NewPages Book Reviews

February 2, 2009

As a Friend :: Please :: The Madwoman of Bethlehem :: Some Place Quite Unknown :: Why the Long Face? :: State of the Union :: On a Day Like this :: Inventing the Real :: The Laundromat Essay :: Legible Heavens

As a Friend coverAs a Friend

Novel by Forrest Gander

New Directions, September 2008

ISBN-10: 0811217450

ISBN-13: 978-0811217453

Paperback: 106pp; $13.95

Review by Tony Bonds

Although only 106 pages long, Forrest Gander’s first novel is freighted with the emotional complexity and gritty vividness of a heavy-weight book several times as long.

Centered around Les, a charismatic and melancholy twenty-something land surveyor with a penchant for poetry, women, phrases like per usual and verse-visa, the plot deals with the character’s gravitas (“When people saw Les, they touched him . . . He was like a votive stone.”) and its tragic impact on those closest to him.

Set in rural Virginia, the book teems with praying mantises, slugs, lines of black ants, swarms of gnats and various other critters that inhabit the lush southern landscape. With a light touch and philosophical insight, Gander breathes new life into the character-study class of literature without falling flat or overindulging in sentimentality.

The novel is made up of four sections. The first section, “Birth,” details Les’s birth to an unwed girl (“some would say child”) and is given up for adoption: “each waking day, she imagines him, and sometimes in strange dreams. Even after she marries and has other children. She imagines him. Her lost boy. Whatever became of him?”

In the next section, “Clay,” Les is grown. Clay is Les’s co-worker and pal, and tells his story in a relatively traditional narrative style in a series of brief, vivid scenes which explore Clay’s worship and loathing of his friend: “I wanted him to disappear so I could become him.”

The next section, “Sarah,” is told from Les’s girlfriend’s point of view, a girl with whom he is cheating on his second wife. Stylistically, this section is completely different: events are not causally-linked as they are in Clay’s chapter, instead the reader is adrift among snapshot images, poetry excerpts, repetitions, and, ultimately, a picture of Sarah’s psyche emerges.

The fourth and final section, “Les,” consists of several epigram-quality responses given to an interviewer making a documentary about him. This chapter is Les in his own words easily spouting, “Sure, art doesn’t save anybody the way a sack of rice does. But that doesn’t mean it’s worthless,” and “To be unreflective about language, you limit the frequencies of meaning and even, I’d say, of experience.” I should note that the questions in this interview are never revealed, it’s the reader’s job, or perhaps privilege, to mull over what they might be.

Aside from the interesting structure, the author’s observant and sensitive prose makes this gem of a novel sparkle. Considering the author’s impressive curriculum vitae, it comes as no surprise that he has such a fine ear for language: In addition to being a recipient of the United States Artists Rockefeller Fellowship and also the Guggenheim Fellowship, both in 2008, Gander is a professor of English and comparative literature at Brown University with ten published books of poetry, including Eye Against Eye, Torn Awake, and Science & Steepleflower, as well as numerous other books of translated poetry, and his work is widely anthologized.

Although this is his first published novel, it is as clean and polished as any of this inveterate poet’s other collections. A rare and exciting novel that presents an addictively engaging story while pushing the boundaries of the fictional form.

 

Please coverPlease

Poetry by Jericho Brown

New Issues, October 2008

ISBN-10: 1-930974-79-5

ISBN-13: 978-1-930974-79-1

Paperback: 69pp; $14.00

Review by Wayne Johns

The epigraph from Prince Rogers Nelson (“The beautiful ones always smash the picture”) provides a succinct introduction to the territory Brown mines throughout Please; namely, the intersection of violence and desire. For those who may not recognize his full given name, Prince Rogers Nelson is better known simply as Prince (a.k.a. The Artist Formerly Known As…). It should come as no surprise, given the choice of epigraph, that music is one of the book’s central motifs.

Of course the epigraph implies, of necessity, that there is always another who picks up the shattered pieces. For, as Prince claims in the same song: “The beautiful ones, they hurt you every time.” This idea is beautifully echoed in the book’s opening poem (“Track 1: Lush Life”):

The woman with the microphone sings to hurt you,
To see you shake your head. The mic may as well
Be a leather belt. You drive to the center of town
To be whipped by a woman’s voice. You can’t tell
The difference between a leather belt and a lover’s
Tongue.

