Tag Archives: fall 2011

EMILY, ALONE

Stewart O’Nan
Viking ($25.95)

by Sharon Harrigan

Despite its subject matter—an eighty-year-old woman adjusting to life after the death of her husband—Stewart O’Nan’s Emily, Alone is not a somber book. The title is not just about what Emily has lost but what she retains: her independence and ability to take care of herself. Living alone in her own home is a point of pride, and Emily is a capable, nonsentimental woman with a clear-eyed view of her own limitations. Her decision to give up driving, for instance, is simply practical: “After a run-in with a fire hydrant, followed quickly by another with a Duquesne Light truck, she admitted—bitterly, since it went against her innate thriftiness—that maybe taking taxis was the better part of valor.”

The book takes place over only ten months, but the past keeps popping into the present. Driving through a tricky intersection dredges up memories of car accidents, and discussing Thanksgiving at the Club recalls a birthday party there forty-five years ago. “She could not stop these visitations, even if she wanted to. They plagued her like migraines.”

Parallel to the glimpses into Emily’s past are the peeks into the history of her city. After the Nabisco factory is turned into condos, we feel (and smell) the loss: “They made Ritz crackers, and the warm, buttery scent surrounded the place like a cloud. . . . Like any Pittsburgher, Emily had been strangely proprietary about the place, and the crackers, as if she’d made them herself, and was sorry it was gone.”

Several dramatic events occur, such as Emily overcoming her fear of driving so she can take care of her sister-in-law Arlene in the hospital, or apologizing to her dead parents for being ungrateful and snobbish, ashamed of her humble roots. But the big plot points are not as important as the minute and quotidian details of her life—what she eats (melba toast and black tea most mornings, splurging on a two-for-one all-you-can-eat buffet every Tuesday at the Eat ‘n’ Park), how she spends her days (“rationed correctly, the [New York Times crossword] puzzle would last her all week”), and what dominates her conversation (whether her children will visit for the holidays). The precise and realistic detail immerses the reader completely in Emily’s world.

The novel’s chapters are short and episodic, and the shortest ones (less than a page) are almost like prose poems. In “Forgetfulness,” Emily accidentally strands her dog Rufus outside and sees him “peering forlornly through the French doors.” In “Kleenex,” Emily redistributes the tissue boxes around the house, in preparation for a visit from her daughter’s family. So much is unsaid yet clear—Emily’s anxiety about the visit, her reflection on her husband’s absence, the way the emptiness of her days is echoed by the emptiness of the boxes, and her strategy to stave off fear of chaos in the future by keeping the present in order. O’Nan pulls off these deep themes while also making the book quite funny. Rufus “would eat anything—lettuce, tennis balls, wallets. Once he’d devoured an entire belt of Henry’s leaving just the buckle on the floor.”

Despite (or because of) its focus on mortality, Emily, Alone is reassuring. If I can be as spry and self-aware as Emily in forty years, as witty and capable of change, as unafraid and matter-of-fact about death, I will almost look forward to getting old.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011

THE HOTTEST DISHES OF THE TARTAR CUISINE

Alina Bronsky
translated by Tim Mohr
Europa Editions ($15)

by Daniela Hurezanu

Like actors, novelists are of two kinds: the Clint Eastwood type, who create an overarching persona, and the Robert de Niro or Meryl Streep type, who invent a new character for each role they play. Alina Bronsky is from the latter category. Rosa Achmetowna, the main character and narrator in The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine, has a very different voice than Sascha Naimann, the protagonist in Bronsky’s first novel, Broken Glass Park. Rosa is a devious, selfish, cruel, yet by no means simplistic character; the archetypal Soviet matriarch and a sum of the grotesqueness of the Communist female, she is both a monster and a human being who should be pitied. Emblematic and singular at once, Rosa is a powerful, vivid character whose voice will stay with you long after you close the book.

Bronsky is extremely good at creating scenes and writing dialogue, and her descriptions are minimal. This gives her novel an immediacy and a natural tone (for which translator Tim Mohr also deserves some credit) that keep the reader hooked as if one were listening to some very juicy gossip. The plot develops mainly out of the interactions between characters and their dialogue, and could be summarized as a mixture of relationships: that between Rosa and her daughter, Sulfia; that between Sulfia and her oldest daughter, Aminat; and that between Rosa and her granddaughter Aminat.

