Archives for posts with tag: Fiction

Emily M Keeler, Super Sad True Love Story, Bookside TableSuper Sad True Love Story was one of those rare books that entered my life at the absolutely optimal time. It’s made maximum impact on how I’ll remember the way the world looks right now.  Gary Shteyngart’s  satirical dystopia, published only last year, is terrifying in its acute diagnoses of a consumerist-nihilistic-techno-fascist future. It’s also a joy to read, for Shteyngart’s hilarious bubble-bursting and total mastery of this apocalyptic post-American prose landscape.

While I don’t want to rob you of the joy of discovering the details that Shteyngart invents, I have to tell you that this novel is exceptional for the pulsating pleasure that goes into them. One detail that tickled my cynical fancy was one character’s university degree; she majored in Images with a minor in Assertiveness.

Excellent books, films, and songs, take you to a new place, or a new vantage point for seeing a place you know well. Art, for me, is an invitation to freshen up your perceptive sensibilities, and it is exhilarating to bear witness to the incredible and deliberate delight that has gone into creating this space of the new. Because Super Sad True Love Story takes place ever so slightly in the future, Shteyngart has created an entire cultural lexicon that is etymologically related to our fractured present. The new words he coins are recognizable splinters from current linguistic turns. Everything is a stark acronym, an erogenous zone  objectified, everything an instance of synecdoche, flattened and reappropriated nouns.  Language recedes from  its voluptuary qualities, becomes a set of modular components, and loses so much weight to fit into a mediated world where windows only open for the extremely rich, absurdly young, and morbidly thin.

There is no space in this world, in this future, for the 99%. One plot point of Super Sad True Love Story includes an occupation of central park by what, in Shteyngart’s nightmare, are called “Low Net Worth Individuals.”  These people have been left behind by the banks and the state, by the perpetually advancing technorati of the profit hoarding private sector. They are in every way malnourished, and they live in central park, demonstrating their refusal to be erased in a world that refuses them basic rights. So they do the only thing they can: They take up space; they refuse relocation; they organize.

Obviously, this scenario has now leaped off the page. And unlike Shteyngart’s uproarious take down of the nightmare future we’ve all implicitly set our sights on, the demonstrations taking place on Wall Street, and in solidarity the world over, are absolutely real. They represent an eruption in the smooth and shallow surface of the American dream. In Shteyngart’s work, the demonstrations only cease once America is literally dismantled for parts and sold off to the countries that form a new financial reign, a new world order. In the waking world, where we currently find ourselves, there is precious little evidence that the end will be so neat, simple, or swift.

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The Odious Child book cover, Bookside Table, EM Keeler

These stories are dark. Some of them are shot through with the surreal, and all of them operate in a space of intensely self-aware psychic intimacy. Maybe self-aware is the wrong choice of word, or it’s only the right choice if we’re using it in a layered way, for the self, and awareness of the same, is presented in a layered triplicate in The Odious Child. There is a sense of Carolyn Black’s self awareness, her ability to know when to recede into the shadows of the text and when to present a full face to the world, when to provide you with the shimmer of her mindful prose and when to leave a thought unhinged or unsigned. There are the almost oppressively self-aware characters that populate these eleven stories, each of them demonstrating a strange metacognition that distances them just enough from their experiences to let you come right into the middle distance between their thoughts and their circumstances. And of course, there is the expectation that you gradually bring your own awareness, indeed your own self, into the fray. Because so many of these stores, “Serial Love”, “At the World’s End, Falling Off”, “Martin Amis is in My Bed”, for starters, are about women who spend their days collapsing things into words,  the book invites you to try and untangle experience from language.

And good luck with that. Black’s prose is sometimes spare, cerebral, and cool overall. But there is real warmth in these stories. Her work here reminded me of Sheila Heti and AM Holmes, with her ability to craft these bracing urban fables. But don’t get me wrong, Black’s voice is distinct; there is a great deal of wonderment and an empathetic sense of curiosity about the people at play in these stories. “Tall Girls”, about a man who is in the process of learning what it feels like to imagine something, to fantasize, reads like a celebration of the mystery of the mind, creepy and jubilant in equal parts. The titular story, about a woman who is so distraught and shamed by her beastly child that she fails to notice that her neighborhood is in the middle of either a massacre or an uprising, is striking in its elegance and distressing by virtue of its social prescience.

