06/22/11 4:00am
06/22/2011 4:00 AM |

The Astral

Kate Christensen


Say this for Kate Christensen’s new novel The Astral: if nothing else, it’s a good antidote to Brooklyn nostalgia. No doubt there’s a certain allure to the borough’s hardscrabble, pre-hoodie days, but if living then would have meant hanging out with the likes of Harry Quirk and his friends, well, frankly, I’d just as soon not.

Harry is the book’s hero, or perhaps anti-hero, depending on your disposition toward aging bohemians with borderline drinking problems. A once modestly successful poet since fallen into obscurity, he is, as the story begins, living in a Greenpoint flophouse, having been tossed by his wife Luz from their apartment in the neighborhood’s Astral building after she found poems that he’d written addressed to other women, mistaking them for evidence of an affair. Given that the women in the poems are all fictional, this doesn’t seem entirely reasonable, but then Luz, as Harry frequently reminds us, isn’t really the reasonable sort.

Rather, she’s a hot-blooded Latina with a mean Catholic streak who can a hold a grudge like nobody’s business. In other words, like most all of the book’s characters, she’s something of a cliché. Along with Luz we get, for instance: drunken, violent Poles; shady, insular Hasids; a crusty salt-of-the-earth bartender; an indie sell-out turned foodie douchebag. The Astral is ostensibly the story of Harry getting his groove back—coming to terms with his wife, their marriage, himself and certain increasingly hard-to-maintain illusions—but Christensen actually seems most interested in capturing current hipster Brooklyn in all its absurd, kinetic glory. It’s a worthy task; it’s an interesting place. Unfortunately, what she comes up with is less a great New York novel than a cardboard menagerie of familiar borough types.

It doesn’t help that Harry is kind of a dope. The narrative, as it’s structured, flows through him, the story arriving filtered through his memories and prejudices and misconceptions. Occasionally (and particularly in one scene where he confronts Luz’s therapist), this makes for an interesting exploration of the ways in which couples misunderstand and deceive each other over the course of a relationship. Despite his training as a poet, though, Harry isn’t exactly a font of emotional insights, and more often than not we’re treated instead to drab, 
metaphor-laden monologues like this:

“When I really fucked up, after my peccadillo with Samantha, Luz knocked me off my pedestal and turned the klieg lights of her ice-cold gaze onto every bit of evidence, any minuscule contradiction or microscopic disparity she could uncover, building her case to prove that I was a lying, cheating worm…Luz had split me open with her fascistic scimitar, then she’d flayed me with the wet noodles of my own guilt.”

To be fair, it isn’t all this bad (although, on the other hand, much of it is). Christensen has a nice understanding of the pathologies of the male mind, and several episodes involving Harry’s son and a Long Island cult are an enjoyable break from the otherwise steady parade of stock Brooklyn characters. Nonetheless, 300 pages of Harry is plenty. That Luz lasted 30 years with the guy is a minor miracle.

06/08/11 4:00am
06/08/2011 4:00 AM |

Ten Thousand Saints

By Eleanor Henderson

First-time novelists often gravitate toward the third-person omniscient. It’s tempting: you can go inside everyone’s head, and never lack for witty commentary. The problem with free access to all your characters’ interiority is that it’s hard enough to write in one voice, let alone a dozen, and so Ten Thousand Saints, the promising debut from Eleanor Henderson, paradoxically suffers as it balloons from a tense story of youth in crisis to a kaleidoscopic domestic drama.

The youths in question are Teddy McNicholas and Jude Keffy-Horn, a pair of Vermont wastoids growing up delinquent in 1987: “Teddy was the dark-haired one, Jude the redhead.” In ugliness and social standing, Teddy and Jude resemble Beavis and Butt-head, though they’re harder to tell apart. However, there’s a compelling fervor to their need to get “sky-high, kite-light” on everything from kegs to freon, and the book looks like it’s going to become a two-headed Permanent Midnight until Teddy dies (not a spoiler: it’s on the jacket copy) and Jude goes to New York and has a straight-edge epiphany.

