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12/29/09 1:00pm

Anybody remember how anxious and thrilled we were in those last months of the 20th century? When we weren’t at war and we had a budget surplus and it looked like Al Gore would be president? The prospect of a 21st century filled with new technologies, new art and literature loomed large and bright. But now, as we look back at what was decidedly a shitty decade for an incredible variety of people in an equally incredible variety of ways (evictions/invasions/bombings/etc), it’s surprisingly hard to be pessimistic about the books that assessed, satirized, dramatized and distracted us from the events of the past 10 years.

Goethe said that the decline of a nation’s literature is the precursor to that nation’s fall, and with this look back at the books that defined the decade, we’d like to tell Goethe to suck it. Almost in spite of ourselves, we’re still writing, translating, publishing and even occasionally buying good books in this country.

To be clear: there were plenty of bad books over the course of the decade, as well. We watched that Nick McDonnell kid rake it in and James Frey get a well-earned tongue-lashing on television. We need not mention Dan Brown, and if that makes us elitists, then, fine. We’re elitists. Dan Brown sucks.

Worse still may be the self-help arena, which has continued to distinguish itself as a place where the insecure can go to justify their inane self-love or equally inane self-loathing. He’s Just Not Into You, The Fast-Track One-Day Detox Diet, any of Dr. Phil’s gems, The Secret… nonfiction is a treacherous arena, so we’ve decided to skip it altogether. Which isn’t to say that there wasn’t plenty of wonderful non-fiction published in the last decade. Evan Wright’s Generation Kill made the best of the ridiculous embedding of reporters while Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion helped pull atheism out of the closet. Still, the following list sticks to fiction because, well, we like it more. And it likes us (we think).

While the following list has not attempted to qualitatively rank books within in a particular year or in comparison to other years from the decade, we’ve selected titles that we believe have staying power and/or that we feel helped define the year it was published. We’ve also taken the liberty of including titles that we feel were underrepresented upon publication or that you may have missed. So get reading—you’ve got some catching up to do.

10/14/09 4:00am

Harper
Available Now

Contemporary publishing has given us a solid stable of authors who excel in the oddball subgenre that is the humorous personal essay, David Sedaris, Laurie Notaro and Sarah Vowell among them. But stack those authors up against serious essayists like Dorothy Allison, Jonathan Franzen and Eula Biss and, frequently, the humorous essay seems airy. Perhaps that’ an unfair comparison, but even a humorous essay should be substantive and serious enough to be remembered as more than a punch line. Playwright and novelist Paul Rudnick’ entry into the genre strikes a near-perfect balance between the sentimentally goofy and the serious.

In ten essays and five bizarre, fictional diary entries, Rudnick casts an eye on his New Jersey childhood, his Jewish roots, and–most successfully–the many artists, writers and designers he’ known while working in New York theaters over the past 30 years. It’ largely a successful venture because Rudnick knows New York well, and in his life and career he’ known more than a few colorful New Yorkers who, as he puts it, “couldn’t possibly live anywhere else, at least not without police protection.” In this way, the collection is a love letter both to the city and to the eccentrics he’ known there.

None of the sincerity that infuses Rudnick’ essays are found in the pieces featuring his fictional retired substitute teacher, Elyot Vionnet, whose five “diary entries” are interspersed throughout the book. The fussy Vionnet gets to embody and espouse every stereotype that non-New Yorkers hold against city residents. He’ a fastidious, grumpy, cynical sophisticate who is most communicative when he’ expressing displeasure. This isn’t to say these fictional pieces aren’t humorous, but they do represent the weakest work here. It would be hard to find a personal essay that so nimbly captures a particular time and place as successfully as Rudnick’ closer “At the Chelsea Hotel.” By comparison, the Vionnet sections of the book seem flippant. Without question, Rudnick is a craftsman who is gifted in a variety of genres, and he’ at his best here when he’ writing about himself, his family and his loves.

09/16/09 4:00am


Harper Perennial

Available now

In her stupefying debut, Lydia Peelle takes some of the most resonant and risky material for any fiction writer (love, death, memory, religious sentiment, denial) and absolutely masters the execution. In a tone and style reminiscent of Peter Taylor and perhaps Carol Bly, Peelle’s book is among the strongest fiction to be published this year (and this in a year that’s seen new books by Thomas Pynchon, Dan Chaon and Lorrie Moore).

