Tag Archives: Winter 2013

Night Film

nightfilmMarisha Pessl
Random House ($28)

by John Pistelli

Marisha Pessl’s well-received 2006 debut, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, is a murder mystery and conspiratorial political thriller hidden within a winning Bildungsroman. But it also makes a strained and unsuccessful attempt at clever lyricism in the manner of Nabokov, even to the point of borrowing the multi-lingual master’s lepidoptera. Fortunately, readers who struggled with the inertia generated by Calamity Physics’ leaden metaphors (e.g., “[My heart] thrashed like an octopus thrown to the deck of a ship”) will be happy to learn that with Night Film Pessl has jettisoned her first novel’s overwrought style for a picaresque horror tale that demonstrates above all her obvious strength as a storyteller. Though Night Film is about 600 pages long, it demands to be read in just a few days. It fulfills those classic criteria of a good thriller: you will not be able to put it down, and you’ll stay up as long as it takes to finish it. Anyone with a long flight, endless commute, or a week at the beach ahead of them should equip themselves with Night Film.

The book’s narrator, hard-boiled investigative journalist Scott McGrath, acts as the reader’s breathless surrogate in uncovering clue after clue—and mystery after mystery—related to the reclusive and sinister horror filmmaker, Stanislas Cordova, and the apparent suicide at twenty-four of his brilliant, beautiful, piano-prodigy daughter, Ashley. McGrath has already tried to expose Cordova, which resulted in a slander suit that cost him his career and his marriage. But when Ashley turns up dead in an abandoned warehouse in Chinatown, McGrath re-commits himself to searching for the truth about Cordova. He acquires two sidekicks for his quest through a phantasmagoric Manhattan and environs: Hopper, a troubled and morose young drifter who loved Ashley when they were both teenagers, and Nora, a pert nineteen-year-old aspiring actress just arrived in New York City from Florida with enough colorful family history, outlandish clothes, endearing habits, and moral heroism to merit a novel of her own.

Cordova—Pessl’s persuasive if larger-than-life mélange of Kubrick, Lynch, and Polanski—is the object of a cult devoted to uncovering his films’ hidden messages as well as the secrets of their possibly criminal production. While Cordova hasn’t released a film since 1996, his admirers continue to hold middle-of-the-night screenings in underground tunnels and caverns. And though his work has inspired at least one copycat killing inspired by the onscreen murders, his devotees claim to be empowered by his message to “freak the ferocious out”—the philosophy that, as McGrath glosses it, “to be terrified, to be scared out of your skin, was the beginning of freedom, of opening your eyes to what was graphic and dark and gorgeous about life, thereby conquering the monsters of your mind.”

Though Cordova’s is a credo of personal liberation, McGrath chases pervasive hints that the director purchases his artistic freedom at the price of others’ lives, whether those of his actors (whom he may be forcing to endure in reality his films’ horrific fictions), his neighbors at his upstate New York compound (who testify to strange occurrences including an odd smell in the air when Cordova burns his garbage), and even his daughter (who, in the novel’s most fantastical implication, may have been part of a literal devil’s bargain guaranteeing the filmmaker’s artistic inspiration and success). But McGrath’s obsessive pursuit of Cordova comes to resemble Cordova’s own obsessive pursuit of his art, a sophisticated mirroring that undoes the novel’s ostensible moral binarism and grants it a thematic complexity its beach-read pace might not have lead one to expect.

In addition to McGrath’s swift narration, Pessl also parcels out information about Cordova through interpolated excerpts from McGrath’s case notes, police and medical records, and Internet sources such as the New York Times and Vanity Fair as well as the black sites where the Cordova cult gathers information about the mysterious genius. Pessl and her design collaborators especially excel at mimicking the ephemera of the Internet, down to the inane spats in the comments sections and the fear-mongering clickbait headlines (“5-Hour Energy Could Kill You”). This device not only lets the reader participate in collecting clues, but more importantly replicates the very contemporary sensation of titillating paranoia that comes from following a sinister news story across the wilds of the screen until your eyes ache. Some of the novel’s early reviewers charged Pessl with mere postmodern gimmickry for using faux-Internet texts, but in fact this technique decisively places Night Film in the Gothic and thriller traditions, which have juxtaposed archaic mystery with up-to-date communication technologies at least since the epistolary structure of Frankenstein (1818) and the documentary mode of Dracula (1897).

A different question of literary form raises some doubts about the artistic merit of Night Film, however, despite its undeniable entertainment value. Pessl pointedly creates in Cordova a figure who doesn’t quite exist in today’s culture: an artist of such authenticity and integrity that his works seep into the real lives of its audience members even as he manages to withhold his secrets and enchantments from the pervasively debased gossip of the information economy. Cordova fulfills the bright Romantic hope—while possibly validating the dark Romantic fear—that imagination, rather than being diluted by distraction and cynicism, may transform reality through the agency of art. And it’s fair to say, without giving away Night Film’s own secrets, that Pessl finally sides with such Romantic ambition. The novel’s wish is one voiced in a jaded tone to McGrath by a weary detective—“There might be a Starbucks on every corner and an iPhone at every ear, but don’t worry, people are still fucking crazy”—and in an exalted register by one of the actresses who worked with Cordova: “You were making a film. Something that would outlast you. Something wild. A powerful piece of art that wasn’t a commercial concoction, but something to slice into people, make them bleed.”

