Author Archives: Kelly

The House of Nordquist

Book 3 of the Eroica Trilogy
Eugene Garber
Transformations Press ($9.99)

by Martin Nakell

In The House of Nordquist, Eugene K. Garber writes not about the war or the truce or the potential for harmony between reason and vision, logos and dream, order and chaos, good and evil, primitive passions and civilized societies—he writes from the consciousness of that field. Therein, all the difference. Therefrom, this extraordinary novel, a marker from time of our time.

There is no simple story here. Rather than a novel of storytelling, this is a fiction of consciousness not easy to construct, organize, or keep track of. There is an exploration of the human experience from the primitive mind to our own, our destructive and our creative powers, our restlessness. The main characters are all in search of redemption in a 21st-Century world in which we have lost our connection to the spiritual / consciousness / dream / art. They all seek to reconnect in different ways. Then there is a Kafkaesque bureaucratic governmental agency, “National Division A,” whose agent-detectives interrogate some of the characters.

To ground this Fiction-of-Consciousness in the material, lest it “slip into the fantastical,” there is an actual “House of Nordquist,” a “huge house with much glass, the north wall sharp-edged like the cutwater of a ship.” Eric Nordquist’s “insane father,” Gunner Nordquist, once sailed the ship-house off to the Arctic in search of IT. “Maybe they sailed all the way north until they got to the edge and looked over, and there was the IT. The old man couldn’t stand the voltage and cracked up, but Eric brought IT back.”

Eric, who hates the inadequacy of words, sets out to compose a symphony “to change the world,” because “only music can speak the truth. And only his music. . . . a searing music, an absolute fire out of which would rise the Phoenix of a new creation.” Half-mad, Eric draws several characters—his mother Dierdre; Holocaust survivor, Helene; Eric’s college buddy (from Justin and James College for Men) Paul Albright, and Paul’s wife Alice—into his form of the quest, creating his symphony.

To ground it yet a bit more, there is a crime—someone has set fire to the House of Nordquist. Someone is known to have escaped the fire, and National Division A goes in search of that person to try to find the arsonist. But is the crime the setting fire to the House of Nordquist, or is it the destruction of the human spirit? And who is the criminal?

The book opens with a dialogue between Alice and Peter Albright about Eric Nordquist and the fire. Alice asks, “Where did Eric come from? I don’t mean by birth from Deirdre and his crazy father. I mean after being born, or maybe before being born.” Eric’s powers, his vision-quest made manifest in his symphony is so compelling that Paul “had to speak for Eric. He had to say whatever Eric put in his mind.”

Eric must draw his Phoenix-symphony out of the body of some living person, and he will do it with a Gothic machine, “With the right equipment you could suck music from a body and change the world.” Eric’s mother, Dierdre, provides the body for Eric’s project—she procures Helene, an emaciated Holocaust survivor, the decayed body of history. Helene’s suffering is compounded by Eric’s use and abuse of her. Finally, during the fire, Helene “was in the house drinking flames like wine and singing songs of death with a nail in her throat.” In an orgiastic, madly triumphant feast of her destruction Helene drinks the “flames like wine” as she sings “songs of death.” Would it change the world? No. Paul and Alice in dialogue:

Because to change, things have to be broken up.
Or burnt up.
That’ll work.
But the symphony didn’t change the world. It just changed your life.
What about your life?
Sure. If it changed your life, it changed my life.

Thomas Meachem, another college classmate, is as much of a seeker as are Eric and Paul. While Eric re-names Paul “No-Name” (“What did it feel like getting into the role of No-Name?” / “Like being a tabula rasa.”), Meachem unnames himself, sheds all identities, all sense of self, in order to rename himself. At college, Meachem “was . . . the one of clearest purpose.” He used his clarity to become rich, a “star capitalist.” But Professor Tyree “secretly . . . loathed clarity. What he loved was the shadowy aura that hovers around the edges of clarity. It was there, he believed, that the verities were to be found.”

Realizing that the clarity of his wealth (achieved through the system of Econometrics, a first cousin to Eugenics, was just a “scam that pretends you can assign numbers to the behavior of billions of people,” Meachem pays heed to “the arrival of a voice that said you must renounce your identity,” and joins the pursuits of his old classmates and professors: “I wanted to be broken into pieces that I could put back together any way I chose.”

To disentangle himself from the clarity of identity, driven purpose, and money, from the America that “was to have given birth to the new order four centuries ago,” but has only “drowned in blood.” Meachem, traveling to the Amazon, abandons his possessions, his identity, even the clothes he wears, subjecting himself to hunger, humiliations, and degradations, all to look over the edge of his own void. He explains to a detective in one of the interrogations:

I broke down. I babbled in unknown tongues, howled like an animal, crawled along the bank like a furtive saurian. I crammed reeds and mud into my mouth. Success at last. I was broken.
You suffered terribly.
I visited it all upon myself.
How did you manage to come back?
I never came back. That was the whole point.

Those are the two worlds Garber sets against each other: those who, like Gunnar and Eric Nordquist, pursue art in lives redeemed by that art, and those who prize hyper-civilized, money-driven, self-destructive greed—signified by the detectives in their objectivity, their numbers, their econometrics.

Professor of Religion Karl Aptheker plays a different part in these quests. In Meachem’s letters/reports to the detective bureau, he writes: “I said that nothing we know is the center. . . . our Professor of Religion, Aptheker, would say that there is a center, only we cannot experience it.” Aptheker sees the quandary, yet is capable of just living within it, not running to find frantic ways out. Professor Aptheker “believes that no human can change the world utterly.” Where Eric is the anti-Logos, Aptheker believes that “in the end it will be the Word made flesh that transforms the world.”