Here the novel is overtaken by roving narrators, teen and adult, as it dutifully touches on all things late-80s NYC, from AIDS to CBGB. The most interesting character turns out to be Les, Jude’s entrepreneurial pot-smoking father, who, at the end of the book, tries “to recall who Teddy was exactly, how he might fit in.” The reader does too. Still, Henderson writes powerfully about drugs and the things that take their place. “How strange and pure this high —wanting to hurt someone, and knowing he could,” says Jude as he prepares to indulge in some straight-edge violence. When it stays in one head, Ten Thousand Saints is rich and sound.

06/08/11 4:00am

Orientation and Other Stories
By Daniel Orozco
Faber & Faber

Daniel Orozco’s debut takes its name from the first short story he published—which made Best American Short Stories 1995, just as the now 53-year-old Orozco was finishing up his MFA—and collects work published up through Bush’s second term. In other words, he’d finally written enough fiction to fill a book, nine stories over 160-odd pages. Under such circumstances, pattern recognition is often an imperative for jacket-copy writers more than for reviewers—and yet. That title story, a voice thing narrated by a supervisor walking a new hire through the office’s interstate-flat banalities and deepest sinkholes (“Kevin Howard sits in that cubicle over there. He is a serial killer…”), resonates surprisingly with, say, the longest piece, “Somoza’s Dream,” where Orozco, like Llosa in The Feast of the Goat, crosscuts through the last day in the life of a Latin-American dictator, looking for insight in routine, though Orozco’s prose hits more lyrical, portentous notes: a rare insect’s “thorax over seven inches long inscribes in the air a slender and delicate arc of the deepest red-the red of arterial blood, of crème de cassis and rubies and the juice of roasted meat.”

Strange music always seems to waft out of familiar instruments here, is the thing. Orozco, at a recent reading, spoke about the freedom he finds when writing within self-proscribed constraints. He doesn’t give his book an epigraph, so I’ll presume to suggest that “The ball is round, the game is ninety minutes, and the rest is theory” would make a swell one: his best stories explore the almost infinite potential for variation and play within the proscribed guidelines of a format, or a job. Or a life.

“Officer’s Weep” drolly couches personal revelation in the bureaucratic vocabulary of police reports (“officer [Shield #647] ascertains incipient boner”), which is zany, but also invokes the specter of something vast just beyond the careful boundaries of language—it’s on that threshold that the story, abruptly, ends. “Only Connect” passes a narrative baton from murder victim to killer to witness, arriving at an epiphany like a finish line, irritatingly in stride; more successful is the final story, “Shakers,” which skips from Californian to Californian in the moment of an earthquake, all these discrete consciousnesses suddenly connected by the ground moving under their feet. This is it, finally, the thing that’s been coming.

“Shakers,” like most of the stories here, could be described as “modular,” a word Orozco has used for his formally contained stories, and which also has echoes of the sprawling prefab Americana he frequently evokes. “Temporary Stories” is a triptych of temp jobs-stories within a story, about people in offices and files in boxes. One assignment: “the conversion of all records into a computerized database management system. Birth and death, marriage and divorce, the purchase and sale of home and property, the licensing of business entities and the bankruptcies of same—the paper trail of perfidious Fortune’s sway over the lives of the inhabitants of the city would be represented as coded entries on a data field screen, tagged and cross-indexed for easy access and retrieval.” Orozco ponders the infinite from the perspective of a short-term employee—because who among us, finally, is not a temp?

05/25/11 4:00am
05/25/2011 4:00 AM |


China Miéville

Del Rey

Though China Miéville has denounced J.R.R. Tolkien as anti-modern, reactionary, and “a wen on the arse of fantasy literature,”he went out of his way in a 2009 guest post on Amazon’s Omnivoracious blog to state that they share a “cordial dislike of allegory.”Emphasizing the difference between allegory and metaphor, Miéville notes “the latter is fecund, polysemic, generative of meanings but evasive of stability,”and celebrates the de facto father of world-building’s refusal to believe “the notion that a work of fiction is… primarily, solely, or really ‘about’ something else…”

In Embassytown, his third novel in as many years, Miéville celebrates metaphor as fiction which can refract, distort, and critique our own world, and also as the greatest weapon in human language’s arsenal. It is Miéville’s best novel set outside of his fictional universe of Bas-Lag: more controlled than 2010’s Kraken, more wide-ranging and rule-bending that 2009’s The City and the City, and not saddled with the sloppy first-novel messes of King Rat. It is also his first novel to deal with the familiar sci-fi trope of alien contact.

