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Breaking the Cycle: ‘Fight No More: Stories’ by Lydia Millet

Fight No More: StoriesIn “Libertines,” the opening story of Lydia Millet’s Fight No More: Stories (211 pages; W. W. Norton), the reader is introduced to a paranoid real estate agent, who becomes convinced that a prospective buyer is an African dictator. At one point, this supposed dictator (who is, in fact, a musician) randomly attempts to commit suicide by falling into the property’s pool.

So yes—it’s an intriguing, albeit slightly discombobulating start for Millet’s first story collection since Love in Infant Monkeys, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize

This sense of the bizarre and frequently surreal pervades the entire book: in “The Men,” a variation on the traditional Snow White tale, Delia’s husband leaves her, and in his wake, seven dwarves move in, ostensibly to take care of her. The same real estate agent from “Libertines,” Nina, must contend with a vampire client who stores human blood and dead animals in the refrigerator in “I Knew You in This Dark.” Elsewhere, “I Can’t Go On”––arguably the most shocking and satirical story of the collection––propels the reader into the mind of a pedophile who blackmails his step-daughter into sleeping with him.

Unlike many books, the strangeness consistent throughout Fight No More also seeps into the reader. I felt slightly off-kilter while reading, as though the dream-like air, smothering heat, and irrationalities of orderly suburban L.A. (where the collection is set) were warping the stories into mirages.

What grounds these works of fiction and gives them momentum is the diverse cast of recurring characters. Jeremy, the son of a depressed mother and of a re-married father who stingily provides for him, initially comes across as the familiar Rebellious Teen in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” from his passion for Sid Vicious to his explosive acne. Throughout the stories, however, his apathetic persona falls away to reveal someone capable of profoundly caring about others. In a moving attempt to humor Lexie, who asks Jeremy to accompany her and her mother in buying an urn for her recently deceased and sexually abusive step-father, Jeremy jokes, “Sure. I’m solid on urns. Done a lot of urn shopping. I can tell a premium urn from a piece-of-shit urn. It’s all in the seams. Gotta hold them up to the light. You ladies need my expertise.”

Even Paul and Lora, though they never transcend their stereotypes as Jeremy’s uninvolved dad and vacant step-mother, are described with evocative accuracy. Aleska, Paul’s Holocaust scholar mother, ruefully regards her son as someone who “set great store by appearances . . . He’d been embarrassed by the sight of human weakness since he was a teenager.” Lora, on the other hand, “was warm, so nice you felt guilty, and full of just about nothing. For her it wasn’t that history had faded but that it had never existed to begin with.”

Millet allows her characters their small neuroses and gives permission for their thoughts to meander: Jeremy compulsively reaches for Latin phrases (my favorite: Cadavera vero innumera, or “truly countless bodies”), while Nina sees a monk smoking and considers for the duration of a page how someone who has achieved enlightenment could financially support themselves.  Millet continually presents a contrast between her realistically drawn characters and the odd, almost absurd situations they are entangled in.

By the end of the last story in the collection, “Oh Child of Earth,” the reader is left with a sense of the absurd and often meaninglessly cyclical nature of life. In it, Aleska goes for a walk, passing “each house in turn, each gate, each privacy hedge or showy rock garden, but as she passed them she also passed nothing at all. They were different and the same: she moved and did not move. What was ahead was past.” Nina, too, feels the noose of the past tightening after her fiancée dies in a freak accident: “Before Lynn, it was true, she’d had only the vaguest sense of her future, but then the future had arrived. Now it was past.” Indeed, in “Those Are Pearls,” Nina is reminded of how she and Lynn met (over the unconscious body of Lynn’s bandmate who attempted to drown himself) when she stumbles upon an officer who is wounded in an alley. For Nina, a crucial event in her life has literally cycled back.

But Fight No More does not inspire a sense of hopelessness or disgust. Despite life’s cyclical nature—or perhaps because of it—we can, and absolutely must, try to do better next time. (Remember, we are in L.A., where everything from the perpetual sunshine to Hollywood’s Dream Factory encourages self-creation and, more importantly, self-re-creation.) When Aleska, whose entire family perished in the Holocaust, and who has devoted her life to studying and raising awareness of its atrocities, reads a study that “54% of Russians now believe he [Stalin] was a wise leader who led the nation to prosperity . . . She sat there for a minute. Helpless. Then picked up her cell, called Lora to come back.” Aleska’s heartbreak catalyzes into a request that her granddaughter Lexie’s step-mom partially pay for Lexie’s college tuition. Aleska also leaves a portion of her own money to Lexie in her will. While Aleska’s trail of essays and research has probably accomplished little in breaking the historical and international cycle of genocide and faulty collective memory, she can at least help break the cycle of poverty and violence Lexie is trapped in.

Fight No More is about many things: the ways parents intentionally and unintentionally hurt their children; the anger and hurt from being abandoned by loved ones; how history, both private and public, can become repetitive and inescapable. These issues could have easily overwhelmed and burdened the collection. But because her characters are so distinct, almost startling in their richness, Millet is able to explore such grand questions organically and humorously, all while not taking life too seriously –– and reminding the reader to do the same.

