Archives for posts with tag: Fiction

We So Seldom Look on Love, Emily M. Keeler, Bookside Table

How come no one told me to read Babara Gowdy before now?

This story, oh God, this story. So, the narrator is a woman who gets off on cadavers, and death. She’s a necrophile, and it’s about the joy of extremes, heat and chill, life and death, and the primacy of blood as a thing that signifies both beginnings and ends, as a real thing that’s inside of us and inside of others, blood as intimacy–as elemental and animal and private and desirable.

While the subject matter may be affecting enough as it is, the little twists and structuring of “We so Seldom Look on Love” make this story into a small dark space, all weird angles and corners. The narrator reminds you occasionally that she’s pretty, blonde and everything, and that only dead men can break her heart. She talks to you like someone trying real hard to control what they reveal, but is too unsure of where they are on the sliding scale of human being<—->monster that she’s got to back track and defend and try to figure out how to tell her personal truth in a way that will be exactly the one and only way to tell you about it without you getting all freaked out and crying out ‘Oh god you’re a monster.’ That Gowdy could pull off this slippery feat is totally mind blowing. That I found myself oscillating between disgust and recognition probably says more about me than about this story. Oh God, this story.

She talks about her childhood fascination with dead things, and the scene that describes the moment of her menarche is absurdly powerful. Of course, here’s blood again, here made into that womanly thing, that potential to bear yet more life inside of your body. It happens to her while she’s whipped up into a fever over a dead thing, a chipmunk, and she’s been howling and dancing and rubbing the small dead animal all over her body, and she gets covered in blood, but it’s hers, this first time, this first time it’s her blood, and it’s extreme and compelling because what other way can you possibly describe the obsession, the compulsion, to be wild in your body and so morbid in your desire?

Oh God, this story.

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It was while I was going through my Emily Dickinson phase a few years ago that I first clued into the womanliness of the house and the garden in literature. These are domestic, private and semi-private places,  and as such have been part of the psychic landscape of a certain kind of womanhood for some time. Francine Prose wrote, in a 1998 issue of Harper’s, that perhaps some of the trouble with reading and critically evaluating  woman writers is that we as a culture are still learning how to read the metaphorical significance of the house, of the garden, where we’ve long been able to understand the deeper meaning of metaphors drawn from the traditionally masculine experiences of battles, boyhood, and quests.

Which is why I’m interested in what Amanda Ackerman is doing in the her story “Weed Course,” from the most recent issue of Incongruous Quarterly.The story is pretty inventive in its structure, incorporating a questionnaire and a multistranded narrative. The questionnaire, part of which appears above, asks some pretty leading questions, but it’s unclear exactly where the narrator is leading you.  “Weed Course” is about the tension between the love of growth and the need for death, about killing weeds to the root. There are two beginnings to the story, one where the reader is told the “[l]ocation from which this story is being told: Gardens. Domestic, Public, Professional and Otherwise (e.g. forests, library stacks, courts, airplanes of all kinds)” and one that exhorts the reader to “Beware of what I am afraid to say.” What a way to start a tale, instructing us to read between the lines, to tease fear out of this “expert gardener (killer, grower).”

Ackerman is playing with the idea of the garden as a place of personal development, which is complicated in that the garden is an exterior place. While the garden as metaphor remains womanly, there are some things about womanliness that have changed since Dickinson, since Prose’s essay from nearly 15 years ago. The garden too has changed.  Throughout “Weed Course” Ackerman repeats the phrase “what I really want to say is” and the effect is a subtle invocation of the intellectual and emotional struggle of trying to discern and express your desires when you’re coming from a place of contradiction. And of course, when we say something we’re trying to build a bridge, we’re trying to connect. The wavering in this story reflects the constant doubling back, the shadowy fear that accompanies intimacy. How much growth and how much killing? What kind of bridge do you want to build, when it’s the thing taking you to another person? Where’s the balance when privacy is eroded while alienation becomes steadily reinforced? Should a garden be a thing of beauty, should a life, should a woman be a thing of beauty, when there’s just so much killing involved?

This has been a tremendous year for me. This project has reset the equilibrium of my life, and I am amazed and grateful.

A thank-you is very much in order. I don’t often address you, reader, but here I am now, to extend my enormous gratitude. Thank you for being here; without you my work would have a very different meaning.

