Success and Its Trappings, a review of Matt Bell’s latest

A comprehensive look and establishment of Matt Bell’s dynamic, literary range

By Kurt Baumeister (for Electric Literature, October 10, 2016)

Weighing in at a hefty four hundred pages, Matt Bell’s latest story collection, A Tree or a Person or a Wall (Soho), comes in the wake of his critically-acclaimed novels (also from Soho), In the House upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods (2013) and Scrapper (2015). An early-career retrospective of sorts, much of the material contained in A Tree or a Person or a Wall originated in Bell’s Indie-published volumes, 2010’s How They Were Found and 2012’s Cataclysm Baby. There’s new work here, seven stories worth of it — the title piece, “Doll Parts,” “The Migration,” “The Stations,” “Inheritance,” “For You We Are Holding,” and “A Long Walk with Only Chalk to Mark the Way” — but, to a great extent, this volume revisits Bell’s earliest material. In the process, A Tree or a Person or a Wall can’t help but provoke questions about artistic development and the interplay between commerce and creativity. The basic issue: Does Bell’s early work stand comparison to what he’s producing now; or, does this collection represent an attempt to leverage old material in light of recent success?

“Bell is a literary experimentalist who never lets his experiments overtake his fiction’s need for dramatic effect.”

We deal with related concerns all the time in the literary world, and by “we” I don’t just mean book critics. Readers, writers, and critics, no one in America is immune to the impact of literature’s commercialization, a necessary consequence if writers are to make any sort of living from their work. Still, the profit motive can, and often does, go too far. Whether we’re talking about the Lee family’s cash grab, Go Set a Watchman (a supposed sequel that wound up being an early draft of To Kill a Mockingbird), or any number of other examples (John Kennedy Toole comes to mind with his posthumous masterpiece A Confederacy of Dunces followed some years later by his only other book, a truly terrible novella he’d written as a teenager, The Neon Bible), attempts to fleece consumers are common in America, certainly not just in literature.

But I think most writers with literary ambitions would like to believe they’re offering the best work they can, that they’re providing fair artistic value to their readers, not simply trying to cash in. (And here, in fairness to the authors mentioned above, they didn’t have much say in the suspect publications, owing to advanced age for Lee, suicide for Toole). Beyond that, successful writers like Bell must wonder whether their early work was the equal of whatever garnered them their “break,” if all they were missing was a little timing or luck to have had that break years before.

Even if we set aside thoughts of success and its trappings — considerations such as units sold, prize nominations, and general notoriety — the author’s hope has to be that he really was good enough once upon a time, even as he toiled in what might have been relative (or even true) obscurity. For that author, there’s got to be some vindication in seeing work he believed in finally reach a broader audience. If we’re honest with ourselves as writers, readers, and critics, though, the question we come back to, the only question that really matters, is whether this newfound attention is justified, whether it is deserved. When it comes to A Tree or a Person or a Wall, the only answer I can give is a resounding, “Yes.”

A talented, at times even daring, stylist Bell is a literary experimentalist who never lets his experiments overtake his fiction’s need for dramatic effect, that necessary quality of making the reader want to read. This is something many literary writers forget or even disdain: the fact that it’s their responsibility to attract readers and keep them interested, not the other way around. And it’s a lesson Bell seems to have learned from an early age. Fearless in terms of the subject matter he’s willing to write about and perhaps ever more so in the unexpected, sometimes extremely dark angles he takes in fleshing out his stories, Bell has the goods, no question.

Whether we’re considering the earlier work like “The Cartographer,” “The Collectors,” and the epic cli-fi novella “Cataclysm Baby” (vast in scope; beautiful and haunting, disturbing and thought provoking in execution) or the more recent standouts like “The Stations,” “The Migration,” and the collection’s final piece, the heartbreaking ode to the victims death leaves among the living, “A Long Walk with Only Chalk to Mark the Way,” overall, A Tree or a Person or a Wall more than lives up to the hype generated by Bell’s successful novels.

“A Tree or a Person or a Wall is, as a whole, a substantial piece of art.”

More than a basic chronology designed to consume space at the expense of quality, A Tree or a Person or a Wall is, as a whole, a substantial piece of art. Bell has taken the time to really piece this material together, to develop an overall seven-part structure that feels at once like an early-career retrospective and a unified piece of work. These are not linked stories per se (or, not overtly so), but in their overwhelming attention to humanity’s self-destructive love affairs with itself and its world and a human experience that is a constant quest for understanding, a quest that seems to succeed and fail simultaneously, again and again, this is a text that asks to be reread.