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Heart Pangs: ‘Night Beast and Other Stories’ by Ruth Joffre

Night Beast“I think part of me has always believed love should be like this — painful and hidden, only making itself known when you least expect it and are unprepared for the damage it can do,” confesses Gemma in the titular story of Ruth Joffre’s Night Beast and Other Stories (190 pages; Grove Press). Many of the characters in this collection share Gemma’s belief, which is perhaps why they ultimately resign themselves to finding comfort in a lack of fulfillment, to being abandoned, to having their affections go unreciprocated — after all, love not only must be, but should be like this, shouldn’t it?

Fiona, the protagonist of the collection’s opener, “Nitrate Nocturnes,” seems to believe so. Like everyone else in her world, Fiona has a timer embedded in her wrist that ticks down the seconds until she meets her “soul mate.” When her clock hits zero, however, the timer of her supposed soul mate Marianne is still running. Rather than express heartbreak or even confusion, Fiona knows she will wait for Marianne. She “accepted this future like she accepted the premise of a film with no color and no audio,” Joffre writes.

“Safekeeping” explores similar themes by examining a scientist who lives in a war-time shelter built by her lover as she yearns for his return. By the story’s conclusion, she has almost numbly come to terms with her fate: “She understood now that she would die in this safe house. If not of old age, then of the ceiling caving in or the pipes bursting or a gas leak or some other fault of technology or mechanics. This apartment would keep her alive for as long as it could . . . And when that happens she will know that she was loved.”

Despite the collection’s exploration of various genres –– from magical realism to science-fiction –– and varied points-of-view (including that of an immigrant Chinese boy and a homeless girl), the book instills a single feeling of cold, detached melancholy as we repeatedly glimpse the many shapes and terrible costs of these characters’ “painful and hidden” love. And it is indeed a glimpse Joffre oftentimes provides, depriving us of insight into her characters’ interiority at what seems like crucial moments.

Though romantic relationships are only one part of our lives, Night Beast and Other Stories shows how they can overwhelm our existence in a way few other things can. Fiona considers the length of her wait for her soul mate “the single most essential thing about her,” and when she admits her obsession to her temporary boyfriend, Marcus, he tells her, “This is unhealthy. You have to keep living your life.” Marcus, however, has not gorged on the media’s depictions of love in the way women like Fiona have, so he is spared from developing that insatiable, crippling hunger for love. Indeed, Fiona studies film in university and when viewing a movie with Marianne thinks to herself, “she should’ve known this already, should’ve known that desire was a spectacle and that she would spend all her time with Marianne contorting herself into the woman she thought her soul mate wanted.”

This subtle theme of consumption and performance is weaved into many of the stories, most notably the collection’s penultimate piece, “Weekend,” in which a pair of avant-garde actors who have been working together for fifteen years confuse their married characters’ identities with their own. Intriguingly, “Weekend” reveals a strange truth about an earlier piece in the collection, as the television director in the story describes a new project in the works: “a gripping character study of a woman locked in a futuristic safe house while the rest of the world destroys itself (the lead actress had been left in an old bomb shelter for three weeks to prepare for the part).”

With this revelation in mind, “Safekeeping” becomes a study on the confusion between sincerity and performance, reality and fantasy. I realized I read “Safekeeping” the way I’ve consumed countless actual television shows — knowing full well it is a fictitious story, yet still feeling shocked at the realization that the tragedy of the protagonist’s life is manufactured. Joffre seems to argue that it is television shows such as the one the protagonist prepares for in “Safekeeping” that encourage viewers to accept such a “painful and hidden” love.

Ironically, it is in “Safekeeping” that our sometimes harmful, sometimes redemptive relationship with film and other forms of art is most movingly captured. At times, glitches appear in the narrator’s monitors , causing holograms, including one of her lover, to haunt the safe house. Whenever he appears, “she was so grateful for this small kindness that she crawled inside the projection’s ghostly outline and slept there, heart to heart.”

And isn’t that what we do when we read books and watch movies? Make ourselves humble and raw and vulnerable so we can crawl inside the art and sleep “heart to heart” with it? If so, Night Beast and Other Stories serves as a reminder that we must carefully choose what art we fall in love with.

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An Inner Life Exposed: ‘Wait, Blink’ by Gunnhild Øyehaug

Wait, BlinkA jolt of elation always strikes when coming across a passage that perfectly captures one’s private thoughts, and with Gunnhild Øyehaug’s novel Wait, Blink: A Perfect Picture of Inner Life (translated by Kari Dickinson; 288 pages; FSG), I frequently found myself electrified. Page after page of passages artfully dissect our most subliminal mental processes. Utilizing the character of Sigrid and her sense of detachment in front of the computer screen, the author makes a fluid allusion to the novel’s subtitle: “She identifies with the cursor! Waiting, blinking, and without any real existence in the world, just on and off between blink and blink. Is this her light in the world?” Øyehaug’s insight echoes what author and psychologist Maria Konnikova said about fiction writers: “Their understanding of the human mind is so far beyond where we’ve been able to get with psychology as a science.”