Brown seamlessly fuses the seemingly contradictory; in this case, the ability of music to inflict (often simultaneously) pleasure and pain. Also, note the poem’s subtitle, “Lush Life,” where lush can imply a luxurious and/or an alcoholic life.

Brown is particularly adept at exposing the duplicity inherent in both experience and language. In fact, the double-entendre of the collection’s title sets the stage for what’s to come since one might utter the word “Please” in either a begging or a dismissive manner. The title’s ambiguity is reiterated in the book’s design.

The black and white cover photograph is a close-up of an African-American man’s face. Beneath the lower lip, just above the chin hair, “Please” appears in white letters. This photograph doesn’t easily lend itself to a reading of the title as a kind of plea. One might hear, instead, the word that opens Toni Morrison’s novel Jazz: “Sth, I know that woman.” In case you’re unsure how to pronounce that, it’s more commonly known as ‘sucking your teeth,’ usually in exasperation, annoyance, or disdain. However, open the book up and, after a single blank black page, there’s another black and white photograph that could be a mock-up, or alternate, for the cover; this photo is a pair of hands clasped, as if in prayer. To the left of the hands “Please” appears, this time in black letters. Clearly, Brown intends us to hear and read the title both ways.

At their best, the poems provide a kind of cubist portrayal of experience. Here is the opening of “Again”: “You are not as tired of the poem / As I am of the memory. A returning toothache.” In this way, the speaker issues a caveat to readers willing to dismiss outright any poem that rings of confession; in doing so, the poem manages to include (and implicate) the reader. The “Again” of the title points out the compulsive nature of memory as well as the cycle of abuse. The poem reveals the complex marriage of violence and desire in its portrayal of the father/husband who “loves his wife / And the shape of her body / Even if hunched in retreat.” Never content to simply provide a single version of the story, the speaker also asks himself “Why don’t I mention / He kissed my forehead / Before covering me / On the couch that was my bed?”

At times, the writing can feel overdetermined, as when Brown uses halting measure to skew the mise-en-page in “Tin Man.” And there are moments that strain for deep significance; here’s the single line poem “Open” in its entirety: “I often lie open as a field. Sharecroppers have no fixed names.” And while names and naming (even name-calling i.e., “I hate faggots too” from “Lunch”) are vital to this collection, compared to “Because My Name is Jericho,” the excellent poem that ends the collection, “Open” seems, if not indulgent, unnecessary.

Despite any harshness of tone (“Chainsaw, I say. My voice hacks at you.” from “Track 5: Summertime”) it’s the music of these poems that lingers. In fact Please risks striking some as a concept book, given that the collection ends with “Liner Notes,” is divided into sections such as "Repeat" and "Pause," has a series of poems that mimic song titles (i.e., “Track 1: Lush Life,” “Track 5: Summertime”) and includes numerous references to music and pop music icons. However, it’s a testament to Brown’s considerable talent that the book transcends its own formulaic structure as well as any imposed categories (African American Studies, Gay & Lesbian Studies); what's more, the poet is keenly aware of the inherent risk, as well as the potential payoff, of this endeavor as evident in “Idea for an Album: Vandross, the Duets”:

Men are
Like songs. I play them
While I can. They go
On about love, climax,
And end. I should know.
This is, after all, my body
Failing, like a song, to do
Anything more than touch,
And I am a man, risking
As songs will, abstraction
In favor of voice.

 

The Madwoman of BethelehemThe Madwoman of Bethlehem

Novel by Rosine Nimeh-Mailloux

Second Story Press, October 2008

ISBN-10: 1897187483

ISBN-13: 978-1897187487

Paperback: 352pp; $18.95

Review by Christina Hall

Don’t let the title or shadowy sepia cover fool you; this is not your typical Middle Eastern novel: sad, dark, slow, un-relatable. There are no silent, dark-clad, wise old women or handsome, ruthless, old-fashioned, but still socially respectable young men. The plot isn’t made slow by verbally artistic renditions of the dusty scenery or groups of loyal women milling around the well. The tone is not sad in a “you’ll-never-know-what-it’s-like, feel-sorry-for-the-lot-of-us, but-our-life-is-beautiful,” distant kind of way.

It is often sad, and at times dark, but Bethlehem, Palestine native, Rosine Nimeh-Mailloux has written an honest novel. Her novel does not attempt to defend, explain or stereotype the culture and societal expectations of mid-twentieth century Bethlehem. In fact, she does just the opposite through the main character, Amal, the madwoman from the title.

