Spring Lit Roundup
Outline by Rachel Cusk Publication Date: January 13, 2015 Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Two strangers are seated next to each other on a plane. One of them is on her way to Athens to teach a summer writer’s workshop, and the other feels like talking. In fact, the elderly bachelor shares a great many things about himself: his marriages, divorces, fantasies, regrets and thoughtful observations. The entire novel unfolds with the same quiet restraint. The narrator has a series of conversations with eloquent and fascinating characters, all of whom share much more about themselves than she ever exposes of herself. She goes to dinner with a fellow writer. She invites her students to give detailed accounts of their own stories. At times we get the sense that this is a novel about nothing at all, apart from the calm and hazy Mediterranean life. But herein lies the mastery of Cusk’s writing: what slowly emerges through the gaps and silences of her encounters is a painful sense of erasure. This is a portrait of a woman learning to cope with a great loss in her life.
I have always felt that fiction about trauma is one of the hardest kinds to pull off, and Outline succeeds powerfully. Through the narrator’s series of sparse and lucid conversations, we get a sense not only for the complexity of the people in the story, but also an intimate understanding of the ways in which we make ourselves known to one another—at times we are transparent, and at times we are opaque. Toward the end of the book, the narrator has an interesting exchange with a popular feminist author. The realness and immediacy of this woman’s story, especially in contrast to her reputation, also very subtly holds a mirror to the narrator’s own life. The richness of the passage makes me believe that this book is in many ways a book about the feminine experience.
Some of Cusk’s conversations are meditations on the past and on relationships, but many address the nature of writing itself. The book is woven with pleasurable insights into the experience, process, struggles and rewards of working on a piece of writing. For instance, one of the visiting writers at the workshop muses, “If there’s one thing I know it’s that writing comes out of tension, tension between what’s inside and what’s outside. Surface tension, isn’t that the phrase? Wouldn’t that make a great title for a book?” While some critics have complained that the narrator’s metered, polished representations of all the characters makes them feel somehow the same, I would argue that the point of the book is more about how these characters impress upon the narrator’s internal experience. To my mind, this little novel is a beautiful accomplishment.
Binary Star by Sarah Gerard Publication Date: January 13, 2015 Publisher: Two Dollar Radio
In Sarah Gerard's debut novel, Binary Star, the writer draws on her own experience with disordered eating to craft the tale of a couple—one with an eating disorder, the other alcoholic—caught in a spiral of mutual self-destruction. Gerard uses the titular astronomical feature as a metaphor for the relationship, and intersperses her lyrical prose with bits of notes on astrophysics.
The comparison is well-crafted, and Gerard's strikingly spare style is sure to win her fans. However, the novel feels slight at times. Clearly, it's meant to reflect the protagonist's obsession with thinness, but while it's a neat trick, it makes the book frustrating at times. While the framing story of the couple's road trip and growing devotion to "veganarchism" helps to move the story along, the repetitive descriptions of disordered eating and astrophysics at times feel insubstantial and dull. While the former may be excused as an intentional stylistic choice, it doesn't make for an interesting read, and the latter is surely an unintended consequence. Still, Gerard's prose is beautiful at times, and those with an interest in either the subject matter or a more poetic style should enjoy Binary Star.
Emergency Anthems by Alex Green Publication Date: January 15, 2015 Publisher: Brooklyn Arts Press
The prose poems in Alex Green’s Emergency Anthems flash by like a montage of California mythology: actors, surfers, sunsets, lost loves. In each, the reader occupies a place just outside the frame: an extra, absorbing the action from a distance. “Gene Clark sunk your dad’s boat off the coast of Regatta Del Mar,” he writes in one. “The girl on the elliptical trainer is a singer from Portland who has written hundreds of songs about dead surfers,” he writes in another. There are hot tubs and magicians, record collections and shark bites; the world is one big exciting cliché and everyone is famous but you. You’re like the rock climber “whose boyfriend was killed by a shark… no matter what he does he’ll always be in second place to the dead surfer who, in his last seconds, stumbled through the waves and back to the beach, blood surging from his side, just to say goodbye to her.” Welcome to Hollywood.
“Nothing can top that,” Green writes, but it isn’t true. In “The Sky Wet with Signals,” we meet the director of “Malibu Silk,” a man who contracted rabies from a bat who flew into his bedroom window. “Do you still have the bat, the vet asked. I never had the bat, the director said. It’d be better if we had the bat, said the vet.” The absurdity of the exchange captures the absurdity of Green’s collection, which trades realism for the beauty of a dream that can never be but defiantly refuses to subside—a dream where the stakes are high and our failings heroic and not merely mundane. “On the news you never hear about someone who is good at karate saving the day,” Green laments. “Once you signed up for a martial arts class, but in the first few minutes you tore your groin so badly you felt the muscle split from the bone and orbit violently below your abdomen.”