The collection is strong overall, and the stories sit well together, forming a quilted pattern of the alienation and anxiety of urban life. The Odious Child is an alluring portrait of the magic of the mind to twist and tense under the conditioning of a fractured city. Black’s work here evinces the kind of spirited control that gets my gears turning, and her ability to zero in on details, the myriad tiny fragments of thought and life, ensure that in me she has enchanted a perpetually devoted reader.

I’m almost there. Three quarters of the way to having read and written about 50 books this year. Where did the time go?

Instead of updating the top 5, like I have for previous milestones, I decided to acquiesce to my pal Janice‘s request that I list the books I’m most looking forward to re-reading, once this project is through. As you know, ranking books is not my strong suit. Like the liberal arts narcissist I went to university to become, I always want to reflect backwards from the text itself, and give primacy to my experiences reading the book. After all, that’s what I know the most about. But because this is a reflexive practice, reconstituted by remembering and rereading and rewriting, my thoughts about each of the books listed below are subject to change.

In no particular order, the 5 books I’m really looking forward to re-reading:

5. Nightwood, by Djuna Barnes

I got a lot out of this one the first time around, but something about it tore me up. Even as I was reading it I was doing that childish thing where I was fantasizing about having already read through it once, so that I could spend more energy on really seeing the prose rather than desperately trying to make the events described cohere into something solid enough to hold on to. I want to go back and get to know Jenny and The Doctor a lot better in particular. From what I remember, there was a lot of strange beauty in the images that Barnes used to evoke her characters, but Jenny and the Doctor were so slippery, never quite settling into their similes, dodging metaphors left and right. I’m really looking forward to going back into Nightwood to try to parse them out.

4. Tracks, by Louise Erdrich

I really fell in love with Nanapush, one of the novel’s narrators. I want to visit him again. Erdrich’s use of language is stunningly effective, though never ostentatious,  and I feel like I need to have her voice in my head. I think this will be the first one I re-read, actually, because it’s a wonderful winter book, so full of small rooms and snow.

3. Madam Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert

I’m not quite sure that this counts as a re-read, as I’m planning to read a different translation. The Lydia Davis translation made for a great book, don’t get me wrong, but I want to see what Elenore Marx can do for the text. The thing about Flaubert in general, or so I’ve read, is that he was apparently obsessive over his use of the French language in his writing, and he himself thought that to read in translation was pointless, that the loss of value was far too great. I obviously do not hold this view. Literature requires the cross pollination that translation allows for. That said, it is probably my secret hope that by reading and comparing the different translations of this book I’ll be able to make a mental composite, to average the readings, into some kernel of authentic Flaubert. Turns out  I believe many contradictory things about literature.

2. The Obituary, by Gail Scott

The Obituary is a story that braids many different threads together. There are different perspectives, different histories, continuously displacing one another, and I’d like to go back into it and see what new strands I can pick out. Also, Gail Scott’s playful and experimental use of language is just really exciting! She uses sound and allusion and strange little tricks with letters, and there is a lot of formal innovation going on. I think that Scott and  César Aira are two of the most exhilarating writers I’ve read, and not just this year.  I want to keep being exhilarated.

1. The Thing About Life is that One Day You’ll Be Dead, by David Shields.

There’s something about David Shields. Even if you’re not all about his collage manifesto, the man is really really good at what he does. The Thing About Life, which came out before his much discussed Reality Hunger, is partially a collage work, using textbook biology and the many ruminations on mortality that float in the historical ether. But what’s so strange about his method is this: Shields himself is a brilliant sentence maker! Using other peoples words, even advocating free play with plagiarism, okay sure, I see how that’s transformative and just plain cool. But the man can lay it down on his own!  Some anecdotal evidence: My partner and I sometimes play this game where we grab a book at random off the shelf and read a sentence or paragraph out loud. Sometimes we get each other to guess if it’s an ending line, or who the author is. He grabbed Enough About You and read a single sentence of maybe 25 words. Not only did I know it was Shields immediately, but the sentence itself was a tight little story all on it’s own. In fact, Shields may be too polished, too damn good, to read only once. His little book machines are so well constructed that they seem magical, and I think you need to keep coming back to really see just how much is going on underneath the hood.

