Author Archives: Katie Provenzano

RAILTRACKS

John Berger and Anne Michaels
photographs by Tereza Stehlíková
Counterpoint ($18)

by Jesse Freedman

Some books assume an atmospheric quality. Railtracks, which records a series of conversations between the acclaimed art critic John Berger and novelist Anne Michaels, is among them. Accompanied by the haunting photography of Tereza Stehlíková, this beautiful collection is equal parts history, poetry, and philosophy. It is, as Michaels makes clear at the start, a book in search of lost worlds. “A photograph of a ghost,” she writes, “is sound.” Berger, too, is absorbed by the ephemeral. “The Angel of Memory looks down at her feet; everything flows past her.” That atmospheric quality—of regret, of longing, and solitude—permeates Berger’s journey, one which begins with Michaels in London and expands across the lonely tracks of time: to Greenwich, Liverpool, America, and beyond.

Those familiar with Berger’s work—including now canonical texts like About Looking and Ways of Seeing—will recognize in Railtracks his fascination with what lurks in the shadows, at the edge of our vision. “In the minute that’s still left we have to do everything. I hurry ahead faster than the train. This way, for a fraction of a second, I’ll see you approaching again.” This image is one to which Berger returns later in the book, when he and Michaels describe remembrance in a manner reminiscent of the late German author, W. G. Sebald. “Memory,” writes Michaels, “carries lovers in her arms; not the way a mother carries a child, but the way one man carries another man.” At its core, Railtracks is a book about history’s weight, and memory’s often futile attempts to claim its part.

The influence of Sebald permeates the dialogue between Berger and Michaels: everywhere are frozen landscapes made real through photographs. And yet, these photographs reinforce an unavoidable reality: even the most profound moments are fleeting. Trains, like pictures, evoke pain: there is a part of us that “longs to follow and is left behind.”

It is this tension—between moments and movement, between the transient and the eternal—that hangs over Railtracks. Michaels, in particular, offers a number of harrowing meditations on the role of trains, writing of that first lurch, that “great weight waking” in the night. Like Sebald, she is sensitive to the associations in Europe between trains and tragedy: “No one else,” she wails, “could tear open the night like you—or leave behind such chilling space.” Whether Michaels is addressing the transformation of London’s skyline, or the sorrow of European history manifest in Stehlíková’s photographs, she approaches trains both as machines and as cloaks for a darker set of emotions.

Ultimately, Berger and Michaels conclude their journey on a rueful note. Implicit in the migration of animals, they argue, is the idea of return. Indeed, “an animal migrates for the sake of its return.” The same cannot be said of humans: we travel to reach our destination. Sometimes, that destination is of our choosing; other times, it has been selected for us, and the pleasure of return is denied forever. Return, in effect, becomes a distant memory.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2013

LEONARDO'S FOOT

How 10 Toes, 52 Bones, and 66 Muscles Shaped the Human World
Carol Ann Rinzler
Bellevue Literary Press ($16.95)

by Ryder W. Miller

In Leonardo’s Foot, internationally bestselling health and medicine writer Carol Ann Rinzler gives the subject of our feet—something we take for granted until we are plagued by podiatric woes—a fascinating medical and historical treatment. The full title of the book advertises the humorous irony that imbues these pages: “How 10 Toes, 52 Bones, and 66 Muscles Shaped the Human World.” This historical travelogue is a stylish, informative, entertaining, and pleasantly personal book.

Though the faceless skeleton on the cover looks worried, there is not a lot of medical advice given here. Whereas a similar title may offer platitudes (take care of your feet and they will take care of you; ignore your feet at your own peril; if icing and elevation don’t solve the issue, you may have something to talk with a doctor about), Rinzler’s book may actually help you understand your pain without giving you a textbook-induced migraine in the process.

Leonardo's Foot provides context and history to explain the maladies we have experienced over the ages. Rinzler's treatment is wide-ranging with natural history, human history, and cultural and artistic history. The information is presented in a logical and stylistic way, rather than being a mere collection of related facts.

The story begins in pre-history, with Rinzler writing:

In the beginning, when we were not yet first among primates, our feet were still hands and that toe was still a finger, special opposability, but a finger nonetheless. As it evolved, moving into line with the other four, our third and fourth hominin hands became feet. We gained a platform on which to stand . . .

She continues to unearth literary connections, as well: Lord Byron had clubbed feet. Leo Tolstoy, Omar Khayyam, and Feodor Dostoyevsky were shoe fanciers. In a fascinating passage, the book postulates that we did not invent language or the ability to talk to each other until we learned how to stand up on our feet.

Despite its scope, the book manages to keep your attention. Whether Rinzler is exploring how our feet explain or illuminate such topics as evolution, disability, racism, diet, or desire, she maintains a fascinating perspective on the peculiarities of being human—like how having a chin distinguishes us from all the other animals on the planet. If the book goes astray, it might be when it describes the foot in metaphorical sexual terms (it was Freud who argued that the foot for some represented the penis, the shoe the vagina). Some like looking at shoes and feet, but we certainly sexualize legs and other parts now more than in the past.

Rinzler titled the book Leonardo’s Foot after the fact that Leonardo da Vinci, going against church doctrine, was one of first people to study the foot. He conducted more than 30 dissections of human corpses, and his anatomical drawings have survived through the ages. He helped us understand how our feet are an integral part of the human experience—and a platform for an entertaining book such as this.

