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The Persistent Strangeness of the Ordinary: ‘See You in Paradise’ by J. Robert Lennon

See You in ParadiseCompiled from fifteen years of work, the stories in J. Robert Lennon’s new book, See You in Paradise (Graywolf Press; 256 pages) dwell on quotidian fears and dissatisfaction and on the strange nature of contemporary American life in modern suburbia, which can be found here in run-down mountain communities, lakeside cabins, and college towns. In this collection, ordinary people find themselves straddling mundane reality and its bizarre or magical undercurrents. Drawing elements from science fiction, horror, and the surreal, several of Lennon’s stories manifest these undercurrents in more literal ways than others. But the disaffection of their characters, the often absurdist butterfly effect triggered by their plots’ movements, and the feeling that anything can and will happen, are what unite all these pieces.

The opening story, “Portal,” sets the tone with its unceremonious appropriation of magic into an ordinary setting. A family discovers a portal in their backyard that sends them to alternate universes, but the device soon becomes overused and lackluster, falling into disrepair like an abandoned piece of furniture. When the portal falls into a “senile,” nonsensical state, it sends them to dimensions that reveal each of their hidden—and unnerving—desires, and they soon lose interest altogether in their family trips. As each family member begins to escape into his own psychic landscape (without help from the portal), the story offers a sincere depiction of the cold dissatisfaction and solitude felt in a deteriorating family.

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Racism Transformed into a Given: ‘Citizen: An American Lyric’ by Claudia Rankine

Citizen Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric (160 pages; Graywolf) explores the subtleties of racism and prejudice that seem all too prevalent in an oft-claimed post-racial United States. Rankine delves into the macrosociology of racism by examining prejudice in sports, economics, and pop-culture, and melds her pinpoint analysis with individual experiences of alienation and otherness at restaurant tables, front porches, and boardrooms. Citizen observes racism from a myriad of angles, employing a clever and effective combination of second person perspective with the speaker’s internal monologue, and fusing various lyric and reportorial forms with classic painting and contemporary multimedia art.

In constructing a racial identity, the speaker of Citizen cites what a friend had once told her— that there exists a “Historical Self” and a “Self-Self” that are in disagreement with race. When the historical knowledge of racism and the expectations of its ubiquity are placed beside the global-citizen, the individual, it prompts a sort of cognitive dissonance. This “is how you are a citizen: Come on. Let it go. Move on,” the speaker says, feeling alone in her otherness. Moving through the book-length lyric poem, the reader comes to empathize with the flinching nature of the judged—“Every day your mouth opens and receives the kiss the world offers, which seals you shut…the go-along-to-get-along tongue pushing your tongue aside.” Rankine explores racism and ignorant racial prejudice as a sort of unspoken, public exile, and the blind search for a solution, which only at times, sadly, is to become a citizen.

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Fleeing from Ruin to Fringes of Barcelona: ‘Street of Thieves’ by Mathias Énard

Street_of_Thieves-front_largeSet during the revolts of the Arab Spring and the collapse of Europe’s economy, award-winning French author Mathias Énard’s new novel, Street of Thieves (265 pages; Open Letter, translated by Charlotte Mandell), follows the life of a young Moroccan man living in the lower fringes of society, always working toward a future that remains a bit out of reach. “Men are dogs,” Énard writes at the beginning, “they rub against each other in misery, they roll around in filth and can’t get out of it…”  Amid that grime and grit, we witness the transformation of his narrator, from boy into man, from cowardice to courage, a change shaped by both the animality and the pressure of a society where people, like beasts, do whatever it takes to live.

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With Beer Came the Modern, Civilized Human: Q&A with William Bostwick

The Brewer's TaleWilliam Bostwick begins his narrative with a question: “What we drink reveals who we are but can it also tell me who we were?” Tracking down the answer means Bostwick must balance a bit of time travel with solid historical research, and interview a cast of contemporary brew masters. And taste a lot of beer.

When not tending bar in San Francisco or caring for his bees, Bostwick is a beer critic writing reviews for several national publications. He is also a passionate home brewer.

Blessed with a sensitive palate and a talent for great storytelling, Bostwick deftly combines his gifts in his newest book, The Brewer’s Tale: A History of the World According to Beer (288 pages; Norton).

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Bonded by the Feeling of Failure: “The Emerald Light in the Air” by Donald Antrim

9780374280932_p0_v6_s260x420The Emerald Light in the Air (176 pages; Farrar, Straus and Giroux) features seven stories of men late in their lives—men filled with regret who continue to pursue unrequited love, who force themselves to move on by loving newer, different women, men who come to realize they have no desire. Published in The New Yorker over the past fifteen years, each story in Donald Antrim’s new collection introduces the subtle conflicts of relationship and concludes with the patriarchal imperative of suppressed emotion: in “He Knew,” a man settles on his self-destructive young wife, “absently touching and spinning the gold ring on his finger” after she has gone to sleep; another man, in “Ever Since,” tries to convince his jealous girlfriend through extravagant gestures of affection that he loves her, though he begins to doubt it himself. (It seems he is forever in love with his ex-wife.) And in “An Actor Prepares,” a protagonist still seeks emotional and sexual refuge among college students in a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Each of these stories is painful in its tragedy. Characters question whether or not they have made the right decisions in life, and when they feel they have, wonder why happiness still eludes them.

