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ZYZZYVA Book Reviews.

Deceptions of an Iraq War Memoir: ‘A Big Enough Lie’ by Eric Bennett

A Big Enough LieEric Bennett’s first novel, A Big Enough Lie (285 pages; TriQuarterly Books), is fiction within fiction. The novel opens with best-selling author John Townley sitting in a studio green room, waiting to discuss his war memoir, Petting the Burning Dog, for the second time on the Winnie Wilson Show. There’s just one problem. The memoir is a fabrication, written under the name Henry Fleming, who happens to be a real second lieutenant in the U.S. Army. Fleming is missing in action in Iraq and was the leader of the “Babylon Seven”—a platoon captured and executed on video. Townley suspects his second appearance will expose his lies on national television; the show’s second guest is Antoine Greep, the platoon’s sole survivor.

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Peering through the Haze of Digital Commotion: ‘All This Life’ by Joshua Mohr

unnamed (3)_0Is loneliness the de facto spiritual condition of the Information Age? This is the central question that seems to loom over All This Life (Soft Skull Press; 294 pages), the latest novel from Bay Area author Joshua Mohr. In the book, Mohr trains a scathing lens upon our 21st century culture, one that craves personal connection and yet seems to have forgotten the value of face-to-face interactions, opting instead for a constant stream of YouTube videos, live Tweets, and Facebook status updates. “All that matters is content. New content. More content.” The setting is San Francisco circa 2013, a city where zealous Apple employees “swarm like Jehovah’s witnesses” and promise “video quality that looks better than the real world,” a place where a booming tech industry has driven rent prices up toward Manhattan levels and has dismantled “every bit of strangeness that once made San Francisco extraordinary.”

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Struggling Among So Much Splendor: ‘The Wonder Garden’ by Lauren Acampora

The Wonder GardenIt takes a skilled writer to make us see the familiar as something new. In her first book of fiction, The Wonder Garden (Grove; 386 pages), Lauren Acampora turns an anthropologist’s discerning gaze on the everyday sights and sounds of suburbia. In doing so, she creates the impression these commonplace scenes and images are imbued with some hidden meaning, whether it be a foreign girl visiting for the first time a mall, where she “touches the clothing in Aeropostale as if it were powdered with gold dust,” or the markings on a “wooden coffee table that still bears the scars of children’s homework.”

The Wonder Garden began as a novel until Acampora realized her story’s central protagonist was too passive of a character to carry the weight of hundreds of pages. Thankfully, she discovered that several of the novel’s supporting players possessed fascinating interior lives worth exploring. Acampora ultimately resurrected the project as a series of interwoven stories set around the affluent Connecticut community of Old Cranbury. These are characters who appear “stuck,” paralyzed by indecision while at the crossroads of middle-age, young adulthood, or new parenthood. The pleasure of reading The Wonder Garden comes not from watching these people escape the traps they may or may not have set for themselves, but in witnessing their struggle and seeing, despite the extreme wealth on display through the book, a mirror of our own lives.

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When a Storm Might Turn You into Pulp: ‘The Paper Man’ by Gallagher Lawson

The Paper Man Gallagher Lawson’s first novel, The Paper Man (261 pages; Unnamed Press), opens with a scene you might expect in a coming-of-age tale: a sheltered young man has just arrived by bus to an unfamiliar city, eager and more than a little anxious to start the next chapter of his life. The difference here is that our protagonist, Michael, is a walking and talking paper mache’ construction. Given his unusual appearance, Michael is dreadfully concerned with fitting in his new surroundings. Fortunately for him, he might not be the strangest resident of the novel’s unnamed seaside province: his arrival in town is heralded by the appearance of a dead mermaid in the middle of the road. The sight proves an ill omen as Michael soon finds his belongings stolen by an eye-patch-wearing talk radio host and his paper form marred by a sudden rainstorm. Early in the novel, Michael reminds himself that “he was the stranger here,” and, given the existential horror prevalent in The Paper Man, one senses Gallagher Lawson would hardly be unpleased if this phrase brings Albert Camus to mind for his readers.