Editor’s Note: This review’s original appearance in the Fall 2013 Print Edition of Rain Taxi Review of Books featured a typographical error in the author’s name. The review appears here with the error corrected.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2013

Ed Dorn and William Everson

TWO INTERVIEWS
Edward Dorn
Edited by Gavin Selerie and Justin Katko
Shearsman Books ($17)

WILLIAM EVERSON
The Light the Shadow Casts
Selected Everson Poems and Five Interviews
edited and introduced by Clifton Ross
Freedom Voices ($14.95)

by Patrick James Dunagan

Among the dozens of poets represented in Don Allen’s New American Poetry: 1945-1960, Ed Dorn and Wiliam Everson stand out as two self-isolated individualists with large, singularly unique and significant bodies of work. Each developed and sustained the adoption of a dramatic public persona through which they became quite recognizably “The Poet” of the poems. For Dorn, this was the rugged, Clint Eastwood-like appearance that accompanied the writing and publication of his epic poem Gunslinger. This marked a shift in Dorn’s poetic practice and it also came with his separation from his first wife and family and the beginning of his relationship with his second wife. For Everson there was a two-part persona development: as a Dominican monk he published the majority of his early poems under the name Brother Antonius before dramatically tossing aside his monk's habit at a public reading in 1969, leaving the order to marry a young teenager whom he had been counseling. He then donned what he referred to as his “Mountain Man” look, complete with bear claw necklace and freely flowing white hair and beard.

The first interview with Dorn in Two Interviews, originally published in Simon Fraser University’s student newspaper The Peak in 1971, was conducted by students of poet Robin Blaser’s and took place on the front balcony of a commune along a busy street with neighborhood noise (for instance, the “Miltonic bellowing” of nearby neighbor Vancouver poet George Bowering) interrupting on the tape. The presence of British poet J.H. Prynne (along with Ralph Maud and Stan Persky) chiming in during the interview is a plus. Dorn—along with second wife Jennifer Dunbar, toddler Kidd, and baby Maya—had just completed a drive across the United States with Prynne, and the congenial warmth between Prynne and the Dorns is attested to by a photo of the cover for the Vancouver publication Writing 8, consisting of a Prynne-Dorn family totem pole pile up.

Dorn’s dislike of his own work The North Atlantic Turbineis striking: “one of the beasts. Because it’s like, made of the parts of a verse practice that was ending, in that way, so strong, that it couldn’t stop before that book got written. I just look at that book as a curiosity.” And his sharp pushback against interviewer Brian Fawcett’s voiced disgruntlement with Gunslinger as being too “current” as well as “too easy” is adroitly on point. Dorn points out that Fawcett’s cited example, the phrase “Tampico bombers” is in fact “not current. Nobody says that.” And anyway, “what’s wrong with current? I mean I refuse to use a language which is calculated backward in time so as to appear not current. I mean absolutely.” Dorn is sensitively aware of the changes happening within his work and his inclinations are to try to change the direction of conversation, and ask for local information: “Well, is there any interest around here in Poetry? Do people get together and give readings?”

The second interview, conducted in 1981 by Gavin Selerie while the Dorns were visiting London and projected for inclusion in Selerie’s Riverside Interviews series, is by far the more substantial. Dorn speaks of his experience teaching at the University of Essex under the Pound scholar and poet Donald Davie. Dorn discusses the development of his course “The Literature of the Westward Expansion” and how he benefitted from teaching the unusual, “I suppose you could call it interdisciplinary” studies at Essex. The emphasis on bringing in material from outside of students’ own creative work was a relief for him: “It’s much better to let people write and convey other things to them which will enable them to write, rather than trying to tell them what they’ve written after they’ve done it.” Dorn interestingly names British poet A.E. Housman as a recent revelation to him of how it is “entirely possible for a scholar to be a poet” and knowingly remarks how “procedures do get defined by one’s possibilities of living” when discussing poet Charles Olson’s work in comparison.

Selerie’s lengthy introduction to his interview refers to remarks made by Dorn during readings he gave while in England, quotes extensively from transcripts, and provides historical framing for situating transitions occurring in Dorn’s work at the time. In addition to both interviews, short selections of Dorn’s writing are also included. Of most significance is “from The Day & Night Report (1971)” along with further information regarding both the composition and publication of this uncollected work, portions of which appeared in Tom Clark’s anthology All Stars and Clayton Eshleman’s literary journal Caterpillar, which raises the question of why The Day & Night Report was left out of the recent Collected Poems. The other works, “From Juneau in June (1980-81)” and “Three Poems and a Draft (1981),” are better off left to the realm of the archive-junkies.

While Dorn’s work has received a tremendous boost in publishing since his death in 1999, accompanied by the long overdue interest of younger scholars and poets, in stark contrast, Everson’s work has suffered neglect since his death in 1994, nearly vanishing from the radar of today’s readers. This absence of care for Everson’s work mirrors a similar lack for that of Kenneth Rexroth and Robinson Jeffers, his self-termed “mentor” and “master” respectively. Marking Everson’s centennial year of birth, the American republication of The Light the Shadow Casts, Clifton Ross’s slim but nonetheless substantial and informing collection of interviews with an accompanying small selection of poems spanning decades of Everson’s writing, signals a possible change of fortune.

Everson, author of the foundational study of Pacific coast poetry Archetype West, is a fascinating poet of California, viscerally engaged with the landscape of both the coastline and the central valley. His work represents nature poetry immediately one with the spiritual, psychological, and mystical elements of his being in a fashion that is strikingly dissimilar to his peers. Everson calls out for a deep engagement of writing with local physical locale: “I think we’re going to come back to a regionalism with a much higher consciousness than what it was before when it was just a kind of ‘scenery’.” His poetry answers his call, lushly expansive in its reaching after metaphor: “. . . the quenchless wound, / The wound that throbs like wakening milk in the winter dugs of the doe, / Like honey out of the broken comb in the rock of Tamalpais.”

