Tag Archives: Summer 2013

NATIVE AMERICAN CLASSICS

Graphic Classics Volume 24
Edited by Tom Pomplun
Eureka Productions ($17.95)

by Dave Wagner and Paul Buhle

If there is a theme linking the most ambitious narratives in this wonderful collection, it’s the representation of the natural world as a kind of supernatural democracy. In a crisis, every creature has an equal voice. It is given respect for its specialized knowledge, its unique hunting abilities, its relation to the spirits and its style of teasing and humor. The animals that cooperate with human beings across species lines in hunting or in self-defense create permanent alliances, from which the names of the human clans and lineages emerge. And every lineage has its own story to tell.

At first impression, it seems the editors chose the stories in Native American Classics to favor these themes. On closer inspection, however, it becomes clear that the Native American storytellers themselves shaped their stories this way because that’s the way their cultures are organized in the first place, and the way they want them to be understood and remembered. There’s also an historical context for these narrative unities, for most of the storytellers here were born in the late 19th century, were bilingual and bicultural, and were devoted to capturing in prose the life they had known in childhood. The pre-World War I period is remembered through the photos of Edward Curtis and for the flowering of U.S. scholarship on American Indian culture, but it should also be remembered as a time when the first American Indians became scholars and writers on their own terms. Some of the best of their popular writing is preserved in this volume and illustrated by some of the best contemporary comics artists, Native American and otherwise.

The immediate difficulty for the editors was how to select stories that do justice to a vast population that lacked anything resembling a common language and often shared little more from region to region than their presence on the emerging map of European conquest—and perhaps the ability to adapt their specific cultures over millennia to contrasting wetlands, deserts, mountains, and radically different food sources. Although the subject is so diverse, difficult and diffuse as to defy compact storytelling, this volume tackles the problem by showing, first, the commonalities of these cultures, and then the effects of the European invasion.

On the first point, there is the skilled hand of artist Robby McMurtry, based on a 1909 tale by Charles Alexander Eastman, “On Wolf Mountain,” showing the wolves as skillful allies of their fellow plains-dwellers when a “hairy-faced” (i.e., bearded) white man introduces sheep into the environment. The sheep shear the grass to its roots, depriving the buffalo of its food, and by extension the Indians and the wolves as well. The sheep-man sees it as his right to exterminate the wolves entirely and regards the Indians in the same light, but the wolves join the humans to fight back, with a level of planning and strategic intelligence, not to mention bravery, that is the heart of the tale. Chased by men, horses and dogs, the wolf hero gets away. His trials cover six or seven of the loveliest for-color, comic art pages we have ever read.

McMurtry’s fate was worse than the wolf’s. He is described in the contributors notes as a victim of “a shooting at his home” shortly after he completed “On Wolf Mountain.” He was part Comanche (along with many other parts) and laconically claimed to have been raised by wolves near Loco, Oklahoma. He wrote plays and created graphic novels on Native American themes, and deserves to be remembered for what he achieved, the titles of which are given here and deserve exploration. Other artists in this volume include members of the Chemehuevi/Navajo, Apache, and Kickapoo tribes, as well as the Chickasaw, Creek and Yaqui, just to mention a few.

The stories that deal with the European invasion have an eerie quality that represents not merely a sense of loss but a confusion caused by a sincere engagement with a culture that at times seems deranged. There is the example of the lead story, “The Soft-Hearted Sioux,” adapted from a first-person tale by Zitkala Sa, published in 1901. Like a number of others, including the book’s frontispiece poem (“After a Sermon at the Church of Infinite Confusion”), it confronts the Christianity forced upon young Indians as they were torn away from their tribal traditions. Here a youngster of the late 19th century returns home wearing allegedly civilized garb, and inevitably holding a bible. He brings disaster upon his aged father, and in seeking to find meat for the old man, brings disaster upon himself.

One of the most powerful stories in the collection is told by Handsome Lake, the Seneca prophet, who offers his own explanation of European colonialism. It was all a strategic plan by the white man’s own Satan to increase his empire by seizing the entire North American continent. He accomplishes this in acts so evil that the devil himself comes to regret them. Another story in this vein is the valuable “Anoska Nimiwina,” drawn with such mystic power by Afua Richardson that the eye jumps to the page. It tells the Indian side of the story of what whites have always opprobriously called the “Ghost Dance,” which here has nothing to do with becoming invisible to enemy bullets; it’s a powerful explanation of how a daughter of the defeated side in an inter-tribal war began the process of uniting all of the tribes in a single vision of peace and Indian unity.

