07/30/14 4:00am

Nobody is Ever Missing
By Catherine Lacey
(FSG Originals)

At some point, most of us have likely wondered what it might be like to run away from our lives. Catherine Lacey’s debut novel follows someone who does exactly that, but it becomes clear early on that the history she’s unconsciously fleeing will eventually catch up with her.

On its surface, Elyria’s life in New York City seems ideal: she works as a writer of soap operas, is married to a math professor who spends his evenings scratching away at a chalkboard, and her every material need seems easily met. In a move fit for one of her scripts, she abruptly abandons this life and flies to New Zealand on the flimsiest of invitations, one extended by an aging male poet who once mentioned, in passing, that she could come write on his remote farm. Any reasonable person would understand the offhanded nature of the invite, but when we meet Elyria, she is not any reasonable person; whether she realizes it or not, she’s haunted by her sister’s suicide, and the novel’s extensive flashbacks and ruminations explore how this event has come to define Elyria’s adult life—including that math professor husband, the last person to see Elyria’s sister alive.

Elyria’s trek is drawn in part from Lacey’s own experience traversing New Zealand while she herself was “trying to quit New York,” as she put it in one interview. Early on in the novel, Elyria tries to explain to one of the many people she encounters where it is she’s ultimately headed: “I pointed south, or I think I pointed south, but I could have pointed west, or even north, and what would it matter? If you made enough wrong and right turns it would take you to the same place.” Such is the nature of Elyria’s wanderings (and the bulk of the plot), but Lacey wisely chooses to structure the book using short chapters, which keeps the pacing swift even when we start to feel the drag of Elyria’s journey. The short chapters have the shape and feel of vignettes, and they allow Elyria to move back and forth in time as she fills us in on the backstory that pushed her to leave.

Plot is clearly secondary here; this novel is chiefly (and ambitiously) concerned with interiority. The sparse and meandering action stands in stark contrast to Elyria’s own rich introspection, which tumbles and spins in a largely stream-of-consciousness delivery. The voice is built out of very long sentences, their clauses strung together with and, elegantly conveying the sense of Elyria’s unraveling. There are instances when this choice trumps clarity, but it replicates what Elyria is experiencing: a kind of disorientation, a self-inflicted tailspin into possible madness. We, like her, are captivated by the descent, helpless to watch and wander along.

01/04/12 4:00am

Ghost Lights
By Lydia Millet

Ghost Lights, Lydia Millet’s first book since her collection Love in Infant Monkeys was named a Pulitzer Prize finalist, takes us from the polished world of West L.A. to Belize, where a character who insists on being referred to as T. has disappeared. The novel is the second in a trilogy (coming after How the Dead Dream), but its main character, Hal—a fifty-year-old IRS agent sleepwalking through life ever since a car accident left his only daughter paralyzed—is a minor character in the first book, making Ghost Lights as good a place to jump in as any.

Hal himself jumps into action after spying on his wife as she cheats on him with a coworker almost half her age. Despite being ill suited for the task, he decides to follow “what was clearly an irrational impulse” and go to Belize to search for T., his wife’s very rich boss. But he doesn’t really care if he finds T. or not—in fact, he thinks, on the cab ride to his hotel, “I came here to escape my wife. My wife who may not love me after a quarter of a century.”

Hal’s personality, his propensity for inaction and turning inward—even as he’s forced to trek through the jungle, all he can think about is his own failing body—is Millet’s chief tool in examining the self-centered, obsessively self-aware mind of this mildly successful, educated white American male: “As a rule, he set too much store by thinking… he relied on it to the exclusion of other ways of filtering information.” Hal does end up making moves to help find T., but a workaholic German man he meets early on at the resort does most of the heavy lifting. Hal continually wishes he was more like the German, but naturally, he does little—aside from sleeping with the German’s wife—to become more like him.