 The novel is Øyehaug’s first to be published in English. Translator Kari Dickinson’s discerning work remarkably captures the unique beauty of the novel’s syntax, powerfully relating a story so vivid it’s little surprise it made its way to the big screen. (It was adapted into the 2010 Norwegian film Women in Oversized Mens Shirts, its title a reference to Sigrid’s feminist antipathy toward wearing a male partner’s shirt.) The strength of Øyehaug’s prose is admirably unswerving; the evocative opening paragraph gives readers a taste of what’s to come:

“Here we see Sigrid. It’s nine o’clock in the morning, it’s January, and the 2008 January light that fills the room is sharp, yet reliably a color temperature of 5600 kelvins, which is the normal color temperature for daylight, and is the color temperature of bulbs in those large spotlights that are sometimes used in films to simulate daylight in a room.”

The precision of the prose is contrasted by a plot full of variables. The novel threads together the lives of several different individuals who have fleeting connections to one another, incorporating scattered cinematic and literary parallels as it does so, analyzing their interior relationships through the lens of movies such as Kill Bill and Lost in Translation, as well as works of literature such as Dante’s Inferno. Sigrid is a literature student at the University of Bergen and is often “falling into a kind of trance which meant that she’d forgotten she was still part of the world’s everyday dance.” Consequently, she tends to develop attachments with nature rather people.

That is, until she meets Kåre Tryle, twenty years her senior and with whom she develops a complex romance. Kåre’s ex-girlfriend, Wanda, feels her relationship with Kåre mirrors Uma Thurman’s vengeful quest in Kill Bill: “the fact that it was a possibility, now demonstrating on film, that someone could hurt someone else as much as Bill hurt the Bride.” And to the south of Bergen, in Denmark, is Linnea, a director scouting locations for a film that will never be produced. She is small and slight, and often walks with her head down, as though she were a small bell-like flower who wanted to keep things to herself.

Øyehaug’s characters are as nuanced as her fine-tuned language, which makes the most of its cultural references while radiating the uniqueness of a novel that feels profound, mysterious, and witty all at once.

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A Balance Between Cultures: ‘How to Write an Autobiographical Novel’ by Alexander Chee

How to Write an Autobiographical NovelIn his first nonfiction collection, award-winning novelist, poet, and journalist Alexander Chee offers a reflective look at his life in How to Write an Autobiographical Novel (288 pages; Mariner Books). From his time in Mexico learning high school-level Spanish to his undergrad days at Wesleyan, and later the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, as well as his AIDs activism in San Francisco, the book is a well-orchestrated chronicle of a life well-lived.

Growing up as a Korean American, Chee often struggled with his identity and felt awkward in public, as when his long hair caused him to be mistaken as a girl, or when a stylist nonchalantly remarked he could pass for white. But Chee stood out in other ways: in the essay “The Curse,” he was the first among his classmates to achieve fluency in Spanish; and in “The Querent,” he was the only one to pass a test for psychic abilities. These were the times when he was visible in the “right” ways, and Chee conveys the validation he felt when he was finally recognized for his individual strengths rather than his outward appearance.

Chee’s realizations read as personal, yet universally contextualized. His essays form a triumphant and evocative narrative about youth and a hankering for the power found in beauty. One recalls philosopher Benedetto Croce’s notion of aesthetics while reading Girl,” in which Chee portrays the elation of taking on a new identity, that of a woman. Aesthetics, as Croce points out, are ascendant; and although aesthetics are both the highest and the most challenging domain of human behavior, it is also the most base form, the one from which all others derive:

“This beauty I find when I put on drag, then: it is made up of this talismans of power, a balancing act of at least two cultures, an act I’ve engaged in my whole life, here on the fulcrum I make of my face. That night I want this beauty to last because it seems more powerful that any beauty I’ve had before. Being pretty like this is stronger than any drug I’ve ever tried.”

Chee graciously shares advice from his beloved professors at Iowa, such as Deborah Eisenberg and Frank Conroy, as well as Annie Dillard, who taught him at Wesleyan. Each of these mentors offers sound reminders that talent cannot be nurtured without hard work, making the book a helpful guide for young writers: “‘I started with writers more talented than me,’ Annie Dillard had said in the class I took from college. ‘And they’re not writing anymore, I am.’”

Chee also narrates his writerly journey through the hobby of gardening in “The Rosary.” Using gardening as a metaphor for his development under his teachers, he concludes, “I was not their gardener. They were mine.” The parallels of how a garden can initially be a “disaster in need of reckoning,” and how Chee eventually turned it into a blossoming rose garden, helped him visualize his own success. In chronicling his personal and creative struggles, Chee produces a cathartic primer for treading through the challenges of life with the same grace he displays as a writer.

