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ZYZZYVA Book Reviews.

Medea as Something More Than Monster: ‘Bright Air Black’ by David Vann

Bright Air Black With all of the revenge, patricide, and doomed attempts at heroism as one might expect from Greek mythology, David Vann retells the story of Jason and the Argonauts through the eyes of Medea in his new novel, Bright Air Black (250 pages; Black Cat/Grove). Medea is most commonly known for her fierce, self-sacrificial love for Jason, which borders on madness as she is driven to betray her family and abandon her home country to help him rise to power. In this retelling, Vann introduces us to a Medea that goes beyond just her supporting function within another hero’s journey, and who has her own dreams of conquest in mind as she sets sail on the Argo.

The novel begins moments after Medea decides to leave Colchis, her home, with Jason, and steps onto the Argo, where the most of the first half of the book is set. We see her as she is feeds the dismembered corpse of the brother she slaughtered into the sea, for her father, the king of Colchis, to trail after and collect. Although this opening may seem exceptionally horrifying, the reader soon learns Medea is rarely without blood on her hands. Early in her journey, it is revealed her motives for these incredible actions have nothing to do with her love for Jason, and everything to do with a hunger for power. It is not just Jason using Medea here, but Medea using Jason so as to get closer to ruling her own kingdom one day. As she sails on the Argo, she ponders the nature of god (with philosophical questions such as “How can we know when we’re worshipping a god and when we’re worshipping the sign of god?”), how stories of heroism get shaped by biases that obscure their darker, more realistic elements (about Jason: “The stories will reveal nothing about the real man who lived”), and how no one—despite status or title—is invincible.

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A Wide-Ranging, Dazzling Debut: ‘Swimmer Among the Stars’ by Kanishk Tharoor

Swimmer Among the StarsSwimmer Among the Stars, (256 pages; Farrar, Straus, and Giroux), Kanishk Tharoor’s first collection of stories, centers on concepts of language, conquest, and our ever-changing position on this planet. Born in Singapore and raised in Geneva, Tharoor touches on the imagined personalities of several countries and cultures— ruminating on the complex ways in which strangers cooperate and learn from one another, even on the brink of warfare. Often focusing on the strong polarities, and in turn, similarities of differing cultures, Tharoor is meticulous in illustrating the realistic yet otherworldly on both a microcosmic and macrocosmic level.

Setting his thirteen stories in land, space, and sea, and roaming in time from as early as 190 B.C. to a post-apocalyptic future, Tharoor asks us to conceptualize the relationship between past and present by treating time and language as near characters of their own. Reminiscent of the magical realism of Salman Rushdie or Haruki Murakami, Swimmer Among the Stars collectively capitalizes on the often unexplainable, enchanting feelings and interactions brought on by strong cultural identities and superb storytelling.

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Stories We Tell When We Won’t See What’s in Front of Us: Q&A with Emily Fridlund

(photo by Doug Knutson)

(photo by Doug Knutson)

Dark, haunting, and arresting, History of Wolves (279 pages; Grove/Atlantic) announces Emily Fridlund as a literary voice to watch. The book’s story opens as an isolated, woodland community in northern Minnesota confronts a scandal involving a predatory high school teacher. The sullen and introspective narrator, fourteen-year-old Linda, watches the tumult unfold from a distance, as she does most things in life.

That is, until the self-sufficient ninth-grader gets drawn into the lives of the young Gardner family who move in across the lake. Linda takes to the Gardners’ precocious four-year-old, Paul, but begins to notice peculiarities about the child, like the strange Scripture-like verses he seems to quote and his frequent bouts of fatigue. Though History of Wolves builds to a tragic series of events, the novel never trades in empty shock; part of its strength is in the way Fridlund adroitly explores the ways in which we reckon with tragedy—as individuals, as family units, as communities.

This auspicious first novel probes the terrible limits of faith, the responsibilities of motherhood, and the secrets beneath the surface of small towns. “I was intrigued, I was repulsed,” remarks one of the characters, and the reader is likely to relate. Fridlund understands the precariousness of youth, how “coming of age” is seldom about reaching a new plateau of maturity but more often like what Linda experiences standing under a scalding hot shower: “some feeling of woe, some feeling of desolation I hadn’t known I’d felt. A capsized feeling, a sense of the next thing already coming.”

