Twelve Writers on New and Recent Fiction

I asked a dozen prose fiction writers to comment briefly on new and recent titles. The Seawall has been hosting similar multi-poet features in the spring and fall since 2008, but this is the first such post focused on fiction (and also, this time, on a memoir). I’m grateful to the twelve writers who contributed these pieces out of their own generosity and desire to let the readership know about titles that have impressed, entertained and provoked them. -- RS

This feature includes:

Floyd Skloot on Waiting For Sunrise, a novel by William Boyd (Harper)
Terese Svoboda on From the Land of the Moon, a novel by Milena Agus (Europa Editions)
Stona Fitch on The Quiet Twin, a novel by Dan Vyleta (Bloomsbury)
Lawrence Douglas on My Prizes: An Accounting, a memoir by Thomas Bernhard (Knopf)
Shannon Cain on Drifting House, stories by Krys Lee (Penguin/Viking)
Mark Athitakis on The New Republic, a novel by Lionel Shriver (Harper Collins)
Laura Kasischke on The Nine Senses, prose poetry by Melissa Kwasny (Milkweed Editions)
Patricia Henley on Echolocation, a novel by Myfanwy Collins (Engine Books)
T. M. McNally on The Beginners, a novel by Rebecca Wolff (Riverhead Books)
Dan Pope on Lightning Rods, a novel by Helen DeWitt (New Directions)
Jane Delury on Forgotten Country, a novel by Catherine Chung (Riverhead Books)
Michael Guista on The Architect of Flowers, stories by William Lychack (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt/Mariner Books)

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Floyd Skloot on Waiting For Sunrise, a novel by William Boyd (Harper)

BoydColor.jpegAt sixty, William Boyd belongs to an accomplished cohort of British male novelists that includes Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Louis de Bernières, Sebastian Faulks, Alan Hollinghurst, Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie, and Graham Swift. Despite having won the Whitbread and Somerset Maugham Awards for A Good Man in Africa, the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize for An Ice-Cream War, the James Tate Black Memorial Prize for Brazzaville Beach, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for The Blue Afternoon, and the Costa Book Award for Restless, he hasn't received the same level of public acclaim as his honored, productive contemporaries.

Boyd's style is not as showy or exuberant as Amis's or Rushdie's, nor as taut and chilly as Ishiguro's, nor as self-consciously literary as Barnes' or McEwan's. He hasn't had the bestseller success that the others have had. But reading Boyd is a unique treat: he combines a delight in strong, genre-inflected plots with vigorous characterization and an almost astounded view of how quickly and badly lives can change. He is a connoisseur of intimate catastrophe, his intensely particularized characters caught by secret histories and thrown out of their neat, orderly daily worlds. So, to consider just the novels Boyd has published this century: in Ordinary Thunderstorms (2010) a chance restaurant encounter leads the main character into a series of worsening disasters; in Restless (2006) a daughter discovers that her mother had been recruited as a spy during World War II; in Any Human Heart (2003) a man's 85-year, Zelig/Forrest Gump-ish life is fraught with so many twists across so many countries and historical events that the narrative pattern resembles a yo-yo's; in Armadillo (2000), a mild-mannered insurance adjuster's client hangs himself and thereby shatters the main character's staid existence.

BoydCover.jpgSometimes, as in Armadillo> or Ordinary Thunderstorms, Boyd may seem to be going through the motions, hamstrung by his catastrophe-formula or too outlandish for his essentially realistic settings to be sustained. But when Boyd is working at his best, as he is in Restless, Any Human Heart, Brazzaville Beach, or The Blue Afternoon, he entertains with his narrative drive, engages with his vibrant characters, and provokes with his insights.

His eleventh novel, Waiting for Sunrise, is Boyd at his best. It is set in the years just before and during World War I, in England, France, and Austria. The main character is a young British actor named Lysander Rief, son of an even more renowned actor and an Austrian mother, and when the story begins Rief is putting his career and his engagement to actress Blanche Blondel on hold in order to travel to Vienna for psychoanalysis in hopes of being cured of anorgasmia -- the inability to achieve orgasm. In Dr. Bensimon's waiting room, Rief encounters two people who will profoundly alter his life: the sexually manipulative artist Hettie Bull, and the mysterious British diplomat Alwyn Munro.

Dr. Bensimon is a proponent of "Parallelism," a psychiatric approach to problems that seems ideally suited to an actor: "Let's say the world is in essence neutral -- flat, empty, bereft of meaning and significance. It's us, our imaginations, that make it vivid, fill it with colour, feeling, purpose and emotion. Once we understand this we can shape our world in any way we want." This allows Rief to substitute alternative scenarios for the ones he remembers, such as being caught by his mother in a sexually embarrassing moment, and that may be hindering his ability to climax. This helps him, but perhaps not as much as the unexpected, passionate, adulterous affair that develops with Hettie Bull.

BoydBW.jpegWhen, after several weeks of intense intimacy, Rief is suddenly arrested for having raped Hettie, Boyd's plot kicks in and Rief's life seems no longer his own. With the help of Munro and Munro's colleagues, Rief is able to escape from Vienna. But, now back in England and back on stage, but now no longer engaged to Blanche, Rief finds himself in debt to his diplomatic saviors. This, once his country enters the war, leads to his new life as a spy (another excellent line for an actor) sent to discover the identity of someone who is providing the enemy with crucial information about British military operations.

When Hettie turns up in England, divorced, newly remarried, and eager to resume relations with Rief, the complexities in his life multiply. So do the uncertainties, as Rief must struggle to understand who Hettie really is, who Munro and his colleagues really are, who the traitor is and why he seems to be linked to Rief's mother, and what must be done to reclaim all he thought he knew about himself, his family, and the women in his life.

These uncertainties are the crux of the matter for Boyd, as always. In the journal he keeps at Dr. Bensimon's suggestion, Rief writes "I felt myself wantonly adrift -- seeing a few details but making no connection -- and also consumed with the feeling that invisible strings were being pulled by a person or persons unknown and that I was attached to their ends."

BoydColorB.jpegWaiting for Sunrise is filled with riches of observation about human behavior, as befits a tale of an actor/spy. Rief is both a brilliant watcher and a shapeshifter, gifted with capacities for flexible presentation of self. He notes: "Amazing the secrets we reveal about ourselves when we think we're not being observed. Amazing the secrets we reveal when we know we are."

I enjoyed this novel so fully that I went out and bought copies of the few early Boyd novels that I haven't yet read. I didn't do that when I finished the recent Amis, Barnes, Faulks, or Hollinghurst.

[Published April 12, 2012, 353 pages, $26.99 hardcover]

Floyd Skloot's most recent books are the poetry collection The Snow's Music (LSU, 2008), the memoir The Wink of the Zenith: The Shaping of a Writer's Life, (Nebraska, 2008/11) and the short story collection Cream of Kohlrabi (Tupelo, 2011). His work has received three Pushcart Prizes, the PEN USA Literary Award, and been included in The Best American Essays, Best American Science Writing, Best Spiritual Writing, and Best Food Writing anthologies. You may access his website by clicking here.

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Terese Svoboda on From the Land of the Moon, a novella by Milena Agus (Europa Editions)

AgusCover.jpgOh, that Europe’s bestsellers would be ours! That most exciting of New York presses, Europa Editions, has translated the beautifully written and very Euro-popular, From the Land of the Moon by Milena Agus. This novella asks the simplest of questions -- Who is crazy when it comes to love? -- in a most sophisticated way. A granddaughter pokes through three generations of Sardinians to reveal her grandmother’s mysterious love life in a looping almost child-like point-of-view that reveals enormous sympathy for her forebear, and the pragmatism of Sardinian post-war culture.

“Grandmother talked…about the suitors who fled, yes, and about grandfather, who had loved her right away and married her, and the ladies looked at each other in embarrassment, as if to say it was glaringly obvious that he had married her to repay his debt to the family, but they were silent.”