When I started this project in January, I had trouble settling into my voice. I thought that because Bookside Table was a blog I had to use cute, conversational conventions. You can see it in my first post for the project, on Roland Barthes’ Roland Barthes. You can see it in my original about page, where I recklessly absolved myself of the responsibility of criticism, telling you that “I’m not a reviewer: I’m a reader. I’m in this purely for love.” I think I’ve been a mostly phenomenological reader, looking to the book itself and evaluating my experience of the thing. Only rarely have I tried to ‘situate a work,’ and for the most part I haven’t explicitly said ‘I like this’ or ‘I don’t like this.’ But you can tell, probably, which were the ones I loved best.

My year in reading post, over at The Millions, makes clear the two books that ‘lit me up.’ The ones I was compelled to read twice.  But, to be fair, I also went back to sections or stories from The Odious Child, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, The Mezzanine, and Ghosts. I’ve also opened The Obituary at random to revel in its enlightened weirdness, to feel my eyes trying to stitch together the violent, beautiful fragments. Re-reading is one of my greatest pleasures, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone that I dip back in now and then. There is no great intimacy built without familiarity, even if strange  limerance is its own reward.

I will tell you that sometimes this little hobby was troublesome, and there were a few rough patches. After I finished Nightwood I didn’t much feel like reading another book, more fiction. I wanted to let it simmer for a long time. It was a feeling like the strange sickness I had in 2009, after finishing Infinite Jest for the first time, when I couldn’t force myself to read fiction for a full ten months afterwards. Nightwood was like that, I felt ruined on books because here was something so dark and perfect in it’s power, so claustrophobic and complex that I needed to breath on it. I felt such a sense of readerly justice being miscarried that I couldn’t stew on it, that I had to keep going. I sat on it for a week, and read the next book, Memories of  my Melancholy Whores in a single sitting on the Sunday afternoon before the post went up. I wrote about it immediately after I put it down.  I figured it would be okay, because it’s ‘minor’ Marquez, and now the post on it makes me cringe. I was so ungenerous and clumsy. But the project contains itself, so it stays where it is.

While regret is too strong a word, at times I wish I had been a little less gentle, just a little harder on some of these books. I really wish I’d told you that only 65% of The Fortress of Solitude was worth much more than the paper it was printed on. I liked it a lot, that 65%, and it more than justifies the miss steps Lethem made there. Sometimes I think I was a little bit cowardly, a little too unsure. But I hope I never let you down.

I think that the major responsibility of a book reviewer, of any cultural critic, is to inspire hunger in other people. To stir up the public appetite for better and more nourishing things. I think I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to do this, so I hedged my bets and tried to shirk that responsibility. Thankfully, I couldn’t always escape that harness.  Some of the feedback I’ve received through out the year, from reader (and occasionally author)  emails, new and not so new friends, and on twitter has been from people kind enough to encourage me to keep going, to tell me that my little corner of the internet makes them hungry for more and better books. I couldn’t be more grateful for this kind of connection. Reading these books has made me a little better than I am, but telling you about them has changed my whole life.

The Heart is a Lonley Hunter Book Cover, Bookside Table

I’d heard of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter before I picked it up. It’s a classic that appears on a lot of lists, I guess. But I had never once heard anything really meaningful about the book, and every time I ever saw it on a bookshelf or in a store I assumed it was basically the sequel to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mocking Bird. I think that’s because every edition I’ve ever seen of this book relies on a stunning and romantic photograph of its author, a young woman in workman’s clothes, complete with a wrist watch and an incredibly fatigued expression. To me, I guess, Carson McCullers looks just like I would imagine Lee’s little girl main character Scout would as a grown woman, who was also McCullers. Basically, becuase I knew it was a first novel, a work of Southern fiction, and every copy I’ve seen has a picture of the authour on the cover,I thought it would be a roman à clef. And I thought it was a romance novel, too, based on the title.

But it wasn’t about a young workaday woman, and it’s short on the type of romance I was expecting. It’s mostly about loneliness. There are a handful of main characters, a whackload of secondary ones, and they are all in some sort of orbit around a deaf and mute man named John Singer. And they are all lonely, all of the time, even though they sometimes delude themselves into believing that they are not lonely, that they have found some friend with whom they can commune. Each suffers from a type of loneliness for which there is no cure, political, moral, racial, intellectual… Try as they might to stop the well with music, gin, rage, or even words, loneliness becomes a primary orientation for these characters, and though they drive onward in life in search of communion they eventually slip through and down into the dark.

