A Meanness in This World: Donald Ray Pollock’s ‘The Devil All the Time’

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The major components of Donald Ray Pollock’s disquieting page-turner of a first novel, The Devil All the Time (Doubleday; 261 pages), are by themselves nothing special. There’s the novel’s crime fiction aspect: depraved criminals and less-than-innocent heroes on a bloody collision course. And the novel’s pivotal philosophical concern, one straight out of gothic fiction (as found in Cormac McCarthy and Flannery O’Connor): what does it mean to live in a godless universe full of incomprehension? Or in a world in which God seemingly doesn’t give a damn about what goes on down here? But Pollock, the critically-acclaimed author of the […]

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Looking for Home: Miroslav Penkov’s ‘East of the West: A Country in Stories’

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The title of Miroslav Penkov’s debut story collection, East of the West: A Country in Stories (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 240 pages) is ironic, or maybe wistful —for Penkov’s characters, there is never “a” country. They are Bulgarian immigrants in America, Bulgarian American immigrants returning to Bulgaria, Bulgarians in a village straddling the Serbian border, Muslims in Bulgaria. In 2008, Salman Rushdie selected “Buying Lenin,” the third story in the collection, for his edition  of Best American Short Stories. The atmosphere in East might remind you of Rushdie, but this isn’t magical realism. There’s nothing truly fantastic in Penkov’s work […]

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A River of Words to Capture the Nastiness of War: ‘The Land at the End of the World’

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If you like your narrators drunk, shell-shocked, adrift, and stricken with logorrhea, please read on. Following in the tradition of Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, Antonio Lobo Antunes’s The Land at the End of the World (Norton; 224 pages) is a book of anguished testimony. (Open Letter publisher Chad Post accurately grouped the author with Thomas Bernhard and Louis-Ferdinand Celine as an “author of complaint.”) Based on Lobo Antunes’s experiences as a medic in the Portuguese military, which, from 1961 to 1974, engaged in a failed pacification campaign in its African colonies, The Land […]

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A Sprawling if Not So Sunny State: ‘New California Writing 2011’

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“California,” publisher and author Malcolm Margolin writes in his introduction to the anthology New California Writing 2011 (Heyday, 304 pages), “is a construct of the human imagination.” California encompasses no “definable ecological or cultural area;” we are self-defining, he suggests. If we managed to evade utter disintegration for most of our history, it was thanks to heaps of luck – bountiful natural resources, good climate, driven people. Unfortunately, around mid century it would seem our luck began to dry up. Writing in 2010-2011, the forty-four featured authors in this anthology (edited by Gayle Wattawa) greet us from the pits. The […]

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Food and Work, Love and Death: Daniel Orozco’s ‘Orientation and Other Stories’

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Back in the mid-‘90s, Story (the late and lamented journal dedicated to short fiction) published an arresting work by Daniel Orozco titled “The Bridge.” A young man joins the veteran crew responsible for maintaining the Golden Gate Bridge. The older guys, all of whom go by nicknames, decide to call the new guy Baby. As Orozco gracefully settles us into this unfamiliar world of risky if unglamorous work, something happens to Baby: “He spots the trouble right away, at the east end, just over his head – a section of hose hung up between the power line and the scaffold […]

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Stories of Sex and Intrigue: Robert Gottlieb’s ‘Lives and Letters’

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While a good number of undying cultural giants (Harry Houdini, Judy Garland, Charles Dickens) receive coverage in Lives and Letters (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 426 pages), Robert Gottlieb’s collection of biographical profiles largely takes up the lives of once household names and worldwide phenomena who, for one reason or another, failed to achieve lasting impact beyond their generation. Douglas Fairbanks, Minou Drouet, anyone? Indeed, many generations have passed since the heyday of most of Gottlieb’s subjects (the median cultural peak is somewhere around 1930, with Princess Diana and Scott Peterson being the only real “household names” of the 21st century). […]

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A Beautiful Excuse for Rumination: César Aira’s ‘The Seamstress and the Wind’