Another valuable tale is “The Middle Man” drawn by Terry Laban, from a 1909 tale that is rarely if ever told in the various sagas of the frontier, at least not with this kind of historical specificity. The art is highly “cartoony,” almost Archie-like, but this gives the story a tone of chipper irony. A land agent, the titular middle man, has found a great way to get rich though the Dawes Act of 1887. It was supposedly intended to make Indian integration into American society easier, but in fact it facilitated the systematic theft of the scarce remaining Indian communal lands. Or of their oil rights, which amounts to the same thing. In this case, a land purchase is swiftly turned into a $6,000 profit for the land agents, a $25 payoff to a collaborating tribesman, and ten bucks for the landowner, a grandmother with no English. Better than outright stealing—except, of course, for the Indians.

There’s much more to be said about the remarkable qualities of these writers, but the reader will find many of them in a surprising place: the pages of notes on the contributors. It’s a virtual catalogue of Native American writers at the turn of the 20th century, some from the frontier but others from Eastern and Midwestern cultures. Their personal sagas are so diverse (and interesting) that they fill five pages of small-type biography. There contributions are not only in short stories but also in poems and what might easily be called theological meditations.

Similarly there is a generous sampling of the work of today’s comics artists, Native and otherwise, who clearly have an affection for juvenile literature or western lore. Study these contributors entries one by one, then turn back to the stories and you come away with a rudimentary sort of education in what has been done, and what can be done, with a literature so important to any grasp of American history. For this reason above all, Native American Classicsis a book to treasure and place in the hands of the young.


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IN THE CITY OF BIKES: The Story of the Amsterdam Cyclist

Pete Jordan
Harper Perennial ($15.99)

by Emily Loberg

Open this book, hop on a bike, and explore the streets of Amsterdam. It can be any bike, perhaps one with wobbling wheels, a creaking frame, or porous tire tubes patched to oblivion. In Amsterdam, the bicycle capital of the world, cyclists dominate the streets, and everyone cycles—businessmen clad in suits, couples holding hands, pregnant women, children, the elderly, and even the queen. In the City of Bikes springs from American author Pete Jordan’s semester spent studying urban planning in Amsterdam, which turns into a lifetime as the city’s bicycle culture draws him in. Soon after his arrival, his newlywed wife Amy Joy joins him in Amsterdam, where they eventually come to own their own bicycle store and raise their son.

Fascinated with Dutch cycling culture, Jordan combs through newspapers, magazines, diaries, and any archive available with references to bicycles. In this book, Holland’s bicycling history comes alive with quotations from policemen, activists, journalists, and government officials. Beginning with the bike’s initial popularity in the 1890s, Jordan dramatizes the evolution of Amsterdam’s bike theft problem, the futile efforts of the police to quell bicycle traffic and parking chaos, the impact of the Nazi occupation on the cycling culture, the anarchist movement to implement a communal bike system, and the competition between bicycles and automobiles.

Through these accounts, Dutch cyclists emerge as a collective body that defies eradication and resists regulations, from red lights to parking prohibitions. When the Nazis attempt to confiscate Amsterdam residents’ bicycles, they were quick to warn each other and hide these most cherished possessions in their houses and buried in their backyards. When new tires were unavailable during the occupation, people fashioned tires out of garden hoses or rode on wheels without tires. Whenever police imposed regulations on cyclists, crowds gathered:

Of course, just as when Amsterdam’s cops first directed street traffic, when they set the first cycling speed traps, when they held the first stop signs, when they conducted the first stoplights and when they cited cyclists without tax plates, Amsterdam’s cops drew a ready audience. So an official warning to stay away was received by many as an explicit invitation to attend.

Interwoven with these histories are moments from Jordan’s life in Amsterdam as he transforms from an unwitting tourist walking in the bike path, which he thinks is a sidewalk, to a seasoned cyclist whisking his son around the city. Like the streets, even the canals of Amsterdam are filled with discarded bicycles, and the city employs bike-fishers to excavate them, a sight that bike-fanatic Jordan is eager to share with his son: “Some papas long for that day when they take their son to his first ballgame. Me? I was excited that my boy would get to witness his first bike-fishing expedition.” Each page of this delightful book exudes Jordan’s passion for bicycles, as evidenced by his often-cited reason for staying in Amsterdam: “Whenever anyone asked why I had immigrated to Holland, I didn’t hesitate to reply: ‘So I can be stuck in a bicycle traffic jam at midnight.’”


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CRAPALACHIA: A Biography of a Place

Scott McClanahan
Two Dollar Radio ($16)

by Alex Miller

Scott McClanahan’s Crapalachia is a powerful remembrance of the uncles and grandparents who raised him in West Virginia and the friends he ran with. It’s the story of a place that no longer exists and loved ones who all have died or gone away.

The book, as the author points out in the appendix, is a memoir cut with industrial-grade fiction. It’s full of stories about crazy grandmothers and fistfights in junior high; it’s about uncles who drink beer through medical feeding tubes and brag about having balls the size of hog balls. The stories feel epic. They are the kind of tales that warp kids for life—but in a good way. They are about grief and loneliness and love.