In Ross’s words, “Everson reaches into the darkness, into the Shadow of consciousness, to find the light of God.” Everson himself says, “the poet takes language and articulates it in such way that the madness is there. That’s where his gonads are. He stands in a most direct approximation to the psychoid state in his creative trance. He is utterly possessed in it.” He understands the nature of his role quite clearly: “I take up the progression . . . from the prophet to the shaman.” It is not surprising that today’s readers haven’t felt compelled towards embracing the rich, often overburdened feel of his poetry. The reluctance is especially understandable given the heavy and heady nature of just how substantively rooted Everson is within both Catholic and Jungian disciplines. The vocabulary and concepts with which he is comfortably at home writing and discussing have become far removed from where the audience for poetry now exists in most of our society. While giving poetry readings Everson nonetheless felt called to reach out: “I had to challenge the audience and get them out of this bland expectancy which they have.”

Both Everson and Dorn follow what each in their own manner conceives of as dutiful service upon the path of “The Poet.” Everson pursues an encounter within the unconscious: in his view, “the shaman and the poet enter into the collective unconscious via the personal unconscious” and then he attempts “to correct what he finds there.” This is often a personally messy practice, and he observes how “most poets don’t accept that risk. They make for the ideal, to create a perfect statement out of the ideal.” Dorn doesn’t share interest in the unconscious, his own or anybody else’s, but he is likewise wary of the tendency among poets and readers alike to avoid risking the unfamiliar. He acknowledges the poet’s job as one of study, of keeping one’s self accessible to incoming information and the disturbing openness that entails:

I think the definition of a poet’s life is really a life of study. And as that study progresses, the terms of its transmission change—not because the poetry changes but because the deliberation dictates what can be said . . . I believe that the whole function of poetry is the criticism of one’s lifetime and one’s life in that lifetime, and it’s an endless attempt to encourage the reader to enlighten himself.

Poetry might at best “encourage” personal engagement and change. It’s a take it or leave it proposition and Dorn knows the casual, ordinary reader will likely leave it again and again. “The Poet,” however, will return to struggle without end.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2013

THE NOVEL

An Alternative History, 1600–1800
Steven Moore
Bloomsbury ($39.95)

by Scott Bryan Wilson

Steven Moore spent the first volume of his The Novel: An Alternative History obliterating the common notion that Don Quixote was the first novel; it’s thus appropriate that the second volume begins with Cervantes’s opus, so that its far-reaching influence can be seen on so many of the novels that came after it. Moore’s argument is that Don Quixote is the first modern novel, not chronologically, “but in the sense that it marks the transition from the medieval worldview (unscientific, faith-based, Ptolemaic, tradition-bound, authoritarian, certain, static) to the modern.” He notes, “Don Quixote is all about the influence of books on life and the crucial importance, therefore, of choosing wisely among them,” which is also a theme of Moore’s work. The immensity of Moore’s accomplishment with this volume can’t be understated: he packs 200 years of world literature into 1,000 pages. Grouped by language (French and English make up the bulk of the work, though there are sections on German, Chinese, Indian, and others, including novels written in Latin, which is what the most educated wrote in, a decision that would doom them to obscurity), Moore writes capsule reviews of hundreds of novels, some as little as a paragraph or two, while others get many pages. Some of the works he discusses haven’t been translated into English, so he bases his write-ups on available scholarly works, biographies, excerpts in anthologies, and third-party mentions.

His chronological reading of these hundreds of books leads to observations that might otherwise be difficult to see: “I’ve often noted during this history of the novel that the appearance of a massive masterpiece tends to silence the field for a while.” Moore identifies the major examples of all the literary trends and genres for each language or region, then the inevitable sequels and imitators. The reader will have to keep a notebook handy in order to make a list of books to seek out as she moves through the text. And there are so many tantalizing ones discussed:

  • “Anton Ulrich von Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel’s two dinosaurs, Die durchleuchtete Syrerin Aramena (The Illustrious Syrian Aramena, 1669-73) and Die römische Octavia (The Roman Octavia, 1677-1707), weighing in at 4,000 and 7,000 pages respectively”
  • Madeleine de Scudery’s Ibrahim, or the Illustrious Bassa (900 pages), which sought to “repurpose [the heroic romance genre] from artless entertainment to entertaining art,” and Scudery’s “frigidly chaste” and “interminable novel” Artamenes, or Cyrus the Great (3,200 pages).
  • France’s first modern novel, Honore d’Urfe’s Astrea, about which Moore asks “What are we to make, then, of an encyclopedic study of love where the only two couples who express and enjoy true love are a pair of swingers and a transgenerational couple consisting of a child-molester and a tween cutter? Where the novel’s two principal theorists of ideal love are an unmarried druid and a wanderer uninterested in women?”
  • The Devil Upon Crutches by Luis Velez de Guevara (1641), “a damning indictment of human folly that went through three editions in its first year and was so popular that two cavaliers reportedly drew swords and fought over the last copy in a bookshop”
  • “Impossible to translate is Cao Qujing’s Guwangyan (Preposterous Words, 1730), a 3,000-page sex extravaganza”
  • A 41,000-page novel, Dastan-e Amir Hamzah, most likely only ever read in its entirety by one person, critic Shamsur Rahman Faruqi; “This Taj Mahal of fiction leaves me speechless”
    The Postboy Robbed of His Mail (1692-93), an 800-page epistolary novel.” (Novels didn’t tend to be short in their early days.)