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César Aira’s The Seamstress and the Wind (New Directions; 144 pages), translated by Rosalie Knecht, is simultaneously minimalist and epic. Aira’s voice is clear, his characters are palpable, and his ideas — elucidations on literary theory, existential ruminations, and thought experiments — are evocative and infectious. The story, which concerns a seamstress and her husband who travel the Patagonia desert in pursuit of their accidentally kidnapped son, careens with each chapter at dizzying speed. Seamstress might be thought confusing and possibly incomplete, because the story’s inciting incident — the kidnapped child — goes completely unresolved, even forgotten by the seamstress […]

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How the Desert Got There: David Rains Wallace’s ‘Chuckwalla Land’

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David Rains Wallace admits that for years he never really noticed California’s dry, empty spaces. It wasn’t until 1983, when writing about a Central Valley riparian woodland on the Kern River, that his attitude shifted from indifference to curiosity. Prior to that, whenever the award-winning nature writer found himself crossing California’s deserts he dismissed what he saw as an enormous vacant lot rather than a living landscape. In Chuckwalla Land: The Riddle of the California Desert (280 pages; UC Press), he explains this transformation. Wallace’s revamped attitude toward the desert and its denizens took shape during a serendipitous side trip […]

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Ruins of the Real: Inger Christensen’s ‘Light,’ ‘Grass,’ and ‘Letter in April’

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Reading the late Inger Christensen’s poetry collections Light, Grass, and Letter In April (New Directions; 148 pages), as translated by Susanna Nied, is akin to stepping into a river of deceptive depth. The long-celebrated Danish poet doesn’t parade with fanfare the complexity of her work. (The first poem in Light is just six lines.) Yet progressing through these poems, a strong, invisible current pulls on the reader with gathering strength. With a plaintive tone easy to underestimate, Christensen allows her algorithmic language to work as a sort of vortex that warps one’s perception of reality. In Nied’s crystalline translation of […]

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Fever Dreams: Roberto Bolaño’s ‘Between Parentheses’

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It’s a little embarrassing to recognize, when reading Between Parentheses (New Directions; 352 pages) — a collection of Roberto Bolaño’s essays, speeches and newspaper columns, translated by Natasha Wimmer — not only how little one knows of Spanish-language literature, but how much more Bolaño knew of English-language and European literature. Yes, he was on intimate terms with Poe (who could be seen as Borges’ older brother from Baltimore — and Borges, writes Bolaño, “is or should be at the center of our canon”), but he could speak with equal authority on ancient Greek epic poetry, Provençal troubadours, and Snorri’s Edda. […]

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Seth Fried’s ‘The Great Frustration’: Alternate Realities and Bloody Allegories

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In Seth Fried’s The Great Frustration (Soft Skull Press; 192 pages), strangeness and morbidity are the rules, not the exceptions. Through a pastiche of bizarre worlds and landscapes separated by only one or two degrees from our own (which is, of course, already thoroughly frightening) Fried fashions telling scenarios and the nightmarish half-realities in which they occur. Deftly evoking a familiarity before diving into fantastical realms, the stories in this collection exhibit a surprising wealth of ideas belied by Fried’s spare prose. “Frost Mountain Picnic Massacre,” a paralyzing allegory of modern-day groupthink, brings into plain view the ubiquity of violence […]

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And You Shall Know Patrick deWitt’s Western by the Trail of Dead

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Early on in Patrick deWitt’s new novel, The Sisters Brothers (Ecco/HarperCollins; 328 pages), a grotesque old woman strings beads onto a piece of wire as the book’s titular brothers, Eli and Charlie Sisters, watch from across the room. Having taken refuge in her eerie cabin, they are repulsed by the “long gray hairs quivering from her chin” and the way her dented skull “caves in like an old piece of fruit.” When the brothers awake the next morning, the witch has left, but the beads have been fixed above the cabin door. Determining them to be an evil spell, Eli and […]

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