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.

The Brooklyn Rail: Trump Sky Alpha by Mark Doten

Mark Doten’s Trump Sky Alpha

Doten combines a genius for fictive architecture with dazzling prose

By Kurt Baumeister

MARK DOTEN

Trump Sky Alpha
Graywolf, 2019

In Trump Sky Alpha, Mark Doten writes: “On 1/28, the first commercial telephone exchange is established in New Haven, Connecticut…On 1/28, a fifteen-inch snowflake falls on Fort Keogh, Montana. On 1/28 Charlemagne, King of the Franks and the Holy Roman Emperor, curses the known and unknown worlds he’s left unconquered, and his dumb ass croaks and becomes a ghost. On 1/28, Canuplin is born. On 1/28, Jon Postel will reset the system,” (emphasis mine).

Humanity has a sort of love affair with lists. Big/Small, Bad/Good, Whack/Lit: we love lists because they compress the vast and unknowable into the concise and knowable, because doing this helps us create the illusion of understanding, which is, itself, understandable.

We’re terrified at the scope of what we don’t know. And we have been ever since the first homo habilis took a look around and grunted, “What the fuck?” Whether through selective attention, lying, stories, or simple compression, we struggle to create the illusion of comprehension because it makes us feel like we’re in control.

As far as lists are concerned, some of my personal favorites have always been Granta’s compilations of Best Young Novelists. The first of these, put out in 1983, showcased their Best Young British Novelists at the time and included Kazuo Ishiguro, Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Graham Swift, and Julian Barnes. In 1983. Not bad, right?

Fast forward a few decades and who do we find on Granta’s latest list of Best Young American Novelists but one Mark Doten, whose second novel, Trump Sky Alpha, recently crossed my path. Now, I hadn’t read any of Doten’s fiction before this, but based on his mention in Granta, I went into Trump Sky Alpha with high expectations not only for the novel itself but its satirical dismantling of Trump, a creature whose nefarious political charisma ties right back to our love of lists.

Donald Trump is great at labeling people, at demeaning and reducing them. He dispenses withering nicknames with the sadistic aplomb and nasty nonchalance of a fraternity pledge master gone radioactive supervillain. This reductionism is one big reason why Trump’s minions love him: not only does he shrink their enemies down to subjects of mockery, but the concentrated malice they see in Trump as he does so mirrors the monster they know themselves to be deep inside. This, at least, is how Doten would have it. In Trump, Doten sees not a cause, but a symptom.

“Be that as it may, we’re in Trump’s timeline, and Trump is a symptom of the internet, of American sickness on the internet, he’s an internet creation, this avatar of white regressive blowhard resentment…”

For the ultimate cause of apocalypse in Trump Sky Alpha, we must reckon not with Donald Trump, but with the post-postmodern world created by AI and robotics, by climate change, nuclear proliferation, the surveillance state, and ultimately the Internet itself. For Doten, though, the what of his chillingly realistic fictional apocalypse pales beside the whys and hows.

“So there are big questions. The people who took it down, what did they want? Was it some specific attack that got out of hand, was it China or Russia and it got out of hand, was it just fuck-up-the-system, watch-the-world-burn lulz that succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams?”

“Watch-the-world-burn lulz” is the sort of line you find yourself smiling at then chuckling at then scanning the room huntedly to make sure no one can see what it is you’re laughing at. On a certain level it encapsulates this novel perfectly. Hidden beneath the vicious satire of Trump sailing the skies in his mighty, gold-plated blimp, monologuing like a reflexively prevaricating Nero as the rest of the world burns and sputters and smokes, are Trump Sky Alpha’s real questions about what happened and why: events which are not completely outlandish to think may now be in the process of happening in our real world.

The answers to Trump Sky Alpha’s questions lead to everything from an Internet terror group called the Aviary that may or may not be based on a novel (all of which is, yes, obviously, planted within yet another novel) to an article on Internet humor after the apocalypse, to the villainous and insane master-hacker Birdcrash, a character that seems almost to take on the Platonic form of Mayhem, and lists of everything that happened on this or that date, lists in which the items that truly matter are buried within a mass of pointless information.

Having finished with Trump Sky Alpha, I come back to my initial expectations, the ones provoked by Granta’s pronouncement that “Mark Doten is one of the Best Young American Novelists” and the implied question, “Is that true?” The answer, mine at least, is “possibly.” But, as Trump Sky Alpha teaches us, simple inclusion on a list is not significant in and of itself. More central to understanding is what underpins the list: the rationale, say, for inclusion.

In Trump Sky Alpha, Doten combines a genius for fictive architecture with dazzling prose, all of it wrapped around a novel of ideas that never stops dancing from one question to the next. Satirically pyrotechnic and brilliantly formed, Trump Sky Alpha has a musical quality both on a line-to-line basis and in terms of narrative structure; a quality that, in the end, leaves the reader feeling a little like he’s listening to a sort of swan song for civilization, the world’s last symphony, if you will. I’ll leave it to others to debate whether Doten belongs on some best-of list. What I can say, without a doubt, is that Trump Sky Alpha is indeed a great literary novel, one that deserves to stand alongside the best work of writers like Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon.