A book of this complexity is no ordinary tale to be told in any ordinary way. Absent of plot, it unravels not through exposition or logic or linear time, scene or action, but through dialogue, interrogation, and letters. And then, with its target in mind of this contradictory braided miasma of forces, it undercuts its own reality. It is a book whose aspirations go far beyond mere realism:

It’s an old story, sailing off to get some great prize.
Like what?
Helen of Troy, the Golden Fleece, the New World.

But “Nothing in this story fits in.” The characters come to play parts they cannot help becoming aware of:

Where are we in the story?
It’s not a story. It’s a geometry. It’s what happens when you wrap the earth in lines. You go to the bottom of the sea, like my father. But if you want a story, tell it.

And so, it is not a story like Helen of Troy, et alia. “I may have embellished it, but I was inside of it. How does one get inside a story he has never heard before?”


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Pure Hollywood

Christine Schutt
Grove Press ($23)

by Erin Lewenauer

Author of three novels and two short story collections, Christine Schutt, with the exacting grace of a water-skier, takes us prickly places we don’t want to go in her latest story collection. What is this place saying? she asks insistently through numerous characters and their highly individual circumstances. Schutt’s universe is a thin, brittle one, where even the young are old.

In the opening novella, “Pure Hollywood,” Schutt writes, “Since they had moved to the desert Mother thought most about what happened before with people they didn’t remember or hadn’t known.” We are dropped into worlds like this often, voids, a moment choked by another moment of loss. The details of characters’ predicaments are explosions within the strict confines of time before they float away, becoming more feeling than fact:

Let’s say it was May in the first decade of the hardly promising twenty-first century, and a white stucco wall, corsaged in bougainvillea and lit up by the moon, enticed them downhill a long way past gated properties to a wider road, then down that road and across it on the other side to the lookout onto the sparkle that was the city and what lay before them at the liftoff of another beginning, which feeling they would experience again, until decades shrank to pieces of colored stone, mosaics unexpected and unfitted yet shellacked together and made to glow alike in recollection so that all she had known of love and the end of love could be summoned and summed up in a ceiling pinked in sulfurous light.

Schutt’s remaining ten stories vary greatly in length, but they share an atmosphere, always carrying the sensation of the West, where fine, gritty sand is sprinkled everywhere, never fairy dust: “the just-right night of Los Angeles” Their plots often pebble like water over skin and dissipate. And the pace is a sprint, always toward the horizon. The story “Family Man,” for example, delves in and out of conversation with itself: “He hears his name, but has no desire to know how he might be described in the future: a glass of water, a flavorless man, at best, at best, on a white tablecloth a goblet of melted ice with the slightest curl of lemon in it. Through the blinds a blade of sunlight cuts the glass in half and shows up dust.”

While Schutt sucks the romance right out of any situation, and even in her flash fiction holds us somewhere longer than is comfortable, she makes us wonder if there is exactly where we should be. Unnerved while taking pleasure in her language, lost among her characters in the never-ending desert, we wince from pain and sometimes from beauty also.


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The New Nudity

Hadara Bar-Nadav
Saturnalia Books ($16)

by Denise Low

Hadara Bar-Nadav’s The New Nudity is a book of riddles, one of the oldest literary forms. The poems examine objects like “Wineglass,” “Spoon,” and “Piano.” Most titles in the book have this one-word, concrete noun format, with only a few variations. The chosen topics may seem, at first, quotidian, but they valorize and illuminate the process of language. Titles of the poems give away the answers to the riddles, so the word play is about the inventiveness of definitions, those approximations of size and shape, as in “Thumb”:

Who means what it is to be human
and is scarred by childhood.

Thick and neckless. Your head shaped
like a gravestone.

A smile opens across the knuckle and disappears
every time you lift a tumbler of scotch.

Who holds a pen and lies.

The distinctive human digit must work in tandem; isolated, a thumb is bizarre, even grotesque. The nail is the shape of a “gravestone,” and so inutile. Wrinkles in the thumb’s skin, from a foreshortened point of view, resembles a smile. The true and literal view of a “thumb” gets lost in layers of description. The thumb of the poet herself distorts as she grips the pen, so altering with “lies” the idea of a thumb.

Metaphors accumulate throughout the volume in a new syntax, so they become singular, as when the speaker in “Bridge” finds “Wire spokes / through speech” and notes “I don’t want / to play the harp.” The distorted scale, reducing bridge’s cables to the size of a harp, creates a startling comparison. And not using the article “the” in the title makes this more indefinite—and dynamic. None of the titles has an article, which adds to their suspension in a mythic-like time.

Like Daniel in the Old Testament, Bar-Nadav is an interpreter of the realm of dream and imagination. The poem “Gypsy” demonstrates this, with a submerged narrative about a birch tree with gypsy moth eggs. The poet gives the tree gender—“Sever her arms one / by one. Cut the moths // from the white clot / of heaven.” This could be a Hansel and Gretel forest scene. The poem folds inside-out several times; the images recur in sequences similar to the jumbled narrations of dreams. In the poem, however, a closure occurs, even if incomplete, with the connections among white images: “You found her pearl-pale, / lying on the sidewalk // her head opened, / opening, // like the unborn / gypsy moths, torched // in their white beds.” The emphasis on the verb “open” and its shift from past participle to present participle moves the poem into present time, while it continues to exist in the past.

