Tag Archives: summer 2010


L. S. Asekoff
Northwestern University Press ($15.95)

by Russell Brickey

For anyone who has written a poem, the bugaboo of raising language above mere denotation looms large on every page. And then there’s that annoying problem of process—how is a poem supposed to develop in the ether of words?

The Gate of Horn by L.S. Asekoff has clearly found a way, for Asekoff’s language reaches a nicely wrought standard of imagery and turn of phrase. For example, in the opening poem of the collection, “Black Valentine,” Asekoff seems to sum up the experience of birth and the numinous possibilities of the subconscious that’s mysteriously connected to the mother’s life before:

Passing through the Gates of Life
I heard the secrets women whisper
Only to women.

These secrets are dark, gendered, and include “the rape / In the North End stairwell when she was eight,” which is empathetically resolved by the birth of the speaker’s own self years later—“How I rose that December morning from her once-shattered pelvis, / “A blue-eyed Dresden doll.” Painful, brutal, and in the end redemptive, “Black Valentine” offers a picture-perfect example of how a master poet negotiates lyric abstraction and meaning, making the painful redolent with human possibilities of rejuvenation.

Asekoff is intimate here, although this is not his only palette. “Oracle,” a wry homage to Chinese democratic protestor Wei Jingsheng, summons the almost mystical appeal of those brave enough to face-down totalitarian regimes:

He who saw “the dark face of the State,”
tasted ash from the bitterest star,
reads ideograms off butterfly wings,
hears the jade battalions of the waves shattering on sand.

Sounding very much like Buddhist koans, “Oracle” pays implicit homage to Jingsheng through a thundering use of the poet’s own native English. Then, in a moment when the symbolic world becomes tangible, Jingsheng “bows before the Emperor of Salt— / a cod’s head, its corona of flies.” The image is a correlative to communism: the ancient Chinese industry of salt production (heavily controlled and taxed by the Chinese government) is now degraded and decapitated as is the state to which the activist bows sarcastically. Such brave political statements are rare in contemporary poetry, and Asekoff’s breadth is refreshing in this context.

Equally far-seeing, “House of the Fifth Sun” takes as its subject ancient Mesoamerican deities and cities. Aztlán is elevated in its beauty, a “Place of Whiteness / . . . / Stone Gardens / Floating geometry of pyramids.” The collective voice of the Toltec civilization, on the other hand, laments “Once they wrote with flowers / . . . / Once all precious things were one,” and the speaker asks Coatlique, Aztec goddess of creation, “Why are you weeping, / Weeping as you dance in the flowery field?” It is an appropriate question in our ecologically challenging times, yet if there is a weakness to The Gate of Horn, it is in a certain reserve common to contemporary poetry: the gods do not speak back.

Asekoff writes in a number of different styles and voices—the brief lyric, the dramatic monologue, the sectional poem—which highlights his versatility as a poet and moves the collection as a whole unpredictably forward with each page turn. He also experiments with difficult longer forms, even though these are not his most successful endeavors; it is hard to negotiate his verbose style with any sense of cogency. Still, Asekoff delivers an elegant collection, well worth reading and rereading for the best poems within it.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010


Dan Kaufman/Barbez
Tzadik ($16)

by Christine Hume

Since the new millennium, Paul Celan, often hailed as the major European post-war poet, has enjoyed at least four serious new English translators. Yet if ever a poet made translating or analyzing his work almost impossible, it is Celan. Now comes Dan Kaufman’s Force of LIght to inject the on-going project of bringing Celan into English with multiple literacies. Using mostly translations by Michael Hamburger and Rosmarie Waldrop, Kaufman’s song cycle of Celan poems broods in brutal, relentless rhythms that metastasize many translation issues. For one, Kaufman sonically iconicizes Celan’s deep resistance to language and his language’s saturation in silence, solitude, grief, and failure. When it hits the limits of articulation or exhausts meaning, language sifts into music or vice versa; they overlap and inter-linger auratically. As you listen, the sonic-and-linguistic complexes demand cathexis. The CD radically revivifies something you already know: that inhabitation—running your senses over its objectness, letting it pulse through your bloodstream and echo in your bones—is the richest way to know a poem.