Comical exaggeration masks the morbidity of this collection, which is called Emergency Anthems for a reason. Someone is always suffering or relaying how so-and-so died in some grisly fashion. The book is split into two parts: In the first, freak accidents and a light tone distract from the accumulation in each story of a new, unexpected misfortune, until they're stacked upon each other like some swaying tower of Misery Jenga. In the second, the novelty gives way to an underlying sadness. A boy writes an essay called “The Trouble with Love Is You Never Forget How You Thought You Felt." A model who gets struck by lightning “wishes the lightning had done what it was supposed to do,” and we watch Malthorp the Olympic wrestler “flip backwards and fall thirty feet into the end of August.” Green’s writing is beautifully imagetic, and the lines twist against each other in startling juxtaposition, wrenching real poignancy out of impossible situations.
Sometimes Green dispenses with artifice and shows us what lies beneath. In “South Marine Highway Love Song,” he writes: “You and your daughter sit in a café… When the waitress pours your tea, the strap of her bra slides to the left and you see the tan-line behind it.” But “It’s too late in the day for surprises; it’s not going to stop raining and the waitress is not going to touch your shoulder and whisper maybe behind the soft hiss of hot water.” Real life, he reminds us, is not a film. “You are on your own and you will have to make decisions about the world like you know what you’re doing. Your daughter can’t ever see you wither with doubt; can’t ever see you wondering about the names of things.” The poem’s blunt approach is strikingly bleak. In the end, “Using a red crayon your daughter covers her drawing in great slashes of flames, explains that it’s raining fire and everything is going to melt and there’s nothing anyone can do. She is getting the idea,” he writes. So are we.
Migratory Animals by Mary Helen Specht Publication Date: January 20, 2015 Publisher: Harper Perennial
Migratory Animals, Mary Helen Specht’s debut novel, is an intriguing work about the tangled web of love and obligation that characterizes and complicates close interpersonal relationships. Beautifully written, with a memorable cast of characters, the novel focuses on a group of friends as they muddle through major—and sometimes tragic—life changes.
After a five-year research stint in Nigeria, Flannery returns to Austin, Texas, with the hopes of acquiring more funding to continue her work. With her fiancé still in Africa, Flannery catches up with the family and friends she intentionally left behind. A prominent theme of the novel is mental illness, which directly affects two of the characters and carries repercussions for many more. Flannery and her younger sister, Molly, watched their mother deteriorate from Huntington’s disease when they were children; almost immediately upon returning home, Flannery begins to notice early symptoms of the disease in Molly. Meanwhile, Flannery’s best friend Alyce suffers from a debilitating depression that has isolated her from her friends, husband, and children. Although Specht explores the very human aspects of these illnesses, she is perhaps too thorough in her descriptions of depression; occasionally, the prose reads like a relentless list of symptoms. Still, Specht pinpoints a heartbreaking aspect of human suffering: the tendency to ignore a problem, in the hopes that it will disappear if avoided vigorously enough.
Specht, a Texas native who traveled to Nigeria as a Fulbright Scholar, imbues her settings with rich detail. While some scenes benefit from her personal knowledge, vividly taking shape on the page, others suffer; the Austin scenes, in particular, feel bogged down in minutiae. Specht’s fondness for naming everything from food trailers to hiking trails evokes a tour guide’s voice and gives the book—which was published just two months ago—a dated feel. Perhaps this unevenness can be attributed to Specht’s relative inexperience. Odd pacing and patchy character development further mark the book as the work of a first‐time novelist. Rather inconveniently, much of the evolution of the characters and their relationships is stacked toward the back. Nevertheless, the prose is luminous and engaging, and the characters, once fully fleshed out, come to life with endearing humanity.
Specht’s debut novel is both troubling and absorbing. Migratory Animals surprised me: Rather than a story of romantic love, it is one about the love we have for our friends and family, and the ways in which we shape ourselves—voluntarily and involuntarily—to make room for it.
Coyote by Colin Winnette Publication Date: January 20, 2015 Publisher: Les Figues Press
Perhaps to tell you what Coyote by Colin Winnette is, I have to tell you what it is not. After all, the novella is, itself, a chronicle of absence (I called for weeks and no one answered… So I called. And called.). The book is absence of sound (She did not tolerate silence / he was … at peace with his silence), of trust (I always doubted the truth of that story… something hadn’t felt right about the stillness), of daughter (I tell the same story every time: we put her to bed, and when we woke up she was gone). The missing daughter, who fills the pages. Or elsewhereness. Or the lie of her life left in her wake—she lingers in that white space between words and within them, inside the hollow of an o.