Themes and characters as grand as Night Film’s, however, deserve to be incarnated in better prose than Pessl tends to find for them. If Special Topics in Calamity Physics sometimes tiresomely indulged a “literary” bent for figurative language, Pessl overcorrects here by narrating the novel in merely functional and cliché-ridden sentences meant to accommodate cliffhanger chapter endings and weakly aerated by McGrath’s almost campily noirish asides and sitcom dialogue with his sidekicks, both full of instantly dated pop-culture references. Add Pessl’s obtrusive over-reliance on italics for melodramatic emphasis and her tendency to spell out implications most readers will already have grasped, and Night Film’s prose begins to look too much like that of a “commercial concoction”:

Nora,” I whispered, walking straight into the woods.
When I found the fallen log, I stopped dead.
The branches and dirt had been thrown aside.
And the canoe was gone.

This kind of formulaic writing undermines Pessl’s premise about the transcendent potential of art because it fails to be a convincing literary correlative to Cordova’s visionary filmmaking. Night Film’s stylistic deficits therefore prevent Pessl from fully realizing her own Cordova-like world of aesthetic intensity beyond our mediated culture. That the thrill of the novel’s plot, the charm of its characters, and the provocative seriousness of its themes very nearly make up for this flaw testifies nevertheless to Pessl’s abundant talent and intelligence. The suspense, then, is not just in her novels but also about them: one can’t wait to see what she’ll do next.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2013/2014

Constellation of Genius

constellationofgenius1922, Modernism Year One
Kevin Jackson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux ($30)

by Steve Danzis

In 1922, T. S. Eliot wrote a surprisingly emotional eulogy for the bawdy music-hall performer Marie Lloyd. Referring to the colonized natives of Melanesia who were “dying from pure boredom,” he warns:

When every theatre has been replaced by 100 cinemas, when every musical instrument has been replaced by 100 gramophones, when every horse has been replaced by 100 cheap motor cars, when electrical ingenuity has made it possible for every child to hear its bedtime stories through a wireless receiver attached to both ears, when applied science has done everything possible with the materials on this earth to make life as interesting as possible, it will not be surprising if the population of the entire civilized world rapidly follows the fate of the Melanesians.

Eliot was prescient about the state of our current culture, though it is debatable whether we are dying from boredom or anesthetized from ever feeling it. What we have certainly lost is the capacity for shock and astonishment aroused by Eliot’s The Waste Land, which appeared in 1922 along with the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses. The confluence of these literary events is the inspiration for Kevin Jackson’s book Constellation of Genius: 1922, Modernism Year One. Echoing Ezra Pound’s declaration of an annus mirabilis, Jackson claims that the early 1920s were “blazing with a ‘constellation of genius’ of a kind that had never been known before, and has never since been rivalled.”

On the face of it, this statement is ridiculous: the Renaissance, romanticism, and the Greek classical period are not so easily dismissed. Yet it could plausibly be argued that no other era fostered as much cultural innovation. Jackson’s book embraces all aspects of culture, including Walt Disney’s animated films, Le Corbusier’s architecture, Louis Armstrong’s jazz solos, and Charlie Chaplin’s tramp. Vignettes about these and many other writers, artists, musicians, and political figures are presented in the form of journal entries spanning the year 1922.

Jackson approaches modernism as an international phenomenon, though his entries mainly focus on what was happening in Western Europe. He opens the book with an essay in which he rejects simplistic explanations of modernism’s origins, yet he offers no competing theory and precious little analysis. Constellation of Genius is less literary history than a travelogue of Jackson’s reading. Occasionally he wanders off into little-known places where the locals hang out, but usually he sticks close to famous monuments: Joyce, Eliot, Pound, Proust, Yeats, Woolf, Hemingway, both D. H. and T. E. Lawrence.

When Jackson does stray from familiar territory, the results can be fascinating. For example, in an entry about a conference on Brazilian modernism, he describes the writer Mário de Andrade, whose poem-sequence Paulicéia Desvairada (Hallucinated City) and novel Macunaíma have been compared, respectively, to The Waste Land and Ulysses. De Andrade was also an influential ethnomusicologist. Jackson could have found room to tell us more about this brilliant figure by cutting out entries that have no relationship with modernism. Surely we don’t need to hear about the founding of the Reader’s Digest or trivia such as the following entry for January 20: “Christian K. Nelson took out a patent on the Eskimo Pie.”

