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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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Sarah Moss’s ‘Ghost Wall’: Sacrificed to History

Sarah Moss Ghost Wall novelIn Sarah Moss’s novel, Ghost Wall (130 pages; FSG), seventeen-year-old Silvie embarks on a trip to rural northeastern England with her family and a university archaeology class. Silvie’s father, Bill, earns a living as a bus driver, but his true passion is for the history of the Iron Age and its “bog people,” the ancient Britons who were sacrificed in this region centuries ago. Over the course of the two-week trip, the small group attempts to reenact the lifestyle of 1000 B.C., wearing scratchy tunics and hunting and foraging for their meals. For Bill, the trip is a chance to live exactly like the ancient Britons –– down to the dated and ritualistic behaviors that let him indulge in his own violent and misogynistic tendencies.

Silvie narrates the story, moving fluidly between related observations and internal monologue. The narration transitions so smoothly, in fact, that it can sometimes be hard to distinguish what is being said aloud and what are simply Silvie’s thoughts weaving themselves into the moment. Interestingly, perhaps because of the stream-of-consciousness style, the distinction doesn’t feel very important.

As the story goes on, it becomes obvious to the characters and reader alike that Silvie, desperate for independence and an end to her childhood, harbors real fear of agitating her father. Silvie’s narration suggests her mother, Alison, spends the trip (and her life beyond the trip) cooking and cleaning, obedient to Bill’s demands. Bill physically abuses his family more than once during the reenactment, but always out of sight of the others. It’s a well-kept secret until, as the trip brings their dynamic to light, a student named Molly concludes something simply isn’t right:

He hits you, she said, your dad. He’s been hitting you here. You’re scared of him. No, I said, no, I’m not, of course I’m not, you don’t know what you’re talking about. I stopped. Maybe you’re jealous because your dad left you, I thought, because he doesn’t love you, because he doesn’t care enough to teach you a lesson. Haven’t you been listening, people don’t bother to hurt what they don’t love. To sacrifice it.

While Molly and Silvie forage each day, the archaeology professor and Bill feed off of each other’s enthusiasm for the historical period. Their excitement turns dark following the reconstruction of a “ghost wall,” which was used during the Iron Age to ward off the Romans during times of war. After rebuilding it, the pair considers it an almost spiritual gateway into the past. They become carried away and eventually insist that Silvie play the part of the human sacrifice in a ritual the following night:

Silvie, said Dan, Silvie, you sure you don’t mind this? The ropes and everything? Of course she doesn’t, said Dad, she knows we won’t hurt her, she’s not stupid.

Silvie, said Dan.

I nodded. Yeah, it’s OK.

You lead her, Bill, said the Professor, after all, she’s your sacrifice.

Ghost Wall is a short and cogent book highlighting the dynamics of one family through the lens of a rather bizarre and unsettling family trip. Bringing the distant past together with issues faced by women today—most of them rooted in history themselves—Moss’ novel asks readers to consider what we might stand to gain from history, and what we must leave behind.

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Young and Out of Control: ‘Last Night in Nuuk’ by Niviaq Korneliussen

Last Night in NuukNiviaq Korneliussen’s first novel, Last Night in Nuuk (288 pages; Grove Press), is first and foremost a character study. (In an immediate indicator that the book is primarily driven by its multiple protagonists, it opens with a literal “Cast of Characters.”) Korneliussen, who is from Greenland, explores in distinct sections the perspectives of five different people and in the process shows us what it means to be young and queer in her homeland. The characters are all handled tenderly and with obvious care, and each stream of consciousness narrative can stand alone but fit neatly into this larger work.

Living in Greenland’s largest city, the capital of Nuuk (population 17,000), Korneliussen’s characters run into each other by chance and by design throughout their tiny remote community, ratcheting tensions while simulatenously creating a sense of crushing isolation and stifling familiarity.

Among the protagonists, young journalist Inuk struggles the most with the unavoidable intimacy of Nuuk. After his affair with a male politician is pubicly exposed, he flees to nearby Denmark, where he attempts to come to terms with both his sister Fia’s sexuality and his own. Inuk frequently laments the fact that everyone knows everyone in Nuuk, and even compares the iconic Greenlandic mountains to prison walls. In one of the most compelling passages of the novel, he defines what he feels it means to be a Greenlander:

“You’re a Greenlander when you’re an alcoholic…You’re a Greenlander when you were neglected as a child…You’re a Greenlander when you suffer from self-loathing…You’re a Greenlander when you’re evil. You’re a Greenlander when you’re queer.”

