Summer Lit Roundup
Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera Publication Date: March 10, 2015 Publisher: And Other Stories
“Yuri Herrera’s use of language is nothing short of stunning,” Lisa Dillman writes in the translator’s note to Signs Preceding the End of the World, the first of Herrera’s novels to be translated into English.“What makes his writing so unique,” she explains, “is what makes it so challenging to translate.” The Spanish must be truly arresting, considering the praise distinguished writers such as Francisco Goldman and Daniel Alarcón have accorded it. Unfortunately, some of the magic seems lost in translation. Take the opening to chapter four:
When she reached the top of the saddle between the two mountains it began to snow. Makina had never seen snow before and the first thing that struck her as she stopped to watch the weightless crystals raining down was that something was burning. One came to perch on her eyelashes; it looked like a stack of crosses or the map of a palace, a solid and intricate marvel at any rate, and when it dissolved a few seconds later she wondered how it was that some things in the world—some countries, some people—could seem eternal when everything was actually like that miniature ice palace: one-of-a-kind, precious, fragile.
There might be something beautiful and profound here, but we can only grasp it from the residue, like evaluating a bathtub ring after the water has drained. The language is plain, the revelation mundane. The sentences run on like sprinters, but without passion or any sense of momentum. Making matters worse are seemingly arbitrary translation choices, such as how the names of “Mr. Double-U” and “Mr. Aitch” are spelled out, but Mr. Q and Mr. P are left as initials. Why? Not that it matters—the characters are so transitory, so meaningless to the story that they could have been combined into one.
Which leads to the real problem with this short novel: it assumes an air of profundity, but it lacks depth. One author compares Herrera to Roberto Bolaño and Italo Calvino. The latter comparison seems particularly apt, as Herrera's writing does bear some similarity to Calvino's: subtle, understated, with a touch of magic. At its best, it conjures a poignant clairvoyance, such as when an old man compares American imperialism to a game of baseball. “One of them whacks it, then sets off like it was a trip around the world, to every one of the bases out there, you know the anglos have bases all over the world, right?” he asks Makina, the protagonist. Such moments display a genuine worldview and personality.
Far too often, though, for a book about a teenage girl crossing illegally into America to look for her brother, we get no indication that hardship or suffering exists. The story feels like an allegory, but the depth of the action doesn’t extend beyond the surface. Instead, the story presents a tale of symbolic people making what would ordinarily be a journey filled with very real danger, but the dangers seem empty because the characters feel more like shadows than people. I have little doubt that such a journey might feel like the end of the world, but Herrera’s story—at least, the English translation—offers few compelling signs.
Where the Bird Sings Best by Alejandro Jodorowsky Publication Date: March 31, 2015 Publisher: Restless Books
After their son José drowns in a flood, Teresa and Alejandro Levi fall into dispute about the nature of religion. Teresa curses God’s cruelty, and she scorns her faith-keeping friends. Alejandro, on the other hand, is no stranger to suffering. After all, he watched his own mother get axed to death by her mad Hungarian maid during a surge of anti-Semitic pogroms in Ukraine. So he responds to his son’s death by retreating more deeply into prayer. He prays so intensely that he breaks into “the Interworld,” an in-between realm of pure spirit. Here he meets a rabbi, and, much to Teresa’s disbelief and frustration, this rabbi becomes Alejandro’s constant companion and advisor in all things.
This is the opening chapter of Where the Bird Sings Best, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s fictional memoir about his own family legacy. Teresa and Alejandro Levi are the narrator’s grandparents, the formidable base of a macabre and surreal story that spans across three generations of family history, from Europe to South America, and ends with the narrator’s own birth in a Chilean mining town on Black Thursday, October 29, 1929. There is everything a hungry reader might desire—magic, sex, violence and persecution. The momentous end date also marks the start of the Great Depression. The reader is left with a tingling premonition that the narrator’s mission now is to lead the world out of despair. If you are a fan of Jodorowsky’s bizarre cult films, Holy Mountain (1973), El Topo (1970), or Santa Sangre (1989) to name a few, you might agree that the prolific creator has indeed accomplished something to that effect with his career.
