The Juniper Tree is a mid-twentieth-century retelling of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale of the same name, though Barbara Comyns has made the story all her own. Originally published in 1985, The Juniper Tree tells the story of Bella Winter, the unwed mother of a biracial daughter, through her quest to live life on her own terms in a world where she is patently disapproved of for being who she is.
Comyns wrote female characters who speak their minds in a world which discourages them from doing that.
Comyns, who died in 1992, is also the author of Our Spoons Come From Woolworths, and the protagonist in that novel is similar to Bella. Both women see and describe the world very plainly and openly, which feels unconventional and refreshing in the opening scenes of The Juniper Tree. Comyns wrote female characters who speak their minds in a world which discourages them from doing that.
What is most wonderful about the Juniper Tree’s narrator, Bella Winter, is her commitment to herself and her own personal happiness. Throughout the book, Bella frequently converses with her mother by phone. Bella’s mother wants Bella to live a more conventional life. She is extremely cruel to her, claiming that Bella should find a husband and then wondering openly what man would want her.
Bella Winter is so forthright a narrator it makes the world of the story feel hyperreal.
However, Bella, a buyer for an antique store with an exceptional eye for antiques and an artistic, dreamy way of thinking, never fails to put her personal feelings ahead of what society wants for her. The reader never doubts that Bella will be okay, because Bella is so set on making sure she and her daughter thrive no matter what, and Bella has the tenacity and know-how to make that happen.
Bella Winter is so forthright a narrator it makes the world of the story feel hyperreal. In one passage, Bella describes her ex-boyfriend, Stephen. “So Stephen became my friend, not a trusted friend, but a friend. He used to arrive without warning, sometimes with a bottle of wine and sometimes without, but he always expected a meal.” In this scene, Stephen is closely observed to hilarious effect. Without Bella’s candor, this observation would fall flat. As The Juniper Tree goes on, Bella’s prosperous life with her daughter, Tommy, unfolds. The reader follows Bella as she falls in love with her recently widowed friend, Bernard, but balks at the idea of living with him because he might have some ownership over her. Though Bella does eventually end up living with him in his home, giving up her job at the antique store, it is refreshing to see Bella hold on to what is uniquely her about her even in the face of a man who cannot see her clearly for want of his dead wife.
In Bella’s marriage to Bernard, Comyns explicitly plays with the Brothers Grimm fairy tale. In the original story, the stepmother is very cruel. Comyns pulls a kind of substitution here, as Bella is very kind to her stepson. The wicked stepmother in The Juniper Tree is actually Bella’s biological mother, and Bernard, who is indifferent—preferring to spend his time dreaming about his deceased wife over caring for his existing marriage—assumes the role of the father. In the original Brothers Grimm tale, the father is so absent at home that he does not realize that he is eating a stew made out of his own son’s body.
Late in the book, Bella observes about Bernard’s son, Johnny: “He wasn’t a naturally difficult child; Bernard had made him so.” In that scene, Bernard can be seen privileging Johnny over Tommy, and it frustrates Bella. In some ways, Tommy is better off for what she has experienced; Johnny, who constantly gets his own way, is spoiled and difficult by the end of the book, much like his father.
Though reflecting mid-twentieth-century tensions, many of the questions of identity in the novel feel pertinent in 2018. Prejudice against Tommy, as seen through the eyes of her mother, feel familiar to a contemporary reader. At one point in the story, Bella and Bernard hire a nursemaid to care for Tommy and Johnny. Slowly and subtly she refuses to care for Tommy. Bella has to ask Bernard to notice the nurse’s neglect of the child, as he is so wrapped up in himself. Bernard himself favors his own son over Bella’s daughter, and Johnny is painted as being privileged in this way when he and Tommy argue, as well as being white and a boy.
Bernard, who lives alone in a giant house, marries Bella, who is financially solvent but not as wealthy as he is. Bernard proceeds to monitor closely what parts of the house Bella uses, and when she closes up her antique shop to care for Bernard’s estate and their children, asks Bella to keep her antiques quarantined to a tiny part of his basement. Meanwhile, possessions that belonged to Bernard’s now deceased previous wife take up large parts of his bedroom.
Still, in the world of The Juniper Tree, people who have money or status and misuse it suffer over and over. Bella, committed to personal integrity, and Tommy, brought up to prize love and art and self-knowledge above all else, thrive here. Watching Bella and Tommy navigate a world so set on the accumulation of money and status with such grace is the true joy of The Juniper Tree.
THE KREMLIN BALL by Curzio Malaparte translated by Jenny McPhee New York Review Books, 223 pages
reviewed by Ryan K. Strader
In his introductory comments for The Kremlin Ball, Curzio Malaparte claims that his novel is “a faithful portrait of the USSR’s Marxist nobility.” Such a thing should be anachronistic: a Marxist nobility? A communist high society?
But that is exactly what Malaparte, as the novel’s narrator, is describing. In the late 1920s, the years following the Bolshevik victory but prior to Stalin’s Great Terror, the “greedy, vicious […] profiteers of the Revolution” took up the old imperial aristocracy’s places as an haute société. Malaparte describes the actresses, ballerinas, writers, government officials, athletes, and diplomats, all busy with their “court intrigues” of infidelity, peculiar obsessions, jealousies, blackmail, and backstabbing. Far from being a class of revolutionaries that Malaparte had imagined when he traveled to Moscow, these are a class of people willing to exploit revolutionary ideals so that they can enact the same class disparities that existed under the Tsars.
Malaparte describes The Kremlin Ball as a “Proustian” novel, and it is in the sense that is largely an investigation of social class, with Malaparte as our “impartial” and critical observer. But the difference for this Marxist nobility is that they sense that their days are numbered. The Great Terror has not started but it is impending and seemingly inevitable as “Tsar Stalin” gathers power. These Marxist aristocrats enjoy a Kremlin ball the way escaped prisoners run from baying hounds.
While Malaparte was a prolific writer and journalist with many articles, books, and screenplays available in English, this is the first time that The Kremlin Ball has been translated for English readers. Translator Jenny McPhee describes Malaparte as a complex satirist who “foresaw our present political and cultural situation.” While I don’t know that Malaparte meant the novel to be predictive, it is certainly incisive and therefore rife with contemporary applications.
Born in 1898 as Kurt Eric Suckert, Malaparte adopted the pseudonym “Malaparte,” which means “evil/wrong side.” He regularly published work that was critical of governments and revolutions, and seemed to frequently find himself on the “wrong side” in the sense that he had offended someone, whether it was in the Italian Army, the Bolshevik government, the National Fascist Party, or Mussolini. While he was a supporter of Mussolini’s Fascist movement, under Mussolini’s regime he was arrested several times and sent into internal exile for a number of years. “The time for laughter is well-nigh over for the free men of our times,” he claims in the introduction to The Kremlin Ball. By “free men” he seems to mean people that think independently and are critical of those in power.
In her introduction to The Kremlin Ball, McPhee acknowledges that Malaparte “displays a disturbing fascination with violence and extreme rule—fascism, Nazism, communism,” but he saw these phenomena as “inevitable aspects of our collective suicide.” On the one hand, Malaparte was invested in Marxist ideals as possible solutions to issues of inequality and corruption. On the other hand, he was not ideologically blinded: he could see that Russia’s Marxist nobility “would exterminate not only communism’s adversaries and enemies of the proletariat, but all free men.”
Like George Orwell, Malaparte is not necessarily rejecting collectivist ideals outright, but as a keen observer of people he sees that human beings tend to be self-destructive, no matter what kind of government ideals they claim to be working toward. No one is innocent or idealized for Malaparte. This kind of even-handed criticism, combined with Malaparte’s journalistic style and his interactions with the most important people in Russia’s government and arts scene of the late 1920s, give The Kremlin Ball the feel of a salacious, courtly tell-all. Malaparte does not let anyone off the hook, and it seems that everyone who is anyone gets mentioned. Stalin and Alexis Karakhan sit in the same theater to watch the ballerina Marina Semyonova. Malaparte strolls down the Arbat with the great writer and playwright Mikhail Bulgakov. He is friends with the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, and visits Mayakovsky’s apartment the day after the poet commits suicide. He dances in the Kremlin with ambassadors’ wives and attends a banquet at the Union of Soviet Writers.
At the same time that Malaparte presents himself as an impartial guide to the machinations of Soviet society, his descriptions at times veer toward magical realism. Frankly, I enjoyed these moments in the narrative more because they were connected to real people, and because they reveal a less than impartial narrator. Dmitry Florinsky, one of the more famous Soviet functionaries among the diplomats, rides around Moscow in an old worm-eaten carriage (one of the last left in Moscow after being outlawed by the Communist Party) that becomes ghostly in Malaparte’s description: the carriage is black with dirt, the driver “had an unkempt beard, dark liquidy eyes, and a toothless mouth” and Malaparte shouts “There’s a ghost inside!” as the carriage pulls up next to him. When meeting with Olga Kamenev, the sister of Leon Trotsky, Malaparte claims that she is so terrified of death that she smells of it, that she is in fact “already dead,” her body starting to swell like a corpse. Malaparte says hello to the ghost of Scriabin, and while standing in a graveyard, a flower starts to bleed.
The use of magical realism emphasizes the grotesque hellishness of Marxist society as Malaparte encountered it. While the philosophical questions of the novel revolve around human nature and whether there is any capacity/potential for real revolution, the reader also wonders exactly which elements of Malaparte’s narrative are “real” and which are hyperbole. A sweating Prince Lvov carries a gilded armchair from his palace to the flea market in the hopes of selling it. While there in the market, Malaparte sees another aristocratic woman trying to sell her last pair of satin underwear. Did this all happen just as described? Are these stories collected in journalist fashion, or are these morality tales that underscore Malaparte’s disillusionment, another aspect of the Soviet grotesquerie? In her introduction to the English version of Malaparte’s 1949 novel The Skin, Rachel Kushner describes Malaparte’s tendency to move between journalist and storyteller: “It’s not quite clear if this is the real Malaparte. This Malaparte is always in the right place at the right time to witness a scandal and deliver a biting retort [….] The reader can’t help but wonder if Malaparte is inventing or reporting, but the question misses the point of his performance, which is to render the question unanswerable. He is making a joke of the fictions that hold reality together.”
I am not convinced that Malaparte is always joking about those fictions, but his ability to see them all simultaneously in play is what makes his writing intriguing and historically convincing.
I am not convinced that Malaparte is always joking about those fictions, but his ability to see them all simultaneously in play is what makes his writing intriguing and historically convincing. One of the seriously debated fictions that shows up again and again in the text is God: “Christ is by now a useless character in Russia. It’s useless to be Christians in Russia. We don’t need Christ anymore,” says a frightened Mikhail Bulkagov to Malaparte. “You are all afraid of Christ,” observes Malaparte, to which Bulgakov whispers, “Christ hates us.”
To Malaparte, the fiction of Christ correlates with the fiction of the Revolution in the sense that, again, the ideals are not necessarily at fault for human failure; but nevertheless, humanity is not able to make social reality correlate with the ideal. Bulgakov sees the tension between the ideal and the real and he lives in fear because of it; he knows that to point out the spiritual poverty of the “revolutionaries” will earn him a death sentence. Malaparte on the other hand, as a “free man” is simply emboldened in his criticism. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Mikhail Bulgakov’s novella The Heart of a Dog, a satire on the idea of the “new Soviet man” in which a doctor implants human organs into a dog.
“A man who doesn’t feel God’s contempt, his abandonment, is not a free man, but a miserable slave,” comments Malaparte. In fact, he argues that Europe’s problem is that they are convinced God will save them, when in fact God is waiting for them to save themselves. In Russia it is the same, but the problem is described as one of suffering: the Russian people think they must suffer for someone, and therefore they exhibit a fatalistic apathy that allows for their continued abuse and misery.
Fittingly, when Malaparte is asked what has been most memorable about his time in Moscow, he says “Lenin’s mummy,” referring to Lenin’s embalmed corpse on display in Red Square. Lenin’s body has been displayed in Red Square since 1924, and it’s interesting to see what Malaparte writes of it at from his vantage point in history: “Lenin’s mummy, small and shrunken like the mummy of a child, was slowly rotting. Periodically, German specialists show up from Berlin to empty, scrape out, and disinfect the shell of that precious crustacean, that sacred mummy, the porcelain white face lit up by red freckles veiled by a greenish mold-like sweat.” For Malaparte, Lenin’s mummy epitomizes the strange paradox of the Revolution: that the communists who had deposed an out of touch tsar would give rise to “that new puritanical, cruel, hard, inflexible, monstrous class” and now, at a few years remove he notes that all of these “profiteers of the Revolution” would “succumb to the lead of firing squads in the courtyard of the Lubyanka,” the notorious KGB prison in Moscow. In the same way that the ideals of the revolution would rot and spoil under the weight of the incoming Soviet leaders, Lenin’s mummy “was decomposing, crumbling, becoming flaky, soft to the touch, damp and spoiled.”
Malaparte originally conceived of The Kremlin Ball to be part of The Skin, which describes the Allied army’s invasion of Italy. While several chapters devoted to the Marxist aristocracy might seem like they would have been out of place, in The Kremlin Ball Malaparte makes an argument that the fates of Europe and Russia are intertwined: “Since the Europe of tomorrow is to be found in the Russia of tomorrow, it is equally true that the Europe of today is to be found in the Russia of today,” he argues. The failure of the Russian Revolution was a mirror image of Europe’s failed revolutions and vice versa. The Kremlin Ball is told in flashback: Malaparte is describing his experiences in Soviet Russia of the late 1920s, but he is telling it from the perspective of the 1940s, post WWII. He knows that most of the people he met and describes were executed, and so the failures of the Russian Revolution to enact any real social revolution is already known. I could see how The Kremlin Ball would be meant as a complimentary set of observations to Malaparte’s other journalistic work in Europe.
Before publication, Malaparte decided that his reportage on Russia should be an autonomous work, so The Skin was published without its Kremlin Ball chapters. Malaparte died without completely finishing the work. The fact that the text is unfinished rarely detracts; in fact, I found it interesting to see where certain diatribes of Malaparte’s were repeating main ideas, because I felt I was seeing his process at working out his main themes in the text. In the finished product, some of these passages would probably have been streamlined or shortened, but I thought it was interesting to see where he was investing narrative weight during the writing process. Malaparte drops names, titles, and geography freely, and this version of the text has excellent notes that keep someone less familiar with Moscow and Soviet people well informed, while Jenny McPhee’s introduction helps to frame the book with Malaparte’s biography.
Malaparte claims that the greatest reason for the moral decline of the Soviets is that, instead of being lead to any “collective sentiment,” they have arrived at “a total dedication to fatality.” The fanatic belief and frenetic activity he encounters are, he believes, simply disguising this fatalism and lack of hope, a society that has become “indifferent to its own destiny.” I think that in this observation lies Malaparte’s greatest perspicuity, or the point most relevant to our contemporary cultural moment. Blind ideology has led the Soviet people to an unwillingness to acknowledge the failure of the Revolution. Malaparte claims that even non-Russian writers are failing to report accurately on the state of the “Marxist aristocracy”: “To read the writings of any one of them, it would seem that the USSR is an immense democratic and egalitarian society of workers.”
Blind ideology has led the Soviet people to an unwillingness to acknowledge the failure of the Revolution. Malaparte claims that even non-Russian writers are failing to report accurately on the state of the “Marxist aristocracy”: “To read the writings of any one of them, it would seem that the USSR is an immense democratic and egalitarian society of workers.”
Such blindness to the problems of a current government may well arrive out of hopelessness, out of the notion that there are not alternatives. While Malaparte himself seems to have a somewhat hopeless perspective on both the Soviets and humanity in general, arriving at “fatalistic” dead ends may also be the first impetus to ask questions about alternatives. In other words, perhaps the despair that Malaparte sees as having allowed for both the self-destruction of the Russian Revolutionaries and ushering in The Great Terror could also be a point of return: in moments of cultural destitution, the way out is hope in an alternative vision.
Ryan 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.
HEADLANDS QUADRATS by Brian Teare and IT’S NO GOOD EVERYTHING’S BAD by Stephanie Young two chapbooks from Doublecross Press
reviewed by Rachael Guynn Wilson
The book announces itself first as texture, almost a feeling before an object. The covers have a soft, pulped paper quality that reminds me a little of egg cartons. They’re in the right color family, too: sandy brown, with a beautifully soft blue-black imprint. The image is one of a circle superimposed on a square, or vice versa; it could be the sounding board of a modernist guitar, with six strings running diagonally across the sound hole. Headlands Quadrats by Brian Teare is another gem of a chapbook out from Doublecross, a Brooklyn-based small press that makes handsewn, letterpressed chapbooks that always feel like considered collaborations between publisher and author.
In this case, the intimate square format of Headlands Quadrats not only reflects the chapbook’s thematics (the quadrat, Teare tells us, “is a unit of measurement used in ecological studies… a square (made of a durable material) placed over a site to aid in the controlled collection of data”), but it also provides a delicate housing—a kind of nest—for the poem inside. The small format prompts the reader to draw the book in closer, so that even the interior voice with which she reads sounds more quietly in her head. Like the book-object itself, the poem is similarly palpable: it unfolds a landscape through the sensorium, from the rattling chapparal and long grass under / foot worn short / burnished bronze / coarse horse hair, to the black / sand tide coats with foam. The poem is precisely tuned, whittled to the essentials, and elaborate in its simplicity.
Headlands Quadrats is one poem, but every page seems somehow also isolate. With three couplets per page, all with lines of roughly even length, each page houses a square within a square. The shape reminds me of a room, which is of course another name for stanza. This remarkably regular structure lends an atmosphere of stability to the stanza-pages. It is a staid form, processional in its repetition, melancholic at the edges. (The poem is dedicated to the late poet, Joanne Kyger.) But inside the regularity of form, the lines come alive, pulled taut and vibrating like guitar strings—sounding out through and against their restraint, their music an effect of coordinated tensions.
In fact, formal control, and the elegiac note that resonates through the poem, function as musical counterpoint to the more ebullient melody that dominates Headlands Quadrats. Ultimately, this poem is one that wants to take its reader by the hand, like a friend excited to share something strange, wild, and breathtaking. It turns out Headlands Quadrats wants to take us to the beach, past the decommissioned fort / past the former nike missile site / … / [to] the ocean… following a trail whose last ten feet / crumble & run to sand… The poem pulls us along through rough landscapes, across sheer ridges, past smoke and fire, and into lines like these, which positively crackle: downhill into extravagant / thistle from which adoe / startles…
And yet, there is still a muted, miniaturist quality to the poem. Coming again to the compact, square format of the book and its stanza-pages, the reader appears in the position of patient observer sifting the contents of the quadrat, which we could read as an ecopoetical twist on the lyric’s trope of spectator-at-the-window. Given this understanding of the quadrat as a frame marked out on the land for the purposes of scientific study, I wonder: What kind of experiment is this? The answer: I don’t know the rules / but I follow them…
It seems to me that Headlands Quadrats has gridded out an emotion, while what’s inside continuously threatens to rupture its perimeters, as when I encounter / for the first time a coyote / exactly the color of July… I want, at once, to cradle the poem lovingly and to throw it across the room in delight. This might be what it feels like to be in a landscape / where purity isn’t possible…
There’s a kind of humor that poetry, in particular, lends itself to. Like most if not all humor, it’s about timing, tension, withholding, and release. In poetry, it occurs in the line break, and it brings us back to the ludic’s fundamental source, which is rupture. Laughter erupts, much like the ovarian cyst that breaks in the first lines of Stephanie Young’s It’s No Good Everything’s Bad:
the day of the gender strike I stayed in bed
with my ruptured ovarian cyst
hot water bottle and spreadsheet
Ovarian cysts break through the banal structures of everyday life with a kind of primal force—a spontaneous revolt that cannot be manufactured or orchestrated, as much as the organizers of the gender strike might have hoped it could be.
It’s No Good Everything’s Bad is also comedy in what we might call a formal or dramatic sense. The poem begins in conflict—a ruptured cyst that parallels a gender strike that coincides with and reflects the wider political unrest in the United States. It begins in illness and explodes into Wikileaks, illegal civilian surveillance, fascism, conspicuous consumption, labor union disputes, and American imperialism (there’s even a honeycomb guillotine to remind us how far beyond “second time as farce” we have gone), before it regathers itself, reaffirming community through a roll call of political radicals, writers, artists, activists, and friends.
In this poem, which is written in playful dialogue with Russian poet Kirill Medvedev’s It’s No Good, translated by Keith Gessen, I find that it’s another Russian author, Mikhail Bakhtin, and his ideas on “the grotesque” as a radical form of popular art with revolutionary potential, I’m thinking of most. As Bakhtin writes in Rabelais and His World (trans. Hélène Iswolsky): “In grotesque realism… the body and bodily life have here a cosmic and at the same time an all-people’s character… The material bodily principle is contained not in the biological individual, not in the bourgeois ego, but in the people” (19).
Or, as Young puts it:
what can I say about a ruptured ovarian cyst that someone hasn’t already bitterly reported
on the Sutter Health Alta Bates ER Yelp page?
Young’s “I” continuously slips between her “own” experience of the body and an experience of the body as public, communal, shared on Yelp, between hospital patients, and among friends. (Is this the body politic?) As the poem circles back on itself, Young rephrases the above question this way:
sometimes I think what can I possibly say about anxiety and having a body
that my friends haven’t already
It’s evident that the body in this poem is porous, fractured, like the split and offset semicircles rendered in red Ben-day dots on the book’s cover: “not a closed, completed unity; it is unfinished, outgrows itself, transgresses its own limits… open to the outside world” (Bakhtin 26). The body is breached vessel, ruptured form, and rupturing force. Young continues:
other times I wonder why there aren’t more books on this subject […]
there is a lot to be said about ovarian cysts their illustrations on the internet are especially revolting they bleed sometimes within their own walls other times into the abdominal cavity
We hear the doubleness in this especially revolting body—this body that revolts, inciting revolt, which is sometimes confused with revulsion. This is the look of “visible disgust” Young catches on the doctor’s face as he leaves the bedside of another patient. When the body revolts, it “discloses the potentiality of an entirely different world, of another order, another way of life. It leads men out of the confines of the apparent (false) unity, of the indisputable and stable” (Bakhtin 48). It’s those who desperately adhere to the falsely atomized individualism and unity of the body (probably all of us to a greater or lesser extent) who feel revulsion when bodies unfold their dialectics of birth and death, consumption and defecation, dissolution and reconstitution, head (high) and buttocks/genitalia (low), spiritual and material.
“The essence of the grotesque,” Bakhtin writes, “is precisely to present [this] contradictory and double-faced fullness of life” (62). I want to suggest that the “contradictory and double-faced fullness of life” is precisely also the breed of humor that runs through It’s No Good Everything’s Bad. It’s the humor of the line break that swerves, producing a momentary double-consciousness. It’s the humor of lives and bodies and poems that run parallel to each other but with slapstick difference—as when Groucho and Harpo Marx imperfectly mime one another’s movements across a doorway masquerading as a mirror. Even the title of this book folds back on itself in a kind of doubled-over belly laughter, Everything’s Bad being another possible translation of the Russian-language title Gessen renders It’s No Good.
As in this echo-play of the title, and in the manner of comedy, the poem’s ending loops back on its beginnings but with a widening aspect, which is amplified, finally, by the unbridled body’s boastful joy:
the cyst is 4×6 centimeters
the kind that bleeds into itself
spreadsheet, heating pad, ibuprofen
my translation runs so far behind it leaves out most of the book and doesn’t account for difference
maybe it’s called Everything’s Bad I think it’s better than Keith Gessen’s just kidding you should definitely read It’s No Good translated by Keith Gessen
but for these purposes I have to swagger, good naturedly
Headlands Quadrats and It’s No Good Everything’s Bad speak to anyone who appreciates poetry, and lovingly handcrafted poetry chapbooks. Both works strike a delicate balance between lyric and narrative modes—the former leaning further into lyric and the latter into prose narrative. Headlands Quadrats will be especially notable to those with an abiding interest in ecopoetics, and It’s No Good Everything’s Bad to those drawn to feminist poetics, Marxism, and humor. Both chapbooks can be found at Doublecross Press’s website.
Rachael Guynn Wilson is a writer living in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in A propósito de nada / Apropos of Nothing (Aeromoto and Wendy’s Subway), apricota (New Draft Collective/Secretary Press), Argos Books’ 2018 calendar, Brooklyn Rail, Elderly, Evening Will Come (The Volta), Free Spirit News, Jacket2, Ritual and Capital (Bard Graduate Center + Wendy’s Subway), Textual Practice, and the Reanimation Library’s Word Processor series. She is co-founder of the Organism for Poetic Research and Project Coordinator at Belladonna* Collaborative. She holds a Ph.D. in English from New York University. She formerly co-authored an arts blog, Most Perfect World.
What happens when something occurs to change the view you’ve had of your life? Of yourself? Something that decisively alters the perspective on a life rich in success and honors?
That’s one of the dilemmas facing Daniele Mallarico, a masterful illustrator who is the main character of Italian writer Domenico Starnone’s newest novel, Trick.
A powerful change of perspective happened to the book’s translator, the novelist Jhumpa Lahiri, who decamped to Rome in 2012 a dozen years after winning America’s highest prize for fiction, the Pulitzer, and immersed herself so deeply in Italian that she only wanted to write in that language. Indeed, a week after she arrived, she wrote her final sentences of English in her diary. Three years later, in that same diary, an excerpt of which was published in an Italian literary journal, Nuovi Argomenti, she faced the terrifying prospect of leaving Italy and a life immersed in Italian. “I think of the distance about to form between me and this place,” she wrote, “and I succumb to depression.” She held on to the language, however, and has published works of fiction and nonfiction in Italian. In her 2015 book In Other Words (which she wrote in Italian and which was translated into English by Ann Goldstein), Lahiri chronicles her romance with Italian, revealing “a sense of rapture” in Rome.
For Lahiri, her new perspective, having learned Italian, amplifies an already rich literary and creative life. That is not, however, the case for the narrator of Trick, who now sees the first such “act” of his life with suspicion.
Perhaps in another book review, all of this would be an unnecessary aside, given the literary pedigree of Starnone, the author of thirteen other works of fiction and a winner of Italy’s top fiction prize, the Strega. But here, one could argue Lahiri’s sense of rapture feeds her skills in translating the novel, the second Starnone work she’s brought into English. The first, Ties, which came out in 2017, was, as she told The New Yorker, her first foray working in English again, after “barricading [herself] behind Italian.”
Her sense of rapture, paired with her own profound ability to evoke fictional characters and situations, helps her fully inhabit the voice of the narrator, Daniele, the illustrator. Amidst a difficult work project for a new client, Daniele goes to watch his four-year-old grandson, Mario, in the Naples home where he himself grew up but has long since left behind. It’s the house his daughter has inherited and where she lives with her husband and Mario. The plot concerns the days Daniele spends with Mario—hours that, as any parent of a preschooler will tell you, are filled with small joys followed by moments of tension, not to mention showdowns of all kinds.
But that may be truer here not only because of the crossroads Daniele is about to face but also because Mario’s parents are fighting ceaselessly. They have asked Daniele to watch Mario so they can attend a work conference where the narrator presumes they will continue their arguing, unimpeded. Hence tension simmers just beneath the surface. Mario is by turns playful and adoring, willful and troublesome. While keeping Mario occupied, Daniele is trying to complete sketches for the work project, an illustration of a Henry James ghost story, “The Jolly Corner.”
Lahiri has expertly reproduced the voice of the narrator—and his pull on the reader, who feels the tug from the very first sentences of Starnone’s many-layered work, where one aspect of the novel echoes another.
Lahiri has expertly reproduced the voice of the narrator—and his pull on the reader, who feels the tug from the very first sentences of Starnone’s many-layered work, where one aspect of the novel echoes another. Starnone opens the novel in the voice of Daniele, “One evening Betta called, crankier than usual, wanting to know if I felt up to minding her son while she and her husband took part in a mathematics conference in Cagliari.” Daniele goes onto to say that after living in Milan for some time, “the thought of decamping to Naples” in fact “didn’t thrill me.” Just as Daniele returns to his childhood home—a place filled with memories, which is to say ghosts—the character in the short story he’s been asked to illustrate is also experiencing a homecoming. In the 1908 story by James, a man named Spencer returns to his New York home after many years and finds himself haunted by a ghost. Specifically, the ghost of the person he would have been had he remained in New York and become a businessman.
While ghosts in the form of memories figure prominently in the novel, Starnone has a light touch. With an intimate tone that almost evokes a diary, he informs us a handful of times that Daniele’s father gambled away the family’s money when he was a child. In one of the more emotionally-searing lines, Starnone writes, “I recalled how every second of life in that house, in that neighborhood, was signaled by my father’s fingers on playing cards, by his rapacious need for a thrill that drove him to jeopardize our very survival.” He adds, “I fought with all my might to separate myself […] to prove that I was different.” The effect of this information is chilling—it gives us a window into one of the signal events that shaped Daniele as an individual—but Starnone reveals it with subtlety.
There’s another detail revealed in an understated way that nonetheless has profound implications. Daniele is a widow, and his wife’s death he’s been coming to grips with how he engineered the isolation required of his art to shield him from other aspects of his life. It emerges, in fact, that his wife betrayed him—repeatedly, right from the early years of their marriage, but he was too preoccupied with work to catch on until after her death. Combined with the revelations about his father, this information, shared in a few deft strokes, allows Starnone to give us the pertinent parameters—of Daniele’s life, and of what’s really at stake in an otherwise prosaic visit to his grandson.
What was and what could have been. The novel’s action culminates with two mirror events: the grandson reproduces an illustration that’s strikingly—for Daniele, alarmingly—adept and then later he plays a trick on his grandfather that risks some significant consequences (one of several compelling ways that the title is employed in the book).
But we’re not talking about child’s play. With Starnone at the helm, we’re wandering among the thorniest of emotional thickets: the land of fathers and sons. We’re also talking about self-worth, about how we spend our time, which is to say, how we spend our lives. We’re talking about a moral reckoning with the choices we make as humans. As the author puts it in an interview released by the publisher, Europa Editions, “That which we have become or not become, while it may please us at first, can cause melancholy, soon revealing itself to be insidious, dangerous, terrifying.”
With Starnone’s narrative unfolding largely in Naples, a part of the city’s essential character is unpacked for us in the course of the novel. For example, Daniele speaks of the rage (“la raggia”) felt by many of the people surrounding him as a child, fellow Neapolitans who found themselves living in cramped, impoverished quarters and believing there to be no escape hatch. Daniele does escape—physically, at least—and he winds up leading a fulfilling life as a commercial artist that contrasts with his parents’ lives and with many of his childhood peers.
Yet back in Naples to watch his grandson, some of the old anger resurfaces. The book dwells heavily on disappointment and on the resentment that breeds when one feels mistreated—tricked, you could say. In Daniele’s case, he is seething with anger that the younger publisher of the Henry James work has rebuffed draft illustrations he sent before departing for Naples. As Starnone writes, Daniele imagines barging into the publisher’s office and spitting in his eye for criticizing not just “those illustrations, no, but the work of a lifetime. A pity that the season of rage had died. I’d smothered it long ago.”
Some of the novel’s most evocative passages reside in the author’s ruminations about Naples. At one point, for example, while Daniele and Mario are out for a stroll, they stop for a drink at a dark, dirty coffee bar. Starnone meditates on the way Neapolitans talk, often employing a savage tone that can undermine even the most innocuous comments. As Daniele muses, “Only in this city […] were people so genuinely inclined to come to your aid and so ready to slit your throat.” This is the Naples many American readers have come to know through Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series of novels that begins with My Brilliant Friend.
In this scene, Daniele chats with the proprietor of the bar who reveals at one point that he, too, had a talent for illustration as a young man but he notes it “passed,” which Starnone writes, makes it sound “like an illness.” As they prepare to leave, Daniele comments, “I felt that he was looking at me with hostility, as if, just when I was paying and leaving a tip, I was secretly robbing him of something.” The line reminded me of a Sicilian friend who once told me he hated to receive a compliment because it was simply a way for someone to take him for a fool. This is a world in which every gesture is suspect.
As these ruminations swirl in the air, grandfather and grandson get into a standoff that Daniele says snatches “the notion I’d had of myself.” To say more would reveal a critical plot turn but suffice it to say Starnone deals gracefully with the implications of something—or someone—snatching away the notion one has of himself.
The book includes an unusual appendix, a diary that contains Daniele’s thoughts and sketches for “The Jolly Corner.” And it reminds us of the narrator’s pull, which reflects Starnone’s skill at creating a completely believable character who seems to live and breathe.
Starnone’s prose is in good hands under Lahiri’s capable guidance. As someone who translates from Italian and who reads a lot of translations, I found myself immersed from the first sentence of Lahiri’s translation. Arguably that’s no surprise since Lahiri is a masterful English prose stylist. Yet it bears noting that her rendition is fluent and fluid and her grasp of idioms is enchantingly astute. To give a minor though typical example from an early section of the novel, Starnone writes that Daniele was “in difetto sia come padre che come nonno,” which Lahiri translates as his being “wanting as a father and a grandfather.” That use of the word “wanting” is an inspired choice, colloquial and yet striking some kind of high tone that reproduces the original cadence.
Lahiri does such an exquisite job of rendering Starnone’s prose and in particular his reflections on Naples that there’s almost nothing to snap the reader out of her reverie.
Lahiri does such an exquisite job of rendering Starnone’s prose and in particular his reflections on Naples that there’s almost nothing to snap the reader out of her reverie. Indeed, for me, the only time was when I encountered the name of the maid character: “Sally.” In Italian, the letter “y” rarely appears and in the original Italian text, the maid’s name is rendered as “Salli.” The appearance of the name “Sally” reminded me that the book I was reading was meant for English-speaking audiences, as opposed to a book in English about an Italian narrator named Daniele who talks about Naples. But that was about the only time I remembered.
The work of literary translators can be viewed as vital, especially given the forces of nationalism today, so it is no small matter that someone of Lahiri’s caliber has joined the ranks. For Starnone and his readers, it means his novel Trick arrives in English in mesmerizing form.
Jeanne Bonner is a writer and journalist based in Connecticut. She is the 2018 winner of the PEN Grant for the English Translation of Italian Literature, given by PEN America. Her essays have been published by The New York Times, CNN Travel, Literary Hub and Catapult. She studied Italian literature at Wesleyan University and has an MFA in Creative Writing from Bennington College.
