PHOTOTAXIS by Olivia Tapiero translated by Kit Schluter Nightboat Books, 128 pages reviewed by Dylan Cook
There’s something refreshingly laid-back about Olivia Tapiero’s take on apocalyptic fiction. Most novels in the genre come off a bit preachy, warning us page after page that X, Y, and Z will be our downfall. Perhaps even more grating, they go through the trouble of explaining exactly how it will end, as if we can be certain of that from our pre-apocalyptic world. Tapiero looks at these conventions and casually walks past them. In Phototaxis, the end of the world makes very little sense. The streets are drowned in rotten meat, suicides spread like they’re contagious, and the only thing that might hold everyone together is a one-man piano performance. She embraces the one idea about the apocalypse we can reasonably be sure of: when it happens, we won’t have any idea how to deal with it.
Given that the novel revels in uncertainty, it’s unsurprising that its plot is difficult to pin down. There are three main characters, Théo, Narr, and Zev, who, for the most part, meander through their lives while trapped in the “levity that precedes catastrophe.” In some unspecific past, the trio was joined by Zev, who served as a kind of cultural and political leader in their community. After Zev disappears suddenly, the friends become estranged. Only when Théo, a concert pianist, announces a long-awaited return to the stage does Narr come out of the woodwork to reconnect with him. But Théo is too busy for friendship since he devotes most of his time to practice. After all, with the future looking so grim, wouldn’t it be nice to give the people something to look forward to?
Apocalypses are never something we wish for—they’re hands we’re dealt. Phototaxis shows us how we might play them.
The novel inches towards this magical moment when a deftly played concerto might lift the veil of suffering off the masses, but we never get there. Théo commits suicide just before his performance, and it hardly comes as a shock. Death forces itself into each character’s thoughts, whether it’s due to the deluge of rotten meat or constant reminders of the famous “Falling Man” photograph. From here on, the novel practically becomes a character study of Narr. She considers what she should do next, whether or not she should also commit suicide, whether or not she should futilely work for a relative. Locked onto her thoughts, we watch her become overwhelmed with the world she’s stuck in:
All I’d need is a tank of gas to work up the courage to immolate myself for no apparent reason. An incandescent, combustible acceleration.
The action will only be possible on the condition of its being seen. The horror I’ve caused in other people is all I’ll have to help me endure a pain that will only go away, according to my research, once the fire breaches my nervous system.
Just as the narrative gives the reader little to hold onto, the structure of Phototaxis is likewise strange and defamiliarizing. This is Tapiero’s first novel to be published in English (a native of Québec, she writes in French) but her third overall novel, and that confidence shows in the risks she takes here. Between the prose, the novel is cut with theatrical monologues and bouts of poetry. The constant play with form makes the term “novel” fit this book like a mismatched Tupperware lid. About half the time, this experimentation feels like a justified complement to its text. The monologues in particular offer the reader a chance to peek behind the curtains of each character, rounding them out slowly. The other half of the time, the whirlwind of seemingly random details produces a head-scratching effect. Why are everyday citizens flagellating themselves? Why are the streets haunted by the ghosts of bison?
The punky answer to these questions is that they don’t need to be answered. Tapiero’s novel is much more impressionistic than it is concrete. The what, when, why, and how are less important than the sense of disgust, fear, and nihilism that pervades this world on the brink of collapse. In his monograph On the Natural History of Destruction, W. G. Sebald wrote that a city under siege, “decided—out of sheer panic at first—to carry on as if nothing had happened.” This novel shows people carrying on because there is nothing else to do. Phototaxis is filled with absurdities and theatrics, but the emotional response to tragedy that it captures rings true. The COVID-19 pandemic gave us our own apocalyptic scenario, and the sheer scale of its upheaval made it difficult to imagine a world after COVID. Now, nearly two years into this reality, the pandemic has become something we live alongside, and the world “after COVID” may never come. It becomes easier, then, to imagine how Narr might step over puddles of meat so apathetically and avoid looking the future in the eye. Apocalypses are never something we wish for—they’re hands we’re dealt. Phototaxis shows us how we might play them.
Dylan Cook is a recent graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied creative writing and biology. He currently lives and works in Chicago. He’s often reading and writing, and when he’s not doing either of these things, he can be found working in a genetics lab, lost in the woods somewhere, or at [email protected].
PHOTOTAXISby Olivia Tapiero translated by Kit SchluterNightboat Books, 128 pagesreviewed by Dylan Cook There’s something refreshingly laid-back about Olivia Tapiero’s take on apocalyptic fiction. Most novels in the genre come off a bit preachy, warning us page after page that X, Y, and Z will be ... Read the full text
PLENTY OF FISH by Dylan Cook Matt felt the morning dew jump against his legs as his feet flattened the seagrass in his way. He had his fishing pole slung over his shoulder like a bindle and his tackle box swinging at his side. The sun had crested over the ... Read the full text
THE GREENER MY GRASS by Dylan Cook Maureen could clearly remember the day in December the two young professors moved in across the street and how much more she respected them back then. It was a shame that Mrs. Graham had passed, really, but Maureen liked the idea of two ... Read the full text
THE SPORT OF THE GODSby Paul Laurence DunbarSignet Classics, 176 pagesreviewed by Dylan Cook For the best experience, I recommend reading The Sport of the Gods outside on a cloudy day, rain threatening. As you fall in step with Paul Laurence Dunbar’s rhythmic prose, it’ll be easy ... Read the full text
CLOTEL, or, The President's Daughterby William Wells BrownPenguin Classics, 320 pagesreviewed by Dylan CookPurchase this book to benefit Cleaver In 1998, scientists performed a DNA test to answer one of the longest-running rumors in American history. Historians could no longer deny the truth: Yes, Thomas Jefferson ... Read the full text
MINOR DETAIL by Adania Shibli translated by Elisabeth Jaquette New Directions Books, 144 pages reviewed by Dylan CookBuy this book on Bookshop.OrgTables need at least three legs to stand; guitar strings only ring when taut around two points. Minor Detail, Adania Shibli’s third novel, takes its title as ... Read the full text
SKETCHES OF THE CRIMINAL WORLD: FURTHER KOLYMA STORIES by Varlam Shalamov translated by Donald Rayfield New York Review Books, 576 pagesreviewed by Dylan CookPurchase this book to benefit Cleaver A man gets ready to murder his boss with a pickaxe. A woman is grateful that her newborn twins ... Read the full text
MAX HAVELAAR: OR, THE COFFEE AUCTIONS OF THE DUTCH TRADING COMPANYby Multatulitranslated by Ina Rilke and David McKayNew York Review Books, 336 pagesreviewed by Dylan CookPurchase this book to benefit Cleaver “I call a man a fool if he dives in the water to rescue ... Read the full text
by Natalie Bakopoulos
Tin House, 256 pages
reviewed by Aleksia Mira Silverman
Scorpionfish by Natalie Bakopoulos begins with a return. Mira, a Greek-born academic in her late thirties, arrives in Athens after her parents’ funeral. She must sort out the remainder of her parents’ affairs—Mira’s childhood home in Athens and another apartment on an island referred to only as N. While Mira is stranded outside her apartment building without a key, she has a chance encounter with her next-door neighbor, a sea captain. Later, the pair spend night after night on their adjoining balconies. While they are unable to see each other clearly, they share cigarettes, beer, and conversation. Both characters are grappling with grief, of sorts: Mira has lost her parents; the Captain has lost his position as a sea captain and is about to divorce his estranged wife.
Bakopoulos splits the novel between Mira and the Captain’s perspective, their two stories spinning out alongside each other like “a double helix”—often occupying parallel tracks, but enjoying brief points of intense connection as they navigate loss.
Guided by Bakopoulos’ observant prose, the reader enmeshes themselves in a dynamic social scene. We meet Nefeli, an acclaimed artist in her sixties; Aris, Mira’s ex-lover and a rising political star who is currently engaged and expecting a child with a Greek movie star; and Dimitra, Fady, and Leila, a family hosting Rami, a teenager who fled alone from Damascus.
However, the cast of Scorpionfish includes more than just the living. We also meet those who have recently passed: Haroula, Mira’s aunt and Nefeli’s lover; Mira’s father, and Mira’s mother, a life-long alcoholic who struggled to acclimate after the family left Athens for Chicago. And, while Aris is still alive, there is a distinct split between the current Aris, and the Aris with whom Mira shared an on-and-off relationship for many years.
These ghosts mingle with the living, creating an environment that cannot be easily categorized by descriptions of past and present. As Mira considers her childhood apartment, she thinks it is “as though I could walk through walls, my past and present, and future selves all negotiating the same space, bumping shoulders, tripping over feet.” In another moment, while Mira is listening to musicians play, she catches a glimpse of “my mother [dancing] a hawk-like zeibekiko in a yellow dress.”
Mira’s perspective is, perhaps, more compelling than the Captain’s. Yet, often her voice feels detached, nearly clinical. She refers to some friends by their titles (the Captain, the novelist) rather than their full names, and her emotions, too, feel somewhat suppressed: while the death of her parents begins the novel, we learn about the manner of their death only in the final pages. We may understand her cadence as a product of her career—Mira is an ethnographer and an archaeologist. Yet the physical presence of ones she lost hints at the depths of her grief, a roiling turmoil below Mira’s academic cool.
We plunge into the streets of Athens. Mira and the Captain spend much of their time exploring the city, and eating at tavernas, reconnecting with current lovers, former lovers, and family members. Athens is constructed with delicacy, streets mapped with close detail. The light, in particular, receives special treatment. Sunlight “[shimmers] through olive trees, like an invitation to a new world,” Mira considers how morning light shines off of the Captain’s hair, and “the flush of sunset.”
In these passages, I am reminded of how I once heard a photography professor describe successful photos: “every place has a certain type of light, and great photos capture it.”
When we move through Athens, we linger, observing the light or the outfits of diners at a restaurant. However, there is also a familiarity to the characters’ movements. This is perhaps what makes Mira’s perspective so successful: Bakopoulos deftly conveys the experience of returning to a beloved place, the experience of re-seeing.
Yet, despite this tenderness, Bakopoulos’ descriptions of Athens never rely on nostalgia-driven sweetness. Athens is struggling through an economic crisis and a charged political climate. Strikes and protests fill the streets. Bakopoulos writes, “one [home] seemed like it had been burned in a fire, and the next was fit for a magazine photoshoot.” Mira eats at trendy restaurants-cum-vintage Airstream trailers and gives English lessons at abandoned schools now hosting refugees; sunburnt tourists walk the same streets as violent nationalists who attack Mira after hearing Mira, Dimitra, and Rami speak in English and Arabic.
As the ghosts of lost loved ones intermingle with the living, the experience of past Greeks never feels distant. We see “large concrete apartment blocks built during the junta transitioned to old neoclassical homes” and streets named after key figures during the Ottoman rule of Greece. Athens’ identity refuses to be delineated—into impoverished or prosperous, monocultural or multicultural, contemporary or historical.
In one particularly striking moment, Mira attends a retrospective of Nefeli’s work. One work of art shows a video of Dimitra, Leila, Fady, and Rami. In the background, scenes of conflict play on a loop, including—”a scene of South African apartheid, footage of hundreds of Bosnian refugees walking a dirt road.” Perhaps these juxtapositions serve to illuminate the interconnectedness and cyclical natures of traumatic displacement. However, the implicit voyeurism in this exhibition also seems to ask: to whom do these stories belong? What is something that we live, and what is just a backdrop—something to watch, but not experience firsthand?
In Part II of Scorpionfish, Mira travels to N island. Here, her parents kept a vacation home where her mother dreamed of spending retirement—another place where Mira cleans, sorts, and confronts ghosts. On this island, Mira turns inward, scrutinizing her relationship with her parents, Aris, and Nefeli.
Bakopoulos approaches both family tensions and Greece’s social, political, and economic issues with extreme nuance. Scenes of family tension are particularly striking in their tenderness. One night on the island Mira drinks a glass of whisky and dresses in her dead parents’ clothing. At another point, the Captain returns from a run to his soon-to-be-ex-wife, Katerina, and their children:
I walked to the massive refrigerator and filled my glass with ice, making a clownish show of it, acting surprised as all the ice tumbled to the floor.
Katerina looked up absentmindedly, and Ifigenia asked, ‘What is wrong with you?’ before they realized I was trying to make them laugh.
There is a deep yearning here; it is a heartbreaking scene of intimacy left unfulfilled.
At the close of the novel, Mira and the Captain consummate their relationship. Yet, as with their correspondences on their adjoining balconies, the reader sees little of this interaction: “a shift of the body, a look on Mira’s face, her bare shoulder.” Indeed, this intimate scene directs the reader to consider how bodies are considered throughout—always veiled, hidden beneath clothing, or behind glass. The final description of intimacy also recalls an earlier description Mira gave of the boundary between her and the Captain’s apartment: “If the light was right, you could see the shadow of a person behind the cloudy glass partition.”
In Scorpionfish, we see characters in tantalizing glimpses. At times, they seem to be jockeying for the reader’s attention. Sometimes I couldn’t help but want to dig deeper! But why would we be entitled to see more, to learn more?
I recall a moment from early in the novel, where Mira considers the barrier between herself and the Captain: “separated by a wall of opaque thick glass, an architectural veil behind which I heard him now moving from one side of the balcony to the other. I could not see him but felt his presence.” Scorpionfish offers no complete or comprehensive views of Athens or its inhabitants. Instead, we must confront the limits of our viewpoints and expectations. We must consider the stories left untold.
Aleksia Mira Silverman lives and writes in South Florida. She holds a BA in English from Bowdoin College, where she served as founding editor of The Foundationalist and currently serves as contributing fiction editor for Barren Magazine. In Fall 2021, she will begin her graduate studies as an MFA candidate in fiction at the University of California, Davis.
WALKING ON COWRIE SHELLS
by Nana Nkweti
Graywolf Press, 200 pages
reviewed by Juliana Lamy
The ten stories in Nana Nkweti’s debut short story collection Walking on Cowrie Shells offer tableaus of Blackness that are as varied as they are vivid. From tale to tale, Nkweti’s genres shift as surely as a living body does, limbs never at a single angle for long. The same assortment of stories that renders a realistic portrait of race and romance within New York City’s Black literary scene delves, with the same intrepid narration, into a crime drama’s layered violence and moral contemplation. Though varied, what anchors these stories within one another’s vicinity is a relentless inquisition of human connectivity, a tour that proceeds whether such connection hues grotesque and brutal or beautiful and palliative. Black girls navigate personal and cultural identity as the collection arcs through fandom space in “Rain Check at MomoCon.” Readers alight in a Lagos beleaguered by a zombie apocalypse in “It Just Kills You Inside,” where racial capitalism and white condescension commodify African people unto apparent death. In “The Living Infinite,” our transatlantic vault to Louisiana reveals Nala, a 202-year-old Mami Wata (a female water spirit and seducer of men) mourning her late husband. Nkweti’s commitment to sensory imagery traces trauma as it ricochets between generations, cultures, and families, as it glints in gendered violence, racism (as well as its internalized iterations), and neocolonialism.
The Salikis of “It Takes a Village,” a Cameroonian-American couple whose lives have become tabloid fodder in recent months, herd us into the first of many technicolor locales in Nwketi’s collection. Theirs is a grasping, desperate suburbia whose ache for commodity and appearance ripens it to their adopted daughter’s advantage, allowing her to refit its obsessions to her own ends. The financially well-off Salikis strive to fashion a quintessential nuclear family for themselves, adopting a young Cameroonian girl who, in their view, has been “imported straight from the motherland.” The Salikis are the vessels for a particular brand of States-based hubris: they immediately affix the American Dream to the daughter they have adopted once they learn from her handler that she has been separated from her biological family in Cameroon, insisting that they are a simple extension of her existing relations and will operate as a conduit for the social elevation of her African relatives, assuming all the while that this method of social mobility is what their daughter wants. It is a psychological commandeering, their own self-centered assumption of what she craves or desires. This bloodless violence is clever, though the Salikis themselves are not. Additionally, the girl’s handler insists to the Salikis that her name is not important, that they may rename her in any way they wish, giving the Salikis free rein to prune and reshape the girl’s identity. The treatment of the girl’s name by her adoptive parents and her handler borrows the infantilizing erasure of both African colonialism and Atlantic slavery, deprecating the personal history of the targeted to make way for the self-serving material or authoritarian growth of the privileged. The story’s point of view then switches to the daughter, who wields her sexual exoticization at the hands of her white male classmates, as well as her parents’ myopic obsession with her, to secure a stable financial future for herself. She is the one who tells readers her name, Zola, as she reveals that her own agency has always been a point of fact for her, regardless of whether any of the adults in her life were aware of its presence.
“Rain Check at MomoCon” carries forth Nkweti’s investigation of identity for young Cameroonian girls. The story’s protagonist, Astrid, is a Black nerd (a term I use endearingly) who feels dislocated in both her cultural identity and her plans for her future post-high school. She cosplays as a katana-wielding avenger at Comic Con, along with her cousin and friend (who are also dressed as fictional warriors), and finds kinship among the costumed crowd:
She is surrounded by mild-mannered accountants, data entry specialists, computer analysts—assorted neckbeards. All shedding their daytime skins, thrilling to their secret identities in a dreamscape free from the mundanities of rumored downsizings, late mortgage payments, and vacant relationships. For a brief time, they all are heroes. Her too.
Nkewti’s quick, decisive characterizations of the nameless Comic Con attendants grafts personality onto setting in a way that fleshes physical location and imbues it with stakes of its own, granting it the capacity to be protagonistic, antagonistic, or any compelling combination therein. The reference to “shedding” renders a starkly visual and visceral return to a truer identity, tying heroism, in its fantastical dimension, to a more grounded honesty with oneself. This passage, as well as the rest of Astrid’s narrative, recognizes identity as it often exists: a cocoon of personal truths likely invisible to an onlooker’s naked eye, whose location is only known and accessible to the person to whom it belongs.
In “Night Becomes Her,” Zeinab is a bathroom attendant in the women’s restroom of a New York City nightclub. It is there that she observes that each of the women she meets at her post is “their own Scheherazade,” stopgap storytellers who portion out their anecdotes to her as they wash their hands or fix their lashes. Zeinab received asylum in the U.S. on the heels of a suicide bombing in her native Cameroon that killed her mother and several others. Though the attendant position that she finds once she enters the U.S. allows her to survive financially, her love of dance is what functions as her emotional scaffolding, as well as the source of her more positive feelings. This piece momentarily toggles between Zeinab’s perspective and that of the young woman, Hanifa, who set off the bomb. We learn that Hanifa was kidnapped from a schoolyard by jihadis eleven months prior to the bombing; she was forcefully married to and impregnated by the group’s commander. She seeks recourse and peace from her abuse through an act that tragically articulates the cross-stitch of trauma, announcing it as a serrated thing that catches and snags. This piece portraits how one of the elements with the greatest capacity for nurture and safety, motherhood, can be barbed and warped by darker macro forces. Nothing, it seems, escapes the purview of tragedy. This makes Zeinab’s attachment of freedom and joy to dance all the more triumphant, as it is dancing that mothers her in her mother’s absence, this thing that tends and nourishes.
But Nkweti’s nuanced portrayals of African Blackness have Black American casualties. In “Rain Check at MomoCon,” Astrid’s friend Mboya, though Cameroonian, is the character that is most closely aligned with American Blackness. Mbola criticizes Astrid for “talking white,” attends a “crowded high school with metal detectors and girls named after luxury cars and liqueurs like Alizé and Lexus,” and is a hypersexual aggressor who pursues Astrid’s romantic love interest, Young, despite his unreciprocated feelings. It is difficult to read past these facets of caricature in Mbola’s rendering, particularly because so many of the elements specific to her are exaggerations that serve as narrative opportunities for further complexifying Astrid’s character. The lean towards caricature becomes a wholesale plunge with the introduction of La—a (pronounced “La-dash-a”) in “The Devil is a Liar,” a low-income attendant of the mommyhood classes taught by the protagonist, Cameroonian law school professor Temperance. La—a is generally aggressive, illiterate, and levels her fertility against Temperance (who has had trouble becoming pregnant) as a means of recouping their difference in financial and social privilege. Even her name stands in stark, eyebrow-raising distinction, as the story collection in general is populated by African characters with gorgeous, varied names that speak to a thoughtfulness and careful networking to intricate personal and familial backgrounds. La––a’s name feels pulled from the punchline of a Def Jam comedy special; it palpably lacks that same attentiveness. Additionally, the fixation on La—a’s fertility, in contrast with Temperance’s fertility troubles, is particularly painful to read, as it breezily and biologically essentializes Black American femininity in service of a distinct textual sympathy for Temperance.
Many of these stories prove unique even in their formatting: “Schoolyard Cannibal” is a collection of scenes almost vignette-like in their arrangement and is interspersed with images. “Dance the Fiyah Dance” is pockmarked by the main character’s diary entries. “Kinks” is split according to its protagonist’s different hairstyles, and, in so doing, contours her relationship to her Cameroonian Blackness around these culturally-specific elements. The prose itself twins the measured, attention-sustaining adventurism of the worlds it births. The text abounds with colorful metaphor, colloquialism, and a linguistic veering to French, pidgin, and Arabic. Ultimately, each life that Nkweti shapes out for us carries the dents and impressions of the other lives it encounters, brandishing a proof of collision that speaks to a fragile, vicious, irrepressible mortality.
Juliana Lamy is a Haitian fiction writer from South Florida. She holds a BA in History and Literature from Harvard University, where she won their 2018 Le Baron Russell Briggs Undergraduate Fiction Prize. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Split Lip Magazine, Pidgeonholes, The Conium Review, and elsewhere. She is an incoming MFA candidate at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
Biblioasis [North American edition forthcoming in June]
reviewed by Beth Kephart
“This is a female text,” Doireann Ní Ghríofa asserts as her story begins. A rouse. A prayer. A persuasion.
A female text because Ní Ghríofa suffuses her days with the domestic arts of hoovering, dusting, folding, mothering, and bends her prose toward those ticking rhythms when she carves out a moment and writes.
A female text because Ní Ghríofa carries the lament of Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill, an Irish noblewoman of the late eighteenth century, in her bones as she works—a poem called Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire, a poem of howling grief erupted from the murder of the poet’s husband.
A female text because the words have risen up in Ní Ghríofa and stayed:
This is a female text and it is a tiny miracle that it even exists, as it does in this moment, lifted to another consciousness by the ordinary wonder of type. Ordinary, too, the ricochet of thought that swoops, now, from my body to yours.
Ní Ghríofa wants us to know the story of the widow, whose poem still keens across the centuries but whose biography is thin, vanished, vanquished, even, within histories written mostly about men, by men.
Ní Ghríofa wants us to know the story of the widow, whose poem still keens across the centuries but whose biography is thin, vanished, vanquished, even, within histories written mostly about men, by men. She wants us to understand what it is to be driven to exhaustion by the exhilarating desire to find out, to learn more, to exhale the ether of an obsession. She wants us to hear the mewl of her babies in the background as she thinks, the mechanical sigh of the breast pump, the sounds of others sleeping while she lays awake at night, dreaming her way toward Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill.
I wish to shout because this book is so profoundly beautiful and so beautifully profound—a female text with so much to say about the ways we serve others (our families, our homes, our obsessions) and the ways that serving shapes us, and how being alone is never being alone, and how imagination always leaves us a few truths short, but it is what we have, it is the best we can do, it may even be the best of us. Imagination yields.
Doireann Ní Ghríofa
Imagination runs thick in Ní Ghríofa, who, even as a child, was scolded for weaving her dreams into history, her fantasies into facts. She’ll plunk rain into an evening, wash mud through a ditch, instigate a flirtation as she builds her theories about the great Irish noblewoman who, when alerted by an empty-saddle horse that her husband was in danger, leapt upon that horse’s back and rode and rode until she found the man she loved in a pool of his own blood and knelt and drank that blood in her great grief. Ní Ghríofa will haunt city streets and a graveyard for proof of what was—conjuring what is not there, intuiting what must have been. During crowded domestic days, in crowded spaces, over many years, Ní Ghríofa will chase this ghost of the past, and have I said yet how much I love this book, how I clung to it as proof that there is still something new in the literary world, still something worth shouting about?
I wish to shout about this. About a book with chapter titles like “cold lips to cold lips” and “blot. blot.” and “wild bees and their fizzy curiosities.” With lines like: “To work this soil is to sift the archeology of a stranger’s thoughts.” With confessions like: “I have held her and held her, only to find that she holds me too, close as ink on paper and steady as a pulse.” With passages like:
Back at my own clothesline, I think of those women. I arrange my body as they did: I look up. The clouds seem a flood, suspended far overhead. Our pasts are deep underwater. Our pasts are submerged in elsewheres.
I wish to shout because this book is so profoundly beautiful and so beautifully profound—a female text with so much to say about the ways we serve others (our families, our homes, our obsessions) and the ways that serving shapes us, and how being alone is never being alone, and how imagination always leaves us a few truths short, but it is what we have, it is the best we can do, it may even be the best of us. Imagination yields.
It has given us the genuine miracle of A Ghost in the Throat.
Beth Kephart is the award-winning author of more than three-dozen books in multiple genres, an award-winning adjunct at the University of Pennsylvania, co-founder of Juncture Workshops, and a widely-published essayist. Wife | Daughter | Self: a memoir in essays is her new book. More at bethkephartbooks.com.
COME ON UP
by Jordi Nopca
translated by Mara Faye Lethem
Bellevue Literary Press, 224 pages reviewed by Michael McCarthy
At first, it’s a promise. Come on up!
It’s a pledge made to every up-and-comer in Barcelona. The city provides a backdrop for Jordi Nopca’s short story collection Come On Up, translated from Catalan to English by Mara Faye Lethem. His stories skillfully traverse decadence and depravity, splendor and squalor, the tragic and the comic, the boring and the absurd. They will resonate with anyone who has a decent job, a decent home, and decent career prospects but is still somehow broke.
Take it from Nopca. The city and its denizens are in rough shape:
Barcelona is a tourist favorite, but it’s going through a delicate moment. Some of the most expensive boutiques in the world have opened up shop on the Passeig de Gràcia. The Old Quarter gleams with the urine of British, Swedish, Italian, and Russian visitors, which unabashedly blends in with the indigenous liquid evacuations. In Sarrià-Sant Gervasi and Les Corts, there are some neighbors whose only activity is walking their little dogs and holding on to their family inheritances. […] The Eixample is full of old people and the odd young heir who still can’t decide whether to continue his education, try his luck abroad, or hang himself from the chandelier in the dining room. The district of Gràcia hopes to remain a neighborhood of designers, artists, and students obsessed with watching subtitled films and TV shows. They were lucky folks until they started to lose their jobs; soon they won’t have enough to pay their rents, which are too high, and they’ll have to settle for some shabby corner of Sants, Not Barris, or Sant Antoni, where one can still live for a more or less affordable price.
Nopca deftly evokes the city’s wealth, luxury, and romance and points out that its gravest ills emerge from the allocation of these three resources. College graduates can’t pay rent. Jobless parents move in with their children. Relationships, newly sprung or decades-old, collapse under the stress. By all measures, Nopca’s characters are trapped, and there doesn’t seem to be a way out of the economic purgatory that is modern-day Barcelona.
Then, it becomes a taunt. Come on up!
Nopca’s breezy prose disguises his characters’ despair. The never-ending job search becomes just another part of growing up, not the product of a deeply dysfunctional economic order. If his characters don’t believe this, they go insane, which many do. Nopca’s stories portray this progression—ambitious job-seeker to unemployed bum to raving lunatic—as just as much a part of Barcelona’s culture as paella or Gaudi’s architecture. The question overshadowing the book is one the characters can’t bear to answer: Is financial desperation part and parcel of life in modern Spain?
Such misfortune afflicts the titular characters of “Angels Quintana and Felix Palme Have Problems.” The title perfectly captures Nopca’s understated, bone-dry wit. When Felix loses his job as a bartender, he gets drunk all day and stuffs fruit in the exhaust pipes of parked cars and motorbikes. For him, it’s a desperate attack against boredom; for others, it’s “another silent way of saying ‘We’ve had enough,’ from a highly qualified generation of those who still haven’t found their place in a job market that’s turned its back on them.” If it was an act of protest, Felix Palme didn’t know it, but that hardly seems to matter. The “banana battalion” as it is termed in the media represented another outburst against an intolerable economy. If that isn’t a protest, what is?
Even those with gainful employment suffer the casual cruelty of global capitalism. In “An Intersectional Conversationist at Heart,” Victoria, a promising journalist, witnesses an author she hardly knows ruin her career on a whim. Everyone who’s worked with Biel Auzina, the titular “Intersectional Conversationist,” attests to his hellish personality and literary ineptitude, but still, he reached a status in the Spanish literati that Victoria dared not dream of. The story would be Kafkaesque if it didn’t feel so true. In detached yet engaging prose, Nopca shows that the recipe for success is part industry, part luck, and mostly pure chance. Even that might not be enough.
By turns, however, it becomes an invitation. Come on up . . .
To a lover’s flat, that is. In “Don’t Leave,” Nopca follows romance’s sinuous course through shopping mall courtship to foiled late-night intimacy. Miriam is an art history major, but any ambition she has beyond working at a clothing outlet is left unspoken. A man, whom she dubs Robin Hood rather than learning his name, begins chatting her up on his way home from work, their longing for intimacy hidden behind their stunted small talk and “funny” stories. Soon, Robin Hood becomes her only hope for moving forward with her life.
But Nopca never allows his characters a happy ending. Rarely, though, does he subject them to undue suffering. His characters begin and end at the same point. The break-ups, job losses, arguments, demotions, financial sacrifices, and romantic humiliations sum up to zero. In a society that prides itself on upward mobility, stagnation is more frustrating than outright failure. This is Nopca’s most piercing insight.
Robin Hood washes up drunk at a bar by the story’s end, feeling worthless. “Every once in a while, one of the men glanced at him to make sure he still hadn’t collapsed,” Nopca writes. “It was as if he were a silent, invisible ghost. The visitor’s presence didn’t affect them in the slightest. They didn’t even seem to think he had a soul.” Barcelona will do that to a young man looking for love.
All that’s left is a sigh. Come on up.
Francoist Spain rarely comes up in this book. Some older characters briefly recall their lives in those decades, but Nopca never expounds on it at length. “Candles and Robes” discusses it most openly. Once a week, the teenage narrator visits his grandparents for lunch and hears stories of Francisco Franco’s dictatorship. To his disappointment, they “increasingly focused on seemingly unimportant details. The day Franco’s troops entered Barcelona was remembered for the textbooks that were left in the empty closets by the classroom.” The dramatic mixes with the dull, and the two become inexorably conjoined, a theme in Nopca’s work.
Simultaneously, the narrator’s dad tries to learn the saxophone. He watches countless YouTube videos of virtuoso players but can hardly eke out a note. Nopca finds a surprising parallel between futile saxophone lessons and Catalonia’s economic plight. In his nuanced telling, the dad’s efforts come to embody the struggle of a generation of Catalans, for they have the same chance at escaping Franco’s baneful legacy as the dad does at learning the saxophone. The fight for economic well-being is waged in every apartment in the city, but day by day, it becomes a lost cause.
An entire nation was promised there would be nowhere to go but up. When moving up becomes impossible, what is there left to do but try?
Michael McCarthy is an aspiring writer of prose, poetry, and nonfiction from Braintree, Massachusetts who attends Haverford College, where he intends to major in English. His work has been published in Prairie Schooner.
