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ZYZZYVA Book Reviews.

Rocket Man: ‘The Book of Strange New Things’ by Michel Faber

The Book of New Strange ThingsMichel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things (Hogarth; 496 pages) explores first and foremost the separation of a husband and wife by light years of space. It is also a meditation on religion in an age of science, on devotion, and, to put it plainly, on life-work balance. Coming after his acclaimed novels The Crimson Petal and the White and Under the Skin, Faber’s new novel has been praised by the likes of Phillip Pullman, David Benioff, and David Mitchell. It is hailed as “genre-defying,” and though it plays into certain sci-fi tropes, it examines the human reaction to communion with interstellar beings in a complex and specific manner, a manner often reserved for more literary works. It shies away from the technical acuity of hard science fiction, existing in the space between a speculative and literary work.

Peter, a former drug-addict-turned-preacher, takes on a job for USIC as a missionary to aliens on the newly discovered world Oasis. “These days, the bigger the company, the less you can figure out what it does…You ask USIC what they specialize in and they tell you things like…Logistics. Human Resources. Large-scale project development.” Peter never even decodes the acronym.

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The Complex Truths of a Disturbing Relationship: ‘Excavation’ by Wendy Ortiz

EscavationIn her memoir, Excavation (Future Tense Books; 244 pages), Wendy Ortiz looks to her journal entries and memories to piece together a narrative of her adolescent traumas. In the 1980s and ‘90s, Ortiz was seduced by her 8th-grade English teacher who instigated a relationship that would last five years. Now a registered sex offender, “Jeff Ivers” (as he is called in the memoir) is described in both flattering and disturbing terms, Ortiz’s attraction to him having as much to do with his charisma as with the danger his love promises. Now married, and with a child of her own, Ortiz digs into her past so as to fight her demons, revealing with utter honesty and unrestrained prose the vicious details of her ordeal. But rather than point fingers or give a moralizing depiction of a taboo story, she instead shows us the intimate spaces and the blurred lines of the relationship—as seen by a girl who doesn’t fully believe herself to be the victim of an older man’s predation.

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A Layered Portrait of a Mind at War with Itself: ‘Viviane’ by Julia Deck

viviane“The cry of the mind exhausted by its own rebellion”—Albert Camus

The slim spine of Julia Deck’s first novel, Viviane (The New Press, 149 pages), expertly translated from the French by Linda Coverdale, belies its intellectual heft. Deck’s crystalline language, too, appears innocently transparent, offering up on a silver platter events just as they transpire and thoughts just as they emerge from the narrator’s troubled mind. But this, too, is delightfully deceptive, as the hidden influences of language, and the impossibility of knowing or telling exactly what happens, appear to be part of Deck’s central concern.

On the first page, Deck flatly introduces us to Viviane Élisabeth Hermant’s excruciatingly uncertain perspective: “You are not entirely sure, but it seems to you that four or five hours ago, you did something that you shouldn’t have.” Her predicament is stark. At forty-two, Viviane is a new mother and newly single: her husband, Julian, has left her for another woman, declaring one day, “I’m leaving, it’s the only solution, anyway you know that I’m cheating on you and that it isn’t even from love but from despair.” Utterly alone, Viviane now believes, though she cannot be sure, that she may have killed her therapist. As Viviane tries to determine what she may have done, she is both detective and, perhaps, culprit in this psychological thriller. She delves into the “hole [her] memory has become,” trying to remember what she did. But she conducts her investigation in the external world, too: following and even interviewing witnesses in a series of increasingly bizarre and chilling encounters. It is a captivating and puzzling story, and it is refreshing to see a new work of literature explore the ways narrative can both bend perception and reflect a psychologically troubled mind without allowing the narrative itself to lose all sense. This is a literary thriller with aspirations, one with a well-developed understanding of the literary and theoretical traditions of modernism and post-modernism.

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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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