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‘A Student of History’ by Nina Revoyr: A Term Among High Society

Nina Revoyr novel A Student of HistoryIn Los Angeles, there exists a rarified social echelon known as the Street People. These are not, as their moniker might suggest, the many who find themselves without shelter (much like San Francisco, L.A. is currently dealing with a staggering increase in its homeless population). Rather, the name refers to the wealthy landowners and developers who saw prominent streets named after them: the Crenshaws, the Chandlers, the Van Nuys. The descendants of these 20th century tycoons move in a world of power and privilege, the kind that isn’t even whispered about in the society pages. It is into this hermetically sealed environment that the protagonist of Nina Revoyr’s latest novel, A Student of History (238 pages; Akashic Books), finds himself thrust after he takes the job of transcribing the diaries of one of Los Angeles’ most wealthy heiresses.

In his early thirties, Richard Nagano is a graduate student at USC, still reeling from a recent breakup and struggling to make ends meet. At first, he looks at the gig working for Marion W– (the book censors her last name as though to protect the family’s privacy and prevent litigation) as merely a way to supplement his meager income. But as the elderly Marion takes a shine to Richard, going so far as to update his wardrobe with far more stylish (and expensive) attire, and employ him as her escort to various social clubs and galas, Richard realizes the shrewd older woman might be his entry into the upper class. What’s more, he begins to suspect her youthful diaries contain the kind of compelling historical gossip that could revamp his currently stalled graduate thesis.

Both of Richard’s motivations dovetail when he becomes infatuated with Fiona, a well-to-do socialite who quickly develops an interest in Richard, despite the ring on her finger. At her urging, he continues to investigate the tragic secrets hidden in Marion’s past, secrets that once uncovered could potentially put Richard’s good standing with his employer at risk.

With her past novels carrying titles such as Lost Canyon and Southland, it’s clear Southern California has long represented a preoccupation for Revoyr. Her style is both elegant and pleasurable to read; she juggles geographical detail, context, and plotting with a deceptive ease. Revoyr’s L.A. is a city teeming with contradictions, one where the world of everyday concerns and that of the elite class co-exist but rarely intersect until, that is, a random stroke of luck or fate sees a person travel from one world to the next. But even as Richard rubs elbows with the city’s rich and powerful, there remains something to remind him of his origins: his mixed heritage means Marion’s largely white social circles tend to exoticize his good looks; and while Marion may invest in Richard’s clothing, she’s not about to buy him a new car. And so, Richard must head from one soiree to the next in his broken down Honda, the shocked looks of the valet parking attendants a constant echo of his working-class roots.

At the heart of A Student of History, and what prevents the novel from merely serving as a takedown of the scandalous ultra-rich, is Revoyr’s complex characterization of Marion W–. At times, Marion doesn’t seem to have a good word to say about any of her peers; she frequently speaks out of both sides of her mouth, and doesn’t exactly tow the line of political correctness. Yet she is kind to those who work for her, she is fiercely protective of her family, and she absolutely dotes on Richard. While Richard serves as the audience identification character and our entry point into an unfamiliar domain, it’s Marion who proves the most memorable in the drama that unfolds. Her contradictions are exemplified by the fact that she donates generous sums of money to charitable causes, yet does so anonymously, in large part to upstage and frustrate other donors:

You gave that money?”

“Why, yes. Several years ago. No one there has any idea. They all think I’m a stingy old bitch.”

I let this news sink in. Of course she had given it. That was the reason she’d wanted to attend. “But…why would you do that? Why wouldn’t you want people to know?”

“I have no use for all this fuss,” she said. “People groveling and then wanting more. It’s better they think that you won’t given them anything.”

When Marion ultimately comes to feel as though Richard has betrayed her trust, it registers as a betrayal for the reader as well, even though Richard has far more to lose than Marion with his expulsion from the Hollywood high life. Through their time together, Richard reaches some understanding of Marion’s contradictory nature:

“She was a misanthrope who gave generously to causes she claimed to despise; an aesthete who welcomed people who didn’t share her sensibilities; a professed hater of the social niceties that she performed with such grace.”

In many ways, A Student of History adopts the familiar structure of the bildungsroman; like other classic novels before it, such as Sentimental Education and Great Expectations, we witness an earnest young man enter a hitherto unexplored sphere of luxury and privilege. Indeed, part of the pleasure of reading the novel is inhabiting that familiar structure, knowing all the while Richard will likely end his term among high society with a sense that perhaps he has lost more than he has gained. Yet by placing the novel in so specific a milieu––Los Angeles in 2019, an era where Americans are feeling the class divide more than ever––Revoyr forges a work that stands on its own. If the book’s ambitions prove modest, it feels entirely appropriate, considering Richard’s ultimate discovery that sometimes a modest life lived well––far from society luncheons and award ceremonies––is good enough.

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‘Kathleen Hale Is a Crazy Stalker’ by Kathleen Hale: Embracing the Inner Animal

Kathleen Hale essay collection Kathleen Hale Is a Crazy StalkerKathleen Hale’s essay collection, Kathleen Hale Is A Crazy Stalker (174 pages; Grove Press), presents a fascinating reflection on the sexual assault that shaped part of Hale’s life, as well as on humanity’s rapacity, Internet trolling, and mental illness. Although the collection of six non-fiction essays grapples with heavy topics, Hale’s self-deprecating humor helps to build and release tension, showcasing the irresistible charm of her writing.

