Tag Archives: summer 2007

THE COLORFUL APOCALYPSE: Journeys in Outsider Art

Greg Bottoms
University of Chicago Press ($20)

by Eliza Murphy

Traveling through god-haunted regions with author Greg Bottoms as a guide pitches the reader into unusual physical and psychological territory. No stranger to the Christian-infused South, neither is Virginia-native Bottoms indifferent to the religious preoccupation that sometimes occurs with mental illness. Haunted by the impact of his brother’s schizophrenia and violence—his brother was incarcerated for nearly burning down the family’s home while his parents and another brother were inside—Bottoms sets out on a search for the whereabouts of the micro-thin, semi-permeable membrane separating religious ecstasy and madness.

Using the travel narrative as a means to unveil what drives certain individuals to create their prodigious, overtly religious art, Bottoms assumes the role of roving journalist to gather intimate, personal stories about outsider artists William Thomas Thompson, Norbert Kox, and the late Howard Finster. Shying away from analysis, he opts instead to let the characters speak for themselves: “I want things to reveal their connections to other things, to show unity, to make sense.” He includes snippets from books about outsider art and mental illness; the overall effect is a mix of journalism and journaling, resulting in a sort of self-reflexive collage.

The narrative is strongest when Bottoms offers specific, visual details—for example, he describes an effeminate rollerblader in tight, white shorts and gleaming gold jewelry skating perilously close to the prison near Finster’s Paradise Garden, the drab colors of the prison a vivid contrast to the bright, garish colors of the garden. At times, Bottoms cannot disguise his discomfort, such as when he encounters a storeowner who proclaims how good slavery was for the country.

In the process of documenting instead of critiquing, Bottoms makes generous use of notes from his journals and transcribed tapes of interviews he conducted with the artists and people connected to them. There is a raw, unedited quality to the portraits; the reader becomes a fly on the wall, eavesdropping on conversations that veer into some difficult territory. Each of these artists experienced Christian-centered visions that altered the course of their lives, visions of such a profound nature that they felt compelled to pick up brushes to paint messages they received from God.

It’s difficult to avoid reading this as some sort of pathology involving elaborate, paranoid, fixed delusions of a religious nature—or have these artists stumbled upon a creative ordering of a chaotic world, ways of giving rampant contradiction, dissonance, and nihilism some sort of meaning? If their worldviews were more coherent, less fixated on demonizing segments of the population, perhaps their apocryphal and troubling visions would have granted them the roles of prophets.

As it is, Bottoms reveals artists who all broke with the conventions of their past, who found constructive ways to recover from traumatic histories, and in this way avoided being diagnosed according to the DSM-IV, the manual that governs contemporary psychiatry through its symptom-based criteria (a text Bottoms took on his journey). In the process, they found their own ways to heal without use of potentially soul-deadening psychotropic drugs.

Bottoms demonstrates empathy for his subjects, acknowledging “It is easy to ruin a life—my life, your life: it can take only a little well-placed destruction.” While attempting to get at the impulses behind the creation of quite disturbing, with mutilated Christ figures and “bloody baby doll” parts, he sometimes falls prey to one of the pitfalls he perceives in outsider art. Citing an example from John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, about how information alters perception, Bottoms writes: “The way we see and interpret is suddenly charged by tragedy. Outsider art, once collected, often makes the caption more important than the painting for the sake of display.” But the way Bottoms portrays the artists occasionally veers close to what he condemns, as he offers portraits that emphasize his subject’s madness over their work. He takes stabs at his reporter role, too. “If there is ugliness in outsider art collection, there is ugliness in the collection of a life story, too.”

That reporting can get a little sloppy: at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, he incorrectly refers to an exhibit as “Ascending Addiction,” when it was actually called “High on Life: Transcending Addiction.” And instead of grappling with the current debate about outsider art, Bottoms opts to focus on an easy target—the unfortunate sideshow appeal of the work of outsiders, whose work is often overshadowed by their biographies.

The work of outsider artists is unusual, and the biographies of its makers are often riddled with tragic circumstances. Bottoms makes a valiant effort to seek the common ground these artists share, to transcend madness to reveal what humanist psychiatrist Dr. Hans Prinzhorn saw as one of the fundamental impulses driving art-making—“to actualize the psyche and thereby build a bridge from the self to others.”