The title Constellation of Genius suggests that modernist writers and artists formed a tight-knit community. There were some strong ties—between Pound and Eliot, for example, or between Buñuel, Lorca, and Dalí. Even Joyce and Hemingway, so aesthetically and temperamentally dissimilar, liked to go out drinking together. But in general, these figures worked in isolation from one another. Jackson’s approach obscures important differences among the multiple strands of modernism, which occurred in different times and places. Some modernists embraced mass culture and technology, some rejected it, and some were both inspired and repulsed by modern life.

Although Jackson’s book lacks complexity, it is solidly written and often entertaining. Many of his best entries are lifted from the diaries of people such as Count Harry Kessler and Virginia Woolf. The latter is especially amusing, with her acid envy of Katherine Mansfield and James Joyce, who aroused her unbridled snobbery:

I finished Ulysses, & think it a mis-fire. Genius it has I think; but of the inferior water. The book is diffuse. It is brackish. It is pretentious. It is underbred, not only in the obvious sense, but in the literary sense. A first rate writer, I mean, respects writing too much to be tricky; startling; doing stunts. I’m reminded all the time of some callow school boy, say like Henry Lamb, full of wits & powers, but so self-conscious & egotistical that he loses his head, becomes extravagant, mannered, uproarious, ill at ease, makes kindly people feel sorry for him, & stern ones merely annoyed . . .

Woolf’s own writing could be described as self-conscious and mannered, and based on the diary entries Jackson quotes, she had no business calling anyone else egotistical.

Of all the writers profiled in the book, the one who most contrasts with his current reputation is Ernest Hemingway. In 1922 he was traveling around Europe as a war correspondent, enduring hardship and sometimes risking his life. He already had a great eye for detail. Covering British Prime Minister David Lloyd George at a conference in Genoa, Hemingway ends his article by describing how Lloyd George signed a sketch of him drawn by an Italian boy:

I looked at the sketch. It wasn’t bad. But it wasn’t Lloyd George. The only thing that was alive in it was the sprawled-out signature, gallant, healthy, swashbuckling, careless and masterful, done in a moment and done for all time, it stood out among the dead lines of the sketch—it was Lloyd George.

Five consecutive adjectives in a Hemingway sentence! But this was the year he came under the influence of Gertrude Stein, and while his style grew more distinctive, it’s a shame that he lost the fluidity and exuberance of his early writing.

Hemingway was also notably clear-sighted in his rejection of fascism, unlike a number of famous writers of the period. I wish Jackson had explored more deeply the links between modernism and fascism. Most modernists were not right-wingers, but fascism and modernism shared a complex relationship with modernity; leading figures in both movements yearned for a purer time in the distant past but were wholly reliant on modern developments for their success. In Eliot’s case, attraction to Mussolini quickly yielded to Tory conservatism, but Pound, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, and Wyndham Lewis, among others, remained ardent fascists.

Like any movement, modernism was destined to fizzle out. The push toward ever more radical formal experimentation and the willful difficulty of modernist aesthetics could only become stale over time. But there is no questioning the enormous influence of the writers, artists, and musicians Jackson writes about. The tour he provides may not deepen your understanding very much, but at least you’ll have a good time, and you may want to come back for longer visits.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2013/2014

The Visioneers

visioneersHow a Group of Elite Scientists Pursued Space Colonies, Nanotechnologies, and a Limitless Future
W. Patrick McCray
Princeton University Press ($29.95)

by Ryder W. Miller

W. Patrick McCray’s The Visioneers tells the tale of a few charismatic people who tried to change the world through the invention of new machines. The book does not focus on science fiction, but rather the scientists and forward thinkers that influenced them. Science fiction writers are easier to popularize as visionaries, but here the scientists get their credit.

The story mostly concerns Gerard O'Neill, who didn't believe in limits and dreamed of space exploration and designed space stations, and Eric Drexler, who probed the possibilities of the small and curious, eventually getting the public excited about nanotechnology. These two went on to author famous and influential science books: The High Frontier by O'Neill in 1977, and Engines of Creation by Drexler in 1986. Their story is embedded in a longer tale with all sorts of public popular personas like Stewart Brand (The Whole Earth Catalog), Timothy Leary, Robert Heinlein, Buckminster Fuller, Freeman Dyson, and others. Some made contributions, but to be considered a “visioneer,” one must also have tried to get the public involved. One who “did not strive to popularize his ideas to a wide audience, build a large community of supporters, or engage the interest of policy makers” cannot be considered a visioneer. In contrast, “the visioneering of people like Drexler in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s helped create excitement and high expectations among business-people and journalists.”