Said aliens are called (by whose leave we are never quite sure) the Ariekei (also known as Hosts, as everything in this book has a double), whose language (known as Language) can only be spoken by two-mouthed beings and whose “[w]ords don’t signify: they are their referents.” This makes inter-species communication problematic, but the humans (or Terre) who populate Embassytown, a semi-autonmous outpost on the edge of known space, have turned the situation to their advantage. They have developed, through surgery and tech, doubled humans who can speak Language, known as Ambassadors. Trade is possible; any kind of deep understanding is not. Meanwhile, beneath the placid exterior of the Hosts, a seismic shift roils, as a small cadre of Ariekei becomes obsessed with teaching themselves how to lie.

The story is narrated in precise, couched, and deliberate sentences by Avice Benner Cho, a living simile in Language, a strange and unwanted honor, which, though she does her best not to think about it, makes her far more important to Embassytown politics than she suspects. A prodigal daughter of Embassytown, Cho is also an Immerser, who deckhands ships in the “immer,”the strange space which enables interstellar travel. The immer, like much terminology in the novel, is never quite explained, for the same reasons that the Hosts are never fully physically described and that familiar words, such as “week”and “husband,”take on new connotations. Miéville isn’t just skipping the too-familiar sci-fi pitfall of over-explicating the created world, but showing us that we can never see the same things as Avice, because the gap between us is unbridgeable, even by words. Miéville is just as interested in radical politics, cross-species lust, existential terror, and the mechanics of revolution as always, but in Embassytown he is most concerned with poising his readers on the event horizon of meaning and waiting for our inarticulate response.

05/25/11 4:00am

The Chukchi Bible

By Yuri Rytkheu
Trans. Ilona Yazhbin Chavasse


Can the author of a story about indigenous people be accused of idealized, patronizing Noble Savage characterizations if that author is himself a member of the nation? The question arises more than once in The Chukchi Bible, even as each successive chapter draws the reader more deeply into the story and fate of the Chukchis, a group that lived—and still lives, in far fewer numbers—in the northeast nether-regions of Russia, just over the Bering Strait from Alaska. This beautifully rendered tale is a tribute not only to Chukchi history but to their tradition of oral storytelling. But the question of whether Rytkheu is laying on the primitivism keeps arising.

It’s especially distracting in the last few chapters, when Rytkheu zooms in to tell the story of his grandfather, Mletkin. Rytkheu, an author of several previous novels about the Chukchi, vividly recounts his grandfather’s journey: young hunter, shaman, sailor on a U.S. vessel, exhibit at the Chicago World’s Fair, and finally a wizened old man who sees his people’s values and traditions sandblasted away by American and Bolshevik influences. Rytkheu romanticizes Mletkin’s life and character, especially when it comes to Mletkin’s romance with his wife, Givivneu. In Rytkheu’s telling, Mletkin is a lover straight out of medieval England—a chivalrous knight who literally challenges another man to a duel to win his bride. For Rytkheu, it’s not enough for his grandfather to be merely a man: he must be a flawless representation of the best qualities of all the Chukchi ancestors described in the book, the Last of the Chukchi, as it were. But even this two-dimensionality doesn’t detract from Rytkheu’s beautifully wrought and absolutely gripping tales of whale hunts, shamanic torture tests, feasts and famines, naming ceremonies, that all provide a unique glimpse into an all but unknown culture.

05/11/11 4:00am
05/11/2011 4:00 AM |

Otherwise Known as the Human Condition: Selected Essays and reviews

By Geoff Dyer


Of the many journalists, critics and novelists who try their hands at essay form, there are relatively few for whom the meandering style is the natural form of expression. However, a small group of writers as varied as E.B. White, George Orwell and John Berger produced much of their most memorable work in their essays. The British author and genre-bender Geoff Dyer is another such writer. As he admits in his introduction to this selection of his essays, “If something occurs that moves me deeply—the kind of experience that might provide inspiration for a poet—my first instinct is to articulate and 
analyze it in an essay.”