In the book’s titular essay, Hale recounts the time she once visited a negative Good Reads reviewer’s house in an effort to make amends. The story takes multiple turns as Hale discovers the negative reviewer’s identity is not what she thought. Hale eventually finds herself in a haze of hate mail and online trolling, leading her down an obsessive Internet black hole. What grounds the essay is Hale’s unwavering self-awareness: she continually questions the power we have over our minds and impulses—especially as they spiral out of control. Hale exemplifies these shortcomings when she ends up in an all-women’s mental hospital. Sitting in a therapy group, she describes the illusion of sanity:

The therapist urged us to stop. “What’s so funny?” she kept asking, and maybe we could have tried to explain it to her—the arrogance and self-delusion I’d just articulated—but instead we kept laughing.

“And I’m famous!” the toothless woman shouted, and the rest of us howled until our teeth clacked and our eyes brimmed with water…

Human impulse, whether it’s an obsession with reading hate mail to the point of an emotional breakdown or trying to understand our sometime predatory nature, provides a guiding thread connecting each essay. To make sense of the sexual assault she experienced in college, Kathleen turned her naive childhood fascination with animals into an obsession with predators and how best to defend herself against them. In “Prey,” her soul-barring essay on the strength of sexual assault survivors, the narrative offers scientific quotes about animal behavior interspersed with sections of the transcript from her rape trial. As in all of these essays, nothing is straightforward, but rather a swarming collection of thoughts, emotions, and humor, all skillfully constructed into a narrative. It’s impossible to walk away from the collection without sensing a tinge of madness, yet at the same time sympathetically identifying with the author’s voice.

Perhaps the self-identification stems from Hale’s dissection of something so innate to humanity: our inclination to be compelled by our impulses, behavior which is not dissimilar to animals. Hale’s fascination with animals continues in “Cricket,” when she attends the Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City. The contestants are compared to animals in the wild:

On the big screen, I caught a glimpse of Miss Alaska, smiling brightly like she’d won and hugging all the other losers, their heads tipped back in jubilee, teeth bared.

Primates smile to submit; if a beta meets an alpha in the wild, he shows his teeth to indicate his inferior rank. It’s called a fear grin. Sociologists say human women smile more than men because there lower social status motivates deference. They smile to indicate attentiveness to the needs, goals, and accomplishments of those who are more powerful.

If I’d learned anything in Atlantic City, it’s that girl were expected to lose like winners and win like losers.

This essay presents a tour of the intricacies of the pageant, including its sexism, racism, and fixation with beauty. Perhaps most interesting of all, Hale herself proves not immune to the pageant’s toxic culture. She is brutally honest when she admits to engaging in harsh criticism of the contestants. Like most great writers of nonfiction, she is acutely aware of her flaws; in the end, she finds herself the most ridiculous of all.

Hale’s collection does not fail to shock. Her maze of a mind brings her to strange locales, including Snowflake, Arizona, where an environmentally ill community lives in isolation; Okeechobee, Florida to kill feral hogs; and the hills of Griffith Park in Los Angeles to hunt a coyote. She recounts these experiences with a humorous edge. Hale’s fascinating essays challenge readers to examine and perhaps even embrace the animal nature in everyone –– the mania, the moments of obsession, the pull of emotions.

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‘Diary of a Murderer’ by Young-ha Kim: Offbeat and Darkly Rewarding

Young-ha Kim novel Diary of a MurdererWith a title like Diary of a Murderer (200 pages; Mariner; translated by Krys Lee), the latest English release of Young-ha Kim’s work might attract some strange looks while you’re holding it on the subway. But it’s a feeling more adventurous readers will be used to by now, and this story collection boasts precisely the kind of offbeat and darkly rewarding fiction that should appeal to such readers.

An award-winning author in his native Korea, Young-ha Kim has already seen several of his novels translated into English, though Diary of a Murderer is his first story collection to be published in the United States. The book opens with the titular novella, told from the point-of-view of a “retired” serial killer with an unusual predicament: right as he begins to suspect his adopted daughter’s new boyfriend might be a killer himself, he receives a grim Alzheimer’s diagnosis. Suddenly every day becomes a struggle to preserve his memories as he races to collect proof that his unsuspecting daughter’s suitor is not who he claims to be.

The idea of a protagonist attempting to solve a mystery while dealing with short-term memory loss no doubt brings to mind Christopher Nolan’s influential 2000 thriller Memento. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, Young-ha Kim’s story was brought to the silver screen in Korea. 2017’s Memoir of a Murderer proved a box office hit in there, despite the fact that the screenplay deviates from the source material by turning protagonist Byeong-soo into a more likable, Dexter-esque vigilante who only preys on the worst of society.) But Kim’s story makes no such commercial considerations and, as a writer, he seems uninterested in the genre or pulp potential of his premise. Instead, he employs the idea of an unrepentant killer with a rapidly deteriorating mental state as a means to ruminate on the nature of memory, familial responsibility, and evil.

Throughout the story, Byeong-soo resists others’ attempts to psychoanalyze his behavior; he seems to suggest that the mere impetus to investigate evil––to try and study its root or cause––is tantamount to courting self-destruction. The most chilling exchange comes late in the novella when a journalist arrives to interview Byeong-soo about his past crimes:

A man who said he was a journalist visited me. He said he wanted to understand evil.

What he said was so clichéd, it amused me.

I said, “Why are you trying to understand evil?”

“I’d have to understand it in order to avoid it.”

I said, “If you can understand it, then it isn’t evil. Just stick to praying, so you can stay out of evil’s way.”