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2007 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2007


Walter Mosley
Little, Brown & Company ($19.99)

by Kevin Carollo

Coming in at around half the length of Chris Baty’s novel-in-a-month plan No Plot? No Problem!, Walter Mosley’s deliberately slim tome on writing a novel over the course of a year is an odd bird. The difference in approach between the two can be glimpsed in the titles alone. Mosley’s uses no punctuation, while Baty’s avails itself of a question mark, an exclamation point, and follows with “A Low-Stress, High-Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days.” Both books aim for the creation of shorter, manageable novel lengths (50,000 words or so), and both offer useful advice to the beginning novelist about getting started, developing characters, and taking the next step once the first draft is completed.

There is decidedly less velocity and caffeine in This Year You Write Your Novel, which, like the title of the short story collection You’ve Got to Read This!, can be read either as motivational or as a mild form of punishment. Mosley saves the exclamation points for some shining moment off the page in the uncertain future—and, curiously enough, for this slightly threatening exhortation to the reader at the outset: “If you want to finish this novel of yours within a year, you have to get to work! There’s not a moment to lose. There’s no time to wait for inspiration.” Gee, Mose, do I have to? But the “congratulations” he offers on page 95 don’t get an exclamation point. This must be because his answer to the question “When am I finished rewriting?” doesn’t have one either: “Never. The novel never attains the level of perfection. No matter how much you rewrite and rewrite again . . .” He’s right, of course, and by now we get it. Mosley seems so intent on not getting anyone’s hopes up, so invested in being the staid practitioner, that one becomes curious as to why he wrote the book in the first place.

To be sure, novels are odd birds, and the idea of writing about how to write a novel rather than actually writing a novel is perhaps an even odder undertaking. And now you’re reading something about reading books about writing books, and this, too, seems odd. What will make readers turn the next page of your writing? Moreover, what makes you, the first reader of your work, want to write the next page? Having penned 25 books, Mosley understands the charge that comes with writing electrifying fiction, and he knows the intensity and intimacy of the craft. He may wear his age on his sleeve a bit, but overall his pointers are sage, concise, and grounded. Where Baty encourages turning the internal editor off for the first draft and month, Mosley gets us looking at the trees in the forest, and the forest reflected in every tree. The rewrite is where the real writing begins for him. The charge is up to you.

Mosley insists that one should write every day, for at least an hour and a half. That’s every day, 52 weeks a year. Still reading? To write is first and foremost to commit to writing. Mosley also confesses to taking six poetry seminars during his MFA days, and he “still can’t write even a passable poem.” He does this to champion poetry and poetry workshops as a way for novelists to get close to language and make every line of their prose sing. Reading poetry and reading widely is great advice for everyone, and specifically validating for those who naturally love to explore multiple genres.

After providing an array of examples on crafting a paragraph, Mosley offers a solitary exercise aimed at revising “flatness in the prose.” By this point, he is confident that readers can turn the following three sentences of “flaccid prose . . . into something more”:

I went to the store and bought a dozen apples. After that I came home and decided to call Marion. She told me that she was busy and so she couldn’t make it to the dance.

I realize I’m writing a book review and not a novel right now, but let’s see what happens if I try to harden these lines up:

After two months wandering the produce section of Ultra-Max, I finally decided on a dozen apples, my least favorite fruit. I called Marion in the parking lot to tell her how they found me and what I’d seen, but she was too preoccupied with the fact that her nails and hair had stopped growing to care. She was afraid she might be dead and not know it, and this would somehow interfere with our apparently busy schedules as citizens of Greater Max. “Can ghosts still dance?” she asked hopefully. I couldn’t remember.

It will never be perfect, but I like it so far. It makes me want to say “Thank you, Mose!”—with an unnecessary exclamation point and everything. Now go write your novel, and have a blast.

Note: The reviewer of This Year You Write Your Novel has just finished writing an awesome crime novel entitled Pull Tabs. He is currently writing a book tentatively entitled You Will Never—And I Mean Fucking Never!—NOT Write Your Awesome Novel Now!!! It will never be published, or completed. Never! Please send tax-free ten-dollar donations to Rain Taxi for your free personalized excerpt (lengths may vary). Somewhere on your check or in your email, write “YWN-AIMFN!-NWYANN!!!” Brief personal information or anecdotes about your situation are also appreciated. I’m totally serious.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2007 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2007

THE END OF THE LINE: How Overfishing is Changing the World and What We Eat

Click here to buy this book from Amazon.comCharles Clover
The New Press ($26.95)

by Ryder Miller

Charles Clover, an award-winning journalist and an editor for the Daily Telegraph in England, seeks to alert the world about the decline of the world fisheries' stocks in The End of the Line, noting that the concerned consumer has the power to change the dangerous practices contributing to this crisis. Clover's call to action should make one angry, and he suggests that we should take that anger with us to the supermarket and when we go out for a meal. Clover is also adept at turning a phrase, and he is so versed in the subject that The End of the Line abounds with wonderful lines and succinct language.

