What I Read in April and May

June 6, 2016 § Leave a comment

A Brief History of Seven Killings, Marlon James. This 688-page tome won the Man Booker prize last year, the first ever winner from Jamaica. It wipes away all of the tourism-perpetuated myths of that island and replaces them with new, more complex myths, the characters spanning all classes and corners: the drug dealers, the gang enforcers, the politicians, the CIA officers and informants, and even American journalists–in this case, the ambitious Alex Pierce, Rolling Stone and New Yorker writer whose angle into how the Caribbean drug trade infects the streets of Brooklyn and the Bronx essentially translates that which gets lost in the other guarded first-person accounts.

James manages the tricky task of educating his readers on the intricacies of corruption and power in another country without being didactic to those readers who are not already well read on Jamaican history. He achieves this through seamless tactics of immersion and an ensemble of well-rounded, calculating characters, most notably Pierce and the drug lord Raymond “Papa-Lo” Clarke and the self-dubbed enforcer, Josey Wales:

People think that I have animosity towards Papa-Lo. Me have nothing but love for the man and I would say the same to anybody who ask. But this is ghetto. In the ghetto there is no such thing as peace. There is only this fact. You power to kill me can only be stop by my power to kill you. You have people living in the ghetto who can only see within it. From me was a young boy all I could see was outside it. I wake up looking out, I go to school and spend the whole day looking out the window, I go up to Maresceaux Road and stand right at the fence that separate Wolmer’s Boy’s School from Mico College, just a zinc fence that most people don’t know separate Kingston from St. Andrew, uptown from downtown, those who have it and those who don’t. People with no plan wait and see. People with a plan see and wait for the right time. The world is not a ghetto and a ghetto is not the world. People in the ghetto suffer because there be people who live for making them suffer. Good time is bad time for somebody too.

James also wisely gives the book a concrete, somewhat well-known hinge event: the attempted assassination of Bob Marley, here only identified as The Singer, on December 3, 1976, two days before he was to play the Smile Jamaica peace concert in Kingston. There are a lot of politics that unspool from that event, as well as what Marley represents to the different classes in the country. All of the chapters are first person accounts, and James arms each character with a legitimately unique vocabulary that empowers the dialogue to carry the plot forward. It reminded me, at various points, of Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives for the push and pull of its alternate narrations, Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting for the spit and grossness of its patois, and Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life for its genuine immersiveness in the sea of a broken culture.

From Here, Jen Michalski. The title of this collection suggests a struggle of location and disorientation, of homes and being away from what one calls home. The characters are generally at crossroads, deciding whether to stay or flee. In the story “The Substitute,” a young teacher returns home to take over his father’s English class while his father gets treated for cancer. There’s an ambivalence established right away, as Patrick, the substitute, doesn’t want to get too attached to the kids in his charge, nor to the drama teacher, Anne, who takes an interest in him. In “You Were Only Waiting for This Moment to Arrive,” a father takes the daughter he has not seen in two years to Disney World, an environs that goes out of its way to bubble itself from the outside world.

The characters in “The Safest Place” are the children of Chechen- and Polish-Americans, struggling at the bottom of the economic ladder. Narrator Basha falls under the spell of Andnej, whom she has known since elementary school, and who now earns a living dealing drugs. He takes Basha and her little sister on dates with the expectation that Basha act as a courier for her friends who are his customers. Basha’s moral conscience battles with her need for money and desire for Andnej’s attention.

The equations are drawn up promisingly, and Michalski effectively evokes the lack of grip and aim that can take hold, but the characters don’t cooperate on the cashing in. For young people caught in a moral struggle, with ulterior motives, there is surprisingly little archness in their dialogue, and almost too much patience. The words are more functional than shape-giving, unconvincingly filling space:

“Why did you start smoking?” Basha gripped the door handle, although Andnej was not driving fast.

“I don’t know. It’s just something to do,” he laughed, and Basha glanced at his face, noticed how the skin stretched over his cheeks, the half-moon dimples by his lips. “There’s not much to do sometimes, you know?”

