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Articles by

<Michael Lindgren>

07/16/14 4:00am

Friendship
By Emily Gould
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

Near the end of Emily Gould’s engaging debut novel Friendship, a jaded older woman gives protagonist Amy Schein this advice:

“Honey, I was just like you. I lived my twenties in New York City, thought I’d be a little Joanie Didion, packing my suitcase for reporting jobs with a leotard and a bottle of bourbon and two pairs of nylons or whatever… Do you know what’s glamorous about living in New York City and having no money? After you’re thirty, exactly nothing.”

The passage is perfectly representative of a novel that lives in that place where “shrill, seething ambition” collides with ugly reality; it’s smart and funny, but also wrenchingly accurate. There’s an edge of cruelty in play, a tinge of acidity that runs through what otherwise might seem like another carefree jaunt through the well-trodden precincts of hipster angst.

As most denizens of these parts have probably gathered by now— Friendship having been down an extraordinarily long pre-publication runway, courtesy of FSG and others—Gould’s novel charts the bond between two young women navigating the professional and personal tectonics of late-twenties life in Brooklyn circa 2007. In some ways the book is dangerously underpowered: In lieu of nuanced psychological depth, Schein and her perennial second-fiddle wing-person Bev Tunney are assigned sets of quirks and tics, and the relentlessly slangy, chattery dialogue grows wearisome, although I’m haunted by the suspicion that it is actually hyper-accurate socio-linguistic mimicry. If so, God help us.

Three elements of Gould’s novel, though, power it past its limitations and save it from being simply updated Candace Bushnell. The first is that the plot, after chirping along somewhat predictably for two-hundred-odd pages, suddenly veers off in a direction that struck me as genuinely harrowing and unpredictable. The second is the obvious but somehow still essential fact that this book is proudly and unapologetically about two women who do not end up competing for or otherwise sacrificing their integrity in the pursuit of men. This may seem unremarkable, but such depictions are, somewhat inexplicably, quite rare: A casual and profoundly unscientific survey suggests that the number of books that pass the famous Bechdel test is dismally low. In a perfect world, a book that offers a warm and emotionally honest depiction of a friendship between young women should not need to be cause for celebration. In ours, it is.

The third element of Friendship that I found deeply admirable, even heroic, is the subtle but unmistakable current of bracing feminist anger that thrums just under its otherwise breezy surface. It’s nothing so crude as that the men in the novel are creeps, although several are. It’s that Bev and Amy exist in a world where double standards and cultural and structural biases still reign, a realization which salts the narrative in subtle and unmistakable ways. If such a concept is somehow distasteful to you, then go read a book about the Civil War or something. There will always be plenty of those, even in Brooklyn.



01/29/14 4:00am


Collected Poems
By Denise Levertov
(New Directions)

With the release late last year of this massive volume, New Directions has given us the means to see Denise Levertov’s career whole—and a case for this proud, courageous, often combative woman to belong with Wallace Stevens and Elizabeth Bishop in the first rank of American poets. Indeed, seen in outline, Levertov’s career seems to encompass the whole grand, messy century: as a girl, she famously corresponded with T.S. Eliot, and some of her earliest poems were written in the hospitals of wartime Britain; half a century later she titled a poem “Silicon Valley.”

Her precocious early work aside, Levertov’s career truly began with her move to New York in 1948, which precipitated an astonishingly rapid assimilation of and mastery over various poetic forms. The volumes O Taste and See and The Sorrow Dance—my personal favorites of her long career—are the work of a poet operating at a ferocious early peak of ability and energy. Ardent, sensual, and crackling with intelligence, they marked their author as “a woman with that cold fire in her called poet,” moving to “the direct, intense / sound of direction,” drawn into the erotic circle of marriage but not afraid to “be / gaily alone.” With Relearning the Alphabet in 1970, Levertov began an intense lifelong engagement with the poetry of political protest, the usual limitations of which she transcended with brio. What gave even her most didactic statements their impact was her peerless ear for the music of language. She seemed incapable of writing a dull or obvious line, even “while the war drags on, always worse / and the soul dwindles sometimes to an ant / rapid upon a cracked surface” and her vision became both more radical and more despairing.

