The OF Blog: July 2014

Thursday, July 31, 2014

A continued exercise in translation: more from Roberto Arlt's "The Little Hunchback"

Below is the part that I translated last year, followed by the first draft of the next half-page.  I will be editing this for smoothness this weekend, followed by more pages:

The diverse and exaggerated rumors spread as the result of the behavior that I observed in the company of Rigoletto, the hunchback, in Mrs. X's house, in time turned many people against me.

However, my peculiarities did not incur greater misfortunes until I perfected them by strangling Rigoletto.

Wringing the hunchback's neck has been for me a most ruinous and reckless act for my interests, one that threatens the existence of a benefactor of humanity.

The police, judges and newspapers have fallen on me.  And at this hour I still ask myself (considering the rigors of justice) if Rigoletto was not called to be a captain of men, a genius, or a philanthropist. Nothing else explains the cruelties of the law in taking revenge on the arrogance of a good-for-nothing, which, in order to pay for his insolence, it is insufficient for a brigade of well-born people to administer all the kicks they can to the rear.

I am not unaware that worse events occur on the planet, but this is no reason for me to stop watching anxiously the leprous walls of the dungeon where I am housed awaiting a worse fate.
But it was written that from a deformed man many difficulties would arise for me.

 I remember (and this bit of information for fans of theosophy and metaphysics) that from my tender infancy hunchbacks grabbed my attention. I hated them yet was attracted to them, as I detest and yet it calls to me the open depth under the balcony of a ninth floor, to which railing I have approached more than once with trembling heart of caution and delicious dread. And so, like in front of a vacuum I can not escape the terror of imagining myself falling in the air with my stomach contracted in asphyxia from crumbling, in the presence of a deformed man I can not escape the nauseous thought of imagining myself hunchbacked, grotesque, frightening, abandoned by all, housed in a kennel, pestered by the leashes of ferocious boys that stick needles in the hump...

It's terrible ... not to mention that all hunchbacks are evil beings, possessed, wicked ... so that by choking Rigoletto I think I have the right to say that I did a huge favor to society, for I have liberated  all sensitive hearts like mine from an awful and disgusting spectacle. Without adding that the hunchback was a cruel man. So cruel that I was obliged to tell him every day:

 "Look, Rigoletto, do not be perverse. I prefer anything to seeing you with a whip hitting an innocent pig. What has the sow done? Nothing. Is not it true that it has not done anything? ..."
"Why do you care?"
"She has not done anything, and you stubborn, obstinate, cruel man, you vent your fury on the poor beast..."

"Since she has annoyed me for a long while I am going to sprinkle gas on the sow and then set her on fire."
After saying these words, the hunchback discharged lashes on the beast's long-maned back, grinding his teeth like a theatrical demon. And I said:

"'I'm going to wring your neck, Rigoletto. Listen to my paternal warnings, Rigoletto. It suits you..."
Preaching in the desert would have been more effective.  He took delight in contravening my orders and showing at all times his sardonic and fiery temper.  It was useless to threaten to tan his hide or knock the hump through his chest.  He continued observing an impure behavior.

Returning to my current situation, I will say that if there is something with which I reproach myself, it is having made the ingenious error of confessing such minutiae to reporters.

I believed that they would interpret them, but here I have now doomed myself to a damaged reputation, because to that mob at least they have written that I am a madman, claiming with all seriousness that under the union of my acts they discovered the characteristics of a perverse cynicism.

Certainly, my attitude in Mrs. X's house, accompanied by the hunchback, had not been that of a member of the Almanach de Gotha.  No.  At least I wouldn't be able to affirm it under my word of honor.

