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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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‘Fire Season’ by Patrick Coleman: Intergenerational Interpretations

Fire Season poetry by Patrick ColemanWe poets often pride ourselves on exploiting the many interpretations that figurative language affords us, and so we may shy away from visuals for fear they will detract from this ability to embody multiple meanings without sacrificing substance that we think separates “real” poetry from most prose. And though we may write poems inspired by visual art, we rarely include images of these works in books. Not so with Patrick Coleman’s Fire Season (102 pages; Tupelo Press).

Initially, I expected the images paired with poems in the book to be too on the nose and/or to give away too much. However, the pairings—which include artwork by sculptor Alexander Archipenko and painters Guo Hui, Jules Tavernier, Agnes Pelton, Oskar Fischinger, and Diego Rivera—make sense. Firstly, the book seems to be something of an homage to Coleman’s first daughter’s early years, a time in which she would likely have been less than enamored of a book with no pictures. Secondly, I came to appreciate the insights the visuals gave me into the identity of the speaker behind each of these prose poems.

Coleman, who was an art curator at the San Diego Museum of Art, provides the reader with a gallery built around his poems, yet the experience of reading his book is as homey and welcoming as flipping through a family album. There are some diversions into work life that seem superfluous—in the poems “Being Lost” and “Arse Poetica”—but, for the most part, Fire Season offers intimate, lovely glimpses into new parenthood. In “Leda and . . .,” for example, we see the narrator navigating the busyness of parenting while coping with a mistake that puts a minor strain on his marriage—an accident in which a sculpture that has sentimental value to his wife is broken. Coleman writes:

. . . . The second time the wings broke

. . . . It was our anniversary. I told you and

you cried and fed the baby.

Lines later, we get this gorgeous, tumbling imagery:

. . . . Love is dropping into an abyss edged with

a hundred jutting branches and choosing instead to hold the

circle of daylight above, the image that grows smaller and

smaller as you fall: moon, dime, bead, star, pinprick, memory.

In other poems, we experience something of how a new parent falls in love with their child. Much of this happens as Coleman captures the idiosyncrasies of his daughter’s toddler-speak. In “Developmental Grammar/Equivalents,” he writes:

While brushing your teeth, you waved the brush in the air

before you, saying, “I’m painting, I’m painting.” Making circles:

“It’s a house.” A smaller circle: “It’s a door.” Then with your fist:

“Knock knock knock.”

Coleman’s relationship with his daughter is enchanting. He draws us into that falling-in-love state where even his daughter’s naughtiness is endearing. In “Deaccessioning,” he writes:

. . . . My daughter

wearing only a shirt, crouched slightly and pissed on the ground.

She took pleasure in watching her own springing pool and how

quickly the heat reduced it to a darker patch of pink-stained

concrete—her shadow, she said, waving to it.

As this excerpt illustrates, much of the charm from these moments comes from seeing the world interpreted through the eyes of a child who seems at once wide-eyed and wise. Coleman wrestles with this in a number of other poems, including “On Ice,” in which he compares his child’s perspective—her ability to “make a tile floor into a skating rink”—to his own, particularly his mind’s insistence on the literal (that a rock is a rock is a rock).

Although the book’s cohesion rests mostly on the subject matter—parenthood, the anxieties of a father helping to raise a young daughter in a dangerous terrain, and the terrain itself—Coleman also ties the poems thematically by giving many of them the same titles. We get some metacommentary that gives us a sense of Coleman’s thoughtfulness as a writer when, in the final and title poem, the speaker revisits an “error” he made in the book’s first poem, which shares the same title. There are also the “Developmental Grammar” poems, in which we get to read and parse the young daughter’s child-speak; the “Equivalents” poems, in which Coleman calls into question what is real versus what is fake through language that often enacts mirroring; and others. These poems are spread across the book so that one is initially surprised at encountering pieces with the same titles but then comes to expect it and begins to wonder what they have in common and what functions they serve wherever each of them is placed. This makes for a nice game, kind of like piecing together a puzzle.

