Archive for the ‘What We're Reading’ Category

What We’re Reading: Campus Satires

Tuesday, December 9th, 2014

Don Peteroy: Come mid-February, I will stand before three examiners and, hopefully, demonstrate that the University of Cincinnati’s English department didn’t make a grave mistake when they accepted me for PhD candidacy. My areas of study are Skepticism on the Early Modern Stage and Comic Fiction. Since May, I have been trudging through my reading lists. One of the modules in my Comic Fiction area involves campus satires. I hadn’t chosen this deliberately; after about a month of reading I’d noticed an unequal proportion of humorous novels that take place at colleges and universities. At first glance, one might be hesitant to read campus satires insofar as the genre might presuppose specialized knowledge of institutional practices and utilize professional discourses that, to anyone outside of academia, would sound like gibberish. The four novels (of about ten campus satires) I’d like to mention—Moo by Jane Smiley, Straight Man by Richard Russo, Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis, and Blue Angel by Francine Prose—are wholly inviting to readers, even those who have not experienced nonsensical departmental meetings, tenure committees, the constant threat of funding cuts, interdepartmental rivalries, academic infidelities, and, of course, irate students. While these four novels contextualize their narratives within the university system, academia is simply the satirical medium though which we gain access to—I hate to use this phrase—universal human folly. In other words, the pressures inherent to these institutions bring out in the characters shortcomings that anyone can relate to.

Each novel uses humor differently, though they all gesture toward tragedy. Unlike novels by Christopher Moore, Douglas Adams, and Carl Hiaasen—where the comic elements are the consistent, primary focus—the particular novels I’ve chosen either begin funny and evolve into tragedy (though some portray the inverse), or they’re primarily tragic with moments of comic relief. The common question raised in campus satires concerns the extent of individual autonomy: Do institutions necessitate “bad behavior,” and how difficult is it to free oneself from the institutional script? The humor in these novels lies precisely in individuals’ efforts to stand apart from the inevitable rivalries, conflicts, infidelities, gossip, and backstabbing.

Amis’s Lucky Jim follows James Dixon’s catastrophic trajectory during what might end up being his final year as a lecturer of Medieval History. Naturally, he wants reappointment, but his immaturity—often manifested in his resistance to institutional etiquette—gets in the way. He’s a master of self-sabotage—an alcoholic and a compulsive prankster—and he manages to conflate the disasters of his personal and professional life with utmost expertise. For any reader who fantasizes about raging against the institutions that govern their own lives, Jim provides a perfect vicarious experience. His tragic fate is inevitable; by the end of the first chapter we know he’ll lose his job, but the pleasure in Lucky Jim is in the journey,which builds up to a final scene in which he must give a high-stakes public lecture. He’s drunk, cynical, heartbroken, and unprepared. As readers, we’re divided: we want Jim to get something right for once, but we also want to see just how far he can push his own ruin. Typical of the final act of classic farces, everything goes wrong, and more. It’s one of the funniest scenes I’ve ever read, but I’m not laughing at Jim—he isn’t the fool here. It’s the entire system that made this train wreck possible.

The humor and satire I enjoyed in Russo’s Straight Man and Prose’s Blue Angel center on classroom and departmental power dynamics. In Straight Man, William Henry Devereaux, Jr, a professor and an unlikely chairman of the department, must deal with the possibility of budget cuts (his diplomatic maneuver: he threatens to kill a duck a day until the budget passes), ridiculous rivalries, and extramarital temptations. The novel asks whether Devereaux is competent to do anything, and the narrative moves form one trial to the next, offering both funny and heartbreaking episodes that reveal what Devereaux is really made of. Blue Angel is similar, though Prose is doing something courageous, bold, and downright terrifying. Returning to the question of how much autonomy individuals have in institutions that more or less construct and define individuals’ behaviors and identities, Prose puts Ted Swenson, an “innocent” and content middle-aged professor who loves his wife unconditionally, in a situation in which he experiences urgent temptation to conduct a sexual affair with an undergraduate. This is a rather sophisticated and complex circumstance: readers are convinced that Swenson would never act so disgracefully, yet something subtle suggests his act of harassment and infidelity is inevitable. We can’t pin the blame on him entirely: the institution he’s wrapped up in makes his disgrace inexorable, and the young woman clearly desires him for self-serving reasons. Yet, we cannot exonerate him either. This is, essentially, a novel about a man who is in denial of his act of sexual harassment. It’s haunting, it’s gross, and it manages to be funny (its humor, like in the previous novels, centers on exposing the pretensions of academic culture). Prose embraces the height of ambition here, making us laugh in the most uncomfortable of situations.

