Beyond Good and Evil

By Kurt Baumeister for The Weeklings


“To recognize untruth as a condition of life–that certainly means resisting accustomed value feelings in a dangerous way; and a philosophy that risks this would by that token alone place itself beyond good and evil.”

― Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil



The most striking thing about the concept of good and evil—other than its ubiquity, the fact that so much of civilization runs off it—is how wrong it is, how flawed and incomplete. Which is probably why our best portrayals of this dichotomy reside in fiction.

Stories, be they metaphysical or Earth-bound, are places where we can forget about reality’s gray of cause and effect, conscience and guilt, focus on the rich (stark, at least) contrast between black and white. They’re where we can trot out our worst dastards, stand them up against this guy or gal in a white whatever and nod our heads at the fact that good invariably wins.

While this head-nodding may be comforting psychologically and even spiritually—may put us in touch with society, or even humanity, in a way that leaves us feeling warm and fuzzy—where’s the honesty in it? Where’s the fairness?

Satan and Sauron, Dracula and Loki, Gordon Gekko, Hannibal Lecter, Voldemort, The Wicked Queen, Morgana, and Emperor Palpatine…they all fail. Utterly. Despite their best laid plans, in spite of years (or centuries or millennia) of plotting, they always get it wrong, proving that evil just ain’t what good is cracked up to be.

In some of these cases, you might say, well, they’re losing to a superior force (Satan and his eternal struggle to defeat his creator being an obvious example), but that’s not always true. More often than not, evil loses in spite of the fact that it’s been portrayed as more powerful. We’re to take an object lesson from this: cheaters never win, liars never prosper, something like that. But what if evil did win, once in a while at least?



Satan has always seemed like something of an underachiever. I mean, the way he hides out in that sulfuric demesne of his, wherever it is (the Center of the Earth, the Heavens Unseen, the Dumpster Behind Maury’s Steakhouse?), it’s easy to imagine him as some nebbishy underboss who got wrapped up in a colpo di famiglia gone terribly (read, bloodlessly) wrong.

Satan’s trapped in eternal WITSEC (flashy tracksuits and expensive cigars his only recourse), hoping against hope that the Almighty will never find him, knowing eventually He will. Never mind the hiding out, what about the name change? What angel in his right mind gives up a moniker like Lucifer? At least once you’ve gotten used to all the other angels making fun of you in the angel schoolyard, it should be all gravy, right? Then, even after things go south (literally), Satan (or Lucifer or the Devil or whatever he’s calling himself by that point) just continues to devote his existence to a losing battle. None of it makes any sense.

If he won, though, if El Diablo somehow managed to defeat the Most High? I like to think he’d get sick of being humanity’s overlord almost as quickly as he did with being choirmaster of the heavenly host. I like to think he’d light out for points unknown, leaving us once again to our own devices. In other words, we’d wind up almost exactly where we are today.

Score: Evil 1, Good 0



Let’s dish. Tolkien’s hobbits are cute and cuddly but they’re also really bloody annoying. As are his elves. And his dwarves. And his men. Basically, Tolkien is annoying. He’s annoying because there’s too much predictability in his world, because it’s obvious from the jump that Sauron is going down.

If the Eye won, though, what would Middle Earth look like? Well, you can extrapolate Mordor—that blighted, semi-volcanic land—to the rest of Middle Earth. The White City gone black? The fields of Rohan blasted ashen gray? Rivendell turned to Rivenhell? Would any of this be productive? No, it would not. (Never mind the fact that he’d probably outlaw “second breakfasts” and “elevensies”.) Sauron must lose.

Score: Evil 1, Good 1



This could be a tough one to answer. There are so many different cinematic (and even literary) portrayals of Dracula. In some, he’s a B- (or C- or D-) movie villain you wouldn’t trust winning a poetry slam let alone a battle against the forces of “good”. In his canonical, Stokerian form, though, the Count has some serious backstory. I mean, he misses his wife; that’s it more or less. Which explains his fate and the enmity with which he views God and man. Is this cool? No, of course it’s not cool. But it’s understandable. And, so, in my (and Nietzsche’s) belief that love is the greatest power in the world, beyond even made-up evil, made-up gods, and made-up vampiric nobility, I’m giving this one to evil, suggesting Dracula should have won and the world wouldn’t have been so bad if he had. London, on the other hand…

Score: Evil 2, Good 1



I like Loki so much I’ve even joked about worshipping him on occasion. No, I’m not talking about Tom Hiddleston or the dude in the comic books. I’m talking about the “real” Loki, that misunderstood paragon of Norse “evil”. I’m writing a book about him, right now; one in which he’s the protagonist. Well, not “right now” strictly speaking. You know what I mean. More Loki to come. For now, the jury’s out.

Score: Evil 2, Good 1, Loki Looming


Gordon Gekko (from Wall Street)

Gekko is a thoroughly modern villain, one well suited (still) to our time. Beyond sex and power, beyond even money, Gekko wants to win. That’s it. And if he needs to break a few rules to do it…I mean, what the hay? You break a few rules, right?

If you look at Gekko as capitalism’s id, which he is (“Greed is good.” Hello…), you don’t want him anywhere near ultimate victory. Yes, he’s a small-timer as the fate of the world goes, but if we take a little license, and let Gekko run the whole show…There’s the rub. We’d actually wind up with a situation very similar to today (see Satan above). Even though he’s a fictional character, maybe Gekko did win. Sure, he may be capitalism’s id, but what’s just as clear is that Gordon Gekko has a living, breathing id and that id’s name is Donald Trump. While I’m not sure what exactly that makes Trump with respect to capitalism (Super Id? Id2?), whatever id is, id ain’t good…

Score: Evil 3, Good 1, Loki Looming


Hannibal Lecter

In spite of his multiple psychoses (or, perhaps, in a way, because of them), Hannibal Lecter is one of the most realistic (human, at least) villains on this list. And though this makes his psychology easier to understand than, say, that of Voldemort, it doesn’t make him an ideal candidate for victory. Again, though, the stakes are low as humanity goes. The costs of Lecter’s victory would be horrible for a few people, but not that many. If TV’s Hannibal proved anything, it’s that no matter how good a show Lecter puts on, we just can’t relate to a mass murderer cum serial cannibal well enough to see him as a hero. He has to lose. End of story.

Score: Evil 3, Good 2, Loki Looming



Voldemort is a unique force of malice. Somewhere between god and man, he’s a villain so ridiculously evil he must come from a story for kids. He’s undead in a sense, a sort of lich (if you know your D&D). Which means we couldn’t possibly let him win, right? Au contraire

Letting Voldemort win would flout the lunacy that is Harry Potter. While undoubtedly a great fictional conceit—the books, the movies, the toys and games and billions of dollars–Harry et al really get on my nerves. Harry and his little pals are just so stupidly lucky in their battles with Voldemort that it’s hard not to envision scenarios in which the Dark Lord (a common title in the land of baddies, it seems) wins. Every one of those movies has at least one scene that leaves you on the verge of screaming, “For Christ’s sake, Voldemort, will you just goddam kill him!?” But it never quite pans out.