Kaufman’s band, the Brooklyn-based Barbez, presents post-rock soundscapes drenched in edgy, sultry foreboding. Yet Barbez here ups the ante for post-rock projects by nailing mood more deeply and darkly to a context, giving this listening experience a gripping specificity and historical complexity. Jazz and modern classical join klezmer and Yiddish folk traditions; minimalism holds it gorgeously together. These ethereal yet hyper-present Celan settings suspend the listener in infinite “scales of grief,” in spiraling counterpoint, rhythmic stutter, and dynamic shifts. Because rhythm’s special power materially doubles, it embeds itself into memory and emotional circuitry even before meaning has had a chance to enchant. Musical repetition reinforces Celan’s commitment to paronomy as a structural device as well as his tendency to quote, revise, or allude to earlier poems. Yet the music does not attempt to contain or translate the poems as much as it recognizes and realizes poetry as what critic Gerald L. Bruns calls “language in excess of the functions of language.”

The grain of writer/performance artist Fiona Templeton’s intonation of Celan’s poems agitates the affinity between eros and thanatos. This is a voice to haunt your organs. Templeton speaks—does not sing—with a searing direct clarity that’s set within black lapping and looping of vibraphones and theremin, or the smoky turbulent swooning of clarinets and strings. In a North American context, Templeton’s Scottish accent faintly suggests the foreignness Celan injected into his native tongue and the dislocations of Jewish experience during and after the Holocaust. Templeton’s muted urgency is confrontational yet hopeless, often sotto voce, so that language becomes the underthought of the music itself. At times, you will strain to understand the voice. Though it never loses itself in pure texture, you must listen well until “the listened for reache[s] you.” In these moments, the panic and anguish of trying to be heard—through history, through ideology, through habitualization, through inaudibility and unintelligibility—transfers, becomes a pre-condition for your listening.

“Aspen Tree,” for instance, delivers a percussive and bass/guitar ostinati that slowly undulates and seems to leak out the poem about the murder of Celan’s mother. Through the first five tracks, musical tension ratchets up, but no matter how much the music builds around her, Templeton keeps her tone level. The steadiness of the human voice is a triumph, in part because it compels you to attend, in part for what it implies about human persistence. This CD makes you hyper aware that listening itself completes the act of conversation. Listening triggers responsiveness: an exclamation up from the gut, flashes of bafflement and dread along the jawline. A human voice gets through. In a speech to Germans in 1958, Celan likened a poem to a dialogue, "a message in a bottle, sent out in the—not always greatly hopeful—belief that somewhere and sometime it could wash up on land, on heartland perhaps." Kaufman extends this dialogue to one between musical and linguistic languages. “Conversation in the Mountains,” for instance, guts the prose: where the actual textual conversation happens, musical language intervenes, so, instead of Jews Gross and Klein talking about alienation, silence, God, and language, we get instrumental swerve. Structurally, this evisceration might also be read as homage to Celan’s characteristic way of splitting a word apart, making each part larger, louder than the whole.

Force of LIght pulls from a range of Celan texts, not restricting itself to the titular collection of Celan’s; the song “Corner of Time” uses “Crystal” from Poppy and Rememberance (1952) in the beginning and “I pilot you” from his Farmstead of Time (posthumously published in 1976) at the end, (though the tract’s title is taken from Celan’s Force of LIght) thus creating a sonic corner of time, where two time periods meet, creating a new structure. This piece recalls Andrew Joron’s “Constellations for Theremin,” which also uses some text from “Crystal” and equates the theremin’s radiating vibrations with the power to bring back the dead. The CD shifts with “Black Forest,” to disrupt the extreme mood with touches of humor—albeit a gallows-ish variety. You won’t laugh, but the energetic lightness may remind you of how dark “black” can get. One of two instrumental pieces, “Black Forest” takes its title from the Celan poem allegedly addressing his meeting with Martin Heidegger, which was by all known accounts irreconcilably complicated and frustrating. Kaufman leaves out the language in “Black Forest” perhaps in order to conduct Celan’s tragic relation to their shared language, which had remained silent though the horror of the Holocaust. The removal of language may refer to ‘the voice of conscience,” a concept bound to Heidegger’s engagements with the Nazis, and it perhaps allows for a greater sense of what Heidegger calls “hearkening,” a mode of hearing that’s predominately intuitive, primordial, attuning, and relational. Celan said in the same 1958 speech that after Auschwitz language “had to pass through its own answerlessness, pass through frightful muting, pass through the thousand darknesses of deathbringing speech.”

“Sky Beetle” ends Force of LIght with a dirge of echoes. This stark piece sharpens the CD’s tragic resonance with opening timpani strikes that lead into sorrowful violins and the nearly human wail of the theremin, the sound closest to singing you’ll find on the entire disc. In the final minute Templeton’s voice, absent until now, delivers a single couplet, written shortly before Celan’s suicide in 1970: "Laden with reflection, with the sky beetles, inside the mountain / The death you still owe me, I carry it out." If this is an unrelentingly resolute or drastically funereal finish, so be it. You’ll always come back: “You fill up the urns here and nourish your heart.”