I sat in school and I read about how everything changes even in Crapalachia. I read about how the miners became machines, and the loggers became the machines and the tiny roads turned into interstates and the towns became fast food drive thru’s and gas stations and the people became people to serve tourists and let tourists laugh at their accents.

McClanahan’s prose is straightforward, casual, and enjoyable to read, reminiscent at times of Kurt Vonnegut. His use of italics and capital letters can be annoying, but it helps to establish a strong and personable voice. McClanahan isn’t afraid to interrupt his stories to address the reader directly. “Listen,” he’ll say before dropping a bomb on you. And there’s a pleasantly Vonnegut-ian wisdom to the book. McClanahan writes about how, for people who are suffering, life isn’t too short but unbearably long:

The theme of this book is a sound. It goes like this: Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick. It’s the sound you’re hearing now, and it’s one of the saddest sounds in the world.

The characters in Crapalachia are wild people who have learned to cope with a frightening level of weirdness and mayhem. The narrator’s grandmother Ruby fakes illness and calls an ambulance when she wants attention or a ride to the store for a gallon of milk. A guy named Bill breaks into a house looking for pills and then beats an old woman to death with a block of wood. There’s plenty not to like about these characters, but McClanahan’s stories reveal them with depth and grace:

This is a lie I was told as a child, but it’s still true. The New River is one of the only two rivers that flows directly north. The other one is a river called the Nile. Those rivers are inside of me. I have a river inside my heart. You have a river inside your heart. There are diamonds inside both of us. We are all flowing north.

Crapalachia is one of the rare books that, after you reach the end, you don’t get up to check your e-mail or Facebook or watch TV. You just sit quietly and think about the people of the book and how they remind you of people you used to know. You feel lucky to have known them, and you feel grateful to McClanahan for the reminder.


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COUNTRY GIRL

Edna O’Brien

Little, Brown ($27.99)
by Chris Beal

Like a bevy of other Irish writers, Edna O’Brien exiled herself from her native land, clearly unwelcome because of the raw sexuality in her writing. She lived in London for most of her adult life, and it was there that she wrote her first novel, The Country Girls, published in 1960. In her new memoir Country Girl, she describes her desperation to get all she wanted to say onto paper:

The words tumbled out, like the oats on threshing day that tumble down the shaft, the hard pellets of oats funneled into bags and the chaff flying everywhere, getting into the men’s eyes and their having to shout to be heard above the noise of the machine. . . . I cried a lot while writing The Country Girls, but scarcely noticed the tears. Anyhow, they were good tears. They touched on feelings that I did not know I had. Before my eyes, infinitely clear, came that former world in which I believed that our fields and hollows had some old music slumbering in them, centuries old.

This first novel, then, reflected all that the Ireland of O’Brien’s youth meant to her, and perhaps that is why, when she covers the same material in her memoir, the chapters fall a little flat. The story picks up, though, when she elopes with the man who would become her husband and with whom she would bear two children. Unfortunately, it did not take young Edna long to realize that belonging to a husband is no more liberating than belonging to a father—and, if we take O’Brien’s word for it—her husband did indeed insist on owning her. Envious of her literary success, he demanded that she sign every check she received for her work over to him, and when, after years, she one day finally refused, she knew it would be the end of the marriage. The subsequent fight for custody of her children, and her surprising victory, is told in heart-wrenching detail. Although she had her share of loves and lovers, she never married again.

Through the course of her life, O’Brien seemed to know everyone who was anyone. 1960s London after her divorce was particularly stimulating. Her tale of taking LSD under R.D. Laing’s supervision—he left her alone while she was still high, then sent her a hefty bill for his services—catches the mood of the period perfectly. These chapters read like a who’s who of the literary and entertainment worlds: Paul McCartney, Jackie Onassis, Jane Fonda, Roger Vadim, Shirley MacLaine, Richard Burton, and more.

And yet, for all the gossipy details, O’Brien’s tale has a certain restraint: we learn what happened but less of how the author felt about the events she describes. Readers accustomed to the no-holds-barred confessional tone of modern memoirs may find themselves wanting to know more about O’Brien’s inner life. For example, she is at odds with the Catholic Church, mainly because of her sexually explicit writing, but she was raised a Catholic and schooled in a convent. Did she ever struggle to overcome what she had been taught? She describes the outer struggles, but not the inner guilt.

Another example: late in her career, she was in America giving a reading when a listener came up to her afterward and “asked me why I had been so unforgiving of my mother in my fiction, and lo, the glass of red wine literally floated out of my hand . . . I can still see the little crimson puddle on a white rug. A message from beyond.” We infer that the subject is still raw for O’Brien, that her love for her mother and subsequent alienation from her are still unresolved. But we want to know how O’Brien lives with, or tries to reconcile, those two aspects of her relationship with her mother.