Jodorowsky wrote Where the Bird Sings Best (original title: Ojo de Oro) in 1992, but the novel remained untranslated until earlier this year, when Restless Books put out an English-language edition. True to Jodorowsky’s cinematic style, the novel is mystical, beautiful, blood-soaked, dream-like, religiously provocative, and bursting with savage polemics against political injustice and capitalism. Some reviewers have compared Jodorowsky’s style of magical realism to that of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but my feeling is that Jodorowsky’s most powerful moments inhabit a darker, more subliminal and psycho-magical space than Marquez’s. While on the surface Where the Bird Sings Best is a story of emigration, on a deeper level it is a brutally naked exploration of religion and religious identity. Each passage is raw—rich in prose and passion. In reading it, you are struck with the feeling that at no point did the author ever come up with a good idea and then decide to save it for later.
This momentum is carried by a cavalcade of larger-than-life characters, who careen across the page in a frenzied pilgrimage. The narrator’s ancestors often disagree about art, and politics, and everything, but ultimately they are driven by a guiding desire to recover the power of love. The narrator concludes, towards the end of the novel, “I understood that love is a grand thank you to the other for existing.” The moral seems to be that, even in moments of profound loss and grief, the one attitude that can liberate us, quite simply, is gratitude.
At times the pace of the novel can feel relentless, outrageous, and giddy with lunacy—magical incidents like nuns self-immolating and drops of semen turning into white butterflies abound—but overall, the fury of these unreal events adds up to create a striking beauty. This book is another breathtaking triumph from the incredible and strange imagination of Alejandro Jodorowsky.
Voices in the Night by Steven Millhauser Publication Date: April 14, 2015 Publisher: Knopf
The stories in Steven Millhauser’s new collection, Voices in the Night, could be summarized with the phrase The grass is always greener on the other side—or at least more intriguing.
In many of these stories, Millhauser explores the boredom of small, upper middle-class suburban towns and works to show strange, hypnotic, and oftentimes dark ways that this boredom can be overridden. In each, the phenomenon (whether it be ghosts, mermaids, suicides, “ripples,” or meditation and hallucination) becomes an obsession among the townspeople, leading in most cases to complete absurdity. In “Miracle Polish,” the narrator finds himself with a liquid that, when applied to mirrors, makes him look like “a man who had something to look forward to, a man who expected things of life.” All’s well until obsession takes hold, turning his house into a hall of mirrors.
At times, the book can seem like a belabored compilation of writing exercises with the same prompt. However, each story manages to separate itself from the others and remain unique after the first page or two of repetitive small town descriptions And, to Millhauser’s credit, not all of the stories follow this set-up. Many dispense with the small town setting, although they explore similar themes: perfection, boredom, illusion and mysticism.
Though Millhauser’s style can seem basic at times, there are instances where description transcends exposition. Lines such as “Scarlet-orange blossoms fill the air with a scent that feels like a hand touching his face” tie different sensations together in unexpected ways. And although most of Millhauser’s stories are told in a normative format, speaking in the voice of a level-headed, easily understood narrator, there are a couple that are written in a more experimental manner. The story that stands out the most, “Home Run,”is also the shortest. In it, Millhauser does away with his small town descriptions and mysticism and takes on the voice of an auctioneer-like sports announcer to describe the infinite trajectory of a baseball—“the ball out past the Andromeda galaxy, going, going, the big guy mashed it, he clob-bobbered it, wham-bam-a-rammed it…”—all in a three-page sentence. Directly following “Home Run”is “American Tall Tale,”which plays with a hyperbolized, woodsy, metaphor-filled syntax: “this spindly splintery slivery slip of a half-dead half-man didn’t eat enough in two days to feed a starving spider.”
“A Voice in the Night” concludes the book. In this seemingly autobiographical work, Millhauser creates a triptych between the biblical Samuel (who heard his name called by God), a boy in bed waiting to be called, and a 68-year-old man in bed, unable to sleep. In this story, the author reveals his own early fascination with stories and his hopes to be something special, to have a mission that separates his life from the lives of the people around him. He also reveals his disappointment in not being called, and later, the realization that life without purpose is easier and thus preferable. He takes on a more interesting, stream-of-consciousness writing style in this story, especially in the adult portions of the triptych where Millhauser recounts other facets of his childhood such as anti-Semitism, his father’s sternness, and his mother’s beauty.