Over the course of his chapter, Inuk’s definition of the Greenlandic identity expands and changes significantly, perhaps serving as the most explicit representation of the conflicted feelings of the rest of the main characters—student Fia, journalist Arnaq, and partners Ivik and Sara—toward their country as it grapples with rampant addiction and abuse.

Perhaps the strongest section of Last Night in Nuuk centers around butch lesbian Ivik as she grapples with her relationships to Sara and Arnaq, with whom she begins an affair, as well as her gender identity. The latter conflict in particular is handled well, and is hinted at early on. (“Ivik” is most commonly a name given to men in her culture.)

For a book so focused on character, it is somewhat disappointing that the protagonists’ voices can blur together at times, with Inuk’s being the exception. Thankfully, the propulsive nature of each individual’s narrative—urgent, tense, and full of intentional rough edges that allow emotions to shine through—largely compensates for this. With Last Night in Nuuk, Korneliussen has crafted a convincing, nuanced depiction of what it feels like to be young and out of control while allowing us to inhabit a world that has been infrequently, if ever, presented to American readers.

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Dreamwalking in the Modern World: ‘The Day the Sun Died’ by Yan Lianke

YThe Day the Sun Diedan Lianke’s latest novel, The Day the Sun Died (342 pages; Grove Press; translated by Carlos Rojas), manages to strike a balance between humor and horror as the world crumbles over the course of one very long night in Gaotian Village, China. The story is told from the perspective of fourteen-year-old Li Niannian, whose parents own the village funerary shop, and opens with a somewhat chaotic preface in which Li Niannian calls out to the spirit world, asking them to listen as he recounts the night’s bizarre events.

On this night of the great somnambulism, the people of the village and its surrounding region slowly begin to “dreamwalk,” carrying out actions and desires in their sleep that they might otherwise suppress or be consumed by in their waking state. A villager harvests wheat in the fields for fear of the fast-approaching flood season. A man kills another man for sleeping with his wife. Others jump into the river to go swimming and drown. In the midst of the chaos, stores and homes are looted.

Lianke’s prose, partnered with Rojas’ translation, makes a convincing and trustworthy narrator out of Li Niannian, clearly portraying his childlike curiosity and nervous demeanor through an artless vocabulary and blunt inner monologue. Interwoven with occurrences of the great somnambulism is a brief history of Li Niannian’s father, Li Tianbao, and of a relationship that complicates the story, one between Li Tianbao’s funerary shop and his brother-in-law’s crematorium. The story takes place just a few years after the Chinese government has made cremation mandatory in order to preserve farmland. Burial is a traditional and sacred practice, and so Li Niannian’s uncle is hated by many—especially by those whose secretly-buried relatives were disinterred and cremated—and Li Tianbao has secrets of his own to keep on the matter.

The Day the Sun Died peaks when dreamwalkers decide to fight a town battle to restore the Ming Dynasty and Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of centuries ago. The novel uses factual historical anchors (like the Ming Dynasty and the policy on cremation and disinterring bodies) to raise critical questions about China’s clashing traditional and “modern” practices, enforced by rigid familial and state structures, respectively. Just as most of the dreamwalkers insist they are awake, China is dreamwalking, too, Lianke seems to suggest, though it believes itself to be awake—going so far as to outright deny chaos to preserve social order. Li Niannian recalls that there were 539 deaths that night, but finds the official statement reads differently:

In Zhaonan County’s Gaotian Town, there were false rumors about large swaths of dreamwalking-related deaths and social disturbances, and in order to put a stop to these rumors and promote a stable social order, the government sent in a large number of national cadres and public security officers to conduct an investigation and also help the masses to regain a good and productive social order.

Notably, Lianke includes himself as a village person and key character in The Day the Sun Died. Li Niannian knows him as Uncle Lianke, the author neighbor who loans him books from time to time. In this way, The Day the Sun Died makes direct reference to some of Lianke’s most famous works, and follows him through a bout of writer’s block that snatches all meaning from his life. Ultimately, it is while in his dreamwalking state that Yan Lianke’s character finds his inspiration to write again––to write this very story, it seems.

