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All the News That’s Fit to Be Normalized: Hilary Plum’s ‘Strawberry Fields’

strawberry-fields-cover_origStrawberry Fields (Fence Books; 224 pages), the breathtaking new novel from Hilary Plum, and winner of the Fence Modern Prize in Prose, opens with what might be the common denominator in humanitarian crises around the world: a nameless American at a refugee camp in a nameless country. “The children’s suffering has been unimaginable,” the American begins—as if we did not already know this.

But soon, one of the children is telling the gathered reporters and NGO representatives at the camp what he learned in school: the towns of his country, the names of its leaders, even the locations of rebel supply camps. “Who is your teacher?” the reporters ask, “is she still alive?” The child does not respond. A camp administrator shakes her head. “You don’t think he made her up,” the Swedish journalist says to her, aside. “No,” the administrator says, “but children are easy to fool.”

Within this short scene Strawberry Fields opens its focus, which is not children but adults—namely, journalists, and the virulent scenes of their information. Each three-to-ten-page chapter takes the perspective of a different person reporting on or investigating or sometimes even participating in some event around the world, from the torture of prisoners of war to the calm interior of an eating-disorder clinic. Many of the scenes are tragic, some viscerally so, but none feel out of place. Together they form one of the most astonishing reading experiences to be had in recent years.

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Hidden in Plain Sight: ‘Convenience Store Woman’ by Sayaka Murata

81SsLYe8ZRLThe Japanese word “Irrashaimasse” is an honorific expression used most often as a stock welcome in places of business. The spirit of the word is reflected throughout award-winning author Sayaka Murata’s novel Convenience Store Woman (translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori; 176 pages; Grove Press), which invites readers to re-examine contemporary society’s absurdities through the idiosyncratic worldview of its narrator, 36-year-old Keiko Furukura. Murata perfectly portrays this unconventional woman who has been leading a stagnant life working at the Hiiromachi Station Smile Mart since its opening 18 years ago. In the meantime, her friends are getting married and having children.

Furukura has never even been with a man, until an unlikely solution presents itself in the form of her new co-worker, Shiraha. Unfortunately, Shiraha is viewed as a societal parasite, a close-minded man who believes that the world is still “basically the stone age with a veneer of contemporary society, and only took a job at the convenience store to find a wife. To little surprise, not only does he perform poorly, but he is eventually fired for his stalker-like behavior toward some of the female customers and employees. Furukura crosses paths with him again when she sees him outside the store and realizes he has been evicted from his place and is now homeless. She proposes a convenience marriage, which to Shiraha wasn’t ideal initially, but it is beneficial for both of them; this turns in to a quid-pro-quo situation as Shiraha only agrees to live with her if Furukura allows him to stay in the apartment. She can talk about him all she wants, but he doesn’t wish to be seen in public where he believes society will berate him for his choices.

Their relationship bears positive fruit in Furukura’s life: her co-workers invite her out for drinks, and her friends finally display some excitement instead of judgment toward her. She slowly tries to assimilate into society’s standards of a normal life—for instance, she considers bearing children with Shiraha—but the idea is stopped by a phone conversation with Shiraha’s sister-in-law. “Please don’t even consider it,” she tells her. “You’ll be doing us all a favor by not leaving your genes behind. That’s the best contribution to the human race you could make.”

Muriel Sparks wrote in A Good Comb, “There is nothing like work to calm your emotions,” and Furukura not only turns to work to calm her emotions, but to give her a sense of having some role in society. “I just come in every day,” she declares, “because I am accepted as a well-functioning part of the store.” She believes her very cells exist for the store, and so can never hope to leave her position.

Convenience Store Woman is a novel that proves sylphlike; spare in its contents, with a masterfully deceptive comic veneer that keeps the reader turning the page. Even with peculiar and macabre elements aplenty (as when a young Furukura wants to grill and eat a dead bird she finds on the ground), Murata has penned an unlikely feminist tale that unflinchingly depicts the social constructs of being a single woman.

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Outsiders in Life and Love: ‘Never Anyone But You’ by Rupert Thomson

Never Anyone But YouPublished in a year defined by women’s activism, Rupert Thomson’s new novel, Never Anyone But You (368 pages; Other Press), succeeds in reimagining the lives of two of the most intriguing, elusive, and under-appreciated figures of the Parisian Surrealist movement, Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore. As lovers, anti-fascist activists, and even step-sisters, the two were an inseparable creative force during their more than forty years of partnership.

