  just how is Aaliya an “unnecessary” woman?

The answer to that, if a singular answer can be made, is almost equal parts based on what her life has become and as an ironic observation into what others have wished her to be.  There is no easy choice here:  the reader must ascertain for herself just how this pejorative can be applied or even if it is at its heart true.  However one might ultimately view her, Aaliya’s narration of life with her readings and translations is a captivating tale not because of memorable action or exciting characters, but because the application of what she has read to her life makes it appealing to those readers who seek more from a story than plot or characterization.  For those fortunate few, An Unnecessary Woman will still in your craw for quite a long time.

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