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Against Forgetting: ‘The Barefoot Woman’ by Scholastique Mukasonga

The Barefoot WomanAs a one-and-a-half-generation immigrant, I harbor a fair amount of nostalgia for a country I barely know—my native land of Kenya. Reading Scholastique Mukasonga’s memoir, The Barefoot Woman (146 pages; Archipelago Books; translated by Jordan Stump), heightened those feelings of nostalgia like nothing else even though the stories she tells are set in Nyamata, Rwanda. I suspect most Africans who read this book will have a similar response. Each chapter of the book contains a story or stories about Mukasonga’s family and their community of Tutsi refugees. We encounter them living in the aftermath of colonization and gradually embracing “progress,” which many perceive as adopting Western customs, while staying true to their traditions.

As charming and funny as these stories often are, they are tinged with a great sadness. We fall in love with Mukasonga’s mother, Stefania, and her community, particularly with the women who are the focus of this narrative, but we cannot forget the genocide on the horizon. Mukasonga keeps at the back of the reader’s mind the horror we know will claim the lives of these vivid, real-life characters—the Tutsis of Mukasonga’s community—whose lives grace the books’ pages. Above all, The Barefoot Woman is a fitting elegy from a daughter to her mother.

There’s a striking emphasis on community in the book. Life in Mukasonga’s childhood revolves around relationships bound by complex social rules that dictate etiquette, marriage, and gender roles. It is not that women have no power. On the contrary, the book is chock-full of powerhouse women, including Stefania, to whom many of the women in the village defer on matters of marriage; Suzanne, who is both scorned for her household’s slovenliness and respected because she plays the important role of giving the girls of the village their prenuptial examinations; and the stylish Kilimadame, a Rwandan woman who is notorious for having borne children by several different men and who is nicknamed “the-woman-of-the-white-people.” The business-savvy Kilimadame opens a shop that is famous for selling bread—a status symbol because it is considered a delicacy brought to Rwanda by white people—and is so successful that she is able to expand her shop into a “hotel” or bar.

Despite the power certain women wield in this community, nearly all of them must operate within traditional boundaries in order to secure husbands. However, to further underscore the agency of women in Mukasonga’s village, it is often the older women who orchestrate the girls’ or young women’s marriages. In a somewhat shocking anecdote, the women of the village trick an older, unmarried man into marrying a young woman who is in danger of becoming an “old maid.”

The narrator also recounts how she would spy on, and later report to her mother about, the young women who were seeking partners by looking them over as they bathed in the river, appraising them based on Rwandan beauty standards (which, at that time, were refreshingly healthy). According to Mukasonga, the girls and women of the village considered some of the following questions when assessing a girl’s beauty and suitability for marriage:

Did her manners and her nature bespeak a good upbringing? Was she a hard worker, unafraid to pick up a hoe? . . . . Did she walk with the grace of a cow, as the songs say? Did her eyes have the incomparable charm of a heifer’s? . . . . Could you hear the quiet rustle of her thighs rubbing together as she walked by? Did she have a delicate network of stretchmarks running over her legs?

Traditional rules not only circumscribed gender roles but also the interactions between women. In the chapter on “Women’s affairs,” a short walk home, for example, is made long by the requirement that Mukasonga and her mother stop and visit each hut on the way. (This is not the chore it would seem since gossip is also a means of finding out about potential dangers—in particular, any signs that the Hutu soldiers, who terrorize the community through plunder, rape, and murder, might be planning an attack.) Mukasonga writes:

That day, Mama might have stopped at Veronika’s house. Veronika was in no hurry to answer. Rwandan etiquette dictates that nothing be done in haste. Even if Veronika had been eagerly waiting for Stefania’s visit, it would have been unseemly to come running to meet her. First she began to make a little noise inside the hut, to show that she’d heard the visitor’s call; then, after a suitable delay, she slowly walked out to the junction of the path and the dirt road, where Mama was waiting. They embraced at length, squeezing each other’s backs and arms, murmuring words of welcome into each other’s ears.

Though this is a community in which many traditions are respected, we also find it grappling with which elements of European culture to embrace as “progress” and which to reject in favor of the old ways. In one example, the community is scandalized when a young woman named Félicité “convince[s] her father to build a little house just for her.” Mukasonga writes:

A girl who wasn’t married—who, if she went on following the weird ideas of the white people, might never marry at all—living alone, sleeping alone, without her sisters, yes without her sisters. People found it shocking, an affront to all our traditions, wanting to sleep alone when she had so many little sisters who naturally had a place beside her on the mat.

What’s more, Félicité even has her father build her an adjoining, smaller house. The village is perplexed and wonders what purpose this smaller house might serve. When they learn what it is—a latrine—they quickly adopt this innovation. “Women talked their husbands into digging new trenches so they could install the same facilities as Marie-Thérèse [the young woman’s mother]. It was progress, amajyambere!” This humorous story takes an unexpected and tragic turn in the next sentence when Mukasonga laments, “How could they have known that many of them were digging their own graves?”

