Tag Archives: summer 2009

ME AND KAMINSKI

Daniel Kehlmann
translated by Carol Brown Janeway
Pantheon ($21.95)

by Eric Iannelli

When Daniel Kehlmann—one of the few authors of the past decade for whom the label Wunderkind is apposite—was recently asked by the fawning host of the German literary discussion program Literaur im Foyer to single out his favorite compliment of all those he’s received, he said it came from an American friend who had once spoken with the late John Updike. As this friend was praising Kehlmann’s breakthrough work Measuring the World to Updike, the veteran author said it would be difficult for the young newcomer to meet readers’ and critics’ expectations when it came time to write his second novel. Kehlmann’s friend informed Updike that this was actually his sixth book, not his second. Updike paused and then replied, “He’s safe.”

Me and Kaminski (Ich und Kaminksi, 2003), Kehlmann’s fourth novel, dates from a time before Kehlmann was “safe” in his success from Measuring the World (Die Vermessung der Welt, 2005). It is recounted by the arrogant, self-serving art journalist Sebastian Zollner, who has been tasked with writing a biography of Manuel Kaminski, erstwhile protégé of the fictional Richard Rieming. Kaminski, once advanced by Picasso and Matisse, is now an aging, effete curmudgeon with a reputation as faded as his eyesight.

The title of the book alone is revealing: “me” precedes “Kaminski” because Zollner coldly views Kaminski as little more than a vehicle for his own career; deference, whether a matter of grammar or a polite formality, would simply never occur to him. One oft-cited passage in particular is indicative of Zollner’s character, not to mention the plot and Kehlmann’s prose style:

My book should not come out before [Kaminski’s] death and not too long afterward either, for a short time it would be at the center of all attention. I’d be invited to go on TV, I would talk about him and at the bottom of the screen it would show my name and biographer of Kaminski. This would get me a job with one of the big art magazines.

What Zollner lacks in likability—and his lack here is indeed profound—he makes up for in honesty. He pulls no punches about his self-interested scheming or the high esteem in which he holds himself. (Given room enough for exposition, one could also argue that this is little more than a brittle front for his own sense of fraudulence.) These qualities manifest themselves again and again in pivotal episodes such as when Zollner decides to shanghai Kaminski and parade him around a minor art exhibition: “The evening had been a real success, they’d all seen me with Kaminski, everything had gone well.” Yet this crude honesty seems at times gratuitous, nudging Zollner in the direction of caricature.

The heavy-handedness in Kehlmann’s portrayal of Zollner is in fact a larger failing of Me and Kaminski,with its ancillary satire of the schmoozing and pretentiousness of the art scene, and the bromidic parable that emerges once Zollner takes to the road with Kaminski in search of the latter’s long-lost (and, to the artist’s ambivalent surprise, still living) love. Kehlmann could have applied to his own work the lesson that he has allowed Kaminski to learn over his career—namely, easing up on the force of his own brushstrokes and the overt symbolism that strips the ending of some of its poignancy.

While not as nimble a feat as Measuring the World, the novel that sparked this sudden interest in Kehlmann’s back catalogue, or as ambitious as Kehlmann’s latest, Ruhm (Fame, 2009), Me and Kaminskiis nevertheless a fun, engrossing, worthwhile read. Its appeal is rooted in the author’s assured storytelling and generally deft characterization, particularly with regard to Kaminski himself, as well as incidental figures such as Miriam Kaminski, the artist’s stalwart daughter, and the looming presence of Hans Bahring, Zollner’s arch-rival.

For the English translation, Carol Brown Janeway, whose best-known work is perhaps Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader, takes small liberties, occasionally combining Kehlmann’s shorter, more staccato sentences; more oddly, she has stripped the text of umlauts (Zollner should ideally be Zöllner) and prettified the few English exchanges in the original to sound more natural, which seems to misrepresent Zollner’s inordinate confidence in his own dubious abilities. Kehlmann’s indubitable abilities as an author, on the other hand, are manifest in Janeway’s unobtrusive translation.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009

WE AGREED TO MEET JUST HERE

Scott Blackwood
New Issues Poetry and Prose ($26)

by Jaspar Lepak

Winner of the 2007 AWP Award Series in the Novel, Scott Blackwood’s first novel, We Agreed to Meet Just Here, tells the story of a small Texas town and the mystery of the lives that intersect there. While these lives are close to each other in geographic proximity, the town’s citizens are kept apart by private experiences of mystery, loss, desire, and responsibility. There is Dennis Lipsy, a lawyer whose clients “often wanted him to renegotiate their already-lived lives,” and Winnie Lipsy, his wife, a pediatric nurse who seeks reunion with the daughter she gave up nineteen years earlier for adoption. And there’s Odie Dodd, a retired government physician who is haunted by the memory of the Jonestown, Guyana mass suicide.

The novel opens unusually with the voice of the lyric “we,” which speaks collectively as the voice of the town. This voice takes the reader on a town tour, pointing out the tower where fourteen people were killed by a gunman, and where more than fourteen people since have jumped willingly to their deaths. As the pages of the novel turn, the narrative voice goes back and forth between the lyric “we” and a more personal third-person narrator, tracing the characters’ encounters with death, disappearance, theft, and abandonment as it marks the difficulty of human connection over the personal spaces created by loss and longing.

The tone of We Agreed to Meet Just Here is also heavy with the weight of violence. Terrible things happen to people in a town where terrible things are already carried in its collective memory. Ruth Dodd, the wife of Odie, epitomizes this; she expects to lose her husband any day to cancer but wakes one day to find instead that he has simply vanished. Likewise, Natalie Branch, the young and sensuous lifeguard, disappears one evening on her way home from a movie screening at the public pool.