“No, I don’t.” She shook her head. The boys who dealt drugs in the neighborhood roamed the streets for hours. Sometimes they got drunk in the parking lot, sitting on their cars and blaring music so loud out of their stereos Basha’s heart felt like it was floating down a bumpy river.

“She’s mean to me, too,” Kamilia said from the back seat.

“Don’t worry.” Andnej winked at Basha, and he turned backward in his seat to parallel park. “When you become a big girl, you’ll get mean, too.”

Zoetrope: All-Story, Spring 2015. I bought this issue at my local bookshop during a Cash Mob event. Designed by Ryan McGinness, it’s a smaller format than past Zoetropes have been, and features artwork consisting of black cutouts, including the cover image of the geometric form of a snake swallowing its own tail.

There are only three stories in the issue, and one is a reprint: Robert Heinlein’s “All You Zombies—,” from 1959. Naomi J. Williams’ “Permission” is the story of Madame Lapérouse, an elderly French woman in the early 19th century who was the brother of a famous navigator and wishes for her family to carry over part of his name now that he is deceased. Government documentation, however, has misspelled the name, and what issues forth is an odd tale that seems to be about the frustrating lack of control that one feels when one is unable to tell one’s own story. It’s very dry and feels too pedantic a subject for sixteen pages of fiction, but there is, at least, a little character in Madame’s bitterness:

“Yes,” I say. “Not so much a name change as a name…enhancement, as it turns out. And they’ve misspelled ‘Lapérouse.’ I try to say this lightly, but my voice unaccountably catches.

“Oh, madame.”

The sympathy in his tone nearly brings me to tears.

“It’s nothing,” I say, as briskly as I can manage. “What can one expect, after all? We had our little revolution, but they killed all the wrong people. The bureaucrats remain our oppressors.”

F 250, Bud Smith. The title of this small-press novel refers to the pickup truck driven by the lead character, Lee, who makes money under the table as a stonemason and landscaper in his New Jersey hometown. It’s a telling way to pin the character’s identity: Lee is not emotionally invested in his work, but he’s good at it, it’s stable, and it gives him a more substantial baseline than many of the other people in his circle. Lee is also an artist, to an extent: he is an ex-guitarist for a noise band called Ottermeat, and his ex-bandmates hold him to blame for walking away right when the band had a chance to win a record deal.

The writing in F 250 reminds me very much of Bukowski in that the characters, particularly Lee, tend to react more than act to the situations presented to them, perhaps because they lack the vocabulary or the forward thought to do anything else. They fight, spit, and rage, and aren’t really equipped to improve themselves through any kind of verbal ingenuity. This seems to be the trap to which Lee is lured, and there is the suggestion that the town brings down its residents as much as the residents tear down the town. But the problem with idleness is that it doesn’t leave much of a narrative motor. The trap becomes more complex in the second half of the book, when Lee hooks up with a pair of young women with the spacy names of June Doom and K Neon, and a tragedy befalls one of his ex-bandmates.

What Belongs to You, Garth Greenwell. This novel received rave reviews when it was published, not least among them from James Wood, who called it “brilliantly self-aware.” For a short book it is a thick read: the paragraphs go long and sink deep, matching the tunneling thoughts of the unnamed American narrator, a bit lost and on an emotional wander in the foreign city (Sofia, Bulgaria), where he lives and teaches English. There is a middle part that consists of one long, unbroken paragraph spanning forty-two pages.

Wood compares Greenwell to W. G. Sebald, noting that he “thinks and writes, as Woolf or Sebald do, in larger units of comprehension; so consummate is the pacing and control, it seems as if he understands this section to be a single long sentence.” I thought of Sebald more than once when reading What Belongs to You. (I also was reminded of Teju Cole’s Open City and Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland.)

The narrator spends a night with a hustler named Mitko, who then hangs around, essentially taking advantage of the lonely narrator’s generosities. The narrator becomes smitten with Mitko, in spite of what the latter gives off as a guarded aloofness. They maintain a tethery romantic relationship and correspondence, the narrator eventually following Mitko to the resort city of Varna, on the Black Sea.