MORE MIRACLE THAN BIRD
by Alice Miller
Tin House Books, 352 pages
reviewed by Jozie Konczal
I approached More Miracle than Bird, Alice Miller’s debut novel about W.B. Yeats and his erstwhile muse, Georgie Hyde-White, as a poet interested in learning about Yeats and the woman who influenced his work. Although we get insights about the poet and his work, the novel is more about the journey of his muse, a naïve but determined rebel attempting to thwart the traditional roles that have been carved out for her. We see her youthful struggles and missteps, but by the novel’s close, we see a woman who has learned that holding onto the philandering Yeats means reshaping herself into someone who can contribute to his work.
Initially, Georgie, a translator of poetry with an interest in the occult, is attracted to the poet, who she meets at a society party, because of his involvement with seances and the Order: a “secret” society to which she hopes to gain access. Although her interest quickly turns romantic and she becomes as obsessed with the poet as she is with the “other” world of spirits and prophecy, Georgie is able to see through Yeats’s celebrity facade. When she approaches him to question him about the Order, she realizes, “[s]he was speaking to a man, not a famous figure.” Georgie’s ability to put Yeats’s notoriety aside and view him as a complicated and often confused man are what allows their relationship to develop.
Pike, a patient at the military hospital where Georgie works, is the novel’s other central figure and the third point in the novel’s love triangle. In some ways, Pike is the novel’s most likable character and a foil to Yeats. He is more transparent than the guarded Georgie and the withholding Yeats, and he cares for her consistently throughout the novel while Yeats does not. Pike does not approve of Georgie’s infatuation with Yeats, who is twenty years her senior, pointing out on more than one occasion that Georgie, his “swan duckling, this nurse creature,” deserves better. We can’t help sympathizing with him as learn about Yeats’ unrequited love affair with Maude Gonne and his dubious involvement in the Irish struggle, a dark character more devoted to his work than to Georgie. But Georgie does not see Yeats as undeserving of her devotion and is unaware of her feelings for Pike until it is too late.
Writing historical fiction presents a challenge in developing compelling characters that are also true to actual history. For example, while the novel gives insight into Georgie and her experiences, the novel is less effective in capturing the historical significance of characters like Ezra Pound. We see some of his flaws, but much of his problematic personhood, like his well-known fascism and anti-Semitism, goes unacknowledged. Perhaps this is an attempt not to divert the focus away from Georgie’s trajectory but one wonders why the author leaves us with the impression that Pound, a supporter of Mussolini and Hitler, is nothing more than a narcissistic philanderer.
This novel does many things, but perhaps one of the most important of those is the attention it draws to the woman behind the curtain. History forgets many women like Georgie, women who support great writers and artists while maintaining their own lives and literary fascinations. More Miracle than Bird does justice to that woman, in presenting her as the equal to the man she marries, while at the same time, giving up pieces of herself to help Yeats in his writing.
More Miracle than Bird is not a novel about W.B Yeats, although it is, in part, a novel about writing. We learn, for example, that writing does not always come easily to Yeats. We see that other components of his life were overshadowed at times by his devotion to his work. In this, the author may be suggesting that Yeats, and perhaps poets, in general, in order to achieve the gravity that he did, have to be willing to place work above other loves, such as one’s love for their country or a romantic partner.
Perhaps, in light of Yeats’ struggle with writing, it is Georgie’s gift of “automatic” writing, (the miracle, alluded to in the title, and referenced in Yeats’ poems entitled “Byzantium” and “Sailing to Byzantium”) that cements the relationship. The title itself refers to Georgie’s spiritual connection, a “miracle” so to speak, that inspires her automatic writing. We see the connection play out in a scene in which the excitement engendered when Georgie accesses a spirit seeps into Yeats’s writing: “[I]t seemed the air was alive, that so many stories were within their reach … it seemed they were surrounded by voices, neither dead nor alive … all straining to be heard.” Georgie’s communication with these voices through automatic writing in turn allows Yeats to access a depth within his work that would have otherwise remained cloaked.
At first glance, More Miracle than Bird is a work about poetry, romance and spiritual exploration, but I think this novel really comes alive in examining female agency and drive. For better or worse, the author seems to keep whatever intimacy existed between the characters as distant from the reader as Georgie and Yeats often seem to be from each other. Although Georgie has high aspirations to complete her work as a translator of poetry and climb the ranks within London’s literary society, she appears to subjugate her ambition as Yeats strings her along, pursuing other romantic relationships, even remaining aloof into their marriage. This unfailing desire to hold him contrasts with her dismissal of the Order when she learns of its fraudulent foundations. Perhaps her refusal to dismiss Yeats even when he ignores her or betrays her, is a result of conflating Yeats with a connection to the spiritual world that she craves so desperately. It is only after he accepts her, and she discovers automatic writing that she is able to access that world in the way she wants. In this way, More Miracle than Bird feels less like a love story, and more like a book about the relationship of the artist and his muse with art, about a woman’s agency within that relationship, than it does about a story of a miraculous romance.
Jozie Konczal is a poet from South Carolina. She graduated in 2019 with an MFA from Hollins University and in 2017 with a BA from the College of Charleston. Her work has been featured in The Northern Virginia Review, Poetry Quarterly, Concho River Review, and elsewhere.
A WORLD BETWEEN
by Emily Hashimoto
Feminist Press, 440 pages
reviewed by Ashira Shirali
Let’s be honest—the chances of walking into a bookstore and finding a literary lesbian romance are low. You’re more likely to find an entire cookbook consisting of sourdough recipes. If you want the book to feature characters of color, your odds sink even lower. Emily Hashimoto’s debut novel promises to fill this lacuna. A World Between (Feminist Press, September 2020) follows the relationship between two women of color, Leena and Eleanor, through college and adulthood. The novel alternates between Leena’s and Eleanor’s perspectives, revealing the yearnings and anxieties of each as they grow apart and together.
There is much to marvel at in this debut. Hashimoto is adept at plotting. She pulls Leena and Eleanor apart with narrative developments that are both unexpected and believable. The novel heightens tension as we long for the two’s reunion despite circumstances, family expectations, and their own struggles. Eleanor and Leena’s conflicts are heartbreakingly realistic. Their fights remind us that in real life there are no villains or heroes, just two people whose earnest feelings clash. Hashimoto deploys details masterfully. She can bring characters to life with just a handful of words. When Leena cries in her mother’s car, she turns away because her mother “couldn’t stomach emotions of this magnitude.” The novel’s dialogue captures the rhythms of young people’s conversations, both the beat and the crescendos.
A World Between’s greatest triumph is capturing the shape, color, and texture of attraction between two women.
Despite these strengths, Leena and Eleanor’s honest, multi-stranded story is let down by the novel’s prose. Hashimoto’s similes fall flat as often as they succeed, and she pushes metaphors too hard. After describing how Leena responds to Eleanor’s body as if calculating an equation, Hashimoto writes, “If two trains were headed to Boston at one hundred miles per hour, how fast would Eleanor come?” There are awkward phrases which aspire to the literary (“she took a bite of her tongue”), and sometimes the writing elicits pure confusion. The novel could easily lose a hundred pages. In other places, however, the words delight—“It was quiet for a long time, dust settling on the ellipses of the moment.”
A World Between’s greatest triumph is capturing the shape, color, and texture of attraction between two women. Before Leena and Eleanor’s first kiss, Hashimoto writes, “Eleanor applied one hand to the bed between them.” ‘Applied’ beautifully conveys the trembling excitement of reaching for a first kiss. When Leena sees Eleanor on the street years after college, she thinks, “Her sweet face, her genuine smile. Invading her today.” The diction reveals Leena’s apprehension at seeing Eleanor while out with her boyfriend, and the powerful effect Eleanor still has on her. Distilling the intimacy between women in all its rawness and tenderness is Hashimoto’s strength.
The novel’s attempts to reflect America’s diversity and the characters’ progressivism feel as heavy-handed as its metaphors. Although the novel does the crucial literary (and, indeed, human) work of telling the stories of people of color, immigrants, Jews, and other marginalized groups, by the end of the novel, this diversity feels contrived and unrealistic. Even the few straight White characters are ‘diversified’ by being in interracial relationships. Leena and Eleanor have identical political beliefs. Without specific and meaningful reasons behind these beliefs, they strike hollow and simplistic. Both Leena and Eleanor’s ambition in college is the platitude “[to] make a difference.” The two protagonists experience similar disillusionment when they realize their jobs will involve listening to bosses, not heroic acts of justice. Eleanor quits her job at a non-profit, telling her boss that she’s “sick of being told what to do and on your timeline.” These epiphanies would be trite by themselves, but they also seem unrealistic as they occur in the characters’ late twenties.
Eleanor and Leena’s intellectual myopia produces an immaturity that tests the believability of their characters. When Leena’s grandmother praises the education she received at a British school in India, Eleanor thinks Leena’s grandmother “seemed to be praising British colonialism.” She looks around for “someone to explain what the fuck is happening.” This reaction is better suited to a teenager who just learned about British colonialism in India, not an adult used to living in a complex world. When Leena finds out that a friend’s parents were deported, she thinks, “He seemed…okay. How was that possible?”
A World Between is importantly frank about sex between women. Their sex life is neither pornographized nor obscured, the two poles of how sex between women is depicted in mainstream media and culture.
Although Hashimoto’s diversity efforts feel manufactured, like a wooden puppet, her depictions of sex have the fluidity and heat of human bodies. The desire Eleanor and Leena feel for each other is tangible and all-consuming. A World Between is importantly frank about sex between women. Their sex life is neither pornographized nor obscured, the two poles of how sex between women is depicted in mainstream media and culture. When Eleanor and Leena dance together early in the novel, Hashimoto writes, “Up until this second, her interest in Leena was physical, no doubt, but she had been fascinated by the whole of her…With their bodies intertwined, all of that faded into the background…She wanted to fuck her.”
In A World Between, Hashimoto delivers a love story that portrays the depth of romantic attraction that can exist between women while escaping the trappings of cliché. Leena and Eleanor share moments suffused with love, but their relationship faces real-life challenges. There’s no neat ending in a shiny bow. Though hindered by uneven prose, A World Between is a moving portrait of the tensions, joys, and warmth that characterize a relationship between two women.
Ashira Shirali is from Gurgaon, India. Her stories have been shortlisted for the HG Wells Short Story Competition’s junior prize, The Adroit Prize for Prose, and other contests. Her work has been published in Cosmonauts Avenue, Hobart online, and elsewhere. She is a sophomore at Princeton University, where she studies English and Creative Writing.
GARDEN BY THE SEA
by Mercè Rodoreda
translated by Martha Tennent and Maruxa Relaño
Open Letter Books, 203 pages
reviewed by Anthony Cardellini
When I began my part-time job at a botanical garden in the fall of 2017, I had next to zero gardening experience, and I knew little about the different flowers and trees that grow in the Piedmont region of North Carolina. I showed up that first day completely unprepared, without so much as a pair of gloves. But I was lucky enough to be mentored by David, a man in his early thirties from Maine, who’d been gardening for several years. David explained to me the paradoxical nature of caring for gardens: gardens need constant attention, but they bear their beautiful fruits ever so slowly. At the heart of David’s message was that gardeners are transitory, but gardens remain. Our decades are their hours.
The unnamed narrator of Mercè Rodoreda’s Garden by the Sea is, like David, the consummate gardener. The years spent caring for his garden have imparted upon this narrator a unique understanding of time’s most closely-guarded secret: that it will always pass, without regard for the humans that attempt to confine it. He explains early in the novel the nature of a tree: “This tree has witnessed much grief and much joy. And it does not change. It has taught me to be what I am.” Rodoreda’s novel is a study of the way time passes, granting characters joyful years and grievous ones. She divides the novel into six sections, each of which describes one year that the narrator spends caring for the garden attached to a seaside villa owned by rich Catalans from Barcelona. Rodoreda uses the narrator’s gardening role to illustrate the ways in which time expands and contracts. There are no dates in the novel—only the slow passing of seasons, marked by changes in the garden. “They stayed later than usual that year,” writes the narrator of the villa owners at the end of the second chapter. “The leaves had already turned and many of the trees were bare … The sea was gradually leached of color and grew rough in the afternoon.” In this way, years pass—flowers bloom, die back, and then bloom again. The ocean intrudes and recedes.
Rodoreda uses the narrator’s gardening role to illustrate the ways in which time expands and contracts. There are no dates in the novel—only the slow passing of seasons, marked by changes in the garden.
In many ways, Rodoreda herself lived a life full of patience with time. Exiled from Spain because of her work for the Catalan government before the Spanish Civil War, Rodoreda began her writing career in France. After settling in Paris, she was forced again to flee when the Germans occupied France at the start of the Second World War. In Switzerland, she continued to grow in prominence as a writer. For many years, she waited for the wounds created by Franco and the war to heal. She finally moved home to Catalonia in 1972, when she was in her sixties. She died in Girona in 1983.
Like Rodoreda, the narrator in Garden by the Sea navigates through times of darkness and times of light as he tends to his flowers and trees. But while his own emotional state remains mostly steady, Rodoreda deftly employs him as a nucleus around which other characters’ sufferings revolve. Most of the novel exists as conversations between the narrator and the villa’s residents, who seek him out to air their problems, frustrations, and personal tragedies. An elderly couple visits and asks if he knows anything about their missing son. The stable manager vents about his unruly teenager. The neighbor wants advice for his own garden. And the narrator hears not just gossip but confessions of affairs, lost relatives, loveless marriages. Of one visitor he writes, “His eyes were beleaguered with a sadness I had never seen in anyone else’s eyes. It was almost imperceptible, but I sensed a perennial sorrow.”
But while Rodoreda’s narrator is frequently privy to the sufferings of other characters in the novel, he rarely offers them advice or tries to intervene and help their situations. In many cases, upon hearing about a character’s difficulties, the narrator doesn’t know what to say. A few times he even grows frustrated and wonders why he is so often sought out. And yet, his small house in the garden is a constant place of refuge and solace for many of the people at the villa, who talk through their sufferings with the narrator in a place free from judgment; a neutral ground. And the narrator’s belief that time heals all wounds is infectious—not just for the other characters in the novel, but also for the reader.
Rodoreda’s crowning achievement in Garden by the Sea is this character of the narrator. He takes advice from the plants he cultivates, loosening time’s grip on his life. But his is not an understanding that was arrived at easily; the final piece of his puzzle is achieved brilliantly through flashback—he has been deeply, indelibly marked by tragedy. Running underneath the surface of the novel is the tragic story of the narrator’s wife, Cecilia, whom the narrator describes as “tenderness itself.” His memories of her are powerfully evocative. In the first chapter, the narrator says, “Her loveliest feature was her hair: sun-golden, waterfall long. When I came back from the cemetery I pounded the eucalyptus until I bled … And at the moment of her death … the whole of me shattered.” These flashbacks emerge rarely and from otherwise ordinary conversations and descriptions, catching both the narrator and reader by surprise. Rodoreda’s stirring flashbacks demonstrate for us that the narrator is not the man he once was. Decades ago, he lived through the great tragedy of his life. Slowly, he has learned from his garden how to accept it. Now, in his own reserved and unique way, he imparts that knowledge onto the people around him. This is the essence of Garden by the Sea.
On one of my first days at the botanical garden, David pointed out to me the garden’s tallest tree: a southern red oak around 200 years old. “It’s at the end of its life now,” he admitted. “Doesn’t have much longer left.” I was still new at the time—I’d forgotten the way time works in gardens. I asked how much longer the tree had to live, expecting it to be a few months at most, but David told me it had somewhere between ten and fifteen years. When it died, a group of workers would come to remove it and then David would plant a new red oak, to watch over the gardens for another couple of centuries.
This image—a watchful, ancient tree—is the enduring image from Rodoreda’s work. At the end of the novel, the narrator and a neighbor walk for one last time through the garden. The neighbor says, “When these cypress trees are tall, you and I will have been beneath the earth for many years.” Our narrator’s response affirms what we’ve learned over the course of the novel: that it is not grief or joy that wins in the end, but time and its garden. As the narrator writes, “You know that my Cecilia died. Such is life. But while I’m here she won’t be gone, not completely … look at the garden now, this is the best hour, the best time to sense its vigor and capture its scent. One day if you find yourself walking in the garden at night, beneath the trees, you will see how the garden talks to you, the things it says…”
Anthony Cardellini is from Phoenix, Arizona. He studies creative writing at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, where he is the design editor for The Archive. His fiction has been published in Silk Road Review, Columbia Journal, The Drabble, and others. Connect with him on Twitter @a_cardellini.
Cockfight by María Fernanda Ampuero translated by Frances Riddle Feminist Press, 128 pages reviewed by Ashley Hajimirsadeghi
In her debut short story collection, Ecuadorian writer and journalist María Fernanda Ampuero takes an unflinching and intimate look into the turbulent homes and lives of Latin American women. By placing her powerful, moving stories in settings like violent domestic households or lower income neighborhoods, the characters in Ampuero’s Cockfight combat their situations with acts of bravery, loss, and love. As the characters seem to suffocate in their environments, there are acts of bravery, loss, and love. The idea of a happy family is a myth and men are depicted as lecherous, terrifying creatures of the night. The narrators often are maids, young girls, and women wrenched into horrifying situations such as forced incest, rape, and human trafficking.
The thirteen stories in this collection feature a myriad of women: some brave, many abused, and others fearful of all the men in their lives. From the beginning, readers are faced with the tragedy of what it means to be a woman in contemporary Ecuadorian society. One in four women in Ecuador face sexual violence, while the rape of young adolescent girls remains a large problem. In Cockfight, the first story, “Auction,” features a main character who is kidnapped while in a taxi and is about to be sold on the black market. In another story, “Coro,” a black maid’s room is broken into by wealthy, light-skinned women and shows the racial and societal inequalities in Ecuador. In a third story, “Mourning,” a mother celebrates her husband’s death and her newfound freedom. In each of these stories, Ampuero unveils a hard truth: behind closed doors, even people in the highest levels of society are not immune to suffering. Her stories are constructed from a feminist lens by creating realistic depictions of women. These women aren’t helpless and blameless victims in need of a savior; they are flawed and completely capable of inflicting pain on others, whether it’s through belittling their maid, acts of defiance in order to survive, or wishing death upon someone.
“Monsters,” the second story in Cockfight, follows the narrator, her sister Mercedes, and the maid Narcisa, where they live a upper middle-class lifestyle attending a religious private school, but their parents are often absent in their lives. The story takes place over the course of six months, while they’re still preteens. Mercedes and the narrator watch horror movies every night, despite their parents disapproving of their hobby. These movies are often grotesque, depicting beatings and torture of women, or, in some cases, young girls, like the sisters, being brutally murdered.
In “Monsters,” Ampuero strips the three girls of their youth by showing them how cruel the world really is. For Mercedes and the narrator, they learn of the abuse of women through film, but they initially see it as fiction. Because they’re watching horror films, it doesn’t seem like anything similar could happen to them. They are two preteen girls who lack any real problems up the events of the story; the extent of their biggest woes tend to be against the nuns running their school. As the story begins to unfold, they learn that reality is harsh, just like a horror film. The maid, Narcisa, who is fourteen and not much older, gives them a grave warning:
“[Their] arms burned as [Narcisa] repeated that now [they] had to beware of the living more than the dead—that now [they] really had to be more afraid of the living than of the dead.”
It is then that the films they watched before, the ones that gave Mercedes nightmares, start to seep into reality.
María Fernanda Ampuero
The story immediately following “Monsters” is called “Griselda.” Set in a poor neighborhood, it is narrated by an unnamed little girl with an unforgiving and blunt way of seeing the world. The narrator tells the story of Miss Griselda, the local baker who makes amazing cakes, who is found one night in her home covered in blood. As the neighborhood ladies gossip about what could’ve gone down, the narrator is unassuming, seeing the world for the way it is: full of pain. While everyone calls Miss Griselda an alcoholic, the narrator notices how Miss Griselda’s daughter, Griseldita, tries to dismiss the incident and perpetuates rumors by screaming at the neighborhood women to “mind their own business.”
Cockfight is an investigation of domestic spaces, women’s bodies, and the meaning of a coming-of-age story, one that strips the male gaze and sees the world for how it is: ugly, grotesque, brutal.
In “Monsters,” the conflict directly appears in the domestic space of the narrator, while in “Griselda” the violence is only seen from a distance and from an outsider’s perspective. Those who are from a lower class lack the privilege of being naïve about how the world truly is; this is shown through the narrator’s blunt, almost uncaring, style about what happened to Miss Griselda. Upon the loss of Miss Griselda’s cakes to the neighborhood, the narrator only says, “I didn’t give a damn about cakes anymore.” She watches the scene of the crime calmly, taking note of the growing bloodstained sheet and Griselda’s pushed aside panties. However, in “Monsters,” the narrator and her sister, Mercedes, are unable to describe their trauma. There is an absence of detail–it is only written that Mercedes screams upon seeing what’s happening. The lack of information about what’s truly going on in this story shows the disconnect between the narrator and reality, because what they witness is something they’ve only seen in movies.
Ampuero is unafraid in this stunning debut collection. She takes the language of suffering and abuse and turns it into a memorial for the living. While these are stories of tragedy, they offer an insight to the various issues plaguing Ecuadorian women. Cockfight is an investigation of domestic spaces, women’s bodies, and the meaning of a coming-of-age story, one that strips the male gaze and sees the world for how it is: ugly, grotesque, brutal.
Ashley Hajimirsadeghi is an undergraduate at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Her work has appeared in Into the Void, Corvid Queen, and cahoodaloodaling, among others. She attended the International Writing Program’s Summer Institute and was a Brooklyn Poets Fellow. You can find her at ashleyhajimirsadeghi.squarespace.com
THE SPORT OF THE GODS by Paul Laurence Dunbar Signet Classics, 176 pages reviewed by Dylan Cook
For the best experience, I recommend reading The Sport of the Gods outside on a cloudy day, rain threatening. As you fall in step with Paul Laurence Dunbar’s rhythmic prose, it’ll be easy to forget that you’re at nature’s mercy. Let the clouds decide whether or not you get to read uninterrupted. Subject to this force, you may more easily understand what the Hamilton family endures in this novel. As deceits and misfortunes pile on top of each other, the Hamiltons decide that nature can’t help but rain down upon them. Their breakdown is more than plain bad luck can explain, so they know that they are fighting, “against some Will infinitely stronger than their own.”
Even if you haven’t heard of Paul Laurence Dunbar, you’ve likely read lines of his poetry. Maya Angelou immortalized his poem “Sympathy” when she borrowed a line for the title of her memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Discussing her influences, Angelou lauded Dunbar in the same breath as Shakespeare. Dunbar was born to former slaves in Ohio in 1872, right in the middle of the Reconstruction era. He began writing seriously as a teenager, the only Black student in his high school. He had some early publishing help from his friends Wilbur and Orville Wright (yes, those Wright Brothers) before publishing his first poetry collection, Oak and Ivy. From this collection’s success, Dunbar launched a prolific career that spanned over a dozen poetry collections, three short story collections, and a handful of novels. In nearly all of his work, he seamlessly transitioned between standard and vernacular English, a feat that earned him both praise and criticism. Perhaps most miraculously, he produced all of this work amid recurring bouts of tuberculosis and alcoholism. Dying at the age of 33, Dunbar left behind a sprawling body of work that’s yet to be properly explored.
Paul Laurence Dunbar
At the height of his literary power, Dunbar wrote The Sport of the Gods over the course of a month in 1901. The narrative centers on the Hamilton family, with parents Berry and Fannie and their children Joe and Kitty. Berry, a former slave, works as a butler for Maurice Oakley, a man who believes that, “there must be some good in every system, and it was the duty of the citizen to find out that good and make it pay.” Despite many years of loyal work, Berry Hamilton is expendable to Maurice. This tenuous relationship comes to a head when Maurice’s brother claims his money has been stolen. After years of saving, Berry happens to have amassed a fortune roughly equal to the amount that was stolen. For Maurice, this circumstantial evidence is enough to ensure that Berry is sentenced to ten years of hard labor.
With Berry’s good name defaced, the Hamilton family is ostracized from their community. They regroup and head north:
They had heard of New York as a place vague and far away, a city that, like Heaven, to them had existed by faith alone. All the days of their lives they had heard of it, and it seemed to them the center of all the glory, all the wealth, and all the freedom of the world. New York. It had an alluring sound.
The Hamiltons’ move to New York represents an overlooked moment in American history: the southern diaspora before the one we now consider the Great Migration. Before World War I and the Red Summer drove African Americans north, and before the Harlem Renaissance redefined literature, music, and art, there was a thriving Black population in New York City laying the groundwork. Dunbar’s novel introduces us to a turn of the century New York that contemporary authors like Edith Wharton never touched. Joe and Kitty, being young and ambitious, both make connections and find success working in music clubs. For the first time in a long time, the Hamiltons seem to be on the rise.
Even if you haven’t heard of Paul Laurence Dunbar, you’ve likely read lines of his poetry. Maya Angelou immortalized his poem “Sympathy” when she borrowed a line for the title of her memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
Only Fannie, the matriarch, can see the shadow still looming over the family. She comes the closest to forming a theory for the Hamiltons’ suffering. Fannie can’t bring herself to be happy for Kitty or Joe because she sees them being corrupted, commodified, and used by their friends and employers. From the moment she lays eyes on a music club, she sees it as, “a social cesspool generating a poisonous miasma and reeking with the stench of decayed and rotten moralities.” The life they’ve built in New York, successful as it may seem, is built on the same shaky foundation that crumbled under Berry. No matter where they are, north or south, they can never let themselves get too comfortable. At any moment, the people whom they trust may turn on them, just like Maurice turned on Berry, and the Hamilton family will collapse again.
Reducing The Sport of the Gods down to its key themes may give the impression that the novel is overwhelmingly pessimistic, perhaps even nihilistic. This is a dangerous assumption. The novel does carry the weight of the Hamiltons’ grief, but it’s not hopeless. After all, both Berry and his children are able to find precarious levels of success. Dunbar balances two nearly opposing ideas. On one hand, he shows that success for African Americans is possible in spite of the racist systems that hinder it; on the other, he claims that this success isn’t success at all if others can take it away so easily. In this way, The Sport of the Gods vacillates between comedy and tragedy so frequently that the dividing line becomes useless. The overall effect may appear pessimistic, but it’s the productive kind of pessimism that mobilizes action. Joe eventually notices this, realizing that, “his horizon had been very narrow, and he was angry that it was so.”
Paul Laurence Dunbar died more than a hundred years ago, but one must still mourn a brilliant writer whose career was cut short. It would be decades before authors like Richard Wright and Ann Petry would take up the mantle and raise Dunbar’s questions with the same kind of intensity.
Still, it’s difficult to read The Sport of the Gods and not wish for more. More, not because the novel is incomplete, but because it raises the kind of high-stakes questions that linger and nag long after it’s finished. Paul Laurence Dunbar died more than a hundred years ago, but one must still mourn a brilliant writer whose career was cut short. It would be decades before authors like Richard Wright and Ann Petry would take up the mantle and raise Dunbar’s questions with the same kind of intensity. Had he lived longer, maybe his subsequent novels would have shepherded us towards a satisfying answer, but we can only speculate. As it stands, Dunbar’s work is an important literary bridge between Reconstruction and the Harlem Renaissance, bringing the whole picture into much clearer focus.
Dylan Cook is a student at the University of Pennsylvania where he studies English, with a concentration in creative writing, and Biology. He often reads and writes, and when he’s not doing either of these things, he can be found working in a lab, lost in the woods somewhere, or at [email protected].
CLOTEL, or, The President’s Daughter by William Wells Brown Penguin Classics, 320 pages reviewed by Dylan Cook
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In 1998, scientists performed a DNA test to answer one of the longest-running rumors in American history. Historians could no longer deny the truth: Yes, Thomas Jefferson had fathered children with his slave Sally Hemings. But plenty of people already knew that. William Wells Brown knew this beyond a reasonable doubt when he published Clotel in 1853, a novel that imagines the lives and tribulations of Jefferson’s slave-born daughters. The characters are all fictional, but Brown’s creative liberties stray little from reality. Masters frequently made concubines of their slaves, so why would Jefferson be any exception? Jefferson’s words that “all men are created equal” were a farce in Brown’s eyes, because only in antebellum America could a president’s daughter be born in chains.
The 1850s were an uncommonly productive decade in American literature. Nathaniel Hawthorne published The Scarlet Letter in 1850 and Herman Melville published Moby-Dick a year later. Walt Whitman released the first edition of Leaves of Grass while Emily Dickinson trickled out the first of her poems. These works went on to become mainstays of high school and college curricula while Clotel, the first novel by an African American, undeservedly fell into relative obscurity.
The 1850s were an uncommonly productive decade in American literature. Nathaniel Hawthorne published The Scarlet Letter in 1850 and Herman Melville published Moby-Dick a year later. Walt Whitman released the first edition of Leaves of Grass while Emily Dickinson trickled out the first of her poems. These works went on to become mainstays of high school and college curricula while Clotel, the first novel by an African American, undeservedly fell into relative obscurity. Within its pages, Clotel mingles some of the best elements of each of these authors. Brown has Hawthorne’s critical eye for religion, Melville’s encyclopedic dedication to facts, and Whitman and Dickinson’s curiosity for human lives. At the same time, Brown writes with an authoritative talent for social commentary that places him in a category all his own.
Brown was already an established name by the time he wrote Clotel. His memoir, the Narrative of William W. Brown, was one of the best selling ex-slave narratives of the 1840s, second only to that of Frederick Douglass. He wrote his debut novel while living in exile in England to escape the grasp of the Fugitive Slave Act. He returned to the United States to lecture on abolition across the country, all while continuing to write plays, memoirs, and other nonfiction. Clotel’s influence can be seen scattered throughout the American canon. Brown’s depictions of passing, “tragic mulatto” characters, and other racial themes would be further developed by contemporaries like Frank J. Webb, later writers like Charles W. Chesnutt, and much later figures of the Harlem Renaissance and beyond.
The novel may be titled for Clotel, but it divides its attention equally between Clotel, her mother Currer, and her sister Althesa. After Jefferson’s death, his daughters and Currer are sold to the highest bidders, by which point their relation to the former president has been ignored. The family is separated and spread out across the South. Clotel and Althesa are sold to men who intend to take them as illegitimate wives, while Currer has been sold to a tyrannical plantation owner. As each navigates the unique circumstances of their enslavement, each woman swims against the current to try to reunite the family.
By placing the women in dramatically different scenarios, Brown constructs a broad cross-section of the United States, from which he criticizes white America’s many faces of hypocrisy.
By placing the women in dramatically different scenarios, Brown constructs a broad cross-section of the United States, from which he criticizes white America’s many faces of hypocrisy. Clotel and Althesa’s “husbands” pretend that their marriages are genuine and loving, but they quickly relegate their “wives” to servants the moment the opportunity to marry a white woman arises. Masters turn to religion to justify the “peculiar institution” of slavery, but conveniently ignore scriptures that decry it. Brown dismantles the idea that the United States was a free nation for anyone besides white men, writing,
They have tears to shed over Greece and Poland; they have an abundance of sympathy for “poor Ireland;” they can furnish a ship of war to convey the Hungarian refugees from a Turkish prison to the “land of the free and home of the brave.” They boast that America is the “cradle of liberty;” if it is, I fear they have rocked the child to death.
