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Christopher Connor

So Close to Each Other, Yet So Far Apart: Jessica Francis Kane’s ‘This Close’

This CloseJessica Francis Kane’s new story collection, This Close (Graywolf Press, 192 pages), is an interior examination of the closest of relationships. Kane reveals in these thirteen stories how easily conflict, jealousy, and pain can create distance between family, friends and neighbors.

In “The Essentials of Acceleration,” Holly is the lonely woman on her block, sharing a house with an elderly father who leaves flowers on the porches of the neighbors. Her father easily befriends the people who live near him while Holly remains confused about her father’s affability. To Holly, being a neighbor does not necessitate friendship. “Let’s have laminated sheets up and down the street announcing all our personal disasters and resentments,” she thinks. As her father grows closer with the young mother living across the street, Holly’s eventual jealousy breeds resentment toward her father during his waning days.

“American Lawn” opens with Pat renting out a portion of her yard to Kirill, a Croatian immigrant looking for a place to garden. Pat grows jealous of the familiarity Kirill shows her younger neighbor, sparking a subtle antagonism between the two women. Kirill, who acts as the objective observer to the ever-widening rift between Pat and her neighbor, later wonders if he has any chance of surviving in a country ripe with such strange disputes. “ ‘America,’ he sighed, shaking his head, ‘I’m am still wondering how to win her.’ ”

Through two blocks of narratives, Kane shows the development of families over time. In the first, consisting of four stories, Mike Leary grows up with a stubborn single mother and eventually builds a successful life. As a child, Mike fails to understand his relationship with his mother, or her friendships with other men. When adult Mike dies prematurely, his mother and his friends struggle to maintain the relationships they’ve built with each other now that they are left with only memories of him. Neither Mike, while he’s alive, nor his mother can understand the friendships each has built in his or her own life.

The next grouping begins with the “The Stand-In,” which introduces Hannah, vacationing in Israel with her father while her mother is bed-ridden at home, spurring her first experiences in the adult world. In the two stories that follow, her parents grow old while Hannah evolves from a young, naive girl into a powerful woman able to hold a conversation with her father’s friends. Soon she becomes barely recognizable to her father, and he realizes he no longer understands the connection he has with his daughter. In these pieces, we see how people can grow together yet move apart over the span of their lives, often without realizing what’s occurring.

“Next in Line” is the tale of a couple grieving the loss of their infant child. The mother spends her days wandering through the CVS in which she believes an old woman cursed her daughter. What she’s looking for, she doesn’t know. But unlike many of the characters in This Close, the mother is able to bond with her husband, and together they begin to move past the child’s death. Finally, the mother does: “With that, a subtle shift was complete: there was now a time after S was gone and that was not the present. The world had changed again.”

Kane, whose last book was the critically acclaimed novel “The Report,” often leads her characters into discovering the emptiness in their relationships, but she also shows how conflict can bring people together instead of drive them apart. Like the mother in “Next in Line,” people don’t always hide from their emotional turmoil. Some face it directly, saving their relationships rather than destroying them.

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On an Island, Making Sense of Loss: Ron Currie Jr.’s ‘Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles’

Flimsy Little Plastic MiraclesRon Currie Jr.’s new novel, Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles (Viking, 352 pages), begins with an epigraph from the movie Rocky: “women weaken legs.” Currie’s aim is to entertain, but hidden beneath his comedy about a man who cannot have the woman he loves is a heart-wrenching tale of a narrator who loses control of his life in unimaginable ways.

The narrator, a writer who happens to be named Ron Currie, Jr., has been obsessed with a woman named Emma since eighth grade. She broke his heart as a teenager, but following her divorce the pair begins a new relationship. When a fire destroys Emma’s house, and the manuscript to Ron’s overdue book with it, she decides she needs some time alone. Ron escapes to an unnamed Caribbean island to give her space. On the island, he reflects upon his relationship with Emma and the death of his father, attempting to write a book about it all while drinking himself into a stupor and fighting with the local men. Emma eventually joins him on the island, but Ron’s actions cause her to leave him for good once more, so Ron tries to kill himself. Following the attempt, which fails but leaves him declared dead, the narrator falls deeper into exile, not knowing that monumental events are occurring in the world he used to inhabit.

The relationship with Emma is the main catalyst behind all of the narrator’s decisions. Yet it becomes apparent early in the novel that the relationship is doomed to fail. Ron points out how “no one could every really have her” and says, “with Emma, her trademark is the distance she creates.” Doomed or not, Ron will continue pursuing her as long as he lives. “We all tried,” he explains about the men who have loved Emma, “and tried again, steering ship after ship into the rocks, and if you asked us to explain why, we’d be unable to give you an answer, except maybe this one: because we knew, deep down, that we would fail.”

The story’s most curious aspect is its brief asides into Ray Kurzweil’s theories of the Singularity and artificial intelligence. Speaking factually rather than from fear, Ron tells us that computers will eventually have a mind of their own, and humans have basically always been machines. Ron’s thoughts on Singularity build as the novel progresses, and though the theory seems oddly placed next to his examinations of his relationships with Emma and his father, the author cleverly uses it to build to a heartbreaking passage that pulls together all of the pieces of his narrative. Loaded with both laughter and pain as its narrator ruminates on failed love and death—both real and presumed—Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles is the story of a person coming to terms with both his mortality and the inevitable decline of a relationship.

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Blinded to His Ugliness: Francesco Pacifico’s ‘The Story of My Purity’

The Story of My PurityUnreliable narrators have populated literary works for hundreds of years. Piero Rosini, the narrator of Francesco Pacifico’s novel The Story of My Purity (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 292 pages; translated from the Italian by Stephen Twilley) is not unreliable in a naïve or precocious way like Huck Finn, but utterly loathsome in the vein of Nabakov’s Humbert Humbert. Rosini is a devout Catholic working as an editor in a right-wing publishing house in Rome. His current project is a book that would expose Pope John Paul II as having been born Jewish and planted in the Catholic Church by Frankists. An anti-Semitic xenophobe, Rosini has also ended sexual relations with his wife and given up music and novels to dedicate himself completely to his faith. Yet at the age of twenty-eight, faith hasn’t exactly led him to paradise. “I’ve read all of Tolstoy, visited New York and Tokyo, slept in castles on the Loire, and now I live across from an IKEA,” Rosini informs us early in the book.

Rosini is not completely devoid of desire. He harbors secret feelings for his sister-in-law Ada (or more specifically, for one part of Ada’s anatomy). And by chance, he befriends an aspiring novelist named Corrado, who leads Rosini from a sheltered life among the devout into Corrado’s group of boisterous co-workers, including the sultry intern Lavinia. In a single encounter, Lavinia awakens Rosini’s sexual desires. When word arrives that she has disappeared to Paris, Rosini makes up reasons to move to that city as well. He tells us he needs a fresh start in life, that it would be best for him to avoid the future media firestorm of his new book, The Jewish Pope, even referring to Paris as “the Virgin Mary of cities.” Nobody is fooled. He moves to Paris to find Lavinia. If Rosini thinks Paris can help dispel the mounting temptation found in Rome, he apparently hasn’t done his research on the city. Soon he is in love with a Jewish woman and finds a best friend in her uncle, both of whose values challenge the pillars of Rosini’s faith. His beliefs begin to fracture, and his mind follows suit.

Pacifico elicits a fair amount of laughs from his caricature of a narrator and his ridiculous, offensive theories, but Rosini isn’t totally laughable. He strikes us as a man who is not happy in his life, who is crippled by his blind faith to the Church and whose  dedication to purity is clearly riddled by sexual frustration. As his bottled-up sexual desires become harder to control, we watch as his befuddled mind turns possibly liberating sexual encounters in Paris into disasters.

The Story of My Purity, a raucous examination of the conspiracy theorists and strict theologians that exist among Italy’s ultraconservative Catholics to this day, is not the story of redemption for a repugnant narrator whose every word is dispelled by his own actions—nor does it ever try to be. Rather, it’s the story of a man led astray by his own beliefs.

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Finding Our Nature in the Surrounding Wilderness: Eric Pankey’s ‘Trace’

TraceEric Pankey’s new poetry collection, Trace (Milkweed, 68 pages), is an intense journey of powerful language to the edge of the wilderness. Even as his poems invoke a sense of earthly calm, the threat of danger looms throughout these poems, grabbing our attention and holding it throughout.

Much of Trace is set in the natural world, offering a somber examination of the ways in which humans occupy the space. Nature here is constant, balancing the frenetic sphere of humans, a realm in which homes are burning down and people are leaving, crying, or simply trying to find themselves. Often, Pankey will use death to show how these worlds intersect. In “The Place of Skulls,” he writes, “After the body’s hauled down, the tree resumes / Its life as a tree.” The enduring mystery of the natural world is also examined, perhaps most evident in lines such as these from “As of Yet,” where Pankey writes, “Call it paradise, this enclosure of trees / No graves yet.”

The spirituality of Trace is not simply beholden to how it addresses nature. The voice of the poems addresses human spirituality often, though it doesn’t seem to be grappling with the issue of what exists and what does not. Rather, the poems offer beautiful insight into how human consciousness exists in concert with nature. In “Edge of Things,” we read, “I wait for the resurrection, but wake to morning; / Mist lifting off the river.” On a similar note, “Cold Mountain Meditations” informs us that “No god offered us fire. A burning branch / Fell from a tree and we dragged it home.” These poems are not a rejection nor outright acceptance of any religious credence, but an examination of how the essence of humans is easily reflected amid the beauty of nature.

The references to religion are thought-provoking, but Pankey’s diction and word choice are arresting, too, often causing the reader to pause and reflect. In “Ritual,” he directly tells us, “Repetition is an aid to memory.” Repetition is also a tool frequently used in the collection to invoke reflection, and helps deliver some of Trace’s more skillful lines. In “The Creation of Adam,” the poem ends with “The scarecrow, who had listened well, knew / If he chose, he could shrug, and shoo the crow. / If he chose. And could shrug. And could move his lips.” Unlike humans, unlike Adam, the scarecrow has no free will.

Trace deftly surrounds the reader in the natural world, offering us a chance to ruminate our existence inside of it. In the collection’s final poem, “Sober Then Drunk Again,” we read “Once I drank with a vengeance / Now I drink in surrender.” While reading Trace, we surrender ourselves to Pankey’s vision, and conclude the book deep in thought.

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A Life and a Career Seen Through the Prism of 9/11: ‘Fallaci’ at the Berkeley Rep

Marjan Neshat (left) and Concetta Tomei in the Berkeley Rep's "Fallaci" (photo by

Marjan Neshat (left) and Concetta Tomei in the Berkeley Rep’s “Fallaci” (photo by

Journalism is under the microscope in Fallaci, the new play from Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Lawrence Wright at the Berkeley Repertory Theater. Directed by Oskar Eustis, the fictional play is based on the life of Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci, who was famous for her interviews of provocative world leaders such as Henry Kissinger, Fidel Castro, Ayatollah Khomeini and Saddam Hussein. Wright’s play examines the two sides of the journalist through the eyes of an idolizing young writer.

The first act introduces a reclusive Fallaci (played by Concetta Tomei with an enthralling gravitas) at home in her New York apartment. Twenty-five-year-old reporter Maryam (Marjan Neshat) finagles her way into Fallaci’s home to conduct an interview for a less-than-wholesome reason. The year is 2000, and Fallaci has been absent from the public eye for more than ten years. After initial hesitation, Fallaci opens up to Maryam, who is Muslim, reveling in her accounts of her interviews with Khomeini, Hussein, and Muammar Gaddafi. She reveals how her family’s experience of nearly dying at the hands of the Nazis is the underlying reason behind her brazen questioning of the Middle East’s fascist leaders.Wright’s tight play allows Fallaci to recount her favorite anecdotes mostly in good humor, while Maryam provides historical context to Fallaci’s interviews and establishes the importance of that work.

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The Noisiest Book Review in the World Also Pretty Entertaining: ‘The Best of RALPH’

The Noisiest Book Review in the Known World: The Best of RALPH (Mho & Mho Works; 979 pages, two volumes, edited by Lolita Lark) is a collection of the more acclaimed book reviews, essays, excerpts, and letters published by RALPH: The Review of Arts, Literature, Philosophy and the Humanities. Originally known as The Fessenden Review, the literary magazine published reviews and excerpts of little known or self-published books while it also, as they proudly state on their website, “lambasted many of the dubious stars of the East Coast Publishing Establishment.” Following the demise of the printed magazine, RALPH, operating from San Diego, started as an online journal in 1995 and has published over 200 issues to date. The goal of the journal remains the same as its predecessor, stating that their reviews are “strange, honest, or caustic enough to attract attention from those who have grown tired of the puff-piece world of American book reviewing.”

In addition to book reviews, the two-volume anthology contains short pieces from well-known authors whose work aptly fits the brazen tone of the reviews. An excerpt from an interview with S.J. Perelman (originally published in The Paris Review) shows Perelman toying with his interviewer, stating that he writes thirty-seven drafts of everything he publishes, because thirty-three isn’t enough and forty-two is too lapidary. In a short piece excerpted from In Search of Small Gods, Jim Harrison sips vodka and ruminates on language while watching nudity on his television. In a particularly opinionated piece, H.L. Mencken discusses a report on suicide published by Ruth Shonle Cavan, stating, “Life may not be exactly pleasant, but it is at least not dull. Heave yourself into Hell today, and you may miss, tomorrow, or next day, another Scopes trial, another War to End War, or perchance a rich and buxom widow with all her first husband’s clothes.”

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Galvanized Yet Undone by a Tragedy: Dennis Mahoney’s ‘Fellow Mortals’

Fellow MortalsOn the first page of Dennis Mahoney’s first novel, Fellow Mortals (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 277 pages), a fire burns down two houses and damages two more on Arcadia Street. It’s pretty much all downhill from there for the characters. As their lives creep along in the aftermath of that tragedy, Mahoney’s characters show us how a single event can galvanize a group of people yet destroy them at the same time.

Infelicitous mailman Henry Cooper starts the blaze on Arcadia Street while trying to light a cigar on his route. The fire demolishes the houses of Nan and Joan Finn and the Bailey couple, killing Laura Bailey. The houses of the Kane and Carmichael families are also partially damaged. Henry can’t forgive himself for harming the lives of others, so he repeatedly searches for ways to help each family. The Finns, who don’t blame Henry for the fire, take up residence in his guest room. A mourning Sam Bailey allows Henry to clear logs away from the forest land he purchased behind his property. The Carmichaels cause Henry the most trouble. Peg, the matriarch and voice of the family, won’t allow for Henry to be anywhere near her family or house. Henry’s desperate desire to fix his wrongs leads him to another unfortunate disaster with Peg.

Fellow Mortals uses the fire to pry off the emotional facade we put up around mere acquaintances and demonstrates the different ways people grieve. The Kanes’s house was only slightly damaged in the fire, but Billy’s resentment toward the mailman, and his desire to converse with his female neighbors about it, exposes a rift in his marriage. Sam Bailey makes one curious decision after another, but lacking direction without his wife, none of his choices seem jarring to the reader. His actions represent the lengths to which we will go to hide from our feelings. Late in the book, one of the characters reflects, “It worries Nan, thinking they’ll be devastated later when the night sets in and they remember who they are.” The characters would all rather hide from their turmoil, or have someone else promise everything will be fine, rather than address their internal struggle.

Mahoney’s novel rapidly shifts the point of view from one character to the next, deftly showing how some people hide in plain sight. The neighbors don’t feel comfortable around Billy Kane. They overhear arguments with his wife, but they easily dismiss them. But once we enter Billy’s point of view, we see him as a sociopath, not an odd neighbor. The shifting focus builds tension that carries us through the book. We know more about the characters than their neighbors know about them, to where we can predict the downfall of each and hang on to watch the unfolding train wreck.

Fellow Mortals is a thoughtful examination on how tragedy can change different people in different ways. But it also reveals how we often avoid confronting the fear and pain that manifests in our thoughts. When Sam Bailey finds himself lost in the forest, he is “thinking to himself, it’s all right, it’s all right, because he doesn’t want to say it out loud.” In Fellow Mortals, we can commiserate with that feeling.