Yes, very rough, as I often transcribed it into very literal English first before "breaking" it to make for a better read.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Simon Ings, Wolves

Falling in love with a person is hard.  Falling in love with a world is easy.  Confusing the two loves is easier still.  I spend the day wandering round the house in mourning for it all.  Mandy's kitchen.  Mandy's underwear.  Mandy's pillows and shoes.  I love her scarves and her seven different kinds of toothpaste (a flavour for each day of the week).  I love those little blue bottles of essential oils gathering dust on her bathroom shelf.  I was always a sucker for Mandy's world.  Her visits to out-of-the-way antique shops.  Her cutlery drawer, every knife and fork a 'piece.'  Wine glasses from an arcade near the Palace of Sports.  Cushions from a woman who lives on one of the old lime tree avenues in the Turkish quarter.  In Mandy's world, everything has an aesthetic value.  The humblest objects acquire a small but telling erotic change. (p. 20)

Perhaps it is an accident of reading or just something that is part of the espirit du temps, but in the past decade there seems to have been an increase in stories of individual and societal collapse.  Whether it is television specials about how the world would change without humans, conferences on climate and global warming that speculate on how these changes would negatively impact human life, or speculative fictions on post-disaster life, ruination is a hot topic.  Louis XV might have said, "Après moi le déluge," but for quite a few of us living today, it feels like that deluge is about to overwhelm us at any moment.  This certainly can be seen in our contemporary literature, where natural crises serve as a way of exploring our own fragile place in a seemingly more hostile world.

In his latest novel, Wolves, British writer Simon Ings explores the effects of this increasingly pessimistic world-view.  Set in the very near future, it is a novel that attempts to do several things at once:  develop a contemporary coming-of-age tale that mixes in futuristic elements like "augmented reality" with crime tropes, while also making a pointed commentary on this recent infatuation with worlds, real and imagined.  The execution, however, is spotty, with some elements feeling underdeveloped.  Yet despite this, Wolves largely succeeds in making the reader consider the import of the issues raised within it.

The core story revolves around two boys, Conrad and Michel, and their complex relationship with each other over a span of decades.  Told through Conrad's point of view, their lives, beginning with their adolescence and continuing a couple of decades later, is at times banal.  There are frustrated loves, the inability to integrate themselves within society as a whole, and their own complicated set of feelings for and about each other.  This banality contrasts well with Michel's dreams of apocalypse, of society's impending collapse.  The worlds he imagines affects Conrad in subtle ways.  One example is seen in the passage quoted above, where the adult him describes his failing relationship with a woman who had lost her hands in a car crash they were in.  Conrad thinks in worlds and objects, but rarely in his dealings with women is there a sense of any true understanding of humanity.  For him, humanity has been replaced by its material objects – worlds, if you will.

This lack of empathic understanding can also be seen in the mystery of his mother's death and his ill-conceived notion of hiding her body after he discovers it in the "boot" (trunk?) of the family car.  There is some mystery behind her death, but it is not adequately fleshed out.  Instead, the focus goes more and more in the latter half of the novel on the augmented reality that a rich, blind capitalist has developed based on some of the epic fantasies that Michel has written in the two decade interim.  There are some witty remarks about the shortcomings of this replacement of reality with this "augmented" version, but ultimately this plays second fiddle to the Conrad/Michel relationship.

Frequently I found myself wishing that Ings had fleshed things out a bit more or at least had pared down certain elements.  The murder mystery subplot fizzled for the most part, with only a few sparks toward the end.  The same applies to Conrad's ill-fated relationships with women; it served to illustrate how ill-socialized he was, but other than that, it occasionally detracted from his primary relationship.  Ings' meta-commentaries on invented world creation and societal desires to "escape" from gloomier times were mostly spot-on, yet at times they too were not developed as well as they could have been.

With so many desires for something to be amplified or pared down, it would be easy to conclude that Wolves was a failed fiction.  Yet for all its flaws, there is something about the presentation of these elements, perhaps the ambition behind this attempt to portray lives affected by dreams of living something, anything else than their own lives, that makes Wolves such a compelling read.  Some novels are memorable not for how well they succeeded, but for their ambitious shortcomings.  Wolves is one of those novels.  It may not be technically great in all regards, but its ambitions, regardless of how realized they may have been, make this a worthwhile reading experience.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Adam Sternbergh, Shovel Ready

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

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

And that's it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Like I told you, I took First Communion.