The closing chapters of Country Girl reflect the way we think of older people’s thought process, looping in and out of the present as various scenes and events recall those from the long ago past. And the final chapter, in which O’Brien returns to visit her childhood home, now in ruins, is the perfect ending to this tale of a woman who has lived life on her own terms, loving and writing about love in prose that has rarely been equaled.


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NÂZIM HIKMET: The Life and Times of Turkey’s World Poet

Mutlu Konuk Blasing
Persea Books ($27.95)

by Mark Gustafson

A revolutionary poet adept at epic, lyric, and didactic modes, Nâzım Hikmet gained international renown for his dedication to the common good—at great personal expense. He continues to exemplify hope in the face of oppression, and his indomitable love of life remains an inspiration. Those of us who can’t read Turkish and who love modern literature are indebted to the efforts of scholar Mutlu Konuk and her husband, poet Randy Blasing, whose co-translations of Poems of Nâzım Hikmetand the epic Human Landscapes from My Country have done much to ensure Hikmet’s legacy in the English language. Now Konuk’s biography takes us further, helping to fill in the background of this 20th-century giant’s essential work.

Born in 1902, into a family of the Ottoman upper class, the grandson of a Sufi poet and follower of Rumi, Hikmet began writing poems during his school years in Istanbul. Still a teenager, he joined Atatürk’s forces and the war for independence. While his eyes were being opened by time spent with the wounded and dying, he was also learning of Marx and Engels, of class struggle, the proletariat, and imperialism. Thus both his nationalist and internationalist commitments grew. Intending to see the Russian Revolution at first hand, he went to Moscow, studied at the university, and encountered the poetry of Mayakovsky. In 1924 he returned to Istanbul, where he wrote for Socialist newspapers. His reckless impulsivity did not make him a good TKP (Turkish Communist Party) member; he broke away, forming his own alternative party. Still, Konuk notes “an official and abiding bondage of the poet to the ideologue.”

His first book came in 1929, “formal political poetry in a voice at once lyric and public.” Although he was imprisoned for nine months, and blacklisted upon his release, “he was the best selling and most widely read author in Istanbul.” He remained an agitator, a loose cannon, charismatic, fearless, and outspoken; his poems led to his arrest in 1938 on the charge of “inciting military cadets to revolt.” The subsequent twelve years in prison, Konuk says, “made him into the poet he became”:

He learned about hunger, poverty, and injustice as he listened to his fellow inmates, and he got to know the stories and legends, the idioms and the vernaculars, of Anatolian culture . . . Prison gave his poetry a social and historical breadth and texture—a broader range and a deeper resonance.

Gaining in conviction and authority, he managed, for the most part, to maintain his equilibrium and his optimism. He called Bursa Prison a “Stone Airplane” in which he occasionally took wing:

I look at the night through the bars,
and despite the weight on my chest
my heart still beats with the most distant stars.

His prison poems are often communications with his wife. During his internment, Hikmet steadily wrote and translated, took up woodcarving, and set up a weaving cooperative, “his major enterprise.”

Formal appeal for his release began in 1949. Tristan Tzara founded the “Save Nâzım Hikmet” committee in Paris, which included Éluard, Neruda, Sartre, and Picasso. Paul Robeson and Howard Fast were speaking out for Hikmet in the U.S. The World Peace Council conference awarded him the International Peace Prize and, in 1950, he was released, in very poor health. His first words were: “’Life’s beautiful, brother!’” But the Turkish authorities were not done with him. Soon a draft notice came. He fled to Moscow, where he lived on income from his poems and plays, becoming a “prominent figure in the Moscow theater.” Constantly under surveillance in Russia, as he had been in Turkey, he traveled in Europe “with his work for world peace,” and also to China, Africa, and Cuba (always with a “shadow”). Hikmet died in exile in 1963.

For a prolific and relatively long-lived writer, the writings themselves are most revealing. We may take Konuk’s remark on “the inextricability and irreconcilability of the poet’s art and life” as an acknowledgment of the challenge that any literary biographer faces. Hikmet “comes to us swathed in legends,” given the many memoirs and biographies written by friends and acquaintances. Also, as Konuk notes, “Nâzım made up his life story as he went along, and he is no more reliable a source of information about his life than anyone else.” Aware of the hazardous and delicate nature of her undertaking, she says: “Different Nâzıms lived different histories in different places.”

The book’s three-part structure, chronological on its face but also sensibly topical, is further pleasingly enclosed in a circle, beginning and ending with the same poem. Konuk’s treatment of the external circumstances of politics and society, and of Hikmet’s own experience of prison, exile, and repression, is outstanding. A man of words, he “arrived at an ideologically charged moment of linguistic fluidity and vitality.” Atatürk’s radical introduction in 1928 of a new alphabet (switching from Arabic to Latin) had various mind-boggling ramifications. Konuk nicely elucidates these and their effect on Hikmet’s poetry.