Mitko goes away, but comes back when he discovers that he has syphilis and warns the narrator that he should get tested. The reunion of sorts opens us new desires and infuriations, all of which feel naked and throttling and honest. There is a beautiful, angsty stubbornness to this book, the kind that comes about purely when one is obsessed with another person:

I didn’t respond to his smile. I came all the way from Sofia, I said, and I’ve paid for the room, for our meals, for everything, I came to be with you, to have sex with you—and here Mitko broke in, catching the scent of something he could exploit. Is it just about sex then, he said, you’re my friend, and he used again that word priyatel. I found the hotel, he said, I waited for you at the bus stop, even though it was raining, and now my throat hurts, I’m starting to get sick. A ne e li vyarno, he said, isn’t that right, challenging me to deny it. He paused to drink, as though bracing himself for a confrontation he knew he couldn’t avoid. I did all that because we’re friends, he said, those are things friends do, it isn’t just sex for me. He stopped then, as if he realized he had gone too far, had leaned too hard on the fiction of our relationship and felt the false surface give way. But we aren’t friends like that, I said as Mitko took another long drink. We both get something from it, I went on, and the bluntness of the language was now the tool I wanted: I get sex, I said, and you get money, that’s all. But now I was the one who had gone too far, and so I softened what I had said, or tried to: I like you, I said, I like being with you, skup si mi, I said, you’re dear to me, you’re beautiful.

The B-Side: The Death of Tin Pan Alley and the Rebirth of the Great American Song, Ben Yagoda. Yagoda’s book is an extensive and patiently told history of American popular music in the 20th century, all the richer because it has a plainly stated objective, attempting to pin the moments and reasons behind the music industry’s decision to move away from the classical standards of what is known as the Great American Songbook—the work of Cole Porter, the Gershwins, Duke and Ella and Bing and, of course, Frank Sinatra–which had defined the early part of the century, in favor of novelty songs and other, less artfully arranged recordings that had little staying power. There are a number of instances along the timeline at which one can point to identify the instance when this shift began to occur, but “(How Much Is) That Doggie In the Window?,” the novelty song first recorded by Patti Page in 1952, comes up more than once as what would seem to be the most egregious example.

Yagoda seems more interested in recultivating an interest both for standards and the thoughtful arrangements that went into standards in the hopes of celebrating their presence in contemporary songwriting. He claims neither to hate nor blame rock ‘n roll for the decline. Instead he centers on changes in the recording industry during and after World War II, the chief aggressor being Mitch Miller, he of the sing-along records fame, who as a producer steered away from the complex rhythms of jazz to less sophisticated fare that would find an agreeable postwar audience. Throughout The B Side, Miller is referred to disparagingly as “The Beard,” and described as a micromanager impacting decisions that outlied his talent sphere. Yagoda writes:

The Beard had expanded the traditional role of the A & R man beyond just signing artists and selecting their songs. He was involved in every aspect of the recording process, from orchestration and arrangments to setting the sound levels; beyond that, he was the first music man (the term “producer” hadn’t yet been adopted by the industry) to think of recordings in terms of production values, or sound effects. Miller told Will Friedwald: “What makes you want to dig in your pocket and buy a record? It’s got to be something you want to play over and over again. You look for qualities to make somebody buy it. I was trying to put stuff in records that would tighten the picture for the listener.”

If there is a problem with Yagoda’s book, it is that the reader has no choice but to ride along with his subjective insistences: that what he regards as timeless is deservedly so labeled, and that what is chintzy should be universally regarded as such. You aren’t going to find a lot of traction in the book if you happen to think that “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” is a better song than “All or Nothing at All.” For filling in the gaps of one’s musical knowledge, the book is indispensable. And it just so happens that readers who don’t feel up to snuff on the American Songbook can find Yagoda’s introductory playlist on YouTube.