As much as Brown rebukes white Americans, he also provides a valuable model for allyship. When Currer is sold to Reverend Peck, we are introduced to his abolitionist daughter Georgiana. She, unlike her father, sees slavery for the moral and religious atrocity that it is. Adhering to her principles, she badgers her father as he stubbornly ignores her. Her father’s death comes as a relief to her because she then gains the authority to free his slaves. Yet, Brown tactfully dodges portraying Georgiana as a white savior. Far from it, Brown is precise in noting that the slaves, through their own grit, saved themselves. Georgiana is an example of how whites could be helpful to that end, but are by no means the primary actors.
After Clotel is sold by her “husband,” she escapes and traverses the country while passing for a white man. She remains intent on finding her mother and sister, but she is obstructed along the way. The people she meets give the novel room to digress to describe the systems and circumstances that added to slaves’ oppression. Brown does not shy away from incorporating real examples of lynchings or slave captures to paint a grim portrait of the South, often citing newspaper clippings to ground his point. At one turn, Brown even describes how an epidemic of yellow fever in 1831 New Orleans disproportionately impacted slaves as they were forced to fill in for whites who had fallen ill. Soon, once tensions rose, protests caught fire, prompting Brown to ask,
Did not the American revolutionists violate the laws when they struck for liberty? They were revolters, but their success made them patriots—we were revolters, and our failure makes us rebels. Had we succeeded, we would have been patriots too. Success makes all the difference.
As the father of the African American novel, Brown’s work established the genre’s potential for invoking change. Clotel doesn’t just document America bending towards justice, it actively applies pressure.
As the father of the African American novel, Brown’s work established the genre’s potential for invoking change. Clotel doesn’t just document America bending towards justice, it actively applies pressure. Brown is always clear and concise in his demands. Even today, as oppressive systems have evolved into new forms, Brown’s words remain enduring directives for equality. In a philosophical moment, he describes how the first slaves were brought to Virginia only a few months before the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock. The passengers of each charted two halves of America that would run parallel to each other for centuries. Four hundred years later, the question Brown raises in Clotel still remains unanswered: “When shall one of those parallel lines come to an end?”
Dylan Cook is a student at the University of Pennsylvania where he studies English, with a concentration in creative writing, and Biology. He often reads and writes, and when he’s not doing either of these things, he can be found working in a lab, lost in the woods somewhere, or at [email protected].
THE DARK HEART OF EVERY WILD THING
by Joseph Fasano
Platypus Press, 272 pages (forthcoming, September 1, 2020)
reviewed by Michael McCarthy
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In the moral universe of poet Joseph Fasano’s debut novel, The Dark Heart of Every Wild Thing, death lurks in every corner of life. A father, bereaved of his wife, must journey through the teeming forests of British Columbia and hunt a fabled mountain lion, to him the very “mind of the wild.” Three years ago, it mauled his son, the father powerless to save him. Now, as he narrates his monomaniacal fight for survival, the hunt for the mountain lion becomes an obsession, borne of unfathomable grief, to exact revenge on a world that has stolen everything he loved.
It is a dramatic book, straddling the sentimental and the brutal. Accordingly, it divides each chapter into two sections, one to the hunt and the other to his marriage. While he recalls memories of his wife to last him through the cold and deadly wilderness, the memories end inevitably, as he fears his hunt soon will, in death. Loss is the overpowering theme of his life. When he returns to the woods to avenge his son’s death, he is chased by wolves and forced to eat snow, and he must reckon with the possibility that there are some things a man cannot save.
I use the word “man” deliberately. Despite its intentions, Dark Heart is characteristically masculine. For all the mystical poeticism layered over the hunt, it embodies a Hemingway-esque male fantasy. What’s more virile than roughing it alone in the wilderness, outfoxing ravenous beasts and still more ravenous hunters? While it strives for something nobler than its subject, its failure to address the gendered aspect of the father’s hunger for revenge chains the novel to the ground whenever it tries to soar.
Alongside his wife’s death, there is a more latent loss, another strike at his masculinity. Just as he lost his wife, he lost also his role as husband. This complicates his marital reflections in the wilderness. Is he remembering her or recreating her in his own image? Regardless, she comes across as a bland, incomplete counterpart to an obscenely masculine hero. He hunts; she dances. He shows his son how to build a house; she brings them lemonade. He gets to go on wild adventures; she tends to house chores. To his credit, he seems at least somewhat aware of this inequality. At one point, he recalls this exchange with a premarital lover:
“You are not ready.” “For what?” “To hold someone and not—” she searched for the words “—not make of her what you need.”
This could describe either Fasano or his protagonist.
It would be unfair, however, to characterize Dark Heart solely by its refusal to buck these misogynistic tropes. Rather, they read as something the novel struggles against. The narrative gropes for higher meaning through magisterial prose, equally concerned with philosophical abstractions as with blood-and-guts reality, and though it never fully succeeds, it reaches heights most books dare not consider. The prose alone can bring you to tears. It challenges, cleanses, saddens, lifts, pierces, and consoles, sometimes within a single paragraph. Take this passage as emblematic of the atmosphere Fasano conjures:
It was pleasant once to track in the early autumns, the chickadees and the violet-green swallow beginning always to sing their unfinished praise, the heron that always came north out of its range to cross once a season over the valley and disappear over the pines to god knows where. […] I’d loved it, too, the purring and caterwauling of the animal itself, and in the thaw of youth I’d believed in the myth that we were brothers, that if you hunger for something strongly enough in the night, strongly and without pride or malice, you become it, and whichever one of you is chosen to fall will yield itself willingly and truly in the nature of things, as a body at the high noon of its truth gathers back the vastness of its shadow.
If this language captivates you, so will the entire novel. Fasano is relentless in maintaining his narrator’s dense, hypnotic, imaginative voice. It accounts for almost all of the novel’s emotional range. Just as it details the father’s gory injuries and self-administered treatments, it gives way to moments of bracing tenderness. By now, the likeness to Moby-Dick should be obvious. (Really, just substitute a white whale for a mountain lion and a lost leg for a lost son.) When it isn’t bogged down in masculine reveries, it earns the comparison, describing universal themes with invigorating passion: mortality, grief, hope, darkness. Whether the prose succeeds in elevating the novel to the lofty existential plane it aspires to, the reader must decide.
If, in fact, the reader does decide. I still haven’t made heads or tails of the novel weeks after finishing it. Did I enjoy reading it? Frankly no. Has it fascinated me? More than almost any other book I can recall. It seems to me that this is how the novel was meant to be read. That is, not read but reckoned with. You must yield to its intense vision and follow the father’s voice to its last end. The novel doesn’t captivate you. It takes you prisoner.
After a story shadowed over by death, it ends on a note not devoid of hope. Fasano allows his protagonist to escape the book’s endless shadow, the darkness to lift, in a way utterly surprising yet perfectly fitting. Nevertheless, I lament the much richer novel he didn’t write. Clearly, he can write powerfully about anything he sets his mind to. I just wish he had devoted his capacious artistry to deconstructing the limiting gender roles that limit his own narrative. I find myself repeating a verse of a poem the narrator’s wife reads to him: “I wish what I wished you before, but harder.”
Michael McCarthy is an aspiring writer of prose, poetry, and nonfiction from Braintree, Massachusetts who attends Haverford College, where he intends to major in English. His work has been published in Prairie Schooner.
ON EARTH WE’RE BRIEFLY GORGEOUS
by Ocean Vuong
Penguin Press, 256 pages
reviewed by Claire Kooyman
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Whether we want to or not, we are traveling in a spiral, we are creating something new from what is gone. —Ocean Vuong, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous
Ocean Vuong’s writing is steeped in memories, the history of which sometimes precedes him chronologically. This was true of his poetry in the collection Night Sky With Exit Wounds, and it is also true of his first novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, recently released by Penguin Press. This novel is a recursive exploration of the path memories take through a family. The narrator’s life is impacted by the traumas his mother and grandmother suffered before he was born. As a very young child, Vuong’s narrator, Little Dog, learns quickly that not all authority figures can be trusted absolutely, and that even unconditional love has flaws. Throughout the novel, Vuong illustrates that we are all sharing space with the past, even as we exist in the present.
Little Dog (a nickname given to Vuong’s narrator by his grandmother as a way to make him seem less enticing to evil spirits who might steal him) writes to his mother as a way to confess and relate to her as an adult. His mother knows few words in her native Vietnamese or in English and cannot read, so she will never know what he is saying. The epistolary style of the novel, then, is ironic. Perhaps Little Dog knows that this is the only way he can explain himself to his mother, even if she will never understand; this style allows the narrator to express freely what they cannot discuss face-to-face. He brings up things his mother might not understand, like the racial heritage of American celebrities, and things too painful to discuss, even with time behind them. Even if most readers can’t directly relate to Little Dog’s Vietnamese immigrant heritage or the challenges of being gay, many children and parents feel unable to truly express themselves to the other, even without the burden of language standing in the way. This novel is like a book of secrets your mother or son might never tell you.
As a reader, one might question whether On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a novel at all. The writing fluidly switches from more traditional storytelling to something that resembles Vuong’s poetry. Is this a novel-length poem, or a novel written like poetry? He uses line breaks that a prose editor might assume were typos in a different work:
For summer. For your hands
were wet and Trevor’s a name like an engine starting up in the night. Who snuck out to meet a boy like you. Yellow and barely there.
This passage about what Trevor is to Little Dog blends the best of poetry and prose beautifully. He disregards paragraphs and narrative for strong images and emotion; faced with white space, we linger on Little Dog’s hands reaching for Trevor the way that the narrator himself does in his memory. We feel the time he spent with Trevor, without it being explained to us in longform.
Vuong’s speedy switching between topics also evokes his poetry. Much of this novel reminds me of his poem, Aubade with Burning City—not just because it deals with fallout from the Vietnam War, but because of the stylistic way Vuong approaches his material. He approaches the themes of war, identity, and belonging from many angles, shows us the individual threads, and then weaves them together until the reader sees it was always one large tapestry. From “Aubade with Burning City:
Milkflower petals on the street ……………………………………………..like pieces of a girl’s dress.
May your days be merry and bright…
He fills a teacup with champagne, brings it to her lips. ………………Open, he says. ………………………………………..She opens.
The juxtaposed images found in this poem (milkflower petals, pieces of fabric, the bubbling teacup) are like the many disparate topics of Little Dog’s letters: Tiger Woods’s undiscussed Asian heritage, his grandfather’s significance in his life, his agreement with his mother about how hard it is to be different in America. In the novel, the sections are broken up by the different subject matter. But then, the themes coalesce: in both the novel and the poem, the present American influence is linked to mistrust and racism. Tiger Woods is part Asian, and a product of the Vietnam War—and Paul, Little Dog’s grandfather, is connected to him solely because of war, too. Much of the novel does this: takes disparate pieces and slowly pushes them together, until the reader can see the similarities.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous follows Little Dog as he grapples with his family’s identity, and the identity of being Vietnamese in a culture that attempted to destroy Vietnam. As if that weren’t enough, he also struggles to come to terms with being gay during the nineteen-nineties. His relationship with Trevor echoes his grandmother and grandfather’s during the Vietnam War: an interracial relationship with shame, remixed for the modern era. Like Little Dog, Trevor has pieces of himself that feel impossible to reconcile. Home is not a refuge for him; Trevor’s alcoholic father represents the popular opinion of a country and culture that do not understand either them, or gay sub-culture. Little Dog writes:
I did not know then what I know now: to be an American boy, and then an American boy with a gun, is to move from one end of a cage to another.
In the third section of the novel, an adult Little Dog returns to where he grew up to attend a funeral. In this portion, he also discusses the death of his grandmother, and the return of her ashes to Vietnam. Again, we see Vuong approaching the same theme from a different angle: many versions of the word home are returned to in this section—literally, the physical locations of Little Dog’s own home, and Vietnam, the original home of his family, and, less tangibly, the concept of home, of memory. He repeatedly says, “I remember the table” in this third section—sometimes referring to specific tables from his memory, and sometimes just discussing the idea of constructing, or reconstructing a memory.
Little Dog reminds us that memory is an active process, like art. Neither exists in a vacuum, but both are instead little universes unto themselves that are actively created by individuals with pasts. With much effort and introspection on Vuong’s part, they flicker, alive for a moment: briefly gorgeous in the mind of the reader.
Claire Kooyman lives in Boulder, Colorado with her cats, Tom and Finn. She graduated from University of Colorado Boulder in 2018 with a degree in creative writing. She was recently published for the first time in Not Your Mother’s Breast Milk. She enjoys the view of the mountains from her balcony, and the sound of geese flying overhead.
The week I read Cleanness, Garth Greenwell’s sophomore novel, I didn’t go outside. This was in Brooklyn during the third week of April, 2020—at the peak of COVID-19 cases in New York. We were warned to stay inside as much as possible, a difficult feat in a small one-bedroom apartment with a partner and two cats. I found myself lying about, staring at the ceiling, or cleaning, or reading, or cleaning some more. I found myself at odds: to go outside or stay in? To release my pent-up energy or do what I was told? Of course, in a case like this, staying in was the only conscionable thing to do. But the thought remained and followed me through my reading of Cleanness.
At its heart, Cleanness is a novel about duality: the duality of spirit, of desire, of self-perception. How one can be “dirty” and “clean” at the same time. With deft and expressive writing, Greenwell questions our understanding of these concepts. What does it mean to be dirty? What does it mean to be clean? To go outside or stay in. To stay in or go outside. Perhaps they are just two facets of the same thing.
But I am getting ahead of myself.
Cleanness takes place in Sofia, Bulgaria, which will ring a bell for those who have read Greenwell’s debut novel, What Belongs to You. Both books follow the same unnamed narrator as he navigates life in this foreign country, searching for meaning, for feeling, for something he cannot quite name. And if What Belongs to You read as a kind of looking-in (at the narrator’s life, his past and his present), Cleanness reads more like an opening up: it peels back the layers that remained hidden in Greenwell’s first novel. We get a messier and even deeper sense of who the narrator is.
At its heart, Cleanness is a novel about duality: the duality of spirit, of desire, of self-perception. How one can be “dirty” and “clean” at the same time.
The novel is arranged into a lieder cycle (fitting with the narrator’s love of music and opera). Each chapter is sequenced to fit a specific pattern. The first section, comprised of three chapters, presents the narrator in three roles: as a teacher, as a sexual partner, and as a resident of Bulgaria. The second section explores his complex relationship with a Portuguese man known simply as R. The final section is set up similarly to the first, but in reverse order.
At times Cleanness feels less like a novel than a collection of short stories all concentrated on the different facets of a single man. And it’s true. Each of the nine stories in the book could stand alone, but together, they form a whole person.
The “separateness” of each chapter is no accident. It serves an important purpose: from the moment the novel begins, the reader is at the heart of the story. There is no single climax in this work, but rather climaxes throughout the ebb and flow of the narrator’s experiences. Greenwell is one of those rare authors who is not concerned with what the novel structure demands of a story, but rather how a story demands to be structured.
And it’s not only the novel’s structure that mirrors the story it tells. Greenwell’s prose is intensely introspective, so much so that even in scenes with conversation, we still feel completely inside the narrator’s head. This is in part due to a complete lack of dialogue markers, which gives the novel a stream-of-consciousness quality and a poetic awareness that makes sense for Greenwell (who is a poet first and foremost). Greenwell’s prose elevates the narrator’s character, drawing him in sharper and sharper detail as we move along.
And here we are, back at the beginning. Back to the burning, acidic question that haunts every facet of the narrator’s life. What is cleanness? Is it wisdom that he can impart to his students? Is it connection to a country despite the fact that it doesn’t accept his queerness? Is it love? Is it the absence of shame? He struggles with desire, which looms over him, shameful and secret. Sex, for the narrator, is particularly resonant.
The sex in Cleanness is honest and explicit, sometimes violent, erotic, and brimming with meaning. And Greenwell doesn’t shy away from the messiness of sex. In reading these sections I was reminded of a long paragraph in the middle of What Belongs to You, in which the narrator recounts coping with an abusive, hateful, homophobic father in his adolescent years, absorbing his hatred and turning it inward. In Cleanness we see the grit and grime of this past displayed in sexual encounters. “I had never whipped anyone before,” the narrator explains, “but that was how my father had done it, taking the strap to us, as he said, that was how he punished us.”
He grapples with the desire to be punished and the desire to punish, feeling ashamed of both. The reader feels that pain and confusion explicitly. “Was it joy or defiance or despair, I wanted to know where one ended and the others began,” the narrator thinks. There is a constant push and pull, either a resistance or a giving in.
For who hasn’t wanted to do something they feel they shouldn’t? I think back to my desire to spend the day at the park when I had been warned to stay inside. There is shame in our desires. There will always be the public gaze looming over our decisions, over how we perceive ourselves. Will we choose to be dirty or clean? And where do we draw the line between the two? Can we definitively say that one is good and the other bad?
In the middle section, the narrator finds a release, a kind of brightness, in his relationship with R. About sex with R. he says: “Sex had never been joyful for me before, or almost never, it had always been fraught with shame and anxiety and fear, all of which vanished at the sight of his smile, simply vanished, it poured a kind of cleanness over everything we did.”
But while he is grateful for the liberation from shame that R. provides him, the narrator still feels a dark longing. “I wanted something brutal, which was what frightened me,” he says, “I wanted to go back to what R. had lifted me out of…I wanted to ruin…the person he had made me.”
It is this inner war that makes Cleanness so relatable. For who hasn’t wanted to do something they feel they shouldn’t? I think back to my desire to spend the day at the park when I had been warned to stay inside. There is shame in our desires. There will always be the public gaze looming over our decisions, over how we perceive ourselves. Will we choose to be dirty or clean? And where do we draw the line between the two? Can we definitively say that one is good and the other bad?
At one point the narrator touches upon something, a release of shame, perhaps temporary, but there nonetheless. A stray dog comes to him in a moment of vulnerability for them both. It is a dog he knows well, and she wants to be let in. “She was dirty,” the narrator thinks. Then, in a moment of forgiveness, for himself, for the dog, he adds, “but what was a little dirt, I thought as I turned the latch, I should have let you in a long time ago, I said, I’m sorry.”
Nikki Caffier Smith is a writer living in Brooklyn. She received a BA in Creative Writing from The Gallatin School at New York University. Her poetry and fiction have appeared in Typishly and Awakened Voices Magazine, and a short story of hers will soon be featured on Kaleidocast Podcast.
Jones, Alden. “The Rumpus Interview with Garth Greenwell.” The Rumpus.net, 1 Feb. 2016, therumpus.net/2016/02/the-rumpus-interview-with-garth-greenwell/.
Kerziouk, Olga. “An Introduction to Bulgarian Literature.” European Studies Blog, 20 June 2016, blogs.bl.uk/european/2016/06/an-introduction-to-bulgarian-literature.html.
Wolahan, Emily. “5 Bulgarian Writers You Don’t Want to Miss: Center for the Art of Translation: Two Lines Press.” Center for the Art of Translation | Two Lines Press, 23 Feb. 2017, www.catranslation.org/blog-post/5-bulgarian-writers-you-dont-want-to-miss/.
Tables need at least three legs to stand; guitar strings only ring when taut around two points. Minor Detail, Adania Shibli’s third novel, takes its title as a challenge: how much can hinge upon one moment? How can a single moment of pain bridge the past to the present?
Shibli, a novelist and academic, is one of the few contemporary chroniclers of the West Bank. Her writing is concise. All of her novels fall under two hundred pages, all of her sentences are pared down to the bare minimum. In describing her new novel, Shibli said that her writing philosophy boils down to, “what is written, and what should never be written.” Her careful narration is more than the iceberg strategy of implying a story beneath the surface. Instead, Shibli’s writing is in tension with what it cannot say. Information is cut out not because it’s useless, but because, like the sun, it’s too painful to look at directly.
The novel is split into two nearly equal parts that mirror and distort each other. It begins in 1949 in the Negev Desert. Israel has just gained independence, but their military presence lingers, leaving an Israeli officer and his unit to comb the desert looking for anyone who can be deemed suspicious. The officer has no name or features. He’s given only enough detail to suggest a form from his outline. He is one man and he is fifty men, each more hostile than the last. Shibli’s narration puts him on a leash and scrutinizes his every move. After he’s brutally bitten by a vague “creature,” he sets out to kill every spider in his path. Was it a spider that gave him his wound? Probably not, but he can’t bring himself to heal without inflicting pain somewhere. It becomes a part of his routine. He lives, he eats, he breathes, he hates.
The officer’s penchant for hate becomes the fulcrum that pivots to the second act. Under the officer’s hand, the soldiers find a Bedouin camp, kill the inhabitants, and torture a young girl. Routine hate. So routine that, in the present day, a young woman is intrigued by the event because of, “the date it occurred, perhaps because there was nothing particularly unusual about the main details.” Enter a new, nameless representative: a Ramallah woman who pays more attention to outlines than the bodies that fill them. As she investigates this murder, pieces of 1949 (the desert, the officers, the spiders) bleed through time into her life. Her obsession with minor details from the past blind her from properly seeing the present. She travels from Palestine deep into Israel, retracing the Bedouin girl’s path, retracing her history, but never approaching an opportunity to rewrite it.
The officer’s penchant for hate becomes the fulcrum that pivots to the second act. Under the officer’s hand, the soldiers find a Bedouin camp, kill the inhabitants, and torture a young girl. Routine hate.
It’s from this repetition, this historical déjà vu, that emerges Shibli’s narrative control. The novel’s halves are linear in themselves, but their entanglement prevents them from ever being distinct. Time vacillates between the past and the present. Just as the events of the past shape the present, experiences from the present shape how we interrogate the past. A lot has changed since 1949. By land area, Palestine is a small fraction of what it used to be. But, as Shibli reminds us, the people are still there, and they are far from minor. The nations have changed shape, but the terms of war have remained the same. With them, the experiences, casualties, and memories of war continue into the present. Shibli demands that they be heard, because the present can never improve without reconciling the past.
William Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead! Actually, it’s not even past.” No novel exemplifies this maxim better than Minor Detail.
William Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead! Actually, it’s not even past.” No novel exemplifies this maxim better than Minor Detail. It’s rare that a novel so subtle in its construction and sparse in its prose can cut so deeply. Shibli warps time, collapsing the past and present, to depict a Palestine that has learned to live with wartime atrocities, “in everyday life.” In the novel’s present-day half, war lives as an unwelcome, unhealthy, and unyielding presence. Like polluted water, it can be easy to ignore if you’re not the one who has to drink it. Shibli’s novel is an order to look, listen, and taste for yourself.
Dylan Cook is a student at the University of Pennsylvania where he studies English, with a concentration in creative writing, and Biology. He often reads and writes, and when he’s not doing either of these things, he can be found working in a lab, lost in the woods somewhere, or at [email protected]
Where do we belong, and to whom? Are we most ourselves when we are by ourselves, or are we most free when rooted deep inside family responsibility?
During the day and a half that I ravenously read Ramiza Shamoun Koya’s debut novel, The Royal Abduls, I asked myself these questions. I leaned into the lives of Koya’s magnificently drawn characters, into the nest of troubles they inadvertently twigged together, into the love they did not know how to express. Or forgot to express. Or ran out of time to express.
As it happens.
The Royal Abduls is a family story about an Indian-American boy named Omar, his parents, his aunt, his grandparents, and his friends. Every character here is reckoning with a post 9/11 world and its overt and unarticulated prejudices. Omar, who is eleven when we meet him, has recently adopted an Indian accent and is researching (and fantastically embroidering) a family history no one has actively passed down. His aunt, the persuasively particular evolutionary biologist Amina, has just moved to DC, Omar’s hometown, to join a toxic research lab. Omar hopes his aunt will help decode the mysteries of his family’s past and immediate present. At the very least, perhaps she’ll transport him to a local cricket game and yell spontaneous insults with him at the opposing team. After all, Amina has just left a long-term boyfriend who had hoped she’d settle down with him, and Omar is the closest thing to a son Amina will ever have, and so there should be privileges.
With clear but never plain language, Koya allows her story to unfold—Omar’s troubles at home, Omar’s troubles at school, Amina’s challenges at the lab and challenges as the aunt she tries so hard to be. Spectacularly plausible but original, well-paced but sensuous, Koya’s plot thickens with events Amina cannot control. Omar’s plight as a young boy judged by the color of his skin and the lonely desperation of his fantasies is deeply moving. Amina, like most of us, does not have answers for the questions that he asks:
She searched her mind for the words that could soothe the hunger in his heart and the fear in hers. She understood his ache for reassurance that their family, history, the world made sense. But all she could think to tell him was that he should find a way to escape into an inner world, to fiercely guard his solitude. Because there were no guarantees, and there were always people who were disappointing and cruel, and you could go your whole life searching but never find a place where you belonged. But she couldn’t say that, not to an eleven-year-old.
Amina loves but she’s always running. She admires commitments she can’t make. She endlessly judges herself, asking herself (and so asking us) whether our passions have as much value as our actions:
Did studying insects count for anything in such a world? She doubted it and yet she had no choice; this was what she loved to do, it absorbed her. She had fought for this career, and she didn’t want it cheapened by the fact that she was a passive bystander in a world that demanded impassioned activism. If she were a better person, she would be protesting and supporting legal action and spending her money on campaigns. Or fighting for the freedom of women, Muslim women like her mother’s mother and sisters and cousins, in Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia or Nigeria…. But instead she would go to the Himalayas to stalk wild things and pray not to be disturbed.
Don’t read The Royal Abduls if you are hungry; scene after scene steams with a dish, a scent, a meal. Don’t read it if you prefer the kind of stories whose endings you can easily predict; the ending of this story aches and it is earned.
Do read The Royal Abduls if you are searching for hope in a complicated world—not every day hope, not the Hollywood version, but the kind that honors the nearly irresolvable dualities of ourselves. We’ll never have everything we want because we’ll never know just what we want. We’ll never be who we want to be, because our changeable world keeps reconfiguring our options. What we can do, Koya suggests, is stop protecting ourselves from love, on the one hand, and stop hoping that love won’t be messy, on the other. Because love is messy. Love is a question we can never perfectly answer.
Beth Kephart is the award-winning author of nearly thirty books, an award-winning teacher at the University of Pennsylvania, a widely published essayist, and co-founder of Juncture Workshops. A memoir in essays, Wife | Daughter | Self, is due out from Forest Avenue Press in February 2021. More at bethkephartbooks.com.
The Beauty of Their Youth: Stories
by Joyce Hinnefeld
Wolfson Press/American Storytellers Series, 97 pages
reviewed by Beth Kephart
Purchase this book to benefit Cleaver
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Some attributes of the fine short-story writer, as noted and further refined while reading Joyce Hinnefeld, who also happens to be a fine novelist (read her In Hovering Flight, if you haven’t already had that pleasure):
To be precise and precisely patient.
To enter quickly into the whole world of the thing with a minimum of explanation and a surfeit of knowing.
To arc toward the kind of surprise that does not shatter the hidden rules of the story.
To make of language something vital.
There are five Hinnefeld stories, four of them previously published in literary journals, in The Beauty of Their Youth, a release from the Wolfson Press American Storytellers series. One is about the legacy of a “pool of desire.” One is about the accessorizing of a family crime. One is about the tragedy of idle desires, another about an artist and his elastic resume, and another about a mother and daughter on a trip abroad and the reverb of the personal past. The stories take us to Bucks County, PA, inside the pages of a Carson McCullers book, toward Everglades gators and gun shows, through the annals of art, across parts of Greece and Rome—a tour of landscape and psyche that is seamless, self-assured, quietly inventive. Hinnefeld doesn’t break her own spells. She doesn’t remind you that she’s writing.
While every piece in this collection is mesmerizing in its way, I wish to highlight the two bookends. “Polymorphous,” which opens the book, is launched by a first paragraph that contains a thousand seeds but remains rooted in a single patch of earth. Everything that is to come is augured here: Joan’s relationship with herself, Joan’s relationship with her neighbor, Joan’s relationship with her world, Joan’s relationship with time. It’s worth quoting in full, for what it teaches us about Hinnefeld’s method, which is to say her artfulness with encapsulation and the care she takes to be thorough but not didactic :
By the time she was 20, with a little baby and a household to run, Joan had already started to seem like some sort of local exotic to her friends from high school, home from college on their breaks. All because she canned her own vegetables and sewed her own clothes and breastfed her son, at a time and in a place where those things wouldn’t come back into fashion for a good while. Now, forty years later, she still gardened and canned and sewed. She’d even gone back to school and finished her own degree eventually, with a nice and useless and exotic major in English. But by now the things that made her colorful in the eyes of her friends and neighbors was her weekly outing with her eighty-year-old neighbor, a gay man named Richard Meredith.
Richard and Joan are prickly friends. Richard’s own exotic past contains complicated secrets. A pool of desire in that Bucks County land percolates with still-unanswered questions. History wields power over both these characters and they wield power over each other, the ebbing and flowing of which provides the tension in the story.
In “The Beauty of Their Youth,” a mother and her 20-year-old daughter travel to Greece and Italy—the mother with hopes both of strengthening the bond with her daughter and of revisiting the people and places she remembers from an abroad summer years before. Fran, the mother, is both claiming and reclaiming, in other words, whereas Miranda, the daughter, is determined to see this new-old world through her own eyes. When the two meet up with Fran’s long-ago lover (in Greece) and long-ago friend (in Rome), Fran is confronted with a new and unwelcome version of the mythology she’d webbed around her youthful adventures. She is forced, as Hinnefeld writes, to reckon with some of the ways she’d not been trusted, some of the ways the world hides the most human parts of us from view:
There were things you didn’t post, Fran thought now, wide awake at three AM. Often the most important things, the things that had indelibly shaped your life. Your family’s secret history. Your marriage to a junkie. Your daughter’s slow, sure drift away from you. Your husband’s thoughtless and fleeting affair all those years ago. And your chronic thoughts of leaving him.
Hinnefeld writes empathetically. She writes, too, with lacerating emotional economy. In between she layers in the world—its reflective surfaces, its values, its artistic traditions, its gators, the secrets that are suppressed until they aren’t.
Beth Kephart is the award-winning author of nearly thirty books, an award-winning teacher at the University of Pennsylvania, a widely published essayist, and co-founder of Juncture Workshops. A memoir in essays, Wife | Daughter | Self, is due out from Forest Avenue Press in February 2021. More at bethkephartbooks.com.