Originally born Lucy Schwob (Cahun) and Suzanne Malherbe (Moore), the pair hailed from two affluent and, well educated families that encouraged their artistic pursuits; introduced as teenagers in 1909, they began an artistic partnership that led to romance. The artists’ families became close, resulting in the 1917 marriage of Malherbe’s widowed mother to Schwob’s divorced father. Ironically, the marriage made it easier for the pair to continue their romantic relationship and live together in Paris, helping them navigate their eras barriers around gender and sexuality. It was around this time in their artistic careers, that they adopted the more gender-fluid identities they would become best known for — Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore.

Outside of Cahun’s writing and the pair’s collaborative photography, which captured their avant-garde view of gender and renunciation of the patriarchy, there is little work to substantiate the motivations of Moore and Cahun’s eccentric and electric lives. This is largely because the Nazi’s destroyed their home in Jersey in 1944, when they were arrested and sentenced to death for the creation and distribution of anti-Nazi propaganda. This lack of physical records, coupled with the secrecy necessary to maintain their bohemian and forbidden romance, has left much of Cahun and Moore’s private lives to the imagination.

Interestingly, while the couple’s art and writing have been exhibited and published since the 1920’s, achieving them cult-figure status in gay community and the art world, Cahun continues to receive the majority of praise, despite Moore’s intrinsic involvement in their photography and Cahun’s writing. (David Bowie said of Cahun’s work, “You could call her transgressive or you could call her a cross dressing Man Ray with surrealist tendencies. I find this work really quite mad, in the nicest way.”) Unlike some of their Surrealist contemporaries, Cahun and Moore did not use their work to achieve fame or notoriety. Their artwork was boundary breaking, self explorational, and deeply personal. It was not until decades after their deaths that Moore and Cahun’s photography resurfaced. Nearly a hundred years later, the pair’s androgynous photography continues to be breathtakingly mysterious.

The ingenuity of Thomson’s novel is its focus on the relationship from Moore’s perspective, fleshing out her identity as a person and an artist in her own right. In this way, Never Anyone But You imagines a tender and, at times, volatile love story for Cahun and Moore. He explores the couple’s forty-five-year relationship from beginning to end; twisting and turning through the uncertainties of young love, the security and maturity of lifelong partnership, and the atrocities and violence of two world wars. The book reads as the confessional diary one wishes Marcel Moore had kept. Thomson elucidates Cahun as a prolific artist vacillating between stability and self-destruction, but primarily focuses on the toll this takes on Moore as her life-long confidante and caretaker—a role Moore simultaneously cherishes and fears: “Sometimes the person you’re closest to is the one you understand the least. Sometimes, when you’re that close, everything just blurs.”

As we experience their world, from the extravagant Parisian parties (where they met and befriended Robert Desnos, Henri Michaux, and other Modernists who happened through Paris) to their brutal imprisonment, Thomson’s writing brings into being the secret, profound, and determined love Moore and Cahun shared, asking introspective questions in the process:

“Is physical love bound to decay, just as everything in the physical world decays? Is it natural for love to change and deepen into something that feels almost spiritual? Had I altered or had she?”

And,

 “Can the love somebody has for you be tangible like that, there one moment, gone the next? Does it take up space inside you? And when it evaporates, does it leave a gap where it once was?”

One of the strengths of Never Anyone But You is that it doesn’t shy away from the plentiful uncertainties of Moore’s life and her sorrowful end. The final passages, some of the most striking in the novel, parallel the final scenes of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening; exploring the character’s resolved final moments in a haze of tranquil dreams and reflections.

It could very well be that our best attempt at understanding Marcel Moore and Claude Cahun’s love and art is through Thomson’s psychologically mesmerizing re-imagination of their lives, coupled with viewing their art (some of which you can see at SFMOMA’s current exhibit, Selves and Others, on display until September 23).

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Victims and Perpetrators: ‘History of Violence’ by Édouard Louis

History of Violence“I am hidden on the other side of the door, I listen, and she says that several hours after what the copy of the report I keep twice-folded in my drawer calls the attempted homicide, and which I call the same thing for lack of a better word, since no other term is more appropriate for what happened, which means I always have the anxious nagging feeling that my story, whether told by me or whomever else, begins with a falsehood, I left my apartment and went downstairs.”