Pax Americana Reviewed at The Brooklyn Rail

Kurt Baumeister’s Pax Americana

The current political panorama will undoubtedly produce some outstanding critical fiction. Thankfully, we don’t have to wait long because some of it is already here. Kurt Baumeister’s Pax Americana, his first novel, is a strange hybrid narrative that weaves together a science fiction drama with a hilarious thriller and sprinkles the mixture with heavy doses of literary fiction, sociopolitical commentary, and satire. The result is an ambitious novel that somehow pulls it all off while demonstrating a level of creativity that can rarely be found in debuts.

The year is 2034, and Dr. Diana Scorsi, a brilliant tech developer, has developed a program called Symmetra, with the capacity to synthesize all the world’s religious knowledge into a single spirituality. The benefits of this, especially in a world racked by religious divisions, are boundless, so she plans to give the program away for free. Unfortunately, before she can do it, Scorsi is kidnapped by Ravelton Parlay, an unscrupulous rich man moved by the money that lands in his pockets thanks to the reigning mix of Christian extremism and capitalistic opportunism, which is known as “Christian Consumerism.” Parlay has hired Internal Defense agent and Christian fanatic Tuck Squires to find Scorsi, and he succeeds, but when so much is at play, every situation is a power struggle, and hidden agendas constantly threaten every plan set in motion.

The above synopsis barely scratches the surface of Pax Americana. The world created by Baumeister is large and complex. Geopolitical realities have shifted into a maelstrom of bizarre alliances after a war with Iran and the sudden end of the Republican political dominance of three decades. Symmetra is at the center of everything because, while it was designed with one thing in mind, it has the potential to become the most powerful and effective propaganda instrument in history, and the results of that would clearly benefit whoever is controlling the program. The result is a threat of another world war. Mixed in with this mayhem are a plethora of characters, healthy doses of humor, plenty of tension, and a sprawling narrative rich in political and religious undertones:

If Symmetra was real, it would compete with God for man’s worship, and why would the Lord allow a thing like that to enter the world? Unless, of course, He hadn’t or had, rather, against His own will, as part of the End Times, as part of teaching man his final lesson, giving him over to Satan so that he might see where the path of evil would invariably lead. Which meant that if the Symmetra was real, and it did what the specs said, it might not actually be the work of man at all. It might be part and parcel of the powers of darkness.

Despite the heavy ideas and touchy themes Baumeister juggles in Pax Americana, and the fact that it comes in at almost 400 pages, the narrative moves forward at breakneck speed and is as readable as a novella thanks mainly to two elements. The first is the author’s knack for dialogue, which helps carry a lot of the action and allows him to steer clear of heavy explanatory passages that would have bogged down the story. The second is the diversity, humor, plausibility, and depth of backstories, which include that of almost every character in the book as well as the nation itself:

By 2034, Bobby Jindal had spent twenty-two years as Governor of Louisiana. In that time Jindal had presided over six Category 5 hurricanes—Biffy, Poffy, Tippy, Albertine, Screwy, and Lu-Lu—the repeal of gubernatorial term limits, and a Golden Age of Christian Capitalism. Headquarters to Righteous Cheeseburger along with numerous Christian oil companies and the burgeoning Christian high-protein gator-farming industry, Louisiana’s coffers filled in the Jindal years, not just because of reductions in social spending but long-sought tax breaks that incentivized wealthy individuals, religious entities, corporations, and admixtures they’re off to relocate to the Bayou State.

While there is plenty of humor, action, and science fiction, what ultimately makes Pax Americana feel timely and necessary is that it reflects an augmented, somewhat cartoonish version of the current political panorama while simultaneously playing with the possibilities of a parallel political history that might have stemmed from the real/fictional George W. Bush administration. Furthermore, this intricate text of hidden agendas, evil wishes, violence, and religion does a superb job of exploring the flaws of religious devotion, uncontrolled consumerism, and patriotic ardor, especially the impossibly dark and scary part of the Venn diagram where all three meet.

Pax Americana is an absurd book, but not too absurd. In fact, the preposterousness found in its pages reverberates with warnings about the possible outcomes of some of the tendencies we’re reading about in news websites every day. This is a book that imagines the future of America based on a different past, but which shows things that our future might push out of the realm of fiction into that of reality, and that makes every laugh produced by its pages a true triumph.

CONTRIBUTOR

Gabino IglesiasGABINO IGLESIAS is a contributor to the Brooklyn Rail

 

http://brooklynrail.org/2017/09/books/Kurt-Baumeisters-Pax-Americana