Because the narration is grounded in Hal’s thoughts, it’s heavy on rumination and philosophy. The one thing Hal can’t escape is his mind, which continually returns to his wife and his wheelchair-bound daughter, Casey. The novel begins and ends with Hal thinking about Casey and is, in many ways, about the nature of parenting—its disappointments, its thrills. The book’s final moments establish parenthood as the one condition we can never escape, one worthy of such intense meditation.

08/31/11 4:00am


 Quim Monzo

Trans. Peter Bush

(Open Letter)

Near the end of this slim book’s final story, the narrator muses, “A narrative is never as good as the possibilities that fan out at the beginning.” Ending a story as close to its promising beginning as possible sounds like Quim Monzó’s strategy: in 125 pages, he gives us 14 stories, each of them more about the possibility of narrative than a tried-and-true plot.

Divided into five sections and delivered in unadorned prose, the stories in Guadalajara—the prolific Monzo’s fourth book to appear in English; he himself has also translated Salinger, Hemingway and Capote into his native Catalán—primarily explore ideas or concepts. Many of the main characters remain nameless, and several stories circle back to their beginnings—think of it as M.C. Escher in paragraph form (in one story, characters actually do get stuck moving down staircases). Another story, “Family Life,” which takes up one whole section on its own, also underscores the ways in which generations adapt and—according to Monzó’s depictions—largely devolve by circling back to their origins: a young boy escapes the inexplicable family tradition of having a finger chopped off at age nine. Down the line, the family’s babies start being born with an extra digit to make up for the one they’ll eventually lose. The family can’t agree on whether this means they should now start chopping off two fingers or just the original one. The tradition mutates and begins to fade, causing the family to drift apart. But Monzó’s ending pushes the tale past the easy explanation of a lost tradition: the whole story begins again on its final page, when the boy who first eluded amputation, now a grown man and a fervent proponent of the custom, finds an audience in a woman whose own family’s bizarre custom winks at us from the last lines.

Many of these stories read like fables, particularly those that take on popular legends. In “A Hunger and Thirst for Justice,” Monzó pushes the Robin Hood tale to its logical conclusion: the old rich become the new poor, and eventually he has to flip sides, stealing back what he gave. In the story “Gregor,” a clear (and brief) reversal of Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” a roach wakes one morning to find he’s now a fat kid. Very little escapes Monzó’s witty examination—often to disastrous, hilarious ends.

07/06/11 4:00am

Tyrant Memory

Horacio Castellanos Moya, Trans. Katherine Silver

New Directions

Set in the month after a botched 1944 coup in El Salvador, Tyrant Memory chronicles one family’s struggle to survive amid political upheaval—something with which the author is all too familiar. Horacio Castellanos Moya is an established novelist and journalist whose books, though readily available in other languages, have only been translated into English over the past few years, partly in thanks to the time he spent as writer-in-residence at the City of Asylum/Pittsburgh. He still lives in exile, a condition his characters often find themselves moving toward.

At Tyrant Memory‘s center is Haydée, who’s begun writing in a diary out of longing for conversation with her husband, Pericles, a journalist and former ambassador recently taken prisoner for criticizing “the Warlock,” the dictator Maximiliano Hernández Martínez. Her alcoholic son, Clemente, also finds himself in grave danger when he mistakenly announces the dictator’s death over the radio—an act that lands him on the not-even-close-to-dead dictator’s list of traitors to be executed.

Alternating sections of Haydée’s diary with chapters following Clemente and his cousin as they try to flee the country, Moya creates an interesting tension between fact and gossip. Haydée grows increasingly frustrated by this tension and the men largely responsible for it: “The men in this family are impossible: they joke about everything. Without any real information, we live off hearsay.” The novel itself is an exercise in this kind of storytelling, as the reader works to figure out which rumors are true. But unlike Haydée, we’re privy to Clemente’s sections, which are told in the present tense and in a very distant third person. These sections sometimes read more like a script than a novel, with Moya largely leaving out setting, action and internal monologue, and they feel fast-paced and comic.