As Force of LIght amplifies the rawness and resonance of Celan’s work, it insists on the spectral radiance of listening itself. This CD evokes the special intensity that the passage from silence to sound, from silent reading to public listening, might have had for Celan.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010


Zachary German
Melville House Publishing ($14.95)

by Morgan Myers

Zachary German’s Eat When You Feel Sad is a novel about a tone—specifically, a tone of total disaffection, of absolute disinterest, maintained through a rigorous objectivity of language that allows not even the flourish of a compound sentence. Nearly any example would be representative:

Robert takes a shower. Robert dries himself. He puts on underwear. He puts on jeans. He puts on a t-shirt. He takes off the t-shirt. He puts the t-shirt back on. He puts on socks and shoes. He looks at himself in the mirror. He looks at his laptop computer. He looks at his cat. Robert walks out of his apartment. He walks down stairs. He walks out of his building. Robert rides his bike.

It would be easy to identify this relentless monotone as the attitude of the book’s protagonist, an aimless twenty-something described by himself as “vain and judgmental” and by another character as “full of bullshit.” That would be partly right, certainly, but it would also underestimate how much the narration levels the small, ordinary, but very real intensity of Robert’s inner life. Robert longs for love and breaks people’s hearts; he makes friends and loses them; he gets drunk, stays in, and goes to work; he feels lonely and bored and desperate and contented. In other words, he has the same emotions and experiences as most of his readers, even if the exact ratio may heavily reflect his millennial-bohemian lifestyle. Meanwhile, the narration treats all of this with a uniform neutrality, as likely to gloss over an act of lovemaking between two sentences or to erase a whole year in a single clause as it is to dilate on the process of doing laundry with Zen-like attention.

If the non-voice that dominates the novel is not Robert’s, though, what is it? It might be the perspective to which Robert aspires, a Buddhist equanimity that would mean an escape from the round of vague desires that frustrates him, and into the simple awareness that seems to provide his most satisfied moments. Or it might mirror the cruel-seeming indifference of a universe without intrinsic meaning, in which one event is as random as another, regardless of how significant it may feel to us. Or is it the voice of Zachary German, the author as coldly rational observer split off from his autobiographical protagonist as suffering self?

It seems to be all of this and more, and is thus a subtly but intensely emotional thing, the object of both desire and repulsion, source of both comfort and abjection. Eat When You Feel Sad is finally, then, a love story about a style—a sort of “boy meets tone,” in which (as in any love story) author, reader, and protagonist are united in their shared fascination with an object that draws and eludes them, that defines and neglects them, that embraces and despises and ignores them all at once.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010


Norman Lock
Ellipsis Press ($13)

by Monica McFawn

When Guntur, the main character of Norman Lock’s Shadowplay, commits himself to the life of a dalang, a Javanese shadow-puppeteer, the narrator spells out his future: "Guntur would be . . . a shadow—a ghost—a teller of stories about shadows and ghosts to people who will be shadows and ghosts for him always." Guntur, perhaps like all storytellers, is bound to tell his story from behind a screen, separating himself from the world even as he aims to represent it. Just as adalang retells ancient and iconic stories in his puppet-theatre,Shadowplay is itself a fable that stages the storyteller's struggle between imagination and reality, experience and its record.

The basic plot of Shadowplay reworks the story of Orpheus and Eurydice: Guntur falls in love with Candra, a batik-dyer from a neighboring town; Candra dies, and Guntur retrieves her from the underworld with the help of his primary puppet, Arjuna. The plot is hardly straightforward, however, because the narration makes it unclear whether this is a story Guntur is experiencing or simply telling in his role as a dalang. The novel's prose—incantatory and circular—sounds as if it could have issued from Guntur himself, embellishing an invented myth from behind the puppet-screen. The narration is further complicated late in the novel when a first-person perspective breaks in, explaining that he read Guntur's story in an "Utrecht newspaper" and was prompted to relate the story because of a "women I had left long before in Amsterdam, who had died there of fever." Besides the uncertain teller, italicized questions interrupt the action, as if from an audience asking for clarification.

The dense layering of these devices is clearly intended to reflect on the act of storytelling itself, yet Lock's most interesting commentary appears not through these formal inventions but through the development of Guntur's obsession with Candra. When Guntur initially meets her, his interest has nothing to do with her looks, as he only speaks to her from behind a screen: "What Guntur desired was her words." He wants her story, not her body, and forces her to repeat her life history as a fisherman's daughter in exchange for walang—discarded puppets used for batik patterns. Lock seems to be commenting on the distancing effects of life as a storyteller, the tendency to assess the potential "retell" value of an experience even as it is occurring.