A monument of political incorrectness, Rosa doesn’t beat around the bush, nor does she try to sweeten reality. Does she think Sulfia is ugly and stupid? She doesn’t mince words, and doesn’t think twice about destroying Sulfia’s life by forbidding her to go to Israel so she won’t lose her granddaughter. Rosa adores Aminat, yet she doesn’t hesitate to use her as bait for a German man who pretends to be interested in Sulfia, but who in fact has eyes on the child. This is how Rosa, Sulfia, and Aminat move to West Germany, where Rosa continues to display the same self-confidence in spite of the fact that she can’t speak almost any German. When she informs Dieter—the German man—that she would like to work as a teacher, and he answers, “But you can’t speak any German,” she says, “Of course I could speak German. I tried to explain this to Dieter in his own language, but he didn’t want to understand.” When Dieter arranges a job interview for her, and Rosa finds herself before an interviewer who shows her “the toilet and even the toilet brush,” Rosa wonders candidly, “Did she think I wanted to move in?” Presented with a pair of rubber gloves, she brushes it off with “There had obviously been some sort of misunderstanding,” then, with the same self-confidence, she takes off her high-heel shoes and begins to mop and clean. The novel is full of such funny scenes, and once you begin to read it you can’t put it down.

Anyone who wants to understand what Communism has produced should read this novel. This isn’t, however, some kind of moralizing history lesson¬—Bronsky couldn’t be further from such an enterprise. Instead, she has written an extremely entertaining novel with a hilarious narrator whose hilarity is a reflection of a deeply disturbed, un-funny world.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011

PYM

Mat Johnson
Spiegel & Grau ($24)

by Will Wlizlo

Edgar Allen Poe wrote only one novel in his career, and it was utter trash. An adventure yarn that took readers on a misanthropic journey over the high seas to the ends of the earth, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket is racially paranoid, riddled with pseudoscience and plot holes, and concludes with a pull-the-rug-out bit of authorial laziness. But for all the book’s faults, its ending has perplexed, maddened, and enchanted American readers for nearly 175 years.

At the tale’s end Pym has escaped Tsalal, an exotic island paradise located near the South Pole and populated by murderous savages with such dark features that even their teeth are more ebony than ivory. Pym navigates back to the iceberg-lined channels surrounding the perimeter of Antarctica in a canoe and there sees something quite inexplicable:

And now we rushed into the embraces of the cataract, where a chasm threw itself open to receive us. But there arose in our pathway a shrouded human figure, very far larger in its proportions than any dweller among men. And the hue of the skin of the figure was of the perfect whiteness of the snow.

And that’s where Poe abandons the story. The narrative’s preface implies that Pym survives the encounter, but Poe offers no account of what Pym does next or what the opalescent creature might be. Another of Poe’s fanciful creations? An allegory for God?

Many scholars and novelists have tried to tie together Pym’s loose ends, most notably Jules Verne withThe Ice Sphinx and H.P. Lovecraft with At the Mountain of Madness. Mat Johnson is the latest to enter the fray with his debut novel, Pym. But unlike those before him, Johnson uses studious pastiche and connects Poe’s original story to the larger threads of “whiteness,” African-American literature, and contemporary racial politics.

Pym’s narrator is Chris Jaynes, a recently fired African-American literature professor. Jaynes, a self-described “professional negro,” became more interested in teaching run-of-the-mill, pallid American literature than African-American literature. “If we can identify how the pathology of Whiteness was constructed,” Jaynes explains, “then we can learn how to dismantle it.” After Jaynes discovers he lost his job to a “hip hop theorist,” his rare book dealer brings him a literary curio: a slave narrative that suggests the far-fetched Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym may not, in fact, be fiction at all. Questions unlock more questions for Jaynes, who researches the manuscript voraciously. Before long he’s booked a seafaring voyage of his own with the intent to uncover once and for all what really happened on Pym’s fateful, unbelievable journey.

Jaynes’s crew is full of flawed, complicated black men and women like himself. His cousin, Booker Jaynes, is a former Black Panther-style activist turned intrepid sea captain. Jeffree and Carlton Damon Carter, suspected gay lovers, provide some updated minstrelsy that Johnson (or Chris Jaynes, for that matter) would probably argue is compulsory for any piece of African-American fiction marketed toward middlebrow whites. Chris Jaynes’s ex-girlfriend, Angela, stands in as an archetypical black business professional. Finally, Chris’ childhood friend, Garth, is the overweight sidekick—the Sancho Panza to Jaynes’s quixotic quest. Altogether the crew comprises a menagerie of black stereotypes, which Johnson artfully subverts.

Take Garth, for example. Morbidly obese, out of work, and constantly complaining, Garth cuts an unsympathetic figure. He’s first presented as a doltish, lazy, ungrateful stereotype of a black man. Yet the reader soon finds his infatuation with a Dutch landscape painter to border on grad student geekiness and his poignant critique of American culture to be leveled equally at blacks and whites. “Goddamn global warming,” Garth kvetches at one point. “Ain’t our fault. It was all them Escalades in the ghetto.”

Not only does Johnson toy with character tropes, but he also mimics the style, flaws, and structure of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym itself. In the original story, Poe writes Pym’s beloved dog, Tiger, into a scene where Pym is trapped below a freighter’s deck. Tiger appears without explanation and then, when Pym escapes his confines, just as inexplicably disappears. How did he get there? And what happened to the dog afterward? Likewise, Johnson writes in a dog (named White Folks) that enters and exits the story as breezily as Tiger. White Folks’ appearance in the novel is both a tongue-in-cheek nod to Poe’s careless writing and a critique of white-black interaction. It’s a small detail, but indicative of how thoroughly Johnson reflects and reinvigorates his source material.