The New Nudity has surprises on every page. It interrogates many strategies of writers, and so it reads like a master lesson in poetics. The poems are about questions more than answers. Metaphors surprise but are not contorted as they expound upon physical reality and expand it into myth. Bar-Nadav teases out basic elements of physical entities— “Balcony” or “Jar”—until she reinvents alternate realities.


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Electric Snakes

Adrian C. Louis
Backwaters Press ($16)

by Warren Woessner

The title of this poetry collection is an elaboration of its epigraph by D. H. Lawrence: “The world of men is dreaming. / It has gone mad in its sleep, / and a snake is strangling it / but it can’t wake up.” Adrian C. Louis’s “Electric Snakes” are manifested as fourteen prose poems with numbered sections that illustrate the main themes of the book. More “conventional” poems are spacers between the “Snakes.”

This collection is also geographically circumscribed. Most of the present-day action takes place between Marshall, Minnesota, where Louis was an English professor at Minnesota State University, and Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Much of this region is Trump country, and not a few of the poems in Electric Snakes lament his election and fear for the future. “Electric Snakes #12” starts out as a celebration of a good night’s sleep, but then veers into inauguration day:

I live alone so I slept with the television on & awoke
to an odious shit-goblin being sworn into our highest office.
Friends, it’s morning but the sun is setting. The sun is setting
& incomprehensible evil is rising.

Louis is in his sixties and is fearlessly adopting the persona of a grouchy old man. He is in the years of life between retirement and infirmity, and there are a lot of questions, regret, and sorrows in these poems, but they aren’t self-pitying. The poet’s body may be falling into disrepair but he still can pull a laugh out of situations that would otherwise just be a whiny reflection on mortality. Take “Electric Snakes #14”:

An ancient man crawls out of bed & enters the world
the wrong way & twists his trick knee. His goddamned
knee hurts like a son of a bitch, so he is full-on
cantankerous . . . his faith dissolved. Today he will not do the
pony like Bony Maronie even if he could remember how.

Louis, a self-described “half-breed Indian” who grew up in Nevada, in the “blood-drying wind,” tells us that the “ghosts in the Great Basin are insistently calling me home.” This move is unlikely, however, as Louis has learned to love hating Minnesota:

I think I am still alive, but alive in
Minnesota is a slow death. This is the frozen land of the dull
& the dead. Dull & dead earth, dull & dead humanity, dull
& dead weather. I type out “Minnesota sucks the scrotum
of Satan” and post it.

Still, Native-American themes and story-telling are threads that run through many of these poems. Some of the stories only take a few lines, as in a section of the sequence “Skinology”:

I have known
Some badass Skins.
Clichéd bad-to-the-bone
Indians who were maybe
not bad but just broke,
& broken for sure.

Some of the most moving poems contain the poet’s longings for a lost lover, one he would literally die to join. In “Got Those Lonesome Blues In Small-town Minnesota,” Louis moves from thoughts about the sounds of trains at midnight to speak to her:

Darling, I was dreaming of you
when trains pulled me awake
& our wet lips parted ways.
The last time I kissed you
was ten years ago. I shivered
while you slept in your coffin.

Even as he describes himself as a ghost, a hermit, or a zombie, Louis is brought to life by the pleasures of the flesh that he can still sensually access, such as college girls sunning in the park:

Firm bottoms & bellies & heads filled with helium. The good ole USA. The euphoric scent of Coppertone simmering on the skin of young women. I inhale the intoxicant as I slowly drive by.

Although Electric Snakes is suffused with mortality and the ghosts that surround him, Louis is not quite ready to stop telling us his stories. As he puts it in “Electric Snakes #2”: “So when I say poets should write poems & otherwise shut the fuck up, I pretend I am not talking to myself.”


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Negative Space

Luljeta Lleshanaku
Translated by Ani Gjika
New Directions ($16.95)

by John Bradley

“I was a child when my first teacher / mispronounced my last name twice. That pricked me / like a needle. / A small needle in the earlobe. And suddenly, / my vision cleared— / I saw poetry, / the perfect disguise,” writes Luljeta Lleshanaku at the closing of her poem “Acupuncture.” Poetry as “disguise” no doubt offers a survival mechanism for anyone growing up in Albania during the tyrannical rule of Enver Hoxha, as did the author. But note the other gift that needle prick bestows: clarity. It’s this trait that makes Negative Space, Lleshanaku’s third collection of poetry in English published by New Directions, noteworthy. Negative Space draws from two unpublished (in English) collections: Almost Yesterday and Homo Antarcticus, offering the reader forty-seven poems.

Clarity can take many forms. One of them, at least in the poetry of Lleshanaku, results in aphoristic lines, evidence of hard-earned wisdom. Here are a few examples: “Nothing exists until its moment of absence.” “People speak of what they have, not what they are.” “You can’t conquer evil. Evil ends on its own.” Another form of clarity in these poems are the plethora of similes, always unique and memorable. Even taken out of context, they illuminate, like this one from “Tobacco” describing cigarette butts “as though they were spent shells / from a civil war devoid of glory.” Here’s one more of her astounding similes from “Live Music,” describing two pub-goers: “They’re here precisely for the emptiness / the vast emptiness in a divey pub / like the white, fluffy inside of artisan bread / and its smooth crust on the outside.” The similes clarify and at the same time provide depth.