PLAYING CATCH WITH STRANGERS A Family Guy (Reluctantly) Comes Of Age by Bob Brody Heliotrope Books, 230 pages
reviewed by Colleen Davis
Most mornings I lie in bed wondering how I can summon the courage to get out from under my big, warm comforter. It seems to be the only thing protecting me from the harshness of this ceaseless winter and the bitter talk that plagues our land. Over the course of the past year, our nation’s Talker in Chief— and the media in general—have encouraged us to despise foreigners, hate losers, question the motives of practically every man we’ve ever met, transform our neighbors’ health care subsidy into a tax break for the wealthy, and offer our children as targets for assault weapon enthusiasts. If you’re not endowed with a strong sense of irony, it can be hard to summon a smile.
Since today’s newspapers rarely have the resources to support journalism that’s more than skin deep, I’ve been reading books to help me through this dark cultural period. I read with the hope that I’ll learn something to help me cope with the meanness around me, to escape from the meanness completely, or to simply help me figure out how so many normal people suddenly turned so crazy. As part of my therapy, I started reading Playing Catch with Strangers: A Family Guy (Reluctantly) Comes of Age by Bob Brody. The title alone is intriguing considering that the contemporary environment provides an object lesson in how to avoid catching anything from strangers—including empathy, insight, or any form of knowledge. Since Brody is the adult child of two deaf parents, I was also hoping he might offer some tips on how to communicate with those who cannot hear us. Today, practically all of us must address someone who falls in that category—though the state is seldom biologically induced, as it was in the case of Brody’s parents.
Playing Catch with Strangers consists of a long series of short essays. Most were written for print or online publications and not originally intended as book chapters. They are clean, straightforward, and easy to read. They are also salutary—in the sense of promoting better mental health and positive emotions. Brody reminds us of the many gifts that life offers to those who pay it close attention.
If you’re immersed in the national dialogue, you may have come to believe that no one loves anyone anymore. Or: that your value is determined solely by the billions in your bank account—which eliminates most of us from the value equation altogether. Brody, however, offers readers accounts of his deep love for his children, boundless affection for his wife, and late-blooming appreciation for his talkative mother-in-law. Instead of hurling smack talk at foreigners, he revels in the ethnic diversity of Queens and explains how much he admires immigrants and their basketball ethics. All this approbation is not some weird product of a perfect life. Brody describes fumbling around in the early part of his career and surviving a recession layoff. Because his parents were both deaf, he also spent a lot of time searching for clues that he was, indeed, understood and loved by them. As a kid, he struggled to create a bond with his emotionally distant father. He found it hard to escape the role of interpreter when his mother made him play that role too often.
Yet Brody is not bitter. Even his worst grievances are modest in tone. Though the author is a New Yorker through and through, he sets a vivid counterexample to our nation’s Talker in Chief. Brody is not boastful; he is not harsh. He sees how the melding of cultures has shaped powerful, harmonious communities in parts of New York where ethnic tensions might have turned combustible. When he encounters parents who fail to—or don’t know how to—encourage their children, he tries to model good behavior instead of insulting them. The essays that describe how Brody helped his kids overcome basic fears are especially endearing. Although he discusses the ever-present barrier that separated him from parents who could not hear, Brody clearly committed himself to leveling any walls between himself and his own children. He even devoted a now-defunct blog to his children called Letters to my Kids.
The most refreshing thing about this book is the easy way that Brody expresses his love for the most important people in his life. In “A Word of Thanks,” he writes to his daughter, Caroline, saying, “Your brother showed me how deeply I could love someone new, and you’ve shown me I could love someone else new just as deeply. In a single stroke, you doubled everything.” In another essay, “The Miracle of the Pies,” he pays homage to his deceased mother-in-law, who left some of her homemade pizza pies in the freezer before she died. Brody writes, “I’d eaten her pie every spring for more than 20 years and they had always tasted good. But now, flavored with grief, the pie tasted better than it ever had. It was as if I could somehow taste the essence of its maker, her spirit, her soul. I’d never felt so deeply my love and gratitude for her.” It’s hard to think of a current book where a male protagonist so thoroughly appreciates the people around him. Today’s non-fiction bestseller list displays authorial obsessions with conflict politics, serial killers, cults, and plain old death. Brody celebrates life instead.
It’s hard to think of a current book where a male protagonist so thoroughly appreciates the people around him. Today’s non-fiction bestseller list displays authorial obsessions with conflict politics, serial killers, cults, and plain old death. Brody celebrates life instead.
Although I like hearing a man discuss deep sentiments so bravely, I wish an editor had sculpted the essays into a better-defined story arc. Some pieces are written in first person and some in second person, which creates a few awkward reading gaps. While I value what I’ve learned about Brody’s childhood in a household governed by deaf parents, I was also hoping to hear some self-reflection on how that experience might have shaped his character. He does observe that becoming a writer gave him a more reliable vehicle for communicating with his mother. Yet I wonder if having deaf parents made him more amenable to people who live outside the mainstream—like the immigrant basketball players in Queens. In a feat that would challenge most of us, those non-English speakers have only their bodies and their game to convey toughness, skill, and diplomacy. Maybe one day Brody will write an addendum that provides a deeper analysis of his experience. In the meantime, I’m happy to have the gift of knowing that not all New Yorkers are blowhards, not all men are ravagers, and not all fathers pack their children off to China to strike trade deals. I think I knew these things before winter began, but it’s comforting to be reminded.
THE RADICAL ELEMENT
12 Stories of Daredevils, Debutantes, and Other Dauntless Girls
edited by Jessica Spotswood
Candlewick Press, 310 pages
reviewed by Maureen Sullivan
The Radical Element: 12 Stories of Daredevils, Debutantes, and Other Dauntless Girls is an anthology of feminist fiction, celebrating what editor Jessica Spotswood calls in her introduction the “quiet badassery” of young heroines taking charge of their own identities. This collection is a follow-up toA Tyranny of Petticoats: 15 Stories of Belles, Bank Robbers, and other Badass Girls, also edited by Jessica Spotswood. Similar to the first volume, the pieces in The Radical Element span a wide range of historical time periods and geographic locations, from 1838 Georgia to 20th century Boston. A brief author’s note follows each story, with additional information on the historical context or the inspiration behind the work.
The writing of the stories is strong, with each of the dozen authors contributing her own unique voice. The short format strikes a delicate balance between providing enough historical background to bring the world to life without overwhelming the reader with an excess of exposition. The real richness of this collection, however, comes from the characters themselves, who are as diverse as the settings of the stories. The theme for the anthology is the idea of “girls who were radical in their communities, whether by virtue of their race, religion, sexuality, disability, gender, or the profession they were pursuing,” and so our heroines come from all cultures and backgrounds, often overlooked or excluded demographics.
This large cast of girls inevitably included contrasting qualities, resulting in an especially valuable message: there is no wrong way to be a woman.
This large cast of girls inevitably included contrasting qualities, resulting in an especially valuable message: there is no wrong way to be a woman. Characters in several stories are direct opposites: Rebekah, in Dahlia Adler’s “Daughter of the Book” is fiercely Jewish and fascinated by the parts of her religion forbidden to her, while the heroine in Mackenzi Lee’s “You’re a Stranger Here” has a more nebulous relationship to religion—Vilatte questions her commitment to the Mormon faith after the community is attacked. While their views are very different, the reader can understand and empathize with both.
Some of the stories reject the compulsory heteronormative love story, featuring no romantic subplot at all. Others sidestep a male love interest, such as in Marieke Nijkamp’s “Better for All the World,” when Carrie disregards the attention of a boy and focuses instead on her dream of becoming a lawyer. Other stories, however, do include romance as part of an acceptable ambition, and Jessica Spotswood’s “Step Right Up” features a queer heroine.
Some of the characters are traditionally feminine, like Graciela from “Glamour” who dreams of overcoming racism in Hollywood to achieve stardom, or more masculine, like Ray from “The Magician” who dresses as a boy to work on a steamboat and beat the other dockworkers at poker. In addition, none of the girls’ struggles are belittled, and none of their aspirations are dismissed as trivial. Acting as a spy for the Union during the Civil War is presented as equally valid as performing in a talent show in hopes of becoming the next Miss Sugar Maiden. Through all these opposing examples, the collection as a whole demonstrates that there is no one right path or set of behavior that a girl must follow to have a successful or fulfilling life.
A final noteworthy element of this collection is the way in which many of the pieces end on a high note of rising action, leaving the resolution unfinished. We don’t know what will become of Rosemary’s I Love Lucy script in “The Belle of the Ball” or if the prison break in “Lady Firebrand” will be successful. Instead, they end on a moment of firm resolve for the future: while it may be uncertain, these girls are going to face it with confidence and courage. In today’s social and political climate, it can be heartening to have the example of these determined heroines to follow. While we may not know exactly what is to come, all we can do is keep going with the hope that the encouragement offered in “You’re a Stranger Here” applies to us too: “There are far, far better things ahead than any that are behind us.”
Maureen Sullivan is currently studying English literature at Cornell College. She is a managing editor of the campus literary magazine, Open Field, as well as working on her own short fiction projects.
ADUA by Igiaba Scego translated from the Italian by Jamie Richards New Vessel Press, 171 pages
reviewed by Jodi Monster
The title character of Igiaba Scego’s novel Adua is a Somali woman caught in history’s crosshairs. Born to an ambitious, mercurial man, a translator who sold his skills to the Italians during Mussolini’s pre-WWII push to expand his African empire, Adua’s life is shaped by choices she didn’t make and subject to forces she can’t control.
Scego, an accomplished writer and journalist who reports regularly on post-colonial migrant experiences, wants to shine a bright light on these forces. Born in Italy to Somali parents, her father having been ousted from his government post by Siad Barre’s 1969 coup, Scego has more than an academic interest in the relationship between these two countries, and in the aftereffects of Italy’s imperial violence in East Africa.
Born in Italy to Somali parents, her father having been ousted from his government post by Siad Barre’s 1969 coup, Scego has more than an academic interest in the relationship between these two countries, and in the aftereffects of Italy’s imperial violence in East Africa.
In the atmospheric novel she’s crafted, the circumstances of Adua’s early life are not entirely clear. Her mother died in childbirth and, for reasons the novel doesn’t explain, her youngest years were spent in the care of a nomadic couple she loved. She was terrified on the day her biological father, Mohamed Ali Zoppe, arrived to reclaim her, and she was heartbroken to leave the bush and the innocent joys she’d known there. “[It] was the end of a life, an ominous change in destiny,” Adua says when Zoppe takes her and her younger sister to his home in Magalo, a provincial city where he lives with his new wife. Here Zoppe sets his daughters at the mercy of his adolescent bride, “a girl with braids and her first period,” giving her broad authority to destroy the quality of two younger girls’ lives.
Separated from the only family she’d ever known, ill at ease in an unfamiliar city, and because of her father’s political affiliations, something of an outcast at school, Adua finds herself fearful and alone. But there’s a movie theater in town, and soon the dreams offered up by the old movies shown there replace Adua’s fantasies of a return to her beloved bush. “I wanted to dream, dance, fly. I wanted to escape… Italy was kisses… Italy was freedom. And so I hoped it would become my future,” she says, bewitched by glamor and the tantalizing hope of romance.
Several years later, after her father is arrested and the few friends she’s managed to find desert her, Adua’s a sitting duck for the black market trader who promises to make her a star. She follows her naive dreams to Rome where she’s exploited before she’s tossed aside, left with only a Bernini statue in the Piazza della Minerva to listen as she counts her regrets.
“No one had ever told us colonialism was the problem. Even those who knew the truth said nothing,” Adua laments in a line that lays bare her situation, because it’s not just colonialism that has hijacked her life. She’s also up against racism, misogyny, and the intimate savagery of a father who’s unable to make peace with his own failures and misdeeds, and the extent to which he, too, has been the victim of colonialism’s brutal constraints. “Maybe I owe you an apology. But I can’t. I don’t know how to use certain words,” Adua imagines her father might say, because in as much as she’s been tortured by his shameful silence, she suspects that he has been too. Left unspoken is the idea that while an examination of the past would not wipe it away, an understanding of it might prevent its repeat; and this, in the end, is the hopeful call of this novel, the spirit that animates its every page.
Left unspoken is the idea that while an examination of the past would not wipe it away, an understanding of it might prevent its repeat; and this, in the end, is the hopeful call of this novel, the spirit that animates its every page.
It’s also the spirit that nearly undoes it, however, because Adua can sometimes read more like a catalogue of trials than a rich, well-told story of an ordinary woman’s extraordinary life. This is true right up until the end, when after many solitary years in Rome, Adua takes a husband, a much younger refugee displaced by the latest round of fighting in Somalia’s seemingly endless civil war. This union is not about love, however; rather it’s about rescue, for both of them, from loneliness and desperation. It’s also about the author’s desire to explore the power dynamics within migrant communities, wherein more established members will sometimes distance themselves from new arrivals, compounding their dislocation.
By novel’s end, when the fighting in Somalia subsides and Adua learns that her father has died, having left her his house, for the first time she contemplates a return to her homeland. And this, finally, is the moment she’s been waiting for—the chance to choose for herself the course her life will take.
Jodi Monster is an aspiring novelist and founding member of Our Writers’ Circle, a thriving and diverse community of emerging authors. She lived and raised children in The Netherlands, Texas, and Singapore before returning to suburban Philadelphia, where she currently lives.
BAD JOBS AND POOR DECISIONS Dispatches from the Working Class by J.R. Helton Liveright Publishing Corporation, 259 Pages
reviewed by Robert Sorrell
The jacket of J.R. Helton’s memoir, Bad Jobs and Poor Decisions: Dispatches from the Working Class, shows an assortment of loose black-and-white sketches: a marijuana leaf, a packet of cigarettes, a typewriter, crumpled beer cans, lines of (presumably) cocaine, a gun, a cockroach. Among them, figures emerge: A man’s face covered in huge beads of sweat, a woman with long dark hair shown from the shoulders up, a pole dancer. These images appear regularly in each of the seven long anecdotes that make up Bad Jobs, working as signifiers of a place, time, and social class. The place is Austin, Texas and the time is when the tail end of the 1970s met the Reagan 1980s. The class setting is a bit more complicated, but I’ll get to that later.
When we meet J.R. Helton—or Jake, as his character is known in the book—he’s a 20-year-old writer who’s just dropped out of the University of Texas in Austin to write full time after winning a small literary prize. “I thought, Man, this is gonna be easy,” Helton writes, and quickly finds himself broke and in need of a job.
Austin, Texas’s capital and where Jake lives for the majority of Bad Jobs, is undergoing growing pains, along with much of the Sunbelt in the 1980s. “The city was booming then,” Helton writes, “and the skies were filled with steel cranes, the streets suddenly lined with many more men and women in suits. I enjoyed watching the big-haired young women who seemed free and attractive and windblown downtown, all of them dressed in different colors, walking alone or in pairs,” observes Jake, who figures himself a sort of Texan flaneur.
Yet Helton’s descriptions hint at a key characteristic of Jake’s personality. He is a watcher and as such, most of the book focuses not on things that Jake himself is doing, but things that he observes: coworkers he watches on job sites, neighbors, corporate types and politicians wandering downtown Austin. He commands a very male position, one he doesn’t think to complicate or comment upon.
The book’s first section, “Other People,” gives the reader a quick background on Jake’s upbringing and adolescence in a small town, Cypress, outside of Austin in the Hill Country. We’re told that he grew up in a working-class family, but his seemingly unhappy family life is given little attention minus allusions to a father who works much of the time. Most of the flashback serves instead to introduce us to Jake’s girlfriend, later wife, Susan, and her family. Her mother Betty Sue is an actress and her father, Dean, was a football player who quit after several injuries to become a successful writer. “More than anything,” Helton writes, “I was deeply impressed by Dean Hampton, a real writer. It felt good to have this intelligent, tough, sarcastic, and funny man take such a genuine interest in me.” Dean encourages Jake to write, and it’s not much of a reach to say that his fascination with Dean may have encouraged or reinforced his desire to date Susan.
Dean, however, is far from perfect. He suffers terribly from NFL injuries, including a twice-broken back, which makes him irritable, and he abuses substances constantly. It doesn’t take much for this big, tough man who shoots rifles to relieve stress and stays up all night writing, high on codeine and cocaine, to turn from father figure to monster. He terrorizes Susan and her mother, and after he’s kicked out of the house, he sometimes calls Jake demanding to know where Susan and her mother are.
For Helton, “working class” refers mostly to a certain set of lifestyle traits (often abusive ones) and certain cultural markers like alcohol, addiction, guns, cigarettes, and old cars, and less about actual class structure or economic opportunity.
Anyone skeptical of the way Helton deploys the term “working class” to describe his life may look at this relationship for some clarity. For Helton, “working class” refers mostly to a certain set of lifestyle traits (often abusive ones) and certain cultural markers like alcohol, addiction, guns, cigarettes, and old cars, and less about actual class structure or economic opportunity. Jake’s connections to folks in the upper middle class and in certain industries, like the color of his skin and his gender, seem to bypass economic class lines without causing any sort of ethical quandary for Helton the way they do in, say, J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. In his memoir, Vance is always hedging and explaining his privileges, sometimes stressing his connection to poverty, addiction, violence, and instability, and at other times admitting that he was lucky enough to have enjoyed stability and resources at key points in his life. Helton is not interested in such investigations, whatever their intention.
The deceitfulness of this exclusion is further evidenced when Jake drops out of college. He makes this decision not because he can’t afford to keep going to school, needs to support parents or a family, or is having mental or physical health problems, but because he wins a small literary prize and wants to write full time. And it is here, when Jake intentionally leaves an institution of the middle and upper classes, that he begins his life in the “working class.”
Not long after he leaves school, Susan and Jake get married and find themselves, “one sad cold day, in the real world of adults.” So, in between getting drunk and doing various drugs, Susan gets a “grim job in a cubicle” and Jake decides to try painting houses and offices because he thought it would be “much less noisy than some of the other industrial trades and seemed like the least work for the most money.” Amid all this “grimness”—which, to be honest, isn’t really all that grim except in the heads of the not-ready-to-grow-up main characters—there are a few moments of joy or warmth, like when Jake takes Susan to her first day at a new job and they end up sitting in the parking lot talking for half an hour before she heads inside. But by and large their relationship takes a backseat in Bad Jobs, and Helton dips into it sparingly. The conversation in the car doesn’t even get its own scene: it’s done in summary. This approach may be related to the way that Jake comes across as an almost stereotypically bad partner. He dislikes and distrusts any new friends Susan makes. He’s cranky and surly, non-communicative. He comes home from work angry and tired and leaves the next morning in much the same way, often hungover. Before too long, Jake’s behavior backfires. They spend much of the book separated.
Once Helton has tied up this short foray into Jake’s earlier life and the beginnings of his relationships with Susan, he begins the focus of the book, the “dispatches from the working class,” a series of long anecdotes centering around particular jobs he held down for a few months or years and the people he interacted with daily. His first job is at Austin Paint and Spray, a do-it-all paint company that marks Jake’s entry into a string of terrible paint jobs where he is often forced to work with caustic chemicals without a respirator, and where the workers usually smoke a few joints or snort some lines before they open up the paint cans.
In the room where they wait for assignments, Helton writes, “All of us smoked, so the room was usually hazy and smelled of tobacco and paint thinner. I usually read the paper, the front page, first section, and sat in the corner trying not to talk to anybody.” The anybodys, though, were less interested in sitting quietly in the corner. Despite trying to remain aloof, Jake is almost always drawn into the complicated lives of his coworkers. A typical case is Tyler, “a tall curly-headed guy from West Texas. He was missing his two front teeth and covered in scars and tattoos, Bugs Bunny on his left forearm and the Tasmanian Devil on the right, flipping you the bird.” Each morning Tyler regales Jake with the lurid and often disturbing stories of his sexual exploits. Tyler is one example of a stock character in Bad Jobs, a Texan with over the top physical characteristics and strange, often violent, stories.
Jake’s habit of being an observer, as well as his constant attempts to avoid his co-workers despite the fact that he doesn’t seem to really have any friends, hint at the fact that there is a separation between him and the other men on these jobs (they are exclusively men). He is a part of the work crew, but at the same time always separate, like a reporter embedded in a platoon. This separation becomes especially clear when Jake joins his brother in a gig picking up discarded railroads ties in Kansas. Surprisingly, the ties are worth quite a bit of money, and as Jake’s brother is the boss, Jake is guaranteed a job and high salary. The rest of the work crew, largely made up of undocumented workers, is treated and paid horribly. At one point they are forced to huddle in the back of a moving pickup truck for hundreds of miles between Texas and Kansas in the dead of winter. Once they arrive, things aren’t much better. Jake describes their daily routine: “At lunch, we left them huddled together out on the tracks with their cold tortillas and water and went into Cassoday to have a lunch of steak and potatoes on the company’s tab. When we returned, full of beer and food, the men were already back at work.”
In these moments, Bad Jobs reminds me of another memoir about work in a very different context: Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential. Both books feature a rotating cast of working-class guys (again, mainly guys) with drug problems and disturbing stories. Both contain an excess of sexism, racism, and other forms of prejudice (usually coming in dialogue from the mouths of others, but it’s still in there nonetheless). Both are founded on a particular kind of American white masculinity. And when I read them, I got the feeling they were both using characters and stories for purposes of shock and awe.
Bourdain’s and Helton’s stories of sexual harassment in the kitchen or hazardous work conditions for industrial painters are not told for purposes of solidarity, education, criticism, or even entertainment. Their anecdotes are designed, rather, to amaze and impress. Their writing is the literary equivalent of rolling up a sleeve to show off a nasty scar or a giant tattoo. The main problem is that the scars and tattoos usually belong to someone else.
Bourdain’s and Helton’s stories of sexual harassment in the kitchen or hazardous work conditions for industrial painters are not told for purposes of solidarity, education, criticism, or even entertainment. Their anecdotes are designed, rather, to amaze and impress. Their writing is the literary equivalent of rolling up a sleeve to show off a nasty scar or a giant tattoo. The main problem is that the scars and tattoos usually belong to someone else.
Robert Sorrell is a writer and photographer living in Philadelphia. He recently graduated from the University of Chicago’s English program and has a piece of narrative nonfiction forthcoming from Mosaic Art & Literary Journal.
THE PRICE GUIDE TO THE OCCULT by Leslye Walton Candlewick Press, 272 pages
reviewed by Brandon Stanwyck
Purchase this book to benefit Cleaver
For a novel about witches, magic, and family curses, Leslye Walton’s The Price Guide to the Occult has a lot to say about humanity.
More than a century ago, a witch named Rona Blackburn landed on Anathema Island, where she was met with fear and vexation from the island’s founding families. Determined to rid their island of her “as the tide erases footprints in the sand,” they burned down her home. So she, naturally, cursed their entire bloodlines:
Her search for such a spell led her to the branches of the Blackburn family tree. She traced limbs that reached to the heavens and bent back to the earth again. She followed roots that stretched across all parts of the world and were inscribed in languages that had been dead for centuries. And there, buried deep beneath those gnarled roots of that ancient family tree, Rona found one.
But when Rona cast that bloody binding spell, she inadvertently fated every future female Blackburn to a life of heartbreak and displeasure—and a daughter to be fathered by a male descendant of Anathema’s eight founders.
Enter seventeen-year-old Nor Blackburn, eight generations removed from Rona. Nor is a powerful witch with a cutting sense of humor. Her insistence upon remaining unnoticed in the age of social media-driven narcissism will undoubtedly speak to a faction of adolescent readers, who, just like Nor, want “to make the slightest mark as humanly possible upon the world.”
When Nor’s estranged mother, Fern, who has been AWOL for years, reemerges as a celebrity, Nor must finally embrace her powerful bloodline in order to stop the monster her mother has become. A terrifying and apt villain, with Evil Queen-like tendencies, Fern has gone into the business of “selling spells that hadn’t been cast for generations—spells for success, good luck, beauty, revenge.” In an ethically condemnable act of the highest degree, she has published a catalogue of sorts—entitled “The Price Guide to the Occult”—so common people can buy some “magick with a k” (which, according to Nor’s sarcasm, is how you know it’s legit).
It’s here that Walton does a wonderful job of illustrating the harm that nonstop media outlets have on susceptible viewers. Television appearances begin to paint Fern as “the real deal,” and she develops a literal cult following. When an exceedingly dangerous Resurrection Spell begins bringing dead folks back to life, Fern must be stopped, because black magic “always comes at a wicked and terrible price.”
Worrying that the darkness in Fern might very well dwell within her, too, Nor quells her deep-rooted dread by practicing self-harm. Walton neither makes light of her teenage protagonist’s destructive behavior nor does she romanticize it. As the narrative builds, Nor’s anxiety worsens, and Walton’s handling of the imagery reflects that—her vivid, lyrical narration perfectly illustrates Nor’s troubled state of mind. Her haunting prose ultimately drives the well-paced plot to its gripping, somewhat grotesque climax.
With its dynamic family tree, the novel will leave readers wishing for more of the Blackburn family, particularly the generations between Rona and Nor, which get little storytime. But Walton does end her tale hinting that we may see more of the Blackburns and their lineage in the future.
Rich with atmosphere and character, The Price Guide to the Occult employs the magical and the macabre to weave a layered family tapestry abound with romance and blood.
Brandon Stanwyck studied film, literature, and theatre at Cleveland State University. While there, he led a student-run theatre company. He currently lives in Ohio, where he divides his time between working on independent movies and writing fiction. His words have appeared in The Fiction Pool, Corvus Review, and elsewhere. Twitter: @BrandonStanwyck.
Who we are is a complicated thing. Interactions influence perceptions, and perceptions influence memories. Having lost her father in a tragic accident when she was only seven, author Sharon Harrigan attempts to unravel the mystery of the man her father was in the powerful new memoir Playing with Dynamite. “I was relieved when he died,” her brother wrote her in an email. “It’s terrible to say, but it’s true.”
“I was relieved when he died,” her brother wrote her in an email. “It’s terrible to say, but it’s true.”
The email causes her to question her own memories of the father who had died decades earlier and she set forth on a fact-finding journey in the fall of 2013 from her home in Virginia back to Detroit and northern Michigan where she grew up. Informed by interviews with those who knew her father best, the memoir expertly weaves Harrigan’s own life story with memories shared by her family. And in the process of learning more about her dad, Harrigan comes to more fully know herself and other members of her family.
“If we want to find out anything, we have to ask,” Harrigan writes, and so she does. Her mother, brother, sister, and uncle contribute countless tales—many of which are astonishing—to clear the air and breathe life into a ghost. The stories of how he met her mother, of how he would treat his children—including Harrigan herself—of his intense work ethic and intellectual curiosity are colorful and insightful but shift or change depending on the teller. If there is one definite Harrigan learns, it is that truth is subjective.
Facts, Harrigan discovers through her quest, don’t often fit the picture she had assembled. “I don’t know anything,” she says to her uncle regarding events he believed were common knowledge to the family. So much of her father’s life and character were misremembered, completely unknown, or perhaps even intentionally forgotten. Partial truths and imagined truths make completely knowing someone a challenge, if not impossible. More so when that person lives on only through memories and photographs, as is the case with Harrigan’s father.
The compelling mysteries surrounding the circumstances of her father’s death and how, years earlier, he’d lost a hand “playing with dynamite” offer satisfying, surprising conclusions. That knowledge makes not only for entertaining and heart-wrenching narratives, but for revealing glimpses into the man she’s desperate to know. As she explores, the facts seem to change and this alters her sense of connection to her father and her own sense of identity. As Harrigan struggles with her changing reality, she asks profound questions: “How often is the way we see ourselves different from how the world perceives us?” and “If my memories change, will I change too?”
Harrigan’s journey is beautiful, emotional. “I went looking for my father. And found my mother instead,” she writes. he discovers the significance of her mother’s “room of one’s own” at the local Y, of the reservations her mother felt in marrying her father, and of the challenges she endured through that marriage.
But Harrigan also discovers more about herself. Decades after her father’s tragic passing, she comes to a deeper understanding of who she is—intellectually curious and sometimes dangerously reckless—through knowing more of where she came from. “I’d been running my whole life,” she writes, “without stopping to pick up the pieces of myself I’d left behind.” Her story—while just that, her story—is intoxicatingly relatable. Missed connections. Unasked questions. The desire to know our family, loved ones, and selves better. Her story is our story, too. And it’s a gift: through knowing hers, we can feel inspired to relearn who we are as well.
Brian Burmeister teaches communication at Iowa State University. His writing has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net, and he can be followed on Twitter: @bdburmeister.
by Julián Herbert
translated by Christina MacSweeney Graywolf Press, 224 pages
reviewed by Katharine Coldiron
What an odd book Tomb Song is. It contains prose both beautiful and profane, extensive self-awareness and a troubling level of self-ignorance. Its author and its narrator blur together into an entity that is never quite one or the other, and it doesn’t distinguish between fiction and nonfiction with especial meticulousness. That is, the narrator and the author have the same name, the same wife and child, the same job, and the same literary accomplishments. It remains undefined whether, in what passages, and to what extent Herbert has fictionalized his life to write this book, which a reviewer in a Chilean newspaper called “an elegy to his mother.”
The book is, in fact, summarily about the narrator’s mother dying over the course of a year in and out of the hospital, but the reader will find the scope to be much wider. The narrator examines his childhood, his marriage, his perspective on Mexican politics, his drug use, and his struggle to make the world conform to his needs, or vice versa. Since this is Herbert’s first book translated into English, it’s difficult to determine whether the voice in Tomb Song—which most resembles a petulant, smart-alecky boy—is a gesture toward the filial relationship at the book’s center, or is the author’s usual tone. Off-putting though this voice may sometimes be, Herbert’s style, and his skill with the boundaries of genre and narrative distance, are singularly accomplished. Herbert, a poet and essayist, won the Jaén Prize for unedited novels and the Elena Poniatowska Prize for the original Spanish version of Tomb Song.
Destabilization is a key texture that the reader must appreciate in order to enjoy Tomb Song. For instance, the narrator, in exploring the hospital where his mother lies dying, dreams or hallucinates or genuinely takes part in a conversation with a man in the basement whom he identifies as “Bobo Lafragua, the hero of the unfinished novel I’d attempted to write a couple of years before.” Thirty pages later, he meets “the conceptual artist Bobo Lafragua” in Cuba for a dissolute vacation, complete with hookers, opium, and existential conversations. It is unclear whether the section in Cuba is adapted from life, as so much of this novel seems to be, or lifts a passage from that previously mentioned novel. The name is the only indication that we may have moved genres from nonfiction to fiction, and its reappearance causes a fine little frisson.
The prose, particularly in the Cuba passages, recalls Kerouac in its freshness and enthusiasm, and indeed, the literary performance of Tomb Song is captivating. Translator Christina MacSweeney, in recreating such a performance in English, made a daunting task look easy.
The prose, particularly in the Cuba passages, recalls Kerouac in its freshness and enthusiasm, and indeed, the literary performance of Tomb Song is captivating. Translator Christina MacSweeney, in recreating such a performance in English, made a daunting task look easy. The author’s exposure of his inner weather is unsparing and precise, and his one-liners are without equal:
Every household runs aground at the feet of a domestic myth.
T]he main objective of true revolutions is to turn waiters into bad-mannered despots.
There’s no route to the absolute that doesn’t pass through a fever station.
Berlin is a civic graveyard project into which has been drained the best of its sacred art: dead bodies.
Herbert pulls no punches, exploring his narrator’s flaws and the desperate circumstances of his childhood mercilessly, as if writing about a character he doesn’t especially want to shield. The glitches in this objectivity appear during certain passages about the narrator’s—Herbert’s—mother, who was a prostitute. Herbert is capable of standing back enough to see the irony in insulting someone by calling them “son of a whore” when his narrator’s circumstances embody that insult. But the pointed self-awareness that characterizes the narrator’s relationship with his mother sometimes slips, and the prose reveals an unsettling mishmash of innocent devotion, sexual desire, and contempt. “Some days she’d tie her hair up in a ponytail,” he writes,
put on dark glasses, and lead me by the hand through the lackluster streets of Acapulco’s red-light district, the Zona de Tolerancia, to the market stalls on the avenue by the canal (this would have been eight or nine in the morning, when the last drunkards were leaving La Huerta or Pepe Carioca, and women wrapped in towels would lean out over the metal windowsills of tiny rooms and call me “pretty”). With the exquisite abandon and spleen of a whore who’s been up all night, she’d buy me a Choco Milk shake and two coloring books.
All the men watching her.
But she was with me.
At the age of five, I first experienced the masochistic pleasure of coveting something you own but can’t understand.
Later, as an adult:
Out of sheer perversity, out of sheer self-loathing, out of pure idleness, I scanned the leftover girls of the night, trying to decide which one reminded me most of my mother.
In passages like these, when Herbert’s self-awareness is missing, the reader notices. Particularly if the reader is female. Men’s experiences are front and center in Tomb Song, whether as sons, fathers, carousers, authors, or mourners. The novel is so subjective, so purposely claustrophobic, that the dearth of women who appear as autonomous creatures, rather than “sex on legs,” is not as egregious as it might be in other novels. But it’s there. “I wanted to settle accounts with the mother goddess of biology,” he writes, “shooting a pistol at her, ejaculating in her face.”
One of the words used in the promotional material regarding this novel is “incandescent.” This is true, inasmuch as the word has two meanings: the ordinary, meaning light-emitting, brilliant, exceptional; and the obscure, meaning furiously angry. Anger comes off this book in nearly visible waves.
One of the words used in the promotional material regarding this novel is “incandescent.” This is true, inasmuch as the word has two meanings: the ordinary, meaning light-emitting, brilliant, exceptional; and the obscure, meaning furiously angry. Anger comes off this book in nearly visible waves. Mexico eats its own heart, politically, and the narrator is angry. A boy grows up in grasping poverty, and the narrator is angry. A mother dies, and the narrator is angry. The narrator snorts liquefied opium continuously out of a sinus-medication bottle, and he is still angry. With this anger comes pointed critique, gleaming insight, and an entertaining method of ADD-like writing, but the reading experience toes the line between exhilarating and exhausting.