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A Legacy Lost and Recovered: ‘Memento Park’ by Mark Sarvas

Memento Park A decade after the publication of his first novel, Harry, Revised, Mark Sarvas returns with Memento Park (288 pages; FSG), the chronicle of one first-generation Hungarian American’s journey to retrieve a family painting believed to have been looted by the Nazis. The protagonist, Matt Santos, is an aspiring actor and current background extra living in L.A. at the tail-end of his thirties when he receives a strange call from the Australian Embassy concerning a painting from their database of unclaimed war paintings: the fictional “Budapest Street Scene” by tortured artist Erwin Kàlmàn. The piece belonged to Matt’s family in Hungary during the Second World War, and its current value is estimated at two to three million dollars. Desperate for transit documents, his grandfather traded the painting to a member of Hungary’s fascist Arrow Cross Party. Unfortunately, the papers did not arrive in time to save his grandmother’s life,

This revelation leaves Matt puzzled; the story of his family’s escape “had always been a closely guarded secret,” and his “repertoire of gesture was too limited.” Matt also believes his father is the type of guy who “reveled in getting something for nothing,” and finds it strange his father doesn’t want anything to do with the painting, at least according to the embassy. Perhaps the story behind the painting could unlock why his family’s flight was shrouded in such mystery.

“There was something formidable about him, about his adherence to adamantine standards that I could neither meet nor shake free of,” Matt says of his father. Sarvas is an expert at depicting the dualities of the immigrant experience. When speaking in English, Matt’s father is laconic and rigid at best, belligerent at worst. But in Hungarian he becomes “like an aria transposed in another key,” an amiable, card-playing jokester when around his comrades from the Hungarian Social Club.

Matt’s other key relationships––his professional one with Rachel Steinberg, the striking, young lawyer from the World Jewish Congress; and the romantic one with Tracy, his supermodel girlfriend––are also complicated by his quest. Rachel travels with Matt to Budapest to aid him in his search for the painting, leading to amorous feelings that will create problems for Matt’s relationship with Tracy. “It often seems to me that the stories of our lives are too easily reduced to single moments of decision, whether to stay or to leave,” Matt says. “I suppose The Clash had it right, after all, but the wisdom of punk notwithstanding, I am consumed with this question.”

As Matt’s journey takes him from Los Angeles to New York and Hungary, Sarvas develops each setting with admirably unique language: “I had missed the spiced metal spell of the ocean,” he says of Los Angeles, “missed the gentle curves of the coast highway where the glass-flecked green and blue sheet shoulders up against pale, windswept beaches.” And throughout the novel, Sarvas allows his characters moments of self-reflection, ultimately asking if one can continue life’s dance when one has failed to learn the steps. (Witness the awkward encounter with Rachel’s father during a Sabbath dinner where he questions Matt’s lack of Jewish education.) As its protagonist puzzles over his identity, his relationships, and the painter Erwin Kàlmàn’s troubled past, Memento Park assembles these pieces into a satisfying whole.

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The Psychic Toll: ‘Moon Brow’ by Shahriar Mandanipour

Moon BrowA quick summary of Moon Brow (464 pages; Restless Books; translated by Sara Khalili), Shahriar Mandanipour’s newest novel to be translated into English, reads like the stuff of fable. Our main character, Amir Yamini, returns from the Iran-Iraq War saddled with amnesia and bereft of his left arm. Ostracized from his family and community as a head case, crippled by shrapnel, he is repeatedly haunted by the image and piecemeal memories of a beloved. With the help of his sister, Reyhaneh, he searches Tehran for signs of his past, and potentially for the love he no longer recalls, save only in his dreams. In a brazen attempt to rediscover a portion, both imaginative and literal, of what was lost, his journey eventually leads him back to the battlefield where his arm was severed.

From a lesser writer, one might expect numerous pinholes to develop within this complex and twisting storyline, not to mention a sentimentality found in gone-off-to-war pseudo heroic narratives. Instead, Mandanipour treats us to a new kind of story by filtering his novel through the dual personas of the angel of virtue and the angel of sin perched on Amir’s shoulders. Not only that, but Amir himself, at times, converses with each scribe, encouraging one or reprimanding the other. (“Write on my right shoulder that I like the old man. Not on my left, you jerk! The old man has memories of my childhood.”) We’re often shuttled smoothly from one point of view to another, and to yet another, as the past is recast—not so much as fact or history, but as a feeling or moment, transitory and unsettled.

It’s true that much energy is devoted to the playfulness between our sometimes-capricious narrators and Amir and their interpretation of events. (Not to mention the atmosphere of playfulness and carefreeness found in Amir’s playboy lifestyle pre-war, which others relate to him.) Yet Moon Brow is indeed a war story, and takes deliberate steps in describing the horrors of battle

By the time he makes his way to the soldiers, the pleas and howls of three of them have stopped. Like a snake, an intestine has slithered under a rock. A lacerated red mask on a face. One man, sitting on his knees, his forehead on the ground, silently trembles. His uniform is soaked with blood. Is it his blood or another soldier’s?

Amir’s memories of the violence of the front are almost hallucinogenic, a consequence both of the precise language used to conjure such awfulness as well as the already established shifting narrative. The sometimes-brief recollections that spool into one another continuously in an almost stream-of-consciousness manner heighten the drama. Images of war and beauty exist in close proximity, and the sudden turn from idyllic to grotesque mirrors the precariousness of human life in wartime.