A Tree or a Person or a Wall is one of the best books I’ve read this year. From prose that is simultaneously elegant and muscular to its hybrid of mystery, wisdom, and earned emotion, from its notes of slipstream and fabulism to those of outright fable, this volume does indeed answer the literary question I posed earlier. This is a justified, even necessary collection, one we should be grateful to Soho for bringing out. Only in his mid-thirties, Matt Bell is a great short story writer, and has been now for many years. The lingering question is just how good Bell can become, whether we will look back on this volume and see it as a prelude to greater things still. Only time will tell.

The Nervous Breakdown’s Review Microbrew, Volume 3

By Kurt Baumeister for The Nervous Breakdown

August 31, 2016

Fiction Reviews

 

Whether we’re talking about simple book reviews, hardcore literary criticism, or even the deathsport-cum-puffery that goes with writing workshops, it’s easy to make literary opinions about yourself rather than the work at hand. There are a lot of different ways this can happen in reviewing. Some of the more common:

1.  The dispensation of ham-fisted writing truisms (show, don’t tell; adverbs must die; etc.)

2.  The shared personal anecdote, loosely related at best (My word-slinging panda Grimwald brings me a sonnet every night. But youdidn’t. And that’s why this is the most horrible dreck I’ve ever read.); and

3.  Conscious mockery, the review designed (through wit, derision, and pithy prose) to show how much better you are than the foolish mortal whose book you’ve deigned to review. (There’s this guy on Goodreads…Actually, there are like three hundred of this guy on Goodreads, but you get the idea…)

I suppose I have a little luxury in the books I review. No one at TNB tells me what to cover, when to read them or where. I just do then say what I think. Simple, right? But not so, not really.

So many of the most famous examples of criticism come from hating a book or an author with a passion, from using that passion and what skill you may have to pen a take-down readers will remember. The goal is perhaps not always to make oneself sound good, but certainly, at the very least, to make the writer or work under discussion sound very bad.

For me, today, book reviewing has less to do with put-downs, more to do with empathy. As a critic, I think you need to be a bit of a chameleon, able to envision each book not just from your own perspective (the white tower of your five-star, ten-point, or four-heart rating scale) but from the standpoint of that book’s bestreader, the person the book is intended for even though neither they nor the author have any idea they exist. Rather than the infallibility we sometimes pretend to, book reviewing seems to me a matter of art and hope, maybe even something a little like a prayer. A wish, at least, that the books we’ve chosen will find their best readers, whoever and wherever they are.

 

Dating Tips for the Unemployed by Iris Smyles

 

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Powered by failures real and imagined, copious amounts of pot and booze, the seemingly ever-present threat of masturbation, and topics way more outré than these, Dating Tips for the Unemployed is a charming (yes, charming!), bravura performance by a writer whose comic chops, literary inventiveness, and crisp prose produce the smoothest of literary smoothies, something like a cocktail of Dorothy Parker, James Joyce, and Philip Roth iced, sweetened, and blended.

Reading Smyles it almost seems impossible that someone could pack this much goodness into one book. Never giving up intelligence for readability, or wit for cheap laughs, this is a slim volume I had to struggle to put down. Perhaps it’s the narrator’s youth, perhaps her emotional and intellectual honesty (cut as it is with humor); whatever the case, these pages race by, their words nonetheless filling your thoughts long after you’ve set aside Dating Tips for the Unemployed.

From summering in Greece to being busted flat in wintry Manhattan, Smyles somehow punctuates the troubles of youth with a philosophy that mixes sarcasm and nihilism but does it in a way that never gets too heavy. Constructed as an expression of polar opposites, Dating Tips for the Unemployed is an attempt to explore the world that is Iris Smyles and perhaps, in its finely chiseled structure, even an attempt to understand it. Whether this story amounts to fiction, nonfiction, or something in between ultimately doesn’t matter. The key point is engagement: the fact that you’re sure to be smitten as I was with the work of this wildly funny literary misanthrope.

 

United States of Japan by Peter Tieryas

 

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Peter Tieryas’s third book, United States of Japan (USJ) is an homage to the work of Philip K. Dick, a fact Tieryas freely admits. Primarily concerned with reimagining the core conceit of The Man in the High Castle—the Axis having emerged victorious in World War II, America has become a partitioned land, one divided between Japanese and Nazi rule—Tieryas has created a broader tribute to Dick by sprinkling elemnets of his most famous conceits throughout. Still, to label USJ a PKD knock-off would be grossly unfair. Tieryas’s novel stands on its own as a fast-paced, whimsical, disturbing, reflective, and at times even poignant trip through a world very different from our own, one nonetheless similar enough to be terrifying in its implications.

In USJ, Tieryas brings us a broad temporal picture of what the post-American world might have looked like. Spanning the Pacific War’s end in 1948 through the 60’s and on to the late 80’s, USJ is the story of game developer and censor, Beniko “Ben” Ishimura, once a resident of an American concentration camp, now a captain in the Japanese army. Central to the book as a whole, and certainly to Ben’s character, is the issue of loyalty, not only to his divine emperor, but to the people around him and even the lost United States of America.