Grandmother is terrified that people will discover she is mad for having “poetic ideas” such as thinking that the sea and the blue sky, and the “immensity you saw from the Bastioni — the ramparts — in the mistral” are the cause of such village smugness. She also has bouts of artistic intensity that must be redefined by the women of Cagliari:

“Maybe they thought that she was a little strange and wasn’t aware of things, certainly “su macchiori de sa musica e de su piano,” her madness for music and the piano, must have been pure madness to them, since they had a piano and never touched it; they placed doilies on it with vases of flowers and various other objects, while grandmother practically caressed it before she dusted and polished it, using her breath and a cloth she had bought just for that purpose.”

AgusColor.jpegAs a young girl, the grandmother sends passionate love poems to potential suitors, and her father beats her, “cursing the day they had sent her to elementary school, and she had learned to write.” Love is not the issue with her husband: she re-enacts brothel scenarios for him without feeling, and leaves coffee at the foot of his bed as if it were a bowl of water for a dog. She has given up love entirely by the time she meets the Veteran at a sanatorium where she’s being treated for gall stones.

“With him, she feels no embarrassment, not even if they peed together to get rid of the stones, and since her whole life she had been told she was like someone from the land of the moon, it seemed to her as if she had finally met someone from her own land, and that was the principal thing in life, which she never had.

When she decides to desert her family for him, nothing can stop her:
Never mind about the beach at the Poetto, a long desert of white dunes beside clear water that, no matter how far you walked, never got deep, while schools of fish swam between your legs. Never mind about summers in the blue-and-white striped bathing hut, the plates of malloreddus with tomato sauce and sausage after swimming. Never mind about her village, with the odor of hearth fires, of pork and lamb and the incense in church when they went to her sisters’ for holidays.”

AgusMike.jpegBut even as she struggles to break free, she regrets how she treats her husband, her family, and her village, she regrets the possible happiness they offer that she spurns.

“He was so happy with the purchase that he wanted grandmother to wear the new dress every day under her coat, and before they went out he’d make her twirl around, and he’d say, “It’s beautiful,” but he seemed to mean “You’re beautiful.”

And for this, too, grandmother never forgave herself. For having been unable to seize those words out of the air and be happy.”

Her confusion of feeling is handed down to the next generation, compelling her son to become a passionate musician, a man who is irresistible to a woman who discovers, long after they’re married, that her grandmother too wrote verses.

“Mamma had loved my father silently for a long time, she liked everything about him, even the fact that he was utterly in another world, and always had his sweaters on backward and never remembered what season it was and wore summer shirts until he caught bronchitis, and everyone said he was crazy.”

AgusChair.jpegFrom the Land of the Moon is not a simple discovery of love amid the ruins: its peek-a-boo plot surprises to the very last word. Imbuing the text with strange Sardinian idioms, translator Ann Goldstein invokes a lively culture distant in time and place. Agus’ writing is exquisite, detailed and emotionally true. Her central subject, the compulsion to express oneself and why those who don’t have this compulsion fear it, is one so key to our human existence that Americans might want to explore it. “In every family,” writes Agus, “there’s someone who pays the tribute, so that the balance between order and disorder is maintained and the world doesn’t come to a halt.”

[Published December 28, 2010, 144 pages, $15.00 paperback]

Terese Svoboda's most recent novel is Bohemian Girl (U. of Nebraska Press).
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Stona Fitch on The Quiet Twin a novel by Dan Vyleta (Bloomsbury)

For instant resonance and built-inforeshadowing, nothing beats setting your novel in Mitteleuropa in the late 1930s. Every reader knows what’s about to happen and it’s not going to be good. The specter of WWII hangs above the action like an Iron Cross of Damocles. So many novels, genre and literary, have adopted this setting that it’s rare to find a book that manages to seize this time and reinvent it for its own purposes — as does The Quiet Twin. Its author, Dan Vyleta, pulls off an enviable coup — writing a novel that combines lush, beautiful language at the sentence level with the propulsive plot of a literary thriller.

VyletaCover.jpgAt the heart of the novel are a series of murders, first a dog, then creatures of a supposedly higher order. The ambivalent Dr. Anton Beer becomes slowly ensnared in the whispered rumors and unstated fears that course through a dark, rambling apartment building near Vienna. Everyone seems to be watching everyone else, blurring the line between voyeurism and collaboration. Within the building live an inscrutable janitor, a dissolute mime named Otto, a shadowy professor named Speckstein, and Zuzka, the professor’s hyper-sexual teenage niece — who serves as Dr. Beer’s passeur to the darker corners of the apartment building.

Though there’s a large cast of truly damaged, strange characters, Vyleta doesn’t reduce them to freaks. Instead, they get respect and attention reminiscent of another quotidian apartment building packed with interlocking characters, this one in Paris — the brilliant Life, A User’s Manual by Georges Perec. Consider the elegance of this description of the drunken mime, who returns to his apartment to find that Beer has discovered the mime’s sister, Eva, paralyzed and rotting in bed:

“His hand rose, thumb and forefinger taking hold of his nose. He blew snot into his open palm, then wiped it on the seat of his trousers: a fluid gesture, untroubled by breeding. Next Beer knew, that same thumb and finger had come together once again and hung in the air rubbing one another, in a gesture as old as the gods. ‘How much?’”

Never has a farmer’s blow been so eloquently rendered.

VyletaColorHat.jpegThe search for who is doing the killings drives the book and gives it the linear structure of a thriller, though Vyleta deftly switches perspectives to make the story much broader and multi-angled. As the hunt picks up urgency and new and terrible events transpire (most involving knives, the most personal of weapons), the book begins to read like Rear Window retold by Thomas Mann or Max Frisch. The suspense grows, compelling this reader to drop other more debatably “literary” books to devour a chapter of The Quiet Twin nightly.

But The Quiet Twin is no guilty pleasure. Vyleta captures the atmosphere of Europe during wartime deftly and with beautiful, strange language that avoids the clichés that dog less dimensional, less talented writers. Think Alan Furst crossed with Kafka or Hrabel. That Vyleta is the son of Czech refugees isn’t surprising. His writing has some of the fantastical realism, fatalistic humor, and wild, unhinged imagination that define a certain quadrant of post-war Czech literature. That this is only his second novel is truly remarkable.

In the ongoing debate of language vs. plot, there can never be a winner. Too many partisans, too many little axes to grind. But when both serve their complementary purposes in harmony, as they do in The Quiet Twin, then a book can deliver a full-immersion reading experience that reminds readers why books still work, and matter.

Vyletta takes well-trod wartime Vienna and makes it his own by creating an uncannily resonant rendering of places that exist only in his imagination (and then ours). The apartment building’s grim basement, the close rooms looking out on the courtyard, the under-stocked kitchens — they become so real that we feel as if we might live there, or perhaps, should the killer’s knife find us as it did the ill-fated dog and other victims — die there.

VyletaBW.jpegUltimately, what is The Quiet Twin? A quiet, smart thriller with low-grade thrills? An historical novel where most of the history is personal? A literary work spiced with noir elements? Readers will have their own take on the precise (and superfluous) designation. But I suspect Vyleta’s unwillingness to stay completely within a specified genre — or artificially amp up the volume — might keep this completely engaging novel from reaching the broader audience it deserves.

[Published February 14, 2012, 375 pages, $16.00

Stona Fitch is a novelist (Senseless, Give + Take, and others) and founder of the renegade Concord Free Press.

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Recommended by Lawrence Douglas

Lawrence Douglas on My Prizes: An Accounting a memoir by Thomas Bernhard (Knopf)

Having never actually received any literary prizes, I can only begin to imagine the pain they must occasion. Thomas Bernhard, the great Austrian novelist, poet, and playwright who died in 1989, suffered no such imaginative challenge. Bernhard’s first novel, Frost (1963), received the prestigious Bremen Literature Prize, and over the next quarter-century, his work received just about every major literary accolade to be conferred upon a creative writer in the German-speaking world.