To truly appreciate Moon Brow one must embrace a mindset that maintains the world is not black and white, but in fact gray. Amir’s world is one where something can both be and not be in the same breath:

There are and there are not clouds in the sky. There is and there is not the perfume of wintersweet flowers in the air. There is and there is not the tick tock of a clock. There is the smell of dead leaves fermenting and there is no cuckoo of a cuckoo bird.

This is complicated, enjoyably, by the ongoing disagreements between the raconteur scribes. “The account on his left shoulder is faulty,” says the scribe on Amir’s right shoulder. “Not that it is untrue, but it has been written from Abu-Yahya’s perspective. This should not be done.” We inhabit the area between the two, listening to both sides, trying to piece together, alongside Amir, an accurate account of his life before the war. After a while, a certain vertigo permeates the text.

It’s quite remarkable, and should be counted as a tremendous success, then that Shahriar Mandanipour sustains this tightrope act for well over 400 pages, both rewarding and delighting those who make the journey with Amir.

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Takeoffs and Landings: ‘Blue Self-Portrait’ by Noémi Lefebvre

Blue Self-PortraitAir travel has long been depicted in fiction as a venue for potential transition and transformation (even if only metaphorical); we take off from one place and land in another, and there is no guarantee we will be the same person upon our arrival—no telling what chance encounter may occur on our flight or what dreamy epiphany those long hours might inspire.

Blue Self–Portrait (143 pages; translated by Sophia Lewis; Transit Books), a 2009 first novel by French author Noémi Lefebvre, occupies this same liminal space; the entire book unfolds during a plane trip from Berlin to Paris, as our unnamed narrator obsesses over a brief romantic encounter with a German pianist, who is haunted by the Arnold Schoenberg painting from which the book derives its name.

Not unlike her characters, Lefevbre studied music, as well as political science; despite the dry image her academic credentials might conjure, Lefebvre displays a mordant wit. Her narrator is burdened with the kind of all–consuming self–consciousness and existential anxiety that have become hallmarks of a certain type of intellectual. Lefebvre utilizes page after page to pile on her narrator’s neurosis to frequent comedic effect: a trip to a salon means “…letting myself be shampooed, then snipped and styled and sent to the dryer to wait under that hood and finished off with hair spray, it destroys me every time”; her restless leg syndrome is “a long–standing problem that I’ve never managed to fix and which damages my social position, tarnishes my public image, and makes me unfit for all cultural integration.”

Lefevbre finds clever ways to disrupt her narrator’s solipsism. Any traveler knows that more often than not one’s agenda for the flight––whether it’s turning over the minutia of an ill–fated romance or making progress in a good book––can be dashed by the inconvenient realities of air flight: the screaming children or the choppy air. Lefebvre does well in reminding us her narrator is first and foremost a body at the mercy of a high-altitude cabin: “I looked for another tissue to mop up my capital and dorsal dripping, in other words my general dripping due to poor adaptation to the pressurized environment.” The narrator’s sister is along for the journey, her presence a welcome addition that serves to retrieve the narrator’s head from the clouds at opportune moments. Despite similarities in education and demeanor, the sister stands in frequent contrast to our protagonist: “You are not intellect alone,” she advises at one point, “you have to relax.”

In the end, the narrator seems to conclude that the defining difference between her sister and herself is her own suspicion in the very notion of a collective happiness—the idea that if each of us simply do our part then society as a whole will function for the betterment of all. “Collective happiness, in my sister’s case,” she explains, “depends fundamentally on universal niceness.” If the narrator is not dubious of the entire enterprise of striving for collective happiness, she is at minimum certain her ingrained anti–social behavior means she has no place in the endeavor: “…I mean I serve myself without restraint or consideration, I take what interests me and use it to fill my own void, my void is all I care about.”

Blue Self–Portrait contains thoughtful ruminations on classical music composition, the Third Reich’s persecution of the arts, and the impact of globalism on culture, among other far–reaching topics. Contemporary Berlin proves a rich setting, allowing Lefebvre to contrast the city’s towering artistic achievements against the lingering memory of fascism and the pervasive presence of consumer capitalism. (The narrator can’t help but remark on the ironies of her meeting with a pianist trained in classical German music to view an American film at the Sony Center movie theater: “composition and consumption fundamentally incompatible.”) Given how immersed in the notion of creativity and art the novel is, it is little wonder that at times Blue Self–Portrait takes on some meta qualities, such as when the pianist of our narrator’s affection muses, “…composing a piece with the stole aim of pleasing my audience was not my intention either, would have been impossible,” perhaps a reference to Lefebvre and the ways in which her novel categorically ignores the traditions of the form––resisting the straight narrative path from A to B, such as an airplane must follow.

“Flying only makes you melancholy,” the narrator’s sister tells her as their plane nears its descent, “…from the moment we reach the airport you’ll start to feel different and as though you’re glowing.” At times we long for this state of renewal at the end of a long journey, a revitalization upon arriving at our destination, no matter the wear-and-tear to get there. This kind of rebirth isn’t always possible, of course––some voyages leave us irrevocably altered and not for the better. But in Blue Self–Portrait there is at least the hope for change. “I’ll take some time at home quietly putting my pieces back,” our narrator assures her sister. “I’ll eat well and sleep well, I’ll take outdoor walks, that’s what I’ll do…I too shall be radiant.” We want to believe this is possible for our high-strung narrator, not only because we sense she deserves a reprieve from her constant self-introspection (and persecution), but because in her we see a reflection of our own desires.