We Agreed to Meet Just Here is not a story about redemption, and it is not a story about making peace and meaning out of terrible events. Instead, this lyrical portrait of mystery and longing functions like a piece of music—a sad piece of music that gives voice to a yearning that is both general and specific. The narrative voice alternates between the songs of soloists and the swell of the full choir. Blackwood constructs his movements like a conductor, artfully choosing scenes that echo each other, and in this way the novel’s sections play out the different sounds of the novel’s theme: “See how small a thing it is that keeps us apart?”

As they make this music, the characters learn to admit the truth about their losses: that the path keeps moving forward. There is no standing still, and there is no going back—even if the mind can trick itself into one of these illusions for a period of time.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009

HE FLIES THROUGH THE AIR WITH THE GREATEST OF EASE: A William Saroyan Reader

William Saroyan
edited by William E. Justice
Heyday Books ($24.95)

by Ryder W. Miller

One of the most famous and prolific writers of the 20th Century, William Saroyan (1908-1981) left behind famous stories, novels, and dramas, but he also wanted to tell his own tale in artful ways. For him art was an escape from death, and this new Saroyan Reader may once again grant him another spate of immortality.

Occasionally profound, Saroyan was also very quotable. He could give readers reason to pause, especially with his endings, which elaborate rather than pull things together. One could not help but take the rest of the evening off after finishing The Human Comedy, which is sadly not included in the new Reader, although many of his first-person narratives and autobiographical materials are presented instead. In He Flies Through the Air with the Greatest of Ease one will find 27 stories (including Saroyan’s transcendental debut “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze,” which brought him fame in 1934); the play The Time of Your Life (1939), for which he declined the Pulitzer Prize; and the short novelsTracy’s Tiger and My Name is Aram. Editor William E. Justice promises in his preface, “Anyone reading this book with new eyes will be amply rewarded.”

Writers and readers alike are bound to find Saroyan inspiring. Justice includes a lot of selections in which Saroyan wrote about the writing process itself, especially this fascinating stretch from the autobiographical The Bicycle Rider in Beverly Hills:

To write is not the same as to tell stories.

....................................................................

To be a writer is to be in the streets. The people in the streets are the book.

....................................................................

I do not know what makes a writer, but it probably isn’t happiness. A happy boy or man is not apt to need to write. But was there ever a happy boy? Is there ever a happy man?

....................................................................

For the subject of the book is not so much myself, now and sometime ago, as it is the action of the human soul, to which there is no start or stop.

Saroyan, who is noted to have been influenced by Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, and William Blake, was a poetic writer; his sentences, especially the ones with lists or strung together with “ands” “or” and “but,” have a rhythmic ring to them. Yet he also belongs in the creative nonfiction genre. Justice notes that Saroyan influenced Hunter S. Thompson, Kurt Vonnegut, and Kenneth Patchen, and that the New Journalists owe him a large debt.

Saroyan decided to become a writer at an early age. He was born in Fresno, California, an Armenian settlement in the Central Valley of California. Saroyan wrote much about being Armenian, but he was too American to be very exotic, except for the unusual Armenian names of his characters. He was already famous by the end of World War II, which he became notorious for protesting against despite having been in the military service. He had a failed marriage and two children, and spent much of his later life in Paris. After his death, his ashes were divided between Fresno and Armenia.

This new Reader—a previous one from 1958 contains an introduction by William’s son Aram Saroyan—focuses on his later writings, but one book is not enough to get all one can from Saroyan. Justice succeeds, however, in getting you to want to read more from this successful writer. Saroyan was an ordinary guy who delivered telegrams, gambled, and had family stories to tell; he also commented about the social, political, and racial issues of his day. He Flies Through the Air with the Greatest of Ease helps us remember his massive contribution to world literature by plumbing some of his darker places.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009

MR. GAUNT AND OTHER UNEASY ENCOUNTERS

John Langan
Prime Books ($24.95)

by Charlie Broderick

One of the most important factors of the horror story is atmosphere. For this reason one should wait to read John Langan’s Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters until the ripest moment of the day—dusk. Begin the ritual by locking the doors, checking under the bed, and starting a fire in the hearth. Settle into the couch, and take a deep breath. Hope that the makings of a storm are in the air, and, as suggested by Elizabeth Hand in the introduction, leave a light on.

Hand wastes no time in adding to the tone of the collection by evoking the spirit of all the horror greats, from Lovecraft to King. One expects the atmosphere to escalate after such a promising introduction, but unfortunately the opening of “On Suka Island” feels off pace; one can’t help feeling Langan is like a kid in a costume shop trying on outfits for Halloween. Werewolf? Vampire? Mummy? Readers spend the first six pages of this thirty-five page story waiting around while the characters trade inside jokes on which monster will finally win the author’s devotion—but they’ll spend the next twenty-nine pages glad he did. “On Suka Island” demonstrates Langan’s narrative control by unexpectedly mixing mummy lore with a shifting point of view narration.

Like this story’s weatherworn protagonist, Nick, readers may find themselves wanting to avoid the sea, but they will not want to avoid the collection’s second story, “Mr. Gaunt.” Here Langan takes his established tone and mummy theme even further by sharing the story of Henry, a man who finds a tape his dead father recorded for him which explains his family’s terrible secret. Langan artfully maintains the intense atmosphere captured from “On Suka Island,” beginning with the line, “It was not until five weeks after his father’s funeral that Henry Farange was able to remove the plastic milk crate containing the old man’s final effects from the garage.” Langan’s ability to speak directly to his readers is so apparent that they feel as if they are experiencing the story right alongside Henry.

In the third story, “Tutorial,” Langan abandons mummies for something much more frightening—editors. Langan may overestimate how interested readers are in the writing process, but he does not abandon his craft or attention to detail. This quirky story makes us work through long yet somehow funny sentences, such as, “He would have elaborated on the tutor’s white button-down shirt, the black plastic wristwatch tournniquetting his left wrist; all in all, James reckoned he could have spent a good page or two of single-spaced, ten point type on this man, whose name he thought was Sean but wasn’t sure.” It’s deftly written, although the little laugh that results may erode the spooky atmosphere Langan has worked so hard to establish in the previous stories.