Fridlund talked to ZYZZYVA about History of Wolves and some of her influences as a writer, as well as her story “Lock Jaw,” which appeared in ZYZZYVA No. 101.

ZYZZYVA: One of the aspects of a novel that draws me in, perhaps before anything else, is its milieu. The setting here feels so tied to the book’s events, with details about the oppressiveness of winter and the isolation of this wooded community creating the kind of environment where Paul’s story could so easily happen. Like with Linda’s dogs and their chains, I think their mere presence adds a certain texture to the novel, in a similar way the scandal with Linda’s teacher, Mr. Grierson, compliments the main story of the Gardner family. How much of the novel began with, say, the character of Linda or Paul versus the woods themselves? 

Emily Fridlund: I’m so glad to hear that you were pulled in by the milieu. The woods and Linda, setting and narrator, were always inextricably linked in my mind. I began with Linda’s voice, and the first scene I wrote was the one in which she approaches Mr. Adler, after he collapses in front of his class, and tentatively takes his hand. I was intrigued by the boldness of such a gesture, and also by the longing for human contact that might inspire it. As I tried to understand both these qualities in this peculiar teenage girl, it began to make sense to me that she would be a person forced into independence at a very young age, a kid schooled by woods and lakes—and that this very same background would also make her wretchedly solitary.

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Tangles, Erasures, and Connections: ‘Of Form & Gather’ by Felicia Zamora

P03334In the introduction to Felicia Zamora’s collection of new and selected poems, Of Form & Gather (62 pages; University of Notre Dame Press), Edwin Torres writes that “A poem’s burden is to live inside its creation, where the organized singularity of its gathering is what brings the reader to the reader’s own voice.” This is an accurate description of how Zamora’s poems work, and what they do to the reader. The book is divided into four sections, titled “circles & circulations,” “that that that; this this this,” “in in; gather gather,” and “To be out of- dually other.” Each section does exactly what the title of the book says, as they each play with form and formalistic elements while underlining the circular and repetitive nature of Zamora’s poetry and images.

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Nightmarish Existence of The Child: ‘The Impossible Fairy Tale’ by Han Yujoo

The Impossible Fairy TaleThe dichotomies of childhood—children’s capacity for both guileless love and extreme cruelty—make our earliest years ripe material for storytelling; fairy tales, in particular, have long traded on the contradictions of youth: Hansel and Gretel narrowly escaping an evil witch’s clutches only to burn her alive in her own oven, Red Riding Hood fending off the appetite of a ravenous wolf disguised as her grandmother before filling his stomach with stones. It’s through this lens the reader approaches The Impossible Fairy Tale (214 pages; Graywolf Press; translated by Janet Hong), the first novel from Korean author Han Yujoo and her first work to be translated into English.

The book opens on a bleak grade-school world (“Do you know you can kill someone with a fountain pen?” is one of the first lines spoken) and quickly establishes the novel’s central parallel: the charmed life of the angelic Mia—who wants for nothing and receives lavish gifts from both her biological father and her mother’s paramour (as the novel opens it’s a set of seventy-two German watercolor pencils, perhaps a nod to the Germanic origins of the Grimm fairy tales)—presented in sharp relief against a classmate’s known only as the Child, an unfortunate girl who experiences a constant torrent of abuse from her mother: “She wishes she could be erased. But every time she tries to erase herself, she only grows darker.”

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History and Poetry as Unending Things: ‘Whereas’ by Layli Long Soldier

WhereasWhereas (120 pages; Graywolf) is Layli Long Soldier’s first book of poetry, and what an exquisite book it is. Gathered in one volume, Long Soldier’s poems clearly expose the ways language—either English or Lakota/Lakȟótiyapi—is used to create and destroy opposing politics. She does not shy away from political speech in Whereas, and indeed, she can’t—not as long as Native people continue to suffer under continued settler colonialism, or as the various languages and traditions of the thousands of indigenous ethnic groups are continually stomped out yet revitalized in specific Native spaces.