The book is driven primarily by Ben’s interactions with Tokko agent, Akiko Tsukino. Seemingly ruthless, intent on service to emperor and empire (and perhaps above all things her sense of personal honor) Akiko is sometimes foil, sometimes ally, always unpredictable. As Ben and she delve into the conspiracy surounding a treasonous underground game sweeping the USJ, the body count inexorably rises (a la many a first-person shooter); new revelations made not only concerning this conspiracy, but the world Tieryas has created.

Featuring porticals (multipurpose personal devices with capabilities and applications far beyond those of today’s smartphones), mechas (giant battlebots capable of leveling cities), and computer games used as everything from a method of execution to active counter-intelligence—never mind robotic limbs (with firearm attachments), packs of genetically-engineered killer pomeranians, and murder clubs—Tieryas developes a world that is fascinating and engrossing. One that, in perhaps his greatest tribute to Philip K. Dick, you feel you haven’t fully explored even at the book’s end.

 

The Clever Dream of Man by Lynn Houston

 

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I review books of poetry for, I think, many of the reasons people continue to write them. Poetry is important and challenging, one of (if not) the most difficult forms of literary art. While bad poetry is fairly easy to produce, good poetry can take a long time to write, not so much in that one poem can consume days or weeks or months (though it can) but in that a poet can spend years getting to the point at which they’re actually writing quality poems (one of which may, in fact, take days or weeks or months of work). After many years spent thinking about poetry and several more seriously writing it, this is the stage of artistic maturity at which we find Lynn Houston. Houston’s time has been well spent, a fact demonstrated by the spare, immediate reflections contained in her first collection,The Clever Dream of Man.

Houston’s book is clearly a very personal one, focused on the development of self-knowledge, the search for love (not only erotic and romantic but love of self), and the competition between these various forms of love. Over the course of the collection, this competition plays out in the hearts and minds, bodies and souls of its characters, most centrally Houston’s poetic self. Whether basking in the reality of love, lamenting its loss, or dreaming the possibility of its transcendence, The Clever Dream of Man’sstrongest poems brim with an acceptance of the power of nature and wonder at the reality of life.

Wise enough to be daunted by the world, brave enough not to let that fear control her, Houston’s poetry often reads very close to prose, not because she lacks feeling for language but because the thoughts expressed are so precise. For me, the most memorable poems in this collection are the ones that combine heart with a tinge of irony, pieces like “I Believe in Floating Grandfathers”, “Tomcat in Love”, “Jackpot Modern”, “Dreamhouse”, “The Grave Tree” and “Reincarnation as Someone with a Love Life”. The Clever Dream of Man is a short collection, but also a strong one—a volume that will leave readers anxious to see Houston flesh out her poetic vision.

 

Movieola! by John Domini


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Reading John Domini’s work, whether it be fiction, nonfiction, or poetry, you get the feeling you’re in the presence of someone a little smarter than you, someone who understands life and literature a little bit better. Having sped through Domini’s latest, a collection of short fiction entitled Movieola!, I can add cinema to the list of Domini’s areas of expertise—and thank him for shedding new light (and a few welcome shadows) on a form I love.

Cast in the tradition of masters like Barth and Coover, the loosely linked cinematic tales contained in Movieola! showcase the development of the metafictional form, an overall arc that has classic experiments such as John Barth’s masterful short story collection, Lost in the Funhouse, at one end, the now-fairly-common, fully-integrated intrusive narrator at the other. Movieola! rests near the midpoint of this continuum, a point from which Domini is able to provide both sly critique and dramatic effect.

Its overall conceit a subversion of the usual novel to film progression, Movieola! is film become literature. Never what you expect, the book expands on its intellectual heft with titillation (“Blinded by Paparazzi” and “Wrap Rap Two-Step”) and prose that recalls Nabokov at his Americanized best, Domini’s words at times practically tap dancing and somersaulting across the page. Held together by the bonds of cinema, threads at once gossamer and steely, nuanced and blatant, Domini’s success is in mingling the inner workings of Hollywood with the craft of filmmaking, creating for us a parallel universe in which we experience cinema as art and industry, question and answer.

 

Music for Wartime by Rebecca Makkai

 

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A literary symphony of history and fable, loss and remembrance, Music for Wartime echoes the work of magical realism’s Eastern European masters even as it creates a milieu all its own, one in which both the European and American experiences are featured, at times separately, at others in various levels of concert.