 The rest of the collection features three shorter works that leave behind thriller trappings for more existential and absurd territory, which proves even more satisfying. “The Origin of Life” follows the hapless Seojin, who begins a love affair with a childhood sweetheart named Ina, now trapped in an abusive marriage. Their romance soon leads to terrible consequences for Ina but, fortunately for Seojin, he is able to extract himself from the situation before any harm comes to him; thus, the story serves as both an examination of emotional cowardice as well as the all-encompassing sense of relief one experiences upon narrowly avoiding a disastrous fate:

“He was suddenly overjoyed. He was the only one intact, now and in the future. Happiness overwhelmed him. He had resisted temptation, and even felt proud that he had protected himself from a crisis. Fanciful ideas like the origin of life didn’t matter; being alive was what really mattered. Only then did he feel he had truly grown up, as he proudly let go of the sentimental kid who’d read biographies and harbored useless dreams.”

Possibly the highlight of the collection, “Missing Child,” chronicles the devastating fallout that occurs when a young married couple’s small child is abducted in a department store and, far stranger, the radical new domestic life that forms when the boy is returned to his parents many years later, after the husband has quit his job and the wife developed schizophrenia. The family unit finds themselves unable to rectify the truth of their biological relation with the unease they now experience in each other’s company––too much time has passed and too much has been lost to ever go back to the way things were. Although the story is told from the third-person perspective, Young-ha Kim briefly enters the father’s consciousness during a crucial moment with his son:

“I started considering genes only after we lost you, after I’d crawled on all fours searching for strands of your hair. I believed that it would help us find you. And because of the test results, you’re sitting in front of me right now. But you’re a real stranger to me, just like I must be a stranger to you. If the DNA from the hair I finally found on your baby clothes matches the cells scraped from the inside of your mouth, it means that you’re the same person, and we have to believe it, we must believe it, we’ve got no choice but to believe it, but why can’t we see it with our own eyes?”

Diary of a Murderer ends on a meta and comically surreal note: “The Writer” follows a middle-aged novelist faced with writer’s block and a looming deadline, even as his ex-wife may or may not be sleeping with his new editor. Young-ha Kim clearly derives glee here from poking fun at the notion of the writer with a capital “W” as enshrined by popular culture. The narrator of “The Writer” is constantly trying to devise ways to get out of his literary contract, with little consideration given to the integrity of his work or his audience of loyal readers. When he realizes he could be sued for breach of contract if he doesn’t eventually turn in a book, he receives some advice from his friend, a philosophy lecturer:

“Then how about this instead?”

“What?”

“Write an unintelligible, chaotic book that’s unpublishable. Write something like James Joyce’s Ulysses. A difficult book, one around a thousand pages long, without a clear plot line or a recognizable subject.”

Ulysses has a plot and a concrete subject.”

“To be honest, I haven’t read it. What’s it about?”

Unconventional and acerbic, Young-ha Kim’s stories possess a knack for black humor as their protagonists find themselves in increasingly degrading situations. Diary of a Murderer feels like a stellar entry point into the writer’s distorted world, and makes clear why his examinations of contemporary urban life and its many contradictions have earned him comparisons to the likes of Albert Camus and Haruki Murakami.

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‘King of Joy’ by Richard Chiem: Millennial Malaise

Richard Chiem novel King of JoyKing of Joy (176 pages; Soft Skull Press) floats out from under a narcotic haze. The first novel from Richard Chiem follows the recent reissue of his story collection, You Private Person, and expands on that book’s knack for exploring millennial ennui. As King of Joy opens, lead character Corvus finds herself in a purgatorial place; on the run from a painful past, she’s spent the last year residing in a secluded woodland manor with a host of other young women and their employer, a pornographer named Tim. Her days are loosely spent in a druggy stupor, socializing with her cast-mates and performing for Tim’s camera:

“The poise and happiness of her years are gone but she owns a slowness no one could take from her, a rock no one could dare budge, drinking cold milk straight from the carton, more in her head than anywhere else…The lie she tells sometimes is that she’s doing okay, that there is nothing wrong. Most days, there is nothing to say.”

Early on, we witness Corvus’ arrival at the mansion on a pitch-black night; she watches a half-naked woman use a torch to light a tree on fire as others dance and pop champagne bottles. It’s a surreal moment, one inherently cinematic; Chiem has appropriately cited Harmony Korine’s 2013 movie Spring Breakers as a primary influence on the novel. Just as in that film, there is an undercurrent of menace throughout King of Joy, creating the sense that violence could erupt at any moment. Both Tim’s intentions and Corvus’ future appear as ambiguous as the past Corvus remains determined to put behind her.

The novel utilizes a cyclical structure as Corvus’ departure from the house in the woods ultimately leads her to a different isolated mansion, this one protected by a moat full of man-hungry hippopotami. The strange events that unfold there trigger Corvus’ memories of her former husband, a successful but tortured playwright, and the modest life they once shared together. It’s here we develop a sense of the tremendous cloud of grief Corvus has been living under for more than a year now—but also an understanding of how that same grief can be channeled into a source of strength:

“In story books, in movies, and in pop songs, Corvus has always loved the stubborn characters the most….the loser getting kicked in the teeth and choosing to smile, mouth full of blood, instead.”

King of Joy possesses a funereal tone, shifting through events in a nonlinear fashion that suggests a consciousness in Corvus attempting to reckon with the trauma of her past. There’s a dream-like quality to the situations Chiem invents, and animals in the book are often attributed more admirable human qualities than the humans: people let Corvus down but pit bulls, cats, and hippopotami alike display loyalty, adoration, and a fierce protective spirit.

The novel tends to take on the same languid energy as the lives it depicts. In that sense, Chiem was likely wise not to extend the story past two hundred pages. But there is something refreshingly ordinary about the author’s milieu. His characters are disaffected urbanites, not academics or precocious wunderkind. They listen to Elliot Smith, work menial jobs, and look forward to the end of the day when they can self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. King of Joy finds Corvus occupying a bleak fork in the road. Through her struggles, she doesn’t reach any hard-fought truth; she doesn’t emerge from her suffering with a greater appreciation for life, she simply emerges, and in her world, that’s enough.