BernhardColor.jpegNone of this recognition brought Bernhard much in the way of happiness; to the contrary, it often left him feeling as if “trampled … into [a] stinking pit from which there is no escape.” Those familiar with Bernhard will not find this surprising, as the writer was never the most cheerful of campers. If anomie and existential dread have become clichés of the modernist temper, Bernhard went one step further, describing life itself as an unremitting catastrophe. Certainly he knew his fair share of misery. Born out of wedlock, he never met his birth father — he took his life in 1940 — and struggled with his mother, who packed the teenager off to a National Socialist military academy. As an eighteen-year-old he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and given a bleak prognosis. Though he survived, his permanently weakened lungs kept him in and out of sanatoriums; he died of a lung infection at the relatively young age of 58.

The spirit of death is palpable in many of Bernhard’s works, though not as a menace—more as a companion, a familiar if not entirely welcome figure. Menace comes rather in the form of Bernhard’s fellow human beings—in their pettiness, narrow-mindedness, greed, stupidity, mendacity, and hypocrisy.

His novels and autobiographical writings invariably take the form of first-person harangues — breathless diatribes that go on for a couple of hundred pages and then end as abruptly as they began. Largely without plot or characters (they exist but largely as objects of the narrator’s loathing), the works are rescued and redeemed by the genius of Bernhard’s voice. Bernhard had musical gifts, only his weak lungs made a musical career impossible. Yet his writing is profoundly musical in the manner of the compositions of Philip Glass. Words and figures endlessly repeat with slight variations, gradually accumulating a density of meaning and an intensity of feeling. His sentences tend to be long — often a single sentence can stretch for over a page — but for all the seeming refusal to make concessions to the reader—no plot, no paragraphs, and nary a period in sight — Bernhard’s books are actually quite easy to read, happily free of the difficulties of, say, Beckett, who clearly exercised a powerful influence on the Austrian. The one auspicious affinity they share with Beckett’s is their hilarity; Bernhard’s humor, if at times overlooked by his reviewers, is one of the most distinctive qualities of his work, as it is expressed not in set pieces or in comic situations, but through his narrators’ extraordinary exaggerations of language.

BernhardCover.jpgMany of the misanthropic sentiments given fulsome and amusing voice by Bernhard’s narrators were clearly shared by their creator. To describe Bernhard as the enfant terrible of the Austrian literary scene doesn’t quite do justice to the ill will he managed to arouse in his native land, which he once memorably characterized as a “mindless, cultureless sewer.” Still, this didn’t stop his countrymen from heaping literary accolades upon him, a fact that only further piqued his contempt and self-loathing.

This is the story told in My Prizes, a collection of autobiographical sketches originally written in 1980 that remained unpublished during Bernhard’s life. It wasn’t until 2009, on the twentieth anniversary of the author’s death, that the manuscript was published in Germany; Knopf brought out this excellent English translation at the end of 2010.

Admittedly it is an odd volume. A memoir of Bernhard’s harrowing encounters with book prizes would seem designed for an audience of devotees — a tiny if fervent group in this country. At the same time, this slim handsome volume, which in a departure from Bernhard’s work, is divided into readily digestible chapters, none longer than twenty pages, provides a nice, accessible introduction to a writer still very much a boutique item on these shores.

The stories themselves, if lacking the concentrated power of Bernhard’s best novels, Concrete and The Woodcutters, manage to avoid the pitfalls of self-indulgence and instead brilliantly vocalize the interior of a touchy, humorous, self-castigating misanthropist. In 1967, Bernhard received the Austrian State Prize for literature. This was, Bernhard explains at great length, the “so-called Small State prize,” which a writer “receives only for a particular piece of work and for which he has to nominate himself” and not for the “so-called Large State prize, which is given for a so-called life’s work.” Bernhard discovers that unbeknownst to him, his brother had hand delivered Frost on the last day of submissions; to the writer’s chagrin it won:

BernhardBW.jpeg“Secretly I was thinking that the jury was indulging itself in sheer effrontery in giving me the Small Prize when of course the only thing I felt absolutely prepared to accept, should the question arise, and it had already been raised, was the Big Prize and not the Small, that it must be giving my enemies on this jury a fiendish pleasure to knock me from my pedestal by throwing the Small Prize at my head.”

At the award ceremony, the Minster of Culture, Art, and Education, “a former Secretary of the Provincial Agricultural Department in Steiermark,” describes Frost as a “novel that takes place on an island in the South Seas” and Bernhard as a “foreigner born in Holland.”

Bernhard “quietly” delivers his acceptance speech, “a very calm text,” a “philosophical one, profound even”—only to be greeted with the following reaction:

“… the Minister leapt to his feet, bright red in the face, and hurled some incomprehensible curse word at my head….The entire mob in the hall, all people who were dependent on the Minister, who had grants or pensions and above all the so-called Cultural Senate, which probably attends every prize ceremony, all of them rushed after the Minister out of the hall and down the broad flight of stairs.”

Bernhard’s sense of sincere and innocent bewilderment at the inexplicable rage triggered by his words finds hilarious counterpoint when, towards the end of My Prizes, we come upon a reprint of the short “calm text”:

"Our era is feebleminded, the demonic in us a perpetual national prison in which the elements of stupidity and thoughtlessness have become a daily need … We have nothing to report except that we are pitiful …”

Bernhard was clearly a difficult man, prickly and rude. I’m not sure I would have relished sharing a meal with him. But as a literary companion he is a peculiar delight. In his misanthropy and self-loathing we hear a voice at once scathing, amusing and tender.

[Published November 23, 2010. 144 pages, $22.00 hardcover]

Lawrence Douglas is the author most recently of The Vices (Other Press), a finalist for the 2011 National Jewish Book Award. He teaches at Amherst College.

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Shannon Cain on Drifting House, stories by Krys Lee (Penguin/Viking)

LeeColor.jpegThe stories in Krys Lee’s Drifting House are spun around surprising and terrible events. Whether arising from unthinking, self-absorbed everyday acts of violence or extraordinary, life-shattering moments, these shocks, these gestures, these tragic acts are Lee’s daring and courageous terrain. Hers are not quiet stories; the characters here make unforgivable choices and do awful things. They commit murders and assaults, abandonments and humiliations, infidelities, suicides, incest and cruel silences. The characters in Drifting House behave badly because they’re insane, because they crave power, because they need protection, or because they’re crippled by fear and longing and love.

But although these stories unfailingly give us individuals with a complexity of personal and differing motivations, Drifting House remains a collection about a culture, a people, a nation. While each character here is screwed up in his or her tragically unique way, they share in common a struggle against and within a Korea that seems designed to work against their chances for happiness.

LeeCover.jpgSome of the stories are set in America; others are set in the city of Seoul. The latter are infused with place, reliant upon it, returning to it again and again as means toward characterization, motivation, subtext. The Seoul stories exploit their setting to its fullest — and in Lee’s hands this exploitation translates into an invisible ubiquity; a gorgeous unobtrusiveness. Seoul becomes a place of weird displacement. Characters know the city intimately yet still feel disoriented; they have strange and sad adventures; in their misery they feel part of a community, a sad, comforting dissolution of self. In “The Salaryman,” an unemployed and now homeless worker finds his place among the disenfranchised of the city:

“Seoul Station may stink of urine and flesh and futility, the police may hound these subterranean arcade residents, the other city, but it keeps you warm, and this matters, for last night you woke up outside shivering with dew in your lashes. Now your back hugs the cold wall and drunk voices boom as you fish for your wallet with its family photos. But it has already been stolen. That’s when you realize you are no longer needed.”

There are no familiar characters here; Lee gives us none of the predictable problems often found in the literature of the immigrant experience and those living in the international shadow of the American Dream. While these characters do of course grapple with the impact of war, of escape from the mother country and of everyday American prejudice, their problems are not central to the stories but are rather the backdrop, the living conditions, the air to be breathed. The cultural perspective of the characters, the oppressions and the attitudes that keep them from happiness — is less a central subject than a gossamer thread that disappears subtly into the story’s weave, only to emerge later via shimmering detail and historical insight.