One could go on and on. It’s fascinating to read about wildly popular genres of old, such as the French roman heroique, a “moribund” genre with “flat characters and supersized adventures,” mostly read by the idle rich. Moore claims that “these gigantic novels form a mountain range in the middle of 17th-century French fiction that must be scaled before reaching the more interesting novels on the other side.” La Calprenede was a major author in the genre, publishing Cassandra (3,000 pages), Cleopatra (2,500 pages), and Faramond (8,700 pages).

Moore’s work is exhaustive, but never exhausting, and his writing is witty, engaging, and accessible; he never gets bogged down with academic snoozery, and makes welcome use of slang and humor to punctuate his major points. The result is that the reader becomes just as excited about Moore’s project as Moore is, finding out about so many works, from novels you’re already read, to ones you know you should have read, and to the hopelessly obscure. There are great lines on every page, but here’s a small sample:

  • “90 percent of the characters in 18th-century British novels are detestable, and most of the 10 percent who aren’t aren’t all that appealing. I wouldn’t want to spend five minutes with Robinson Crusoe or Lemuel Gulliver or David Simple or Clarissa Harlowe, or even Parson Adams.”
  • “For some of us, there are few terms that induce narcosis quicker than ‘Christian allegory.’”
  • “He [Montesquieu] aims at perennial targets of satire—vanity, greed, religious zealotry, political corruption, pedantry, provincialism—which millennia of mockery have not been able to eradicate and never will.”
  • “Rousseau knew most readers use their hearts, and that a large enough dose of sentiment would cover aesthetic faults like delicious frosting on a mediocre cake. The sales figures and sacks of fan mail proved he was right.”

Although by necessity the serial-review style is the perfect format for most of the novels discussed, Moore’s sections on certain writers or types of writers tend to be quite long. These include Cervantes, Samuel Richardson (whom he doesn’t really like), Fielding and Sterne and Swift (whom he very much likes; Moore includes a four-page list of novels influenced by Tristam Shandy), as well as De Sade, Jean-Paul Richter, French libertine writers, and a very interesting section on women novelists of the early 18th century: Eliza Haywood (“bodice rippers”), Penelope Aubin (“R-rated Sunday-school lessons”), Jane Barker (“a star in the history of alternative fiction”), and Charlotte Lennox (her Henrietta is “a smart novel about a smart woman”).

From The Adventures of Simplicius Simplicissimus (the birth of the modern German novel) to A Dream of Red Mansions (“the greatest novel in Chinese literature”), to The Corrupted Ones (“the ugliest French novel of its time, relentless in its depiction of the miseries caused by an undisciplined sex drive . . . and daringly realistic in its representation of life among the lower classes”) to The Adventures of Eovaai (“the most interesting English novel of the 1730s”), The Novel: An Alternative History, 1600-1800 catalogs and reviews more books than most people will read in a lifetime, works of immense importance not only to the history of the genre, but to human cultural history as well. Moore’s achievement is staggering, and this latest volume of his project only whets the appetite for the next volume to come.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2013

A MAN OF MISCONCEPTIONS

The Life of an Eccentric in an Age of Change
John Glassie
Riverhead ($16)

by Douglas Messerli

By coincidence, just as I completed reading Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès fiction, Where Tigers Are at Home—in which one of the central stories concerns the seventeenth-century priest Athanasius Kircher—my companion brought home from the local bookstore a recent biography of Kircher, John Glassie’s A Man of Misconceptions.

Like the Blas de Roblès work, Glassie recounts Kircher’s very active life, from his birth in Fulda in the then Holy Roman Empire (as Voltaire quipped, “neither Holy, nor Roman, nor a Empire”) to his long tenure as the caretaker of his celebrated museum in the Vatican. And like the fiction, Glassie one by one recounts Kircher’s vast array of interests: geology, optics, microbiology, sculpture, medicine, languages (in particular his attempt to read the Egyptian hieroglyphs), philosophy, mathematics, theology, and all things Chinese. Kircher has often been described as the last man to master all knowledge. But in the age of Tycho Brahe, René Decartes, Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler, and Isaac Newton—in short, at the beginning of what we now recognize as modern science—nearly of all Kircher’s theories regarding these numerous topics have since been proven wrong. A determinedly brilliant Jesuit, Kircher misread texts, jiggled facts, and theorized through fantastical conjectures a world in which everything was interrelated, pointing to the hand of God. Although for most of his life the priest was seen as one of the most learned men of the world, and was sought out and corresponded with nearly every major figure of the day, by the end of his life he was perceived by many as a kind of crackpot, famed for his theories based on little experimentation and great imagination.

Glassie engagingly recounts the events of this “adventurer’s” life—a man who at one point had himself lowered into the erupting cone of Mount Vesuvius—and reveals Kircher’s numerous “misconceptions” along the way:

Many of Kircher’s actual ideas today seem wildly off base, if not simply bizarre. Contrary to Kircher’s thinking, for instance, there is nothing occult or divine about magnetism. There is no such thing as universal sperm. And there is no network of fires and oceans leading to the center of the Earth. It’s fair to say that from the viewpoint of modern science Kircher has been something of a joke.

The author, nonetheless, paints a somewhat positive picture of the “lying scientist” simply by giving us a larger context of how science in this dawning modernist world was generally perceived. As Glassie points out, “Of course, modern science didn’t exist in 1602,” the year of Kircher’s birth. Despite his wondrous ideas, Galileo too was wrong about a great many things. And Newton, apart from his influential ideas, continued to practice alchemy throughout his life, while Kircher dismissed alchemy early on.