Years from now, I am fairly certain Coleman’s daughter will appreciate Fire Season just as any reader might—both subjectively, as a labor of love, and objectively, as a solid body of work. It addresses timeless themes, and the visual art contained in it spans centuries and civilizations. There is intergenerational wisdom in this book.

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‘The Collected Schizophrenias’ by Esmé Weijun Wang: A Map into Rarely Charted Waters

The Collected SchizophreniasEsmé Weijun Wang’s The Collected Schizophrenias (202 pages; Graywolf Press) consists of twelve essays addressing the technical definitions, medical prognosis, and personal challenges of schizophrenia. In the first essay, Wang discloses her own diagnosis to the reader: during her time as an undergraduate at Yale, she was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder (bipolar type), which she describes as an illness that combines certain behavioral markers of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. She makes it clear the schizophrenias (of which there are a few types) are both complex and vast in how they are perceived and experienced. Wang manages to discuss such a broad topic by anchoring each essay with a specific cultural or personal touchpoint: for example, her concerns about whether or not she would be a good mother, and the case of Malcolm Tate, a mentally ill man who was murdered by his family members. In another essay, she discusses the movie Lucy and her experience with delusions induced specifically by films that take place in other realities. One delusion she often experiences is that of the people in her life having been replaced by doubles or robots. Another is Cotard’s delusion:

I write this while experiencing a strain of psychosis known as Cotard’s delusion, in which the patient believes that they are dead. What the writer’s confused state means is not beside the point, because it is the point. I am in here, somewhere: cogito ergo sum.

Wang’s vulnerability as she puts her diagnosis and lived experiences in conversation with each other welcomes us into her life while also provoking our own self-reflection. Her Ivy League education and status as a published author are frequently identified as ways she finds validation among neurotypical people. In the essay “Yale Will Not Save You,” she writes, “‘I went to Yale’ is shorthand for I have schizoaffective disorder, but I’m not worthless.

Neurotypical readers may ask themselves, would we see Wang as credible if not for her ability to articulate her delusions and episodes? Would we trust a schizophrenic person’s recollections if that person was not college-educated or successful in their career? Her in-depth discussion of medical, educational, and judicial institutions ask us to question the humanity and compassion we extend to those who struggle with their mental health. Without speaking on anyone else’s behalf, Wang touches on involuntary hospitalization policies, the potential overlap of schizophrenia with other disorders like PTSD or manic depression, and more:

I’d been living with medication-resistant schizoaffective disorder prior to the new diagnosis, and PTSD, while uniquely excruciating, was not—unlike schizoaffective disorder—considered to be incurable…I was grateful for the hope of a condition I could eliminate.

Wang gives readers a map of sorts into rarely-charted waters. She handles the discussion of schizophrenia with a gentleness for both the subject matter and the reader. The collection strikes a balance between the technical and the emotional, and works, like good books do, to change how we think.

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‘Gingerbread’ by Helen Oyeyemi: Ever-Shifting Nature

Helen Oyeyemi novel GingerbreadHelen Oyeyemi’s latest novel Gingerbread (258 pages; Riverhead), revolves around the fictional country of Druhástrana, an “alleged nation state of indeterminable geographic location” that may or may not exist, depending on who you ask. Druhá Strana roughly translates from Slovak to “the other side” or “the flipside,” a fitting name for a nation that bears more resemblance to a half-remembered fever dream than any currently existing country.

Gingerbread mirrors the ever-shifting nature of Druhástrana in many ways, with its circular and occasionally conflicting narratives leaving the reader frantically performing mental gymnastics in order to keep up.

The novel focuses on a family of Druhástranian expatriates who bake obscene quantities of gingerbread daily: Margot Lee, a doting grandmother and preternaturally talented interior designer; her daughter Harriet, who is consumed by her quest to find her childhood best friend, distant cousin, and alleged fairy-changeling Gretel Kercheval; and Harriet’s teenage daughter Perdita, who cannot indulge in her family’s signature pastry because she was born with celiac disease.