This might give the impression of abstract poems. Actually, these poems are almost always grounded in a particular event or object—a used book filled with written comments, a history class, neighbors building a house, or even something as mundane as stairs. In her poem titled “The Stairs,” we can see a pattern Lleshanaku often employs in this book. The poem opens with a direct observation: “My father was obsessed with stairs.” Then it shifts perspective: “the railroad track with its yellow-and-black lines / isn’t the rattlesnake that makes your skin crawl.” Then the poem moves to another form of stairs—escalators—and makes a metaphorical leap: “Poetry, too, is a way of moving up.” That movement from the ordinary to the profound, that assured intuitive leap, is handled without effort, without pretension, recalling the work of poets such as the Nobel-winning Polish author Wislawa Szymborska.

The translations here, by Ani Gjika, create that rarest of illusions—that these poems were originally composed in English. Such is the ease of the lines, as can be seen in this excerpt from “A Perfect Day”: “Then what? What happens next? I don’t even know / and God damn it, the days are so long in May.”

There’s only one problem with Negative Space: it lacks an introduction offering some biographical information on the author, which could help in building her a readership here in the U.S. But this is a minor flaw in a book that’s like “a low cloud of gunpowder / in a temporary ceasefire zone.”


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The President’s Gardens

Muhsin Al-Ramli
Translated by Luke Leafgren
MacLehose Press ($26.99)

by Mark Gozonsky

In One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez invented Macondo, a remote Latin American village, where he set the multi-generational saga of the Buendía family, who experience extraordinary events narrated with immensely charismatic composure. Check-check-check on these same elements for Muhsin Al-Ramli’s The President’s Garden, with one important difference: Al-Ramli’s remote village is in Iraq.

While many readers might expect a politically charged book, this book will also show a side of life that American readers don’t often see—that many Iraqi villagers like to drink cardamom tea, for example, or that to really enjoy a watermelon, they beat it open with their fists. Such details matter because they expand our idea of what it would be like to live in a nation so often vilified in the U.S. In such ways, The President’s Garden reaches across the propaganda divide.

Al-Ramli, an Iraqi emigre journalist and professor in Madrid, juxtaposes the traditional comforts of village life with the horrors of war and tyranny. The simple pleasures like cardamom and watermelon intensify the torture suffered by Iraqi prisoners in Iran, and the terror experienced by Iraqi soldiers attempting to retreat from Kuwait. “The skies rained down hell, the earth vomited it back up,” Al-Ramli writes relatively early in the book, prefiguring a character’s urge to puke that figures crucially in the novel’s finale—a climactic scene that signals a refusal of business-as-usual after the fall of the notorious Iraqi tyrant, whom Al-Ramli declines to name.

In the end, The President’s Gardens presents apocalypse after apocalypse, yet leaves open the possibility for redemption. While its ending is a bit abrupt, leaving readers literally at the side of the road, it also comes as a reprieve, the very thing explicitly denied in the whirlwind end of One Hundred Years of Solitude: an opportunity for change.


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Witchmark

C. L. Polk
Tor Books ($15.99)

by Catherine Rockwood

In her debut novel, C. L. Polk sets out to show “good people striving to do good things for good reasons” (as she puts it in her Twitter feed). She’s also written one of the most enjoyable romance-plots I’ve read in years, set in a fully realized secondary world involving lots of bicycles, a supernatural, mass-murder mystery, and (wait for it) magical cotillions. This suspenseful, immersive book successfully defends the proposition that a ridiculously high entertainment-quotient need not be at odds with serious moral purposes—and more so, that the two complement each other.

Witchmark wears its romance and fantasy allegiances lovingly and openly, but from the beginning Polk stakes an unapologetic claim on subject–matter associated with serious fiction. Her protagonist, Miles Singer, is a doctor whose hidden magical powers allow him to perform unusual cures, while also placing him at risk of being publicly exposed as a witch. He works in an under-funded veteran’s hospital and is, himself, a veteran of the long, devastating war between his country, Aeland, and distant Laneer. Miles’s experience of armed conflict, and his role as a caregiver for traumatized military personnel within a resource-depleted hospital system, gives the book broad access to topical echoes from both the World War I era it specifically references and the present day. Witchmark’s action begins where the book’s politics live—with an assertion that modernity’s institutions are often run by the powerful to the detriment of the vulnerable, and a simultaneous, hopeful claim that the best of us will give everything they have to correct that imbalance.

Here, for instance, is the second sentence of the book, as spoken by Miles: “[The hospital memo] began with the usual hurrahs, our boys victorious and finally coming home, but it ordered me to banish sixteen patients from my care by week’s end.” Miles will contest this order, but his superiors are implacable — and, it turns out, implicated. To be a healer under such circumstances is to be stressed to the very core. Miles’s readers quickly learn that he has been asked to bear far more than his share of the conflict between individual need and poorly–structured (or actively malign) organizational directives. His punishing role as an intermediary between established powers and marginalized communities comes into harrowing focus as Witchmark draws to its conclusion. All the way through the book, however, Miles is buoyed and chivvied along by a gorgeous stranger known first as “Mr. Hunter” and later as “Tristan.” Here’s Tristan, again narrated by Miles:

He removed his gloves and hat, and in other circumstances I would count the sight of him as a moment of joy. . . . his face belonged on the cinema screen—golden-skinned symmetry, with graceful bones and keen blue eyes. Lines around his mouth indicated a mirthful nature, and the light in his eyes suggested that he found something amusing without seeming cruel. It added up to the handsomest man I’d seen in years.

Believe me, you want to be there for the course of their courtship. Polk knows every romance-novel hook, complication, vexation, and productive delay, and can execute them with the best in the field. The attraction between the two men grows along with the dangers they face, as they try to solve a string of murders committed by Aelander veterans infected with a strange disease that only Miles has been able to diagnose as a widespread, latent threat to the nation at large. At the same time, Miles and Tristan must contend with the punitive interference of Miles’s wealthy, influential relatives who want him—and his magic—back, for their own uses. And then there’s the small matter of Tristan’s rather dramatic secret identity to deal with. How will it all work out? I’m not going to tell you. But C. L. Polk will, in splendid style.


