What I Read in January-July 2017

September 2, 2017 § Leave a comment

This is not a complete list by any stretch, but I’ve fallen well behind. There were re-reads in the mix, too—Frederick Busch’s Sometimes I Live in the Country, and W. G. Sebald’s The Emigrants, and Michael Tisserand’s biography of George Herriman, which might need its own post. 

American Salvage, Bonnie Jo Campbell

This collection was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2009, having received much acclaim for its depiction of an under-represented Middle America—small-town folks of limited means struggling to make do. Knowing this, it’s somewhat of a challenge not to regard the characters as though they are creatures in a cage. If the book had been published now, they would certainly be compared to Trump voters—there is the right combination of frustration with themselves and suspicion of anyone who might be in a position to offer a solution.

The title, of course, alludes to more than the salvaging of machine parts or the useful portions of a slaughtered animal, though those things do occur here. The stories seek to pit characters against the strictures of economy and geography and addiction. But too many moments have been stripped of what ought to have been a more informative nuance. When Campbell writes of a character named Jim Lobretto, “He might have left the can outside the door while he paid, but knowing his luck, some bastard would steal it,” it’s not clear whose voice we are reading; the free indirect style is not apparent elsewhere in the story. There are a number of similar instances where the language leans on arbitrary swearing to remind us that these are frustrated characters long past the point of caring what someone from out of town might think. It’s as though we should expect them to want to be elsewhere, with a wide-angle awareness of their options, which I suspect is not how people in such situations actually live.

 Where I’ve Been, and Where I’m Going, Joyce Carol Oates

I have never read a Joyce Carol Oates novel. I read some stories in school, though I can’t remember what they were, and I have read her essays and reviews. I read her warm and effusive encomium to Hill Street Blues that was published in TV Guide in 1985; it formed the basis of an essay I wrote on the magazine’s onetime role as a critical evaluator of television. I saw Foxfire once on cable. Jenny Lewis is in that one; she’s a singer now.

I had hoped that the Hill Street Blues essay would be included in this collection. What is here is a miscellany of book reviews, scholarly essays, and introductions to both Ms. Oates’s and other writers’ works. She is, of course, a wise reader with a great depth of knowledge of traditions ranging from myths to poetics and painting to her pet interests, boxing and serial killers. I was glad to see essays here on Fitzgerald and Grace Paley, whom I’ve recently read, and of course John Updike, who arose to fame concurrently with Oates and who has been viewed as a rival in both profligacy and relevance.

The first section, “Where Is an Author?” takes on broader challenges about art and the challenges faced by the artist as she takes on fear, sin, and victimization. “Art and ‘Victim Art’” is a response to a 1995 essay by Arlene Croce in The New Yorker objecting to the dance show Still/Here by Bill T. Jones, in which images of cancer and AIDS patients are shown. Croce struggled with the task of reviewing a show “from which one feels excluded by reason of its express intentions, which are unintelligible as theatre”; as a work of art, it rendered itself “undiscussable”:

The thing that “Still/Here” makes immediately apparent, whether you see it or not, is that victimhood is a kind of mass delusion that has taken hold of previously responsible sectors of our culture. The preferred medium of victimhood—something that Jones acknowledges—is videotape (see TV at almost any hour of the day), but the cultivation of victimhood by institutions devoted to the care of art is a menace to all art forms, particularly performing-art forms.

I have heard the same disparagement spat forth for what is called “Therapy Art”—the effort to utilize art to reassume control, to touch upon and rewrite pain, as though apology for daring to put forth one’s contribution were sewn into the lining. It is not a coincidence that a lot of such art is created by women; Frida Kahlo’s paintings and Plath’s The Bell Jar might unfairly attract this label.

The revulsion of victimhood and the seeming embrace of victim identity seems to inflame a lot of the criticisms of our contemporary activist organizations, such as Black Lives Matter and the Women’s March on Washington, in our present dialogue. Writing in 1995, long before such organizations flourished, Oates sees a problem:

The very concept of “victim art” is problematic. Only a sensibility unwilling to grant full humanity to persons who have suffered injury, illness, or injustice could have invented so crude and reductive a label.

