Forgotten Night by Rebecca Goodman

In Rebecca Goodman’s novel Forgotten Night (Spuyten Duyvil, 296 pages) the unnamed narrator–we will call her N hereafter–is searching desperately but determinedly for a Madame Brissac. The reader is immediately enlisted in the search and will never leave N’s side, not even after putting the novel down. The night of the title may be forgotten, but this novel will remain forever in memory, a touchstone whenever World War I or the Holocaust is recalled.

N is one of those people you are irresistibly drawn to but are wary of. You are afraid for her. She knows that she’s looking for Madame Brissac, a name that has come to her from her grandfather Joseph’s tattered diary of WWI. But N is not an adept seeker, inquiring here and there, assailed by distractions, often in the form of artists of dubious motives. Nor is it clear in the beginning exactly what she hopes to learn from Madame Brissac. Who is Madame Brissac anyway? She would be a descendant of a fellow youth N’s grandfather encountered in 1907 in flight from Romania, where a peasant uprising focused its hatred on Jews. Does N find Madame Brissac? That is for each reader to decide, because Madame Brissac is not merely a person. She is the bearer of N’s hope that out of the senseless carnage of WWI and the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust some meaning will emerge.

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Dead Souls by Sam Riviere

Believe the Blurbers

Dead Souls (A Novel by Sam Riviere, NY: Catapult, 2021, 289 pp.) is a rare example of a book containing believable blurbs. This wild gallimaufry of a novel, which runs a monologue through almost three hundred pages of text, without pauses for paragraphs or new chapters, is a tour de force of literary mania. Reviewers have pointed to possible influences: Roberto Bolaño, Georges Perec, Thomas Bernhard, Italo Calvino. One blurber, Nicolette Polek, describes the novel as “a rare and brilliant pleasure, a coiling, searing fugue of a book that takes our deranged culture and pulls forth from it a box of stars.” She’s right. Or, to put it in the fully neutered style in which the book is written, they are right.

There are chapters of sorts, but you have to figure them out yourself. In the front matter the author provides a kind of contents page—not labeled as such—listing names of characters as names of chapters, along with the pages where they start. Begin with an introductory chapter (not listed in these “contents”), then go, first, to “Zariyah Zhadan,” p. 32: this is, presumably, Chapter One. Proceed from there, filling in the chapter numbers beside the given name and page number. Chapter Six comprises two named characters. We end up with “The Scholastici,” p. 253, which is the last of twelve chapters. Continue reading

Hiking Underground by Amy Smiley

In Hiking Underground (Atmosphere Press, 203 pages), three urban naturalists explore the relationship between art and reality in episodic reveries about nature. Although the narratives ostensibly take place mostly in parks in Manhattan and Maine, the real action is in the minds of the characters as they explore the great outdoors and grow as artists and as individuals.

It worked, thematically, for me to think of the three main characters, Adam, Alice and Emma, as the same person at different stages of development. In the story, Adam is Emma’s six-year-old son; Alice is Emma’s student and Adam’s babysitter; Emma is a professional artist and a teacher. The book is divided into sections dedicated to each one of them in turn, although the focal point does visit different perspectives within each section. Adam’s sections are a portrait of the artist as a young child; Alice’s are of the artist as a student, whose emotional memories need resurrecting; Emma’s are of the consummate artist who is satisfied with her creations and begins the body of work that unites her past with her future. Continue reading

MacLeish Sq. by Dennis Must

Edward Said, writing about Beethoven’s late style, defined late style as that time wherein the artist freed from the expected cultural and historical restraints of form and content unleashes a newness that both confounds and instructs. Dennis Must has achieved that hour of newness in MacLeish Sq (Red Hen Press, 209 pages). With its visual complexities coupled to broad-ranging literary interconnections, Must’s writing raises the text to a “beyond” state where the readers have to let go of what they know. The readers must accept that their own hidden stories have been eclipsed and take this writing on its own without any pre-conceived notions of what “a novel” is or should be. Roland Barthes, now out of fashion to the post-post modern mind, wrote in his essays–Degrée zéro de l’écriture–that there are two kinds of writers which he called “l’écrivain and l’écrivant.” Must, in MacLeish Sq., brings us a third iteration of writer as his work approaches mythic status in which time, character, past, present, alive, dead—just a few of the literary polarities inhabiting this writing—interact at a level no reader can accept without relinquishing his/her own sense of person and being. Interweaving Dante, Melville, Hawthorne, Pirandello into a single narrative that seizes the essence of each, isn’t a style most readers will be comfortable with. Here, however, Must puts them together with such skill that the author lives on par with the masters. It will take an honest reader to admit–I have never read anything like this.

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Ponckhockie Union by Brent Robison

Ponckhockie Union (Recital Publishing, 208 pages) is a novel for the connoisseur of the uncanny. The story is about Ben Rose, a documentary filmmaker, who stumbles into a vortex of metaphysical uncertainties when trying to make a film about a Revolutionary War historical site. He is estranged from his wife, doubtful about his future prospects, and vulnerable to having his bedrock assumptions upended. The more Ben grasps, the less stable his life is. The tipping point in the narrative comes when Ben encounters – or encounters again – a lying sociopath who may or may not be an assassin and may or may not get murdered. Ben is held hostage in a cellar for two weeks before escaping, realizing only too late that the way out had been available all along.