Amal’s story is told through both first person and third person point of view. This was a genius and necessary decision on the part of Mrs. Nimeh-Mailloux.

Amal first speaks directly to us from the asylum. The book opens with an almost funny description of her life in the madhouse and descriptions of a few of the other inmates. Most importantly, Amal subtly relays to the reader that she is not mad; she only pretends. She explains to the reader how she stays safe and sane while playing the part of an inmate; Amal’s “golden rule” is “a little weeping, a little whimpering. Now giggling, then moaning. Laugh a little. Cry a little. Sing your heart out. Dance. Especially when the orderlies or nurses are around. But never let go completely.” The potential problem with a first person narrator (particularly one in a madhouse who claims sanity) is the ever popular unreliable narrator.

This is where the genius of the author comes in. When Amal isn’t speaking to us from the madhouse, Amal’s story is told from a completely omniscient point of view. The events that shaped Amal’s life and sent her to the madhouse are told from a source that is reliable. The narrator tells us exactly what happened, while relaying both Amal’s and other character’s thoughts and feelings as well. Combined with Amal’s own words from the asylum, the reader is left with no doubt as to the truth. We can let ourselves be completely absorbed by the novel.

And we are. The novel is full of emotion, sex, lies, gossip and manipulation, none of which is simply a selling point. Every sentence in the novel feels essential and full of depth. The story moves. The back and forth between present and past doesn’t feel forced, and we care equally about what is happening in the madhouse and what has already happened to Amal outside of the madhouse. Part of this is the mysterious reason that Amal decided it would be beneficial to feign insanity and be committed, and the unspoken “sin” she says could never be forgiven. Primarily, however, the reason I was driven to keep reading was the relationship I had developed with Amal.

A good novel makes a reader feel like they know a character. A great novel makes the reader care about the character in a way that affects the reader. A way that makes you think about yourself and makes you miss that relationship when the book is over. Despite the fact that Amal’s story takes place fifty years ago or that she grew up in a culture completely different than mine, I felt a connection with her. She was not a Middle Eastern woman; she was a woman. And I became not only a woman, but a Middle Eastern woman, in a way. I felt her anger and entrapment; I understood her bitterness.

Amal is an intriguing character. She is contradictory and inconsistent, all in a very consistent and realistic way. She is human. While Amal is the strong point in the novel, the driving force, within her also lies the fault of the novel. When the novel opens, she is very bitter and angry. When the novel closes, she is still very bitter and angry. In the very last chapter, Amal says, “The more I think about it, the more I am not certain I will ever be able to forgive my father.” She refers to her mother as a coward and shows no signs of even attempting understanding. There is no measurable growth. It makes the reader wonder, then, what is the point of telling the story? What has Amal learned from her nine years in the asylum? You think she will finally take responsibility for her own emotions, but she never does. And her newly discovered self reliance is questionable. While she ends the book with the strong statement, “I will rescue myself,” directly prior to that she claims the asylum as her home, saying she is surrounded by “protectors.”

While Amal’s lack of development is a disappointment, the rest of the novel was not. And perhaps the ending was intended by the author. She was, after all, very aware of her character and setting throughout The Madwoman of Bethlehem. Maybe it was just me, always looking for hope, blindly optimistic, like the young Amal.

 

Some Place Quite Unknown coverSome Place Quite Unknown

Novel by Jane Lazarre

Hamilton Stone Editions, December 2008

ISBN-10: 0971487391

ISBN-13: 978-0971487390

Paperback: 200pp; $15.95

Review by Tony Bonds

Celia, a teacher, writer, and mother in her fifties, undergoes psychoanalysis after nearly being killed by a passing taxi. Finding that she has bottled away years of painful memories, she obsessively engages in her work with Dr. Daniels, to whom she pours out stories and dreams about her mother who committed suicide, her relationship with various members of her extended family, and longing for her grown son who lives across the country.

With Some Place Quite Unknown, Jane Lazarre (author of more than half a dozen memoirs and novels, including Beyond the Whiteness of Whiteness: Memoir of a White Mother of Black Sons, and Some Kind of Innocence) explores the psychological toll of motherhood, abandonment, eroticism, and language and the failure of words.

At the heart of this novel is language: “And had not my love of words, my need for language in all its forms, always been my deepest need, almost as primal and fundamental as a young child’s need for love?” Although Celia relies on words, during her therapy sessions she uncovers and re-experiences memories that can’t be explained through words, thus her family history and her mind begin to unravel.