LeeBooks.jpegSo while this is decidedly a book about the Korean and Korean-American experience, the problems of these characters are rarely problems of immigration or assimilation or bias or hatred but (more satisfyingly), problems of their own making. In “A Temporary Marriage,” a brutalized woman whose violent ex-husband divorced her and kidnapped her daughter turns out to be chillingly and helplessly complicit in her own victimization. In the story’s final gesture we are shown the ancient and uncontrollable nature of her suffering; that her pain is shared by generations of women who came before. We begin to see that even though these stories hold their characters fully responsible for the choices they’ve made, their options were limited from the start.

The despair in this collection is profound, bone-shaking, shuddering. A child of eleven leads his younger siblings on an unsurvivable trek across a snowy mountain range, believing the mother who abandoned them waits on the other side. An abused woman makes her way to America to find her kidnapped child and to confront her ex-husband, only to be instead confronted — and confounded — by her own role as a collaborator in her victimization. A girl comes home from school to find the gruesome outcome of her insane mother’s act of brutal violence, and in the aftermath finds herself crossing an unthinkable line with her father as a way toward a tragic mutual comfort.

LeeColorRR.jpegThese stories force the reader to consider whether given the limitations of our culture, our history and our national mistakes, we ever able to break free. In “The Believer,” a shocking tale that competes with the title story for the collection’s most courageous, it becomes finally clear that sharing even the most unbearable pain keeps us feeling less alone:

“But outside the window, Jenny thought, beyond the fun house décor and forced cheer of the Happy Meal box, someone was committing suicide, someone was grieving the murder of their son or daughter, someone was enduring God’s endless tests. The thought connected her to a vast web of strangers, and their confusion and hurt became hers.”

[Published February 2, 2012. 207 pages, $25.95 hardcover]

Shannon Cain’s story collection, The Necessity of Certain Behaviors (University of Pittsburgh, 2011) was awarded the Drue Heinz Literature Prize. She lives in Tucson.

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Mark Athitakis on The New Republic, a novel by Lionel Shriver (Harper Collins)

ShriverColor.jpegAt 15, Margaret Ann Shriver changed her first name to Lionel because, she has said, a more manly name was a better fit for her tomboy personality. (“[My parents] thought it was a phase I was going through,” she told one interviewer. “I’m still in the phase.”) It was a fitting move for a writer who’s spent much of her career interested in split personalities and second selves. Her 1997 novel, Double Fault, follows a pair of dueling, hypercompetitive tennis players, and her 2003 breakthrough, We Need to Talk About Kevin, pits a well-intentioned mother against her demon-spawn child. Shriver’s studies of these divisions can be ingenious and nuanced: Her 2007 masterpiece, The Post-Birthday World, places her heroine on two alternating tracks, one pursuing an affair and the other remaining loyal to her husband. But she can be unapologetically unsubtle when she has a message to deliver. In her 2010 healthcare polemic, So Much for That, one man bucks the system and is rewarded with paradise on earth. Another obsesses over that system and winds up chopping off his genitals and blowing his head off. Life is a series of tough decisions; choose wisely.

Shriver’s nervy prose usually sells this binary perspective, elevates it from its obvious artifice. She writes with a clear eye, dark humor, and skeptical tone that make her the closest thing contemporary fiction has to Bill Hicks, a satirist as social realist. That’s right, I had a guy take a hatchet to his junk, you imagine her saying. Got a problem with that? The smirking style and the doppelgangers in her new novel, The New Republic, are in keeping with that attitude, though the book has had a harder time in the marketplace. As she writes in an introductory note, publishers balked after she finished the novel in 1998, worried that readers considered terrorism “Foreigners’ Boring Problem.” In the years after 9/11, a novel with the line “the ‘terrorists’ of today are the town-square monuments of tomorrow” didn’t stand a chance.

ShriverCover.jpgToday, an acclaimed film version of We Need to Talk About Kevin has raised Shriver’s profile, terrorism is Our Damn Problem, and the end-of-irony era has long since passed, so The New Republic gets to live. Its hero, Edgar Kellogg, has quit his job as a corporate lawyer to pursue a foundering freelance writing career, and in desperation he picks up work as a stringer for a USA Today-ish national newspaper. His destination is Barba, an “Iberian slagheap” south of Portugal where he’s assigned to suss out the truth about a terrorist group called Os Soldados Ousados de Barba (the SOBs for short), and figure out what happened to the beat’s previous reporter, Barrington Saddler. “Better History’s secretary than Philip Morris’s lawyer,” he tells an editor in an interview, though privately he thinks Barba is one of many “too-complicated-and-who-gives-a-fuck shit holes about which [he] refused to read.”

This setup has aged poorly. The idea of an writer landing a gig at national paper’s foreign bureau on the basis of a mere handful of clips would be mildly ridiculous in the mid- to late 90s; today, with most foreign bureaus shuttered, it’s pure fantasy. Shriver’s vision of terrorism resembles less Islamic radicalism than Irish republicanism; the SOBs and its semilegitimate political wing, O Crème de Barbear (referred to with the intentionally revolting term the Creamies) evoke the IRA and Sinn Fein. And even the most cynical, seen-it-all reporter would have a hard time embracing Shriver’s argument that the media perpetuates terrorism as a kind of act of job preservation. The New Republic is an artifact from a time when we could look at both journalism and terrorism more callously -- as if the former would always be there and the latter might affect us, but not too terribly much.

ShriverColorB.jpegYet personality crises never get old, and the novel’s strength is in Edgar’s character reinvention, his reckoning with second selves past and present. We’re reminded often that Kellogg was the stereotypical fat kid as child, until he obsessively pursued a fitness regimen upon which his sense of confidence hinges. It’s a shallow way to frame your sense of well being, and Edgar will slowly grow aware of that. But he also knows that perception is often reality: “[P]eople will exonerate sadists, braggarts, liars, and even slack-jawed morons before they’ll pardon eyesores. If you’re attractive, people need a reason to dislike you; if you’re ugly, people need a reason to like you. They don’t usually find one.”

However true or false that high-school-pecking-order vision of reality might be --- and Shriver doesn’t dismiss it outright --- it fuels Edgar’s parrying with the missing journalist. Though Saddler isn’t actually present for most of the novel, he’s a constant presence: Edgar lives in his old apartment with his cryptic notes and possessions, and the novel’s most affecting scenes pit the two against each other. Or, rather, they pit Edgar against himself, using an imagined Saddler to project the feelings he won’t admit to. Through Saddler, he can voice his obsession with a colleague’s wife, with his body, with the ego that’s pushed him into a byline-driven profession. “You think you’re irreverent, caustic --- slick, downtown, and better-not-cross-me,” Edgar-as-Saddler tells Edgar. “In truth, you’re an easily injured former fat boy looking for love.”

Even a satirist cracking wise about terrorism has to acknowledge the actual bloodshed it generates, and Shriver does so in the closing chapters. But she also approaches it grudgingly; the novel’s true climax has less to do with explosions and international politics than with Edgar’s Heart of Darkness-style discovery of the in-the-flesh Saddler. That meeting, more than anything he learns from his fellow journalists or Barban politicians, teaches him how shallow his true self is. “Given a choice, Edgar might rather revere a hero than be one,” she writes. We all pick alter egos, Shriver wants us to know---that’s not just the stuff of fiction. But we choose which ones we admire at our peril.

[Published March 27, 20112. 368 pages, $26.99 hardcover]

Mark Athitakis is a Washington, D.C.-based book reviewer whose work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post, the Barnes & Noble Review, and many other publications. He serves on the board of the National Book Critics Circle and blogs at ”American Fiction Notes.”

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Laura Kasischke on The Nine Senses by Melissa Kwasny (Milkweed Editions)

“See how the morning light lies on the top planes of the venetian blinds. And the tree, whole and shining, in the spaces between. Through the cracks, look. A simile, its little hinge. Today’s story. The hour’s lesson …” (from “The Nine Senses”).