Divided into two parts, the book begins with “These Being the Concerns,” a section comprised of seventeen poems, some previously published and some new. The last section, “Whereas,” consists of three poems titled “Whereas Statements,” “Resolutions,” and “Disclaimer.” “Whereas” considers many different scenarios where Long Soldier examines her relationships with other poets, with “emptiness” in American Indian poetry, with religion, with history (cultural, state-approved, or otherwise). Each poem also considers physical posture: bodies curled in fetal positions, crouching, teetering down a hall, kicking at another person out of anger. Like a number of poems in “These Being the Concerns,” “Whereas” unfurls across several pages, filling the spaces on each page, connected only by the telltale semicolon at the end of each line on every page.

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Meditating on Evil under Paradise’s Sun: ‘After the Blue Hour’ by John Rechy

After the Blue HourIn his new novel, After the Blue Hour (212 pages, Grove Press), John Rechy offers a hybrid erotica-mystery that he labels as “true fiction.” The author of seventeen books and praised by such great American writers as James Baldwin, Edmund White, and Gore Vidal, Rechy achieved literary fame with his first novel, the international bestseller City of Night, published in 1963. In his new novel, set in the ’60s, the narrator, a 24-year-old writer and ex-hustler also named John Rechy, receives an invitation to join an admiring fan, Paul Wagner, for the summer on his private island.

Upon arrival, John finds himself at a gorgeous yet strangely tense and mysterious paradise, alongside the extraordinarily rich and charismatic Paul, his soft-spoken mistress Sonja, and his relatively unstable 14-year-old son, Stanty. Here, in Gatsby-esque fashion, John spends each day in complete isolation with his new companions, sharing drinks, beliefs, and stories that come to reveal each character’s sense of moral depravity and grit.

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Our World Without Any Memory of Itself: ‘NK3’ by Michael Tolkin

NK3Michael Tolkin’s 1988 novel, The Player, remains a note-perfect send-up of late Eighties Hollywood excess, a paranoid neo-noir told from the point-of-view of the murderer himself—a creatively and morally bankrupt Hollywood executive. Now the acclaimed author, screenwriter, and director returns with NK3 (300 pages; Grove), his first novel in more than a decade. Tolkin has long specialized in satire so shrewd and well-observed that it barely registers as satire; NK3, in which a memory-erasing biological weapon creates a power vacuum for the working classes to seize control from the rich and elite, couldn’t have arrived at a more apropos time.

Initially, the biggest shock of NK3 is how much it reads like a post-modern take on the airport bestseller. The opening chapters leap from place to place and character to character with each flip of the page like the Michael Crichton thrillers of yore. These early passages are burdened by exposition as Tolkin works to establish his near-future world of 2020, a society that—like the best speculative fiction—looks radically different and yet eerily similar to our own.

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What Comes After the Trauma of Fleeing: ‘The Refugees’ by Viet Thanh Nguyen

9780802126399The Refugees (224 pages; Grove), the new book by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen, consists of eight stories circling around the displacement caused by the Vietnam War. Though reviewers of the collection have tied the narratives of these stories to some kind of universal “immigrant experience,” the title of the book, as well as the historical context of the stories, refuses this oversimplified categorization. The Refugees gently but firmly reminds the reader of the difference, which lies largely in the ways one group has had some kind of choice in leaving their place of origin, while the other has been pushed out by a violent external force. The way Nguyen makes this distinction throughout The Refugees is elegant, even if it is not explicit. The opening story, “Black-Eyed Woman,” does this by discussing how a woman’s girlhood and innocence were stripped away as part of her experience as a boat person. By opening the collection with a story that depicts this familiar (but somehow still unacknowledged) narrative, Nguyen situates the rest of the pieces within a context of trauma and forced migration, of pain and loss.

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Poems of a Man ‘Robbed of His Country’: ‘In Praise of Defeat’ by Abdellatif Laâbi