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Come West and See

Maxim Loskutoff
W. W. Norton & Company ($25.95)

by George Longenecker

Come West and See, Maxim Luskutoff’s first short story collection, offers a collage of motley characters, some of them survivalists, and many of whom have doubts about themselves and their relationships, despite a veneer of bravado. The setting is the American west, where several of the protagonists are at war with the federal government. Some characters are loosely based on participants in the 2014 armed standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife. Though male characters are central to the stories, women are portrayed equally strongly. Many of the characters have been disenfranchised in contemporary America, and are taking futile measures out of desperation.

For those inhibited by provocative prose, Luskutoff’s writing may be disturbing, as it is filled with unforgettable details about people who live on the edge. In “The Dancing Bear,” the protagonist watches a grizzly from his cabin: “I suddenly realized I was erect. . . . I knelt, hiding my swollen cock behind the doorjamb, and, instead of thinking of protecting my home, I imagined running into her great hairy arms.” In “End Times,” Rye and his girlfriend Elli adopt Leon, a coyote pup, and find he’s different than a dog: “I’d find cat parts strewn around the yard: a paw wedged in the gate, innards on the tomato plants, a half-chewed skull on the welcome mat.” Eventually, the coyote and car in which they’re all riding become vehicles for a story about a failing relationship.

Lila in “Daddy Swore an Oath” is also caught in a failing relationship. Her husband Lane is in a desperate standoff with the feds at the Little Charbonneau Wildlife Refuge, where one protestor has already been killed. Lila and Lane consider themselves Jeffersonian constitutionalists, “but what good were liberty and Christian values if it was too cold to leave the house?” This story is as much about people going to extremes as it is about a neglected marriage and children, and Luskutoff weaves the two threads together skillfully.

“The Redoubt” refers to a fortified stronghold. In that story an insurrection has failed, and the main character is on the run in an ATV with his girlfriend Mercy. Apocalyptic scenes are mixed with the beauty of the mountains: “Above, lift chairs swung silently in the abandoned ski resort. . . . Small purple flowers strained toward the sun.” The characters in this and several other stories are adrift in a dystopian world partly of their own making.

Loskutoff’s tales draw readers in, and get us to empathize with characters we may dislike. These are people left behind, men and women with little pride who resort to desperate, self-destructive rebellion. This fiction is truthful in showing what’s at the heart of so much anger in 21st-century America. Let’s hope for more from this promising new author.


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The People Vs. Democracy

Why Our Freedom Is in Danger
and How to Save It

Yascha Mounk
Harvard University Press ($29.95)

by Spencer Dew

“To save democracy,” Yascha Mounk writes, “we need . . . to unite citizens around a common conception of their nation; to give them real hope for their economic future; and to make them more resistant to the lies and the hate they encounter on social media each and every day.” This is less a prescription for a cure than a diagnosis of the problem. Anxiety about ethnic, racial, and religious pluralism; economic stagnation and inequality within the state; internet technology with and through extreme ideologies and outright lies—these are real crises, worldwide, and the promise of a solution offered in this book’s subtitle falls, at best, far short. We’re told that “politicians from both sides of the aisle [must] come together to address the trends that are driving citizens’ disenchantment with the status quo,” for instance, and both parents and schools need to focus on “imparting a sense of civic duty” to the young. But this really isn’t a book about saving democracy; rather, it’s a user-friendly autopsy of liberal democracy’s worldwide collapse.

“Until recently, most of us lived in ordinary times,” with “ordinary” meaning an epoch so dominated by liberal democracy that political scientists had declared history to be over. Liberal democracy—which Mounk, attentive to the popular audience for which he writes, spells out as “a political system that is both liberal and democratic—one that both protects individual rights and translates popular views into public policy”—had triumphed. “Liberalism and democracy,” the consensus ran, “make a cohesive whole. It is not just that we care both about the popular will and the rule of law, but about letting the people decide and protecting individual rights. It’s that each component of our political system seems necessary to protect the other.” Now liberal democracy is under threat, worldwide. A quick scan of the news offers a parade of horribles revealing just how extraordinary our times have become, yet the trend is not toward an abandonment of both principles but “two new regime forms: illiberal democracy and undemocratic liberalism.”

Illiberal democracy dominates the headlines, from Hungary’s democratically-elected nationalist leader and his autocratic project to Poland’s democratically-elected Law and Justice party with its purges and politicizing of the judiciary. India, Turkey, even France can offer case studies here, the latter’s democratically-elected president continuing to consolidate power in his office, erasing traditional checks and balances. The democratically-elected president of the United States provides what Mounk calls “the most striking manifestation of democracy’s crisis.” Yet The People Vs. Democracy, despite detailed indictments of Trump’s disregard for democratic norms, argues that Trump “is as much a symptom of the current crisis as he is its cause. He could only have conquered the White House in the first place because so many citizens have grown deeply disenchanted with democracy.”

Regrettably, Mounk’s book may convince many readers to share in this disenchantment, both through what he says—all the ways in which democracy doesn’t work, and the ways in which so-called democracies aren’t very democratic—and what he doesn’t. For instance, Mounk locates Trump’s rise within a growing partisan divide in American politics, using Michael Ignatieff’s distinction between thinking of colleagues across the aisle as adversaries versus thinking of them as enemies. It is the latter, for instance, that leads to leaving a Supreme Court appointment vacant for the final months of a president’s term in office, or shutting down the government rather than reaching a budget compromise. Have things really gotten worse? “When Lyndon Baines Johnson was president,” Mounk informs us, “the minority party in the Senate used the filibuster 16 times. When Obama was president, by contrast, the minority party in the Senate used the filibuster 506 times.”