There are numerous twists like this one. You are enjoying a well-written anecdote, laughing out loud in one sentence, only to be quieted by the next sentence. This speaks to Mukasonga’s prowess as a storyteller. More importantly, it causes the reader to reflect on how it might have been for so many of the people in this narrative—the people whose names Mukasonga writes and repeats with reverence—to, all of a sudden, disappear.

The short biography on the back of the book states that Mukasonga lost thirty-seven of her relatives in the 1994 genocide. In 2007–2008, the specter of genocide appeared in Kenya though, as in Rwanda, it had been festering for decades through divisions rooted in the eugenics-based hierarchical categorizations that white colonizers had imposed on various African tribes as part of their “divide-and-rule” strategy—categorizations that socioeconomically elevated some tribes over others. As Mukasonga writes of her community:

The white people had unleashed all the insatiable monsters of nightmares on the Tutsis. They held up the distorting mirrors of their untruths, and in the name of their science and their religion, we were made to see ourselves …

The white people claimed to know better than us who we were, where we came from. They’d examined us, they’d weighed us, they’d measured us. Their conclusions were final…

According to Al-Jazeera’s James Brownsell, approximately 1,400 people were murdered by members of warring tribes in Kenya’s post-election violence in 2007–2008. Since then, the community of Kenyan-Americans of various tribes that I was raised in has fallen apart. And when I meet a Kenyan, even here in the States, I can often tell that she or he is attempting to figure out my tribal affiliation: whether I am friend or foe.

During the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, approximately 800,000 people, most of whom were Tutsi, were massacred. To put this in perspective, more than 70 percent of the Tutsi population in Rwanda was wiped out. (An estimated 30 percent of the indigenous, minority Batwa community was also eradicated.) Since then, Rwanda has undertaken the monumental task of reconciliation, which, by most accounts, has been largely successful. However, one of the great lessons of The Barefoot Woman is that we must never forget what happened in Rwanda. Mukasonga is right to not let us.

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Getting Out of The Way of the Light: Q&A with ‘Son of Amity’ author Peter Nathaniel Malae

Sons of AmityWe live in a strange, weird country (obviously). We don’t see, or want to see, what’s directly in front of us. Why bother when we have phones?

Oregon author Peter Nathaniel Malae has been chronicling the untold stories of class and race, and familiar, timeless tales of family and heartache, since the publication of his first novel in 2010, What We Are, which depicts a young Samoan-American drifting through conflicts about immigration, identity and meaning. (As his protagonist muses, “I can find beauty in the gutter, as long as it’s empty of another heartbeat.’’)

The former Steinbeck and MacDowell Colony fellow made his debut with Teach the Free Man (2007), a series of linked stories about the California prison system (the title is from Auden: “In the prison of his days, teach the free man how to praise’’), and later wrote Our Frail Blood (2013), about the conflicts of an Italian-American family and their first-generation children.

In his latest novel, Son of Amity (Oregon State University Press; 216 pages), Malae stakes out even more ambitious territory, depicting the interlocking saga of three lives in rural Oregon: Pika, a half-Samoan ex-con bent on avenging an attack on his sister; Sissy, the sister who rises from the ashes of her past (her transformation, and insistent purity, puts me in mind of the Lars von Trier film “Breaking the Waves’’) and Michael, a damaged Iraq War vet who marries Sissy on his return but can’t shake his own demons—or Pika’s reproaches.

It’s a canvas that calls Steinbeck to mind (perhaps the Steinbeck of East of Eden) as well as the sad sagas of Ken Kesey (Sometimes a Great Notion) and Don Carpenter (Hard Rain Falling). This is Oregon, but it’s a far cry from “Portlandia.’’

His dissection of the social cost of unintended consequences is devastating, as when he describes Pika’s arrival in Amity:

“He came out of the head of the town now, thinking on how culturally locked down this place seemed. Not a single brotha or chino but especially not a single hamo in sight … If this place was like Cali at all, they were probably out in the fields already, bent back at the hottest point of midday, grapes on the vine, corns on the husk, beans sewn like tapestry through the diamond holes of the fence…

“And crystal meth. Pika could feel it – the ma’a was here. A few shirtless tweaks with their pants falling off were strewn across the road, speed walking with hummingbird feet, yelling out to one another as if they were football fields away, and not side by side.’’