Clover is not a vegetarian—in fact he’s a sports fisherman—and as such this book is aimed at those who would rather not give up eating fish. He doesn’t advocate for giving up eating fish entirely, but he does struggle with what tack to take to convince people to change their fish consumption, saying, “The question of how to make this solution politically acceptable is one of the great problems of our time.” Modern environmentalists who struggle with this question are often out-radicalized by well meaning people who are out of touch with the mainstream. Henry David Thoreau mused in Walden that we would all be vegetarians by now, but there are those who are invested against making a change. That is especially the case with the entrenched fishing industry.

Though Clover thinks it will take forty years to “come to grips with the global crisis caused by intensive fishing,” in his documentation of the damage the world fisheries have wreaked it becomes clear that sustainability efforts were needed generations ago. We are already fishing down the food chain; unless we make a change we may be left with only minnows, plankton, and starfish to eat.

Clover supplies a number of useful solutions: certification for sustainable fishing methods; fish farming, although it comes with its own risks, to ease pressures on stocks of wild fish; and more marine sanctuaries, or safe zones, where fish can hide and multiply. He also points out the health benefits of eating less fish, since they accumulate toxins from the environment. Finally, he provides a Choosing Fish Guide that allows the consumer to become a direct part of the efforts to protect fish. Not fully developed here is one controversial solution: “preventing fish from being exposed to any kind of fishing gear at all.” Many will choose to eat less fish, but it is surprising that there are not more people who eschew fish consumption altogether in the spotlight.

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Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2007 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2007

PUSHING ULTIMATES: Fundamentals of Authentic Self-knowledge

Click here to buy this book from Amazon.comLew Paz
Plum Bell Publishing ($21.50)

by Jaye Beldo

Most people who embark on the path of philosophy quite likely have very little foreknowledge of what they are really getting into: endless, exacting, and unimaginably deep self inquiry; perpetual questioning; continual assessments of one's beliefs; and considered responses to metaphysical and mystical experiences. In our present world, the “answers” to life’s persistent questions are typically spoon-fed to us by pseudo-gurus, New Age visionaries, and other assorted pundits of the nether realms; there is not much cogent support for such challenging self-analysis. The rare individuals who dare to embark on such an uncertain route usually take great pains to remain reclusive, leaving genuine inspiration for the rest of us in tragically short supply.

In the past, such literary notables as Henry David Thoreau provided ample encouragement for those wishing to achieve some degree of enlightenment. Yet such transcendental luminaries have become so incredibly rare now, it seems we are left with only mass-marketed me-ism and other pathologically hedonist approaches to self-realization. However, in this remarkable and innovative work, ontological renegade Lew Paz gives readers the seldom seen perspective of someone who risked the enormous and daunting task of inner inquiry. What emerges from this philosophical travelogue is more than inspirational—it demolishes the reader’s cherished and outdated belief systems and risks encountering what’s left behind, regardless of how archetypically terrifying or bewildering. Paz, unlike most ad hoc philosophers-at-large, sustains a relentless and intense quest to grasp something luminous and beautifully. His work emanates a vitality that has been extinguished in this age of fearful conservatism and political correctness, where even the so-called “enlightened” may seem guarded and paranoid.

