What I Read in September

October 4, 2013 § Leave a comment

Big Fiction #4, Summer/Fall 2013. This issue includes the winner of the Knickerbocker Prize, “Sandy and Wayne” by Steve Yates, and the first runner-up, “Half-Boy” by Sandra Gail Lambert. The winners were chosen by Lauren Groff.

Both stories are alive in their directness of place and selective dialogue. The title characters in “Sandy and Wayne” are, respectively, the chief highway inspector and lead foreman on a road construction project in Arkansas. Each character has reason to put up a veneer: Wayne, defense of his men and project; Sandy, digging in to maintain her authority in a workplace dominated by men. There is a Midwestern honesty in their conversations as they shift from posturing to relaxed flirting to fear of an uncertain future as the job winds up.

“Half-Boy” resides in buggy and swampy Florida, where people keep snakes as circus pets and the legless protagonist, a female posing as a male in hopes of finding work, needs to take extra care not to get eaten by alligators.

The Fun Stuff, James Wood. Wishlisted it and received it as a Christmas present last year, which turned out to make little sense from an economic standpoint, since Wood is slinging his hash for the New Yorker now and many of the essays here I had already read in that magazine. (It seems an unfair discount to call them reviews.) But it was good to read them again. Wood is not in the business of simply evaluating authorial talent; rather, he is trying to chip away at the ice for some kind of revelation about what makes literature sublime, whether it be an underbubbling lyricism in word choice or reminiscent allusion to a past master.

It doesn’t hurt that Wood’s tastes seem to align too well with my own—he finds “a cunning combination of the quiet and the loud” in W. G. Sebald, “pungent realities” opposing “playful fictionalizing” in Aleksandr Hemon, and “shallowness” in Paul Auster (I hated The New York Trilogy). There is less of a cohesiveness here than in The Irresponsible Self, which was subtitled On Laughter and the Novel and set out, in twenty-three essays, to analyze and appreciate comic narrative and its methods: unreliable narrators, moral ambiguousness, the burnout of hysterical realism. The Fun Stuff seems more of an arbitrary collection released to please non-New Yorker subscribers perhaps looking for more of Wood’s writing after How Fiction Works. Either his thorough note-taking or incredible memory for phrase and image allows him to connect dots across generations and contextualize authorial choices apparently intended as homages (conscious or not); to take one example, Wood makes note of Hemon’s use of “blood-red fezzes,” in his story “The Accordion,” which happens to echo the same exact phrase used by Joseph Roth in his novel The Radetzky March (1932). That even a well-read critic could even think to make this association is bewildering, and might make a reader believe he is showing off his intellect, but these kinds of observations also lend the authors and their works under review a level of awareness as attempts of art, given their due place on the timeline as participants in the conversation.

After Claude, Iris Owens. An Advance Reader’s Copy that I won from NYRB Classics as part of a prize package. Lisa Zeidner, in The American Scholar, calls Harriet, the narrator of After Claude, “so unreliable she makes Humbert Humbert look like Thurgood Marshall.” Harriet tells us she has just left the boyfriend whose name is in the title, the “French rat,” though we quickly learn that he, a documentarian for French television, was the one who dumped her, the final straw being her negative reaction to a film they watched together about the crucifixion of Jesus. (“Some skinny guy schlepping a hunk of wood that weighs a ton up a steep hill for the express purpose of getting nailed to it, that was beautiful?” she tells him.) Harriet’s inability to handle any sliver of resistance leads to every stimulus being judged in absolute extremes: a cab driver speeds “as if he were rushing plasma to a beheading”; the streets are filled with “drunken bums hanging around, competing for nickels with hippies in hairshirts, rehearsing the plague”; an ice cube tray is “welded into the freezer like King Arthur’s sword.”