KwasnyCover.jpgThe Nine Senses is a book of paragraphs: seventy-one paragraphs, to be precise. But you have never read a paragraph before! You open the book thinking, naively, that you have read paragraphs before, and that you have some idea of what one will be. You think you know how long it takes to read a paragraph, and what it can and can’t contain. Even if it’s a prose poem, this paragraph, you think certain gestures will be made, and you will recognize the those gestures and read on, and you’ll still be yourself at the end of the paragraph. But Melissa Kwasny has written seventy-one paragraphs that remake the idea of what prose, contained on a page, can do. She has invented a magic paragraph, perhaps.

“Say you’ve been dealt the King Lear. The father with the rotting member. In the home you are not happy in, do you talk to god? Who holds your death as ransom. Who needs his wife …” (from “The Trumpet Place”).

It’s hard to tell you about this book without holding it up, and pointing at parts of it, saying, “Look how you start somewhere you’ve never been, wander into your own childhood bedroom, and leave ruined, remade, with wings.” Melissa Kwasny has accomplished, with her strange art, that which they say never can be: You’ve heard that we are born and die alone, parceled into our separate consciousnesses. But this poet has found a way to blow her own consciousness into yours.

Kwasney.jpeg“I heard it fall and then its shuffling in the unburned paper of the last fire. Do you have a story about a chimney and a bird? Because here I am in a forest, and it is just before dark …” (from “Talk to the Water Dipper”).

Through her musical questions, slippery shifts, crafty and crazed associations, she’s invented a mind machine. She has done what Owen Barfield speaks of in Poetic Diction — induced in the reader a ‘felt change of consciousness.’ I recently came upon a book called Get High Now (Without Drugs). It’s full of meditation games and suggestions for self-hypnosis. (They work.) Melissa Kwasny’s seventy-one paragraphs belong in this book for the hallucinogenic properties of its accumulated power.

“Bluff and double-bluff. We could make ourselves sick waiting for this place to open up to us. Polished by our childhoods. Bruises the waves leave. Shell: skinned knee, scraped marble. We know too much about process to get around it …” (from “Shell”).

KwasnyBW.jpegThat’s what this book is! A mind machine. Its seventy-one paragraphs are the moving parts of the machine. You can read this book cover to cover and take a journey in the traveling machine, or you can open it at any paragraph, any sentence in any paragraph, and be sucked into the spinning machine.

“Holy brothers, your dark leprosy is echoed in the sparrow-flecked fields of late November. Moleskin of the hillside. Yellowed velvet of the lawns. And the mill-stream, which I borrow from the poet Trakl …” (fropm “De Profundis”).

We have all been talking for so long about when and where a new turn in poetry will take place, and here it’s been on the shelf already for a year! Melissa Kwasny has invented the paragraph! You’ve never read one before.

[Published March 1, 2011. 96 pages, $16.00 paperback]

Laura Kasischke has published eight poetry collections and nine novels. Her latest poems in Space, In Chains (Copper Canyon) won the 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry. Her most recent novel is The Raising (Harper Perennial 2011. She teaches at the University of Michigan.

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Patricia Henley on Echolocation, a novel by Myfanwy Collins (Engine Books)

CollinsCover.jpgWhen I was a teenager living on a country road in Maryland, a girlfriend and I used to walk to a store about a mile away. The shoulder of the road was a thin strip of gravel and I would will the cars away from me, when there were cars. It felt remote. Maggie’s store was our destination, next to an apple packing plant. I don’t know if the store had a name beyond that. Maggie was the proprietor and she lived behind the store. The floors were worn wood. If we happened to arrive there mid-morning, we might see her tossing down the used coffee grounds and sweeping the floor with them, patiently, methodically. She kept on eye on all the youngsters who came in for jawbreakers and candy bars, determined to prevent them stealing. I think I bought my first pack of cigarettes there, in the day when such purchases were not regulated. I was aware that my girlfriend attracted certain glances from the men who sat on stools by the woodstove winter or summer. Glances that I did not attract. Glances Geneva in Echolocation attracted as girl. Echolocation brought all that back to me and more, as I entered fully into the world of Cheri and Geneva and Aunt Marie, in Aunt Marie’s little store in upstate New York, just “a breath away from the border crossing.”

There’s a familiarity about the store when it’s introduced.

“Cheri opened the door to the typical jingling of the bell. The sound that was safety and home, that was you are here and you cannot leave. And the smell of the store: Nilla Wafers softening in their boxes, Vicks Vapo-rub, stale beer.”

The young women who were raised together – both abandoned by parents and adopted by Aunt Marie like strays – are brought together by Aunt Marie’s imminent death from cancer. One thinks of Joan Chase’s During the Reign of the Queen of Persia and the aunt dying of cancer and the girl cousins growing up together. But Echolocation is no story of women finding unparalleled strength in each other or reconciling. It is country noir, á la Daniel Woodrell. It is what may happen when people are shaped too much by the wilderness that surrounds them and not enough by their passions in the larger, more civilized world.

CollinsColor.jpegLest we get too cozy in the country store, Myfanwy Collins first dishes up a three-page opening chapter, one of the best instigating events for a novel I’ve read since Ian McEwan’s hot-air balloon mishap in Enduring Love. Geneva is pissed at her husband Clint; their marriage has soured; she’s sad that she’s betraying the land and her dowry by cutting down timber to sell for firewood; and her spunky centeredness is eroded by a blue feeling, a doomed feeling. She can’t figure it out. When she loses control of the chainsaw and severs her arm, you will cancel appointments and shut off your phone to find out what happens next.

There is a fairy tale quality to the ending of this first chapter:

“Regardless of everyone’s best intentions, the arm could not be saved. And so beautiful Geneva would henceforth be known as one-armed Geneva – still beautiful, but flawed. Clint felt so bad about his wife’s disfigurement and how, had he been a better man, he might have prevented it, that he went down the street to the funeral home, met with the undertaker, and picked out a top of the line casket, white, silver-handled, with pink silk interior.

“There was no viewing, but there was a small service at the graveyard, led by Father O’Connor. Geneva was there, dressed in black, mourning, and as they lowered the baby-sized casket that encased what was once her living arm, complete with the engagement ring and wedding band still on the finger, into the ground, Geneva dropped a shovel full of dirt on it, looked right at Clint, and said, ‘Ashes to ashes and dust to dust.’ Later she vowed that those would be the last words she ever said to him. Ever.”

In the Florida chapters, Collins manages quite deftly to meld the timelessness of that fairy tale quality to the present-day grit of Titty’s Bar & Grill and the Lazy Palms trailer park.

Collins.jpegA sense of foreboding and the impossibility of easy reunions – the way hurt and abandonment can be permanent roadblocks to love – lace every chapter of this novel. Still, the mayhem that ensues is shocking. It is skillfully rendered and believable. All of the women, including Renee, Cheri’s mother who appears with a kidnapped baby, inch toward each other emotionally, while events outside their control keep chugging in their direction like a freight train.

The language and lyricism of Myfanwy Collins’ prose never takes over; it reveals her tenderness toward the characters and the land. She is skilled at the puzzle of plot; she is skilled at poetry. This novel is a fine debut, portending more to come.

[Published March 6, 2012. 204 pages, $14.95 paperback]

Patricia Henley is the author of a collection of stories, Other Heartbreaks (Engine Books, October 2011), and two novels, Hummingbird House and In the River Sweet. She has published three other collections of stories, two chapbooks of poetry, and numerous essays.

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T. M. McNally on The Beginners, a novel by Rebecca Wolff (Riverhead Books)

Or: what haunts us is imagination.

What a mysterious and beautiful novel this is. Ravishing, that’s the word I keep coming back to, premised on the thrill of recognition which comes from being known. Certainly the poet and novelist Rebecca Wolff knows what it means to know and to be known.