Voices in the Night is a strong collection. With these stories, Millhauser manages to mitigate boredom for not only his characters, but for his readers as well.
The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson Publication Date: May 5, 2015 Publisher: Graywolf Press
Maggie Nelson is renowned for creating touching, startling books that defy easy categorization. Poetry, essay, cultural critique and memoir mingle in brief stanzas, revealing insights that are both bracingly intimate and surprisingly universal. 2009’s Bluets made her a household name—if you live in a certain type of household—and its elegant, wide-reaching meditations on the color blue continue to enthrall new readers (a group, I confess, that I belong to).
Those who waited with anticipation for The Argonauts should not be disappointed. For the Nelson neophyte, however, it may be a bit overwhelming. The topics at hand—sexuality, identity, family and motherhood—are sprawling and complex, and Nelson’s approach is equally diffuse. She recalls how her body transformed with pregnancy at the same time her partner’s began to change due to testosterone treatment. Elsewhere, she talks about the “sodomitical mother” and the eroticism of childbearing. And she reminds us that gender identity can exist outside of a male/female binary, positing that, at some point for the LGBTQ community, “the tent may need to give way to field.”
These are important issues, and Nelson’s attempt to tackle so many topics in one work is laudable. She covers a lot of ground—the whole field, really—and she does so with characteristic charm. But it takes a while to acclimate to the terrain. The book is especially difficult to break into due to the overwhelming number of quotes that Nelson inserts, wholesale via italics,into her writing (their sources appear in the margins). This gives the book the appearance of a treatise, but without any of the logic or order you might expect from a work of scholarly rigor. At one point, she describes a former professor’s class as “pulling Post-It notes out of her hair and lecturing from them,” a technique that could just as aptly describe Nelson’s work. “I love this style,” she says. Your appreciation for the book may rest on how much you, too, appreciate this approach.
Once you work your way through the steady stream of references to D.W. Winnicott and Eve Sedgwick, however, a shift takes place. Nelson’s own story starts to emerge. In place of Professor Nelson, we begin to see Maggie Nelson, mother and wife. This is, not coincidentally, where the poetry of her words and the warmth of her spirit come forth as well. She shares her fear of falling forever, of going to pieces, of letting her baby down, of not providing a nurturing environment. We see her worry about not being able to produce milk, only to be reassured when the nurse clamps down on her breast and produces “a bloom of custard-colored drops.” Nelson’s story revels in self-sustaining satisfaction, much the way Nelson claims that she did, and all mothers do, in their pregnancy, happily carrying the child inside them, harboring pleasure that only they are privy to. The Argonauts, in this way, can be seen as a baby bump, a hint of the thoughts and pleasures that Nelson and her family cherish. It is only natural that her reflections be imperfect in their projection.
As with all works of great scope and ambition, The Argonauts is not flawless. But it is an engaging read of remarkable breadth, from an author with something meaningful to say. Nelson allows us a glimpse into the tender beauty of her unique family, and in the process enforces the humanity of all families, no matter their composition. For as much as Nelson’s experience mirrors the experience of all mothers, her insight makes The Argonauts more than a potential Oprah’s Book Club selection. “As my body made the male body, I felt the difference between male and female body melt even further away,” she writes, an epiphany made possible by the shifting gender lines of her own relationship. In contrast, we also get confessions like “I had always presumed that giving birth would make me feel invincible, like fisting.” The Argonauts is written with honesty and confidence, and the intimacy Nelson shares with us is deeply rewarding.
A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me by David Gates Publication Date: May 19, 2015 Publisher: Knopf
David Gates covers well-trodden territory in A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me, his new short story collection: upper-middle-class self-destruction via drugs, extramarital affairs, and witty repartee. As Molly Laich points out in an interview with Gates, “an older white male writing about educated people is… not particularly in vogue.” (Gates himself agrees.) Nevertheless, the author transcends the trappings of literary fiction—as he did with Jernigan, his debut novel and a finalist for the 1991 Pulitzer Prize—to deliver a dozen lively, unsparing pieces that explore mortality, class, and love.