laabicover-600x700Abdellatif Laâbi is perhaps Morocco’s most well-known poet-activist-writer, and a well-respected Francophone poet as well His personal history—founder of leftist Moroccan/Maghrebi magazine Souffles (Breaths) in 1966, imprisoned for “crimes of opinion” against King Hassan II from 1972 to 1980, and exiled to France since 1985—is staggering on its own, and his writing reflects each stage of his life in haunting and affective ways. This is perhaps what makes In Praise of Defeat (824 pages; Archipelago; translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith) so incredible. The book is a veritable brick—it’s almost intimidating in its scale, refusing to let the reader forget Laabi’s illustrious and prolific career. The poems span from his early work (“Le Règne de Barbarie/ The Reign of Barbarism,” 1965) to the quite recent (“Le Saison Manquante/ The Missing Season,” 2015), and the length of the poems—most notably, Sous Le Bâillon, Le Poème/Beneath the Gag, The Poem (1972-1980) and Le Soleil Se Meurt / The Sun Is Dying (1992)—range as impressively, too. It seems a little crass to call a book of poetry a “page-turner,” but as some poems here span up to ten pages, it’s worth noting that Laâbi’s deft metaphors sustain your attention so that the physical interruption of the turn of a page is lessened. (The book also includes an essay, “Writing and the New World Disorder.”)

With Laabi’s original French on the left-hand pages, and Nicholson-Smith’s English translations on the right, In Praise of Defeat showcases a series of poems, and selections from longer poems, hand-picked by Laâbi. In some cases, this means that only a few stanzas of a poem appear in the book, and the reader is left wondering what else was said, or what Laâbi wanted the reader to seek out on their own. The excerpts, however, do work as stand-alone poems.

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Love (and Lives) on the Balance: ‘Lucky Boy’ by Shanthi Sekaran

9781101982242In her new novel, Lucky Boy (472 pages, Putnam), Shanthi Sekaran plunges readers into the drastically different yet irrevocably intertwined lives of two women, and in doing so explores facets of motherhood, immigration, and the American experience. Solimar Castro Valdez is eighteen when she leaves the impoverished cornfields of Santa Clara Popocalco in Oaxaca for “the promise of forward motion” in California. Her journey north is nightmarish; she is nearly forced into drug smuggling, she survives a rape, witnesses the horrific death of a boy, and for days rides in the bed of a truck, gagging on the stench of onions. In the middle of this tribulation, she falls for another traveller, a young man named Checo, who rides with her through Mexico atop the infamous train nicknamed La Bestia. As they near the U.S. border, they are separated, but the sense of determination Checo instills in Soli remains with her for the rest of the story. By her own volition and ingenuity, Soli finds her cousin’s house in Berkeley. By the time she arrives, her hair shorn, Soli is pregnant. Despite the journey, and despite the uncertainty of what her life will be like in America as an undocumented woman—and a mother—she remains eager to start her new life.

Sekaran seamlessly alternates between Soli’s story and that of Kavya Reddy’s. Kavya lives with her husband, Rishi, in a bungalow in Berkeley. The children of Indian immigrants, Kavya, who is in her 30s, is the chef at a Cal sorority house, and Rishi is a “ventilation engineer” at a Silicon Valley tech company. They bike to work, spend lazy Sunday mornings naked in bed, and take trips to the farmer’s market. Kavya’s privileged day-to-day existence initially stands in stark contrast with Soli’s. “Her grown-up life was fat with pleasure, but after three years, then four and five, the pleasure grew thin. She’d come to Berkeley to find herself, but found that her self was not enough. She wanted a self of her self,” Sekaran writes. “She wanted a child.”

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A Political Awakening in Haiti: ‘Dance on the Volcano’ by Marie Vieux-Chauvet

Dance on the VolcanoDance on the Volcano, by Haitian author Marie Vieux-Chauvet (1916-1973), was originally published as La Danse sur le Volcan in 1957. Previously translated into English by Salvator Attanasio in 1959, Archipelago Books has published a delightful new translation by Kaiama L. Glover. Glover, a scholar of Caribbean fiction, translation, and Francophone literature, seems like the natural candidate for translating Vieux-Chauvet’s stunning novel. She has already translated two other works of Haitian fiction, and her scholarly knowledge and apparent pleasure in making the sights and sounds of colonial Haiti accessible to an Anglophone audience are palpable.

Dance on the Volcano tells the story of Minette, a young black woman who passes for white in 18th century Haiti (then called Saint Domingue). Minette, blessed with a beautiful singing voice, becomes the first free woman of color to perform at the opera performance house in Port-au-Prince. The novel, which alternately radiates joy and terrible pain, traces Minette’s rapid radicalization and political awakening, while also depicting the build-up to the Haitian Revolution, as well as delineating race, class, and gender in the country at the time.

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