Tomb Song is not a continuous story as much as it is a patchwork, a coat of many colors made from memoir and imagination and scintillating intellectual reflection and political diatribe and self-excoriation. What seams it into a single garment is Herbert’s voice, his energetic, free-associative, sardonic, charismatic voice. This tone, in which Herbert paints being the middle child of five siblings by five fathers, approaches “rollicking,” but doesn’t quite make it. Is that a flaw, a miscalculation, or a demonstration of the situation’s tragic absurdity? The reader will have to determine for himself whether the voice of Julián, in its variations, attracts or repels.
Katharine Coldiron’s work has appeared in Ms., the Rumpus, Brevity, and elsewhere. She lives in California and blogs at the Fictator.
Dominique, or Dom, seems to have nothing. She lives in Trenton, New Jersey with her single mother and helps run their Laundromat. When Dom and her best friend Cass embark on a field trip to New York City to see the students of the Brighton Conservatory perform at Carnegie Hall, Dom sees Ben for the first time.
Ben, a precocious violin virtuoso with money and a life in New York City, seems to have everything. Attracted to his music and lifestyle, Dom tracks Ben down and, with borrowed and stolen money, she begins leading a double life, travelling to NYC weekly to meet and subsequently date him.
Lindsay Champion’s debut novel Someday, Somewhere begins as any tragic love story, with star-crossed lovers from different socio-economic backgrounds, educations, passions, and family structures. But it becomes a more complex story about how relationships can lead people to live more fulfilling lives and accept nothing less than what they deserve.
A love for jazz is the foundation of Dom and Ben’s friendship and romance. But the Dom that Ben falls in love with is posing as a student of dance at NYU and there are ominous mentions of Ben’s past struggle with mental health. When the inevitable moment of truth occurs, their relationship survives, however, they both come to realize the pressures of their lives have quelled their true passions.
When Ben manically pressures Dom to break into the upper rooms of Carnegie Hall, Dom’s less realistic dreams become tainted and she is able to draw the distinction between concrete, attainable dreams and pure fantasy. In this moment, a long-term relationship with Ben becomes fantastical. Sometimes loving someone means allowing him or her to seek their own happiness on their own terms.
Lindsay Champion reminds readers that just because things seem unhappy does not mean they’re all bad, and just because things seem perfect does not mean there isn’t room for growth. Not all drama has to be damaging. The process of becoming an adult means sacrifice and real, healthy love.
Although Someday, Somewhere presents itself as a teen love story, it becomes a story of self-love, transformation, and acceptance. Beginning with simple tropes, the narrative slowly weaves a complex world of thought and emotion and becomes richer as the story unfolds, weaving a tapestry of heavy topics and ego establishment. The novel’s crescendo displays an intricacy of voice when it becomes apparent that their relationship is the catalyst Dom and Ben desperately needed to remind one another of their individual worth and have some autonomy over their own lives.
In this way, Champion’s novel serves as a good marker for what a contemporary teen love story should be: entertaining and focused on a broader human betterment, without skipping over the trials of the modern world. The reader accompanies Ben and Dominique on the path to adulthood, which is neither colorless, nor easy. Champion shows the reader that the process of maturing can take another person to remind us where and who we are in order to choose the path to personal happiness.
Elaina Whitesell received her bachelor of arts from the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University. She currently occupies a position as poetry editor for Cleaver Magazine. Her work appears in The RavensPerch and New Limestone Review.
NOTHING and DOTING two novels by Henry Green New York Review Books, 183 and 190 pages
reviewed by Melanie Erspamer
In Nothing, Henry Green is as self-aware as it gets, poking fun not only at his characters but at the premise of the book (knowing full well, I imagine, the delightful difficulty readers would encounter in explaining to their friends that they are reading “nothing”). “What did you do?” one character, Liz, demands of her older boyfriend, John Pomfret, as he discusses afternoons from his youth. “‘Why nothing of course,’ Mr. Pomfret crie[s]. ‘That is the whole beauty of us, we never can seem to do anything.’”
Precisely. In Henry Green’s two last novels, Nothing and Doting, the “doing” is severely limited in favor of a writing style built almost entirely on dialogue. The exposition seems to function largely as stage directions, basic information for the reader, though occasionally Green does display a bit of the modernist style he is most famous for:
It was wet then, did she remember he was saying, so unlike this he said, and turned his face to the dazzle of window, it had been dark with sad tears on the panes and streets of blue canals as he sat by her fire for Jane liked dusk, would not turn on the lights until she couldn’t see to move, while outside a single street lamp was yellow, reflected over a thousand raindrops on the glass, the fire was rose, and Penelope came in.
This sentence appears on the first page of Nothing, and there is hardly again, in either book, such an extended deviation from dialogue into narration. Green was an experimental modernist writer, and these “dialogue-novels” were his latest experiments: an attempt to remove the author from the work, to let the characters speak and the action develop with as little narrative interference as possible. Green was not unfamiliar with narrative techniques attempting at minimalizing what a novel can offer. In earlier works, such as, Living, one of his best-known novels, he utilizes very few prepositions. “Water dripped from tap on wall into basin and into water there. Sun. Water drops made rings in clear coloured water.” The effect is coarse, immediate. It seems to show how much rougher and real words become when not encased in their polite grammar.
Green was an experimental modernist writer, and these “dialogue-novels” were his latest experiments: an attempt to remove the author from the work, to let the characters speak and the action develop with as little narrative interference as possible.
Similarly, his dialogue-novels show how much a story can flow without much aid from the author—though, perhaps, this is not true of all stories. In fact, the most famous modernist works (think Virginia Woolf or James Joyce) seem resolutely opposed to Green’s form with their relentless focus on interiority. Green, instead, trials the opposite: a literary exteriority where almost all the words are ones that have actually been “expressed,” directly put out into the (fictional) world.
Henry Green is the pen name of English writer Henry Vincent Yorke, a well-educated man from a wealthy business family who wrote novels from 1926 to 1952, when Doting, his last work, was published. His works are considered important contributions to modernist literature, and he was well-respected by several authors at his time, including W. H. Auden and Anthony Burgess. When Terry Southern wrote in an interview with Green in The Paris Review that “Green has been referred to as a ‘writer’s writer’s writer,’” he intended it as a compliment to Green’s highly developed modernist style.
It could also be taken, however, as a fair reflection of Green’s higher popularity among writers than among the general public, where none of his books sold more than 10,000 copies. After his death, all his books went out of print. I wonder if there isn’t something conceptual and formal to his style of literary experimentation that does not manage to find an equivalent sophistication in the representation of characters and relationships. However, there has been recently a rediscovery of Green, of sorts, with many of his books going back into print. This includes not only his most famous and well-respected books, namely Living, Party Going, and Loving, but the others as well, including Nothing and Doting.
These last two novels are very much alike, focusing on the lives and loves of the London bourgeoisie post-WWII. In both books the cast of characters is largely comprised of two generations of middle-class Londoners—those about 45, and their children, late teenagers. Part of what Green does is contrast the two generations, which, humorously, act in the opposite way from what you’d expect: the savvy older generation, having grown up in a time of greater prosperity, is accustomed to parties, drinking, decadence—including a tendency towards extra-marital affairs. The younger generation, instead, is naïve, but serious, coming to age in a time of greater financial difficulty, concerned with marriage and settling down.
The novels take place in a series of splintered scenes in which a small cast of characters converses with each other in a handful of settings. The books at times seem to raise the question of why they weren’t written as plays. Yet it becomes clear to the reader that these novels simply wouldn’t work as plays, that part of the absence that Green was trying to create by limiting his narrative presence would be spoiled by giving these characters life and blood. The host of other details, in a theater, that would determine the content of these scenes—the stage setting, the movements of the actors, their tones—would remove the focus on pure discourse, although discourse seems too high and mighty a term for what in effect is banter. For never do the characters completely reveal themselves through their words. They are sly, witty, manipulative, and sometimes naïve, but the question of what exactly they mean with all these scenes of chatter has two opposite and yet coinciding answers: the words they say seem both to mean many things at once, and yet nothing at all. This would be difficult to convey with theater. Widow Jane Weatherby, Nothing’s female protagonist, characterizes this simultaneously empty and duplicitous character of their dialogue (as well as the polite, educated, and conniving style with which almost all of the dialogue is written): “‘But you know very well what I didn’t mean darling […] Good heavens I simply never mean anything yet all my life I’ve got into such frightful trouble with my tongue.’”
The plots of these novels would seem familiar to viewers of romantic comedies—they concern the overlapping love triangles and squares and all sorts of polygons that develop in small social circles, heedless of generation, marital status, or even (possibly) blood. In Nothing, the “action” revolves around the relationship between Jane Weatherby and another widow, John Pomfret, who once had a passionate affair, and the relationships that develop among Jane and John’s children. The novel’s gentle and uniform style makes it difficult to make many judgments on the characters, moral or otherwise. Ultimately, we are led to root for whoever can most deftly negotiate the upper hand. If on reflection it is clear that Jane and John are far from ideal parents, both using their children for personal gain, it hardly prevents us from appreciating their linguistic finesse in manipulating these children while maintaining their admiration: “Oh you’ve been wonderful,” Philip, Jane’s son, tells her with “conviction,” after unwittingly falling into her trap—”You always are.”
Doting deals with a very similar selection of characters in similar straits—here instead the focus is on middle-aged couple Arthur and Diana Middleton, who, not being widows, must create their drama and intricate triangles in more furtive ways. This drama includes two girls slightly older than the couple’s son, and a good friend of the couple, Charles. If the name Nothing was rather perfect for this type of superficial-but-not-completely middle-class dialogue comedy, Doting as a title seems to embrace an emotional stance toward someone who is strong and desiring but somehow still superficial, a perfect parallel to the book itself. Though we see the characters in a variety of settings—familial, friendly, public—we can hardly depart from a superficial understanding of them. For another fascinating aspect about the externalist dialogue-driven style of these novels is the way the dialogue is consistent, whether one is first-time acquaintances or a married couple of eighteen years. At no matter what stage, it seems people will use their words more to conceal than to reveal: either a fact about someone is available to everyone, spread by gossip in a manner of days, or to no one, the greater knowledge that would come with intimacy reduced to a heightened awareness of the other’s manipulative tactics. Arthur reveals to Annabel, the teenager he is fond of taking out to lunch, that “doting, to me, is not loving […] Loving goes deeper.” No more elucidation is made on that subject and thus we can only assume that if it indeed goes deeper, we can never be sure that someone is loving, and not merely doting; just as no amount of talk will really assure us of anything very “deep” in someone’s character. Postmodernists would take this idea further, denying the presence of any truth in language beneath, or outside of, language itself. Language is the superficial and yet only reality; and though Green was not a postmodernist, the way he shrouds (and defines) his characters in flawed and deceptive language approximates this idea.
Nothing and Doting are fun and light-hearted, easy-to-read works that are relatable on some levels. After all, we all must deal with other people and the way their desires cast webs around us as we cast our own. Yet I ultimately found the limited scope of these novels tiresome. There is only so much, it seems, I can enjoy of the manipulative, ambiguous, but fundamentally frivolous relationships of the 1950s bourgeoisie. Nothing was a fun read, pleasant, and with something of the structure of traditional comedies. But read right after Nothing, Doting seemed like a recycled composition, made up out of bits of the static characters from the previous novel, who, as in Nothing, all speak with the same generalized polite and detached voice of the English middle-class.
The last sentence of Doting is “the next day they all went on very much the same.” It may be an interesting stylistic comment, but hardly a tribute to enjoyment, to mention that this sentence could have occurred at almost any point in the book.
Melanie Erspamer studies English Literature and Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. She is half-Italian and half-American and has lived most of her life near Boston. Her work has been published in The Purple Breakfast Review, Nomad Magazine and Unknown Magazine, and her one-act play was performed at the University of Edinburgh. With her sister, she also has been running an anonymous literary magazine based in bathroom stalls, called Bathruminations.
NEST IN THE BONES: STORIES by Antonio Di Benedetto translated by Martina Broner Archipelago Books, 275 pages
reviewed by Eric Andrew Newman
It would have been easy for the Argentinian writer Antonio Di Benedetto’s works to have slipped through the cracks of the world literary canon, as he didn’t belong to any of the three major movements of Latin American literature, the pre-boom of Borges, the boom of Cortazar, or the post-boom of Roberto Bolaño. The Spanish newspaper El Pais has said that Di Benedetto might as well have created his own anti-boom. Shunning the bombastic style of the boom generation, Di Benedetto employs a dry minimalism that underlines the regional foundation of the text. All these well-known literary men greatly admired Di Benedetto’s works. Yet he never achieved their level of success.
It took over 60 years for Di Benedetto’s first novel, Zama, which was published in Spanish in 1956, to make its debut in English language translation in 2016. This was Di Benedetto’s first book to be translated into English, even though he had been translated into several other languages, including German, French and Italian, decades before. Di Benedetto’s first book to be published in Spanish was his short story collection Animal World, which came out in 1953 when he was thirty years old. After Animal World, Di Benedetto went on to write and publish five novels, including Zama, and five more short story collections.
Animal World was given a literary prize by a jury headed by Borges and following that Zama was well reviewed by the Buenos Aires literary magazine Sur, run by Victoria Ocampo (a good friend of Borges). Yet neither of the books sold well. This was most likely due to Di Benedetto’s refusal to move to Buenos Aires, Argentina’s literary capital, from Mendoza, the regional province where he was born and raised, to promote his work. Di Benedetto worked as an editor of a Mendozan newspaper, Los Andes, a job he was hesitant to give up.
This new collection, Nest in the Bones, translated from the Spanish by Martina Broner, culls the best from Di Benedetto’s Collected Stories, a volume of over one hundred short stories from all six of his previous short story collections, starting with Animal World. In the earliest stories in this latest collection, more reminiscent of dreams and fables than of real life, Di Benedetto seems to draw purely from the imagination. But in both these early stories and his later ones, the themes of animals and refuge continually recur.
In this regard, Di Benedetto’s first two books, Animal Kingdom and Zama, set the templates for his work to come. Zama famously begins with a passage about a dead monkey that perfectly encapsulates the main character’s plight:
A dead monkey, still whole, still undecomposed, drifted back and forth with a certain precision upon those ripples and eddies without exit… The water that bore him up tried to bear him away, but he was caught among the posts of the decrepit wharf and there he was, ready to go and not going.
Antonio Di Benedetto
Don Diego de Zama serves as a minor official in the Spanish colonies of the Americas. In the opening scene, he is waiting at the wharf for a boat to arrive, either bringing his wife and children, or word from the Governor that he is being transferred to a more prestigious post in Buenos Aires. But like the dead monkey drifting among the wharf’s posts, Zama waits eternally in vain, “ready to go and not going.”
Di Benedetto’s title story of the new collection, “Nest in the Bones,” also begins with a monkey, only this one is still living. “I’m not the monkey. My ideas are different, even if we did end up in the same position.” While the narrator claims not to be like his father’s pet monkey, he goes on to explain that as his father’s monkey takes refuge in an old palm tree, he takes his own kind of refuge in his room, and in friends, walks in nature, and books. Neither the monkey nor the man could ever successfully adapt to the narrator’s harsh father and his family.
The monkey’s hollow head inspires the narrator to fill up his own head with a flock of birds, the “nest in the bones” of the title. This flock of birds in the narrator’s head serves as a wonderful metaphor for the thoughts flying around a writer’s brain while composing a piece, whether the birds are the colorful canaries of a story, or the pecking vultures of self-doubt. Either way, the narrator seems to take great joy in giving refuge to his own odd, wayward thoughts deemed to be unacceptable by society at large. “I reveled in it, in the happiness of that sturdy, secure, and sheltering nest I was able to give them.”
This collection showcases a number of wonderfully imaginative stories whose fanciful imagery remains in the reader’s mind long after he’s finished reading. Di Benedetto’s concise, intelligent stories are surely still a source of complicit delight. Anyone who reads Zama and is hungry for more of Di Benedetto’s work will enjoy pecking at the writer’s brain in Nest in the Bones.
The image of a bird’s nest in the bones reappears later in the collection. The main character of “The Horse of the Salt Flats,” from Di Benedetto’s 1961 collection Foolish Love, is a horse. In the opening paragraph, the horse’s owner is struck dead by lightning and is incinerated on the spot. His horse is left on its own, still strapped to the man’s cart and pulling it behind him, like Sisyphus pushing the boulder up the hill. When the horse dies, a dove builds a nest under the horse’s skull, seeking refuge from the sun, and when the eggs hatch the nest in the bones soon becomes “a box of birdsong.”
Di Benedetto once said Dostoyevsky had such an outsized influence on him that the Russian “invented” him. Just as Dostoyevsky was once imprisoned in imperial Russia, Di Benedetto was incarcerated by the regime in Argentina from 1976 to 1977. He was finally released thanks to the involvement of fellow Argentinian novelist Ernesto Sabato and German Nobel-laureate Heinrich Boll. After his release, Di Benedetto left the country for Spain where he published his next book of stories, The Absurd Ones, in 1978. Several of the stories in the collection were written while he was in prison, but since he was banned from writing fiction, he smuggled them out in letters to friends.
Now translated into English, “Aballay” is one such story, about a man who refuses to dismount from the back of his horse. Much as St. Simeon of the Stylites takes refuge from the sins of the world on top of a column, Abally takes refuge from his own sins, which include murder, on top of his horse. While sitting in a self-made purgatory, Aballay soon begins to have dreams of sitting atop a column, like the Stylites, and having birds peck out his eyes. “They peck at his ears, his eyes, and his nose,” writes Di Benedetto. This return to the image of vultures pecking out the narrator’s brain in “Nest in the Bones” highlights the motifs running throughout Di Benedetto’s work.
“The Impossibility of Sleep,” from his next and final collection, Stories from Exile, published in 1983, is the only one in this new collection to address his time in prison. The narrator here discusses how the prison guards rob him of any refuge, even the brief escape of sleep. This idea brings the new collection full circle, as one of the first stories, “Reducido,” features a narrator debating whether or not to escape the numerous adversities in his real life by accompanying his dog Reducido in his dreams.
Despite that Roberto Bolaño and Di Benedetto both lived in Spain in the early 1980s, they never met in person. There has even been some doubt as to whether or not they corresponded. What is for sure, however, is that in 1997 Bolaño wrote a story, Sensini,” with a character based on Di Benedetto. In “Sensini,” the protagonist comes across the name of one of his favorite Argentinian writers in a regional story competition and uses the opportunity to talk about a certain intermediate generation of Argentinian writers. He says of Sensini’s (Di Benedetto’s) generation that although “they didn’t have the stature of Borges and Cortazar, their concise, intelligent texts were a constant source of complicit delight.”
Though Zama is a better introduction to Di Benedetto’s writing, Nest in the Bones is still a worthwhile read. Di Benedetto’s plain, straight-forward prose better suits the narrator of an administrator writing reports in the colonies in Zama than it does the narrators of the dreams and fables in Nest in the Bones. However, this collection showcases a number of wonderfully imaginative stories whose fanciful imagery remains in the reader’s mind long after he’s finished reading. Di Benedetto’s concise, intelligent stories are surely still a source of complicit delight. Anyone who reads Zama and is hungry for more of Di Benedetto’s work will enjoy pecking at the writer’s brain in Nest in the Bones.
Eric Andrew Newman lives in Los Angeles and is from the Chicago area. He works as an archivist for a nonprofit foundation by day and as a writer of flash fiction by night. He has previously been named as a finalist for the Robert J. DeMott Short Prose Contest and Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Exposition Review, Gargoyle, Heavy Feather Review, Necessary Fiction, New Madrid, and Quarter After Eight.
NEAPOLITAN CHRONICLES by Anna Maria Ortese translated by Ann Goldstein and Jenny McPhee New Vessel Press, 192 pages
reviewed by Jeanne Bonner
Any book that has a ringing endorsement on its cover from Elena Ferrante these days will merit a second look.
But there is another, potentially more important endorsement of Neapolitan Chronicles—a silent endorsement on the part of the translators of this Italian story collection by Anna Maria Ortese, originally published in Italy in 1953.
The translator is often hidden in publishing’s shadows (indeed, the series of events for translators at Italy’s biggest book fair is actually called “The Invisible Author.”) But many readers of Ortese may actually find their way to this book through the two translators that have brought her work to English-speaking readers: Ann Goldstein, Elena Ferrante’s translator, and Jenny McPhee, an accomplished novelist whose new translation last year of Natalia Ginzburg’s seminal work of nonfiction, Family Lexicon, was widely lauded (see the Cleaver review here.)
When it came out more than 60 years ago (under the title Il mare non bagna Napoli, or Naples Is Not Bathed by the Sea),Neapolitan Chronicles signaled to the Italian literary world that a new talent had arrived from the south, and the book won the important Viareggio Prize. Ortese, who was born in 1914 and died in 1998, would go on to win Italy’s most prestigious literary award, the Premio Strega. This new translation of what’s considered Ortese’s most important book signals something similar in the Ferrante era: here’s another female Italian writer (from southern Italy, no less) for English language readers to feast on.
The book is divided between fictional short stories and nonfiction sketches (three of the former, two of the latter). From the first short fiction piece in the collection, “A Pair of Eyeglasses,” it becomes clear Ortese is a keen cataloger of precious details and a diviner of people’s characters. A young girl, Eugenia, lives with her extended family in Naples. She desperately needs glasses. Ortese quickly teases out the contradictions in her Aunt Nunziata, who graciously ponies up the money for the young girl’s glasses but never fails to note the amount she spent (“a grand total of a good 8,000 Lira”). When Eugenia, whom the doctor deems practically blind, thanks her aunt for this kindness, Nunziata, who never married and has no children of her own, replies, in a kind of inoculating mantra of perpetually disappointed southern Italy, “My child, it’s better not to see the world than to see it.”
With a few, fast strokes, Ortese has sketched out the world of her characters. To paraphrase the Italian novelist Rossella Milone, who wrote an appreciation of the story in 2015, Ortese quickly produces the first miracle necessary for a story’s success: evoke a world.
And what a world it is. Here, poverty and powerlessness can embitter, even to the point of robbing a young girl of the natural joy of seeing. Indeed, one can well imagine the people Ortese knew who inspired the character of Aunt Nunziata, a nagging, melancholic, nothing-is-ever-good-enough curmudgeon for whom life is more or less over even as death remains years off. Which is not to say the aunt in this story doesn’t have a point. In the poverty-stricken, post-war Naples milieu so skillfully evoked by Ortese anything of value is in scarce supply. The poor stay poor. To wit, Eugenia, Nunziata and the rest of the family live in a basement apartment lorded over by aristocrat landlords who expect the poor tenants to be at their beck and call.
Anna Maria Ortese
It’s also a world in which bad luck and violence can seem so arbitrary and unavoidable. Eugenia—whose exquisite innocence is captured so expertly by Ortese and rendered equally as beatific in this fine translation—is at one point delayed while running an errand. As she returns, she daydreams about the new glasses, wondering if they will have gold frames and whether her mother will collect them that day for her from the eye doctor. But these beautifully girlish thoughts of hope are bluntly cut short by what Ortese describes as “a frenzy of blows.” Ortese writes, “It was Aunt Nunzia, of course, furious of her delay… ‘Bloodsucker! You ugly little blind girl!’” The words are as violent as the blows in Ortese’s prose. Such an abrupt turn should prepare the reader for the sad ending in which Eugenia is so overcome by the power of the glasses, she becomes sick to her stomach and doubles over, vomiting, while her aunt insists the money was a waste. That little bit of joy inherent in giving a young girl sight? Ortese stomps it out, as if to warn that there are no happy endings in her Naples.
“Family Interior,” another short work of fiction in the book, is likewise a gem. Here the momentum builds slowly but once Ortese reveals the central premise the reader turns the pages as if sprinting through a mystery. Much of the book doubles as insightful social commentary, with Ortese punctuating her prose with stunning, pointed asides about the interactions among Naples’ various social classes. And in the case of “Family Interior,” Ortese also slyly inserts gender politics (the phrase didn’t exist in 1953 but the condition of life did). She uses the story of a shopkeeper to zero in on the carefully proscribed roles a woman was allowed to inhabit in post-war Naples (and arguably many other places, until quite recently). With a successful dress shop, Anastasia Finizio is her family’s breadwinner. But she has never married, choosing instead to live the life of a shrewd, well-clad merchant, what she terms “a man’s life.” She’s satisfied, or so she thinks, until she learns from a chance comment from an acquaintance that a long-lost love is returning to Naples and has sent her a special greeting.
What’s stunning is the fiction Anastasia invents based on this thinnest of premises. Even before she can meet with the lost lover, Antonio Laurano, she imagines selling her shop and moving to a house him, where she would take care of him for the rest of her life “the way a true man serves a man.” Ortese turns a simple short story into a work of suspense as the reader, especially the female reader, desperately reads along to learn if anything comes of this fantasy.
The story also provides a canvas for Ortese’s world-defining asides; she dresses down one character with “his air of a studious cockroach.” She describes Anastasia as resigned to a “servile and silent life in the house of the married sister.” But perhaps her sharpest observations come in the form of descriptions of Anastasia’s mother as someone “who in her meager existence drew obscure consolation from the misfortunes of others.” Indeed, Sra. Finizio doesn’t exactly feel sympathy for Anastasia as the question of the long-lost love hangs in the air. That’s because Anastasia chose a different path—or chance conspired to give her a different path in life. Ortese writes of the mother, “Her youth had quickly run its course and she didn’t forgive anyone who wished to avoid the law that she had been subjected to.” Woe to any women—including her daughter—who doesn’t quietly accept the strait-jacket that 1950s Naples society aims to slap on them.
The Ortese collection was first translated in 1955 in Britain in an abridged edition but according to the publisher of this new translation, New Vessel Press, it has been out of print in English for decades. This is the first time the whole work has been published in English by a U.S. publisher.
Such descriptions are not only exhilarating, as literature goes, but they also hint at the complexity of the characters in Ortese’s fiction: a mother who would resent her own daughter because she attempted to evade the arbitrary, punishing mores of her society.
Put another way, people in Ortese’s world, and especially women born to poor, lower class families, should be “unconsciously prepared for a life without joy,” as Ortese describes Eugenia in “A Pair of Eyeglasses.”
These small observations distinguish her fiction. Similarly, in a nonfiction piece midway through the book, “The Involuntary City,” Ortese describes southern Italy as “dead to the progress of time” (One faintly hears Don Fabrizio ruminating on Sicily of the nineteenth century.) And given the fantastical nature of Naples—even among Italians it has a reputation as a city where anything can happen—one often finds the people mentioned in the nonfiction accounts are as memorable as the characters in the short works of fiction. Later on in “The Involuntary City,” which concerns a temporary homeless shelter, Ortese describes a woman she meets there as “queen of the house of the dead.” Ortese goes on to say the woman is “a crushed figure, bloated, horrendous, the fruit, in her turn, of profoundly defective creatures, and yet something regal remained in her.” It paints a picture of Naples as a city that harbors a bit of heaven and a lot of hell.
In some ways, the plots in the fictional works are beside the point and the premises of some of the nonfiction pieces may appear dated and of passing interest to modern readers (the dynamics of the relationship among Italian writers living in the midcentury, for example, which is the backdrop of several of the chapters, will appeal only to a select group of readers). Indeed, some of the nonfiction reflects a return visit Ortese made to Naples after living for a time in other parts of Italy, and they include reminiscences and personal observations that sound almost as though they have sprung from her diary. At times, the observations and the exchanges with old friends are of such a personal nature, and also pertaining to a bygone era scarcely imaginable in some ways today, that they detract from the overall volume. Moreover, given the quality of stories like “A Pair of Eyeglasses,” the reader may sometimes wish there were more fiction in the collection. The chapter “Evening Descends Upon the Hills,” for example, is a piece about a piece: Ortese had been commissioned to write about up-and-coming writers living in Naples and in this essay, she relays a journey she took by tram to the house of a writer. It may be of interest to a literary scholar who specializes in Italian writers of that era, however, the significance is somewhat muted with the passage of time and the trip over the ocean.
But Ortese’s descriptions of people, places, and states of mind are masterful. It can also be said that some of the nonfiction reads like fiction (which is a credit to Ortese and Goldstein and McPhee, her translators). In one of the nonfiction pieces, in fact, she tells us she sat by “a woman without a nose, who had an enormous plant on her lap.” Such passages make the reader glad to be along for the ride.
The Ortese translation comes as book buyers in America and Britain continue to gobble up the works of Ferrante, which are set partly in Naples. And that’s an important milestone in the spread of Italian literature beyond Italy’s borders because Naples, as a travel destination or a fount of literature, even in the Ferrante era, remains scarcely known to Americans. Ortese’s stories remedy this gap in many ways.
Moreover, there is growing awareness of the scarcity of works translated into English specifically by Italian women. According to statistics gathered by Open Letter Press at the University of Rochester, the overwhelming majority of the Italian works translated into English in 2017 were written by men (and in 2016, and 2015, etc.). One could say there’s a backlog of works by female authors not translated, including some who won Italy’s most prestigious literary prizes. To wit: the Ortese collection was first translated in 1955 in Britain in an abridged edition but according to the publisher of this new translation, New Vessel Press, it has been out of print in English for decades. This is the first time the whole work has been published in English by a U.S. publisher.
Ortese is an important touchstone for contemporary Italian authors, particularly women authors such as Ferrante. There’s been much debate over Ferrante’s identity and also her literary value. (One Italian critic has even asserted that her prose is better in English thanks, of course, to Ann Goldstein). But if Ferrante’s only lasting legacy is to secure a place for Italian women writers in the English-speaking world, lovers of literary fiction should be feeling awfully optimistic.
Jeanne Bonner is a writer and journalist based in Connecticut. She is the 2018 winner of the PEN Grant for the English Translation of Italian Literature, given by PEN America. Her essays have been published by The New York Times, CNN Travel, Literary Hub and Catapult. She studied Italian literature at Wesleyan University and has an MFA in Creative Writing from Bennington College.
The classic coming-of-age novel tells the story of a young boy coming to terms with the man he is about to become. Over 175 years ago, the great French literary seer Honoré de Balzac composed a rather untraditional version: in his novel, The Memoirs of Two Young Wives, Balzac applies the traditional arc of the bildungsroman to two female protagonists in order to present two ways of life—the passionate life and the tranquil life. In doing so, Balzac reminds readers of the elusive nature of happiness, regardless of one’s way of life, and what it means to love and be loved.
Balzac was expert at capturing the French society of his time. He wrote over ninety novels, but The Memoirs of Two Young Wives never received the attention as a beloved work like Pere Goriot. Additionally, unlike his more famous plays and novels, The Memoirs of Two Young Wives has a small cast of characters and follows the epistolary form. Commentators and scholars have theorized that this novel presents the tensions between pleasure and duty that Balzac himself faced. Moreover, much of what the two protagonists, Louise and Renee, struggle within their 19th-century world resonates in 2018. For example, are we happier seeking out the hustle and bustle of society or the peace of the countryside? At a certain age do we feel it is simply time to grow up and get married, or are we truly in love? Do we follow our own ambitions or do we put them to the side? What will make us happy?
The novel begins with Louise excitedly writing to Renee, her closest confidant, that she, too, is now leaving the Carmelite convent where both of them had lived and formed their bond of friendship. Louise and Renee then each vow to write each other and describe every detail of their lives.
Honoré de Balzac
In these letters, Balzac describes two ways of living, though he leaves it up to the reader to make the final judgment about which, if either, is necessarily “better.” Louise is full of passion while Renee resigns herself to what she sees as her womanly duties—marriage and motherhood. At different points in the novel, each succumbs to jealousy of the other’s way of life. Louise initially is frustrated that the men of Paris do not take more of an interest in her. What must she do to get their attention? How should she balance her intellect and beauty? How can she be loved? She is frantic to be adored. To Renee, she writes that “[w]hat [she] has read of modern literature is centered on love . . . since [their] destiny is shaped wholly by men and for men . . . .” Her introduction into Parisian society my make a 21st-century reader blush at how gendered Louise insists her role in society must be, no matter how cunning and clever she is and how much she recognizes her own intellect. Louise writes to Renee that “[a] young woman counts for nothing at the ball: she is a dancing machine.” But Louise is not impressed with a man of “great talent,” whom she finds “so deeply occupied with himself . . . that [she] concluded that . . . women must be mere things, and not people . . . ” She wants a passionate love and to be adored, though she is not willing to be a mere “thing” for any man, and she is frustrated that in society “[w]omen count for very little . . . .” Will the adoration of a man make Louise happy? Perhaps, temporarily it will.
Renee, on the other hand, agrees to an arranged marriage to a man she eventually grows fond of, especially after he makes her a mother. Louise sharply criticizes Renee’s decision to lock herself into such a life, insisting that she is “simply leaving one convent for another!” But Louise later idealizes Renee’s prosaic, country life and three children. Renee’s husband moves through the ranks of government office with help from Louise and her family, and Renee is content to help move her husband’s political career along but never overshadow him. Will children make Renee happy? In many ways, they do, but she also experiences great anxiety and fear when her oldest becomes ill, though he eventually recovers.
Louise takes two lovers, each of whom she eventually marries in turn. The first man, Felipe, is a former Baron in exile from Spain. He adores Louise and respects her intellect. Felipe loves her much more than she loves him, but this is what she thinks she wants. Renee is quick to tell her that she does not think Louise truly loves him, and in the end, Renee is right. Felipe dies, and Louise insists it was her fault. Later, Louise marries a man four years her junior. The marriage is a secret, and they live in isolation. Louise becomes jealous, believing her husband to be having an affair, and ultimately makes herself ill with consumption by staying outside overnight. When Louise dies Renee feels even more desperately that she wants her children around her. They have become her life—the life she described to Louise in as much as detail as possible.
In the back-and-forth of Louise and Renee’s letters, Balzac reveals how happiness can feel artificial and how dependent it is on others. Louise writes to Renee that “what society least forgives . . . is happiness, and so it must be concealed.” But whatever happiness the two women feel at different moments in their lives, along with their frustrations, they are free to express in their correspondence. Indeed, their correspondence and friendship become a type of happiness that does not need to be concealed.
Near the novel’s beginning, Louise writes to Renee that she was told that “good taste means knowing what mustn’t be said as much as what may be.” Such good taste does not need to be heeded in the women’s correspondence. In these letters, Renee and Louise do not need to shy away from certain subjects just as they do not need to hide their happiness (or unhappiness) from one another. When the rules of etiquette fall away and the women can be honest with themselves and each other, perhaps that is when and how they find their happiness.