Bookside Table, A Sleep and a Forgetting book cover, EM Keeler

William Dean Howells’ novella, A Sleep and a Forgetting, is touching and discomfiting in equal measure. A young doctor takes on an unusual charge when he meets a young woman and her father outside of a hotel in San Remo in the early 20th century. There’s something so charming about doctor stories from the past, perhaps because medicine has, as a science, changed so vastly in its scope and method through the years. I love the idea of a doctor advising a patient to ‘take the air’ in a mountainous or Mediterranean locale to cure if not the cause of their sickness, then at least any affliction’s accompanying melancholia.

The affliction faced by the young woman in this story can not, alas(!), be cured by salty sea air or walks through well kept gardens: she is trapped in an eternal present, having experienced the selective obliteration of her memory after witnessing the gruesome death of her mother. She retains her abilities to read, write, and converse, with some eloquence at that, but nothing sticks to the perpetually slick surface of her mind. Her father, happening upon the young doctor, insists that this qualified stranger join their party in San Remo and work on developing a cure for his daughter.

One of the virtues of the novella’s form is that it provides a knowing sort of space; while a short story must be read multiple times so that you can get your bearings, and a novel can use the exciting carrot of story or plot to persuade the reader down a specific path, a novella tells you exactly where you are without ever handing you a map. Howell uses the form well, and sets up the events he describes in a way that mirrors the strange facts that face the doctor. Howells also uses a distantly omniscient voice to tell the tale, and he seldom gives us much of a peek into the interior lives of these characters. Here again the framing mirrors elements of the young doctor’s struggles: he can only marvel at the young woman’s condition, and though he can offer endless interpretations of this malady he is at a loss to solve another beating heart. He will never solve the mystery of her life, even as he becomes increasingly involved therein. In his heart, this doctor is, just as we are, powerless to ever know the mind of another.

EM Keeler , Bookside Table, The House Without Windows book cover

It is certainly much too late in my life for anyone to describe me as a child prodigy, though I have, at times, somewhat arrogantly felt that my rather short list of achievements is out of balance with the abundance of my talent. I have plainly mistaken the vague and formless desire for greatness for the thing itself.

Humbled by this realization, I have begun to investigate instances of greatness in the world. One such instance can be found in the story of Barbara Newhall Follett, who wrote the original draft of The House Without Windows at the unlikely age of eight. The novel is about a little girl and her nearly infinite capacity for awe in the raw beauty of the natural world. Eepersip Eigleen runs away from the country home of her parents and makes a life for herself in the great vastness that is nature, the house without windows. Butterflies, chipmunks, the sky and the sea become her intimates. She toughens the soles of her feet and leaps through the forest, taking joy in the naturalness of her ascension, the abilities of her animal body to fly with the wind through the grass.

Follett wrote this paean to the animal freedom of childhood when she was eight years old. According to the afterword, written by her father, the original manuscript was lost in a house fire, and she re-created the text from memory at the age of twelve. The prose is sometimes repetitive, but lovely, and occasionally splendid. A very impressive achievement, especially from someone so young. But for all of her gifts, Follett made clear sacrifices for this extraordinary talent. She locked herself in her room to pound out this story, forgoing the free play and friendship that would be afforded to all little girls in a perfect world. My favorite parts of the novel examine the peculiar loneliness that Eepersip feels for other children, most clearly expressed in the two instances where she risks capture to play with a golden haired boy and her black-eyed younger sister. She is drawn to their beauty and their recognition even as their company poses a threat to her wildness. The tension of these scenes speak to the ineffability of the compromises that love entails, the desire to be singular and wild and free always in conflict with the bondedness of affection and recognition.

Because this is a rare book, now long out of print and largely unavailable, I hope you won’t mind if I spoil the ending: Eepersip lives in the meadow, dreams in the sea, and gradually becomes unable to take any joy in others, animals or people. Her step lightens, and in the end she lives on a diet of pure mountain snow. Eventually, she transcends what remains of her humanity and becomes a fairy, relegated to the invisible world of magic. Never again will she have to contend with the threat of captivity, and she is unbound from the human world of recognition.