There are two relationships that are ever-present in Dyer’s reviews and dispatches: the relationship between life and art and the relationship between author and subject. Part of the liveliness of Dyer’s essays is his willingness to abandon the concept of objective criticism and slip into his subjects’ shoes. For this reason, many of the most insightful pieces are the ones where Dyer actually inhabits the physical space of his subjects. Some of Dyer’s journeys, like his time in the desert with photographer Richard Misrach or his search for the lost Algiers of Albert Camus, feel almost like pilgrimages. Others, like the piece on time spent in an East Asian hotel with Def Leppard, mix social critique and ironic humor, illuminating and mocking the commercialization and replicability implicit in our epoch. In these moments Dyer’s essays do what the essay does best—help the reader navigate the world, both real and imagined.

05/11/11 4:00am

At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing

George Kimball and John Schulian, Eds.

Library of America

Articulated in Britain in the 19th century, prizefighting belongs to the world in the 21st, but through the 20th it was headquartered and nurtured in these United States, where hard men with a history of sharecropping, shtetl, potato famine, and hobo camps commingled their 
blood on the canvas.

At the Fights, Library of America’s history of writing on and around the fistic arts, elucidates that golden age which was, among other things, a story of successive waves of ethnic aspiration and rivalry. Jack London, reporting from the Jim Jeffries-Jack Johnson fight, is candid in discussing the racial/tribal animus in the ring, as is Budd Schulberg on his childhood idolization of middleweight Benny Leonard, his victories “sweet revenge for… pale little Jewish boys who had 
run the neighborhood gauntlet.”

Colum McCann’s introduction gets the inevitable boxers-writers comparison over with mercifully early. It is worth noting that fighters, for their part, very rarely compare themselves to authors—though Gene Tunney contributes herein an account of his bout with Dempsey that shows no signs of Dementia pugilistica. “Like mediocre fiction,” David Remnick writes in a superlative piece on Mike Tyson, “fights for the heavyweight championship of the world are invariably freighted with the solemnity of deeper meanings.” This is demonstrated most baldly by the Great American Novelists here, who come off as tomato cans, throw

It’s hard to deny, though, Norman Mailer’s play-by-play of the Rumble in the Jungle (unlike his quickdraw predecessors at ringside, Mailer benefits from playback tape and no looming deadline). Mailer’s onetime campaign manager, Joe Flaherty, puts a stingingly funny snap at the end of every paragraph of his eulogy for Sonny Liston, “the pallbearer of fifties liberalism,” and the sanctimonious media reactions to his death. On wolverine-fierce Stanley Ketchel, another famously troubled fighter, John Lardner’s “Down Great Purple Valleys” is justly celebrated for its opening one-sentence biography of its subject; as perfect as the lede is, what’s even more impressive is the speedbag tempo that follows.

This collection, assembled by George Kimball and John Schulian, has a notably worried conscience over the pleasure of watching “the flop, flap, flop of leather bruising human flesh,” per Irvin S. Cobb. Along with the workaday fighters and trainers, a recurring cast of crooks, fixers and promoters reappear from piece to piece—James Norris, Don King, the trash behind Primo Carnera’s hoax of a rise. Queasy fight “fan” Gerald Early, not mincing words: “It is fitting to have professional boxing in America as a moral eyesore: the sport and symbol of human waste in a culture that worships its ability to squander.” Elsewhere, Bill Barich gives a persuasive account of the cumulative effects of a boxing career (capsule: it makes you broken and dumb), and Ralph Wiley writes on Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini killing his opponent in the ring—the reason we watch 12-round fights today, those of us who watch at all.

But we’ve come to praise the Marquis of Queensbury, not bury him. Read At the Fights with YouTube fight footage at the ready: there’s no more satisfying experience of the hand-in-glove relationship between criticism and art.