Plus, Voldemort winning and getting rid of Harry Potter really wouldn’t do much to our world, the land of muggles. Exposure is low. Harry Potter is annoying. Give evil a chance. Keep hope alive.

Score: Evil 4, Good 2, Loki Looming


The Wicked Queen

You must think I’m completely horrible. Let Snow White lose? How could I even consider it? Well, I’m not really. But…there’s Charlize Theron. As the Wicked Queen. And this makes me think, it does indeed. But I have to divorce myself from reality in this sense, leave the world of fantasy, return to that of fiction. And, in that world, the Wicked Queen may be a hot cartoon, but she’s no Charlize Theron. Victory, Snow White!

Score: Evil 4, Good 3, Loki Looming


Morgana (Morgan le Fay)

King Arthur’s half-sister. She’s got problems, so many that she tricks King Art into knocking her up therein begetting the child she hopes will be his doom, her son Mordred. But why does Morgana hate Arthur so much? He’s not such a bad guy.

Morgana hates Arthur because his father (Uther) was…ahem…not such a swell guy. He was, in fact, just the sort of medieval European overlord that gave medieval European overlords a bad (albeit true) name. Though myth styles Mordred as a sort of anti-Arthur, an antichrist if you will, Uther is the real world, magic- and religion-unboosted equivalent. So, even though Morgana takes it out on Arthur, she really hates Uther (with good reason). All this said, Morgana and Mordred can’t be allowed to win. They have global ambitions. They’d “cover the world in darkness” as the saying goes.

Score: Evil 4, Good 4, Loki Looming


Emperor Palpatine

I’ve always felt a certain ambivalence towards Star Wars. On one hand, I’ve absorbed the profound impact it’s had on American culture. On the other, I have always found Luke Skywalker to be a deeply annoying hero. Sure, I root for him. That’s the problem with good. Most of the time you find yourself cheering for it compulsively, as though there weren’t even a choice in the matter. Good equals life, evil equals death. And but for the darkest moments, almost all living creatures will choose life.

From an intellectual standpoint, the most interesting part of the Star Wars story is Anakin Skywalker aka Darth Vader’s fall to the Dark Side. (But for the billions of dollars at risk, I think you could actually make a pretty good case that the entire story could have been boiled down to two movies, Revenge of the Sith and Star Wars.) And, spoiler alert, I think I actually like the third prequel better than the rest because it presents some of the psychodrama behind Vader’s fall. Central to this is the role of Emperor Palpatine aka Darth Sidious.

He’s a prototypical skulk-in-the-shadows, plan-for-a-thousand-years bad guy. Ultimately, this is the reason Palpatine can’t be allowed to win. He’s in it for the long haul, looking to unbalance the Force forever. He doesn’t just want to “cover the world in darkness,” he wants to “cover the universe in darkness.” And we can’t let him do that. (Even though the truth is the universe is pretty dark already.)

Score: Good 5, Evil 4, Loki Looming


Loki Redux

Here’s the thing about good and evil: The construct is real and unreal simultaneously. The thing I find so compelling about Loki’s character is that he embodies this apparent contradiction, exists as both hero and villain.

For much of the Norse saga, he’s considered one of the Aesir (along with the Vanir, the two groups that together form the Norse pantheon), able to freely come and go from Asgard and even Valhalla. All along, though, he’s plotting the gods’ demise. I think the Norse were onto something with this obvious contradiction.

You could say that this is just a product of competing stories, that Loki as a creature of both good and evil is dramatically necessary and that’s all it’s about. Then again, maybe the Norse poets realized at least subconsciously the limitations of good and evil. Maybe in this respect they were a millennium or so ahead of Nietzsche. Maybe the Vikings realized that good and evil were real, but only as acknowledged placeholders, that good is life, evil is death, and beyond there is nothing, at least nothing we can understand. That there’s no cosmic truth to them.

To see the world without good and evil is chastening because, as Nietzsche put it, you have to extend the effects well beyond your comfort level. You have to look not just at fiction but at history, to countenance figures like Hitler and Stalin, not just who they were, but everything they did. You have to acknowledge that your hero is may just be someone else’s villain, your villain someone else’s hero.




Found in Translation (50 Things You Don’t Mean and What You Really Do)

By Kurt Baumeister for The Weeklings


“The colors of the rainbow, so pretty in the sky,

Are also on the faces of people going by.

I see friends shaking hands, sayin’, ‘How do you do?’

They’re really sayin’, ‘I love you.’”

–Louis Armstrong, “What a Wonderful World”


What a wonderful world it would be…if we could just say what we mean. If we dropped all the pretense associated with word choice and cadence, syntax, punctuation and every other stripe of linguistic jiu-jitsu. If only we could hit each other with Vulcan mind melds, y’know, verbally; always make straight for the meat without getting knotted up in our own ledes. We’d be happy hounds, cantering ‘cross shitless, conversational Elysian Fields, love abundant, harmony (and nary a dookie) all around. Whether in the workaday world or the good old sister-and-brother-hood of letters, at the holidays with the extended family or at home with the ever-volatile nuclear unit. Maybe even the world of politics would benefit from a little truth in vocalizing…


Corporate Warfare 


  1. “You are a valued contributor.”

Translation: “Get the fuck back to work.”

  1. “The financials look good.”

Translation: “I have no idea how the financials look.”

  1. “Revenues are way up.”

Translation: “We had to cut prices because nobody wanted our product.”

  1. “The value of our intellectual property is more or less incalculable.”

Translation: “We’re on the verge of bankruptcy.”

  1. “He’s tough but fair.”

Translation: “He’s an asshole.”

  1. “She just has really high standards.”

Translation: “She’s an asshole.”

  1. “How’s your family?”

Translation: “I’m thinking of firing you and trying to gauge how likely you are to go postal.”

  1. “Is this the best you can do?”

Translation: “How’s your resume looking?”

  1. “We actually have a negative tax rate.”

Translation: “We’ve done some really shady shit.”

  1. “Maybe you and your team can take that on.”

Translation: “You’re overstaffed. Start figuring out who to fire.”


Politics 101


  1. “Well, I guess if you believe that strongly enough.”

Translation: “You speak in Shitwitanese, but I don’t want to argue with you about it again.”

  1. “You raise an important issue.”

Translation: “I have no idea what you just said.”

  1. “Agree to disagree.”

Translation: “I’m tired of explaining this to you.”

  1. “The Second Amendment really should have been the First Amendment.”

Translation: “I definitely have a gun in my car. And I probably have one in my sock.”

  1. “Freedom of religion doesn’t mean freedom from religion.”

Translation: “Religion means Christianity. And freedom is overrated.”

  1. “The most important thing is good old-fashioned common sense.”

Translation: “Books is for suckers.”