From this initial winding sentence, the reader is plunged into, then relentlessly yet smoothly propelled through Édouard Louis’s autobiographical novel History of Violence (translated by Lorin Stein; 212 pages; FSG). The entire experience of reading the book is of baited breath, entrancing.

On Christmas Eve night, 2012, Louis meets a man, Reda, and invites him into his apartment. After some consensual sex, Reda becomes violent, attempts to strangle Louis, and rapes him at gunpoint. In the days that follow, Louis develops irrational obsessions and is choked by anger and violent urges, all while navigating a maze of unending legal and medical processes that threaten to finish the job Reda started.

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A Blossom on a Chain Link Fence: ‘Priest Turned Therapist Treats Fear of God’ by Tony Hoagland

Priest Turned TherapistTony Hoagland’s books probably have the most intriguing titles of any contemporary poet. The newest one, Priest Turned Therapist Treats Fear of God (74 pages; Graywolf Press) follows hard on Recent Changes in the Vernacular, from Tres Chicas Books, out late last year.

What Hoagland does better than any other poet is select the exact details to throw the cognitive dissonance inherent in contemporary American life into stark relief. Never sentimental, often fond, and always accurate, his lines cut through to the essence of experience. Yet they are leavened by tenderness and longing, a wry acceptance of the human condition. There is an elfin quality that is particular to Hoagland’s work that tempers the sharpness of his vision. And it’s impossible to read a book of his poems without laughing out loud at least once. Humor is his weapon of choice.

It’s hard to capture this in a few lines from a poem, because Hoagland’s technique layers the detail, stanza by stanza, to create the whole. He builds image after image, the furniture of the everyday x-rayed and deconstructed and reassembled, offset with the ever present, fragile beauty of the natural world, like a blossom on a chain link fence. But here are a few examples that can at least give a taste of the unique Hoagland flavor:

In Hollywood, fifty movie stars have pledged
not to use their swimming pools
until world thirst is ended.

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Original Sins: ‘Animals Eat Each Other’ by Elle Nash

Elle NashElle Nash’s first novel, Animals Eat Each Other (121 pages; Dzanc Books), opens with a pair of quotes from Wal-Mart’s Vice President and shock rocker Marilyn Manson, offering readers their first clue as to what kind of milieu Nash is about to immerse them in. It’s one where big box stores encroach uncomfortably on property lines, where meals are more often microwaved than cooked, and teenagers rifle through their parents’ medicine cabinets in search of opioids. The setting is Colorado Springs, a predominantly white town in a county where the majority of voters cast their lot with Donald Trump in the 2016 election; but Animals Eat Each Other’s lens is trained on a different era.

The story opens in 2005 as it’s unnamed nineteen-year-old narrator (who will come to take the name Lilith) feels somewhat adrift in life, sleeping with the manager at her strip mall job, casually partaking in drugs and alcohol, and quietly moving around her trailer at night to avoid her mother, who hasn’t been the same since the death of her husband. “My hobbies included touching myself, drinking cough syrup, and flirting with boys at RadioShack,” she observes. “Could I be anything else?”

Circumstances change when her co-worker Jenny introduces her to a young couple named Matt and Frances, who manage to maintain a hedonistic lifestyle of metal shows and raves despite having an infant at home. The slightly older duo quickly take to our narrator, and dub her Lilith, after the figure in Jewish folklore said to be Adam’s first wife and made from the same dirt as him rather than his rib. Lilith soon learns Matt and Frances are self-professed Satanists, for whom traditional Christian mores hold little significance; Matt declares their beliefs, “A rejection of the puritanical world that is always pulling you outside of yourself and asking you to serve others shamefully. Always asking you to turn the other cheek.”

As Matt and Frances initiate a sexual relationship with Lilith, the trio forms a fragile unit in which jealousy and possession are constantly shifting scales. Though the book is less a coming-of-age tale than a brief and blurry look back at Lilith’s wild teenage days, our narrator nevertheless comes away from this emotionally-charged experience with hard-won observations about intimacy and gender dynamics. She is constantly forced to question if her relationship with Matt and Frances is the liberating middle finger to “family values” it feels like during their headiest moments (“I wonder if in the past, people lived like this,” she muses. “Sometimes it felt tribal to be this way, as if we were a group of degenerates, isolated but entwined”) or if she is merely a pawn the couple has deployed in an attempt to gain dominance over one another. Telling her tale from a place of hindsight, Lilith acknowledges she may have merely represented something new and unspoiled to a pair combating the doldrums of monogamy: “When you don’t live with someone, you don’t get to see their imperfect facets. The mean side of them. The impatient, ungrateful side.”

