Archive for the ‘What We’re Reading’ Category

What We’re Reading: Paul Auster’s Brief Encounters

Thursday, April 14th, 2016

brief encounters coverSuzie Vander Vorste: Brief Encounters: A Collection of Contemporary Nonfiction is my current reading companion, and it’s a great one—full of brilliant short creative-nonfiction essays. It’s easy to flip this book open and land on a piece that enlarges one’s understanding of the art of story-telling, the act of self-reflection, and of the different perspectives on what it means to be human. One essay in particular, “Winter Journal: The First Three Pages,” reminds us how something elemental to the human condition can surge through a piece of writing, compelling us to think about what it’s like to live our lives in our bodies.

As you read about Paul Auster’s childhood sensations of cold air felt through a window frame, the tenderness in which he describes the scene may draw you back to the day when, at age six, you tried to sweep up snow with a broom while helping your mother clear the driveway. It may take you back to pulling icy clumps off your mittens while playing outside, or walking to school with numb toes inside heavy winter boots.

Although his essay in some ways evokes a painful desire to turn back the clock, Auster’s work also considers the inevitability of aging, recognizing both that our time does run out, and that a person only has one body to live in. In “Winter Journal,” Auster tells his body’s story, presenting a fragmented narrative that reflects how life itself is a series of sensations and that emphasizes the ways our sense of self is bound to the physical as much as it is to memory. For Auster, the bodily pleasures and pains of life, past and present, are bound together from the beginning. His ability to convey this interplay over the course of a person’s life is remarkable.

snow-thawing-nature-forestAuster reminds us that there are moments we each experience that are unique to our bodies and our selves, moments that allow the reader to disentangle what it means to have lived one’s own life compared to the lives of others.

Although “Winter Journal: The First Three Pages” is brief, Auster digs deep into the sensations of living in his body to reconcile who he is at the age he is—and all while his title quietly insists there is still more life, and writing, to be had.

What We’re Reading: Mavis Gallant’s Paris Stories

Wednesday, April 6th, 2016

51eCfCOTWXL._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_Ryan Ruff Smith: Mavis Gallant is one of those realists who, upon close examination, is weirder than anyone. Excepting one ghost story, the material collected in Paris Stories, a retrospective assemblage put together by NYRB Classics in 2002, is strictly grounded in reality. For the most part, this is the reality of post-World War II Europe. (The stories are not set exclusively in Paris, as the title may seem to suggest, but all of them were written there.) What makes Gallant’s writing so odd is less about content than structure. She’s a virtuoso of exposition and summary who doesn’t seem to have any particular regard for scene, that workhorse of most literary realism. It’s not that she can’t write them—there are scenes throughout Paris Stories that are sharp and unforgettable—but Gallant seems to care less about the usual beats of fiction than about sketching the contours of a life, or more precisely, a particular consciousness and sensibility, shown at a slant.

You never get the sense that any of these stories might be about her. They have the feel of train-notebook stories—observational, penetrating, and, within their realistic bounds, wildly imaginative. They are almost all told in close third person, though there is one in first and even one in second, the latter (“Mlle. Dias de Corta”) perhaps the most successful story of its kind that I’ve read. Where Gallant’s own sensibility comes through is in that slant—the sharp but subtle angle of vision from which she views her subjects. Her eye is keen, ironic, and sometimes vindictive. I fear that it’s become something of a cliché to say about a mean but funny writer—someone like Muriel Spark or Flannery O’Connor—that she is acerbic and cruel to her characters and yet also deeply sympathetic and fair. If this commonplace observation can be true, it’s certainly true of Gallant, but perhaps it’s more accurate to say that her characterizations are so fully fleshed out, so deeply imagined, that the questions of kindness and fairness become unyoked.

Here she is describing the couple at the center of the collection’s opening story, “The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street”:

“As a private married joke, Peter and Sheilah wear the silk dressing gowns they bought in Hong Kong. Each thinks the other a peacock, rather splendid, but they pretend the dressing gowns are silly and worn in fun.”

And again in “Specks’ Idea,” describing the modest Paris art dealer and gallerist Sandor Speck, an expert at dealing with artists’ widows:

“Sugar was poison to Speck. Henriette [his former second wife] had once reviewed a book that described how refined sugar taken into one’s system turned into a fog of hideous green. Her brief, cool warning, ‘A Marxist Considers Sweets,’ unreeled in Speck’s mind if he was confronted with a cookie.”