Aside from an off-putting and dubious attachment to Heidegger, whose affiliation with the Nazis, the author reminds us, forever clouded his weltanschauung, Paz’s work is most certainly worth examining, pondering, and reflecting upon in moments of solitude. At times, Paz expends too much energy addressing all the usual negating elements that encroach upon enlightenment and achieving a trans-egoic state, as found in organized religion, materialist science, and the reductive behaviorism proliferating the psychotherapeutic industry. Yet, once he moves past these conflicts, he shares with us a unique and much needed event horizon, one that he has scrutinized unflinchingly and from a perspective of genuine and hard-won compassion. Pushing Ultimates is recommended for anyone who may be fearful of the philosophical inquiry, not just as an initiatory and inspirational means of getting to the omega point of self-realization, wherever that may be, but also as a reliable guidebook to take along all throughout the journey.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2007 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2007


Click here to buy this book from Amazon.comMatthew Baigell
Syracuse University Press ($45)

by Daniel Morris

An emeritus professor of art history at Rutgers, Matthew Baigell has over the last decade become the foremost scholar of 20th century Jewish American art history. Where his previous titles in this area—Jewish Artists in New York: The Holocaust Years and Jewish American Artists and the Holocaust—focused on a specific theme, the current volume offers a broad introduction to an emerging field while continuing to emphasize the Shoah as the signal event to which Jewish artists respond in their work.

Baigell’s intends his study of what he calls “fourteen representative modern artists” as a first step into a field that he admits requires further research. One artist represented here is Helène Aylon, a contemporary feminist mixed-media and installation artist who grew up in an ultra-Orthodox environment in Boro Park, Brooklyn. Baigell illustrates that Aylon “has challenged the ways in which Jewish tradition has treated women,” focusing on a work in which “she placed on large surfaces membranous sacs filled with oil.” At first relaying Aylon’s own comment that her artwork might refer to female sanitary practices—“unconsciously suggested by the prayer invariably said by the Orthodox after using the bathroom”—Baigell then admits his own study at this point is merely speculative. “I mention this interpretation to make the point that an enormous amount of work needs to be done in order to begin to understand the kinds of knowledge and experience that a person from an Orthodox background can bring to his or her art consciously or unconsciously, and that might be lost if not recalled and written down soon.”

Arguing that time is of the essence, Baigell stresses the need for more art historical scholarship to take place before vulnerable Jewish folkways, histories, and memories are lost, depriving future viewers of the full significance of the rich visual traditions of American Jews. “Their works are important in that they contribute to the centripetal action of Jewish survival rather than to the centrifugal action of cultural dispersal.” Specifically, Baigell groups Max Weber, Ben-Zion Dinur, and Hyman Bloom as immigrants born around 1900 who painted genre scenes of Hasidic men dancing or praying, studying Talmud, or holding the Torah. For these artists—who remembered the old world but lived uneasily in the new—the genre scenes became emblems of cultural identification and security while also connoting fears of a vanishing Orthodox past. “The world Bloom invokes in these portraits is not one of the quotidian, of daily activities in the Orthodox community, but rather of the loss of religious knowledge and the loss of memory of the ancient ways and customs. It is as if these men, the learned men of Bloom’s childhood whom he wants to memorialize, are vanishing before our eyes . . .”

Unlike the work of the genre painters, it is not easy to decipher the Jewish content of Mark Rothko’s enigmatic stacks of colored rectangles from the 1950s. Baigell nonetheless reads Rothko as a Jewish artist through his emphasis on memory and his conflation of a mythic past with contemporary experience, especially in paintings of Greek tragic figures such as Agamemnon; he argues that Rothko’s fascination with Greek tragedy is his oblique way of dealing with the Holocaust. In Barnett Newman, another influential mid-century abstract painter of the New York School, Baigell reads the signature “zip” paintings in which a “narrow stripe appears to be on the same plane in depth as the larger, but less intensely colored rectangular shapes” in the context of Lurianic Kabbalism. Kaballah, it turns out, has been important to several artists including the contemporary abstract painter and sculptor Tobi Kahn, as well as for the Lithuanian-born social-realist painter Ben Shahn. Baigell interprets Shahn’s inclusion of Hebrew letters in many of his pictures as “a meditation on the mystical qualities of letters” in The Zohar.

In dealing with art that contains obscure Hebrew texts, Baigell performs a scholarly service by unpacking the often elliptical meanings of Jewish iconography. Such is the case with his interpretation of Shahn’s “Allegory” (1948) as representing the hand of God about to smite Aaron, which Baigell reads as a Biblical parallel to the Holocaust. Baigell also associates artists such as Jack Levine and Abraham Rattner with the politically radical dimension of Judaism, saying their “art-making finds its roots in the prophetic hope for social betterment that has helped fuel Jewish religious concerns since biblical times.” As is typical of many of the artists under discussion, Rattner is interpreted as a socially conscious artist, but one who comments on contemporary events (the Holocaust, the newly founded state of Israel, atomic warfare) through Biblical parallels. Some of Rattner’s pictures recall the prophet Ezekiel, associated as he is with themes of destruction, resurrection, and redemption. In general, the Bible, understood as a living text subject to contemporary midrash, has replaced the nostalgic genre scenes of Eastern European Hasidic life found in early 20th-century painting as the contemporary Jewish artists’ preferred link to Jewish tradition.