After Louise dies, Renee writes her husband that her “heart is broken.” It seems fitting that the novel should end with a broken heart that is not caused by any romantic attachment. Rather, Renee’s heart breaks because her confidant, the source of her true happiness, dies. By the end of the novel, it seems as though the elusive happiness and love that both women craved was there all along in their correspondence and friendship. Through their correspondence, the women achieved a balance between pleasure and duty, fantasy and reality, passion and tranquility. Perhaps that balance is why their friendship was tied up with their happiness. Perhaps Balzac’s point is that these tensions between pleasure and duty, fantasy and reality, passion and tranquility are necessary for happiness.
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.
by Anna Lea Jancewicz Widow + Orphan, 170 pages
reviewed by KC Mead-Brewer
Anna Lea Jancewicz built up her editorial chops on magical flash fiction and fairytale non-fiction journals, like Cease, Cows and Tiny Donkey, before becoming Editor-in-Chief of Rabble Lit, a magazine dedicated to working-class literature. Some might consider this a strange artistic road, but it makes sense. Using the magic in the everyday to challenge and undermine the power of oppressors, magical realism emerges from anti-colonialism and protest. Similarly, the classic fairytale often elevates working-class heroines like Cindergirl and Vasilisa. Jancewicz’s debut collection builds on these traditions of artistic protest, offering a mix of flash and short stories steeped in both the brutal realities and dreamy magic of women’s lives. The combination of flash and short stories creates a heady ebb and flow throughout the collection, almost like a heartbeat ba-boom, ba-boom, a place where prayers, stories, and spells live side-by-side.
As the title [m]otherhood suggests, the book is laced with countless unexpected births and creations, from the endless beastly offspring of “The Female of the Species” to the uncanny rabbit nosing its way up from a garden grave in “Rosemary & Ghostmilk.”
It’s no wonder that “Rosemary & Ghostmilk” is nestled at the heart of this collection. Miranda, its protagonist, wakes in the first line just after the preceding story’s heroines have both gone to bed, unable to put her own pain to rest. Miranda mourns what would’ve been her third child, the miscarried remnants of whom she’s buried in her backyard beneath the rosemary bushes. The dark beauty of this story embodies so much of Jancewicz’s simultaneously tender and ruthless style, the luscious marriage of the physical to the phantasmal. “Rosemary is for the dead, rosemary is for remembrance,” she writes.
[Miranda had] known that when she chose the place in her garden for the burial. And yet, she had remembered only to forget. There’d been no token to hold in hand, no lock of fine blonde hair or curled cord stump to place in a box. It had been too early for that. Too early for any substance to remain. Too early for condolences. Too early for anyone to understand the grief that weighted her emptied body, so Miranda had buried that, too.
Buried, or planted. In Jancewicz’s stories, ghosts are born from the unlikeliest of seeds: whispered names, dark soil, breastmilk, the rabbit in the moon. Because here, to be pregnant, to be a mother, is to be haunted.
Anna Lea Jancewicz
Jancewicz builds on this sense of being haunted throughout the collection. In “Off the Map,” a woman is haunted by her own death (among other things). In “Funny How Tender Can Mean Two Things,” a woman simultaneously haunts and is haunted by her twin sister’s life, the life she could’ve had. In “Sheitel,” a woman is eerily self-aware of her own endlessly repeating hero’s journey.
Like the classic hero’s journey, “Sheitel” is layered with concentric circles, the protagonist as their common center: a woman who wrestles with God and returns to Him; who dutifully marks each menses with a mikvah; who becomes pregnant (again); who cannot stop hearing the same song over and over, Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” (itself a cyclical myth); who dedicates herself to providing her family with a seamless loop of blessed, properly prepared evenings for making Shabbos. She who is destined to wrestle with God again and again, accruing small badges (such as a faint, almost invisible tattoo) to mark each resurrection. She who repeats the repeating stories:
Our sages say that when Ya’akov saw the angels, the messengers, ascending and descending the ladder on the banks of the Yabbok, they were ascending first because they are always here, always among us. The man he wrestled with, the man who wrenched his hipbone from its socket, the man he wrestled with when he was alone, was already there.
When Ya’akov was alone, the man was already there. The world is full of hauntings, Jancewicz reminds us, whether by ghosts, gods, or humans. We haunt ourselves with stories.
Jancewicz’s dedication to Jewish characters and communities is a welcome change in a genre that’s often colored by a Christian lens. She spotlights heroes who are mindful of their history and traditions even as they subvert them. In “Chana Finkelstein Made a Golem Baby,” the working class, middle-aged Chana does exactly as the title suggests: she looks her desire in the eye and goes to work making it come true, seeking the proper prayer and name of God necessary to bring her golem baby to life. The local rabbis deride her (italics in the original):
Mrs. Finkelstein, [Rabbi Kleinman] said, his eyes horrified. You know these stories are fairy tales, right?
Mrs. Finkelstein, [said Rabbi Schechter,] with all due respect, this is the sort of study done by very learned scholars, very learned men…
Yet Chana searches tirelessly through every book and class she can find. But it isn’t until she turns to the prayers and devotions of women, to the local mikvah attendant Miriam Leibowitz, that she finds the wisdom she needs. “You’ve been asking for help in the wrong places,” Miriam tells her.
That [Rabbi] Kleinman thinks you’re as demented as Rochel Nudelman, bless her poor fercockt heart, and that [Rabbi] Schechter, even if he does know something, he’s not going to whisper a word of it unless you’ve got a schmeckie between your legs. Anyway, why ask a man how a woman should make a baby? Their golems are all brutes, what would you want with that? Now let me see your Bubbe’s tkhines.
Through Miriam, Chana’s golem baby becomes more than a fairytale, more than a “study.” At last, her baby is called a baby. She’s found the right name of God to use.
When Rabbi Kleinman tells Chana that her golem baby is nothing but a story, a fiction, she responds simply with,
Who are you to say? Who am I to say? Can’t you just help me find the right words?
The words are already there, Chana knows, it’s only a matter of finding them, remembering them, tucking them into the proper mouth to bring forth fresh life. It’s a matter of parsing out the prayers from within the fairytales, recognizing the spells and sacred threads that stitch the everyday together. Jancewicz’s collection is an act of doing just this: a search for the magical in the quotidian, a recognition of the power tangled in the roots of a rosemary bush, woven through a woman’s sheitel, or beneath a pair of chickpea-eyes pressed lovingly into a golem baby’s yet-born face.
K.C. Mead-Brewer lives in Baltimore, Maryland. Her writing appears or is forthcoming in Carve Magazine, Strange Horizons, Hobart, and elsewhere. As a reader, she loves everything weird—surrealism, sci-fi, horror, all the good stuff that shows change is not only possible, but inevitable. For more information, visit kcmeadbrewer.com and follow her @meadwriter.
by Erika T. Wurth
Astrophil Press, 111 pages
reviewed by Jordan A. Rothacker
Sometimes we read fiction to escape, to experience the art of writing, or to lose ourselves in plot. Non-fiction is often imagined the territory of learning, absorbing direct information on a topic. We often forget that fiction still has this power, to take you somewhere real you’ve never been, to introduce you to people you might not have otherwise met. Fiction can convey social realities and erode the “otherness” of others. Sometimes even when we set out to read to escape, to read for fun, we are confronted with truths about our world. But of course, true art about the human experience never eludes the social and the political.
I find myself in this dual mindset with Erika T. Wurth’s recent collection of short stories, Buckskin Cocaine. This collection of eight different first-person-voiced stories covers a lot of terrain over 111 pages all the while exploring the distinctive world of “buckskin” filmmaking, a once exploitative Hollywood Western subgenre that nowadays signals a world of Native directors, actors, and film festivals. The story titles bear the names of the protagonists, among them “Barry Four Voices,” “Candy Francois,” “Gary Hollywood,” “Lucy Bigboca,” “Mark Wishewas,” and “Olivia James.” Buckskin Cocaine explores this particular corner of Native America and in doing so illuminates so many of the universal issues facing Native Americans. Wurth is particularly interested in themes of authenticity and compromise. She asks, Where lies creativity when Native filmmakers feel pigeonholed into only making Native films? Where lies integrity when non-Native filmmakers care only about stereotypes and revisionist history, but work is hard to come by for a Native actor and a paycheck is needed?
What makes this emotionally satisfying reading is how well the prose brings to life the various voices all within this same small world. George Bull is a director who makes Native films that show at buckskin film festivals. He constantly denies any social obligation to justice or fairness. Rather, he says he’s in it for the money (of course, how could that be true, his work speaks for his commitment to his people). There’s Lucy Bigboca, who boasts about how traditional she is and yet shouts in text-speak full of LOLs and LMAOs jolted by exclamation points. With all her boasting and shouting, she truly has a big boca.
Gary Hollywood’s voice is the most distant and distinct from the others’. He revels in the buckskin roles that let him be “so terrifying that it is utterly beautiful.” He says, “And I feel like someone should be proud. Look at me up there, my hair so black, my naked chest so brown, my eyes filled with stones. I look like a warrior. I dance, I sing, I fight. I am so beautiful in the dark.” These roles reconfirm for him that he was “born for blood” and make him feel connected to an aspect of his heritage. He speaks as if out of a dream and takes us through his childhood in Oklahoma and his time killing in the jungle (most likely Vietnam, though he never says), but now he drinks too much and regrets past acts that sound like domestic violence. He cherishes his dreams though, and the dreamy nature of acting.
Erika T. Wurth
The penultimate story is narrated by the book’s biggest wannabe, a scenester and hanger-on, who we feel for as he waits in the wings, always on hand, trying to impress the cool, connected people at the film festivals and hip watering holes. In a turn Joycean-Pynchonian, the character is named Mark Wishewas, and oh how he “wish he was” making real serious films with people like George Bull and Robert Two-Stories. For the reader, Wishewas is also a revealing critic of the Native film. At one point he laments that the buckskin films his fellow Natives direct are all about the past. He says, “I mean, Jesus, what about talking about how we are now? That’s what I was always thinking about when I was thinking about writing a short story collection though I never had time to write it. I mean, I work in a library and that takes up a lot of my time. Plus the writing world is completely full of crap. I’m totally done with it. At least film has an audience. Plus, the writers I meet are always total jerks.” His story is both sweet and tragic.
The final story is the longest, with the widest character arc and most complicated tricks of narrative-time-play. Olivia James is a ballet dancer with a life separate from most of the characters we’ve met before. She leaves her home and her father in Denver for a career in New York and ultimately Europe, experiencing success. After reading the other stories in the collection we understand a greater depth to her journey, the pressures, the temptations, and the politics. Her path might be separate from the others we have met but it shares themes of authenticity and identity. Olivia worries about retaining her heritage while also embracing a European art form. She wants to be seen as a dancer, not a Native American dancer, while still never losing who she is. We relate to her and feel for her as we watch her grow, but there is a tragic tone beneath the surface. We have met her before, an older version of herself, in George Bull’s story. She’s there at the Native American Film Festival in Santa Fe, New Mexico, aged out of dancing; she’s a teacher and academic, but in George’s eyes she’s another scenester, drinking, partying, rubbing elbows, part of this Native film world yet just as uncertain as to who she is as everybody else.
Buckskin Cocaine doesn’t build into a novel (there is no overarching plot) but through theme and connected characters, it gives way to a particular view of a much-hidden world. With its pettiness, infighting, beauty, inspiration, leaders, followers, wannabes, and has-beens the buckskin scene seems at first just like any other. Yet this is a kind of Hollywood illusion. Just beneath the surface, Wurth’s characters wrestle with dual and triple identities. A people who have survived a legacy of genocide and marginalization face obstacles from within and from outside their own communities, whether they choose to face them or not. Wurth’s point may be that the best film sets make it almost impossible to tell what is actually real.
Jordan A. Rothacker is a poet, essayist, and novelist who lives in Athens, GA where he received an MA in Religion and a PhD in Comparative Literature. His books are The Pit, and No Other Stories (Black Hill Press, 2015), And Wind Will Wash Away (Deeds, 2016), and the meta-text My Shadow Book by Maawaam (Spaceboy Books, 2017).
BIRTH OF A NEW EARTH:
The Radical Politics of Environmentalism by Adrian Parr Columbia University Press, 328 Pages
reviewed by Robert Sorrell
Near the beginning of his ecstatic, beautiful “Poem to My Child, If Ever You Shall Be,” Ross Gay writes:
I wonder, little bubble
of unbudded capillaries, little one ever aswirl in my vascular galaxies, what would you think
of this world which turns itself steadily into an oblivion that hurts, and hurts bad?
Would you curse me my careless caressing you into this world or would you rise up
and, mustering all your strength into that tiny throat which one day, no doubt, would grow big and strong,
scream and scream and scream until you break the back of one injustice, or at least get to your knees to kiss back to life
I first read this poem as Hurricane Harvey and Maria devastated the Caribbean and parts of the southern United States. The poem captivated me. In Gay’s steady hands the prospect of the future, symbolized by this possible child, is explored with deep empathy, imagination, and emotional complexity. The question at the center of these stanzas—how would a child react to being brought into this world?—is one that seemed especially apt in the aftermath of such destruction and our government’s skewed, inadequate response.
This connection, between climate change and children, is made frequently. Just a few weeks before reading Gay’s words, I’d heard a friend say that one of the main reasons she wasn’t sure about having kids was fear of climate change. A quick search found a charity called Save the Children with pictures, stories, and infographics dedicated to explaining how climate change specifically affects children. And many articles and books on climate change, even those trying hardest to refrain from nostalgia and sentimentality, end up relating climate change to children, as emblem of the future.
But in terms of climate change, and maybe in culture more generally, there are a few problems with viewing the future this way. The first is that as in Gay’s poem, these “children” are often more conceptual than real. This lack of specificity allows for children to be turned into a semantic tool that can be twisted to fit a variety of arguments across the political spectrum. Maybe more importantly, however, is the way that (hypothetical) children are often used to discount the lives and experiences of humans living today. Conservative politicians and advocacy groups often prioritize the lives of unborn fetuses over the parents’, and bombings or other terrorist acts are carried out in abortion clinics in the name of “saving the children.”
In the context of climate change, imagining children as the inheritors of a wounded earth is equally dangerous. Not only do these formulations escape any attempt at specificity regarding gender, class, race, ethnicity, geography, and other factors, but they also allow us to perpetually push climate change to the horizon. If climate change is always a problem for our children, then it stands to reason that it isn’t really a problem for us in the present.
Yet in the case of climate change, the “future” and “now” are so inherently connected that any separation of the two is an illusion. Right now the ice caps are melting, sea levels are rising, the global surface temperature continues to increase. Climate change has already taken victims, both human and non. When will we stop imaging climate change in the future and how can we reorient ourselves to this reality?
Adrian Parr’s new academic work on climate change, Birth of a New Earth, attempts to answer this question by tapping into the recent trend of considering the positive, some might even say utopian, possibilities that the crisis of climate change allows. She argues, “Regardless of environmental harms and changes in climate impacting people differently, there remains a shared human experience of hardship that will intensify as time passes. For this reason, the environmental and climate crises contain the political potential to radically change social life so it evolves into a more equitable, inclusive, collaborative, and voluntary social system.”
Parr’s book follows particularly on Naomi Klein’s 2014 polemic This Changes Everything, which marked a radical shift in how climate change was discussed in popular books and mainstream media. While certainly not the first to have these ideas, Klein argues forcefully that the crisis of climate change opens up a space for reevaluating and reorganizing our entire society. She writes, “I have begun to understand how climate change–if treated as a true planetary emergency akin to those rising flood waters–could become a galvanising force for humanity, leaving us all not just safer from extreme weather, but with societies that are safer and fairer in all kinds of other ways as well.” In short, Klein argues, climate change offers an opportunity to create a more just, inclusive society. How and why this crisis could become an opportunity is tied to her book’s fundamental idea: that climate change will change everything and perhaps some of those changes, if we work hard, will be for the better.
Klein’s book was a response to a very recognizable problem: how do we, in our daily lives, wrap our heads around the enormity of climate change? How do we respond to the often terrifying deluge of scientific reports, news stories, and dire projections? Sometimes we change our behavior. Most often we rationalize. Believing that changes in technology or state intervention will provide a cure allows us to continue our lives guilt-free; on the other hand, only focusing on one’s own consumption disregards the fact that climate change is a global problem that requires a large scale solution. Klein herself lived in this cognitive dissonance for years: worried, but avoiding some of the bleaker scientific reports, trying to consume less, but traveling often enough to have elite frequent flyer status.
The difficulty of simply comprehending climate change, holding it all in our head at one time, is more or less what caused philosopher Timothy Morton to call the climate change phenomena a “hyperobject,” something that is so vast in both space and time that it effectively overwhelms reason. Yet even if we could comprehend the entirety of climate change, the sheer terror it invokes makes it difficult to focus on for very long. Klein’s revelation comes in turning this vision of climate change on its head. Shifting the lens, in her words, “from one of crisis to possibility.” Once that change had been made, she writes, “I discovered that I no longer feared immersing myself in the scientific reality of the climate threat. And like many others, I have begun to see all kinds of ways that climate change could become a catalysing force for positive change.”
Parr asks the question lurking behind Klein’s work: if climate change will change everything, what if the changes aren’t good? In trying to answer this question, Parr takes the agnostic view, claiming that climate change not only presents an opportunity for negative political change, but further, that “environmental politics is [sic] well positioned to change how exploitation and oppression are normalized.” And reinforcing this idea, “environmentalism is curtailed if it turns into the ideological supplement of neoliberal capitalism and militarism.”
What Parr warns of can be compared to two post-9/11 actions: the passage of the Patriot Act, and the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, a tricky bit of legalese that allowed the U.S. President to undertake the “war on terror” without ever officially declaring war (which would involve Congress). Moments of crisis can deputize a government with extralegal power and suppress checks and balances. At times this allows a government to respond quickly to a time-sensitive situation, but it can also result in abuses of civil rights and civil liberties and set dangerous legal precedents that can be used down the line to justify actions that otherwise would have been deemed illegal. Parr sees in climate change the dual possibilities of a more just, equitable state as well as a more militaristic, authoritarian one.
In general, Parr is skeptical of top-down approaches, and given this country’s—and much of the rest of the world’s—track record on this front it is hard to blame her. She is highly skeptical of governments’ and organizations’ abilities to enact meaningful progress. One of her manifestos is in the line, “Green growth will never be exclusive.” Here “green growth” refers to green and sustainable initiatives, usually in business. These initiatives, she argues, are no more than ways of protecting a status quo, the having your cake and eating it too of climate policy. Here she refers to sustainable clothing and food (which many cannot afford), as well as green initiatives within industrial multi-national corporations like BP or Ford.
Yet it is equally difficult to imagine a consistent, sustainable, and targeted response to climate change that is driven entirely by community actors. As it stands now, changing personal habits and consumption often occurs through guilt or blame—captured by the question “What can I do about climate change?”—and it doesn’t take much time to realize that this approach is not sustainable. By relying on guilt—and in some ways relief or a feeling of righteousness—for acts like recycling, composting, and buying more efficient vehicles, products, and sustainable food, we are allowing climate change and the lack of governmental and corporate response to fracture our societies largely along class lines. Folks with tighter budgets may not have the time or space to compost, and they may be required to have a car for their job. They may be forced to live far away from centers of opportunity and since, generally speaking, the most efficient car at any moment is brand new, those without the financial ability to purchase them will always be seen as less green, enemies of the environment. It doesn’t take very long to realize that the problem goes much deeper than purchasing more efficient, sustainable items, and this is the gist of what Parr means when she argues “Green growth will never become inclusive.” It’s not to say that we shouldn’t try to consume more efficiently, but rather that buying a different brand of breakfast cereal isn’t going to keep the sea from erasing Mumbai, Hong Kong, Miami, or New York City.
Parr’s criticism of government emerges from an almost anarchist undercurrent that runs through her work. Anti-big government, anti-establishment, pro community-level governance, sometimes it’s hard to tell if Parr is a far left idealist or an anti-government libertarian of the right.
However, despite the ideological confusion, there are a number of ways in which Parr’s work brings unique and worthwhile ideas to the table, particularly in her discussion of broadening what we think of as the environment and what is affected by environmental and climatic change.
Parr expands the idea of “environment” (or perhaps just uses a more literal meaning of the word) to refer to a variety of different areas including urban centers, areas of temporary, substandard housing in Nairobi, and the immediate surroundings of both humans and nonhumans. She also expands the idea of climate change to what has taken place in conflict zones, particularly in the Middle East, calling this destruction a sort of “urban clearcutting.”
As Naomi Klein has shown in This Changes Everything and Parr argues in her work, any real response to climate requires a fundamental rethinking of human society. Taking up again the example of the car, it’s clear that what allows substantial reduction in the amount of carbon dioxide they release—as well as the deleterious effects of mining for parts that go into making elements for hybrid and electric vehicles, the earthquakes and other effects caused by fracking, the contaminants added to soil and water by paint, plastics, and the scores of chemicals that are involved in assembling the car and then shipping it to the consumer before the odometer even registers one mile—is not an individual attempt to minimize driving, but a reorganization of life, work, and community where driving is no longer necessary to the same extent. And, if we approach that world, one that is more community focused, our lives no longer driven by capitalism, maybe, just maybe it will be a better place to live than where we are now.
However, it’s difficult to predict the future. Parr turns to urban gardens in Detroit, Venezuela, and Nairobi to point at possibilities for the way forward, but these examples are piecemeal and vague, and largely ignore specifics of geography and culture. Similarly, the perpetual fly in the ointment amid This Changes Everything’s success is the charge that Klein’s predictions are unclear at best and utopian at worst. Leading climate change journalist Elizabeth Kolbert, whose 2005 multi-part series in the New Yorker transformed our understanding of the threat of global warming, accused Klein’s This Changes Everything of being a fable and “cheerfully fuzzy.”
Perhaps what both of these books show, however, is the incredible difficulty of discussing climate change as a singular entity. Marxist political theorist Frederic Jameson’s famous line, “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism,” is often referenced in climate journalism, but perhaps a more fitting version for these books would be that in response to climate change, it is easier to imagine the world ending than it is to imagine it thriving. And yet, it seems important that people keep trying, even if the endeavor is full of pitfalls.
One doesn’t need to look further than the front cover of Birth of a New Earth to realize that Parr hasn’t escaped some of these pitfalls. The cover photograph is of a child on a swingset submerged in a few feet of water. The child is standing on the swing’s seat, holding onto the support chains, and the photo is taken from behind, with the child and the viewer looking out towards an endless expanse of water. Parr makes this connection between climate change and children clear in the work’s final pages. She writes that if humans have not done everything they can to fight back against militarism, corporations, and authoritarian government to enact real change: “We lose the right to breathe fresh air, quench our thirst with clean water, and even to look our children in the eyes and state with absolute conviction that we have done everything in our power to leave behind us a world they and other generations will find worth living in.”
I can’t say whether the image was chosen by Parr or, more likely, an editor or publisher later in the production process. However, I can say that the image resonates with a problem I felt throughout Parr’s book—and to a lesser extent, Klein’s—a certain couching of climate change in the future tense. A what will happen instead of a what is happening. This focus on the future, a future which, no matter how close, can always be abstracted and distanced, made hypothetical, is reinforced by the photograph on the cover. Climate change, it implies, will take away our future, our children’s future, and our children’s children’s future. But lost in this argument is the fact that it’s already changed our lives today.
This Changes Everything and Birth of a New Earth are both manifestos on moving forward in the age of climate change. But in trying to predict the future, they open themselves up to failure and invite criticism, and through trying to discuss climate change broadly, they are set up to fail. Perhaps the next big breakthrough in the discussion of climate change should be to do away with the word “future,” as well as “climate change,” a term which tries to encompass forces and objects that are so vast and ever-shifting it is always destined to fail.
It’s time to accept that the old rules don’t apply: any book written today is a book of climate change.
Robert Sorrell is a writer and photographer living in Philadelphia. He recently graduated from the University of Chicago’s English program and has a piece of narrative nonfiction forthcoming from Mosaic Art & Literary Journal.
When I was a twenty-one-year-old college student and had zero sense of self-preservation, I rode alone on the train in Russia several times between Petrozavodsk and St. Petersburg—unaccompanied, on an overnight train, sleeping in a bunk car with strangers. I was also very chatty because I was trying to learn Russian. Talking up Russians who wanted to sleep seemed like a way to endear myself to my bunkmates and perfect my language at the same time.
At first, it was hard to start conversations. Finally, at one point, one drunk Russian man was lamenting my lack of useful knowledge—I didn’t know card games or anything about professional swimmers. “What do you study?” he asked me.
When I mentioned that I knew Pasternak’s poetry, his face lit up. “Your schools aren’t complete shit after all!” he said joyously, as though his faith in American education had just been fully restored.
Suddenly we had something to talk about. Poetry. Russians know their writers. That lesson stayed with me. From then on, I advanced conversationally on my bunk-mates by mentioning Pushkin, Pasternak, Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva. If they didn’t care for poetry, I could switch to the novelists. The tactic rarely failed.
When I received Time of Gratitude to review, I was expecting to discover a new Russian poet. That is, a poet who fit in well with the other Russian poets I knew. A poet “like” Pasternak, or “like” Blok, even if it was in some intangible abstract way that we like to describe one poet as being like another. I had expectations about what a Russian poet would sound like, given my experience of the modernist Russian canon.
But Time of Gratitude is unexpected, in many ways. Its very first lines, which are an opening to an essay that pays tribute to Boris Pasternak, read:
I am writing of a Poet who possessed an Apollonian beauty at the age of seventy and of an ecstatic twenty-two-year-old…myself—‘and I cannot draw a line between us’: not between myself now and myself then, nor between them both and the divinity of the Poet whom the young man adored.
These lines took me by surprise—Aygi can’t, he says, “draw a line” between himself and Boris Pasternak, and, in truth, his poetry itself doesn’t sound “Pasternakian.” If I started conversations on the train by bringing up the work of Gennady Aygi, I am not sure how far I would have gotten.
In fact, I wouldn’t have gotten far at all: Aygi’s assertion of his place alongside Pasternak would likely have been contested, and perhaps even seen as subversive. Aygi is not easily granted a spot in the canon of Russian poetry, for a number of reasons.
While he has many admirers, among them the poet Alex Cigale, and his long-time friend and translator Peter France, and while many scholars of Russian literature have encountered his work, he is often described as “avant-garde” and as being outside of the Russian lyrical tradition, with very little apparent influence from Russian masters. Such detectable influence from the writers that Russians think of as “theirs” is important.
It is possible that Aygi’s Chuvash background and its influence on his work might have something to do with his outsider status as well. A rural region almost 500 miles east of Moscow, Chuvashia has its own Turkic language and rural culture. Aygi’s work is marked by rural images, values, and a spirituality rooted in nature. In his poetry, this background melds with European modernism in unexpected ways: Time of Gratitude also comments on Kafka, Nietschze, and Kierkegaard.
On top of all this, Aygi was writing in a singularly oppressive historical moment. In my search for interviews and information about Aygi, I found critics that see his work as genius, those that see his work as spiritual, and those that see him as “not Russian,” almost a fraudulent presence amongst Russian poets. The tributes in Time of Gratitude ended up striking me as Aygi’s own commentary on participating in multiple worlds—erasing the lines between Chuvash and Russian, between languages, between philosophies of writing—or re-framing those relationships to create a new sense of unity within himself and his own experience. Such moves are always threatening to someone, and it seems that Aygi has his detractors.
In his introduction to Time of Gratitude, translator Peter France claims that Aygi, who died in 2006, clearly did not suffer from Bloom’s “anxiety of influence” but was instead “a poet of gratitude, gratitude for the human and natural world, gratitude for the artistic creations of others.” “Gratitude” might be another way of describing “influence” for Aygi, but it struck me as a lovelier description because it encompasses the many ways that Aygi felt literary influence as both personal and communal, not simply a matter of poetics. One of Aygi’s most touching memories in Time of Gratitude is a conversation with Pasternak when Aygi was going over a draft of one of the older poet’s novels:
At our second meeting he asked me a question with some embarrassment, slowly and hesitatingly: “Tell me…you are a man…of the people…forgive me for talking like this!…Tell me, does my novel seem to you not to be ours?”
I was staggered—it was as if all the depth of the suffering of my incredible interlocutor was revealed to me. “Boris Leonidovich, what are you saying! It’s ours, it’s ours absolutely!” in the ardour of my reply I was almost choking. Pasternak threw his arms around me.
This conversation underscores Pasternak’s perspective on art, which seems to have been Pasternak’s primary influence on the young Aygi. He describes Pasternak as an artist who saw each human being as “a complete world” in themselves; this dignifying of the individual endowed them with what Aygi calls the “Pasternakian Freedom,” an individual spiritual significance which both dignified the individual’s voice and connected all people into a shared humanity. This perspective seems to have both validated Aygi’s unique voice as a Chuvash-Russian poet and connected Aygi to what was ours—a literary tradition of “the people,” one that values connectedness to the extant literary tradition but also cherished individual voice: “I simply abandoned myself to the power of his Freedom—this mattered more than ‘literary problems,’” writes Aygi. “And this Freedom discovered for itself where he could spread himself in the expanse of its flight and its magnificence.” Such recollections are important to what Aygi refers to as his “spiritual orientation,” by which he seems to mean both his spiritual beliefs and the “spiritual orientation” of much of his poetry. Peter France touches on this spiritual affinity between Pasternak and Aygi in the obituary he wrote in The Guardian: “like Pasternak’s, his poetry was a poetry of light, seeking to assert the values of human community and oneness with the rest of creation.”
It does not seem odd to me that “community” and “oneness” would have begun with an appreciation for the individual, particularly an individual who crossed ethnic and linguistic categories as Aygi did. Born in 1934 in Chuvashia, Aygi moved to Moscow in his early twenties to pursue his education. His first poems were written in his native Chuvash, earning him disapproval from the Russian community. Pasternak encouraged him to switch to Russian, assuring him that “only writing in Russian will allow you to articulate fully everything that is happening within you, in the way of an emerging poetry, as we talk.” The choice to switch seems to have been a difficult question of identity for Aygi, both because claiming a place amongst Russian poets was to claim a “greatness” and literary influence that would quickly be resented, and because it may be seen as rejection of his Chuvash heritage.
Peter France records in Aygi’s obituary from The Guardian that it was at this time, when deciding to write poetry in Russian, that Aygi changed his name: his original surname was Lisin, a Russified name, and Aygi was properly Chuvashian, meaning “that one.” It seems like a calculated choice, but it did not protect Aygi from being shut out of both Russian and literary circles for most of his life. In the same essay on Pasternak, Aygi notes that the writer Hikmet warned him, “There is no question you must go over to Russian, it will correspond to what you have in you. But remember: They will never forgive you for this move,—that you, the son of a small nation, will exist within a great literature.”
While Aygi does not clarify an exact “they” that Hikmet is referencing, such lack of forgiveness seems evident in the larger critical community. Since perestroika such silencing is probably not malicious; rather, it is the unfortunate historical aftermath of a political environment that sought to silence difference. It is startling to realize how limited our knowledge of Russian writers of the twentieth century might really be, given the extent of Soviet censorship, and it humbles the notion of a “canon” that is easily recognizable to American students and Russian traingoers alike, to think of what might have been missed. Aygi was still alive and living in Moscow when I was there, but no Russian literature instructor ever pointed me to him. Nor would they have known to do so.
Time of Gratitude is an unusual text: the collected pieces are both prose and poetry, some of them written for events and some written as personal reflection. Translator Peter France has organized the book into two sections. The first one is devoted to Russian and Chuvash writers and artists, including Boris Pasternak, Kazimir Malevich, Varlam Shalamov, and Chuvash poet Mikhail Sespel. The second section includes pieces in honor of non-Russian writers and artists, and includes Kafka, Baudelaire, Max Jacob, and the Swedish writer Tomas Tranströmer. The title, “Time of Gratitude,” was borrowed from a cycle of poems that Aygi wrote in 1976-7, marking a time of grieving over the politically inspired murder of his friend Konstantin Bogatyrev. In publishing this new collection of Aygi’s works that pay tribute and gratitude to other friends, France concluded that the same title was still appropriate.
In a sense, this collection is a complement to the earlier collection of poems, as expressions of thanks to writers who helped to sustain Aygi through the “difficult times,” which Aygi describes as beginning in 1958 “like a single immense dark avalanche.” While he is not always specific about the precise nature of the difficult times in Time of Gratitude, the reader understands why France says that Aygi “wrote from a deep awareness of the losses and destructions of the 20th century.” In Time of Gratitude, Aygi touches on the imprisonment of Chuvash poets, the death of friends, the censorship of his own work and the censorship and death of Pasternak.
In an interview published in New Directions’ 2007 edition of Aygi’s poetry, Field-Russia (also translated by Peter France), Aygi describes how he understands “literary influence,” and his comments shed light on the structure of the pieces selected for Time of Gratitude. Aygi claims that his “literary education” can be traced to “something different,” which he describes as “addressing the writers themselves rather than their ideas, whether literary or otherwise.” During dark periods of his life, he insists that his mind would turn to the ideas of certain writers, and he would write to them as people with whom he was having an existential debate, rather than write as if he were trying to build images in accordance with the structure of their work. Because of this relationship with writers as partners in conversation rather than as masters to be imitated, “the continuingly influential and genuinely living images of certain teachers constituted for me their ‘legacy,’ their life-long support, and the strength of this kind of ‘contact’ was more powerful than any literary considerations.”
This existential “dialogue through poetry” is present in his poems in Time of Gratitude, such as “For a Conversation About K.” Dedicated to Olga Mashkova, “K.” refers to Kafka:
earth is just a thought—freely visiting:
sometimes known to me in a thought that is Prague:
and then I see a grave in the city—
it is like a grief-thought:
earth—of suffering!…his—as of that thought which is now so constant!…
I shall say of that grave “a dream”:
and—as even wounds do not make us believe it is real—
he seems dreamed in another sleep:
as if unending:
Of all the poems in Time of Gratitude, this one struck me as most “like” Aygi’s work in other published volumes. Sleep is a theme in many of his works, and the ethereal sense of questioning reality seems to be a consistent quality of his writing, even in his prose in Time of Gratitude. While the poem is thematically “Kafkaesque” in that it deals with the nature of reality and the mystery of suffering, it also flouts expectations of “Russian” poetry with its use of free verse and its chant-like syntactical structure. Several critics have described his work as “shamanistic,” an adjective that recalls his rural background and emphasizes his avant-garde characteristics.