I’ve found that humorous novels delivered in first-person and close-third seem to exhaust the humorous voice after about fifty pages. In Moo, Jane Smiley overcomes this obstacle by narrating in a roving third-person POV, each chapter focusing on a different individual within the academic institution. As a result, each segment is fresh: we get voices and modes of interiority characterized by wild idiosyncrasies. Furthermore, the characters work in different departments within the university, so we experience diverse discourses. Ultimately, these eccentric voices clash, so the pleasure and humor never run dry.

What We’re Reading: Winner of the National Book Award

Thursday, September 18th, 2014

Don Peteroy: For the last four months, I’ve been reading humorous novels exclusively, trying to unpack how humor works, looking for ways the written medium imposes limitations on a writer’s ability to provoke laughter while also granting opportunities that you wouldn’t get in, say, standup comedy or film. I’m particularly interested in how writers sustain humor throughout a novel; I’ve found that most of the books I’ve read are funny for about fifty pages, and then the humor exhausts itself.

Jincy Willett’s Winner of the National Book Award is one of the few books that kept me laughing until the last page.

Hurricane Pandora is about to strike a town in Rhode Island. Dorcas, the local librarian, is hiding in the library. She busies herself with one of the new nonfiction arrivals, In the Driver’s Seat: The Abigail Mather Story. It’s written by Dorcas’s sister Abigail, and Hilda DeVilbiss, Abigail’s friend. Dorcas isn’t happy about this book—it’s a “wife abuse expose” that chronicles Abigail’s sexual deviance and eventual marriage to the venomous writer Conrad Lowe. While abuse narratives aren’t funny, it’s the book-about-a-book—the metafictional distance—that allows Willett to draw humor from the story of Abigail’s traumatic marriage. Dorcas leads us through the book chapter by chapter; she comments, criticizes, exposes Hilda and Abigail’s embellishments, and reveals what’s been left unsaid.

Winner of the National Book Award shows two competing narratives that tell the same story. Dorcas’s corrective rendition is stylistically sophisticated and brutally honest while In the Driver’s Seat’s is bombastic, sentimental, and full of absurd speculations. For instance, Hilda attempts to explain the primary cause of young Abigail’s excessive sexual appetite, relying on inaccurate psychological explanations:

“Abigail Mather’s great sin was, of course, in growing up. Her father, likely out of his own inchoate sense of guilt, precognizant of his own incestuous desires, withheld from Abigail the male approval necessary to her erotic self-esteem. Just when she had the greatest need of him, he declined to validate her sexuality. . . .”

The humor lies in Dorcas’s mockery and refutation of these fanciful “facts,” her resistance to pop-Freudian psychology.

The characters themselves are pitiful, and it’s their awareness and proud embracing of their deplorable natures that makes them so funny. Conrad Lowe hates women. He’s a former gynecologist who’d been attracted to the field only because he wanted to understand what’s inside women. Then he became a novelist who embodies all of the stereotypical pretensions. In an interview with the Journal-Bulletin, he talks about his latest novel, a thriller called Night of the Gorgon, which is “in the Mantis tradition.” The interviewer asks, “Is that, more or less, the Stephen King tradition?” He responds, “No . . . it is exactly in the Stephen King tradition.”