Sweets_(5837143346)What Gallant is having fun with in both passages is the absurdity of characters taking things seriously. Peter and Sheilah pretend to think the dressing gowns are silly in order to enjoy them in earnest. And surely, the preposterous title of Henriette’s review belies the narrator’s insistence on its “briefness” and “coolness”—and yet, the sentence illustrates the perfect seriousness with which Speck regards it.

Satire is too strong a word for what Gallant is up to here—satire in the sense of big targets, didacticism, broad swipes. The exposure of her characters feels less public than private—what Gallant is poking fun at is nothing less personal than their unspoken patterns of thought. This necessitates a sort of intimacy that is impossible without a degree of affection, and it is this strange mixture—biting wit tempered with a sense of warm familiarity—that makes Gallant Gallant. It is also what stands in for traditional drama in these dense and beguiling stories; rather than relying on plot and external event, Gallant builds narrative arcs out of the tension between the dispassion of observation and the vulnerable subjectivity of interior thought.

What We’re Reading: Department of Speculation

Tuesday, December 1st, 2015

Samantha Edmonds: When I offered to write a review of Jenny Offill’s novel Department of Speculation, what I really wanted to do was open up a forum to gush. It’s not every day I find a book that I don’t simply enjoy or even admire, but that moves something within me, as a reader, as a writer, as a human.

mindsetI want to recommend this book to everyone I have ever known (and, indeed, in the weeks since I’ve read it, I very nearly already have). I want to reread and reread this book until I’ve memorized every line. I want to write it a love letter (you’re reading the result) and scrawl in the margins sappy pick-up lines reminiscent of Erin Hanson’s poems: Did you drink a cup of the universe? For there are stars within your soul.

What makes this book so out of this world? Well, traditional book-review formula maintains I include here a summary of the novel, roughly half the length of the review itself. This will prove hard to do.

Plot: A man and woman fall in love, marry. They have a child. The man has an affair. The woman tries to pick up the pieces of the broken marriage and paste them back together.

This is not what the book is about.

“Antelopes have 10x vision. . . . That means on a clear night, they can see the rings of Saturn.”

“Blue jays spend every Friday with the devil, the old lady at the park told me.”

“Three questions from my daughter: Why is there salt in the sea? Will you die before me? Do you know how many dogs George Washington had?”

            “Don’t know. Yes. Please. 36.”

shatteredThese are just a few moments from Department of Speculation, a novel in fragments. It can be consumed in one sitting; there’s more white space than text on many of its pages. Perhaps this form is meant to reflect the character’s shattered mental state. Perhaps Offill just finds this mode of writing more invigorating and exciting. Perhaps it is meant to invoke something strange and true in the associative habit of human thoughts.

A conversation between husband and wife. A fact about space and the universe. Something weird the child said.

A tickling in the brain.

Reader, figure it out.

All the answers are in there.


The white space.

An example: The narrator says, “So lately I’ve been having this recurring dream: In it, my husband breaks up with me at a party, saying, I’ll tell you later. Don’t pester me. But when I tell him this, he grows peevish. ‘We’re married, remember? Nobody’s breaking up with anybody.’”

And in the next paragraph or fragment: “‘I love autumn,’ she says. ‘Look at the beautiful autumn leaves. It feels like autumn today. Is autumn your favorite time of year?’ She stops walking and tugs on my sleeve. ‘Mummy! You are not noticing. I am using a new word. I say autumn now instead of fall.’”

Her daughter is using a new word to talk about something old, something familiar. Rather like the way that people say “divorce” once they’re married, instead of “breaking up.”

Do you feel that tickle in your brain? Like you almost get it? But then the fragment ends, the white space looms, and you are left staring at the page, trying to connect the pieces. Department of Speculation is a novel that demands reader participation.

In the tradition of Renata Adler’s Speedboat and David Markson’s Reader’s Block, Offill has written a book that recasts what it means to be a novel: It is a form that shouldn’t work, but does. She has taken pieces of a shattered life and of the incomprehensible universe and arranged them in a such a way that when the novel ends you are star-struck, your brief visit with its world not allowing you the time to understand the amazing things you have experienced, and your mind already begging for a chance to return to it.

What We’re Reading: The Locusts Have No King

Monday, November 2nd, 2015

PowellCoverAlex Smith: Hemingway once called Dawn Powell (sarcastically, perhaps) his favorite living writer, and Gore Vidal dubbed her “The American Writer.” She was, indeed, a contemporary and friend of many famous novelists of the mid-twentieth century. And yet her work is virtually unknown today.