We recently spoke via email to Malae about his new novel:

ZYZZYVA: You grew up in working-class environments in Santa Clara and San Jose. Who were your literary influences? What set you on this path?

PETER NATHANIEL MALAE: For me, my father was the original story-teller. Although he never showed me any literary novel to read, never pushed lit stories or poems on me, his whole life was an epic novel: Achillean, tragic, and true. I watched, I know.

My first teacher to have brought a lit book into my horizon, though, was Father McFadden, who was something of a legend among Jesuit educators throughout California. The school he taught at was anomalous to my experience, though: I was the first Samoan kid to attend in its 160-plus-year history, and I was definitely the most violent. However, Father McFadden was a hell of a man. He had me reading the fucking Iliad at 13. He forced me, and all the boys, to read, write, and present on our own, akin to a military academy. That year we read Homer, Grapes of Wrath, Catcher in the Rye, Julius Caesar, and a book called April Morning, about a boy joining up to fight in the Revolutionary War. I was too silent, too angry and macho to tell anyone about it, but McFadden, though he might’ve never guessed, had scored a true devotee: literature was where it was at for me, secretly, and I was a lifer.

Z: How did you keep the different narrative threads in Son of Amity together?

PNM: To a large degree, I believe in writing disinterestedly. It has nothing to do with losing any passion for the story; in fact, in my view, it’s a way to secure the passion for the story by putting distance on something that’s whole already, without you coming in to wreck it.

Getting out of the way of the light, then. That’s [John] Gardner.

So: from the onset, I’m looking for distance, not so much from the characters or from myself, but from the narrative in its entirety, a sort of drone hovering overhead that can hopefully see a hell of a lot, and which, more importantly, won’t miss the vitals of detail: eccentricities and subtleties and nuances and idiosyncrasies that would otherwise get lost from the ground, but which can straight wrap a character for the reader. Being too close is a risk then, myopic, maybe even injudicious, given that any character you presume to write must firstly and thoroughly and lastly be human.

With Son of Amity, this distance helped in another way: three characters have ruined one another before their story with the boy [Sissy and Michael’s son, Benji] actually starts. By keeping distance from their stories—meaning that I didn’t enter the narrative with an overt political or cultural bias—I was conversely freed to write each character commensurate to the weight of their respective experiences. Pika’s story is closer to my own, but if I had weighed in too heavily on his behalf at the story’s beginning the strength and horror and conflict of Michael’s story would never have come off enough to bring these two together equally, and thus believably, since the whole premise of their combat, in a way, is one character saying, “I’m not impressed that you’ve fought five tours in Iraq,” and the other saying, “I’m not impressed that you’ve done five years in Quentin.” That’s good tension, philosophically, culturally, morally, etc.

Z: What were the challenges of moving from California and setting your story in the relatively unfamiliar milieu of the Northwest?

PNM: It took me five years of living in rural Oregon to write about it. Being an urban kid from the brownest and most diverse part of America, I was tripping a little, not getting the place enough to write the place with that kind of authority you got to earn. It’s going to sound highbrow or elitist or whatever, but to me writing “place” is a moral matter, in which if you’re going to presume to write the stories of a group of people, you need to get the stamp of approval of those very people once it’s written—or you’re in the wrong. That’s because they’re the ones who suffered the story. Straight up. They need to confer their blessings. That, in turn, subsumes every other authenticator out there since others would obviously know the story less than the person who’d lived it.

In my county, which was the second poorest in Oregon during the time I wrote the book, the dichotomy between wealth and poverty is startling. Topographically, culturally, politically. When Sissy is running up to Michael’s farm, she “crosses…this divide between money and nothing,” and then re-crosses back into the disaster of her inheritance. The wineries brought in money in the early ‘00s, just as the logging industry was dying out, leaving behind fourth- and fifth-generation working-class Oregonians with nothing to do in these towns except play video games, tweak on meth, or join up [the military]. Oregon, behind Mississippi, had the highest enlistment rate during this same year.

Lastly, Amity is cousinly to the other Yamhill County towns of Gran Ronde, Willamina, Lafayette, Sheridan, parts of Dayton, each of which have been hijacked by a politics it didn’t see coming. I had to live here with the Confederate flags at the end of the street, with dime-dropping snitches living in tweaker houses through the neighborhood, had to fish here with the rednecks and appreciate their “gun culture,” which is a means to get food during hunting season, learn the history of the nomenclature traced to the South (they’re poor Southerners, largely, who’d relocated after Reconstruction, unhappy living with free blacks; some even swore to return “home” for “Dixie”), understand the family farming culture of Oregon (the opposite of big corporate farms of Central Valley), work the fields with both whites and paisas, etc., before I could write anything set in rural Oregon.