Chicago’s Rebecca Makkai is an exceptional writer, one able to move seamlessly between not just cultures of Old World and New, but registers as diverse as faerie tale and contemporary comedy. Possibly the most stunning attribute of Makkai’s work, though, is its consistent humanity, the clarity with which she sees the hybrid of joy and sadness that is human life.

Given that Makkai was featured in Best American Short Stories four years running (2008-2011), and that the selected stories (“The Worst You Ever Feel,” “The Briefcase,” “Painted Ocean, Painted Ship,” and “Peter Torrelli, Falling Apart”) are all included here, you might expect Music for Wartime to feel a little like a greatest hits album, a collections of classics mixed with a few relatively weak, newer pieces, the whole fitted uneasily into a book.

This isn’t the case. Makkai’s newer material is every bit the equal of her BASS stories. More than that (or, perhaps, again, in concert with it) Music for Wartime does indeed feel musical (a la Kundera), a symphony of past and present, light and dark, tiny fables intermingled with the sort of longer stories we traditionally think of in connection with the short story form. Though this is neither a linked collection nor a novel-in-stories, somehow Music for Wartime feels incredibly cohesive, a piece of art beyond the sum of its parts. The obvious conclusion being that this alchemy is just another byproduct of Makkai’s immense talent.

 

Falter Kingdom by Michael J. Seidlinger

 

seidlingerAlready at the age of thirty, Michael J. Seidlinger is the author of nine literary novels, books he produces at what can seem to other writers (myself included) as a dizzying pace. With his latest,Falter Kingdom, Seidlinger slows down just long enough to give us a jaw dropping, cleverly paced tale of demonic possession and addiction, social media and fundamental truth.

Though Falter Kingdom (with its teenage protagonist) may qualify as YA in the strictest sense, the book’s subject matter should tip potential readers that this is no jaunt through Narnia or Wonderland. Evincing neither the British manners nor the broad, whimsical world building of old-school YA, Falter Kingdom is alternative YA, the sort parents might want to keep Suzy and Jimmy from reading, something young adults will find nonetheless. Instead of fantasy, Seidlinger gives his readers contemporary hyper-realism with one major change: Demonic possession is not just a possibility but a reality, one that dominates the book’s narrative arc and produces a truly terrifying climax.

Protagonist Hunter Warden is a high school senior struggling with the usual problems of the high school senior: popularity (or the lack thereof), romance (or the lack thereof), and moods dominated by anomie, confusion, and self-loathing. Hunter’s parents don’t have time for him, his girlfriend is clueless, and his friends all seem frenemies in disguise. Along comes a demon named H. and Hunter may have found his new best friend. That, or a fiend ready to possess and destroy him.

Falter Kingdom is a tale very much about our modern world, the ennui that goes with information overload and sensory excess, and the opportunities for sadness and addiction that seem to lurk in so many hidden corners. This is not a happy novel, but a smart, enthralling one, a book that’s sure to gain Seidlinger fans among teens and twenties, readers who will, no doubt, be following his work for years to come.

The Nervous Breakdown’s Review Microbrew, Volume 2

By Kurt Baumeister for The Nervous Breakdown

July 19, 2016

Uncategorized

Galley fever. That was the diagnosis Michael J. Seidlinger gave me a few months after I started reviewing books at Electric Literature. In all fairness to Seidlinger, it’s possible I’d just given him a list of four books I was going to review (that month? that week? that day?), two of which were (again, possibly) by Salman Rushdie and Milan Kundera. No pressure, no worries.

“Textbook case,” Seidlinger added. “Trust me, man. I’ve seen it before.”

Turned out Seidlinger was right. I did have a case of galley fever. And I still do. In fact, it’s starting to look like this galley fever thing is more or less permanent.

Galley fever: n. The pathological desire to review books. Said desire may conflict with eating, sleeping, and other activities once thought necessary. (In spite of common usage, has nothing to do with viruses, physical temperature, rowboats, or micro-kitchens.)

I started this column so I could put my fever to use; so I could cover more books in less time. It’s working, too. At least I think it is. But there are still issues, laws of time and space to be dealt with. By which I mean reading time and editorial space. The greater problem, to put it bluntly, is that there’s too damn much talent out there in the literary world.