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‘Floyd Harbor’ by Joel Mowdy: Harbor Lights, Suburban Sights, and Mean Streets

Joel Mowdy story collection Floyd HarborThe inhabitants of Joel Mowdy’s Long Island spend their days and nights far from the affluent Hamptons, let alone Fitzgerald’s East Egg. Floyd Harbor (256 pages; Catapult Press), Mowdy’s debut collection of twelve interlinked stories, pays pitiless homage to youths trapped in dead-end jobs, killing time with video games and petty crime, blotting out the boredom with cheap liquor and designer drugs.

Oh yeah, it’s not really a “harbor,’’ as the narrator of a story titled “Stacked Mattresses’’ explains. “There were all kinds of cars in the diner parking lot. From this vantage point, I also had a view of the infamous WELCOME TO FLOYD HARBOR sign. The story was that back in the mid-eighties, members from the Historic Society and Property Owners Association formed a committee to change the Mastics and Shirley to Floyd Harbor … to attract business and wealthier residents.” The measure got passed, but didn’t go over with everyone—the non-gentrifiers “put bumper stickers on their car that said WHERE’S DA HARBOR?’’

The rest of the story is about Michael, a wheelchair-bound guy who gets talked into a scam by his buddy Grady that involves changing the pricetags on double mattresses, and exchanging them to other outlets for full queen-size refunds. (Don’t ask.) When Grady gets busted, his pregnant girlfriend, Princess, stashes the mattresses at Michael’s place. The plot thickens as she warns him ominously about Grady’s accomplice, Kit-Kat. “I don’t want anything to do with anyone called Kit-Kat,’’ Michael responds, witnessing his world cave in. It’s dark comedy, beautifully rendered, somewhere between Raymond Carver and Richard Price.

In “Far-Off Places,’’ Jeff takes some blotter acid with his buddy Rob down by the 7-Eleven to try to block the memory of his girlfriend Corinne, and why she dumped him. When the drugs kick in, false profundities abound:

As they entered the blinding store like fluttering moths, Rob saw a bigger picture of life as most people live it. Everybody has a light they strive toward. Corinne is Jeff’s light, and having a great time is Rob’s. That man and woman: the beer they carry out of 7-Eleven is their light, and they were drawn to 7-Eleven to get it.

After drunk dialing and breaking Corinne’s window to get in to see her at her parent’s place, Jeff “took a dive, swam across the bay, turned up naked at the gas station on Neighborhood Road and was wrestled into the back of a police cruiser.’’

Mowdy is clear-eyed, but not without compassion, and humor.

“Animal Kingdom’’ recounts a chance meeting between the narrator and a woman named Rose at the wedding reception for a friend who doesn’t know his bride is pregnant by another man. “The next morning I told Rose she looked more like a Betty,’’ he muses. “It was all the tattoos, stamped here and there like cargo tags on a well-traveled suitcase.’’

The course of true love is interrupted, sadly, when a cat falls out of a tree onto Rose’s chest. (Stay with me here.) While the narrator hails a cab to get advice at the pet store, he’s idistracted by a nearby jogger “in red lifeguard shorts’’ who was “being a wonderful neighbor to Rose by washing some of the fleas off the cat in a disposable baking pan of warm water and dish soap suds. Rose stood by with a towel. They were drinking cold beers the man had brought over. What else they did, I don’t know.’’

According to Mowdy’s biography, he grew up in Mastic Beach with twelve siblings and now splits his time between homesteading in the forest of Lithuania with his wife and son and teaching in Bali.

It’s a long way from Long Island, but clearly, he hasn’t forgotten his roots. Neither will you, after reading this indelible account.

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‘The Light Years’ by Chris Rush: The Turbulent Sublime

Chris Rush memoir The Light YearsChris Rush’s memoir, The Light Years (368 pages; FSG), opens during the Summer of Love. In the suburbs of New Jersey, Rush is the sweet yet strange middle child in a family of seven kids. As a boy, he is obsessed with making paper flowers by hand, maintains an enchantment for a pink satin cape described as a “fashion miracle,” and turns the family’s psychedelic basement into his bedroom. To him, his parents are “the most fabulous –– and most happy,” and he is content to play the part of the devout Catholic son. However, at twelve-years-old, Rush’s world is transformed when his bold older sister, Donna, takes him to a “Be-in,” a day in the park filled with hippies and drugs. Here, she introduces him to Valentine, a charming friend who acts as spiritual leader when he doses everyone with acid. Valentine places a tab of “Orange Sunshine” on Rush’s tongue as if giving sacrament, and for the first time Rush experiences LSD:

In silence, everyone stared out across the lawn. Soon, an agitation began to flutter inside me. Or was it outside? As the breeze moved across the park, the shuddering of the trees was mesmerizing; the lawn rippled like the surface of a lake.

I thought: Gods here.

After this life changing experience, Rush begins to sell drugs at his boarding school and eventually ventures out to the Arizona desert to make a big purchase from Valentine. Here begins Rush’s tumultuous journey of growing up, filled with beauty and agony as he becomes deeply involved in the 1970s counter-culture. His search for a home—and fascination with drugs—takes him all across the country; from Tucson to Marin, Los Angeles, the Oregon Coast, and ultimately back to his parent’s home in New Jersey. Along the way he is accompanied by a cast of eccentric characters: enlightened Christian smugglers, a man who believes he was visited by UFOs, and a nudist drug dealer named Flow Bear. Rush also begins to discover his sexuality and falls in love with Owen, a Mormon boy from Idaho. His love interest and unconventional lifestyle causes tension at home as his father turns into an abusive alcoholic and his mother’s sanity frays at the edges. Rush encounters violence so many times it’s a wonder he survived to tell his story.