THE FUNNY IN MEMOIR: Alison Bechdel, Dinty W. Moore, and Trey Popp A Craft Essay by Beth Kephart A few years ago, a friend who had first come to know me through my books and was slowly coming to know me through myself—our emails, our occasional actual conversations, our letters, our back-and-forth gifts—sent a note my way that included (I’m paraphrasing here; none of my friends speak as strangely as I write) this question: How is it that I’ve known you for all these years and I’m only now learning that you are funny? Why have you hidden your funny? I wondered then, I wonder now, what frees me to precipitate the giggle. And why I so rarely feel so free. And why funny isn’t in most of the books I write, why I tend, on the page, toward the not-hilarious me. Writing funny, especially in memoir, is a surprisingly recherché talent. Every spring semester at the University of Pennsylvania, where I teach memoir, the ratio of funny submissions to not-funny submissions is, on average, one: everything else. This semester our funny was the work of Jonathan, who had me choking on my chortles at 4 a.m., as I read ... Read the full text
THE NATURAL MOTHER OF THE CHILD: A MEMOIR OF NONBINARY PARENTHOODKrys Malcolm BelcCounterpoint Press304 pagesReviewed by Beth Kephart Krys Malcolm Belc—nonbinary, transmasculine, and talented—begins his memoir with an Irish dance—“all jumping and pounding, the tight black laces against my calves, the bang of hard shoes on the floor.” He is young and the music permeates, and now, he writes, “I try to remember what it was like then, when I was four and five and six, if I was unhappy. I am supposed to remember being unhappy, but mostly what I remember is what it’s like to stand there knowing the dance is about to start.” Supposed to remember. Supposed to be. Supposed to become. But suppose does not fit the life Belc will live. Competitive, just like his father. Prone to moments of rage. Enrolled in an all-girls’ Catholic school, dressed in the costumery of girlhood. A girlfriend who becomes a boyfriend who becomes a partner, a parent, a “natural mother of the child,” according to legal documents, and then, at last, following the birth of his child and testosterone treatments, a human being who, with his beard, shaved head, and Cross-Fit body, is assessed by ... Read the full text
A GHOST IN THE THROAT by Doireann Ní Ghríofa Biblioasis [North American edition forthcoming in June] reviewed by Beth Kephart “This is a female text,” Doireann Ní Ghríofa asserts as her story begins. A rouse. A prayer. A persuasion. A female text because Ní Ghríofa suffuses her days with the domestic arts of hoovering, dusting, folding, mothering, and bends her prose toward those ticking rhythms when she carves out a moment and writes. A female text because Ní Ghríofa carries the lament of Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill, an Irish noblewoman of the late eighteenth century, in her bones as she works—a poem called Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire, a poem of howling grief erupted from the murder of the poet’s husband. A female text because the words have risen up in Ní Ghríofa and stayed: This is a female text and it is a tiny miracle that it even exists, as it does in this moment, lifted to another consciousness by the ordinary wonder of type. Ordinary, too, the ricochet of thought that swoops, now, from my body to yours.Ní Ghríofa wants us to know the story of the widow, whose poem still keens across the centuries but whose biography ... Read the full text
A MEMOIR CONVERSATION with David Marchino and Beth KephartA former student (now a writer and a teacher) finds himself in his once-teacher’s memoir. A conversation ensues about mirrors, facsimiles, and blankness. Hello, friend. Before we get into the thick of this, I’d like to thank you for having this conversation with me. I’d been anticipating Wife | Daughter | Self for a while now. I must admit though that one of the reasons I was excited was that in a few places throughout the book I show up and rear my head. Just last night, I read one of these sections—“The Four Times I Became a Teacher”, which originally appeared in LitHub—to my partner just before bed. My reading started as a joke, some faux bravado: I'm in a book. But that section so moves me, and it did last night. I hear your voice in those words, and, boy, does your writing insist on being read aloud. It became an intervention almost, my reading: That's who I was then, and that's where I came into now. Reading it aloud, then, closed a distance for me. I know you’ve recorded yourself reading the book, a days-long marathon session. What was that experience like for you? ... Read the full text
THE ROYAL ABDULS by Ramiza Shamoun Koya Forest Avenue Press, 303 pages Reviewed by Beth KephartPurchase this book to benefit Cleaver Where do we belong, and to whom? Are we most ourselves when we are by ourselves, or are we most free when rooted deep inside family responsibility? During the day and a half that I ravenously read Ramiza Shamoun Koya’s debut novel, The Royal Abduls, I asked myself these questions. I leaned into the lives of Koya’s magnificently drawn characters, into the nest of troubles they inadvertently twigged together, into the love they did not know how to express. Or forgot to express. Or ran out of time to express. As it happens. The Royal Abduls is a family story about an Indian-American boy named Omar, his parents, his aunt, his grandparents, and his friends. Every character here is reckoning with a post 9/11 world and its overt and unarticulated prejudices. Omar, who is eleven when we meet him, has recently adopted an Indian accent and is researching (and fantastically embroidering) a family history no one has actively passed down. His aunt, the persuasively particular evolutionary biologist Amina, has just moved to DC, Omar’s hometown, to join a ... Read the full text
The Beauty of Their Youth: Stories by Joyce Hinnefeld Wolfson Press/American Storytellers Series, 97 pages reviewed by Beth Kephart Purchase this book to benefit Cleaver Some attributes of the fine short-story writer, as noted and further refined while reading Joyce Hinnefeld, who also happens to be a fine novelist (read her In Hovering Flight, if you haven’t already had that pleasure): To be precise and precisely patient. To enter quickly into the whole world of the thing with a minimum of explanation and a surfeit of knowing. To arc toward the kind of surprise that does not shatter the hidden rules of the story. To make of language something vital. There are five Hinnefeld stories, four of them previously published in literary journals, in The Beauty of Their Youth, a release from the Wolfson Press American Storytellers series. One is about the legacy of a “pool of desire.” One is about the accessorizing of a family crime. One is about the tragedy of idle desires, another about an artist and his elastic resume, and another about a mother and daughter on a trip abroad and the reverb of the personal past. The stories take us to Bucks County, PA, inside ... Read the full text
SOJOURNERS OF THE IN-BETWEEN by Gregory Djanikian Carnegie Mellon University Press, 90 pages reviewed by Beth Kephart Purchase this book to benefit Cleaver In his new heartbreaking and affirming book of poems, his seventh, Gregory Djanikian writes past complexity toward the elemental and the binding. He unites the “beautiful and the raw,” plays no tricks, displays no tics, exploits nothing but the moment and the thought that accompanies it. He finds the reader wherever the reader is, then webs her into his space and time, a place where a hand run along the back of a cat returns “the animality of my own skin/the trees in slanting light,/ the blue sky breathing its blue/down to the greening fields.” (“What Is a Cat But a Voice Among All the Other Voices”) In Djanikian’s space and time, the end may be near, it may be hastening toward us, but it is still, as yet, a yonder. Sojourners of the In-Between is organized into five escalating parts. It’s a little noisy in the opening pages, full of harbingers and yelling priests, a street corner mime, the clink of wine bottles, a stained tablecloth, “The world’s blips and pings, street traffic,/glass clatter, hammer clank…” ... Read the full text
DEGREES OF DIFFICULTY by Julie E. Justicz Fomite, 300 pages reviewed by Beth Kephart Many years ago, as a feature writer for a magazine, I spent weeks visiting with a family whose oldest son communicated not with words but with his body. He said yes or no, go awayor come near, I don’t want it or I do by hurling himself toward gestures of acceptance or disdain. He was a beautiful boy, nearly adolescent, larger than his mother who was struggling now to control his outbursts by setting him into a warm bath or hugging him close and overwhelming to his father, who had left his job so that he might try to build a school that was just right for his own son and others. This family was among the most extraordinary I’ve ever spent time with—full of love, chasing hope, unwilling to give up on this first-born child of theirs, and yet so devastatingly exhausted. I thought a lot about this family as I read Julie Justicz’s novel Degrees of Difficulty. Here the child at the center of the heartbreak is third-born Ben, born with damage to his twenty-first chromosome, an “omission in the blueprint” that has ... Read the full text
RUBY & ROLAND: A NOVEL by Faith Sullivan Milkweed Editions, 256 pages reviewed byBeth Kephart Books recalibrate our imaginations. They expect us to make room, to put on our nearest pair of shoes and walk the hall, the street, the cornfields, whispering to ourselves and to the wind. When Faith Sullivan began writing what has become known as her Harvester books—novels like The Cape Ann and The Empress of One and Good Night, Mr. Wodehouse—she invited readers to join her in a fictional Minnesota landscape, then gave them many reasons to return. Sullivan’s Harvester is a palpable place. Its people are relatable and real. They carry burdens and they engage in kindness. Their bones bend with the hills. Now midway into her eighties, Sullivan is still finding, within Harvester, commonplace stories of everyday appeal. Her new book, Ruby & Roland, begins not in Harvester, but in Illinois, where Ruby Drake is living an idyllic childhood with a childlike mother until her parents are killed in an accident. The orphan moves in with one family and then with another, packing tokens of her youth and holding memories near. It is at the Schoonover farm, in Harvester, that Ruby becomes who she ... Read the full text
THE WAY THROUGH THE WOODS: ON MUSHROOMS AND MOURNING by Long Litt Woon translated from the Norwegian by Barbara J. Haveland Spiegel & Grau, 292 pages reviewed by Beth KephartPurchase this book to benefit Cleaver When I read memoir I want: something to crack and something to rise, something to arc and something to stream, something to move across the page and, as it does, to move me. I bought Long Litt Woon’s The Way Through the Woods: On Mushrooms and Mourning for the promise embedded in the premise. How would Woon make her way back into the world after the shocking, sudden death of the fifty-four-year-old husband with whom she had spent all her adult years? What do mushrooms have to do with recovering from such a loss? Does anybody ever actually recover? Woon, who moved to Norway from Malaysia as an exchange student at the age of eighteen and stayed because of her love for her husband, Eiolf, is not, as it turns out, interested in the literary fissures and expansions and movements that generally interest me. Her prose, as translated by Barbara J. Haveland, is determinedly straightforward, lavishly undecorated, direct and directly to the point. Her ... Read the full text
ART CAN HELP by Robert Adams Yale University Art Gallery, distributed by Yale University Press, 88 pages reviewed by Beth Kephart Purchase this book to benefit Cleaver “[I]f you begin with an idea you’re usually beat before you start,” writes Robert Adams in Art Can Help, as he tries to imagine Edward Ranney photographing the Canyon del Muerto, and, so, here I begin, having been holding this slender silver volume in my hand all afternoon, interrupted only by the sound of a neighbor’s lawn mower and the smell of some ambient spray paint. (A long sentence, a beginning.) The book marks Adams’ attempt to dissuade his readers from Jeff Koons-style glitz, which is to say “imitations that distract us or, openly or by implication, ridicule hope.” We are reminded of the power of art, Adams suggests, by studying art that is real. The work of Edward Hopper is here in these pages, as are the images of Eugene Buechel, Ken Abbott, Julia Margaret Cameron, Dorothea Lange, and others, but if you are already concluding that this is a book of pictures and captions, you’d be wrong. This is a book of eclectic wisdoms and collegial awe. “I am asked with ... Read the full text
THE ADVENTURES OF PINOCCHIO by Carlo Collodiillustrated by Attilio Mussino translated by Carol Della Chi MacMillan (1926), 401 pagesreviewed by Beth KephartThe Oldest, The Newer, and the Four Pinocchios The Pinocchio in the book on my lap is not the persistently gullible feather-in-his-cap Disney version with the Jimmy Cricket conscience and the wish-upon-a-star existence. My Pinocchio—La storia di un burattino—comes from the mastermind himself, the Italian serialist Carlo Collodi, born Carlo Lorenzimi, who didn’t start writing for children until late in life. He’d been in the seminary as a young man. He’d volunteered in the Tuscan army. He’d written satire, translated fairytales, and by the 1880s, it would seem, he was primed for his most memorable creation. You don’t have to stretch to note the parallels that dominate our news cycle. Donald J. Trump was prefigured more than 130 years ago. If Disney’s Pinocchio is an affable, pliable ingénue who was reconfigured, according to the lore, to look more like a boy than a puppet, Collodi’s is an anti-hero—a wooden thing with barely any ears who mostly can’t see beyond his own nose, no matter its current proportion. He is persistent, insistent, impossible, exasperating, willfully obtuse, a ... Read the full text
THE JUNCTURE INTERVIEW by Beth Kephart For many years, my husband, William Sulit, and I have collaborated on projects for corporate America—annual reports, commemorative books, employee magazines. When corporate America changed—when the cultures shifted, the ideals, the relationships—we began to explore a new idea, a company we could create and manage as our own, a company through which we could define the quality of the product and the nature of the conversation. We have called that company Juncture Workshops. Through it we offer memoir retreats, a monthly newsletter, and video essays that showcase the work of memoir masters and offer ideas and prompts. As with most things, of course, it all sounds easier than it has been. Here we provide a behind-the-scenes look at our memoir-steeped lives, post video production. ◊ STORY: They would need a teleprompter. They would need a script. They would need umbrella lights, an iPhone mic, a steady camera, an army of tripods. They would call this thing that they had made their Juncture memoir shorts (and here those things are: www.udemy.com/the-stories-of-our-lives/learn/v4/overview). Lessons on writer’s block. Lessons on illness. Lessons on time, or nature writing, or the kitchen. They would twine Mary-Louise Parker and James Baldwin, Abigail ... Read the full text
THIS IS THE STORY OF YOU by Beth Kephart Chronicle Books, 256 pagesreviewed by Rachael Tague When I sat down to read Beth Kephart’s newest novel, This Is the Story of You, its title and cover art caught my attention—personal, serene, then chaotic. I read the first line of chapter one—Blue, for example—and fell in love with the writing. A quarter of the way through the book, I adored each character, and connected with Mira, the narrator and protagonist. Kephart’s mesmerizing writing, wonderful characters, and themes of strength and endurance thrilled me from beginning to end. Mira Banul is “medium everything—blond, built, smart.” She lives on Haven, where “We were six miles long by one-half mile…We were The Isolates. We were one bridge and a few good rules away from normal. We were causal bohemians, expert scavengers, cool.” Haven, a tiny island on the East coast, is a vacation destination in the summer. At the end of the season, the year-rounders return to their school in a refurbished bank and rule the island after-hours. Mira’s best friends, Eva and Deni, have done everything together for as long as they can remember. They work together, study together, compete together, and ... Read the full text
HANDLING THE TRUTH: ON THE WRITING OF MEMOIR by Beth Kephart Gotham Books, 254 pages reviewed by Stephanie Trott It is a rainy Tuesday in January and I lace up the new cherry-red boots before heading out the door of my warm little warren. Through the stone-laden campus, across the slippery streets of town, and onto the train that will take me into the city. I am in my final semester as an undergraduate student at Bryn Mawr College and I still have not learned to buy shoes that fit my feet — I dig into the walk through West Philadelphia, burdening myself with blisters that will not heal until the first flowers have shed their petals to spring. Stumbling onto the porch of the old Victorian manor, I step into the most challenging, inspiring, and rewarding fourteen weeks I’ve yet experienced: I step into Beth Kephart’s Creative Non-Fiction class. Flash forward one and a half years later and I am standing on the back steps of my first apartment, wearing shoes that (finally) fit and hooting jubilantly at the tiny brown box in front of me. I hug the cardboard to myself as though I could absorb the details ... Read the full text
DR. RADWAY’S SARSAPARILLA RESOLVENT by Beth Kephart illustrated by William Sulit New City Community Press, 190 pagesReviewed by Michelle Fost When I lived in Philadelphia, I sensed its history underfoot. One pleasure of Beth Kephart’s lively new historical Philadelphia novel is the strong fit of the writer’s project and the story she tells. In Dr. Radway’s Sarsaparilla Resolvent, Kephart looks at material from the past that we might consider lost to us and demonstrates how traces of that past stay with us through research and writing. In her story of William Quinn in 1870’s Philadelphia, too, much has been lost. As fourteen-year-old William goes in search of what has been taken from his family and as he thinks about what he is missing (including a murdered brother and a father in prison), we see that a great deal of what is loved can be recovered. William internalizes his brother Francis’s voice and can imagine what Francis would say to him at an important moment. Dr. Radway’s Sarsaparilla Resolvent shines as a novel about grief itself, suggesting that in thinking about what we miss, we keep what’s missing alive. Dr. Radway’s Sarsaparilla Resolvent opens with a haunting ... Read the full text
CHICKEN DANCE by William Sulit & Beth Kephart Digital 3-D DesignA conversation between a writer wife and her artist husband, in a quest to understandImportant Subject: A chicken BK: You spend hours in your garage studio (among the ghosts of a skinny car, in the shadow of night visitors, within walls yellowed by old fuels) fiddling with electronic pencils and twinned screens, and you come up with ... a chicken? Why a chicken? How did your chicken begin? WS: It began with a sphere about the size of a golf ball. I'm sure electrons are involved but what is really being manipulated are vertices. This chicken was really a way to test 3D printing technology (color and all). No lofty idea—just that as someone who works with 3D "art," I wasn't going to leave that stone unturned. BK: And I thought I had married into lofty. Didn’t you promise me lofty? Okay, then. You began to pull and poke at this thing, began to manipulate these vertices. The computer can’t resist you. There isn’t any tactile feel to this material, no smell, nothing that gets your hands dirty. Do you still consider this art? Because, at the very ... Read the full text
SCRABBLE by Beth Kephart I said it would be nice (look how simple I made it: nice) not to be marooned in the blue-black of night with my thoughts, I said the corrugated squares of the downstairs quilt accuse me, I said the sofa pillows are gape-jawed, I said there are fine red hairs in the Pier 1 rug that will dislodge and drown in my lungs, I said I can’t breathe, I said, Please. It wasn’t hard. But you were asleep by then, west to my east, uncorrupted by the plain and the soft of my imagination, the occasional and wire whipped and cruel: you couldn’t be touched; you wouldn’t stir; you. I broke and I climbed out and I climbed through and I climbed down into the blue black red threads and sat until a fat clack cracked the hollow between the walls and I knew that it was the long-nailed scrabble of a squirrel or the procrastination of the fox or the wolf that is my thoughts. That was the first night after. Beth Kephart is the award-winning author of fourteen books, most recently Small Damages, named to many best-of-year lists. Three new books are set to be ... Read the full text
by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein, illustrations by Andrea Ucini
Europa Editions, 112 pages reviewed by David Grandouiller
Purchase this book to benefit Cleaver
“Me” who? We’ll always know too little about ourselves.—Elena Ferrante
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Who is the Italian novelist we call Elena Ferrante? Since her first novel’s publication in 1992, she—with the help of her publishers—has carefully maintained the real author’s anonymity. Many readers have treated this guarded privacy as a playful challenge, making theories and guesses, particularly in recent years as Ferrante has become increasingly celebrated. The Italian philologist Marco Santagata, after analyzing her oeuvre, suggested she might be the writer Marcella Marmo (Marmo and her publisher denied this). More controversially, the journalist Claudio Gatti dug up financial records to claim that Anita Raja is the author behind Ferrante—others suggest it may be Raja’s husband. One can imagine the confirmation of one of these claims could incite a variety of reactions in Ferrante’s readership, but there’s a more fundamental question behind that of the author’s identity: why do people want to know?
What makes some readers so curious about a writer’s “real life”? Do we (because I’m one of them) want the fiction to absorb reality—to make a fiction out of the writer? Or are we trying to absorb fiction into reality? Maybe we feel alienated by the wall that is fiction—artists giving their eyes and minds and hearts and imaginations to the reader without having to give themselves.
“I refused to form a relationship in which I would be in a subordinate position,” writes Ferrante, “forced to yield to the enormous power of someone who is silent while you ramble on, asking you questions without ever really responding to yours, concealing from you his drives—while you reveal yours in the most vulnerable way.” This comes from Ferrante’s new book, Incidental Inventions, a collection of weekly columns written for The Guardian from January 2018 to January 2019, released in November from Europa Editions. In this passage, she’s talking about therapy, but the description could be applied equally to a readership, and the idea of her relationship with readers makes this book particularly striking—a pseudonymous fiction writer exposes to the reader a comparatively unmediated self. The wonder she expresses is presumably her own, the shame, the joy, the generosity, the fear, the pride.
I say, “comparatively unmediated,” because in nonfiction, the writer assumes responsibility for the narrator in a way the fiction writer doesn’t, but this is not to say the narrator and the writer are the same—there is always mediation. In David Shields’s collage manifesto, Reality Hunger, he quotes memoirist Patricia Hampl saying, “It isn’t really me; it’s a character based on myself that I made up in order to illustrate things I want to say. In other words, I think memoir is as far from real life as fiction is. I think you’re obligated to use accurate details, but selection is as important a process as imagination.”
I suppose Hampl’s distinction is slightly beside the point when it comes to Ferrante, who does not exist. If the writer’s relationship to the narrator is the defining difference between nonfiction and fiction, what does the term nonfiction even mean when the writer’s identity is unknown? Can I really call it “comparatively unmediated”? Can I say, “The wonder she expresses is her own?” Does it even matter? Does it make my encounter with this narrator less legitimate? In the new book, Ferrante goes further than Hampl and points out the artifice inherent in writing at all:
My effort at faithfulness [in writing] cannot be separated from the search for coherence, the imposition of order and meaning, even the imitation of the lack of order and meaning. Because writing is innately artificial, its every use involves some form of fiction. The dividing line is rather, as Virginia Woolf said, how much truth the fiction inherent in writing is able to capture.
Maybe this is all I should need from a narrator—an effort at faithfulness as she constructs a self on the page. This makes me think, too, of how much the writer’s work, in this respect, is the work of every social being, how identity is often performance, in life as much as in art. “I invent myself for a journalist,” admits Ferrante, discussing her practice of taking interviews only by correspondence, so she has time to consider and compose her answers, “but the journalist—especially when she is herself a writer—invents herself for me, through her questions.”
If I begin to think of all human intercourse this way, I’m free to stop thinking of the invented narrator, in fiction or nonfiction, as a wall between the writer and me. I can begin to understand intimacy as the goal of invention. The writer behind Ferrante can’t give herself to readers, because the self can’t be contained—what she can do is create an artificial container, pour as much of herself into it as she wants, then offer it to the world, printed and bound and accompanied by Andrea Ucini’s illustrations. Which brings me back to the book—I’ve put off discussing it directly for too long.
In the fifty-one columns that comprise Incidental Inventions, each around five hundred words, Ferrante responds to prompts presented to her by Guardian editors at her own request. “I had no experience with that type of writing,” she explains in her introduction, “and I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to do it […] I told the editors I would accept the offer if they would send me a series of questions.” Her self-awareness and humility are attractive, and the title itself—Incidental Inventions—understates the sense of purpose with which the narrator navigates each topic. But these pieces aren’t the work of someone who’s just trying her hand. Short and tightly woven, each of them meanders the landscape of the writer’s memories and thoughts with a practiced nonchalance, driving all the while toward a kind of volta in the last few sentences, and ending, usually, in a punchy, epigrammatic final line: “What perhaps should be feared most is the fury of frightened people” or “We can be much more than what we happen to be” or “All in all, I’m doing fine.”
I wish the prompts had been printed with Ferrante’s pieces. I wondered, leafing through this calendar of idiosyncrasy, about her reactions to the editors’ questions, and also about how forward the editors had been, knowing how carefully Ferrante maintains her anonymity. How many questions did they ask that related directly to her biography, and did she resent it when they did, or did she take it in stride, being used to it by now? Do any of these columns answer the questions directly, or does she interpret them freely, wandering the open water once the coast is out of sight?
These are greedy questions, in some ways—the person Ferrante presents in this one-sided conversation is already so full and rich. We get reading recommendations, film recommendations, career advice. We learn about her first love and about the reasons she laughs when she does, about her fear of old age and her fear of letting her fear be seen. We learn why she admires her daughters and why she admires women who chose not to be mothers. We read some of what she thinks of Caravaggio, exclamation marks, religion, sex, Italian fascism, of lying and learning and change. She says a lot about writing—writing when you’re young and when you’re older, writing before bed or when you wake up, smoking while you write or writing after you’ve quit smoking.
And underneath all these things, providing the energy with which she propels each thought, is the wonder, “the wonder—the wonder of knowing how to read, to write, to transform signs into things.”
As I write about Incidental Inventions, I’m thinking of another book that I consider linked to Ferrante’s collection—In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri, published in English in 2016. The books share many characteristics: both were written in Italian, both translated into English by Ann Goldstein. Both writers are women whose novels are internationally acclaimed but who, before these books, had published little nonfiction. Each of these books was conceived as a series of weekly columns for a periodical (Ferrante for The Guardian, Lahiri for Internazionale).
Lahiri’s book is more focused than Ferrante’s. It follows a progression: she learned Italian, moved to Italy, transitioned from writing in English to writing in Italian. But she strikes many of the same topics as Ferrante—the wonder associated with learning to read, for example, or their interactions with journalists. Each of the books has a chapter on writing in a diary, in which they both describe having outgrown the diary. Ferrante remembers having begun to invent things in her diary when she was young, to account for lost time or missed entries, and so she gave up journaling and wrote stories instead. Lahiri, as an adult journaling in a foreign language, says, “Writing only in a diary is the equivalent of shutting myself in the house, talking to myself. What I express there remains a private, interior narration. At a certain point, in spite of the risk, I want to go out.”
A diary is not totally unselfconscious or unmediated, but this going out is still a momentous turning point in the life of the writing. A more elaborate, more conscious performance by the narrator is necessary, or at least expected. This going out is what Ferrante’s and Lahiri’s writings have in common, an emphasis on establishing a consistent voice, a persona, a narrator to whom readers can attribute each thought and experience, so that we begin to fill out the image of a figure, even if it isn’t exactly the image of the writer herself. Ferrante speaks in similar terms about the accumulation of qualities which makes possible the idea of a film star she admires: “[Daniel Day-Lewis] is a sort of title by which I refer to a valuable body of work […] If he should suddenly be transformed into a flesh-and-blood person, poor him, poor me. Reality can’t stay inside the elegant moulds of art; it always spills over, indecorously.”
But maybe it’s exactly this indecorous spilling that some reality-hungry readers want. “Books are the best means […] of overcoming reality,” writes Lahiri, but maybe we want reality to overcome the book. Maybe we want the diary and not the story. Or the diary as well as the story. Is that possible? Where do we find it?
“Literary novelty,” writes Ferrante, “if one wants to insist on the concept—exists in the way each individual inhabits the magma of forms he is immersed in. Thus ‘to be oneself’ is an arduous task—perhaps impossible.” I think this is true, and it makes me wonder: how little advantage do most writers take of the diversity of possible forms available to them? And would employing a greater range of forms fragment the invented narrator in such a way that readers would get (maybe not a truer but) a different kind of insight into the person behind the persona?
I think a form that does this fragmentation well is the “crônica.” A giant in this tradition is the Brazilian writer, Clarice Lispector. Her Selected Crônicas, published individually in the Jornal do Brasil between 1967 and 1973, is like an encyclopedia of short forms—they range in length from a single line to one or two thousand words; they are proverbs, parables, and myths, short stories, reflections, interviews, memoirs, bits of transcribed dialogue, brief scenic sketches. Lispector makes little or no distinction, across these columns, or even within each column, between the fictional and the real, though she uses both first- and third-person narration throughout. This wide range may not have been a transgression of genre, in Lispector’s context, since she was taking advantage of the freedom of the form, which her translator, Giovanni Pontiero, calls, “a genre peculiar to Brazil which allows poets and writers to address a wider readership on a vast range of topics and themes. The general tone,” he says, “is one of greater freedom and intimacy than one finds in comparable articles or weekly columns in the European or U.S. press.” But to bring her indiscriminate range into a different literary context could be transgressive, could be productive.
Ferrante’s columns are not generically transgressive, except inasmuch as the frame of anonymity produces a unique reading experience. They’re much more consistent, even conservative, in style and structure—which is certainly not a weakness. But I think it’s important to note, by way of comparison, the possible breadth of the form she’s working in, and to call the breadth good. Ferrante’s narrator maintains her integrity, her wholeness, however artificially. That’s a different kind of victory than Lispector’s, but all of these writers help revive in us “the wonder—the wonder […] vivid and lasting.”
David Grandouiller lives in Columbus, Ohio, where he writes about faith and religion, Christian education, film, cats, and music. He is a third-year candidate in the MFA in Creative Writing at The Ohio State University and the Nonfiction Editor at The Journal. His essay, “Holy Uselessness,” was a finalist for the 2019 Orison Anthology Award in Nonfiction, and a group of his essays won the 2019 Walter Rumsey Marvin grant from the Ohioana Library Association.
SKETCHES OF THE CRIMINAL WORLD: FURTHER KOLYMA STORIES by Varlam Shalamov translated by Donald Rayfield New York Review Books, 576 pages
reviewed by Dylan Cook
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A man gets ready to murder his boss with a pickaxe. A woman is grateful that her newborn twins don’t survive. A doctor refuses to treat new patients, fearing that someone has been sent to kill him. Characters like these populate Varlam Shalamov’s criminal world, the depraved underbelly of society born and bred in the Soviet prison system. Many of the criminal world’s citizens were locked up under vague pretenses of “counterrevolutionary activity,” so why should they uphold the laws that failed them in the first place? Why not murder and steal before your neighbor beats you to it? Morals, after a while, can become relative. Life in prison may get easier without a domineering boss, cheaper without children to care for, and safer without new faces in the ward.
Varlam Shalamov was a natural dissenter. Born to an Orthodox priest in 1907, Shalamov lived as a staunch atheist. As Josef Stalin rose to power, Shalamov joined a Trotskyist group in direct opposition to the new government. There, he helped distribute pamphlets that were highly critical of Stalin, leading to his first imprisonment from 1929 to 1932. He continued writing politically charged pieces that brought him in and out of prison camps in Kolyma, the Far East of Russia, from 1937 to 1951. In the decades that followed, Shalamov documented his experiences through thinly veiled fictions in the six-part Kolyma Stories. The first volume, published two years ago, contains an updated translation of the first three parts, with stories that have been widely known since the 1980s. By contrast, many stories in Sketches of the Criminal World were only recently discovered and appear here in English for the first time. Together, the two volumes constitute the first complete English translation of Shalamov’s fiction. While his writing was suppressed in the Soviet Union, his stories leaked out into Europe and beyond, placing him on the world stage as one of the foremost chroniclers of the gulag. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, author of The Gulag Archipelago, admitted that Shalamov’s personal experience in the prison system was “longer and more bitter,” and that Shalamov shed necessary light on life in Soviet prisons. Only in 1987, five years after his death, were Shalamov’s stories published in the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev’s more lenient policies.Given his history, it’s unsurprising that Shalamov’s work is itself a protest, battling opinions on multiple fronts. Many “stories” in this collection are simply essays masquerading as fiction, offering Shalamov a platform to comment on literature, incarceration, and the intersection of the two. Russian literary giants like Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Gorky, and Babel were all too mawkish for Shalamov’s taste, and their attempts to accurately write about criminals simply missed the mark. None of these authors lived among criminals, real criminals, long enough to properly understand their rituals and influence. Shalamov did. By writing these stories, Shalamov was providing what he thought was the most genuine account of the gangsters who lived in and controlled Soviet gulags. There is nothing redemptive about these characters—they’re no Robin Hoods or Jean Valjeans. For Shalamov, criminals are not romantic ideals; rather, they represent the nadir of human morality.
There are two breeds of criminals in Kolyma. First are the freiers, the petty criminals that have no place in the criminal world. Most of these people were taken in under Article 58, a part of the Soviet penal code that allowed the government to arrest citizens under any suspicion that they were disloyal to the state. These everyday people that struggle against the system are the “criminals” that Shalamov fears are being canonized. They’re far from the hardened criminals, the gangsters, that live and thrive in this system. Being a gangster is more than a career, it’s a generational calling. The gangsters in Shalamov’s writing are the sons and grandsons of gangsters, and they bear children to one day fill their shoes. Naturally, the gangsters prey upon the freiers, stealing bread rations from them and murdering them when convenient. The freiers want to survive; the gangsters want to wield more power. Shalamov, through his first-person narration, does not firmly align himself in either camp. He treats both sides equally, and by doing so, he gestures towards the transition from freier to gangster, from human to inhuman. In “The War of the ‘Bitches,’” the narrator witnesses rival gangs in conflict. As the “war” presses on, the gangs begin recruiting both freiers and gangsters into their ranks. The narrator watches inmates futilely join and switch sides, asking:
How? Could the ceremony of kissing a knife change a criminal soul? Or had the notorious crook’s blood changed its chemical composition in the veins of an old crook just because his lips had touched a steel blade?