Mapping the future is more difficult than exploring the history of technological breakthroughs; in the hands of a good storyteller, it is also more exciting. Part of the problem with this book is that the information within is dryly presented, though McCray does point out that all visioneering is not benign, and its proponents may get a bitter lesson: “Merely demonstrating that something is technologically feasible is no guarantee of success.” While it lacks the action, tension, and moral message found in much science fiction, readers will learn a great deal by reading this book.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2013/2014

Twelve Views from the Distance

twelveviewsfromthedistanceMutsuo Takahashi
Translated by Jeffrey Angles
University of Minnesota Press ($19.95)

by Amanda Vail

Just what is the nature of memory? It is at once tenuous and concrete, easily grasped yet often fleeting. Mutsuo Takahashi believes there are three different kinds of memories: those that are pure recollection, those that originate from the stories of others, and those that are a combination of the two. Throughout Twelve Views from the Distance, Takahashi explores his childhood and young adulthood by following the threads that connect his memories together. The twelve views are like twelve lenses—or, as Takahashi says, mirrors—each with a unique vantage referenced in the chapter title. One view is of snow, another the sea; still others are sexuality, his grandmother’s home, and his imagined father. Each of these views reveals facets of his lifetime and the lifetimes of his mother, father, grandmother, and grandfather. Facet by facet, the reader is immersed within the rich environs of southern Japan during World War II and the years thereafter.

Mutsuo Takahashi, a preeminent Japanese poet, grew up in rural Kyūshū, Japan’s southern island. He was born in 1937, just a few years before World War II commenced. Takahashi’s father, a steel worker, died of acute pneumonia when the author was an infant, and his mother was pressured into putting her infant son and young daughter into the care of her deceased husband’s relatives. Takahashi’s sister was raised in a different town by his aunt, and the boy’s childhood was spent partly in the care of his grandparents.

Each view in the novel is illuminated by numerous events plucked from the author’s memories with little regard for chronology. The exact timeline of what happened when in Takahashi’s life isn’t exactly clear—but it doesn’t need to be. More important are the events, large and small, and how they impact the lives of Takahashi, his relations, and their community. Japan’s war with China and subsequent involvement in World War II as portrayed through Takahashi’s childhood memories is felt not only in the loss of lives (his uncle’s included), but also in the presence of more barley than rice in the family’s evening meals. Rationed foods, the rise of nationalism, explosives in the harbor, and many other signifiers testify to the presence of governmental conflict in the lives of small-town Japanese citizens, and youthful Takahashi meanders through his life, passed from family member to family member, buffeted here and there by events beyond his control.

Twelve Views from the Distance does not hesitate to present uncomfortable subjects (violence, lust, death, adultery, greed) with as much honesty as moments of beauty, love, and charity. It is an elegant novel; the overarching imagery floats gently on the surface of Takahashi’s words, carried smoothly from memory to memory, shading the events of the author’s life and presenting avenues into the world of his childhood. Captured in his memories are the songs of schoolchildren, his grandmother’s versions of folktales, the quiet countryside of Kyūshū, and many other details of the time. For instance, shortly after comparing his mother to the sea that separated them for over a year, Takahashi writes, “the sea continued to rock beneath me, even after we reached Grandmother’s house. It was underneath the veranda where I sometimes walked and looked at picture books. It was under the path I took when I put on Mother’s clogs and went down to the general store to buy ramune. Even now, more than twenty years later, that sea continues to rock beneath the futon where I sleep and dream.”

Also of note, and not to be taken lightly, is Jeffrey Angles’s translation from the Japanese—every bit as elegant as Takahashi’s text. As he reveals in both his introduction and acknowledgement, this was a labor of love for Angles. He first met Takahashi in 1996, and began translating Views in 2006. Work on the translation was supported by grants from both the National Endowment for the Arts and the PEN American Center, which illustrates how critical grants of this kind are. As Angles points out succinctly: “Translation has the power to introduce new ideas, expressions, and concepts into a language or culture; it has the potential to reshape power and knowledge, thus changing the ways the world is understood.” In regards to conflict between nations, it is critical to build as many bridges as possible to facilitate greater understanding, even (or particularly) as many years after the fact as 2013 is from 1945.

Takahashi’s memoir presents not only the difficulties faced by citizens living through a war, but also the challenges of growing up in poverty, of being raised by a single mother who is forced to make ends meet in creative ways, and of exploring an alternative sexuality, among others. The novel presents twelve reflections on the time and place it depicts; some of the details are very specific, and many are universal. Throughout, Twelve Views from the Distance is unflinching, compassionate, and beautiful.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2013/2014

Torment Saint

tormentsaintThe Life of Elliott Smith
William Todd Schultz
Bloomsbury ($27)

by Scott F. Parker

Since 2010, William Todd Schultz has been the editor of the Inner Lives series from Oxford University Press. The series, which includes titles on John Lennon and George W. Bush and one by Schultz on Truman Capote, employs psychobiography: an approach to biography that, according to Schultz’s website, utilizes current psychological thinking to understand “the private motives behind public acts.” He is the author of Handbook of Psychobiography as well as a psychobiography of Diane Arbus that does not occur in the Inner Lives series.