While Rush’s story is incredibly interesting and thought-provoking on its own, his writing style lends an honest and mind-bending quality. Rush recounts the highs and lows with a clarity that refuses to glorify or ask for pity. He simply presents his adolescence for what it was: a time of infinite magic and joy as well as one plagued by addiction and isolation.

Although the memoir takes the reader to some dark moments in Rush’s life, overall it serves as a recollection of the wonder of his youth:

When we drove to Point Reyes, to see the ocean, I was dazzled. California was the end of America, where the continent slipped under the sea. One could go no further. It was the place to collect one’s dreams and make something of them. The fantasy of Haight-Ashbury had collapsed into violence. But across the bay in Marin, there was peace.

People were getting back to nature. It was a good scene.

In this way, Rush reveals how the 1970s was a sublime yet turbulent time in American history.

And all throughout this story is Rush’s large-hearted compassion for the friends he made along the way. Amid the derangement and pain, there was always a companion at his side; there moves an air of tenderness for all the people who floated in and out of Rush’s life during those years. It’s difficult to come away from The Light Years without an appreciation for the beauty Rush finds in a seemingly harsh world. Seeing through his perspective could potentially leave readers changed for the better.

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‘A Wonderful Stroke of Luck’ by Ann Beattie: Familiar Themes, New Territory

Ann Beattie novel A Wonderful Stroke of LuckNo good deed goes unpunished.

Ann Beattie’s 21st work of fiction, A Wonderful Stroke Of Luck (288 pages; Viking), has been taking a beating in some quarters, notably the New York Times (for, among other capital sins, spelling Spalding Gray’s name incorrectly).

She’s been laboring under the mantle as a voice of her g-g-generation ever since her first novel, Chilly Scenes of Winter, in 1976. It’s a jacket she hates, understandably, but it was refreshing at the time to find fiction about people and places (although usually not politics) of the ‘60s that didn’t read like it was written by Richard Fariña.

The cool, evaluative voice—hip but not ostentatious—of her fiction, then and now, probed the psyches of lost souls struggling to find their place in a world not of their own making. (Chilly Scenes was closer to a portrait of slackers than the counter-culture, but the term had not yet come into use…so much for journalistic generalizations.)

The new novel takes its title from a quote by the Dalai Lama (“Remember that sometimes not getting what you want is a wonderful stroke of luck’’), but rest assured, Beattie has not gone New Age on us. Her characters certainly don’t get what they want, let alone what they need, and most assuredly don’t feel lucky about it.

It’s a portrait of millennials (again with the labels…) at the private prep school Bailey Academy in New Hampshire, under the heavy influence of Pierre LaVerdere, their campy, cryptic instructor. They may bear an outward resemblance to the kids in The Dead Poets Society or A Separate Peace. But the author is stalking bigger game, offering pitiless status details with deadpan reserve.

Setting up a meeting of the Honor Society, she notes, “Today there were also enormous seedless grapes—a nod, perhaps, to their recent discussion of Cesar Chavez.’’

The over-achieving, desperate-to-please students react with scorn when, in an exercise in adolescent “Jeopardy,” someone replies “John Cheever’’ instead of Gatsby after LaVerdere asks a rhetorical question: “Literature. In this twentieth-century novel, a character attends a sparsely populated funeral after the protagonist is found dead in his pools.’’

And so it goes.

It may sound a bit precious, but these kids are no less worthy of attention for being privileged than Holden Caulfield at Pencey Prep. Their angst is real, however unearned it sometimes seems, and Beattie has previously explored this fictional terrain in the portrayal of the funny, troubled teenager, Jocelyn, in the linked tales of The State We’re In: Maine Stories.

Here, the tone changes, abruptly, in Chapter Six, when the main protagonist, Ben, gets unwelcome news. “On 9/11 LouLou was the town crier, banging on her classmates’ doors. It took Ben some time to realize that he hadn’t been awakened from a nightmare. Mrs. Somersworth, the school nurse (rumored to have had a drug problem herself, when she was their age) handed out tissues and herded them into the TV room to look at the shaky footage, the incomprehensible smoke in New York.’’

The personal swiftly becomes political. The father of Ben’s friend Jasper, it is revealed, died in one of the towers, where he was meeting his divorce lawyer. But for these beleaguered kids, the echo chamber reminder, “9/11 changed everything,’’ tolls for a while, but doesn’t fundamentally alter their fates.

After Ben graduates, he skips college, moving to upstate New York for dead-end jobs and dead-end affairs with women he has trouble connecting with. In a section that calls to mind Bret Easton Ellis, if he were (somehow) in control of his instrument, he meets his ex-girlfriend Arly at the Gansevoort, where he spots Cindy Crawford, “her high heels clicking, taking the lobby entrance into the bar. The security thug was an enormous horror movie fly with multi-faceted, glinting pupils. The guy pushed a button as Ben approached to let him on the elevator, indicating acceptance at the same time he indicated contempt.’’

Other troubles await.