There’s an acceptance that aggressors—in war, in capitalism, in sex relations—are entitled to all of the complexities that humanity entails; victims are simplistically reduced to what they have been stripped of or denied. But with art and criticism that imbalance steers a warped conversation:

Through the centuries, through every innovation and upheaval in art, from the poetry of the early English Romantics to the “Beat” poetry of the American 1950’s, from the explosion of late-19th-century European Modernist art to the Abstract Expressionism of mid-20th-century America, professional criticism has exerted a primarily conservative force, the gloomy wisdom of inertia, interpreting the new and startling in terms of the old and familiar; denouncing as “not art” what upsets cultural, moral and political expectations. Why were there no critics capable of comprehending the superb poetry of John Keats, most of it written, incredibly, in his 24th year? There were not; the reviews Keats received were savage, and he was dead of tuberculosis at the age of 25.

Another Brooklyn, Jacqueline Woodson

I have more Brooklyn novels than I can read, and I have read plenty, from Alfred Kazin to Hubert Selby, Jr. (but not Jonathan Lethem), but this one uses a poet’s language to bring the streets alive. It makes its center the heartache of adolescence, barely disguised from the author’s childhood. As crushes slip from August’s grasp and friends become pregnant, the tone of the neighborhood shifts:

From that window, from July until the end of summer, we saw Brooklyn turn a heartrending pink at the beginning of each day and sink into a stunning gray-blue at dusk. In the late morning, we saw the moving vans pull up. White people we didn’t know filled the trucks with their belongings, and in the evenings, we watched them take long looks at the buildings they were leaving, then climb into station wagons and drive away.

The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson

A well-liked book that is about bending genre as much as gender. As Nelson writes about building a relationship and family with her fluidly gendered partner, she reads herself with a poet’s critical eye, citing thinkers ranging from Gilles Deleuze to Lucille Clifton to Wittgenstein. It’s an intense mashup, interspersing the theoretical with domestic, intimate scenes, and turns what would normally be abstruse queer theory into very real art. It is most remarkable when even its quotidian moments invite a socio-critical lens.  Commenting, for example, on an old family photo emblazoned on a ceramic mug:

But what about it is the essence of heteronormativity? That my mother made a mug on a boojie service like Snapfish? That we’re clearly participating, in a long tradition of families being photographed at holiday time in their holiday best? That my mother made me the mug, in part to indicate that she recognizes and accepts my tribe as family?

Scrapper, Matt Bell

Set in “The Zone,” the abandoned center of Detroit, Scrapper conveys with gloom and angst the haunted vastness of cities. A young man named Kelly rummages through old homes, factories and warehouses to strip them of their copper, gold, and whatever other scrap metal he can find and resell on the black market. So much of the book lives in its dark internality, not just because Kelly works alone but because he’s instinctively a nonverbal creature. This allows Bell to stuff the book with long, creeping paragraphs of thought and memory, though the chunks don’t always reveal much, instead seeming to set the mood with their murmur:

Kelly thought the world wasn’t full of special objects, only plain ones. Nothing was an assembled special, nothing and no one, but the plainest objects could be supercharged by attention, make nuclear by suggestion. He could pick up the same object in two different houses and in one sense a completely different thrumming. What he wanted was anything loved.

Kelly is a former wrestler, and in his echoing head, and his attraction to fitness as an escape and for control, he has a spiritual twin in the ex-soldier Skinner in Atticus Lish’s celebrated novel Preparation for the Next Life. His attentions turn to the pursuit of justice after he discovers a 12-year-old boy chained naked to the bed in one of the houses. The tension that unfolds in the remainder of the book relies on the reader’s investment in the revenge that Kelly seeks toward the boy’s abuser. In a city that is full of holes and bereft of order, though, revenge does not feel like an honest motivator.

 Hunger: A Memoir of My Body, Roxane Gay

I bought Hunger while vacationing in Portland, Maine, and finished it before the vacation was over, it’s that good a read. It is also a memoir that holds up its responsibility of having something to say. The primary topic of the book, Gay’s struggles with obesity since childhood, allow for more open digression on the portrayal of bodies and eating in mass media and the facile approaches that our medical industry takes to nutrition. It is searing and honest, particularly with its slow looks at triggering events, in particular the author being the victim of a gang rape by neighborhood boys at the age of twelve. In reaction, the preteen Gay finds comfort in food:

What I did know was food, so I ate because I understood that I could take up more space. I could become more solid, stronger, safer. I understood, from the way I saw people stare at fat people, from the way I stared at fat people, that too much weight undesirable. If I was undesirable, I could keep more hurt away.