Hence my surprise upon reading Powell’s brilliant The Locusts Have No King, which is set in late 1940s New York. The author’s personal knowledge of the city and her thoughtful descriptions make the urban landscape a character in its own right. The novel is essentially a satire, though this fact seems to have escaped the few reviewers of the book, who find fault with its humorous unconcern for human feeling. These critics miss the masterful way the novel manages to be simultaneously hysterical and heartbreaking. As a reader, I was constantly torn between the desire to laugh and cry.

Cast as a love story between Lyle Gaynor, a married New York playwright, and Frederick Olliver, a repressed academic historian, The Locusts Have No King uses misunderstanding, double-talk, and a diverse cast of characters (my favorite being the unforgettable frenemies Caroline and Lorna, who “repeat the revelations they had been repeating [to each other] for years to glazed eyes and deaf ears”) to obfuscate the relationship that might otherwise seem of central importance. In fact, for chapters at a time we lose sight of both protagonists and hear about them only through snippets of gossip the peripheral characters reveal. The novel’s insistence upon rendering a multitude of perspectives causes the reader to see the central relationship in context and to question the possibility of love in a world of consumption and materialism.

The ending is startling for its uncharacteristic sentimentality, but rather than assuring the reader of the healing power of true love, it becomes a bleak reminder of the transactional nature of relationships. This complexity makes Powell’s work not only compelling but also significant to the American literary tradition. Her astute rendering of its characters’ inner and interpersonal lives is reminiscent of Edith Wharton’s, and the novel’s humor reminds one of John Kennedy Toole’s Confederacy of Dunces. The successful blending of absurdity and realism suggests how Powell’s work might enrich intertextual conversations across genres.

In short, I’m now obsessed with Dawn Powell. Upon completing The Locusts Have No King, I ordered several more of her novels, which promise to be just as starkly honest, comical, and satisfying.

Dear Committee Members reviewed

Friday, September 4th, 2015


Here at UC, we and the rest of the English Department are anticipating the October visit of Julie Schumacher, who’ll read in the Elliston Poetry Room at 4 p.m. on the 26th of that spooky month. Staffer and fan Don Peteroy reviews her latest—Dear Committee Members—below.

Don Peteroy: In Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members, Jason Fitger has had enough. He’s a former novelist, has had several divorces, and works as a burnt-out creative writing teacher at Payne University, where literary arts are becoming obsolete. His students—usually international finance or software engineering majors—are either apathetic or apt to write stories that celebrate excessive gore. The university is remodeling the floor above the English department, where the financially privileged economics department resides, and Fitger must deal with the constant noise of jackhammers and toxic plumes coming through the ventilation.

Taking place over the course of an academic year, the novel is told in epistolary form. The majority of Fitger’s correspondence involves requests for letters of recommendations from adjuncts, current students applying to other programs or universities, English majors from years ago applying for catering jobs, and, in one specific instance, a student who’d received a C- in Fitger’s writing class who seeks employment at Avengers Paintball, Inc. Fitger explains to Avengers Paintball that the student’s “autobiographical essay on the topic of his own rageful impulses” makes him a perfect candidate for the job. Other letters involve departmental politics, and Fitger’s persistent, but unanswered, requests for the university to take notice of the increasingly hazardous state of his work environment, due to the renovations.

Early in the novel, we realize that Fitger has blown his cork. He uses his letters as a medium to rant about the IT department’s incompetence, redundant documentation, and his failed relationships and literary career. His tirades are hysterical not only because they’re unprofessional and, at times, completely random, but because they’re honest. For instance, he writes, “Alex Ruefle has prevailed upon me to support his teaching application to your department, which I gather is hiring adjunct faculty members exclusively, bypassing the tenure track with its attendant health benefits, job security, and salaries on which a human being might reasonably live. Perhaps your institution should cut to the chase and put its entire curriculum online, thereby sparing Ruefle the need to move. You could prop him up in a broom closet in his apartment, poke him with the butt end of a mop when you need him to cough up a lecture on Caribbean fiction or the passive voice, and then charge your students a thousand dollars each to correct the essays their classmates have downloaded from a website. Such is the future of education.”

Dear Committee Members is not simply a collection of witty letters, though. There is a narrative arc, and a central conflict through which the novel achieves greater sophistication. Beneath the humor, a tragedy concerning one of Fitger’s students, Darren Browles, brews steadily. Fitger cares deeply about Browles, but as the student’s plight worsens throughout the year, Fitger finds himself powerless to help him. Browles becomes the victim of a culture that privileges certain individuals over others, institutional oversight, and administrative bloating. While Fitger’s letters written on behalf of Browles ridicule institutional ethics (and are therefore funny), they also highlight how deeply serious and horrible Browles’s situation is becoming.

