Archives for posts with tag: literature

Junot Diaz’s “How to Date” is written in the second person, but like most successful second person stories, that tricky little ‘you’ is anything but general. You, in this case, are a young man living in America. You’re from the Dominican Republic. Some of your family still lives there, and you take  the photographs of shirtless young cousins leading goats around off of the walls of the crummy apartment you live in when you’re expecting to host a girl. You are also totally girl crazy, or maybe just crazy in general, because you’re a teenager. Because of who you are and where you live you’re a little fucked up by racism, by poverty, and by the way that desire is so often tied to big things outside of what it is you want. Mostly, you just want to bang, but even that’s imbricated within a larger social structure.

I like Diaz, and he’s so good with this story. The details feel so right, hiding the government supplied foodstuffs so your date wont know the extent of your poverty, the awkwardness of making conversation, experimenting with boundaries and social roles… they just feel right. But the story is painful, too, because it’s not just about being girl crazy, it’s about negotiating the complexities of race, and about the hierarchy of racialized desires, about stereotypes and sounding ‘smooth’ when the person you want to snuggle up to is categorically collapsing you. But now I’ve made it sound heavy, and parts of “How to Date” are, but it’s also fun and sweet! In that respect, it’s a lot like adolescence itself.

Advertisements

Susan Minot’s “Lust” is about sex.  It’s made up of short paragraphs that get just a little longer, describing the intimacies  with various very young men one very young woman experiences at boarding school. And the way she comes to feel about giving herself over, “surrendering” to sex and the men she’s having it with.

In part because of the shortness of the paragraphs, and that there are a lot of different men in this story, individuated from each other  only through single actions, features, little collapsible moments, “Lust” feels very fragmentary. And also very personal. Minot’s prose is deadly in it’s clarity, there’s no poetry here to distance you from her subject. In fact, she brings you as close as possible, executing a perfect and barely perceptible transition from the first to the second person somewhere in the middle of the story. It becomes all but impossible not to recognize your history in that of the unnamed narrator towards the end.

I think that this subtle switch in voice, this mingling of histories (yours and hers), is one of the main sources of the power this story had over me. It was impossible not to think backwards, about the sex I had as a teenager, about discovering this thing “that felt like a relief at first until it became like sinking into a muck.”

***

This story was kindly sent to me by Nick Moran,  my co-captain over at millionsmillions.

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.

A Moment in the Sun book cover, Emily M. Keeler, Bookside Table

A Moment in the Sun is big in size and generous in story. Just like in his movies, John Sayles is a story weaving king here, threading an overfull menagerie of characters through an historical bricolage composed from the vastness of America and her foreign exploits between 1897 and 1903.

It’s a heavy and learned book, full of finely realized historical detail and an abundance of really big issues; the absurd terror of war, the ongoing trauma of racism, the importance of journalistic ethics, the incongruity of corporeal punishment in a so-called free world, familial responsibility, love… But at 953 pages, Sayles havs definitely given himself room to make something messy and real, as troubled and sprawling as America itself. Parts of his story are decidedly revisionist, like the scene where Mark Twain is tied to a tree with the fictional Lt. Niles Manigault in the Philippines, two Americans strung up to die by dehydration or dismemberment. The famous author’s cameo is another beat on Sayles’s loundly banging anti-Imperialist drum, and a not so subtle reminder that always there is a better way out of history, if we listen carefully and watch closely the minutely forking path.

The book, for all of it’s physical, emotional, and historical heft feels a little misweighted to me; there are some story lines I would have liked to see a little more flesh on, particularly the interesting dynamic that develops between the robbed and fallen black woman Jesse and the white Irish maids she is forced into wage earning with towards the end of the novel. In fact, most of my favorite parts of A Moment in the Sun were about the women, who were, for my taste, too frequently left on the story’s back burner.

The first half of the book felt ripe and well paced, with personal and political climaxes plotted out in perfect tandem: here an unwanted pregnancy,there a riot, here a hanging and an initiation into a secret society, there a fixed bar fight that has no real winner. It was a perfect mix of yellow journalism, wanton pyschology, and intriguing historical dialects blending pleasurably on the page.

The second half lurched forward just a little less gracefully. The pacing felt misaligned, perhaps once half of the characters found themselves in Asia, once the American-Filipino war started really rumbling. I personally have relatively little tolerance for war stories, especially for those set before the advent of television, so it may just be that I am a flawed reader for this work. But nonetheless, I felt a stark shift between the riveting storylines in the first half and the tedium of the threads coming together in the second. A few of the character’s resolutions, especially the one with Jessie,  feel a little pat, a little too much like a story in light of all the life that happened over the course of the novel. Despite the lack luster denouement,  Sayles leaves the best for last and gives as a parting gift a perfect final chapter, one that may well infect you with the shudder and the shiver of a ghost, haunting and cruelly beautiful even as the heavy book sits once again inert on the shelf.