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A Culling of Foxes: ‘Happiness’ by Aminatta Forna

HappinessIn Happiness (368 pages; Atlantic Monthly Press), novelist and memoirist Aminatta Forna takes the reader into a caravan of events that starts in contemporary London, where Attila, a Ghanian psychologist whose field study specializes in war refugees, in between “going to see plays and eating in fine restaurants,” feels as if he’s living on “a stage set, whose denizens enacted their lives against its magnificent backdrop. A theatre of delights, where nothing surely could go wrong, and if it did, all would be put right by the end of the third act.” On Waterloo Bridge one day, he bumps into Jean, an urban wildlife biologist from the United States. He has come to London to find Tano, the son of his beloved “niece,” Ama, who has been swept up recently in an immigration raid. Tano has been missing ever since.

Intertwining psychological, historical, and scientific insights, and seamlessly incorporating vignettes set in Iraq, Bosnia, and New England, Happiness explores the unexpected parallels between urban wildlife and the humans living next them:

“But he’s going to stay close by and not just because of his mother,” Jean tells Attila. “These”—”and she indicated markings on the map—are all fox territories. Foxes stake out an area and then they stay in it. Why? Because that’s how they sustain themselves. They know where to hunt, where to find food, water, shelter, where they feel safe from predators. The boy is no different, he’s going to stay where he feels most secure.” 

Amid the search for Tano, Jean finds herself being tested in other ways. During a spirited radio-show debate on the culling of foxes, Jean calls the mayor of London a fool and finds herself on the wrong end of a hashtag attack on Twitter, where she’s criticized for supporting foxes over people. Her family life isn’t going so well, either. Her son treats her like “the kind of old school friend you’ve outgrown, but to whom you remain bound by a shared history and a sense of loyalty.”

While the story largely centers on the search for Tano and the relationship between Attila and Jean that ensues from that, Happiness also considers how indispensible people such as security guards and doormen typically remain in the background of city life. The doorman at Attila’s building, for example, along with his network of surrounding doormen, security guards, and street-sweepers, stay on the alert for Tano. As such, it is the overlooked who catalyze the seemingly Sisyphean search for the lost boy. Over the search’s span of two weeks, the narrative mines the tender feelings, as well as the tensions, between Attila and Jean.. Their emotions are portrayed in such a way that it rouses sentiment rather than sentimentality:

“Love is a gamble, the stake is the human heart. The lover holds his or her cards close, lays them out one at a time and watches each move of the other player. To whom do you go first? This is the ‘tell’ of love…More than anybody else Jean wanted Attila.”

Happiness takes quotidian societal problems like racism, illegal hunting, and faulty government and wreathes them with personal issues such as mourning the deaths of wives and past lovers, Aminatta Forna has given us a pertinent novel, one whose prose is fluid and dynamic.

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A Salve for Our Grief: ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ by George Saunders

Lincoln in the BardoGeorge Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo (350 pages; Penguin Random House), recently released in paperback, continues to offer the salve we need. This exceptional novel, which went on to win the Man Booker Prize ––making Saunders the second American (in a row at that) to win the prize –– has the kind of sensibility necessary for national healing; as The Atlantic noted, “In a year in which writers and artists have wrestled with the question of how to tackle the increasing prominence of hate in the political sphere, the Man Booker judges seemed to respond to Saunders’s humanizing portrait of a leader felled by grief.”

 As always, Saunders’ work celebrates humanity where you least expect to find it. In his story collection Tenth of December he cheerfully examined the dark emotions driving middle-class Americans. And in Lincoln in the Bardo, which takes place during the first year of the Civil War and centers on the death of Abraham Lincoln’s eleven-year-old son, Willie, Saunders works tirelessly to understand the book’s multiple characters. Most of them are ghosts stuck in a graveyard, who are present on the night of Willie’s arrival in the cemetery. Throughout the novel, Saunders inserts excerpts from letters, newspapers, and some fictional archives that discuss the Lincoln family’s tragedy from afar. Each archival extract and fictional voice is broken up into small paragraphs, marked underneath by the speaker’s name, making the text read as a play.

“I didn’t just do it to be fancy,” Saunders told the New York Times after winning the Man Booker, “but because there was this emotional core I could feel, and that form was the only way I could get to it.” The archival excerpts also serve to break up the main narration, which is comprised of voices from the Bardo—a Tibetan space that exists between death and rebirth, where one’s fate is still undecided, similar to purgatory (although Saunders has argued that purgatory wasn’t quite right for the story; he imagined purgatory as too similar to waiting in line at DMV). The Bardo is populated by people whose bodies have died, but whose spirits are still tied to the living world. These lost souls find themselves unwilling to move on to the next world.