The chapters in Hunger are short, and the sentences patient and for the most part contractionless, so the tone is one of reflection. The social aspects of having a large body invite a number of angles, and Gay takes on all of them. “There are so many rules for the body,” she writes in a chapter on The Biggest Loser, “often unspoken and ever-shifting.” She writes about the “unspoken humiliations” that come with a judgmental gaze at an oversized woman. “They can plainly see that a given chair might be too small, but they say nothing as they watch me try to squeeze myself into a seat that has no interest in accommodating me.” There are sighs from passengers when she boards an airplane. And there is society’s temptation to correlate a lack of control in one’s body to lack of discipline in one’s character.

The Autograph of Steve Industry, Ben Hersey

This novel from Magic Helicopter Press, by a local author, came recommended to me by a friend at AWP. Set in Massachusetts, it covers every local landmark I ever knew in my childhood, from Kelly’s Roast Beef to Richdale to Route 1 South to yes, even candlepin bowling.

Playing that bingo game is only part of the fun of reading The Autograph of Steve Industry. Its narrator is the frontman of a rock band called The Steamrollers, and his marriage to Saundra, the mother of his young daughter, is on the rocks. Providing the framework of the book is a set of odd and feckless survey questions that the narrator uses as a jumping-off point, in many cases hardly provided “answers” in the traditional sense at all. Steve’s inclinations are torn between angst, rage, and pathos—a desire to do his friends and loved ones good without sacrificing what little he knows to be true about himself. A novel about an adult man who makes a fetish object out of his own aimlessness might sound frustrating, but the energy of the novel resides in the electric voice that Hersey gives Steve, one that riffs and buzzes like a guitar.

The Autograph of Steve Industry is excerpted here and here.

How to Get Into the Twin Palms, Karolina Waclawiak

This book is set in Los Angeles, but it’s a different kind of Los Angeles from the one laid out by golden dreamers or even Spanish-speaking immigrants, it’s the Los Angeles that’s nestled amid the freeways and motels and low-slung apartment buildings. The narrator is a Polish woman, Anya, who calls bingo games at the bingo hall and seems to exist among a community of strangers without really interacting with them. She lives across the street from the exclusive title nightclub and becomes obsessed with its Russian owners and clientele, literally watching parking lot trysts from her balcony. Los Angeles is a show to her and she seems, for some reason, to want a part. She finds a way in through Lev, a somewhat gruff Russian gangster-type who provides both sex and challenge for Anya. There are multiple levels of alienation and exclusion at play here, and the disjointed narrative—which at times pinballs between languages–creates a mood of ill communication and driftlessness:

I stood up and stared at him. Gathered the half-smoked, crushed cigarettes in my hand and started walking away from him.

“You were walking in front of your window. Nearly naked. What could I do?”

I don’t know why but looking at him—his face swollen and ruddy—I wanted him to work harder.

He should have begged.

I didn’t answer him but just kept walking. Toward the alley and toward the dumpster. He followed me, close. I could hear his steps, his attempt to get in line with mine. He was following me to the dumpster. I crossed pavement and dumped the cigarette butts in the bin, turned on my heel and stared at him.

“All that for a few cigarettes?”

I had embarrassed myself by being overly dramatic.

“You American girls are all the same.” He started walking away.

“Like what?”

Zanudi.”

I searched for a Polish translation. Something similar.

Zanduzać.

Nudzić.

It all meant the same.

Boring.

This Is Not a Confession, David Olimpio.

I’ve met Olimpio twice, and got this book signed by him at AWP last spring. These linked essays are mostly about his childhood and family, and they are explicit about incidents, most notably the sexual abuse that the author suffered at a young age by a babysitter. And while the title invites the kind of self-questioning that Magritte similarly prompts, making you wonder if you are reading a riddle, there’s also a suggestion that we as a reader are not being invited to make judgments. This is just what is. This is what happened.

Olimpio sifts and strains the language in these pieces so that the irony of the title does not tinge what is inside. The first set of essays are about time and relativity, which tacitly brings to the surface questions of memory and distance and immediacy. He does not shy away from details about his babysitter’s abuse, nor the extramarital relationships he undertakes as an adult, and the juxtaposition of their telling invites an interpretation of behavioral cause and effect. Some of the stories are, frankly, what might be called TMI, and in some the journey doesn’t generate enough of a lesson to pay off. He remembers whole conversations in a way I have found suspect in the work of other memoirists, as though he knew when he was having the conversation that he would later be writing about it, but this could also speak to the effect of what the writers trains himself to observer and remember, especially when working from experience. If this is indeed not a confession, with whatever odor of guilt that word connotes, there’s some other fair motive for justifying their sharing, even if it’s the author’s chance to clear his head.

An excerpt from This Is Not a Confession can be found here. 

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