What I Read in June

July 2, 2013 § Leave a comment

Speedboat and Pitch Dark, Renata Adler. Had to shell out for both of these titles after all that’s been written about them. More than one person I follow posted photos of the clown-makeupped covers, side-by-side.  Their re-release by NYRB Classics seemed to be such a roiling underground event, like a flash mob, that by the time I got around to buying my copies I feared the cachet had already worn off.

Before now I only knew of Adler as a journalist and critic. Speedboat and Pitch Dark are of an era the way Joan Didion’s books (fiction and non) are of the same era. It is impossible not to read them comparatively: both books feature female journalists as protagonists and are told in first-person patchwork narratives. Jen Fain of Speedboat lives in New York and works for a tabloid, the Standard Evening Sun, where she hangs around power brokers and hops down to Washington, D.C. She lives in a brownstone and is friendly with her neighbors; someone has murdered their landlord, but that’s not treated as a story. She also dates a series of men and doesn’t seem too attached to any of them.

Unlike in Pitch Dark, the vignettes in Speedboat do not always tether to a narrative; at times they feel like excerpts from Fain’s reporter’s notebook. In this way the book reminded me of much of Nicholson Baker’s fiction, for the way these ad hoc observations seem to stand in for the history, desires, and vulnerabilities of the character.

More than one critic describes Fain as ‘neurotic,’ which feels to me like a projection; I was more struck by her moments of laid-back urban bemusement, her near-stubborn determination not to get too impressed:

Last night at dinner, a man said that, on principle, he never answers his telephone. Somebody asked him how he reached people. “I call them,” he said. “But suppose they don’t believe in answering, either?” I thought of phones ringing all over New York, no one answering. Like people bringing themselves off in every single adjoining co-op of a luxury building. Or the streets entirely cleared of traffic, except ambulances.

Pitch Dark feels threaded with more angst, perhaps because its relationships are doomed from the beginning. The narrator, Kate Ennis, is in a relationship with a married man. While he is celebrating his anniversary, she travels to the Pacific Northwest, then to Ireland, where, on a dark rural road, her rental car is involved in a traffic accident with a truck. She is worried the truck driver is trying to scam her, but he’s actually trying to scam the rental company, and she is, in a way, complicit. The introduction to this section gives away the inclination to neurosis:

This is the age of crime. I’m sure we all grant that. It’s the age, of course, of other things as well. Of the great chance, for instance, and the loss of faith, of the bureaucrat, and of technology. But from the highest public matters to the smallest private acts, the mugger, the embezzler, the burglar, the perjurer, tax chiseler, killer, gang enforcer, the plumber, party chairman, salesman, curator, car or TV repairman, officials of the union, officials of the corporation, the archbishop, the numbers runner, the delinquent, the police; from the alley to the statehouse, behind the darkened window or the desk; this is the age of crime.

 The Common, #s 4 & 5. The Common is quickly becoming one of my favorite journals, a must-have, and easy to get since it’s put out by Amherst College and carried by a lot of local bookstores. These two issues continue the tradition of brilliant writing demonstrated by Issue #3, written about here.

Two stories in Issue 5, Virginia Reeves’ “Maygold” and Earle McCartney’s “Lukas and Elsa,” complement each other well, though I most liked a series of poems by David Lehman, including “Remember the Typewriter”:

Remember rotary phones?

What did we do back then

if we didn’t have a phone

and had to walk a mile

to get to the bus stop?

Remember telephone booths?

Remember when the question was

how many college kids can fit into one telephone booth?

Let’s say I wanted to get a message to you.

Do you  remember what we used to do?

Remember the typewriter.

Remember the haiku

on the wine-stained menu.

Remember the answering machine.

American Short Fiction, Spring 2011. Picked up this back issue at AWP, mainly because I wanted to put my money where my mouth was. I let the students at the table know I was glad to have ASF back, and for a discounted price picked up the issue with the old camping trailer and broke hippie couple on the cover.