It was not uncommon for Soviet writers to be unpublished at home and have their works published—sometimes without them even knowing—in the West. With perestroika, Aygi developed a broad European audience, and his work has slowly become better known to American readers. Peter France points out in an interview in Beloit Poetry Journal that while Aygi is considered a “modern classic” to a few, he is still fairly unknown, despite being a pioneer of free verse in Russia and bringing recognition to Chuvashian writers. Time of Gratitude is one attempt to gather and publish more of Aygi’s work; France hopes that at some point Aygi’s extensive collection of letters to people all over the world will be gathered together and published.
I did find Time of Gratitude to be a personal and intimate way to enter the world of Aygi’s poetry for the first time. Since I began with Aygi by reading his memories of those who had been “fathers” and mentors to him, I felt invited to encounter the poet as a person first, aside from the poems, and thereafter it was difficult to separate the poet from the poems. France has commented that, as Aygi’s friend, he often experienced the same difficulty. Given Aygi’s approach to other writers though, as “genuinely living images” that sustained him in ways poems by themselves never could, it seems fitting that Aygi might be introduced to a wider American public this way.
Ryan 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.
For Mireille Gansel, the work of translation is an all-consuming task. Before embarking on a project, Gansel first immerses herself in the world of the poet she is translating. She studies the historical context of their writing as well as the personal context. Wherever possible, she engages with their physical environment: she visits their home, observes their writing space. And, ideally, she listens to the poet read their work aloud. Attempting to translate a single German word, “sensible,” in a poem by Reiner Kunze, Gansel travels from West to East Germany to “[listen] to the poet read, alert to his intonations and facial expressions. In the tiny blue kitchen, I was conscious of his precarious everyday life.” She imagines the letters from friends in exile that he’ll never receive, and the mingling of his two languages, a German abstracted by Nazism and a Czech repressed by war, both of which survive in the poetry of his contemporaries, in songs from his childhood. Here, in this intersection of past and present, Gansel finds the word for “sensible”: fragile.
In her book-length essay, Translation as Transhumance, Gansel describes employing this practice of immersion for her translations of Bertolt Brecht, Peter Huchel, Xuan Dieu, and, most famously, the complete works of Nelly Sachs and her correspondence with Paul Celan. Gansel divides the book into short chapters, poetic meditations on a particular place or poet, which document her travels and her revelations about translation: Translation is the “essence of hospitality.” It is “a hand reaching from one shore to another where there is no bridge.” It can be understood “both as risk-taking and as continual re-examination,” the translator’s work fluid, changing as word-meanings morph through time, and even as the translator herself changes. Gansel inserts original German and Vietnamese poetry throughout and explains how she comes to each translation, what each taught her, in a word-level analysis that will speak to any student of translation or of poetry.
The book’s title, which is the same in both English and French, refers to a shepherd’s job: “transhumance” is the long, slow movement of flocks across plains and valleys as they search for greener land by way of ancient routes. It is “the slow and patient crossing of countries, all borders eradicated.” At a time in which words are losing their meanings and border walls are once again growing tall, Gansel illustrates for her reader the difficult work of border crossing.
After working on her German translations, Gansel travels to Vietnam, where she lives for several years, learning Vietnamese in order to translate an anthology of poetry to protest threats of American intervention. To fully understand the music of the language, she learns to play the monochord, which she calls the soul of Vietnamese poetry, and to understand the poetry of a dying mountain people, she spends time in their raised bamboo houses, sharing their rice. She learns to consider, alongside a word’s literal translation, “the implicit allusions of an entire social imaginary.” She gives, as an example, the word duyen, which literally means “attachment,” but could be translated as “love sworn for eternity,” “bond of the soul,” “nuptials,” or “fate,” and references a wildly popular eighteenth-century epic. The one word cannot be translated as just one word.
Back in Europe, translating Nelly Sachs, because Gansel can’t speak to her, she travels to Stockholm and pours through the German-language Bible that Sachs was reading as she wrote, trying to understand the ancient Hebrew rhythm that Sachs absorbed and infused into her poetry. She decides that “from now on translation would mean taking syntactical and semantic risks” and begins employing extended compounds like “the ones standing-with-you-in-the-light!” Over the course of the book, she arrives at one lesson after another, in one country after the next.
Of course, this type of total immersion isn’t available to most working translators. Translations as Transhumance is certainly less a how-to than a memoir that lets the reader in on Gansel’s process. For her, that immersion becomes necessary because of the particular contexts of her work: in each case, Gansel grapples with the colonization of language. For example, in translating Vietnamese poetry into French, the language of the country’s colonizer, she must be careful to avoid “the French tradition of translation that favored an exotic approach,” which, as her translation partner put it, “arouses simply a sense of foreignness, without being able to communicate the emotions.” Similarly, in translating Brecht, she is acutely aware of German as the language of oppression, and she attempts to capture the playwright’s reappropriation of a Nazified German in his work. Languages, she finds, exist both within and outside of their colonization. In addition to being the language of the oppressors, for people like Gansel’s elderly relatives, German is the language of family. Their German is accented with the languages of neighboring countries, “punctuated by exiles and passed down through generations… This is the German that has no land or borders. An interior language.”
Often, Gansel refers back to this idea, what she refers to as the interior or soul language, which exists without a home, a sort of mystical truth-meaning that must be captured by the translator in mere words: “translation came to mean learning to listen to the silences between lines, to the underground springs of a people’s hinterland.” As her mentor in Vietnam, Nguyen Khac Vien, writes, “Staying faithful means first and foremost seeking to recreate the work’s humanity, its universality,” and liberating language from exoticism and appropriation. This is a poetic and engaging directive, if nebulous. It gestures towards the poet’s work of infusing small words with great and inexpressible Truth, as they exist both in and beyond their context.
But more concretely, in pursuing this goal Gansel aligns herself with a particular strand of translation theory. On one end of the spectrum is a practice that prizes word-for-word or phrase-for-phrase translation and even grammatical fidelity. Meanwhile, those on the other end of the spectrum focus on the meaning of the original text, accounting for the cultures of the two languages and valuing a translation that has the same effect on a reader as the original. Gansel falls definitively on the latter end of the spectrum, claiming in another essay: “There are fidelities that are worse than betrayals.” Instead, she mines culture in order to communicate a poet’s larger ideas and references, risking “going beyond the literal meanings of the words, in order to access their deeper meanings.” When Gansel speaks of a language of the soul, what she really means is: Put the dictionary aside, for a moment. Immerse yourself in the world of the poet, and their words will unfurl to their full size and meaning. Language is limiting, so let us engage it with all the tools at our disposal. With thoroughness, with humanity, with love, communication is possible.
One cannot read these meditations without remembering that Translation as Transhumance is itself a work in translation. For this reason, I wished more than once for a translator’s note. What is translator Ros Schwartz’s theory of translation? Did Schwartz visit Gansel’s desk? Did Gansel read portions of the book aloud to her, press her tongue to her teeth and bring the words to life? Gansel includes poems in German and Vietnamese, as previously mentioned, which we see translated into English. If we are to read pages about translating a single word, we must know if the English version comes from the French translation Gansel made, or from the original, or through an intermediary. Schwartz is a prolific and award-winning translator of French into English who has written and spoken widely. I would have relished a few words from her on this meta-project.
The success of Translation as Transhumance lies, finally, in the quality of this translated prose. Because we can’t actually read the final products of Gansel’s work, we depend on her descriptions of success, which tend to result in a lesson for the translator. By using a lyric voice that leads the reader from memory to theory and back again, our author (mostly) avoids moralizing and instead illuminates a fascinating and earnest process. In the final pages, Gansel comes to one more realization:
[A]s I sat at the ancient table beneath the blackened beams, it suddenly dawned on me that the stranger was not the other, it was me. I was the one who had everything to learn, everything to understand, from the other.
This excerpt perhaps best explains Gansel’s obsessive commitment to research and immersion. She is trying to decenter herself. The language of another’s soul is accessible once hubris gives way to empathy. And so, with slow and patient work, the borders can be crossed.
Rachel R. Taube is pursuing her MFA in Fiction at UNC Wilmington. She has been an Electric Literature-Catapult Scholarship recipient and a Tent Creative Writing Fellow, and she holds a masters in Creative Writing and Gender Studies from the University of Pennsylvania. You can find her fiction in Storychord and Apiary Magazine. Follow her on Twitter at @racheltaube.
Do Roy and Celestial have an ordinary American marriage? The title of Tayari Jones’ fourth novel implies that perhaps they do in fact have a quintessential American life, and in many ways they do…
Roy and Celestial are newlyweds. He grew up in Louisiana, to a blue-collar family. He worked hard, studied harder, earned his way into Morehouse College in Georgia, and went on to become a business executive. She, a talented visionary born and raised in the Peach State, grew up in a comfortable family. She excelled at a neighboring liberal arts college for women and now makes her income as a successful artisan. Together, they exemplify the Dream–thriving and very much in love. Early on, Jones paints a picture for the reader, through Roy:
…we kissed like teenagers, making out under the bridge. It was a wonderful feeling to be grown and yet young. To be married but not settled. To be tied down yet free.
About a year after their wedding day, the couple decides to drive across the South to visit Roy’s family in Louisiana. In the dead of night, a horde of rapacious police officers charge through their motel room door, drag Roy outside, and violently arrest him for a heinous crime that he did not commit. Despite the lack of any concrete evidence, the court finds him guilty and sentences him to twelve years in prison—largely because the judge and jury choose to believe the testimony of Roy’s white accuser over Roy, a black man. Wanton declarations of guilt such as this are not mere fiction. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, one in three black men will be locked up in their lifetime—and receive ten percent longer sentences than white defendants for the same charge.
Up to the point of his conviction, Jones tells the story in a standard prose form, with Celestial and Roy taking turns as narrator with each new chapter. Once Roy is wrongfully incarcerated and sent to prison, the form shifts into an epistolary style: The two protagonists continue to alternate as storyteller via handwritten letters that illustrate, in vivid and frank detail, their pain as they combat their mutual and separate tribulations. This letter-writing technique, on Jones’ part, works to incarnate the distance growing between husband and wife throughout their forced estrangement. In an especially tender letter, Celestial confesses, “just because I’m not in the same agony as you are, I’m in pain,” and then, “marriage is more than your heart, it’s your life.” And after a considerable amount of time, Roy writes back: “Everything I do is a love letter addressed to you.” But as the days go on, the time between correspondences grows and the letters themselves shrink.
Imprisonment, in the story as well as in real life, takes an emotional and fiscal toll on everyone close to the matter, not just on the persons behind the bars. Over time, Celestial and Roy’s once-picturesque union slowly crumbles. She, “the kind of woman who will never belong to anyone,” finds herself adrift, robbed of her marital bliss—they had been preparing to put down roots and begin a family prior to his unlawful arrest. And while he combats the penal system from the inside, she must fight her own punitive battles on the outside. She struggles to stay afloat spiritually and financially on her own, as countless women of color throughout history have and continue to do. But as months become years, times get really tough and Celestial discovers a place of solace in the company of her longtime friend Andre, who had been Roy’s best man at their wedding.
Five years into his sentence, Roy’s conviction gets overturned, and as soon as his “hostage of the state” era ends, the letters cease, and the novel returns to its initial form. Roy and Celestial, still legally wed, pass the narrative baton back and forth as he tries to reclaim his life. But a third first-person point of view enters the picture and stays for the remainder of the story: Andre, now more than just a friend, offers his perspective and cements his impact on the titular marriage.
Tayari Jones calls An American Marriage “a love story.” And it is. Roy and Celestial’s love for one another is continually tried and warped by a broken justice system that values white lives—and dooms black lives at an exponential rate. Throughout the story, their love takes on different shapes, but never withers, as it faces its own trial and struggles through its own internment period—while refusing to give in. In a sense, Celestial and Roy’s love, represented by the resoluteness of their marriage, is a character unto itself—a character tested not only by Roy’s unjust incarceration but also by Celestial’s budding feelings for Andre.
An American Marriage is not a novel about who really committed the crime that sent Roy away. It never even for a second moves it in that direction because that doesn’t matter; that is the theme of another book—a safer book. An American Marriage is about our twisted judicial system that unremittingly turns “standard-issue American Negro” men like Roy into “a victim of America”—and how those two concepts are all too often one and the same.
So do Roy and Celestial have an ordinary American marriage? Well, according to Jones herself, “it depends on who you ask.” Of course, not all couples are ripped apart so ruthlessly, no, but, for a lot of folks of color, the potential for it to happen is always present, since we live in a society of skewed courtrooms and a prison-industrial complex that views black convicts as easy wins and dollars. So, in a very brutal sense…yes, Roy and Celestial do have an ordinary (black) American marriage.
Brandon Stanwyck studied film, literature, and theatre at Cleveland State University. While there, he led a student-run theatre company. He currently lives in Ohio, where he divides his time between working on independent movies and writing fiction. His words have appeared in The Fiction Pool, Corvus Review, and elsewhere. Twitter: @BrandonStanwyck.
Although I am not a middle-aged Danish woman who translates Swedish crime novels known for their graphic mutilation of women and who in her spare time flees from nature retreats to eat cake and sit in the rain, I relate to Sonja, the protagonist of Dorthe Nors’s 2017 Man Booker International Prize shortlisted novel. Unassuming, if spiritually and sometimes even physically lost, Sonja can’t drive, let alone shift gears for herself, and her sister won’t answer her calls.
Such is Sonja’s state at the beginning of the novel. Cooped up in a small car with her driving instructor, Jytte, an often coarse and unapologetically racist woman from Jutland, Sonja narrowly dodges bicyclists, Jytte’s chronic insults, and—in a scene that brims with comedic angst—a hot dog vendor. It is Jytte who shifts gears for Sonja, an act that becomes the novel’s main metaphor for Sonja’s inability to move forward in her life. This opening chapter ends, like most of the chapters do, with Sonja’s reflections on the moment. Here, Sonja blocks out Jytte’s confrontation with a delivery van in the middle of an intersection to reflect on a brief yet poetic moment of clarity when she looks out her window to see a graveyard: “Sonja thinks about the dead prime ministers in the cemetery. It’s lovely to take a blanket there. […] The dead make no noise, and if she’s lucky a bird of prey might soar overhead. Then she’ll lie there, and escape.”
Fiction, like an automobile, is a mode of transportation. It allows one to traverse landscapes of the mind, escape into other spaces, other minds, where even the most fantastical elements pang with a sense of familiarity. Opening a cover is like opening a car door, turning a page like turning the key: escape is imminent. It is a metaphor which extends to life itself, where fiction is as much an exploration of life as it is an escape from it, and Sonja finds herself struggling with acquiring the means to move forward in life, the means which inevitably entail her to leave something meaningful behind.
One’s ability to escape, this novel proposes, is limited if you can’t drive. Like others who got a late start to driving, I share in Sonja’s sense of enclosure induced by the inability to drive. And what’s more, I always felt the freedom afforded to those who can drive comes at a cost of empathy. On occasion I have seen well-meaning, levelheaded people become angry misanthropes in the blink of an eye (or is it signal?). Behind the wheel of a car, a person becomes susceptible to easy rage, and Nors’s Jytte seems to confirm this suspicion.
As a child growing up in the farmlands of Denmark, Sonja was able to escape her reality by hiding in a little enclosure she made for herself in a rye field. But in the din and clamor that is Copenhagen, there are no rye fields, and Sonja must adapt. Here we see Sonja retreat into the inner recesses of her mind, finding intellectual solace when a physical form can’t be found. Nors’s prose braids past and present, interior and exterior action to mimic the turmoil embedded in Sonja. In a scene toward the end of the novel, Sonja has dumped Jytte for Folke, the head driving instructor himself, and confrontation with Jytte ensues. Sonja rebukes Jytte’s accusations of betrayal by returning to an imaginative heather filled with whooper swans and deer, her substitute for the rye field of her childhood. Then, after leaving the confrontation without a single goodbye—“Not saying goodbye,” we are told, “isn’t something Sonja learned at home”—she walks away into the streets of Copenhagen and back into her heather.
None of this is new territory for Nors who, in addition to six book-length works of fiction, holds the accolade of the first Danish writer published by the New Yorker. She is certainly in company with the greats of Continental literature—Kafka, Beckett, Kundera—for the dark humor woven into the fabric of her fiction. In an interview with The Paris Review’s Dwyer Murphy, Nors comments on this aspect within her short story collection Karate Chop, which extends itself across her oeuvre, as “Danish irony.” “We don’t like to read a book,” Nors says, “about how bleedingly easy things are. We like the complicated stuff.”
In a novel that doesn’t extend itself beyond daily life, “the complicated stuff” entails menial tasks, chance encounters, and, most importantly, interpersonal relationships. Sonja’s relationship with her sister Kate haunts most of the novel. Multiple times Sonja writes to her sister, either on postcards or computer paper, but never bothers to send the letters: her thoughts are scattered and insubstantial, and her inability to communicate honestly is disrupted by thoughts of an old boyfriend, Bacon Bjarne. When she calls, Kate either hands off the phone to her husband or makes the excuse that she is in line at the supermarket. Sonja knows her lie, but lets it go.
Above all else, Mirror, Shoulder, Signal is a novelist’s novel. Literary-minded readers will revel in the novel’s allegorical framework extending anywhere from cautionary tale to failed bildungsroman to a metaphor of novel reading itself. For example, early in the novel Sonja is getting a message from her friend Ellen in Ellen’s apartment and, in an almost Cartesian meditation, Sonja ruminates:
There’s something in Ellen’s way of parsing other people’s bodies that reminds her of her university classes in textual analysis. Everything’s supposed to mean something else, everything’s supposed to be rising, tearing itself free of its wrappings, climbing up to some higher meaning; it’s supposed to get away from where it’s been. Reality will not suffice.
Mirror, Shoulder, Signal attempts to rectify this observation by showing that, while transcendent meaning is possible in reality, the meaning we get is often fractured, unfulfilling. In this way, Sonja transmutes quotidian minutiae into an absurdist metaphor with a decidedly Danish twist. But it’s all Sonja has, and in fact, reality will have to suffice.
Brendan McCourt is a student of English and Philosophy at Arcadia University in Glenside, Pennsylvania. A Philadelphia native, Brendan primarily writes in short forms, including poetry, flash fiction, and prose poetry. Brendan is also the editor-in-chief for his university’s undergraduate literary magazine Quiddity.
Situated between a national and a personal history, Kiki Petrosino’s poetry book Black Genealogy sifts through the past in search of lost identity, language, bodies, and self-possession amidst the legacy of the Civil War and slavery in America. The book details an exploration of both a familial and a larger American reality through the lens of a contemporary African American persona.
Split into two sections, Black Genealogy consists of both unlineated prose poetry as well as highly-structured villanelles, a style of poem originally associated with ballads and oral storytelling. Both forms, especially in the context of Petrosino’s subject, seem to bring a sense of narrative story to the poetry, and because of this, a noticeable absence when the narrative contended with proves to have been lost, ignored, and or intentionally obscured by the country in which it occurred.
Negotiating with a history that was blind towards the humanity of Black people in America, Black Genealogy is a work of sight determined to bring the readers’ eyes, thoughts, and awareness up close with both immense presence and an effort to find and revive immense loss.
The book opens with a short untitled poem incorporated into a comic by Lauren Haldeman, wherein a Black woman asks about the grin on the face of a reenactor dressed as a Confederate General. Immediately, the reader is invited into a tangible uncomfortability and fear of what is shown as an externally “friendly” man interrogating a woman at a store. The uncertainty breaks into a clearly threatening atmosphere when the persona says “In fact, I didn’t know Confederate Generals could grin” and is answered by the cashier “They all can” and “most of ‘em do.” In this moment, the reader and Petrosino’s person are given a crucial symbol which goes on to frame the book—it’s this grin, not a shout or act of clear aggression, which bookends the poetry that will go on to explore a partially hidden, abusive, and distinctly American history. This facade of friendliness wrapped in the uniform of something threatening (but still widely accepted) sets the tone for the coming poems which oppose this unsettling picture and the ignorance, unwarranted forgiveness, or utter blindness towards the past which its reenactment requires.
The poem following this comic is written in second-person, newly inviting the reader into the narrative, and describes the personas ancestors in a train which they end up escaping using explosives. At the poem’s conclusion, the train is distinct, the ancestors are mobile, strong, and competent, but you, the persona, “have been missing for some time.” This conclusion drops the foundation of a “you” out from under the reader, giving them a lost self, a self that is unplaceable, unfindable, and outside of a distinct location and perhaps even out of an unidentifiable body. We are met quickly and harshly with a personal loss from no one obvious source and invited into this discomfort and, crucially, a lack of clarity as to where we, situated in the perspective of this persona, belong in relationship to the ancestors.
Petrosino’s persona goes on to research people from their own genealogy, attempting to spar with little to no information, having only letters to suggest names, “B is for bright. A boy.” and “H, future mother of B. A slave girl born in 1830.” These snippets, which lead the persona only to the creation of “a folder called Nothing” give so little but leave the persona dubbing their discovery of absence “a lucky find”. Here, we are invited to consider how “nothing” illuminates something about the way these undocumented lives were lived, seen, and understood by their contemporaries who held the power over what was recorded in history. Because of this, Petrosino is able to give us something pivotal and thought-provoking in how she ends her poetry on a meaningful and revealing “nothing.”
Petrosino does not leave us with “nothing” to read, however, seeing the land that B eventually comes to possess as “his book” where he can write his own story. In the seventh poem of the first section, Petrosino writes “You do not love B, exactly. You love the wagon of his name”. This section presents a name, even a largely absent name, as a thing which can be occupied and used as a way of traveling, something present enough to allow Petrosino’s persona to go back in time and imagine “B’s voice calling haw! to his horses.” Even the scraps of information possessed are a version of victory for the persona, a partial and moving resurrection of a human life and story which they can enter as a space and feel as a human life in action.
The book’s second half, composed entirely of villanelles, returns into research, stating clearly the objective “You want to know who owned us & where./ But when you type, your searches return no results.” This straightforward use of language and short sentences set into a poetic form which requires the repetition of words and rhyme scheme helps to illustrate the horrible absurdity of not being able to find how and where your family was owned. The fact that the persona goes on to pray in order to find family graves and an inheritance of “sudden glints in the grass” makes real the desire to possess a kind of absence, to get a real hold on who’s gone and where they lived and were lost.
Near the end of Black Genealogy, the contemporary persona carries a printed copy of a law which states “Any/ descendent may access a grave.” before climbing a fence and feeling “free now”. This expression of deservedness, and even of righteousness, in finding and reaching the dead in one’s family is somewhat hauntingly undercut by the presence of the printed-out law, an item which communicates the persona’s need to constantly be ready to show that they do deserve what they are doing—gaining access to their past, family, legacy, and story in a country that may have otherwise forgotten it.
Petrosino’s skill lies in her ability to hold absence and lift it up to the reader of her poems in a way that renders it palpable; the gaps between trees, blank censuses, unknown names, and lost lives (both biologically and historically) are all revealed with significance and meaning rather than numbness or indifference. Black Genealogy is an act of resurrection and reclamation which itself preserves the history it re-discovers and highlights. The three comics which border the sections of poetry welcome the reader into a specific conversation between a Black woman and a man dressed as a Confederate General while the surrounding poems flow through the process of discovering, embodying, and arriving at lost family and forgotten history. Black Genealogy is a critical read for anyone interested in engaging with the space between history and autobiography, poetry and genealogical research, and erasure and survival.
Cleaver Poetry Reviews Editor Claire Oleson is a writer hailing from Grand Rapids Michigan. She’s currently studying English and Creative Writing at Kenyon College. Her work has been published by the University of Kentucky’s graduate literary journal Limestone, Siblíní Art and Literature journal, Newfound Journal, NEAT Magazine, Werkloos Magazine, and Bridge Eight Magazine, among others. Contact her by email.
HER BODIES AND OTHER PARTIES by Carmen Maria Machado Graywolf Press, 245 pages reviewed by Rosie Huf
For those of us still traumatized by the 2016 Presidential election, the debut novel Her Body and Other Parties, by Carmen Maria Machado, is the emotional and intellectual release for which we have been waiting. It is electric with the #Resist spirit. It underscores the importance of the #MeToo movement. And, it tackles issues such as gender, language, and human interaction through a fresh, folkloric perspective. Winner of the Bard Fiction Prize and finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction, the Kirkus Prize, and the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize, this collection of ten short stories is timeless, yet also a necessary way to transition from 2017 to 2018.
A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop with an MFA in fiction, and current Writer in Residence at the University of Pennsylvania, Carmen Maria Machado has a deft hand at spinning culturally relative, purpose-driven narrative. Into each short story she’s woven elements of pop culture, feminist social criticism, literary fiction, and magical realism, varying each in measure. Threads of influence from authors such as Mary Wollstonecraft, Virginia Woolf, Zora Neale Hurston, even a little Andrea Dworkin strengthen Machado’s overarching theme, which is a clear call for renewed efforts toward female liberation: Liberation for women to genuinely desire and enjoy sexual gratification without fear or stigma; liberation to be an individual with thoughts and actions and intimate moments separate from her spouse or lover; and liberation to exist creatively outside the stereotypical confines of the male perspective.
Three stories in particular exemplify Machado’s literary skill as well as her commitment to furthering discussion on feminist and social issues: “The Husband Stitch,” “Especially Heinous,” and “Real Women Have Bodies.”
“The Husband Stitch” paints the portrait of a woman whose head is being held to her body by the grace of a single green ribbon. She is nameless and frequently recounts folktales she heard as a girl that run parallel to her own life’s journey. The paradox of her situation is that although she fulfills every wifely duty expected of her by her husband, society, and cultural tradition—from performing as the insatiable, sexual nymph most men desire to bearing a son her body could barely hold—it is still not enough for him. Everything that belongs to her belongs to him.
That night, after my son is in bed, my husband reaches his hand across the couch and slides it up my leg.
“Come to me,” he says, and I twinge with pleasure. I slide off the couch, smoothing my skirt very prettily as I shuffle over to him on my knees. I kiss his leg, running my hand up to his belt, tugging him from his bonds before swallowing him whole. He runs his hands through my hair, stroking my head, groaning and pressing into me. And I don’t realize that his hand is sliding down the back of my neck until he is trying to loop his fingers through the ribbon. I gasp and pull away quickly, falling back and frantically checking my bow […]
He is silent for a long minute, then “A wife should have no secrets.”
My nose grows hot. I do not want to cry. “I’ve given you everything you have ever asked for,” I say. “Am I not allowed this one thing?”
For him to feel loved, as if she is truly bound to him, he must possess all aspects of her being. This is the tale told by grandmothers to granddaughters over boiling pots in a kitchen: beware of people who take pleasure in the complete consumption of others.
In “Especially Heinous,” basically a collection within a collection, Machado has strategically crafted micro-narratives from the ascending episode titles of Law and Order: SUV. There is one story for every episode of SUV’s first twelve seasons. This piece is laden with pop-culture allusions and nods to feminist theory. It is particularly reminiscent, tangentially, of Dworkin’s essay, “I Want a Twenty-Four Hour Truce During Which There is No Rape.” In truth, many parts of this collection seem like a nod to Dworkin’s essay. Machado describes the episode “Vulnerable”:
For three days in a row, there is not a single victim in the entire precinct. No rapes. No murders. No kidnappings. No child pornography made, bought, or sold. No molestations. No sexual assaults. No sexual harassments. No forced prostitution. No human trafficking. No subway gropings. No incest. No indecent exposures. No stalking. Not even an unwanted dirty phone call. Then, in the gloaming of a Wednesday, a man wolf-whistles at a woman on her way to an AA meeting. The whole city releases its long-held breath, and everything returns to normal.
And then, describing the episode “Screwed”:
The DA calls in sick, again. “The sixty-fifth story,” Benson whispers into her ear, “is about a world that watches you and me and everyone. Watches our suffering like it’s a game. Can’t stop. Can’t tear themselves away. If they could stop, we could stop, but they won’t, so we can’t.”
The story speaks to the thesis that were viewers not consumed with violent content, not conditioned to accept violence and aggression as bi-products of humanity’s existence, we would possibly have a better chance at eradicating rape, murder, human trafficking, etc. We should be cognizant, Machado warns through her micro-narratives, of our actions, or lack thereof, which cultivate and sustain the suffering of others.
Later in the collection, with visions of disappearing women, “Real Women have Bodies” touches on the detrimental effects of miseducation on female existence.
Carmen Maria Machado
The narrator, again nameless, works at Glam, a special occasion dress shop owned by an older woman named Gizzy. The store sells all types gowns, ranging in price and design, but the most popular ones come with a secret. Folded into the fabric of highly sought after dresses, unseen by the unobservant patrons, are remains of the disappearing women. “The women started showing up a few years ago—they just fold themselves into the needlework, like it was what they wanted,” Petra, the daughter of the seamstress tells Machado’s narrator.
The narrator asks, “Did you try to tell Gizzy?”
To which Petra responds, “Of Course. But she said that as long as they sought us out, it was all right. And those dresses do so well—they sell more than any my mother has ever made before. It’s like people want them like that, even if they don’t realize it.”
While later contemplating the problem of these disappearing women, the narrator watches a mother admonish her young daughter for wanting a pretzel because “Pretzels are junk food. They will make you fat.” Another night she watches the evening news, where “pundits point fingers at each other, screaming as the cohost between them shimmers and wavers under studio lights. They are talking about how [they] can’t trust faded women […then] the woman blinks away mid-broadcast, a microphone tumbling to the floor. The camera scrambles to look away.” By the end of this story, the narrator concludes, “None of us will make it to the end.”
Outside the pages of this collection, young girls, well under the age of 18, take to the internet daily asking strangers to rank their hotness. Teens commit suicide because of shaming. The fashion industry Photoshops models and suffocates readers with unattainable beauty standards; they propagate mindsets that excuse fatal eating habits. And powerful men silence women because our voices are not conducive to their happy endings. Fiction mirrors reality, and this piece of fiction questions, “What are we doing to our women?”
Through ten separate yet tangentially themed stories, Machado’s female protagonists struggle to fill internal voids that inevitably lead to their self-destruction. By the end of each piece, the reader is left questioning to what extent the narrator lives by her own sense of agency; and, to what extent is she merely acting in reaction to the experiences put upon her by family, friends, acquaintances, and social expectation.
Over the course of several centuries, women have been speaking plainly and boldly about the treatment of their gender by society. Yet even through the clearest, most succinct rhetoric, their points were only half heard. So Carmen Maria Machado has, it would seem, chosen to continue their efforts via a more inventive, striking method of narrative. Her Body and Other Parties leaves readers raw from self-reflection and spikes of unexpected but due emotion. Yet it is a relief to respond so sharply to Machado’s collection, rather than misguided presidential tweets, or discussions of our failing, democratic system.
Rosie Huf is the Senior Editor of Cleaver Magazine’s Life As Activism feature and manages the Editors’ Blog. Recently, she received her Master of Liberal Studies degree from Arizona State University, the concentration in Nonfiction and Publishing. She has had several interviews published in Superstition Review and has a forthcoming nonfiction piece in Sundog Lit.
When Hans Herbert Grimm’s semi-autobiographical novel Schlump was published in 1928 alongside All Quiet on the Western Front, it was advertised as a “truthful depiction” of World War I. It is no surprise that Grimm took on the the pseudonym Schlump, just as his protagonist does, to hide his identity. As explained by Volker Weidermann in the afterward, Grimm “describe[s] the German soldiers of the Great War as less than heroic,” and “the entire war as a cruel, bad joke.” While this caused the Nazis to burn his book in 1933, today it gives the text, translated by Jamie Bulloch, a feeling of authenticity.
The novel opens in Germany to a sixteen-year-old troublemaker, Emil Schulz also known as Schlump, who can “think of nothing but girls and the war.” It is 1915 and, picturing himself in a flashy military uniform, he defies his parents and volunteers to join the German army in WWI for nothing more than honor and sex. His romanticised idea of war is strikingly unrealistic; Grimm describes it like a painting, without the sounds and smells and feelings of real war. He imagines that as soldiers they will “lean on the muzzles of their rifles, dreaming of home and being reunited with loved ones. In the morning they’[ll] break camp and march singing into battle, where some [will] fall and others [will] be wounded. Eventually, the war [will] be won and they’[ll] return home victorious. Girls [will] throw flowers from windows and the celebrations [will] never end.” He does not delve into the true meaning of his commitment or the gravity of his sacrifice. The novel follows Schlump’s time in the army, but is interspersed with other stories, which take the form of long monologues by an array of characters. The stories are scattered, leaving the reader with not much to grasp onto except a flurry of people and places and ideas, with occasional moments of powerful emotion and dark humor.
Schlump is first stationed in a French town where he receives the respect and female attention he desires. It is hard not to be struck negatively by the depictions of women in the novel. Grimm sets the tone with the very first description of Schlump’s mother at the start of the novel. “When her tiny breasts began to swell beneath her blouse and she realized that she was a girl, she stayed quietly at home, dreaming of pretty clothes and beautiful shoes,” he writes. “Back then all the boys would give anything to get a good gawp at her.” In France, Schlump’s romantic hopes for women and war, modeled after this standard, come to be. Everything seems to go just as he imagined and his innocence remains precariously intact. He meets countless caregiving women who jump at the opportunity to feed him, sleep with him, and ask for nothing in return. He never considers his cause or his nationality or that he is in a position of authority over the women who give themselves to him. The sounds of cannons in the distance are adopted as part of the landscape. While Schlump does not think about death or danger, the reader can feel them looming in the distance, highlighted by his exaggerated naivete. When Schlump is finally sent to the front lines, he is entirely unprepared and his transition into adulthood occurs in a matter of moments. “It was as if he’d awoken from a deep sleep; for the first time in his life he was thinking seriously about himself and the world.”
Hans Herbert Grimm
Grimm’s narration of the story produces an odd sort of disconnect. In close third person, sometimes the reader receives great insight into Schlump’s thoughts, but other times none at all. Perhaps Schlump himself could not even narrate his own feelings amid the barbarity of the front line. His outward emotional state varies between utter boredom, long days filled with dirt, lice, and aching feet, and extreme highs of adrenaline that cause him to laugh and howl on the battlefield like a madman. He never dwells long on the suffering and death of others and describes these atrocities matter of factly, but his compassion is revealed through his dreams of fallen comrades happy and in love.