Such facts are given as historical background, but more attention could be paid to just how broken such a system seems to be. Mounk chastises the left for blaming corporations and lobbyists for using their money to take power away from the people, but the portrait he offers of actual elected politicians reveals them to be far from servants of the popular will. The GOP takes the hardest hits here, not in relation to willed gridlock so much as in regard to that party’s decades-long campaign “to disenfranchise minority voters by passing unnecessary ID laws or shutting down polling stations in heavily Democratic neighborhoods.” Never mind the electoral college and questions about which votes actually matter; Mounk’s accounting of scandalous (or do we just say “normal” these days) Republican machinations in reordering the North Carolina governor’s office so that the incoming, democratically-elected, Democratic governor would be stymied will make most readers think that democracy—liberal or not—is already dead in America.

Mounk, indeed, finds plenty of undemocratic liberalism already at play in the United States, where much policy-making is in the hands of the judiciary or bureaucratic agencies. “Far from making decisions about a few blockbuster cases, independent agencies are now responsible for the vast majority of laws, rules, and regulations. In 2007, for example, Congress enacted 138 public laws. In the same year, US federal agencies finalized 2,926 rules. And it is simply not clear that voters enjoy any real form of oversight over the rules by which they are bound.” While Mounk is a defender of the necessity of many such agencies, he nonetheless suggests it would be sensible “to search for reforms that would give legislatures more power to set the necessary rules and hold the bureaucratic agencies that enforce them accountable.” Never mind, I suppose, that legislatures seem pretty nonfunctional, petty, and vastly divorced from the voting populace by Mounk’s own account.

This is a thought-provoking but ultimately unsatisfying book. Yes, liberal democracy is under threat worldwide, but Mounk’s arguments make that system seem so tenuous—dependent, as he has it, on a sense of rising economic well-being, on ethnic homogeneity, and on a shared media with some degree of a fact-checking apparatus—that it’s hard to imagine it was ever such an exceptional system to begin with, and impossible to imagine it continuing to exist. Perhaps Mounk is working on a sequel, in which he’ll elaborate precisely how a renewed sense of civic identity can make liberal democracy great again. In the meantime, readers will likely be left with the ominous thought that undemocratic liberalism might be our last, best hope.


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Flights of Rhetoric:
An Interview with Jeff Bursey

Interviewed by W.D. Clarke

Jeff Bursey's recently reissued first novel, Verbatim (Verbivoracious Press, $16), is a wicked satire of political life that presents a "verbatim" record of the workings of a legislature in a fictional province in eastern Canada. In Bursey's nuanced rendering, the evil banality of politicians of all stripes is recorded for posterity by Hansard, the body charged with the official transcription of parliamentary proceedings in much of the British Commonwealth.

Though Hansard's record is treated as historical fact, it is not strictly a "verbatim" reproduction of the previous day's parliamentary performances. Indeed, Hansard's mediation of reality becomes a kind of performance of its own, one with often farcical and sometimes quite serious repercussions. Via emails from the Director to his editors and transcribers, and to his political minders in the legislature, the novel both comments upon and refracts how we record the official workings of government. Furthermore, if you have ever worked in an office, you will recognize the trail of politics on a human scale here, in the record of microaggressions, the clash of personalities, and the struggle of those lowest on the bureaucratic totem poles to “do more with less.”

This second edition of Verbatim includes excellent and often witty ancillary material: an introduction by Sascha Pöhlmann is presented as an "edited transcript" of a university colloquium on the novel, and an afterword by David Hallett situates the novel in the exploratory tradition of American novelist William Gaddis.

Jeff Bursey's other books include the novel Mirrors on which dust has fallen (Verbivoracious Press, 2015) and the essay collection Centring the Margins (Zero Books, 2016). His plays have been performed numerous times in Canada, and he is a frequent author of reviews and essays for a variety of publications.


W.D. Clarke: Can you give the reader a bit of background on what spurred you to write this unusual book? You have worked in the past for Hansard, the body responsible for transcribing and publishing the proceedings of Canada's legislative bodies―what did you observe there that inspired you to write such a book as this?

Jeff Bursey: In 1990, I started work as a transcriptionist with the Hansard division of the Newfoundland and Labrador House of Assembly, in St. John`s, Newfoundland and Labrador. The immediate thing that struck me about the politicians, who came from all sorts of previous occupations, was how negative they were (especially in the opposition) and the poor language they used to express their thoughts. They often needed things explained in the simplest terms. Most couldn't speak in more than phrases, fragments of sentences. On the level of civic awareness this introduced me to many new ideas; as well, on the level of language, and coming out of a radio background where a smooth flow of speech is essential, the corruption of language indicated decay of thought. Capturing those things, as well as illustrating how we allow ourselves to be governed, inspired the novel, which I began taking notes for in 1992.

WDC: The novel's title is quite ambiguous. Can you expand a bit on its understanding of the relationship between the truth (what is said “verbatim") and fiction, especially in relation to the manifest subject matter, provincial (in both senses of that word) politics?