What followed was almost inevitably a retrenchment of sorts, and the poems in The Freeing of the Dust and beyond reflect an uneasy peace: “I am tired of ‘the fine art of unhappiness,’” the poet concludes at the end of “The Wealth of the Destitute.” All of this came to a seemingly sudden pivot with Levertov’s conversion to Catholicism in 1984, a shocking turn in the life of a formerly avowed Jewish atheist and secular Communist. Levertov’s personal embrace of Christianity was characteristically astringent and complex, and if the religious poems of her last decade don’t always achieve the effortless incandescence of her earlier work, they’re nonetheless often grave and striking. “The holy vice / utters its woe and glory in myriad musics,” she wrote in “Immersion,” one of her last poems. Right to the end, the cold fire burned strong in her.

07/03/13 4:00am

The Exchange
(Graywolf)

This austere collection of verse from the New England poet, her third, is a poised exploration of the confluence of money, illness, sexuality, power, and sacrifice. Composed almost exclusively of brief lyrics executed in limpid free verse, The Exchange has a polish that belies the intensity and intellectual ambition of its poetic concerns. If it’s occasionally monochromatic in its voicings, the book nonetheless represents an impressive feat of imaginative energy.

The Exchange—the title reflects both the idea of exchange as a place and as a transaction of emotions or demands—speaks to the reader in the voice of one who is troubled by the unseen, stoic yet weary, keenly attuned to paradox, and riven by sudden piercings of desire. “Atheism” melds the erotic and the metaphysical, equating the “journey of moving toward” both god and orgasm; “Summit,” “Closer,” and “Analysis” meditate on the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac, eschewing Kierkegaardian contortions in favor of a deliberately flat prosody. Black cunningly takes Wallace Stevens’s famous observation that “money is a kind of poetry” a step further, turning the language of high finance against itself in poems such as “Seeking Alpha” and “Preservation of Capital,” where “risk as part of the equation means / You go nowhere without it.” Images of illness, death, and hospitalization are placed adjacent to Frostian tableaux of barns, of churches, of “pasture / cleared of stone and alder.” Biblical words—“increase,” “dominion,” “host”—take on a gravid ambiguity, poised between the realms of the literal and figurative. Black’s mind, it seems, is a bleak and terrifying place, calm and well-ordered, but relentless in its Aeschylean fatalism.

The Exchange seems thus a product of a particularly Yankee, Anglo-Saxon kind of sensibility, one very nearly imprisoned by its reserve and cool disdain for histrionics, yet marked by an inwardness and focus, a Puritan self-paring, that you don’t see much of in our hyperemotive age. At times you might wish for a bit more noise and violence to pierce the tightly controlled surface. Black’s signature form, a sonnet-like structure of four unrhymed triplets ending in a likewise unrhymed couplet, is elegant and streamlined, but it doesn’t vary much in tone. On the whole, though, the vision given expression here is satisfyingly complete, a lesson in “how we who wait for a sign should use / the already here.”

08/01/12 4:00am

A Night in Brooklyn: Poems
by D. Nurkse

(Knopf)

With A Night in Brooklyn, the mysteriously initialled D. Nurkse has produced a fine, vibrant collection, poignant without being mawkish, expressive yet austere, and—within the constraints of its fairly conventional structure—sneakily subversive. The volume, its author’s tenth, is the work of a hyper-observant loner, attuned to the rhythms of the city, half in love with the past, half in love with the future, sketched in lines that skew just this side of modernist opacity. In Nurkse’s hands, standard-issue free verse, broken into stanzas of irregular length, seldom running over a page or two in length, is energized by sudden leaps of poetic imagination rendered pleasingly concrete, with “daylight in our cupped hands” or “August inching / sideways through the blinds.” Images of eyes, reflection, vision—the poet “entered your level eyes like a minnow”; “the rain / simmered in the dog’s huge eyes”—recur with haunting regularity, becoming over time a fully realized motif redolent of perception, doubleness, mirroring. The voice is conversational without being banal, effortlessly evocative, and graced with a touch of the metaphysical, a feel for the “shining absent presence.” Many of the poems trace, with rueful accuracy, the locked-together waltz of romantic attraction and dissolution, where “we made love and each thrust / carried us deeper into the past,” before “we grow old [and] it ends in chaos.”

To be sure, the Brooklyn that Nurkse conjures up, with its “domino players / hunched over folding tables” and boys “taking engines apart / on stoops” is not the Brooklyn of artisanal markets and organic diaper creams, but rather the older, grittier, working-class city that lies, Pompeii-like, under strata of memory and demographics. These are missives from precincts (Canarsie, Bensonhurst, Bath Beach, Flatbush) and occupations (factory worker, housepainter, bartender, truck driver) that rarely figure in Brooklyn’s chic post-millennial landscape. But, A Night in Brooklyn is too engaging to be considered a mere dispatch; in these poems, the quest to be “united in a radiance / that will not fade at dawn” becomes universal.