Follett herself went on to be, for a time, magical in a darker sense. Her childhood achievements were celebrated, and her work was recognized, however briefly, by the public eye. She wrote a few more books, which were received well enough, and her father left her and her mother to start a new life with someone else. She was forced to prematurely join the tedious world of work, and was married before she turned twenty years old. Shortly thereafter, facing down the burdens of debt and despair, she would disappear indefinitely. Her body was never found, as if she too eventually could not be contained by the constraints of this human drudgery, looking only through windows out onto the world. Instead, her work remains, like the world, a window in on itself, bound only by the magic of a child’s freedom. The potential of her prodigious gifts goes unfulfilled, and so retains its promise indefinitely; like the nymph Eepersip becomes, Follett is invisible and, perhaps tragically, completely free.

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If you would like to read more about Barbara Newhall Follett, Lapham’s Quarterly published a lovely essay on her life, which you can read here.

The Verificationist book cover, Bookside Table, EM KeelerDonald Antrim’s The Verificationist is basically about a really long hug that makes a guy named Tom loose it and jump into the abyss of what seems like a prolonged nervous breakdown. Tom is a psychoanalyst, and the bear hug takes place at an informal meet-up (in a Pancake house!) of a whole university hospital department of analysts.

It’s a literally heady book, but headless too, because Tom is cognitively disembodied by this hug, and he floats up and away into the dusty rafters of the 24hr breakfast joint. He overworks his mind by tracing the map of intimacies, predominately sexual intimacies, between himself and his colleagues and his wife and the desirable young woman who has been their party’s waitress. In terms of plot, that’s pretty much it. But I think it’s a relatively successful exploration of a peculiar tendency of a culture steeped in the mumbo jumbo of psychoanalysis to develop a paralysis of self awareness, though it may in fact be more of a delusion than an awareness.

Tom is obsessed with the fulcrum point between what it means to be a son and a father, and he gets himself into the situation of the bear hug by being childlike and attempting to start a food fight with a group of child psychologists. The bear-like analyst that hugs him into submission is described as a figurative father, and Tom submits to a fantasy of being raped by this imaginary father rather than develop the maturity it would require to commit to becoming a father himself. They have an empty room in their house, and because The Verificationist is nothing if not an invitation to armchair psychoanalysis, he is afraid of painting it because he can’t commit to the idea of impregnating his wife. They fight about it. And so after the  pleasure of eating blueberry pancakes–a silly and juvenile food– he suffers a nervous down, aware that he chose the kiddish comfort food because his is unable to confront his fear of adulthood and reproduction.

And who could blame him? If he is professionally obligated to believe in Freudian bullhooey, how could he possibly choose to be the passive object of fear and hatred and homicidal feelings; wouldn’t you  rather have the active hatred of the child? Psychoanalysis, much like American culture, almost always places the higher drama and the primacy of representation in the development of the child rather than the agency of the parent. Antrim hints at this through having Tom imagine floating away to the scene of an important battle: that of the Americans against the (paternal) British. This is a site of embarrassment for Tom, and a site of mythmaking for America writ large. The battle is restaged year after year, and the trauma of separation, the shame of that original (and indeed, orginary) dependency, never quite goes away.

Antrim uses language clearly, and having the entirety of the story filtered through the obsessive lens of Tom even as he becomes fractured in the middle of his traumatic event (the hug) is fascinating, to say the least. Antrim manages to make you loath Tom as much as the character loathes himself, and you feel just as trapped by his obsessional and circuitous thinking as he does. Which is certainly a testament to Antrim’s skill, but at times I felt that the premise of the book was a bit too much of a trick. Even as it called Nicholson Baker and DavidFoster Wallace to mind, The Verificationist feels like a practice run. The idea is there, the formal constraints are set, but… What’s missing? I think it may be a sense of meaning–it maybe authenticity, on all fronts. Tom, so well versed in psychobabble, can only harken back to hollowed and cliched ideas from his discipline to give meaning to the experience of his breakdown, and because he does this in real time, it crowds out the readers ability to make anything of this extraordinary circumstance. This is not necessarily a flaw, in fact I suspect that it’s one of Antrim’s aims. It’s just that, from where I read,  Tom and the discourses of Jung and Freud are too overbearing to give you a chance read much into this story; it’s all there on the page, and doesn’t need you  at all.