Johnson turns white utopias on their heads as catastrophe leads the crew to explore an ice cavern, where they find a race of large, intelligent, albino hominids. These are the figures that Poe describes as the “perfect whiteness of the snow” and Booker Jaynes affectionately dubs “Snow Honkies.” The white creatures lead boring lives in their subterranean citadel—a monotony of controlled subsistence. When Jaynes and company arrive, the white giants enslave the black explorers. White culture is so nefarious and infectious, Johnson suggests, that even at the limits of the earth those of African descent can’t escape the legacy of colonialism. Chris masterminds an escape and he and Garth find the hideout of the elusive Dutch painter, who has built an apocalypse-survival bunker modeled after his own paintings. Like all premeditated communities, the painter and his Technicolor paradise have no hold on social reality and ultimately perish.

After a tall tale that both entertains and questions white heterodoxy, Pym ends on an unsatisfying note: while Johnson explores many variations of racial integration, both in America and Antarctica, ultimately he and Jaynes settle for a different type of separatist utopia, one entirely populated by blacks. “On the shore all I could discern was a collection of brown people,” Jaynes remarks with relief as he and Garth land their canoe on a foreign beach, “and this, of course, is a planet on which such are the majority.” The ruins of three white civilizations smolder in their wake. People will never be able to reconcile their most superficial differences, the ending seems to say, so we might as well seek happiness in isolation and sameness.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011

DIARY AS SIN

Will Alexander
Skylight Press ($17.99)

by Patrick James Dunagan

Not surprisingly, Will Alexander’s new novel is a decidedly poetic endeavor. This burst of seer-monologue is presented as the transcription of a recently discovered set of audiotapes on which a young blind woman named Rosanna has recorded a spiritually antagonistic autobiographical indictment of existence. Rosanna, her “eyes tragically scorched in the womb,” was born into an incestuous household of her mother and uncles, who not only had sex with each other but forced themselves upon Rosanna as well. In her final days, we are told in a brief foreword written by one Oranzio Perez, she was “placed in a private Catholic home. . . on the outskirts of Albuquerque.” By way of “threatened disclosure of the crimes inflicted upon her,” she is “provided with tapes” and now this document is the only record of her having lived at all, a diary that is both an exploration and an accounting of the Self.

Haunted by Rosanna’s fierce refusals to be anything less than honest about the inextinguishable fountain of regret and awe erupting from within her, Perez tells us “her voice smoulders with an otherworldly rawness. Relentless, eruptive, unerring, she strikes dumb with her vitriolic prognosis. For her, humanity will either evolve or disappear.” He marvels at what appears to be the limitless bounds of her innate and incessant shelling of consciousness as she confronts her existence:

There exists an unnerving dignity in her power of focus. She excoriates the Western identity of God, and his central representative on Earth, the Catholic Church. How she knows the things she knows is beyond my comprehension. I can only call her the uncanniest of savants. A lone figure in firmament.

Rosanna views existence as being for far too long a habituated dead zone. Into this bleak life-theatre she now hurls her declarations sounding out against the bleakness of her isolation. This is her chthonic response to the affronts she has witnessed:

Being Seminole in spirit I am that rebellious paralytic consumed by her inheritance of vertiginous primevals. These are the dust of zones, the interior ferment plains, the forming nether dimensions. So definitives are non-inherent, are inchoate with combustibles. Rosanna has no realm, Rosanna remains compelled by nothing in outward society.

This recital comes across as a crossing of William Blake with Edgar Allen Poe; dark, moody, and busting out with its virtuoso display of monumental yet nascent knowledge of a multi-ordered cosmos. Rosanna spins whole galaxies of consciousness: “As I sit, molecules spin, and distortions persist and cease to persist, creating interior vibratory impartation.” She’s in herself and outside of herself, of and beyond time: “In this sense I am no longer tethered to matter. And I mean by matter life re-sundered for consumption.” And her metaphors astound: “I’m like the phosphorus from angels listening by first instruction.”

Rosanna has no interest in seeing herself as saint or victim. She repeatedly refers to herself as “chiropteran” and has come to understand that “the hacienda was the perfect opportunity for the Acts of God.” Yet there was to be no direct interference from beyond: “No wind arrived, no voice from a bramble of bushes. Nothing descended from the uranian, nothing spoke from the imperceptible. Instead, diseased formation rooted.” Having passed through an upbringing within the psychotic dementia of a household deranged, while “the higher power seemed to concertise with this state of constant derangement” instead of intervening, Rosanna now believes “no Gnostic congress could ensue within the circumstance.” She speaks her diatribe with dark irony. “It was like listening to a choir of afflicted vicars. Always blockage, always excuse for Divine reproach or indifference. True, I sent no prayers as such, I made no inner circumstance which was apt for the original sinner.” The dire finality grounding her refusals is irreproachable.