12/07/11 4:00am

Once

By Meghan O’Rourke
(Norton)

Like their creator, the poems in this arresting meditation on loss bring to mind some highly evolved form of modernist design: sleek, elegant, and chilly to the touch. Brooklynite high flier Meghan O’Rourke occasionally skirts the banal and derivative, but most of the poems in Once land on the ear and the mind with startling freshness and force. In April, O’Rourke published The Long Goodbye, a harrowing and acclaimed memoir of her mother’s death from cancer; Once covers much of the same psychic territory, albeit more elliptically. Writing two such personal books in rapid succession—especially in the long shadow of Joan Didion—is not a project for the self-effacing, but O’Rourke, who shares with her generational cohort a conception of the boundary between the private and the public as gauzy at best, transforms the raw material of her suffering into convincing art.

O’Rourke’s transcendence of the generic details of illness and grief is driven by a prosody of above-average originality, one that relies on highly staggered line lengths and tricky, unexpected internal rhymes for its impact. She deftly mixes the abstract language of philosophy with the concrete and absurd; lines such as “our arctic hearts melt at the valor/of their empirical imagination,” and titles such as “Appeal to the Self” and “Resistance to Metaphor” have a droll Stevensian ring. The tripartite structure of the book betrays a subtle narrative arc, from exposition to tragedy to recovery—bookended by two surreal medieval-accented fantasia—while the best poems suggest, consciously or otherwise, something dangerous and overheated and crazy lurking underneath the tightly controlled surface. In the end, O’Rourke comes to realize that “What you lost is what everybody else lost,” and that an ambiguous redemption is still possible: “You can step out of/violence and into/sky.”

02/02/11 4:00am

“A”

By Louis Zukofsky

New Directions


The career of Louis Zukofsky (1904–1978) has been overlooked by all but the most fervent students of American poetry, a situation that legendary house New Directions hopes to correct with its double-barreled publication of Zukosky’s book-length epic “A” and Anew, a somewhat less menacing companion volume of shorter poems. To call Zukofsky an acquired taste would be an understatement; an 826-page opus of remarkable density, “A” has long held a shadowy legendary status as a stark obelisk of high modernism, the verse equivalent of Finnegan’s Wake. The poems collected in Anew are accessible only by comparison, and represent a body of work that, taken alone, would qualify Zukofsky as a major figure in American modernism.


While Anew shows a progression of experimentation as a kind of running dialogue with Eliot, Pound, and Williams, all of whom were Zukofsky’s peers, “A” is unlike anything else this reader, who has been studying and analyzing poetry in academic and professional contexts for over a quarter century, has ever encountered. The self-contained poetic universe of “A,” Zukofsky’s life’s work, spans five decades of American life and contains a dizzying array of prosodic techniques, from torrential free verse to rigorous rhymed stanzas to terse minimalist tone sketches, including long passages written in a rolling, beautiful, and archaic-sounding imaginary Renaissance language of Zukofsky’s own invention. In other sections it ruthlessly breaks language down into the smallest units of sound possible, a process as radically inventive as that practiced by any subsequent, and more celebrated, avant-garde; it is rife with puns, spoonerisms, homophones, double-entendres, and other forms of wordplay; it is formidably allusive, conducting a thematic conversation with the mental and aesthetic achievements of Bach, Marx, Henry Adams, Shakespeare, Vico, Spinoza, classical theology, quantum physics, and many other artists and fields; it includes soaring passages depicting the Great Depression, World War II, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and the Vietnam War alongside sequences of great domestic and connubial tenderness.


Perhaps most radically of all, the staggering scope and range of Zukofsky’s great poem demand a redefinition of the act of reading. Unless you are a doctoral candidate in English literature or other specialist, there is no practical way to attack “A” except to surrender to it, riding its relentless and incantatory language in a kind of mental surfing. Such surrender is not easy to achieve or to sustain, but this vast and genuinely unique piece of writing repays the patience and willingness necessary to enter a trance-like state of receptiveness with a vivid and hallucinatory literary experience.


In reading Zukofsky I kept thinking of Jonathan Franzen’s celebrated 2002 essay “Mr. Difficult.” Franzen understands—better than any of his peers, I think—the strange, almost masochistic, joy of reading challenging literature, of “a kind of penance” that one engages “in a state of grim distraction, like somebody going out to score hard drugs.” Immersing oneself in the work of this humble, nearly anonymous man, dead now three decades, carries the same potent, slow kick—for those who dare.