Cakes and Ale Books Cover, Bookside Table, EM Keeler,

The first time I read W. Somerset Maugham’s Cakes and Ale I was almost 15 years old. I picked it up in a second hand book shop, titillated by its pulpy cover and the promise of scandal. I read it twice that year, almost back to back, with only Of Human Bondage in the middle. For a while, I considered it one of my favorite books, always with the secret hope that I would miraculously mature into a writer like Ashenden. Perhaps because I was so young and knew so little, I didn’t then appreciate the pathos of this fantastically well crafted little book. How wonderful it is to have discovered that an old favorite book can also be a new favorite!

Cakes and Ale is a novel that reads like a partial memoir, both in the history surrounding its release and in the way that Maugham frames his story. The narrator, Ashenden, is approached by a writerly colleague for material for a biography being written on another writer, Edward Driffield, who has recently died, a giant of English letters. The book is really really British, brimful with snark and occasional pomp, and Maugham evinces a near total command of the language he employs, which is precise and droll and often grey.  There are some brilliantly vicious lines detailing the colleague: “I could think of no one among m y contemporaries who had achieved so considerable a position on so little talent. This, like the wise mans daily does of Bemax, might have gone into a heaped up tablespoon.” The memoir quality of the work, with it’s first person framing and detailing of nostalgia, is doubled in these instances of insult; Maugham delivers brutal little jabs out of Ashenden’s mouth, but at the time they were read as pointed arrows signalling out some of his real life peers.

This cruel wit was lost on my adolescent self, so enamored was I by the part of the story where the fifteen year old Ashenden is taken in by the eccentric and ‘common’ Driefields. Edward Driffield and his first wife Rosie meet the young Ashenden by happenstance, and he falls immediately in love with them. By proxy, so did I.

I had to buy a new copy of Cakes and Ale when I decided it was time to revisit it. The one I’d read before,that I’ve carried with me to my first apartment, then across Canada, from place to place, has been held by too many hands. It has that dusty vanilla smell of a book that has begun to decay, and it is literally held together with a piece of tape. The newer edition has roomy margins, a sturdy glue spine, and a rather boring cover, if we’re comparing the two.

And reading the newer edition, through my slightly older eyes, really deepened my appreciation for the book. On the one hand, it’s a lurid story about class tourism and sex. It’s also a bitter barb thrown like a rock at a literary establishment that relies on cannibalization and knowing how to order a good luncheon. It’s a coming of age story in the middle of a novel about coming into the winter of ones life. It’s about love, and lineage, and language so clear that we can only wish our memories were made of it.

 

Bookside Table, Asterios Polyp book cover, EM Keeler

David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp is almost perfect. The title character is a so called ‘paper architect,’ inventive on the page, but his designs are unfailingly unrealized. As a professor at Cornell, he pushes his students hard to avoid the decorative, and makes clear his deeply modernist sensibility: he has built the form of his life to follow what he imagines is its the function. But the function of life is not so easily understood, and his designs are flawed. When his tastefully furnished apartment literally goes up in flames, destroying his Eames lounger, his pair of Wassily chairs, his tapes and books and drafting table, Asterios’ design sensibility is torn up, and he is forced to build his life from scratch at the age of fifty.

He is obsessed with what he perceives as the duality of life, yin and yang, men and women… form and function. The part-time narrator is his still born identical twin, who also visits Asterios in his dreams, and acts as the shadowy other side, the constantly present absence, of Asterios’ life and accomplishments. Mazzucchelli develops this lost twin trope into a moving exploration of loneliness and repetition, in a refreshing and surprising way.

Throughout the book certain postures, words, or even entire frames are repeated, though transformed by their context even as they depict an identical image. Asterious sitting on a bed and examining a blister, for example, is a scene of domestic bliss when his wife Hana is there, in the next panel, rooting through the medicine cabinet for a bandage, and also an unromantic piece of solitude, even loneliness, when years later he sits on a bed as a border in rooming house, his feet in pain from work.