Guntur's interaction with Candra involves nothing more than hearing her story, but he is bereft when she dies. Lock offers fresh insight on the peculiar grief of losing someone who exists only as an idea, only in story:

A bereaved husband will press against him his dead wife's dress . . . In the end he will give the dress away or burn it, so that his mind can be relieved of its habit of sorrow. Guntur had nothing to burn, nothing to give away—nothing, therefore, with which to discharge his feeling of desolation.

The danger of stories, Lock implies, is that their very unreality can compound rather than make sense of loss. Storytelling is necessarily reductive, smoothing over inconsistencies and mystery to maintain a clear narrative line. Rather than aiming to know Candra in all her likely complexity, Guntur is more interested in the pared-away essence of her life; the problem is that he is left with nothing real with which to anchor, or even justify, his grief. Mistaking the story for the woman, the shadow for the object from which it is cast, he illustrates the fact that the narratives we use to make sense of the world sometimes do so at the expense of our experience of it.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010


Nnedi Okorafor
DAW Books ($24.95)

by Matthew Cheney

So much reverberates between the lines of Nnedi Okorafor's Who Fears Death that the greatest marvel among the many here is that the novel succeeds in creating music and not cacophony. Archetypes and clichés jangle against each other to evoke enchanting new sounds, old narratives fall into a harmony that reveals unseen realms, and the fact of the book as artifact becomes itself a shadow story to that on the pages within. Okorafor is up to all sorts of serious, necessary mischief, setting up one expectation after another and dashing them all like dominoes made of dust. When the dust settles, rich realities emerge.

Who Fears Death feels at first like a young adult novel, a conventional coming-of-age story about an outsider child who discovers she has magical powers, and just when the reader has decided that this book is, perhaps, a less whimsical Harry Potter sort of story, it matures into a Lord of the Rings quest in which a small band of friends set out to destroy a Dark Lord. But that doesn't last, either, because the moral equation here is more complex than the simple arithmetic of good vs. evil. And despite some epic moves, this is not an epic fantasy—the focus is on one person, the narrator Onyesonwu, whose name means "Who fears death?" and whose life is destined to change the shape of a post-apocalyptic Africa where the light-skinned Neru people terrorize the dark-skinned Okeke people. Onyesonwu is the child of a rape committed by a Neru man against an Okeke woman, making Onyesonwu an Ewu, the crime of her birth forever apparent in the not-quite-light/not-quite-dark color of her skin.

The effect of the engendering crime will ripple through Onyesonwu's life, but its meaning will metamorphose, as will she; it is not long before she and everyone around her discovers that she is a sorcerer of extraordinary power, destined to a tragic fate. That fate and its tragedy are inscribed on the interstices of Onyesonwu's world, for this is a novel where what is real is a kind of text. Writing in Who Fears Death is not only about memory and history and myth, but also about magic and power—certain alphabets can protect or destroy life, certain words can bind people eternally in love or hate, certain books can contain the entire universe. The forces of language and text are not academic ones for Okorafor's characters; these forces are among the most vital not only in the world of quotidian reality, but in the spirit realms that influence and shape the everyday lives of the visible plane.

There is nothing simple about this reality: its power may be textual, but the text teems with ambiguities and paradoxes. Onyesonwu is as much a savior of her world as Harry Potter is of his, but Okorafor knows that anyone who was the subject of such a fate would be haunted and possessed, tormented, forever destined to be misunderstood, resented, feared, hated. Onyesonwu's nemesis is as determined to create chaos and suffering as Sauron—he even appears to Onyesonwu as a giant eye—but Okorafor's imagination is more realistic than Tolkien's, less nostalgic for the heroism of macho myth and legend, and so the battles in the book are never thrilling, never described with loving detail. The quest feels pro forma; it exists so characters and readers can analyze it, but the thrills of the narrative lie elsewhere. The antagonist is almost humorously familiar, complete with a final scene where he talks like a cartoon villain about his dastardly plans, but his inevitable, predictable demise is not one of climactic agony. Again and again, the escapist alphabet of popular fiction and the simple runes of myth and legend appear upon the page, but just when it seems the novel will give in to the language of cliché, Okorafor brings us toward a greater understanding of the desires that allow habitual expressions and shopworn stories to maintain such power over our imaginations. We want suffering to bring enlightenment, we want Onyesonwu's revenge to achieve wholeness for herself and the world, we want love to triumph over all obstacles, we want friendship to be the source of eternal satisfaction, and most of all we want a rip-roaring good yarn.