If you believe in that sort of thing.

Edible flesh.

The holiest ritual.

But don't worry.

I didn't eat the lawyer.

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 28, 2014

Finally resumed working on a long-delayed translation project

Just a brief note:  I am planning on devoting some time in the coming weeks to completing a translation project of a story collection that I believe is now in public domain.  When I finish the first story and have revised it, I'll check and see about posting here.  My ultimate goal is to sometime in the next couple of years get this published, so I might need to keep this under wraps some, just in case I don't go the self-publishing route.

But it is nice at least to have a pleasant diversion again to distract me from some stressful situations in my professional life.  That is all, more or less.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Andrés Neuman, Talking to Ourselves

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Here are a few more books I plan on reviewing this coming week

Managed to get most of this past week's planned reviews written (the two I didn't, I'll try to review Sunday), with another added to the mix.  This coming week, I'd like to review most, if not all, of the following (not in planned review order):

Andrés Neuman, Talking About Ourselves

Lily King, Euphoria

Cara Hoffman, Be Safe I Love You

Adam Sternbergh, Shovel Ready

Joyce Carol Oates, Carthage

Nadifa Mohamed, The Orchard of Lost Souls

Perhaps I'll again swap out 1-2 of these, as I may finish Richard Thomas's anthology, The New Black or William T. Vollmann's Last Stories and Other Stories.  Conceivably, I could also finish Catherine Lacey's Nobody is Ever Missing or Paula Bomer's Inside Madeleine and decide to review one or both of those immediately afterward as well.  If not, these will certainly be listed for the following week.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Scott Cheshire, High as the Horses' Bridles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Can Xue, The Last Lover

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

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

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

His pale green eyes sometimes have a blank expression, either because he's absentminded or because he's eccentric.  He often harbors thoughts of madness.  Joe has a mania for reading, and for years he's read one book after another, muddling all the stories in his mind.  His memory is of the kind that's excellent at making choices – a grafting memory – so the pathway of his thought is always clear. (p. 8)
This shift from a fairly typical character description straight into questions of madness before caroming off into discussions of his reading habits and memory signals right away that this will not be a typical narrative.  His wife, Maria, a talented tapestry maker, likewise possesses strange qualities, often blurting out comments that are totally out of left field.  Joe and Maria comprise one of three couples whose perspectives Xue explores in The Last Lover and as she switches from one to another, the scenes become ever wilder.  Of particular interest to Xue is that of country depictions by outsiders.  Although she eschews having actual country/city locations, it is clear through the context just which countries are represented by "Country A" and "Country C."  In passages like the one quoted at the beginning of this review, Xue delves into the issue of story constructions and how stories transmogrify as they cross linguistic and cultural boundaries.  Certainly the quasi-US that Joe and Maria inhabit is not a "realistic" portrait of this country, but by Xue flattening out certain details and expanding upon others, she has created an impressionist version of the US, one where actions and reflections cast new refractions through these warped interpretative prisms.