Created by a distant ancestor on Harriet’s father’s side as a way to eke any remaining nutritional value out of spoiled rye, the gingerbread is revered by some and intolerable to others.  It plays many roles throughout the book: as the only known method of transportation to or from Druhástrana, as the building material for an impossible-to-locate house where an improbable reunion is destined to occur, and as a way for Harriet to win over the cliquish Parental Power Association (PPA) at Perdita’s school.

The Lee women refuse to sell their gingerbread, instead using it as a way to extort “information, goodwill, and … compliance.”  In doing so, Oyeyemi has transformed a traditional symbol of domestic femininity into a potent tool and weapon that all three Lee women yield indiscriminately. The majority of the book is comprised of Harriet relating her childhood and adolescence in Druhástrana to Perdita after Perdita attempts suicide by way of gingerbread in an extremely desperate effort to travel to her family’s homeland.

As Harriet describes her life in Druhástrana, it becomes clear she possesses “the kind of past that makes the present dubious.”  She reveals to Perdita that she grew up on an impoverished, isolated farm in the Druhástranian countryside, reading the collected works of Émile Zola and baking gingerbread. After a series of improbable events, the Lee family gingerbread attracts the attention of Gretel’s mother, who then recruits Harriet to work at a gingerbread theme park run exclusively by other farm girls.

Harriet’s history starts to spiral from there, and is frequently interrupted by asides from Perdita’s life-size (and apparently self-aware) dolls.  These sorts of fantastical moments are common, with the narrator explaining that “talking or thinking about ‘there’ lends ‘here’ a hallucinatory quality that [Harriet] could frankly do without.”  This tendency toward the surreal is heightened whenever the characters squint too hard at what it means to be Druhástranian in the outside world.

Harriet obsessively searches the Internet for traces of Druhástrana, perhaps in an effort to confirm that her own lived experience did in fact occur. The majority of the articles she finds are translated by Drahomira Maszkeradi, a woman who later becomes the Lee’s realtor as Harriet searches for one of the three houses where she promised to meet her cousin Gretel once she had left Druhástrana and grown up.  It’s unclear whether Harriet ever makes the connection that the woman who is trying to help her fulfill her doomed quest is the same woman who has provided all of her knowledge of Druhástrana since leaving. As Maszkeradi skirts the Lee women’s attempts to pin down her origins, Oyeyemi hints at the answer to a larger question: what does it mean to live in a world that denies your very existence?

“Margot had only one question left. In Druhástranian, she asked: ‘Drahomíra, my dear…are you by any chance Druhástranian?”

She was answered in English, and Harriet held her phone away from her ear to protect it from the Maszkeradi trill: ‘Of course I am…I mean, aren’t we all?”

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‘Territory of Light’ by Yuko Tsushima: A New Life in Tokyo

Yuko Tsushima Territory of Light novelYuko Tsushima’s Territory of Light (183 pages, FSG; translated by Geraldine Harcourt) begins when the husband of the narrator, Mrs. Fujino, leaves her. After months of apartment hunting, she moves with her two year-old daughter into a new building. The apartment is abundant with light most hours of the day, but it fails to illuminate their lives the way she hoped it would.

The novel consists of twelve brief chapters, each one a vignette of life in Tokyo with an inquisitive and sometimes unruly daughter. (The narrative was originally published in Japan in twelve installments, between 1978 and 1979.) At first, Mrs. Fujino finds empowerment as a newly-single woman living in the city, but the thrill of independence quickly fades, and her obligations wear her thin. Her daughter is causing trouble at daycare, and in the middle of the night has crying fits that often end with soiled sheets and start up again just hours later. Over the course of the story, Mrs. Fujino becomes disorganized, sleeping in well past 10 a.m. and sometimes staying out too late at the bar or in finding companionship with old acquaintances. The mother-daughter duo’s schedule becomes erratic, and their relationship seems to shift with the added stress. Fittingly, as a reader, it is sometimes hard to maintain a sense of direction; it’s this simultaneously muted and overwhelming feeling of instability that comes through in Tsushima’s book.