  1. “The billionaire class.”

Translation: “The guillotine had its benefits.”

  1. “Small government.”

Translation: “Why aren’t there debtors’ prisons anymore?”

  1. “Bankers.”

Translation: “Capitalism.”

  1. “Political correctness.”

Translation: “Women and dark-skinned people complaining.”


Hell Sweet Hell


  1. “It really looks great on you.”

Translation: “I have no idea how to answer this question.”

  1. “You and your sister go watch TV.”

Translation: “There is not enough Xanax in the world.”

  1. “We haven’t had a date night in a long time.”

Translation: “I’m on the verge of screwing the vacuum cleaner.”

  1. “I’ll always care for you.”

Translation: “I don’t want to fuck you ever again.”

  1. “That’s fine.”

Translation: “Nothing is fine.”

  1. “The dog’s missed you all day. I think he’s in the living room.”

Translation: “The dog threw up and/or took a shit in the living room. He and one or both are there waiting for you. By the way, where the fuck have you been?”

  1. “Kitty just needs to warm up to you.”

Translation: “If Kitty were big enough, she would rip you limb from limb.”

  1. “Ask your mother.”

Translation: “No.”

  1. “Get your father to drive you.”

Translation: “No.”

  1. “My wife invited her parents to visit. Her father was special forces.”

Translation: “I will be sleeping with one eye open for the next few weeks.”


Home for the Holidays


  1. “This looks wonderful.”

Translation: “Is there an escape hatch to this house?”

  1. “Are you supposed to serve x with y?”

Translation: “The Martha Stewart Holiday Dinner Guide Volume VI, Section 4, Verse 11 states quite clearly you are not supposed to serve x with y.”

  1. “My mom’s turkey is so good. I’ll get you the recipe.”

Translation: “Is this turkey or a suede jacket from 1968?”

  1. “I need a drink.”

Translation: “I need a hell of a lot more than a drink.”

  1. “You look great.”

Translation: “I expected you to look much worse.”

  1. “You look good.”

Translation: “I expected you to look much better.”

  1. “Can we all try to get along this year?”

Translation: “I’d be OK if this turned into The Purge: A Christmas Miracle.”

  1. “I don’t want to impose.”

Translation: “I’m going to be a pain in the ass.”

  1. “I didn’t realize you were inviting Uncle Willie.”

Translation: “Is there cyanide in the cranberry sauce?”

  1. “Look how many children you have!”

Translation: “I knew I should have stayed in my sensory deprivation tank.”


Writing Workshop


  1. “I can see you put a lot of energy into this, but it’s just not working for me.”

Translation: “How much time did you waste on this monstrous literary homunculus?”

  1. “Your writing is very cinematic.”

Translation: “Your dialogue/story/plot (choose one or more) is/are so good I can barely contain my envy. But I’m going to do my best to make you feel like shit about it all the same.”

  1. “I’m not sure how to respond to this. I write ‘literary fiction’.”

Translation: “I may say I’m talking about your writing, but I’m really talking about mine.”

  1. “I wouldn’t have written it this way.”

Translation: “I’m a narcissistic twat.”

  1. “Everyone is doing so well.”

Translation: “I hate how well everyone is doing.”

  1. “Who is it you read?”

Translation: “What would possess you to write this shite?”

  1. “I’m just trying to help.”

Translation: “I am absolutely not trying to help, but I fear I’m in the process of being called out for my lack of helpfulness.”

  1. “This is amazing.”

Translation: “I may never recover.”

  1. “Dense.”

Translation: “Soporific.”

  1. “Challenging.”

Translation: “Dense.”


TNB Book Review: Robert Burke Warren’s Perfectly Broken

Reviewed by Kurt Baumeister for TNB Fiction

April 30, 2016

Fiction Reviews

51h6MXJbAjL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_On its face, minimalism might seem like an ironic term for fiction—one more suited to architecture or interior design—but in describing the style of writing that still dominates many MFA programs, it’s entirely fitting. Featuring spare prose and terse descriptions of the everyday, this is the manner of literary writing most easily taught, most simply reduced to a matter of craft. Often purposefully lacking in plot and story—and stripped mercilessly of personality—minimalism in its most realistic form can become a study not in nonfiction but in a sort of antifiction, work that may qualify as literary in ambition, but not effect. Unable to animate the seemingly realistic world it has created, minimalism often fails the most basic of literary tests. Like a song sung to perfect pitch, but without passion, minimalistic fiction can want for soul. It can lack magic.

Before I got into Perfectly Broken, Robert Burke Warren’s stunning debut novel, I had my doubts. Here is a story that seems at least superficially to qualify as realistic minimalism. The tale of a semi-failed, middle-aged musician fleeing Brooklyn in the face of a rent increase, I feared I might be in for a slice of domestic life lacking in soul, devoid of surprises. Now, having gobbled up Perfectly Broken in three, greedy, two-hour bites I can only describe it as a success, one that left me feeling a little like a kid at the end of a magic show, wondering how exactly the magician had managed to pull off all his tricks.

As the novel opens, it’s moving day for narrator, Grant Kelly, his wife, Beth, and their young son, Evan. The Kellys are on their way to a small town in the Catskills and what can only be described as a sort of financial crash landing, an unpaid tenancy on the “property” of old friends, Trip and Christa Lamont. Grant’s former roommate Trip is a semi-failed novelist and English teacher, Christa a moneyed dabbler. They have an adopted daughter named Katie, recently arrived from China, seemingly prepared to demolish their town of Mt. Marie (and maybe Trip and Christa’s marriage in the process).

Unlike so much realistic minimalism, Perfectly Broken is actually at its strongest, its most magical, in its depictions of real life. Not in a nuts-and-bolts sense (the sort of blunt cataloguing of reality I mentioned before), but in the ability to dramatize the mystery of human relationships and, in a grander sense, life itself. Rather than giving us a narrative that feels like an accumulation of foreshadowed plot points, Warren’s key conflicts remain unpredictable to resolution, and even beyond, echoing with the potential for evolution, as life itself does. Somehow, in spite of this, Warren’s narrative remains sharp and cohesive, never leaving the reader doubting its truth or its writer’s level of control. The feeling overall is one of watching real life happen—an enthralling version of real life at that—not acting as a bystander to the flat verisimilitude so much realism becomes. To a great extent, the narrative earns this effect through the dominance (and repetition) of its themes. Life and death, success and failure, art and commerce: these are the dualities that inform Perfectly Broken. These themes never feel forced, though. They develop organically, along with the story. There’s a symbiotic relationship between the thematic and the dramatic in this text, a union that leaves the whole far greater than its parts.

In extolling its other virtues, I realize I’ve forgotten one of Perfectly Broken’s greatest, which is its rendering of physical action. Whether in the extended life-and-death struggle on the Lamont property, a series of scenes that makes up the book’s literary “point of no return”, or in the powerful (and captivating) erotica sprinkled throughout the text, Warren is able to build incredible momentum, the sort of anticipation that could easily have readers finishing this book in one sitting.

Overall, Robert Burke Warren’s Perfectly Broken is an exceptional debut novel that points to greater things in its author’s future. Through its precise prose, the alchemical composition of its story, and the honest emotion that pervades its pages this book is a study in how to make realistic minimalism work, one that never puts the appearance of truth above the reality of it. One that never forgets fiction at its best is a little like magic.


The Silent End
By Samuel Sattin
Ragnarok Publishing, 2015
524 pages, $20.95


“The (novel) form should have been laid to rest at about the time of Finnegans Wake, but in fact it has continued to stalk the corridors of our minds for a further three-quarters of a century. Many fine novels have been written during this period, but I would contend that these were, taking the long view, zombie novels, instances of an undead art form that yet wouldn’t lie down.”

–Will Self, “The novel is dead (this time it’s for real)” (The Guardian 5/2/14)


In the literary world, we spend a lot of time making pronouncements about the death of the novel (or literature, or poetry), not enough trying to adapt the novel (or literature, or poetry) to a changing world. Even writers as astute and successful as Will Self can fall into this trap easily enough, trotting out their clever literary pets (rules and opinions, pronouncements and dictums, even the odd zombie analogy) while continuing to go against their own advice. To, in Self’s case, continue writing these supposedly useless novels, day after day, year after year.

Though we can’t be entirely sure based on the quote above, let’s presume that Will Self is not likening his own books to brutish brain-munchers unwilling to politely lie the hell down. Self is a writer (big W), an artist (big A). He’s trying to accomplishsomething, to make a statement. But maybe Self’s trying a little too hard to make that statement. This would explain why he’s missing the current stage in the novel’s development almost entirely.

Counter to Self’s implication that only a certain type of novel (literary, “challenging,”Finnegans Wake-ish) matters—that since these challenging (often unreadable) novels decline in popularity year in and year out this implies a terminus for the entire form—the current period in the novel’s history has more to do with literary democracy than elitism, more to do with the reader than the writer.

With film’s democratizing influence on 20th century literature as a springboard—the slipstream blending of literary prose, themes, and insights with genre material’s increased attention to plot, story, and dialogue (the qualities that can make for a great movie)—digitalization has, to get a little businessy about it, reduced barriers to market entry, made it easier for books to get to readers without the blessings of publishing conglomerates.

While this digitalization has led to a lot of static on Amazon’s virtual shelves (the million word Marxist polemic, the ten-volume zombie-porn-western series written in a fortnight) it’s also led to real, reader-friendly gems like The Silent End by Samuel Sattin—books that have something to say, do it in a literary way, but never forget the basic reader-writer compact, the writer fails to entertain at his own peril.

In The Silent End, Sattin has created a world instantly recognizable, yet entirely his own, one complete with a spiffy map that makes you feel a little like you’re setting off on an adventure before you’ve even gotten to the narrative. This map, and Sattin’s book, reference the small, fictional town of Mossglow, somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. Perpetually shrouded by clouds and fog, site of many an unexplained disappearance, Mossglow is home to our narrator and protagonist, high-schooler Nathaniel Eberstark, a lovable loser with few friends beyond the confines of his Sword Star league. (Sword Star is a sort of medieval/futuristic miniature strategy game, yet another nugget from Sattin’s fertile imagination.)

Chief among Eberstark’s friends is his brilliant bestie (and Sword Star compadre), Gus Mustus. Also central to the story is Eberstark’s would-be love interest, Lexi Navarro, a tough, chain-smoking teen with a fashion-accessorized eye patch and a beat-up Ford Bronco she calls the Shepherd. Mix in Eberstark’s haunted memories of his recently disappeared mother, a gang of town bullies (names like Charlene Poughkeepsie and Jesse Maroon echoing Bellow by way of Bugs Bunny), various (mostly nefarious) teachers and school administrators (with their own pithy names), and you’ve got the makings of an exciting story. This isn’t even the end of the ground situation, though.

Eberstark’s father, a grocer who appears to have gone insane in the wake of his wife’s disappearance, keeps to a bunker in the backyard where he and his mysterious, mute accomplice known only as the Hat (Hat for short) work to dubious, quasi-scientific ends. Convinced his father is probably insane (likely dangerously so), fearing the Hat may have sinister intentions, Eberstark nonetheless realizes the general vibe in Mossglow is more than a little off. And that’s before he and his friends find a dying monster in the middle of the woods on Halloween night, a monster whose blood gives life to inanimate objects.

Mysteries abound in The Silent End, danger lurking in even the most mundane places. From the basement of Eberstark’s family grocery store to his high school principal’s office and his father’s bunker, the suspense grows as the pages fly by. As cars and toys and still stranger things come to life, the book builds outward from its base of teen angst to create a crisply written, fantastical coming of age story filled with wry comedy and the honest pathos of a teenager reeling from his mother’s disappearance and semi-abandonment by his father.

There’s a little of everything in The Silent End, the result a sort of critical literary mass that leaves you thinking about things like sequels and movies. These are characters that grow on you as you read, friends you don’t want to see go. (Spoiler alert: Particularly, the Hat…) With exceptional pacing, speedy dialogue, and sharp descriptions, Sattin reveals himself as a major talent, someone who’ll be putting out fresh, exciting, reader-friendly books for years to come. And in the process he gives a sort of answer to Will Self (and anyone else lamenting the death of the novel): the novel is alive and well. And, to put it bluntly, kicking some major ass.

TNB Book Review: The Game of Love and Death by Martha Brockenbrough

Reviewed by Kurt Baumeister for TNB Fiction

January 07, 2016

Fiction Reviews

20308537“Then there is the other secret. There isn’t any symbolism. The sea is the sea. The old man is an old man. The boy is a boy and the fish is a fish.” ― Ernest HemingwaySelected Letters 1917-1961

Even if we take Hemingway at his famously reductive words—doing our best to forget the dead snow leopards and clean well-lit places that haunt so many a term paper—those words weren’t the first on literary symbolism nor were they ever destined to be the last. A century earlier, Hawthorne was spinning his yarn about Young Goodman Brown, a woodland walk with the Devil, and his wife…ahem…Faith. Decades after Hemingway, Salman Rushdie was dropping angels from airplanes at the beginning of The Satanic Verses, Martin Amis styling his unholy apocalyptic trinity of Keith Talent, Guy Clinch, and Nicola Six in London Fields, Ian McEwan compressing the whole of modern European history in the last few paragraphs of Black Dogs. When it comes to literary symbolism, one size has never fit all.