The Tiny Wife Book Cover, EM Keeler, Bookside Table

The Tiny Wife is a small but surprisingly sweet urban fairy tale about a metaphysical bank robbery. While the book as an object, with Tim Pervical’s charming ink block illustrations and its twisted hand lettered cover, recalls the Gothic twee sensibility of a Tim Burton or Jhonen Vasquez, Kaufman’s quirky story seems to spring from a deeper well.

The thief in the opening chapter robs everyone at the bank of the item they consider the most sentimentally valuable. One man hands over his most recent pay stub, the first he’s received since getting an important promotion; a woman gives the thief a crumpled photograph of her children; another man hands over the original key to a house that’s been in his family for generations; one woman, the wife of the book’s subtle narrator, hands over the calculator she has had since high school, which she has used to make some of the most important decisions in her life. Being robbed of these materials will effect these people in strange and unpredictable ways. One woman’s tattoo comes to life, another turns into candy. The man with the key becomes physically overpowered by the family history contained in the walls of his house.

Each strange incident is described through the rhythm of a fable, short sentences and simple ideas that have totally steam rolled you by the time they come to the last line. These pieces are threaded together by the confusion that the narrator and his wife experience about the way that their feelings may have changed since the birth of their son. For the most part, The Tiny Wife feels like a dream, a fiction that seems senseless but meaningful, the kind where you wake up feeling like things have worked themselves out and you can keep moving forward in a world made a little clearer.

Pitch Dark Bookcover, EM Keeler, Bookside Table

Pitch Dark is elegant and subtle. Renata Adler takes on love, travel, journalism, terrorism, the Holocaust, and other strange realities of the now and turns them over gently, again and again, until they are polished and compact, small hard  scenes rendered as beautiful little prose poems. The novel feels like a collage, pieces of narrative and history glued down in overlapping layers. There are allusions to classic literature and historical events, bracketing observations on the nature of love or of success. Pitch Dark also functions as a work of demonstrative criticism, insisting on the importance of stories and on our ability to create new forms to contain the repetitive content of human life.

The plot, to the extent that one exists, follows Kate, a newspaper journalist, as she deals with the fall out from the dissolution of a long term affair with a married man. She tries to compose herself by visiting Ireland, but her emotional fragility is made worse by feelings of paranoia about terrorism, and the IRA. Unable to gracefully extract herself from accommodations provided by a collegial acquaintance, she falls into an absurd pattern of behavior that escalates almost comically, and culminates in a crime committed without intent.

One thing about reading this now, in 2011, is how distant my reading is from the alleged source material. When Pitch Dark was published, in 1983, Adler was a huge figure in the New York literary world. The novel, not unlike Cakes and Ale, was supposedly shocking in the way it presented a fiction molded from a publicly known set of facts, based on real characters. Adler was so well known at the time, that my first edition copy doesn’t even include a biographical note, just a large photo of her face, bathed in sunlight. And just like Cakes and Ale, I was happy to be afforded the space to read this novel without being forced by the zeitgeist to read into it.

Chilly Scenes of Winter Book Cover, Emily M Keeler, Bookside Table

Chilly Scenes of Winter was not exactly funny. In fact, it was one of the rare books that made me think to myself, gee, what would happen if I read something that wasn’t totally depressing, for a change? My mom is constantly complaining that things are too dark here on Bookside Table, and this was the first book that really made me consider her position.

Which is not to say that Ann Beattie’s prose is dismal, or that her characters are humorless and unlovable. In fact, just the opposite; Charles and his friend Sam are riddled with the good kinds of flaws. They’re dynamic and Beattie paints their portraits with real verve and no small measure of skill. They are in that strange post college funk, where they’re technically adults but they feel unsure and unhinged in a world where the term no longer has a clear meaning. So much of Chilly Scenes is about the accumulation of the micro disappointments and disillusionment that come with growing up. Charles’ mother is mentally unstable, his stepfather is over-invested in a fantasy life, the older man that Charles and Sam meet at the local watering hole is an alcoholic well past the point of functioning, and love consistently proves easier in theory than in practice as these young men try to move forward without ever catching their bearings. The book is set in the mid 1970s, and the characters are almost all at a loss for how they can ever truly grow up, how they could possibly move on from the mayday of the ’60s.