Damage control seems to be a theme in this one, which is funny because the Spring/Summer 2008 issue, which I also glanced at, includes a story called “Damage Control.” Ann Claycomb’s “Marie Tells All” is a story of its time—a young woman looks back at her stint as a contestant on a Rock of Love-style reality show.

The structure of the story allows for a narrative of insertion; it assumes we have seen the show before, and plays off the disparity between what we have purportedly seen on TV with what goes on behind the scenes.  This attempt to re-enact a narrative already presumed to be familiar to an audience with new annotation is a meta-echo of the commentary and outtakes we expect to find on DVDs nowadays. The narrator’s twin sister is also a contestant, and that’s the angle they are encouraged to play off:

Then later, we’re back at the house heading for the hot tub and he stops Teena—at least, he thinks it’s Teena—and says, “I haven’t tasted those sweet lips yet tonight, have I?” and kisses her. Only it’s me. I think you can tell it’s me because I melt into him again exactly the way I do in the limo. But of course, to most people Teena and I look so much alike that maybe the melting looks alike too.

In “The Steam Room” by Shannon Cain, the wife of a mayor of a “midsized American city” is caught pleasuring herself in a public sauna by two teenage girls. Her husband is up for re-election, and a PR consultant is brought in to script the apology and spin the aftereffects while angry parents hold vigils on the couple’s lawn. While that picture is sewn together, the reality underneath, including the welfare of their teenage daughter, comes apart:

Jerome rubbed his hands over his face, a condescending gesture. “The YMCA, Helen? For Christ’s sake! All those kids running around? All those old people?”

“Don’t forget the cripples,” she said.


“Wait! I get it. I have orgasms without you!” She clapped her hand to her chest. “That’s it, isn’t it? I got myself off, without you. Nobody respects a candidate whose wife—“

“Has a criminal record?”

She found her glasses and put them on. The streetlight outside the window shone behind him, the backlight erasing his features. “Don’t think it’s not a sickening feeling,” she confessed. “I’m sickened.”

Mythologies, Roland Barthes, translated by Annette Lavers. Regarded as the lighter side of Barthes, it includes essays on such disparate yet approachable-sounding topics as wrestling, soap powders, and the Citroën, all viewed through the lens of modern myth and semiology. A longer essay at the end ascribes the value of myth to the separation between the signifier (the symbol) and the signified (what it stands for). The book seems to yank the reader back further into abstruseness than Sontag, who in her essays always comes back to the beauty of things, and so feels consistently accessible. This one didn’t flow as well, and I don’t think the translation is to blame, but an updated one has been released nonetheless.

Grist #6, 2013. Not to be confused with the environmental-news web site of the same name. This annual print journal comes out of the University of Tennessee Knoxville, a city with at least one interesting bookstore where the journal staff throws dead-writer costume parties.

Grist is billed is as “a journal for writers” and combines fiction and poetry with essays on the writer’s craft. Maud Casey’s essay examines the “narrative clock” in fiction and how its ticking creates tension, comparing three examples: Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters, and Paul La Farge’s Haussmann, or the Distinction. Nicky Beer’s “On Metaphor in Poetry” manages to say a lot in seven paragraphs on what would seem to be a cloudy subject:

Language is a lovely prison. We use it with the intent to build a bridge to meaning, and yet we inevitably erect a wall instead. We are plagued by the fact that our lives can never be perfectly, exactly rendered by language—there is always some subtlety, some nuance that suffers in translation.

Metaphor, it seems to me, is our way to rebel against the restrictions and limitations of language, against its literalness. One might even say that the very tradition of love poetry, with all its woo-pitching associations and comparisons, springs for the sheer inadequacy of the statement “I love you.”

On the whole I enjoyed the nonfiction much more than the fiction in this issue. There is also an interesting narrative essay by Baron Wormser on Willem de Kooning. I wouldn’t complain if the typeface were larger, but I imagine that would have added to the cost.


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