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M. M. Silva

A Stranger in a Strange World: ‘Scribe’ by Alyson Hagy

ScribeAlyson Hagy’s latest novel, Scribe (157 pages; Graywolf Press), opens in a fantastical country stricken by lethal fever and civil war. The economy operates on barter and trade, and many citizens have hardened their hearts to meet the struggles of this new world. This includes the unnamed, mystical protagonist, who is known for her great writing skills yet feared by many. She is the definition of a loner, her only company a group of stray dogs and the various nearby settlers whom she seldom engages with; that is, until a stranger who calls himself Hendricks enters her life.

He pays the main character a visit and humbly requests her skills be put to use in writing a letter––and delivering it for him. Initially, she refuses this unwanted task, but ultimately agrees (with some conditions, which Hendricks thankfully complies with).

In the process of performing this service, she finds herself challenged physically, mentally, and even spiritually. The memory of her sister’s tragic death arises in ways the protagonist can’t face on her own, and she begins to regret accepting the mission, leading her to anguish over whether she should renege on her promise to Hendricks.

In the end, she finds it too difficult to reject the task she agreed to complete. Hendricks has become a part of her personal life (on one occasion, she returns home and finds him in her house without permission), which is not to say she is delighted to suddenly have such an intimate friendship with a stranger. She continues to express a desire for distance between herself and the rest of the world, including Hendricks. Yet this unique man brings the protagonist to question her hardened attitude, not only toward him but toward her community at large.

This opening of the heart is especially powerful given the novel’s all-too-relevant themes of migration, authoritarianism, and the way our history shapes who we are today. In the letter, Hendricks writes, “I have been made fat from the labors of others, from the kindnesses and charities of those who meant me no harm. I have often meant harm. I am carved from the rock of it.” (The phrase “I have often meant harm” is especially striking, not only for its brevity but also for the contrast between it and the prior sentence about love.)

Scribe speaks to many of our contemporary issues, including the history of the land we in the United States inhabit. It provides a unique perspective on the times we live in and perhaps even offers some foresight into the future. Following the protagonist’s humble and selfless change of heart, Hagy suggests what our relationship to those around us should look like.

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A Youthful Hunger for Power: ‘The Piranhas: The Boy Bosses of Naples’ by Roberto Saviano

The PiranhasIn Roberto Saviano’s latest book, The Piranhas: The Boy Bosses of Naples (368 pages; FSG; translated by Antony Shugaar), the author of Gommorah, which detailed the grip of the Commora over Naples, examines through fiction the young gangs—the “paranza”—of that city, focusing on one such group of teen boys and particularly on Nicolas Fiorillo, one of its members.

The novel immediately establishes its world of violence and irrational behavior with a disturbing scene of bullying after a boy makes the mistake of “liking” Nicolas’s girlfriend’s photos on social media. From there, things only get worse as Nicolas and his gang increasingly find that the world of organized crime is an ideal means for them to achieve their goals of making money and wielding power. They soon become involved with drugs and guns, and witness –– as well as partake in –– numerous murders.

One of the most striking elements of the story is the indifference the majority of the gang exhibits as they plunge deeper into dangerous situations. They may be youthful, nervous, and inexperienced, but these teens’s perseverance (and motivation) prevails over all else. As mentioned by Saviano in an interview with his U.S. publisher, the boys’ attitude, unfortunately, speaks to reality.

Saviano worked closely with the book’s English translators on how to get across many of the Neapolitan words and phrases used in The Piranhas. Some terminology was left deliberately untranslated to preserve the language and the raw nature of Saviano’s style, such as in this robbery scene:

“Muóvete, miett’ ‘e sorde, miett’ ‘e sorde,” Nicolas said roughly  in dialect, telling him to hurry up and put the money in the plastic, bag that he tossed to him. He’d stolen it from his mother after, emptying out the doctor’s prescriptions she kept in it.

The implementation of the original Italian, especially in the scenes of violence, serves the story’s atmosphere, preserving as it does the Neapolitan culture in which the novel is set. (At times, though, the lines can read stilted.)

The Piranhas makes a vivid impression. Saviano creates a clear picture of children being led into the hands of violence and terror, leaving us with dread for the youth of Naples who can’t resist the temptations offered by organized crime.