In addition to the latest from one of my writing heroes, Don Delillo, this month’s Microbrew features National Book Award-nominee and literary triple-threat (poetry, fiction, nonfiction), Kim Addonizio, Shawn Vestal, Lori Ostlund, Zoe Zolbrod, and Sean Beaudoin. Obviously, our line-up’s pretty heavy. And that’s a good thing. It’s just that there’s so much more out there. So many books that deserve coverage, so little time. So, get out there and review a book or two. But don’t forget to buy these…

 

Zero K by Don DeLillo

 

26154389Don Delillo is a writer who’s always seemed intensely concerned with symbolism; but in a strange, quasi-adversarial way. I’ve read The Names and White Noise a few times each (in addition to several of his other novels), wound up convinced that there is potent symbolism in his work but that its end result, the solution of the equation (So much of Delillo feels mathematical, doesn’t it?), is a zero, an intentional nod to nihilism. Which, if you think about it, is a fairly bracing postmodern trick.
For me, Delillo’s strengths as a writer are this philosophy (the fact that it so underpins his authorial view of the world), his writing voice which manages to be undeniably wise yet still conveys awe at the complexities of reality, and the line-to-line beauty of his prose. Though these qualities are all on display in Zero K, I’d be lying if I said this book measures up to his masterpieces. Rather than a shot at Zero K, I see this more as indicative of a problem common to living legends.

With so much received acclaim and so many conceded masterpieces, chances are that Delillo’s best work is behind him. And, however you dice up his career, Delillo’s been in that situation well over a decade, perhaps much, much longer. I remember when Underworld came out—Finally, the long Delillo novel we’d been waiting for(!)—when it failed to win the National Book Award (Cold Mountain did.). I suppose at that point, we all expected more of the same—Underworld 2, Son of Underworld(?)—but that’s proven to be wishful thinking. In all fairness, how many masterpieces can one writer be expected to come up with?

For fans, or those fascinated by the concept and societal implications of cryogenesis, Zero K is still a solid choice, repaying the reader’s investment with nuggets like this, “In the end I followed the course that suited me. Cross-stream pricing consultant. Implementation analyst—clustered and nonclustered environments. These jobs were swallowed up by the words that described them.”

Zero K is another graceful trip through Don Delillo’s post-postmodern reality, one in which symbols—and that greatest symbol of all, language—fail in their ascendancy, leave us ultimately confounded by the reality those symbols sought to define. For people looking to study Delillo’s best work, I’d recommend The Names, White Noise, Underworld, and his underrated debut, Americana.

 

The Telling by Zoe Zolbrod

 

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The experiences forgotten, locked in our minds. The weight of what we owe those who come after us. More than that, the weight of what we owe the world and ourselves. These are the considerations at the heart of Zoe Zolbrod’s second book, the memoir, The Telling.

A return home with a new baby, her first, leads Zolbrod to the realization the cousin who lived with her family (and sexually abused her as a five-year old) has been charged with multiple counts of pedophilia. Fraught with emotion and filled with energy over the new life in her arms, there is the crushing reminder someone in Zolbrod’s family is capable of such crimes and the torrent of memories attached to their precursors, the experiences of a small girl, silent to the world until now.

If you’re looking for narrative that manages to seem somehow lush and controlled simultaneously—jagged with feeling and revelation yet told in a voice that compel your attention, forces you to engage not only with the world in the pages before you, but the reality all around, this is a book for you. Reading a fine memoir like Zoe Zolbrod’s, The Telling, reminds us of the debt we owe our best memoirists. It reminds us of the trials they endure and the monsters they slay not only for themselves but for their readers as well.

 

Mortal Trash by Kim Addonizio

 

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It may seem a gaudy move, but Kim Addonizio’s release of a memoir and poetry collection within mere days of each other isn’t that surprising. In fact, when you consider the awards Addonizio’s won, the variety of different forms she’s worked in, and her longevity as an artist, this release two-fer feels practically de rigueur, just another milestone in a brilliant career.

Though this review primarily concerns Mortal Trash, Addonizio’s latest poetry collection, I should say that I found the portion I read of her memoir, Bukowski in a Sundress, to be highly enjoyable. A compelling, crisply written book, Bukowski in a Sundress is bound to sell more than a few copies. And in its accessibility it provides an interesting counterpoint to the poems of Mortal Trash, poems that sometimes share this accessibility, sometimes seem to purposefully reject it.

The strongest poems in Mortal Trash are the ones that are the most concrete, the most steeped in reality. And there are plenty of them. “Lives of the Poets”, “Ways To Go”, “Review of Possible Signs and Symptoms”, and “Florida” are filled with nifty linguistic twists, provocative imagery, and cunning observation. Another high point is Addonizio’s sonnet sequence, which is brimming with trashy beauty and startling wisdom. As for the other extreme, the re-castings contained in the section entitled, “Over the Bright and Darkened Lands”, I find the experiment impressive but can’t say I felt the same level of connection I had with other parts of the book. On balance, Mortal Trash is a laudable collection of poems, the best of which can only enhance Kim Addonizio’s legacy.

 

Daredevils by Shawn Vestal

 

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A long-time columnist and reporter in Spokane, Washington, Shawn Vestal has (mostly, over the last few years) begun to make a name for himself as an author of fiction, first with his Pen Bingham Prize winner, the story collection Godforsaken Idaho, now with his debut novel, the Mormon coming-of-age/road novel (words I thought could never possibly go together), Daredevils.