Some Place Quite Unknown is a story propelled by image and repetition, as opposed to your typical event-driven plot. In the first section of the book, the narrator skips from memory to memory, returning to images of the ocean, her sister’s sculpture of their mother’s uterus, and a knock-knock joke the narrator can’t get out of her head. All of these slowly weaving Celia’s past, including her familial relationships, into a cohesive tapestry. About 50 pages in, the mini-flashbacks become more infrequent and the story at last finds a steady tempo. Overall, some readers may enjoy the challenge and texture of the emotionally rich prose, but because of the slow unfolding of Celia’s character and her principle desires, namely her desire to explore her past with such rigor, some readers may be put off.

Perhaps Celia’s roundabout storytelling can be best summed up by the protagonist herself, “I have always wondered about the meaning of fiction, a way of telling stories that seems enviably comprehensible to most of the other writers I know.”

As a story within a story, this novel proves to be a fascinating study that probes the operations of the human psyche.

 

Why the Long Face coverWhy the Long Face?

Stories by Ron MacLean

Swank Books, August 2008

ISBN-10: 097442885X

ISBN-13: 978-0974428857

Paperback: 210pp; $15.00

Review by Cynthia Reeser

Ron MacLean, author of the 2004 novel Blue Winnetka Skies, surges forward with his new collection of short stories, Why the Long Face? The collection’s witty, and at times wry, take on the ordinary stuff of life works to subtly reveal the extraordinary nature hidden in even the most common events.

One of this book’s recurring themes, laughter even in the face of life’s difficulties, probes the reader to ask, like the lead character in “Symbiosis,” “Why the long face?” In “Why I’m Laughing,” the speaker watched his mother laugh off his father’s indiscretions; he later, as an adult, exhibits the same ability. The story, in many ways, comes down to a tale of how family comes together and how they separate, imprinting their lives on those who surround them, marking their influence no matter how brief their presence may be.

“Between the Bar and the Telephone Booth” is no less exemplary, no less a tale of fining down the process of the continual development of self. Drawing on the example of a top-rate musician, protagonist Jack provides insight into ways some people approach that process:

Thelonious Monk was a good man. There’s an apocryphal story about how Monk lost his recording contract, lost his club card – no one wanted to hear his music. So he holed up in his apartment for nine years working to make the music pure enough – so completely itself that maybe people could begin to hear it.

Jack’s conversation with the bartender proves enlightening toward MacLean’s efforts:

“What’s the thing that makes life vital, Robert?” I said to him. “What gives shape to our existence?”
Robert washed glasses at a little sink under the bar. He raised an eyebrow at me.
“It’s having a purpose larger than yourself. A context, where you’re part of something. Where you can make a contribution and see it. Think about Monk […] It wasn’t about music.” Robert’s eyebrow got higher and his lips got thin. “Or it was, but only because music was the way for him to get to the other thing – the essence.”

Other stories touch on truths about the self, most notably “Strange Trajectory: A Story of Phineas Gage” and “Mile Marker 283.” The tale of Phineas Gage, a man who suffered a disturbingly severe head injury while laying rail in the days before antibiotics and who lived to tell about it, is a close examination of the literal parts of us and how they make us who we are – a take on our essential human-ness. The story also speaks to the loss of self and to an exploration of the soul, as does “Mile Marker 283,” where a woman who suffers from severe memory impairment and bouts of narcolepsy, struggles to rein in images at the fringes of memory and to reconcile them with her identity.

Still other tales in MacLean’s collection function as lovely satire and, incidentally, commentary of the world outside the self – but the focus is still on seeing, on interpretation. “Figure with Meat” is a story that attempts to marry literature and art, where each section is a sketch (“fig. 1.4 [rust]”), the language fittingly vivid and the characters carefully placed into position, every scene an analysis of where they are in their particular moment. In “fig. 1.6 (miserere),” MacLean writes of his painterly protagonist Otto (ironically, a painter whose vision is fading), “Paint what you see. What does Otto see? How to express that no matter the cause, the light is fading.” If, in “Figure with Meat,” art history meets contemporary vision, “Las Vegas Wedding, Or, Buffy the Vampire Slayer Meets Gertrude Stein at the Luxor” marries pop culture with literary modernism. All to hilarious end, of course, and all in good fun.