A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me contains one new novella and 11 uncollected stories, published over the last 14 years in magazines like The Paris Review, GQ, and The New Yorker. Though the works span a significant portion of his career, much of the subject matter remains the same; Gates writes mostly about the troubled lives of aging, once-hip creative types. It’s impossible to ignore the book’s repetitiveness: What would pass for neat motifs in an Alice Munro collection, e.g., seem more muddled here. When read in quick succession, the collection’s lesser stories blur together, creating a serialized, rather than episodic, atmosphere. Partially this is due to the similarities among his narrators, who—regardless of age or gender—allude to opera, old films, and classic literature with Gates’s signature wit. Perhaps Gates deserves criticism for this sameness, but it’s hard to find fault with such a scintillating and original voice. If it ain’t broke, etc.
Gates does venture out of his comfort zone in three of the collection’s best pieces, “Banishment,” “Locals,” and “A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me.” Narrated by a divorced woman in her mid-thirties, “Banishment” makes a strong argument for the return of the novella. In “Locals,” Gates ventures into issues of class and education by focusing on a musician-turned-contractor in a small and unwelcoming town. But while “Banishment” and “Locals” explore slightly different subject matter than the rest of the collection, it isn’t until the closing story that we see a different David Gates. In “A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me,” Gates peels back his trademark obsessive, self-loathing cleverness to reveal unvarnished humanity. The story wanders through the late life of a teacher and musician who can’t relinquish the past—until he plays host to an old bandmate who is dying of cancer. Gates’s unsentimental depiction of death, along with his nuanced optimism, recall the late works of Raymond Carver. It’s a perfect and surprising end to an unsurprising—but exceedingly entertaining—collection.
—Alyssa G. Ramirez
Mislaid by Nell Zink Publication Date: May 19, 2015 Publisher: Ecco
The plot of Nell Zink’s novel, Mislaid, sounds either mundane or insane when summarized, depending on the level of detail provided. But it is neither, although some of the characters might be. The mundane synopsis is that a young couple’s shotgun marriage dissolves and they live very different lives with their children thereafter. The insane version? A gay professor impregnates a lesbian student at his university, they decide to get married and then mentally torture and/or silently hate each other for a decade before the student takes off with their daughter and changes both her and her daughter’s names and races to avoid being found. But the plot and characters manage to avoid falling into either trap. The narrator summarizes their marital troubles by saying of the husband, Lee, “At heart he knew he was normal. No more conflicted than any other married man. He was a sexual being. He couldn’t give that up on account of a three-month fling with his wife ten years before. Like many a married man before him he took the deal they had hammered out—you give me your life, in return you get my kids—and cancelled both ends.”
There are four primary characters with far more than four names, each with their own collection of friends, coworkers, and lovers. So the novel gets a little confusing at times. There’s Peggy Jackson (who then becomes Peggy Fleming and eventually Meg Brown), and her husband Lee Fleming, their son Rhys Byrd “Byrdie” Fleming, and their daughter Mireille “Micky” Fleming (who becomes Karen Brown). The characters and plot of the novel lend themselves more toward a comedy in the style of Dave Barry or Carl Hiaasen, where a thousand strands of divergent plot tangle over each other and then tie into a perfect bow in the last chapter. But the book is far more earnest with the comedic aspects, added in a tone of such dry satire that readers can laugh or overlook them, depending on their inclination.
The story touches on several controversial topics, including race and sexual orientation, escalated by its setting in the 1960s South. While it takes an interesting approach to difficult topics and does a great deal to humanize all participants, it is not without issue. It makes jokes at the expense of racism and homophobia and the general insistence that humans must fit into certain boxes, and it never really explains why or offers an alternative. The characters who are worried about how they might be treated in certain circumstances are themselves perpetrators of that same sexism, racism, and homophobia. The youngest generation of characters are presented as hope for the future—but we, as readers living 50 years after the story occurs, know that these issues have yet to be resolved.
Nevertheless, Mislaid is an irreverent and oftentimes enjoyable book, and one that is definitely worth a read.