Through it all, Mrs. Fujino remains an insightful and placid narrator. Though her daughter and soon-to-be ex-husband unhinge her, her thoughts are clear and her internal monologue displays an acute self-awareness:

Impatient at her slow pace as we headed for daycare, I picked her up and ran. As I did so, the thought that, in spite of everything, maybe some part of me wished my daughter dead crossed my mind. Why would I have dreamed of her dead body otherwise?…When we reached the centre, she tripped away to join the other children without a backward glance. The moment when she separated herself from me was a palpable relief.

While she realizes much of the instability around her is of her own making, she never loses sight of her humanity—and the humanity of her young daughter, whose father left the picture rather suddenly:

A couple of nights after I’d dreamed of her death, as she cried and cried, the same as ever, I laid her on my lap like a baby and began to recite ‘magic words’ while rubbing her chest and stomach, tracing circles … My daughter had stopped crying and was listening to my voice, a smile on her lips. Encouraged by that smile, I continued, still more fervently, to recite the magic words.

Tsushima’s Territory of Light, for which she won the inaugural Noma Literary Prize, is a tender and relatable story, highlighting both the obstacles and highlights of a transitional stage in life. By the novel’s end, readers are left with the sense this mother and daughter will continue to learn and change together as they remake their life.

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‘Mothers’ by Chris Power: The Fragility of Connection

Chris Power Mothers story collectionThe characters in Mothers (287 pages; FSG), the debut story collection by London writer Chris Power, occupy tenuous positions in their personal lives. Many of the ten stories here hone in on the bitter resentments and petty debates that arise when a romantic relationship has barely formed or, alternately, reached its breaking point. In “The Crossing,” protagonist Ann comes to regret her backpacking weekend with recent lover Jim:

“Several times, in the weeks since she had met him, Ana had thought Jim was telling her what she had wanted to hear. Even before she agreed to this weekend away the trait had been irritating her…She had wanted to sleep with him as soon as she saw him, leaning against the kitchen counter at a party in a big, dilapidated house in Chalk Farm. And she had slept with him, but now she wished she had left it at that.”

As one might expect, the backpacking excursion doesn’t end well for Jim; his attempt to restore some of his masculine pride and put himself back in Ann’s good graces leads to disaster at a swift-moving river crossing.

Stephen, the narrator of “Portals,” visits Paris to stay with an old acquaintance, a charismatic Spanish dancer who invariably wins the affection of the men who cross her path (including Stephen). As various would-be gentlemen callers vie for Monica’s attention, the brewing rivalry among them sets the stage for a violent altercation at a French drum ‘n bass club:

“Michael went down so fast it was like I made him disappear. A space cleared around us. Monica–– who I never saw or spoke to again –– looked at me like she didn’t even know me. Which she didn’t, I realized. I laughed. It was so ridiculous and sad.”

And in perhaps the collection’s strongest piece, “Above the Wedding,” a young Englishman named Liam travels to a destination wedding in Mexico City for the purposes of confronting the husband-to-be, with whom he shared a brief physical tryst and still nurtures feelings for:

“As the security light above the garage flicked on, frosting the driveway white, Liam called his name.

Miguel stopped, turned.

‘You’re going to have to talk to me some time,’ Liam said.

Miguel smiled, not unkindly. ‘No I am not, Liam,’ he said, and turned and walked into the darkness.”