Stories like “terror/home” carry things a step farther, and are more thought provoking in that they touch the reader from a place firmly planted in the national contemporary moment. As a post-modernist (post-post-modernist?) reaction to the events of September 11, “terror/home” does an interesting thing, juxtapositioning the realm of the tragic with that of the familiar, with effects touching on the immediacy of devastation, both directly and to an American consciousness reeling from the unexpected. In some ways, “terror/home” is almost too jarring, contains too many stories and lives. But then again, perhaps that is the point – the suddenness of multiple stories, lives, being thrust into the collective American psyche. And the effect, like September 11, is disorienting. For instance, numbered sections by turns depict ordinary life and that of a rescue worker digging through the rubble, or particular acts of terrorism. I kept waiting for the lives, the characters, to come together, but when they didn’t, realized that their connection is in their common experience.

Why the Long Face? is a powerful collection of works that are at times entertaining, often thought-provoking, and that sometimes contain the moxie of someone commanding attention … Hey, this is important. Shut up and listen. But come what may, MacLean seems to insist, what good is to be gained by moping about the bad stuff? Why not laugh it off. Life goes on.

 

State of the Union coverState of the Union

50 Political Poems

Edited by Joshua Beckman, Matthew Zapruder

Wave Books, September 2008

ISBN-10: 1933517336

ISBN-13: 978-1933517339

Paperback: 144pp; $14.00

Review by Vince Corvaia

The word “politics” comes from the Latin politicus and means, according to Merriam-Webster, “of or relating to government, a government, or the conduct of government.” It’s the conduct of government – George Bush’s government – that concerns most of the 50 poets collected here. Some are famous; some are new. All are accomplished and impassioned.

Topics vary. Mathias Svalina’s “Forgiveness” addresses Darfur and the greater themes of forgiveness and apathy: “”Everyone knows the definition / of Darfur & yet in a / random poll of 200 Americans / only 12% would reach / their hands into the drainpipe / & pull the rotting / blue jay out.” Brian Turner gives us a unique perspective on Iraq in “Observation Post #71”: “Owls rest in the vines of wild grapes. / Eucalyptus trees shimmer.” Dave Brinks recalls the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in “The Caveat Onus, Fifty-Five”: “the sun falls into the river / New Orleans was never here.” Marvin Bell presents a double entendre in his title, “Homeland Security,” in which he says, “Today I finger / each envelope before opening, and I admit / I feel for wires and beads of plastic explosive / amid the saliva.” And the focus of the always erudite and wonderful Albert Goldbarth is on war and its civilian casualties in “All totaled, the sunlight that strikes the earth at any moment weighs as much as an ocean liner”: “Another day when work crews in the rubble discover / the feet of a child – three years old, they guess – smashed / by a fallen lintel, as flat and dry by now / as two corsages from a tomb.”

Two titles, “Elementary Science for Dick Cheney” by Matthew Rohrer and Anselm Berrigan’s “The Autobiography of Donald Rumsfeld,” name names. In particular, Rohrer’s poem starts out as a clever imagining of how Cheney’s values were formed: “The fox / is not mean. / The bunny isn’t good.” But he drops this conceit for direct vitriol when he says, “It is you, the vice / president of our country, / who is despicable, / with your artificial heart / your rictus face /and your friends / mean and evil.” This is unfortunate. It reminds me of “Monster,” Robin Morgan’s unsuccessful diatribe against Ted Hughes in the wake of Sylvia Plath’s death. It feels as though Toto has pulled aside the curtain to show us who the Wizard really is when the business of poetry is wizardry.

Two poems stand out. Joe Wenderoth’s “Sitting in Traffic” is a quiet, deceptively simple elegy about “those yellow-ribbon bumper stickers” that urge us to support U.S. troops overseas, stickers that, years after the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have begun, are “all faded / and it’s hard to make out the words.” What’s left is “whatever it is that moves us / no closer to knowing.”

The best poem in the collection is Lucille Clifton’s haunting “september song: a poem in 7 days.” It begins on September 11th (“no day / will ever be the same no blood / untouched”) and ends on Rosh Hashanah. In the interim, the speaker’s granddaughter is “born into a violent world / as if nothing has happened.” She wonders on September 14th, “is it treason to remember / what have we done / to deserve such villainy.” The answer comes quietly: “nothing we reassure ourselves / nothing.” In the end, we must be grateful for what we have, for “what is not lost / is paradise.”