WoolfColor.jpegThe terms herein? Gothic, and knowingly so. Ginger, fifteen, lives in the small town, Wick, which is on the way to Anywhere, Massachusetts; she hangs with her best (and older and racy and nubile) friend, Cherry; Ginger’s parents are grieving the loss of their first-born son, Ginger’s older brother, Jack (a freak teenage accident); and then the Strangers Come to Town — Raquel and Theo, a grown-up couple, indeterminate age, beautiful, sexual, and libertine in the way that physical beauty and youth uninhibited by social constraint so often seem to be. These strangers, Raquel and Theo, are, in a word, free.

And what is childhood if not bound with the fences staked by inexperience? This is not a novel about coming of age, that dreadful phrase, but rather about coming to be. Meanwhile, adventures ensue, and the eerie presence of ghosts abounds.

There is the ghost of Jack, the dead brother, whose loss to Ginger’s parents causes them to grieve while simultaneously neglecting their remaining daughter (too, our narrator is mindful that one person’s neglect is another person’s freedom). Thus Ginger is free to grow and to explore the influence of other lives in the town of Wick: among them, the dead, who were washed away by the filling of the town’s local reservoir; and the women of New England who were set on trial because they were, what, women? Among the living we have the perpetually hovering Mr. Penrose, her boss, and Randy Thibodeau, the bad boy who drives the motorcycle, and then there are the Mysterious Strangers. Ostensibly Raquel and Theo are graduate students doing research on the town’s history, though there are other versions, too, which mean to describe who and what they are: eccentric, electric, crazy, psychopathic, or, perhaps, just free. “This,” says either Raquel or Theo, our narrator is not certain, “is what it’s like to do what you want.”

WolffCover.jpgThe plot of this novel travels the border of childhood to adulthood, or a state of indeterminate agency to self-authorship, and as is true for all border landscapes, not everybody makes the crossing: the territory is fraught with danger and marked with graves. Ginger is fifteen, but our narrator is, we are reminded, near the cusp of her majority, and so we have a guide prescient enough to liken evil to “a floating contingency of being, like a hat that lands on one’s head.” Ginger, we understand early on, is a waitress at the Top Hat café, and thus are the novel’s terms established. The weather here is changing and she is growing up. And central to the events to follow is an articulation of ideas relating to power and its exchange, an exchange which will be repeatedly played out in the realm of the sexual.

Here is an early passage:

“At fifteen I still possessed a child’s native capacity for belief — some call it naïveté but I prefer to think of it as a positive attribute, a capability — and enjoyed a commensurate appetite for phenomena in which to believe. Another appetite that diminishes as we mature. Already, now, telling this story — though I have not yet achieved majority — the weight of adult accountability descends, and I assent to the banality of truth, to the scale’s discernible tipping on the side of whatever is the simplest explanation. The simplest explanation for any phenomenon is usually the correct one. The correct explanation is the simplest one. A ghost is a draft of cold air on the skin, a neuron-fueled shape in the dark hour of sleep. A mind reader is, at best, someone who pays closer attention to detail than most, who is wide open to suggestion. At worst, she is a con artist. A witch is a woman with an enemy or two. Is this simple enough to sustain us? I ask you.

In fact, The Beginners takes its title from a category of pornographic magazines, a catalogue of methodologies for “deflowering” young women, which Ginger thumbs through the pages of at work while filling time. Early in the novel, while confronting a figure of male authority, her boss, we watch Ginger dip her toe into the waters of sexual dynamics: “How he must hate himself,” she observes. “I thought then that the one in power in this position, the one closest to the mirror, the one who is entered, must be sure not to betray her innocence, her uncertainty, her obscure longings, or she would run the risk of sharing that humiliation, that powerlessness. She must be as impenetrable above as she is yielding below.”

WoolfColorB.jpegWolff is using the lens of sexuality here to locate agency. This pattern of yielding while asserting one’s power, of leveraging one’s vulnerability to gain leverage, or experience, that psychological judo that complicates balance, recurs thematically — leading our narrator finally to “an irreducible mixture of ultimate vulnerability and ultimate power.” It’s a destination made possible only by the events which lead to it. And certainly there is far more at work here in The Beginners than an initiation into the racy and the scandalous. Indeed, the novel’s title itself invokes T. S. Eliot’s observation from “East Coker” — “in my beginning is my end,” and vice versa — all of which begs the modernist question first inspired by the book of Ecclesiastes — what takes place in between? The act of perception, that is what separates a beginning from an end, an end from a beginning. The art of seeing makes life worth living.

Meanwhile, the novel’s poetics dwell not on the pedestrian (is brilliant Raquel a ghost, or crazy, or both?) but on the archetypal, the mythical and the psychological — on consciousness, and all of the implications of its various states. Throughout the story there are lying in wait the murky waters of the unconscious, typified narratively by the pull of the fresh-water reservoir in which the locals go skinny-dipping; there are the dark woods surrounding the town, and the attendant dangers which lurk inside all dark woods; there are the dim and brassy halls of the Wick Social Club, where the town’s Men of Standing gather to legislate and drink, as those with clubs (whack) often do; and then there is that peculiar matter of the self: the certain part of oneself, if one is brave enough to look within and find her, that is willing to devour the other. The self’s own ouroboros.

In this novel experience feeds experience, which allows for perception, and still the novel elides, hopscotching over whatever threatens to deflect the narrator’s aim. Just as the meaning of a given life does not necessarily rest in the events of the life one lives, so too the plot in this novel is far more large than, say, the gravestones in the cemetery to which these figures are mysteriously led. The story, I’m suggesting, is bigger than the story: and herein lies the key to its brilliance. The novel, Ginger’s story, is not about the meaning of what happens, but rather it is about how what happens lends itself to meaning, how the actual and dream-like both create and inhabit the self which lives, and how things mean whatever it is the self, in any given place and time, wills them to mean.

Wolff’s prose, unleashed by the range of her narrator’s relentlessly inquisitive mind, astounds. The novel is built on stanzas of rumination which dazzle by way of their -- to pinch from Italo Calvino -- Exactitude. Filtered through the wide eyes of a young girl, and propelled by an intellectually mature narrator with a blistering intelligence, the entire landscape of Wick is lit-up with a poetic light blinding in its insight. “In every instant lies a pattern,” Ginger says, “a code, from which every antecedent moment can be predicted.” It is this mindfulness of the novel’s own DNA which offers such a pattern of wholeness and beauty to the experience of reading it. As Raquel reminds, “Nothing like a sunset to bring two people together, is there?”

This is a ghost story in the very best sense: the parts of ourselves we never really do let go of, or let go of us; those parts of ourselves which haunt and, in so haunting, inspire. Think of the oak tree built right out of the acorn, and the acorn the mature tree can’t quite let go of. In my experience novels about childhood are never about childhood. About danger? Certainly. About mystery and the collusions of biology? You betcha. Still, as any poet knows, and some novelists, the origins of a story reside not in the setting, or the history, the facts of any matter; the origins of any story, rather, derive always from the voice which speaks — the soul’s breath, which gives that story shape and, however fleetingly, meaning.

A mid-book passage:

“I like the idea of auras: an organic by-product of living. A gentle, benevolent example of the baffling reserve of potentially real phenomena that we mostly cannot entertain as real, in order to live comfortably. Auras are organic, ghosts are supernatural, the mind is a combustion engine of perception, routinely creating and destroying and creating anew what matters—our hearths, our tongues. Who can dare to navigate these waters and still call herself a useful member of society? It takes all of your breath away. It cleanses your palate of its taste for that which is comfortable. Ordinary knowledge, ordinary society, ordinary love.
But if comfort is not your highest priority, then you might live as we did.”

In this light, then, I can’t help thinking that the real ghost in this beautiful story is the Ghost of Ginger’s Future Self — the fearless woman she is yet to become, that narrator off in the distance. And the narrator’s ghost? Given that we all have one? That would be Ginger the Younger, the fifteen-year-old girl scampering through the summer pages of this novel in her sneakers and shorts, crushing on the older, dangerous grownups, discovering that the imaginary castle which fills her childhood daydreams really is a mill, a factory, and in which she will begin to know and trust her first and most dangerous and primal self.