Reading Shalamov often feels like a quick slip into darkness. Many of his stories are poignantly short, often fewer than five pages, some no more than a paragraph. Today, these would likely be categorized as flash fiction, offering glimpses into characters’ lives without any direct plot. Shalamov knew the effect of this length, and he used it with great precision. His shortest stories focus in on an object or moment and strip them of their familiarity. In “Graphite,” one of the most famous stories from the collection, Shalamov directs his attention towards pencils. Pens, he says, are the preferred writing implement in prisons. Only indelible ink ensures that gangsters cannot cheat in a card game or that doctors cannot alter a death certificate. Pencil marks can be erased and changed to change fate, so pencils are seldom found in Kolyma. In a few pages, Shalamov turns graphite into an unattainable luxury. He shows that the criminal world is not entirely isolated from the civilian world, but runs parallel beneath it. Pencils are simply one of the freedoms that become alien when crossing over into a prison camp like Kolyma.
The natural world that houses these prisoners is just as antagonistic as any gangster or mob boss. High in the Arctic Circle, Kolyma winters last for nine months of the year, and the short summers are hardly enough to thaw the ice. A short walk can become dangerous as frostbite can set in within minutes. Out of both respect and fear for this environment, Shalamov’s writing is that of a naturalist. Describing flora and fauna are some of the only times Shalamov embellishes his usually terse prose style. Stories like “The Path” and “The Waterfall” depict the brief Kolyma summers and the respite that they provided. Natural warmth like this was a gift of hospitality in an otherwise unrelenting environment. “The Resurrection of the Larch,” more than any other story, shows the inextricable tie between the prisoners and nature. It was common for prisoners to send larch branches to their families, not because they were particularly pretty, but because they could come back to life in a glass of water. By sending home life, prisoners could send a message, more tangible than a letter, that they were still there. At the start of the story, the narrator writes:
In the Far North man looks for an outlet for his sensitivity, when it hasn’t been destroyed or poisoned by decades of living in Kolyma. A man sends an airmail parcel: not books, not photographs, not poetry, but a larch branch, a dead branch from living nature.
Map of Russia with the Kolyma Region shown in red. Modified from Wikimedia Commons.
To Shalamov, survival itself was an act of defiance. Staying alive meant that your will was stronger than the prison systems. In the most personal, autobiographical story of the collection, “The Examination,” Shalamov recounts the process of becoming a paramedic. In his early years as a prisoner, Shalamov worked in coal and gold mines. He fought to become a paramedic, a less strenuous job, knowing full well that his body likely couldn’t take more abuse in the mines. Shalamov’s life comes down to a chemistry exam given by an indifferent proctor. Chemistry, we learn, is one of his weaknesses because his chemistry teacher was executed for counterrevolutionary activity. Now, the knowledge he was robbed of is the only thing that can save him. Living through his exam meant living through his sentence, a win against the Soviet government. “I survived,” he writes. “ I walked out of hell. I finished the classes, ended my sentence, outlived Stalin, and then returned to Moscow.” In a world shadowed by Stalin’s Iron Curtain, the general secretary is very rarely mentioned. Shalamov uses the name sparingly, only when he’s sure of a victory.
“How does someone stop being human?” Shalamov poses the question to the reader many times throughout his stories. Slowly, he begins to answer it by offering bite-sized portraits into life in a Soviet gulag. Bringing clarity to an oppressive regime’s darkest moments wasn’t pleasant for Shalamov, but it was necessary. Doing so could have easily placed him back in Kolyma, but political dissidents like Shalamov have to take that risk. His relentless, macabre imagery is painful, both for the subjects and for the author who is reliving these moments. The fact that Shalamov was able to produce these stories at all is a testament to his integrity as an artist and documentarian. He leads us down the path towards inhumanity. He shows us that this path is lined with theft and murder and indecency, but he never outright blames anyone for following it. The criminal world could not exist without the government that created it, so this journey is just a symptom of the Soviets’ immoral, self-serving policy. Shalamov lays this bare as he brings us all the way to inhumanity. Only then, lost and battered, can we start answering the bigger question: How do we go back?
Dylan Cook author photo
Dylan Cook is a student at the University of Pennsylvania where he studies English, with a concentration in creative writing, and Biology. He often reads and writes, and when he’s not doing either of these things, he can be found working in a lab, lost in the woods somewhere, or at [email protected].
DEGREES OF DIFFICULTY
by Julie E. Justicz
Fomite, 300 pages
reviewed by Beth Kephart
Many years ago, as a feature writer for a magazine, I spent weeks visiting with a family whose oldest son communicated not with words but with his body. He said yes or no, go awayor come near, I don’t want it or I do by hurling himself toward gestures of acceptance or disdain. He was a beautiful boy, nearly adolescent, larger than his mother who was struggling now to control his outbursts by setting him into a warm bath or hugging him close and overwhelming to his father, who had left his job so that he might try to build a school that was just right for his own son and others. This family was among the most extraordinary I’ve ever spent time with—full of love, chasing hope, unwilling to give up on this first-born child of theirs, and yet so devastatingly exhausted.
I thought a lot about this family as I read Julie Justicz’s novel Degrees of Difficulty. Here the child at the center of the heartbreak is third-born Ben, born with damage to his twenty-first chromosome, an “omission in the blueprint” that has resulted in “the recessed jaw that would lead to feeding issues, the missing kidney due to frequent injections, hospitalizations, IV medications. And later, the seizures: Body-wracking grand mals that daily medications could not control.”
Julie E. Justicz
Ben is a young teen when we meet him. Attempts to find a boarding school where he might fit in have failed, mostly coming to violent ends. Perry, the father, keeps searching for a placement—leaving home often on his quest. Caroline, the Shakespeare-expert academic mother, can’t maintain her focus, can’t do much of anything, in time, but swirl a sedative into her tea. Hugo, the middle child, understands his brother best of all. Ivy, the oldest, can’t wait to leave home. Ben’s fractured chromosome is the primary narrative in each character’s life, and each character is presented separately by chapter, fracture by fracture.
The story begins in April 1991. It ends in April 2008. Sometimes chapters will close just as the crescendo of a crisis is reaching its fever pitch, leaving the reader to turn to the page toward a scene from months or years later, when the aftermath of the terror has now been woven into the characters’ new realities—a marriage under strain, a daughter in revolt, a middle child assuming increasing responsibility for Ben. We soon keep our eye primarily on Hugo, whose love for his brother and his ability to understand him have been rendered with heartbreaking tenderness.
Here, in the early pages, Hugo is rigging up a tricycle so that he might give his brother, with his twisted leg and nonverbal desires, a chance at a favorite pastime—speed. It’s Hugo’s voice that we hear:
“Yep. Hugo’s here. Now lean your choice, man, a left—this way, or a right—down there.” Ben sat perfectly still, trying to process the instructions, and Hugo took another blessed moment to breathe. Air moved through his lungs thick and warm as blood. The kudzu-swallowed trees added an iridescent sheen to the hazy sky. And the continued cicada sawing, a southern city’s jungle pulse. Shickkaw, shickkaw, shickkaw…. Hugo drew another deep breath; shicckaws ricocheted in his head. Sometimes he thought he could live like this, live with Ben forever. Sometimes he felt that he had already drowned.
Justicz writes with precision and authority. She knows chromosomes, Shakespeare, medicine, the rules of group homes, the bewilderment of unanswerable questions, such as: “Could a child ever ask too much of his parents? And if he did, what should a parent ask in return? That the child go away?” She also understands that real people cannot live without hope—and that readers are real people. There are infinite difficulties in Degrees of Difficulty. But there is also the glisten of redemption. We read across all that time and all those pages to discover (with gratitude) just what that glisten is.
Beth Kephart is the award-winning author of nearly thirty books, an award-winning teacher at the University of Pennsylvania, the author of numerous essays, and the co-founder of Juncture Workshops. Her newest book is a collaboration with her artist husband—an illustrated journal called Journey: A Traveler’s Notes. More at bethkephartbooks.com.
by Zadie Smith
Penguin Press, 256 pages
reviewed by Eliza Browning
Since the release of her enormously successful first novel White Teeth in 2000, Zadie Smith has regularly published novels and essay collections, including last year’s acclaimed Feel Free.
Grand Union, a collection of nineteen works of short fiction, represents an exciting addition to her oeuvre. The characters it features—black and white, young and old, male and female, gay and straight, and hailing from both sides of the Atlantic—are as diverse a cast as populate her novels, but their stories veer from the first-person narrative to the nonlinear and surreal to the essayistic. Form is experimented with, even scrapped altogether. “Mood” collages fragments of ruminations on modernity, including imitations of Tumblr posts. “Parents’ Morning Epiphany” is an analysis of a child’s homework. What ties these stories together is not subject or theme, but Smith’s witty, thoughtful, and culturally attuned voice.
Politics hover in the background of many of the stories, although their references are typically oblique rather than overt. Rather than tackle the major issues head-on—Brexit, Trump’s America—they quietly remind you now and again of the world we live in. In “The Lazy River,” British vacationers seeking escape from the pressures of everyday life in a Spanish resort are occasionally flung back into reality with the occurrence of ordinary events: “The tomatoes are in the supermarket. The moon is in the sky. The Brits are leaving Europe. We are on a ‘getaway.’ We still believe in getaways.” The story ends with the unnamed characters sitting on the balcony after putting their children to bed, “where we look up his Twitter, as we have every night since January.” He isn’t named, he doesn’t have to be. It’s enough that the modern reader will immediately catch this reference that speaks to the state of the world today, an effect Smith masterfully achieves.
As much as her characters try to ignore the machinery of global politics, they will return to it, quietly, at the end of each day. Though not explicitly acknowledged, their concern will materialize as a sense of generalized anxiety that runs perpetually in the background, such as the parents’ worry for their children’s safety while strapping them into trampoline harnesses. It’s these children they will try to shield from danger, from ever-advancing technology (“the obscene bulge of those iPhones”), and from politics themselves.
Of course, in some cases these references are more transparent. In “Downtown,” a female Jamaican artist narrates her dissatisfaction with her life and the world on the day of Brett Kavanaugh’s swearing-in. “Brett had proved once again that whenever a young Brett is born in these United States, born with a dream, that dream can truly come true. Yes, sir, if your baby Brett really puts his mind to it—if he believes, if he has faith, if he is a he, and if he is called Brett—he can do whatever it is he puts his mind to, and that goes double for all you Troys, Kips, Tripps, Bucks and Chads.”
How can this be happening, Smith seems to ask, despite all the other once-unbelievable things that have happened the past two or three years? And yet it happens, over and over again. We are the world that created Brett Kavanaugh. Throughout Grand Union, prejudice rears its head: racism and transphobia against the aging Cabaret star in “Miss Adele Amidst the Corsets,” echoes of police brutality in the tremendously affecting murder of a black man in “Kelso Deconstructed” (set in 1959). These characters, unlike the vacationers in “The Lazy River,” do not have the luxury of ignoring these lingering realities; they live them every day.
Some of the most affecting stories follow the perspectives of children or young adults as they struggle to find their place in the world. The wonderful “Sentimental Education,” reminiscent of some of Smith’s earlier novels, focuses on the sexual history of a young woman and her relationship with one of the only other black students in her college. The opening story, “The Dialectic,” centers on the turbulent relationship between a single mother and her headstrong daughter. Like the characters in “The Lazy River,” the mother and daughter are on a seaside vacation, a liminal space which seems to function as a gateway to address larger truths. Some stories are more successful than others. While much of the familial interplay and interaction between a young boy and girl in “Just Right” rings true, a similar relationship— between a teenage boy and a young girl he is escorting to a funeral in “Meet the President”— falls flat; much of the plot is bogged down in dystopian details.
With Grand Union, Smith presents a vibrant, wildly digressive collection of stories that captures the full scope of her wit and imagination. It’s different from her earlier fiction, bolder and more adventurous but with the same sparkling tone, and at the same time quietly and heartbreakingly prescient.
Eliza Browning is a sophomore studying English and Art History at Wheaton College in Massachusetts. Her work has been recognized by the YoungArts Foundation, the Fitzgerald Museum, and the Poetry Society of Virginia, among others. This past summer she was an intern at Cleaver and a writing fellow in the Counterclock Arts Collective.
RUBY & ROLAND: A NOVEL
by Faith Sullivan
Milkweed Editions, 256 pages
reviewed byBeth Kephart
Books recalibrate our imaginations. They expect us to make room, to put on our nearest pair of shoes and walk the hall, the street, the cornfields, whispering to ourselves and to the wind.
When Faith Sullivan began writing what has become known as her Harvester books—novels like The Cape Ann and The Empress of One and Good Night, Mr. Wodehouse—she invited readers to join her in a fictional Minnesota landscape, then gave them many reasons to return. Sullivan’s Harvester is a palpable place. Its people are relatable and real. They carry burdens and they engage in kindness. Their bones bend with the hills.
Now midway into her eighties, Sullivan is still finding, within Harvester, commonplace stories of everyday appeal. Her new book, Ruby & Roland, begins not in Harvester, but in Illinois, where Ruby Drake is living an idyllic childhood with a childlike mother until her parents are killed in an accident. The orphan moves in with one family and then with another, packing tokens of her youth and holding memories near. It is at the Schoonover farm, in Harvester, that Ruby becomes who she seems meant to be—a reliable and literate farm girl. She plants seeds and she harvests. She cans and she bakes. She makes the mess of mincemeat and then scrubs away the mess. It’s a happy existence, but happy, Sullivan knows, is not enough. Complications make a novel novel, and so Sullivan has her Ruby fall in love with the beautiful, blue-eyed Roland, whose equally beautiful wife, Dora, lies inconsolable in an upstairs room, following the death of her infant daughter.
Things move at a rapid clip. Glances become touch. Touch becomes sex. Joy becomes guilt. Dora suspects that her husband is cheating, but, following another tragedy, she must accept Ruby’s help in her house. To whom must one be true? That’s the story here. Are we better people when we walk away from those we love? Best when we decide that the thing that we want most is not ours to have?
With her orphan start and her borrowed homes, her love of the seemingly unattainable Roland, and her domestic duties in an unhappy house, Ruby may be Jane Eyre inspired but she is also very much her own character, capable (most happily) of seeing the beauty of her world. She notices “the heavenly perfume of good clean smoke wafting up to one’s bedroom at night when the sky was ebon and the stars icy.” (34) She appreciates the piano music that drifts out of open doors and the one “moved along the wooden walk as if in the pages of a novel.” (32) She’s living her life, in other words, and in living hers, we, the readers, are escaping ours, walking the hills and riding the trains, wondering whose happiness should matter most, burnishing the secret that propels the novel forward.
Reading Sullivan is like spending time in a hammock beneath a tree on a day when there is just the right degree of breeze. Somebody’s baking peach pie and the air is sweet. Somebody’s dog is singing.
Beth Kephart is the author of more than two-dozen books, an adjunct teacher at the University of Pennsylvania, and the co-founder of Juncture Workshops. Wife|Daughter|Self: A Memoir in Essays will be published by Forest Avenue Press in spring 2021. More at bethkephartbooks.com.
by Mario Levrero
translated from the Spanish by Annie McDermott
Coffee House Press, 122 pages
reviewed by Ashlee Paxton-Turner
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Mario Levrero’s Empty Words is no ordinary novel. Organized as a series of handwriting exercises, Empty Words offers a look inside a novelist’s mind as he attempts to improve himself by improving his handwriting. Originally published in 1996 in Spanish, it is Levrero’s first novel translated into English. Annie McDermott, who introduces English language readers to Levrero, has translated other works from Spanish and Portuguese, and her translations have appeared in many places, including Granta, the White Review, Asymptote, Two Lines, and World Literature Today.
At first blush, however, Empty Words appears to be an unusual work to translate because it is ostensibly less of a narrative and more of a meditation on language itself. After all, it is structured as a series of handwriting exercises. But it becomes clear rather quickly that translation does not hinder the reader’s ability to appreciate Empty Words because that meditation on language and the shape of individual words creates a narrative of its own. Words do not exist in a vacuum, and the narrator’s efforts at writing words without meaning is futile. Both the shape of the letters and the words those letters form convey meaning. As Empty Words has semi-autobiographical undertones, it is ultimately the perfect introduction to Levrero for readers of English who might have otherwise remained unfamiliar with him and his work.
Levrero was born in Montevideo, Uruguay. He died there in 2004. Levrero has been referred to as the Kafka of Uruguay, possibly because his first novel, The City, published in 1966, was inspired by Kafka. In fact, Levrero once said that The City was “almost an attempt to translate Kafka into Uruguayan.” Levrero also claimed that he “didn’t realize it was possible to tell the truth” until he read Kafka. But despite such high praise, Levrero himself tended to shy away from such recognition, often avoiding publicity altogether. Further, as Annie McDermott put it in her translator’s note, he denied the existence of any literary career.
But Levrero does have a literary career, and Empty Words, through its series of handwriting exercises, showcases a talent for probing the innerworkings of an individual’s mind while writing about something ordinary and mundane: penmanship, handwriting. The handwriting exercises form the core of what the unnamed narrator, a novelist and writer, terms “graphological self-therapy.” As explained to the reader from the outset, the theory behind graphological self-therapy is that “by changing the behavior observed in a person’s handwriting, it may be possible to change other things about that person.”
This motivation for performing the exercises establishes an intimate space, where penmanship may reveal anxieties. The reader then has access to the innermost thoughts of Levrero’s anxiety-riddled protagonist. Although the focus is apparently on “draw[ing] the letters one by one and giving no thought to the meanings of the words they’re forming,” the narrator ultimately ends up considering the meaning of the words, all of which culminate in a humorous and engaging meditation on daily life and one’s own existence.
By structuring Empty Words as he does, Levrero may be implicitly asking the reader whether we can derive a deeper meaning from the shape of the letters, the form of the handwriting, just as the narrator asks this question of himself. Can the shape of the letters tell us something that the words themselves cannot? To be clear, the novel is all in typeface; we do not see any handwriting. We only hear (or rather read) about the narrator’s difficulties with forming certain letters. “[H]ow the hell do you do a capital S?” Later on, a paragraph is devoted to improving “r’s”—“[r]ound and round the rugged rock the ragged rascal ran.”
But this is hardly a book of repeated words and letters. Indeed, any concerns that the exercises are a “clumsy substitute for literature” are unnecessary. A discourse on the shape of letters becomes an opportunity to step inside someone else’s mind. Why is he picking these words? Is he struggling to focus on the exercises? Why? Is there something else he wants to write rather than focusing on the exercises? It inevitably becomes like reading a diary that was not meant to be a diary. But because words inherently express ideas, meaning is inevitable.
To discover the meaning behind Levrero’s words takes patience. Empty Words does not follow a linear storyline (even if each handwriting exercise is dated and appears in chronological order). But Levrero encourages the reader’s patience by peppering the novel with clever and rather dry humor. The reader is incentivized to keep turning the pages to find the next digression from handwriting exercises to deadpan observations about daily life.
Annie McDermott, translator
These observations crop up as the protagonist deals with his anxiety, with an impending move to a different house, and with the tense relationship between his dog, Pongo, and a white cat that appears one day. For example, taking a deadpan tone, Levrero’s unnamed novelist observes that his handwriting is messiest when he smokes more cigarettes than usual. He then concludes that “bad handwriting is caused by anxiety.” In other words, bad handwriting is evidence of anxiety, which must mean that the anxiety has subsided when the handwriting improves.
Although a short novel, Empty Words is the type of work one might start and stop somewhat frequently given the lack of a linear of plotline. Levrero seems to be aware of this possibility. Specifically, just as the reader may interrupt her reading of the novel, Levrero inserts various household interruptions that distract from the effort at perfecting the shape of letters. But these interruptions and distractions do more than reflect the potential that the reader may be experiencing something similar. Indeed, they add a richness by inviting the reader into the daily life of the world inside the novel. For example, the narrator’s wife and stepson keep different schedules and have different priorities that interfere with any strict focus on handwriting exercises.
After establishing this tension, it becomes especially easy to understand his trouble falling asleep when he knows his wife and stepson are awake and cannot be relied on to turn off the lights and the television or “refrain from making any noise once [he has] fallen asleep.” In this way, the non-linear structure succeeds: it is the logical choice for a novel about anxiety and self-improvement because anxiety and life hardly follow a linear trajectory.
In addition to these external interruptions, Levrero includes internal interruptions where the narrator interrupts himself. As often happens, he gets “carried away by the subject matter and forget[s] about forming the letters.” In a way, this makes sense, even if “sense is nothing but a complicated social construct.” Letters, too, are “a complicated social construct” that provide a framework for sense. By focusing on his handwriting, on something so mundane, his mind wanders. Perhaps, Levrero is also contemplating the reader’s mind wandering in these moments. But it is in these moments that Levrero shines as an author and McDermott as a translator, pulling the reader back into the novel. For example, in an early exercise, it is explained that “[t]o get anywhere in life, you have to believe in something. In other words, you have to be wrong.”
Such a strong statement tends to grab the reader’s attention and maybe refocuses the narrator, too, on the task at hand. At times, “despite the psychological pressure . . . to do other, more urgent work,” the handwriting exercises are prioritized because of their potential for self-improvement and what they might reveal about identity and personal principles. Of course, who knows if this “graphological self-therapy” leads to self-improvement. Levrero never actually says one way or the other. The narrator becomes more reflective as the novel progresses, but his anxiety remains in the background. But even if the exercises do not create the type of self-improvement that the narrator hopes for, they do provide a vehicle for offering a number of insights on life, which Levrero somehow offers without becoming cliché.
Levrero considers the ambitions we hold for ourselves—that “sometimes it’s no bad thing to aim high, especially in a field where everything colludes to make you aim low, where mediocrity is what really impresses people.” This sentiment is also part of the core of the novel. Self-improvement based upon improving handwriting is a high ambition, which common sense would suggest may well be futile or at least encourage low expectations of success.
But Levrero’s work is also a meditation on figuring out what we want to say. After all, even though the whole novel is apparently about forming letters (and not the words those letters form), there are frequent digressions and attempts to articulate any number of concerns or thoughts. In doing so, it is not unusual to get frustrated at “not being able to condense [the] story, to get to the heart of what [we] want to say.” We may “tr[y] again and again, and every time [we] end up going around in circles and getting lost in minor details.” For as much as the narrator gets lost in minor details, it is precisely those minor details of forming certain letters, looking after his dog, and engaging with his wife and stepson that make the novel so compelling. Sometimes, going around in circles is simply the point.
Levrero also makes a point about figuring out how identity evolves over time. At the end of the novel, the narrator explains that “[w]hen you reach a certain age, you’re no longer the protagonist of your own actions: all you have left are the consequences of things you’ve already done.” Perhaps, then, the benefits of improved handwriting are limited, and any self-improvement cannot wash away the consequences of prior decisions. Similarly, the writing itself outlives the writer, so at some point, even when the writer is gone and no more can be said, the consequences of what was previously written remains.
Or maybe, Levrero’s point is that arriving at any of these insights requires attention to ordinary activities like forming the shape of the letter “r.” In a tribute to the ordinary, Levrero creates an extraordinary work, reminding readers that words will never be empty.
Ashlee Paxton-Turner is a native of Williamsburg, Virginia, and graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, where she was an English major with a creative writing concentration. A former Teach For America corps member in rural North Carolina, Ashlee is now a lawyer and graduate of Duke University School of Law.
MAX HAVELAAR: OR, THE COFFEE AUCTIONS OF THE DUTCH TRADING COMPANY by Multatuli translated by Ina Rilke and David McKay New York Review Books, 336 pages reviewed by Dylan Cook
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“I call a man a fool if he dives in the water to rescue a dog from sharks.” This is our introduction to Max Havelaar—a champion of the people, even irrationally so. He is a Dutchman who stands with Indonesian farmers. He is a bureaucrat who pushes against the orders of his superiors. Havelaar is a rare figure of compassion in the midst of Dutch imperialism, one who has the temerity and know-how to make tangible change. And, despite all of this, Max Havelaar is a minor character in the novel that bears his name.
Max Havelaar is likely an unfamiliar title to most American readers, and the Netherlands in general is an often overlooked source of literature. But make no mistake: the world over holds Max Havelaar in high regard. I recently had the chance to talk to a born-and-raised Dutchman, and I asked him if the title rang any bells. “Of course,” he told me. “It’s a classic, everyone reads it.” Think along the lines of Pride and Prejudice. In his short but poignant introduction to this edition of the novel, Indonesian author Pramoedya Ananta Toer makes the bold claim that Max Havelaar is one of the most important novels of all time. There’s a reason this novel caught the attention of writers like Karl Marx and Thomas Mann, and there’s a reason that when Freud drew up a list of ten great authors, Multatuli stood on top.
Multatuli is the mononymous pen name of Eduard Douwes Dekker, the son of a Dutch sea captain. The name “Multatuli” stems of Latin and roughly translates to, “I have suffered greatly.” When he was just eighteen, Dekker sailed on one of his father’s ships to the Dutch East Indies where he worked in finance before shifting into a government position. After nearly twenty years there, he rose to become the Assistant Resident of Lebak, but, after disagreeing with the Dutch colonial system, soon resigned and returned to the Netherlands. A few years later, in 1860, he would publish a novel about a man who becomes the Assistant Resident of Lebak, only to become disgusted with Dutch imperialism.
Eduard Douwes Dekker, or Multatuli
Max Havelaar is a highly fragmented, nonlinear text. The novel features several narrators, depending on how you count, and the plot can quickly become cumbersome and difficult to follow. It begins with Batavius Drystubble, a coffee merchant in the Netherlands. He recounts the exact process of how this novel was written, all the while describing the highly political field of coffee brokering and how it requires the majority of his attention (“My business is my life” becomes something of a mantra for his narration). Along the way, Drystubble encounters an old acquaintance, Shawlman, who entrusts him with a packet of his writings, an eclectic mix of poetry and essays that Drystubble claims is the source material for the Max Havelaar portions of the novel. Of course, Drystubble is so engrossed in his work that he cannot possible spend his time writing, for his business is his life. Thus, he enlists Ludwig Stern, a friend of his son’s, to write some of the chapters regarding Havelaar. Only then, a sizeable chuck into the text, does the story of Max Havelaar begin.
The two narrators are not shy and frequently speak directly do the reader to voice opinions and curate information. The source material from Shawlman lingers overhead, and Drystubble and Stern routinely reaffirm that they must cut out certain details that won’t add anything to the novel. These metafictional moments make it feel more apt to group Multatuli along with early postmodern authors than with contemporaries like Hugo, Tolstoy, or Eliot. Multatuli constantly reminds us that he is writing a novel in the same way Italo Calvino reminds us that we are reading a novel. In the revised 1881 edition of the novel, Multatuli added an extensive network of endnotes, inserting everything from new details to personal opinions. He wanted the reader to know that the narrative is deeper than what exists on the page, and he did so in the same way that David Foster Wallace would in Infinite Jest more than a hundred years later.
You see, reader, I am searching for the answer to that how? Which is why my book is such a mixed bag. It’s a book of samples: take your pick.
While Multatuli should be commended for his efforts to restructure narrative, one must consider the downside of taking such risks—there are unfortunately many times where he sacrifices clarity for creativity. The narrators provide so much of their own commentary that it is often difficult to get situated as the reader is torn between the Netherlands and the Dutch East Indies. The novel itself is so restless that the reader is never allowed to get immersed into a single narrative thread. To be frank, the style and structure of this novel read not quite unfinished, but a bit undercooked. For modern readers, there are many points where it may just seem easier to put down this book in favor of something a little more palatable. However, it is important to acknowledge that Multatuli wasn’t trying to write something beautiful and easy to swallow. There is no room for poetics in Max Havelaar because Multatuli’s goal was to inspire mutiny. The value in this novel is in what Multatuli says, not how he says it.
With that in mind, it’s crucial to understand Max Havelaar within its historical context: Multatuli may not have written with beauty, but he certainly wrote with contempt. When this novel was first published in 1860, European imperialism was more than three centuries old. The vast majority of Africa, South Asia, and the Middle East were all under European rule. Any voices that challenged this system were usually mild enough to be suppressed. Max Havelaar is the rare exception. At every opportunity, Multatuli describes the faults of Dutch imperialism. Frequently, the novel digresses into essayish passages against the Dutch that are often more gripping than the surrounding narrative. Critiques are written with surgical precision, always attacking the Dutch and sparing Indonesians. There are no slurs or stereotypes in this novel. There is nothing that paints native Indonesians as anything “less.” On the contrary, Multatuli treats the minutiae of Indonesian life with utmost respect to show his countrymen exactly how equal they are. Unlike Mark Twain, Multatuli was able to write about an oppressed group without including subtle linguistic cues that reinforce their marginalization.
Part of what makes Multatuli so adept as an exponent is his remarkable understanding of why. He does not settle for simply stating that oppression exists. Instead, he clearly explains how oppression is a systemic condition. Through Havelaar, we learn about the tactics of Dutch imperialism that perfected their hegemony. Dutch imperialists effectively made native Indonesians subjugate their compatriots. In the imperialist system, Dutch officials would appoint natives, called adipatis, to control smaller stretches of land. The Dutch would subsidize each adipati’s lifestyle, making them rich. If an average farmer had any grievances, they would direct them towards the newly aristocratic adipati. The Dutch washed their hands of blame because their subjects likely never saw a Dutchman’s face. Indonesians could never effectively rebel against the Dutch because they thought their problems were internal. The Dutch created a perfect system of exploitation, allowing them to create famines in Indonesia, home to some of the most fertile land on Earth. This is just one example of abuse. Multatuli gives us dozens.
Any turmoil that is impossible to conceal is blamed on a small gang of malefactors who will no longer cause any trouble now that overall contentment prevails. If want or famine has thinned the population, it was surely the result of crop failure, drought, rain, or something of the sort, and never of misgovernment.
Of course, any time the narrative begins to describe the atrocities taking place in Indonesia, Batavius Drystubble interjects. This is business after all, isn’t it? And his business is his life (it’s no coincidence that the capital of the Dutch East Indies was Batavia). If the Dutch do not maintain their control over Indonesia, then the coffee industry in the Netherlands will certainly collapse. For Drystubble, one of Max Havelaar’s narrators, imperialism is necessary for economic survival. Any element of the novel that critiques the Dutch system is most assuredly written by Ludwig Stern. Max Havelaar, as magnanimous as he is, becomes less important as the two narrators vie for power over the message. Stern calls for change, while Drystubble calls for stasis. Multatuli highlights how the complacency in existing systems causes change to lag, even in the face of necessity. In the context of the novel, Max Havelaar is a past tense character. Despite the progress he personally made, he did little to affect the Dutch system that Drystubble and Stern live in in the present. Multatuli did not merely want to proselytize, he wanted to show that progress is a generational process.
At the end of WWII, European imperialism was vulnerable enough to be toppled, and Indonesia was one of the first nations in this new world liberate itself. In August 1945, before the Pacific War had fully ceased, Indonesia declared independence. Sukarno, Indonesia’s first president, cited Max Havelaar as a personally influential text. Many Indonesians today agree, which is remarkable considering the novel wasn’t translated into Indonesian until 1972. Indonesia was a model for a path to independence that other nations could follow, and within the next three decades most of Africa, South Asia, and the Middle East would be politically decolonized. Much of the world outside of the United States understands Max Havelaar’s role in this domino effect. Reading this novel shows the absolute earliest stages of revolt in a way that’s still resonant. This is the undeniable importance of this novel. Few novels have had such a profound effect on global politics, and that feat ought not to be ignored. Max Havelaar may not be the most leisurely read, but, at the very least, it’s worth knowing the name.