 

On a Day Like This coverOn a Day Like This

Novel by Peter Stamm

Translated from German by Michael Hofmann

Other Press, July 2008

ISBN-10: 1590512790

ISBN-13: 978-1590512791

Hardcover: 229pp; $23.95

Review by Laura Di Giovine

On a seemingly ordinary day, Andreas decides to change the course of his life. He’s empty, worn out and sick of life’s routines, but he’s also learned that he may have cancer. Almost immediately, Andreas decides to quit his job, sell his Parisian apartment of 20 years and return to his hometown in Switzerland to visit, and perhaps act upon, an unrequited love.

On a Day Like This by Swiss author Peter Stamm is an insightful – if slow-moving – tale of separation, mortality and humanity. Told in stark, straightforward prose and peppered with keen observations about everyday life, Stamm’s novel succeeds in capturing the doubts, worries and overall apathy of someone dulled by life’s everyday routines. In fact, Andreas no longer feels in control, as the narrator states honestly in the opening pages: “Sometimes, when Andreas crossed the street on his way to work, he imagined what it would be like to be run over by a bus. . . A blow that would put an end to entanglements and create a little order.”

Paris is his home, but he doesn’t feel a part of it, being “a tourist who had walked these streets for twenty years now, without ever having a sense of arriving anywhere.” Andreas feels isolated from his surroundings; he has limited interaction with his only brother, he has no close friends and he’s lost interest in his teaching job. He’s also had many affairs with women, but doesn’t love them, as one girlfriend notes dryly, “You’re always alone, no matter who’s with you.” He pines for Fabienne, a woman from his youth, “a love story that had never quite happened,” but even this “love” is detached:

He thought about Fabienne . . . she seemed very strange to Andreas. It was as though her face had also changed from being naked. He didn’t recognize her until she was dressed again. He didn’t know what he expected from her. He didn’t even know what he wanted.

At times, the sluggish pace of the plot and Andreas’ inherent uncertainty of himself (and his fear of living), translates into a feeling of detachment from the story which in turn leads the reader to a disinterest in Andreas. His lack of self-confidence and lack of interest in his surroundings cause him to observe that: “His life was an endless sequence of lessons, of cigarettes, meals, cinema visits, meetings with women or friends who basically didn’t mean anything to him, incoherent lists of little events.”

However, Andreas is an antihero and while his journey to happiness may be long, arduous and seemingly predictable, it is also realistic. We never discover the diagnosis of his illness, but it doesn’t matter in the end. What is important is that life is lived, to the fullest extent possible. Stamm’s understated observations ultimately create a convincing and sympathetic portrait of the processes of self-discovery and humanity’s continuing quest for meaning in life.

 

Inventing the Real coverInventing the Real

Stories by Henry James, Edith Wharton,

The Feminist Press, July 2008

ISBN-10: 1558615768

ISBN-13: 978-1558615762

Paperback: 129pp; $12.95

Review by Tony Bonds

The logic behind the 2x2 series, published by the Feminist Press, goes something like this: selected works by two authors (one male, one female) dealing with a similar theme or subject are juxtaposed in a single book. The blurb on the back of the jacket puts it this way: “Love. Death. Conflict. Civilization and its discontents. Do women and men tackle these enduring themes differently? [2x2] matches short works by great women and men writers and lets you be the judge.”

Other books in the series situate Robert Nichols in the same volume as Nobel Prize winner Grace Paley, Tillie Olsen alongside Leo Tolstoy, and Willa Cather with Gustave Flaubert. This elegant and insightful series of little books could easily function as mandatory reading in a college course on women’s studies or comparative literature. The newest 2x2 installment matches Edith Wharton with “the Master” Henry James.

Wharton’s “The Old Maid,” takes place in the old New York of 1830’s, an era where “a few families ruled, in simplicity and affluence.” The Ralstons are such a family. Delia Ralston’s cousin, Charlotte Lovell, is about to marry into the Ralston family. However, Delia learns the truth about Charlotte’s frequent visits to a group of orphans in the stables: one of the “orphans” is Charlotte’s own child. Delia vows to keep Charlotte’s secret, but in a decisive move she convinces her cousin that the only way to keep her child is to not marry into the Ralston family.

This subtle, psychological short story (though at just under 100 pages it could be a novella), is a splendid representation of Wharton’s penchant for dramatic irony. In spite of the story’s somewhat slow beginning, where Wharton meticulously makes every effort to draw out the intricacies of social expectations of that class and time period, the author never allows the tension to slacken, and as the story progresses it quickly becomes drum-tight as Delia learns to live with her choice to fall in line with society’s expectations, while Charlotte must cope with being an old maid because she once went against the grain.