Many of the panels in this graphic novel were completely breathtaking, and the visual techniques that Mazzucchelli used to convey the innate difference of each character–their voices and interior lives so distinct from one another–were so successfully executed that I wish I could just reprint the whole thing here for you. I was dazzled by the way that this work was able to be both subtle and bold, with the varying graphic styles working together so well, sometimes seamless and others with great clashes. Just like the bonds that people form in life.

One scene, where Asterios recalls with a strange longing the cloistered intimacy of his disintegrated marriage, is unbelievably effective: Hana vomiting; Hana’s underwear on the floor, stained with her menstrual blood; Hana’s hand reaching into her cosmetic bag; Hana smiling; Hana’s hand between her legs; Hana waving in a scarf; Hana popping a pimple; Hana’s sweat stained gym clothes; Hana; Hana; Hana. The longing for precisley her, the realness and mutability of her presence, is almost overpowering. The warmly vulgar sensuality of their former intimacy reveals to Asterios the stultifying emptiness of his obsession with formal purity.

Mazzucchelli’s lines on these pages are clean and elegant, but have just enough friction to rub you raw. The story that he tells here is bound up in aesthetics, and his plentiful offerings are pleasurable and moving. While this may be a work of paper architecture, the lives built for Hana and Asterios have a palpable weight, a shape that takes up space in the world that the reader must build and rebuild, every day of her life.

Emily M. Keeler, Bookside Table, The Seamstress and the Wind book cover

New Directions, one of my favourite publishing houses, celebrated its 75th year last week. And  this past Saturday was my birthday, so it made sense that I would pick up César Aira’s The Seamstress and the Wind to celebrate both events.  I’m so glad I did.

Earlier this year I was dumbfounded by Aira’s marvelous Ghosts, a novel about literature and the unbuilt architecture of human life. This time around, I was a bit more prepared for arrhythmic plotting and peculiar digressions that form the base of Aria’s prose. But I was still, if you’ll pardon the pun, blown away by The Seamstress and the Wind.

The plot moves along like an uncanny nightmare, where the terror and despair that the characters feel develops out of the sheer senselessness of their circumstances. Aira inserts himself into the novel, as a character and as the authour, and actually devotes space within the text to wondering about and struggling with the story he is telling. Aira suddenly remembers to pick up dropped threads and leaves all of the seams of the novel showing, every hem unfinished and raw.

The miraculous thing is that rather than having this rawness be a flaw, Aira manages to make it a great virtue. His use of imagery is often dazzling, thanks to Rosalie Knecht’s translation, and he levels off the cheeky acrobatics with a generous helping of humour. It’s like Aira is pulling a Pen and Teller on his reader. He’s  playfully pulling back the curtain, showing the ways in which a story can manufacture despair and delight. The story itself, about a woman who gets lost in the desert of Patagonia, or “the end of the world,” looking for her missing child, is clearly an allegory for creative work.

The Seamstress and the Wind is joyous like a dream, and leaves you shaking when you’re eventually forced to wake up and put the book down.

Breakfast at Tiffany's Book Cover, EM Keeler, Bookside TableThis was my first time reading Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and other than a smallish handful of reporting pieces in The New Yorker archives, I hadn’t really read much Capote. I fell asleep watching the film Capote, and also, come to think of it,  the film version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. But I stayed up way too late reading this book. Which didn’t even have Philip Seymour Hoffman in it,  so that’s really saying something.  When I woke up, I pretty much had a Holly Golightly hangover.

In a way, it’s hard to describe my experience reading this one, partially because I feel like you’ve probably already read it or seen the movie or something. But then again, I hadn’t done those things, so we’re back to square one. It’s so weird how a book can permeate culture, can become an idea or a reference that makes the original thing, this wonderful and  seamless novella,  become kind of hollowed out.

That said, one thing that really struck me was the way that the unnamed narrator actually seemed like he had his own stories, a whole back log of them, but he was just legitimately more interested in telling tales about Holly Golightly. I mean, at one point he causally lets drop that he once went for a 500 mile interstate walk. He’s not a blank pair of eyes, there to let the reader in. He has his own stories, his own singular history, and the small details that surface up as he describes the way that this young woman lives her life are specific to him.  Capote struck the perfect balance between having this young writer type be the filter through which we see the real story and hinting at the multiplicity of the stories contained within the filter himself.