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Reckoning with Ever-Changing Reality: ‘John Woman’ by Walter Mosley

9780802128416In his newest book, John Woman (377 pages; Grove Atlantic), Walter Mosley reflects on truth versus perception as embodied in the life of a man who reinvents himself into the novel’s title character. Raised by a white mother with a habit of running away and a bedridden black father nearing death, Cornelius Jones experiences a childhood that is nothing if not difficult. As a boy he’s forced to pay his family’s bills by posing as his father (the first of more alter identities to come), assuming his job as a projectionist at a silent movie theatre. The pressure of covering up his identity leads to a fateful encounter with his boss one evening in the projection room, resulting in a crime that will dog Cornelius.

From this opening, the novel leaps in time to when Cornelius has become John Woman, a professor of history at the New University of the Southwest. His class is titled “Introduction to Deconstructionist Historical Devices,” a subject seemingly prompted by his father’s interests in the validity of history. In his lectures, Woman focuses on the reliability of history and how it ties into each student’s individual life.

Though his insight is renowned and admired by students and teachers alike, Woman is nonetheless admonished by many in the same community, creating no end of trouble for him, trouble made even more pointed by the specter of what happened in that projection room years ago.

As the narrative often returns to Woman’s scholarly lectures and conversations, one particular observation could serve as the core concern of the entire novel:

History is only, is always little more than an innuendo, a suggestion that we decide to believe or not … We shall fail because history is that unsteady ground I spoke of. It is not a rigid truth but an ever-changing reality. If it were an ironclad actuality then we would be able to learn from it. But all we can do is learn about its edges, insinuations, and negative spaces.

 This understanding seems to be of comfort to Woman as he undergoes great tribulations near the end of the novel. That “ever-changing reality” of history is directly reflected in his identity, profession, relationships—his life in its entirety. Through the character of John Woman, Mosley demonstrates that truth is nothing more than the perception of itself, which can be terrifying or, oddly enough, consoling.

In the end, the dramatic irony of John Woman leads us to question what we really know to be true, perhaps even bringing us to sympathize with the so-called “criminals” we have been told to vilify by society.

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Post-Consumer Apocalypse: ‘Severance’ by Ling Ma

SeveranceWith Severance (304 pages; FSG), author Ling Ma delivers a fascinating coming-of-age novel, one full of millennial culture, post-apocalyptic adventures, and, perhaps most exciting of all, a zombie-like populace.

Severance opens in New York City, where protagonist Candace Chen works for a Bible manufacturer called Spectra. Throughout the novel, Candace finds plenty of reasons to leave her job, even as she clings to the city that feels so close to her. But after experiencing the strife of the Shen fever, a pandemic which reduces people to automatons who slowly waste away, she ends up traveling far away from an emptied New York with a group of survivors looking for safety.

Interestingly, consumerist culture is a big theme in the novel. The story makes constant references to specific skincare brands, products, stores, and other consumer-related items, giving in-the-know readers something to connect to. However, Ma seems to raise the question of whether even having this connection is a good thing. She presents us with characters of contrasting lifestyles, allowing us to reflect on our society’s sense of materialism and attachment. As the characters’ varying levels of consumption and wealth create barriers between them, it’s easy to ask ourselves to reevaluate how healthy our level of consumerism is, and to what extent dependency on the things we buy is permissible.

Throughout her first novel, Ma alternates between multiple perspectives. Candace narrates every other chapter (with one exception), with the timeline jumping between pre- and post-apocalypse, illustrating Candace’s development as a character. In juxtaposing her attitudes before and after the end of civilization as we know it, Ma emphasizes Candace’s diminishing attachment to the city and all it has to offer, and at the same time demonstrate her renewed growth as she takes on challenges with her fellow survivors.

Yet even as Candace becomes more independent, her past continues to haunt her at every turn. There seems to be the implication that nostalgia for what used to be might be putting Candace at risk, as she reminisces on times spent with her her mom, who immigrated to the U.S. from China, and others before the Shen fever destroyed their world. Toward the end of the novel, we wonder how this state of mind will affect Candace as she reaches her final, fateful decisions.

Severance wonderfully demonstrates how the lifestyles we lead now can have a great impact on our future, and not just in terms of what we buy. Ma also takes a unique and sometimes comedic look at the commonly superficial relationships we have with our acquaintances, especially in the workplace. She shows how this lack of depth in communication with others is reflected in our relation to consumerism and the capitalist system as a whole. But its all done with a pleasingly light touch, despite the story being heavy with death and addressing the pressing issues of our times.

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