I’d thought, for a long time as a Californian, that Drugstore Cowboy (a favorite movie of mine) and the novel Fight Club were Oregon; couldn’t be further from the truth: that’s Portland. And Portland may as well be 2,500 miles away from Amity.

Z: Who, if anyone, is your ideal reader?

PNM: Well, I don’t have one. I want to be able to pull up alongside anyone, and somehow drop into their narrative consciousness. I’ve lived a crazy life, disparate and violent and intense, and seemingly impossible culturally, and while that doesn’t make for an easy story to tell, it means I can see the story in someone else’s eyes, if I look close enough, and back far enough to that point right then, right there. I’m trying to put down stories that matter, in the American tradition of Hemingway, Steinbeck, Baldwin, Faulkner, Bellow; and in the world tradition of Oe, Dostoevsky, Dickens, Sebald, etc. Still, however much I can manage, I want to break out of the tradition, too, put a little stamp of my own on the page. It feels awkward to write that because the long haul—at which point you’ll be lucky if just one person says what you want them to say about your work—is achieved step by step, each day focused on the integrity of a single sentence, and thus far far away from the larger journey itself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Poets Not (Always) Disimproving: ‘We Begin in Gladness’ by Craig Morgan Teicher

We Begin in GladnessWe rarely have the opportunity to observe a poet’s writing process, even though we may occasionally see earlier drafts that serve as evidence of it. But Craig Morgan Teicher gives us the next best thing: his new book examines poets’ creative processes over the courses of their careers.

Part guidebook for emerging poets and part homage to a wide range of major poets, Teicher’s We Begin in Gladness: How Poets Progress (164 pages; Graywolf) is one of the most enjoyable books about poetry I have encountered. His obvious love of poetry infuses the book with the “grace, certainty, power, and humility” he so admires in one of his literary heroines, Lucille Clifton. Additionally, because he surveys a diverse group of writers, providing relevant biographical background and anecdotes from their lives and his own, We Begin in Gladness is a book with wide appeal.

Given its focus on showing how poets progress, it’s unsurprising that the majority of poets featured in Teicher’s book are well known. However, he makes a significant distinction between these poets. On one hand, there are those rare writers who are considered major poets because they produced “very different poems over the course of their lives”—a skill, he notes, which is now a requirement for most modern poets. On the other hand, most major poets refined both their subjects—essentially writing the same poem across many years before finally getting it as right as possible—and their styles to the point where each of them inhabited a singular voice. And while Teicher does not completely disavow the popular notion, espoused by Paul Muldoon, that “Poets disimprove as they go on. It’s just a fact of life,” he is intent on examining the leaps, breakthroughs, and “steady progress” in the quality of work produced by major poets. To do so, he presents and scrutinizes excerpts from poems by Sylvia Plath, Brenda Hillman, John Ashbery, Lucille Clifton, D.A. Powell, W.S. Merwin, William Butler Yeats, Robert Hayden, Robert Lowell, Louise Glück, and others.

Teicher also offers a few examples of deterioration in the quality of some major poets’ works. For example, he introduces us to the relatively unknown Delmore Schwartz, a writer he characterizes as “the twentieth century’s most thwarted poet.” As with Teicher’s assessments of the weaknesses of other poets—Plath, Lowell, Ashbery, and Merwin—his brief overview of Schwartz’s work is as much a celebration of that writer’s triumphs as it is a cautionary tale. However, as Teicher shows in his analysis of how Susan Wheeler picked up where Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” left off, the great works of poets who plateau or “disimprove” may live on in new work that seems almost collaborative, albeit across gulfs of time and death. Indeed, Teicher asserts, “Sometimes, it’s only in the work of the newer poet that we can identify the achievements of the older ones.” Reading this book, I found myself experiencing Teicher’s epiphany, as it was only in reading his analysis of Yeats’ work that I noticed the influence of that poet on one of my literary heroes, Derek Walcott.