The author also shines as a literary critic, providing sensitive discussion of Hikmet’s stylistic evolution—including early experiments with typography, playing with font sizes, using cinematic cuts (his filmic involvements were many)—as modernist poetics and anti-imperialist politics converged. To address new social and historical realities, neither the traditional Ottoman verse nor the syllabics of newer poets seemed adequate. He developed his own free-verse form, a new sound, sometimes combining poetry and prose, and later wrote in long lines without punctuation. He continued using the whole of human experience in a collectivist, egalitarian way, firmly grounded in his own language, addressing the lyric subjects of love, death, time, loss, and memory, speaking to all.

There are, however, some flaws in Konuk’s approach. While she makes references to a number of poets, Konuk tends to favor T.S. Eliot as a voice of authority, which is too narrow a purview for the material at hand. Also disappointing is that, in spite of some obvious similarities to poets like Pablo Neruda, César Vallejo, Yannis Ritsos, Mahmoud Darwish, and Thomas McGrath, Konuk mentions them only in passing, or not at all.

But the largest hole in this book, one that will need to be filled by a subsequent biographer, is the somewhat perfunctory examination of Hikmet’s internal circumstances. Especially glaring is a lack of psychological depth. Konuk acknowledges the existence of certain personal issues, but then stops short, shortchanging the poignancy of his lyric self, the passionate expressions of love for life, as well as our adequate understanding of his mind and character. For example, about Hikmet’s wives, she says: “The loves came in succession, but they also significantly overlapped, which made for a pain that seems to have been for him another essential ingredient of love’s definitive impossibility.” But this guy had some deep issues with women, with his mother, with his parents’ divorce, with infidelity and abandonment—issues that cannot simply be ascribed to the hardships of prison and exile. An autopsy, a lurid tell-all, is not required, rather a full and empathetic portrait which conveys his personality, his identity, his interior self, and thereby brings him back to life.

Konuk’s stated awareness of the specific requirements of the genre of literary biography makes her incomplete synthesis of the important facts about his private and public life all the more surprising. She certainly does not intend this to be a comprehensive, “definitive” biography; we neither get, nor do we want, all of the details, but we do deserve a representative selection.

One of the contradictions of modern Turkey, where governmental suppression of journalists and writers is still a serious problem, is that Hikmet, the “romantic Communist,” is almost universally acknowledged as the nation’s poet. “For him, poetry was both the highest art and a potent social force. Its aesthetic charge was inseparable from its social and political charge.” “On Death Again” ends:

Whoever dies first,
however
and wherever we die,
you and I
can say we loved
each other
and the people’s greatest cause
—we fought for it—
we can say
“We lived.”


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THE END OF SAN FRANCISCO

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore
City Lights ($15.95)

by Mariana Roa Oliva

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore has a model for relationships that says: “First you reveal everything, and then when you can’t think of anything else to reveal you go deeper.” In The End of San Francisco, Sycamore lets the reader feel the bitter sweetness of that relationship model, the “push-pull of intimacy” that makes the process of excavating memories so painful but so cathartic, so difficult but so urgent.

A visit to her father’s deathbed to confront him about sexually abusing her as a child is the first stop Sycamore makes on this non-linear memoir. The rest of the journey is not any less emotionally piercing. We are there when she loses her friend JoAnne to a heroin overdose (or perhaps to a hospital that refuses her health care), when she starts turning tricks in San Francisco, and as she confronts the racism and transphobia that permeates even the most progressive groups in New York and Boston and perhaps everywhere.

The centrality of activism in Sycamore’s life makes this memoir a vivid description of the unbreakable link between personal experiences and political issues. Her model for relationships could be adapted to say: “First you rebel against everything, and then when you can’t think of anything else to rebel against, you go deeper.” And how not to rebel against police brutality, institutionalized violence, and the corporate agendas of the gay mainstream when their effects are constantly present in your life and the lives of those around you.

Some may see in Sycamore’s relentless criticism of everything from consumerism and gentrification to hipsters and “scenesters” a somewhat stereotypical attitude among radical circles. However, her years of experience as an organizer and the deep reflection, empathy, and introspection she demonstrates help her create a clear, intelligent, and human portrait of this position and of a scene that might be foreign to some readers. For those who are already familiar with queer movements and ideas, The End of San Francisco will be interesting as well for the insider details it includes on emblems of radical engagement in the ’90s, such as Gay Shame, ACT UP, The Mission, and Dumba.