And because the reader is so deeply entrenched in the mother’s own doubts about the father, his worth in the face of the missing child, what is not said becomes more important than what is. It is those emptinesses that build the story’s ominous crescendo. The desire for and fear of missing permeates the words themselves (he always had the fear… I might leave), and leaves the reader empty. Sometimes infuriatingly so. The story successfully illuminates trauma from the inside, but forces the reader to turn page after page without understanding. And perhaps this is success: perhaps it is this senselessness, this mystery, this not knowing that is so true and so frustrating and ultimately makes the book an experience rather than a story.
The reader stumbles with the mother/narrator across the expanse of heartbreak. We plod behind her insearch of understanding within her own misunderstanding. It is risky to leave the reader so much space to assume and leap and wonder. And yet with each reading there are other assumptions, another leap, more wonder. How does one evaluate the hole in a heart? I still don’t know if the book is about death or possibility or falling apart, though I called. And called.
Get in Trouble by Kelly Link Publication Date: February 3, 2015 Publisher: Random House
In “Light,” the final story in Kelly Link’s new collection Get in Trouble, the narrator describes the phenomenon of so-called “pocket universes”: “some place where the food and the air and the landscape seemed like something out of a book you’d read as a child; a brochure; a dream.” Link may as well be talking about her own stories. With unsettling familiarity, they insinuate themselves in the reader’s mind, stirring subconscious memories and desires. They operate on what Link describes as “night time logic.” Like dreams, they contain that unnerving mix of surrealism and emotional honesty.
Of her many talents, Link’s deftness at blending disparate elements—the absurd with the ordinary, the highbrow with the low—may be her greatest. Each story in Get in Trouble walks a fine line between the realistic and the imaginary. Tellingly, a New York Times review compares Link to both Raymond Carver and George Saunders, modern masters of the short story who lie on opposite ends of the realist spectrum. Though the fantastical elements of Link’s stories may recall Saunders, their emotional core resembles Carver’s work far more. Take, for example, the aforementioned “Light,” in which Lindsey, a lonely, divorced alcoholic, plays unwilling host to her charming twin brother, and awaits with excitement a potentially devastating hurricane. This subject matter might sound mundane to anyone familiar with Link’s previous work, which has been described as slipstream, magical realism, and speculative fiction. But throw in those pocket universes, a mysterious sleeping sickness, and the fact that Lindsey’s twin brother Alan was born as her second shadow, and you have a singular world that only Link could create.
Yet such extraordinary details rarely overwhelm Link’s work. (One notable exception here is “Valley of the Girls,” which relishes its deliberate obtuseness.) “Light” is not the story of a kooky twin’s misadventures in an offbeat land. Rather, it is a poignant meditation on depression, identity, and the meaninglessness of life. Link manages this tightrope act by imbuing her characters with all the flaws and yearnings of fully realized people. Lindsey, e.g., does not feel like a writer’s creation; she seems to exist both within and without the story. The same holds true for most of Link’s characters here, especially the heartbreaking teenage protagonists of “Origin Story” and “The New Boyfriend.” Such delicate and precise depictions are something of a departure for Link, whose character development has in the past taken a backseat to the mythic, archetypal tone of her stories.
In another feat of masterful blending, Link provides a treasure trove of literary and pop culture allusions. Stories reference Walt Whitman and Edith Wharton while paying debt to Arthur C. Clarke, Marvel Comics, and Twilight. Identifying Link’s influences is almost as fun as inhabiting, for a spell, the worlds they inspire.
This willingness to explore and stretch, to blend genres and cobble together, has given us Link’s most wide-ranging collection yet. Get in Trouble features ghost stories set in space, duplicitous teen romances, and superheroes who can save the world but can’t cope with celebrity. Its characters are lovestruck adolescents, washed-up actors, aliens and omniscient robots. And, in the middle, we find Link’s first wholly realist story, in which a middle-aged gay couple navigate the precarious and premature birth of their first child. Link, one of the most imaginative writers working today, has never failed to surprise, and Get in Trouble succeeds beyond expectations: its stories are thrillingly unnerving, preternaturally poignant, and undeniably fun.