08/05/09 4:00am

HarperCollins
Available now

The story is archetypal, very nearly mythic: a young woman comes to the city from the hinterlands, absorbs some hard knocks, wrangles with some identity angst, and by pluck and luck lands on her feet. From Joan Didion to Meghan Daum to last year’s flavor Sloane Crosley, the narrative retains its basic shape while supporting endless permutations: it’s an armature as flexible and resilient as a sonnet. Year after year these books arrive on the shelves, sporting variations of the prim-yet-sexy author photo, the artfully artless cover, their creators relentless and somehow heartbreaking in their poise, their intelligence, their seriousness.

Carlene Bauer’s Not That Kind of Girl is of this milieu, and yet transcends it — in the world, but not of it — for two reasons, one anthropological and one aesthetic. The former is by weight of the startling fact that the author, who superficially is just another overeducated publishing drone with a shared flat in Williamsburg and surfeit of male friends with lots of facial hair, is in fact a devout, even tormented, Christian. The second is that Bauer, as was once said of Raymond Chandler, writes like a slumming angel. If you’re going to chronicle your inner spiritual turmoil against a backdrop of rooftop Brooklyn beer parties, you’d better have chops. Bauer does: an elegant, jazzy stylist, puckish without being flip, she makes most other memoirists — of either gender — seem shallow and gabby by comparison.

Although being a sexually abstinent practicing Christian in New York City in the 21st century is possibly the most genuine act of rebellion imaginable, Bauer doesn’t exploit it as a novelty, or a challenge, or a curiosity; about twenty pages in, whatever lurid preconceptions one might have brought to the book have been dissipated by its author’s sturdy good cheer. What is remarkable about Not That Kind of Girl is not that it presents a clever twist on zeitgeist-y nonfiction (the promotional copy, unusually crude even by HarperCollins’s low standards, compares it to Sex and the City “with Mr. Big played by ‘the man upstairs'”) but that it is so clear-eyed about the mysterious yet essential process of self-invention.

06/10/09 4:00am

St. Martin’s
Available Now

Mishna Wolff’s I’m Down purports to be both a ragingly funny family-dysfunction memoir à la Sedaris or Burroughs, and a perceptive take on racial identity. It’s neither, but that shouldn’t stop Wolff, who was raised by a white single father in the black working-class town of Rainier Valley, Washington, from making hay with this slight but basically sweet-tempered memoir.

Wolff’s book has the contours of the classic coming-of-age tale, wherein the awkward and put-upon duckling triumphs over a series of endearing mishaps and eventually turns into a swan (the marketing copy identifies Wolff, ominously, as a “humorist and former model”). In Mishna Wolff’s case, a background of legitimately harrowing but otherwise unremarkable poverty was made distinctive by her father’s insistent adoption of all the hallmarks of urban African-American culture, including the flamboyant clothes, the jewelry, the aggressively ungrammatical argot and the emphasis on toughness and contempt for authority. The result, according to Wolff, was a comical decade-long reverse-passing drama and a childhood marked by substantial identity confusion.

Wolff mines this material for humor, but there’s something weird and unintentionally telling going on here. The author treats her father’s obsession as source material for rueful isn’t-this-crazy comedy, but a man repeatedly putting his two young daughters in considerable danger to prove his “blackness” is, in fact, a sad and desperate spectacle. Other people understand this: John Belushi’s famous imitation of Joe Cocker got its sting from the pathos inherent in the lengths white men will go to in order to demonstrate that they have “soul.” Wolff’s depiction of her father is startlingly tone-deaf, with what seems intended as a portrayal of harmless eccentricity often verging on the monstrous. Most readers, however jaded, don’t think child abuse is funny.

The element of I’m Down that, almost incidentally, carries real force is not the racial appropriation but rather the depiction of relentless poverty. Wolff mentions off-handedly that she and her sister often lived for weeks on tapioca and watery corn bread; there’s a poignant scene where the teenage author, who has unwittingly high-achieved herself into attendance at a posh private school, forces herself to share her classmates’ disdain for the school lunches that she, half-starving, secretly craves. Wolff describes how she unapologetically latched onto her rich classmates in order to take advantage of their ski trips and European vacations and palatial beachfront homes full of sleek electronics and fully stocked kitchens, only to discard the same girls with contempt once they had served her purposes. A more reflective writer would surely see how sad this is, but Wolff races ahead to the next set piece, like the comic pro she is.