Dylan Cook is a student at the University of Pennsylvania where he studies English, with a concentration in creative writing, and Biology. He often reads and writes, and when he’s not doing either of these things, he can be found working in a lab, lost in the woods somewhere, or at [email protected].
I AND YOU
by J. David Stevens
Arc Pair Press, 64 pages
reviewed by David Amadio
Many of the characters in J. David Stevens’s four-story collection I and You are Chinese immigrants; the author himself is not. In the book’s introduction, Stevens confides that he might never have written about these characters if not for the relationship with his wife Janet, whose ancestors left China in 1899 and later settled in Richmond, Virginia. Reflecting on the source material for his multi-generational narratives, Stevens, whose Mexico is Missing and Other Stories won the 2006 Ohio State University Prize in Short Fiction, admits an apprehension of the age: “[A] part of me still wonders if such stories cross a line, if appropriating segments of our shared history—or Janet’s history alone—is more rightly suited to intimate dialogue. I worry the art is too opportunistic.” This concern is real, and the author is right to acknowledge it. But his outsider’s rendition of the Chinese immigrant experience is respectfully nuanced, and while he does not share the same cultural background as his protagonists, he deeply values their stake in the larger human dilemma that fiction is taxed to solve.
J. David Stevens
The ways in which his characters perform their “liminal identity,” reacting to the dueling social pressures of China and America, give the stories a quiet yet potent drama. In the titular “I and You,” the “I” belongs to the narrator’s seven-year-old self, struggling to learn calligraphy under the exacting Mrs. Lu; the “You” follows his gradual foray into the wider American world, first as a student and then as an accountant for a pharmaceutical company. While on a business trip to Guangzhou, his white bosses hold the “You” to a stereotypical standard, bidding him to procure civets—small, weasel-like mammals thought to be a delicacy in that part of China—from a local market. Mrs. Lu imposes a different set of criteria on the “I,” but mastering a thousand-year-old art form proves no less painful than searching for dinner amid caged reptiles and cats. Though he doesn’t find the civets, he does achieve temporary success painting his name. It turns out that pleasing Mrs. Lu and failing his bosses both result in a feeling of dislocated pride, which prompts the narrator to concede, “There are worse fates than a life caught between true happiness and sorrow, never seeming to touch either.”
Wei-ling, the central character in “Old San,” teeters on a similar emotional threshold. Abandoned by her husband and all but forgotten by her two grown sons, Wei-ling mourns “the family she had lost,” at times feeling lonely and useless. It is Old San, the elderly man for whom she is primary caretaker, who enlivens her with joy and purpose. So close is their bond that even when she is not by his side Wei-ling still senses him next to her, a phantom of interdependence. We learn that Old San was long ago a victim of a hate crime, and arranging a meeting with his now publicly contrite attacker, a celebrity, becomes Wei-ling’s driving need. If she cannot fix the sad things in her life, she will be “indispensable” in repairing the one sad thing in his. But the meeting turns into a photo-op for the celebrity and his agent, and here, instead of probing Wei-ling’s thoughts on the spike and taint of the moment, Stevens reverts to an image of the caretaker and her charge on a busy New York street, the old man “rock[ing] against her like a boat against its buoy.” A fitting simile, but the reader expects Wei-ling, who understands the language of loss, to address, either directly or indirectly, this new injury of the heart.
“Cleave” is about a brief love affair between a pair of female graduate students, Kara and Minzhi, and presents another shift in default perspective for the Other-seeking Stevens. When the story opens, Kara is in a long-distance relationship, and she half-heartedly believes that learning how to cook Chinese for her girlfriend will save their shaky union. Minzhi, who is engaged to a man back in China, takes Kara on as a student, and what starts out as a lark soon becomes a “collaboration,” a “haven from the everyday” where Kara’s “desire to take chances” increases with each new dish prepared. Following the first and only time they make love, Kara asks Minzhi to break off her engagement and stay with her in the states, to which Minzhi shakes her head and replies, “Americans.” In this soft indictment of Kara’s naivete, Stevens is saying that Minzhi’s freedoms—both social and sexual—are not as guaranteed as her lover’s. Therefore, she must be precise, “like a knife sure of its cuts,” in how she honors the ones she loves, a skill that Kara is just beginning to learn and may never fully master.
Minzhi’s rigid rapport is echoed in “Turkeys,” the collection’s final story, and its best. Raymond Chan’s monomaniacal father wants him to play football, and to ready him for an upcoming tryout he subjects the fourteen-year-old to a near-constant training regimen. “Old questions” about his father’s past nag at Raymond, clouding his pigskin focus. The successful tire salesman deserted his first wife and young daughter when he emigrated from China, and for this reason Raymond feels an ambivalence toward the man, respect as well as censure. The ghosts of that former life lurk at the plot’s periphery, as do the wild turkeys from which the story gets its name. The turkeys, one of Stevens’s strongest extended metaphors, are a feathered fly in the ointment of civilized suburban society, “breaking skylights, scratching paint jobs, and leaving a formidable layer of feces that was almost impossible to scrape off once exposed to daylight.” The birds’ “one insane summer” analogizes Raymond’s performance at the football tryout, where he “throw[s] instinct to the wind and beat[s] back against” the austerity of his father.
With I and You, J. David Stevens has set an example worth following. Rather than continue to shy away from “that different face,” writersmight take the preliminary steps to honestly engage it, to “cross a line” both personally and artistically, to observe, relay, and “comprehend the alienation and dislocation” in the lives of people like Raymond Chan, or Minzhi, or Wei-ling. As a response to those who might criticize Stevens for exercising his privilege, I would argue that his collection is more appreciation than appropriation, an obeisance to the immigrants who inspired it. Stevens claims that immigration is not a “finite proposition,” that the newly arrived are never done settling, never done merging. If that is the case, then the act of receiving those immigrants is also an incomplete process, but these stories serve to make it less fraught, less complicated, less strange.
David Amadio teaches Creative Writing and Composition at Lincoln University, where he also edits the campus literary magazine, SIMBAA. He received his MFA in Fiction from Bowling Green State University in 2001. His work has appeared in Talking River, Masque & Spectacle, Packingtown Review, and The San Francisco Examiner. He lives in suburban Philadelphia with his wife and two children.
THE BOOK OF X
by Sarah Rose Etter
Two Dollar Radio, 279 pages reviewed by Elizabeth Mosier
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“I was born a knot like my mother and her mother before her,” Sarah Rose Etter’s surrealist debut novel begins, drawing readers into Cassie’s life story, The Book of X. “Picture three women with their torsos twisted like thick pieces of rope with a single hitch in the center.”
Picture, too, Cassie’s family: a father and son who—in Etter’s startling vision—make a living mining meat from a quarry, and a mother and daughter who scrub the house clean with antiseptic lemons while they whittle themselves thin on a bleak diet of rocks. See Cassie’s schoolmates—the male bullies and the no-knot “Sophias,” girls “a boy would like to touch”—who are disgusted by her X-chromosome-linked deformity, driving her to seek a solution in excruciating injections of sugar water. Understand her doctors’ indifference to her painful condition as medical misogyny. The impact of Cassie’s genetic inheritance is “largely emotional,” these doctors proclaim, ceasing research into its cause or remedy because the knot, located just above “the womb,” doesn’t compromise childbirth.
Surrealism seems to be the most rational response to Cassie’s coming of age in a town called The Acres, as a girl blessed or cursed with an ability to see (if not avert) inherent violence beneath the surface of human relationships. In this weird-dreary setting, she falls for Jarred, a cruel sexual predator who carries anger “under his skin that casts a shadow around him.” Of her beautiful friend (the ur-Sophia), Cassie thinks, “I want to slice you open with a knife. I want to hide my body inside of yours.”
Sarah Rose Etter
Narratives of adolescence often promote the very conventions they claim to critique, with plotlines that resolve social conflict, such as a longing for beauty or belonging, without illuminating the contradictions that drive these conflicts—in this case, powerlust disguised or misconstrued as romantic love. What makes Etter’s work original and interesting is her frank examination of sexual desire and her feminist interrogation of the idea of the female body as mere decoration or passive vessel.
When Cassie’s father allows her to try her hand at the meat quarry, she turns out to be “a natural,” outperforming her brother by pulling bigger (and therefore more lucrative) boulder-sized chunks from the bleeding walls. This “fine haul” that earns her father’s praise leaves Cassie exhilarated, exhausted—and empowered. Her engine-like exertion not only reveals her physical capacity, but her body’s true purpose: that of converting energy to motion. “The fat falls from my body, the knot gets smaller,” she marvels. “I can see new muscles in my legs and arms. I work fast as my brother, become the slick machine.”
Working at the quarry also releases Cassie’s pent-up rage, “puts her in motion” as the subject of her own story and not merely an object in someone else’s. Sneaking back into the quarry alone one night, she rips “the flesh from the walls, screaming and sobbing against the red.” When her father discovers the damage the next morning, he mistakes it for the work of a hungry wolf, a tribute Cassie silently savors as she hums to herself, “I am the wolf, I am the wolf, I am the wolf.”
But in this worksite where Cassie accesses her strength and righteous anger, she also opens herself up to greater pain. If part one of the book is a relentless inventory of Cassie’s victimhood, part two, in which she moves away from home and gets a job as a legal clerk, is her proving ground. Donning a false heart and a work costume, she labors as a “passionate typist,” professionally smiling to “contribute to the office culture.” Here Etter’s anthropologist’s eye, which makes the familiar (to us) strange, makes the unfamiliar (to Cassie) even stranger. Cassie experiences her new city as “an orchestra of rusting metal, trucks and buildings, full of bodies, faces, color, electricity.” Buying meat in a grocery store for the first time, she’s surprised to discover its alternative source, not mined but slaughtered, packaged, and labeled with different animal names.
Prone to fantastic visions—of hurling herself at a glass mountain of her father’s half-empty liquor bottles, removing her head before sex, excising a black jewel of jealousy from between her shoulder blades—Cassie is, nevertheless, highly attuned to the difference between truth and propaganda. She “keeps track of the facts” with bullet-point lists dropped between fragments of narrative and presents the events of her life as matter-of-factly as her mother’s fashion magazines dictate absurd-sounding, arbitrary beauty trends. These visions, set off in italics, counter Cassie’s lived experience in a way that reads at first like a coping mechanism but proves prescient. The pleasure and puzzle in reading The Book of X is decoding this parallel prophetic story, which operates according to the logic of dreams.
Readers hoping for neat healing after Cassie undergoes corrective surgery may be disappointed by the ending Etter offers in the third part. But I was surprised and impressed by the author’s integrity. Etter measures her character’s change in movement. And though Cassie does find love with a mechanic named Henry—who enjoys his “meditative” work repairing engines because it “teaches you to think different ways around a problem”—love isn’t the means by which Cassie is transformed. As she is returned to her body, as Henry says, “the sum of all parts makes them come alive.”
Elizabeth Mosier logged 1,000 volunteer hours processing colonial-era artifacts at Philadelphia’s Independence National Historical Park Archeology Laboratory to write Excavating Memory: Archaeology and Home (forthcoming from New Rivers Press in 2019). A graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College, her nonfiction has been selected as notable in Best American Essays and appears widely in journals and newspapers including Cleaver, Creative Nonfiction, and The Philadelphia Inquirer. She writes the “Intersections” column for the Bryn Mawr Alumnae Bulletin.
by Alfred Döblin
translated by Michael Hofmann
NYRB Classics, 458 pages reviewed by Tyson Duffy
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A thought experiment: imagine that back during the peak prosperity years of the Obama Administration, with optimism at a high and unemployment dropping, that the good Dr. Oliver Sacks had unexpectedly published a despairing novel featuring a one-armed murdering pimp with white-supremacist leanings named Frank Beaverbrains.
This dull petty criminal wanders Manhattan—or some gentrifying urban center of high culture and national pride—selling tie stands and alt-right newsletters, roughing up prostitutes, shooting up bars, and volunteering for a number of disastrous heists before winding up a diminished nobody, an assistant porter at a small company with less than nothing left to him. The reading public, scandalized, intrigued, mystified, lines up at bookstores nationwide to make this strange novel a bestseller. Some years later, Trump rides a surge of white nationalism to the White House, earning the author a reputation as a kind of literary-political clairvoyant.
This, more or less, is the trick that Alfred Döblin, a doctor, writer, and German public figure, pulled off in 1929 with his publication of Berlin Alexanderplatz, released at the height of the so-called “Golden Years” of the Weimar Republic. Sometimes known as the “Stresemann era,” those too-few years in Germany before the dramatic rise of the Nazis were, for many Germans, seen as politically uneventful and even optimistic. When they weren’t swept up in a national sports craze, many had the time again to focus on family and work while German artists and scientists received a batch of major international awards that cemented the nation’s reputation as the cultural center of Europe.
Sebastian Haffner writes in Defying Hitler that between 1924 and 1929 “all was quiet, all was orderly; events took a tranquil course. […] There was an ample measure of freedom, peace, and order, everywhere the most well-meaning liberal-mindedness, good wages, good food, and a little political boredom.” Many middle-class Germans watched as the humiliations of the Great War and the political unrest of the early 1920s seemed to recede into the past. Although the thugs of the Nationalsozialistische had by then raised their ugly cries of blood and soil, the events of the Reichstag fire, the rise of Hitler, and the Anschluss were still years off and, to most, entirely unimaginable.
In this unique historical moment, Döblin’s story of Franz Biberkopf crashes into the scene, dripping with blood and rage. Released from Tegel prison in 1928 after serving four years for murdering his girlfriend, disoriented Biberkopf, representative of the forgotten underclasses, is thrown like a pipe bomb back into a Berlin society he barely understands. Although largely plotless, the tale centers on Biberkopf’s failed attempts to “go straight,” to give up his life of crime and redeem himself. He falls victim again and again to his own degeneracy, involving himself in the schemes of the duplicitous Reinhold, the criminal mastermind who becomes Biberkopf’s foe and foil. Filtering the story through a choppy literary expressionism—a German offshoot of modernism—Döblin presses the reader’s nose into the chaos of Berlin in 1928:
The police have blue uniforms now. He made his way off the tram unnoticed, mingled with the crowd. What was wrong? Nothing. Watch where you’re going or I’ll whop you. The crowds, the crowds. My skull needs grease, it must have dried out. All that stuff. Shoe shops, hat shops, electric lights, bars. People will need shoes to run around in, we had a shoe shop too, once, let’s not forget that. Hundreds of shiny windows, let them flash away at you, they’re nothing to be afraid of, it’s just that they’ve been cleaned, you can always smash them if you want. They were taking up the road at Rosenthaler Platz, he was walking on duckboards along with everyone else. You just mingle with the crowd, man, that’ll make everything better, then you won’t suffer.
The novel is a hyper-surreal fable, a fever dream replete with strange soliloquies, rotating points of view, shotgun blasts of violence, throes of eroticism, and dislocated intellectual ponderings. Images rise up and vanish; strange mini-dissertations on economics, science, and religion flash and reappear, virtually unchanged, dozens or hundreds of pages later. Discomfiting chunks of life—buildings, bar scenes, odd characters, scientific data—take shape awkwardly in the reader’s imagination as if coughed up from the haze of forgotten history. There is much repetition of ugly or seemingly unneeded nonsense words—widdeboom, chingdaradada, HOI HO HATZ—all of which is more or less the defining characteristic of Expressionism. “The book as a whole must not seem to be spoken,” Döblin once argued in his “Berlin Manifesto.” “It must seem to be concretelythere” [emphasis mine]. In some sense, this book is not for mere reading but experiencing, confronting, combatting.
Like some other writers of his era, Döblin was attempting to break away from what was perceived to be the overly stylized, realistic literature of the nineteenth century, seen by some as ill equipped for an alienating, urbanizing, post-Great War society. (Werner Fassbinder’s mesmerizing fifteen-hour miniseries based on the book capitalizes on this aspect, with every rust-toned frame of the world’s longest German film crowded with ugly industrial machinery, seedy flashing lights, or some form of urban misery.) Along with Joyce, Musil, Woolf, Proust, and Dos Passos, Döblin sought to reshape literature itself. Yet unlike those writers, and despite the popularity of Berlin Alexanderplatz, Döblin never achieved the status some, such as Gunter Grass, felt he deserved. “Why then is this book today so little known, even in Germany?” laments Chris Godwin in an introduction to Döblin’s first novel, The Three Leaps of Wang Lun. Others also in awe of Döblin have asked similar questions, but even with this beautiful reissue by NYRB Classics, in a captivating translation by superstar Michael Hofmann, the stubborn fact of his continued underappreciation lingers on.
But in truth, it’s no big mystery. The literary mode of Expressionism, or what the author preferred to call “Döblinism” in literature simply doesn’t age well. Despite many good qualities, it feels like an antique, an oddly shaped tintype curio that, though it once caused a stir in its day, now sits on a museum shelf gathering dust. And since stories in books can never, of course, really be “concretely there,” as Döblin insisted—they can only be imagined—the reader is left to contend with a flood of contradictions, roving points of view, spurts of linguistic energy, and scenes of abject disgust that can make the book something of a challenge.
Watch yourself, Franz Biberkopf, you boozehound! Lying around in your room, nothing but sleeping and drinking and more sleeping!
Who cares what I get up to. If I feel like it, I can sleep in all day and not get up.—He bites his nails, groans, tosses his head from side to side on the sweaty pillow, blows his nose.—I can lie here till Doomsday if I like. If only the facking landlady would turn on the heat. Lazy cow, only thinks of herself.
His head turns away from the wall, on the floor by the bed is gruel, a puddle.—Spew. Must have been me. Stuff a man carries around in his stomach. Yuck. Spiders’ webs in the corners, you could catch mice in them. I want a drink of water. Who gives a shit. My back hurts. Come on in, Frau Schmidt. Between the spiders’ webs at the top of the picture (black dress, long in the tooth). She’s a witch (coming out of the ceiling like that). Yuck.
But in the final analysis, Döblin doesn’t belong to the company of Joyce and Dos Passos, nor the other German expressionists of his time, but with a strain of writing that can be called Superfluous Literature. In fiction, this mode originates with Turgenev’s defining Diary of a Superfluous Man and carries on through Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground, Hunger by Knut Hamsun, Native Son by Richard Wright, and Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller—all of these stories of uneducated dullards who are emotionally and psychically disfigured by the absurd circumstances of a cannibalistic capitalism and a brutal modern context. In response, these Biberkopfs become cowards, adulterers, thieves, liars, murderers, criminals—lost souls of one kind or another. They reflect the horror of society back at you, begging readers to pay attention to a set of social realities that may have escaped notice. And perhaps if those middle-class Germans, lulled into docility by a brief period of political uneventfulness, had really heard Döblin’s message in 1929, Nazism may have had more difficulty sinking its claws into the heart Europe.
The final meaning of Superfluous Literature goes back to how we choose to shape our world, politically, socially, culturally. A man or woman who is not valued, never given opportunity, love, community, but simply made to scramble and stumble about in an attempt to survive and nothing more will become, as the Enlightenment thinker Adam Smith warned in 1776, “as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become.
The final meaning of Superfluous Literature goes back to how we choose to shape our world, politically, socially, culturally. A man or woman who is not valued, never given opportunity, love, community, but simply made to scramble and stumble about in an attempt to survive and nothing more will become, as the Enlightenment thinker Adam Smith warned in 1776, “as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become. The torpor of his mind renders him, not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving of any generous, noble, or tender sentiment.” This is Biberkopf in a nutshell—misunderstanding life, misunderstanding himself, ignorant of generosity, nobility, unable to see any connection between himself and others.
Finally, as lost as he is, at the novel’s conclusion, our Biberkopf is not even allowed the relief of death. He is left a lonesome menial laborer and a lost soul. A superfluous modern man, wandering about, scratching his head at the meaninglessness of his fate.
Tyson Duffy is writer and editor who lives in Atlanta with his wife.
FAREWELL, AYLIS: A NON-TRADITIONAL NOVEL IN THREE WORKS
by Akram Aylisli
translated by Katherine E. Young
Academic Studies Press, 316 pages
reviewed by Ryan K. Strader
We don’t often read literature from Azerbaijan, for many reasons. It’s a small post-Soviet country that is hard to find on the map, with a Turkic language that makes finding translators difficult, and a government that still censors its writers Soviet-style. We don’t generally stroll down the aisle at a bookstore and discover the “Azeri” section. The only thing harder to find might be Georgian, and I’ll only say “might.” Probably most of us have no idea what novelists in Azerbaijan write about, what kind of social justice concerns they have, or what kind of risks those writers take to address those concerns.
The publication of Farewell, Aylis: A Non-Traditional Novel in Three Parts, by Academic Studies Press in November 2018, addresses these gaps in our literary exposure in several ways. For the first time we have Aylisli’s powerful and Nobel-worthy novel in English (he was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2014). Because Farewell, Aylis depicts ethnic violence against Armenians in Azerbaijan in the 1990s, Aylisli has been the target of censorship and currently lives under de facto house arrest in Baku. The publication of Farewell, Aylis could open up the Western canon to a powerful literary work, and open up Western writers’ understanding of Azeri writers’ political context. Part of our luck in receiving Farewell, Aylis is that Aylisli transposed much of it into Russian himself, making it accessible to more translators. This translation is by the poet Katherine E. Young, who was a National Endowment for the Arts Translation Fellow for Farewell, Aylis, and has received several awards for her work translating contemporary Russian women poets.
We don’t often read literature from Azerbaijan, for many reasons. It’s a small post-Soviet country that is hard to find on the map, with a Turkic language that makes finding translators difficult, and a government that still censors its writers Soviet-style.
Farewell, Aylis is actually three novellas that cover several decades of social transition in Azerbaijan under authoritarianism. The historical circumstances depicted in the novellas are important context for the characters, but none of these novellas are “about” history or Azerbaijan per se. Each one is about an individual who is trying to understand morality and humaneness in a society where humane distinctions have ceased to exist.
The first novella is Yemen, and it is the only one that was published widely in Azerbaijan, in 1994. Yemen takes place during the Gorbachev years and follows Safaly, a teacher who goes on a trip to avoid the visit of some pesky relatives from Moscow. On the trip, he encounters Ali Ziya, an old friend whom he once accompanied on a pseudo-religious pilgrimage to Yemen.
Past and present begin to bleed together as both men relive memories of the Yemen trip. On that trip, Safaly had gone on a walk one afternoon, and, finding Safaly missing from his room, Ali Ziya had reported to the Soviet embassy that Safaly was on his way to defect to America. This event seems comical to a Western reader, but in Soviet society denunciations and being reported to the Soviet authorities were not a small thing. For Safaly it is a revelation of the ways that the Soviet system has created a new type of individual, and that new individual has created a new society: “He suddenly understood: that which was called Soviet authority was also Ali Ziya—and so what if he drank tea, pouring it into the saucer and blowing on it.”
Yemen asks timeless questions about the ideological collusion between the individual and autocracy, and how it is that a society comprised of individuals can lose its moral bearing. When Safaly visits his home village, his uncle points out to him that the individual has to decide whether he will stand with or against his own society: “And are infidels really found only among Russians or Armenians? A kafir, nephew, isn’t distinguished by nationality, it comes from the essence of a person.” Society loses its moral bearing one person at a time, one Ali Ziya at a time.
The story can seem dream-like at moments, with Safaly’s most dramatic insights arriving during a fantastical whiskey-fueled conversation with astronaut Neil Armstrong, who passionately debates Safaly on whether national leaders are “far-sighted” or not. The writing reminded me of Moscow to the End of the Line by Yerofeyev, but Safaly’s philosophical trajectory is more cohesive and unfolds naturally and compellingly.
The second and most well-known novella in the trilogy is Stone Dreams. It was the publication of this story in a Moscow magazine in 2012 that Russian journalist Shura Burtin described as having “the effect of a bomb exploding,” and resulted in Aylisli’s being censored, the public burning of his books, and the revoking of his travel privileges.
Katherine E. Young
The protagonist of Stone Dreams is Sadai Sadygly, a well-known Azerbaijani actor who goes for a walk one morning and comes across a group of boys kicking an elderly Armenian to death. When he intervenes to save the Armenian, the boys beat him so badly that he winds up in the hospital. Unconscious in the hospital, Sadai relives several scenes from his childhood in the village of Aylis, as well as several scenes from his professional life in the city of Baku. Both strands of memory reveal the disintegration of relationships between the Azerbaijanis and the Armenians that he has known, and the moral frustration that Sadai has experienced as friendships and relationships have responded to ethnic and religious tension.
In the hospital, Sadai is attended by two men whose stories become interlaced with his. One is Dr. Farzani, haunted by his attempts to live a moral Muslim life, which resulted sadly in the break up of his family. The other is Dr. Abasaliev, a retired psychiatrist who has been slowly translating an ancient text related to the founding of the town of Aylis, and has discovered that, contrary to the popularly disseminated narrative, Aylis has Armenian roots. “If a single candle were lit for every Armenian killed violently, the radiance of those candles would be brighter than the light of the moon,” Dr. Abasaliev claims, while reading the history of Aylis to the unconscious Sadai and the attendant Dr. Farzani.
Stone Dreams is about the role of the “average” individual in a time of moral and spiritual confusion. None of the characters are perfect, but they struggle to understand how to honor their conscience in a time where the conflicts run so deep that it is almost impossible to live a truly moral life, before one’s family, one’s nation, one’s God. All of them ask fundamental questions about what their actions mean, and what they can do versus what they are powerless to do. Like most good writing that poses pressing questions about human nature, the story does not offer any neat answers or conclusions, but shows us what it means to grapple with these questions.
It is no surprise that after the reaction to the publication of Stone Dreams, the third novella never made it into print in Azerbaijan. A Fantastical Traffic Jam is magical realism in the style of Gabriel García Márquez, and takes place in a fictional country called Allahabad, ruled by a corrupt dictator. The protagonist is Elbey, a government worker who has known the dictator for most of his life—the two of them come from the same rural area, and their families are intertwined in surprising ways. In the tradition of Orwell or Bradbury, Elbey works for the Operations Headquarters for the Restoration of Fountains and Waterfalls in the Name of Progress and Pluralism, an “enigmatic organization” whose name “gave off the aroma of a splendid bouquet of lies.” Elbey is facing several professional and personal crises which cause him to scheme, manipulate, and try to out-think his dictator employer (something which isn’t easy to do) in an effort to avoid being killed…or avoid being induced to kill himself. The story moves back and forth between Elbey’s current day relationship with “the Master” (as the dictator is often referred to), Elbey’s childhood, and the Master’s childhood and rise to power. Unlike the other novellas, this one has a few epigraph-style lines from Aylisli at the beginning of each section, that point out certain important aspects of the text: It’s not meant to be a tale where each fictitious person has a real-life counterpart, but the story is meant to illustrate the way that “glutinous regimes devour themselves.” Like the other novellas, A Fantastical Traffic Jam explores relationships as a way of showing how greed and manipulation on a national level reproduce themselves in the lives of the people who serve the regime.
Farewell, Aylis holds many gifts for its reader. The novellas are each stylistically unique but have a historical and philosophical sequence that both unfold and dialogue with each other powerfully.
A Fantastical Traffic Jam was probably my favorite of the three for its stylistic inventiveness and use of irony. One day I’ll teach a class on tiny magical novels that blow up when read, and I can add Aylisli to my syllabus alongside Bulgakov and Zoschenko.
Farewell, Aylis holds many gifts for its reader. The novellas are each stylistically unique but have a historical and philosophical sequence that both unfold and dialogue with each other powerfully. The characters are realistic: not ideologues, not angels or rogues. The translation is smooth and rhythmic, and the stories maintain their internal thematic consistency in complex ways that speak to the chemistry between the novel and the translator. A reader doesn’t need to know anything about Azerbaijan in order to contact the world of the novels, because the characters are relatable and they capture what we need to know in their stories.
So often, academic presentations of literature create a false partition between the artistic and the academic: the reader can only encounter the art after wading through 800 essays, which tell the reader what to think and how to be appropriately impressed by the writing, and each of the essays cites 400 sources. This volume doesn’t do that.
While this non-traditional work is wonderful reading, the volume that Academic Studies Press has put together is unique in a few other ways. Because I’m an academic, I should be able to say this without offending too many people: It’s so nice to see an academic press present a powerful piece of art in a way that honors both its artistic value and its academic value. So often, academic presentations of literature create a false partition between the artistic and the academic: the reader can only encounter the art after wading through 800 essays, which tell the reader what to think and how to be appropriately impressed by the writing, and each of the essays cites 400 sources. This volume doesn’t do that. There is an introduction written by journalist Joshua Kucera that is helpful and readable, intelligent without being abstruse, and it doesn’t give away everything that happens. The novellas come next. A reflective essay by Aylisli ,which I’ll pair with a Solzhenitsyn essay when I teach writing next year, follows. It is a powerful—and somewhat magical (Márquez again)—piece. Aylisli reflects on his experiences as a writer, dealing with censorship, what it’s like to watch people burn his books, and his poignant relationship with his hometown of Aylis, from which he draws his pen name (his real last name is Naibov). There is a copy of a speech that Aylisli was supposed to give in Italy in 2016 but could not because his travel privileges had been revoked. And there is an afterward by Andrew Wachtel that considers how Aylisli fits in the larger tradition of Soviet literature and explains his relevance to our world today far better than I ever could.
The volume is unique because the novel is given adequate context, including the writer’s reflections, but the reader is also allowed adequate intellectual room to encounter the writing as a novel, as a story, without being overwhelmed with historical context or theoretical significance. I personally hope this starts a trend for publishing non-Western text in translation in volumes like this. Why shouldn’t we see more significant non-Western writing, and why shouldn’t we enjoy both responding to the stories that come from other parts of the world and learning some of the relevant context, without being overwhelmed by the context?
In a 2014 article, Dr. Mikhail Mamedov of George Mason University pointed out that when it comes to historical moments of conflict and oppression, “literary works are often more important” than historical monographs “because they reach a broader audience.” Stone Dreams, he argues, is the “most important novel to emerge so far” in the literary response to the conflict between the Azerbaijanis and the Armenians. He describes it as “a novel of repentance—and perhaps a gesture towards reconciliation,” a lovely description that is also challenging for all writers. Farewell, Aylis is not a reactive novel intended to prove any ideology right or wrong. Ultimately, it is a work of the heart and a work of love and acceptance for other people, no matter their history. Aylisli is setting a timely example for how to be a writer and what kind of literary offering to make, in a time of cultural strain.
Ryan K. Strader earned a B.A. in Russian Literature from George Mason University, an M.A.T. from Clayton State University, and a Ph.D. in Rhetoric and Composition from Georgia State University. She writes about post-Soviet writers, qualitative research methods, and writing pedagogy. She lives south of Atlanta with her husband and two kids, where she gets to read, write, and teach every day.
by María Gainza
translated by Thomas Bunstead
Catapult, 208 Pages
reviewed by Justin Goodman
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Our bodies are both the fundament and the fundamental threat to our experience of the world. For artists and art lovers, this corporeality more often induces terror than acceptance: cancer’s ghostly invocations in Judith Kitchen’s TheCircus Train, retrograde amnesia’s ever-recurring retractions in Christopher Nolan’s Memento, visceral depictions of the mythological in Goya’s Black Paintings. The referentiality of invoking such a list is what Argentinian art critic María Gainza reflects upon in her debut novel, Optic Nerve.