And yet revenge provides little satisfaction. Sacrifice is more painful than ennobling. Martyrdom, too, is overrated. We know this, of course, and that's why we seek refuge in legends and stories—they're more satisfying than the ambiguities and loose threads of life. Such truths make this novel of an unreal world feel more real than most. All our escapist desires are teased, but Okorafor is too canny to indulge them. Her eye is sharp, not cynical, and satisfaction ensues, but the shallow satisfaction of escape is replaced with the rich reward of wisdom.

This is largely because Who Fears Death is a profoundly artificial novel; Okorafor uses artifice to encourage reflection on how stories, myths, and legends shape the world of their audience. Some of the ways Who Fears Death achieves this do not become fully apparent until the final pages, but they are hinted at from the first chapter. Instead of shifting the engines of verisimilitude into overdrive and presenting every detail purely for its reality effect, this book exploits the tropes of fiction, creating paradoxes even at the most basic level of its narration. For example, the story is told by Onyesonwu, and during most of the narration we are allowed to forget that she is telling her tale to someone who is writing it down. But every now and then a flourish reminds us and adds more information about where Onyesonwu is as she tells her story and who the person is who chronicles it.

The narration, though, has the form not of a transcribed soliloquy but of a novel, complete with complex dialogue and speech tags. In the world of the book, Onyesonwu's story has been wrought, her words made to conform to the conventions of fiction, and so the novelistic form of the storytelling is foregrounded. Even the dialogue is only semi-realistic—pauses and hesitations are indicated, but most of what the characters say is expository or didactic, with the results feeling more shaped than spoken. In the same way that it dances with a tremendous range of genres and modes, Who Fears Death unsettles the idea of a master narrative. The situation of the novel's telling is even more layered than it seems on a first encounter, and this complexity is exploited magnificently in the final chapters, where Okorafor takes our readerly assumptions and presumptions, our expectations and desires, and explodes them, daring us toward greater imagination while also exhorting us to think about our own world, our knowledge of it, and the ways we tell stories about what we know and don't know.

If the pleasures of Who Fears Death lie in its web of artifices—its mysteries and melodramas, coincidences and plot points, dei and machinas—its power issues from the resonances produced by the intersections of art and life. Okorafor has said the novel was partly inspired by a newspaper report of rape used as a weapon in Sudan. So, too, do other practices and problems inform the book, from the ritual practice of clitoridectomy to the more general power struggles embodied in generational disputes, clashes of cultures, assumptions about gender roles, and fear of difference.

All of these items could be dealt with in a novel set in a less imagined world, a novel more beholden to verisimilitude in its writing technique, but Okorafor knows that it is not just problems and practices that matter—it’s how we talk about them. Words have power, even in a world without sorcery, because words create our perception of the world, and our actions are founded on our perceptions. An African setting is an especially appropriate one for such an insight, because "Africa" did not exist until outsiders entered the continent and needed to define everything there as different from themselves, wrapping vastly varied cultures and landscapes into a single concept: other-than-us and, therefore, less-than-us. The effects of that unifying concept were, of course, profound. Similarly, European ideas of what is normal, civilized, advanced, and desirable continue to make it difficult to think outside those labels.

Novels such as Who Fears Death, which lay bare the artifice of terminology and open entire dictionaries of assumptions for analysis, serve not only as mirrors on the world, but as tools with which to reconfigure out perceptions of it, and therefore to affect our actions within it. Such novels give us an unreal world, and in so doing reveal to us the realities 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, Summer 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010


Alyssa Knickerbocker
 FlatmanCrooked ($10)

by Peter Grandbois

If Alyssa Knickerbocker’s Your Rightful Home is any indication, publisher FlatmanCrooked’s “New Novella” series walks softly but carries a big stick. It would be simplistic to call Your Rightful Home a loss of innocence story, though it is. More specifically, it’s a moving and elegant exploration of the ways in which we slowly lose control, despite our best efforts. “You are Snow White,” the narrator says of herself on the opening page. An apt analogy for a book about an act that will determine a life—an act, like the eating of a poison apple, that will send the narrator into a long sleep from which it may not be possible to awaken. The narrator follows with, “You are Lydia, sometimes, and she is you.” The two characters are interchangeable. The horrific events that will come to pass could easily happen the other way around—could happen, in fact, to the reader, which brings us to the second person point of view. Misused, the second person can feel forced, accusatory, but when it’s essential to the story, as it is here, it creates an almost incantatory rhythm that makes of the narrator, and the reader too, a suburban everywoman: “Lydia . . . lives in a one-story ranch house exactly like yours.” The voice is immediate and disturbingly intimate.