In the end, readers are left to fall back on having faith in Rosanna’s words. For those who do believe, she speaks with a brightness that only heightens the gloom it casts. Her words are always pouring through her, seeking new actualization of the world in which she finds herself, spurning any and all entities of hindrance. She’s Kali remixed with a touch of a spiteful Magdalene, in full possession of all necessary knowledge:

For this is a diary sown into the skirt of deafened medusae. Which remains analogous to Zomaya as pervasive medusae, circular with doubt and envy. When I say this I am not abstracting a glossary of evil to peripherally condemn Zomaya, and by extension the human kingdom. True, I’ve been isolate, true, I suffer from staggered result, that New Mexico has very sparse holding as regards the populations of the Earth. Yet I stand by my auto-ordination, knowing that Jesus Christ is the Demi-Urge and subsequent as Cosmocrater, surviving in the hearts and minds of an uprooted spell.

With its accounting both fantastic and bizarre, Diary As Sin is an incredible manifestation of speech. “What I say is organic,” Rosanna tells us. “I sit here. I hone my synoptic diphthongs on an insular cooking grate.” Rarely does speech reach such activation as Will Alexander achieves with his exuberant embrace of Rosanna's tale.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011

THE ACCIDENT


Mihail Sebastian
translated by Stephen Henighan
Biblioasis ($17.95)

by Amy Henry

Mihail Sebastian’s The Accident takes place in 1935 in Bucharest, a cosmopolitan city free of stifling social mores. It begins with a chance meeting, in which a French teacher, Nora, is injured falling from the slippery steps of a tram; a bystander, Paul, reluctantly assists her home and helps see to her injury. Almost immediately, they embark on a one-sided relationship that feels predictable and somewhat shallow; there’s little about the characters or situation to draw the reader in.

That is, until the next portion of the novel begins, with Paul on his own, analyzing his previous relationship with Ann, a flighty artist who hides her narcissism under a veil of childish hyperactivity. Desperate to see her, possibly suicidal, he is fueled by a passion that drives the story to a much higher level; it becomes a fascinating character study of Ann, whose behavior keeps him off kilter, and of Paul himself, a lawyer who has become so jaded and angry he’s ceased feeling emotion. Ann draws attention everywhere she goes, causing Paul to react with something like confusion:

In each alien glance that was directed towards Ann, in each greeting, he seemed to see a memory and an invitation. . . . signals that went over his head like so many telegrams in code, which he intercepted without being able to read them, for nobody could assure him that each new greeting didn’t bear a message, an allusion or a proposition.

This section so surpasses the beginning of the book that I found myself wondering if Nora would even reappear. Sebastian leaves many details vague, and his prose underlines the tension created:

Far away and deep down, close to his heart, something stopped in its tracks and waited to break or unravel. It was like being under a heavy anaesthetic: he felt the wound, he felt the skin’s resistance to the blade, and the very precise, very exact rending, and yet it didn’t hurt, it didn’t hurt . . .

The novel then cuts away from Ann and back to Nora, where she and Paul reunite and journey to the Transylvanian Alps for a skiing expedition wherein Nora patiently attempts to resuscitate Paul’s feelings. Nora is a trooper, a sturdy, good-natured woman who is competent in virtually everything—including skiing. But is she too good? It’s as if she senses her position as replacement to Ann, although never knowing her competition. Her tactic is to be gracious and generous to a fault. As she teaches Paul to ski, he finds that his rediscovery of nature through the snow alters his moods, changing who he had become. But who are they, together? Which woman does Paul choose?

Mihail Sebastian set The Accident in the time and place of his adult life, and similarities abound between the novel and own experiences. The timing he chose is relevant because it parallels his own identity struggle in pre-war Romania. Enjoying fame from writing both novels and plays, the Jewish Sebastian (born Iosef Hechter) also worked as a journalist with many noteworthy literary figures. However, Hitler’s ideas found fertile ground in Romania, with Sebastian’s peers distancing themselves from him and publishing anti-Semitic propaganda. The paper’s editor, Nae Ionescu, became a fierce proponent of fascism but added a religious element to its fervor.

Ironically, Sebastian had previously asked his former mentor to write the preface to The Accident, and somewhat unsurprisingly, Ionescu used the opportunity to attack Sebastian and his race, stating, “Iosif Hechter, you are sick. You are sick to the core because all you can do is suffer . . . do you not feel that cold and darkness are enfolding you?” Sebastian recoiled from the remarks, calling them a death sentence, but ultimately allowed the preface to go to print with the book. In her essay “Romanian-Intellectual-Jew: Mihail Sebastian in Bucharest,” Joanne Roberts states that Sebastian “defended his decision to publish the Preface arguing that he had not asked Ionescu for a particular type of Preface and that he could not be party to censorship.”