She asks, “And how do you think your work compares with King’s?”

He says, “It’s worse.”

Willett provides a never-ending procession of satire-conducive excerpts of In the Driver’s Seat; new characters provide fresh surprises, embodying stereotypes pushed to the max: we meet a male “feminist” poet who is obviously a sexist in denial, his enabling wife Hilda, and a depressed Unitarian minister undergoing an existential crisis. The humor endures and escalates in direct proportion to the tragedy because there’s always something outrageous happening, always a twist.

What We’re Reading: Cloud Atlas

Thursday, January 16th, 2014

Brian Trapp: I’m currently writing a novel, which has not proved helpful for my mental health. I’m beset with the usual first-draft questions: How many narrators? One? Three? How much time will the narrative cover? One month? One year? Ten? To keep from quitting forever and taking up a more forgiving occupation (Bomb defuser? Smoke jumper?), I take comfort in the fact that there are only so many options. But after reading David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, I am once again on the cusp of mental breakdown. Mitchell’s novel has six (!) narrators and covers oh . . . why not . . . a thousand years.

The book can more accurately be described as a series of interlocking novellas, each blending chameleon-like into different genres (seafaring journal, Victorian epistolary, mystery/thriller, sci-fi dystopia). The novel starts and ends with an epic of British imperialism, but in between it trapezes to 1970s California, Victorian Belgium, contemporary London, future Korea, and more distant end-of-civilization Hawaii, employing Mitchell’s assured prose and expertly curated detail.

This author is best when painting other worlds, and he can find the most telling detail to make a scene believable. For instance, in “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing,” when the nineteenth-century seafarer gets to a racist missionary outpost on an obscure island, he notices a dining room table with its legs immersed in a dish of water to keep the ants away. How did he come up with that? It’s the best of details: utterly convincing and also thematically significant. Civilization in this novel is always on shaky ground, and yet there is a hopeful air to many of these stories. In the mostly depressing Phillip K. Dick-inspired “An Orison of Sonmi-451,” a cloned “fabricant” gives her confession to a government minder after a quashed rebellion, and yet her Bill of Rights lives on as a religion in the next novella, showing that even when characters die, their stories can matter for future generations.

Cloud Atlas is held together like a symphony, with repeating themes of reincarnation and cannibalism, even down to the novellas themselves, each one existing as a text in a later novella. Mitchell, who did a master’s thesis on postmodern literature, offers the complex intertexuality of his postmodern forebears, while still supplying the old-timey pleasures of a good yarn. In other words, he is both sophisticated and accessible. While some novellas are better than others, cumulatively, this novel holds up, and in its last line makes a compelling case for itself: “Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?”

What We’re Reading

Monday, October 14th, 2013

Brian Brodeur: As part of my reading for qualifying exams here at University of Cincinnati, I’ve been researching a module on Contemporary American narrative poetry. Though unfairly regarded by many poets and critics as déclassé, this poetic genre has enjoyed something of an awakening in recent years. I’m thinking not only of the verse novels of the 1990s such as Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate and Mark Jarman’s Iris, but Geoffrey Brock’s more recent dramatic monologues spoken by nineteenth-century naturalists J. J. Audubon and Alexander Wilson, two examples of which will be published in our forthcoming issue (10.2).

One of the pleasures of exploring this genre in depth is discovering work I’d never encountered before and probably wouldn’t have otherwise. One such example is the title poem from David Mason’s second volume, The Country I Remember (1996). Mason, who is adept at both long and short forms of narrative poetry, most recently published the historical novel-in-verse Ludlow (2007). Composed in flexible blank-verse, “The Country I Remember” is a dramatic monologue spoken by two voices: Lieutenant John Mitchell, a Civil War POW captured at the battle of Chickamauga who helped to free over one hundred men from the infamous Libby Prison; and his restless daughter, Maggie Gresham, who escaped social convention by traveling alone across the American West in search of a self-sufficient life.