04/27/11 4:00am
04/27/2011 4:00 AM |


By Jean-Patrick Manchette, Trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith


When we first see her alone, our heroine is locked in a train compartment, eating sausage, drinking champagne mixed with her own blood, and rubbing legal tender stinking of “piss and sperm”over her naked, sweating body. The money has been acquired through assassination, and by the time she reaches her destination, the quiet town of Bléville, where she fully intends to commit another, she has “retrieved all her customary self-assurance.”

Here is the roman noir as practiced by Jean-Patrick Manchette: blunt, punishing, and strangely elusive. Manchette (1942-1995), in thrall to Marx as much as to Hammett, produced ten crime novels, mostly in the 1970s (Fatale is ‘77), and has since been largely forgotten in America. The plot resembles a warped version of Hammett’s Red Harvest (source code for Kurosawa’s Yojimbo): Aimée, our aforementioned heroine, arrives in town, ingratiates herself with the local petit-bourgeois, then isolates their largest problem and eliminates him or her for a sizable sum.

Aimée’s past is vague, but she is driven, much like her creator, out of hate for “the real assholes.” Thus is she derailed in Bléville: the town’s biggest problem is Baron Jules, a misanthrope who shares her disgust with self-satisfied “solid citizens.” In taking the hit, Aimée forces herself into a situation she cannot abide and ensures a desperate explosion of violence. Though only 90 pages, Fatale outpaces Manchette’s other two translated works, The Prone Gunman and Three To Kill, in illuminating what he elsewhere referred to as the “hopeless… final individual revolt.” Retaining Manchette’s usual pitch-black humor, Fatale escapes customary charges of coldness through its unsparing ferocity and proves him an author of the order of Jim Thompson and Derek Raymond.

04/27/11 4:00am

There Is No Year

Blake Butler

Harper Perennial

Let’s not kid ourselves. I don’t understand half of what Blake Butler is getting at, and neither do you.

This is by design. Or, perhaps more to the point, necessity. Butler’s new novel, There Is No Year, is little more than an account of a suburban family’s daily goings-on, but told through a prism so disorienting and estranging as to make what would be the unremarkable details of their lives feel almost terrifyingly weird.

Butler is the founder and editor of the literary blog HTMLGiant, and the book reflects that site’s experimental bent. It’s characterized by incomprehension, the family wandering through their home like primitives caught in a world outside their understanding. Reading it is like stumbling across a dollhouse tableau built by a toymaker with a serious taste for psychedelics.

The story works by erasing boundaries, blurring the lines between characters and settings, stretching inches into miles, minutes into years. The family’s universe is impossibly elastic, their house ever expanding and contracting, they themselves entering and exiting bodies and copies of bodies, diffusing through the shells, crusts, carapaces that contain them, bleeding out into the world.

And then there is the world bleeding in. “For years the air above the earth had begun sagging, suffused by a nameless, ageless eye of light,” begins the novel. “Each day the light grew gently thicker, purer. Each day still felt the same. Its presence rode in ridges on the faces of the hours and in silent hair all down all arms.” Everywhere the family is confronted by this sort of flattening, anonymizing onslaught. Ants infest their house, eating holes in the floorboards, carving patterns in the painted walls. Words infect the son’s body, turning him blue and swollen. These are people being erased by information, their squawks and bleats subsumed in a ceaseless flood of language and symbols.

If this sounds to you like some grand metaphor for the internet age, well, you might be right. The book’s blurring of forms is so pervasive and wide-ranging, though, that it seems less an account of a world disordered by any particular agent and more a basic statement about the necessity and frailty of the tricks—naming, dividing, categorizing—our minds use to let us live.

There Is No Year isn’t a work that’s especially long on plot. A relationship of sorts develops between the son and a girl at his school. The father’s ever-expanding commute morphs into something of an epic quest. At root, though, the book is less a narrative to be puzzled out than an object to be taken in—a sort of Blue Rider painting masquerading as a novel.

Individual mileage with this will vary, of course. Aggressive opacity as a literary strategy has never been much of a crowd pleaser, and there are occasionally points at which you wonder if Butler has any more of an idea than his characters about what exactly is going on. Lurking amid the obscurity, though, is a strange, intense vision of the world. The great pleasures of the novel are the moments —and there are many—when this vision rises unsuspected from the page and grips you by the throat.