In Henry James’s “The Real Thing,” an artist needs models for a novel that he is illustrating. His regulars include a cockney girl and an Italian, both from the lower class, both extremely versatile as models, able to convincingly pose as urchins and aristocrats. The artist is confronted by real aristocrats (the aptly surnamed Monarchs) who are down on their luck and need extra money, so he agrees to pay them as models. The Monarchs believe they will be perfect models for nobles and royalty because they are “the real thing.” However, when they pose they are stiff and unconvincing. The lower class models make better aristocrats than the aristocrats themselves.

This story, like most of James’s works, begs to be read and reread. It is a story about class structure and how the artist can’t bring himself to see the aristocrats as equals. But it is also a story about the nature of reality, how humans construct it, and whether being a noble is more important than being able to look like a noble.

The two stories in Inventing the Real are linked by their investigations of reality: how individuals construct it – how it constructs individuals. Wharton and James both spent much of their career writing fiction that tackled issues concerning “cultured” society, they both frequently discussed social expectations, they both enjoyed employing dramatic irony, they were both expatriates, and they influenced each other’s work, so it is only natural that we read them side by side. In her introduction to Inventing the Real, Mary Ann Caws tells us that “Edith Wharton and Henry James met first in Venice in the late 1880’s, when she was in her late twenties and he in his forties. They were American writers who could not have known that they were to be paired and compared, if not during their lifetimes, then long afterward.”

Though the authors are perhaps best known for more famous works (James for The Ambassadors and “Daisy Miller”, Wharton for House of Mirth and her Pulitzer Prize winning Age of Innocence), Inventing the Real pairs more obscure stories together, both of which are sketches of later, more successful works.

That is not to say that “The Old Maid” and “The Real Thing” are inferior stories to their overall, respective bodies of work. On the contrary, they are every bit as skillful and nuanced as the best of their works, but until now they have bafflingly resided off the beaten path. Hats off to The Feminist Press for reissuing these often overlooked masterpieces.

 

The Laundromat Essay coverThe Laundromat Essay

Poetry by Kyle Buckley

Coach House Books, October 2008

ISBN-10: 1552452069

ISBN-13: 978-1552452066

Paperback: 79pp; $14.95

Review by C.M. McLean

Kyle Buckley’s first book, The Laundromat Essay, is a postmodern mix of poetics, absurd parable and essay.

The narrator lives across the street from a Laundromat. The owner of the Laundromat prevents him from entering, because he is looking for his son, Hoopy. The narrator is continuously fractured as he tries to remember the Laundromat and everything else, accurately.

Throughout, the poem and essay repeat sequences and text, and carry annotations on the right facing page. The narrator often takes the voice of author of the poem. However, the author is then assimilated into the text as the narrator. The tension of the essay-poem comes from reading the poem as a narrative that is in fact trying to break through the fictitious nature of things and discover reality itself.

However Kafkaesque, this book is an attempt at map-breaking the parable – or reality for that matter – through what the narrator calls “interference theory.” The author/narrator follows the scheme of the psyche’s route in what he calls “the full account of the phenomena of remembering and forgetting.” This is done literally through the annotations, and repeated sequences. The Laundromat signifies failure while the labyrinth of forgetting also offers only failure.

I find a resolution to Buckley’s essay in the following quotation. The text here is introduced in this book as a description of a section from Andre Breton’s book Nadja:

M. Delouit, while staying at a hotel, informs the desk that, because he has no memory at all, each time he comes in he’ll tell his name, M. Delouit, to whoever is at the desk. And every time he’ll need to be told his room number all over again. This happens once, but then moments later the same man, though much more disheveled, appearing maybe even to be injured, comes in through the front doors of the hotel and tells his name to the desk: M. Delouit. “What do you mean? M. Delouit has just gone upstairs.” He answers, “I’m sorry, it’s me. I’ve just fallen out of my window. What is the number of my room please?”

To me, it’s evident that M. Delouit is aware of his amnesia, however momentarily. Therefore, in a circumstance of crisis M. Delouit is brought to his senses in order to act expediently. So, while this may be a resolution to the narrators’ dilemma, it is a canny irony that it would be written prior to the actual ending, that offers a tongue-in-cheek resolution.

The Laundromat Essay is a greatly perplexing and interesting read. The circuitous route of the text and annotation-poems are fascinating. I find in my own experience that despite the arbitrary nature of “remembering and forgetting” there is an expedient way to act in the world. The interference of Buckley’s mind-warping theories find a few glimpses of the real.