If nothing else, Kircher’s utter fascination with all forces of the earth might stand as a grand attempt, akin to that of the Renaissance thinkers, to connect all knowledge. He perceived thought in general as “the art of knowing,” which he attempted to delineate in dozens and dozens of Latin tomes. It was Kircher who inspired Bernini to sculpt “The Fountain of Four Rivers” in Rome. And as Glassie reveals, Kircher’s grand misconceptions influenced scores of writers and thinkers throughout the centuries.

Kircher’s theories of magnetism, for example, were highly influential upon the eighteenth-century physician Franz Anton Mesmer; in fact, the priest’s fascination with magnetism seems somewhat prescient today, since, according to Kircher, the significance of magnetism has steadily increased across every scientific and technological field. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz claimed that Kircher influenced much of his early thinking and inspiration. And although the old priest was utterly wrong in his interpretations of Egyptian hieroglyphics, he was right to associate them with Coptic, and had he further studied that relationship he might have cracked the code that was later achieved through the discovery of the Rosetta stone by Napoleon’s forces in Egypt. Poe quotes Kircher in his story “A Descent into the Maelström,” and Jules Verne’s famed A Journey to the Center of the Earth was almost entirely based on ideas by the “German egoist,” a character also in the story itself. Nearly all of the writings and teachings of the nineteenth-century “psychic” Madame Blavatsky, expressed in Theosophy, are cribbed from Kircher’s writings. The list of later influences, misguided or benign, continues through the centuries.

Finally, one simply has to pause in awe and wonderment with regard to Kircher’s voluminous activities. Although one might perceive him as nearly always misguided and often a fraud, science certainly would have been less interesting without him.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2013

LAST CAR OVER THE SAGAMORE BRIDGE

Peter Orner
Little, Brown ($24.99)

by Kate Petersen

Trying to describe all that Peter Orner’s Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge contains is a bit like trying to summarize the contents of one of the photo boxes I found while helping my parents clean their garage this summer: sweet but impossible. These are universal boxes, aren’t they? Unshuffled decks of younger everybody, great-greats you never met, lovers your folks mentioned in passing (or never mentioned). Some faces reappear. Others turn up just once, posed under a giant boulder or funny hat. No, no one knows who that is. And yet they all look up at you through various years of fade and crease, almost asking for something.

Last Car seems to take such a memento box as its organizing principle. Even the titles of the collection—street names and places (“Detamble,” “Spokane”), years (“1979”) and detailed scenarios (“Fourteen-Year-Olds, Indiana Dunes, Late Afternoon”)—read like notes jotted on the back of old snapshots. No accident, this: Orner’s stories exult and serve remembering and the heartbreak that so often attends it.

Structured much like his earlier Esther Stories, Orner’s latest collection is organized into four sections of the compressed flights that are his métier: “Survivors,” “The Normal,” “In Moscow Everything Will Be Different,” and “Country of Us.” The Chicago and Fall River sides of the family we met in Esther Stories and Love and Shame and Love are here again, their now-familiar voices forming the book’s backbone, anchored by the presumed “I” of Alex Popper. But Orner casts his net wider, too, inhabiting the mind of Abraham Lincoln’s grieving widow, a Bulgarian émigré in Waukegan, and Isaak Babel inhabiting Babel’s executioner, in a matter of pages. This might be jarring if Orner didn’t pull off such costume changes so well, and if they didn’t feel so true to life.

The other common thread that binds these stories is that they almost all assume the posture of remembering (or reliving). Not that this is a book of still lifes. There is true violence here: a mobster is beaten to death by prison guards during a game of floor hockey; a grisly murder takes place in the bathroom of a roadside restaurant, and a customer can’t stop returning to the scene; a man buries himself alive in his own home, leaving his lover to discover him. Even smaller domestic moments pulse with a desperate bass line, a seething longing to get out from under your own past. “What is hoping,” one woman asks herself, “if it isn’t waiting?”

And what is remembering, but another sort of waiting? It can also be a way of asking what happened—or, as is more often the case for Orner’s characters, what didn’t happen. As a bored teen lifeguard laments, “This job—and how much else?—is one long unrescue.” By the time one arrives at this line, the question of rescue has started to nag the reader: whose rescue is this book attempting; and from what? These voices, taken together, are clearly warning us of something. “Even you people who understand nothing must understand this,” Mrs. Lincoln thinks. “Don’t you see? Motion is where the loss is.” Is that our warning? To stay still?

It’s tempting to look for answers in the bigger-than-life political personalities and histories Orner brings to life. As a native Chicagoan, he has plenty of material to work with: Mayors Daley, Washington, and “Fighting Jane” Byrne all appear here alongside lowly campaign operatives, cold-war foreign aid workers, and a broken Ted Kennedy bellowing the “last gasp of the sixties.” “There were countless other things,” says the narrator, “but doesn’t everything, in one way or another, come down to politics? In my family, politics isn’t blood sport, it’s blood itself.”

This book, however, doesn’t come down to politics—perhaps because politics, the intrigue and disappointment of it, requires a bigger canvas. Instead, the politicians in Last Car seem more like landmarks that confirm, yes, we were here. They stand for a certain way to be loyal; they recall and regret as much as the next guy.

And boy, do they regret, as when Popper recalls gleefully stomping on a kite his father made him, that “small attempt approximating love.” Regret can be a way of reading one’s life back in search of intelligence to act on. But in Last Car, all this remembering and regret rarely triggers any forward action; Orner’s characters wish so badly to be back there and then that they seem, collectively, to have willed the present into remission. Yet some of the most interesting moments in this book occur when remembering collides with the present to create dramatic havoc: An old man on a San Francisco bus speaks and becomes the narrator’s dead Uncle Horace; the kite-stomper steels himself, saying, ”In the meantime, we had to live.”