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Examining Daily Life with the Care of Ozu: ‘Talkativeness’ by Michael Earl Craig

TalkativenessLike films, the poems in Michael Earl Craig’s Talkativeness (104 pages; Wave Books) juxtapose pedestrian settings with dreamlike events. And like films, these poems appeal mostly to the visual sensibility, with spare, declarative language that gets out of the way of their delicately rendered imagery. There are abrupt “cutaways” between unrelated scenes—particularly in such associative pieces as “I Am Examining A Small Crumb” and “Quarter to Five”—and narrative pauses during which the poet fixates on some peripheral animal or prop, like a cinematographer racking the focus of a shot. Film figures explicitly into many of these poems; while Craig’s domestic dystopias resemble those of Lynch and Hitchcock, the poet also invokes Bergman, Herzog, and Chaplin by name.

The book’s most prominent cinematic figure is Akira Kurosawa; the filmmaker is the subject of two poems, and Craig takes his epigraph (“No matter how good what you are saying might be, it will dampen the conversation if it is irrelevant”) from Yamamoto Tsunetomo, a seventeenth-century samurai whose writings on bushido were among Kurosawa’s major artistic influences. Yet it is an earlier Japanese director—and another significant influence on Kurosawa—whose films these poems most resemble: Yasujirō Ozu, known for his use of the “tatami shot,” in which the camera is positioned only two or three feet off the ground, and narrative ellipsis, or the omission of key events within a sequence. The effect of these devices is to implicate the audience in the telling of the story; the viewer feels both that she is kneeling beside the characters and that she is privy to an extraordinary, unarticulated subtext that colors the ordinary lives and events of the present scene. Stillness, in these films, seems to allude to meteoric motion; quietude seems like the conspicuous absence of clamor. Talkativeness, too, is a close-up glimpse of a world in which every commonplace object gestures toward the bizarre, and every domestic setting feels full of outlandish potential.

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What Shall We Do with a Drunken Sailor?: ‘McGlue’ by Ottessa Moshfegh

McGlue At the heart of Ottessa Moshfegh’s first novel, McGlue (122 pages; Fence Books), is a man who dampens life and feeling with drink—a man who is accused of murdering his best friend. Set in the mid-19th century, atop the high seas and throughout New England, the eponymous protagonist awakens aboard a ship, banished to the hold where he languishes drunkenly. As McGlue’s trial for murder approaches, the narrative moves backward in time, through the haze of memory obfuscated by a massive crack to McGlue’s head, which he received falling off a train. Moshfegh, whose stories have been published in The Paris Review, Fence, and Noon, is highly attuned to the tradition of the novel— she rarely reveals the protagonist’s internalized thoughts (a convention of 18th century authors like Defoe and Sterne), allowing the novel to dance smartly around the edges of perception and morality, and sustain the mystery of the murder while inviting an existential reflection in the reader.

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The Chemistry of Society Gone Awry: ‘Sweetness #9′ by Stephan Eirik Clark

eb4da83350f8e1c425ffadc1dda9769eStephan Eirik Clark paints a satirical picture of an American past that remains with us in Sweetness #9 (353 pages; Little, Brown), a vision into the passive life of flavorist-in-training, David Leveraux, whose family eats “stillborn” microwaveable meals and watches personal televisions, which echo to each other down the halls in a sort of Bradburian way. David also carries a secret that has expanded the nation’s waistband even as it has begun to unravel our society’s psychosomatic seams.

Full of life after marrying and getting a job at Goldstein, Olivetti, and Dark (Clark is not shy with the acronym), David soon conducts toxicology tests on Sweetness #9, an artificial sweetener. He feeds rats varying amounts of the eponymous and sugarless sweetener only to discover that it produces “the primitive desire to eat,” alongside depression, anxiety, and mutism. He is outraged to discover the corporation is hiding the results—they replace all of their obese test subjects with skinny ones—and is subsequently fired. After failing to get another job, Leveraux begins to work at a gas station, and eventually commits himself to a mental institution.

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A Hard Swim Toward Redemeption: ‘Barracuda’ by Christos Tsiolkas

BarracudaIn Christos Tsiolkas’ new novel, Barracuda (429 pages; Hogarth Press), we get an enormous book with enormous themes, and a surprising narrative form featuring a protagonist who can be shockingly unlikeable. A contemporary Bildungsroman set amid a vast landscape of social and political issues, Barracuda nonetheless centers around one man—a sports hero—whose personal respect and dignity are what truly are at stake.

Danny Kelly is a talented teenage swimmer from a working-class neighborhood outside of Melbourne. His life is uprooted once he enrolls in an elite private school (which he refers to as “Cunts College”) on a swimming scholarship. There he instantly becomes the victim of bullying from his peers, and a target of jealousy from his swim squad. To spite his classmates’ elitism, Danny protects his ego by outperforming them all in the pool, reminding himself constantly that he is “better, faster, stronger” than everyone. This mantra becomes deeply embedded within him, and we watch as he becomes much like a barracuda—a “psycho,” monstrous, unsympathetic, competitive, and violent.