Continue reading

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‘Instructions for a Funeral’ by David Means: A Location of Deeper Grace

David Means story collection Instructions for a FuneralDavid Means’ latest collection, Instructions for a Funeral (208 pages; FSG), further secures his position as a standout writer of short fiction. Featuring Means’ customary idiosyncratic style, with sentences that span halfway down the page—or more—the book’s prose takes you on a trek, one that demands complete attention from the reader, but repays that attention. Through his dense, carefully crafted sentences, Means transports us through time and place, interweaving action with his characters’ inner ruminations and flashbacks, and in the process touching on the most tender and enigmatic parts of existence. In a section titled “Confessions,” the author discusses what these stories mean to him:

Theres simply no way to distill or describe whats in the stories, except to say I attempt, to say the least, to respect whatever each story seems to wantnot only want to be, but to say in its own wayeach one, as far as I can see, an expression of a particular axe I must grind, particular souls in particular situations, and in some cases a voice that needs to say what it says or else (and I feel this, really, I do) itll be lost forever to the void.

Several of the stories here take place in upstate New York, near the Hudson River, while others are set in California or the Midwest. In one, a psychiatric patient believes he is a butler, and in another, the death of a close friend turns out to be not what we think. In “The Chair,” a stay-at-home dad contrasts his wife’s exciting career in New York with the “deep solitude” he feels at home, as well as the subtle rewards of fatherhood that come with it:

Love isn’t in the actual grab and heft of body when he comes out of school and runs into my arms, crying with glee. No. Love is the moment just as he comes out the school-house door, standing amid his friends, and searches for my eyes. Love is the second he sees me, and I see him

In “The Mighty Shannon,” we are dropped in the midst of a marriage plagued by loneliness and shame. The narrator strikes up a relationship with his son’s teacher after sensing his wife is being unfaithful. The story follows the couple through therapy sessions and the moments of affection that come from having a long-time companion. The narrative sheds light on some of the more unattractive yet also sacred parts of the marriage bond, ultimately arriving at a place of forgiveness.

In the collection’s titular story, the narrator gives precise instructions on how he would like his funeral to occur. Written as a list with obscure, sometimes comedic details, the story explores feelings of betrayal and, again, the meaning of fatherhood. Other works, such as “El Morro” and “Carver & Cobain,” focus on characters on the outskirts of society (a drug addict, and a homeless sibling), providing a personal and empathetic view of them.

In fact, Instructions for a Funeral gives voice to those who often remain voiceless, delivering portrayals of raw vulnerability and urgency that compel one to keep reading. In the collection’s final story, the narrator comments on a need to turn “the harsh limitations of reality…into a story of some kind” and “bring the banality of sequential reality to a location of deeper grace.” Arguably, Means has done just that.

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‘Trump Sky Alpha’ by Mark Doten: President Troll

Mark Doten novel Trump Sky AlphaFor many Americans, the phrase “The Man with His Finger on the Button” has never registered as so ominous and disturbing as with a President as ill-tempered and braggadocios as Donald Trump in the White House. As Mark Doten’s latest novel, Trump Sky Alpha (288 pages; Graywolf Press), opens, those fears are realized when a crippling cyber-attack on America’s infrastructure prompts President Trump to unleash the country’s nuclear arsenal upon its perceived enemies. “The loss of life, it’s always tragic,” Trump intones from his massive zeppelin-like fortress, the titular Trump Sky Alpha. “But it’s been incredible. The results that we’ve had with respect to loss of life. We have little Rocket Man and the crazy disrespect and Iran and China and it’s all been contained beautifully.”

Doten then jumps a year later, after roughly 90 percent of the world’s population is eradicated in the ensuing nuclear warfare on January 28, with the survivors residing in heavily monitored, sterile government shelters. Our protagonist, Rachel, is a journalist and widow given her first assignment as a writer for the fledgling New York Times (now based in Modesto): a piece examining Internet humor before the end of the world. Rachel makes the case that there are other, more important stories to be telling––for instance, just who launched the cyber-attack that precipitated the events of 1/28, and how many civilians are still alive out there in the apocalyptic wasteland––but her editor assures her this story, about the memes and jokes that comprised Internet culture shortly before Trump launched the nukes, is the only story their government handlers are comfortable with her writing at the moment.

Just as the remnants of civilization have survived, albeit in a controlled environment, so, too, has the World Wide Web; in order to write her story, Rachel is permitted access to the last cache of the Internet before 1/28. Rachel’s investigation sends her tumbling down the rabbit hole of web humor in the early 21st century, from Pepe the Frog to the Distracted Boyfriend meme. Her study throws in sharp relief the difference between the way the tech giants of Silicon Valley envisioned their social media landscape—

“…the men who saw the internet as a new utopian space that would dissolve the old industrial giants, the obsolete monsters, those countries and corporates of unfreedom, and usher in new forms of being, or restore the old ways we’d lost…”

—and how quickly that naïve vision was perverted by users who resorted to the kind of virulent trolling, misogyny, and racism that can be found in almost any corner of the Internet:

“The sense that it was this, it was the structure of the internet, that had amplified the stupid and the evil, and at the same time flattened them, made them impossible to distinguish. Or made distinguishing them somehow beside the point.”

Trump Sky Alpha draws a direct line from the poisoned well of Internet culture during the Aughts to the rise of Trump as both cultural icon and President––our Troll-in-Chief––as if to say one would not be possible without the other. “From Watergate to Gamergate, from Pizzagate to Trump. A line, perhaps, or lines,” Rachel writes.

Despite her article’s seemingly frivolous subject matter, Rachel’s stake in it proves personal: if she turns in a satisfactory draft, the government has promised to take her to Prospect Park, the site of the mass grave most likely to contain her wife and daughter. The story ultimately leads Rachel on a strange journey to uncover the identity of the mysterious hacker, known only as Birdcrash, who may have launched the cyber-attack just before 1/28, as well as their ties to a Filipino-immigrant writer named Sebastian de Rosales and his obscure novel The Subversive. By the time Rachel comes face to face with Birdcrash, the pop culture-obsessed computer genius references everything from The Legend of Zelda to Moonraker, all while holding Rachel hostage with a power drill:

“Did you see The Matrix. The real truth––the reason Neo can stop the squids in the real world, otherwise barely acknowledged––is that there is no outside the system in The Matrix, they’re all in there all the time, it’s bedtime stories or lullabies, this dream of resistance. The metalevel, the outside of the real matrix, in that, their head jackets aren’t removable…But here we can. We can do something about it here. We are drilling in your head.”