As Dana Gioia remarks in his introduction to Robert McDowell’s verse novel The Diviners (1995), “the new narrative must tell a memorable story in language that constantly delivers a lyric frisson.” Like any successful long narrative poem written after Modernism, “The Country I Remember” achieves this frisson through fragmentation, associative leaps, compression, and dramatic irony. Most noticeably, however, “The Country I Remember” distinguishes itself through another Modernist technique: juxtaposition. In its most radical structural move, the poem plays two familial voices against each other, alternating monologues in rapid succession with only a section title as transition. Because both characters actually speak their respective monologues across a considerable distance of space and time (John from Pomeroy, WA, 1918; Maggie from Los Angeles, CA, 1956), this device achieves the dramatic effect of issuing both voices at once. It is Mason’s ability to create two disparate, credible human beings, and to impart the unique experiences of both characters in a convincing way, that unifies his narrative, that provides the story with emotional poignancy, and that makes these different voices sing as one.

What We’re Reading

Monday, April 15th, 2013

Brian Trapp: It’s often said that fiction make us feel less lonely. However, growing up with a disabled twin brother, I often found novels to be a lonely place. Where were the stories about brothers like mine? Families like mine? Stories that depicted the severely disabled as more than objects of pity? This year, I made it a point to read a lot of fiction about disability and discovered Jayne Anne Phillips’s wonderful novel Lark and Termite (2009), a National Book Award finalist.

The novel mostly follows Lark, a headstrong teenage girl, and her wheelchair-bound, disabled half-brother, Termite, as they grow up in an isolated town in late 1950s West Virginia. Another narrative strand transports us back nine years to a tunnel in Korea as Termite’s father slowly dies in one of the first massacres of the Korean War. What makes this novel fascinating is Phillips’s rich exploration of non-normative consciousness. We follow the father as he goes from strong and able soldier to a dying and dependent man, time slowing, his senses shutting down. But Termite is the real achievement, named so because, as his sister says, he moves his fingers like an insect with antennae, “in himself like a termite’s in a wall.” His thoughts rendered in a lyrical close third based on rhythm and sound, Termite notices things that the other characters don’t: the sounds of ants, the color of the sky, the warm rush of air. He cannot talk, only repeating what others say, but Phillips is mysterious with just how much he understands and communicates, as he interacts with people with his eyes and a bell on his wheelchair.

If you haven’t already suspected it, this is very much a rewriting of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, and hits some of the same themes: a sister’s sexual awakening, suicide, a disabled brother threatened with institutionalization. Except in Phillips’s hands, this story is much more accessible and affirming. And instead of Benjy’s simple-sentence narration, a “tale told by an idiot . . . signifying nothing,” Phillips writes Termite’s POV with a Morrison-like lyricism, making you want to experience the world through his mind. If all this weren’t enough, there’s also some magical-realist elements. You guys like ghosts, right? But for me, the best moments were in the breathtaking intimacy between the siblings. As Lark says about her brother: “I’m so used to being with Termite, he feels like alone to me. He’s like a hum that always hums so the edge of where I am is blunt and softened.”

What We’re Reading

Wednesday, April 3rd, 2013

Lisa Ampleman: I’ve been savoring Mary Szybist’s second book of poems, Incarnadine (Graywolf, 2013), released recently. Nearly eight years ago in St. Louis, I heard Szybist read from her first book, Granted, and I bought it immediately. In fact, I asked her where I could find a copy of one of the newer poems she’d read, and she gave a copy, on paper, to me. I’ve been waiting years to see that poem (“Touch Gallery: Joan of Arc”)—and others I’ve seen in literary journals since—in book form.

Incarnadine is more than worth the wait. Many of the poems meditate on the Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel asked Mary if she was willing to become pregnant with Jesus. Some playful poems use language from Nabokov, from the Kenneth Starr report on Bill Clinton’s misdoings, from George W. Bush’s speeches, all while discussing the Annunciation. And Szybist makes use of the fact that her first name is also Mary. When we read “Update on Mary,” for example, we’re not entirely sure which Mary it is who “has too many silver earrings and likes to sort them in the compartments of her drawer.” I admire how Szybist entwines the religious elements with both lyrical meditation and startling contemporary images. I find myself reading the book slowly, wanting to draw out the experience.