The Cows book cover, EM Keeler, Bookside Table

“‘They come out from behind the barn as though something is going to happen, and then nothing happens.”

What can I possibly say about Lydia Davis’ The Cows?

A while ago my main squeeze treated me to an excellent dinner at a relatively fancy restaurant. The meal was long and luxurious, and we were patiently attended to, and each plate was an exercise in elegant restraint, the food alienated from the edges, a generous helping of white space. My favourite course was the dessert for its familiar and simple flavours: chocolate ganache droplets on a butchers block, with tiny almond butter cake cubes, and concord grapes. That dish, the small serving size, the serious consideration of humble ingredients, and above all the emphasis on deliberate spatial isolation, is a perhaps labourious but still apt metaphor for The Cows. And I loved them both.

The Cows is a meditation on stillness, perception, and the seasons. Davis writes koan-like sentences about three neighboring cows. Simple and humble, (like grapes, almonds and chocolate) these cows become even more than they are through Davis’ masterful command of her medium. Delightfully, these beasts never cross over into the realm of allegory; Davis refuses to anthropomorphize them. They remain cows, broad and black, gentle and heavy. It seems like the project of exploring the significance of these cows is a way for Davis to demonstrate the arbitrary nature of life, of the years passing. But it’s also a meditation on the quiet and joyous riddle of subjectivity: “After staying with the others in a tight clump for some time, one walks away by herself into the far corner of the field: at this moment, she does seem to have a mind of her own.” The spare beauty of these cows, of my desert, of Davis’ prose, relies on such quiet celebrations of mindfulness, or of subjective presence. The Cows is a pure and simple delight, an open ended riddle on the joy of moving forward by standing still.

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.

Van Gogh's Bad Cafe, Emily M Keeler, Bookside Table

Van Gogh’s Bad Cafe is an unusually beautiful novel, built on the fault lines between worship and addiction, artist and muse. Yet despite the immediate intrigue associated with these themes, Frederic Tuten has taken time itself as his primary obsession in this work. And why wouldn’t he? The narrative form of the novel is the perfect tool for experimenting with time; events described therein are pulled along by the knotted rope of plot, and the reader can momentarily occupy a noumenal rather than physical time, collapsing space and time into a single and dynamic entity.

Tuten skillfully engages this possibility, and gently, brilliantly, manages to separate time from history. Van Gogh’s Bad Cafe tells the story of a woman caught between two lovers, who are themselves a century apart. Ursula is a photographer with a morphine addiction, trying desperately to capture the fleeting formal beauty of light bursting through space. She has her first lover, Vincent Van Gogh, haul her heavy plate camera into the fields where she hopes to trap the miracle on paper, catch it like a child would a lightning bug. Her second lover, an artist in 1990’s New York named Louis, equips her with a Diana and a Leica, and she breaks out on her own to try to intercept the east river’s rally with the fading day light. In addition to her ability to travel forward a hundred years, or perhaps because of it, Ursula is also fascinated with plugging up time, she has the addict’s peculiar ability to speed up time by slowing herself down, to literally kill time by entering a magic stupor, the warm blooded sleep of opiates slowing her blood and eating through the hours.

Ursula covers her ultra feminine body in the 1880’s by occasionally dressing in menswear, and carrying a revolver around to shut up guff givers as she runs into them. In the 1990’s, she transgresses gendered boundaries by shaving her hair, donning docs, getting pierced and reading Sylvia Plath. She eventually turns away from photography in order to make her body her primary mode of expression, and rather than escaping the women’s ghetto of the muse she becomes imprisoned by temporality. Her flesh will rot, her ideas shouted however loud will go unrecorded, and though she traveled through a century in her body she can never undo time, she can never reach forward with the miracle of light caught on paper.

Tuten’s prose is sensuous and lyrical, and this love story between art and time is charged with eros as it moves through the ages. Eric Fischl’s visual contribution of several eerie and diluted sketches offer so many small islands in the sea of yearning that makes up Van Gogh’s Bad Cafe.

***

Should you be lucky enough to find yourself in NYC on December 4th, you might enjoy a marathon reading of Frederic Tuten’s astounding first novel, The Adventures of Mao on the Long March, hosted by The New Inquiry and BOMB Magazine in celebration of New Directions Publishing’s 75th anniversary. Click here to RSVP.