The focal point of Vestal’s story is Loretta, a rebellious teenager from a fundamentalist Mormon family. As a proposed curative for her bad behavior, Loretta is married off as second sister-wife to fellow fundamentalist, Dean Harder (a name worthy, indeed, of masters like Hawthorne and Dickens).

Soon, Dean moves his entire clan, including Loretta, to his family’s land in Idaho, far from her parents’ home. Once in Idaho, Loretta finds common ground with Dean’s teen nephew Jason; that common ground being escape from the oppression of family and religion, escape to an outside world that may seem freer than it is.

Daredevils is a trip through time and space, a portrait of a mid-century America (the 1950’s through the 1970’s) that’s breathtaking in scope. But perhaps the most winning part of the book is the way this lost history comes to feel at once familiar and deeply engrossing. From Tolkien to Zeppelin to narration from Jason’s hero, Evel Knievel, pop culture references abound, presenting a counterpoint to the constrictive fundamentalism at the story’s core. This is the good and bad of our American mythology—even more so that of the American West—a land where freedom and madness seem so often to run hand in hand.

 

After the Parade by Lori Ostlund

 

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An object lesson in how to make ordinary life matter to a reader, Lori Ostlund’s first novel, After the Parade, is a symphony of realism, one that turns in movements dramatic and comic, touching and wistful.

Constructed as a vast network of flashbacks, the novel opens with forty-one-year-old ESL teacher Aaron Englund’s departure from New Mexico and the home he has shared with his partner, Walter. Though Aaron’s nominal destination is San Francisco, even before he arrives, we realize his understanding of himself is tenuous, evolving, that this understanding is his real destination.

As Aaron begins his new life, Ostlund flashes back to all that has come before, no event more significant than the day Aaron’s father, a policeman, fell from a parade float and died, leaving Aaron and his mother all alone. In coming to terms with the events of his deep past, Aaron begins to grapple with and understand his recent past with Walter, to lay claim to a better present and future.

One of the most honest, insightful writers you’ll find, there’s never a false sentence in Ostlund’s work, never a reliance on tricks or tropes. Ostlund imbues her characters, especially Aaron, with humanity, humor, and grace, showing us how people really live and grow, day-to-day and year-to-year.

 

Welcome Thieves by Sean Beaudoin

 

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From the beginning of Welcome Thieves, Sean Beaudoin’s first story collection, you realize you’re in rare literary territory, the text before you built not only on erudition and propulsive (at times near breathless) prose but drugs and crime, rock n’ roll and philosophy. Above all else, though, there’s humor. Beaudoin is, no question, one of the funniest, hippest writers out there.

Plumbing the quest for sensory experience at the heart of youth, Beaudoin’s style recalls T.C. Boyle’s, a flash of formal experimentalism (Coover? Celine?) thrown in to keep the reader off-kilter. The mix is a highly enjoyable, stone-cold literary endeavor that manages to succeed on a commercial level as well. These aren’t “New Yorker stories” per se—you’re not going to find some middle-aged dentist bitching about his Mercedes in Beaudoin’s pages—but they’re so polished you can’t help but see the potential for them to reach (and please) a mass audience.

From Beaudoin’s fearless use (and purposeful misuse) of pop culture, particularly the fight game in “And Now Let’s Have Some Fun”, to the macabre, apocalyptic satire of “Base Omega Has Twelve Dictates”, his spin on a sort of creation myth in the title story, “Welcome Thieves”, and the failed Americana at the heart of the entire collection, perhaps most notably in “The Rescues”, these stories succeed without exception.

On the off chance that Beaudoin’s six previous books and his massive output of quality nonfiction (Salon, The Nervous Breakdown, The Weeklings) hadn’t confirmed his talent, Welcome Thieves is sure to. Sure, likewise, to prove attempts at comparison must in the end fall short. There’s just no other writer quite like Sean Beaudoin. Read him and be glad you did.

The Nervous Breakdown’s Review Microbrew, Volume 1

The Nervous Breakdown’s Review Microbrew, Volume 1

By Kurt Baumeister

June 13, 2016

Fiction Reviews

In many ways, the greatest praise we can bestow on a piece of art is to say it inhabits its world so fully as to define it. Whether we’re talking about Flannery O’Connor or Jane Austen, Charles Dickens or Ernest Hemingway, the writers we come back to, the ones who maintain readership and critical attention, often capture their environments to such an extent that their claim on the territory comes to supplant the reality they once sought to depict.