Througout Chilly Scenes of Winter there is an incredible tension between the roles of fantasy and intimacy in relationships and in love. Charles pines for his ex, feels alienated from his sister, and relies on his best friend for the quotidian comforts of loving companionship. He imagines his ex in a big kitchen, fixating on A frame housing, imagines a bright but loveless future for his sister, and tends to the intimate work of caring for Sam when he loses his job, his apartment, and his dog. Beattie’s use of language seems calm on the surface but, just like her characters, has a deep and anxious pulse .The dialog still feels fresh, 30 years on, and there is a strange whimsy and exhilaration even in the most desperate scenes. “Charles sat up and sat cross-legged in the back seat, looking out the back window at the highway. He was so tired that he was giddy; he thought about waving to oncoming cars, seeing if they’d mistake him for a kid or think he was retarded and wave back. But he was too tired to play games.” And there it is! The incremental build up of so many small sadnesses, littered throughout this break-out novel, born on the back of repetition and blossoming into pervasive ennui. And let me tell ya, it gets to you alright.

I’m of two minds when it comes to Tao Lin’s Shoplifting From American Apparel:

1. Lin’s doing something here, but it may be hard to recognize exactly what he’s doing because it feels like it comes from a realist, even documentary, place. Which is something I think I only recognize because he’s documenting what it’s like to be a twenty-something artfuck in a big city, right this minute in history. In the opening scene, Sam is talking on Google chat with what I call an ‘Internet friend.’ This is a person he’s met with in real life, but it wasn’t easy and fluid in an F2F context; they barely talked IRL. But online, they can take great leaps of intimacy, make easy jokes, and have a private friendship where they can talk about anything. At the tail end of the story, Sam encounters another person that he knows from the nebulous online world, and the time they spend together is a mirror for that first digitized interaction. Sam is motivated by a particular eros, a constant desire to come together with others in the hope that something will happen, and his brief stints in police custody (for shoplifting) are incredible by dint of the fact that these experiences are so easily adapted into his life of aimless coming together. It’s as if the men he sits in a cell with are almost (but not quite) objects or props in the perpetual performance that Lin is both observing and creating. The way that Lin refuses to give the reader a sense of depth to Sam and his nearly interchangeable cast of friends and acquaintances is nothing short of phenomenal. This is a story that takes place completely on the surface, where meanings are interchangeable. Drinking iced coffee in the sun is pleasurable, but empty, just like the community service that Sam is sentenced to after his first arrest is something that passes the time, but there is no take away lesson and Sam shoplifts again, is arrested again. This total lack of a sticking quality, this slickness of being and experiencing the world is something that resonates deeply with me, and I can recognize in myself and my circle of friends. You can just say almost any fucked up shit for the sake of it:

“Luis,” said Sam. “What is happening. It’s Saturday.”

“I think we are going insane,” said Luis. “From not being around people. We are starting to go inside ourselves, and play around inside of our own mental illness. That doesn’t make any sense.”

“What should I eat,” said Sam. “I have two choices. Cereal or peanut butter bagel.”

“Cereal,” said Luis.

And it might not matter. Even when Sam’s one time lover Sheila ends up in psychiatric care, it’s just another borderline meaningless thing. The characters often (and I do this too!) verbalize their feelings, especially if the feelings are positive. They say “I feel good.” Or, “I’m feeling really good right now.” As if the feelings themselves are noteworthy, more so than the circumstances that enable those good feelings. Or maybe it’s in part a reaction to the strange intimacies of text based friendships. Either way, it’s both chilling and strangely vindicating to see this aspect of my life presented [without comment] on the page.