Handed a book with a title as thematically pregnant as Martha Brockenbrough’s The Game of Love and Death, you’d be a fool not to consider all the ways that title might be earned, to not at least entertain literary buzzwords like allegory and representationalism. A love story? Sure, yeah, that might work. A thriller? OK, there’s death in the title, so probably. But maybe there’s something beyond the visceral. Maybe, in spite of what Hemingway said, a sea isn’t always just a sea. Start reading Brockenbrough’s novel, her seventh, and you find all of the above: a romance wrapped in suspense, a dash of allegory thrown in for good measure. And it’s this combination that produces the sort of multi-layered satisfaction, and emotionally rich ending, you get from a book like The Game of Love and Death.

The game in question is quite literal, an age-old contest between immortal personifications of Love (male) and Death (female). Each selects one human “player” at birth. Love then spends the players’ lives trying to bring them together romantically, trying to make them fall in…love. Death tries to nix one or both, to tear them apart forever. Though Death has won every one of their past matches, Love keeps playing, century after century, life after life, hoping this will be the time he finally wins. Mild, kind, and a little bit goofy, Brockenbrough’s Love is a little like a junior angel with a broken wing. Accustomed to loss, he’s fully cognizant of how much more powerful his opponent is, yet still somehow filled with hope for the players, himself, and even his nemesis, Death. In counterbalance, Death is a chain-smoking femme fatale who favors the reddest of lipstick and holds the blackest of desires. She wants your soul—again, literally. Actually, she wants yours, mine, and everyone else’s, to consume them utterly. More than any others, though, Death wants the souls of the game’s players, Henry (the ward of a newspaper baron) and Flora (a club singer and pilot who dreams of being Amelia Earhart).

Though the book opens with the birth of the players and their selection by Love and Death, its present tense action takes place in Depression-Era Seattle with the real game, the end game, fast approaching. With Henry soon to head off to college and Flora dreaming of becoming the greatest of endurance pilots, Love and Death both show up in flesh: Love now disguised as James, “Mayor” of Seattle’s shanty town, Hooverville; Death taking the form of Helen, a lovely, young heiress and cousin to Henry’s foster family.

Brockenbrough’s world in The Game of Love and Death is built on these sorts of dualities. Black and white, day and night, good and evil. Woman and man, rich and poor, gay and straight…love and death. The book’s action relies on the attempted synthesis of these various sets of opposites, moving towards a conclusion that will not only mean the end of the players’ love story (in one way or another), but may also cost them their lives. More than that, the game’s end may mean a fundamental reshaping of the relationship between Love and Death, a relationship that’s not quite as adversarial as it may have seemed.

“Love touched the corner of the paper to the candle. He flung the burning scrap into the air. It flared, split apart, and fell to the ground, petals of a fiery rose. It smelled of smoke and lilies and blood and ash, and it made Death weep once more, tears as black as the hollows of space. But she did not mind this time, because she felt so full, not just of life, but of that other thing.”

Humanity loves definitions, sees the world as fundamentally knowable, even the parts of it we can’t understand. We hope that in creating art, writing novels for example, we can somehow gain insight, even subconsciously, into the mysteries of life. This is part of the lure of symbolism, not only in literature but in other forms of art and, for that matter, religion as well.

Aside from its dark humor, crisp pacing, and clean prose, The Game of Love and Death is a wide-ranging allegory about life and death, wealth and poverty, individualism and coupling; an allegory that helps produce an incredibly powerful ending, the words and emotions of which will be buzzing in your head long after you’ve set this book aside.

TNB Book Review: The Guild of St. Cooper, by Shya Scanlon

Reviewed by Kurt Baumeister for TNB Fiction

November 12, 2015


51zq2-7RLLL._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_“When I discover who I am, I’ll be free.” — Ralph Ellison (Invisible Man)

It’s not hard to see the need to understand ourselves as the central motivation for art. Whether we’re talking about painting or sculpture, poetry or the novel, the fictionalization of reality—its depiction and abstraction, its reordering and refocusing—offers the chance not only to escape into someone else’s life, but a new lens through which to see ourselves and our world, a means to reckon with reality and our place in it.

While this is undoubtedly true for an audience, it may be even truer for the artist himself. Not so much in terms of escape. After all, the artist is the master of his art; or, at the very least the essential force behind it. There are few surprises left for him after the creative process reaches its end. But during that process, in each stage from concept to completion, the artist has a chance (better put, an obligation) to try to understand himself, the world he lives in, and the new one he is creating.

Shya Scanlon’s third novel, The Guild of Saint Cooper, is many things: a fractured metafiction about climate change and collective madness; a social satire about what’s left after society breaks down (after the workings of a city, here Seattle, all fall away); a hybrid of poetry and prose that uses its beautiful language to, in part, subvert traditional narrative. More than anything, though, The Guild of Saint Cooper is a meditation on reality and identity, an attempt by Scanlon to deconstruct and reimagine not just his world but himself.

The book opens unassumingly enough, our narrator, Blake, greeting us from Seattle’s quiet, “post-evacuation” suburbia, a milieu that feels like one part Delillo, one part The Walking Dead, and a third part entirely Scanlon’s own, an absurd, paracomic slice of life that hints at the chaos to come.

“The sun smashed down on her back and on the upturned faces of the flowers and she clipped one—bright orange, many-petaled—then held her bouquet at arm’s length and nodded, turning it slowly in her hands.”

Soon tasked with rewriting the story of Seattle’s demise, creating an alternate history in which a fictionalized version of Dale Cooper (from TV’s Twin Peaks) will save the city from its imminent doom, the reality of Blake’s situation continues to degrade, begins to practically seethe with conspiracies he can’t quite grasp until they’ve overtaken him. Which seems fitting given the book’s focus on a conspiracy-riddled show like Twin Peaks. Equally fitting is this book’s lack of clean answers—every time a conflict seems resolved, the apparent resolution is proven to be a fraud, or at the very least a distraction. For that matter, even the book’s ending is ambiguous, Blake continuing (perhaps indefinitely) his search for Dale Cooper.

“The small gesture was mindless, but it occurred to me that if we were to find Dale Cooper at all, it would be in this way: through an automatic respect for the very real world around us.”

Grounded as the narrative is in impending climatic disaster—the Ross Ice Shelf threatening to collapse any second creating a tsunami that will leave Seattle flooded and uninhabitable; the vaguely sinister Weyerhauser Corporation looming off-screen; and finally the alien lights that seem an obvious symbol for our obsession with energy—it’s impossible not to see this book as climate fiction. The question that presses, though, is to what end?

With its sentient lights and obsession with creating a fictional history of heroism for a fictional representation of a fictional television character, The Guild of Saint Cooper is Scanlon’s statement about how we react in the face of crisis. Are we unable to do anything to stop our impending doom, only capable of finding what solace we can (or, if not solace, distraction) in reinventing ourselves and dissecting television shows, creating excuses (or again, perhaps only distractions) to keep us from focusing on our heart breaking reality? Scanlon certainly doesn’t excuse himself from this question.