It is the “unkindly” in that last sentence that hurts the most, and throughout Mothers Power exhibits a similar knack for detail in his depictions of the way people navigate disintegrating relationships, whether due to fading sexual chemistry or the barriers put up by mental illness. An eponymous sequence of stories appears at the beginning, midpoint, and end of the book, each installment focusing on the life of the troubled Swedish native Eva. The opening story relays her childhood outside of Stockholm, while later pieces touch on her struggles with depression and failed attempts at maintaining a family. Power lets some of the connections among the stories reveal themselves slowly, and each one can comfortably stand on its own, though the final two chapters are united by the imprint of Eva’s physic pain: “When it comes it’s like all the rules change,” she explains. “You feel everything falling apart and coming back together in new shapes, shapes you can’t understand. You lose the ability to make sense of anything.”

A couple of the stories in Mothers register as outliers: “The Colossus of Rhodes” ruminates on the nature of storytelling itself, as the narrator admits to exaggerating the details of an uncomfortable incident from his childhood in order to express the anxiety of being a parent in a world where it is often impossible protect one’s children (“…I can’t help but wonder if the same thing happened to them, would I want to know? And if I knew, what then?”). Elsewhere, “Johnny Kingdom” follows the hard luck of an English stand-up comic and family man attempting to make a living by impersonating the fictional comedian Johnny Kingdom (a clear stand-in for the late Rodney Dangerfield). Power cleverly utilizes the concept of a comic recycling a deceased comedian’s material to examine writer’s block and the struggle to find a creative voice that is uniquely one’s own:

“Sometimes he was asked, with genuine puzzlement, why he was doing someone else’s bits –– a crime in comedy, but complicated in this case by the fact that he wasn’t trying to pass someone else’s line off as his own, he was only performing someone’s entire act…He was as uncomfortable with what he was doing as anyone else was.”

Mothers proves an elegant collection, touching on a host of issues deeply ingrained in our modern experience: the fragility of human connection, the impulse to travel, and the painful ramifications of mental illness, among others. Power’s prose is spare and exacting, excising the needless word in pursuit of emotional truth. Mothers proves a rewarding experience for the lover of quiet short stories that speak volumes.

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‘Rag’ by Maryse Meijer: Refusing to Flinch

RagIn Maryse Meijer’s new collection, Rag (144 pages; FSG), the final and eponymous story is written from the point of view of a rag stuffed down a woman’s throat, slowly killing her. Reading Rag feels a bit like this, as the fourteen unsettling stories leave you gasping for air. With terse, dark prose, Meijer has created a cohesive set of stories which seem to delight in exploring taboos and destroying expectations.

These stories are unsettlingly honest, with the most twisted inner thoughts of each principal character laid bare for the reader. Rag is at its strongest when delving into the minds of its uniformly flawed narrators, which include a college student living in self-imposed isolation, a high school teacher consumed by an unhealthy obsession with his student, and a pizza shop worker who develops feelings for a woman who has a miscarriage in his store’s public bathroom.

Many of the stories focus on themes of self-injury, dubiously consensual sex, and disordered eating, Meijer refusing to flinch from their alarming details. One of the collection’s most compelling stories follows a father serving on the jury for a murder trial while attempting to reconcile with his estranged daughter. Another focuses on a homicide detective who, over the course of an investigation, becomes convinced being decapitated by his principal suspect would be the only fitting end to his life. In a particularly powerful passage, Meijer reflects on the detective’s perceptions of the case and his work:

“The detective keeps a photo of the dead man’s head; there it is, intact, stuck to a bulletin board. You’re going to die, the detective thinks every times he looks at the ugly happy face…He strokes the glossy photo and thinks of all the women he has known, all the meat inside a man. How often it is the other way around: the woman in pieces, and every man a murderer.”

Twelve of the fourteen narrators are male, allowing Meijer to explore their varyingly warped perceptions of women. In deconstructing the many forms of the male gaze, she grants insight into the roots of each character’s neuroses and fixations, skewering the most extreme manifestations of toxic masculinity. The haunting, beautifully horrific stories in Rag linger long after finishing the collection, and subtly answer almost as many questions as they raise about what it means to interact with and be a man in the modern world.

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