Sebastian may have considered this an act of defiance to resist Ionescu’s bullying, yet some Jews felt that by permitting the preface to remain he was giving tacit agreement to its contents. Thus, he was alienated from both his peers and his race. The question of true identity becomes a theme in his remaining works, which sadly are few as he died in 1945 after being hit by a truck. The Translator’s Afterword in this volume provides more details about Sebastian’s biography and unites them with several of the book’s themes; Stephen Henighan’s translation is precise and his notes show how closely he studied Sebastian’s life and work.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011

THE BEGINNERS


Rebecca Wolff
Riverhead Books ($25.95)

by Benjamin Woodard

There’s a sub-genre of New England storytelling that traveled to the New World in ships, its roots dating back centuries to European folktales and works like the Malleus Maleficarum. In this strain, quaint locales and panic toward the unknown are combined with the dark underbelly of magic and the occult. Think Nathaniel Hawthorne or Shirley Jackson, H. P. Lovecraft or Stephen King.

That this variety remains popular today is perhaps a testament to the staying power of the antiquated beliefs of the Puritan settlers, or the allure of the real-life events that unfolded in Salem and surrounding villages in the late 17th century. Whatever the reason, many authors seem to believe that the devil has selected the charming small towns of the northeast to play his games. So it seems appropriate that Rebecca Wolff, whose poetry flirts with images of ghosts and witches in collections like Manderlay and The King, has conceived the fictional central Massachusetts municipality of Wick as the venue for her unsettling debut novel. A tale of adolescent yearning and fascination, The Beginners offers generous nods to these well-told tales while twisting their narratives into something original and satisfying.

Wolff’s heroine is fifteen-year-old Ginger Pritt. A bit of an outcast, Ginger works part time at the local café and spends her free hours devouring books while hanging out with her best friend, Cherry. The duo are pretty much inseparable. They think alike—or at least they used to, because as summer fast approaches, Ginger notices that Cherry is suddenly more interested in talking about boys than playing castle in the town’s old mill (the place where, as Ginger puts it, the two of them are able to be “lonely as one.”). Seeing her friend mature in ways she cannot yet relate to leaves Ginger wondering about her future. “So this is how it’s going to be,” she thinks to herself. “There is a way to grow up, I’m sure of it, that does not require of us this abject absorption . . . in what? In the hypothetical thought processes of a boy—or man—we only know by family name, by house, by car?”

Enter into the narrative a pair of older, mysterious strangers, Theo and Raquel Motherwell. Full of daring banter and a tone of worldly sophistication, Wick’s newest residents quickly take a shine to young Ginger, and before long, the girl can’t stop thinking about them. Charmed by the fact that they’re the first people Ginger and Cherry have ever seen move into Wick, the girls find themselves whiling away the summer days at their home, listening to their stories, even though Cherry expresses hesitation at the Motherwells’ odd demeanor (“. . . those people are so bizarre. Raquel told me the weirdest things about her and Theo. Maybe I shouldn’t even tell you. It’ll just freak you out . . . I know how squeamish you are about boys, and sex, and that stuff.”).

But these outlandish tales do not drive Ginger away—rather, they pull her closer to the Motherwells, and as the warm months pass, Ginger spends an inordinate amount of time by their side, choosing these strangers over Cherry and her own family. When Raquel mentions a family connection to the witch trials of Salem, Ginger begins to wonder if the Motherwells may be witches themselves, and if a spell has been cast upon her, one that prevents her from escaping the magnetism of Theo and his sandy hair, of Raquel and her graveyard anecdotes. Days fold into weeks, events trip over themselves, and before long, The Beginners dives full tilt into the manic obsessions that course through Ginger, transforming the novel into a pulsing fever dream, where situations may or may not be real, narrative threads border on the pornographic, and the world outside of the small bubble Ginger has created is voided. There is a genuine creepiness afoot here. The Motherwells, be they students or sociopaths, lovers or siblings, have the enchantment of a Jim Jones-type over Ginger, and watching her repeat scene after scene with slight variation is fascinating and frustratingly entertaining.

Although Wolff has crafted an attractive story in The Beginners, something remains puzzling about Wick. The author injects plenty of regional touches that will please those familiar with central Massachusetts—old mills, Polish bakeries, and Janine’s Frosty, an actual eatery in real-life Ware, MA—but there are also embellishments that fail to ring true. For example, when Ginger mentions that Wick is “more than ninety minutes away from a large university” early in the narrative, “far enough to be unthinkable for commuting,” the link to the area is lost, as no town in central Massachusetts is this far from such an institution. Small flourishes like this may add a touch of drama and a sense of hardship to the characters, but they also make the setting feel contrived. Ginger’s description of the Motherwell’s house, “a stage set, or even a sketch for a stage set,” could also be a valid portrayal of Wolff’s Wick.