—Alyssa G. Ramirez
Jillian by Halle Butler Publication Date: February 17, 2015 Publisher: Curbside Splendor
Halle Butler’s Jillian immerses the reader in the psychic morass of bitter, depressive post-collegiate Megan and Jillian, a delusional, thirty-something Pollyanna. Both women spend their days in close proximity, booking appointments and sorting through colonoscopy photos as assistants in a gastroenterologist’s office in Chicago. Jillian is a short, darkly funny, dialogue-heavy story told by Butler’s splendid foils, neither woman ever quite emerging as the protagonist. Butler uses the interplay between her two main characters to paint poignantly the seething antipathy and disdain often lurking beneath the modern workplace’s genteel façade.
Megan finds nothing and no one worth a damn. Still an apathetic member of her Chicago social circle, Megan dulls her nights with cheap beer and cigarettes, making little effort to hide disgust for her striving, self-important peers and alienating most people within minutes of introduction. Through Megan, Butler writes the depression pervading an aimless urban existence with brutality and acerbic wit, juxtaposing her character’s heartbreaking anhedonia with the daily indignities of modern life. Megan weeps, hungover, in the shower, struck by the absurdity of despairing while soaping one’s body with a teal-colored plastic bath poof. Armed with a purse full of cheap watery beer and no incentive to please, Megan sometimes carries the sharp insight of the clinically depressed, akin to Lars von Trier’s Justine in Melancholia. At her best, Megan tears into her vapid, self-congratulatory peers for their contrived social personas: “You think you’re an artist? Do you really think this blog is a representation of art, that great universalizer? That great transmigrater? This isolating shlock that makes me feel like I have to buy into you and your formula for happiness? Work as a freelance designer, grow beets, travel, have lots of people who like you, and above all have funsies!” At her worst, she is a self-loathing, myopic black cloud, indiscriminately devaluing all human pursuits and alienating her partner and any caring acquaintances that remain. Butler writes Megan’s inner monologue with blunt, deadpan prose that conveys the comedic charm of Steven Wright with the emotional weight of Sylvia Plath. While Megan passes her days in a tired, low-grade rage, coworker Jillian enters the crosshairs of her unpitying judgment. Of Jillian, “Megan sighed. ‘She continues to be a thick strand in the malevolent web of my daily routine.’”
Jillian is a church-going, suburban single mother who perplexes Megan by maintaining a constant veneer of cheeriness and loudly purporting to love her job. At the novel’s onset, Jillian strikes the reader as stupid, but harmless, her entire identity a late capitalistic cliché, as she guzzles Starbucks, raises her son in front of the television, and muses about making more money working from home. As the story unfolds, Jillian becomes much less cartoonish and much more frightening as Butler deftly writes her inner monologue and the veneer of a perky woman with blind, rose-colored glasses subtly gives way to deep and enduring delusions. She tells lies to hide her irresponsibility and then begins to believe her own lies. As her downfall is marked with a series of personal and professional failures, Jillian mentally recites affirmations in lieu of taking responsibility for her actions and confronting reality. “The mantra was something about keeping up appearances and believing that God would make things right again and you shouldn’t be upset or act like anything is wrong because that might bring someone else down or make them upset…she couldn’t remember the exact line, but the sentiment of it came back to her, flooded her with the approximation of its meaning (vivid, this feeling, clear and strong, but impossible to pin down, you know, just like God was, so that was ok and was a comfort) and then suddenly she knew everything would be ok.” Jillian’s delusion, amplified as the novel progresses by isolation, debt, and codeine, propels the story forward with the energy and release of someone who falls apart wildly and publicly after all the seams of politeness and professionalism have burst wide.
From within her story’s binary focus, Butler’s writing shines brightest when she allows brief insight into ancillary characters. The reader is horrified when a caretaker at Jillian’s young son’s daycare derides him for imaginatively playing as a dog during a children’s game of playing house. In another vignette, Butler reveals the ambitious but vapid inner life of a graphic designer Megan despises: “[Carrie] wanted to make a database. When she thought of the database, she became slightly nervous. Not overly nervous, but a little nervous. It was an idea she’d had in the back of her head for almost two weeks now and she wasn’t able to pin down what, exactly the database would be, what it would contain, or from where it would be accessible. But it would be some kind of database.” Throughout Jillian, the reader is left with the unease that follows encountering someone whose worldview is profoundly askew, yet lacks the minimal self-awareness necessary to be helped or help themselves. Though Megan and Jillian occupy opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of life perspective, Megan in passive misery and Jillian in active cheerful fantasy, both characters exist within a myopic self-centeredness that Butler nails, pervading her novel with a singular, resounding disquiet.
—Sarah Jane Quillin