JB: If I expand on the title, then it would be less ambiguous. At most I’ll say, here, that the tension between supposed truth and supposed falsehood is apt, as it fits into how a novel can work and how a legislature operates. In any legislature, if one member calls another member a liar, that word must be retracted. Not because it’s true or untrue, but because the word is objectionable since all members are assumed to be speaking the truth. There is no investigation into the accuracy of the use of the word liar. Falsehoods can stand alongside truth. Same with Verbatim: A Novel.

WDC: Is that possibly metaphorical in some wider sense, this assertion above, to the relationship between journalism, or even fiction, and culture?

JB: We live with contradictions, ambiguity, ambivalence. Thinking that one venue always favours greater clarity over any other would be a mistake.

WDC: The Director of Hansard seems to be very, very focused on "improving" some details in his employees’ output. Now, details do matter, but should he not have bigger fish to fry? Or am I missing something, i.e. is it exactly in such tiny details where politics of a kind is really happening—the micropolitics of all our daily lives, on which we stand, compromise or fall to greater or lesser import?!

JB: Sometimes we can’t fix big things, we can only attend to small matters, convinced that if they are taken care of then some order is established. Of course, the Director was hired to reform Hansard ways. That’s the remit of the position. There are no bigger fish in this kind of pond. Everyone who works in any kind of job knows that they only have so much agency, and they can invest a lot of themselves in it. But you’re right. It’s more staking out a small claim, and also standing up for the staff so they aren’t pushed to work overlong.

WDC: Let's talk about the epigraph to the novel by Wyndham Lewis, which reads:

Should we describe it as Satire
(merely because it does not refine the truth)
or should we call it realism?"

What do you feel is the proper function of satire? Has this changed since Lewis's day?

JB: That epigraph comes from a late Lewis book, Rude Assignment, where he talks, as he did in earlier books, about satire, its kinds and methods. Anyone who finds it significant that the remark is in the form of a question will allow that to determine their interpretation of what follows.

On satire generally, there’s a direct line from Lewis’s use of satire, say in The Apes of God, to William Gaddis and Gilbert Sorrentino. Now, satire has no proper or improper function. You use any of its kinds however you want. (In my second novel, Mirrors on which dust has fallen, there is present a different kind of satire.) Most people can’t believe the behavior of members unless they’ve seen it from the visitors’ gallery or on television. Clearly I heightened the articulacy of some members or else the book would have been a dreadful slog, but for the most part their tetchiness and bitterness and frustration are real, as are what they do—which is another way of saying, what they do in our name since we put them there. Nothing has changed in how we use satire. In Canadian literature, to my mind, it is often more gum than tooth. I wanted all teeth.

WDC: Is hyperbole the trope that today's political/satirical novelist must resort to in order to be "realistic"? Or, to put it yet another way: what kind of statement is this novel making about the novel's relationship to socio-political reality?

JB: Novelists have to admit that reality far exceeds what we imagine. We don’t need to be hyperbolic (any more than we need to be satirical). The integrity of the writing project comes first, and we must choose the methods and approaches that are most suitable.

WDC: The novel depicts your unnamed province as a place where foreigners come to extract wealth (via resources) or to spend money on tourism, and little else. Do you think that that is a fair (or hyperbolic) depiction of the Canadian Maritimes?

JB: The concerns you speak about are widespread across Canada: ore, timber, oil and gas, fish, diamonds—wealth is extracted from every part of Canada. As to if it’s a fair picture, one need only look at current headlines where the federal Canadian government intercedes to prevent control of businesses, and thus industries, by companies that may or may not be arms of other governments. You can also look at NAFTA and the agreement with the EU. These are massive trade agreements that revolve around changing standards of how things were done until comparatively recently here and the consequent removal of resources.

WDC: How "peculiarly Canadian" do you feel that this book is? I note that the first publishers were Canadian, but that it is being reprinted by a foreign firm, Verbivoracious Press.

JB: I finished this novel in 1995. I thought its parliamentary aspect, its take on politics, and its setting, would speak forcibly to Canadian publishers as an example, in exploratory fiction, of a quintessential Canadian book. No one wanted anything to do with it, however, until 2009 when Enfield & Wizenty said they’d publish it. (A publisher in St. John’s changed its mind in 2006 and cancelled our contract after I had corrected the proofs.) Since there are legislatures in every province and territory in Canada, as well as two in Ottawa, the nation’s capital, this novel has roots throughout the country.

You’ll remember that in the mid-1990s a separatist party was Her Majesty’s Official Opposition, and the satirical television show This Hour Has 22 Minutes was doing its best to ridicule prominent political figures. My voice added to this chorus, or so I thought, naively as it turned out. But the topic, while specialized, is far from parochial. Every adult can vote. We bear a responsibility for our continued faith in the way we govern ourselves and who we choose to represent us. That’s personal and systemic.

WDC: I am intrigued by the independent representative for Coventry who is never given leave to speak on the floor of the House—by any of the major parties. Does that tell us something about the real relations of power in a liberal democracy, do you think?

JB: Yes. A legislature is a special world where the abusive nature of people can be shown most clearly and without much censure. You may, for acting up, be asked to leave the House for a few days, but you don’t lose your job. Muzzling Coventry is all in a day’s work, and some would find it fun, and hardly damaging to freedom at all.

WDC: The editors of Hansard have a lot of input on how the voices of the elected representatives get presented to the public, and to history. What has your own experience been with the editorial process as a fiction writer, and what do you see as the proper role of editors vis-a-vis the author, as the entire structure and contents of Verbatim calls the unitary nature of authorship into question, does it not?

JB: It might be said that the public reads the editors more than the politicians, in certain cases. Some can barely get out three words without saying “Mr. Speaker” as a kind of placeholder, and that repetition adds nothing to the conversation. As an editor I took many of those things out. The public will never see the corrections, but in Verbatim the fiction reader can. Who speaks for history? That’s an open and fluid question.