This overwhelming immersion in past after past carries, for a reader stuck in the present, the bittersweet weight of watching a loved one sleep: it’s an intimate experience, but one you can’t quite share. These stories are intimate, yes, but they also hold the reader at a certain distance, one that seems to come from an authorial watchfulness. Narrative moves like rhetorical questions and armchair first lines—“Call these the meditations of an overweight junior lifeguard watching an empty lake”—often prevent the reader from forgetting that she is witnessing someone else remember. In the world of Peter Orner’s fiction, remembering is a sacred, but finally private, act.

That push-pull drives this book: these stories want us to remember, sometimes desperately, while reminding us that we can’t, not quite. We can imagine, console, listen, but ultimately, this is not our garage. Perhaps that’s the warning: Don’t touch. Just look. A warning that gives Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge its sorrow and power, sending us back to our own sordid and lovely memories, survivors now of other people’s pasts and our own.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2013

GLOSSOLALIA: New & Selected Stories

David Jauss
Press 53 ($19.95)

by Benjamin Woodard

The greatest hits album is an interesting beast, for while an artist’s most popular work is compiled into one tidy parcel, allowing easy access for the casual fan unconcerned with deep cuts, the effort often feels Frankenstein-ish in construction. By removing songs from their original presentation, themes mash together in awkward juxtaposition, concepts get lost in the shuffle, and the listener is frequently left with a rather jarring experience, one shifting between sonic extremes with little rhyme or reason. This same peril translates to the world of short literary fiction and essays, where careers are also cobbled together into sampler format. Though this presentation permits the reader to witness the evolution of a writer’s craft and voice, many of these “best of” books fail to maintain the rhythm of the writer’s original collections. Like their musical brethren, the sampler doesn’t resonate as a complete work.

David Jauss’s Glossolalia, a gathering of new and previously collected stories (from Black Maps[University of Massachusetts Press, 1996] and Crimes of Passion [Story Press, 1984]) is the exception; outside of one outlier, it escapes the foibles of the “greatest hits” packaging. Culled from over thirty years of writing, these stories complement each other remarkably well, with common threads—broken marriages, the Vietnam War, outcasts—acting as spine and connective tissue to a body that is, nevertheless, speckled with wide-ranging ideas. Castaways and pariahs may propel most of the seventeen narratives, but they do so in such pleasingly odd ways that Glossolalia evokes the quality of both retrospective and comprehensive collection.

Black Maps’s “Torque,” about a man obsessed with the idea of building his own limousine, is an example of this oddity. The protagonist, Larry, is a dreamer of sorts, and though his aspirations ultimately cost him his family, his job, and most likely his home, he continues to grasp for the impossible, grafting together steel while his world slowly crumbles. Striving for seemingly unobtainable or uncontrollable goals slithers throughout the mindset of many of Jauss’s characters: The narrator of “The Bigs” wants to make it in pro baseball; Alec in “Rainer” wants to find peace with his ex-wife after the death of his son; Sister Anastasia, in “The Stars at Noon,” wants nothing more than to pass softy into the afterlife (“She had no fear of dying. She was a bride of Christ: death was her dowry, nothing more.”) Their aim may vary wildly, from the subtle to the outlandish, but the outlook of these men and women parallel. They belong together on these pages.

And yet, these characters continually fumble toward ecstasy. After stubbing his toe on a concrete slab, the protagonist of “Brothers” (one of the brightest of the newly published narratives) says, “That was a mistake, one of many I made that day.” Jauss ratchets the tension in his stories by driving characters further down the rabbit hole of their obsessions, usually until they’re blind to the repercussions of their actions. Though Ted realizes in hindsight the error of his ways, in the moment he cannot help but make one poor decision after another. Likewise, in the smart “What They Didn’t Notice,” also a new story, it takes an omniscient guide to lay out all of the details overlooked by the story’s inhabitants. After Frank tells his wife he has cancer, for example, this guide says “he did not notice the anger that tinged her voice when she asked him why he hadn’t told her about his symptoms or his trips to the doctor. Nor did he dare notice that he was angry, too, offended even, that she would go on living without him.”

The lone wolf in Glossolalia, while individually enjoyable and cleverly built, is “Apotheosis.” With its layered histories of Friars and mendicants, it just doesn’t fit in with its companions. This is a relatively minor quibble, however, for overall, Glossolalia sparkles, providing readers the opportunity to engage with one of the unsung heroes of modern American short fiction. Jauss’s stories are quietly haunting. This is the kind of work that sticks to the soul, waiting to be carried long into the night.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2013

THE BLOCK CAPTAIN’S DAUGHTER

Demetria Martínez
University of Oklahoma Press ($14.95)

by Jenn Mar

In her highly anticipated The Block Captain’s Daughter, Demetria Martínez lays the groundwork for a new understanding of Chicano and Mexican-immigrant identity in a novella that follows six activists and immigrants as they experience the vicissitudes of recognition and daily life.

Months after crossing the Mexican border on foot, the protagonist, Lupe Anaya, waits tables at a local taqueria in the “humble promised land of Albuquerque, New Mexico” while waiting for the birth of her child, Destiny. Her baby’s Salvadorian father, Marcos, has left the country, so at night Lupe reads Harry Potter books aloud to nurse fantasies of an Ivy League-bound baby and writes letters to Destiny. These letters are built on fears of her child becoming a “ketchup Mexican,” on resentments toward the North American Free Trade Agreement that destroyed countless Mexican families, and on hopes for a better life, never failed and never delivered until Destiny’s arrival.