Despite this, The Beginners has enough peculiar energy flowing through its pages to keep the reader’s attention. A meditation on the easily influenced teenage mind, with the added dashes of witchcraft and sexual maturity, this poet’s debut novel is a pleasant and satisfying read.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011

VACLAV & LENA


Haley Tanner
The Dial Press ($25)

by Erik Wohlrabe

The secret language between best friends is both universal and utterly idiosyncratic to each pair. For the titular characters of Haley Tanner’s debut novel, this language is couched in the vocabulary of magic, codified in endless cascading lists of hopes and dreams, and personified in a nearly unquenchable hunger the two young Russian immigrants have for each other. They share most everything, from secrets and promises to food and help with homework.

Vaclav and Lena meet when they are both five years old. They have spent their formative years in the United States, but have done so cocooned within the confines of Brooklyn’s Russian immigrant community. Already four when his family left a crumbling Russia in the early 1990s, Vaclav nonetheless picked up a good deal of English, both from television and from his mother’s efforts to teach him the language of their new home.

Lena has not been as lucky. She spent her early childhood in the care of a babushka who was not her own grandmother, a miserly old woman who spoke only Russian. Lena’s English is still rudimentary when she meets Vaclav. The pair bond at Coney Island, where they sneak into a magic show and are dazzled by The Great Fredini. Vaclav is determined to become a great magician, with Lena by his side as his lovely assistant.

As the duo prepare to perform their own magic act on the boardwalk, events outside the children’s control force them apart. Lena’s home life with a neglectful, absent aunt comes to a head when Rasia, Vaclav’s mother, discovers how poorly the girl has been treated. Lena is sent away, leaving Vaclav broken-hearted by the loss of his friend.

Seven years later, the now-teenage children reunite and find their connection is as strong as ever, ready to blossom into something like love. But the secret of Lena’s past continues to act as a gulf, separating them. When Vaclav discovers the dark answers, he is faced with a decision about what truth to tell his best friend.

Tanner writes with a giddy passion much like young love. Her prose reflects the stilted, eclectic nature of English filtered through a foreign mind, as we see the world through Vaclav’s and Lena’s eyes. This style naturally transitions to a more confident, formal tone as the children age and grow into their American identities.

The author is capable in conveying the confused emotions of childhood, where things that seem small and insignificant to adults take on dwarfing importance to a child. Childhood rituals take on almost totemic powers, and love and hatred can seem to coexist in the same thought. Taylor presents a sterling example of the paradoxical clarity and confusion of childhood early in the book when Lena is served dinner at Vaclav’s home by Rasia and becomes ill:

The borscht is the color of a dress a queen might wear. The borscht floods Lena’s bowl. The borscht is the color of blood. The borscht is the color of blood, and in it are not pieces of meat, but moles that have fallen off the many chins of Rasia. Once Lena’s mind has taken this turn, she cannot turn back.

She also writes with unusual clarity about the difficulties of motherhood, and how mothers perceive themselves in relation to their children. The distance that grows between mother and child is especially hard on Rasia, who is faced with watching her son grow more and more American, shucking bits of the past his parents have raised him in:

When he was a little boy, they discovered places together. . . .
Now that they do far fewer things together, he is always doing something where she doesn’t know the place. This is something that can make a bruise on a mother, but Rasia tells herself that this is not so different from regular parents of regular American teenagers. But a little, she knows, it is very different.

Vaclav & Lena carries the blessings and burdens of being a first novel. Tanner writes with a hungry ferocity, propelling the reader forward; however, she almost burns the story out in the last act, leaving too many revelations in the hands of a hitherto untrustworthy and largely silent character. Even so, Tanner shows herself to be a writer of marked ambition and comforting humanity, pulling off a wonderful magic trick of story and character in the process.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011

BY KELMAN OUT OF PESSOA


Doug Nufer
Les Figues Press ($15)

by Greg Bem

His mind would work as his work would mind: backwards. Rather than every man for himself, himself for every man. Every man could man every everyman. He took The Course; The Course took him. The story of his life was the life of his story, that side flip of a flip side notion that had he (or, I) done everything exactly the opposite, I (or, he) wouldn’t have lost.

The latest book by Seattle’s Oulipo-derived storyteller Doug Nufer, By Kelman Out of Pessoa, is a short and crisp novel about the soft, unspoken sides of gambling, the necessity of personality fragmentation, and the remarkable passivity of obscure diligence. The novel has its center at the Emerald Downs racetrack of Auburn, Washington, a city just south of, and connected at the hip with, its cultured, drizzly neighbor, Seattle.

At Emerald Downs, Nufer sketches the life of three characters born from one. Nufer uses a creation technique, a mode of characterization, famously propagated by the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa: the heteronym, in which the characters write each other. First is the dominantly vexing, slightly queer, and dysfunctional father-figure, the inspiring Henderson Will, sufferer of a burden of physical loss and mental handicap:

A stroke of amnesia made him forget what he did. His bosses either didn’t notice or they put up with him until they laid him off anyway. But then he had another mental collapse, where everything got twisted around backwards. Fine. His name is the inverted version of a typical name, with a little play off the will of Will.