But Sycamore’s relationship model could also be modified to add: “First you revel in everything, and then when you can’t think of anything else to revel in you go deeper,” because we also stay up all night with her at Together, that first gay club, dancing “for the echo, for the cement, for the other balconies, probably not for the ocean as much because by the time we remembered the ocean we were just dancing” and then staring into Derek’s eyes still on her “in a way that means I’m here, we’re here, we’re here together.”

This book might be about the end of San Francisco “as a place where marginalized queers could try to figure out a way to cope,” but after reading it one thinks that perhaps there was never a beginning to this place. Perhaps we still have to figure out ways to cope, reveal, rebel, revel, and be together.


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VS. DEATH NOISES

Marcus Pactor
Subito Press ($14)

by John Pistelli

John Gardner’s venerable The Art of Fiction ends with a set of pedagogical prompts, many of which are designed to teach that aesthetic tact whereby the young writer will learn to evoke great emotion without wallowing in sentimentality: “Describe a building as seen by a man whose son has just been killed in a war. Do not mention the son, war, death, or the old man doing the seeing . . .” The most successful and moving stories in Marcus Pactor’s debut collection, Vs. Death Noises, read like responses to Gardner’s exercises. Pactor at his best is an inventor: he builds ingenious narrative devices that tell stories of loss and grief while describing something else entirely.

The narrator of “Robot Voice Babble,” for instance, recounts a day spent online and on the phone, checking social networks, reading the news, writing his congressman, and fighting with the eponymous robot voice about his credit card bill. Pactor concisely suggests the sheer mindless chatter of the Internet as his narrator trawls the message boards:

Sample post headings: President’s melanin count—the truth! . . . Citizenship is for the lawful . . . Ray Lewis—overrated? . . . I dream of Clinton . . . All you conservatives think . . . All you libs think . . . C.A.—Still hot? (original ellipses and spacing)

But we gradually realize that the narrator has turned to all this semiotic detritus after his mother’s death, perhaps by suicide. When he wishes at the story’s end to hear a command from God that will stop the noise, we understand that the story confronts the lethal noises of our culture’s abundant prattle with those authentic death noises that portend an encounter with the ultimate.

This existential confrontation, along with our many ways of evading it, is the central theme of the collection. As Gardner’s exercises suggest, however, evasion can also be a way of registering damage indirectly, so that we’ve already learned a harsh truth before we’ve had time to flinch. The least compelling stories in Vs. Death Noises are conversely too literal, directly treating death and grief in a way that recalls Gardner’s notorious advocacy of earnestly Tolstoyan “moral fiction.”

Vs. Death Noises is bookended by a pair of stories about a young man named Steve. The first story’s narrator combs through Steve’s apartment after his death and finds a note about how we distract ourselves with trivia from the real texture and feel of the world. Steve concludes that, in contrast to these strategies of avoidance, “The development of true sensitivity is essential.” In the final story, which takes place before Steve’s death, he and his roommate—implicitly the narrator of the first story—discuss at length the meaning of a single hair’s shape. This conversation seems to have no bearing on the grand issues of life and death, but it models that “true sensitivity” with which Pactor encourages us to face reality.

Eschewing mere realism, Pactor’s experimental narratives sharpen our sensibilities so that we can hear the faint life behind the louder noises of death that surround us. In this inventive and anti-complacent way, they are moral fictions after all.


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IN THE HOUSE UPON THE DIRT BETWEEN THE LAKE AND THE WOODS

Matt Bell
Soho Press ($15)

Hugh Sheehy

Matt Bell’s debut novel begins with circumstances both familiar and strange. Newlyweds move away from their families to a distant land. There are no other people there. The new geography consists of a woods and a lake and, between them, a “dirt” or field of earth. As the title of the book suggests, the couple sets up house in this intermediate space. Or rather, the man builds the house, cutting down trees and using them to give the house structure, while the woman (referred to as “my wife” by the unnamed narrator) furnishes it by singing songs: “she began to sing some new possessions into the interior, and between the lake and the woods I heard her song become something stronger than ever before.”

At least four points can be made about this startling sentence. The first is that the writing here, as elsewhere in the book, stops short of psychology in service of creating a sense of wonder about things that exist, often using the uncanny language of the fairy tale. The second point is that the wife’s singing is functional; it derives from her nature as a female and wife and potential mother, just as it is a function of the narrator as male, husband, and potential father to do the labor of building. The narrator’s observations of events and behaviors are the novel’s principal means of establishing character, a method that gives the book some of its air of exploration and mystery. The third point is that the wife’s singing is not figurative. She literally fabricates the world around her and both damages and mends both things and beings by using the power of her voice and traditional songs she has learned and created. I don’t mean “traditional” in the sense of folk songs sung to establish an atmosphere of community and dynamic creative spirit—though there is something of that in the wife’s songs—but rather that they possess a practical magical component: “There was a song for the making of the objects by which a household was furnished and run, the bowls and breadboards and spoons and knives and pots and pans.” Singing is the wife’s adaptive, creative activity in the face of the challenges of housekeeping.