Written from the perspective of an unnamed Argentinian art critic, Optic Nerve flits from her present to her childhood memories, to her culture’s memories, in order to develop a lineage between self and cultural artifacts, become an optic nerve transmitting information from the external to the internal. The most representative instance of this transmission takes the form of a historical moment remembered by the narrator: while Señora Alvear, “once upon a time the famous soprano Regina Pacini,” sits at her dinner table beneath a painting by French animal painter Alfred de Dreux, “her eye travels back and forth constantly between the deer in the picture, still alive, and the other one, dead and served to them in lean cuts.” Optic Nerve spends much of its time traveling back and forth like this.
This semi-flux state is built into the novel’s architecture. The narrator’s present tense gives way to her past tense gives way to a historical artist’s past (including the aforementioned Alfred de Dreux, among others). First-person gives way to second-person gives way to third-person. A few pages in, one might feel trapped in quicksand. A meditation on how Courbet’s The Stormy Sea is the visual equivalent of Marcus Aurelius’ saying, “Let the universe decide,” becomes the narrator reminiscing about watching Point Blank (described, never named) late at night with its final shot echoing Courbet’s waves “thick as milk.”
In her impulse for nesting thoughts, to move away from the present world while trapped in a mirror-like compulsion to reflect, there’s something Kafkaesque about it. A world in which the very act of struggling against the unknown strengthens its hold on you. Quicksand. One might find Josef K beside Optic Nerve’s narrator in the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. That her struggle-thoughts are connected to her experiences with the associated art pieces and their histories, leading one to realize the narrator herself is like a modern Señora Alvear. Fitting, since it leads one to fellow Argentinian Jose Luis Borges’ famous phrase from “Kafka and His Precursors” as well: “The fact is that every writer creates his own precursors.”
Despite what all this might suggest, Gainza rarely exceeds descriptive materiality. Be it her reporter’s tone or Courbet’s waves; what is visibly present is everything there is. Even as she ventures into metaphor, her language remains marked by the physical. Remarkably, it’s through metaphorical confusion that this comes across best. The unnamed narrator says of the two stone lions at the entrance of the National Museum of History in America, “I felt they could watch a person be impaled and still show no emotion.” This, of course, is illogical. Stone doesn’t feel. Yet the brutal bodiness of impaling exposes how compulsive this imaginative reflection has become, making golems of the stone lions.
It’s unclear if this intentional or translational, although the clarity of Thomas Bunstead’s translations of Enrique Vila-Matas’ A Brief History of Portable Literature and Juan Villoro’s God Is Round suggest it is a quirk in María Gainza’s writing. In another off-putting, physicalizing metaphor, the narrator compares herself to “a climbing out of an excavation” that finds “the final trio of bones” she has needed to piece together “the creature.” This ambiguity serves to strengthen the overall impression that’s central to the novel’s context, hence its shape: art can only be understood through context, through each person’s precursors. It is, one might say, in the eye of the beholder, which is where the haunting begins.
History—personal, historical, cultural, economic—haunts the body. The weight of the Kafkaesque can only be explained as hauntological, as what British cultural theorist Mark Fisher describes as “the debts to the past, the failure of the future.” This is most explicit in Optic Nerve’s depiction of the painter Hubert Robert who, searching for “real ruins,” ended up unmasking “a society that no longer saw itself living in a time of continuity, but rather a time of contingency.” Bracketing this meditation on Hubert Robert’s meditation is the story of the narrator’s mother’s mania: her compulsion to retreat to her grandmother’s house, her hoarding of seven sofas and “Sotheby’s catalogues dating back to 1972,” and “a lifelong obsession…to disseminate the ‘correct’ history of our country.”
Due to its colonial history, Argentina becomes such a site of contingency as Hubert Robert painted. All that’s left to the deteriorating body politic and the physical body is the preservation of a “correct’ history” of shared pasts, artists, and experiences such as Optic Nerve puts together. A history that tries to remember that grandmother’s house is just that, and not the US Embassy it had become by the narrator’s time. When we learn that Señora Alvear’s saccades to and from Alfred de Dreux’s painting is the ancestral history of our narrator, it highlights the walled perimeters of her world.
And as there is no fluidity between walls and the outside world, except the faint rains of recollection, the novel is ultimately claustrophobic. An initial comparison might be Ernest Sabato’s The Tunnel wherein Castel, the murderous painter-narrator, details his life and failed love from the confines of prison and his tunneled mind. Yet Optic Nerve is less hopeful. Castel knew his smallness, saw the walls. The closest analog would be Teju Cole’s Open City wherein Julius, a peripatetic psychiatric fellow, wanders freely the “palimpsest…written, erased, rewritten” of New York collecting various stories only to discover he’d erased his own. The absence of clear boundaries is a false freedom from the past, in the same way rain inevitably floods the reader and Gainza’s narrator.
And that Open City and Optic Nerve’s narrator are flaneurs is vital: they wander as one would look in a mirror, piecing themselves together and the world. When she’s diagnosed with thymus cancer, the Argentine critic considers how “for two years I’d had the sense that something was wrong inside me.” What compelled her against consulting a doctor? She ignored brokenness, didn’t see her walls. One has the sense that these are, instead of flaneurs, the ghost of flaneurs. The haunting of “a society that no longer saw itself living in a time of continuity, but rather a time of contingency.”
Whereas Sabato’s madman is passionately possessed, the clear-eyed wanderers merely become the ghost of their own haunting. Such is the horrible strength of a novel like Optic Nerve. It’s deficiencies—its clash of metaphor and physical, its jarring mix of domestic narrative and art criticism—don’t obscure its purpose. When the narrator visits the ophthalmologist for the first time, she attempts to use the seeing eye chart exactly eighteen inches away, as that was what “Rothko claimed was the optimal distance from which to view his work.” She transforms the eye chart into a painting, transforms her health into an aesthetic experience. She is trapped in the mansion of her mind, looking between the painted deer and a deer’s lean cuts. Later she looks at a Rothko poster in his office and feels “a clear sense of the brutal solitude of this slab of sweating flesh that is me.”
Fittingly, she had told the doctor that she was going to have an eye operation as a kid but was a “bundle of nerves.” Trapped in such “sweating flesh,” haunted by past debts and future foreclosure, the novel ends with the narrator quoting Jules Renard: “How monotonous snow would be if God had not created crows.” At this she feels “poetic joy,” but forgets its referent, as if a ghost, unable to escape herself.
Justin Goodman earned his B.A. in Literature from SUNY Purchase. His writing–published, among other places, in Cleaver Magazine, TwoCities Review, and Prairie Schooner–is accessible from justindgoodman.com. His chapbook, The True Final Apocalypse, is forthcoming from Local Gems.
ALL FOR NOTHING
by Walter Kempowski
translated by Anthea Bell
NYRB Classics, 368 pages
reviewed by Tyson Duffy
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Every self-professed American optimist should read the oeuvre of Walter Kempowski—not that they ever will. The chronicler of brutality was never given a fair shake even by his fellow Germans, and despite strong book sales, by literary award committees. Kempowski had plenty of reasons to be angry—angry at his Nazi father whom he betrayed, at what the agonized Sebastian Haffner once called the “moral inadequacy of the German character,” at the literary world for snubbing him, and at every center of power involved in WWII: the Russians, British, Germans, Europe itself.
The triumphant Soviets—without whom WWII could not have been won—were responsible for imprisoning Kempowski as well as his innocent and elderly mother. The Allies, whom Kempowski had risked his life to aid, did nothing to help him once the war was over. He rotted in prison for eight years of a twenty-five-year sentence and never saw his mother again. “Again and again,” he wrote, not long before his death and less than two years after the Iraq War began, “there will be pictures of war and bloodshed, with no end to show in sight. The skyscrapers are already burning.” He must have believed that there was no reliable morality emanating from any single direction, that people—their militaries, governments, communities, and families—are all susceptible to self-serving lies, casual violence, and solipsism, in addition to occasional kindness and unexpected generosity. But while the decency is unpredictable and short-lived, brutality remains constant. This being so, perhaps life really is all for nothing.
Kempowski was a man who walked the middle path, despite outrage from all sides, stepping back to objectively examine the nature of state-sanctioned persecution from its fulminating epicenter out to the blood-spattered periphery, exempting no single perspective. Lamenting the extermination of millions of faceless people in concentration camps is too simplistic, he once suggested, so he decided in his massive compilation Echolot (partially translated into English as Swanson 1945) to include every last letter and diary entry he could find of Germans in the final days of the war—barbers, bank directors, Jews, Nazi officers, Thomas Mann, Eva Braun, Hitler himself, and hundreds of others. These “particles” amassed together in thousands of pages created a psycho-socio-political map of an era, an attempt at recreating what Lionel Trilling would have called the “huge, unrecorded hum of implication” of that particular milieu. He continued this same work, in a different way, in his novels.
“When humanity suffers, it should be recorded in literature,” Kempowski states toward the end of All for Nothing, a novel focusing on the von Globig family and their self-delusions as the Russian incursion of 1945 creeps forward to smash their crumbling Georgenhof estate, leaving all of them dead except for twelve-year-old Peter. Up until then, despite living within one-hundred kilometers of the Russian front, the von Globig family was busy personifying the idealized Nazi family, hanging icons of the Fuhrer around the house and heaping derision on their Polish house workers. But with the husband, Eberhard, off in Italy doing his duty for the Reich, the attractive, flighty, and superficial Katharina von Globig finds herself vulnerable to the persuasions of a local pastor who wants her to house a fugitive Jew for a night. Her decision to do this leads to the destruction of the von Globigs—prison for Katharina, suicide for Eberhard, and orphanhood for young Peter.
This novel is a painting by Bosch or Goya, every sentence a carefully placed stroke creating a beautifully detailed but two-dimensional depiction of life in a violent netherworld.
Nothing about this plot device, however, seems as impressive as the impression of that unrecorded hum of Trilling’s coinage. This novel is a painting by Bosch or Goya, every sentence a carefully placed stroke creating a beautifully detailed but two-dimensional depiction of life in a violent netherworld. The prose is broken up into short sections of a few paragraphs each, descriptive, simplistic, quizzical, and imbuing the writing with an ironic Zen shapelessness. Meanwhile, what seems to be the real heart of the story is carried to the Georgenhof, piece by piece, in a string of transient guests—a political economist, a Nazi violinist, a painter, a band of fleeing refugees. These strangers and their interactions with the von Globig family are described with inscrutable cool, the prose communicating the unique quality of tension and misplaced optimism that must have existed in an ennobled German estate in the outskirts of a nation-state on the verge of collapse.
Kempowski was often criticized for pulling back when insight or judgment was perceived to be required of a character in his fiction, and I must say the criticism is not unwarranted. Although the excuse for Katharina’s unexpected choice seems to be that she was bored and in pursuit of excitement, her decision to harbor a Jewish refugee never comes off as entirely fitting. Would the amoral wife of a Wehrmacht officer living across the street from a Nazi official do such a thing? Would anyone even think to ask her? On the other hand, the most repulsive character of all, the local Nazi tyrant Drygalski, is given his moment of redemption at the end of the book, making a self-sacrifice that comes out of the blue. What are we to make of this? As the great wave of fighter-jet-and-motor-car modernity sweeps across the horse paths of East Prussia, the only casualties are the innocent, the elderly, the oppressed—the youthful Nazi soldiers get to sit around fires, cracking jokes. You could almost be forgiven for forgetting that the end of the WWII was actually a defeat for the forces of wanton evil. Although young Peter survives, he is so traumatized by his experiences that he entertains himself by looking at his dead Auntie’s blood under his trusty microscope, finding it to be a “crusted substance with nothing mysterious about it.” But if you’ve ever looked at blood or any living stuff under a microscope, you could hardly agree with that description.
Kempowski’s novel confirmed for me the bias of the unsafe middle path—when you draw back to view the world of destruction from such a great height, you’re liable to overlook a thing or two about human beings.
Do we live in a world in which admirable deeds are only carried out by awful people, and in which admirable people do nothing at all? It’s not the world I recognize. Kempowski’s novel confirmed for me the bias of the unsafe middle path—when you draw back to view the world of destruction from such a great height, you’re liable to overlook a thing or two about human beings. For one thing, their blood is no crusted substance but full of mystery. For another, the private madness and societal destructions of war do not represent the sole achievement of humankind.
At the same time, Kempowski’s depiction of what war does to a society cannot be brushed aside, its stubborn persistence in life is too central to our species. We are, perhaps, and despite our temporary decencies, a thuggish and warring animal with only self-preservation in our hearts. Perhaps that is true, but, despite it all, it’s by no means provable as the only truth.
I once had the pleasure of having dinner with Eddy L. Harris, the underappreciated American author of Mississippi Solo. He spent his life as the target of abuse from all sides of the American racial divide, particularly for his book Native Stranger, prompting his self-exile to France where he now lives. He seemed to me a kindly, Buddhistic fellow who had done the admirable work of pursuing truth at all costs, a thankless task. I asked him why walking the middle path seemed to be such a controversial choice. “Life is a turf war,” he said, with the tang of strong resentment. Those who presume to walk in the no man’s land between two opponents, critiquing the action on all fronts, can expect to gain nothing in the way of allies and everything of denigration from a polarized public. To be sentimental about this duty would be sheer dereliction, since, as Carl Jung once said, “Sentimentality is the superstructure erected upon brutality.”
Post-1945 Germans couldn’t quite countenance Kempowski’s implicit condemnation of the Nazis, and post-1989 Germans felt he was too soft on them. But there is a certain type of person, like Kempowski, like Harris, who ranges too far from the action to be categorizable in typical literary or social terms. They attempt to see fate and life through the eyes of God. And though, because of this, they may not be quite able to capture the individual goodness and nature of ordinary people and communities, they nonetheless have a message for us. How you respond to that grim tiding depends, unfortunately, on which side of the fight you are on.
Tyson Duffy is a writer, editor, teacher, and translator. He’s a former Fulbright Fellow and a current fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center Writers’ Institute. His most recent fiction appears in the Carolina Quarterly Review. He lives with his wife in New York City.
by Melissa Duclos
713 Books, 243 pages reviewed by Lisa Johnson Mitchell
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Melissa Duclos’ debut novel Besotted is a lyrical, urgent love story about two young American women, Sasha and Liz, who run away to China to try to find themselves. Sasha has fled all the trappings of her privileged life, including her father who disapproves of her sexuality. Liz, the object of Sasha’s desire, has packed up and left her predictable existence and Amherst-educated boyfriend, having grown tired of being an afterthought of his otherwise-enchanted life.
When the novel opens, Sasha is a teacher at an international school, who is helping her boss find an additional instructor. She’s drawn to Liz’s resume because she believed she “needed to be” working with her (a certain je ne sais quoi, I suppose), and she tells her boss there are no other applicants. When Liz arrives, she’s put up in a hotel temporarily, and Sasha, who is desperately lonely, asks her to move in. After mornings sipping jasmine tea and evenings drinking at trendy expat haunts, they fall in love. But then two other characters arrive on the scene: Sam, Liz’s Chinese language partner who meets her at Starbucks for Frappuccinos and grammar lessons, and Dorian, an entitled, handsome American architect who loves his liquor and “was always winking.” When this group collides during happy hour at a popular drinkery, everything starts to unravel.
The plot seduced and sizzled, but it was the voice that kept me in its grip.
The plot seduced and sizzled, but it was the voice that kept me in its grip—a first-person omniscient point of view. The story begins with Sasha, who is generally the narrator, speaking in first person, but there are points when this restricted perspective shifts into omniscient. “While I sat in front of our chicken dinner that night, Liz stared out of the window of her cab, trying to put our lonely apartment out of her mind.”
I had never read such a thing, and while it was, at first, slightly puzzling, the more I read, the more I became enamored with the technique. By starting in first-person and then switching to omniscient, it feels as if Sasha is cascading into the narrative, permeating everything and everyone. We jettison from her head into the minds of Liz, Dorian, and Sam and are held captive. Her hunger for Liz, driven by her loneliness, becomes insatiable. At one point, Sasha learns that she is always in Liz’s dreams and says, “I felt like a conquering army: triumphant.” In another scene, Sasha swipes lesson plans from another teacher for Liz, who is unprepared and seemingly clueless. Sasha tells Liz to make them her own, but in the end, she reformats and switches things around herself. The last line of the scene states, “At the time, I felt in control.” While Sasha has Liz in her grasp, it’s passages like this that show her hold is temporary.
The tension created by alternating between non-omniscient and omniscient sets ups a conjoined voice that sits on the reader’s shoulder and chatters, changing lenses, at times whispering in our ear, then becoming distant, hovering mid-sky in the landscape of the story, which infuses the narrative with an element of surprise.
The tension created by alternating between non-omniscient and omniscient sets ups a conjoined voice that sits on the reader’s shoulder and chatters, changing lenses, at times whispering in our ear, then becoming distant, hovering mid-sky in the landscape of the story, which infuses the narrative with an element of surprise. It’s this toggling between perspectives that sets us up for the lens of memory through which the story is told. Like the voice, the remembrances are in flux, as is the structure, which is non-linear, much like one’s own recall. A quote on the first page from The Blindfold by Siri Hustvedt sets up this filter—a kaleidoscope of sorts—beautifully. “Distortion is part of desire. We always change the things we want.” After reading this, I wasn’t surprised that throughout Besotted, Sasha offers disclaimers about what she’s telling us.
In an early passage, Sasha describes Liz unpacking when she arrives at the hotel in Shanghai: “So she put roughly half her clothes into the small dresser, choosing them arbitrarily, and as she did, noticed a green glossy envelope lying on the dresser top. I know because I put it there. Of some parts of this story I’m certain.” The last sentence implies that there are other parts of the narrative of which she is not certain. These admissions crescendo as the novel progresses and at one point, Sasha justifies her jumbled recall: “Memory shapeshifts. That’s not a trick or malfunction, but its very purpose. We make sense of things by rearranging them.” Near the end, Sasha admits: “What happens next is hazy.” However, it’s important to note that many of the scenes in the novel take place at bars, where lots of folks get wasted regularly. If we assume that this is all being told to us by Sasha, she might just be getting blotto, which may add to the blurriness of her account. Nevertheless, only after reading the entire book did Hustvedt’s quote about distortion of desire ricochet inside my mind. Sasha doesn’t seem to be misleading us on purpose. Her pain obscures her broken heart; she is constitutionally incapable of telling us the truth.
What the lens of memory calls into question is the difference between perception and reality, what is said and what is meant, or more pointedly, what Sasha thinks is going on versus what Liz thinks. (Yet we can’t know what Liz really thinks, as it seems Sasha, disguised as the omniscient voice, is in Liz’s head and telling us what she believes she feels.) The first sentence in the novel states this predicament, the tension between denotation and connotation: “I once considered the space that exists between what people say and what they mean to be my native habitat. Until Liz.” Right here, we know that Sasha has been stumped and Liz can’t be trusted, which sets up doubt in our minds about what we’re about to read. But when this doubt intersected with the story, I felt a bit unmoored. Despite this, the impressionistic narrative we’re left with is nonetheless irresistibly compelling.
Duclos’ rapier wit is also delicious. In one section, when Dorian and Sasha are talking, Sasha says that after Shanghai she might move to the West Coast. “Expats often talk like that, listing cities they plan to move to the way normal people discuss movies they’d like to see.” And in scenes taking place in Starbucks, the cafe is described as “…neutral territory. The United States of Au Lait. The People’s Republic of Chai.” In addition to the humor I was also struck with the refined, evocative prose. When Sasha describes Liz’s laugh, she claims that it sounds like “glass shattered in ecstasy.” When recalling a previous evening, Sasha says, “The air here the night Liz arrived was soft and suffocating like tufted felt…” There are many exquisite passages, and after I read one, I longed for another.
Yet it wasn’t just the humor and satisfying prose that pulled me in. Duclos employs personifications of Loneliness, Anxiety and Love, which are threaded throughout the story and function like narrators in a Greek tragedy. After Liz moves in with Sasha, we hear from Loneliness and Anxiety. “Loneliness had vacated the apartment, but she’d been replaced by a jasmine flower called Anxiety.” The novel possesses quite a few personifications of Love, and there are plenty of sublime passages to choose from. “Love didn’t get her feet dusty, couldn’t tolerate the creep of grime up her shins, the slick of puddles on her soles. When Love stood quite still, as she so often did, she could feel the pull of mountains and rivers and half-constructed skyscrapers and eight-lane highways and movie theaters and the quiet parks with their untouched grass circling around her bowed head.” Duclos also paints crisp, tactile pictures of the grittiness of Shanghai, so much so that afterwards, I felt slightly sullied, but it’s her poetic rendering of Love’s voice at the end of the novel that finally impaled me. Heartbroken and alone, Sasha is leaving the city for good. “Love cranes her neck, looking up and up and up, searching for the dark. She wishes for stars. She says goodbye to Shanghai.”
The core of Sasha and Liz’s story can be summed up in this sentence from the novel: “Everyone has a heart stitched back together, the scars they try to hide.” This resonated throughout the text and felt like the response to another quote of Hustvedt’s on the first page. “But all attractions are alike…They come from an emptiness inside…Something’s missing and you have to fill it.” Both Sasha and Liz have wounds, gouges in their hearts. Sasha has baggage from previous lovers, and Liz is, in a sense, waiting for her boyfriend in Brooklyn to act. Sasha and Liz did, at times, appear to genuinely care for each other, but in some moments, their dynamic was akimbo, eternally tilted towards Sasha, who seemed to shoulder the weight of their collective emotions. Consequently, I never quite believed that Liz loved Sasha, whom my heart gravitated toward through it all. When I closed the book, I uttered aloud, “Poor woman.”
Lisa Johnson Mitchell is a freelance writer in Texas. She has an MFA from Bennington College, where she was an Assistant Graduate Fellow in Fiction.
ADIÓS TO MY PARENTS
by Héctor Aguilar Camín
translated by Chandler Thompson
Schaffner Press, 304 pages reviewed by Kim Livingston
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Adiós To My Parents is a universal family story. Although the setting (Mexico, Belize, Guatemala) is unfamiliar to me—I’ve lived in the Chicago suburbs all of my fifty-one years and, regrettably, have taken only one Spanish class—the people in this book are so richly drawn that I know them instantly. For example, I recognize the author’s maternal grandmother, a cranky old woman who’s come for a rare visit: “When she’s upset with [my younger brother], she says: ‘I’m going to crack you one.’ By which she means she’ll slap him, but to Luis Miguel this sounds like sugar cracker, and he replies: ‘So let me have it.’” Every family has these stories, the ones we bring out when we’re all together again, so we can laugh at the old days and remember those who are gone.
But Aguilar goes deeper than most do at the kitchen table. As readers we learn about his grandmother’s childhood in Spain, her move to Cuba, and her life-long expectation that she’ll end up back in Spain. We know that for decades she sends her valuable linens to her family back home in preparation for her return. Eventually, we learn about her migraines and her husband’s unwillingness to pay for the healthcare that could save her decades of pain. We know that her husband is a serial cheater with dozens of children by other women. And we learn that she never gets back to her beloved Spain.
Each character has a compelling narrative arc, often focusing on the ways that youthful aspirations clash with adulthood. Youth, Aguilar writes, may be “nothing more” than “a delirium of believing, a future agreed upon before the world molds it into reality.”
Héctor Aguilar Camín
As the title suggests, the book centers on Aguilar’s parents. He opens by describing a photo of them standing on a beach in 1944 at the beginning of their life together. He shows us their promise, their love for each other, and then tells us right off that after they married and had five children, the father abandoned the family and disappeared for thirty-six years. When both parents are in their eighties, the father reappears, contacting Aguilar to ask for money. In the first chapter Aguilar writes, “I have no idea who this hunchbacked little man is when he greets me in the shadows of the entrance hall.”
Soon after, his parents both wind up in the same hospital at the same time, one floor apart. On a plot level, we’re in suspense, reading to discover how the family will respond to the father’s reappearance after all these years. The central question of this memoir, though, asks, What happened to the father’s youthful promise and charisma? Why did he leave his family? And how does a son whose father left him make peace with that?
To explore these questions, the author invites us in to the Aguilar Camín clan by recounting his grandparents’ journeys from Spain and Cuba, then to Chetumal, Mexico, just north of Belize in the state of Quintana Roo, where the family settles. Aguilar, a novelist, journalist, and historian, creates here something like a mash-up of Studs Terkel and Willa Cather, assembling his chronicle from collected stories and artifacts. Admitting the limitations of his own memory (“less an archive than a series of insights, a migration of butterflies”), he relies on outside sources such as legal documents, letters, newspaper archives, personal interviews, even his brother’s autobiographical poetry.
He comes at each event from multiple, often opposing, angles. The main conflict is between Aguilar’s father and grandfather. Everybody has a different opinion on what happened. His mother “sees betrayal on a biblical scale in the tale of a son ruined by a father’s greed.” His dad “paints a more prosaic picture of a father berating his sons for their shortcomings.” The truth, the author says, “is derived from the sum of the contradictions.” So he lets his characters speak, sometimes quoting them for pages at a time. He doesn’t take a side, even calls out his own prejudices (“I must […] admit to my heretofore negative and twisted opinion of Trini”). Because of this objective tone, we trust him as a narrator, and we see people in their full complexities, with action weighed against intent.
Throughout the memoir, Aguilar shows a thorough effort to understand his family’s geopolitical landscape, which is admirable. At times, though, the layered details were a bit much for me. In one case he takes three pages to explain how Othón P. Blanco—“A few words must be said about the man who gives the street its name”—founded the town of Payo Obispo, later renamed Chetumal; Aguilar begins with Blanco’s birth in 1868, takes us through his army career then provides detail on the Mayan uprising of 1895 and the resulting boundary treaty of Mexico and Belize, which leads us to Blanco’s use of a pontoon boat to protect the Mexican border, and on to his mild scandal with his wife before he marries her, and we end up a century later at the statue commemorating the city’s founding. Although he makes clear connections between the history lesson and his family, the first third of the book was difficult to read. Honestly, if I weren’t writing this review, I might have put it down.
But I am so glad I didn’t.
Once the foundation is built, the story takes off. Aguilar proves to be a competent guide, reminding us along the way of significant details we’d learned earlier, like previous-episode scenes before a TV show, allowing the reader to relax and enjoy the ride.
And, yes, the details of place are important. Landscape builds character. We see this clearly when Aguilar describes his mother and her family coming to Mexico for the first time:
They walk through Chetumal with visions of Cuba still fresh in their memories. […]The sky may be the same diaphanous blue, and the trees may be similar, but other things are not: the deadly monotony of the coastline; this down-at-the-heels town whose one saving grace is the wide, ramrod straight streets butting up against the jungle.
Only a few of Chetumal’s 7,900 residents were born here. The rest, like the Cuban girls and their parents, came from somewhere else. The town has no drinking water or electricity. Nor does the unpainted wooden house with a tin roof where the girls and their mother are obliged to settle in the day they arrive. […] In time the women will fill the place with flowers to delight the eye and stories to brighten their lives, but for the time being there are only cots, rooms without doors, boxes with crumbs of cement in them where the men keep their clothes and their tools.
Chetumal is where Aguilar’s parents meet and build a life together, where their future is bright. When Hurricane Janet forces 10-year-old Aguilar to leave the family home in Chetumal and move to Mexico City with just his aunt and siblings, Aguilar, who uses present tense for each stage of his life, making each one effectively part of the present, says, “I now think of our family as a kind of non-family without grandparents or a father, without the cousins, aunts, uncles and all the relatives whose longstanding friendships sink a family’s roots in a particular place. Being so far from Chetumal casts a shadow over our household.”
Over the years, Mexico City, too, becomes home. It is there that his mother, Emma, and her sister, Luisa, take center stage as matriarchs. The two of them are delightful to read. Aguilar strikes the perfect tone of gracious admiration with the occasional poke at their old-fashioned ways. In July 1969, Aunt Luisa approaches a large gathering in front of the TV in the sister-owned boardinghouse:
“Can’t anyone tell me what you’re all looking at?” she demands. Her voice crashes over the rapt audience like a wave on the shore, and the voice of an announcer trembling with feigned emotion fills the room. “We’re watching a man land on the moon,” someone says.
“Someone’s landing on the moon?” Luisa snickers. “Who says? You people will believe anything!”
“It’s the moon landing, Doña Luisa. The astronauts have landed on the moon.”
“The moon? The moon? For God’s sake!” Luisa exclaims. “The Gringos are filming it in the desert of Sonora.”
“On the moon, Doña Luisa.”
“The moon the Gringos built to cast their spell over the rest of humanity,” Doña Luisa asserts with an epic sneer. “The moon they stuck in your mouth with their fingers and you swallowed whole. Get out! You’re as gullible as a bunch of old women.”
Emma and Aunt Luisa love to tell stories about their lives, creating and maintaining the family mythos. Aguilar interviewed them, at their kitchen table, in 1991: “They hesitate at first, but soon they’re off on a freeform reminiscence. They butt in on each other constantly, adding details, insisting on corrections, or debating conflicting versions of the same or similar events. Some two hours later, they’ve laid the groundwork for the family history which takes up half this book.”
Throughout his life, Aguilar’s mother and aunt are a source of joy, reason, and pragmatism. They also, though, believe that Aguilar’s father has been cursed by a witch. They come to believe he was born to fail. Like many of their peers, they trust the fortunes told by clairvoyants or “spiritual advisors.” Aguilar, a modern and educated man, is respectful of the women’s beliefs and searches for cultural significance in the phenomenon: “Necromancers and palmists soothe the city’s troubled souls. They satisfy the yearnings of thousands to feel less alone, to be consoled, to be protected against the whims of fate.”
It’s toward the end of the book, when he reflects on the long lives of his mother and aunt that Aguilar, the objective historian, shifts from artifact to emotion: “Here I reach a point of narrative breakdown. My memory is becalmed in a narrow space where the sisters are neither old nor young, and that’s how I picture them for a very long time. […] All of a sudden the fortyish sisters who endure my teenage years are the seventy-year-olds who spoil my children.”
On their own, the women had raised Aguilar and his four siblings. They’d built a dressmaking business and run a boardinghouse, hunched over sewing machines late into the night. In the scene that Aguliar says typifies the fortitude of Emma, his mother, “hurricane-force winds batter the planks that comprise the front wall of our house in Chetumal. Emma rushes at the endangered wall and holds the boards in place with her bare hands […] keeping the catastrophe that threatens her house at bay despite the mindless fury of the storm.”
While the women are steady and strong, the men in this memoir are materialistic and self-absorbed. Aguilar’s description of his paternal grandfather is profound. Don Lupe, after the costly hurricane, sits cross-legged on the floor counting his money, “like a Buddha before an open safe”:
He’s flattening and stacking bills wrinkled and dirtied by the flood. […] He’s in his shirtsleeves, unkempt with his hair uncombed. Without his gold-rimmed glasses, his linen suits and the inevitable necktie, bereft of his alligator shoes and Panama hat, he has the unwashed look of a true peasant. There are corns on his feet, and his thick fingers hover over the bills with a sadness that exposes the roots of avarice in its most primitive form: want.