Readers will forgive Langan for the indulgent joke a few pages into “Episode Seven: Last Stand Against The Pack In The Kingdom Of The Purple Flowers.” Langan picks up the pace as we are introduced to Jackie, a very pregnant protagonist, evading a pack of beasts amidst what could likely be Armageddon. In what seems to be the author’s version of a Werewolf story, pop culture comic book references abound; the experimental structure of the story also creates the feeling that “Episode Seven” is a comic book without the pictures. The sometimes bolded, sometimes italicized text suggests visual margins for the story, as do the names of colors which are italicized and set at the beginnings of paragraphs.

Langan’s unique artistic vision is carried out further in “Laocoon, Or The Singularity,” the final story of the collection. Readers will sense that the sometimes up and sometimes down protagonist, Dennis, is going to take them along for a ride on his emotional roller coaster to hell when the lonely art professor becomes obsessed with a discarded statue he finds behind his apartment and his life is forever changed. It’s no short read, at eighty-one pages, but it definitely gives rise to that Twilight Zone feeling Langan has captured throughout the collection.

After spending time with Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters, readers may find it hard to sleep at night. Perhaps to account for this, Langan offers a section of story notes that give insight to the author’s inspirations and intentions, and offer suggestions about authors and topics for further reading. At the very least, these notes can provide a good excuse to keep the light on a bit longer.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009

MY LIFE AT FIRST TRY

Mark Budman
Counterpoint Press ($24)

by Bob Sommer

Mark Budman’s My Life at First Try straddles the space between the short story cycle tradition of writers like Sherwood Anderson, James Joyce, and Ernest Hemingway, and the novel, with its essential unities of character and plot. Budman’s unique test of whether the short story can sustain a novel is to shorten it further into vignettes or flash fictions, most of which run less than a thousand words. Each vignette begins with a repetend (a refrain that varies with each repetition) that records the year and the narrator’s age: “It’s 1954. I am four”; “It’s 1976. I am twenty-six”; and so on. Budman smartly launches each story with these cues, forcing us to consider what grade we were in, who was president, what songs were on the radio.

This semi-autobiographical novel traces the life of a Siberian-born emigrant to the United States, with the story divided between his youth in Siberia and Russia during the Cold War and his adult life in America, from the Reagan years through the recession that followed 9/11 (the last one, not this one). Major events like the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and the Afghan War (theirs, not ours) appear as images in a background tapestry, but narrator Alex turns his vision mostly on himself—his sibling rivalries, his emerging sexuality, his confrontations with bullies. Solipsism is a theme of the book, but through Alex’s narrow worldview, Budman portrays the banal and sometimes dark life of ordinary citizens in a police state, where anti-Semitism is institutionalized and party politics an essential part of school and work.

Equally, America’s insatiable appetites and nationalized arrogance appear in marked contrast to the life Alex left behind. Alex goes to an all-you-can-eat buffet (“All you can eat—a concept unheard of back in the old country and probably anywhere else in the world.”); votes (“an ass or an elephant”?); asks his neighbor to quiet a barking dog only to find that the neighbor never speaks to him again; advances his career; discovers his ability to write (and his own incipient arrogance); and pursues his second cousin Annie, whose picture he’d seen as a child and instantly loved.

While the satire of both cultures is often sharply rendered, the comedy sometimes strains under its own weight. Alex lives in Rienville, New York (i.e., French for nothing), works for HAL Corporation (as in the infamous computer from 2001: A Space Odyssey), and rents a “U-Schlep” truck to move his daughter to Boston (brand names appear elsewhere, so why not here?). Alex is more a vehicle for reflecting the absurdities of contemporary life than a fully developed character. While he has definable traits, like his latent anger and his humor, which we hear about from other characters more than we actually see in his interaction with them, he doesn’t so much develop as a character as simply age in the environs he inhabits, and in this respect the book falls short as a novel.

Alex’s life story is contained in the vignettes of his experiences, but it’s not more than the sum of them, which may render a truth about the human condition today—and it may be much to Budman’s purpose that this is how we should see it. The affinity of flash fiction to the frenetic age of TV soundbites, Web bounce rates, bumper-sticker politics, and Twitter is obvious, but it may be just a new name for an old idea. Chekhov’s early short (very short) stories come to mind, not only for their rapid development and sudden conflicts in the briefest of encounters, but also because they rely more on caricature than character development. Budman’s comic distance from his characters prevents us from fully embracing them. Alex tells us he loves his wife, his family, his parents, but they remain distant, like the non-appearing adults in Peanuts.

Still, there is much to admire here. Budman, who also edits the flash fiction journal Vestal Review, makes good use of the form to offer many refreshing strokes of imagery, as in his description of Russian female names: “every name ends so softly, like the petal of a flower.” And he pares away at essential truths about human relations: “My friend Albert never asks me, ‘How are you?’ He answers my questions about his health, his kids, his house, his job, his finances, his girlfriend, his opinions, but he never asks about me.” The passage is rich in irony since Alex can be an annoying and self-centered companion.