Unlike the study of Jewish American literature, Baigell admits serious analysis of Jewish American art is still in its infancy. “In comparison to those who have written so copiously about Jewish American authors and cultural figures over the last several decades, art historians are light years behind.” Benefiting from his own correspondence with many of the artists under discussion, as well as from his knowledge of Jewish traditions and themes, Baigell here offers a fine study of how Jewish-American artists attempt to redeem history through memory, often in the face of losses that would be almost inconsolable without representation.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2007 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2007

WHITE BICYCLES: Making Music in the 1960s

Click here to buy this book from Amazon.comJoe Boyd
Serpent’s Tail ($18)

by Mark Terrill

At times it seems as though revisionist history is set on reducing the 1960s to a sum lesser than its parts—a sort of bubble of colorful utopian idealism that gently rose on the marketable precepts of flower power, psychedelia, Woodstock, and the hippies; lost altitude with the deaths of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.; and eventually popped in the wake of Charles Manson and his “family,” the grim debacle that was Altamont, and the disaster of Vietnam. But whether you were there or not, on the bus or off, and despite what you may or may not remember, the ’60s were a decade of unprecedented change not likely to be replicated again. Several recent autobiographies and memoirs have done well to debunk the alleged irrelevance of the era, but none so thoroughly and elegantly as Joe Boyd’s White Bicycles.

The decade had many focal points—political, cultural, and otherwise—and certainly the music was one of the most salient aspects and left the most lasting legacy. At the center of this creative and enriching vortex was the young American Joe Boyd. Born in Boston in 1942, Boyd and his brother grew up listening to old blues and jazz records and obscure radio shows, and were heavily influenced in their musical perception by a gift from their grandmother—the RCA Victor Encyclopedia of Recorded Jazz—as well as Chris Robertson’s late-night jazz and blues show on a Philadelphia radio station. In 1960, Boyd and his brother booked and promoted their first show with Lonnie Johnson. The show was a small success at best, but Boyd experienced a sudden revelation that proved to be much more valuable: “Fats Domino is descended from Jelly Roll Morton. Rock ‘n’ Roll is the blues! Popular music is the same stuff I listen to in my room all the time, only newer. I can be a record producer!” And thus Boyd embarked upon his remarkable career.

In 1964, at the age of 21 and recently graduated from Harvard, Boyd brought Muddy Waters to England as part of the Blues and Gospel Caravan, which also included Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, the Reverend Gary Davis, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and others. The following year, Boyd was at the Newport Folk Festival, stage-managing Dylan’s legendary coming out as electrified proto-punk rocker. Back in London, Boyd’s first official recording session in the capacity of producer was for Eric Clapton’s Crossroads. He then went on to produce Pink Floyd’s first single, and they soon became the house band in Boyd’s UFO Club, the psychedelic Mecca he ran with John Hopkins in the heart of swinging London. Following his intuition about the genesis of popular music, Boyd then went on to help engineer the fusion of pop music and British folk, founding, managing, and producing the likes of the Incredible String Band and Fairport Convention. He discovered, produced, and managed Nick Drake, and on a trip to Stockholm in 1970, he was impressed by some Swedish songwriters he heard—two years before they became ABBA. Boyd eventually went on to produce soundtracks for Deliverance (his only “hit” as a producer) and A Clockwork Orange. He also produced the definitive documentary on Jimi Hendrix, as well as the film Scandal. In 1980 he started Hannibal Records, which he ran for 20 years.