Supporting Lupe are two activist couples: Peter and Cory, and Maritza and Flor, whose private recognitions about their cultural identities are plaited together. In the company of his partner, Cory, a mestiza with deep cultural roots, Peter sees himself as “just another white guy” suffering from cultural amnesia, who co-opts cultures by mastering foreign languages and perpetually reinvents himself. We come to see their relationship differently when Cory reveals that she can barely roll her R’s and feels like “Peter’s English subtitle.” The second couple struggles to define a private life within their activist obligations: Maritza finds their three television sets intolerable, but Flor, in the wake of 9/11, is transfixed by news images, fearing that “something else might happen.”

Written across many voices and points-of-view, the book is interspersed with Lupe’s letters. This innovation gives readers a series of variant interpretations of characters, thereby fixing and complicating identity.

The Block Captain’s Daughter welcomes possibilities more than dangers. At times Martínez’s characters come off as too agreeable and unfailingly dignified, even in circumstances where their political histories are at odds. Most of the drama happens offstage, and characters, inconceivably perceptive about their political representations and inner lives, have a propensity to spout expository history and leftist wisdom on “anti-immigration racists,” “capitalism . . . in its death throes,” and factory relocations that left “hundreds of [Mexican] women with no way to earn a living.” Still, these features point to the book’s intellect, its admirable concern for immigration reform, and positive representations of diverse communities.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2013

THINK OF ME AND I’LL KNOW

Anthony Varallo
Triquarterly Books/Northwestern University Press ($17.95)

by James Naiden

Anthony Varallo’s third collection of stories brings together disparate elements of his characters’ lives, the uneven hinges that make up the human condition. Think of Me and I’ll Know often displays superior writing even if the page-by-page execution of the story itself is not always consistent; to portray absurdity and pathos takes a command of irony, and Varallo manages this with aplomb.

In “Time Apart Together” we meet Brad, a college dropout and the only progeny of a disharmonious marriage in which his father has taken to chopping down trees and playing decades-old LPs. Of course he has a girlfriend of sorts, named Ursula, who keeps talking about Kevin, apparently a former boyfriend, and comparing the two. But as a telephone solicitor for a bank, Brad seems to know how to liven up his temporary calling in life:

During breaks, I sat in a too-brightly lit cafeteria and made fun of the people I’d just spoken to. I made fun of the woman who shouted, “Diane Sawyer told us about you!” and the man who made me sing “Hail to the Redskins” on speakerphone, or the umpteen million callers whom I’d put on hold while I pretended to take their names off the phone solicitation list. I made fun of the phone solicitation list. I made fun of Phil, a coworker who wore his headset during break, and who read the sales script with the grim intonation of a hostage testimonial, and who often sat across from me at break, making fun of me making fun of him.

The divagations in the story are at first predictable: Brad doesn’t return to college and breaks up several times with Ursula, tired of her refrains about Kevin. But then suddenly Kevin appears, an exact doppelganger of Brad:

Kevin looked up at me, his face mine, his expression mine, the look I sometimes turned on Ursula when she told me she loved me, me wanting her gone. There was something Kevin’s look wanted to reveal to me, but it wasn’t until Kevin reached out and pulled my shirt from its buttons and placed the first of his many punches against my temple that I understood what it was.
“Kevin!” Ursula was screaming. “Kevin, don’t!”
And I felt Kevin’s blows against my head and tasted blood on my teeth and finally grasped, at long last, the impossible possibility of love.

That’s where the story ends. Varallo leaves his meaning ambiguous—not unlike many of his characters and their mundane situations.

In “No One At All,” eleven-year-old Jonas has a friend, Toby—two years older, self-centered, unreliable, and totally indifferent to the feelings of others. They are on vacation with the younger boy’s parents in Atlantic City’s Boardwalk area. At one point, Jonas buys a live crab and names it “Horace.” Toby wants to kill it, even torture it but he doesn’t get his wish: on the car ride home, the crab dies in its little box. Jonas is upset, but Toby, narcissistic as ever, has no interest in the younger boy’s grief, as a plane flies low overhead near an airport. Here are the concluding lines:

Toby stuck his head out the window, the wind taking his hair. “It’s like it’s going to land on us,” Toby said. A shadow lengthened across the car. A roar descended, like a sustained thunderclap. Jonas looked at Toby and saw the shadow swallow him whole.
“We’re dead,” Toby said. “Dead, for real dead.”

Varallo’s terse realism bleakly suggests the worst in human nature and fate, and this direness distinguishes the collection. In Think of Me and I’ll Know, one is entranced by the story itself, despite the lack of upbeat endings.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2013

THE FACADES

Eric Lundgren
Overlook Duckworth ($25.95)

by Daniel Green

Although nothing definitive can be said about prevailing assumptions in American writing by considering any particular first novel, Eric Lundgren’s The Facades seems to reflect an understanding of what makes a work of fiction “unconventional.” Whether such an understanding arises from influences absorbed in a creative writing program, through the halls of which many younger writers do indeed pass, or simply from noting what works get called “innovative” by critics and reviewers, many ambitious novels embody a widely-held conception of a departure from convention. However, this conception encourages a preference for a certain kind of narrative more than it encourages any challenges to narrative.

The Facades does exemplify this preference, but the first thing that should be said about it is that it is a well-written, well-paced, atmospherically persuasive novel that rewards the reader’s time. It compels attention from its first few lines:

I used to drive downtown every night, looking for my wife. The rush hour traffic was across the median and I traveled the westbound lane of I-99 without delay or impediment, sure I was going the wrong way. The city assembled itself, scattered lights in the old skyscrapers meandering the night sky like notes on a staff. What could I have hoped to find there? People didn’t just disappear, I thought at the time. They left fingerprints, notes, receipts, echoes. If Molly had walked from her opera rehearsal to the corner deli and had not materialized there or returned, she must have left a residue behind.

