The Brooklyn Rail: And I Do Not Forgive You by Amber Sparks

The Once and Future Queen: Amber Sparks’s Weird Realism

By Kurt Baumeister

Amber Sparks
And I Do Not Forgive You: Stories and Other Revenges
(Liveright, 2020)

Tension isn’t necessarily fun, but it’s not always bad either. Under the right circumstances, tension can become pressure and pressure can produce the magic of physical transformation. It can turn coal, a grimy, black rock—unloved but by the odd mustache-twirling, workman’s comp-bilking billionaire—into diamonds which, as any Discount Diamond Warehouse commercial will tell you, some people will do just about anything to get their mitts on. They’ll kiss and hug you for diamonds. They’ll love and forgive you for them. They’ll even kill and steal for those sparkly nuggets. (Granted, killing and stealing aren’t generally mentioned in the ads, but anyone who understands the history of blood diamonds knows the truth.) Good writing, also a product of many different forms and levels of tension, can make us feel many of these same powerful impulses. But writing does more than simply feed off tension: At its best, writing acts like a tension reactor, producing it in turn, producing more tension than ever went into its creation.

Mechanical considerations like dramatic and dialogue tension aside, there’s the issue of critical tension, the fact that for every sweeping denunciation of this piece or that writer, this school or that style, there’s a countervailing, and equally, if not more, emphatic, “No, ma’am, I do not agree.” These days, in our cybernetic postpostpost-whatever world, many of these opinions and their related dust-ups get spun out on Literary Twitter. A case in point: Recently, a self-described millennial decried as “old weirdos” Gen X fiction writers who keep wanting to make things really goddamned strange. (I knew we were weird; but, shit, when did we get old, too?) Since the Tweet has been deleted, I won’t recount the extensive back and forth that ensued (in which I was not directly involved, thanks), but, obviously, the tension between the literarily realistic and not-so is alive and well today. Fortunately for me, I had a book to review by a writer who age-wise rests on the cusp between Gen X and millennial, who simultaneously—and this is the important part—manages to produce work that marries the weird with the realistic, work that produces the best sort of tension.

Amber Sparks’s third story collection And I Do Not Forgive You: Stories and Other Revenges is, as the title suggests, teeming with tales of retribution, though reducing the book or even its concept to that of a glorified burn book would be way off the mark. Desire, anger, murder, madness, robots, gods, monsters, apocalypses, love, hate, violence, magic, fairy godmothers, women as heroes, and men behaving badly (badly-behaved men who often pay with their lives, or hearts, or souls for said bad behavior): all these things live within this book’s pages. As with Sparks’s first two collections, May We Shed These Human Bodies (2012) and The Unfinished World (2016), it’s not difficult to find things to like here. From her ability to spin an enchanting web of story to her gifts with language (alternately slangy in its idiom and jaw-dropping in its eloquence) and resolutions (bizarre and idiosyncratic yet somehow also universal) this is the perfect collection to dip into for 15 minutes here or a half hour there. You’re going to want to—and, honestly, probably have to—read all these stories more than once to get everything out of them, so there’s no need dashing through. Not that you couldn’t. Taken individually, the pieces are certainly good enough to make you read straight through; more still, to leave you wondering along the way just how Sparks does it.

How can she blend her fantastic, off-the-wall conceits with flawless execution and real world flourishes, seamlessly craft a modern faerie tale (“We Destroy the Moon”) about the end of the world and the death of a god into a triumphant revenge parable about a woman finally free of her self-centered husband?

It is always this way, at the end of things, you said. The people will need a god.
Are you fucking kidding me, I said.
Same thing, you said, and kissed my forehead, chastely, like the saint you were becoming. I despised you when you got this way; I wanted to ask Herod for your head.
Your son, I started, then stopped because I did not wish to know. There are boxes better locked. And I shivered and wished you gone, even then. Already it was growing too hard to love a statue.

In its combination of the epic and everyday, its effortless interspersing of references from Biblical and Greek mythology, “We Destroy the Moon” is an exceptional achievement, a piece of climate fiction (it’s that, too), that in its scope, tone, and depth had me thinking of Matt Bell’s brilliant novella Cataclysm Baby (2012). But there’s much more than a good story or two here, a fact that sets And I Do Not Forgive You apart from so many collections.