The plot hinges on an accusation that the narrator’s friend, Lydia, stole the narrator’s bracelet and the narrator’s subsequent attempt to hide the evidence that would exonerate her friend by throwing the bracelet into a creek: “You squint, trying to see, while the water soaks into the too-long yellow dress you are still wearing, seeping up towards your knees, your thighs, growing heavier . . . ” The elegant precision with which Knickerbocker builds her concrete and simple imagery belies the metaphorical weight each image carries to pull the narrator under until all she can do to fight for breath is tell the story of Lydia’s disappearance: “But if their stories are the kindling, then yours is the wood—the split log, dry and splintered, paper-white and yearning to burst into flame.” That yearning to burn up, to undo what has been done, what cannot be undone provides the conflict, the pulsing nerve at the center of this tight, powerful novella. What actions are possible in the face of regret? Only the desire to return to ash, the hope to start again.

The child’s naming game that opens the novella also closes it: “Ruby, you say. Princess Ruby.” It is a game of creation, an imaginary game, the only place a child can control her world. At the end, the adult narrator names her own daughter Ruby—a futile attempt at rebirth. The lesson of adulthood, and of Knickerbocker’s novella, is that sometimes all that’s left from the desire to burn away regret is smoke and ashes: “[Your mother] brings an old soup pot from the kitchen . . . and sits next to you in the grey twilight and then in the pitch dark, rubbing your back and blowing her ashy menthol smoke through the screen.”

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010


Adania Shibli
translated by Paula Haydar
Clockroot Books ($13)

by M. Lynx Qualey

Stories about the past often mislead: in order to create a satisfying whole, most writers carefully arrange history and memory, inventing links and causal connections. Sometimes, this results in good storytelling. But sometimes the task of an author—particularly one who writes about a hyper-symbolized terrain—is to un-narrativize, to pull things back apart.

Adania Shibli is up to this task. Touch brings us the fragmented worldview of a narrator at the cusp of understanding her world. The 72-page novella could be described as five interconnected prose poems, a historical fiction about the Palestinian territories set in 1982, or a coming-of-age tale in which maturation is marked not by a loss of innocence, but by an ever-growing loneliness and alienation.

Shibli, who was born in 1974, would have been eight years old during the book’s historical anchor, the Sabra and Shatila massacres. But this anchor is neither described nor lived by the characters. It is instead the young girl’s disassembly of the words “Sabra” and “Shatila” that is rendered in vivid, arresting prose.

The novella begins with the girl’s experience of the color of a giant water tank, her father’s infidelity, and her brother’s funeral. The items are almost evenly weighted, as they would be by a girl not yet sure how to arrange her memories. She finds a dark outfit to wear, but then discovers a hole in it. Heading to the gravesite:

The pushing became harder and harsher, and each time it would force her hand away from the hole, so she would press on it harder and harder, using all her strength, including that in her right hand. That hand now had weakened its hold on the bottle, and a little black liquid leaked out with each step she was pushed backward.

The events of Touch—the narrator’s brother’s death, her sister’s hasty marriage, the massacres—are never foregrounded. This is not the story an adult would tell about her childhood. Instead, Shibli breaks the story down into its component, sensory parts. It’s the narrator’s attempt to see colors, to hear sounds, and to take hold of her own thoughts that are given center stage.

This can at times be confusing, particularly when issues of Arabic-English translation muddy the waters. At one point, the narrator takes her father’s books off the shelf, and is baffled by the literary (fos’ha) Arabic. Translator Paula Haydar makes a good attempt, but—unless the reader understands the differences between literary and colloquial Arabic—the translation doesn’t really make sense:

The little girl then started to picture something in her mind, then very quickly stuck the new word to whatever that was before a spoken word could reach it.

Egyptian author Ahdaf Souief has pronounced Adania Shibli “the most talked-about author on the West Bank.” While it’s difficult to assess the reality of such a statement, Shibli certainly has found new and affecting ways of structuring the experience of dislocation and violence, and her prose—even through the lens of translation—startles the reader into re-imagining the familiar.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010


Stefan Zweig
translated by Anthea Bell
Pushkin Press ($13)

by Jesse Freedman

At the climax of Joseph Roth’s Flight Without End (1927), the displaced Austrian lieutenant Franz Tunda attributes his sorrowful condition to a “chain of circumstances” beyond his control. Homeless, stateless, a man “without importance,” Tunda experiences the sort of suffering to which Stefan Zweig subjects the young Ludwig in his recently recovered novella, Journey into the Past. For Roth and Zweig, Tunda and Ludwig, victimization is never a mere accident; it is instead “by decree.”