Eventually, Schlump begins to think that the only way that the war can become what he imagined, the only way that he can overcome the military hierarchy and achieve the respect that is denied footsoldiers, is by becoming a hero. He waits for an opportunity to act heroically and, after a long time, one presents itself. The narrator explains that, retreating from an attack on the other side, a “young fellow, became stuck in the barbed wire” outside of the trenches “and couldn’t go forwards or backwards.” The boy is shot and injured gruesomely. Schlump, in the hopes of becoming a hero, runs into the open, “untangle[s] the boy…and carrie[s] him in such a way as to shield him from enemy fire.” By the time Schlump returns to the trenches with his burden, the boy is dead. This signifies the beginning of Schlump’s true change. Not only is he aware of the danger of war, but he is aware of his own position within it. He realizes that there is no honor to be had for him. This is soon followed by another realization. “We’ve lost the war,” he says. There is nothing glamorous or beautiful about nitty-gritty, day to day war, only the romanticised broader story that incorporates a cause. Grimm uses this contrast to meditate on the differences between an individual’s war and a nation’s.
“Are you trying to tell me the individual counts for anything?” asks one particularly interesting character, another soldier who Schlump refers to as “the philosopher.” “The individual is nothing,” the philosopher says, “he has no intrinsic value, he is just part of a much larger totality, a nation. The individual has no soul, but a nation does. And the individual only has value when he is of use to his people […] Indeed, it would be better if we forgot the names of these men altogether.” The reader does, in fact, begin to forget Schlump’s true name, Emil. And, amid the constant cameos of one character after another, it becomes hard to remember anyone’s name. Even the author was nameless at the time of publication. The war on this micro level is confusing and chaotic, nothing like the macro level story commonly told that Schlump himself had once believed. But the characters who remain at home and out of the trenches remind the reader that these individual tragedies are significant and far-reaching.
A young woman, Johanna, makes this clear when she writes to Schlump from the homefront. “You’ll wonder who is writing you this letter, and yet you know who I am, because it’s me you kissed beneath the chestnut trees when the war broke out,” she writes. “You said you’d dance with me in the Reichsadler, but you didn’t come. But I haven’t been able to forget you.” Poor Joanna is tormented by the thought of her beloved in war. “I’ve had no peace,” she writes. “You can do what you want, just let me know you’re alive.” The words of mourning from Johanna, Schlump, and all the other soldiers he meets along the way solidify the philosopher’s theory as insane. It proves to be an unsustainable mentality. No one can truly adopt the perspective of the nation without completely losing the sense of himself.
Wars are often reported as if there is one winner and one loser. Each battle is a single event, each loss, a single loss. But when put under a microscope, as Grimm does, it becomes clear that a war produces thousands of personal tragedies on both sides. Perhaps that is why Grimm wrote the novel as a patchwork of random lives, tiny story after tiny story, beginning each portrait before abruptly moving on to the next, simply to overwhelm the reader with the sheer scale of lives interrupted. From this outlook, Schlump’s moments of humor and optimism and his uncanny ability to survive make him a hero in a way he never anticipated simply by providing the story that rarely exists, even in newspaper reports.
Kelly Doyle studies English, creative writing, and psychology at Emory University. Her fiction has appeared in Firewords Quarterly, Stories Through the Ages College Edition, and others. She is the editor-in-chief of Emory’s literary magazine, Alloy, and she works in a developmental memory lab on campus. She loves to read and travel, and she plans to pursue a career in writing.
LIGHT INTO BODIES by Nancy Chen Long The University of Tampa Press, 99 pages
reviewed by Trish Hopkinson
The poetry of Light into Bodies begins and ends with a theme of identity while its pages flutter with the imagery of egrets, pigeons, swans, and starlings. Nancy Chen Long presents the complexity of exploring identity from multiple perspectives—from the viewpoint of a mathematician, from a child whose mother repeatedly becomes the property of other men by the “generosity” of her own father, to a daughter’s experiences growing up in a multi-cultural home and discovering the nuances of relationships in adulthood. The poems stitch together an intricate lace of childhood memories, family stories, myth, and Asian-American experience with a thread of women’s issues intertwined throughout, each conflict woven within the next to create the speaker’s complicated identity.
Light into Bodies was published by University of Tampa Press as the winner of their 2016 Tampa Review Prize for Poetry. The press was founded in 1952 and launched its literary journal UT Poetry Review in 1964, which evolved into Tampa Review in 1988. The book’s perfect-bound, matte cover features a beautiful photograph also taken by Chen Long, who collaborated with the press for the cover design.
This collection is the first full-length book of poems by Chen Long, as well recipient of a National Endowment of the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship in Poetry. In addition, she has a published chapbook Clouds as Inkblots for the War Prone (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2013) and her poetry has appeared in many literary magazines and journals, including Ninth Letter, Crab Orchard Review, Zone 3, Briar Cliff Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Pleiades, Bat City Review, the Anthology of Contemporary Indiana Writers, and elsewhere.
The poems within are personal—to the point of memoir in their detailed narratives, but also rich in imagery and lyrical language. In “Saving My Mother” readers are drawn into the family background of the speaker, her mother’s patriarchal and abusive upbringing, as well as her mother’s strength and resistance: “. . . My father was good for / giving, my mother would say, so generous with his property, / which is how she repeatedly came to be the property / of another man.” The poem continues in a later stanza: “When she refused to work, the man himself would occasionally / return her, the way one might return // a defective plough.”
There’s an undertone of feminism in several of the poems. These lines from “Handiwork, or My Mother, Had She Not Married My Father” are particularly striking:
I’d pretend she’d have other options
for escape as she mulled over her sister’s dislocated jaw, ribs cracked at the hands of their father for loving a man not of his choosing.
The narratives cover a broad timeline—from the mother’s childhood, to the speaker’s own during the Vietnam war, and into then into adult life with more modern references, such as using the verb google and all the idiosyncrasies of travel in the poem “Gonga.” Chen Long effortlessly provides a variety of forms mixed in with free verse, such as prose poems, haibun (a combination of a prose poem followed by a haiku), and tanka. Some of these poems are lighthearted, almost humorous, like “How She First Discovered Sex” with its surprising twist on childhood ritual or “What Some Things Are Worth According to Her Grandfather” which cleverly ties together a listing of common American clichés in a rather rhythmic way.
Other poems reach deeply into the need to escape, even contemplate death, while some find a different way to escape via surrealistic daydreams. For example, in the poem “Hold on Lightly” Chen Long writes:
. . . At her first job, as a waitress, trays fell
and tumblers tumbled. Even today, her grip
on reality— feather-light. You can pull
it away from her with the softest tug.
Nancy Chen Long
There seems to be not only the seeking of identity, but also a longing or searching for home throughout the collection along with a common theme of stunning imagery of birds. In “Murmuration,” the speaker seems to see her own complexity in the starlings as the prose poem ends vividly:
One lands so close, a bird about nine-inches long. After all the black, my eyes are startled by such color: a yellow-tipped beak, an eerie green that shimmers off of feathers soft around the head and throat, an opaling-purple sheen along the body, torso-feathers dipped in white, wing-feathers outlined in bronze—and those legs, those very sturdy red legs.
The poem pairs well with the opposing page and the surrealism of “Wingspan,” in which we seem to catch a meta-glimpse of Chen Long herself, as the speaker describes how “a pigeon will mistake me / for an electrical wire, perch long enough // for me to seize its spindly feathers, / attach a message, set it free.” I’d like to think of those messages as the very poems that grace the pages of this beautifully finished book.
I enjoyed every moment I spent with these poems on a not-too-hot August afternoon in the shade of backyard trees with sounds of birds and wildlife as the soundtrack. Chen Long’s poems are of history and myth, feminists and patriarchs, family and childhood, and the flight and wingspan of poetry itself.
A Pushcart-nominated poet, Trish Hopkinson has been published in several anthologies and journals, including Stirring, Pretty Owl Poetry, and The Penn Review; and her third chapbook Footnote was published by Lithic Press in 2017. Hopkinson is co-founder of a regional poetry group, Rock Canyon Poets, and Editor-in-Chief of the group’s annual poetry anthology entitled Orogeny. You can follow Hopkinson on her blog where she shares information on how to write, publish, and participate in the greater poetry community at http://trishhopkinson.com/.
COLLUSION: SECRET MEETINGS, DIRTY MONEY, AND HOW RUSSIA HELPED DONALD TRUMP WIN
by Luke Harding Vintage Books, 354 pages
reviewed by Susan Sheu
We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election. Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump. All three agencies agree with this judgment. CIA and FBI have high confidence in this judgment; NSA has moderate confidence. — from an unclassified report by the CIA, FBI, and NSA, January 2017, in Collusion by Luke Harding
To live in the current political environment and try to make sense of it—and to have hope for a democratic future—requires stamina, a focused mind, and a stomach for weeding through fake news and whataboutism to settle on the most pertinent, verifiable facts. This is complicated by the fact that the journalists we rely on are both reporting news and defending themselves online against rhetorical and sometimes physical threats from Donald Trump and his supporters, some who are real people and some who are bots and trolls deployed from other countries.
Following the news has come to feel like the classic sci-fi book Ender’s Game, where players in warlike videogame discover they are actually soldiers fighting a real war, remotely. Both Rachel Maddow, Rhodes Scholar and now MSNBC network commentator, and veteran progressive writer and activist Rebecca Solnit, use the phrase “build a wall chart” to describe the complex web of Russian post-Soviet spies, oligarchs, criminals, and the network of shell corporations and money that link them to key American business people and, now that Trump is president, government workers.
If these two keen political observers need a wall chart to keep the players straight, the rest of us need a wall chart, an appendix, and a Virgil-like guide to remind us who’s who and redirect us when our attention flags or our minds get lost in the alphabet soup of intelligence agencies, banks, corporations, and the jumble of Russian and former Eastern bloc names. Fortunately, Luke Harding, a British journalist, has written an expertly researched book to lead us through the labyrinth.
Reading Harding’s new book Collusion: Secret Meetings, Dirty Money, and How Russia Helped Donald Trump Win, published in mid-November by Vintage Books, gives the sense that we are living in a John Le Carre novel where we are not certain that the West won the Cold War or that the Cold War ever ended. Collusion is a deep dive into the coverage of the administration and the crisscrossing lines of Russian money and influence. Harding is an award-winning journalist who lived in Russia from 2007 to 2011 as The Guardian’s Moscow bureau chief, until the Kremlin ordered him to leave the country, the first such expulsion of a Western journalist since the Cold War. His recent articles in The Guardian are largely responsible for the average political news junkie’s knowledge about Trump campaign and administration ties to Russia and Vladimir Putin. His meetings with Christopher Steele, the British former spy, Russia expert, and now freelance intelligence agent who wrote the Steele Dossier, also inform the narrative. Steele, Harding tells us, believes the dossier he researched and wrote from 2014 to 2016 on Trump’s Russian ties is “70 to 90 percent accurate.”
If these two keen political observers need a wall chart to keep the players straight, the rest of us need a wall chart, an appendix, and a Virgil-like guide to remind us who’s who and redirect us when our attention flags or our minds get lost in the alphabet soup of intelligence agencies, banks, corporations, and the jumble of Russian and former Eastern bloc names.
Using Steele’s work and his own investigation, Harding is tackling a subject that is at least one order of magnitude more complex than the Watergate corruption scandal in Richard Nixon’s campaign and administration. His subject and style recall Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s All the President’s Men, or the 1976 film adaptation, which was seminal to a generation’s understanding the depth of lies, corruption, resentment, and revenge, that were ultimately responsible for Nixon’s rise to the presidency, as well as the leaks and law enforcement that led to Nixon’s fall. Harding seems to have a similar goal in Collusion. While our media era seems to be dominated by hot takes, shallow analysis, opinions, and trolling, Harding’s work is thorough, engaging, and one would hope a benchmark for a higher standard for journalism than what Americans consumed in the election cycle of 2015 and 2016.
In October, just before Harding’s book went to press, the FBI indicted Paul Manafort, formerly Trump campaign manager, and his business partner Rick Gates. They are now awaiting trial under house arrest. Earlier this summer FBI arrested former Trump campaign foreign policy advisor George Papadopoulos, who is now cooperating with the investigation.
I have updated this essay every day for the last two weeks, trying to stay ahead of the quicksand of breaking news about Russia’s ties to Donald Trump and the Republican Party, and I am pretty certain that it will be out of date by the time you read it. In the time since I’ve finished reading Harding’s book and begun writing this essay, Michael Flynn, who served for three weeks as Trump’s National Security Advisor, has pleaded guilty to one count of lying to the FBI and has agreed to cooperate with its investigation. Most intelligence and legal experts believe the light charge against Flynn is evidence of Mueller’s strategy to get him to cooperate in the case against other Trump administration officials, including Jared Kushner and Donald Trump, Jr. Writing in the Atlantic in mid-November, Julia Ioffe revealed a leaked email correspondence in 2016 between Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and Donald Trump, Jr., discussing the possibility of collaborating to share espionage for political favors. Robert Mueller, who leads the special investigation, has subpoenaed Donald Trump and Kushner’s financial transactions with Deutsche Bank.
The Frankfurt-based financial institution has been implicated since the 2008 financial crisis in international money laundering, including for the Russian government and its oligarchs. News broke a couple of days ago that K.T. MacFarland, Flynn’s former Deputy National Security Advisor, now says she has no recollection of her boss’s contacts with former Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak, despite having sent emails arranging the two men’s correspondence. Paul Manafort violated the terms of his bail by ghostwriting an op-ed with a member of Russian intelligence, in an attempt to influence public opinion about his political work on behalf of Russia in Ukraine. Manafort’s previous agreement with the FBI is now void. A Republican Party delegate from Texas confirmed that Trump’s only contribution to the GOP Convention platform in 2016 was to demand that the United States scale back its assistance to Ukraine against Russian military aggression and political interference. In what seems almost like an aside, in the last couple of days there have been news reports of a conservative operative reaching out to Trump campaign member Rick Dearborn and now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to arrange back-channel meetings between Trump’s and Putin’s advisors at the National Rifle Association’s meeting in 2016. And this morning, as I write this draft, news is breaking that Flynn was texting on Trump’s inauguration day in January 2017 to broker deals to “rip up” American sanctions against Russia and to build Russian-backed nuclear plants in the Middle East. On many days, the “drip drip drip” that political watchers write to describe the ubiquity of leaks that expose the corruption in the Trump administration seems more like a broken water main.
The phrase other than “drip drip drip” and “build a wall chart” that writers tend to use when writing about the Trump-Russia ties as well as the hidden power structure of all politics is “follow the money,” borrowed from Woodward and Bernstein’s investigation into Nixon’s Watergate crisis. Following the trail of money to Trump, his family, and his associates, according to Harding and other journalists such as David Fahenthold at the Washington Post and many others, leads us to troubling conclusions. How he has used the office of the presidency to enrich himself by promoting his golf courses, chain of Trump hotels, including lucrative new Trump and Kushner family deals in China, and his private club in Florida, Mar-a-Lago, journalists and legal experts argue, almost certainly violates the emoluments clause of the U.S. Constitution. While Trump might have lied during the campaign about being a billionaire, perhaps after his bankruptcies and uneven record in business being only a multimillionaire, the presidency has given Trump new business opportunities and the promise of greater future wealth.
Others who are opposed to the administration and suspicious of the election take other routes to question its legitimacy. Legal experts opine on whether Trump or his associates might also be guilty of the Logan Act, which prohibits unauthorized citizens from negotiating with a foreign country over a dispute with the United States, which seems to have occurred during the election and prior to the transfer of power at the Trump’s inauguration. Impeachment seems unlikely as long as Republicans control the U.S. Congress. Political analysts question whether members of the Trump administration are guilty of violating the Hatch Act, which prohibits all but the highest members of the executive branch from engaging in some forms of political activity and advocacy, as Kellyanne Conway and Nikki Haley appear to have done recently by supporting conservative candidates through tweets and press statements. Pundits and political observers have watched Trump’s erratic, reactive Twitter feed and press appearances and discussed the likelihood of his cabinet members invoking the 25th Amendment, which designates the procedure for replacing a president in the event of death, resignation, resignation, or removal, presumably due to incompetence or other reasons.
But Harding and others investigating Trump’s long history of Russia clients and associates are following a different but related trail. As Harding points out, the three-decade-long kompromat file on Trump that likely exists in a KGB vault in Moscow, the long trail of suspicious and illogical real estate transactions between Russian tycoons and the Trump Organization, the vast Deutsche Bank loans to Trump in 2008, and the undisclosed financial dealings that Trump’s missing tax returns are hiding, all point to a file cabinet of potential blackmail material on Trump:
Together, these factors appeared to place Trump under some sort of obligation. One possible manifestation of this was the president’s courting of Putin in Hamburg. Another was the composition of his campaign team and government, especially in its first iteration. Wherever you looked there was a Russian trace. Trump’s pick for secretary of state? Rex Tillerson, a figure known and trusted in Moscow, and recipient of the Order of Friendship. National security adviser? Michael Flynn, Putin’s dinner companion and a beneficiary of undeclared Russian fees. Campaign manager? Paul Manafort, longtime confidant to ex-Soviet oligarchs. Foreign policy adviser? Carter Page, an alleged Moscow asset who gave documents to Putin’s spies. Commerce secretary? Wilbur Ross, an entrepreneur with Russia-connected investments. Personal lawyer? Michael Cohen, who sent emails to Putin’s press secretary. Business partner? Felix Sater, son of a Russian American mafia boss. And other personalities too. It was almost as if Putin had played a role in naming Trump’s cabinet.
Who Trump is financially beholden to abroad, whether in Asia, the Middle East, Europe, or Russia, matters because it affects the security and sovereignty of the United States. As detailed in early November leaks of international financial documents, called “the Paradise Papers,” the links connecting Russian President Vladimir Putin’s family to U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and other members of Trump’s team may explain some of the Mafioso-style opacity and quid pro quo demands between the United States and Russia.
Following the international money highlights several facts. First, while it is widely understood that among all of the Russian oligarchs, the most powerful and likely the richest is Putin, who was a KGB Lieutenant Colonel and FSB chief prior to becoming the Russian president and prime minister. Like Trump, who runs some of his business holdings through his children and son-in-law Jared Kushner, it appears that Putin’s wealth may hide behind his son-in-law, who controls Sibur, a Russian gas and petrochemical company. Sibur is a client of Navigator Holdings, a shipping company partly owned by Wilbur Ross. Both are part of the network of real and shell corporations that run through the Bank of Cyprus, which also has deep connections to Wilbur Ross and Deutsche Bank, and is known by intelligence and law enforcement agencies as an effective money laundering institution for Russian billionaires and others with shared financial interests.
The class and money structure Putin has put in place since assuming the presidency in 2000 recollects the court of Louis XIV of France, where concentric circles of wealthy and powerful nobility live in varying degrees of opulence around one man who is the strongest and richest of them all. As with Louis XIV’s famous dictum, “l’etat, c’est moi,” Putin is the law. The oligarchs and the upper classes are content provided their wealth remains intact. But Russia’s finances are insecure, perhaps because mafia-like corruption and opaque accounting is the ubiquitous dark matter of their economy. If the economy falters, Harding argues, the wealthy will become disloyal. Their abandonment could lead to a popular uprising that would threaten Putin’s power. As Harding writes:
What terrified Russian leadership was that a depressed economy could lead to hunger and discontent. This might spread among Putin’s conservative base and spark into something bigger and less containable. The specter was mass revolt.
The second financial and legal fact is the Magnitsky Act, passed in a bipartisan effort by the United States Congress in 2012. By design, it harms Russia’s economy and angers Putin because it imposes sanctions in retaliation for the imprisonment and death of a Russian accountant. Here is where it becomes obvious that we need a wall chart, or at least a very clear head. It is easy to lose the thread of why the death of a tax accountant in Russian should matter to a farmer in Iowa or a student in California. Sergei Magnitsky died in 2009 under suspicious circumstances, likely torture and lack of medical care, after he was imprisoned for investigating Russian officials for tax fraud. Under President Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the United States sought to enforce norms of democracy on a country that wasn’t acting as though it wanted to be recognized as such. The law and its extension in 2016 is designed to penalize global human rights abuses by denying 18 of the wealthiest Russian oligarchs access to the American banking system. Following the sanctions, Putin banned Americans from adopting Russian children, which has provided the Trump’s administration with code words to discuss “Russian adoptions” as a convenient cover to America turning a blind eye to human rights violations and financial malfeasance.
The third financial event to consider is that President Trump was forced to renew Russian sanctions in 2017 after a nearly unanimous Congressional vote cut off Russian access to the lucrative American credit market. However, despite the Congressional vote in August, as of October the Trump administration is delaying enforcing the sanctions, trying to render them moot despite bipartisan pressure from Republican Senator John McCain and Democratic Senator Ben Cardin. As of last month, the United States owed China $1.2 trillion, or 30 percent of the debt the United States owed to foreign countries. Provided the Russian sanctions remain in place, America will be borrowing more from China rather than Russia. If we believe that Russians helped engineer Trump’s success in the Republican primary and then manipulated social media to suppress votes, leaked Democratic emails including Hillary Clinton’s, and possibly tampered with votes, all in order to secure an ideal Manchurian Candidate to enrich Russia while also enriching himself in the model of a tin pot dictator, then we would conclude that Putin is not getting a good return on his investment:
For Vladimir Putin, this was a profound setback. The Kremlin’s campaign to help Trump win the White House had a primary goal. That was to bring about an end to America’s economic embargo. (The secondary aim was to shove a finger in the United States’ preexisting social and ideological wounds. This had succeeded well enough.)
Observing who will benefit from these unlikely alliances and following the money is key to understanding why so many conservative American tribalists like Congressman Dana Rohrabacher and Devin Nunes of California and Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin are choosing party over country and joining forces with a Russian-backed president and advisors. While extremist social and religious conservatives like Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate Roy Moore have stated their admiration for Vladimir Putin because of his repression of homosexuality and gay marriage in Russia, for many Republican politicians it comes down to how they supplement their civil servant salaries. Money from their donors, familiar conservative American kingmakers such as the Koch Brothers and Robert and Rebekah Mercer, will cease to flow into the Republican lawmakers reelection funds if the American judiciary is not packed with conservative Constitutional originalist judges, if taxes are not slashed and the size of government isn’t reduced to almost nothing, if spending on education, health care, and public services isn’t dwarfed, and legal protections for minorities eliminated. Money, and the power it confers, have put us into this situation.
While Putin and other powerful Russians are motivated by money, the sense from Harding’s book is that they are also motivated by cultural pride. Harding notes that, all of the Russian strongmen who have ruled since the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, regardless of their stated politics, have revered Russian culture perhaps above ideology. Christopher Steele, one of the first Westerners to visit formerly forbidden sites after the fall of communism, found in Stalin’s secret bunker not homages to Lenin or Marx but instead an imperial portrait of Peter the Great. According to a Guardian interview in 2014 with a hacker from the secretive Russian mercenary group Shaltai-Boltai (also known as Humpty Dumpty), “Putin is a genuine patriot who believed that his rule was in Russia’s best interests” and “really is like a tsar.” As a KGB spy under Communism who served in East Germany, Putin viewed the dissolution of the USSR as “the greatest geopolitical disaster of the twentieth century.” It makes sense, then, that in Putin’s incursions into Ukraine as well as Georgia and his actions to weaken NATO, the European Union, and the United States, he seeks to rebuild a Russian empire.
While Putin and other powerful Russians are motivated by money, the sense from Harding’s book is that they are also motivated by cultural pride. Harding notes that, all of the Russian strongmen who have ruled since the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, regardless of their stated politics, have revered Russian culture perhaps above ideology.
President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton not only threatened his country’s position and stability, but also humiliated Putin by pointing out that Russia is an autocracy where the rule of law means little. It makes sense then that the damage Putin would seek to inflict would not be limited to money but also to expose the underlying hypocrisy of an imperfect but stable Western democracy trying to impose its value system on an ancient culture. Russians influencing the election through social media demonstrated that their strategists knew us better than we knew ourselves. Harding writes that borderless hackers like Wikileaks and Shaltai-Boltai, were like “privateers” in a “cyber world [that] looked like the high seas of long ago,” selling their services to the highest bidder while proclaiming their “authenticity” and commitment higher principles of transparency. The US joint intelligence agencies’ report on January 6, 2017, note that Wikileaks moved its hosting to Moscow in September 2016 and “suggests that Wikileaks had become, in effect, a subbranch of Russian intelligence and its in-house publishing wing” for disseminating hacked data.
That Russian strategists pushing “crooked Hillary” memes and messages on Facebook and Twitter in states like Wisconsin and Michigan could influence voters showed that they had a deep understanding of the resentments that divide urban from rural and educated from less educated voters. General Mike Hayden, a former CIA and NSA director, says the Russians used “weaponized data” and “shoved it into U.S. space.” The military targets our loyalties and our sentiments, making the attacks more insidious. Russian troll farms pumped out nonstop tweets and posts and created Facebook groups that purported to be Black Lives Matter groups, or anti-Black Lives Matter groups, or Muslim activist groups, or nativist Texans who wanted Muslims out. It was as though the antagonists knew exactly what recipe was needed to recreate a divisive, Tower of Babel environment that would confuse low-information voters and inhibit any rational thought or discourse.
This recipe to deepen existing social divides seemed to be a natural extension of the outrage pedaled by rightwing strategists, beginning with Nixon’s “dirty trickster” Roger Stone and Fox News founder Roger Ailes. The propaganda packaged by Fox News and its descendants as journalism—such as Breitbart, InfoWars, and Project Veritas not only draws viewers with free time and a penchant for resentment and conspiracy theories—but also increasingly serves as a rightwing Greek chorus of outrage and a source of policy ideas. Now that Trump is president, Fox and Breitbart’s chief Steve Bannon are increasingly playing the role of official state media. Stone still works as a lobbyist and general force of chaos in Washington. He and his longtime lobbyist partner Paul Manafort came up with the hardball negative presidential campaigns of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
After Washington, D.C., Manafort took his talents to the former Soviet Union. Beginning in the 1990s, Manafort worked for Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch whose mafia ties prohibit him from obtaining an American visa. Deripaska supported Ukrainian candidate and former prime minister Viktor Yanukovych, who won the presidency in 2010 after a humiliating defeat and attempt to steal the election in 2004. Manafort’s job was to rehabilitate Yanukovych’s image among Ukrainians and encourage their trust, ending in a victory. Upon winning, Yanukovych promptly began to reverse fledgling democratic gains, crushing the press, courts, parliament, and other institutions under his thuggish control. He and his family quickly amassed a fortune from Russian loans. He began persecuting the more urbane and educated Ukrainians, and jailed his more progressive female political opponent, Yulia Tymoshenko.
Working to polish Yanukovych’s image and manage his campaign in Ukraine earned Manafort $12.7 million, recorded in mafia-like secret ledgers and discovered in August 2016. Yanukovych was deposed in 2014 and fled Ukraine, stealing vast sums of money. The social uprising that helped to depose Yanukovych was followed by Russian military incursions. Manafort appears to have taken his payment and moved his operations back to the United States, where he soon would serve a similar candidate’s campaign. Like the campaign in Ukraine and his previous American work, he would seek to sow division and confusion among rival cultural factions as a political strategy and hope for the same victory.
The news and political landscape changes so rapidly and the ground underneath us seems to shift with every news alert about the latest unhinged presidential tweet threatening the press or North Korea or judicial decision to overrule a ban or uphold an executive order. News about Russia and Robert Mueller’s investigation into Donald Trump’s financial is shuffled in with reports of ICE raiding Latino neighborhoods, New York Times profiles of ordinary white supremacists, protests about Confederate statues, the dismantling of the State Department and national parks, sexual predators in politics and media, threats to remove legal protections for LGBTQ people, the disastrous attacks on American healthcare and system of taxation, it is hard to see what if any connection exists between all of these reports of destruction. Our attention spans are worn thin by our social media feeds, the breaking news alerts on our phones, and the shock and awe pace of this administration’s attempt to overturn any remains of Enlightenment liberalism and the Obama legacy.
It is hard not to contemplate the array of news about Russia, the long, secretive relationships Trump, Rex Tillerson, Wilbur Ross, Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, Jared Kushner and even the ridiculous Cater Page have enjoyed with Putin and major Russian oligarchs and government officials, and wonder why these men as well as many elected leaders of the American conservative party would be in such thralldom to a foreign country that many Westerners including our allies in Europe view as a hostile dictatorship, that was long our arch-enemy. In the last two years, it was also hard to watch despairing and anxious members of American society, the much written-about “white working class” as well as those who might identify as working class but are in fact earning high median incomes, choose a furious, flashy millionaire as their spokesman. Now that we are on the brink of passing a ruinous Republican tax bill that will only benefit the richest members of society and penalize everyone else, it is hard to watch the unraveling of election-year populism into a permanent redistribution of money to the oligarchs—not just the American oligarchs but also the Russian oligarchs and those whose nationality defines them less than their investment portfolios and their preferred vacation spots. It is as though we were watching the last chapter of George Orwell’s 1946 classic novel Animal Farm unfold, when Napoleon and the other pigs joined with the animals’ former enemies, the human farmers, and complimented one another on how well they starved their citizens to enrich themselves:
“If you have your lower animals to contend with,” [Mr. Pilkington] said, ‘we have our lower classes!” This bon mot set the table in a roar; and Mr. Pilkington once again congratulated the pigs on the low rations, the long working hours, and the general absence of pampering which he had observed on Animal Farm.
It is easy to see why Trump admires leaders such as Putin and Rodrigo Duterte, president of the Philippines. One of these strongmen is the kind of leader that the United States could end up with next time, if we are not willing to heal our democracy at a root level—a much smarter Trump with greater self-control, with the same dictator’s primal instinct to suppress all opposition, consolidate all wealth and power, and guard his rule until he passes leadership on to a chosen successor or family member.
It is hard not to contemplate the array of news about Russia, the long, secretive relationships Trump, Rex Tillerson, Wilbur Ross, Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, Jared Kushner and even the ridiculous Cater Page have enjoyed with Putin and major Russian oligarchs and government officials, and wonder why these men as well as many elected leaders of the American conservative party would be in such thralldom to a foreign country that many Westerners including our allies in Europe view as a hostile dictatorship, that was long our arch-enemy.
In describing the web of money, corporations, and millionaires and billionaires, Harding writes that beginning in the 1980s with Trump Tower’s popularity among wealthy Russian immigrants, including criminals, the Trump Organization has effectively served as a means of Russian money laundering for the last four decades. So, the overall question of the American election of 2016—examining the ties between Russian and American billionaires and millionaires including Trump and many of his associates—requires us to ask: is this just a case of many mutual common interests coinciding, or part of a more nefarious scheme using both money and cultural pride to undermine America’s closely held myth of an egalitarian democracy and realign world power? Is this Putin taking advantage of Trump’s ignorance, amorality, and lack of national and personal allegiance beyond family to plunder American money, ego, and reputation to settle a score? Or is this the convergence of two authoritarian, nationalistic gangsters’ interests, to enrich themselves and their closest loyalists at the expense of everyone else?
Keep following the money, Harding strongly advises.
Susan Sheu lives in Los Angeles and received the 2017 Bennington Prize in Nonfiction for her memoir-in-progress, The Rag and Bone Man.
Completely mundane happenings take on significant meaning in Chloe N. Clark’s The Science of Unvanishing Objects. Everyday things like butterflies, telephones, and mirrors assume a role beyond their normal functions. Likewise, ordinary events such as conversations between strangers and seeing a lover naked for the first time become catalysts for a deeper understanding of the universe. Through her explorations, Clark repeatedly returns to loss, a major motif in this collection, which is amplified by recurring narratives centered on missing women.
The Science of Unvanishing Objects opens with a poem about a girl who has disappeared. Each line completes the title “Missing Girl Found—” as a newspaper article might break the news to its engrossed readership. In the first outcome, the girl in question is found simply “dead.” In another, she is found “to be the last goddamn straw to a woman who moves away because the town is turning, changing, becoming some place unrecognizable.” And in one more, the missing girl is found “to be missed.” These outcomes are visually presented on the page in a shape that resembles a deep well, or a rabbit hole—where the vanished go to become old news. This acerbic beginning sets the tone early and establishes a major theme for this chapbook: the weight of what’s gone.
With “The Detective, Years After,” Clark continues her exploration into the void left by women who are no longer with us; this time she focuses specifically on women who have been abducted and possibly murdered. The poem, as the title suggests, is told from the perspective of the investigator who had been tasked with finding them. The detective’s account opens:
Missing women often appear to me in dreams, always asking
the same questions: why it was her that I had found instead of them, why she was the one brought home.
The detective is haunted by these unfound women. Guilt-ridden, he (assuming that this detective is male) doesn’t know how to tell their ghosts that he gave up, stopped looking for them. He says he’s sorry, but one cannot help but wonder if the detective abandoned certain searches because some lives are more valuable than others, as anyone who watches the news or reads true crime knows.
Clark’s book also adopts, at times, the point of view of those who long to vanish, who wish to be free of this treacherous plane. In her poem “The Double Dark Theory of Our Universe,” the narrator asserts that not everything is meant to be, that most events in life are “only coincidences.” Even one’s love life, perhaps especially one’s love life, is not as sacred as some may believe it to be. Clark’s narrator recollects the last time she saw the lover to whom this poem is directed: “you said in another life / we would be happy. And I said / in another life we would be // free from one another’s ghosts.” While she may not yearn for the end of her literal life, this speaker does wish to shuffle off the mortal coil that is lost love, which has consumed her as black holes will “swallow all the stars in their / path.”
A poem entitled “Missing Girls, Continued” concludes the chapbook. It tells the story of a girl whose best friend has disappeared. The narrator details her friend’s “emptied / out eyes” that reveal the inside of her head “all the way to the back / of her skull.” She wonders where her friend keeps her memories now that she no longer has eyes or a temporal lobe. She then recounts a moment from their childhood, in the form of a dream, wherein they looked up at the night sky. As the shooting stars soar, they “forget to make wishes, too busy / thinking of how the stars must have / names, we just don’t know how / to say them.” This calls to mind all the, largely nonwhite, missing girls whose names may be too difficult for evening news anchors to say, or for police officers to utter while investigating—cases that ultimately go cold and stay cold.