The first of these eight stories, “Mule Killers,” presents a narrator lamenting the modernization of her grandfather’s farm. It’s a simple enough elegy, but what makes the story profound is not its subject matter, but rather the brilliance that led Peelle to address obsolescence in both her main narrative and her framing narrative. The narrator’s solemnity and empathy are directly related to the mules who, upon being replaced by tractors, are sent en masse to the slaughterhouse. Throughout the story, though, the reader is aware that the narrator was not alive to witness the transition from animal to mechanized labor, and is re-telling the story of the mules as her father has repeatedly told it to her. The deeper and obfuscated concerns of the narrator become apparent only near the end of the story when Peelle writes, “This is the story my father tells me as he bends like a wire wicket in the garden […] Nothing has grown here since my mother died and no one wanted to tend it.” The sorrow here is compounded generationally and is ubiquitous.

In a similar fashion, stories like “The Still Point” and “Shadow on a Weary Land” present narrators with whom we empathize not because they are confessional, but because they can’t—despite their best efforts—help but betray their longings. Few things are as attractive as a character with a secret or two, and nearly nothing inspires solicitude like a person who’s looking for something more but can’t explain what that something might be. Peelle’s stories will have longevity because they resist flashy, overcooked narratives and instead rely on the strength of their deft construction: subtly moving narratives, jaw-dropping sentences, and characters you can’t bear to see fail.

08/24/09 4:00am

HarperCollins editor and author Rakesh Satyal’s debut novel Blue Boy is the story of Kiran Sharma, a first-generation born Indian American who must navigate the many cultural, religious and sexual challenges he faces as an outcast among outcasts in Cincinnati during the early 1990s. Satyal recently emailed with us to discuss the book, its origins, and its standout protagonist, Kiran.

The L: I’d like to start by asking you about the process of beginning and finishing this book. If I’m not mistaken, you began writing it in college and wrapped it up later, once you were living and working in New York. Is that right? All in all, how long did the book take for you to finish writing?
RS: I had written a different book for my college thesis at Princeton; it was a historical fiction set in Naples in the eighteenth century, during the time of the castrati. (Lighthearted, no?) When I came to New York, I set that aside and was moved to write Kiran’s story, mainly because I was, for the first time, a gay man living my life freely and felt a sense of responsibility to explore the makings of that experience. It took me about two and a half years to write Blue Boy. I wrote the bulk of the first draft while I was working my first publishing job at Random House and then finished the revision about a year after I started my current job at HarperCollins. I wrote mostly on the weekends; I would take my then-enormous Dell laptop to the now sadly defunct DT/UT on the UES, set up shop, and write for a few hours. On Sundays, I would edit and revise. Then, one summer, a very generous friend offered me her studio in San Francisco for a two-week period, and I went and finished the first draft during that stay. It was a much-needed trip and gave me some amazing space and time to finish Kiran’s story.

The L: There have been countless books about alienation, loneliness and self-discovery, but yours is particularly interesting because Kiran’s story isn’t just about being an Indian-American in Cincinnati, nor is it merely a story of discovering and understanding one’s religion or sexuality. It’s all of those things, of course, but it seems to me that you’ve written a coming-of-age story that’s broadly relatable. What do you hope a reader takes away from the story, and do you think an Indian American reader from the Midwest might read the book differently than, say, a Mexican American reader from Arizona?
RS: One of the most wonderful experiences of publishing this book has been getting these incredible e-mails from a very, very diverse group of people of different ethnicities, religions, and sexual orientations. The book really seems to have spoken to a wide demographic because everyone has felt like an outcast at some point, and so people have really underscored that aspect of Kiran’s story in relating their comments to me. That was definitely my biggest goal — to relate the very specific circumstances of Kiran’s milieu but, in so doing, making his experience as authentic as possible. I do think that there is a specificity to an Indian person reading this book just because the cultural particulars are so spelled out, and I do have this great swell of accomplishment when an LGBT Indian reader enjoys the book. But I do think that, since I was so intent on describing things thoroughly — using a lot of proper nouns and 90s-era brand names — a lot of people could situate the story temporally and live in it a little more fully. More than anything, I want readers to take away a sense of respect for what culturally and/or sexually marginalized youths in this country must deal with. But, of course, I want a few laughs to cushion that occurrence!