Though Birdcrash’s ramblings are clearly the product of a disturbed mind, his rumination on the impossibility of true “resistance” echoes another of the book’s arguments: that in the end, as our country lies in smoldering ruins, armchair activists and impassioned tweets will have done little to stem the ride toward ruin. “There’s no magic hashtag resistance position right now for journalists,” Rachel states. “There’s no democracy dies in darkness or the fucking news fit to print. Just accomplices to whatever this is.” Though Rachel makes this declaration from the other side of a nuclear Armageddon, it’s easy to make the case she speaks for us in the moment, echoing the helplessness many Americans feel each day when they turn on the news.

Unlike the would-be “disruptors” of the tech world, Trump Sky Alpha proves genuinely disruptive literature, taking readers on an often violent and unsettling ride, told in a form that feels as fluid and ever-shifting as Internet culture itself. Doten draws ample influence from his science-fiction forbearers, particularly cyberpunk icons such as William Gibson and Neal Stephenson, but by setting his novel only a year or two from our present time, Doten removes the sometimes-reassuring barrier of genre and presents us with a novel that is uncomfortably and hideously now.

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‘Bright Stain’ by Francesca Bell: A Universe of Pain

Bright StainFrancesca Bell’s first book of poetry, Bright Stain (104 pages; Red Hen Press), reflects a dark universe in which sexual pleasure and pain are intricately linked. There are bright moments of delight, but few without an aftertaste. This debut collection is impressive for it’s distinctive voice and pungent imagery.

Many of the poems deal with the jolts of adolescent sexual awakening, its heat and surprise and terror, and Bell is not afraid of putting both her vulnerability and hunger on display:

By fourteen, I had transformed,

body gone from tight-fisted to extravagant…

No blouse would button over my excess.

Nothing in the lingerie department could contain me.

The special-order minimizer cost me fifty babysitting hours

and was unyielding as a harness. I believe in brazenness

but no power was ever greater than feeling that tremble

in a surprised boy’s fingers as I removed that bra.

Oh my God, one said, I had no idea.

Many poems barely contain fury, the kind of fury that echoes Plath’s Lady Lazarus, as in the poem “You Can Call Me Ma’am.” This litany of “Having bled and sweated and nursed…dragged/three children to inoculations and speech therapists, to grocery stores and Jiffy Lube and my gynecologist’s office,/to one hundred and eighty drop-offs/and three hundred and sixty-five whining, shrieking/bedtimes…” ends with

Let me tell you, at forty two, it is a deep,

delicious pleasure not to be dewy

or fresh as a fucking daisy.

Not all of the poems calibrate the pain and pleasure of sex, motherhood, womanhood. Some have a religious cast, some have guns and gasoline and smoldering fires. Often the poems seem like prayers, even though the God in these poems is fierce, and his representatives on Earth often abusers.

Whatever the subject, the book abounds in fresh and startling imagery. Part of its charm is how is sneaks up on you in ordinary language:

At nineteen,

I found beauty

waiting for me,

a fast car parked

on a lonely street.

*        *        *

I only send the softest underwear to prison.

*        *        *

         If I were a blackbird, I would fly

sensibly over the stinking marsh

         and spiked cattails, their tops fizzing white—

*        *        *

my lips opening wide,

in snarling contact with every bit

of his mouth, discovering nerves

in my tongue were hot-wired

down my body’s long center

Though many poems center on domestic life, Bell’s is not the easy domesticity of Robert Hass. Daily life here is filled with “the peril of ordinary objects.” The baby’s cry is “The sound of a pulled trigger,/spraying milk everywhere.” This poet’s world is one of “soft breeze and keening.” Danger and tenderness are inextricably mixed.

And salted through these intimate, fiery poems is the poet’s quirky sense of humor, noticeable just reading he table of contents: “Sending Underwear to Prison,” “In Which I Imagine George Washington Considering His False Teeth,” “On the Way to Chevron, My Father Tries to Save My Life.”

Most of the poems here are a page or shorter, but their intensity makes this a book to pick up, put down, pick up again. My favorites are the poems that find resolution, the way the God in these poems “gathers our shards/every splintered/fragment into His boundless hands.” A good example is “Prayer,” toward the end of the book, which starts:

When age sidles up,

a final suitor,

let me turn

and take it

without faltering,

the way my body

opens joyfully

to a man.

and ends:

I want to see

my breasts deflate

like sacks

my lover’s hands

have emptied

and laugh

as even laughter

ruins me, crumpling

the surface of my face.

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‘Little Boy’ by Lawrence Ferlinghetti: Life as an Endless Novel

Little Boy novel Lawrence Ferlinghetti“And so do I return to the monologue of my life seen as an endless novel.” Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Little Boy (179 pages; Doubleday) is aptly self-identified as “unapologetically unclassifiable” on its jacket copy, and the poet Billy Collins called it a “torrent of consciousness” in his own review. Both descriptions are fitting for the short but powerful work by the now 100-year-old Ferlinghetti.