Elliott Smith is an obvious subject for a Schultz psychobiography. Smith’s career flourished in Portland, Oregon, where Schultz was raised and resides today, and his work is preoccupied with the stuff of psychology—identity, attachment, abuse, trauma, depression, and suicide—to such an extent that at times it seems to plead for analysis. The divide between life and art for Smith was famously thin; the vulnerability he allowed in his music remains part of its appeal.

However, in Torment Saint: The Life of Elliott Smith, Schultz elects to write straight biography, leaving his psychological expertise to underlie and inform the narrative without becoming its primary mode of investigation. This approach makes sense for a couple reasons. First, it allows Schultz to provide the thorough biography we’ve needed since Smith’s suicide ten years ago (the publication of Torment Saint corresponds with that sad anniversary to the month). Benjamin Nugent’s biography, Elliott Smith and the Big Nothing, was a solid effort but suffered for being rushed to publication a year after Smith’s death.) Second, because Smith’s music and life are already subject to so much reductive psychologizing, even Schultz’s professional take couldn’t help but read as derivative, if also well informed.

With his uncommon abilities, Schultz is uniquely capable of understanding Smith’s inner life and making sense of Smith’s mental health (depression, addiction, paranoia). Combine this background with Schultz’s manifest devotion to Smith’s songs (though he never says so, the reader gathers the author was in attendance at La Luna and Satyricon in the mid-1990s when Smith was performing with his band Heatmiser and starting out as a solo artist) and we’ve got the opportunity here for a warm and generous book. We also have the opportunity for fawning—Smith is compared favorably to almost every major songwriter you can think of, and the lyrical analysis sometimes overreaches for significance—but I raise this objection mostly to dismiss it. Schultz’s thorough research and carefully restrained interpretation make Torment Saint the kind of detailed and compassionate biography Smith’s fans would hope for.

Schultz begins his book by introducing the familiar myth of the troubled genius, which he believes was as seductive for Smith as it was easy for fans to apply to him. “Elliott saw through it, at times he dismissed it, but he also bought in, just as everyone else seemed to be doing. It was cool to be depressed. It was expected.” The context for depression as affectation is the rainy, heroin-filled Portland music scene during and immediately following Seattle’s grunge blossoming and Kurt Cobain’s era-shaping suicide. Smith was correctly described by John Graham as “an avatar for artistic Portland.” Schultz relates a definitive antidote of Smith walking Portland’s bridges under moon-filled skies regularly enough for friends to learn that he didn’t need a ride, this was his way of writing. His early catalogue from these years includes numerous drug references—perhaps most memorably on Elliott Smith’s “Needle in the Hay”—but according to Schultz’s sources, Elliott used hard drugs only as metaphor in this period. It wasn’t until years later while he was travelling in the U.K. that he started using, and not until his L.A. years that he became an addict.

By losing himself in drugs—crack and staggering quantities of prescription pills on top of alcohol and heroin—Smith fulfilled the prophecy of his music and escaped the pain he felt in living, if only over the short run. Life was increasingly painful for him as drug abuse compounded his depression. Smith, according to Schultz, was always divided: “part of him wanted to go on making music forever, but part of him always wanted it all to end.” He gave his life to music with a commitment that was either profoundly admirable or cause for distress, depending how one values survival—but in any case it was remarkable. “To say ‘it’s only the songs that matter’ is a cliche. But Elliott meant it and lived, and probably died it.”

As we read about Smith’s early years, his passion for music and his virtuosity are immediately apparent. We see him composing melodies, recording songs, and with time writing more and more lyrics. By his mature years, his talents coalescing, he is wildly prolific, writing songs by the dozens with an ease that impressed seemingly everyone interviewed in the book. For all the attention Smith’s depressive lyrics receive, it’s significant to note that it was his gorgeous melodies that drove him as a musician. He understood style through sound rather than intellect, saying in one interview, “You have to use your ears, not your head.” And in another: “It’s just that I like music. It’s not complicated.”

Unfortunately the music saved his life only until it didn’t. Schultz posits that Smith, who read Freud, thought that “if one could let it out, it might stop banging loudly on the door of consciousness.” Despite his intentions, catharsis never worked for Smith the songwriter. It’s too easy to think of his music as coming from a bottomless sadness, but it’s not exactly wrong either. Toward the end of his life, Smith would perform the song “King’s Crossing,” which includes the line “Give me one good reason not to do it,” to which his sister and girlfriend began responding, “Because we love you.” Whatever distinction there was been art and life was near gone in the leadup to Smith’s suicide.

If Dylan is our great ironist, Smith was among our most sincere artists. His story is a painful story, as those most inclined to pick up this book already know. In Schultz’s hands it is a well-told story, too. The author follows his subject’s lead and lets the reader know what it was like to be a person whose “songs were simply, essentially about what it meant to be a person.”