As is probably the case with any diary ever written, Haydée’s journal is sometimes bogged down by details about phone calls made and neighbors entertained and pastries consumed. But her gradual struggle to accept herself as a politically engaged woman is more compelling than the antics of her coup-organizing son and nephew: they flounder around among mangroves waiting for rescue, while Haydée, no longer satisfied to sit around knitting sweaters for farm children while she waits for news of Pericles, finds herself organizing protests and pounding on the door of an ambassador’s home. It’s a fascinating, well-choreographed reversal of authority.

In Haydée, Moya creates a narrator who details the struggle to continue day-to-day life amid political upheaval and senseless terror. It’s a bit of a disappointment that she doesn’t appear in the book’s final section, which takes a large leap forward in time and shows Pericles and a peripheral character, now both in their seventies, in conversation. Eager to see what had become of the narrator who carried me through one of the worst times in her family’s life, I combed this section for news of Haydée in much the same way she scoured her community for news of her husband’s fate. Sadly, but perhaps fittingly, she exists only in this final chapter’s shadows, dealt with in just a few mentions by the voices of men who are largely absent in the novel, all while another woman—Haydée’s lifelong best friend—serves their lunch of ground beef and beans, 
”just like Old Man Pericles liked.”

03/30/11 4:00am

The Sweet Relief of Missing Children

by Sarah Braunstein


A little more than halfway through Sarah Braunstein’s debut novel, a character screams in a forest and another character hears it. Braunstein, one of the National Book Foundation’s “5 under 35” young authors to watch last year, describes it this way: “The woods did something strange with the sound, broke it into pieces, so it was coming from everywhere at once, so that he could only stand there, in one place, and take it in.” That’s exactly the feeling evoked by this book; its many voices, broken into parts, come at us from different times and places, and all we can do is listen and take them in.

The novel’s most striking feature is its elaborate structure. The book is divided into six parts, each part split into chapters narrated from varying characters’ points of view. The backbone of the book is Leonora, a character whose sections lead off each of the book’s parts (though this pattern shifts near the book’s end). Initially, her disappearance—a fate we learn almost immediately—feels unrelated to the rest of the novel, though the seemingly tangential storyline eventually becomes the basis for the plot surrounding another character, Paul (who changes his name to Pax). The section about another character, Judith, is the most compelling: earlier in the novel, we see Judith as a young girl who’s run away from home in search of true passion. She comes back in her section as a married woman with a daughter of her own, but the fears and desires of young Judith are still present and even more sharply drawn in her adult self as she navigates the sad and overwhelmingly lonely life she’s fallen into. She and her husband happen to have bought the house in which Paul/Pax grew up—a house he ran away from years earlier to escape his neglectful mother and abusive stepfather—and their stories collide in heartbreaking, desperate fashion.

This intricate web of stories entraps the reader, evoking the same feelings of isolation and disorientation that the characters themselves experience, all the while pushing us to feel compassion for those who search for—and never find—the love they so desperately want for themselves. The novel could’ve been presented as three stand-alone novellas; in fact, in an interview, Braunstein explains how she wrote each scene out on an index card and then spread those cards across her kitchen in order to “evaluate what each scene was doing.” But the effect of weaving the three major threads together gives the events of the book a more inevitable, devastating feel: we are all, in the end, connected by our ability
to feel misery and regret.

In the novel’s final acts, another character promises to write about Paul/Pax, who’s become obsessed with Leonora’s disappearance. In describing what he’ll write, he says, “What I’m trying to get at is that I won’t mention this girl… It’s kind of an elaborate distraction. She’s a red herring.” With these lines Braunstein gives us the key to understanding the true aim of the story, of the voices coming from everywhere at once: to convey, above anything else, the savage reality of despair.

07/21/10 2:00am

The Invisible Bridge

By Julie Orringer

About three-quarters of the way through The Invisible Bridge, the central character, Andras Lévi, and a close friend discuss the strategy behind the subversive newspaper they hope to publish for the men in their labor camp: “First we’ll make them laugh in the usual manner. Then, later, we’ll slide in a piece or two about what it’s like in a real camp.” Having followed the narrator’s descent into hell after so many months of romantic intrigue in Paris, it’s not hard to see Julie Orringer employing this same tactic.