The mental collapse has, out of a will for defense or for desire, created the heteronyms Cal Nipper and Kelly Lane, two characters who are immediately identified as additional players in the novel’s game, a strict, rule-bound activity bent and shaped by the season of horse racing.

The premise of the novel—partially derived from Scottish author James Kelman, and otherwise from a maddening enclave of literary predecessors—is ultimately unique. Nufer’s novel is an experiment in constriction, where Nufer as author, as owner of the owner of the heteronym narrators, visits the races once a week, and through him his voices create a narrative that is rich with complexities—insane, confused, and yet loveable.

Henderson, with his desperately fatal creations in tow, finds “The Course,” a social vortex not unlike David Foster Wallace’s tennis academy and Chuck Palahniuk’s self-help groups. The Course, as a scheme that sucks in the souls of our heroes, goes on to teach them a structured, mathematically sound approach to gambling that may or may not be flawed in its success, but is addicting nonetheless. Nufer’s implementation is beautiful in its relationship to the nihilism of the 21st-century brink Americana:

But what is the future? From day one to the end, here we are, doing what we do and saying what we say in response to some rules set down by a spiel in a self-help course on horse race handicapping. (Kelly Lane)

Each piece of the novel builds upon one giant, gently rotating sense of narration. At times the plot is straightforward and at other times there is the “hysteria” of reality in which these characters coexist. The world is expanded through their three different sets of eyes, and yet they all belong to the one. Excitement builds with the bizarre and meta-references to the basis of the novel itself, humorously thrown in to satisfy, stabilize, and provoke those readers who pay attention:

“Go back to the Pessoa. I’m an aspect of the hysteria within you, but this aspect could turn out to be a perfectly well-adjusted character. As you see me, that is. As I develop myself through you as an aspect of the hysteria within me is another story. What I’m wondering is, what is your peculiar hysteria? Exactly what is it that I’m supposed to be an aspect of?” (Kelly Lane by Cal Nipper)

But despite the level of craft and homage to those slick forbearers, Nufer maintains a subtle art in his prose: one moment in the story only means one, singular moment, and thus there is a very realistic distribution in tone. Contextually tonal weight is even in its distribution and vibrant in its diversification. The working of this style to produce elegant juxtaposition and synchronicity reflects the care of Nufer as novelist.

The most wildly imaginable prose is evoked through Henderson himself, the originator of the troupe and yet the most deranged personality of all, the insane ringleader whose slowly developing addiction to gambling is equivalent to his maddening escapades. Where has he lost himself? While his own set of thoughts, his own narration, is conveniently peaceful, his second face reveals the duality between sanity and insanity. As the others speak, there is a disconnection, as if wires had been pulled or crossed or tripped or ripped out of their inputs. The end result is abstraction, poetry, displacement, and it is entirely lovely:

Proud to hose seed, he visited hot spot roadhouses. See his fetid rod hot toad spouses gaining tarnishes straining garnishes while downing the drinks, dial drowning the winks. Still true to his wife, he was more or less oblivious to the trill woo whose strife lore or mess laid siege to him when he made the rounds. While others would raid the mounds, flirting up every skirt, he would be skirting up every flirt, which of course only made him more appealing to those weary of the kitsch of force up wheeling. The tact drove attractive women to follow him with hollow vim, just for the fun of the run. (Henderson Will by Kelly Lane)

Craft and style aside, just what is the book about, really? By Kelman Out of Pessoa doesn’t merely track a disturbed individual and his imaginary friends into a deterministic gambling system; the book presents glimpses into the contemporary Pacific Northwest’s suburban and urban spirals. Through the neighborhoods near downtown Seattle to the river towns soaked in decay and ruin, Nufer’s world is unrelenting. His heroes exist because they need to inhabit this world as much as they need to escape it. These characters, regardless of how they invent themselves, still represent those figures that haunt the sideways, alleys, roads, trails, and all the passages of a very troubled, fatigued landscape.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011

TOMORROW PAMPLONA


Jan van Mersbergen
translated by Laura Watkinson
Peirene Press (£8.99)

by Amy Henry

The “fight or flight” response takes on a new dimension in Jan Van Mersbergen’s new novel Tomorrow Pamplona. For the main character, a boxer named Danny, jogging in the rain isn’t simply for exercise, as we see him accepting a ride out of town with an unusually generous man. Immediately, a sense of tension is palpable. Where are they going? Why is the driver, Robert, so accommodating to the stranger he’s picked up? Is either man in danger from the other? The questions add up as the two journey out of town, and Robert explains that he’s headed to Pamplona to run with the bulls.

With both boxing and Pamplona in the novel one may think of Hemingway, but Van Mersbergen isn’t trying to imitate him or allude to his novels. Instead, he composes a theme of escape: As Danny stares silently through the car window, he observes everything in constant motion, and he seems to notice the world around him for the first time. The setting is significant too, for Pamplona is the destination of many who travel to Santiago for a religious pilgrimage. Is Danny ripe for conversion?