I don’t want to let the cat out of the bag with too much detail, but the narrative seesawing is on par with Kafka or Borges. Once certainty is asserted, it is as quickly diminished. Add to that a dollop of paranoia a la Philip K. Dick, and you get the drift. If there is a cat to be let out of the bag, it is Schroedinger’s.

The overall atmosphere is of a thriller. An intense thriller. The notes of ominous transformations are quietly sounded in the introduction of the sociopath calling himself Les Spanda:

He gave me a wide grin and reached out a broad meaty hand. As I shook it, a vague sensation began to dawn in me that I had met this man before. I couldn’t grasp any specific memory, so I just thanked him, and walked back to my car.

Later, we learn that “spanda” is a Sanskrit word meaning divine vibration or pulse inseparable from being, a cosmic expansion, and contraction. Breathe in. Breathe out. Now hold your breath, and keep holding, holding, holding. That’s the mood Robison seems to be after. Continue reading

Don’t Look at Me, by Charles Holdefer

Go big or go home. In his new novel Don’t Look at Me (Sagging Meniscus Press, 282 Pages), author Charles Holdefer chooses to go big.

At the center of Don’t Look at Me is a young woman sidelined from a promising college basketball career by a nasty leg injury. Her name is Holly Winegarten, and she is six-foot-nine inches tall. Holly is never described as a giant and doesn’t suffer from the deadly ills immense size brings. Still, her height makes her unusual, painfully so.

After casting around for a personal direction post-accident, Holly discovers solace in an unexpected place, literature. Great language offers the self-conscious woman a much-longed-for way to diminish the isolation that accompanies her physical stature. Continue reading

The Berserkers by Vic Peterson

Prominent on the lists of popular commercial fiction and television today is a category called “Scandi-Noir” or “Nordic Noir,” characterized by a police point of view, plain language, bleak landscapes, a dark and morally complex mood, and murder, of course. As I began Vic Peterson’s novel The Berserkers (Hawkwood Books, 240 pages), I was anticipating exactly that sort of genre experience. The first chapter, depicting a crime scene investigation on a frozen lake, did not begin to alter my expectations until its final two paragraphs:

“A pale tangle lay beside the hole the girl had been sunk in. It then dawned on me that the pale tangle was the girl. Her body lay sprawled on top of the ice, displaced by the minor tsunami of the sinking car, and ejected from the ice like the cork from a champagne bottle. Her clothes spread about her in wet snarls lurid under the dim sun, a cape and corset and stockings.

The girl’s pallor was blue and ruinous. My jaw slackened. I tried to utter some words, any words, whether of shock, wisdom, or warning. No sound emanated from my lips. For a pair of large wings had begun unfolding around the corpse, beautiful, wispy, shivering with each gust like the pinfeathers of a hatchling drying in the dying light.”

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Three Days by the Sea by Helen E. Mundler

My initial response when I started to read Helen Mundler’s Three Days by the Sea (Holland House Books, 300 pages) was “Yes, we need more of this.” In addition to the interest of the story, the book serves as a reminder of the strengths of literary realism, at a time when for many readers, journalism and nonfiction have replaced the novel as a chronicle of lived experience.

This situation is the product of a changing culture but it’s also, I think, the fault of many novelists, who too often settle for what I’ve come to think of as “weather report realism.” In these novels, Plot X or Y occurs against a backdrop of dutiful descriptions of everyday life, a supposedly reliable accounting of facial expressions, brand names and what the weather was like that day.

Of course life is full of facial expressions and brand names and weather, but verisimilitude is not an end in itself. Saying as much is nothing new. Surely it’s what Willa Cather had in mind when she defended the novel démeublé. As a masterful realistic writer, she knew the risks of her chosen mode. An artist can faithfully render how life appears while neglecting how it feels. “How wonderful,” Cather observed, “it would be if we could throw all the furniture out of the window.” Continue reading

In the Field by Rachel Pastan

Literary fiction about science remains an exception. When C.P. Snow voiced concern in 1959 about “Two Cultures” in reference to the growing gap between science and the arts, it created a stir. Nowadays, no one would debate the notion. It has hardened into fact.

Often, when literary fiction tries to engage with science, it tends toward speculative writing. For instance, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go or Ian McEwan’s Solar or any of a number of Richard Powers’ novels. They show a hypothetical present or future and ask: “What if?Continue reading

Commentary on Analysis by George Saunders of Story by Anton Chekhov


“In the Cart” (Yarmolinsy Translation)

From the book by George Saunders, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain

Note: I taught Russian literature in a university for thirty years. Naturally, I was intrigued when the short-story writer George Saunders published a book detailing how he teaches Russian stories in his creative writing classes at Syracuse University. Among those stories are two by Anton Chekhov that I once taught (“The Darling” and “Gooseberries”) and one by Nikolai Gogol (“The Nose”).

I decided that before looking at the Saunders commentary I would publish my own critical remarks on each story. The result would be an interesting contrast: material as presented by a teacher of Russian literature versus material as presented by a teacher of creative writing. The first story treated by Saunders is Anton Chekhov’s “In the Cart.” I have already posted my critical analysis of that story on my blog, “U.R. Bowie on Russian Literature” and on Dactyl Review. What follows below is my commentary on how George Saunders approaches the story.

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