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Getting Out from the Daily Rut: Joshua Mohr’s ‘Fight Song’

Fight SongSuburban harmony is under attack in Joshua Mohr’s new novel, Fight Song (Soft Skull Press, 272 pages). The book is a humorous ride through one week in the life of a middle age man who is going off the rails. But it’s also a critical look at how suburbia has been taken over by gadgets and corporations, as well as the stasis that traps people inside their jobs and within their gated communities.

Bob Coffen is one of those people. When we meet him, he’s just trying to bike from his job to his boring home. He’s been working at the same video game company for ten years, an anniversary marked with the gift of a plock (a half-plaque and half-clock, though it doesn’t actually keep time). His wife spends her days training to set the world record for continuously treading water. And his children are disconnected from him but always connected to their gadgets. When Bob’s neighbor Schumann runs him off the road, sending Bob and his plock crashing into the roadside oleanders, Bob has had enough. Soon he convinces Schumann to be his life coach, gets kicked out of his house after an unfortunate event at a magic show, and seeks the advice of a muscled-up fast food worker named Tilda. Once things start going bad for Bob, they go bad in a hurry, and his once-mundane existence now includes an emotionally unstable magician and new friends in a Kiss cover band.

Throughout the novel, Mohr constantly pokes fun at the banal nature of these people’s lives. Consider Bob’s submissiveness to the Home Owners Association. “They pounced quickly when Coffen hung that birdfeeder a few months back without proper consent.” A birdfeeder seems to be the simplest decoration for a yard, but without consent from his subdivision’s HOA, Bob can’t have one. The birdfeeder seems like an appropriate symbol for Bob, too, who seems to exist solely to pay for his car insurance and his wife’s expensive aquatic club membership.. But there is no HOA to keep Bob from making all of the bad decisions that have lead to his boring life. (When Bob finally snaps, attempting to throw a flagpole through Shumann’s window, his first thought is “the HOA will not be impressed with what’s transpiring on one of their hallowed lawns.”)

Fight Song is also a sharp critique of the way commercialization has sapped the authentic from our lives.Bob’s daughter would rather look at videos of seahorses on her iPad than go to an aquarium and see the real thing. As Bob drives his children through town, he observes “a paradise of saturated fats—fast food Chinese, two corporate burger joints, a fish and chip shop that originated in Seattle, and a Taco Shed.” Bob’s world appears to be just as inauthentic, Mohr shows us, as the fake ones he spends his days creating for video games.

“Do you ever want to get out of your box?” Bob asks Tilda, while she’s frying him a corporate grease meal. But the question really is, does Bob ever want to get out of his box, his suburban stagnation, his unfulfilling job? Or will he just languish away as another ordinary citizen in an anonymous suburb. Fight Song has the reader pleading with Bob to try to escape the madness of his inert life.

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Not for the Money, But for the Art: Jim Harrison’s ‘The River Swimmer’

The River SwimmerTwo men looking at life from opposite directions are at the center of The River Swimmer, the new collection of two novellas by Jim Harrison (Grove Press, 198 pages). Each novella contains a rich, original story but read together they offer different perspectives on what is essentially the same issue.

“The Land of Unlikeness” examines the nostalgia of a man who was once defined by art but has since given up his passion. Clive, a former painter turned art history professor, returns to his hometown of Ypsilanti, Michigan, following an embarrassing incident at a lecture. Placed in charge of caring for his mother while his sister vacations in Europe, Clive initially misses the money-driven lifestyle of Manhattan. He dismisses his lack of painting as trivial when he arrives in the countryside, but the sight of his childhood crush, Laurette, exposes Clive’s past pains and reignites his desire for art. At one point, discussing Dostoevsky, Clive says, “Mother had written her term paper on The Brothers Karamazov, a book that some never recover from any more than certain painters don’t get over Caravaggio.” He may as well be speaking of how he never recovered from seeing Laurette sprawled on the passenger seat of his ’47 Plymouth. Clive attempts to reclaim the past by painting the portrait of his crush in the one pose he never wants to forget. In doing so, he reflects upon his career, his lovers, and how everything in his world revolves around money.