Acting out macho plays for power and pride, the men fritter away the family’s money, their loyalties to each other waxing and waning through the years. The one constant allegiance is of Aguilar’s father, Hector, whose deep-rooted ambition is to make his own father, Don Lupe, proud. But Don Lupe cheats Hector, stealing his lumber company out from under him, and giving the company to his other son, who runs it into the ground. Hector is crushed, not from the betrayal but from his own failure to gain Don Lupe’s respect. Hector doesn’t want his wife and children to see his shame, his weakness, so he abandons them.
In a kind of poetic symmetry, Aguilar’s own identity is, of course, bound up in the shadow of his father, “whose absence,” he admits, “has been my lifelong torment.” In the memoir’s final chapters, Aguilar struggles to reconcile his bitterness with the pity he feels for the shriveled, senile old man who has returned to his life. Ultimately this story is about compassion and forgiveness, about cherishing the stories, and the story-tellers, themselves. A model for all of us, in all of our wonderful, exasperating, conflicted families.
Since 1993 Kim R. Livingston has taught English at Waubonsee Community College in Sugar Grove, Illinois. Recently she began working on her own writing again, inching toward an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Bay Path University. Now that her kids are mostly grown, she and her husband, after being cat people their whole lives, are helicopter parents to a Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever.
SACRED DARKNESS: THE LAST DAYS OF THE GULAG by Levan Berdzenishvili translated from the Russian by Brian James Baer and Ellen Vayner Europa editions, 240 pages reviewed by Ryan K. Strader
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“As with any book, my book had its own special fate—it was born by mistake,” claims Levan Berdzenishvili, in the opening chapter of Sacred Darkness. Levan wakes up in a hospital, sick and disoriented, with a high fever. He realizes he has some debts to pay before he can jaunt off to Hades. Levan is a specialist in Greek literature, so he doesn’t talk of “dying.” He refers to “my departure to Hades.”
Fortunately, Levan recovers from his fever and decides he has to deal with those debts. His debts have names: Misha, Borya, Vadim, and many others Levan knew when he was a political prisoner in the Soviet Gulag in 1983-1987. (The “Gulag” is a Soviet system of forced labor camps, where people convicted of everything from petty theft to political crimes were sent.)
The first person Levan wants to write about is Arkady Dudkin: “I set pen to paper (or rather, glued myself to a keyboard) not to write a great work of literature or to search for ‘lost time’ (Ah, Proust!) but to rescue a character who was about to disappear. I was fighting to rescue Arkady Dudkin. If it weren’t for me, Arkady would be lost, and no one would ever know that he’d existed and that his life had meaning.” Levan “rescues” fifteen people in Sacred Darkness. Each individual gets their own chapter. While Levan is always the narrator, his recollections of his incarceration are organized around the personalities and stories of these individuals, which he fears will disappear if he does not record what he knows about them. Of course, we learn much about Levan when he writes about others—he is witty, literary, and philosophical. We also learn about the complex—and sometimes comical—web of relationships that formed in the Dubravny prison in the mid-eighties.
Levan is Georgian, a non-Slavic ethnic and linguistic group in the Caucasus region by the Black Sea. Sacred Darkness was originally published in the Georgian language, in 2010. It made its way into Russian, and now appears in English for the first time, translated from the Russian by Brian James Baer and Ellen Vayner. Thanks to the Soviet penchant for prisons, there are many extant Gulag memoirs, the most famous being Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, and many of them waiting to be translated. Levan’s book, however, is of special interest. Like many Soviet prison memoirs, it testifies to the power of language and humor as a survival skill and illustrates the prisoners’ determination to survive and the lengths to which they went to cope with the extreme conditions. Levan’s use of humor is especially witty; he employs humor to touch on themes of language and identity. The memoir as a whole poses questions about nationalism and independence, especially for the minority ethnic and linguistic groups that were subsumed by the Soviet Union.
Levan’s use of humor is especially witty; he employs humor to touch on themes of language and identity. The memoir as a whole poses questions about nationalism and independence, especially for the minority ethnic and linguistic groups that were subsumed by the Soviet Union.
It might seem strange to say that a Gulag memoir is funny, but Levan’s writing is full of paradoxical descriptions that are both comical and reveal the sad absurdity of the Soviet prison system. Given the subject matter, much of his humor is situational irony that serves to lighten his descriptions of prison life while piquing the reader’s interest. Startlingly, he describes his three years in prison as “the best three years of my life.” He explains: “When I say ‘the best years,’ I mean that in two ways: they were the best years of my life because at that time I was young—and what can be more beautiful than youth—but also because of the people that surrounded me, people the KGB had so zealously brought together.” An important aspect of Soviet incarceration by the mid-80s was that Soviet prisons differentiated between political prisoners and others. Hence, political prisoners were housed with other political prisoners. Levan, a linguist and specialist in classical literature, was imprisoned with other intellectuals. Prison life was no less harsh, but the company was different, and that made the intellectual and spiritual experience of prison qualitatively unique. Levan’s prison acquaintances include linguists, scholars, scientists, psychologists, writers, professional military officers, and teachers. They all represent the intelligentsia, the educated, intellectual class that influences cultural direction.
But the intelligentsia for the Soviet Union was “a bit of a problem,” explains Stephen James, Slavic language specialist at Mt. Holyoke College, who became friends with Levan in the 1990s and who I tracked down to shed light on Levan’s experience. “You educate people like Levan and then you expect them to just keep their heads down and be subservient,” James told me. “Sometimes that worked, of course. But then, in cases like Levan, you’ve got someone who actually believes what he reads and thinks he should act on what he believes.”
Levan was arrested in 1983 for “anti-Soviet agitation,” a charge that made him a “political prisoner.” These kinds of political charges arose from any behavior that challenged the sovereignty of the Soviet state. Levan had founded a secret Georgian Republican Party. Competing political parties were illegal. Moreover, advocating for Georgian independence from the Soviet Union was considered “anti-Soviet agitation,” a criminal charge that could carry up to twelve years in a labor camp.
Often times political charges were trumped up in order to get troublesome intellectuals out of the way, but in Levan’s case, James says with a laugh, “It was relatively honest!” in the sense that Levan was fighting for the liberation of his country from the dominant Soviet culture. In James’ mock amazement at the stunning honesty of the KGB, I could see how he would be friends with the dryly humorous writer of Sacred Darkness.
Levan writes that people who had been incarcerated during earlier eras describe the camps as “especially unbearable,” but he doesn’t mean that in the 80s it had become prosaic. Prisoners worked long days at labor-intensive jobs, were barely provided clothing or food, and were only allowed to write a certain number of letters home. Family visits were allowed once a year for two hours. The prison guards (who, Levan says, liked referring to themselves as “controllers”) could rescind any privileges at any time, for any reason, and often did so. In earlier eras, it was more common for people to simply be executed by firing squad, as the writer Gogol was.
Levan describes the 80s Gulag as having “one very distinct feature. We weren’t serving time in the scary 1930s, during the war or at the height of the dissident movement, or even during the Brezhnev period of stagnation, but in the era of Soviet democracy, glasnost, and perestroika […] one day the TV would offer us the typical Soviet news hogwash, then the next day, Ronald Reagan would be wishing us Happy New Year from the same screen.”
This seems funny, but again, it points out an ugly inconsistency: While Ronald Reagan is on the screen, and while the newspapers print previously outlawed texts like Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Heart of a Dog (a satire of the “new Soviet man”), Levan sits in prison with Misha Polyakov, who was sentenced to five years in prison for making copies of The Heart of a Dog. Under these circumstances, it takes a peculiar amount of grace to maintain good humor. But Levan and his friends often do, spending their free moments debating whether or not the Soviet Union should stay together or break up, whether Lenin is the true heir to Marx, and whether or not it is okay to eat doves in prison, since doves are a symbol of peace. Clearly, one should be careful about eating symbols.
After his release from prison, Levan became active in politics, helping re-create Georgia’s Republican Party and serving as a member of Parliament. Several of the people he met in prison went on to have political careers as well, especially in nationalistic movements that took hold as the Soviet Union broke up. One of these was Henrikh Altunyan, a Major in the Soviet Air Force that Levan seems to recall with particular affection. Henrikh was arrested on charges of anti-Soviet agitation. After 1987, when political prisoners were released, Henrikh went on to figure in Ukrainian politics and published his own memoir.
At the time of Sacred Darkness, one of Levan’s favorite stories about Henrikh seems to be the story of his arrest. The KGB knocked several times on his apartment door and threatened to break it down. Finally, Henrikh opened the door to reveal that the apartment behind him was full of smoke. Smiling kindly and gesturing to his “guests,” he said: “I saw you from the window, my dear guests. So sorry I kept you waiting. I had a few extra papers at home, so it took me some time to burn them. My sincere apologies. But now, please, come in, good people, search as much as you like!” Comical story-telling like this is the way that Levan memorializes Henrikh’s bravery, but he also can’t resist switching point of view if it will allow him to make a joke at the KGB’s expense. Levan says that the chief investigator is only concerned that Henrikh has used the phrase “good people,” a clear “anti-Soviet” idiom from Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita. “That’s not a good sign,” thinks the investigator as he enters the smoke-filled apartment. The perspicacity of KGB investigators is generally comical too, but in an entirely different way.
Perhaps because of Levan’s literary range, Amazon presents Sacred Darkness as a novel. The website says the book is “based on true events […] a thrilling marriage of reportage and fiction.” This sells Levan short. This is, after all, a prison memoir. The fact that he is witty and comedic, or that the work is literary in many ways, does not warrant a description which implies that the characters were not necessarily real people or that Levan’s narration itself is potentially less credible and “fictionalized.”
Once the idea that Sacred Darkness is “fiction” is introduced, the subversive strength and power of Levan’s—and the other prisoners’—humor and wit is dramatically reduced.
And here is my real complaint about that: Once the idea that Sacred Darkness is “fiction” is introduced, the subversive strength and power of Levan’s—and the other prisoners’—humor and wit is dramatically reduced. The humor is powerful not because it makes me chuckle, but because of its use as a survival mechanism and as a way for the prisoners to highlight the paradoxes and absurdities of a system that is denying their human rights. Humor is hope. It keeps despondency at bay and allows the men in this memoir (prisons were segregated by sex) to assert their identity in the face of a controlling totalitarian state. For this reason, I hope that the book does not end up being misunderstood as a novel or taken less seriously by readers.
Apart from the book’s historical value and comedic intelligence, Sacred Darkness also maintains an internal debate about national independence and national identity for the minority nations of the Soviet Union. It is not a Western view of the problems of the Soviet 80s. Interestingly, Levan seems to feel that at one time, he had as naïve a view of the West as we sometimes have of non-Western countries like Georgia.
One scene powerfully illustrates this. The prisoners find an old news reel, which shows British soldiers at the end of WWII returning their Soviet prisoners to Soviet territory. The British soldiers force the crowd across a bridge; if they turn back to the British, they will be shot. If they go ahead, they will walk back home into Soviet territory. Many of them choose to jump off the bridge and die.
This news footage alters the way that Levan understands the West. It is not that the problems of the Soviet system seem less problematic, but the reality of “democracy” and the collective imperfections of any regime, democratic or not, coming alive to him: “The West, which had seemed so picture perfect and flawless, became alive and real, and I realized that it had always had its own shortcomings.” Levan didn’t change his belief that democracy was preferable to the Soviet government or that Georgia should be independent, but he seems to think that the West suffers some naiveté when it comes to the Soviet world.
It might be that we still suffer some naivete about non-Western contexts in general, and that part of the value of memoirs like Levan’s is that it provides a little window into the world that we are missing when we consider present-day Russia. When I asked the memoir’s translator, Brian Baer, what drew him to this memoir, he said it was the text’s internal debate about the future of the Soviet Union. He explained that one of the reasons to keep the Union together “was out of fear that the Soviet republics would devolve into hard-right nationalism,” a fear that did become a reality. “Overall,” said Baer, “the memoir offers a look at late-Soviet dissident politics that cannot be simply mapped onto our Western political positions.” James, of Mount Holyoke College, would likely agree; he pointed out that Levan comes from a place that Western audiences know virtually nothing about, with Georgian writers, their complex history with Russia, and their perspective of the West being mysteries to us.
I have a strange fondness for Gulag memoirs whose authors writers often argue for a life perspective that is divergent from what we are used to. This perspective is epitomized by the paradox of Levan’s title, Sacred Darkness. Stephen James, one of the few Westerners who speaks Georgian, explained to me that the first word of the title can be translated as “pure, holy, or clean,” and the second word means “pitch black darkness.” To describe prison as a time of “absolute darkness” makes sense to us: the physical privation, privation of liberty, and the moral darkness of a system that uses imprisonment to repress subversive ideas.
But Levan also describes prison as “holy” or “sacred,” and the darkness as “cleansing,” an idea that doesn’t always make sense right away and can even seem ludicrous. He means that his prison experiences emphasized what was important in life, that he built unique relationships that changed who he was and helped him to re-formulate his understanding of personhood and politics. The “aesthetic of suffering” as it is sometimes called in Gulag memoirs, argues for hope and a renewed vision of truth from the trials of prison.
This isn’t a new aesthetic, or a new way of describing “dark” experiences; similar themes are overt in the prison memoirs of writers from other backgrounds and traditions. For example, the work of Viktor Frankl, the Austrian survivor of the Nazi camps, or Vaclav Havel, the dissident playwright who led Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution after spending more than four years in a Soviet prison. What all of these writers have in common is that they argue for a specific view of intrinsic human value and identity: we are a someone. And we know what we are partly by knowing what we are not. By refusing to collude with powers that would silence our one, or our nationality, or our political orientation, we assert that we are. Levan writes that when the KGB was in his apartment going through his books and preparing to arrest him and his brother, his fear slowly left him, and his “courage and sense of self-esteem returned and increased gradually in the presence of those people who, in carrying out their jobs, were so far from truth and honor simply because the very business they were in was so disgraceful.” These elements of Levan’s perspective on dignity and identity can certainly map from East to West and back again.
Ryan K. Strader earned a B.A. in Russian Literature from George Mason University and an M.A.T. from Clayton State University. She is currently an instructional designer and researcher. Her most recent instructional design project is the development of a class in writing and qualitative research methods at Georgia State University, where she is also a doctoral student. Her most recent publication is an upcoming book chapter on populism in young adult novels. She lives and works in the Atlanta area.
THE BAREFOOT WOMAN
by Scholastique Mukasonga translated by Jordan Stump Archipelago Books, 146 pages reviewed by Rebecca Entel
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The Barefoot Woman opens with the author’s mother, Stefania, imparting knowledge to her daughters. “Often in the middle of one of those never-ending chores that fill a woman’s day,” Mukasonga writes, “(sweeping the yard, shelling and sorting beans, weeding the sorghum patch, tilling the soil, digging sweet potatoes, peeling and cooking bananas…), my mother would pause and call out to us.” Much of the book proceeds from this image: we learn the details of her mother’s life and rituals through her endless work and we learn the kinds of things passed down from a Tutsi mother to her daughter—one of only two of eight children to survive the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
In that opening scene, Stefania tells her daughters how to properly bury a mother: “when you see me lying dead before you, you’ll have to cover my body […] that’s your job and no one else’s.” Her coming death during 1994’s Tutsi genocide hangs over the entire book from these opening lines, following Mukasonga’s earlier work, Cockroaches, which is specifically about the terrors her family and community faced during and after the exile of the 1960s, as well as the fate of most of her family members in 1994. The fact that Mukasonga could not heed her mother’s dictum—she was living in France during the massacre—is a driving force behind the book. Indeed, Mukasonga presents the book as a metaphorical shroud for the dead, though one she is unsure can complete its considerable task:
Mama, I wasn’t there to cover your body, and all I have left is words—words in a language you didn’t understand—to do as you asked. And I’m all alone with my feeble words, and on the pages of my notebook, over and over, my sentences weave a shroud for your missing body.
In paying tribute to her mother, Mukasonga’s book also pays tribute to a little-known way of life that is no more. That way of life embodied complicated histories of Rwandan colonization and Tutsi exile. Mukasonga, who writes in French, and whose novels and memoirs explore these histories, here pays particular attention to certain details, such as her father’s rosary and Stefania’s dismissal of what she found to be “pagan”; rituals for newborn babies that changed because the correct plants were not available in the new environment of exile; the family’s adjustment to a new way of life and diet without the essential cattle of their former life; Stefania’s determination, in spite of those adjustments, to procure a cow for her eldest son’s traditional dowry.
Perhaps most poignant are Mukasonga’s descriptions of her mother’s relationship to their physical home. Forced into a rectangular structure with a flimsy metal door, Stefania was “like a trapped, frantic insect. Disoriented, she searched in vain for a friendly curve to nestle into.” Behind that new house, she then built an inzu: a circular, woven home that Mukasonga explains didn’t live up to the family’s original inzu in size, intricacy of design, nor the double courtyard and thresholds visitors had to pass through. Such details take on new meaning when a Hutu soldier’s “rifle butt crumpl[ed] the piece of sheet metal we used as a door.”
Like any writing about eventual victims of genocide, every detail of this book is soaked through with grief. The author writes of the inzu: “I’ll keep its name in Kinyarwanda, because the only words the French gives me to describe it sound contemptuous: hut, shanty shack […] Now they’re in museums, like the skeletons of huge beasts dead for millions of years. But in my memory the inzu is not that empty carcass, it’s a house full of life.” Even the lighter moments, ones almost humorous—Stefania’s secret adoption of underwear under her traditional pagne, for example—bear the weight not just of loss but of loss in which an entire people has met a violent, terrifying end. And so much of Stefania’s everyday life was about saving her children from the violence she knew would come: she put large jugs and baskets along the walls of the house for the smaller children to hide in when soldiers invaded, and Mukasonga remembers walking with her to dig up and replace old food that she’d buried in multiple locations for when her older children might need to flee by foot across the border to Burundi.
The episodic nature of the book’s chapters can be a bit jarring. For example, the book passes from topics such as how Stefania protected her children during soldiers’ raids to chapters about food (“Sorghum,” “Bread”) to chapters about marriage rituals. But I’d argue that such an assortment of seemingly dissonant topics belies the reality of the people she’s writing about, whose everyday lives were shaped by exile and imprinted by a constant threat of violence. In the chapter “Women’s Affairs,” we learn about rituals of adolescence and courtship, but the chapter ends with a discussion of the systematic rape of Tutsi girls and women by the Hutu. While traditionally babies conceived outside of marriage were not allowed to be born in the family home, for a young rape victim named Viviane, “solidarity and pity were stronger than tradition,” and so Stefania led a group of women in devising a water purification ritual for the girl and her child. Emblematic of The Barefoot Woman as a whole, Viviane’s story exposes the brutal reality of the book’s present while illuminating the traditions of the Tutsi, all the while showcasing Mukasonga’s mother’s place among the women of her community.
Jordan Stump, translator
For readers primarily interested in learning more about how the Rwandan genocide developed over decades, Cockroaches may be the book to read first. But an understanding of the women Mukasonga comes from necessitates The Barefoot Woman.
What can a reader say after reading such a book, after reading about the intimate day-to-day life of someone who does not even have a grave? Perhaps the greatest compliment a reader can give any writer and her translator: I feel I now know this person and will not forget her.
Rebecca Entel’s short stories have appeared in such journals as Guernica, Joyland, and Cleaver. Her first novel Fingerprints of Previous Owners was published in June 2017 from Unnamed Press. She is Associate Professor of English and Creative Writing at Cornell College, where she teaches courses in creative writing, multicultural American literature, Caribbean literature, and the literature of social justice.
RE- by Andrea Blancas Beltran Red Bird Chapbooks, 52 pages reviewed by Hope Fischbach
Andrea Blancas Beltran, associate editor of MIEL, experimental poet, and proud fronteriza, made her chapbook debut in July 2018 with the poetry collection Re-. In it, Beltran stitches together a brimming handful of nostalgic recollections, inviting the reader to ponder the role of memory, the eerie beauty of forgotten things, and depth of emotion that can be found in everyday life. One of the most refreshing aspects of her writing is her ability to seamlessly blend English and Spanish, creating new sonic rhythms and shades of meaning and exposing the nuanced linguistic element of Mexican-American border culture. But one would be remiss to view Re- as a story about life on the border. Beltran’s work delves into the mystery of the human mind, exploring the past not as history but as memory, vivid and malleable rather than fixed and nebulous. Though Re- wrestles with topics that challenge even the greatest thinkers, every line of this collection defies the notion of the inscrutable.
Beltran’s artistic leanings shine in this work. She reveals a compelling density of feeling through powerful images, both verbal and visual, along with precise, measured diction and thoughtful economy of white space. Beltran also surprises us with a mixed media approach, incorporating pencil drawings, clippings, and photocopies as reminders of the strange magic of mundanity and happenstance. This short collection is brutally honest, confrontational, and in many ways devastating. With her acute attention to detail, Beltran forces us to evaluate our own discomfort around death and decay and urges us into the place between sorrow and longing.
Andrea Blancas Beltran
The chapbook is divided into four sections, bookended by a prologue and epilogue and held together with an interlude. The freedom and variety of her style—almost playful, even as she handles subjects like dementia and death—allow us to process the world through new lenses. The prologue (“Geography”) declares the theme of the work as a whole—“a continent / named Nostalgia.” Following this, the first section (“Why Grandma won’t play jacks with me in the backyard”) deals with the necessity of confronting the realities of life, and potentially a loss of childhood in the face of those realities. “There’s no such thing / as even / playing ground,” says the speaker. “We need to learn / to anticipate an unexpected direction / in the rebound.” Already, the speaker looks forward to the sense of wandering and seeking new direction that she explores further in the last sections of the chapbook.
Section two is a series of poems about the loss of memory and attempts to retain it, including a photocopied image of a scribbled list of reminders on the back of an envelope. The form in this section begins to decay, mimicking the advance of both dementia and death. In the interlude (“July 31, 2015”), Beltran presents us with a drawing of a sunflower paired with a clipping from a dictionary—“earth’ly”—framing a penciled reflection on death, mourning, and our attachment to the earth. The graphite sunflower is ironically depressing, looking defeated in its lack of color; next to it are scrawled the words, “twenty days after the sun / flower has died, seeds appear / at its center.” The dictionary clipping at the bottom right calls into question the ways we define our own earthly existence, and that of all earthly things, while the speaker’s saying that it blew into her yard seems to question our idea of happenstance. But Beltran answers these questions with one short, bright declaration. The poem tucked into the bottom left corner of the page suggests rebirth and renewal, defying the very decay that is the main theme of this collection. Printed in green ink, the poem reads, “grandma / wore green / today, her first / color other than / black in nine months.” Alongside the faint, ghostlike pencil scratches, this understated yet triumphant sentence springs to life, singing of redemption after tragedy. In such a simple thing as color, Beltran opens a wellspring of hope.
The third section is composed of three poems reflecting on the speaker’s memories of her father and grandparents. Each of these three poems takes up little space on the page—they shrink away on the page, preparing us for section four, which returns to the theme of decaying memory and death. In contrast with section three, section four’s poems are longer and denser; they are more confrontational and less questioning; they don’t just notice details, but long for the restoration of them. These last few sections of the collection bring full circle the themes of uncertainty and redirection that were introduced from the beginning. The idea of nostalgia as a location and the grief of searching for home are spun in a new direction as the speaker begins to find freedom in wandering, “everywhere as home” (“Last Wish”). Lostness and death become release from and mastery over the quandaries of life. In contrast to the circumscription of Nostalgia on the map in “Geography,” the uncharted territories become kingdoms: “To be mistress of salt, soon to be mascot of wind with no map to obey. To break with her roots, once & for all—a tumbleweed now free to head out alone” (“Last Wish”). Finally, the epilogue (“Navigation”) offers hope in the face of death, clinging still to the past yet embracing the possibilities of the future—“who we were & are becoming.”
With a unique elegance, Beltran’s experimental style lends itself to her subject, as the form of her poems mimics the bizarre workings of the mind—variously scattered, rushed, dark, conversational, and questioning. In several of her poems (“Geography,” “Why Grandma won’t play jacks with me in the backyard,” “Perseveration”), her careful placement of words on the page invites the reader to pause in the space between words, between thoughts. There is an airy, almost ghostly feeling about the balance of ink and white space, evoking a sense of emptiness, of yearning, and ultimately of the nostalgia that Beltran so eloquently expresses here and throughout her work.
Beltran’s most compact poem, “tomatoes you picked,” asks one question: “what’s fruit / without this decay?” In the context of the chapbook as a whole, this potent image of rotting tomatoes is a poignant reminder of the decay of the mind and memory, even of life itself. The poem’s density—three tight lines, twelve words in all, on an otherwise blank page—exposes the mind’s often morbid habit of fixating on one thought, one all-important question. The increasing preoccupation with decay here in the first poem of section three also looks forward to “Re-,” the first poem of section four. The title poem opens with the point-blank statement, “Every day is just another day distant from & toward another death. This is the irreconcilable that we try to reconcile.” The repetition throughout this poem not only points to the decay of the mind, but also serves as a reminder that to some degree, the mind’s tendency to cycle through such patterns is that which signals its brokenness. For Beltran, repetition is at once the assurance of memory and the harbinger of dementia; and for us, perhaps, it can be the key to understanding our own minds.
Hope Fischbach is an emerging writer and poet who studies English and Spanish at Lee University. Her interview with Andrea Blancas Beltran is published on Speaking of Marvels, and her poetry and flash fiction are forthcoming in the 2019 edition of Lee Review. When she’s not writing, you can find her blissfully overspending at used book shops, scouring online art galleries, or wandering in the mountains. A South Carolina native, she currently resides in Knoxville, Tennessee.
PANIC YEARS by Daniel DiFranco Tailwinds Press, 331 pages reviewed by Allegra Armstrong
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Panic Years, Daniel Difranco’s debut novel, is a hyper realistic account of a band on tour. Told from the perspective of laconic Paul, Panic Years follows indie bandmates Paul, Laney, Gooch, Jeff and later Drix across the country’s dive bars and clubs. “I’d joined Qualia because they were a good band with a shit-ton of underground buzz,” Paul muses on page five, setting the band’s intention for the rest of the tour: build Qualia’s indie fame to a record deal, or some serious label recognition.
Touring is hard. The bandmates deal with Jeff’s budding alcoholism, the tight margins and schedules of touring, and the stress of remaining true to their artistic vision while staying in the black. Personality conflicts are magnified in this high intensity environment. As the tour wears on, tensions build between serious, hard working Gooch and hard-partying Jeff, exacerbated by the hyper-intimacy of life on the road. Laney and Paul do what they can to assuage tension between the two, as a serious argument between bandmates could jeopardize their whole tour.
Panic years is innovative in its specificity. Daniel DiFranco pays close attention to the minutiae of everyday life, and portrays the utter boredom of cross-country travel in all its grimy detail. The bad jokes, the smells, and the close quarters of touring life backdrop Panic Years. Often the four bandmates share one hotel room, which comes with its own set of challenges. Paul narrates,
I woke up in the middle of the night. Jeff was standing next to me in between the two beds… “Dude, what are you doing?” I whispered. A small arc of piss hit the floor. I punched him in the leg. “Jeff,” I said. He stopped. He opened his eyes and stumbled away into the bathroom.
DiFranco shows, in skillful, sparse prose, the interconnected nature of the bandmates. Midway through their tour, Gooch, the drummer, leaves Qualia, citing the stresses of Jeff’s heavy drinking in his goodbye note. The three remaining band members have to scramble to find a new drummer, or else cancel their next show and risk losing money. As they barely have gas money to drive to their next venue, cancelling any show is a huge strain on the band’s finances. Jeff, Laney, and Paul have to work together to keep the band playing, show after show, night after night.
Panic Years is a close record of what it’s like to tour with a band, yet it’s also a deeply felt novel, about the power of friendship, and the dark pull of addiction that can come with the nightlife scene. In this darkly funny debut, Daniel DiFranco establishes himself as a unique voice in fiction.
The behind-the-scenes logistical work that goes into managing the band, done by Laney, Paul’s bandmate and later love interest, is astounding. Touring is frustrating. Laney painstakingly calls venues and runs numbers to make sure that they can make it to their next venue on time, that they can afford to. If Jeff strays too far from the band at an after party, it could cost Qualia a night of playing, or an interview if they can’t make it on time.
DiFranco highlights the camaraderie needed to get through weeks of too-intimate touring. When Jeff gets an infection in his foot, the money needed for his hospital bill comes out of the band’s coffers. A small accident like Jeff’s can undo nights of success for an indie band. In hard times, the band needs to rally together to keep morale up. Panic Years illustrates a tough truth of the music industry: after traveling fees, for many bands, they often hope just to break even on a tour.
The band’s greatest challenge comes with new drummer Drix. Drix, Paul’s childhood friend, graces the band with his talent, and attracts talent scouts and record labels to their shows. However, Paul finds needles in his apartment, and notices Drix disappearing from their hotel room at odd hours. As Drix and Jeff spiral into their respective addictions, Paul and Laney are left with a choice: try to help their friends stay sober on the road, or let them make their own mistakes. Panic Years is a close record of what it’s like to tour with a band, yet it’s also a deeply felt novel, about the power of friendship, and the dark pull of addiction that can come with the nightlife scene. In this darkly funny debut, Daniel DiFranco establishes himself as a unique voice in fiction.
A man walks to the post office to mail his manuscript to a publisher, but he doesn’t complete the errand. Instead, he begins stalking another man, Aron Cesar, through Reykjavik. Hours pass. They watch the World Cup in pubs. They sit in the same movie theater watching La Grande Bouffe, a 1973 film about overconsumption. Aron is probably unaware of G., the stalker, following him everywhere with persistence but no outstanding purpose. After detailed observation, G. goes home without confronting Aron. The next day, G. decides he will after all mail the manuscript, which may or may not be the book, Narrator, which is currently in progress under the reader’s eye.
Narrator is brief and quirky, rich and absurd, metatextual and extremely simple. It’s a walking narrative (in reality, a stalking narrative), which means it depends upon the motion of the narrator in order to go anywhere in particular. However, this book’s range is only within the mind; Aron’s and G.’s movements throughout Reykjavik are completely uninteresting, encompassing mostly pubs and shops of little consequence. But G.’s thoughts circle neurotically around his family, his failures, and Aron’s ex-girlfriend, Sara, for whom G. pined. In this way, and others, the vertical dimensions of the book are much more compelling than its movements through horizontal space.
For instance, the book’s narration changes between third person and first person regularly, and its verbs shift tense from past to present often. There may be a deeper pattern of significance to these shifts, but in practice, on a single read, they bring freshness and chaos to a simple story. The difference between how G. sees himself in the third person and how he sees himself in the first person is not significant. It offers small but essential variation, like switching chairs at a long-running dinner, and it creates a triangulation—a more complex relationship—between G. and Aron, rather than a mere binary. That is, between the first-person G., the third-person G., and Aron, there are multiple connecting threads, instead of a simple back-and-forth.
In a novel in which there’s very little plot, elements that carry the reader forward include characterization, style, and how the text reflects on itself as a text. All these elements are stellar in Narrator.
The book also contains notes of dark humor that break up the relentless self-examination that characterizes G.’s inner weather:
To reward oneself for something that has not yet been achieved is something G. knows all too well. He uses the method all the time to motivate himself to do better, and it works. Because he could never live with receiving compensation for something he has not finished. The only thing that disturbs him in this respect is dying in the midst of an incomplete project for which he has already been remunerated. But would such a death not be a kind of payment?
In a novel in which there’s very little plot, elements that carry the reader forward include characterization, style, and how the text reflects on itself as a text. All these elements are stellar in Narrator. One of G.’s tics is that he “doesn’t care to say” how a part