I’m Down is in many ways a catalogue of misplaced emphases and unintended literary effects (the prose, for one thing, is flat and clumsy, and the humor feels strained in the way that stand-up routines transferred to the page usually do), but one doesn’t feel quite right blaming Mishna Wolff for this, exactly. One of the many irritating things about memoir as a genre is the way it makes special claims for itself, the way it seems to be criticism-proof. With a novel, a dyspeptic critic, especially one not unnerved by the daunting middle-class minefields of race and parenthood, can simply dismiss the lot as so much ill-conceived garbage. Since a memoir’s power is ostensibly grounded in its truthfulness, however, it often feels that the only legitimate objection is to say, “this person’s life is not interesting.” The alternative, at least in this case, is only slightly less harsh: to say “you haven’t done a good job extracting meaning from your life,” or, “you don’t understand the meaning of your own life.” On Mishna Wolff’s block, them’s fighting words. I hope she doesn’t “cap” me.

07/02/08 12:00am

Cake is a smart, speedy little bomb of noir fiction by a writer whose nom de plume is simply “D.” This slim novella is the latest offering from a new “street-lit” imprint called The Armory, from edgy Brooklyn house Akashic, and if you detect a whiff of coded language in the term “street-lit,” then you won’t be surprised to find that Cake is the unapologetic story of a young black drug dealer and a week in his violent world.

The anonymous narrator has fled to Atlanta after a murderous drug deal gone wrong flushes him out of Brooklyn, and despite half-hearted efforts to go straight, he inevitably gets caught up in the same hustle. When the narrator’s bungling cousin skips town, he is left holding the bag on a small-time drug operation that quickly escalates into a gang war. The maneuvering of the rival factions is relatively conventional crime-thriller stuff, but D’s descriptions of the atmosphere — the hopped-up cars, strip clubs, seedy apartments and motel parking lots — are quick and vivid. The dialogue sounds, to a bookish middle-class white man at least, authentically clipped and slangy. When the book accelerates toward its violent denouement and a final, jarring twist, there is no denying that D has mastered the tightly plotted structure of the genre.

The only criticism one could make of this mayhem-filled book is that, paradoxically, it perhaps doesn’t go quite far enough into the darkness at its heart. For all his badass hip-hop bravado, D retains an old-fashioned Raymond Chandler sense of character: he is very careful to preserve the moral center of his hero, who gets involved against his better judgment out of loyalty, and who never kills unless he has to. It would be hard to say for sure, but I suspect that a true gangster would be ugly on the inside and out, and no better than his surroundings. Whether this represents a failure of fictional nerve is hard to say. What we can say is that Cake updates the crime thriller with juice and grit to spare.

03/12/08 12:00am

Richard Price’s novel Lush Life is a messy brawl of a crime story; diffuse, overlong, ambiguous and vexing, the book is, in short, a perfect fictional mirror for contemporary New York City. Price’s story deals with the fallout of a random murder on the Lower East Side: Two young black men from the nearby projects attempt a stickup of three barhopping hipsters, which goes awry when one of the victims resists in a burst of misplaced bravado. The ensuing investigation blows a huge hole in the lives of everyone involved, from cops to families to friends to assailants.

The first third of the book, dealing with the murder and its immediate aftermath, is a tight and exhilarating piece of writing. When the leads fizzle and the investigation stalls, however, the narrative loses some of its momentum as police, witnesses and suspects settle in for an enervating waiting game. Price is a canny and observant writer — his dialogue snaps and snarls with the profane rhythms of everyday speech — and he has a pitiless sense of social geography. One sequence in particular, a depiction of a vigil organized by the dead boy’s friend, is such a cruelly accurate portrayal of the fatuousness of the young bohemians invading the neighborhood that one doesn’t know whether to laugh or cringe. Price, whose most recent busman’s holiday was scriptwriting for The Wire, has a nose for the inner workings of urban life: fiction verité at its finest.

What makes Lush Life so potent a read, despite its flaws, is that it upends the tidy certainties of most crime fiction, substituting a more real and jaggedly uncertain narrative. The cops on the case are hamstrung by bureaucratic inertia; the murdered boy’s father is deranged with grief; the survivor is unhinged by guilt and resentment; and the man who pulled the trigger is not some evil psychopath but a numb, confused kid. The book’s ending implies a nearly classical fatalism about the relentless cycling of history, personal and urban. As in life, tragedies explode and fade, lives crumble and renew, and the city moves on.