Along the way, Nash peppers the novel with rich details, from her description of Lilith taking Special K at a party (“I felt like a bag of marshmallows, plastic and all, expanding and melting inside of a safe, hot microwave”) to the catalog of less than nutritious meals comprising Lilith’s diet: pizza Hot Pockets and Hamburger Helper, Doritos, and ranch-flavored sunflower seeds (“After a few dozen, the ranch dust started to taste like vomit”).

The novel’s brevity works in its favor since the narrative’s fleet-footedness reflects Lilith’s lack of deliberation. She often operates on impulse, which tends to create a briar patch of her closest relationships. While Matt and Frances’ Satanist beliefs may be more informed by Marilyn Manson lyrics than any religious text, they nevertheless leave the couple prone to pursuing self-pleasure no matter the emotional cost. “Everyone has this demi urge to destroy and to create…wanting to serve yourself isn’t a bad thing,” Matt advises. Before long, Lilith comes to recognize her own destructive power. “I could feel the manipulative part of myself light up like a highway at dusk,” she declares as she continues to lie and toy with the people closest to her, including Matt’s friend Patrick, who has a newborn of his own.

Lilith’s choices bring an inevitable reckoning, but it is her bond with her best friend, Jenny, that creates a pocket of human warmth amid the wreckage of Lilith’s fizzled hook-ups. “I felt ashamed and jealous that she could know so much about me when I didn’t understand why I was doing what I did at all,” Lilith says when Jenny reads her Tarot cards. Their relationship may have its complications, but it ultimately provides Lilith with an anchor of stability during the fallout of her experience with Matt and Frances. “When she looked at me it was different than how Matt saw me,” Lilith observes. “Jenny seemed to leave herself and move into me.”

Early in Animals Eat Each Other, Nash briefly takes us to what is ostensibly the present moment, to Lilith in front of her computer and scrolling through Matt and Frances’ Facebook feed. The two are now married and smiling in picture after picture. Lilith laughs ruefully, noting it’s “as if nothing I’m about to tell you ever actually happened.” It should be a familiar scene for anyone who’s ever spent a late night basking in the glow of a laptop as they explore an ex-lover’s digital footprint, searching for some indication of where things went wrong. “There is a way people damage you, a way they’ll change the structure of your DNA, the way your brain is wired,” Lilith says. But her story proves that even among the soured memories, we might “retrace the constellation of every event” and find a reminder of our resilience.

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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 daughter-in-law, Lora, partially pay for the family’s caregiver 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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Babylon Burning: ‘High Life’ by Matthew Stokoe

High LifeWhen Matthew Stokoe’s gritty noir High Life (380 pages; matthewstokoe.com) was published by noted indie Akashic Books in 2002, the book, which received very little coverage, managed to attract a fan base, thanks partly to Stokoe’s fearless depictions of upper-crust society at its worst. His novel eventually went out of print, but now that the rights to High Life are back with Stokoe, he has self-published his own edition of his hard-to-find book.

In High Life, Stokoe takes readers on a nocturnal tour of the seediest parts of late ‘90s Los Angeles, while gleefully subverting noir’s most ingrained tropes: there’s a private detective of sorts, but he’s a degenerate vice cop who more often acts as an obstacle to our main character, Jack; there’s a wealthy femme fatale living in a secluded mansion, but in a grim twist Jack might be more of a danger to her than the other way around.

Even so, Stokoe’s terse and evocative narration lets us know how much he appreciates the genre, especially the debt owed to the work of noir pioneer Raymond Chandler:

“My eyes felt charred and the cigarettes had eaten into my throat. I bought a cold coke from a machine outside a motel and chugged it until my eyes watered. Coke and damp night air, and the slowed pulse of the city around me. For that moment, for that snapshot, micron-thin slice of time, I was free of the past, free even of the present –– just the sweet caustic singe in my mouth and the loose quietness of being up and alone when most people were asleep.”

As High Life opens, Jack is just one of the millions living on the periphery of Hollywood, working a thankless job at a doughnut shop while secretly hoping to land a gig as an Entertainment Tonight-style television host. When his estranged wife (herself a drug addict) turns up murdered, organs removed with surgical precision, her grisly death serves as a catalyst for Jack to hit the streets and search for clues as to her killer’s identity––as well as quit his day job and begin to pursue his dreams of stardom.