2. But does this strange fealty to life, young and shallow artfucky commodified and digitized life, mean that a book like this is a good one? I haven’t read Lin’s other novel, or his poetry, but I like parts of his older blog Reader of Depressing Books. But I hope that Lin’s other books are nothing like this one, in shape or content. Because I would hate to think that there is more than one of these out there, more than one shallow and repetitive (real!) meaningless story about a person who has awkward and vague romantic or sexual relationships, wandering about in parks and libraries day after endless day, thinking about either being FUBAR or absolutely nothing. In a weird way, Shoplifting From American Apparel is one of the best books I’ve read this year because it’s making me think really hard about why I don’t like it. I’ve read it twice, trying to figure these things out. I’m resistant to the idea that art should be basically meaningless and unaffecting, even if some parts of life are, or come to be seen that way. I want this book to be the only one like it in the world, in all of history, because by virtue of that watery singularity, I can manipulate my understanding of what Lin is doing here into something that coheres into significance, and then do the same with all of the aimless and subjectless G-chats and park coffees that have made up so much of my life. But that would be a lie on both accounts. Lin is like the antithesis of the big young 1990s writers, the anti Franzen, the anti Wallace; there is no reaching for depth, no human virtue glinting under the sharp light of meaning saturated prose, nothing sacred to worship or terribly trying to overcome. Things are just things, the world of experience is permeated with a knowing and ultimately neutral vagueness, and we endlessly repeat ourselves, without comment. So maybe the reason I didn’t like it is just that this isn’t the present I wanted back when it was the future. I’d hoped for so much more.

Before You Suffocate Your Oxwn Fool Self book cover, Bookside Table, EMK Keeler

“It’s called love, shithead. You hurt people and then you make it better.”

Danielle Evans’ stories, collected here in Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, are about families, both the ones you choose and the ones that have, through the mechanisms of fate, chosen you. They are about people, mostly young, smart, black women, who experiment with boundaries, loyalties, and the process of growing up.

Evans uses either a very close indirect or first person voice, and though there is a lot of variety in the characters that populate this collection, her prose and characterization are consistently engaging. Though many of these pieces tackle dense and emotional themes (“Snakes” explores racism in a mixed race family, “Harvest” is a small and revelatory revolt against a system that privileges the desire for white babies over black ones, “Robet E. Lee is Dead” describes the complicated relationship that young, black, middle class southerners have with histories of place), Evans’ powerful and compelling style almost always handles these potentially disablingly deep fissures with a gentle touch; these stories are first and foremost works of art, and while their setting and subject matter are charged they are not the faux literature of the crusade.

Besides, just as the title (taken from a poem about being in the middle, about being black in a white world, by Donna Kate Rushin) suggests, for the most part these characters, facing very different struggles, have a tendency to obstruct their own paths. Each story seems to grow out of a pivotal moment, a man returning from military service, a teenager losing her virginity, a college freshman trying to decide whether or not to terminate her pregnancy,  and Evans’ subtle and detailed prose is a near-perfect conduit for these momentary tensions that stretch out and shape the lives of these characters. At its heart Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self is made up of a dogged and anxious love;  a love for a future that can never quite deliver you out of your past.

“I watched my feet as though they belonged to someone else. I looked up at the sky, feeling grown and full of something sad and aching to be known.”

The Lover book cover, Bookside Table, Emily M Keeler

The Lover is a small book composed of what initially appear to be almost fragmentary recollections and miniature story scenes, but the overall effect results in a dazzling love story. In this translation, ably provided by Barbara Bray, Marguerite Duras weaves together a variety of tenses, voices,  and points of view to piece together a shifty portrait of the way that memory creates distance just as it recreates intimacies.

The story seems to begin with a simple enough narrative goal: an old woman addresses the reader and begins to describe an important event in her life, her first love. At first, Duras interweaves changes in voice, tempo and tense with a deft, barely noticeable subtlety, but by the middle of the novel, the height of the reverie, these changes are rapid and wildly intense, mirroring the trauma and overwhelming delight of her adolescent love affair with a much older man. The story is set in Saigon (Vietnam), during the French occupation. The nameless heroine, reportedly modeled on Duras herself, is a poor fifteen year old French girl stranded with her mother and two brothers after her family makes a bad investment in the wake of her father’s death.  The lover is a man of nearly thirty, a Chinese millionaire who is overwhelmed by the forbidden desire he feels for the young woman. Their relations are, of course, complex, and often incredibly steamy. They celebrate each other, bodies coming together in private, and their secret pleasures become wrapped up in the violence of the time and of the young woman’s heartbreaking home life. Of course, there is for each of them no small measure of shame: she is so young, he’s from another, wealthier world, and miscegenation was, of course, extremely out of fashion at the time. And yet. And yet Duras pokes holes in her own memories, recalls and recoils from a painful past, destabilizes the experience,  and allows that first love to continue to grow even well past its functional end.