Why We Like It: “Mold House”

Monday, March 25th, 2013

Spring Break is at an end, and it’s great to be back in the office. The staff at CR is so devoted, so focused, so . . . fused to the rewarding work of bringing you lit that buzzes your bulbs, we tend to feel a bit lost when we don’t have submissions to read, proofs to mark, accepted material to edit. In other words, Becky Adnot-Haynes spent the break rocking back and forth in a dark room, muttering to herself in past-perfect tense. Lisa Ampleman took cuticle care to new heights. Brian Trapp swallowed eggs. Whole. Lots of them. Just to see what would happen. Now he knows. Matt O’Keefe practiced writing the ampersand, which he’d never before mastered. It’s tricky, the ampersand. Nicola Mason rolled in a bed of poison ivy. Just to see what would happen. Now she knows. Linwood Rumney trumped all our efforts by scouring the sidewalks of our city for $1000 bills. He found one. Unfortunately that’s exactly what he owed his bookie, so now he’s broke again, but he gets to keep all his digits, which he put to good use in typing up the following assessment of Matt Sumpter’s poem in our upcoming (May) issue.

Linwood Rumney: For a poetry lover, finding a good sonnet is like spotting a $1000 bill on the sidewalk. After the surprise of discovering something you thought no longer existed wanes—”They print these?” you ask yourself in disbelief—everything feels brighter, and all the problems that seemed overwhelming don’t feel so insurmountable.

That’s what it was like when I first read Matt Sumpter’s “Mold House”: I unexpectedly felt a lot richer. “Mold House” is by no means a pure sonnet; it’s fifteen lines instead of fourteen, and while most of the lines do have five stresses, it clearly maintains no strict allegiance to iambic pentameter. The poem is shabby, and appropriately so. This sense of clutter, as with the exhumed contents of the house demolished in the poem, the rollerblades and mattresses, creates opportunities for genuine surprise. The poem contains no pure rhymes, for example, yet the last words still sonically resonate in intricate ways: the off-rhymes of “hammers” and “ladders”; the assonance of “edge,” “instead,” and “mattresses”; the alliteration of “rugs” and “rescue.”

So, “Mold House” is a great poem in part because the form and the content complement each other, working together to determine the direction of the piece instead of wrestling each other for supremacy. Though I love “Mold House” in part because it is a sonnet, I enjoy it all the more because it does not overtly call attention to its sonnet-ness. The poet cares more about the men “pry(ing) shingles off with claw hammers,” the sounds and cadences he can find there, than he does about patting himself on the back for accomplishing a formal feat. A reader can really be struck by the rhythms, the energy, and the atmosphere of the poem without really recognizing the intricacies of its formal features.

What We’re Reading

Wednesday, December 5th, 2012

Associate Editor Becky Adnot-Haynes: When I was a kid I used to do this weird thing where I folded over the top of my sock because the seam bothered my toes. Apparently, my uncle used to do the same, and he turned out to be a doctor—so my parents used to joke that maybe I would, too. I unfortunately never got close to a career in medicine (it’s true—writers really are afraid of science). But I do harbor a mild fascination for morbid and medical matters. Call it genetics.

Anyway, right now I’m reading Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, Mary Roach’s book about what happens to our bodies after we die (there is a surprising array of possibilities). Roach approaches her material with just the right mix of respect and irreverence. Her tone is appealingly droll—she titles her chapter on the use of human crash test dummies “Dead Man Driving”—and yet you get the impression that she has a deep respect for the bodies that perform tasks, often as part of medical research, that live humans cannot. And the material itself is endlessly fascinating, ranging from the use of dead bodies in plastic-surgery practice to historical instances of body snatching to the University of Tennessee’s “Body Farm,” where corpses are placed in what Roach describes as a “lovely, forested grove” to allow researchers to study their various states of decay.