07/29/09 4:00am

An examination of memory, love and music, Sarah Rainone’s debut novel Love Will Tear Us Apart was published this spring by Three Rivers Press. The author, who is at work on a second novel, recently emailed with us to answer a few questions about the novel and the bizarre cast of characters that populate it.

The L: I’ve got to first ask you about the book’s title and chapter titles. From Joy Division to Nirvana and Radiohead, you’ve more or less referenced every song that ever meant anything to me as an adolescent. Did you begin with the song titles and write from some sort of thematic core that they represented, or did the titles come after the writing of the chapters?
SR: I started with the song titles and an idea about the setting or time period, then let the characters take over. The scenes aren’t necessarily analogous to the lyrics, but as anyone who had their first kiss to Cypress Hill’s “Cock the Hammer” or broken up with their boyfriend just as the KLF’s “3 AM Eternal” came on the radio, we don’t always choose the songs that remind us of turning points in our lives. That’s not the way life works, possibly because life is not an 80s movie.

The L: Music plays a critical role in the text, and since this is a mutlipe-perspective novel, I couldn’t help but find some common threads in your characters’ musical tastes. Do you think individual tastes say something about your characters’ personalities, or is their taste incidental?
SR: I think that a lot of young people use music not only to express emotions but also as a way to try out different styles and ideologies when they lack the maturity and self-confidence to embrace a more complex identity or set of beliefs. In the early chapters, it would seem as if each character more or less represents a different musical subculture, but as the story progresses, the music fades into the background and the characters reveal a bit more complexity.

The L: The book is a multiple-perspective account of far-flung friends returning for the hometown wedding of Lea and Dan. In structure, I’m reminded of The Big Chill, but in terms of how your book unfolds, I think there’s something perhaps more pessimistic at work. In the book’s epilogue, “Bonus Tracks,” there’s such a feeling of deflation and disappointment, even after what should have been a joyous occasion. Is it fair to say that there’s a palpable sense of regret and sadness in the book?
SR: Oh, absolutely. For most of the book, the characters are absolutely full of shit, not to be trusted, and, let’s face it, wasted. But I write in the first person, so I’m hoping readers will understand that none of the characters are exactly what they say they are and that their memories are far from pristine. I think that’s more evident in the “Bonus Tracks” section because they’re all coming down. The tuxes and dresses are on the ground, the make-up’s off, the buzz is gone, and we finally get to see who the characters are, what they’ve been hiding, and how lost and lonely they are. That said, I don’t think the book is devoid of hope. These characters are, after all, approaching their mid-twenties, and so naturally they’re selfish, self-righteous, and lacking in self-awareness — and comically so. They’re going to be okay.

06/24/09 4:00am

Dzanc Books

Available now

“I have learned to ignore his need to humiliate me, one bite mark at
a time,” says the unnamed protagonist of Suzanne Burns’ story “Tiny
Ron,” a tale in which a journalist from Portland recounts her marriage
to an 18 ½-inch tall misogynistic character actor. Famous for
his troll and elf roles, Tiny Ron is as domineering and abusive as any
Lifetime-movie husband. He’s uncaring, self-centered, and physically
abusive (though, admittedly, his little fists do relatively little
damage to his wife’s 5’8″ frame).

As with Kelly Link and Aimee Bender, the logic of Burns’ narratives
is typically skewed by some simple but profound realities that her
characters must face. In the case of “Tiny Ron,” Burns tells what might
otherwise be a familiar story of an abused wife who feels powerless to
leave her husband. But in this case, simply due to her physical size,
Burns’ protagonist has inherent power over her housecat-sized wife
beater. And yet her protagonist endures Tiny Ron’s habitual abuse,
begging the question that so many of us have of those who suffer abuse
at the hands of normal-sized partners: Why does she stay? The implied
answers here, as in life, are complicated and disturbing, but Burns
neither turns away from the complication nor offers platitudes to
explain the behavior away.

The social and sexual implications of Burns’ stories are often
subtler than they perhaps sound in “Tiny Ron.” “Tourists,” for example,
tells the story of Olive, who falls for a wax replica of Robert Wadlow,
the nearly-nine-foot man from Alton, Illinois who is, to date, the
tallest man in recorded medical history. In a weird inversion, it’s
this wax Wadlow’s demise that enables Olive to experience loss and,
just maybe, learn to move on.

But for as fun as these fourteen stories are to read, they don’t
merely entertain; they absolutely sock you in the gut with their
weirdness, wit and insight. It’s not that contemporary writers haven’t
taken plenty of liberties by blending the naturalistic and the
fantastic, it’s just that it’s rarely done with such a deft and knowing
hand.

06/10/09 4:00am

Harper Perennial

Available now

In terms of its scope, tone and ambition, Lee Konstantinou’s debut
falls somewhere between Sam Lipsyte’s wonderful and bizarre The
Subject Steve
and Philip K. Dick’s much darker The Man in the
High Castle
. In all cases, the authors’ implicit criticism of
contemporary culture is built through some smart, proleptic
storytelling.

Konstantinou’s future is one in which the children of the privileged
meanderingly attend Ivy League graduate schools and mindlessly consume
media, drugs and high-end electronics. They’re concerned with the stock
price of their name (which has an index of its own), and with their
day-to-day presence in the “Mediasphere” (a big, fat
Myspace/Facebook/Twitter analogy if ever there was one). In that
respect, Konstantinou has effectively updated and technologoized the
vapidity, frivolity and wastefulness that defines and makes memorable
so many Bret Easton Ellis characters.

But what’s missing from his updated indictment of consumerism,
militarism, exhibitionism and evangelism isn’t a good dose of humor
(the book is occasionally quite funny), nor is it that there aren’t
interesting situations or well-developed subplots or canny observations
(they’re aplenty). What rings vaguely hollow here is the protagonist
himself. Eliot Vanderthorpe Jr. is a minor celebrity who, at the
novel’s start, is just coming off a serious Lohan-esque binge of
partying. He wears his Converse All Stars and his aviator shades as any
good playboy should. Predictably, when Eliot is forced by his father to
shape up, things don’t go as planned, and Eliot is forced to join the
ranks of corporatists to forge his own path. From then on, Eliot’s
growth is more or less on autopilot.

Witnessing an emotionally stunted protagonist fight his way through
a high-stakes adolescence (the world is on the brink of a major
religious war, an event that the Vanderthorpes stand to profit from
immensely) should have been more fun than it turns out to be here. If
nothing else, Konstantinou has taken a much-appreciated risk in writing
such a bold, weird and colorful debut. That its protagonist is utterly
two-dimensional is almost made up for by the enjoyment of experiencing
the weird, frightening and fascinating world that he inhabits.

06/03/09 6:00am

L Mag fiction issue contributor and poet Kevin A. González earned an MFA in poetry from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, an MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writers Workshop, and has published work in Playboy, the Virginia Quarterly Review, Best New American Voices 2007 and 2009, and Best American Non-Required Reading 2007. Earlier this spring, González’s first collection of poetry, Cultural Studies, was published by Carnegie Mellon University Press. He recently sat down to answer a few questions about the book and to nix the idea of poet as “speaker.”

The L: The L: The first work of yours that I read was a short story, but you actually began your writing career as a poet. Do you conceive of yourself as primarily a fiction writer or as a poet, or is that not really a distinction you think about or that matters?

KG: It’s not really something I think about all that much. Then again, while I started writing poetry in middle school, I didn’t really start writing fiction until I was doing an MFA in poetry at the University of Wisconsin. As part of the degree requirements there, I had to take some electives, so I decided to try my hand at fiction. Then, after writing a couple of stories, at the suggestion of one of my teachers, I decided to apply to the fiction program at Iowa. I’ve been mostly working on a novel for the last couple of years, so — although I still occasionally write a poem here and there, and plan on working on another poetry book once I finish the novel — I guess you could say I’m mostly a fiction writer these days.

The L: 10 of the 20 poems in the first section of the book have the word “cultural” in their title. There’s “Cultural Shock,” “Cultural Sellout,” and “Cultural Strumpet,” to name a few. Can you talk a bit about what writing, titling and ordering the poems in the collection was like? Had you conceived of the book as a broader cultural project — a collection of poems specifically addressing the concept of culture — or was that a thematic element that became apparent following the writing of the individual poems?

KG: At the time when I was working on the book, I was feeling somewhat resistant towards labels and categories in literature, especially as it applies to writers of ethnic and/or racial minority backgrounds. Sometimes it seems as if even when a black poet is not writing about race, or a Latino poet is not writing about his ethnicity, in both cases they’re still going to be categorized as a black poet and a Latino poet, respectively. So it was frustrating to think that no matter what style I wrote in, or what subject matter I wrote about, my work would always be easily categorized because of my background. Then again, I’m well aware that many of these labels don’t come from readers themselves, but rather from sources like the publishing industry or even academia itself. So, partly, I was trying to address some of those issues head-on in this book — which is to say that the “Cultural” titles are meant to convey a sense of irony. That said, the first one of the “Cultural” poems I wrote was “Cultural Stud,” and when I wrote it, I didn’t think it would be part of a longer series of poems. But the next time I sat down to write, I found myself returning to a similar voice, rhythm and point-of-view, so the rest of the poems took off from there. In other words, the thematic element became apparent after I’d written a few of the poems.

The L: Some pieces in the collection are deadly serious, even somber, while many others are sardonic or downright funny. I’ve revisited the collection a few times now, and the more I read it, the more I notice that tonal range. I’m interested to know how you conceive of the book. Would you call it a melancholic book? A humorous one?

KG: Well, first off, thank you for the nice words. I’ve always been fascinated by writers who can achieve major tonal shifts within a short span, all the while making it seem effortless — poets like Dean Young and Terrance Hayes, fiction writers like Lorrie Moore and Barthelme and Carver, all of whom can go from funny to heartbreaking in a matter of seconds. So, yeah, I was trying to achieve a broad tonal range in the book, and often within the individual poems themselves, which is why some of them are on the longer side. Hopefully, in the end, the book can be seen as both humorous and melancholic. At least that was the intention.

The L: Now that the book has been published and is out in the world, do you think of it any differently? Is there anything you would change about the work at this point if you could?

KG: You know, not really. The truth is that I finished writing the first draft of the book a long time ago; I turned it in as my MFA thesis at Wisconsin, and that was roughly four years ago. Afterwards, I let it sit for about two years before revising it a little and trying to get it published, so I was pretty much at peace with the final product by the time it came out. That said, there are still some lines here and there that make me cringe a little bit when I read them, but there’s no chance in hell I’ll tell you what they are.

The L: The collection is just packed with beautiful, memorable lines. The poem “1999” for instance contains an observation that I’ll remember for a very long time: “If there were an antonym for suicide/ we could all choose when to be born.” Another piece, “How to Win a Poetry Contest” begins this way: “Don’t use ampersands/ & don’t drop your professor’s name./ Do exactly as Terrence Hayes taught you:/ be a courteous poet.” During the writing process, do you recognize those spot-on lines as they happen, or do you find yourself honing lines as you revise?

KG: Once again, thanks for the nice words. For me, the process varies a lot. Some of these poems took years to write, and some took a few hours. I wrote the first poem in the book (“Flat American Waltz”) in a matter of minutes, while I was waiting for a bus in Pittsburgh, but that’s probably the only time I’ve ever written a poem I liked in such a brief span of time. Then again, that’s also a pretty short poem. In terms of individual lines, I’ll admit that, for this book, I cannibalized quite a bit from older poems. At some point, when I was doing my MFA in poetry, I went through all the poems I’d written as an undergrad and took individual lines or images I liked, which I then recycled in some of these poems. Hopefully this won’t dissuade anyone from buying the book, but there actually are a couple of lines in here that date as far back as my high school days. That said, I usually do tend to recognize it as it happens — that is, when I write a line or an image I like. Often, one of the hardest things about recycling lines was finding the correct placement for them, in order to make them fit smoothly within a specific poem. There were times when I had lines I really liked, but I couldn’t find places to fit them in without making them seem forced. So I just didn’t use them. In any case, most of them were jokes about your mom.

The L: “Cultural Studies” is written in two sections, the larger of the two being “Cultural Studies” and a shorter section right at the end of the collection entitled “Notes.” Perhaps because the title of the entire collection is “Cultural Studies” (a term that rings of academe), I found myself reading the “Notes” section of the book as a sort of way of understanding the rest of the book, which I’d just read. How do you conceive of those final five poems in the collection functioning? Were they intended to color the rest of the collection, or am I off in left field with that reading?

KG: You’re not off in left field at all. Those final poems are meant to serve as references or additions to some of the preceding poems in the book. The first of those five poems, for instance, is an address to the Second Person Point-of-View, which is what most of the poems in the first section are written in, and is meant to serve as a sort of transition between the two sections. The other four poems make allusions to poems that appear earlier in the book. So yeah, they’re intended to work as references to the poems in the first section, while at the same time providing a sense of closure to the book as a whole.

The L: While each poem has a distinct tone, there are commonalities and threads of narrative that weave their way through the collection. As such, the reader may necessarily draw parallels between the speaker of one poem and those that come later in the book. Is it fair to make the assertion that the speaker of many of these poem is the same? That is, did you conceive of the collection as a series of poems that aren’t just closely related in their content, but that are, in fact, from the same speaker’s perspective?

KG: Yeah, I think it’s fair to make that assertion. Once I’d written a few of the “Cultural” poems, I began to conceive of this as a book-length project, rather than a collection of individual poems that aren’t related to one another. And I think it’s also fair to assume that it’s the same speaker throughout the entire collection. What I don’t think that anyone should ever assume, however, is that the speaker of the poem is the author himself. This seems to happen often with poetry, and I find it somewhat bothersome because poetry is not non-fiction. As far as I’m concerned, my poetry should be taken to be as fictional as fiction itself, and the speaker in my poems should be regarded as a character, much like any first-person narrator in fiction. In fact, going back to your second question, the idea of “poet” as “speaker” is also something I’ve always felt some resistance towards, which is one of several reasons why so much of this book is written in Second Person.

The L: As I mentioned, you write both fiction and poetry. Are their major differences in your approach to writing fiction and poetry? Do you tend to focus on one genre (or project) at a time? Are you writing any poetry now or focusing on fiction for the time being?

KG: It’s definitely a different approach, which is why it’s difficult for me to freely go back and forth between the two genres. Part of the reason for that is that I like to focus entirely on the project on which I’m working at the time. Currently, I’m working on a novel, and while I don’t have a specific writing routine or a set schedule, I like to work on it every day, even if only for a little while. Look for it on the shelves in 2019, if there’s still such a thing as bookshelves then.

05/27/09 4:00am

Harper

Available now

Simon Van Booy’s second collection is frustrating not because the
author is incapable of insight or because he can’t write a fine
sentence, but because the familiarity of his images, observations and
metaphors make it a laborious read. While occasionally vivid, Van
Booy’s narrative passages are longwinded, and his reliance on stiff
figurative language prevents these stories from being much more than a
hodgepodge of occasionally pretty, occasionally cliché
sentiments.

The title story is problematic for precisely this reason. Its
protagonist — an acclaimed cellist named Bruno Bonnet —
describes loss quite poetically: “Grief is a country where it rains and
rains but nothing grows.” Sadly, most observations in the collection
aren’t nearly as economical and fresh as this one. Early in the story,
Bonnet describes performance as something powerful enough to raise the
dead, which is a fine metaphor for how he simultaneously loses and
finds himself during performances. But the descriptions of his
specter-like, long-dead childhood friend strip the moment of its
seriousness and conjure images of Princess Leia as a hologram. Van Booy
writes “…Anna’s form appears… She flickers because she is made of
light.” Other observations are just as mundane, as when Bonnet
describes what it feels like to perform: “When I play it feels as
though I am flying. I circle the auditorium. I am anywhere but inside
my body,” he says. The sentiment reads like a student’s entrance essay
to a music conservatory.

The four other stories in the collection — of which, the
voice-y “Tiger, Tiger” and the quiet “The City of Windy Trees” are the
best — frequently stumble as a result of similarly unsurprising
descriptions and under-developed metaphor. In “The Missing Statue,” a
Polish priest attempts to console an American who is weeping at the
edge of St. Peter’s Square in Rome. When the priest coaxes the man into
telling his troubles, the priest says, “‘I like stories very much […]
They help me understand myself better,'” and one can’t help but feel
that Van Booy is attempting a meta-commentary on the nature of
storytelling. As is too often the case, the literal reading here is
straightforward enough, but the metaphoric implications of Van Booy’s
words sprout promisingly only to die as saplings.

05/05/09 4:00am

Graywolf Press
Available Now

In Notes From No Man’s Land: American Essays, Eula Biss writes adamantly about a range of sensitive social issues including racial politics, social stratification, class struggle, the American schools and identity. Thanks to her gift for prose, even the most disturbing information Biss reports (upsetting statistics about Child Protective Services; tales of urban decay; racial paranoia among white suburbanites) is so vividly conveyed that these essays, almost without exception, are pleasure to read. There’s neither the Sedaris-like pithiness (and adjoining emotional insincerity) we’ve come to expect from contemporary personal essays to be found here, nor is there any hint of academic snobbery to Biss’ positions. Instead, these are 13 essays in which the author looks inward, examining her own experiences, biases, and education, and outward at an America that’s as socially and racially Gordian as it’s ever been.

Written in five sections, “Before,” “New York,” “California,” “The Midwest,” and “After,” Notes From No Man’s Land walks us, more or less chronologically, through Biss’ experiences as a teacher in New York City, a reporter and receptionist in California, a graduate student in Iowa City, and a married professor living in Chicago. And while each piece showcases Biss’ writing chops, some essays seem scattershot in their organization, and others are a bit too dewy-eyed.

It may be precisely because Biss’ writing is so efficient and fluid that her observations can seem less keen than her prose style. Just as a sour note is particularly easy to catch in an otherwise pristine symphony, Biss has a tendency here to push too hard on her subject matter, writing blatant truisms where there should be subtlety and implication. In “Black News,” for instance, Biss relates her experience working for a regional African American newspaper in San Diego, and she introduces the city this way: “Because the first place I went in San Diego was the beach, my initial assessment of the city was that it was almost entirely white. I would later realize that going to the beach in San Diego is like going to Wall Street in New York. […] it is a place where the city’s imagination of itself resides.” This might be an extremely convenient way to delve into the complex racial dynamics of southern California, but the observation that San Diego — a former Spanish colony and a city that’s next door to Tijuana — is a racially and economically complicated metropolis is hardly news. By positioning herself as the somewhat naïve narrator, Biss leaves room for discovery and epiphany here, but there’s something premeditated and flat about it.

By contrast, the essays found in “The Midwest” section of the book are more organic and, as a result, more sincere. One of the collection’s finest essays is “Back to Buxton,” a fascinating and well-researched look at an early 20th century coal mining company town in Iowa that achieved a sort of racial harmony long before the Civil Rights movement. The essay “No Man’s Land” rests on similarly strong research, and in it Biss tackles two issues that could not be more timely or more worthy of discussion in our major cities: gentrification and mass fear. Using national crime statistics, Biss argues that the typically white fear of “bad” neighborhoods stems not from experiential knowledge of danger, but from a widespread and utterly misguided notion that the risk of falling victim to crime is greater in ethnically mixed neighborhoods. And she approaches the divisive issue of gentrification as neither the cold occupier whose goal is to bring a gym and a Walgreens to her neighborhood, nor as the sappy, woman-of-the-people who moves to the neighborhood only to turn around and decry others who move there as well.

Ultimately, Biss’ collection is good and challenging reading despite its flaws. “All Apologies” and “Relations” read somewhat like assignments for a creative non-fiction class, and her tendency to sentimentalize can be a distraction (as when a man the size of a linebacker wells up while telling her of how much it hurts when women fear him due to his enormity). Still, as both an analyst and an essayist, Biss has taken many risks here, not the least of which is writing a series of structurally unconventional essays about topics as controversial and thorny as race, class and poverty. That Biss addresses them head-on is admirable, and that she does so without being overly clever, cloying or inaccessibly esoteric is impressive.