“The River Swimmer,” narrated with mythical flair, tells the story of Thad, a seventeen-year-old boy who was born on a farm that sits on an island in the middle of a river. Thad is an elite swimmer being pulled in all directions—the father of a Chicago rich girl wants him to marry his daughter, college coaches want him to swim for their teams, and a family friend wants him to be a father to her children. Thad only wants to swim and to examine the life of “river babies,” creatures he discovers underwater that he believes are the spirits of dead babies. Following a broken jaw suffered at the hands of the town bully, Thad recuperates in Chicago with Emily and her rich father, John Scott, until Thad’s father is brutally attacked by the same man. John Scott convinces Thad to travel abroad with Emily in hopes that Thad will fall for her. Instead, Thad uses the trip to Europe as an escape to swim in new locales, and goes with a plan in place to free himself from being trapped by John Scott’s money: he decides he would like to become a painter.

When examined together, the novellas offer Harrison’s harsh criticism of the pressure money puts on the arts. Though the two men exist at different points in life, each wants to paint and each witnesses how money can be used to control people. In “The River Swimmer,” Thad wonders, “Why should everyone want to be a big shot? Why not just plant flowers in cities for likely low wages and make everyone with eyes happy?” Similarly, Clive says “he had known many writers and painters who apparently disliked writing and painting but just wanted to be writers and painters.” These remarks reveal the inherent problem of the art world as seen through the eyes of a veteran like Harrison. Money plays too big of a role, and no one is willing to make something beautiful just for the sake of making something beautiful.

Harrison does not restrict his characters, though, to one-dimensional vehicles for his criticism. Often, he will allow the internal dialogue of the stories to slip into philosophical pondering, on not just art and money, but also on family and time. “What was the shape of his own personal world? Perhaps time was clay that could be shaped and reshaped,” Clive wonders early in the book. (Interestingly, though the novellas show men at different points in their lives wondering when exactly we are supposed to be happy, each finds happiness in a state of mind, not in a particular time.)

The writing’s poetic language and the text’s insightfulness leave a lasting impression on the reader. “There is no democracy in the arts or in life,” remarks Clive during an awkward sexual encounter. There is no democracy in writing, either. Not all books can be composed as beautifully as The River Swimmer.

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Middle-School Angst So Funny That It Hurts: ‘Troublemaker’ at the Berkeley Rep

Gabriel King (left), Chad Goodridge and Jeanna Phillips in "Troublemaker, or The Freakin Kick-A Adventures of Bradley Boatright" at the Berkeley Rep (photo courtesy of

Gabriel King (left), Chad Goodridge and Jeanna Phillips in “Troublemaker, or The Freakin Kick-A Adventures of Bradley Boatright” at the Berkeley Rep (photo courtesy of

Troublemaker or The Freakin Kick-A Adventures of Bradley Boatright, the hilarious play from Dan LeFranc that made its world premiere in January at the Berkeley Repertory Theater, depicts the misadventures of its 12-year-old protagonist through comic-book action and snappy dialogue. But the comic play, directed by Lila Neugebauer, also carries a sobering, underlying message about the world an entire generation of American children inhabits.

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The Weight of Her Husband’s Long Friendship: Joan Frank’s ‘Make It Stay’

Make It StayAs love connects us to our closest friends, these friends can’t help but define us as we grow older. Over time, even the lovers and other friends of these people we hold close become intertwined in our lives. Joan Frank’s fifth book of fiction, her new novel, Make It Stay (The Permanent Press, 160 pages), examines the close friendship between two men, and how their love grows in the face of old age, spouses, children, and tragedy.

Neil, a Scottish immigrant, finds his way to the quiet Northern California town of Mira Flores. He meets Mike, the boisterous owner of a downtown exotic fish store. After two years of friendship, Neil accompanies Mike on a diving trip in Tahiti and nearly drowns. Mike saves his life, an act that seals the bond of friendship between them. As Mike ages, he meets and marries a wayward drunk named Tilda and the two produce a child, Addie. Addie grows up, becomes successful, and moves away, with seemingly no help from her dysfunctional parents. Throughout the family’s collective life, Neil is always standing by Mike’s side, helping out when trouble arises, just as a good friend is expected to do. Tragedy ultimately strikes the family in the form of a mysterious crime, one that the reader can only guess as to the perpetrator.