Now available for the first time in English, Journey into the Past begins with a request that the aspiring chemist Ludwig serve as private secretary to a local Councilor. Hoping to escape the poverty of his youth, Ludwig accepts the offer, moving to the Councilor’s home in Frankfurt. Here he falls in love with the Councilor’s wife, described by Zweig as a “bourgeois Madonna.” Tragedy strikes, however, when Ludwig is sent to Mexico, where he corresponds with his nameless lover until that “disastrous day” in 1914 when events in Sarajevo triggered war across the continent. Ludwig returns to Germany nine years later, determined, for the remainder of the novella, to recover what Zweig labels “old history.”

Like Roth, with whom he shared Jewish ancestry, Zweig is wedded to a conception of the past in which individuals surrender to the weight and momentum of historical events. It is with “total indifference,” for instance, that Zweig characterizes the arrival of the First World War. But whereas Roth links the “hands of fate” with geographical displacement and the loss of identity, Zweig associates it, rather like Proust or Kundera, with remembrance. “Pitilessly,” he writes, the War “tore up . . . the lives and thoughts of millions.” The conflict produced “ash,” remarks Ludwig, grey layers of which cover the memory of his beloved.

Separated from the Councilor’s wife by the unyielding “rhythm” of World War I, but inspired, nevertheless, by reunion, Ludwig exists for much of this masterful novella in a space traversed by Tunda as well—one somewhere between resignation and expectation. Inhabiting a time “no longer real,” Ludwig demands confessions, responses to questions posed long ago. Sometimes, concludes Zweig, “the shadows” return; at other moments, however, they remain hidden, begging to be left alone. For Ludwig, memory and reality walk side by side, courting each other with a “kind of sick curiosity.”

Exiled to England following Hitler’s rise to power, Zweig—who took his own life in 1942, less than ten years after watching his books burn in Berlin—seems ultimately to have intended Journey into the Past as a lament: indeed, as Anthea Bella observes in her insightful afterward to this edition, it was for the “old, civilized world” of Empire and Monarchy that Zweig longed. Like Roth, Zweig praised the notion of “pan-European culture”—and just below the surface of Journey into the Past, he bemoans its untimely death.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010


Ammiel Alcalay
City Lights Publishers ($11.95)

by Paula Koneazny

Islanders opens with a man seated at a table, lost in memory, thinking about writing a story. But as he listens to an older woman reminisce about hearing War of the Worlds on the radio, he considers the ethics of writing anything at all:

Two stories he had read years ago stuck to him . . . he thought about the men that wrote them, saw the men themselves, in long overcoats with cigarettes, hunched over coffee in some diner . . . completely removed from what they were writing about, the people they wrote of never imagining they were being written about, the idea that someone was recording the facts of their lives . . .

Ammiel Alcalay disrupts every attempt to sustain memory, to make Islanders into a story; other memories always intrude to displace characters and location. The story becomes that of the act of remembering itself. First, there is childhood and a girl, a playmate to wrestle with and run after, a succession of rundown schools where classes are often skipped. Later, there is an island and a decision to stay through the winter. A shack below the hill and a girl named Josie and her father Casey and her dead brother Lee who went off to war. There are work buddies, drinking buddies: Abe, Nap, Eric, and Caldwell, the guy Sam worked for. There’s an accident: Nap shoots a hole in the palm of his hand while duck hunting. And work, it’s always about work and its camaraderie, work that involves the body and engines: classic cars, fishing boats, trucks. A remark that “he never minded work” recalls Alcalay’s 2007 book Scrapmetal and its interruptive litany of jobs, ones the author held before becoming a professional writer and intellectual.

A “steady fog” envelops almost every scene in Islanders, diffusing the narrative. One might call this the fog of nostalgia, except that it heightens rather than diminishes the hard facts of the past; the fog of memory is also the fog of history and war. In both the hardscrabble fishing villages and the worn-down cities of the Northeast, many of the slightly older men wear army jackets, indicative of where they’ve been. Boys and men go away. Some come back. Some don’t. Some go to war (unnamed, but we know it’s Vietnam, because we’re shown a tacked-up clipping eulogizing Louis Armstrong, who died in 1971). The word gone takes on both the sense of gone off (to war, to work, to the city; never to college, ever) and of dead. Finally, there’s the gone of abandonment: parents neglecting children, husbands leaving wives, friends and lovers forgetting to call or write: “Soon after that Abe, Barbara, Seana, and even Isaac moved to the country. Jessie too moved with her father who went from place to place. She came back every now and then but that stopped. Sam wrote to her every now and then, but that stopped too.”