 

Legible Heavens coverLegible Heavens

Poetry by H.L. Hix

Etruscan Press, November 2008

ISBN-10: 0979745047

ISBN-13: 978-0979745041

Paperback; 83pp; $17.95

Review by Roy Wang

Legible Heavens is a difficult book. Not because of any abstruse references or language, but because after examining the long sequences Mr. Hix has strung together, the flow of one image to the next, and the tenuous chains of implication, you may not be sure of what he said.

But before any longer projects, Hix introduces us to his excellent sense of rhythm: “Star Chart for the Rainy Season” employs a grammatical metrical mode, expanding patterns from Eliot's Four Quartets to his own long lines. Consider, “kiss your fingers then touch my cheek let that be story enough / why pretend to be complete when we are not now and will not be again / when we see now we were never complete even when we thought we were,” where Hix announces his intent to wow us with his technical virtuosity.

We shift gears with “All the One-Eyed Boys in Town,” a 36-page sequence developed from quoting various poems that seemed to form a natural sequence to Hix. The lines are reined in to produce a tight syllabic meter: 13 lines of 7-syllables framed by 12-syllable lines that complete sentences from one poem to the next. It's a great idea, and there are many lyrical moments of triumph, but the poems are rather disjointed. Hix actually warns us of this in the beginning with, “The whole series has meaning, but none of its elements has any sense.” Indeed, it's the emotional momentum that moves us from poem to poem, not image or text, although he does run the word, “sequence” throughout.

We're still in the realm of reminiscence, longing, and reaching towards the ether, but made more thoughtful, seemingly precise by the tighter form. Sketched images quickly cycle through the mind's eye, leaving imprints of “your body's gift of spice-scented prayers” or “roofs of short-tempered cities, your sorrowful eyes (sparrows at their dust-baths), my embrace,” summoning a ghost of meaning that lingers. There is good structural support here – the flow of one small poem to the next perhaps mimicking the lone sailing of one distant heart. But after about poem 15 or so, we get the idea, so did we really need the last 21, especially when the images move from “tunnel-damp graffiti” to “pendant flowers, jade beads” without any apparent reason?

Mr. Hix seems preoccupied with the notions of logic, meaning, and its limitations. For example, in the sequence “Material Implication,” Hix constructs a series of non-sequitur if-then statements to take us through many imagistic jumps. This has two chief effects: first, it is a wonderful meditation on the vast, incomprehensible landscape the mind drifts through to arrive at some conclusion, any conclusion, about the universe in which we float, how links more fragile than straw are grasped at in our private desperation. Secondly, it is an annoying, meandering logic that tries to make deep what has only a tenuous, impressionistic connection.

In logic, an if-then statement may have a false conclusion and still be valid as long as the antecedent is false, which Hix mentions at the beginning. However, this is essentially applying for a license to print unrelated nonsense. Take for example, “If in a row of tract houses / that grid the descent into Cleveland, / a dump truck parked diagonally / occupies a whole front yard, then / a woman bows, turns her back to the wind, feeds hatchlings in her nested hands”

Fortunately, the poems sound good, allowing us to float along with them. Add an evocative voice, and we end up with effects such as:

If a Babylonian astronomical diary
in cuneiform on a clay tablet
records the observation on Halley's Comet
in September of 164 BCE, then
why not say cluster of leaves still clinging
to the tip of one branch (the others bare
that blossomed last week) slowly turning
red to brown,
rather than name the lover
who is not there? Why not bored boy sitting
on his front steps,
. . .
Why not love the way
even her absence shines, and rustles so?

That Hix does the tenuous long sequence twice suggests that he really means it; however, the feigned appeals to logic can still be irritating. If he really meant to give up on it, a higher degree of self awareness may have been in order, as it can seem like he doesn't understand what he's implying.

The book concludes with meditations on Christian origins and belief. In the epigraph, Hix posits that in searching for answers, delving into our cultural sources may be necessary. There isn't much remarkable here, however, after 54 pages of uncertainty and searching, it is structurally a very fitting ending to the book.

Local lyricism and global structure gives Legible Heavens its power, and Hix's command of these is quite evident. The legible heavens of H.L. Hix are those connections between cause and effect separated by cosmic expanses of time, space, opportunity, and loss; those that in his sharp, straining vision, he can just barely make out and bring to our short, myopic lives.