Meanwhile, Harriet uses all of her wit to fight her inevitable eviction from the apartment; having burned bridges with her two best friends (again, over blown-out-of-proportion annoyances), she has nowhere to go. The last third of the book takes a rather bizarre turn as Harriet, once installed by Claude in the Chelsea Hotel, immediately tries out a new target for her dependency, a counterpart more whacked that she: her Chelsea neighbor, Roger, who tries to persuade her to join his harem. Harriet’s verbal defenses lose their acuity against Roger’s conniving charisma, to which she partly succumbs by pleasuring herself in front of him. Such a sinister twist doesn’t match up with the promising energy of the narrative that brought us there. By the end, I wanted Claude back.

Domestic Apparition, Meg Tuite. A novella in stories, Domestic Apparition is the angst-filled tale of Michelle, an impressionable girl growing up amid characters she is wary not to endow with her full trust but that still comprise the targets of her fascination. Older sister Stephanie is an open lesbian who clashes with her conservative father; brother Nathan is a savant who argues with nuns in Catholic school about the infallibility of popes. A longer story, “Brenda Stantonopolis,” profiles a troublemaking friend who implicates Michelle in her misdeeds. The narrative is spiked with tossed-out revelations meant to surprise, but that on occasion get lost amid the other details, as though narrator Michelle herself is not aware of their weight:

[Nathan] was working on composing an opera about fish when he was around ten. He sat at the piano for weeks hitting random notes and putting little fishtails up and down his music sheets. It was called, “Dance of the Rainbow Trout,” and when the three sisters and a neighbor performed it in our basement it took over an hour to get through. My parents got drunk on martinis.

Adel had always been fragile. She threw herself in front of a truck once when we were around thirteen because a new girl from school and I had gone to basketball practice without her.

Although there are times when the book seems trapped in its own tunnel of memory, lacking the perspicacity one might expect of an adult reflecting back on her past, we do see Michelle’s character accumulate layers of complexity that make sense as products of her relationships documented in the earlier stories.  By the time she is an adult installed in a hotel service job, Michelle is wise enough to see through her supervisor’s proud language and unearned sense of authority.

Kino, Jürgen Fauth. An AWP purchase from the Atticus Books table. The German-born Fauth is a film critic for About.com (as well as the founder of Fictionaut), and Kino adeptly demonstrates the author’s literacy on the subjects of film and Germany history in the 20th century by way of its themes of memory and rewritten pasts.

The novel has the tightly plotted framework of a mystery, and doesn’t waste time in laying out the important points. A newly married woman, Mina Koblitz, arrives at her New York apartment to discover that someone has left a print of Tulpendiebe (The Tulip Thief), a silent film directed by her grandfather Klaus (nicknamed Kino) and long thought to have been destroyed by the Nazis along with his other films. While her husband Sam is hospitalized with a case of dengue fever, Mina is encouraged by a local film scholar to travel to Berlin, then to Los Angeles, to piece together the fates of the remaining films and the story behind their disappearance. Kino’s journal, written in the last years of his life, turns up, and at one point Fauth alternates excerpts from the journal with current-day narrative to create a complex weave of suppression and denial amongst Kino’s surviving family, particularly his son (Mina’s father Detlef) and widow (Mina’s grandmother, the salty, distrustful, and somehow remarkable agile (even after waking up from a coma) 92-year-old Penny). The overlap between the flashbacks to the Third Reich and the lead-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq is not a coincidence.

The book employs an ample amount of German phraseology, all covered in a glossary at the back, yet some of which is explained in concept within the text even though it doesn’t need to be (e.g.,  Schadenfreude). I sort of wish the author had resisted this temptation; I think leaving these phrases unglossed within the text would have lent the narrative more authenticity. Similarly, some of the paragraphs seem to linger a beat or two too long in their internal reveals:

“Oh, your father?  Detlef the Dullard? That’s what Klaus and I called him, did you know that? Not when he was around, of course. Jesus, he was a boring child!”

Mina looked down at the rug, at a gob of spit that had not yet been absorbed. Her father was not whom she’d come  to talk about, and the mention of him made her defensive. She wanted to protect her idea of Kino. A megalomaniac, that was fine. But maybe she didn’t want to hear the rest, after all.

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