The slide toward violence in Islanders, particularly on the part of drunken fathers, ultimately defeats nostalgia, and everything funnels toward two short tales near the end. In one, a boy, is wasting away from malnutrition until finally he is thrown out of a boat and left to drown, presumably by his father or older brother. In the other, a boy is stranded on a buoy by his father, punished for having asked about the reindeer that some boys claim to see in the red and white lights blinking offshore. Patriarchy run amok (“The other brothers had abandoned him . . . The new boy was his, all his, and he kept him close whenever he could”) ultimately defeats both father and son. The boy’s fate, his fatal predicament—he does what his father tells him to do, because he is his father—brings to mind Cydney Chadwick’s “Routine” from her collection Flesh and Bone, in which a father repeatedly throws his son headfirst down a staircase to toughen him up for a trick. In Chadwick’s tale, however, the boy, Buster Keaton, gets so good at the performance that he finally upstages his father. In Alcalay’s version, there is no such way out.

This isn’t an upbeat book. Its beauty is as stark and obscured as its fog-shrouded coastal setting. If Ammiel Alcalay’s Islanders is an account of the search for intimacy—and it is—it is the intimacy of violence, betrayal, and loss as much as that of friendship and sex. There is no real arc to the storytelling; it just goes on and on. Thus, the end of the book might just as well be its beginning: “Will you wait? Will you be there when I get back? Will you wait? I’ll always only go a minute.”

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Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010


Jean-Philippe Toussaint
translated by John Lambert
Dalkey Archive Press ($12.95)

by Salvatore Ruggiero

It’s common for American undergraduate liberal arts students to spend a semester abroad, experiencing new cultures and putting their diverse education to use in unfamiliar lands. But unless the student has family out there, is completely fluent in the host country’s language, or has just an affinity for this newfound otherness, said student will cluster together with his fellow study-abroad cohorts and see this experience mostly as an extended holiday from home. It really wouldn’t have mattered if they were in Tokyo or Paris, Johannesburg or Vladivostok.

Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s new novella, Self-Portrait Abroad, showcases the notion that experiences to be had outside our home country’s borders really don’t feel so different than those within. Experiences aren’t unique because of location; they are unique because of our perception. Within the first paragraph, the Belgian narrator describes Tokyo as such:

You arrive in Tokyo the way you arrive in Bastia, from the sky. The plane flies in a long arc above the bay and aligns with the runway to touch down. Seen from above, at four thousand feet, there isn’t much difference between the Pacific and the Mediterranean.

The first line seems to channel the opening of Beckett’s Murphy: “The sun rose, having no alternative, on the nothing new.” There’s nothing special to note; what is described is quotidian. Toussaint’s narrative is preparing the reader for a Hanna-Barbera cartoon experience: you’re going to focus on the action between the characters, not the rotating background that only adds slightly to the situation.

Self-Portrait Abroad is more like a series of vignettes, journal entries, and random stories of amusing excursions collected by the narrator. As the narrator is a writer himself, many of these travels are due to book tours, meeting his foreign publishers, and chance encounters that he feels are meant to be documented. In the chapter “Tokyo,” our narrator finds himself with “the scruchjètta (the word is Corsican) . . . a sort of pain in the kidneys that can strike you at any time.” It’s not due to anything that he does in Japan; rather he explains his pain as: “linked to the general weakening of my back since this summer when I carried my daughter down to the beach on my shoulders every day. . . I made an abrupt turning movement that twisted my spine.” It’s humorous that the first preoccupation of “Tokyo” is thisscruchjètta and its Corsican etymology, as well as its link to the narrator’s home life. The only reason Tokyo plays a part is because the narrator happens to be there at the time for cooking lessons, a bit that opens this tale up from being a trifle on a painful experience and creates a depth to the narrator’s story.

One of the more thrilling chapters is “Cap Corse (The Best Day of My Life),” the title of which feels like it could belong to a Jonathan Ames essay collection. It recapitulates the narrator’s Pynchonesque ride to victory at a boules tournament, which happens to occur not far from the narrator’s home. The odds seem against him and his partner, a “disparate, morganatic” pair. Their amusing competition is mixed with delightful insights into the world around them. A poster announces the tournament in a font called “New York”; the partners play at not speaking “like astronauts with less than an hour before take off”; and there’s

a Japanese woman who, not seeming at all ready to dismount, remained seated on the back of the scooter looking every bit like some hitherto unclassified mythological creature (neither siren nor seahorse: the top half a Japanese woman and the bottom half a scooter), carefully holding a bright yellow surfboard under her arm.

Descriptions like these make Toussaint’s novella fun to read, a light but carefully created work with recurring images and characters that loosely connect these seemingly incongruent chapters. Self-Portrait Abroad reminds us that we don’t have to travel to exotic places to have memorable experiences—and when we do travel, sometimes those experiences could have happened at home, like those of the unadventurous exchange student.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010