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

When Joe entered his office he saw the wasps.  An enormous wasps' nest was tied to the air conditioner, where they massed into squeezed, black piles.  But these little insects didn't make any sound at all, which was unusual.  Joe opened a drawer, took out a Tibetan travel book, which he hadn't seen for ages, and turned to the middle.  He couldn't read a single one of the Tibetan words, nor did the book have any pictures, but over a long period of time he had turned its pages one by one.  What was inside this book?  He didn't know.  He only knew that perhaps inside there was a world, an unfathomed place.  As he fixed his eyes on the Tibetan script, a wasp dropped onto the surface of the page.  The Tibetan words suddenly leapt up like flames burning the little insect.  It struggled for a few minutes and then didn't move. (pp. 288-289)
 In other novels, a scene like this might be utilized to show a disconnect between narrator and reality.  Yet Xue is not concerned with this as much as she is in exploring the ways that humans of various cultures can dream of other cultures while still seemingly awake and engaged with everyday life.  As her three couples move in and out of their imaginative/real worlds and their lives warp and weave like one of Maria's tapestries into each other's lives or dream selves, the overall effect is one of sheer admiration for just how well Xue (and by extension, her translator, who has done an excellent job in making this feel as though it were originally composed in English) has created a narrative that has to be experienced before any analysis could make much sense to the reader.  It seems that I did indeed quote copiously and said "this is wicked cool" after all.  But yes, it is, and yes, it is the sort of work I would recommend for those who like experimental fictions that succeed because the narrative joins are so expertly hidden within interesting characters and fascinating scenes.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

2014 Booker Prize longlist announced

This year, American writers were eligible for consideration for the first time and four were selected to the 2014 shortlist (Ferris, Fowler, Hustvedt, Powers).  Don't know much about these books yet, but I shall...soon.  The Fowler I read last year and plan on reviewing it later this year and I already had the Mitchell pre-ordered.  Likely will order the Hustvedt first out of these others and then wait and see for the shortlist to be announced.

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, Joshua Ferris (Viking)
J,  Howard Jacobson (Jonathan Cape) 
The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell (Sceptre)
Us, David Nicholls (Hodder & Stoughton)
The Dog, Joseph O'Neill (Fourth Estate)
Orfeo, Richard Powers (Atlantic Books)
How to be Both, Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton)

Cristovão Tezza, O Professor

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Lydia Davis, Can't and Won't

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 21, 2014

Shane Jones, Crystal Eaters

It feels good to believe in one hundred.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Review plans for this week

Since completing the 40 reviews in 40 days personal challenge on the 16th, I've taken a mini-break from reviewing here.  However, I plan on reviewing several books this week.  Below are the titles (not in exact order) that I aim to have reviewed by Saturday evening:

Shane Jones, Crystal Eaters

Andrés Neuman, Talking About Ourselves

Lydia Davis, Can't and Won't:  Stories

Cristovão Tezza, O Professor (Portuguese)

Lily King, Euphoria

Can Xue, The Last Lover

I've read all but the Xue (about 40 pages into that one) and there were some promising things about each that I liked when I read them over the past few weeks.  Each is very different from the others and that perhaps is a very good thing.  Also finished Lev Grossman's The Magician's Land, but I'm going to wait until the first week in August before I post that review.  I will say that it was a very good conclusion and there are things about it that are lingering with me now, but those are more personal memory triggers than anything that should be a central part of a review.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

June 2014 Reads

June was a slower reading month for me, perhaps in part because I spent most of the month engaging in the "40 in 40" review project.  I managed to complete that by mid-July, but as a result, I only read 24 books in June.  14 of the 24 books have already been reviewed, with another one to be reviewed later this month.  At the halfway point of the year, was close or exceeded my yearly goals for the four foreign languages I targeted for more reading this year.  Now for the list:

135  Antonio Scurati, Il padre infedele (Italian; Premio Strega finalist; very good)

136  Giorgio Pressburger, Nel regno oscuro (Italian; very good)

137  Herta Müller, La bèstia del cor (Catalan translation; good)

138  Carmen Lyra, Cuentos de mi Tía Panchita (Spanish; short story collection; good)

139  Jorge Franco, El mundo de afuera (Spanish; Premio Alfaguara winner; already reviewed)

140  Cristina Henríquez, The Book of Unknown Americans (already reviewed)

141  Kyung-sook Shin, I'll Be Right There (already reviewed)

142  Kofi Awoonor, The Promise of Hope (Poetry; already reviewed)

143  Laura Restrepo, Delirio (re-read; Spanish; Premio Alfaguara winner; already reviewed)

144  Hernán Rivera Letelier, El arte de la resurrección (re-read; Spanish; Premio Alfaguara winner; already reviewed)

145  Teju Cole, Every Day is for the Thief (already reviewed)

146  David James Poissant, The Heaven of Animals (short story collection; already reviewed)

147  Lily King, Euphoria (review forthcoming)

148  Porochista Khakpour, The Last Illusion (already reviewed)

149  Roxane Gay, An Untamed State (already reviewed)

150  Sean Ennis, Chase Us (short story collection; already reviewed)

151  Thomas Ligotti, The Spectral Link (short story collection; already reviewed)

152  Jérôme Ferrari, Le sermon sur la chute de Rome (French; Prix Goncourt winner; very good)

153  François Weyergons, Trois jours chez ma mère (French; Prix Goncourt winner; very good)

154  Giorgio Pressburger, Storia umana e inumana (Italian; Premio Strega semifinalist; decent but not as good as the first volume of this series, mentioned above)

155  Pierre Lemaitre, Au revoir là-haut (French; Prix Goncourt winner; very good)

156  Jâcques-Pierre Amette, La Maîtresse de Brecht (French; Prix Goncourt winner; very good)

157  Smith Henderson, Fourth of July Creek (already reviewed)

158  Rabih Alameddine, An Unncessary Woman (already reviewed)

Updated Yearly Goals:

Spanish:  36/50 (ahead of pace by 11; 4 read this month)

Portuguese:  18/50 (behind pace by 7; 0 read this month)

French:  24/50 (behind pace by 1; 4 read this month)

Italian:  25/50 (on pace; 3 read this month)

Women writers:  51/158 (behind pace by 3%; 8 read this month, or 33% for the month)

Friday, July 18, 2014

What the Birthday Squirrel Bought for Me in 2014

Well, another birthday has passed and for those bibliophiles who are curious about what book-related materials I received for my birthday, here are the details:

I received nearly $200 in money (which I deposited) and a $50 iTunes card.  With these I purchased the following:


Paula Bomer, Inside Madelaine (short story collection)

Katherine Addison, The Goblin Emperor

Lydia Davis, Can't and Won't (short story collection)

Richard Thomas (ed.), The New Black (anthology)

Can Xue, The Last Lover

Catherine Lacey, Nobody is Ever Missing

Lucius Shepard, Beautiful Blood

Books: (will arrive over the next 1-3 weeks)

William T. Vollmann, Last Stories and Other Stories (short story collection)

Scott Cheshire, High as the Horses' Bridles 

Shane Jones, Crystal Eaters

Simon Ings, Wolves

Nadifa Mohamed, The Orchard of Lost Souls

Cara Hoffman, Be Safe I Love You

Adam Sternbergh, Shovel Ready

And while not bought with Birthday Squirrel money/gift cards, I also received a review copy of Lev Grossman's trilogy-concluding The Magician's Land.  Me being me, I read the final chapters first and it ties everything together in interesting ways.  Will post a review around the August 5th release, but it's likely to get a good review from me if the beginning and middle are anywhere near what the conclusion was.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Perpetual Decline and Fall of Literary Criticism

Almost eighteen years ago, I enrolled in what proved to be the toughest course in my graduate studies at the University of Tennessee:  History 510:  Foundations of Graduate Study in History.  I was barely twenty-two then and perhaps more immature than that; I was the youngest MA candidate that semester.  This course focused on epistemological and methodological approaches to history, an area that interested me in some places, but in others I was not ready to devote the contemplation necessary to get superior grades on my essays and presentations.  I passed, but it was the only history course that I made lower than a B, at a C+.  I still remember thinking then about why was it so important to be "serious" all the time about a field that at its heart was the telling of a story to another person about something that may or may not have happened in the past.

