Contributors Archives

Alexander Helmintoller

Trapped in a Town Without Pity: ‘Eileen’ by Ottessa Moshfegh

EileenEileen (260 Pages; Penguin Press), the new novel by Ottessa Moshfegh, examines the moment of change in a life marred by self-hate, servitude, and isolation. Eileen Dunlop is a twenty-four year-old woman who plays caretaker to her alcoholic father, for whom “the worst thing [Eileen] could commit … was to do anything for [her] own pleasure, anything outside of [her] own daughterly duties.” A gun toting retired cop, he is harassed by imagined “hooligans” day and night. The gun thus established in the first act, we await its discharge in the third. But in the meantime, Moshfegh ekes out the dark family history of the Dunlops and presents the inner workings of unsympathetic characters filled with loathing.

In Eileen, stalking, verbal abuse, criminal compliance, prison visitations, and pregnant silences masquerade as love. Eileen works at a boys’ prison, and in order to placate the restless visiting mothers, she hands out innocuous (and in fact meaningless) polls to “create the illusion that their lives and opinions were worthy of respect and curiosity.” She does this to “fend off her own hard feelings,” but what we are seeing is an unconscious attempt at compassion. Continue reading

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Continue reading

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

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

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

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

Continue reading

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Appreciating the Engaging Decade-Long Conversation Started by n+1

Happiness The collected pieces in Happiness: Ten Years of n+1 (369 pages; Faber and Faber) range from scintillating reflection, sharp economic or social analysis, realistic and depressing conclusions regarding the fate of the world economy, climate change, and the nature of humankind to the transformation of communication in the technological age, an extended satire on hypochondria and disease in America, and the perverted image of sexuality and portrayal of the self in media. Happiness is a conversation starter—easily accessible to any and all readers, yet nuanced enough to appeal to those who see what the current state of things really is.

Continue reading

Posted in News | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

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

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

Continue reading

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

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

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

Continue reading

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

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

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

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

Continue reading

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

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

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

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

Continue reading

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment