Year-End Lit Roundup 2014
Another year has gone by, and with it we have another year's worth of novels, short story collections, chapbooks, and other miscellaneous writerly endeavors too numerous to count. In fact, we won't even try. We won't pretend to bring you "the best" in what was released this year, although we did read plenty of noteworthy material. But here are our thoughts on some of the latter half of 2014's most interesting publications, with some special attention paid to notable releases from our beloved home base of Austin.
Chase Us by Sean Ennis Publication date: May 27 Publisher: New Harvest
Sean Ennis’s Chase Us is an accomplished debut collection, in that it achieves what it sets out to accomplish: It creates a world of wonder that hews close enough to reality to retain recognition, but pushes the boundaries of normalcy enough to reignite the spark of adolescent curiosity. The characters of these stories, adolescents as they are, live in a world where they must navigate the traditional perils of growing up—bullies, big sisters, parties, camp counselors—but, on top of this, must cope with the peculiarities of the strange universes in which they live. In the first story, the narrator’s mother lives in a greenhouse in the living room and refuses to come out; in another, the narrator and his best friend, Clip, find a pair of hobos living in a cage in a neighborhood park. In perhaps the funniest and most outlandish story, “The Kidnapped and the Volunteers,” their friend Roger steals a school bus and slowly kidnaps all the children from an elementary school, resulting in a showdown with the town Koreans, who find them camped out in what used to be their neighborhood church. Clip and the narrator, meanwhile, watch the whole thing through an ether-induced haze and make jokes about it like a literary version of Beavis and Butthead.
To some, that may sound like a less than enjoyable read, and Ennis definitely is not afraid to strike outside the comfort zone. The boys refer to characters with names like “Big Chief Homo,” and the lens through which we view the town's racial dynamics is hardly politically correct. But the stories, in their uncompromising embrace of immature middle-class youth, come across as true to life, even as the circumstances the boys find themselves in slowly warp beyond the contours of reality. Adding to this effect is the fact that, although the characters remain the same throughout, the stories, like episodes of a sitcom, have no bearing on one another; what happens in the first does not carry over to the second, and the strangest aspects of each story tend to vanish with the next, to be replaced by an entirely new set of oddities. This can be jarring—and the unexpected temporal shifts as the boys age only add to the confusion—but ultimately the collection is more rewarding for it.
In an interview, Ennis said that he wanted to explore “the idea of real objects out of place in a way that causes anxiety”; paradoxically, what results is a strengthened sense of the reality of the characters and their interactions. The push and pull of the boys’ friendships, and the way they wax and wane as they grow older, find girlfriends, and go off to college—despite the crude and sometimes cruel things that they do, they come across as sympathetic characters, ultimately good-natured individuals who, living in a world by degrees more uncertain and chaotic than our own, cannot really be held accountable for their personal shortcomings. It is a collection for the post-Recession age, and it captures the difficulties of living in contemporary society through a clear, honest lens. Unfortunately, the stories drift into typical dystopian future-type fare toward the end, reducing their charm and blunting the magic of the earlier pieces. But maybe that, too, is just an inevitable part of getting older.
Chasing the Sun by Natalia Sylvester Publication date: June 3 Publisher: New Harvest
Chasing the sun is a whimsical thought in itself: the idea of chasing something that's beyond our grasp. But in her debut novel, Natalia Sylvester puts an interesting spin on the concept, asking what if what we're chasing was never real to begin with?
Drawing upon her family's culture and history, Sylvester has fashioned a story that, while seemingly run-of-the-mill, keeps the reader invested in the characters' fates and may leave you reflecting on your own life choices and where they've led you. The story focuses on Andres, a self-made, affluent businessman whose wife is kidnapped in politically-turbulent Peru. She is taken for ransom on an ordinary day, as was common in Peru for many years. Faced with the prospect of sacrificing everything he has worked for to save her, Andres finds himself hiring a consultant who advises his every move in securing Marabela's safe return.
This is nothing too groundbreaking in terms of plot (it recalls Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State, which told the tale of a wife’s kidnapping in Haiti and was released just one month before Sylvester’s novel), but throw in the twist of an already-crumbling relationship, and the story transforms into a poignant probe into morality. How much are people willing to give up, especially for someone who's sent them through the darkest recesses of emotions? It is commonly said that overcoming adversity makes our relationships with others stronger, but what happens when we realize that the reality we thought existed never did?
The writing in Chasing the Sun is simplistic, yet still manages to invest the reader. But at times the novel reads like a telenovela, with flaring drama all around. Despite this, it is worth a read if you're looking for something with a driven, well-developed plotline that will leave you asking questions about how far you would go to salvage a relationship with someone you loved.
Land of Love and Drowning by Tiphanie Yanique Publication date: July 10 Publisher: Riverhead
Tiphanie Yanique’s new novel is an epic, steeped in the kind of magical realism that we might expect from Gabriel Garcia Márquez if Márquez were a Caribbean woman of the 21st century. While the prose at times feels overly ambitious, forced, or heavy-handed, it does, in its finer moments, evoke the sun-dappled and salty blue-green clarity of the sea, which is the setting of this intoxicating trans-generational saga. Overall, the book shows a great deal of imagination, talent, and heart.
The story pivots around two sisters: Eeona Bradshaw, who was educated as an aristocrat but without the resources to support the lifestyle, and the younger Anette, who was born at the moment of their family’s collapse into financial ruin. Because of her less privileged upbringing, Anette has a saltier sensibility, which she expresses in a bawdy West Indian patois. The entire social spectrum of the Virgin Islands seems to fall between these two women. There is both darkness in their pasts and catastrophe in their futures.
In addition to magical realism, the novel features elements of social realism, especially in regards to the troubling role played by the United States in the postwar history of the islands. The Bradshaw children feel the lure of the American mainland and modern culture, but, somehow, they are tethered by their family’s supernatural burden, tied to the shores of their family history. Overall, Land of Love and Drowning paints a luminous, vivid, almost hyper-real world. The characters are wonderfully alive and wonderfully compelling. If you enjoy epic sagas about complicated families, this is a book for you.
Your Face in Mine by Jess Row Publication date: August 14 Publisher: Riverhead
Jess Row, author of two previous short story collections, has hit the ground running with his debut novel, Your Face in Mine. Joining a long tradition of American fiction about “passing”, or racial disguising, Row’s book bravely tackles the deep social and psychological issues surrounding race relations in the United States. But this novel has an unusual twist: the story is about Martin Wilkinson, a Jewish man who undergoes racial reassignment surgery in order to appear black. We have seen variations on this premise before, for example in Soul Man (1986) and Black Like Me (1961), in which a white journalist disguises himself as black in order to tour the South by bus. But while these stories deploy blackface tradition to show how much harder it is in this country to be black than it is to be white, Your Face in Mine delves into more nuanced territory.
The narrator, Kelly Thorndike, is a floundering academic, grieving over the accident that killed his Chinese wife. He is critical of his privilege as a white man, but uncertain of how to check it. When he runs into an old acquaintance who has undergone racial reassignment, the encounter inspires painful visions of reconnecting with his late wife’s family and culture. As a young student of Chinese poetry, Thorndike once wrote about a mysterious Chinese word for “togetherness”, a strong metaphor for what this book is all about. It is about the fundamental experience of being decentered, and destabilized.
The novel opens with a quote from James Baldwin: “I suggest this: that in order to learn your name, you are going to have to learn mine.” These words help to explain the rage of a marginalized community to a white readership, but Row’s novel offers less satisfaction. It only explains white guilt, the experience of whiteness as empty and shameful, to the same audience. As it happens, the next line from the same passage in Baldwin reads “In a way, the American Negro is the key figure in this country; and if you don’t face him, you will never face anything.” The implication for Row’s novel, of course, is that Wilkinson is moving towards a reckoning with his new racial identity just as much as he is running away from whiteness. It shows the complexity, and the power, of racial categories. Your Face in Mine is full of such uncomfortable insights.
Twenty-Something by Tatiana Ryckman Publication date: August 14 Publisher: ELJ Publications
The stories of Twenty-Something live at the center of a threefold Venn diagram composed of fiction, poetry, and personal essay. Ryckman has referred to herself as a “writer of nongenre,” which feels appropriate in that classifying her work at all is to flatten and simplify it. Are these pieces prose poems or slices of microfiction? The distinction is irrelevant. On a line-by-line level, they pack the startling punch of the former but carry the heft of the latter; and while nobody is going to confuse a story about being trapped in a piece of pie with nonfiction, the intimate insecurity she conveys has the resonance of a confession.
The 15 vignettes that compose this collection each deliver in similar ways. Ryckman has a masterful grasp of the surreal, and she uses it to turn up truth with unexpected clarity. In a story about Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, she writes how “E. is dreaming that Richard will break down the door, that he will emerge a glowing man-beast, a creature of sex delivered to her, by the toilet perhaps, but with the iridescent baby skin of a god, and the enormous cock of a horse.” The sentence operates with its own playful and utterly inscrutable logic, and yet the unexpected movements only strengthen the power of the sentiment. Of course he’d have the enormous cock of a horse; it’s the iridescent baby skin that is so abruptly bizarre and humorous that it works to cast everything around it in an iridescent skin of its own. Much of Ryckman’s language has this same sheen, and it works to make familiar topics shiny and new.
In description, such concepts may seem ingratiatingly zany, and it is to Ryckman’s credit that she keeps the stories firmly grounded. The casual “likes” and “whatevers” that she employs give her characters both verisimilitude and vulnerability, and her narrators’ peccadilloes are so unflinchingly explored that the kernels of realism stand out like tiny fragments of gold once the artifice has been sifted. In a lesser writer’s hands, all of this could come across as cloying and juvenile, but Ryckman’s writing is remarkably assured, balancing humor and insight, the fantastic and the sincere with deft grace. Twenty-Something is a tremendous debut.
A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride Publication date: September 9 Publisher: Coffee House Press
Eimear McBride’s first novel, A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, functions as a guided meditation through the perils of guilt and abuse, love and pain. Told through fragmented and chilling prose, the narrator brings the reader along through episode after episode of intense trauma, from being brutally beaten to being psychologically tormented by the pressures of extreme religious dogmatism.
Reminiscent of Selah Saterstrom’s The Pink Institution, the prose of McBride’s novel strikes a somatic chord. McBride does not merely describe what is happening, but attempts to evoke the experience in her readers, to bring it to life, to make it real. “Heavy head. Heart going mad panic stricken. Saying out. Names. You. You. The type of lung screaming out. Raw and whistle-ish screaming no sound. Expel. Expel it.” The form that McBride employs, like trauma, discombobulates; it forces attention to be dispersed at random, the result of an overloaded sensory experience. However, when the content is not traumatic or emotionally charged, the fragmented writing becomes less necessary. “Making it an empty shell. Escape of me. We don’t say lots of secret stuff but good for a laugh and that’s enough. Who is better? She or me? Quick quickest.” Here, the narrator is merely explaining a friendship she had as a girl. In these instances where content does not justify the style, the prose loses its effect.
A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing was rejected so many times over the past nine years that McBride lost count. She said in an interview with The Telegraph that publishers appreciated her innovative writing but were worried at the prospect of its marketing. While publishers often take caution against innovative works out of fear for lack of audience, Galley Beggar Press has certainly benefited from taking that risk. A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing has received much critical acclaim, including awards such as the Women’s Prize for Fiction, the Desmond Elliott prize, the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, and the Goldsmiths Prize.
The novel succeeds because it does what many texts fail to do: it demands that the reader experience pain. The reader must conform to a new way of thinking in order to keep up with the narrator, and as a consequence, the story becomes more intimate. We experience every rebellious action and resultant trauma directly through the girl’s strange cognitive patterns. This does not come easily, but the end result is rewarding. McBride changes not only what we see, but also how it is that we see it.
Our Secret Life in the Movies by Michael McGriff and J.M. Tyree Publication date: October 7 Publisher: A Strange Object
Our Secret Life in the Movies, the new collection of odd, beautiful stories from A Strange Object, consists of a series of paired short stories, each inspired by a movie in the Criterion Collection. The authors, Michael McGriff and J.M. Tyree, watched the movies together, then individually wrote stories centered around each movie, a process that has led to a unique interplay between stories that enhances a reading of the collection.
McGriff and Tyree have chosen not to claim individual authorship for each story, yet it’s easy to draw connections and perceive through lines among the two major characters presented here, each of whom comes of age during the era of Reagan. Each character's home and family life is richly drawn, even through the often sparse, occasionally surreal stories. It’s fascinating to watch themes of adolescence and adversity coalesce through the short-short stories here, while the distinctive mark of each film upon the pieces it inspires is preserved. The result is something akin to watching two separate but similar movies, one disjointed, out-of-order scene at a time.
It’s not necessary for one to be a movie buff in order to appreciate these stories, whose merits are wholly independent of the material that inspired them. As it happens, I’ve only seen a handful of the films referenced here, yet I felt no perceptible difference in the way the stories resonated. The collection stands on its own as a series of stories whose nooks and crannies are well worth exploring.