The souls residing in Willie’s cemetery occupy a place of denial; each one has a final memory that prevents them from accepting the truth of their own demise. They refer to their corpses as “sick-forms” and their coffins as “sick-boxes,” indicating they still think they’ll one day return to the world of the living and their loved ones. Each night, they wander the grounds of the graveyard, repeating the very same stories that keep them stuck in this liminal space. The ghosts in the Bardo can enter one another’s body, helping them access someone else’s memories, desires, and anxieties. In a discussion at San Francisco City Art and Lectures on the occasion of Lincoln in the Bardo’s paperback release, Saunders said that fiction has a similar kind of power: it has the ability to help us better understand the experiences and emotions of others, because it allows us to step into the position of someone whose experiences are far from our own. Saunders work provides a manual of sorts for national healing; it is through the practice of imagining oneself in the place of another that one can view others with compassion and ultimately move beyond differences.

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Faith in the Void: ‘Fire Sermon’ by Jamie Quatro

Fire SermonT.S. Eliot once stated, “The last thing I would wish for would be the existence of two literatures, one for Christian consumption and the other for the pagan world,” a status quo which has more or less come to pass. (It seems as though one could count on both hands the number of mainstream contemporary novels that grapple with the Christian faith.) As such, Jamie Quatro’s first novel, Fire Sermon (208 pages; Grove Press), which references the above T.S. Eliot quote, often registers as something different and exciting. Here is a smart novel for adults that deals honestly with the difficulty of nurturing faith in the midst of a world that frequently resists our attempts to prescribe it meaning –– a world full of complications such as infidelity, despair, and disease that undermine the tidy proverbs of a Sunday morning sermon.

On the surface, Fire Sermon’s narrator, Maggie, possesses the ideal life: a long-running marriage to her college sweetheart, Thomas, who provides her the room to cultivate her faith in God, even if he doesn’t share it; two beautiful children; and a cozy home with a dog and a yard in Nashville. Yet as the book opens, Maggie finds herself at something of an impasse. The stresses and strains of child rearing have left her feeling displaced in her own body and therefore disinterested in sex with her husband, while his lack of understanding in her beliefs continues to increase the emotional distance between them. This martial strife creates an opening for Maggie to begin a written correspondence with an acclaimed poet named James.

Through a series of intimate e-mails and handwritten letters, many of which appear throughout Fire Sermon, the two of them form an intellectual connection that soon grows into an undeniable attraction. After meeting at several lectures and conferences, Maggie and the poet (himself married with two children) finally consummate their relationship during a stay in downtown Chicago. This night sends Maggie spiraling into an existential crisis, as she wonders how God could condemn an act she views as an expression of true feeling between two people, married to other people though they may be; and she struggles to rectify the momentousness of her beliefs with the constant torment she experiences from attempting to live up to them:

“What if you woke up one day to discover the corpse of Christ had been identified definitively? Or that an irrefutable, airtight scientific study had been devised to disprove the existence of God, and the study had –– beyond any conceivable doubt –– proved he did not exist? What would you feel?

Relief.”

Maggie’s interior life serves as the focus of much of the novel as she probes her convictions, revealing they may not be as ironclad as she would prefer to think. Her thoughts are laid bare through sessions with an unnamed Counselor (who may or may not be an imagined stand-in for God), as well as in letters –– largely unsent –– to James. Refreshingly, these interrogations of the self don’t shy away from tackling the contradictions of religion head-on; rather than reflect the shiny, copacetic surface of so-called megachurches (“Her parents’ church is an embarrassment to both of them: drums and electric guitars, flashing laser lights and images projected onto screens during the sermon…”), Maggie’s musings reaffirm the Kierkegaardian notion that maintaining one’s faith should be excruciating work. (“Job is bullshit,” Maggie declares, “Job lost everything”). In a journal entry, Maggie sums up these struggles to hold onto meaning by writing, “God of God, Light of Light, Very Void of Very Void,” a line that recalls Hemingway’s famous passage, “Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name.”

This mention of the Void also precipitates Maggie’s philosophical ruminations on the similarities and differences between Christianity and Buddhism. In contrast to an eternity spent worshipping God with loved ones, the Buddhist afterlife proposes the annihilation of both suffering and the self –– an attractive proposition to a woman torn by her heart’s conflicting desires: “One ends in Nirvana, nonbeing…Extraction from the talons. What relief there would be in no longer to feel, again, your whiskers on my inner thigh.”

One could perhaps criticize Maggie for her somewhat solipsistic view of the world, but her character is discerning enough to call herself out and at least entertain the possibility that what she feels for her distant poet is not love, but merely the inevitable result of martial doldrums; that after years of monogamy, what she finds herself yearning for is not this man James but the idea of someone new. She pointedly asks herself if James is simply the next in “a litany of men I draw toward myself not out of loneliness or unhappiness, but out of one desire, to be fucked by someone besides my husband,” and comes to the conclusion that “…unless something is forbidden, I cannot want it with any intensity.”

These are provocative questions, and questions without easy answers, certainly not answers that could be doled out by a laser lightshow and projector screen on a Sunday morning. Their complexity rings true to the difficulties of maintaining any relationship over the span of a lifetime. To that end, Fire Sermon deserves to find an audience beyond only those who will see Maggie’s faith as a reflection of their own.