Finding an answerable form for the novel in the digital age may be the next frontier in fiction. The demands of the Web-browsing/airport-terminal/Kindle/nightstand reader, the one whose attention easily jitters away, probably account for much of flash fiction’s popularity. Budman offers his own take on such readers at his Website: “Mark also writes flash fiction, so he knows how to express himself concisely, before the reader gets bored.” [http://markbudman.net/biography.html] But writing to stave off a reader’s inevitable boredom may be a little condescending to readers who turn to the novel for something more.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009

THE REASON FOR CROWS: A Story of Kateri Tekawitha

Diane Glancy
Excelsior Editions / SUNY Press ($14.95)

by Emy Farley

First came the colonizers, then came the priests. With each new wave of settlers to the New World arrived both opportunity and destruction; both harm and hope stepped ashore. The men who journeyed from Europe to North America believed they were doing God’s work by claiming this new land, by saving the souls of the barbarians they’d found in camps and huts, worshipping Nature, by readying the path for a glorious new empire. The priests brought food, clothing, and Everlasting Life to Native Americans, but along with this salvation came deceit, disease, death, and separation.

Diane Glancy seeks to flesh out this complicated relationship between the saviors and the saved in her latest work of historical fiction, The Reason for Crows: A Story of Kateri Tekakwitha. In this slim yet fulfilling novel, Glancy tells a story of a young Mohawk girl, Kateri Tekakwitha, after the arrival of smallpox to her camp. Her parents and brother die in the 17th-century outbreak, leaving Kateri orphaned, badly scarred, and nearly blind. She is isolated, lonely, and in need of a guiding hand. When the Jesuit priests arrive, she quickly embraces their message and follows them in pursuit of Christianity. Torn between the legacies of her mother’s Christianity and her father’s traditional Mohawk beliefs, Kateri makes the decision to convert and leaves for the Jesuit mission to begin her new life as a Christian.

The Reason for Crows is structured in short, journal-like entries written by Kateri and the Jesuit priests. Glancy’s skillful renderings question not only the “rightness” or “wrongness” of faith, but also the true motives of the priests who brought Christianity to the New World. Did they truly come to save the “savages” they found? Or did they come to scavenge off the sins of others? “I was to smooth the way for colonization,” laments one priest. Instead, he finds himself frustrated by overwhelming failure.

Once she arrives at the Jesuit mission, Kateri studies Christianity intensely, and eventually begins a journey of self-mortification in an effort to assuage the sins of her tribe. Though the priests call her Katherine, she still refers to herself as Kateri, and openly practices many of the traditional Mohawk rituals she grew up performing; “the priests tolerated some of our old ways.” Kateri still does her beading, still toils in ceremonial planting while singing the song of the digging sticks and burning tobacco so the smoke “takes our words to God.”

Glancy utilizes the image of the crow throughout, on the first page describing the bird as a scavenger. “Black birds gathered waiting for our death. I felt the birds peck my face.” Just a page later, the crow becomes an image of holiness: “He sent his son, Jesus, to become a crow on the cross.” And throughout the rest of the book, the priests are repeatedly identified as the crows, their words becoming “their cawings.” Thus, the crows go from scavenger to savior, from menace to monk.

Many readers may find this image uncomfortable, even blasphemous, but Glancy’s skillful manipulation of the comparison is thought provoking. “What if they knew they could approach God on their own?” asks Father Chauchetiere. Tired of reaping the rewards of failure, the priests take to scavenging for success.

The Reason for Crows, though short, is a complex and deceptively heavy novel. Glancy uses striking imagery in overlapping and contradicting ways to ask engaging and still-relevant questions of her reader. No two people who have witnessed the same event will tell the exact same story, and Glancy handles the different perspectives, tones, and experiences of each narrator very carefully, constructing a version of history that is believable and intelligent. While certainly not the first book to address colonial religious oppression and its long-reaching consequences—Louise Erdrich’s artful Tracks comes readily to mind—The Reason for Crows is a compelling, engaging, and well-written addition to the genre.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009

WALK THE BLUE FIELDS

Claire Keegan
Grove/Atlantic ($13)

by Salvatore Ruggiero

A pervasive melancholy rips through the hearts and minds of the characters in Claire Keegan’s Walk the Blue Fields. In sharp, sparing prose, the Irish author’s new collection of stories analyzes the faults and flaws of fathers and daughters, writers and brides, farmers and pastors—all of whom are stuck in their own worlds of loneliness. With a cold but knowledgeable eye, Keegan explores an Ireland yearning for impossible desires and the sacrifices we all make to get what we think we want.

To solidify this sense of solitude, Keegan chooses to make most of her characters anonymous—she uses their professions as their identities, gives no personality or physical descriptions, and thus creates an allegorical and existential aura to these stories. The farmer, the daughter, or a character’s surname seems to suffice here. However, in “The Parting Gift,” the narration is second person, present tense: “When sunlight reaches the foot of the dressing table, you get up and look through the suitcase again,” the story starts. This perspective jars the reader’s perspective; we must recognize that the “you” of this story is not a mirrored version of ourselves but rather a girl flying to New York, leaving her family behind—a family that includes a father who sexually molested her and a brother who proudly states he’s going to leave the family farm and find a new life, but can’t admit that none of that will ever happen. The choice to narrate from this perspective creates a disorientation that permits the reader and the protagonist to sit side by side and understand one another more concretely.

In the eponymous story of this collection, we receive a portrait of a wedding day that’s not ruined by the fact that the best man, while drunk and dancing with the bride, breaks her pearl necklace. Rather, it is the memories of the love affair the priest who officiated the wedding once had with said bride. Instead of being allowed to let go of inhibitions like everyone else at the ceremony—one woman steals a serviette as the priest watches, admitting to her kleptomaniac obsession over these items; the best man admires his penis size while zipping up in the men’s room—the priest is stuck saying grace over dinner and dessert, a prayer which he says without enthusiasm, without care:

Lately, when he has prayed, his prayers have not been answered. Where is God? he has asked. Not, what is God? He does not mind not knowing God. His faith has not faltered—that’s what’s strange—but he wishes God would show himself. All he wants is a sign. Some nights he gets down on his knees when the housekeeper is gone and the curtains are pulled tight across the windows and prays to God to show him how to be a priest.