If The Guild of Saint Cooper is Shya Scanlon’s recreation of reality, our narrator, Blake, is his reconstruction of himself. From the fact that Blake is a young writer working on a follow-up to his earlier bookForecast (the title of Scanlon’s first novel) to his obsession with Dale “Saint” Cooper (Scanlon’s online Twin Peaks Project has been a focus for much of his creative energy), to the fact that Blake’s significant other is also named Blake, The Guild of Saint Cooper plays with identity, with notions of truth and authorship, self and celebrity. As much as any character in the book, Blake exhibits the obsession with distraction in the face of apocalypse, the desire to calm his own fears come what may for society.

The question that looms over much of the book is what Scanlon is implying beyond this point. Is he suggesting we have limited agency in this, an inability to change our fate, that this need for distraction is unavoidable, terminal? Or, does he see hope for humanity (and himself), the idea that ridiculous as it may sound, our need for these distractions is actually linked to our ability to survive? As above, “The small gesture was mindless, but it occurred to me that if we were to find Dale Cooper at all, it would be in this way: through an automatic respect for the very real world around us.” Perhaps finding Dale Cooper is possible. More than that, perhaps the quest for him, or something like him, is what keeps us alive.

There’s never a final answer given to this question, which is one legitimate test of intellectual fiction. Obfuscate too much and you lose your reader, perhaps prove that you’re not even sure what you mean. Become too didactic, too simplistic, and you lose your reader in another way, move beyond intellectual fiction into polemic. The happy medium is to provide some but not all of the answers. Which is what Scanlon does. He takes us to the water, but doesn’t force us to drink.

The Guild of Saint Cooper is not a page-turner in the traditional sense. Still, it achieves and sustains momentum through the quality of its prose and the strength of its philosophy. Which means that as full-bore literary fiction, there’s no way to see The Guild of Saint Cooper as anything other than a success. If you’re looking for a book that raises new questions on every page, that makes you think about yourself and the world we live in, here it is, the intellectual page-turner, The Guild of Saint Cooper by Shya Scanlon.

Honesty and All its Oddities: This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance! by Jonathan Evison

This Is Your Life was one of T.V.’s earliest reality shows. Heavily choreographed and notoriously sentimental, it was a weekly salute to the life of one lucky person. Some subjects were famous, others not—the show’s unifying idea that life could be ordered, explained, and dramatized on T.V.. On This Is Your Life, the world made sense. There were always happy endings. The show was tailor-made for America in the 1950’s.

Still recovering from the violence and depravity of World War II—but emboldened and energized by its victory—America was feeling its oats as a superpower; the high, nuclear terror of the Cold War’s zenith still in the future. America’s victory in the war was proof that good would always win, that God would always be looking out for us. It was the beginning of a sort of national faerie tale some of us cling to today.

In many ways, Jonathan Evison’s This is Your Life, Harriet Chance! is a response to the mid-century American faerie tale. Stripped completely of the T.V. show’s hallmark sentimentality, Evison’s fourth novel is witty, not bland; knowing rather than saccharine sweet; wise instead of clichéd. From his intrusive narrator to his playful, Dickensian use of the metaphysical, Evison’s juxtaposition of literary color with a show cast in black and white presents a core irony that highlights the changes Harriet and America will undergo during her lifetime. Most significant among these is the advent of feminism, and with it the realization of other selves that might have been Harriet’s had she been the product of a time more like our own.

Born in 1936, a girl who came of age during World War II and grew to adulthood in the magically-placid fifties, Harriet is a widowed housewife who once dreamed of being an attorney, a seemingly proper woman with more than a few secrets. Her days a regimented haze of precise calorie counts and appointments planned months in advance, Harriet marches into late life uncertain of her place in the world.

Alternately troubled and comforted by memories of her husband, Bernard, and their life together, Harriet also has to contend with Bernard’s restless spirit who insists on communicating with her from the great beyond. As the book opens, Harriet is dealing with the way Bernard’s appearances impact her physical reality, producing effects she must explain to friends and acquaintances (a misplaced can of WD-40, moved slippers, etc.). More than that, she’s dealing with the obvious complication: no one, including the parish priest, buys a whit of it. Well, almost no one. The reader believes it. And with good reason. Within the confines of the novel, it’s indisputably true.

Told as the book is in third person omniscient, there’s never any doubt about whether Bernard’s spirit is actually communicating with Harriet. We see him doing it in-scene on multiple occasions. We even see Bernard in-scene without Harriet, bucking the instructions of Mr. Charmichael, his Chief transition officer in Purgatory, threatening his chances for heavenly ascension in the process. Bernard has his reasons, though. After their life together—or perhaps because of their life together—he has things to communicate to Harriet. Truths left untold, wisdom thus unlearned. He’s not the only one.

From Harriet’s children to her friends, the strangers she encounters on the Alaskan cruise that forms the story’s backbone, and even our narrator, everyone seems to be trying to tell Harriet something. The problem being they’re not entirely sure what it is they’re trying to say. And this becomes one of the book’s primary themes—the idea that real honesty is an acceptance of one’s lack of understanding, rather than a sudden rush of enlightenment.

Truth doesn’t bring the easy, sentimental answers that were so common to programs like This Is Your Life. Those shows and the version of America that went with them were lies. Self-congratulatory and devoid of purpose besides the perpetuation of clichés, they peddled the idea that life could be understood, that it represented a navigable path, a course ever-seeking some bright North Star.

But there are no North Stars for Harriet Chance. Every one she imagined—and there were many—wound up a counterfeit. Even her relationships with husband, friends, and children fall into this category, or at least show the effects of Harriet’s humanity, the trap from which none of us escape. Life’s not easy. Even when we’re lucky, it makes only the slightest and most fleeting of sense.

In spite of its honesty—an honesty that, at times, you might even call brutal—Evison’s is a bright book, not a dark one. Never weighed down by its topicality or lacking in humor, This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance! puts off a sort of freeing energy, a feeling of peace for its characters and readers. Wit and empathy, easy lyricality and elegant construction—these are Jonathan Evison’s strengths as a writer. They’re all here. But there’s truth here, too; lest we forget we live in the real world, not the kindly-lit soundstage of some American faerie tale.

The Sounds of Madness: The Subprimes by Karl Taro Greenfeld

“The Necropastoral is a political-aesthetic zone in which the fact of mankind’s depredations cannot be separated from an experience of ‘nature’ which is poisoned, mutated, aberrant, spectacular, full of ill effects and affects.” –Joyelle McSweeney

In our world, one in which images of impending environmental doom seem to simmer and bubble all around us—hapless polar bears on melting icebergs, seagulls slicked black with spilled oil, withering farmland and flooded cities—McSweeney’s concept of the necropastoral is at once intellectually vital and darkly comic. On its most basic level the term is ironic, a sort of Latinate, literary shorthand for man’s fundamentally flawed relationship with his planet, a marker for his simultaneous roles as victim and perpetrator, maker and reaper, of apocalypse. It’s also a term that seems uniquely descriptive of Karl Taro Greenfeld’s second novel, The Subprimes. Others would be infectious and breakneck, hilarious and profound.

