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Samara Michaelson

Piercing the Darkness: ‘The Age of Perpetual Light’ by Josh Weil

The Age of Perpetual LightJosh Weil’s first collection of stories, The Age of Perpetual Light (272 pages; Grove Press), spans the course of history to examine the miseries and ambitions of humanity, tracing the mysteries of light and darkness that have long confounded and mesmerized us. Beginning with the tale of a Jewish Russian soldier, who deserts to America where he peddles Edison Lamps and falls broodingly in love with an Amish woman, Weil’s themes reveal themselves. We see the invention of electricity and man’s emerging dominance over light as a magnificent, almost magical trick. But at the same time, as the collection’s stories about the excesses of ambition show, that desire to dominate the dark ultimately raises the question of at what point does our appetite for knowledge and control begin to control us? What happens when the metamorphic light becomes too bright to turn down – when we begin to miss the darkness but have no way of bringing it back?

The eight stories in Weil’s collection—narratives ranging from the struggles of parenting an autistic child to a woman’s tenacious passion for flight, as well as the strife that follows a pair of Serbian immigrants (a young boy and his abusive mother)—were written over the course of a decade. The intonations in each story, by consequence, vary drastically—from lyrical? to almost dystopian. But they all share revelations into the heartbreak and inspiring moments that shape the human spirit.

The collection closes by returning us to the story of the lonely Edison Light peddler. We revisit him at an earlier time in his life, when he is about to embark for America and flee the police who have discovered his desertion. Writing a letter home, Shimel—who has adopted a false identity to protect himself from anti-Semitism—describes his fear of losing himself and those he loves, and his conviction to carry on regardless:

“And here he comes again: the lamplighter, crossing from one side of the street to the other, unlatching the panes, reaching up, snuffing the flames. Watching him it seems as if he might have just kept walking. Followed the night around the globe, lighting lanterns until the dark crossed into day and, coming upon the flames already lit, he flipped his pole to its snuffing end, simply kept on. Maybe, some night in another city in another country I will see him coming down another street. I will call him over. I will ask him to bring a message back to you. ‘Tell them,’ I will say, ‘hello from here.’”

Weil beautifully illustrates the conviction that as we all bear witness to the continual rising and extinguishing of its power, the “light,” and our moth-like attraction to it, can keep us bound both to its elemental force and to each other.

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In a Lonely Place, a Teen Boy Searches for Solace: ‘Montpelier Parade’ by Karl Geary

Montpelier ParadeKarl Geary’s first novel, Montpelier Parade (217 pages; Catapult), presents us with the fraught experience of first love, told in beautifully doleful prose that sometimes exhibits Salinger-esque sparseness. Referring to his protagonist, Sonny, as “you,” Geary draws the reader into a hypnotic and haunting intimacy. The directness of the second-person point of view demands both Sonny and the reader are left weary by the cloudy Dublin skies and by the “howl of feeling.” It’s a delicate work that treats its subject with great sensitivity, ensuring we experience that same tenderness of feeling that Sonny does, and hear the words on the page like the brutally honest voice of a friend.

Sonny is a pitiful Irish teenager growing up on the decaying outskirts of Dublin. He longs to escape from the drab confines of his father’s expectations, his mother’s depression, and the mindlessness of his TV-consumed brothers. More than any of this, he longs to feel a sense of belonging and the soft embrace of a devoted lover. He is so alone he seems afraid of being noticed. A quiet and keen observer, Sonny breaks the reader’s heart in the most banal of ways. The moments of tragedy in Sonny’s life are delivered in the same quietly devastating manner as his mundane experience: the novel begins with the accidental death of a drunken man leaving the butcher shop at which Sonny works and ends with the suicide of a character he literally worships, yet Sonny reacts as though these events are no more momentous than the stale loaf that rests forgotten on his kitchen counter. All too accustomed to pain from every direction in his life, Sonny appears to regard suffering as both inevitable and unavoidable. All the while, his hunger for love proves so fundamental one wishes to somehow feed him. For Vera, the older woman who becomes both his secret lover and the hope he is terrified to possess, continues to deny Sonny––for she, too, is frightened by her own desperate need.

And so Sonny is left in that space between longing and pursuit, kept company by a slight boredom, the hum of the refrigerator, and the rustling of spiders. When he’s not in the shed fixing his bike with stolen parts or working at the butcher’s shop, he’s usually with his friend Sharon at the Cats’ Den. Sharon, the girl whose punches “hurt and were lovely and a comfort” and who’s been everybody’s girlfriend, shares her cigarettes with Sonny and follows him to the museum even when he’s thinking of Vera. It is Sharon who reminds him of the world he is expected to belong to, the everyday world his mother inhabits. Walking arm and arm with Vera, at one point, Sonny sees his mother struggling with the pull of “four or more plastic bags…like demanding toddlers,” but he never breaks his stride. He only turns to look back once she becomes a shadow, and is ashamed by his betrayal of the woman who raised him and never hugged him back. By the time Sonny’s two worlds collide––the world he lustfully imagines and the one that comprises his waking life––Montpelier Parade leaves us as it leaves Sonny, pondering how life can be both empty and full at once.

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Seeing the Self Between the Memories: ‘Meet Me in the In-Between’ by Bella Pollen

81d37Z56xlLSo often, the problem with words is their yielding to the things in our lives that don’t make sense or don’t want to make sense. In her new book, Meet Me in the In-Between (320 pages; Grove Press), Bella Pollen takes on the daunting task of containing her life in words even as she acknowledges that the self cannot be contained. Author of five novels, including the critically acclaimed The Summer of the Bear and Midnight Cactus, as well as a contributor to Vogue, Bazaar and the Times (UK), Pollen ventures into the realm of memoir with an account of her life as a Transatlantic writer and mother.

Pointedly astute, she carefully deploys every word so they serve as tiny twigs to build the nest of her story. Beginning with tales of her youth in New York City, including her vengeful harassment of a rental car clerk and her courtship with the manically violent son of a Mafia leader, the memoir follows Pollen’s whims both indelicate and tender. Ultimately stuck between her desperation to belong to someone and somewhere, and an obsessive yearning to escape from the banality of an ordinary life, Pollen finds herself haunted by the disparate junctures of the self.

This haunting becomes literal when, in what seems a fictive touch, Pollen is visited at night by a sexually dominating incubus who forces her to return to her past. With this hint of the surreal, Pollen recounts her life in a way that both mocks the gravity of events and magnifies her sincere quest for self-discovery. This divergence from the traditional form of a story becomes even more interesting when we learn about her obsession with other people’s stories, which itself mirrors readers’ attraction toward memoir.

Pollen’s need to fabricate narratives for other people—whether it’s the Tijuana parking lot attendant called “El Ganso” or the Hollywood agent she contacts to sell the story of her travels to Mexico—and her awareness of that need ultimately reveal how the search for meaning in our own lives can lead us to construct it for others. It’s as though Pollen finds that inventing stories for those around her allows a brief respite from the claustrophobia of constant introspection. But as Pollen discovers, this habit of projecting meaning onto others often causes one to neglect the work required to find her inner peace.

As the memoir whips us from place to place and time period to time period, Meet Me in the In-Between displays the disjointedness of a life, how whims and flings don’t make existence—or a woman—any less meaningful. It’s in the spaces among all these things that something magical breathes and resists capture. As Pollen illustrates in her sharp, nearly wry voice, it is not our memories that will lead us to an understanding of the self, but the act of maneuvering among them, as though they are a crowd blocking the self from view.

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