A Manual for Cleaning Women, Lucia Berlin. Cheers to editor Stephen Emerson for collecting all of these out-of-print stories from Berlin, spanning all of her life but mostly the 80s and 90s, and jacketing them in this handsome salmon-colored volume. I hadn’t heard of Lucia Berlin before this book came out. Her culty following makes me wonder if she somehow inspired the name of Lucy Berliner, the name of Ally Sheedy’s reclusive photographer character in Lisa Cholodenko’s High Art.

Berlin worked a number of odd jobs in between marrying three times and raising four sons, and she lived in a number of different places, including Santiago, Chile; Colorado; New Mexico; and Mexico City. Her life informed her fiction, so we get a lot of stories from the points of view of charge nurses, physician’s assistants, switchboard operators, and, as the title indicates, cleaning ladies. They are delightfully vast, existing on a sort of hyperplane, and Berlin allows her characters to be inserted into roles where they can blow up other characters’ crises, steered alternately by impulse, overwork, neurosis, desire, alcohol dependency, and depression. This also means that little room is left for surprise, and so much character is revealed in what one allows oneself to take for granted.

So many of Berlin’s stories are autobiographical, and here they’ve been arranged so that they reflect the arc of her life—even up to the end, when her narrators are tethered to oxygen tanks (Berlin had a spine ailment that punctured her lung).

I’ve worked in hospitals for years now and if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that the sicker the patients are the less noise they make. That’s why I ignore the patient intercom. I’m a ward clerk, my priorities are ordering meds and IVs, getting patients to surgery or X-ray. Of course I answer the calls eventually, usually tell them, “Your nurse will be there soon!” Because sooner or later she’ll show up. My attitude toward nurses has changed a lot. I used to think they were rigid and heartless. But it’s sickness that’s what’s wrong. I see now that nurses’ indifference is a weapon against disease. Fight it, stamp it out. Ignore it, if you will. Catering to a patient’s every whim just encourages him to like being sick and that’s the truth.

At first, when a voice on the intercom would say, “Nurse! Quick!” I’d ask, “What’s the matter?” That took too much time; besides, nine times out of ten it’s just that the color’s off on the TV.

The only ones I pay attention to are the ones who can’t talk. The light comes on and I push down the button. Silence. Obviously they have something to say. Usually something is the matter, like a full colostomy bag. That’s one of the only other things I know for sure now. People are fascinated by their colostomy bags. Not just the demented or senile patients who actually play with them but everyone else who has one is inevitably awed by the visibility of the process. What if our bodies were transparent, like a washing machine window? How wondrous to watch ourselves. Joggers would jog even harder, blood pumping away. Lovers would love more. God damn! Look at that old semen go! Diets would improve—kiwi fruit and strawberries, borsch with sour cream.

Young Once, Patrick Modiano. When Modiano won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2014, very few of his writings were available in English. In the race to acquire American rights, NYRB Classics picked up a pair of similar-sounding titles, Young Once (translated by Damion Searls) and In the Café of Lost Youth (translated by Chris Clarke).

Young Once was originally published as Un jeunesse in 1981. It portrays a married couple, Odile and Louis, who live happily with their children in a French village. She is turning thirty-five, he about to do the same. As though to provide a contrast against this bucolic ideal, we flash back to when they meet, in their late teens, shortly after the war: their courtship, Odile’s efforts to launch a singing career, and Louis’ installation in a post doing work for a suspicious fellow named Bejardy, whose questionable enterprise (it is explained as having to do with cars) is never explicitly made known.

Bejardy is only one of a line of shady dealers with which Odile and Louis must cooperate. There is the talent scout who demands sexual favors from Odile in exchange for helping her record a flexidisc. There is Brossier, an acquaintance from the army who sets Louis up with Bejardy, and checks in over the shoulder throughout the book, his relationship with Bejardy being a tricky net in which Louis and Odile find themselves entangled.

The book promises something like Salter’s Light Years, in its study of the graceful anthropology of a marriage, but Young Once veers away into something less about the couple and what made them and more about the holes they had to skip over to reach where they ended up. There’s a bit of a disconnect there, and a lot of noise in the middle.


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