[Published June 30, 2011. 304 pages, $26.95/$16.00]

T. M. McNally is the author of six books of fiction, including the novel The Goat Bridge (University of Michigan, 2007). His rcollection of stories, The Gateway (Southern Methodist, 2007) was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.

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Dan Pope on Lightning Rods, a novel by Helen DeWitt (New Directions)

Helen DeWitt’s novel Lightning Rods, her second book to follow The Last Samurai, runs on two engines.

The first is the premise, an utterly original bit of mischief. A failed vacuum cleaner salesman named Joe, Dewitt’s protagonist, comes up with an idea. To reduce sexual harassment claims in the workplace and increase (male) employee productivity, Joe offers a unique personnel plan to employers: on-site female prostitutes, which he calls “lightning rods.”

DeWittCoverB.jpgThe way Joe sees it, “You invest in training. A man is bringing in $100 million of business. You leave him open to the danger of momentarily forgetting himself with a little $25,000 a year secretary?” For Joe, rather than risk lawsuits, it makes better sense for men to have “a way of siphoning off all that [sexual] hostility” at work, so they can “go back to the office and get on with the job.”

Joe pitches his idea to various corporate officials until a CEO takes him up on the idea. For reasons that make sense to Joe, the “lightning rods” must be disguised as ordinary secretaries to preserve their anonymity. In addition to typing, though, the women respond to calls two or three times per day to have sex with male employees in a handicap bathroom. The sex occurs in a convoluted fashion, so that neither party can see the other’s face. Specifically, the female, wholly naked, kneels on a sort of conveyor belt and is transported “ass backwards” through a hole in the wall into the bathroom. The male, waiting on the other side, is presented with her hindquarters. A dispenser provides “lube” and condoms.

As the action progresses, Joe tweaks this arrangement, adding a lever to raise or lower the platform, magazines for the women to read during the procedure, and various attire additions (short tight skirts in manmade leopard skin, PVC leggings). There are safeguards to protect the women in their job-performance. If the man tries to exceed the parameters of the sexual agreement, the woman can press a button that locks the man in the bathroom.

The premise is very funny and, of course, absurd, like all good satire.

DeWittColor.jpegThe second engine which runs this novel is the narrative voice, and this is DeWitt’s real coup. The entire novel is presented in the bland, soul-killing language of corporate America, a combination of Human Resource-speak, sales mumbo-jumbo, and positive-thinking clichés. DeWitt never departs from this peculiar American idiom and never goes any deeper than the superficial observations of the ordinary corporate shill. This is a first as literary accomplishments go: an entire novel written in the clichéd idiom of the infomercial.

Here’s an excerpt:

“A good salesman pays attention to his instincts. Even if a product is selling, even if the customer appears satisfied, if you’re dissatisfied with some feature of the product sooner or later the public is going to catch up with you. Or, to put it another way, a competitor is going to come along who has ironed out that particular wrinkle. If you can get to that wrinkle first, while building on the brand loyalty you have hopefully established, you’re way ahead of the game.”

Joe is incapable of interpreting human impulse in terms other than business interaction. “One of the things that’s perennially fascinating about the world,” Joe observes, “is the way people sell things to themselves.” A few pages later, he notes, “One thing you soon realize in marketing is that there’s a lot that goes on in people that they themselves don’t necessarily understand.”

DeWitt mines this bland language for all its comic possibility. When a particular sexual encounter goes beyond what the woman expects, Joe tells her, “Remember Suzanne, we don’t know the whole story. For all you know the client may have just been taken to task by someone higher up in way that he perceived as humiliating … I’m not condoning what happened ... I’m just saying we have to see this in a wider context.”

Give DeWitt credit for boldness. She bucks the first rule of creative writing (avoid clichés at all cost!). Here, though, the reader accepts, and delights in, the relentless stream of generalities and empty platitudes because this is how Joe, our hero, thinks and speaks, just as a Valley Girl (if there is still such a thing) speaks in her particular debased lingo.

DeWittColorB.jpegThe problem, though, comes about a third into the novel, when DeWitt switches from Joe’s point of view to various other employees at the company – Lucille, Pete, Ed, Bill, etc. -- all of whom, regrettably, speak the same language as Joe. “Sometimes life forces you to learn things about yourself that you would rather not know,” thinks Ed. The voice never varies, and it soon becomes a bit, well, tedious. The other engine – the premise – falls flat in the end too, as DeWitt, instead of following that premise where it might lead, detours instead into a political subplot involving the FBI and further silliness about the invention of an adjustable-height toilet.

It seems as if DeWitt didn’t fully appreciate the brilliance of her premise and the uniqueness of her protagonist, to leave them behind so quickly. This raises the question of what sort of writer DeWitt is, and after two novels, I’m not sure I can offer any conclusions, other than to attest to her originality. She reportedly attempted to finish as many as fifty novels before completing The Last Samurai in 1998, and she has four or five more in the works at the moment. She is a fascinating novelist, and it will be interesting to see how she appears in her next book.

[Published October 5, 2011, 275 pages, $24.95 hardcover]

Dan Pope’s stories have been published recently in The Iowa Review, Gettysburg Review, Shenandoah, McSweeney’s, Postroad and other magazines. His novel is In the Cherry Tree (2003, Picador).

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Jane Delury on Forgotten Country, a novel by Catherine Chung (Riverhead Books)

ChunbgCover.jpegForgotten Country is a beautifully written, haunting novel. Its narrator, Janie, is a young woman who was born in Seoul and uprooted as a child to Michigan due to her father’s dissident activities. Janie grows up with two names (she’s Jeehyun in Korean), two languages, and two cultures. At the start of the novel, her sister, Hannah, has quit college and disappeared. The eldest child, Janie has always felt responsible for Hannah, having been warned by her grandmother that in every generation of her family, a sister dies. Yet it soon becomes clear that Hannah has chosen to cut ties with her family and to start a new life. Soon after, Janie and Hannah’s father is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Rather than do as her parents wish and tell Hannah about their father’s condition, Janie keeps the news to herself. Having made herself into an only child, she takes a leave from her studies in mathematics and goes with her parents to the countryside of South Korea, where her father undergoes experimental treatment.

Despite its opening premise of a disappearance, Forgotten Country defies the obvious question that such a plot could explore: what has happened to Hannah? Instead, the mysteries of circumstance are quickly resolved and the novel turns to more subtle ground, exploring the patterns of rejection and need that run through this family. Why can’t Janie forgive Hannah? Why does she so want her father’s approval? Once in Korea, Janie can’t avoid these questions, just as she can’t avoid what she learns about her parents’ pasts. A likeable but flawed narrator, Janie makes mistakes that she recognizes and others that she tries to convince herself are justified. She is endowed with enough insight to be reflective and enough of a sense for language to produce descriptions like this one: “The pond had changed since the afternoon: the dim evening light had turned the water greener, and the flowers around it seemed brighter. Scores of tiny silver fish were visible just beneath the surface of the water, and beneath them the heavy shadows of the large, dark fish.”

ChungColor.jpegThe novel flows exquisitely from the present narrative into the anecdotes and legends on which Janie and Hannah have been raised. A scene in which Janie Googles her father’s illness cedes to the story of the girl Simchung who sacrifices herself to the Dragon King to save her father’s life. Guided by the light of Janie’s imagination, the reader visits Korea under the Japanese Occupation and during the Korean War, and walks with Janie’s mother through the night to the DMZ. In her engaging voice, Janie explores what she knows and what she suspects as she attempts to understand her parents, her sister, and herself before her father dies. In college, she has studied knot theory “and learned that sometimes a knot is impossible to unravel without cutting it apart. Sometimes it can’t be undone. For my whole life my family had been so tightly bound that we had stifled each other just trying to breathe, just trying to go our own ways. I had worried I would never get free.”