Boyd’s lucid and engagingly written memoir shines for several reasons; he refuses to rely on any sort of rose-tinted reductionism or recycled gossip; his dry, straightforward account avoids all hyperbole and yet is underpinned with a wry sense of humor; his uncanny memory and detailed character descriptions ground his narrative with a sold sense of detail, an amazing feat for someone who has survived such a nebulous and mind-boggling epoch. Boyd always seemed to be at the right place at the right time, but, despite his knack for sniffing out the next big thing, he was never able to cash in on his many talents: most of his discoveries were snatched up by the corporate combine in merciless power plays. Nonetheless, Boyd neither indulges in bitterness, nor does he grind any axes, but neither is he afraid to question the critical/sociological aspects of what the “rebellion” was all about: who was rebelling against what, and how it created the fertile context for the sort of experimentation that resulted in one of the most prolific eras in modern music. (There’s also an excellent CD available with the same name, on which Boyd has collected various rarities and B-sides and oddities from many of the artists he produced and worked with.)

So impressive is Boyd’s account that one is left wondering how he managed such a marvelous feat, for which he provides the following explanation: “And as for me, I cheated. I never got too stoned. I became the éminence grise I aspired to be, and disproved at least one sixties myth: I was there, and I do remember.”

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Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2007 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2007


Click here to buy this book from Amazon.comPatricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer
Harcourt ($17)

by William Alexander

An epistolary novel, The Mislaid Magician is written as a series of letters between cousins Kate and Cecy, and between their husbands, Thomas and James. Intriguingly, the authors created the text—their third collaboration—by writing letters to each other in character. All three novels are set in a magical version of Regency-era England, and several characters from Sorcery and Cecelia (1988) and The Grand Tour (2004) make appearances in The Mislaid Magician—familiarity with the first two novels, however, isn't strictly necessary for enjoying the third.

The plot revolves around a conflict between ancient magics and newly built railroads: Cecy and James travel to investigate the trouble, while Kate and Thomas stay home to mind both sets of children, unaware that trouble will come to them instead. It is nice to see that Kate and Cecy continue to have adventures after settling into happy marriages. Samuel Richardson (one of Jane Austen's influences) set out two climactic possibilities for heroines in his own epistolary novels—marriage or death—and either way the story ends. This tradition is an old one, but not so with Cecy and Kate; happily, their story does not stop at the altar.

Wrede and Stevermer's use of the epistolary form is excellent. The characters cast secretive spells on their handwriting, spill blots of ink across the page, and send sudden warnings well in advance of their explanations (and it is genuinely unsettling to read “your children are safe” if you have no idea why they wouldn’t be). This immediacy makes up for the limitations of the letter-writing device, particularly the fact that characters only ever have the leisure to write letters about life-threatening events after the danger has already passed.

The novel’s flaws are political ones. (YA fantasy does, of course, participate in politics—read Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials if you doubt this.) Cecy and James discover that an ancient spell is being tampered with, either accidentally (by passing trains) or deliberately (by sinister people)—or possibly both. It turns out that the spell binds England together as a nationalistic whole, and has done so for thousands of years, long before the concept of nationalism, or of England, existed. I can’t help but wonder what a Welsh or Scottish character would think of this magical theory of English unity, but no such character ever appears to voice an opinion. We do meet a pugnacious Irish magician, one who is instantly despised by the protagonists for his lack of London-based social graces, and who gets booted out of the story after his first scene. This is a shame; he could probably offer a worthwhile critique.

Any first-person storytelling is limited to the perspectives and assumptions of the narrating characters. Here the perspectives are consistent with both the novel’s historical period and its characters’ social station. Their snobbery is still distasteful, however, as servants are condescended to and foreigners dismissed. Wrede and Stevermer could clearly conjure up a whole chorus of voices and styles between them, so as enjoyable as the company of Cecy, Kate, and their husbands continues to be, the next book might benefit from the addition of contrasting personalities to the mix.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2007 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2007


Gillian Flynn
Three Rivers Press ($14)

by Spencer Dew

Gillian Flynn has an uncanny command of place, recognizing how the mood of a whole town can be conveyed in watery mashed potatoes dyed red by their proximity, on the plate, to a slab of jello. The gritty particulars of the small southern Missouri town that is the setting for Sharp Objects provide more than enough horror for the whole novel, even if there were not a killer on the loose mutilating young girls. Indeed, the gaping, destroyed faces of those girls offer a sort of portrait of the town: obsessed with starched-collar social facades and sweet drinks on verandas, but grotesque just under the surface—claustrophobic, catty, equal parts Victorian Gothic and reckless Americana, laced with crystal meth, peppered with razory teenage sexpots, and reeking from the industrial pig slaughterhouse at the outskirts.