The fourth point to be made about the sentence in question is that it is characteristic of Bell’s descriptive style, which is paradoxically vague in the service of greater precision: the song becomes “something stronger” than it has previously been. It is not clear exactly what constitutive elements the word “song” indicates at this point. Is this a tune? A chant? It was just a song before, the kind one uses to usher objects into being, whatever that is; now it is “stronger,” whatever that means. Bell uses this kind of elusive description throughout the book—his narrator has not a stomach but a “belly-hole” and not a mind but a “skull-space”—in order to convey that the world he envisions for his novel is one that sometimes defies description in words that we know. Remember that this is a novel about a man and a woman starting a life together in what appears to be a pure wilderness. This is a story told in Adamic language.

If it is tempting to read the book as an attempt to found an Eden in exile, the storytelling rewards the impulse. The narrator and his wife explore the forest, learning about the animals and plants that live there and the she-bear who rules over them. They learn about the fish in the lake and the squid that presides over them. They learn about the “elements” of their new world, of which there are a finite number, of which bear and squid are two, as well as mother and father and child. The man and his wife learn about the latter three at considerable cost to their bodies and minds, for it turns out that the wife cannot carry a pregnancy to term, and when a child finally does appear, foreboding questions come with it. They learn that the dirt, the forest, and the lake have a secret history. The narrator learns his wife has a secret history and many secrets. He learns his child has a secret history. Meanwhile, he makes and keeps many secrets of his own.

To say more of the storyline would both ruin the narrative arc of Bell’s novel and miss the point of his work; the primary satisfactions of reading this In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods derive not from its story but from its language and sentence patterns. The book’s investment in poetic compounds (the fingerling, a ghost-son who lives in the narrator and speaks to him) and emphatically literary figures (from mythology, a sterile earth-mother; from mythology-cum-adventure fiction, a bear and a squid) often works to create meditative stillness rather than narrative flow. In other words, this is not a page-turner, nor is it meant to be. It is a novel, a fairy tale, a foundation myth, and perhaps a deeply personal allegory. It is also a faithful transcription and examination of a personal vision, an act that requires no small measure of courage. If the storytelling builds further toward the establishment of tautological tensions between major characters and narrative elements than straightforward deliberations on, say, married life or parenthood, then it does so to explore and answer certain longings and inevitable failures adults experience after escaping (and being cast out from) the paradise-and-hell of childhood.

As for his writing style, Bell does not shy from employing poetic techniques like anaphora and cataloguing, or from using more rhetorically direct techniques, such as framing the narrative as a metaphor within a metaphor, as he does when his narrator introduces interactions and events with the phrase “memory as,” reminding us that his story is coming to us in words which can only shadow and hence partially obscure the worlds—real or imagined, to make a false distinction (since the imagination is as real as any other part of the mind)—they voice. The novel’s study of its own primary elements will be both familiar and welcome to readers of Bell’s previous works, particularly the collection Cataclysm Baby, and, as with that book, the tendency is occasionally to his disadvantage. Bell’s descriptions and word-choices can be strained (“the bear that stood before me now stomped unsteadily on its meat-thin limbs, its fur-torn, bone-sprung body led wobblingly forward by its squared head”). In some passages, he seems more interested in mystifying his reader than controlling a sense of mystery. In others, his preoccupation with an image is cousin to the lengthy account of a dream. Altogether, though, the book’s parts form a dark and weighty mass many readers will find worthy of inspection.

Every generation ushers in a new wave of artistic innovators and movers and shakers, and Bell is sometimes associated with a group of young writers, small presses, and publications that have collaborated to make room for their innovative work. Now the author of two collections and a novel (to say nothing of his chapbooks, other publications, or further accomplishments), Bell continues to develop his project in his own way. It is a project that is both visionary and self-reflexive, full of horrifying deeps but also soulful ones, and its installment In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods does not disappoint—though it does haunt, as a chronicle of a world coming apart.


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Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2013

WAR STORIES

Elisabeth Doyle
Two Harbors Press ($14.95)

by Benjamin Woodard

We all possess a war story or two, narratives hoisted and lugged around long after they convert to memory, remembered because they helped define our character and shaped our being. For some, these tales concern actual military combat, but to most, the idea has adopted a more casual definition: a very rough patch, a difficult episode, a particularly wild adventure. Elisabeth Doyle, in her debut collection, War Stories, parses through both versions of this term with a deft hand, offering stories of shock, realization, sorrow, and peace. And while the slim volume doesn’t always fully succeed in its ambitions, there is plenty here to admire.