What would 19th century England mean to us without David Copperfield and Oliver Twist? What would 20th century Paris be without The Sun Also Rises? Even though film’s more overt, incandescent iconography has overtaken the literary in the popular consciousness, one of the written word’s chief uses remains its role as historical document and anthropological source, a record of the things that animate geographies and eras, nations and civilizations. And let’s be clear: Even today, there would be no cinema without writing. Whether in the form of novels and stories that provide jumping-off points for screenwriting or the scripts themselves, the production of the images that become our shared memories could never happen without the written word.

The Nervous Breakdown’s inaugural Microbrew showcases the diversity of American letters. Realist and fabulist, lyrical and metafictional, novels and stories, novellas and poetry. Drawn from small and big presses alike, this is a group of writers engaged in the work of claiming their territory, defining their worlds with such linguistic precision and clarity of vision that those worlds, if we’re lucky, begin to feel like our own.

 

Mongrels by Stephen Graham Jones

 

mongrelsIf you think the literary genera lupus literarus has been done, and done, and done into the ground it’s only because you haven’t seen what Stephen Graham Jones’s has to say about lycanthropy. Part fable, part coming-of-age story, his new novel, Mongrels, brings grim humor and a violent beauty to the semi-hallucinatory terrain occupied by America’s transitory underclass.

Always on the outside, constantly on the run, Jones’s “mongrels” dwell in a sort of socioeconomic half-light. Their lives spent in the shadows cast by low-rent shanties and broken down cars, their identities informed by war between day and night, civilization and nature; this is the mythology of the werewolf twisted, reformed to become more modern, more relatable as both myth and metaphor. In muscular prose that seems always to be thinking ahead, searching for more, Jones explores America’s relationship with its poor like he’s dissecting a predatory brotherhood between hunter and hunted.

There’s long been an idea that true magical realism can only be born of the economic hardships and totalitarian governments masters like Garcia Marquez and Kundera endured in the less-developed world. The concept has been “the First World” doesn’t know enough pain to write honest magical realism. Jones stands that theory on its head, at least as it relates to America’s oppressed. In Mongrels you hear the echoes of Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. You see the desperate magic of a world constructed as an antidote to this one.

 

Witch Hunt by Juliet Escoria

 

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Juliet Escoria’s first poetry collection, Witch Hunt, picks up where her first book, the story collection Black Cloud left off. That is, in a semi-autobiographical universe in which the author’s humanity is constantly on display. This isn’t woman magically ennobled, a made-up version of Juliet Escoria, heroine, but a largely unadorned testament that puts Escoria at the center of her own experiences without spending too much time moralizing on where she finds herself, what she does, or what’s done to her.

Witch Hunt’s presentation is fresh, the book’s architecture and delivery blurring the lines between poetry and short fiction, nonfiction and novel. From section titles like “Bipolar National Anthem” to poem cycles like “Haikus for Horse Haters” you get that there’s an air of comedy here, or if not comedy a sort of bemused acceptance of life’s insanity. Though many of these poems are delivered in blunt language that defies you to find much beauty in the world it presents, that’s by design. This is a collection that eschews “prettiness” in favor of truth. Perhaps this is a statement on gender, the title evocative of the stalked woman pursued for her innate beauty, her very femininity. In the face of that continuing hunt, these poems respond with brutal honesty.

The quality that sets this above other similarly confessional collections is its voice—infectious, reflective, and matter-of-fact—a voice that grows in power with re-readings, suggesting not only that the collection holds multiple layers of meaning beyond the superficial, but that this is a writer with a lot more to say. From semi-madness (medicated and not-so) through substance abuse, physical abuse, suicidal episodes, and the overarching struggle to simply fit into the world, Escoria displays a shocking lack of self-pity, the rare, fundamental truthfulness that assures you this is not a slick piece of personal advertising designed to make her look or feel better than she is. This is Juliet Escoria’s reality—her truth—on the page.

 

Tyler’s Last by David Winner

 

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Fans of Patricia Highsmith and her literary creature “Talented” Tom Ripley will recognize this as an homage of sorts. A metafictional duet between a semi-closeted author and the semi-closeted character she’s made her career on—refereed with icy detachment by Winner’s narrator—Tyler’s Last is a literary thriller that hits on both counts.

Tyler (not his real name) is a semi-retired bad guy who’s spent his life defrauding people (and much, much worse; up to and including a string of murders). His toney wife having left him (maybe for good) to gallivant across North Africa with her girlfriend, Tyler is already reeling emotionally when he receives a series of ominous phone calls that send him winging off for New York.

Part of Tyler’s mission is a secret known only to his criminal sensei, Delauney, the rest is Tyler’s daring (read, insane) plan to impersonate his first murder victim, the long-dead Cal Thornton, whom Tyler’s mysterious caller claims to be. Once in New York, events take a Nabokovian turn, a series of violent episodes, Tyler’s growing black-comic sense of detachment (from his actions and his reality), and an impromptu trip with an emotionally volatile teen recalling the sort of erudition and (almost) innocent evil of Lolita’s Humbert Humbert.