Flynn’s most remarkable gift is that she knows what’s really scary. While we may lock our doors at night to keep out creepers and lunatics, it’s the excruciation of our childhoods and adolescences, our own narrow or failed escapes from parents and roots that haunt the deepest levels of our dreams.

Camille Preaker is our stand-in here, a hometown girl turned big-city journalist, sent back on assignment to investigate the crimes. Chugging bourbon then crunching fistfuls of wintergreen mints to mask the fumes, Camille struggles just to maintain, in exile with her monstrous mother and her thirteen-year-old half sister who alternates between playing with a doll-size replica of the house in which she lives to reigning as clique queen, pretty and predatory. In this book, blood in the sense of blood kin is far, far worse than the liquid that comes out of bodies, but there are gallons of those substances, too. Sex and violence are both manifestations of power, which is what all the nastier characters here want to have. The teenage girl, with precocious cunning, is figuring out these mysteries. Camille, for her part, remembers being much younger, discovering a shack in the woods used by hunters, thick with evidence of sinister connections:

Ribbons of moist, pink flesh dangled from strings, waiting to be dried for jerky. The dirt floor was rusted with blood. The walls were covered with photographs of naked women. Some of the girls were spreading themselves wide, others were being held down and penetrated. One woman was tied up, her eyes glazed, breasts stretched and veined like grapes, as a man took her from behind. I could smell them all in the thick, gory air.

At home that night, I slipped a finger under my panties and masturbated for the first time, panting and sick.

While Flynn’s story propels itself at breakneck pace, the language is luscious, disquietingly addictive. At times, reading this book is like tonguing a loose tooth; at others, it’s like fleeing a drunken hit-and-run with a clump of hair under your windshield wiper blade. No one is innocent in Flynn’s world, and those who manage to survive don’t do so without exertion.

Camille, for instance, has this technique: at thirteen she carved the word wicked into the flesh of her hip. She started letting others do things with her body, too, but it’s the wormy scar-tissue words that remain. Nearly every inch of her skin, just shy of wrists and ankles and neckline, writhe with them: bitch, whore, queasy, punish, favorite. She carries her own adjectives, her own set of myths: “They are often feminine, in a Dick and Jane, pink vs. puppy dog tails sort of way. Or they’re flat-out negative. Number of synonyms for anxious carved in my skin: eleven.” Staying in her childhood bedroom is enough to make her itch for a blade's edge. She jiggles the padlocked door of the cutlery drawer.

Flynn’s genius here is in using spectacular horror to cut closer to the bone of the banal, the shared. There’s a scene in a fitting room that’s painful to read because it is so perfectly true. Camille stifles her scream with a wadded dress, and we, as readers, want to scream along but know that the scream would come out silent, as in a nightmare. With tourniquet-tight construction and barbed prose, this is a deeply disturbing and instantly re-readable book.

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Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2007 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2007


David Marusek
Subterranean Press ($40)

by Rod Smith

David Marusek isn't one to rush a page. The Alaskan science fiction author's first novel—2005's widely praised Counting Heads—evolved over nearly a decade. Thirteen years in the making, Getting to Know You's ten stories and novellas represent all his published short fiction to date. That many ended up feeding the novel only attests to their creator's meticulousness. “I obsess endlessly over my stories,” he writes in a back-cover blurb. “I boil them down to their gooey essence and then boil them again for good measure. I squeeze them onto the page like frosting on a cake. I lay them like traps and bait them with shiny ideas.”

What Marusek doesn't mention about his narratives—mostly depicting domestic life in the late 21st century—is that their extended gestation periods make for thoroughly iterated plots and beautifully developed characters. Not that he's tech-shy: artificial intelligence, cryogenics, space travel, biological warfare, radical life extension, and human cloning all figure in the collection, integrated gracefully and nonchalantly into plot lines and characters' lives. Nor is he stingy with speculation, although “extrapolation” might be more apt: “The Wedding Album” alone offers future enough to spark hundreds of discussions about the potential rights of artificial people. Still, protagonist Anne and her husband Benjamin—sentient digital simulations of a couple on their wedding day, doomed to forget their lives and their relationship at the flick of a switch time and time again—never fail to dominate the Sturgeon Award-winning novella as they travel through decades, then centuries, outliving their flesh-and-blood counterparts as well as the culture that created them.