Now that I am older, I find such subjects much more interesting.  The mechanics of how historia (the root word is applied in many European languages to both fiction and non-fiction accounts) works, how ideas are disseminated from person to person, culture to culture over time and space, this now appeals to me after years' experience as a secondary and community college instructor.  There is delight to be found in dissecting a writer's prose, unearthing some portentous element that may be key to understanding the import of what was read or heard.  However, this quest for greater textual understanding is not an universal one; many would prefer to take it in as it is and process it as they may.

This issue of delving into a subject is germane to an interesting set of articles written over the past six weeks.  The first, published back in June on The Guardian's online site, is by Mark Thwaite.  Entitled "What Became of Literary Blogging?",  it is a wistful account of how online literary criticism/reviewing has changed over the past decade.  Some of Thwaite's points resonate with me; I began blogging nearly ten years ago and have seen a sea-change in content and reader interactions with what I write for this blog and elsewhere.  Yet there is an underlying attitude in his article with which I disagree.

Thwaite talks about his desire over the years for there to be more "serious literature" discussion in the newer online venues.  This has stirred up some reaction, as taken at face value, especially considering there seems to be a desire to move away from various literary genres that are covered extensively online, there appears to be an overly-narrow definition of what "serious literature" denotes.  However, I do not have a problem with this, per se, as Thwaite goes on to clarify by what he means by "serious literature":  works that engage readers who want works that challenge readers and do not fall within the confines of more "comfy lit."  He lists several writers that are not household names or are up for various lit prizes, but nonetheless command the respect of those relatively few readers who like fictions that allow them to delve further into its innards. 

Yet in bemoaning the relative failure of the online reviewing/literary criticism world to produce the equivalents of an H.L. Mencken or Edmund Wilson, to name just two important 20th century American critics, Thwaite appears to fall into a trap that has bedeviled generations of literary critics.  As media shift and popular habits change accordingly, there are often those who complain about the current state of affairs and compare it to some perceived "golden age."  It happened in the 18th century with the rise of literacy rates and the emergence of the novel as the preferred form for literary discourse.  It happened in the 19th century with mass publication of newspapers and serial stories containing works by the likes of Dickens or Dumas.  Same holds true in the 20th century and the clash between Edwardian-influenced critics and the nascent Modernists.  Still happening today in the 21st century with the shift away from print and toward a mixed multimedia approach to covering literature.

As the media for delivering literary content has changed, so have the approaches toward discussing it.  Two centuries ago, it would be difficult for there to be substantive literary criticism if it weren't recorded in manuscript letters or printed in a broadsheet.  Even thirty years ago, the primary means of communicating one's opinion was either by managing to get a column in a local newspaper or by word-of-mouth.  Yet today, almost anyone can start a blog and write about literature...and other ancillary matters.  Thwaite does note this change and for him, it is a disappointing one, as there is a palpable sense of disappointment that the internet age did not mark a new golden age of literary criticism.  There is something to this, of course.  When I began this blog in August 2004, I focused primarily on genre fictions and I would write about 1-2 reviews/week and the rest of the time I would write reaction pieces to another's column (like I am today) or provide book cover art or anything else of vague interest to myself or potential readers.  I am capable of writing several thousand words on a particular book or subject; I have several dozen reviews that go past two thousand words and address theme and context.

However, such pieces are relatively rare for me, not because I can't write them nor because I am bored with them, but because of a conscious decision that when I write reviews, that I shall endeavor to have those pieces be between 750 and 1200 words, or roughly the space of a full-page newspaper review column.  This space constraint influences the type of review I write, as I usually opt for a hybrid impression and analysis piece that purposely leaves some elements only hinted at in order to pique reader interest.  I do this because I have noticed that when I go over 8-10 paragraphs, readers in the past seemed to have skimmed over what I said and missed the point of several arguments that I raised.  This is not a condemnation, merely an acknowledgement of certain trends.