Unlike some novels, The Facades continues from this memorable and compelling opening to satisfy the reader’s curiosity about the narrator’s predicament. The narrator, Sven Norberg, searches for his wife, a prominent opera singer, but he finds only “echoes” of her presence. In the meantime, his relationship with his son deteriorates to the point that the son leaves to join a religious cult. As Sven roams through the fictional city of Trude, his experiences give the reader a sense of the city “assembling” itself—although Trude, a version of a Midwestern rust belt city in decline, is in such a state of disrepair that the impression we get is of a city disassembling itself as well.

Sven is very aware of Trude’s degraded status, but his voyage through the inner depths of the city only confirms this degradation for the reader, while the entropic city also mirrors the loss of energy and purpose in Sven’s life in the wake of his wife’s disappearance. The most devastating manifestation of the increasing disarray and loss of control Sven experiences is the growing alienation of his son, Kyle, who finds both purpose and a surrogate father in Bob Lily, head of the First Church of the Divine Purpose.

Other subplots also dramatize the general loss of function encountered everywhere in Trude. Among the problems confronting Trude is, of course, a financial crisis, and the city’s oafish mayor has decreed that all public libraries will be closed to save money. In defiance of this decree, a group of radicalized librarians occupy the main downtown branch, and throughout the narrative are engaged in a standoff with the police. Sven has a more direct experience with the police himself, in the form of two detectives supposedly investigating his wife’s disappearance but who at best produce only fabricated evidence and at worst rely on the dreams of one of the detectives (nicknamed “The Oracle”). These episodes are half satirical and half surreal, but they never quite stray from the realm of possibility, nor do they descend into freakish whimsy such that the novel loses its direction among superficial distortions of fantasy. The book refuses to indulge in the sort of facile surrealism, increasingly common in American fiction, that takes from the modernist surrealism of the early twentieth century its distortions of reality but without its specific philosophical intentions—as if simply to depart from the protocols of literary realism remains a bold move. The vision of American decline presented in The Facades is appealingly askew, but it is also close enough to the existing circumstances of decline that the novel’s fictional world seems both aesthetically autonomous and uncomfortably recognizable as the world we live in.

The Facades could plausibly be described as a post-apocalyptic narrative, which has been popular enough among contemporary writers (among them Cormac McCarthy, Steve Erickson, and Ben Marcus) that it has developed into a genre of sorts, incorporating elements of both literary fiction and science fiction. Although no particular national trauma or catastrophic event has resulted in Trude’s devastation, as a de-industrialized Midwestern city it represents a culmination of a phenomenon long in the making but here rendered starkly as an urban dystopia, a fate that indeed may await more than one rust belt city in decline. Unlike much post-apocalyptic fiction, however, which frequently succumbs to sensationalist plot devices or is too obviously didactic, The Facades avoids narrative melodrama and refrains from heavy-handed allegory. Lundgren does not distort his fictional world in order to offer a warning about the dangers we court in our present practices, but creates a subtly distorted world and allows it its own logical integrity. If this novel shows the influence of the post-apocalyptic setting, it does so in a more seamless way than many other entries in the genre, without repeating overused conceits or settling for the expected effects.

A primary feature of the fictional world that is Trude consists literally of its buildings, and thus Sven casts his observant eye on the landmark structures he encounters, including the Ringstrasse, a labyrinthine shopping mall that was built by the Austrian emigrant architect Klaus Bernhard and is his “greatest statement on the impossibility of fulfillment with a capitalist culture,” now itself mostly reflective of Trude’s decline:

The Ringstrasse still made quite an impression as you approached on I-99, the whitewashed spirals of concrete looming under the night sky. Bernhard had envisioned it as the locus of a second city, a new downtown for an ideal Trude to replace the declining original. He wanted the mall to look Greek, noting wryly that the Oracle at Delphi was once surrounded by junk dealers and souvenir sellers. The exterior of the mall was blinding in its early years. It gave off an almost holy radiance. . . .
As we walked in the west entrance, I had to admit that Bernhard’s detractors had a point. It wasn’t very successful as a mall. The vast echoing chambers, the blank concrete, exposed the ultimate hollowness of the retail urge. This was especially the case in the mall’s outer rings, where the large department stores were housed. One tiled path might lead you directly to a perfume counter, while another curved around to a copper statue of Hermes presiding over a dried-up fountain full of rusty pennies.

We also get detailed views of the Opera House, where for years Sven’s missing wife Molly presided as a local diva, and the Trumhaus, a home for senior citizens where Sven’s mother currently resides and where Bernhard himself spent his final days, an account of which we get at the novel’s conclusion. This conclusion reinforces the parallel between Sven and Bernhard in their common state of loss—it may be that Sven’s loss may just be a later, faint echo of Bernhard’s, who not only also lost the woman he loved but ultimately “failed to create a world he could live in.”

Sven Norberg finds himself inhabiting the city built by Klaus Bernhard, if anything now even more unlivable, but it becomes increasingly apparent that Molly Norberg, at least, has voluntarily escaped the dreary confines of Trude (and thus avoided the metaphorical fate or Bernhard’s beloved Ulli, who, Bernhard claims on his death bed, is buried “under the labyrinth” of the Ringstrasse.) As Sven is told by a resident of the Trumhaus, however, people like Sven and Bernhard “could never leave Trude.” They are necessary parts of the landscape, the American urban landscape that in both its human and its human-created forms is finally the real subject of The Facades. Lundgren’s achievement lies in skillfully invoking this landscape and making us believe in it enough that we might think we inhabit it ourselves.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2013