Unlike so many novels that peter out as they go, Forgotten Country gets richer as it moves forward. The chapters in South Korea are often breathtaking in their evocation of physical and emotional landscape. But Chung doesn’t depend on easy cultural details to seduce her reader. Though we are brought to rice paddies and into the boughs of persimmon trees, this could be any family, anywhere, facing an end. There are revelations, yes, actions of the past whose consequences emerge in the present, but the novel’s best moments are quiet: two young sisters holding hands as they fall asleep, a father and daughter lying in the grass as below them, “trees gripped each other’s roots,” a mother standing in a doorway to greet her daughter. Forgotten Country is a novel that credits its reader with intelligence and depth, a gentle and compelling book.

[Published March 1, 2012, 304 pages, $26.95 hardcover]

Jane Delury’s fiction has appeared in The PEN/O.Henry Stories, Narrative, The Southern Review and other publications. She is on the faculty of the University of Baltimore’s MFA in Creative Writing and Publishing Arts.

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Michael Guista on The Architect of Flowers, stories by William Lychack (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt/Mariner Books)

One of my favorite essays as a youth was Camus’ “The Myth of Sisyphus,” the tale of the man condemned to rolling the ball up the hill--only to have it roll back down--for eternity. Such an absurd existence! Yet the essay ends, for those who don’t recall, with these words: “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

I’d always read the ending in an optimistic way, each word weighted about the same: despite the absurdity, a man can have purpose and so find happiness. Yet others read it, given the context of Camus’ complete works, as this: “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” What a difference emphasizing a word can make. I never felt the same after hearing that interpretation. Funny how the accent on a single word has the potential to swiftly change a person’s whole outlook on life.

LychackCover.jpgI thought of Camus while reading Lychack’s work for a couple of reasons. For one, Lychack’s prose worries terribly about every word, its meaning, its sound, its fit into the rhythm of sentences and paragraphs. The other reason is that Lychack’s characters live, for the most part, in the condition of absurdity. There’s the lady in “Chickens” who buys two dozen chicks only to raise them and find later that all but one is a rooster. There’s the lady about to visit her dead husband’s grave who can’t stop thinking about the time he brought home an eel. The woman in the title story fabricates the death of her husband in order to reunite her family. There’s the inspirational writer in “Ghostwriter” who follows his boss’s orders to include in each story an “IPIG — I Prayed I Got — or ITIJ — I Trust in Jesus.” He follows a man who God has told to go to Peoria. Give up everything and go! He tells the ghostwriter,“It’s easy to obey and serve the Lord when you have security …. It’s quite easy when your insurance and rent are paid. But try giving away everything, putting yourself at stake for something in the world, because that is where faith and trust and believing begin.” The ghostwriter later thinks to himself, “and what in the end is the difference between Go to Peoria and WriteThe Book? Or Marry the girl? Or any of the countless passions that guide our days? What else carries us through our lives, gives us meaning, helps us make sense of the accidents that befall us? And when I think of it like this, I actually feel— or believe — that the best in us is utterly mad. The meaning of our lives, our purpose, everything we care about starts as a dim voice, a small urge driving us on to our own kinds of Peoria.”

Although writing a collection of short stories can seem quite absurd to most publishers and agents and, well, civilization, in the best of them one senses purpose throughout. There’s genuineness and a sense of mission in the form when done right. Lychack, recently a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers pick, winner of the Sherwood Anderson award, and NEA recipient, never goes for fancy but rather gritty realism (except for in two quite well-written fables, which, to be honest with you, don’t fit so neatly into this collection for me, despite a diction consistent with the rest of the stories). Here’s the standard kind of Lychack imagery, in which he describes a dying dog: “The dog’s eyes are closed when you look — bits of straw on her nose, her teeth yellow, strands of snot on her tongue — nothing moving until you stand and kick the blood back into your legs, afternoon turning into evening, everything going grainy in the light.”

At times his prose turns dreamy-lyrical, as in the middle of his title story: “There once was a language of flowers. A handful of hawthorn for a safe journey home. Hyacinth for forgiveness. Ferns making everything sincere. And if she dawdled over zinnia this time—flower of maternal love—it was because each orange petal put her son on a train to her. A lifetime of lingering, but at least now it was hope—daisies and bluebells—that drew her through the rooms of the house, at least now it was some promise of happiness—crocus and dahlia—that pulled her up the stairs to her son’s room.” Yet no matter how violent or at times darkly funny or at other times sad the prose, I always feel an underlying meaningfulness and inevitability in his work; in every sentence of his book, I feel that this sentence needs to be in exactly this spot.

LychackColor.jpegSome readers have found his plentiful use of fragments unsettling. Yet fragments have a purpose when done right. Two of his stories are written in second person. He never uses quotation marks around dialogue. Some of the works are more character studies than narratives. Occasionally he uses clichés (“On her deathbed, as she drew what were to be her last breaths on God’s green earth…”), but sometimes, I think, the cliché seems more real than the fresh metaphor (and much more real than the clever metaphor) Forget fancy. Forget following the rules (Thou shalt not write in second person!) There’s a direct simplicity to his writing that cuts to his characters’ cores: “We laugh—and everything rhymes with everything else—all of us remembering kids up in trees, a rabid coyote to shoot, and Bob driving up to the farm the night of the flood, telling us not to worry, put all our important papers on top of the fridge.”

Here’s an example of Lychack’s simplicity of understatement: “No one sets out to be a complete fuckup, as his father once told him. It just sort of happens, Michael.” At the end of “Stolepstad,” the book’s masterpiece, a policeman who in trying to do the right thing does exactly the wrong thing, thinks, “And in the silence, in the darkness, you stand like a thief on the lawn--stand watching this house for signs of life—wavering as you back gently away from the porch, away from the light of the windows, away until you’re gone at the edge of the woods, a piece of dark within the dark, Sheila arriving to that front door, eventually, this woman calling for something to come in out of the night.” Despite the bleakness facing most of these characters’ lives, there’s a glimmer of hope against the sadness; the prose, plain and deeply imagistic, rolls the giant ball back up the hill and looks down. It’s enough.

[Published March 23, 2011, 176 pages, $14.00 paperback]

Michael Guista’s story collection Brain Work(2005, Houghton Mifflin) won the Katherine Bakeless Nason award in fiction. His agent is currently pitching his new collection, Manhood.

Writers INC.

...and pretty damn curious that the Pulitzer Prize judges recently saw fit to deny anyone an award for fiction. Galassi of FGS reckoned that it's disappointing. Hell, given the number of excellent writers producing excellent work, I reckon that it's insulting. Writers tend to thrive on being recognised...and so often in times of considerable hardship. A prize like this feeds the industry of course, but it also encourages others to go on. Most encouraging that you continue to give your support. Thank you.

Pulitzer

Not the first time Pulitzer passed up on awards for fiction. Pynchon snubbed in '74. In '65, no music prize, Ellington snubbed. David Foster Wallace should have been given the prize this year -- real literature, not ersatz (a la Franzen). There were others that could have made excellent nominees. Pulitzer has made some weak drama and poetry choices over the past decade.

Reply to Lone Shark

I'm certainly a big fan of Wallace. But me for Denis Johnson, who has also missed out. Not his best, but I liked "Tree Of Smoke" very much. And his "Train Dreams" is damn good.

As he once said (what a hero):

Interviewer: Were there moments in your writing process where you worried the book wouldn’t work? If so, how did you press on?

DJ: Well, I've never thought about this before, but now that you ask, it occurs to me I don't have much interest whether any of my books work or not.

Now, while I suppose that this attitude won't ever win prizes, it certainly wins over a certain type of reader, adept at separating the bullshit from the real, who appreciates the true and honest effort.

But O, this is all very far from my world! I guess I just wish the writers I like could get an even break. Looks like the suckers are still in charge. And possibly consolidating. A horrid thought.