AI looms even larger in “We Were Out of Our Minds with Joy.” Marusek's account of a magnificently failed marriage between an artist and a powerful politician draws as much vitality from the former's intimate relationship with his loyal “belt valet” Henry—a digital assistant with more personality than a dozen talk show hosts—as it does from any of its meatworld liaisons. A similar human-AI link drives the title story, a tale of treachery and missed opportunities that highlights some of the darker aspects of Marusek's future world, where enhanced intelligence and near-immortality are freely available to anyone with the dough—assuming he or she doesn't get taken out by hostile nanobots, biological nasties, or the security-crazed government.

Captivating as it is, the Counting Heads-related stuff will be mostly old hat to those who have read the novel, but the freestanding stories offer plenty of incentive for all but the most jaded reader. While he doesn't use his home turf as a setting often, he uses it adroitly (as can only be expected from a writer whose home life in the Arctic features regular trips to the outhouse). Marusek's first published story, “The Earth Is on the Mend,” transforms post-apocalyptic survivalist tropes with a brutishly sophisticated meditation on the rebirth of hospitality, while “Yurek Rutz, Yurek Rutz, Yurek Rutz” sidesteps SF conventions altogether in favor of refreshingly accessible metafiction.

That so many of the collection's stories run long is telling, especially given their eventual destination. Fact is, Marusek's predilection for developing his material so thoroughly lends itself to novel writing, as does the pittance most SF publications offer for short fiction. Still, his capacity for invention is such that it's reassuring to think that we might get another collection equal to Getting to Know You a decade or so down the road.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2007 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2007


James Sallis
Host Publications ($25)

by Morris Collins

Collecting stories published over the course of forty years, Potato Tree clearly reflects James Sallis’s distinct, unconventional aesthetic. Inanimate objects come to life, jaguars haunt bedrooms, and orchids compose epic poetry. In the title story, a doctor tells a patient “You just won’t ever know if things are as they seem to you; they could be quite different.” This comment serves as an accurate description of the entire collection.

Although Potato Tree includes forty-one stories in 180 pages, they do not read as flash-fiction, nor are they facile or frivolous. Instead, each contains all the conventions of traditional narratives—plot, character, narrative arc, and setting—but in unusual proportions. As Sallis puts it in his introduction, he “sedulously abjure[s]” conventional plot. “There is,” he writes “so much else of interest.”

Sallis often employs formal innovation to craft stories that seem like shadows of something larger; several take the form of fugues, while others, with their use of stage directions and dramatic conventions, mimic play scripts. Inevitably, these fictions subvert normal genre conventions. While his work is formally unconventional, Sallis takes that old adage, show don’t tell, to a new height. In “I Saw Robert Johnson” Sallis casts a gruesome murder within the frame of a Chaucerian dream vision:

I had no memory of the night, only a vague remembrance of dreaming: trees with the face of my wife, grass mowed down that spoke in the voice of my daughter, a parliament of fowls done up in tight skirts and unbuttoned shirtwaists.

The women had begun dropping off children, and I stood at the window nude, my face blood-smeared, wondering what would happen if they should see me.

Indeed, the idea of “watching,” of sequestering oneself from a world that appears both strange and violent, characterizes Sallis’s work. In “Others,” a man invents lives for himself in newspaper classifieds in order to “know another person, to bridge this awful solitude we’re locked into.” Often in these stories, the distance between the self and others remains unbridgeable; relationships thrum with disaffected sex and resonate with horror.

While Sallis’s thematic concerns have remained constant throughout his career, this collection reveals the development of his style. “Kazoo,” his first published story, blurs the boundary between the literal and the metaphorical: “He’s giving me the eye, so I take it and put it in my pocket right next to the finger someone gave me the day before.” Explosions into outright surrealism occur less often in his recent stories, where the fantastic elements lie further beneath the surface; his protagonists no longer live on the margins of reality, but at the edge of reason. Marvelous imagery and syntax aside, Sallis works at his best when he lays emotions bare, such as in “Three Stories,” in which a man returns home for the first time after his lover has died: “The apartment was small, and mine.” In these later fictions, he chips away the ornamentation and, in stark simplicity, exposes delicate wounds.

Sallis’s oeuvre includes eleven novels, four previous books of short stories, and numerous works of poetry, biography, literary criticism, translation, and musicology. While he may remain best known for his longer works, in Potato Tree a reader will find stories fraught with beauty, solitude, and strange moments of humor, which haunt and stun and bear returning to again and again.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2007 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2007