Doyle’s stories do not subscribe to a traditional story structure—intro, conflict, resolution— instead remaining rather loose throughout. Teenagers meander around town, driving and talking. A veteran happens upon a chance at heroics while bringing his children to school. Remembrances of a jumbled past break through as a man recounts the story of visiting an old roommate. And yet, while each of these stories lack rigidness, very rarely, if ever, do any of their scenes feel extraneous, and they certainly never ring hollow. Part of this is due to the conciseness of each piece—the stories range in length from five to fifteen pages, preventing any asides from going on for very long—but what truly generates impact are the small moments of growth that occur on nearly every page.

Take Eveline, the wife of an injured veteran and the protagonist of “Pistolesi,” who takes a job as a traveling children’s photographer. Shuttled through a shifting environment of homes, interactions, and observations, her perceptions and curiosity blossom, creating significant reader engagement. So much so that when she eventually drifts off near the story’s conclusion, dreaming of “two rocks separating, disclosing a small tree”—an image that, incidentally, reoccurs later in the story collection—the seemingly random occurrence holds far more weight than if these minor moments did not pass the reader’s eye. Likewise, in “The Deepest, Darkest Part of the Woods,” Doyle manufactures a sequence of events for Bobby Campo, her lead handicapped soldier, to navigate. When the narrative thread that ties these scenes together finally pulls through, the reader finds emotional resonance with the troubled character. As Bobby takes solace in an imagined friendship with a much younger neighborhood girl, his motivation, enhanced by the auxiliary moments of the narrative—his brief interactions with his brother and family, his games of pool, the death of his pal, Tony—make him a rounded entity.

Still, not every story in the collection works. Here and there, Doyle’s brevity leads to unsatisfying conclusions and unneeded ambiguity. And the final story, “Passengers,” simply feels uncomfortably forced. A nod to the airline hijackings of 9/11, the story lacks the subtlety of the eight tales that precede it, instead placing predictable characters in a predictable situation.


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Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2013

THE EYES: A Novella & Stories

Michael Harris Cohen
Mixer Publishing ($16)

by Peter Grandbois

The mission statement of Mixer Publishing states that their goal is to “break down the arbitrary boundaries between genre fiction and ‘literature,’” as well as to “seek a playful middle ground between entertainment and art.” If their first book, Michael Harris Cohen’s The Eyes: A Novella & Stories, is any indication of what’s to come, Mixer Publishing is well on its way to successfully reinventing what we think of as “literary.”

The highly stylized noir story “Fingered” opens like a defibrillator to the chest, shocking the reader to attention:

We didn’t want one. When the Black Blockers got one, we weren’t going to use it. When we decided to use it, we weren’t going to load it. But they got one, had a lone bullet, then we thought, anyway, it might make a good opening, a curtain rising on the performance. Guns make people pay attention.

A cross between Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange and Gibson’s Neuromancer, the prose is high-octane, a fitting vehicle for the mangled characters about to drive straight into a wall of their own violent creation. Take the narrator of “Fingered,” a not-so-innocent anarchist planning a bank job as a “performance” to call attention to the evils of capitalism. The only problem is the gun has a hair trigger, and that trigger changes the narrator’s life in an instant. “World’s got all kinds of cages. We just happen to be in the one place, out-side a zoo, where one can see the bars.” The story shifts back and forth in time with a dizzying speed that adds to the growing sense of unease, revealing the ways in which we are trapped by our own darkest desires.

“The Life and Death of John Doe” follows a drug dealer named Bell whose job is to procure dead bodies in which a new kind of psychedelic mushroom is grown. The story races forward with the frenetic speed of the cranked-up characters who inhabit it, until the climactic scene where the narrator gets locked inside one of the drawers in a morgue that contains a dead body:

And my goof fades. Meth will take you like that. Everything is amped up and your thoughts will get you two steps ahead of your feet . . . And I am fucking in the shit. The sound of my own tiny giggle scares me. So fucking tight and black. I want to move, but I’m afraid to make noise and even more afraid I’m gonna freak my shit when I realize I can’t move because there’s not enough room anyway . . . I can’t turn over, I can’t even turn my head without banging into hers and I don’t want that.

The scene is a masterpiece of suspense. We turn the pages as we do with all great noir, because we have to. We feel ourselves in the claustrophobic coffin along with Bell, but Cohen doesn’t simply want to make us uncomfortable and that’s where his genius lies because the story also has literary chops. Bell’s time in the drawer with the corpse changes him, not in the simplistic and heavy-handed way of so many literary epiphanies nowadays but in a manner so subtle we hardly know it’s there. In the final exchange between Bell and his boss, we understand the ways in which our narrator is already dead, a colder corpse than the body with whom he was trapped:

Will it kill me? I ask. My voice soft like a child’s.
Only the part that fears dying. Death is the veil which those who live call life, Bell.
They sleep and it is lifted.
I toast Damos, and I put the cup to my lips, and I drink.


Click here to purchase this book
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Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2013

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