Therefore, it is likely that many literary critics have altered their approaches to covering topics in order to suit better the desires of their audiences.  Certainly, as Thwaite notes, the rise of social media has had an impact on how reviewers approach discussing the works they have read.  He laments the lost potential of the online medium for an "army" of literary critics writing substantive pieces and to a degree, I sympathize with him.  Yet I do not find myself caught up too much in the rhetoric about whether or not these shifts should be praised or mourned.  The larger question is whether or not there is a conducive environment for discussing works and that I believe does exist, albeit with a few caveats for the style of discourse one might prefer.

Related to Thwaite's article are two recent pieces.  One is written by Kelly Jensen over at Stacked, called "The Three C's of the Changing Book Blogging World."  In it, she discusses these changes from a different perspective than the one Thwaite provides.  Yet she too wonders where the energy has departed, as many promising new voices have abandoned book discussion for one reason or another.  The other was written earlier this week over at Biblibio, entitled "Where is Literary Criticism?  Everywhere."  It was reading this latter article that made me aware of the Thwaite and Jensen pieces and I want to note that I sympathize with the attitude expressed in the title.  She notes a few commonalities between the Thwaite and Jensen pieces when it comes to questioning where has "literary criticism" gone and goes on to critique the flaws in their analyses.  In particular, she notes that in the maze of book-oriented blogs, it can be very easy to miss those who do not focus on one particular genre or approach to reviewing.  This blog certainly could be viewed as an example of such, although I believe that this is further distilled by two other sites I co-manage, Gogol's Overcoat and World War I Literature, Art, and Cinema (the latter just in its infancy stage and lacking a deep corpus of essays and reviews).   Each of the three contains different points of emphasis:  a formerly SF/F-oriented blog; a two-person blog for longer reviews of non-SF/F fiction and occasional history; a specific historical/historical fiction site that eventually will contain essays that will run thousands of words and be closest to what Thwaite discusses, albeit oriented more toward those who have a background in history, specifically World War I cultural history.

I mention these three sites not to drive traffic to them, but to note that each has their own specific function and that in a literary world populated with tens of thousands, if not greater, voices, that it can be more difficult to find exactly what one desires when the ideal of "literary criticism" is considered.  Yet these places where "serious literature" is discussed in-depth do exist, in greater numbers than those now-bygone days of when newspaper book reviews and the Smart Set ruled literary discourse.  They just now are but one set of voices in a noisy literary bazaar.  The near-anarchy of this couldn't suit literary discussion any better.


It's finally happened.  The calendar turned enough leaves that it's now 40 years since I was born.  It's a number I've been waiting to reach and trying to avoid for a number of years.  I can remember starting out as a teacher 15 years ago, tired of always looking 5-10 years younger than my actual age, hoping for my hair to turn silver so that I wouldn't be confused for a student.  I can also remember sighing about things that I wanted to have accomplished by this age that I later realized would have to wait a bit longer, if they would even occur at all now.

However, there is so much to happen about which I have no foresight.  Ten years ago, I didn't see myself still living in my native Tennessee after moving back from southern Florida for a respite from job burnout.  I also didn't see myself having two short story translations published, one of which in a World Fantasy Award-winning anthology.  Squirrels were just another animal back then, before an in-joke between me and someone dear to me made them much more special.  Back in July 2004, I was contemplating whether or not I wanted to try this relatively new thing called a blog; in 2014 I've been on Facebook for 6 years and Twitter for 4.

My hair is slowly turning silver, but thankfully it is as thick as it was when I was 30.  Perhaps by the time I'm 50, I'll have found a place and career that is more rewarding to me.  Maybe I'll translate a book and see if I can get it published.  Maybe I'll establish a squirrel sanctuary.  So many maybes.  Perhaps the one constant will be that I will likely, as long as I have eyes to see and hands to move the pages, reading a story in some form or fashion.  Hopefully, there will be people along for the ride.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

D. Foy, Made to Break

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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