It is interesting to review a book that is in conversation with many other books and that reviews works by other writers. In that sense, Teicher’s work offers lessons for art critics, too. While I think it’s safe to say he admires much of the work of every poet in We Begin in Gladness, Teicher’s praise for their best poetry is tempered by his honest appraisals of their weaker efforts. So while Teicher celebrates the “stripped-down simplicity” and “soft-landing (epiphanic) leap” that characterizes Merwin’s best work, he finds much of the esteemed writer’s other poetry to be full of “self-importance.” The story of how Stanley Kunitz once told Louise Glück that a group of poems she had written and shared with him was “terrible”—an assessment that became a springboard for Glück’s dramatic improvement—is both a subtle commentary on critique and an encouraging anecdote for any poet who questions the quality of their own work.

We Begin in Gladness‘ secondary theme seems to be how nearly every poet grapples with the inadequacy of language. Nonetheless, Teicher notes, writers turn to poetry precisely for this reason. Poetry is, according to him, the best tool we have to convey that which is “genuine.” “When we hear and understand what can’t be said and heard,” he writes, “that’s when a ‘pure change’ happens,” And yet, “the unsayable is never quite said.”

Teicher shows us how the work of major poets, including Hayden and Yeats, has essentially been a struggle to say what they mean, getting closer and closer to this goal but eventually making peace with the impossibility of such an endeavor. In Yeats’ case, this finally led him to an understanding of what he loved in poetry, which, it turns out, was not that which he sought to capture—not reality—but the imagined worlds his quest produced or the poetry itself. This sentiment is echoed by Lowell, who wrote, “I want to make/something imagined, not recalled?” Teicher’s book is full of insights like these, and it’s a pleasure to see how the poets he features in it are in conversation with one another across time (generations, even) and space.

Though not necessarily a craft book, We Begin in Gladness does what all good craft books aim, but so often fail, to do—it makes the reader want to go and investigate the many works of poetry the author references and to learn more about their makers, much as (as Teicher asserts) “a real poem points to everything beyond it.”

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Rock ‘n Roll Suicide: ‘Destroy All Monsters’ by Jeff Jackson

Destroy All MonstersTo the young, music can be a religion. Destroy All Monsters (357 pages; FSG), the latest novel from Charlotte-based author Jeff Jackson, trades in the kind of punk fervor that inspires teenagers to thrash in mosh pits, raid merch booths, and obsessively listen to the same album. The power of what a few kids and some amped instruments can do is clearly a subject near to Jackson’s heart; not only does he perform in the self-described “weirdo pop band” Julian Calendar, but he’s allowed the vinyl single format to influence the design of the novel itself: Destroy All Monsters features an A-Side­­––which constitutes the novel proper­­––and a reverse B-Side, an alternate follow-up to the main story that follows some of the same characters in radically different incarnations. The novel contends frankly with both the difficulties of maintaining youthful passion for loud, distorted noise as one grows older and how the resentments and obligations of adulthood begin to accrue.

Destroy All Monsters centers on the music scene in a “conservative industrial city” called Arcadia. The prologue opens with a memorable performance by hometown heroes the Carmelite Rifles at a show attended by a motley assortment of locals:

“The strip-mall goths, the mod metalheads, the blue-collar ravers, the bathtub-shitting punks, the jaded aesthetes who consider themselves beyond category. Everyone in line has imagined a night that could crack open and transform their dreary realities.”

Also present at the show are two of the characters who will drive the rest of the novel: budding musician Florian and the forlorn but enigmatic Xenie. Not long after the Carmelite Rifles show, which ripples through the audience’s lives with the impact of an early Velvet Underground gig, a mysterious plague grips the entire country. All around the United States, club patrons are being transfixed by some unknown spell that causes them to gun down or otherwise attempt to murder the bands onstage:

“The noise duo at the loft party in the Pacific Northwest. The garage rockers at the tavern in the New England suburbs. The jam band at the auditorium on the edge of the Midwestern prairie. The blue grass revivalists at the coffeehouse in the Deep South. There was never any fanfare. The killers simply walked into the clubs, took out their weapons, and started firing.”

Although the killers’ motives remain largely ambiguous (most of them appear to be in a trance-like stupor as they go about their attack) the parallels to recent events are chilling. After terrorist attacks on music venues in Manchester and Paris in the last few years, it is all too easy to imagine the same violence occurring on this side of the Atlantic. The threat of danger feels heightened for the young people at the heart of Destroy All Monsters, to the point that the question of whether or not to perform a scheduled show becomes a matter of life and death for Arcadia’s local acts.