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2013/2014

Hi, This Is Conchita

hithisisconchitaSantiago Roncagliolo
translated by Edith Grossman
Two Lines Press ($17.95)

by Jenn Mar

Santiago Roncagliolo's latest story collection is a black comedy that exposes the incongruities of modern life. For the Peruvian author who was listed as Granta's "Best Young Spanish-Language Novelist," no subject is too profane. His stories follow some of literature's most perversely-misguided crackpots as they attempt to find human connections in shamelessly-obscene acts: an office drone engages in phone-sex involving coffee-machine burns and metal-pointed leather whips; a medical examiner intimately touches the insides of a cadaver's body.

Readers can bound through the book in a single evening, as the collection consists of an ungainly novella ("Hi, This is Conchita"), and three other stories of a broad stylistic range. The title piece is a smorgasbord of sex and violence: it follows the intertwining lives of a phone-sex operator and the client who loves her, a husband who hires a hit man to kill his mistress, and a serial drunk-dialer. Heavy portions of phone sex, pornography ("The actor playing Clarke Gable is sticking it in the mouth of one of the Confederate widows. It's to comfort her, I think"), and bathtub dismemberment all play out against the banal backdrop of billing statements and Meg Ryan jokes. Written entirely in dialogue, the story uses the gimmick of telephone conversations to plot out events, but readers may come to feel irritated by the task of checking the twisting plotlines against the telephone numbers that are displayed at the heading of every chapter in the absence of exposition.

In contrast to the speedy "Hi, This is Conchita," "Despoiler" keeps a measured pace, and is built on masterful sentences of architectural symmetry and echoing salience. It follows Carmen as she celebrates her fortieth birthday with her coworkers at Carnival. The nightmarish evening soon conjures the oversized beast that is her repellent childhood. The surrealism of costumed partygoers, dressed as wolves and skeletons, blends with Carmen's flashbacks as her internal landscape distorts the dimensions of her real life.

"Butterflies Fastened with Pins," about a man recalling the names of friends who keep killing themselves, is Roncagliolo's appropriation of the poetic tradition of litany. Meanwhile, "The Passenger Beside You" prompts absurdist comedy to consider the metaphysics of the human lifespan. This story is told by a young woman who speaks from the afterlife about the gunshot wound in her chest. After recounting the violence of her last hours, she describes the splendor that she is shown at the mortuary by a handsome doctor, who slides his hands inside her body in the ritual examination of the corpse, intimately touching her insides. The story is as breathtaking as it is grotesque.

Good comedy contains an equal measure of well-timed repetition and surprise, and Roncagliolo succeeds most when his comedy is agile enough to accommodate for tenderness as well as tragedy. In this collection, our lives assume the shape of a joke. The joke, of course, is that we've responded to our estrangement by seeking overblown fantasies, algorithm-inspired services, and flimsy machines to impersonate the impact of real human connections.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2013/2014


05book "The Salenger Contract" by Adam Langer.Adam Langer
Open Road ($16.99)

by James Naiden

Adam Langer probably could not have published this absurdist literary thriller if J. D. Salinger were still alive; the late novelist was well known for employing lawyers to chase off everyone from sycophants to fans. His concoction follows an early middle-aged writer named Adam Langer who doesn’t know who his father is, only that he had once picked up a cocktail waitress in Chicago after a night of drinking and impregnated her. In the novel, Adam is married to Sabine, a European-born and a professor at Indiana University. He’s published one novel so far when the story begins.

An acquaintance and fellow writer named Conner Joyce enlists Adam as a confidant of sorts, telling him a wild story about a wealthy older man named Dex Dunford who contracts writers to pen a novel that only he will read. He pays very well, but the writer is to say nothing to anyone. Here Langer’s plot gets murky, as Conner is not the first writer to be ensnared by Dex and his henchman, Pavel, who under another name was one of the well-paid but captive writers; in the world of the novel so were such figures as Norman Mailer, John Updike, and of course, J. D. Salinger.

Langer’s pointedly satirical take on the world of publishing and the obsessions of the literati is not without its charms, even if the unlikelier aspects of the plot are never quite explained. His breezy style is easy enough to read, although his frequent lapses into banalities and clichés—“over the top; “bullshit” as a verb; “didn’t give a crap”—are disedifying. Still, he knows how to tell a story and moves his characters along in serviceable prose:

The train arrived. Its doors slid open and Conner followed the men into a mostly empty car. Conner sat in a window seat, Dex sat next to him, and Pavel on the bench behind as the train moved forward, accelerating out of the tunnel, following the eastward path of Interstate 90 toward the shimmering lights of downtown Chicago. Conner had seen these lights only once before, but this time they looked sinister; he felt drawn into the darkness that surrounded them.