The drive for celebrity quickly takes precedent, however, and after his friend Rex persuades him to take a stint as a male escort for the rich and famous of Beverly Hills, Jack more or less drops his amateur investigation. He rarely looks back on his journey to “lights, camera, action,” even as each inner circle of fame he achieves introduces new and more depraved behavior from Los Angeles’ wealthiest denizens. By the time he attends an Alice in Wonderland-themed party at the Bradbury Building (the iconic L.A. locale from the end of Blade Runner), the metaphor is clear: Jack’s lust for “the steamroller exposure necessary to become part of [people’s] desires” will send him tumbling down a rabbit hole to a place where traditional morality no longer seems relevant.

“I woke thinking about Daryl Hannah, about how her mornings must be. How she’d lie on a king-size bed in a pure white room the size of a tennis court with sunlight cutting swaths across the carpet. And just a short distance beyond the floor-to-ceiling windows, a matter of yards perhaps, the sea would roll under blue sky and fat white clouds. The maid would come in with a light breakfast of coffee and croissants and the aroma of freshly roasted beans and the delicate pastry would mix with the ocean salt air and just that, just those three simple smells and the ocean breeze against your skin would remind you that you were a god.”

Although the idea of Hollywood using up and ultimately discarding the wide-eyed souls who head there seeking fortune and glory has been a noir standard since at least Sunset Boulevard in 1950, High Life is perhaps worth revisiting in the wake of the industry’s numerous sexual harassment accusations, as well as the NXIVM cult and its alleged involvement in human trafficking. Stokoe offers a glimpse of an industry where backroom power brokers indulge their most lurid predilections, and those on the lower rungs of society ––drug addicts, sex workers, and the homeless––are too often the victims of horrific violence.

Jack, while far from being a likable protagonist, does hold up a mirror to a certain part of our culture: the many who share his utter obsession with obtaining wealth, status, and media coverage, and his lack of compassion for anyone who is hurt along the way, no matter if they’re a lover or friend. Blackmail and murder become part and parcel of Jack’s world as he struggles to keep his footing on the slenderest ledge of celebrity he’s managed to obtain: “The taste of the high life I’d had made it impossible for me to give up the chance at becoming someone special without a fight.”

Not surprisingly, the novel’s graphic content ensures it may put off readers unfamiliar with transgressive literature, though it should be said this is a label Stokoe –– who cites Hubert Selby Jr.’s Last Exit to Brooklyn as a major influence –– actively resists. “More and more I’m coming to think that labeling certain writers as transgressive, or ‘outside traditional writing,’ is a construct perpetrated by reviewers and editors,” he said in an interview with Full Stop. “I really believe that the reading public is far more accepting of the so-called extremes in literature than the gatekeepers of taste give them credit for. In fact I think a good portion of readers actually want the extremes…For me, the violence and sex were necessary to tell the stories I wanted to tell.”

When Jack finally achieves an on-camera role as a presenter on a Hollywood chat show, his success brings him closer to discovering the identity of the mysterious, silver-haired surgeon whose sleek black Jaguar patrols the Hollywood Strip in search of hustlers and vagrants to operate on, and who may have been responsible for his ex-wife’s murder. Along the way, Stokoe ratchets up the Grand Guignol to nearly unbearable levels –– every ghastly detail hammering home the author’s indignation for the dehumanizing culture that encourages people to idolize stardom above all else.

Fortunately, even through the thorny tangle of Jack’s increasingly emotionless narration, Stokoe’s empathy for those lost along the way still comes through: there’s Jack’s friend Rex, who becomes an empty shell after a drug-fueled road accident leaves a small child dead (“We were in the same room, but he was million miles away,” Jack observes. “At that moment I knew I could spend the rest of my life trying to reconnect and I’d never do it. The guy was gone”); and Lorn, Jack’s co-host, whose disciplined work ethic and pragmatic view of Hollywood can’t save her from the harm that befalls everyone in Jack’s orbit. These lost souls are just a few whom Jack sacrifices at the altar of fame. Perhaps most chilling of all is Jack’s epiphany near the end, as he pauses to survey the physical and spiritual carnage he’s wrought. It’s a warning of sorts that Stokoe leaves with us: “I’m not that different from a lot of people.”

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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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