Really, in looking back on the collection, it’s possible I could highlight every story, but these were the ones that were most memorable for me: “A Place for Hiding Precious Things” in which a daughter is forced by her fairy godmother to wear a donkey carcas to escape her incestuous father; “A Short and Slightly Speculative History of Lavoisier’s Wife” in which a woman struggles to gain recognition for her achievments; “In Which Athena Designs a Video Game with the Express Purpose of Trolling Her Father” features, yes, that Athena and a cheeseburger-mowing Zeus clueless to his own trolling; “The Eyes of Saint Lucy” in which a woman impassively recounts the tale of her mother poisoning her father; and “When the Husband Grew Wings” in which a woman grows her own wings in response to her husband’s stilted transformation. Overall, And I Do Not Forgive You is nothing short of a raging success, a volume that points to a potentially incandescent literary future.

According to Kundera, the point of literature is not to do away with tension by answering questions definitively; it’s to suggest more questions, something that, no doubt, Sparks’s latest does. Ultimately, the various tensions at play in And I Do Not Forgive You are of the best sort, driving the writing brilliantly. Amber Sparks may be on her way to doing something rare—that is creating a style that requires the development of an expanded critical vocabulary to explain it. No outcome is assured this early in her career, but if Sparks keeps progressing at this rate critics may someday talk about “weird realism” or something like it, and do it in a way that acknowledges Sparks as its queen.

Under the Influence #2, Son of Kid of Baby

UNDER THE INFLUENCE #2, SON OF KID OF BABY

written by Kurt Baumeister July 10, 2018 (ran initially at Entropy Magazine)

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet;”

– Juliet, Act II, Scene II of Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

 

In school, we’re taught we can give things names and in doing so cast a sort of spell, that we can create a shared understanding of what it is we’re talking about. But that teaching isn’t necessarily borne out by reality. Names, as Juliet might have mused four centuries ago, aren’t always what they’re cracked up to be.

Take Literary Modernism (essentially New-ism), a catchy vaguery that was (and is) the literary world’s response to the sweeping technological changes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, most notably the assembly-line approach to mass-killing World War I had made possible. Woolf and Joyce, Faulkner and Kafka—these disparate writers were all modernists, “new” writers who, maybe mimicking the destruction all around them, attempted to confront technology’s impact on humanity by blowing the literary world apart. Modernists made literature so varied (and often weird compared to what had gone before) no one could succinctly categorize what was being done. We weren’t dealing with realism, for example: People were waking up as cockroaches. But we weren’t dealing with realism’s glitzy twin romanticism either: People were waking up as cockroaches. What we were dealing with was a world in which people could wake up as cockroaches and you could still get a decent story out of it.

Modernism wasn’t the end of weird, though. Nor, in fact, was it the end of technology’s dizzying advance. To television and splitting the atom, critics responded with yet another new term, one we’re quite familiar with today: Postmodernism. Maybe their thinking was that with a little more time, and another buzzword (After-New-ism?) to distract people, they’d finally be able to figure things out? But they didn’t. Or, rather, haven’t.

They (and we) stumbled through the next three-quarters of a century (flight and spaceflight, the Internet, AI, robotics, and genetics) mumbling “blah blah Thomas Pynchon blah postmodern blah” and “Blah blah postmodernist David Foster Wallace blah blah blah”, until we wound up on the cusp of something else without being clear not just what that was, but on what had come before it or even before that. If Modernism was a baby who never got a name besides Baby, Postmodernism was its kid, Kid. All of which leaves us where and with what? Postpostmodernism, I guess, Son of Kid of Baby, or something like that…

Now for the good stuff. This month’s group of influences kicks off with literary magician Amber Sparks and her admiration for the Baroness von Blixen, Isak Dinesen. Much as I hate to admit it, I think we may owe Twitter a debt of gratitude for Amber’s contribution. But I’ll leave it at that. Enjoy…


Isak Dinesen

by Amber Sparks

I prefer the title ‘storyteller’ to ‘writer,’ so self-professed storyteller Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen) is my literary heroine. In her books, she transforms the traditional fairy tale into something much wilder, stranger, and more savage. I love that she turns that hoary old advice on its head and she tells, rather than shows, and thank god for an old-fashioned bard. As the Paris Review says, “Outside the canon of modern literature like an oriole outside a cage of moulting linnets, Isak Dinesen offers to her readers the unending satisfaction of the tale told.”  Her collection Seven Gothic Tales was the first I ever read, in print, that felt like someone was spinning me stories on a dark and shadowy night.