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Karl Ove Knausgaard: Whose Struggle Is It?

My Struggle Volume FourWhen Karl Ove Knausgaard was in San Francisco to promote the U.S. release of the fourth book in his six-volume My Struggle series, he was quietly and generously discussing a project that had been completed several years ago, but whose trajectory among English speakers is still tracking with a fervor rarely seen in the literary world. My Struggle: Book Four (Archipelago; 485 pages; translated by Don Bartlett) deals primarily with the eighteen-year-old Knausgaard’s time as a schoolteacher in northern Norway; as in each of the first three volumes, he painstakingly chronicles tiny yet unendurable humiliations, fleeting moments of elation and revelation, and the abiding shame and existential dread that, for Knausgaard, are the costs of being alive. He employs a flatness of style, an insistence on detail, and an overwhelming candor to produce an effect few authors have ever been able to achieve, and whose qualities I can only compare to the experience of reading as a child: total immersion in a story, and the sense that the rhythms of writer and reader have been synced, producing a cosmically unlikely pleasure that hits like a fierce wave of energy.

Comprising Knausgaard’s admirers are novelists of every ilk and age; respected reviewers; and, judging by the sales, around one-in-nine adult Norwegians. Reckless hyperbole about his accomplishment abounds (such as that in the preceding paragraph), much of it merely in service of figuring out how he achieved what he did, which is to make interesting and appealing 3,600 pages of hastily-written, baldly autobiographical prose about a handsome, intelligent, successful man who describes the birth of his daughters and his bowel movements with equal reverence.

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A Vision Stretching Over Centuries: ‘The Memory Painter’ by Gwendolyn Womack

The Memory PainterGwendolyn Womack’s first novel, The Memory Painter (320 pages; Picador), is a historical and scientific thriller fueled by themes of reincarnation and identity. World-famous painter Bryan Pierce is at the mercy of sudden trance-like states wherein he is able to paint moments of beauty and pain from his past lives. His art acts as a distress call, and it’s answered by Linz Jacobs, a neuroscience researcher. When Linz visits an art gallery and recognizes in one of Bryan’s paintings an image from a recurring childhood nightmare, an immediate connection to the artist soon becomes an exploration of shared history and past mysteries.

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The Potential of Formless Beings: A Translation of Anne Garréta’s ‘Sphinx’

sphinx_intro_rgbBeyond the elegant, geometric design of its cover, Sphinx (Deep Vellum; 120 pages; translated by Emma Ramadan) is an ambiguous, multifaceted beast. With its third publication, Deep Vellum, an eclectic Dallas press, brings the work of French writer Anne Garréta to English readers for the first time. Nearly thirty years after its original publication, Sphinx also marks the first English translation of a female member of Oulipo (short for ouvrir de littérature potentielle, or “workshop for potential literature”), the exclusive, prestigious writer’s workshop that included George Perec and Italo Calvino among its members. (Garréta is the first member of Oulipo to be born after its founding.) The goal of so-called potential literature is to restrict or manipulate language structures to open up the narrative possibilities of literature. And, indeed, there is something both freeing and unsettling about the prose of Sphinx. Though the sentiments at the heart of the novel are universal–love, passion, and melancholy–the agents of such feelings are strikingly absent, phantom-like forms that refuse to be pinned to the page and examined as specimens.

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Drugged Daydreams Down on the Farm: ‘Delicious Foods’ by James Hannaham

Delicious FoodsJames Hannaham’s striking new novel, Delicious Foods (Little, Brown; 384 pages), digs deep into a son’s loyalty to his mother and deeper into his mother’s dependence and addiction to crack cocaine. When Eddie’s mother, Darlene, fails to return home, he begins a search that leads him to Delicious Foods—a farm where addicts, lured with false stories and promises, are forced to work for next to nothing and are unable to leave.