04/13/11 4:00am
04/13/2011 4:00 AM |

The Pale King

David Foster Wallace

(Little, Brown)

A salient formal device David Foster Wallace used throughout his career was the onslaught of confusing details that slowly accrue and congeal and eventually reveal a well-planned and moving whole. He did this on both a micro and macro level; it was how individual stories and chapters might function and was also how his novel Infinite Jest functioned as a whole. In his introduction to Wallace’s unfinished novel The Pale King, editor Michael Pietsch suggests that the book would have worked similarly. As it is, King’s elements never quite congeal. You can feel it building narrative mass, but in a losing race against page-number. Pietsch points out that King has a “spine,” and it does, in a sense. Amid various narrative tidbits, it follows a group of IRS agents in Peoria, IL in the mid-1980s. But if you look at King as a novel, if you cling to the spine, it’s a disappointment. If, on the other hand, you look at King as a collection of notes, character sketches and short stories made from philosophical, psychological and moral ideas—look at it, in other words, as what is it—it’s quite fascinating.

The moral system of The Pale King is, by and large, the same one expressed throughout Wallace’s oeuvre, especially in his more recent interviews and appearances, and particularly in his Kenyon commencement speech from 2005. In fact, many of the situations and metaphors found in the Kenyon speech are reiterated in King. There’re the traffic jams and long lines posing the existential problem of being a self with others; the heat that could either be hell or the force of spiritual oneness; there’s even the cart with one wheel that pulls maddeningly to the left—every annoyance you can’t control.

And there are Wallace’s ideas about freedom. Freedom is volition and volition requires saying no to appetite. People who follow their appetites are like “a piece of paper on the street in the wind, thinking, ‘Now I think I’ll blow this way, now I think I’ll blow that way.'” If you live this way it’s like you’re “taking the train instead of actually driving yourself somewhere and having to know where you were and make decisions about where to turn.”

Awakening from this jumble requires some kind of awareness of your own doubleness; awareness of yourself as both subject and object. Too much a subject and you’re a solipsist; too much an object and you’re dissociated.

These issues of freedom through conscious action and consciousness through object-subject conciliation have serious philosophical precedents and influences that Wallace is working through. However, Wallace is not just concerned with abstract philosophical problems but with their peculiarly contemporary articulation. Which is what in part explains the setting of The Pale King.

If in Infinite Jest Wallace offered a diagnosis of a sick country, King offers something of an etiology. The cult of self-interest against which Wallace stakes his moral claims found a uniquely forceful iteration during the Reagan Revolution and is figured in the tax revolt. The IRS was at a complex intersection in the mid-80s; partly the civic conscience of the nation, it also started being run as a for-profit business. Wallace is keen to point out that Reagan used the IRS strategically, playing both sides. He publicly vilified taxes, but privately made the IRS more powerful and invasive so as to avoid raising taxes. When you abdicate your sense of duty, you need someone to force your hand. You become, in the words of Wallace, adolescent, “with a twin desire for both authoritarian structure and the end of 
parental hegemony.”

It’s with this twin desire that Americans looked to the anti-government government of Reagan Republicans and the anti-corporate corporations of post-60s pop culture. It’s pop culture, and modern culture in general, that was, and of course still is, habituating us to constant stimulation, which is used as a distraction from existential dread. And the contemporary manifestation of existential dread is boredom, which you’ve probably heard is what The Pale King is about, according to Wallace and others. You may have read the quote Wallace attached to the manuscript, which read: “Bliss—a second-by-second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious—lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom.” Just as pop culture habituates us to stimulation—distraction from our being—boredom, when pushed through by will, can habituate us to dealing with our being and dealing with it well.

I find all of this startling and insightful and brilliant and it sounds true. But like everyone, I’m skeptical of what sounds true. Beautiful lies can sound true. I want to know that truths can be sustained; that they not only determine the construction of but also somehow arise out of various complex situations. The Pale King frequently burrows deeply into the knotted particulars of experience; the book is all flashes of brilliance that burn brightly, but not for long enough. However true its truths, they’re not given form in a sustained performance.

The book is, finally, just a hint of what the world might look like if Wallace was still around to transfigure it for us. We’re 
lucky to have even that.