The latest addition to the growing subgenre of cli-fi (or climate fiction), Greenfeld’s is one of, if not the best. Part satire, part preemptive elegy for a dying planet—and, really, who will be around to write (or read) an elegy if the unthinkable becomes reality?—The Subprimes may turn out to be one of 2015’s most-celebrated novels. With a language that splits the difference between Martin Amis’s slangy poetics and Vonnegut’s jabbing minimalism, more heart than any piece of comic writing I’ve ever read, and a narrative twist or three up its black little sleeves, The Subprimes is the work of a major, emerging talent in literary fiction.

I feel a little silly describing Greenfeld as an “emerging talent.” He’s published six books of nonfiction after all, written for The New York Times, GQ, and Vogue, and placed stories in the Best American Short Story series twice (2009 and 2013). Still, this is only his second novel. His first, Triburbia (2012), was a critical success Jay McInerney (writing forThe New York Times) called “artful” and Publishers Weekly described as “absorbing.” So, I’ll stick with “emerging.” Fair is fair.

The subprimes are average Americans in a near future that may become our own, a growing class of people with bad credit and worse job prospects edged out by the unfeeling (often insidious) forces of killer technology and market economics run amok. In an America that’s fracked its way to energy independence (and become the world’s largest energy producer as a result), families of dispossessed subprimes roam the American countryside in their beat-up, gas-guzzling SUV’s, postmodern Bedouins trapped in an American Nightmare.

The book’s main character (and narrator) is Richie Schwab, a dope smoking, middle-aged hack journalist. Richie’s dual role as reporter and story reminds me of the great, vaguely meta-fictional narrators Martin Amis used in his best novels (the London Trilogy of Money, London Fields, and The Information). A stand-in for the author himself, Richie’s role in both first and third person narrations plays with notions of truth and story, the lines between fact and fiction.

In addition to Richie, the cast is made up primarily of families: one of subprimes (Bailey, her husband Jeb, and their children, Tom and Vanessa), another in danger of becoming subprimes (Gemma, estranged wife of fraudulent energy derivatives trader, Arthur Mack, and her daughters, Franny and Ginny), and Richie’s own (his ex-wife Anya and their kids, Ronin and Jinx). There are two notable exceptions, both spiritual leaders of a sort: Sargam, a young woman who eventually becomes the leader of the subprime community at the center of the book’s drama, and televangelist Pastor Roger, leader of the famed Freedom Prairie Church (and pawn of wealthy industrialists, the Pepper Sisters). Though this list of characters may seem dizzying in the abstract, there’s never trouble keeping them all straight. The book is a smooth speedy read, one that nonetheless has a lot to say.

As the power of government yields to that of the corporation, the subprimes find themselves constantly on the run, moving from one Ryanville (camps reminiscent of the Hoovervilles of the Great Depression) to the next. There, they work wage-unregulated jobs (the minimum wage having been outlawed) at job sites unpoliced by the Feds (OSHA and the EPA, too, have gone the way of big government). It’s not only humanity that suffers in Greenfeld’s world: from whales mysteriously (maybe suicidally) beaching themselves to roving packs of ravenous coyotes and the blasted vistas left by industry run rampant, nature is in open rebellion against humanity in general and America in particular. With global warming accelerating, the wealthy plot their escapes to sanctuary islands where they dream of living untouched by the death all around them. Though they never come out and call themselves “primes,” the derision we hear leveled at the jobless, credit-unworthy subprimes carries echoes of the alphabetic caste system of Huxley’s Brave New World.

At the heart of Greenfeld’s future America rests the abandoned town of Valence, Nevada, an arena in which good and evil (or, better put, life and death) will meet in the forms of Sargam, Pastor Roger, and their respective flocks. Under the cyanide gaze of network news drones (and unintentionally-embedded journalist, Richie Schwab), Pastor Roger’s quest to bless the Pepper Sisters’ latest tool of resource extraction, the massive Joshua machine, will come up against Sargam’s philosophies of nonviolence and “people helping people.”

There will be losses on both sides, the worst of them born by children, which is one of the central points Greenfeld posits: humanity’s relationship with its environment is so unsustainable that it amounts to the rejection of a future beyond that which we can see and, on some level, the rejection of life. Couple this with the role of the supernatural in the book’s conclusion (earned though it is throughout) and we have the final piece of Greenfeld’s satire. In a world so clearly stripped of magic—so obviously a result of the victory of technology over everything including man—the idea of humanity being saved by supernatural means is laughable, no matter how good it might feel dramatically. In the wake of Greenfeld’s last, and maybe his darkest joke, the reader is left with two choices—either stop laughing altogether or laugh loud enough to drown out the sounds of madness all around you.

REVIEW: The Sea-God’s Herb by John Domini

Name your topic, spin the wheel, and the Internet spits back its wicked mix of information and innuendo, wisdom and witlessness. From Kim’s ass to Kanye’s ego, there’s no shortage of expertise in the online world. Literary criticism is no exception. Whether we’re talking about the meat-and-potatoes book review, the ten thousand word think-piece on Proust’s Peruvian gargoyle fetish, or something in between, there are plenty of would-be tastemakers anxious to be heard.

Browse Goodreads or Amazon some time—go on, I dare you—and you’ll find every subspecies of reviewer from the fresh MFA to the self-taught literary gunslinger, from the five-star friend fluffer to the less-than-zero literary lunatic. You’ll find people who don’t even bother to review the book under discussion, proffering instead a link to their own two hundred thousand word, unedited opus. Then, of course, you may also find that most essential and least populous subspecies, the professional literary critic. Somebody, let’s say, like John Domini.

Domini’s latest, The Sea-God’s Herb, represents an attempt at the career-spanning retrospective, a task that seems thrilling and deeply satisfying, but also daunting in its way. The potential pitfalls are obvious. If, on one hand, the critic claims too much ground he may become scattershot or even grandiose in his attempt to tie the whole of literature up in a neat little package. One example, titanic a figure as Harold Bloom, there’s still no getting around the fact that his ego gets the better of him from book to book. But, then, he is Harold Bloom, so we go along with the hubris in order to partake of the genius.

Conversely, there’s the mistake of not trying to do enough with a collection of criticism, of being satisfied with little more than a one-way ticket to reprint city. This seems to me a far greater flaw than bravado or hubris. What do we look for from the critic, especially when considering a career-spanning collection of criticism? We want the goods—erudition and insight, style and grace. We expect to see the critic’s literary vision on the page, and for the critic to examine it with us, for him to provide scope as to what he’s spent several decades doing. This is precisely what we get with The Sea-God’s Herb.