The prologue of the novel begins with the end. Eddie escapes Delicious Foods, but freedom comes with a price. Hannaham introduces us to the horror of this world, when on page one he describes Eddie driving a stolen SUV, steering with the nubs of his wrists—his hands having been recently sawed off. Though we learn in the prologue that everything ends up O.K. for Eddie, one question central to the entire novel haunts him: Will he ever be able to save his mom from her demons, and will he ever be free of his own?

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The Misapprehension of Satire: On ‘The Zone of Interest’ by Martin Amis

The Zone of Interest“O Germany—
Hearing the speeches that ring from your house, one laughs.
But whoever sees you, reaches for his rifle.”
—Bertolt Brecht (from Hannah Arendt’s
Eichmann in Jerusalem)

I. Introduction

January marked the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the infamous labor and extermination camp in Poland where more than one million Jews were murdered by the Nazis, right under the nose of Polish citizens and the wider international community. The timing of this gruesome anniversary is poignant, as European anti-Semitism is perhaps more virulent and threatening now than at any point since the war. Anti-Semitism has unfortunately proven itself to be an extremely adaptive prejudice, taking different forms wherever and whenever it emerges; it has also proven to be monumentally destructive for culture. “The politics of hate that begins with Jews,” as Jonathan Sacks wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “never ends with Jews.” The anti-Semitism we see in Europe today has roots in historic prejudices, but there are new aspects to its current incarnation. The distinctly European strain of anti-Semitism has combined with tensions surrounding events in the Middle East, as well as simmering resentments from Europe’s often alienated Muslim communities.

European leaders have struggled even to face, much less stem this rising tide of bigotry. The French ministers of foreign affairs and the interior penned an op-ed for the New York Times last July, titled, almost plaintively, “France Is Not An Anti-Semitic Nation.” Just three days later, on July 13, crowds marching in anti-Israel demonstrations set the streets of Paris on edge with chants of “Death to the Jews” and two synagogues were attacked; a third synagogue was defaced the following day, and similar attacks, as well as assaults on Jewish citizens, continued throughout the following months in Paris, Lyon, Nice, and elsewhere. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been steadfast in her denunciation of bigotry, but even she must be unnerved by the thus far uninhibited rise in anti-Semitism in Germany, where demonstrations last summer also featured chants of “Adolf Hitler.” Despite Germany’s stringent laws prohibiting the use of overt Nazi imagery, the production of clothes that assists white supremacists in identifying each other through more subtle branding has proven lucrative for at least one company. A recent article in the New Republic details the enormous expansion and popularity of Thor Steiner, a clothing company that “has gone from a small business patronized by German neo-Nazis into a multimillion-dollar clothing chain with a presence throughout Europe.” Thor Steiner’s clothing features sly references to Nazi imagery and slogans, and over the past several years they’ve opened stores in “the Czech Republic, Finland, Slovakia, and the United Kingdom, among other countries, as well as 13 locations in Moscow.” They’ve registered their trademark in the U.S., too. Meanwhile, the surge of violence continues. Several weeks ago, a gunman in Copenhagen targeted bystanders at a free-speech rally and a synagogue, killing two civilians and injuring five police officers. As we commemorate the past, our most urgent obligation is to honestly confront the thorny history of anti-Semitism, and to face its current incarnation with clarity.

Historical records are, of course, critically important in such work, but literary fiction has a role to play as well. Where the sheer magnitude of the historical record of the Holocaust can sometimes become so overwhelming that our empathetic faculties are all but exhausted or shut down, fiction can offer us a way in, once again. Both the writing and the reading of Holocaust fictions are fraught with pitfalls, yet the subject calls to us, and it is a call that should be heeded. Over the past year several new novels have been published around the subject, and, in light of recent events and the escalation of violent attacks, one in particular seems perhaps even more relevant now than when it was first published: Martin Amis’s 2014 novel, The Zone of Interest (306 pages; Knopf), deserves renewed attention, not only for what it accomplishes, but also for the confused reception it received. Some found it to be satire, which implies the work offers exaggeration to the point of comedy. That’s not how I read it. With this recent surge of anti-Semitism tearing its way through Europe, it is more important than ever to read such books carefully, and to scrutinize not only their pages, but how they are received.

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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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