Robert explains his own escape—Pamplona is his week away from the wife and kids, the time he devotes to himself in order to feel alive. Familiar with risk, Danny is intrigued: “ . . . he tries to imagine the dangers of Pamplona. He tries to picture himself facing the bulls. And suddenly he sees how everything in the car is designed to take Robert safely to Pamplona. And back home again.”

Throughout the narrative, flashbacks reveal that Danny left trouble behind, but never fully explain the nature of it. Foreshadowing likewise suggests what may yet happen, and the contrasts between both continue to increase the tension. The two men are never completely comfortable with each other; they certainly aren’t on a buddy-style road trip. Robert tries to place himself in a position of authority, lecturing Danny on parenting, marriage, and the thrill of risk. Danny, for his part, silently listens while reflecting on his own experiences and toying with a child’s small metal car. It underscores the theme of transportation, but also pushes the reader to consider Danny as a child—especially when he accidentally breaks the car.

Van Mersbergen writes sparingly and doesn’t presume to tie up all the threads he’s unraveled. Many questions are left unanswered. He places seemingly random scenes in between carefully scripted interchanges, with the reader forced to guess at the significance—a technique that actually pulls the reader in more tightly. What is the significance of the elderly woman who swims the river at night? How does the boxing promoter, Gerard, fit in? Was Danny set up by false friends? These questions and the descriptions of darkness and shadows along with blinding Spanish light, heighten the suspense without making the reader feel manipulated.

On the way to Pamplona, Danny and Robert meet a restaurant owner who discusses the running of the bulls with the two men. An American boy had been killed, and in a particularly relevant interchange, the man explains how: “He fell and did not know that you must stay on the ground. So he got up again. . . . Everyone knows that if you fall over you should stay down.” For a boxer, staying down after a fall signals defeat. Will Danny run with the bulls, and if he does, can he resist his training and inclination?

The novel offers more than simply a quest motif, although its “road of trials” fits the format. Danny plays a tragic hero with the requisite tragic flaw, but he steps outside the genre with his total resistance to Robert’s influence. If quests had round-trip tickets, that would better fit the structure of this novel. Although the ending doesn’t do justice to the suspense that preceded it, Tomorrow Pamplona takes the reader on a satisfying journey.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011

BUZZ ALDRIN, WHAT HAPPENED TO YOU IN ALL THE CONFUSION?


Johan Harstad
translated by Deborah Dawkin
Seven Stories Press ($30)

by Michelle Wallin

With the second man on the moon as his idol, thirty-something Mattias rarely seeks out the attention of the limelight. Preferring to live in the shadows, the humble narrator reveres Buzz Aldrin for his contributions to the Apollo 11 mission while allowing Neil Armstrong to revel in the glory. Wanting to do good in the world without everyone knowing, Mattias lives a quiet life in Stavenger, Norway as a florist for a small, financially struggling nursery, until life changes knock him out of orbit.

Johan Harstad’s first novel to be translated into English, Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You In All the Confusion? is an exquisitely crafted journey into one man’s psyche. Ignoring the disintegrating relationship with his girlfriend Helle, the looming bankruptcy of the nursery where he works, and his growing desire to slip away unnoticed, Mattias lives in denial, refusing to see that hiding from the world doesn’t save one from inevitable change.

When Helle suddenly breaks off the relationship and the nursery closes, an opportunity to vacation in the Faroe Islands arises. Unfortunately, Mattias finds himself early in the trip on a deserted road with soaking wet clothes, a sore and bloody hand, a wallet full of cash, and no idea where he is or recollection of how he got there. A kindly man discovers the forlorn narrator lying on a bus bench and invites Mattias to stay at his halfway house, a place designed for people suffering from mental illnesses who aren’t capable of living independently but who don’t need to be institutionalized. Accepting the offer, Mattias finds a home on the Faroe Islands with a cast full of quirky characters: a girl who rides buses to get random men to fall in love with her; a psychologist who hoards the health records of patients; a scarred photographer who swears never to capture another Kodak moment.

With Mattias as his springboard, Harstad writes about mental illness without invoking the normal slew of stigmas. Mattias’s straightforward narration about heartbreak, discontent, and unhappiness are emotional but Harstad’s writing is far from sentimental. Rather than hide his despondency from loved ones and readers, we see a fresh look at a troubled man trying to make sense of his life and his place in it. Although the novel is pretty much a one-man show, the secondary characters have backgrounds that are eccentric enough to give the dramatic tone of the novel a comedic edge.

While rambling at times, Harstad’s novel ultimately provides a thought provoking and insightful look at an individual, one with reactions and feelings to which readers are likely to relate. Mattias unravels his thoughts and allows us to understand his journey so that we, too, can comprehend what happened in the midst of his confusion, and perhaps put words to some of our own.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011

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