Above all else, The Invisible Bridge is a love story, one that shows the sometimes ludicrous hope that love brings into our lives. It is also, impressively, 600-plus pages of stuff—;architecture, ballet, opera, World War II history. The book feels meticulously researched: all that information puts immense pressure on the characters and the narrative itself. Filled with coincidences that show the slim margin between life and death, the plot is pulled forward by this tremendous history.

Andras is a young Hungarian Jew who heads to Paris on a scholarship to study architecture. It’s 1937—;we know what’s ahead for him. But still, this is a young man in Paris: there are wild parties, late nights in cafes, and, of course, passionate love. After the Hungarian expat community works its magic on his life, Andras finds himself in the arms of Klara, a ballerina nine years his senior and mother of a difficult teenage girl. As in all good ove stories, Klara has a shady past, one that Andras—;and Orringer—;teases out slowly, and whose full impact isn’t felt until the lovers, hoping to be married, are forced back to Hungary. The most engaging and inspired chapters are those depicting Andras’s longing for Klara, and the slow, painful way Klara learns to share the dark truth of her past. It’s their intense connection that drives Andras—;and readers—to survive what lies ahead.

Scholarships are lost, visas denied, countries invaded. Orringer exquisitely catalogues this rise in pitch: how Andras and his family try and fail to maneuver within their ever-shifting reality. Almost to the end, the couple holds out hope for returning to the lives they led before the war—architecture school, a thriving ballet studio—;with their physical home in Paris becoming a powerful symbol of that life. When that home is finally sacrificed for the sake of survival, new hope continues to peek through the rubble: a baby; an old friend literally back from the dead; a way across the river, back to Budapest.

The brief epilogue of The Invisible Bridge takes us far from the world and characters we’ve been part of for 600 pages. Some might say it expands the story in a new way, giving it a certain immediacy, but it’s also fair to say that it shifts the lens of the story too drastically, potentially undermining and too quickly resolving the hope and love we felt just three pages earlier. It does make us wonder how we, as someone’s children and grandchildren, manage to stand up to the history—personal and otherwise—that came before us.

01/06/10 5:00am

Prizes: The Selected Stories of Janet Frame
Counterpoint Press

Janet Frame was days away from a scheduled lobotomy when she learned that her first book of stories had won the Hubert Church Memorial Award, a significant honor in her native New Zealand. That book, written while she was in a mental hospital, literally saved her career: her doctors canceled the lobotomy. Prizes includes stories from that award-winning collection and goes on to span four decades of work, exhibiting Frame’s enormous range in both voice and subject matter.

Many of the 42 stories are only a page or two in length, with longer stories appearing more frequently as the collection progresses. There are several fables: two sheep, one aware of its impending doom and the other not, converse on their way to the slaughterhouse; a man who’s grown tired of his body’s demands befriends three mice in the hopes they’ll dispose of his corpse after his self-decapitation. The mice oblige, of course, “following the tradition of all rescued animals in fairy stories.” This kind of sly acknowledgment is what makes Frame’s stories so disturbing: there’s a playfulness that is deeply complicated by most of her endings. People die suddenly; entire kingdoms commit mass suicide; the brain of the decapitated man is mistaken for a prune and devoured by the very mice he called friends.

Later stories move away from the fantastic to some degree, though they continue to explore the psychology of loneliness and death. “The Teacup,” “The Bath,” and “The Triumph of Poetry” all follow characters who cling to some inaccurate assessment of their lives, only to see that framework obliterated. The prose is still as playful and arresting as in earlier stories, but applied to the ordinary, it achieves a much starker effect.

The New Yorker published two of Frame’s stories in 2008, four years after her death, and although neither appears in Prizes, there are five previously uncollected stories included here that, along with the rest of the collection, present a full and vibrant picture of Frame’s tremendous gifts.