The writing is personal, too, when it needs to be: In the final chapter Roach ponders the fate of her own corpse. (You get the idea, reading Roach’s book, that she sees the many conceivable uses for her cadaver as a sort of buffet of opportunities.) She contemplates, among other possibilities, her own body’s life-after-death as a medical skeleton in New Mexico or as a member of the Harvard Brain Bank. (“You do not need brains to go to the Harvard Brain Bank,” she deadpans, “only a brain.”) All in all, it’s an excellent read. Highly recommended, and not only for those who prefer flip-flops.

What We’re Reading

Friday, November 2nd, 2012

Brian Trapp: I’m in my reading year, which means I have to trudge through Proust and Joyce and other Very Important Authors. But I also get to read lesser known authors who would be just as Very Important if there were any justice in this cold, black universe. Tom Drury is one of these. My favorite of his novels is The Black Brook. Drury is a skilled practitioner of skewed realism. Like the dog trapped in a car at the beginning of the novel, he sees our world with a slightly crooked head and a messed-up equilibrium. The most absurd details are reported in a deadpan narration.

The protagonist of The Black Brook is Paul, an ex-mob accountant under witness protection, and we follow his picaresque adventures as he leaves his wife, runs from mobsters, works for a newspaper, and encounters a ghost. Paul operates with limited interiority, without a clear moral compass, and without learning from his mistakes. Rather than knotting neatly, the plot strands in the novel tend to unravel, pulling us along to experience what Drury truly cares about: dialogue and digression. It helps that Drury is a master of comic dialogue. (As a writer, I feel that every time I read Drury, my dialogue gets better. Try it sometime.) And his minor characters glow with a Dickensian vividness. The Black Brook asks: if real life doesn’t follow a linear plot, why should we, as writers, try to make it seem as if it does in our novels? It is as though Drury is saying that life is a bunch of disconnected stories, but the cumulative effect is something far greater. As Drury writes, “God was math, but math that gave the appearance of love because it added up.”

What We’re Reading

Tuesday, May 22nd, 2012

Matt McBride: Lately I’ve been reading Terrance Hayes’s newest collection, Lighthead (Penguin, 2010). Hayes, who is the current Elliston Poet-in-Residence here at UC, is one the few poets who can use form—both conventional forms such as acrostics and found forms like Pecha Kucha (a sped-up Japanese version of Power Point)—to make poems stranger as opposed to using form to rein poems in. What I admire most of all in Hayes’s poetry, though, is its ability to stay in motion. Hayes poems are like wind-up search engines, moving through culture and integrating allusions ranging from Wallace Stevens to Elizabeth Cotten, from James Joyce to Tupac Shakur. Mixed with these allusions is the personal—indeed, Hayes collages a self from all these differing cultural representations of human existence and identity, and while doing so conveys his experience as an African American. Further, all this is accomplished with a language lithe enough to keep up with the speed of Hayes’s consciousness but substantial enough to support the significance of what he has to say. It is a poetry that can jump from “I’d rather have what my daddy calls ’skrimp.’/ He says ‘discrete’ and means the street/ just out of sight. Not what you see, but what you perceive” to “that’s poetry. Not the noise, but its rhythm; an arrangement of derangements; I’ll eat you to live: that’s poetry,” without skipping a beat or collapsing under the weight of its pronouncements.

If you’re interested in reading a more thorough review of Hayes’s Lighthead, check out Lynnell Edwards’s “A Chorus of Selves: Terrance Hayes’s Lighthead” from issue 8.1.

And if you happen to be in the Cincinnati area, make sure to attend Terrance Hayes’s talk about poetry on May 25 at 4:00 p.m. in the Elliston Poetry Room, 646 Langsam Library on the University of Cincinnati’s main campus.