The poems of The Science of Unvanishing Objects are challenging yet approachable—a mix of verse and prose, expertly arranged on each page to evoke both visceral and cerebral reactions. On one level, Clark examines the bigger questions about our universe while on another level, oftentimes within the same poem, she shines a light on our problematic cultural landscape—specifically the treatment and representation of women by the media, by the justice system, and by the world at large.
Brandon Stanwyck studied film, literature, and theatre at Cleveland State University. While there, he led a student-run theatre company. He currently lives in Ohio, where he writes fiction and criticism. His work has appeared in Necessary Fiction, The Fiction Pool, and elsewhere. Twitter: @BrandonStanwyck.
“She wanted […] the location of her madness to be now the location of her art.”
This is how the narrator of The Working Woman analyzes her roommate, but the same can be said of the narrator herself, and perhaps as well of the only figure in this postmodernist novel who actually “speaks:” the author, Elvira Navarro. The text becomes the conjunction of madness and art, which share one abstract and yet delineated “location,” madness needing expression through art, or art uniquely poised to express madness.
I may have gotten ahead of myself; I haven’t introduced the novel properly. The work itself forfeits any loyalty to structure or linearity in favor of a narrative that prioritizes aesthetic backways and internality. It is a quiet, decisively not flashy postmodernist masterpiece, a book packed with subtlety and originality that still manages to give insight into contemporary society.
Navarro has received various honors in Spain and around the world, including the IV Premia Tormenta for best new author and inclusion on Granta’s list of the 22 best writers in the Spanish language under 35-years-old. She is praised both for her original, avant-garde writing style and her dealing with important issues in contemporary Spain. In fact, her mixing of the two distinguishes her and makes this novel such a multi-faceted pleasure.
There is a sense in which postmodernism is associated with the deconstruction of fixed meaning, the absence of a recognizable truth. Although Navarro’s writing style certainly embraces this element, the topics she explores also craft a narrative of structural problems—job insecurity, mental health, the abandonment of urban peripheries—that need to be addressed. Navarro’s Madrid, a crucial presence in the novel, is a city of many cities formed internally and externally by each person’s experience, an apt metaphor then for the possibility of deconstructing what seems stable while not denying the presence of a certain overriding construct(ion) we must all live with.
In this case, the translator of the novel, Christina MacSweeney, also deserves praise. The English version of this precious novel flows easily and is packed with such original, creative, and insightful uses of language; I can hardly imagine the Spanish version being superior. Here is just one example of the informal, poetic, and pleasantly surprising prose that never falls into cliché or background noise:
Neither had I taken my medication, and that did matter, although not enough for me to abandon my observation post over the wasteland where pale yellow hedge mustard grew in spring, and which allowed me a Tetris-scale view of the Palacio Real, the ugly Almudena Cathedral, the dome of the Basílica San Francisco el Grande, the Moncloa transmission tower with its restaurant that no one patronized on the observation deck, the unimpressive buildings of the University City. I went on unconsciously interrogating the cityscape, just as it manifested itself to me from the balcony in some way that was impossible to gauge. From there everything fit in the palm of my hand, extended toward an illusory sky.
The book’s plot is, however, harder to trace. Navarro divides her story into three uneven parts, each written from a slightly different perspective, though all three are also literally “written” by the same narrator: Elisa Nuñez, a young writer in Madrid barely scraping by financially as an independent contractor in a publishing company. Her sharing of initials with Navarro is a sneaky move revealed halfway through the novel the single time her full name appears. This not wholly original maneuver only increases the desire to see the entire book as a smokescreen for Navarro’s exploration of herself, the ultimate postmodernist gesture the narrator Elisa admits to doing as a way of achieving catharsis. But it also reminds us of the futility of these conjectures; while Navarro may purposefully be trying to lead us to think about her backstage role with this use of initials and narrative framing, as readers we can see only the text and not the person beneath it (and Barthes has already told us we shouldn’t care about the author anyway). Thus we are left with a text that proudly asserts its rejection of fact or knowledge—a “flimsy construction,” Elisa announces—and an embrace of madness.
The first part of the book is told from the perspective of Elisa’s roommate, Susana, though it becomes clear during the second part that in actuality Elisa has written it based on stories Susana had told her about her old life in Madrid, specifically, about the time when she focused her “desire [on] finding someone to suck [her] pussy while [she] was having [her] period,” and ended up having as lover a dwarf called Fabio with exceptional olfactory powers. Occasional italic segments—Elisa’s reflections on Susana’s stories—interrupt the otherwise fluid, semi-stream of consciousness, first-person narrative. It all does sound a bit absurd. And the fact that Susana reveals she was taking various medications for mental illness increases the reader’s skepticism. Elisa also admits to her doubt in the italicized interruptions but ultimately she wonders why she shouldn’t just “accept [Susana] did whatever she liked with the story of her life, that she reinvented herself whatever way she felt sounded best?”
The second (and longest) part is from Elisa’s own perspective. She talks about her job insecurity, her long nocturnal walks through Madrid, her own struggles with mental health, and her relationship with and curiosity about Susana. Elisa’s story is not as absurd or as unbelievable as Susana’s, but it seems similarly difficult to trust the account of someone who, like Susana, is searching catharsis, and who does this not through constant reinvention but through writing. The third and final part, a mere three pages, is entirely set in a dialogue, and functions to cast a shadow of doubt over the last almost 200 pages. Writing, Navarro suggests in typical postmodern fashion, is an unreliable speech act often expressed, not to impart truth to a reader, but out of a writer’s own desire for structure and release. The reader, however, can take such a speech act and recast it for herself, as Elisa herself does with Susana’s speech act, which she rewrites with her interjections in the first part of the novel.
There were times while reading the text that I was reminded of écriture feminine, the idea, introduced in the 1970s largely by French feminists, that there is a certain stylistic quality that determines whether writing should be considered women’s writing, i.e. the gender of the author is irrelevant. James Joyce, for instance, is often given as an example of écriture feminine. This women’s writing is characterized by an opposition to traditional plot structures and linear narratives, which are seen as representing hegemony and patriarchy. It involves tying “femaleness” with “otherness” in our patriarchal culture; so that writing that is proudly “other” becomes a way of inscribing the female onto language—this includes writing focused on interiority, stream-of-consciousness, illogical narratives. A Working Woman seems often to fit the paradigm of écriture feminine, with its rejection of literature as a way of gaining that flimsy construction that is knowledge, its meandering narrative voice. The novel, however, produces two ways in which to understand that term: there is its avant-garde, “other” writing style, but there is also the fact that it is a female-populated novel, written by a female writer and about a female writer and her roommate, who also deals with the stresses of life through art (in her case, miniature reorganized maps of cities). It is also about madness; Susana’s desire for oral sex on her period and during the full moon seems a nod to the kind of metaphors that adorn descriptions of écriture feminine as lunar, tapping into feminine hysteria and madness. Yet the novel is not so simple as a display of écriture feminine and female craziness. Writing becomes also a way to structure life and improve mental health; art more generally becomes a way to order and curb unwanted madness.
The need for some kind of structure to heal and deal with life is necessary because of the very real topics the novel discusses. The structure of the narration is not taken as an excuse to deal exclusively with interiority and characterization at the expense of making social points. Primarily, what she portrays are the difficulties of a demographic that is not, by far, one in dire distress—her two protagonists are Western and relatively privileged. Yet what she depicts is also a reality that is increasing in Spain and in other Western countries: the loss of security that comes when young people leave the relative security of family or education and enter the job market. In a certain sense Navarro is taking issue with the very structure of Western society—neoliberalism—although in a subtle roundabout way. The book’s title in Spanish is La Trabajadora, which translates to “The Working Woman,” but the word is more essential than that. “La trabajadora” is like a feminized version of “worker,” so the emphasis is more squarely on an entity defined by being a worker. The irony is apparent; although often the worth of someone in Western societies is determined in part by their job, jobs themselves are slipping away, people going, like Elisa, from part-time to independent contractor, to eventually, perhaps, unemployment. This is not just a stressful period of youth—as the novel shows through Susana, who is in roughly the same position as Elisa but about twenty years older, financial insecurity is becoming more and more of a permanent state-of-being, even among those who started off privileged. Mental health seems inextricably bound with this mode of existence. The idea, as some suppose, that mental health can be extricated from social and economic causes and blamed simply on genetics becomes an excuse not to deal with those problems.
The setting here—and simultaneously a focus of the novel—is the sprawling city of Madrid, but not the Madrid of the Prado or the Royal Palace, which appears only in the distance: this is a Madrid of back-alleys and endless peripheries. It is no surprise that Navarro herself ran a blog called Madrid is periphery. In one way this is a continuation of Navarro’s preoccupation with insecurity and instability of contemporary life: she sets her novel on the fringe. Elisa, appropriately, is a walker. She enjoys walking through these peripheries, observing abandonment or the sneaking of a fat cat that indicates a squat among the ruin. She walks almost every night, searching for squats and signs “to confirm [her] theory of the existence of another city.” But perhaps Elisa is overthinking it: there are plenty of clues in the novel to suggest that the city is hardly a uniform entity, that each person’s experience of it—each person’s journey through it by bus and foot and metro—creates a different version of it. Would it be too much to say that there are as many Madrids as there are people in Madrid? In “Walking in the City,” a chapter in The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau compares walking to a speech act that “speaks” the city into being. Cities become, therefore, a series of discourses in which different citizens take part. Susana seems to intuit something of this kind with her devotion to miniature clippings. She sits in her room or the living room cutting out all the shapes—trees, cars, buildings—from maps of Madrid until only the street grid is left. She wants “to relocate the buildings. Her aim [is] for the map to be just the same in terms of structure, but with all the various elements transposed.”
Of course, the city is also a deep and recurring metaphor for the psyche. Elisa and Susana live in the peripheries of Madrid and they also have to wrestle with the peripheries of their own minds, their repressed desires and fears, the parts of them that are falling apart. Elisa, like Madrid, may not be one consistent uniform entity either: she writes from Susana’s perspective, she writes from her own, she feels a kinship to Susana, she wants her out. There is certainly an underlying structure to all her moods—even she admits the “similarity between [her] voice […] and Susana’s” when she writes from Susana’s perspective—and yet the complexities of the mind, like those of the city, seem to shrug away from a simple bounded characterization like that found in canonical literature.
But this all speaks to the beauty of the novel—writing, walking, these become ways to organize and come to terms with oneself and the world around one. Art and exploration become not simple cures to madness but ways to make that madness productive, ways to channel it for beauty and surprise, for healing.
Melanie Erspamer studies English Literature and Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. She is half-Italian and half-American and has lived most of her life near Boston. Her work has been published in The Purple Breakfast Review, Nomad Magazine and Unknown Magazine, and her one-act play was performed at the University of Edinburgh. With her sister, she also has been running an anonymous literary magazine based in bathroom stalls, called Bathruminations.
DAUGHTERS OF THE AIR by Anca L. Szilágyi Lanternfish Press, 184 pages
reviewed by Leena Soman
Tatiana is supposed to spend the summer before her junior year in high school in Vermont with her only friend while her mother summers in Rome. Instead, she hitches a ride from her boarding school’s Connecticut campus to Brooklyn. It’s 1980, and Tatiana renames herself Pluta, an alter ego she has long cultivated to meet the demands of this adventure. So begins Anca L. Szilágyi’s debut novel Daughters of the Air.
It’s worth pausing a moment to admire the book’s unique cover. Szilágyi selected an image by artist Nichole Dement who is interested in contemporary myth, a fitting synergy with the author. The image, called Bird Moon, is one of several haunting pieces in the artist’s Oracle series, and the frenzy of human form and nature in muted tones is nothing short of striking. This beautiful cover art demonstrates a thoughtfulness and sophistication that carries through to the story.
The book’s chapters alternate between Pluta’s present circumstances as a runaway in New York, and the previous two years leading to her arrival in the United States from Argentina. In 1978, Pluta’s father, Daniel, a sociology professor in Buenos Aires, leaves for work at the university and never returns. Many novelists, Argentine and otherwise, have revisited this awful period of recent history known as the Dirty War. Szilágyi, whose family arrived in the United States as immigrants and refugees from Romania, began developing the novel when she noticed some alarming similarities between the rhetoric of the U.S.’s War on Terror in the early 2000s and Argentina’s Dirty War. She doesn’t investigate the specific political movements and cultural complexities in Argentina during that era as much as she homes in on Pluta’s coming of age in the context of this turmoil and the personal isolation that can result from ceaseless questions that defy answers.
Pluta’s mother, Isabel, tries to find her husband, but it is relatively soon after the guerrillas have been defeated and the worst of state repression has begun. To ask too many questions, to publicly make too much of what has happened, would be unwise. Isabel and Pluta flee to Isabel’s estranged older sister, Lolo, who lives in Manaus, Brazil, and then to the United States, where Pluta will attend boarding school. But her father’s disappearance weighs on her, and after two years without solace, she decides to start a new life with a new identity. Szilágyi writes,
Now there was only the specter of that other certainty. Not yet proven but lurking, a lugubrious hobglobin crouching heavy and low upon her insides, seeping dark juices, ready at any moment to spring: he wasn’t ever coming back […] There could be anywhere. There was away. She needed there; here was closed in, too falsely safe, too hiding of truth. For now, there was New York, sprawling and alive, big as Buenos Aires—bigger—a place to run and burst and be, unenclosed.
In Pluta, Szilágyi has created a character with ample charisma and contradiction to carry the story. She is naïve, thoughtful, and daring. While we have access to her internal landscape through rich, lyrical description of what she’s thinking and feeling, she is active, constantly on the move, and her actions, as she wanders Gowanus mostly, often have consequences she can’t anticipate. Though bright, Pluta isn’t endowed with trope-like precociousness, which is refreshing. “‘What’s that?’” Pluta asks when her ride into the city tells her he’s an entrepreneur. Szilágyi writes, “She knew the word, but sometimes she liked to play dumb; it seemed like a tricky thing to do. Some people liked to explain things. This saved her from talking. Her father liked to explain things, but he wouldn’t have liked her to play dumb.” This moment, like so many others, perfectly establishes her intelligence and inexperience, as well as the degree to which her father’s absence is fully present in her life.
Anca L. Szilágyi
In telling this story, Szilágyi grapples with the challenge of dramatizing loneliness. Pluta and Isabel spend a great deal of time alone. For most of the novel, they are in exile, and Szilágyi has to reconcile presenting the unspeakable pain of this experience with the literary craft of creating dramatic tension between and among characters. Pluta had been closer to her father and, even before his disappearance Isabel struggled to connect with her awkward, moody daughter. Once he’s gone, mother and daughter each cope with Daniel’s vanishing in isolation. Pluta’s aunt Lolo is the novel’s most compelling character, and the story is at its most stirring when Isabel and Pluta are with her, partly because the characters’ interactions reverberate with tension and conflict. Lolo is eleven years older than Isabel and her foil, a warm, maternal presence. She communes with the spirit world, especially her dead husband, forty-four years her senior and many decades gone. Isabel, conservative and preoccupied with appearances, disdains her sister’s eccentricity, but cannot deny Lolo’s affection for her daughter. With the rich family history Szilágyi has developed for her characters, and her nuanced rendering of varied communities across Argentina and Brazil, this trio of women has greater potential than the novel allows them.
In New York, Szilágyi focuses on Pluta’s encounters with three men: Bobby, the young man who initially provides her with a ride out of Connecticut and a place to stay in Brooklyn, an older man named Leonard, and an unnamed man with red hair and freckles. Szilágyi creates suspense as Pluta pinballs among them, and it is gripping to read about a young girl in 1980s New York, no smartphone in hand, and how a clever and reckless child might find herself making do.
Indeed, one of the most fascinating parts of the story is Szilágyi’s inclusion of fairytale elements to magnify and probe the surreal quality of Pluta’s young life. In Manaus, Lolo takes Pluta to the opera where she sees the story of Orpheus performed on stage. The author was born in Queens and raised in Brooklyn, and extends the notion of a secret underworld in describing early 1980s Gowanus. If anything, this impulse for contemporary mythmaking could have been mined for even greater effect and might have helped to solve the problem of building organic relationships between characters in a story about silences and isolation. For instance, one of the first things Pluta does with her independence in New York is get a tattoo. She does not have enough money to get the full ink she’d like, and the artist would prefer to stage the process out given the scale of the drawing she wants anyway, so he starts with only an outline of the image she requests. “The needle frightened her, but she wanted to defy that fright,” Szilágyi writes. “In some sense she saw it as training. She was becoming courageous, sometimes even scaring herself with this business of courage and defiance, which made her laugh. Following rules had stopped working. She would do whatever she wanted. That’s what felt right.” This arc proves to be pivotal, and later, when something remarkable happens with the tattoo, it never occurs to Pluta to return to the artist as someone who might be able to offer her counsel or at least recognize her in a city of strangers. It seems a missed opportunity to establish more grounding relationships and create the type of character interactions that enrich a story and propel it forward organically. Pluta does reconnect with Bobby, thankfully, but it is by chance, and his presence in her life begins as arbitrarily as the others she encounters.
At the book’s climax, Pluta commits a crime. For some reason, Szilágyi chooses to not resolve this subplot, a decision I found frustrating considering the severity of the incident. The author could have easily disposed of the inconvenience of working through a crime investigation and the emotional impacts of the act on Pluta if she didn’t want to address it outright by referring to how a police investigation might have ended differently in early 1980s New York or given it a supernatural treatment in keeping with the magical realism in Daughters of the Air, but doesn’t bother. This decision amplifies the theme of unresolved endings, of having to somehow reconcile with unyielding uncertainty, but feels unsatisfying. Other aspects of the book’s conclusion are harrowing, but certainly more satisfying, demonstrating the author’s skillful control.
Toward the end of the novel, we see Isabel in the story’s present, but like Pluta, she is lonely and mainly alone. The only people she interacts with are a shoe salesman in Rome, the principal of the boarding school, and a private detective and his assistant. By making Isabel closed off to talking about what has happened to her family, we too are closed off from a layered understanding of her relationship with her husband and from feeling the loss of Daniel from her perspective. This is the bind of the novel—as a reader we need more, but part of the ambition of the story is that we must do without it.
Isabel and Pluta’s isolation get to the heart of what’s driving this novel: the many shames of political violence and the trauma of uncertainty. It’s easy to see the injustice of Argentina’s Dirty War in all its terrible dimension in hindsight, but what Szilágyi reveals is the sheer torment of experiencing it while it was happening without the benefit of perspective or reflection. While we may long for details regarding the particulars of Daniel’s sociological research and scenes of him at the university to understand what exactly might have gotten him into trouble, Szilágyi withholds this information, even when a curious girl like Pluta would want to know about her father’s work, how he spent the hours he was away from her. The point seems to be that it doesn’t matter what he studied, what he has done or not done, for the government to disappear him. Innocence or guilt is a false question with a regime steeped in arbitrary power. Just before his disappearance, Daniel, Isabel, and Pluta attend a fair, and Daniel suspects he is being followed.
In the pit of his stomach, that irksome twinge sharpened: at some point, he’d grumbled to the wrong person. He didn’t even know who; perhaps he’d grumbled to a few of the wrong people. When he shouldn’t have grumbled at all. It wasn’t even the content of the grumbling that was an issue anymore; the fact itself seemed worrisome enough. An offhand remark in the office? Perhaps after a lecture? A darkened face. He recalled a darkened face in the lecture hall. How long can this go on? Was that all he’d said? Had the darkened expression in the audience registered its answer: as long as it takes? He’d been upset about the students—the one and then the other. Was his question ‘suspicious’ enough? Radios everywhere implored citizens to report ‘suspicious activity.’ Everything suspicious threatened ‘national security.’ How many people used those hotlines? A wave of nausea surged.
Isabel cannot explain to her young daughter what has happened to her father because she knows, but does not know. Without anyone or anything to pin her rage and confusion on, she blames her husband, wonders what he must have said or done to get himself in trouble and put his family in danger. This isn’t particularly likeable behavior, nor is her penchant for shopping, but again, this seems to be Szilágyi’s point, and it is profound. Would we feel her anguish more if she were the ideal wife and mother? How do we expect someone to act in the face of such terror, when confronted with the truth of how little control we have over our lives, no matter our wealth or social standing? Szilágyi’s portrayal of how people draw into themselves, get trapped by their own questioning when there are no answers is authentic and moving, but also creates a narrative dilemma. When we insist our characters be alone, we risk writing ourselves into corners where characters, and readers, get stuck in our own minds. Nevertheless, Daughters of the Air is a clear-eyed meditation on the experience of being haunted by the unknown and what we are perhaps too scared to imagine.
Leena has an MFA in fiction from Bennington College and a Master of International Affairs from Columbia University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming online at Ploughshares, Kenyon Review, and Harvard Review. She lives in New York and is at work on a story collection.
It begins with the sea. Out the windows, down the alleys, on the perpetual edge of the city’s consciousness. In Nicola Pugliese’s Naples, the sea is everywhere. “From the street,” he writes, “loneliness falls gracefully away to the sea.”
A few years before the main events of Malaqua transpire the government and police of Naples decide to block access to the beach on a beautiful summer day. For a while, the children stare angrily at the line of police along the shore. Eventually the children slink back into the shade and despair of their homes and courtyards. But the sea, not one to be defeated by local government, begins to rise. It rises until it reaches the first row of houses, then moves farther into the city, leaking into basements, waterlogging wooden boards, wetting socks and shoes and the hems of dresses and pants. The police come to realize they cannot guard the sea, and so they leave.
“This had in all likelihood been an alert, a warning significant in its way,” the narrator informs us. The alert is for the events of October 23rd through 26th, the four days over which the novel takes place. The four days of rain.
Anyone who picks up And Other Stories’ edition of Malacqua, the first English translation of Nicola Pugliese’s Italian novel from 1977, will be immediately alerted to the strange weather which serves as the novel’s catalyst. Emblazoned across the book’s cover is Malacqua’s unofficial subtitle: Four Days of Rain in the City of Naples, Waiting for the Occurrence of an Extraordinary Event. Before even opening the book, the reader is clued into Pugliese’s supreme fascinations: water and Naples. And of course, the collision of the two.
The deluge brings chaos to the streets of Naples. Giant sinkholes open up and rescue workers swear they hear voices coming from the pits. Unearthly screams are heard throughout the whole city, seeming to emanate from the 13th century Maschio Angioino (also ironically known as the Castel Nuovo). Later, five lira coins will begin to play music that only children can hear.
The novel is divided into four parts, one for each day of rain, and loosely follows the perspective of Carlo Andreoli who, like Pugliese, is a journalist covering politics and local events in Naples. Pugliese was born in Milan but spent most of his life in Naples as a reporter. Malacqua, his only work in another genre, was published at the insistence of Italo Calvino by Italian literary powerhouse Einaudi, who also worked with Calvino and other luminaries including Natalia Ginzburg, Cesare Pavese, and Antonio Gramsci. But after quickly selling out its first print run, Pugliese decided to pull the plug on the project. No more copies were printed until after his death in 2012. This translation, by Shaun Whiteside, which comes 40 years after the original, is the first English version.
Pugliese is a playful writer, and many of the novel’s most enjoyable moments come from his quirks of language. He describes a mirror as “returning” a face to its owner. Waiting for the rain to stop is a “gruelling, progressive illness.” The weight of silence becomes “an airborne jellyfish, a transparent dream.” Not all of his experiments in language are as pleasing and strange, however, and at times his style can feel a bit forced, almost like a missed attempt at Thomas Pynchon.
And there are other aspects of Pugliese’s writing that disappoint. Even a Republican Senator would have a hard time denying the author’s misogyny. Men are often visually assessing women, and in various interior monologues from the viewpoint of Neapolitan women Pugliese justifies sexual harassment, office affairs, ogling. “Ultimately a hand on your backside,” Pugliese writes, “is always an act of homage, a gesture of esteem.” The way that Pugliese not only allows but encourages his male characters to harass women, and then uses his omniscient narratorial powers to have women apologize for and accept this treatment as not just okay but almost desirable, is sickening at times. It says much about Italian culture (and literary culture in general) of the 1970s that sentences like the one above were not outside of the norm.
Experiencing something so outdated and uncomfortable in the novel, however, made me more surprised to find a theme in the first two chapters that seemed downright contemporary: what appeared to be an attempt to grapple with climate change in fiction. Or at the very least, horrific weather and climatic events, and humans inability to do anything about them.
Pugliese writes, “With all that water coming down and coming down, and when you were about to say: there, it’s stopping now, you didn’t have time to open your mouth before the water violently returned, a harsh and predetermined rancour, an irreversible obstinacy.” The final words, “a harsh and predetermined rancour, an irreversible obstinacy,” could very well be used to describe the horrible repercussions of the changes we have wrought on our planet. Is he answering the call of recent writers such as Amitav Ghosh and Margaret Atwood to include and incorporate climate change in fiction?
Pugliese does not use the words “climate change,” and nor is it likely that was he thinking in those terms when he wrote the novel in the 1970s (the advancing water feels akin to Calvino’s warning, in Invisible Cities, of the “inferno” of inhuman urban sprawl). However, despite any direct link, many of the themes and tropes that contemporary writers find important in integrating climate change in their fiction, in “climate fiction,” or any other genre, are present in the early pages of Malacqua. Weather, catastrophic events outside of human control, play a stronger role in the plot than the actions of any one person. And Pugliese is deeply attuned to the ways that the rain is simultaneously terrifying to the Neapolitans and, like climate change for many in the twenty-first century, quotidian. Malacqua is not a tale of apocalypse, but a tale of how humans adapt and survive in the face of bizarre and catastrophic climate events. The deaths of seven Neapolitans during the rains is described in chilling terms by local members of government and the police. “A mournful event, certainly, a tragic event, but also predictable, in some respects, from the ancient perspective of a city that lives its life in a continuous form of multiplication.”
Later in the novel, however, it becomes clear that Pugliese’s use of these non-human devices is more metaphorical than political. The story (almost a parable) of the sea rising above the shore and entering Naples to seek out children barred from swimming, should’ve been a sign. Not just to the inhabitants of Naples, but also to me. This is not a book about climate change. It’s just a novel with a touch of magical realism.
About this point in the novel, Pugliese’s narrative begins to drag. His strengths lie, like many good journalists’ do, in deftly stitching together narratives and quickly limning characters and situations. The novel glows when it is discussing the mood of crowds at the beach, people on the street, a group of police and government officials searching a building. When the rain overflows open sewers in part of the city, Pugliese writes, “Also gritting his teeth and muttering fuck off was Biagio Di Sepe, 45, from Avellino, who was determined not to give a toss and had put on his rubber boots.” Pugliese’s Naples is a fractured place, more town than city, still recovering from the war. But despite its bleakness, there is something like love in his descriptions of Naples and its inhabitants, shot through with a touch of symbolism and literary finesse. Neapolitans look out across the sea at night towards Capri, “outstretched and remembering, as alien to the city as an undeciphered tower, close, yes, so close, and far away, too.” Neapolitans who may not have much still have their city, their dialect, which one character calls, “not a literary invention, an artificial construction made by experts and linguistic experimenters, but the most authentic, the most genuine and the most felt expression of an entire people.”
But when he turns his focus away from the city to dip further into the lives and minds of a smaller handful of Neapolitans, he becomes moralistic, even preachy. In these sections, the writing loses a bit of its luster, and the novel begins to feel a bit overly “artistic.” (The final 51 pages of the book take place in the protagonist’s thoughts while he is shaving. I am not against this experimentation, but the decision does not seem to add to the novel. It does not enrich the sense of the character’s emotions or the tableau of Naples. It feels, rather, like a good writer trying hard to seem clever.) Instead of these interwoven stories giving a sense of Naples as a whole, it makes the book feel more curtailed, insular. Each character seems to be living inside her own reality, her own space, which no one else can enter. Perhaps in its way that is Pugliese’s point. That not even a semi-apocalyptic event can make people communicate, break down the barriers of tradition, gender, and class. By the novel’s end, I too felt like the Neapolitans driven inside by the rain: claustrophobic and melancholy, craving a breath of air, a hint of blue sky.
Robert Sorrell is a writer and photographer living in Philadelphia. He recently graduated from the University of Chicago’s English program and has a piece of narrative nonfiction forthcoming from Mosaic Art & Literary Journal.
by Iosi Havilio
translated by Lorna Fox Scott
And Other Stories Publishing, 120 pages
reviewed by August Thompson
Purchase this book to benefit Cleaver
The greatest allure of fiction is the unexpected. Every good book surprises you, and every great book surprises you in a way that, after the astonishment is complete, feels wholly natural—this strangeness couldn’t have happened any other way.
Iosi Havilio’s Petite Fleur is a great book because it is a work of surprises intimately knotted around each other. The plot twists and writhes. Murders and magic lead to diatribes about jazz fusion that leads to rebirth and love and examinations of the anxiety of parenthood and marriage. The unexpected is constant, the satisfaction complete.
The novel is about an Argentinian man, José, the narrator, and his startling power. In a starburst of fury, he discovers that he can kill without consequence. Every time he murders his waddling, jazz-and-whiskey-obsessed neighbor, Guillermo, the neighbor returns to life the next day with no memory of the violence from the night before. Each killing is set to a take of the song “Petite Fleur,” of which Guillermo owns 145 variations— that’s the kind of guy Guillermo, and many of Havilio’s characters are: passionate, pretentious, and innately killable. This first surprise propels the book as it opens. The rest of the story is too fun to give away in great detail. Spoiling the book’s madcap plotting is to ruin its essence, and to take away from Havilio’s mystic accomplishment.
In a book dense with surprise, Petite Fleur’s most stunning achievement is that it works despite how much it plays with things that should fail. The novel takes form in one breathless, 120-page paragraph. No matter the subject, Havilio never gives the reader’s eyes or mind a rest. After the first killing of Guillermo, José sprawlingly describes the nit and grit of the action, “The blade went in far enough to knock his head out of line and with the same momentum again, barely more deliberate, the metal edge reached halfway through his neck. At least that’s how it looked to me, although it could have been a lot less than that, or possibly more.” This pendulum style of writing, with every presented reality undercut by unknowing, insecurity, is initially exhausting, but its constancy builds a portrait of an anxious mind that is compelling and convincing.
Beyond its aggressive style, the novel turns other on-paper flaws into virtues: it imbues, praises and mocks Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Jodorowsky all at once; it contains plot points that verge on cutesy (a firework factory goes up in flames, a stumped writer rediscovers his passion); it mirrors the spiraling repetition and the anxiety and fury that comes from boredom and loneliness.
To read Havilio’s novel is to experience the joy of watching someone bludgeon, stab, incinerate and smother the rules of writing. Every time Havilio introduces an errant plot point or a violent departure of character—and there are many, especially considering the book’s slenderness—there is a natural gut check that says but why? Why the killings, the cruelty, the nature walks, the lengthy scene dedicated to Elektra Complex fulfillment? The answer, which is maybe unsatisfying in its obviousness: because Havilio can, because he must. The world he’s built somehow demands it all.
Havilio’s alluring, enigmatic and fun prose is the grand unifier through all of the book’s oddness. It keeps you steady and intrigued when the book repeatedly sheds its skin. From the first sentence—“This story begins when I was someone else.”—Havilio sets a tone that I can only describe as seductive. You are in on the book-length joke the narrator is telling, but also scared by its intensity, its disassociation.
Upon another pilgrimage to Guillermo’s, José is again overcome with the inexplicable bloodlust that inspired his first killing. “His severed head invaded my mind, I felt the power again, the limitless rage.” In writing this, Havilio accomplishes something impressively manifold: this idea of José’s is funny because of its heightened absurdity, it’s disturbing because of how unhinged the imagery is, and it’s vaguely erotic, because of its dedication to power.
Repeatedly, José, an unemployed homemaker living in a machismo-infected society, finds his only power in the primal. After many of the killings, he makes passionate love to his wife, Laura. He fantasizes about the local baker’s assistant in a similar voice as when he fantasizes about murdering the cult-leader/spiritual-healer Laura may or may not be sleeping with. (The healer, by the way, is a self-described, and unconfirmed, disciple of Jodorowsky that advocates for the aforementioned Elektra-fulfillment, and another brilliant comic character.) For José, and, for many of us, one suspects, sex and violence are kin because they are both actions that follow the call of impulse. José feels fury and eroticism with the same parts of his brain.
Writing about sex is not an easy thing because, like hearing someone describe a funky dream, you really had to be there to understand the wonder of the experience. But Havilio manages to convey the automatic pleasure of making love, particularly to someone you know intimately. It’s rote until it’s surprising, it’s a relief and, at times, a stress or a symbol. José and Laura have a child and a life together. They have sex frequently when they’re happy and less when they’re not. José pines for other women and obsesses about Laura’s fidelity and is willing to give into kink and fantasy to help his wife achieve psychological absolution. Though their relationship is often tormented, their sex life is an interesting through-line that combines the domestic with the perverse. This juxtaposition is both tender and horrifying.
Writing about violence is maybe easier, or at least more appealing. Few of us know what it’s like to act out on true violence, which means reading about it is exciting in a way that reading about sex isn’t. Still, Havilio manages to infuse the violence with freshness and, more importantly, comedy. José’s freedom to kill without repercussion makes for something like a running joke across the book—every week, José goes to “return the spade”—the phrase quickly becomes a continued euphemism for murder, to hilarious effect— he borrowed from Guillermo. The two build a rhythm: they talk, they drink, they listen to records, and then José plants the spade in Guillermo’s neck, or lights him on fire, or bashes his brains in, before returning home to look after his baby or fret about his increasingly depressed wife. Each incarnation more dramatic, more indulgent. José gets to play God one night a week, and the result is a delicious brand of asylum humor. It’s when sex and death meet that the book strikes its most refined comedy—a type of joke that is right on the precipice of upsetting the reader, “partly due to the incomparable lust that violent death arouses, I took Laura on an acrobatic sex voyage that lasted till dawn.” I can think of few writers that do stark deadpan as well as Havilio.
The translation work by Lorna Scott Fox is wonderful because it imports Havilio’s gymnastic approach to writing without sacrificing José’s conversational tone. Another pleasure of Havilio’s style is that it feels as if José is telling you one long story as you sit beside him. He’s a smart narrator, unafraid to use words that surpass dollar-bin colloquialisms, but also a narrator that is convincingly retelling a story he can’t quite believe happened. In the retelling, José finds another form of power.