Amber Sparks is the author of two short story collections and a novella. Her work mostly lives atambernoellesparks.com, and she mostly lives @ambernoelle on Twitter, much to her chagrin.

 


Lydia Davis

 by Laurie Stone

One day the man I live with read me “The Bone,” a story by Lydia Davis. The narrator, now divorced, remembers a fish bone caught in her husband’s throat. Attempts to dislodge it fail. A doctor extracts it with a tiny hook. The doctor is Jewish and the husband, also a Jew, speak in French about being Jews. I said, “What’s it about?” The man said, “Irritation is at the center of everyone’s life, irritation that can neither be coughed up or swallowed. The narrator recalls connection in a time of loneliness.” I said, “I would never have understood that in a million years.” Thus began my romance with the mysterious, layered moments and gloomy hopefulness of the Davis short story.

Laurie Stone is author most recently of My Life as an Animal, Stories. Her stories have appeared in Tin House,Evergreen ReviewFenceOpen CityThe CollagistThreepenny Review, and Creative Nonfiction, among other publications. She is at work on The Love of Strangers, a collage of hybrid narratives. Her website is:lauriestonewriter.com.

 


Kathy Acker

by James Reich

—Empire—of—the—Senseless—Artaud—Rimbaud—Apropos—Foucault—YoHoHo—Homosexuals—Hemophiliacs—Haitians—Heroin—4H—Tattoo—Voodoo—Hoodlum—Cyborg—Appropriate—Inappropriate—Disappopriate—Amputate—Fornicate—AIDS—CDC—CIA—Discipline—Anarchy—Colony—Imperial—Empirical—Empire —Orphan—Dickensian—Algerian—Reagan—Urchin—Cancer—Neuromancer—Exotic—Dancer—Necromancer—Pirate—Muscle—Barnacle—Manacle—Motorcycle—Radical—Tears—Punishing—Nourishing—Eidetic—Emetic—Schreber—Freud—Mother—Father—Multinational—Flesh—Rose—Cunt—Blood—Phenomenology—Sade—Samedi—Theory—Rejects—Revolution—Robot— Effigies—Elegies—Class—Corpus—Rope—Rats—Dead—Fish—Fuck—Form—Intention—Language—Transnationalism—Rape—Travesty—Tricky—Transvestite—Code—Body—Failure—Drastic—Classicism—Sculpt—Scalp—Scalpel—Mastectomy—Masts—Masks—Modernist—Pain—Postmodernist—Pimps—Love—Persian—Poems—

James Reich is the author of five novels including the forthcoming The Song My Enemies SingSoft Invasions(2017), and Mistah Kurtz! A Prelude to Heart of Darkness (2016) from Anti-Oedipus Press. He is the publishing editor of Stalking Horse Press and has a Kathy Acker tattoo.

 


Elizabeth McCracken

by Shannon Leone Fowler

Another writer recommended Elizabeth McCracken’s An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination when I was writing my own memoir. It begins with a suggestion that she “should write a book about the lighter side of losing a child. (This is not that book.)” What follows taught me that books can be deeply sad and profoundly beautiful at the same time. Her words are unflinching and unapologetic. Writing about the death of my own fiancé, I was surprised by the universality of grief. And the ending of McCracken’s memoir perfectly encapsulates life after losing someone you will always love.

Shannon Leone Fowler is a marine biologist, writer, and single mother of three young children. She’s researched Australian sea lions, taught in the Bahamas and Galápagos, studied killer whales in the San Juan Islands, and spent seasons in both the Arctic and Antarctic. Originally from California, she lives in London. Her memoir, Traveling with Ghosts, is out now in paperback.

 


Donald Barthelme

by John Domini

Donald Barthelme left us any number of nourishing lines. He can make a meal out of just two words, like “monkscloth pajamas” from Snow White. Yet for such protein, he dug deep. I mean his gift may seem all surface: the Tharp-sharp wit, the Flying Wallenda rhetoric, leaping from blunt to dandified. Yes, but his true cornucopia was the passions. All his challenges to narrative norms, baroque and Euro in “The Indian Uprising,” folksy and cartoonish in “The School,” one way or another evoke familiar quandaries. Even those monkscloth pajamas — what’s their story? Who’s doing penance, night after lonely night? One hopes the poor guy at least finds a good Barthelme story to sustain him.

John Domini’s latest book is MOVIEOLA, a collection of linked stories. In 2019 he’ll publish the novel The Color Inside a Melon.

 

 


J.G. Ballard

by Michael J. Seidlinger

I remember the copy of Crash a bandmate brought to practice—the blue cover with its iconic head-on collision, the irresistible premise of people turned on by car accidents. Of course, I was on board with Ballard: as if I’d read him before I’d even picked up one of his books. The DroughtThe Drowned WorldThe Crystal WorldCocaine NightsAtrocity ExhibitionCrash, you name it, I read it. Ballard’s books fueled my passion for exploration, the desire to question sexuality and technology. More than that, he taught me to transform an urge into a fully fleshed-out piece, an idea into an entire novel.

Michael J. Seidlinger is an Asian-American author of a number of books including Standard Loneliness Package,My Pet Serial Killer, and The Fun We’ve Had. He serves as Library and Academic Marketing Manager at Melville House, Editor-at-Large for Electric Literature, and is a member of The Accomplices. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, where he never sleeps and is forever searching for the next best cup of coffee. You can find him online on Facebook, Twitter (@mjseidlinger), and Instagram (@michaelseidlinger).

 

 

Download PDF

0 comment

0

   

The Nervous Breakdown’s Review Microbrew, Volume 6

By Kurt Baumeister

January 12, 2017

 

Mircobrew will return in its usual form in early February with 2017’s first batch of new books. For now, here are my ten favorites from 2016, in no particular order, along with a favorite chosen by each of the authors I selected.

I have to admit, looking at this list gives me a feeling of accomplishment. I read a lot of great books in 2016, many of which I wasn’t able to include in this top 10. More than that, I’m amazed at the variety of contemporary American fiction, a range I think is well represented in this list.

Though some people suggest American fiction is cookie-cutter–especially that produced by MFA programs–I just don’t see it. From the experimental to the starkly realistic, from ornate prose to the sparest of minimalism, from comedy to drama, this list is a representation of what I wanted to do with this column. I wanted Microbrew to demonstrate the incredible range of contemporary American literature, and I like to think the column and this list both serve that end.

 

United States of Japan by Peter Tieryas

tieryas

“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.”

–The Nervous Breakdown’s Review Microbrew, Volume 3

Peter Tieryas on The Wall of Storms by Ken Liu:

513FJhEUVjL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_

The Wall of Storms by Ken Liu is one of the best books I’ve read, an epic fantasy that is as entertaining as it is enlightening, a perfect storm of literary awesomeness.”

 

A Tree or a Person or a Wall by Matt Bell

 51mu+GjhAbL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

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…”

–My review for Electric Literature

 

Matt Bell on The Throwback Special by Chris Bachelder:

51LO9frBefL

“And I’d love to add a book to the list: Chris Bachelder’s The Throwback Special was the funniest, saddest, wisest novel I read (and reread) this year.”

 

Dating Tips for the Unemployed by Iris Smyles

smyles

“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.”

–The Nervous Breakdown’s Review Microbrew, Volume 3

 

Iris Smyles on The Confidence Game by Maria Konnikova:

419xYZjaD4L

“Maria Konnikova’s The Confidence Game, about the psychology of the con, is a fantastic book that is close to my heart. We fool others the same way we fool ourselves is the crux of it–a theme I’ve pursued in both my own books, Iris Has Free Time and its companion Dating Tips for the Unemployed.”

 

Welcome Thieves by Sean Beaudoin

Beaudoin_Welcome Theives_PBO_cvr_FINAL_PRNT_REV.indd

“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.”

–The Nervous Breakdown’s Review Microbrew, Volume 2

 

Sean Beaudoin on Valiant Gentlemen: A Novel by Sabina Murray:

51GigeN2GgL

“My vote for best book of 2016 goes to Valiant Gentlemen: A Novel by Sabina Murray (Grove Press). Hooray for a return to the pleasure of straight storytelling, and ruminations on what it means to be human.”

 

The Unfinished World by Amber Sparks

unfinishedworld

“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.”

–The Nervous Breakdown’s Review Microbrew, Volume 1

 

Amber Sparks on Insurrections by Rion Amilcar Scott:

51onTLXQ9HL

“That’s a tough call. I’m going to say Rion Amilcar Scott’s Insurrections. I’ve been a fan of Rion’s for a while, and I waited a long time for this short story collection, all set in a fictional town in Maryland. It’s beautiful, honest, heartbreaking, funny as hell, and almost perfect.”

 

Perfectly Broken by Robert Burke Warren

51h6MXJbAjL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_

“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.”

–My review at TNB

 

Robert Burke Warren on The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr:

51WUHJlDpZL

“I am late to The Liars’ Club (published 1995), but it was pressed into my hand by a trusted friend who knew I was working on some memoir in which I was trying to portray in a loving light self-absorbed folks who make awful parenting choices. Mary Karr makes the trick of creating sympathetic-yet-deeply-flawed characters look easy. There is no plot, per se, yet the book has real velocity; you want to read another exquisitely described moment or emotion, you want to follow Karr through another emotional maze to see how she makes it through, as both character and author.”

 

The Red Car by Marcy Dermansky

 28789723

The Red Car is an existential mystery, one that hinges on humor, voice, and the way these two narrative qualities can work together to create real suspense…Bottom line: this is a book you’ll breeze through and be happy you did, except perhaps in seeing Leah go. She’s a character who, despite her extreme anxiety and the resulting raft of suspect life choices, you can’t help but like.”

–The Nervous Breakdown’s Review Microbrew, Volume 4

 

Marcy Dermansky on Dear Fang With Love by Rufi Thorpe:

41Zb3zeLK5L

“I read a lot of the big books this year, so I feel sort of bad picking one. Here is a favorite book of 2016: Dear Fang With Love, by Rufi Thorpe. I am still a big lover of coming-of-age books and this strange novel is set in Lithuania. It has a complicated father/ daughter relationship, love and fighting, sex and group tours, memories of the Holocaust.”

 

Music for Wartime by Rebecca Makkai

makkai

“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.”

–The Nervous Breakdown’s Review Microbrew, Volume 3

 

Rebecca Makkai on Man and Wife by Katie Chase:

41uqVtNH5oL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

“Katie Chase’s debut, the collection Man and Wife, is among the best collections I read this year. I’d been waiting for it ever since I read the wonderfully unsettling title story eight years ago.”

 

Intimations by Alexandra Kleeman

28257667

“Kleeman’s follow-up to You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine is an odd and wondrous creation—an experimental novella (or two) wrapped in a thematically-linked story collection (or two), Intimations is a literary pilgrimage through philosophy and language, realism and surrealism, loneliness and the limits of self-knowledge. At its core this is a book about life, the energy that creates and sustains it, disassembles, reconfigures, and even destroys it; from the sparest of molecules through the human and on to the intellectual limits of physics. But, in a way, it’s also a book about courage; the defiance it takes to live and thrive in a world none of us fully understand. Beyond physical or emotional strength, this is a book about artistic courage, the fact that Alexandra Kleeman the writer so clearly refuses to be anyone but herself.”

–The Nervous Breakdown’s Review Microbrew, Volume 5

 

Alexandra Kleeman on Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada:

51yC2DEIBlL._SX355_BO1,204,203,200_

“My favorite book of the year may have been Yoko Tawada’s Memoirs of a Polar Bear—I’ve never before read a book that toed the line between fantasy and social commentary, human and hybrid, with so much grace.”

 

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

30555488

The Underground Railroad is the story of Cora and her dream of freedom, a foundational American aspiration that endures in spite of everything America herself does to undermine it. From the institutionalized barbarism of slave-catchers and regulators, overseers and masters, to the more subtle though no less daunting challenges posed by dissension among the oppressed and indifference among the free, this is one woman’s odyssey of hope and fear, the dangerous seduction of motion juxtaposed with the lure of stasis.”

–The Nervous Breakdown’s Review Microbrew, Volume 4

 

Unfortunately, I couldn’t get through to Colson Whitehead, which is no one’s fault but mine. I decided to put this list together very late in the year and, as a result, I was making requests of people over the holidays. I’m lucky—and grateful—that many of the writers I selected were able to come through on short notice.