Though the story of Neil and Mike’s friendship grows to include Mike’s wife, Frank chooses to tell the story through Rae, Neil’s eventual spouse. Rae does not enter the story until after the tragedy. But by selecting Rae as her narrator, and having the entire history of the relationship recounted to Rae by Neil (while preparing for a dinner party), we see their history with fresh eyes. Rae’s observations bring humor to the story (when Neil forgets their anniversary, Rae casually dismisses the transgression by stating, “Well, men.”), but also an objective distance. Through her, we get a different perspective of Neil, Mike and Tilda, resulting on a more complete picture of all of them.

As Rae eventually becomes part of the group, and becomes entangled in the problems of Neil and his friends, she further comments on the events surrounding her. Eventually, equipped with her own opinions of the tragic events that befell Mike and Tilda, Rae announces her own theory of what happened, a theory the reader has constructed with her. Yet as soon as the words come out of her mouth, she understands she’s made a mistake. “Not the best tactic. But I’ve seized on it in a burst of defensive righteousness.”

Frank’s novel shows the strain that tragedy, aging, and distance can have on two friends who truly care for each other, and the toll it can take on the spouses who love them. We can only hope that the strongest of our own friendships outlast the individual events that may plague our lives. Examining her husband’s relationship with Mike late in the story, Rae wonders, “Years of childlike renditions of him. What can it add up to? Probably this is what horrifies Neil. It adds up to nothing.” But it doesn’t add up to nothing. It adds up to love.

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History Repeats and Repeats and Repeats: Will Self’s ‘Umbrella’

UmbrellaWill Self’s new novel, Umbrella (Grove Press, 397 pages), is a whirlwind journey through the lives of four characters living in three different eras. A Modernist novel featuring frenetic stream of consciousness writing, Self defies convention and digs deep into the social issues plaguing the 20th century.

Audrey Death matures in London at the turn of the century, when underground railroads and automobiles were changing the landscape of the city. Following World War I, which splits Audrey from her brothers Albert and Stanley, she suffers a mental breakdown. Later diagnosed with encephalities lethargica, Audrey is stashed away in Friern Mental Hospital to rot. Fifty years later, psychiatrist Dr. Zachary Busner takes an interest in Audrey and in other Friern patients showing similar symptoms. Proposing a radical new drug treatment meant to jolt the patients out of their near-comatose states, Dr. Busner encounters results he refuses to acknowledge. Forty years following the experiment, a retired Dr. Busner wanders through London, subconsciously tracing his steps back to Friern. New condominiums have replaced the old hospital. As Dr. Busner stands at the exact spot where he first met Audrey Death, he finally finds the epiphany that has eluded his professional and personal life. “The world is ours to tear apart,” he thinks, reflecting upon Audrey and the other patients, “but what if it’s too late to start again?”

Dr. Busner’s realization is nestled into a narrative loaded with heavy critiques of war and mental health treatment. The initial misdiagnosis of Audrey’s disease is not so much the problem as is the general apathy shown toward her. Patients at Friern are given generic medications and locked away in wards, left to await death. Within this critique lies the constant symbol of the umbrella. Audrey’s first job is as a typist at an umbrella factory; she and the other hospital patients live under the umbrella of prescription drugs used not to treat them, but simply to keep them quiet. (The word “umbrella” is even used as a euphemism for a tranquilizer given to unruly patients in the hospital.)

Prior to the arrival of Dr. Busner, the patients are never properly diagnosed or treated, and nothing further is learned of their condition. In the same vein, Self suggests we are as oblivious to the constant affliction of war and its causes. As one doctor puts it in the novel, “Odd, isn’t it, to think of all that mayhem, all that killing—now too in Pakistan—and yet the vast bulk of it is perpetrated by a mere handful of psychotic personalities.” Despite the calamity of World War I, nothing has really been learned from it just as nothing was learned from the mental health debacle Self vividly displays in Friern Hospital.

So is history doomed to repeat itself, circling back to where it started, just as Self’s characters always seem to do in Umbrella? Near the beginning of the book, Self writes, “Stuck in the present’s flesh are the looking glass fragments of a devastating explosion: a time bomb was primed for the future and planted in the past.” Self’s feverish novel leaves the reader wondering if the future will indeed repeat the past or if we will finally learn the hard lessons from what we have already painfully known.

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