The narrator is relentless here, making the priest merely a priest; there are no other signifiers to this man. And yet he doesn’t know how to be the man he’s supposed to be, convey the character those around him think he should. Moments like these—where the narrators uncover some character flaw, a tender moment, or a raw description—truly make this collection heartbreaking. Characters cannot admit to one another, or even to themselves, the truth about their behavior or innate desires. Their painful existences are then augmented by this reticence and inability to express yearnings and feelings, a theme that Keegan also explored in her first collection Antarctica (Grove Press, 2002) and its standout story “Close to the Water’s Edge.”

Keegan’s style of telling a story is almost suffocating: each sentence, in its simplicity, leaves us gasping for something more and intrigues by disgust, pity, or plain curiosity. Our own epiphanies about these characters are uncovered when there’s an empty moment to ruminate upon the solitude—mental and physical—these men and women are experiencing. No flowery language or purple prose buffers the pain and problems; the psychological horrors of these characters are not only held by themselves but by the readers as well. Likewise there are no showy plot devices or experimental trials; everything seems natural and necessary. In that, Walk the Blue Fields is a silent, grounded, and gritty collection.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009

ASTA IN THE WINGS

Jan Elizabeth Watson
Tin House Books ($14)

by Jaspar Lepak

Asta in the Wings, Jan Elizabeth Watson’s debut novel, tells the remarkably imaginative and heartbreaking story of a seven-year-old girl and her first journey into the world outside her mother’s house. Through Asta’s eyes, every square inch of space is detailed and ripe with possibilities, and when the day to leave home arrives, Asta enters each moment with an eagerness to interpret her surroundings, armed only with the finest sense of creativity.

The story takes place in 1978 in a small rural town in Maine. Asta lives with her nine-year-old brother Orion and their mother, Loretta, in a ramshackle house where paint hangs in peels from the walls and tar paper covers the windows. Every morning, Loretta locks the front door from the outside, leaving Asta and Orion to fend for themselves while she cleans houses. Orion can remember when their father was alive and they lived in a house with uncovered windows, but Asta has no memories of her father, and she has never even seen the world outside. The only pictures she has come from the small black and white television set and the books that she reads. Loretta regularly tells her children stories about the bubonic plague—reason enough to stay tightly sealed indoors—and Asta and Orion envision a world in which bodies are piled high along the sides of the roads. “By keeping us at home, [Mother] said, she was giving us a fighting chance.”

Loretta is a theatrical woman who acts out costumed plays with her children, reads Shakespeare out loud from the bathtub, and evokes the metaphor of the stage for practically everything: “Are you listening, Asta? You can conduct yourself as if you are watching a movie—with darkness closing in on all sides—or, choice number two, you can conduct yourself as if you are acting in a movie, with your inner light guiding you all the way.” Loretta’s favorite book is The Big Movie Book, a photo collection of famous silent film actresses. Loretta knows the detailed stories of each extravagant life, and she says to Asta as she flips through the pages: “I could’ve been bigger if I’d wanted to be . . . I must have been too shy, not formidable enough. But, oh, I remember how exciting it was, standing there in the wings, waiting for my turn to go onstage.” Asta, of course, is standing in the wings of her mother’s life—the obvious theme of the novel. One evening, however, Loretta does not come home. Asta and Orion are forced to find a way out of the house. Outside it is winter, and without knowing where to go, they embark on the search to find their mother.

Asta in the Wings is ultimately a story of neglect, and the plot line of a mother’s inability to care for her children is addressed from a unique angle. Asta paints Loretta as a vivid and lively character, building a stage that shows off her mother’s strengths, but even in the child’s glowing reviews, there are signs that something is amiss. In the beginning chapters, much attention is given to the size of Asta’s body:

While being thin did have its inconveniences—it hurt my bottom to sit on unpadded chairs, and I had to sleep with a pillow between my legs because my knees jabbed into each other—these served as daily reminders of our virtuousness and discipline . . . And I must admit to having had a curiosity about all the bones that arose in me, bones most people don’t even know they have, bones cropping up with the immediacy of spring crocuses. Sometimes I was a whole bed of crocuses . . .

This passage has the strong undertones of a malnourished child, but it also shows how even hunger can be viewed as beautiful. Growing up in such a small space with only two people to interact with, Asta develops a keen sensitivity to the smallest wonders. She entertains herself with the barest tools, and her imagination is deeply intertwined with the novel’s poetic language. Through Asta’s seven-year-old eyes, beautiful sense is made of everything—sometimes too much sense, but the premise of the story is strong enough to overlook this flaw. Seeing the world through Asta’s eyes is delight enough in itself.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009

SECOND VIOLINS

edited by Marco Sonzogni
Vintage New Zealand

by Linda Lappin

Nearing the end of her brief life, Katherine Mansfield became obsessed with time. She was haunted by the thought of work undone, of leaving mere “snippets” to posterity. Writing for Mansfield was a second life, and, as she poignantly remarked in the final phases of tuberculosis, second breath. In her journals and letters, she described the writing process as a form of possession, or at times, an out-of-body experience. Curled up in bed, one hand touching her forehead as if in prayer, she would sometimes find herself magically transported to an imaginary scene “much realer” than life itself, and was dogged by the anxiety of getting it all down before the spell evaporated. In her last will and testament, she entreated her husband, John Middleton Murry, to destroy all but her most polished stories, since she wanted no untidiness at the end. Luckily for us, Murry disobeyed. He arranged for everything to be published, including the youthful collection In a German Pension, as well as her letters, journals, and even a Scrapbook he assembled from her notes and fragments.