In the end Dex is reconciled to Adam Langer when the latter visits Salinger’s gravesite in New Hampshire. While the book’s title is a stretch—designed, no doubt, to catch a few eyeballs here and there—The Salinger Contract is fast-moving, entertaining, and offers several hints that the author has the potential to write a more substantive book.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2013/2014


virginiaorthemudflapgirlElizabeth Treadwell
Dusie Press ($15)

by Lightsey Darst

You can easily read Elizabeth Treadwell’s Virginia or the mud-flap girl on a single descent from altitude if you like: the book’s ninety-some pages are sparely printed with brief, short-lined poems whose syntax isn’t so much compressed, in the manner of the Metaphysicals, as eroded, seemingly beyond recovery. Repeats, refrains, a minimum of apparatus, and Treadwell’s habit of cutting her lines mostly at natural breaks all contribute to a speedy reading. Moreover, nothing of great emotional moment will slow you down if you don’t want it to: Treadwell doesn’t present a self in need of empathy, and lines like “the death of culture as a fragmentary state” exist themselves only in a fragmentary state, as if scurf flaking from an old scar.

The canny reader will not get this far without suspecting a reversal, though—and sure enough, a second reading of this book can feel as different from the first as the situation on the ground from the aerial view. On this closer view, Treadwell shows as a next-generation, California-addled Susan Howe, mashing Mae West, John Rolfe, Vine Deloria Jr., and others into a new history of America, one in which the current USA—Hollywood, politics, avant-garde poetry, “all the handsome signifiers / in the village heap” —is the scab and 1492’s contact the fresh wound we still feel. Treadwell’s version of that contact is original, physical, your-virus-meets-my-virus, but also linguistic and ideological: your culture virus meets my culture virus, Indian mound as investment bank/Metropolitan Museum, or as she puts it:

oh so soonly shall we toil
our awesome landfills

all the pick-magic some forlorn
source faces

there’s a boat in the sea fevertine
there’s a fawn in the feldspar
the sputnik of justice

Admittedly, Treadwell’s syntax makes any statement of her aim an overstatement. Agent and event are rarely clear; instead, her writing is miasmatic. A pungent scent of old blood and tidal swamp rises from her sharded and mulched wordstuff—and you’ll smell its reek more clearly if you supplement her book with some research into early America. Take the poem “P. vivax”:

a little god comes in & protests
will as extensity holler
in all your original flapping sins,
your 17th century arcade
beating down staunchest river
some summer slag-heap
in theory butler
bitten, plow
some jailed hintback
in the doctorlight

If the opening presents an attempt to master wilderness, the last few lines trade grammatical coherence for obscure suggestion. But what is it about? P. vivax is the parasite that causes malaria. Some say malaria killed Pocahontas; malaria certainly decimated Native Americans along the East Coast, and was a leading reason for planters to import African slaves, who were often already immune to the parasite. Treadwell points readers to the research (and perhaps to Judith Butler as well) as she breaks up English like a prisoner fashioning a shiv from a toothbrush.

This pointed desperation sets her writing apart from the “avant-garde” she amusingly lampoons throughout Virginia—for example, in the single couplet of “spot”:

the mini-cathedrals of the avant-garde
the bird-like attributes of the avant-garde

Of course, this is a straw man: there is no unified avant-garde. But Treadwell uses it to critique certain elements of contemporary poetry: its “fake relevance” and “crap manliness,” its “lite toxicity” and “unhinged sanctimony.” Her poetry may look avant-garde, with its erratic punctuation and capricious capitals, but innovation for its own sake is alien to her. Instead, she deranges language to express dream changes and ecological emotion, much in the line of feminist theorists who seek a sentence without phallocentric subjectivity.

Unfortunately, sentences without subjects often frustrate readers; poems without clear syntactical connections may come across as mere descriptive clouds; and poetry that can be ignored probably will be. Clearly, this is a risk Treadwell is willing to take—or maybe must take if she wants to get the reader to imagine something really different. This different vista is nothing less than a new Eden: a wild America whose fertility does not demand rape and control. Dimly, Treadwell discloses hints of this dirty Paradise—as in the title poem:

the mud flap girl creates
the mud flaps as she
moves through the mud
flaps. the new animal is
born of the new animal.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2013/2014


Brenda Hillman
Wesleyan University Press ($22.95)

by Erin Lyndal Martin

In the year 6939, a time capsule buried as part of a 1939 World’s Fair exhibition is scheduled to be opened. Since the contents were cataloged and much of the element of surprise will be gone, it is difficult to estimate how much interest this will garner. Will it be the doll and thread or the vial of seeds that holds meaning to the people of 6939?

As in time capsules, one never knows what references or tonal registers will date a poem and which will prove timeless. Brenda Hillman took this risk at the outset of her recently culminated tetralogy of poetry collections, each volume using one of the four elements as its cohering device. A staunch nonviolence activist and member of the women’s anti-war group Code Pink, Hillman could not have predicted the world events that would occur during her writing of the quartet, and the urgency with which she addresses current global concerns is palpable. That urgency becomes increasingly visible as the reader moves from 2001’s Cascadia (which is focused on California and includes a number of poems about the California Gold Rush) to Pieces of Air in the Epic (2005), Practical Water (2009), and now Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire, which takes on metaphysical conceits while also wrestling with a slew of contemporary evils.