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Strange Folk Tales, Recognizable Troubles: ‘Walker on Water’ by Kristiina Ehin

Walker on WaterKristiina Ehin’s Walker on Water (88 pages; Unnamed Press), translated by Ilmar Lehtpere, marries magical realism with oral tradition to create modern folklore about the complexity of romantic relationships. Ehin is an award-winning Estonian poet, having authored six volumes of poetry as well as three story collections and a book retelling Estonian folk tales—all of which noticeably influence Walker on Water.

Primarily, these stories remain in the realm of the magical: In the title story, the protagonist practices walking atop the sea while her husband is at work. He is the director of the Climate Change Monitoring Department at the Academy of Sciences. He also, she discovers, has a hatch on the back of his head from which he removes his brain each night. The protagonist is jealous of her husband’s admirers at work, and decides only she is deserving of his brain. So, in a fit of jealousy, she decides to drown his brains. “I wanted an intelligent and educated man, but what I got was a brainless oaf.” This line stands in stark contrast with the fantastical image of the man casually removing his brains at night, as so many husbands metaphorically do, nestling into a couch with a beer, while their intelligent minds, their desirable qualities, are left back at work.

Ehin explores contemporary problems through surrealistic means. A woman bites off the arms of her many husbands—subsequently they sullenly forgive her; another collects her former husbands’ “apricots” which she keeps in the attic (that tale uses language that is constantly a “razor’s breadth” away from using “castration”). “Lena of the Drifting Isle” is an immortal skeleton that is paid not in currency, but in time, and who tells the protagonist a story of lost love. The story is then carried on by the protagonist’s talking bird, which is teaching her its complex and invented grammar. Sometimes Walker on Water suffers from oversimplification, such as in “Evening Rendezvous,” where the characters Happiness Formula and Life Story debate in order to come to a conclusion about each other. This same method is handled much more deftly in “Stone Chunk and Beautiful Question,” which explores the issue of projection, false judgment, and expectation in relationships.

Kristiina Ehin wrote her fourth work, Kaitseala (Huma, 2005), which won Estonia’s most prestigious poetry award, on an uninhabited island in the Gulf of Finland during her time as a warden at a nature reserve. The natural world shines through again, years later, in Walker on Water, as Ehin conjures frozen rivers upon which grand-aunts and father-in-laws skate—barely and indiscernibly—through what the reader perceives as a snowy atmosphere. In the title story, a freezing sea threatens to swallow the protagonist, who walks out upon it from a coastal farm. While strikingly boreal, Walker on Water is also punctuated by immortal beings who live in a seemingly tropical “coral country” featuring an ancient, dilapidated castle at its center; it is a strange and effective work to behold.

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The Twisting Paths of Survival: ‘Wolf in White Van’ by John Darnielle

Wolf in White VanWolf in White Van (224 pages; Farrar, Straus & Giroux) marks a tremendous literary achievement by the artistically and lyrically inclined John Darnielle, guitarist and lead singer of the Mountain Goats. Darnielle is already praised for the writing in his songs, so his fans may not be surprised to see him succeed in his more literary pursuits. But the novel—given its complexity of craft, its deftness, and movement of prose—is not something to be taken for granted by anyone.

In Wolf in White Van, we follow the life of Sean Phillips, who lives an isolated life due to an injury that disfigured his face, and we witness his day-to-day experiences and thoughts that often morph into psychological digressions and memories. Over the course of this non-linear novel, we move backward in time as we progress deeper into the complexities of his ailments, his strained relationships, always moving into his younger self, until everything unfurls around the climax on the novel’s final page.

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Writing the Novel as He Simultaneously Narrates It: Ben Lerner’s 10:04

10:04Ben Lerner’s new novel, 10:04 (244 page; Faber and Faber), is at once nonfiction, fiction, and poetry, a rumination on the relation of the three, a work flickering in the liminal spaces among these forms. It asks of its readers that they allow the traditional structure of the novel—including the presence of plot—to momentarily leave center stage and that they make room for a form perhaps more engaging, one that sings “existential crisis!”

Lerner, who is first and foremost a poet, is a writer’s writer. His first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, came out to great acclaim in 2011. He is constantly experimenting with form and the limits of plausibility—and breaks these literary conventions by fictionalizing nonfiction—frequently employing apostrophe to blend fiction and nonfiction and to reveal the mechanisms at the writer’s disposal. It is as if we have been invited into a space much more intimate than the writer’s studio: In 10:04, we observe his relationships, his travel to shameful fertility appointments in which he must provide a “sample” for testing in order that his best friend Alex be able to move forward with intrauterine insemination. We are with the writer as he washes his hands again and again after worrying that his pants (which have touched the D-line train seats) and the remote used to navigate the clinic’s digital library of “visual stimuli” will contaminate his sample. We pass through his life in New York, his residency in Texas, back in time to meet his mentors, and even leap forward into multiple projected futures. So while the novel is largely defined by its lack of unity of plot, the scenes, however far removed they are from each other, stand alone, and are striking in their humor and wit.

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