Although Murry’s editing of Mansfield’s work and his sanctification of her image as a “child without stain” has been much criticized, in the end we must thank him for having saved so much work and rendered it public. Today Mansfield’s reputation rests not only on the quality of her relatively few stories, but on the letters and journals which give us a window onto the creative processes as they occur in a writer’s mind—the “laboratory of the writer’s craft.” The fifteen fragments and unfinished stories published by Murry in the posthumous collection The Dove’s Nest have also greatly contributed to our understanding of how she worked. Though Mansfield judged those fragments unworthy, not everyone would agree. Regarding them, J.B. Priestly commented, “The merest beginnings are capital reading. Even though we never come to the point and do not know what the stories are about, it does not seem to matter much . . . The delicate enchantments of her art are there as of old.”

On the occasion of the 120th anniversary of Mansfield’s birth, poet and Victoria University professor Marco Sonzogni invited seventeen leading New Zealand authors to produce new stories riffing off the beginning paragraphs of Mansfield’s short story fragments. The task was not to “complete” the tales as “Mansfield would have written them,” but to create new, original, contemporary pieces of writing using Mansfield’s work as inspiration. Many of the authors represented here have some special connection to Mansfield. Some have been winners of the prestigious Bank of New Zealand Katherine Mansfield awards for the short story; others have been recipients of the Menton fellowships given in her honor. Peter Wells has written a play based on Mansfield’s “Prelude” and “At the Bay,” and Vincent O’ Sullivan, honorary president of the Katherine Mansfield Society, is the distinguished editor (with Margaret Scott) of Mansfield’s Collected Letters.

Reading these stories, we sometimes hear an echo of Mansfield’s voice, convincingly transposed to our own times in O’ Sullivan’s story, “On A Different Note.” Favorite Mansfield settings resurface: hotels, cafés, train stations, hospices. Though we may be in a world far from Mansfield’s own, with our iPods, computers, intercontinental flights, and middle-class gay life—the subject of Peter Wells’s witty “Honestly”—still we find Mansfield’s character types and situations: family and marital conflict, the prevarication of the powerful, the fragility of old age, the illusions and fatuousness of youth. Her concept of the short story has imposed its formula on the style and structure of most of the stories in this book: subtle humor and irony dusted upon the withering circumstances of human life. Through these stories, as through Mansfield’s own, comes a sense of alienation—due to age, illness, gender, or the condition of being an artist.

Though the collection as a whole makes for pleasant reading, two stories in particular stand out, inviting the reader to reflect not only on the stories themselves, but on the issue of “rewritings” and “afterlives” to which this book refers. Tellingly, both these stories introduce a theme which barely glimmers in Mansfield’s own work, but which her friend E.M. Forster would later explore tentatively in A Passage to India: the sins of colonialism. In Maori writer Witi Ihamaera’s “Such a Sweet Old Lady,” which may owe something to Forster’s own fanciful stories in The Celestial Omnibus as well as to Maori myths, the elderly Phoebe, in a diabetic coma, relives a visit to the Galapagos Island where she had gone as a child with her father, one of Darwin’s assistants. Here she discovers to her great dismay that the father she adored, the man of learning she so admired, cruelly tortured and destroyed Galapagos wildlife in the name of science. El Rey, an ancient tortoise killed by her father, returns in her hallucination to answer the final question of life and death—“Will it hurt”—and accompany her to the next world in a triumph of magical thinking and myth over science and the rational mind.

Tracey Slaughter’s “White Paper, Black Paper,” stylistically the most original story in the collection, investigates a situation Mansfield herself treated in one of the later stories, “The Man Without a Temperament”: disruption of a marriage by an incurable, highly contagious disease. The story combines a third-person narrative of a husband’s resignation and betrayal with diary entries written by his tubercular wife in a sanatorium. As she waits to die and be autopsied, she recounts the rebellion of a fellow- patient,“ the colonial woman,”—a photographer who documents her life in the sanatorium by taking pictures but cannot send her film out to be developed for threat of contagion—so she snaps her photos without film.

The “colonial woman” may be a reference to Mansfield herself, who in her last year of life confessed to a friend: "I have been a camera.” Yet the figure of the mysterious “colonial woman” in the story blurs in with the figure of a “dark girl” at the end of the story, a woman of color, whose condition as invalid and as impotent artist speaks of the disenfranchisement native people experience under colonial rule. One of her favorite subjects to photograph is “snow”—symbol of isolation, numbness, and, of course, suffocatingwhiteness. Her “infected” film also brings to mind Gilbert and Gubar’s celebrated feminist study of 19th-century literature The Madwoman in the Attic, in which infection is a metaphor for the “dangerousness” of women writers challenging patriarchy. In Slaughter’s story, the narrator of the diary (who has been supplanted by her husband’s subservient secretary) comes into possession of the colonial woman’s camera and begins to take pictures herself. The task of seeing and documenting has been passed along to another patient; the artist’s rebellion thus continues.

Mansfield called her own country “A Little Land with No History,” and cherished her memories of its natural beauties, yet for her, London and Paris were the center of the universe. She would perhaps have been surprised by the slow decentralizing of Europe as the hub of world culture, and the third-world shift that has occurred in recent times; one wonders what she would have made of Claude Lévi-Strauss, Franz Fanon, or Edward Said. Since her death, the literary landscape of the English language has changed radically, accommodating new continents, racial perspectives, and worldviews Mansfield could never imagined. Most certainly she never dreamed she herself would become the grandmother of New Zealand literature.

Coming to the end of this anthology, which concludes with Witi Ihamaera’s fantasy, readers may pause to reflect on how fiction has changed since Mansfield’s day, on how she contributed to that change, and on how her work is evaluated now in light of that change. These issues go beyond the scope of Second Violins, which is to offer a tribute to Mansfield’s unfinished writings, yet as those fragments are “filled in” and “elaborated” by some of New Zealand’s major contemporary writers, the shadow of Mansfield’s reputation and the shape of her achievement loom large. We still see the short story pretty much as she did: a glimpse of the unfathomable contained within a highly controlled form, a bottomless ocean imprisoned in a seashell.