Juxtaposed with Tyler’s narrative, Winner tells the tale of Tyler’s creator, the Highsmith-esque surly “old woman”, making it quite clear that the old woman’s refracted view of her own life has a habit of materializing on the page, sometimes consciously, sometimes not. This convention dominates the book from a literary standpoint, ensuring that readers not only experience the excitement of Tyler’s unraveling criminal lifestyle (a lifestyle his author ultimately seeks to emulate) but the author’s love for her character, the fact that in many ways he is her, a literary fact that will be in some ways proven, some ways contradicted, as the story unfolds.

 

The Nethers: Frontiers of Hinterland by M.E. Parker

 

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M.E. Parker’s The Nethers: Frontiers of Hinterland follows his 2015 novel, Jonesbridge: Echoes of Hinterland. A literate (though still taut) series, Parker’s Hinterland trilogy is slated to end next year with Bora Bora: Escape from Hinterland.

Known to the literary community as former editor and publisher of the esteemed journal Camera Obscura, Parker brings the same sharp editorial eye to his own work. Refusing to settle for simple genre content, this is sci-cli-fi at its best, literary quality balanced meticulously with dramatic tension. Though there is a substantial amount of worldbuilding here, it’s not done with the same leisure you often find in genre work, which makes for a much more exciting, immediate read.

At the heart of Parker’s drama sit Myron and Sindra, lovers desperate to be together, destined perhaps to survive apart (if at all). The primary tension of The Nethers and Hinterland as a whole being whether Myron and Sindra can thrive against the machinery arrayed against them, a sort of amalgam of limited remaining technology and the humanity it has largely destroyed, a humanity that nevertheless remains unable to see that technology for the danger it is.

 

Heat & Light by Jennifer Haigh

 

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While Jennifer Haigh is still early enough in her career that lauding a book as her masterpiece comes with a lot of risk, her fifth novel, Heat & Light, may just deserve it. A return to the geography of her previous novel, Baker Towers, Haigh sets Heat & Light in Western Pennsylvania, in what was once deep coal country. Still feeling the collapse of its primary industry years earlier, the recent discovery of the Marcellus Shale natural gas deposit means the town of Bakerton may have a second chance economically. But at what cost?

Haigh’s strengths as a writer are the beauty and uncanny seamlessness of her prose, her ability to see her characters as they are rather than as she wants them to be, and the topography she chooses, the fact that she writes “what she knows” in a very real sense, focusing on the area of Western Pennsylvania she once called home. This is the truth of Western Pennsylvania’s coal country, every sentence tinged with a mixture of fond remembrance and the desire for escape; a quality that turns Heat & Light into a perfect example of how a writer can claim a literary geography as her own.

Complex and multi-tiered, Haigh’s narrative brings together socio-economic issues, concern for the planet, and the dramatic emotional lives of her characters into a mix that may leave readers saddened not just by the fact that it’s over, but by the realization that the ease with which Haigh pulls it all off stands in stark contrast to the difficulty with which we handle so many competing priorities as a species. All you have to do is look at the stripped, blighted land of Western Pennsylvania to know that as the truth.

 

The Unfinished World and Other Stories by Amber Sparks

 

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Amber Sparks is an artist of the impossible, a sort of science fictional sorceress who pursues her unique visions with the mind of a philosopher and the relentless determination of a (pleasantly) monomaniacal miniaturist. In a time in which many short story writers (both inside and outside MFA programs) are unrecognizable from each other, Sparks stands apart. Having published much of her early work online and in journals, she’s now beginning to find a larger audience with her second collection, The Unfinished World and Other Stories.

With conceits that range from custodial sci-fi (“The Janitor in Space”) to an evil, time-travelling “art critic” (“Thirteen Ways of Destroying a Painting”), a reverie for World War I’s Lost Generation (the beautifully desolate “The Fires of Western Heaven”) to a modern faerie tale about the confusing, even maddening, sexualization women experience moving from childhood to adulthood (“The Lizzie Borden Jazz Babies”), Sparks delivers fresh ideas in tellings that are likewise indelibly her own. Her abilities to compress narrative and to weave significant detail into an often poetic prose are impressive, qualities you don’t see in many writers.

Readers of Sparks’s earlier collection May We Shed These Human Bodies, won’t be surprised at how well The Unfinished World succeeds. They will be pleased, though, that her art continues to develop. In that sense, it’s her engagement with the greater world that most impresses, the way her miniatures serve as an examination of the human condition, of our need to connect with the cosmic, to understand our place in the unfinished worlds we must all invariably leave behind.