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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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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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