Mansfield was a tightrope walker. In her writing powerful contrasts tug and thwart; domesticity, humor, wit, irony, a childlike perspective, and a light touch are spun across a sickening void, into which we are allowed to peek as we tiptoe across the vibrating rope with her. Yet safely on the other side, in the late stories, we know we have seen something of those disconcerting depths. Surely that was the secret of her “delicate enchantment,” and some of the stories in Second Violins approach that understanding. What better tribute to New Zealand’s greatest writer?

 

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009

OR TO BEGIN AGAIN

Ann Lauterbach
Penguin ($18)

by Michael D. Snediker

Ann Lauterbach’s new collection, Or to Begin Again, ravishes in the geometrical, in geometry’s attempt to make sense of time. The circle, the sequence, the point, the angle, the line—such a vocabulary saturates this collection of poems, and compromises its sundry radii on pages already held by a poetics insistent on the non-antiseptic capriciousness of mathematics itself. Vitruvius’s de architectura argued for architectural and somatic sympatico on the level of circle and square. Lauterbach’s collection differently argues for the sympathies between the empirical and the lyric on the level of circle and line. The point, the line, the circle spiraling like an Emerson pond or Smithson jetty: iteration spins measurement into narrative, or rather, to the brink of narrative at which point Lauterbach’s shapes self-rescind, and we are left with echo, trace.

Linear vivacity is suggested in this poetry’s predilection for the parade—a line made raucous, celebratory, symbolic, navigatory (more simply, moving):

The great stalks are alert, their
shambles piled: maybe another parade.

Or a few pages later,

phantom aptitude

for which there is only a parade.

The line, as both collective and formal denominator, is uncontainable: not only in Lauterbach’s constellatory splays of language across the page (Twombly meets Pollack meets Ptolemy of Alexandria), but even in her couplets (the “shambles piled”). The parade, macabrely, likewise morphs into carnival and circus, the circle made spectacle of carnage.

Or to Begin Again takes beginning as formal construct as much as thematic. The formality of thematics, and vice versa, arises at the outset in the book’s "A Note to the Reader:" “Throughout this collection, I am interested in differences between spoken utterance and written text.” Lauterbach’s interest is as much in the spatiality of the preposition (“in differences between”) as in the preposition’s movement toward comparison or adjudication. The betweenness of utterance and text—the rippling between concentric Emersonian circles—constitutes the book’s stage, in which words are delicately, profusely, and unavailingly held in the wings. (The book is rife with the avian, a fuselage in flames, which in consolation becomes the wings in which the burning object careens.) Lauterbach’s words, as opposed to the words toward which they truculently, ambivalently, and playfully point, lie in the wings of their being said or written. Which is to say, lie in the generosity of being thought, as though poetry could elude the fate of textual commitment and exist, spectrally, as words anterior to words as such. These are words on the tip of a tongue, or pen, committed and noncommital. As a collection, the book offers a phenomenology of impatient consideration, even as the poetry itself nearly exhausts the alacrity of its own experiment.

A line, or a circle. Centripetal or centrifugal. Lauterbach, like Bartleby, prefers not to choose one over the other, but rather, executes with tenacity and pyrrhic velocity the experiment of the latter nostalgically keening into the former, the former (nervously, impulsively) migrating back to center. The line is a path, a sequitur (“Drab us; lonely sequitur”). To begin again reimagines the non sequitur as non-perjoratively fruitful redirection: “hurrying across the path, now stymied, which way the wind blows, which branch, and over, a cloth, impediment to the friend, in the position of that, her own surely omitted but not forgotten, so it becomes . . .”

Alongside the book’s suggested interest in the differences between speech and writing, Or to Begin Againpresents an archive of thought intent on rehearsal (“at the far side of the miserable hill / an orchestra is rehearsing for the factory’s ball”) of the verbal without committing itself to it—the parade as freeze-frame, suspended in the mind. Or to recall Lauterbach’s poem, “Alone in Open (Bill Viola),” Or to Begin Again, like Viola’s art, inhabits (both curates and disrupts) a set of thresholds beyond conventional duration, vigilant of threshold crossing into something else. In the midst of pulling and not pulling punches—as with all of Lauterbach’s poetry, the punches hit when least expected—the poems are most overcoming in their awareness of evading indelibility (vicissitudes of the irrevocable). Witness, for instance, a prose section that conjures a factory without designating the factory’s purpose or output:

Meanwhile I will think a little in the middle. Think the day has a swan in it, long-necked and idle. Think without the lingering kiss, its slight partition. Think of the suspense of stages as you mount the stair, of the architecture spawned in mud in a thicket of thorns, of how the literal squanders its chance. Think that the heart is cut out of cloth and the cloth decorated with cutout hearts. Think how this would lead to thinking about the heart’s own factory

Indelibility, here, exists in the fervent necessity of imagining writing as not-yet-written: the palimpsestic proscenium of beginning again, both wearing the scar of false start and engaging the world as though the scar were not perceptible:

The scar set and the tune rose into its thin retainer.
And the blood stopped running, and the scar set.

The scar set and the tune rose.

The heart, versus the cutout hearts with which it is adorned, clarifies the book’s pulsive scrutiny of the mimetic. To begin again is to imagine a world without mimesis, even as the anterior presides adumbratively. The anterior is both that against which the book revolts, and on which it leans, so long as the anterior remains secured in the space of its own natal narrative. Think the day, think without, think of the suspense, think how this would lead. . . . This is a poetry on one hand attached to the irrevocable, and on another attached to the weird, unpredictable largesse of a voice that can be called back, a heartdecorated with cutout hearts. That the heart woos mimetic cutouts of itself suggests mimesis not only as pinked or sheared, but as decorative—simultaneously deriding and deferential.