Editors can be of most help by not asking that a work be something it isn’t, out of their own taste, but work with the writer on what is there, to bring out the form and the content, if we must divide those two things for the sake of conversation, in the best fashion possible. My experience with one editor at Verbivoracious, especially with regards to Mirrors on which dust has fallen, was great: she had an exacting eye for certain words and phrases, and that improved the manuscript.

WDC: This tension between the spoken and the written word surfaces again midway through, where a member objects to the reading of a prepared speech on the floor, where members are expected to extemporize, I take it. And yet they hypocritically accept that their own bleatings are artfully edited after the fact! Was this tension between what is spoken and what is written, and the weight that we give each, a part of what you were thinking through in this book?

JB: Most of the members I knew seemed cheerfully oblivious to the fact that what they said required correction. The ego gets in the way. It’s not hypocrisy, but is a sign of how unthinking and incurious they are. Only one Speaker—and I worked under eight over twenty-four years—ever said she wanted to be told how to do her job better by staff, and she meant it.

Part of the attraction of writing Verbatim lay in putting down what was cleaned up, and showing how that happened, so everyone could see the process. It can be hellish on some days.

WDC: On a related note, one of your characters makes a joke about a Minister’s “flights of rhetoric.”

JB: If we didn’t allow flights of rhetoric our conversation would be drab. It may be that because I come from a heavily oral culture, at least when I was growing up, people listened intently to others when they told stories, and how you told them mattered as much as what you said.

WDC: And yet the novel is also concerned with how our language is being transformed by bureaucracy/capitalism, no? “Prioritization,” “Actualization”—these turnings of nouns into verbs (so popular in the booming ’80s), “stakeholders,” “parameters”— are just a couple of examples where something dead, deadening, and deadly is happening to our speech.

JB: When jargon reaches the House you know the language is dated already, and that what’s said is being mimicked. Remember, most politicians come from retail, or business, or social services, and they don’t drop the tongue they learned there and become brilliant orators. Also, the prevailing climate of treating government as a business, and that sorry and idiotic expectation that a government should handle its treasury like a householder would handle his or her own bills, means that the deadening language of the financial world has narrowed how they think of things. Most of the conversation in a legislature is about money, when everything gets rendered down. If you only think money, then you’re not going to want to (or feel you could or might want to) escape consumerism and capitalism.

But every field has its own terms. It’s shorthand. Parliamentary language is neither good nor bad, it simply exists and evolves so people in that field can understand each other. I didn’t get bugged by it, and in fact came to appreciate its formal qualities.

WDC: There seems to be, in the corridors of power, an assumption that there is a preferred relationship between the free press (fifth ‘estate’ of the realm?!) and the government: As a character notes, “The previous Director had superb editorial smarts, which some members of the House need, and was discreet. . . . an ability to get along with the sixty-eight members and the political staff is essential. Feathers can’t be ruffled. I’m sure you’ll agree we want a dog that won’t bark.”

JB: I did want to end a relentless book on a down note. Nothing can improve or become better in the kind of world that contains such members and such bureaucrats. Politicians often acknowledge that they are disliked, as a class. They take that seriously, of course, or the more thoughtful ones do, but never enough to change sufficiently. We keep trusting them, out of a variety of motives, and not all of them are, on our part, altruistic, even as they lose their power to backroom people and financiers of campaigns.

WDC: Could we have some further thoughts as to the timeliness of your book’s republication? I mean, it has landed in a very different political climate generally, than it was greeted with in the year of its first debut. The very institutions/foundations of democracy seem to be under threat, and when your new director confidently claims that “Speakers [of the House] come and go, but Hansard has remained,” on one level that seems a bit optimistic, in this new light that we must live under . . .

JB: Oh, yes, the Director is an optimist or on a quest, like many people. We enter work situations convinced we can change things, and then . . . The outside world, in Verbatim, is only hinted at, never truly seen, but it has its problems that were as true in 1995 as in 2010 as now. In these times facts are disregarded in a more extravagant way than we might recall from some years ago, and I’m conscious that this novelistic analysis of the way parliaments work re-enters the literary world that is a smaller part of a more hostile world. But there’s never been a Golden Age of politics where facts were prized above interests.

Perhaps democratic institutions need to be threatened, partly so they’ll reform, partly so people will become aware of what they have and might lose, partly because stagnation is in no one’s best interest, and partly because some institutions are not representative in the most complete sense of the people they are supposed to serve.

WDC: At another point, a politician says that the day’s proceedings were “like one of those modern plays where nobody does anything but there’s always this anticipation about something that never happens but is imminent.” This is what you have just said in a nutshell, isn’t it? What is the appeal of writing about something that is really nothing, a la Waiting For Godot, say, or Seinfeld even?

JB: How we govern ourselves is something essential. In writing the book I wanted to capture both the system and the people within it, and that meant a lot of talking. Sometimes such talk results in a bill that determines liability, penalties, freedoms, and so on, and that is action. The verbal conflicts are action. The damage done to people’s faith in how their members behave is action. Businesses prosper and die, the land is damaged, workers are suddenly threatened with unemployment. There is a lot there, though on the surface it can seem like little of consequence occurs. What intrigued and angered me in the early 1990s were the motivations and abuses that went on every day. I had to stay away from passing judgement and simply provide enough material for readers to freely choose, if you will, a party they agree with. They have to work out their own answer to the question “Is it satire, or realism?”


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Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2018 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2018