Little Boy begins as a rather fast-paced novel, narrated in the third person, based on Ferlinghetti’s childhood. It tells the story of Little Boy, who was raised by his Aunt Emily, later was moved to an orphanage, and then “adopted” by a wealthy but unaffectionate foster family of sorts. Just as readers settle into the story, the plot unspools into the lengthy monologue of a voice called “me-me-me.” “Me-me-me” becomes Ferlinghetti’s new central character as he transitions into the first person, and represents both Ferlinghetti and society at large, one riddled with narcissism and an obsession with the self. As Ferlinghetti abandons all punctuation and linear narrative structure, the writing reflects on the life he has lived and the world he was born into.

At times, the monologue seems circular as it returns again and again to the same few moments of his childhood, like the “cat’s eyes” tapioca pudding he remembers from the orphanage, or the bearded lover his aunt took when he was young. Among these recollections, readers are swept up in existential questions of agency, modernity, coming of age, and growing old:

I’ve summarized my past by theft and allusion and all I know is that I’ll be taking an escalator soon to the next level of existence or nonexistence and will it be the down-escalator or the up-escalator and thereby hangs the tail of this mutt and he still wagging it And how did he go from a youthful anarchism to humanitarian socialism as a creed to live by And how did he end up a painter and a poet always alienated in one way or another and still claiming that he was never ingested by the dominant culture that ingests so many rebels before they croak

Thoreau, Ginsburg, and other iconic writers are surely present, through both their influence and by reference, in Ferlinghetti’s meditations on the cultural shifts and stagnation he witnessed throughout the 20th century. He pays homage to his past by recounting his memories (he seems to remember everything) whenever they come to mind; it is almost as much a book about the 20th century as it is a book about Ferlinghetti. And since he believes the past informs the future, it is also a book about what is to come. In fewer than 200 pages, Ferlinghetti somehow touches on religion, capitalism, patriotism, sex, trauma, war, love, and more:

and what is the plot of this novel if not the remembrance of things still not past for the past is but a cautious counselor of what has yet to come what has yet to transpire or expire so farewell final albatross as time ticks on and all of us like insects in an anthill seen from space all nebulous figures dancing in a tropic night through the night-mazes singing a lyric escape again then and why not Are we to live in despair all the time thinking only of our certain deaths so why not live the highs and ignore the lows

Eventually, the “novel” settles back into full sentences and revisits the character it began with:

Little Boy grown up dissident romantic or romantic dissident has his youthful vision of living forever, immortal as every youth is, believing his own special identity would never, could never, perish.

 Ferlinghetti’s Little Boy truly is a a deluge—not a stream—of thought that allows readers to witness the author as he grapples with the life he has led. It is a privilege to view the world—past, present, and even future—through his weathered, critical, and poetic lens.

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‘The Altruists’ by Andrew Ridker: The Good Life

Andrew Ridker novel The AltruistsAndrew Ridker’s first novel, The Altruists (308 pages; Viking), follows a middle-class family, the Alters, as they struggle with the impact of unexpected wealth. Ridker is merciless in skewering each member of the family, and nearly every aspect of modern culture, from campus identity politics and the queer dating scene to poorly planned foreign aid missions. The novel’s wickedly dark sense of humor combines with a complex plot to create a compelling debut.

The story centers around Arthur Alter, a rapidly aging, untenured professor at a middling St. Louis university who is close to defaulting on the mortgage for his family’s home. Desperate, he invites his two estranged adult children, Ethan and Maggie, to visit even though they haven’t spoken since their mother, Francine, died of breast cancer two years prior. The day before Francine’s diagnosis, Arthur initiated an affair with a much younger colleague, causing his wife to write him out of her will and instead leave the entirety of a mysteriously-acquired fortune to their children. Arthur naively hopes that, upon reconciliation, his children will gladly pay off his mortgage and save their childhood home, but he fails to anticipate the depth of their resentment or their troubled relationship with their newfound wealth.

Ethan and Maggie’s treatments of their inheritance reflect their naturally opposed personalities. Idealistic, ineffective Maggie has convinced herself she is going to “renounce” the money and donate it to charity, although two years after receiving it she has still failed to do so. She instead chooses to leave it untouched and live a life of relative poverty, performing odd jobs in her neighborhood while restricting her eating habits out of grief. Ethan, on the other hand, is deep in debt and has frittered his portion away on apartment renovations, expensive housewares, and a variety of delivery services. Due to his excessive spending, he has gained the freedom to become a recluse in his Brooklyn apartment, rarely leaving for any reason.

Arthur’s invitation provides the stimulus both need to make meaningful changes in their stalled lives, but also forces them to grapple with the question of what it actually means to live a “good” life and how to be recognized as doing just that.

In one particularly telling passage, Arthur listens in as his children argue over his character and decide his future:

“‘See, this is the thing. You always let him off the hook so easily. Like he’s a child who doesn’t know better. He’s a grown man, Ethan. More than that. He’s an anachronism.’

‘I’ll grant you that he’s out of touch. But what’s he supposed to do with that? Don’t we have a responsibility to him? To see that he makes it out of this okay?’

“I don’t.”

“You do. We both do.”

…Arthur stood in the doorway. He knew he should back away but he couldn’t. His heart leapt anxiously with every eavesdropped word. He stood there as the minutes piled up, listening, with defensiveness and hurt—and no small sense of self-importance—as his children debated his legacy.”

It is this idea of creating a meaningful legacy that preoccupies each member of the Alters. Although they purport to be altruists, they are blocked from acting in a truly selfless manner by their desire to be perceived as good by others. Ridker ultimately suggests that for them to overcome this deep-rooted limitation they (and by extension, us) must renounce any grandiose ideas of the self. What constitutes the “good” life could be just living simply and, perhaps most difficult of all, forgiving those who do not deserve forgiveness.

 

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