Sea-God is a collection of forty pieces drawn from sources such as New York Times Book Review, The New Republic, Boston Globe, Ploughshares,American Book Review, Harvard Review, and Bookforum. Aside from the odd topical lark (the Sopranos, Che Guevara, and the 1995 Italian Metamorphosis Exhibit at The Guggenheim come to mind), the focus is primarily on postmodernism (and a fair amount of metafiction), which makes sense given that Domini studied in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins (one of the academic homes of American literary experimentalism). Morrison and Calvino, Delillo and Pynchon, Barth, Coover, and Gass all get their space here, the whole organized around a seemingly unlikely source, Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. As Domini puts it himself:

“Transformation would be another word for it, a word that gives me my title. The source is Dante, the first Canto of Paradiso, which begins a lot like Coover on Beckett. It begins in doubt, as the Poet frets that he can never get across the wonders he’s seen. He must trasumanar,‘transhumanize,’ in the Divine Comedy’s distinguishing neologism. Yet his guide Beatrice helps him achieve this altered state with a single long look:

Gazing at her, I felt myself becoming

what Glaucus had become tasting the herb

that made him like the other sea-gods there.

The translation is Mark Musa’s, but the myth referred to remains the same in any idiom. A fisherman notices that a certain shore grass revives his dead catch and so he tries the stuff himself; he becomes a god. What’s more, Glaucus stays that way. He gets no comeuppance, making miracles and collecting lovers. Ovid, Dante’s source, no doubt took pleasure in how the story upset expectation.”

Domini is talking about himself here, explaining the impetus for the collection and more still for the decades he’s spent framing reviews and cobbling criticism while his own creative work (three novels, two books of short stories, and a poetry collection) beckoned. He finds himself mesmerized by the power of storytelling, so much that it animates his thoughts (and writing) even when the topic is the architecture of metafiction or the translation of 14th century Italian epic poetry.

And this is the ironic trick Domini gives us, the way he manages to keep to a middle path between excessive pride and lack of ambition: he sets the focus squarely on himself, his own work and tastes, copping to the idiosyncrasy of any career retrospective, any literary criticism for that matter. Much as someone like the eminent Harold Bloom may want to give us The Western Canon, he’s really only giving us one version, his own.

The strengths of this collection are its playful prose, intellectual depth, and the breadth of texts it covers, the fact that it finds space not only for Dante and postmodern giants like Calvino, but younger writers, the “Coming Tide” as the Sea-God motif labels them, people like Matt Bell and Blake Butler. In this, Domini pays tribute to his real aim, the reason he’s spent so much time on criticism, a desire not for self-aggrandizement but at advocacy for what he loves.

As for the individual pieces here, the strongest for me are his multiple (justified) defenses of John Barth, his amusing takedown of Pynchon’sVineland, and his fine, very recent piece on Calvino, Chessboard & Cornucopia: 40 Years of Invisible Cities. Then, of course, there are the two essays that provide the collection’s thematic spine—Tower, Tree, Candle: Dante’s Divine Comedy & the Triumph of the Fragility and Against “the Impossible to Explain:” The Postmodern Novel and Society. All things considered, Sea-God is a treat for the literary geek in each of us (or, at least, those of us who have an inner literary geek), an ambitious grad lit seminar crammed into a single book, one only John Domini could teach.

REVIEW: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

You wouldn’t think we’d find the apocalypse so compelling. If it comes—when it comes—the end won’t be pretty. In fact, it will almost certainly be grizzly. Still, we love to think about it, to watch films about it, and read novels about it. Some people might call this humanity’s death wish. To me, it seems like the opposite, ironic as that is.

Our obsession with the end runs hand-in-hand with our desire to understand ourselves and our origins, a belief that if we know what’s coming we’ll be able to stop it. In this way apocalyptic literature has the ring of prophecy or fleshed-out fortune-telling—part of its seductiveness the idea that there are secrets hidden within. But there’s another level to apocalyptic literature, the best of it at least. Here, I’d include Emily St. John Mandel’s latest, Station Eleven, along with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Ultimately, these books fulfill Milan Kundera’s lofty goal for the novel (from The Book of Laughter and Forgetting):

“The stupidity of people comes from having an answer for everything. The wisdom of the novel comes from having a question for everything… In a world built on sacrosanct certainties the novel is dead. The totalitarian world, whether founded on Marx, Islam, or anything else, is a world of answers rather than questions. There, the novel has no place.”

Station Eleven is a rare piece of work, one that succeeds dramatically and linguistically, philosophically and thematically. In this, it shares something with one of its great and obvious obsessions, the life and work of William Shakespeare. That’s not to raise Mandel’s art to the level of Shakespeare’s—a comparison the author herself would no doubt shy from—but to say that Station Eleven is a book of its time in much the way Shakespeare’s work was of his, one well deserving of its status as a National Book Award finalist.

The world of Station Eleven is stark and blighted, most of the novel set in the aftermath of the Georgia Flu, a pandemic that has killed almost 100% of the world’s population. Humanity’s remnant clings to the basics of existence, the skeleton of a civilization at once deluded and grand, foolish and hopeful, arrogant and doomed. That civilization is, of course, our own.

With antibiotics, electricity, the Internet, and countless other, modern conveniences stripped away humanity’s survivors don’t so much try to rebuild society as subsist in the shadow of what once was. They live as hunter-gatherers and scavengers, marauders and zealots, such technology as remains both blessing and curse, fodder for children’s stories but also for feelings of despair, a pall of grief fallen across a stricken world. Station Eleven becomes a poetic lament for the scientific magic that has been lost, “These taken for granted miracles that had persisted all around them.”

From the opening chapter, in which famed actor, Arthur Leander, dies during a performance of King Lear, to its dramatic focus on the Traveling Symphony, a troupe of gun-toting, knife-wielding players that roam the pandemic-ravaged, post-apocalyptic world performing classical music and Shakespeare (their motto, Because Survival is Insufficient), to the story of Station Eleven itself (a fictional space station that serves as locus for the novel’s meta-fictional book within a book) Mandel’s novel centers on the struggle between existence and transcendence, a conflict that rests at the heart of the human experience.

This struggle takes multiple forms, the differences between existence and transcendence not always so easy to see. Just as in our world, many are led astray by religion even after “the apocalypse,” none more than the prophet and his followers, their holy books the New Testament (and, of course, the Book of Revelation), but also the graphic novel, “Station Eleven.”

Yes, somehow “Station Eleven” has found its way into the prophet’s hands but also into the hands of Kirsten Raymonde, a member of the Traveling Symphony. A child actress who was performing with Arthur Leander the night he died, Kirsten received her copy from him, as ultimately did the prophet. Over the course of the novel these two characters and their two radically different interpretations of Station Eleven draw ever closer, building towards a final life and death confrontation that comes to feel epic in scope.

Station Eleven is one of the finest novels I’ve read in some time, a book that succeeds sentence to sentence, scene to scene, and as a piece of philosophical art. In spite of its obsession with Shakespeare’s life and work, this book doesn’t set out to court greatness. But with the restrained brilliance of its prose, the humility of its attention to story and dramatic construction, and its unwillingness to give us easy answers it may have achieved that greatness all the same.