It is tempting to talk about Petite Fleur, Havilio’s fifth novel, in the way that one always talk about things that are challenging, confusing, absurd and comic: it’s a nightmare, a fever, it’s Tolstoy on acid, a vertigo-romp through the nether. But the use of these words is usually shorthand for saying that the work inspires that perverse quake of relation, a narrative that beckons the oblivion within us all. An oblivion that few of us, if any, understand.
So let’s leave it as it is: Petite Fleur is a book about that queasy feeling where the primal, the inexplicable, and the contemporary mash together. And its impact, its askew joy, can only be truly understood by being there, thumb on the page.
August Thompson has worked as an editor and writer since graduating from NYU in 2013. When he’s not working on fiction or watching the Boston Celtics, you can find him at the movies.
CHEESUS WAS HERE
by J.C. Davis
Sky Pony Press, 242 pages
reviewed by Kristie Gadson
Purchase this book to benefit Cleaver
In the small town of Clemency, Texas Sunday morning worship is even more important than Friday night football. With a population of 1,236 and only two churches in town, everyone looks forward to putting on their Sunday best and lifting the Lord’s name on high.
That is, everyone except Delaney Delgado, the main character in J.C. Davis’ debut novel, who chooses to spend her Sundays working at the local gas station. Her sanctuary lies behind the cashier’s counter where she’s free to observe the spectacle without having to engage in any of it. However, when her coworker discovers the face of baby Jesus on a wheel of Babybel cheese, Clemency goes into a frenzy of miraculous proportions.
Word travels fast in a small town, and it isn’t long until news of baby Cheesus spreads like wildfire. Del watches in horror as her quiet life becomes an uproar, with classmates and citizens claiming they were healed after they gazed upon the blessed wheel of cheese. How anyone could believe in miracles—or God for that matter—is beyond her; but matters get worse when someone discovers an image of Jesus on the drive-through windowpane of the nearby McDonald’s. Once the local news stations broadcast that Clemency is the Town of Miracles, visitors from all over flock into town to see baby Cheesus and McJesus. With sharp, unyielding prose Davis follows Del as she embarks on a journey to debunk these so-called “miracles” that come to plague her life.
Del wasn’t always a non-believer. She used to go to church, take communion, and pray every day like a good little Christian girl. It wasn’t until the death of her sister, Claire, when she decided that she wanted nothing to do with God or his overzealous fan club.
I believed, one hundred percent, that God was watching over me and my family. When my sister died, that was pretty much it for me and God. Clearly he didn’t have my back, why should I have his?
Of course, it’s hard for Del to maintain or voice her lack of faith when everyone around her is a firm believer, including her family and, especially, Gabe, her best friend and the son of Holy Cross’ pastor. Her skepticism, concerns, and disbelief are dismissed with talk of God’s love, grace, and mercy—the very things she felt were absent when her sister was dying of cancer. Armed with her personal brand of cynicism Del chooses, instead, to ground herself in reality, and the reality is this: her mother never speaks to her, her brother pays her no attention, her father moved to a different state, and her little sister died a slow, miserable death. No amount of churchgoing or prayer persuaded God to spare her now-broken family.
Part of me doesn’t want to believe in God anymore. The larger part, though, needs God to be real if only so I can blame him for Claire’s death.
Davis symbolizes Del’s lack of faith through her love of photography, a device that allows readers to confront Del’s truths. With her Polaroid camera in hand, she sets out to capture the snippets of life around her, each photo revealing the world as it is, in that moment in time. Polaroids leave no room for speculation – what you see is what you get, either something is there or it isn’t. It’s these tidbits of truth that Del finds comfort in, the pieces of her life she can make sense of.
A Polaroid camera’s a kind of truth you can’t find anywhere else. You press a button, and a minute later you’re holding a small piece of the world
With her trusty camera and a reluctant Gabe by her side, Del sets out to find who’s responsible for the miracles. With baby Cheesus locked within the walls of St. Andrew’s she starts with the image of Jesus on McDonald’s drive-through window. Despite the throng of visitors blocking her way Del manages to snap a few pictures and draws the attention of a local news crew, who asks her to share her opinions on the religious symbols favoring her hometown. Fueled by her frustration she states, unapologetically, that the miracles are a hoax and that someone—not God—is behind all of it. Once the interview is broadcast on national television Del finds herself at odds with everyone in Clemency, even her family.
At a steady narrative pace, Del’s search for the miracle maker unfolds, and the reader is exposed to Davis’ subtle use of dramatic irony: Del is no different than the people of Clemency, the people who choose to believe. The investigation serves as her own way of finding answers in her troubled life, much like those who attend church seeking answers of their own. Del displays a deep desire to make sense of the world around her, a feeling many of us share.
In this way, Davis invites us to seriously think about the complex intertwining of truth and ideals.
Del operates in truth, but it’s the truth about Claire’s death that exacerbates her grief and prolongs her pain. Gabe, her family, and the rest of Clemency operate through ideals, yet these ideals mask the painful parts of life without addressing them in a constructive way. Davis carefully presents these themes so the reader comes to realize that neither way of thinking is completely right or wrong. The truth, though devastatingly harsh, keeps people grounded and puts things in perspective while ideals, though ultimately unattainable, give hope and help people aspire to achieve something greater. Without being overly didactic or heavy-handed, Davis lays these concepts out for readers to draw their own conclusions. These complex themes are woven seamlessly throughout a riveting first-person narrative. It’s as if Davis has found a way to tap into the reader’s psyche, if only for a moment, to plant the seeds of thought to sprout and grow on their own.
Despite Del’s deep-rooted pessimism, she’s still an easy-to-relate-to, even likable, character. Readers who struggle with their faith can find themselves in Delaney. They’ll share her cynicism, her questions, and her feelings of being betrayed and abandoned by God. However, Del’s story is one that all readers can relate to, whether they believe in God, don’t know what to believe, or don’t believe at all. Davis doesn’t present a black and white story about religion being either good or bad; instead, she gives us a narrative about the gray, blurry lines we cross as we try to make sense of life, what it means, and how complicated it can be.
When Del discovers the truth behind the miracles she realizes that she isn’t prepared for what comes next. The answers she desperately wants turn out to be too jarring for her to comprehend, leaving her worse off than before. Despite the hopelessness she feels and the uncertainty that lies before her, Del comes to understand that having the tiniest bit of faith, even in oneself, can make things better. Or, in Del’s words,
I’m not sure about anything else in this world: God, tomorrow, why awful things happen. But I’m sure about Gabe and he’s right, I’m going to be okay.
Kristie Gadson is a recent graduate of the University of Pennsylvania with a Bachelor’s in English. But, formalities aside, she knew that children’s books would become her passion when she found herself sneaking into the children’s section of Barnes & Noble well after she turned eighteen. She is a strong advocate for diverse children’s books, and writes diverse children’s book reviews on her blog The Black Sheep Book Review.
I’M THE ONE WHO GOT AWAY by Andrea Jarrell She Writes Press, 153 pages
reviewed by Helen Armstrong
Do you catch yourself peering into other people’s windows at night? Perhaps you were driving by in the dark and wanted to catch a glimpse of how other people live. Do they sit down to eat together? What are they watching on the TV? The drive-by look is a quick wondering that’s satiated by seeing that they, too, are watching the football game, which you’re going home to watch. You must be normal, because they’re normal, because you don’t know about their dysfunctions.
Reading Andrea Jarrell’s memoir felt like I was squatting in the bushes outside of her house, fingers perched on the windowsill, watching and listening as her life unfolded, taking comfort in her family’s dysfunctions which mirrored my own in asymmetric ways. Being from a dysfunctional family myself, I take some sick comfort from seeing crying children in grocery stores, their mothers looking like they’ve reached their wits’ end. I thrive on overhearing family fights in restaurants, because for so long, it was my family who were making heads turn. Once, at a rest stop in Delaware, my younger brother pelted my mother and I with chicken nuggets from the booth across the aisle while my father yelled at him, and ultimately, dragged him from the McDonald’s. I suspect most of our families are dysfunctional, and it’s the job of our adult selves to use all of that dysfunctional material we’re sitting on to become something good. That, or we allow the cycle to repeat. But how does one heal from childhood? How does one become better than our parents? These are central questions in Andrea Jarrell’s haunting memoir I’m the One Who Got Away.
In 2012, The New York Times published an essay, “A Measure of Desire,” by Jarrell in the newspaper’s Modern Love column. Unflinchingly honest, Jarrell stripped off her clothes and stood, naked, before the jury. The essay begins, “We moved from Los Angeles to Maine with four years of sobriety under our belts, a 2-year-old daughter and another baby on the way.” Here she captivated readers with her strong, simple language. “By Christmas,” she says, “we placed single candles in each window instead of stringing colored lights the way we would have back in L.A., and I gave birth in an ice storm.”
The essay dives into both her sex life and her relationship with her husband. She describes jealousy, looking at women in town and choosing “replacement” wives, women she feels would be better for her husband than her. “In my new L. L. Bean sweaters and loafers, I began to feel around in the darkness of our relationship, wondering if my husband was still there, wondering what kind of job I would get if he left me and knowing that if he did, I would end up living with my mother.” After jealousy comes Jarrell’s decision to reclaim her own desire and to see herself as worthy of her husband. This essay would become one of the final chapters in the book.
Several chapters, in fact, were published prior to being bound together into a memoir. Cleaver Magazine published the third chapter, “Miracle Mile,” in 2013. A sweltering look at summer in Los Angeles and the relationship between mother and daughter, at the heart of the piece lies a shocking moment that Jarrell and her mother witness. A woman on the street is being taunted by young boys, and she chooses to lift her skirt at them. The moment shocks both Jarrell and her mother: “I saw what [the boy] saw—the woman’s dark pubic hair beneath her lifted skirt—a grownup eyeful he had not bargained on,” she writes. Other chapters were previously published as well, in publications including Full Grown People, Memoir Journal, and Motherwell Magazine. Jarrell wrote an essay for Cleaver about the process of turning short fiction into a memoir: “Becoming an Outlaw, Or: How My Short Fiction Became a Memoir.” She explains that she didn’t start out writing memoir, but instead, writing short stories, freezing moments of her life and fictionalizing them.
Inspired by Jo Ann Beard’s Boys of My Youth, a nonfiction collection of stories, she began to write “lyrical essay[s] crafted entirely from life.” Once she began to collect and string these stories together as memoir, she started to ask her mother questions. After one of them, her mother replied, “This book is about your life—right?” Jarrell writes, “By then, I knew that my parents’ story might be an embedded folktale within mine, but not my memoir’s dramatic trigger.”
I’m the One That Got Away begins with a haunting story of one of Jarrell’s neighbors, Susannah, a single mother, who is killed by a man she’s been seeing. The murder hits close to home for Jarrell, and she realizes that she’s been peering through Susannah’s window herself, horrified by the similarities, wishing for a better life for her neighbor than her mother was granted. Susannah’s story ends with death, and from here, Jarrell allows readers to pivot—now it’s her window we peer through, watching her story unfold slowly. She tells us the story of her parents, and we see echoes of Susannah in Jarrell’s mother.
Jarrell’s parents met when her mother was sixteen, and her father Nick was twenty. She traded in her college scholarships for an engagement ring. She would have become a photojournalist or graphic designer, but instead married the Southern charmer at age seventeen. Nick had dreams of being a movie star, and moved her from her small town in Colorado to Texas, where they were engulfed by a group of family and friends of his. She had left all of her ties in Colorado. He then got a job selling advertising for the Las Vegas Sun, so they moved again.
A charming alcoholic prone to rage, Nick slept with a gun under his pillow. In Las Vegas he began to rub elbows with Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin, and Lindsay Crosby. This is where the story turns familiar—it smacks of Harvey Weinstein, of Bill Cosby, of Casey Affleck. The men who run our entertainment industry while committing horrendous acts of sexual harassment and assault, and all of their friends who look the other way. Perhaps one of the most chilling aspects of the book is its timeliness. As women swarm the Internet and bravely write that they, too, have experienced sexual harassment and assault, we’ve begun to catch a glimpse of just how massive this problem is. Like an iceberg we weren’t able to see until it’s scraped the hull of our ship, we now have a sense of the magnitude of it—but can we ever heal?
Reading Jarrell’s story may make readers think of their own experiences with abuse, or even sexual harassment. It reminded me of the time a boy felt my boobs in front of my boyfriend, and my boyfriend did nothing. Or being forced to console him when he felt he was being a bad boyfriend, instead of agreeing that it was wrong to tell me he was going to fuck his neighbor while I was away on vacation. These experiences are reflected back at us by all of the people sharing their own stories similar to, and worse than, our own.
Jarrell writes about Nick’s twenty-second birthday. Several friends come to Vegas from Texas to celebrate, and the whole night, Nick keeps a close watch on his wife. When a friend holds out a chair for her, he’s there in an instant, telling the other man smoothly, “Thanks so much for keeping an eye out for her.” The situation escalates from there, with Nick trying to get the friend to agree that his wife is attractive, and the friend agreeing, only to have it nearly come to blows. The scene embarrassed his wife in front of everyone and ensured that none of his friends would speak to or show her kindness for the rest of the night.
She covered her black eyes with makeup, got a job at a casino, and made a life for herself alongside Nick. It was only once she became pregnant that she began to formulate a plan to leave him, to protect both herself and her baby.
She escaped, and this is the beginning of Andrea’s story. In vignettes, she tells us of her and her mother’s trips across Europe, of her childhood in Los Angeles, of Nick’s return into their lives, of her own loves, failures, and successes. She talks about her marriage, too. “[My husband] would not love me unconditionally—and he didn’t expect me to love him that way either,” she writes. “We would need to try, day by day, to be people worthy of each other’s love.” Here Jarrell pivots from her younger self who begins the book, shocked by the death of a neighbor that mirrors so well the path of her own mother’s life but with a gunshot ending, to the more confident Jarrell that narrates the end. When she writes about finally reclaiming her desire, she says, “It was where we skated on a frozen lake without falling through and dove into its liquid depths when the leafy summer arrived. I know it was there that I finally realized my husband, my babies, and those dormer windows were truly mine.” The book is a purge, a healing process, Jarrell’s own #metoo.
The scenes hang before you, just out of reach, because you are always aware that this is not your story. You’re peering through the window. When you put the book down, the lights are turned off in the house, and you can see your own reflection in the window. You see, perhaps, your own Nick, or memories of him. But this time, you do it with Jarrell and her mother by your side. You remember that you aren’t alone, that women all around you have felt this particularly bitter sting. You think of Susannah, of Jarrell, of her mother. You think of the women of Hollywood who are silent no longer. You go on, because they did.
Helen Armstrong is a senior at Arcadia University. She currently serves as editor-in-chief of the online lifestyle magazine, Loco Mag. She loves to travel and enjoys writing fiction and poetry, mostly about sexuality and feminism. Her work appears in Catfish Creek and Quiddity. Follow her on twitter @helenkarmstrong.
Hitting a baseball is the hardest thing to do in professional sports. A fastball travels at 90 miles per hour, moving from the pitcher’s mitt to the catcher’s glove in approximately .44 seconds. If the batter blinks, he’ll miss. For the last few feet that the ball travels, it is essentially invisible to the hitter. He has to have made his decision by then, whether to swing, how he’ll swing.
I did not know anything about baseball when I picked up Chris Ludovici’s The Minors. Nick Rogers, one of the protagonists, reflects on the difficulty of hitting a baseball, and I ended up spending too much time engrossed in an ESPN Sport Science episode checking Nick’s information. It turns out that, football fanatic though I am, the fastball is a formidable opponent: 90 mph is a frightening, lethal speed, and statistically speaking, it is almost impossible to hit.
However, when we meet Nick in The Minors, baseball is part of Nick’s past, thanks to a shoulder injury. Back home and living with an aunt, the 28-year-old Nick tries to forge ahead by working as a contractor and living a self-serving life dating a succession of girls (most of whom, he claims, came onto him and not the other way around).
Until he is hired by the Heller family. Ludovici’s other protagonist is 16-year-old Sam Heller, whose family is preparing to move to Chicago. Sam’s father has relocated ahead of the family, and it is left to Sam’s mother to get the house fixed up and sold while shepherding Sam through her junior year of high school and keeping up with Sam’s eight-year-old brother, Oscar. Sam is a reflective young woman trying to navigate the abandonment she feels at her father’s moving ahead to Chicago, the alienation she feels from her mother (who she is sure only tries to make her life harder) and her emerging identity as someone very different from either her father or her mother.
Ludovici has given Sam a complex character befitting her age; her internal monologue moves between both narcissism and the philosophic questioning of reality that is part of adolescence, making her believable and interesting. When we first meet Sam, she is ruminating on her impulse to try a cigarette, even though she knows she shouldn’t, and her internal debate covers everything from health to what she learned in psychology class to the sex appeal of oral habits:
So sometimes, when faced with a decision, she froze. Was her desire to smoke the next logical step in some long chain of desires that was set in motion when she was just a baby? Or was it some desperate, pointless attempt on her part to rebel from whatever programming was driving her these last sixteen years? How could she ever know?
Sam is never sure she knows, but she tries hard to discover what the rational system is that makes the adult world make sense, instead of trying to force reality to always fit her own childish wishes. Her self-awareness is unique, perhaps not entirely adolescent, but that is part of what I would say might make The Minors a great book even for teenagers. Sam doesn’t just want to rise above her youth, but wants to become someone she is happy being:
It was all a question of identity. Who did she want to be? Did she want to be the girl who, when faced with a situation she didn’t like, threw a big fit and made everyone around her miserable? Like her mother? […] Or did she want to be more like her dad? Someone who rolled with things, worked with them, found the good in everything and focused on that.
At the same time that Sam is trying so hard to understand herself, her limited understanding of what the adult world is like causes her to constantly stumble: She has misunderstood her mother’s motivations and she has oversimplified her dad’s reasons for “rolling with things.”
Nick is the contractor hired to fix up the house, from renovating a bathroom to fixing kitchen tile and rebuilding the old deck. In the Heller house, Nick feels needed and takes on some of the responsibilities of a big brother and father: he instructs Oscar about baseball, teaches Sam how to drive, and enjoys Liz’s nonjudgmental counsel about his girlfriends. For a short time, the Heller family takes on an unconventional form, and it changes Nick and Sam and their understanding of adulthood and relationships.
“What’s the deal with you and these people?” asks Nick’s aunt as he becomes more and more involved with the Hellers. Nick initially lacks the self-awareness to fully understand what is it with him and “these people,” and how quickly initial connection becomes affection, and how quickly affection becomes the responsibility. Like Sam, Nick possesses believably contradictory qualities. While he is brutally judgmental of wealthy white-collar men like Steve Heller (the first time he meets Steve he wonders, “What kind of a dickhead put product in his hair on a Sunday morning?”) he is deeply empathetic about the work that a mother like Liz does in raising her children, even while he is an insensitive jerk in his own dating relationships with girls.
The Minors is essentially a coming-of-age story, but it is unique in that “coming-of-age” is not restricted to the teenage character, Sam. Sam and Nick take turns telling the story, and both must “grow up” in different ways. Their perceptions and relational needs make these two connect with each other and ricochet off each other in sweet and painful ways: their relationship has overtones of sibling, parent, and suitor. Unfortunately, in such a complicated relationship it is hard to do everything right. It might be easier to hit a fastball than to always make the right moves in family life or know how to best care for loved ones.
This is a character-driven story, and Sam and Nick and the others have the nuance and beauty that comes from genuine affection on the part of the author. Such writerly love is infectious; it only took a few pages for me to care about Nick and Sam. The story’s premise about the nature of people and adulthood is fundamentally compassionate; people aren’t bad, Nick contends, they’re “just stupid.” They make mistakes and stumble through their relationships. In The Minors, coming of age is the acknowledgment that no one has really made it out of “the minors,” that everyone is trying their hardest and there are good moments and bad moments to life. When Liz describes her own coming of age, she says:
I thought there was going to be some corner I turned or switch I flipped and I would just be an adult. But it never happened. Instead, I was just the same old me, but I was doing grown up things. I was the same silly girl inside, but I was cleaning my house instead of an apartment; I was driving around suburban streets instead of city ones. There were times I felt like an adult, sometimes when I was with Sam or Oscar […] But even then there was a part of me that was always aware that I was doing these things that I was just unprepared for, that I had no business actually doing. That’s what I think adulthood really is—it’s just little kids playing dress-up.
For a teenager like Sam, internalizing this kind of compassionate view of others as “unprepared” means rejecting the narcissism of adolescence and embracing forgiveness. For Nick, this also means rejection of his old narcissism, but we’re not sure where the rest of his “adult” life will take him. I wouldn’t mind finding out where Nick goes in future books or short stories.
The baseball analogy is not overdone in the book; I’m actually harping on it more than Ludovici does, simply because I like it. This is Ludovici’s first novel, and it reminded me strongly of The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein, another debut novel about a family, with well-written characters and an apt sports metaphor. I noticed however that this is not Ludovici’s first time writing a compelling younger female character: he has a short story in the second issue of Cleaverfeaturing Daisy, a fourth grader who has to figure out the difference between “being cool,” and being “awesome.” The Minors is a pleasure to read because of Ludovici’s capacity to give nuance to the experience of growing up and also being an adult. He makes us wonder, Is it different? Don’t we “grown-ups” know exactly what both Daisy and Sam are talking about?
Ryan 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. Read other reviews by Ryan here.
A MYRIAD OF ROADS THAT LEAD TO HERE by Nathan Elias Scarlet Leaf, 72 pages
reviewed by Kelly Doyle
Nathan Elias’ first novella, A Myriad of Roads that Lead to Here, tells a story that is simultaneously frustrating and accessible. This bildungsroman provides a snapshot into the emotional journey of a naive and sometimes selfish narrator, Weston, as he grapples with the untimely death of his mother, which had occurred a few months before.
Home from college for the summer, Weston decides to walk to the ocean. He hopes that this trip, modeled after stories he has read, will cure him of his pain. Unfortunately, the reader quickly realizes that this journey is not only fruitless, but may have the reverse effect than was intended. Brief moments of human connection, as fleeting as smoking a cigarette and seeing another person doing the same or giving a child a quarter to buy a candy, are all that give Weston any relief on his walk.
During these moments, when Weston reaches out to another human being, the reader can feel the void in his heart. That void only grows as he moves on, determined to finish his painful quest and all the while aware that his life is falling apart. “I write in my journal about things I haven’t had time to think of,” Weston says, “what my life will be like without my mother, the fact that I may actually be in severe credit card debt after this trip, and what I plan to do when I get back.” He wishes he wasn’t “consumed by fear.”
When Weston invites his friend Saul to accompany him on the journey to the ocean, he envisions the two of them walking through the forests of America, clutching copies of Walden, breathing in the clear air and emerging at the end like newborns, all of their pain and sorrow cast along the side of the road. He hopes to find peace and closure, to banish the thoughts of ghosts that torment him. His pain is vague to the reader but present, manifesting in the form of dreams and ghosts and torturous thoughts that are never described in more than general terms. Beyond expected mourning, Weston appears haunted. This extreme inner turmoil may be explained by Weston’s very open and abrupt admission that he once partook in self-harm with an old girlfriend. Weston never elaborates on the incident aside from regular references to his scars, but it could indicate that Weston’s young adult life was not easy.
Whatever form of pain Weston experiences, he strives to escape. He hopes to find “freedom and independence” and, at the same time, he tells Saul, “Whatever it is that will cleanse us both of the distress we feel from losing our mothers.” Weston chooses Saul as his companion not because they are particularly close or because Saul is particularly savvy, but because Saul has also lost a mother. They can suffer together. Rather than escaping, Weston builds his own microcosm of suffering. He pretends to be positive, playing the devil’s advocate when Saul proclaims that he cannot “see everything as beautiful” as Weston does, but his pretended positivity doesn’t breach the surface. Weston begins to live off of other people’s kindness while maintaining the facade that he never accepts help.
Weston often seems selfish, but this selfishness is followed by subtle reminders that he is only a kid. He misses his mother “sitting in the front seat, within arms reach, every so often checking on [him] to give [him] a smile, to realign [him] to a peaceful state.” The circumstances of his mother’s death are conspicuously absent from the text, aside from a vague reference to her habit of checking herself into the emergency room. Still, it seems clear that her death was sudden and occurred before Weston had an opportunity to grow up and learn to care for himself. Not only is he dealing with the loss of a loved one, but he is suddenly thrust into independence.
Weston chooses isolation and hardship to prove that he can care for himself, that he can live without his mother. He asks himself, “how can I ever find freedom and independence if I keep depending on people,” and decides that the only way to prove he is capable is to dissociate himself from the support system at his disposal. He is strung between desiring independence and desiring to be cared for. “You look at dependence like it’s weak,” his girlfriend tells him. “It’s not weak. It’s okay to let people love you. You know that, right?” Weston admits that he does not. Still, his obvious naivete proves that he cannot grasp the independence he wants, not yet. The conflict between his mind and heart manifests as hypocrisy and selfishness, dominating a character who consistently says one thing and does another.
Weston’s romantic idea of a Walden-esque journey proves ill-conceived and badly planned. The two men do not pack enough food, yet their packs are too heavy. They cannot walk the distance they expected and they cannot sleep outside like they had hoped. Rather than walking through vitalizing forests like Thoreau, they find themselves growing exhausted alongside highways and parking lots. Weston repeatedly reiterates that he does not want help from anyone, nevertheless, he and Saul soon resort to hitching rides, staying in people’s homes and shelters and eating others’ food, refusing to admit that their adventure is a failure. Weston turns to his girlfriend for help, admitting that he began dating her solely because she supports him. Once again, his selfishness becomes apparent, but this selfishness emerges out of his disorientation in a world without his mother.
When Weston and Saul arrive in the welcoming home of Weston’s cousin, the warmth and love they find bring Weston’s true problem to the forefront. Weston realizes that he “lost touch with a lot of people” after his mother’s death. He finally begins to recognize that this might be part of his suffering. Unfortunately, this realization seems to be quickly forgotten. He continues asking his girlfriend for favors. He continues contemplating his own struggle while remaining blind to the struggles evident in his cousin’s immediate family. Oddly, none of his family members mention the death of his mother or the unusual nature of his trip, and the novella never addresses the statuses of his father and stepfather.
Weston does not know who he is, what he wants, or how to fix his problems. His lack of experience, worldly knowledge, and self-awareness makes his healing process exasperating for the reader. His troubled young adult life offers some sort of explanation and his initiative provides hope for the future, but all the reader is actually given is the middle of his journey. Elias provides very little information about Weston’s family or the circumstances of his mother’s death; his narrative stops short before Weston has an opportunity to truly change before his life is either repaired or destroyed. This renders the story incomplete, missing the truly essential moment of change that Weston surely was looking for.
Who was Weston before this tragedy and who is he after? The reader is left to wonder. Nevertheless, this short snapshot into a young man’s life, though incomplete, succeeds in portraying the painful confusion that follows a tragedy. This novella provides readers who have experienced loss an opportunity to see their own feelings of confusion, fear, and disorientation reflected in a character’s search for rightness in a world that feels anything but.
Kelly Doyle studies English, creative writing, and psychology at Emory University. Her fiction has appeared in Firewords Quarterly, Stories Through the Ages College Edition, and others. She is the editor-in-chief of Emory’s literary magazine, Alloy, and she works in a developmental memory lab on campus. She loves to read and travel, and she plans to pursue a career in writing.
KONUNDRUM: SELECTED PROSE OF FRANZ KAFKA by Franz Kafka translated by Peter Wortsman Archipelago Books, 384 pages
reviewed by Eric Andrew Newman
With the centenary of Franz Kafka’s first three major publications having passed just a few years ago, a plethora of new translations of Kafka’s stories have recently been released. Among them is Konundrum: Selected Prose of Franz Kafka, with works chosen and translated by Peter Wortsman, a writer known for his own micro fiction. Wortsman’s selection of what he considers to be the very best of Kafka’s short prose, whether it’s a story, a letter, a journal entry, a parable, or an aphorism distinguishes Konundrum from the other new translations. This approach contrasts with the single book-length work of Susan Bernofsky’s new translation of “The Metamorphosis” and Michael Hofmann’s new translation of all of Kafka’s unpublished stories in Investigations of a Dog.
In the acknowledgements, Wortsman states that his only criterion for inclusion in the book is the ability of a piece to amaze him. In this way, his selections are more personal than a collection of Kafka’s most important works, or works that were published while he was alive, or works that went unpublished in his lifetime. Wortsman also says that his publisher gave him the complete freedom to dip into Kafka’s entire opus and translate whatever strikes his fancy. This kind of freedom is a gift not only to the translator, but also to the reader, as it gives Kafka novices the ability to sample his letters, journals, parables, and aphorisms without having to dive into each of the separate volumes dedicated to the subject and meticulously published by Schocken Books, the gatekeeper to most of Franz Kafka’s available writings.
The first translations of Franz Kafka’s works from the German into English were completed by Edwin and Willa Muir, and published by Schocken Books in the decades following his death. The opening of Kafka’s story “The Metamorphosis,” as translated by the Muirs, is perhaps one of the most well-known first lines in all literature: “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” However, later translations, such as my worn high school copy of Joachim Neugroschel’s version, would go on to describe Samsa as having transformed into a “monstrous vermin,” beginning the decades-long debate of whether it is more accurate to translate Kafka’s phrase “ungeheueres Ungeziefer” as “monstrous insect,” or “monstrous vermin.”
Wortsman, who retranslates the title of “The Metamorphosis” here as “Transformed,” sidesteps this issue by using the more colloquial phrase of “monstrous bug.” In the introduction to her new translation of “The Metamorphosis,” Susan Bernofsky mentions that when Kafka spoke of the story to his friends, he often referred to Samsa by the more playful term bug, rather than the stricter term vermin. This more playful, colloquial sensibility of Wortsman’s translation is also reflected in the new title of the piece, which translates directly from the German into English as “The Transformation.” With his new title, Wortsman wanted to strip the English translation of the heavily classical connotations of Ovid’s The Metamorphosis and give it a more accessible air, choosing the form “Transformed” due to how often the word appears in the text.
Kafka’s playful sense of humor is also highlighted in an excerpt from a letter that he wrote to his fiancée Felice Bauer, “I Can Also Laugh:”
I can also laugh, Felice, you bet I can, I am even known as a big laugher… It even happened that I burst out laughing—and how!—at a solemn meeting with our director—that was two years ago, but the incident has lived on as a legend at the institute.
With this collection, Wortsman endeavors to bring the comedy back to Kafka. In the forward to his previous book, Tales of the German Imagination from the Brothers Grimm to Ingeborg Bachmann, Wortsman relates the story of his aunt going to a reading given by Kafka in Vienna when she was younger. While she didn’t know what to make of “the gawky man and his strange stories,” what struck her the most was that throughout the reading Kafka could barely keep from shaking with laughter.
At first glance, one might assume the book is arranged in chronological order, as it begins with Kafka’s first known writing, a note he wrote to a friend, and ends with his last known writings, the notes he wrote his doctor while dying in a sanatorium. But on a closer inspection, the rest of the book doesn’t follow suit. Throughout, Wortsman alternates between early published pieces and later unpublished ones, whether they are stories, parables, reflections, or journal entries with no real discernible pattern. This approach, however, allows readers to experience the prose on its own merits, rather than as a strictly defined literary form. It also shows the reader how porous the literary borders between Kafka’s short prose and more informal writing can be.
Translator Peter Wortsman
One example of this porousness is the short piece, “A Hybrid,” a favorite of mine from the collection. In the story, the narrator tell us about a creature he cares for that is half cat and half lamb, and how it is the favorite spectacle of the local children. He describes the mysterious creature as:
Head and claws come from the cat, size and stature from the lamb; both bequeathed the glint and wildness in its eyes, the soft and snug coat of fur, the manner of its movements no less leaping than skulking.
Even though it reads like a polished story, it was actually taken from one of Kafka’s journal entries. In the acknowledgements, Wortsman says he chose to include several journal entries that he imagines Kafka might have taken and published as stories, and it’s hard to argue in the case of “A Hybrid.”
However they came about, this reader is happy to have more of Kafka’s short shorts in print. Many of Kafka’s short shorts, particularly the ones from his first book, Contemplation, and his later book, A Country Doctor, seem to have been the prototype for the recent flash fiction, or micro fiction movement. Wortsman is singularly qualified to bring these short short stories back into the zeitgeist, as he himself is a writer of flash and micro fiction, having published a book of the form, A Modern Way to Die: Small Stories and Micro Tales. In fact, Wortsman published his translation of Kafka’s short “A Hybrid” in Gigantic, a contemporary literary journal that only publishes flash. Another favorite short short is “Poseidon,” a parable that imagines the god Poseidon so buried in bureaucratic paperwork he doesn’t even have time to enjoy the sea.
While the selections Worstman includes in Konundrum are terrific, I also have to wonder about the pieces he chose to leave out. One major omission here is Kafka’s breakthrough story, “The Judgement.” As one of Kafka’s first major works published in his lifetime and the product of what Kafka considered to be his ideal artistic process (he wrote it all in one night), it’s essential to any Kafka short prose collection. Still, Konundrum includes the rest of Kafka’s greatest hits that were published in his lifetime, like “Transformed,” “The Hunger Artist,” “In the Penal Colony,” and “A Report to the Academy,” as well as lesser known, but just as great, stories that went unpublished while he was alive, like “The Burrow,” “Investigations of a Dog,” “A Hybrid,” “The Bridge,” and “Poseidon.”
In his afterword, Wortsman remarks on how fresh and alive Kafka’s prose still is today and I can only agree. Once you dust them off and give them a new coat of paint, his surreal stories are just as relevant now as they were a hundred years ago. The absurdity of bureaucracy, a singular object of Kafka’s work, only seems to have grown in the intervening. Wortsman does an excellent job of maintaining the long, looping run-on sentences essential to German grammar, while at the same time keeping a rhythm and readability for the English speaking reader. In addition to being a solid collection for the Kafka beginner to start reading and enjoying his work, Konundrum is also a good collection for more modern and experienced readers who might appreciate a fresher, looser take on Kafka’s prose.
Eric Andrew Newman currently lives in Los Angeles, but is originally from the Chicago area. He works as an archivist for a nonprofit foundation by day and as a writer of flash fiction by night. He has previously been named as a finalist for the Robert J. Demott Short Prose Contest and the Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Exposition Review, Gargoyle, Heavy Feather Review, Necessary Fiction,and Quarter After Eight, among others.