Derison and deference inform the second of the book’s three sections. The premise of Alice inhabiting Eliot’s Wasteland is cute, and much of this poem is exorbitantly cute to the point of discomfiture, if only because the sections which precede and follow dent and dement the premise of Alice’s extended interlocution with an unspecified, disembodied voice. This isn’t to say that cuteness, here, is non-purposive. If the frame sections of this book enact a new theory of iteration, “Alice in the Wasteland” proffers some version of the theory’s practice, the risk of committing cuteness (or what in an earlier poem Lauterbach terms ridiculousness) to the page, even as the repetitive quiddity of fairy tales already looks backward and forward to other forms of itself. The book’s first section ends, “Ruin floods into images of new ruin and disappears. / Again! cries the child, Again! / Once upon a time.” In this context, the re-telling of Alice feels recycled, if not spent. It traffics in an economy of scarcity (“Does love have a quantity, like acres and dollars? How peculiar”), and Alice’s own questions often smack of an ingenuousness akin to Wallace Stevens’s Crispin. Such faux-didacticism—someone in the poem is learning something at a rate slower than the poem’s own precociousness—earlier appears in the first section’s “Realm of Ends”:

Francis is a fiction of the glare, turning
into the Tuscan sun, under the juniper, among flowers.

Doves perch on his head and shit on his sleeves.
This is an example of natural observable fact.

Insight in “Alice in the Wasteland” arises in the intersection of Alice’s naïveté and that naïveté’s consequences, just as the candor of a fairy tale (once upon a time, incessantly repeated) inadvertently approaches what, diegetically speaking, it cannot itself imagine. “Perhaps, she thought, I am dissolving. / She began to hum.” The section, on the verge of spoilage or Benjaminian ruin, sometimes seems to sacrifice itself for the sake of the book’s larger, disquietingly punctilious hypotheses. As Lauterbach’s Alice herself surmises, “I am an effect . . . I am a mere motif at the mercy of someone else’s pleasure, someone who thinks by pretending that I am alive she can make the birds comprehend something beyond their existence, but she is wrong.” Regardless of mercy, the section’s sing-song feels as intrusively, theatrically guileless as Joanna Newsom lyrics:

What do you care if I’m a flea or a gnat?
Or a very small, excellent spider?
I am not a mouse or a rat
and I don’t know what rhymes with spider.

“Alice in the Wasteland” feels more ruinous than the idiosyncratically splintering, showering decisions of the book’s frame sections; the latter feel more reliable, if only because they give the sense of having endured the weather that “Alice in the Wasteland” seems only fleetingly to anticipate. Not that cuteness and unreliability foreclose mastery, but this section’s bravery, for me, lies in its so long sustaining its own quasi-vaudeville snappy curiousness, a form of intensity less persuasive or salubriously confounding than Lauterbach’s other experiments in tenacious speed. At the same time, inseparable from the latter intensity, it is a risky dare held out to both poem and reader. This infliction of commitment pushes both text and readerly response to an edge of credulity, which the very different oxygen of the other sections buoys.

At some point, Alice tries, haphazardly, to console the moon, which nocturnally begins again and again, as both lunar fact and lyric ubiquity:

I know. It makes me cringe with shame. Moon this moon that, lovers and
moonlight, nocturnes and sonnets. It’s a total cliché, Stick an r in and you get
moron.

Or to Begin Again rescues the moon from cliché as much as it rescues cliché, in the sense that the book’s redress of non sequitur and thick litter (as in the book’s first poem, the mischievously saturated and mobile objects of a dream) frees repetition from recognizability (whether in terms of Freud, Nietzsche, Deleuze, etc.). The recursiveness of beginning again and again sacrifices singularity (“bring back the sorrow of a single loss”) for a cause not describable beyond the nimbus-like exhilarations and exhaustions of Lauterbach’s very singular book. The repercussions of initiation are great enough, this book suggests, that we might well fall into that rabbit-hole of hesitancy. If all beginnings (diacritically or otherwise) are in peril of feeling or of later being archived as false starts, then why not more scrupulously take note of factitiousness as poetic and ethical effort? More compelling than Alice’s assuaging of the moon is that of a later poem, “Constellation in Chalk”:

Strip the prayer from the kiss web,
it is merely sham. Salvation has undone
her eternal soul into little itinerant drops,
each younger than dew.
The moon’s strap slips off the shoulder of night.
Night of Nights it is called: all must follow.

All must follow, and in the gorgeous intelligence of Lauterbach’s writing, we learn that succession leads to differently recyclable itinerancies, lexical and otherwise. As Dickinson illuminates the thrill-flinch of afterwards, Lauterbach illuminates the contingencies of anteriority (to be distinguished from the ossification of a priori):

So that with nothing held back we sigh,
beyond time, for that green pasture where time
stands still.
 Does not. Does. Go back
before the beginning, before
a promise was made. The end.

These lines, from the book’s final eponymous poem, can only intimate that poem’s incantatorily serial sixteen sections. Less “Comedian as the Letter C” than Stevens’s “Sea Surface Full of Clouds,” “Or to Begin Again” cedes to and defies chronology, an aubade to aubades, the flourishing, condolent divesture of divestures. Each section ends with “the end,” each section (except the first and last) begins with “Or to begin again.” We have moved from salvage of non sequitur to parousia unmoored from its own trajectory:

and the river newly revealed
through naked bark
like a silver coin skipped across time
the migrations of time
the small noun time.

Lauterbach’s river is fugacious in ways Heraclitus could only dream, even as this quicksilver simile lingers, in its surprising beauty, longer than the simile itself. Time within time within time suggests an analogue to memory spilled across a horizontal axis. Or perhaps time both seeps as it spreads, and we are called (and called again) to keep the small noun in purposive, multitudinous motion.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009