In Seasonal Works, perhaps the friction between the ephemeral and the eternal are the two timbers that give way to spark. A year before its publication, Tony Hoagland, addressing Hillman’s oeuvre thus far in American Poetry Review, posed a question that remains relevant: “Hillman’s work brings into relief one of the central poetic questions of our era—are the profits and burdens of self-consciousness worth it? In what ways does avante-gardish self-consciousness gratify and/or debilitate the work of poetry?” My lingering question is similar: Do the risks Hillman takes in creating a time capsule pay off? Like Practical Water, which name-checks Sarah Palin, Seasonal Works employs ultra-contemporary lingo via references to “Facelessbook,” Monsanto, AstraZeneca, Novartis, Halliburton, and many other institutions that situate the narrative within the extremely present moment, thereby risking some shelf life. However, Hillman also deploys a snippet of Hopkins (“dearest freshness deep down things dearest freshness”), includes an ekphrastic poem on a piece by the fifteenth-century ikon painter Andrei Rublev, and mentions the Latin name of almost every organism she describes throughout. “This is where poetry can be helpful. Poetry goes past the limit. It makes extra helpful nerves between realities,” she writes in “Experiments With Poetry Are Taken Outdoors.” Poetry, Hillman seems to be saying, is as relevant as ever and will be as relevant as we let it be.

Hillman’s self-awareness has historically expanded to her use of form, with which she has experimented throughout her career. In Seasonal Works, the storylines are a bit easier to follow than they were in books like Cascadia. “I was being a little transgressive with the narrative impulse in both this book and the last because there is a big prejudice against narrative poetry in some communities,” Hillman said in a chat with The Rumpus Book Club. Asked to follow up on this remark, Hillman commented: “The narrative impulse at times has great appeal, and it isn’t just one thing—a block of rendering events. I don’t find use of narrative or emotion or story incompatible with experiments, innovations, concepts—in form, subject, syntax, and so on.” Even though the stories are rendered with a more linear nature here, there are still plenty of swing margins, em dashes (the whole book ends on one), and other techniques more often found in so-called experimental poetry. One particularly striking move is Hillman’s rendering of the same poem in both verse lines and prose poetry (“A Quiet Afternoon at the Office”). This telling and retelling, printed on facing pages of the book, forces the mind to think back upon its own traces, seeing what stands out in each version and ultimately forcing a closer look at both.

This desire to revisit the poem’s beginning carries through to the cycle as a whole: at the end of Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire, a thorough reader can’t help but feel compelled to crack open Cascadia, knowing only now what Hillman would find to put in her time capsule.


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Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2013/2014


yourinvitationtoamodestbreakfastHannah Gamble
Fence Books ($15.95)

by Mark Eleveld

Hannah Gamble’s first book of poems, Your Invitation to a Modest Breakfast, was selected by Bernadette Mayer as a National Poetry Series winner. Told in three sections with a wide breadth of lyricism, the poems focus on gender, family, and the idea of aging, with a consistent reflection on relationships. The poems are engaging, thought provoking, and beautifully calm, with a dash of pensive regret.

Gamble’s poems are not breezy introspections, and reveal a signature combination of absurdity and pathos. Take “Everything That’s Alive Stays That Way”: “I asked my neighbor later / what it had been like to be alive before a time of war, / and he said it was funny / we even have a word for it, because everything / that’s alive stays that way / by tearing heat from the belly.” Although the tone does oscillate a bit throughout the book, her primary subjects seem never far from thought. In “Cocktail Party,” an absent father navigates to the poet’s mind: “The last time I saw my father alive / he was on his way to a cocktail party, wearing a tie / . . . just like the first time he went to a Rock & Roll Concert, / and his mother made him wear a three-piece suit.”

Contemporary poetry often spends too much time reflecting on the poem, the idea of the poem, the process of writing a poem. This is a danger that Gamble circumvents with her cleverly spring-loaded syntax in “Biotic/Abiotic”: “You moved around / me like a plastic daisy / on a plastic stem, spinning / in your yardwind. We never really / got it together. / . . . / I prefer poems, / but I understand that their human swell / is often troubling.” She continues to handle this topic masterfully in “How Early to Wake”: “Even when I was not being / a poet, I was deciding how early to wake— / how early to begin the business of approving / and disapproving of the shapes / I’d let my person take.”

The secret to Hannah Gamble’s charm lies in her uncanny ability to hold reality and a quiet, seemingly commonplace sadness squarely in her binocular-like vision. Her poems of quirky self-admonishment and effective disengagement are delivered in a style whose dizzying effects you are not likely to forget.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2013/2014