Practically every other page of Dear Committee Members made me laugh. In each letter, Schumacher reestablishes and reinvents the terms of her humor, so the novel stays fresh, with surprises all the way until the end. At the same time, I found the tragic element so heartbreaking that, upon closing the book, I couldn’t do anything but remain seated and staring ahead for long minutes.

Julie Schumacher grew up in Wilmington, Delaware and graduated from Oberlin College and from Cornell University.  Her first published story, “Reunion,” written to fulfill an undergraduate writing assignment (“tell a family tale”), was selected by Anne Tyler for inclusion in The Best American Short Stories 1983. Subsequent stories and essays have been published in The Atlantic, The New York TimesMs., and Prize Stories The O.Henry Awards: 1990 and 1996.  Her first novel, The Body Is Water, was an ALA Notable Book of the Year and a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award. Her other books include a short story collection, An Explanation for Chaos, five novels for younger readers, and, most recently, Dear Committee Members, a national best seller and winner of the midwest independent bookseller award.  She is a professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Minnesota.



What We’re Reading: The Things I Don’t See

Tuesday, March 24th, 2015

CvrThingsDontSee_bookstoreDon Peteroy: Hemingway notes that in effective prose, writers will omit aspects of the story, but the reader will nonetheless sense the presence of what’s not there. “The dignity of the movement of an ice-berg,” Hemingway says, “is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.” Likewise, in Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud describes the empty, transitional space between comic panels as a potent ground for the untold story beneath the surface. Nathan Holic’s novella, The Things I Don’t See, exemplifies McCloud and Hemingway’s theories of omission through conventional storytelling and comic graphics, creating a haunting and sometimes terrifying reading experience. Though it’s marketed as a horror novella, you won’t encounter haunted houses or monsters. The ghosts in this story are our own monstrous secrets, refusing to be brought into the light.

Craig, aspiring to live life like a “sitcom dad,” has relocated his wife and step-son to a developing community outside of Orlando. Unfortunately, Phase II of the construction is cancelled when the recession comes, and Craig’s family is surrounded by unfinished homes, dirt roads, muddy craters, and the unfulfilled promise of a pool, a clubhouse, and communal happiness. His step-son, Taylor, was already a “problem child” before they’d arrived in the ghost-community, but its emptiness seems to have exacerbated his growing hatred toward Craig. A horror film fanatic, Taylor draws pictures of Craig being murdered in the most gruesome ways. The child’s violent fixations become the object of his step-father’s obsession, culminating in a power struggle. Each chapter alternates between timelines conveying Craig’s childhood and present. Even as Craig reluctantly confesses the truly horrific things he’d done as a child, we see him “investigating” Taylor, attempting to preempt or prevent what Craig believes will be Taylor’s intricate, bloody revenge. He knows Taylor is keeping dangerous secrets because that’s what he’d done as a child, and presumably, that’s what all boys do:

“. . . we were children and we believed our own lies and we were fucking evil, everything that an adult should be afraid of. And I don’t care how many diapers you change or how many loving glances you receive from your baby, you don’t know what children are capable of when your eyes are shut, when the clouds choke out the sun. A damaged child, full of hate? Shit. Best not to shut your eyes.”

Craig discovers on Taylor’s computer a series of animated drawings that are difficult to see as anything other than a promise of destruction, yet we can never be sure what Taylor’s drawings are telling us, or what the story between the frames actually is. Either way, both Craig and Taylor show signs of psychopathic potential, and by the final scene, we’re not sure who is going to do the killing, or if there will be any at all.

I’ve read a lot of horror stories, and those without the ghosts or murderers (Shirley Jackson comes to mind) can be just as terrifying as those with these elements, sometimes more. Aside from Holic’s ability to render sophisticated characters, his sentences are alive with haunting details of an abandoned suburbia, idiosyncratic in voice, poetic at times, and attentive to the power of each word. When horror writers actually care about the prose (about half do)—get this—the sentences intensify the thrills in the plot. Holic wants his readers to believe and feel the terrors on the page, and he succeeds by raising the bar with careful, artful prose. In 126 pages, he manages to juggle multiple themes, which pull the reader in as effectively as the sentences: aging, brotherly rivalry, the death of a loved one, abandonment, 1980s nostalgia, peer pressure, middle-class ennui, denial, passivity, honesty, humility, and ultimately, what it means to be a father.

You can purchase The Things I Don’t See from Main Street Rag Publishing at


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.