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This Shifting Web: ‘Stream System and ‘Border Districts’ by Gerald Murnane

Stream Systems“The writers of the present century have lost respect for the invisible,” says one of the narrators of Stream System: The Collected Short Fiction of Gerald Murnane (560 pages; FSG). “They have tried to describe what they had better have left unreported.” Perhaps we are fortunate, then, that Gerald Murnane has not lost this connection, for his writing is unlike anything being published today. It could be the way Murnane works his prose, filling it with repetitions and pulling out commas so the syntax shines like glass; or it could be something about all these nameless men and boys walking their small parts of Australia, dreaming about women and grass and clouds. In any respect, Murnane is one of the rare few actually working to alter the experience of reading fiction, and it is time his works are recognized more fully in this regard.

Despite an impressive body of work consisting of nine novels, three books of short fiction, one essay collection, and a memoir—as well as the highest praise from writers J. M. Coetzee, Teju Cole, Helen Garner, and Shirley Hazzard—Murnane’s books have mostly been confined to Australia and the United Kingdom. The release this spring in the United States of Stream System and Border Districts: A Fiction (144 pages; FSG) is therefore a major event in the publishing history of this writer and in contemporary literature. In Stream System we have the fullest collection of Murnane’s short fiction to date, giving us access to stories that were difficult or impossible to find before, and in the elegant Border Districts, which Murnane has called the last piece of fiction he will ever write, we have the vantage point to look over his ambitious life work.

Murnane’s fictions are composed like vast diagrams of far-away boxes connected by thin blue lines. For those unfamiliar with his writing, his subjects can be summed up fairly easily. In order of increasing abstraction they are: Catholicism, horse racing, women, fiction, landscape, light. The tone ranges from the reflective to the documentarian, with the extreme on one side resembling the best writing from Beckett and Conrad, and the other sounding a lot like that infamous 2012 report from the US Government Accountability Office about reports about reports that suggests the preparation of a further report about said report. In the harsh but necessary world of jacket copy blurbs it has become commonplace to call someone’s style “unique,” but Murnane really does seem to write differently from anyone else. The best comparison might be an artist like Glenn Gould: substitute features of the basin or plains for the arctic, and the opening line of Gould’s The Idea of North, “I’ve long been intrigued by that incredible tapestry of tundra and taiga which constitutes the Arctic and sub-Arctic of our country,” could easily be the start of a Murnane story.

Murnane does not write for an audience, that much is clear. His repetitive and sometimes off-putting style has borne its fair share of detractors. But unlike most writers in this line, Murnane also does not seem to be writing deliberately away from an audience, or in other words, being difficult for the sake of being difficult. It takes time to see this, but his writing truly does seem to reflect who he is as a person. (Character will out, as they say.) It exhibits humility, curiosity, and a careful, inward intelligence.

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Born Under a Bad Sign: ‘Black Sheep Boy’ by Martin Pousson

Black Sheep BoyAuthor and poet Martin Pousson’s Black Sheep Boy (182 pages; Rare Bird Books ), winner of the 2017 PEN Center USA Award for Fiction, and re-issued in paperback last month, is an unforgettable novel with prose that reads as both brutally honest and hypnotic. The story centers around our narrator, Boo, as he struggles with growing up gay in Acadiana, the bayou lands of Louisiana. Told over the course of sixteen linked stories, the book covers a wide span of time, from the “wild-hearted” boy’s birth to his freshman year of college, and centers around the qualities that make him the “black sheep” of the title.

Boo is unable to fit the masculine identity that his family, religion, and community demand of him. During childhood, his manner of movement and speech convinces his superstitious and abusive mother he is possessed by the devil: “Mama strapped down my restless hands with duct tape then ordered a doctor to fit braces on my twisting feet. By five, I’d learned sacrifice for the stutters when another doctor cut out a flap of flesh to correct my tangling speech. Mama showed me the horn-shaped piece to prove a point: the devil had me by the tongue.” His father, meanwhile, is mostly absent as he works from sunrise to sunset to meet his wife’s ever increasing demands for a piece of the good life she feels she deserves.

Boo is called Sissy, Queen, Fairy, and Jenny-Woman as he encounters drag-queens, priests, and neighborhood bullies. He has a variety of sexual encounters; some sweet and gentle, others haunting and traumatizing.

Pousson’s writing is melodic, with phrases that slope and sweep along the page. It is easy to get lost in the cadence and diction of his beautiful language. His phrasing is surreal and poetic; in one of the strongest stories, Boo remembers his grandfather—who by this time has lost all speech— and imagines him as a shapeshifting werewolf, proud of his grandson: “His eyes are black as bayous… From his neck, an endless chain of zigzag teeth swing like a second jaw. He moves without caution and knows no taboo. He’d frighten any tataille into the woods, chase any pack of animals into the dark. He’d terrify the words out of any boys mouth, chew the mask off any villains face. Yet his breath is perfume.”

At times the writing is so fantastical that it is difficult to find a more grounded, emotional connection to the storytelling, but that does not take away from the power of these stories. Pousson wastes no word. Black Sheep Boy represents an entertaining and dazzling read, and serves as a heartfelt ode to those the author addresses in his dedication: the “odd ducks, strange birds, and queer fish” among us.

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