When tragedy ultimately does strike (“The band is heading for the [song] bridge when the first shot is fired”), Florian and Xenie are left to figure out how to privately mourn the loss of a close friend when seemingly everyone in town is doing so in a very public, outsized way. The spat of murders across the country also force Xenie to reckon with the fact that so much of the music playing at local venues and taking up space on her hard drive is, in a word, mediocre. “I used to have a huge music collection,” Xenie relates. “I was obsessed and even saved my concert stubs in a red cardboard box. Sometimes I’d open the box, and just touching the tickets was enough to give me a rush…These days I crave silence.”

Her statement is a lament for an age that has come to be defined by noise, much of it meaningless. Xenie and others in Arcadia’s music scene must grapple with the difficulty of conveying authentic expression in a world drowned out by sound. As Florian contemplates after the last show he’ll ever play: “It’s too easy to transform a moment of truth into a cheap performance.”

Destroy All Monsters understands the impetus to pick up a guitar and strum a power chord, perhaps out of the misguided notion that the result could lead to some change in the world. And the novel understands the disheartening fact that the country is full of numerous small towns like Arcadia, with its dive bars, shuttered factories, and hobo camps, each of them with their would-be punk rockers like Florian. Amid the story’s nationwide epidemic, Jackson’s characters display crucial growth: what ultimately comes to matter––more than selling out concert halls or recording a promising demo––is remaining true to the memory and last wishes of their friends after they’re gone. “Not everything has to be a performance,” Xenie concludes. “Some things should stay pure.”

Jackson, whose prose registers as punchy and acerbic, leading the reader through multiple act breaks and perspective changes with ease, is sincere in his depiction of provincial youth yearning for an escape. In the 21st century, rock ’n roll might not mean as much as it once did, but Jackson has written a fitting tribute to its lingering spirit.

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Not a Home, But a Mere Frame: ‘An Untouched House’ by Willem Frederik Hermans

An Untouched HouseIn An Untouched House (115 pages; Archipelago), Willem Frederik Hermans presents a lucid, exhilarating account of a Dutch partisan in the waning months of World War II. Hermans, a premier and prolific author in the Netherlands, penned the novella in 1951, but only now has it received an English translation courtesy of David Colmer.

The story opens during the final moments of the World War II, with the theme of isolation permeating the narrative. Herman writes, “I didn’t look back. There was nobody in front of me…. I looked back at the others. No one was close enough to ask for water.” A sense of confusion abounds as our nameless narrator finds himself unable to communicate with his fellow soldiers: “Within our band of partisans, made up of Bulgarians, Czechs, Hungarians and Romanians, there wasn’t a single person I could understand.”

His battalion enters a spa town, where he comes across an abandoned luxurious house, replete with amenities, but bereft of human life. This is his escape from conflict, where he can “pretend like the war never existed.” He makes himself at home, takes a bath, and falls asleep, only to be awoken by Nazis ringing the doorbell in search of lodging. The interloper manages to convince them that he is the owner of the house with deft, casual dishonesty.

The next morning he wakes convinced of the lie he imparted on his German visitors: “I the son of the house woke up the next morning to general quiet thinking: I have always lived here. This is my home.”

There is an eerie vacuity to the descriptions of the narrator’s surroundings: “Then I would walk up and down, touching objects without investigating them. On medicine bottles and compacts, on handkerchiefs, and on the edge of the sheets were names I didn’t try to pronounce.”

Throughout the book, the protagonist refuses to allocate names to the other characters, and instead only gives them titles: the colonel, the Spaniard, the Germans. They are not individuals in his eyes; their identities are wrapped up entirely in their countries of origin or military ranking.

Although he is the protagonist, our narrator proves passive and the action of the plot is acted upon him. He makes few decisions. His choice to inhabit the house is the end result of aimless wandering rather than an active search. He soon discovers there is no escape. The architecture of the story reaches its apex as the whirlpool of action spins toward this previously unattended and innocuous building.

The narrator describes the increasingly disturbing events with a detached, passionless voice:

“I could clearly see the dead woman. I sat down next to her on the bed and felt her face with my fingertips. It was now cold. I stuck my hand under her coat, under her skirt, and laid it on her thigh. Cold, a thing, water and proteins, something chemists have studied, nothing more.”

The narrator possesses only the silhouette of morality, attached to nothing, a vagabond of land and virtue. In the end, his actions prove nearly as cruel as the Nazis themselves. The vastness of World War II becomes a microcosm within this singular building. The house thus feels like not a home, but a mere frame, lacking any moral edifice.

Although An Untouched House is brief, it is worth pacing oneself and absorbing its remarkable density. Hermans is the architect of a masterful story –– concise but expansive in vision.

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