J.M. Coetzee, The Master of Petersburg (Penguin Books, 1995, 250 pp.). First published in Great Britain in 1994.
Abbreviations used in this article: FM (Fyodor Mikhailovich [Dostoevsky], AG (Anna Grigorievna [Snitkina-Dostoevskaya], his wife), AS (Anna Sergeyevna, character in Coetzee’s novel), Master (The Master of Petersburg)
Note: Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky was born in 1821; the year 2021 marks the two-hundredth anniversary of his birth. Continue reading →
Long form art in any medium seems to be losing the battle of immediacy and a novel that demands its reader to devote oneself to be silent and exist has the odds stacked against it. With Rice’s novel Here Lies Memory (Black Scat Books, 316 pages), those who allow themselves to simply be will find a haunting beauty in the lives of the characters, in their pasts and within each carefully chosen word.
The first of an in-progress trilogy about his hometown of Pittsburgh, Here Lies Memory marks a departure for the often avant garde Rice towards a linear, traditional narrative structure though the characters are anything but traditional. Doug Rice studied under John Gardner and it seems the meticulous understanding of character Gardner used has found its place in Doug Rice’s novel. It is within these characters that the sanctity of memory is displayed and this can only be achieved if the writer truly knows and empathizes the very soul of the characters. Here Lies Memory focuses on a mix of multi-racial, multigenerational characters who remain stagnant and, for some, paralyzed by trauma and memory. Continue reading →
In the early pages of the W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, (Modern Library—Random House, 298 pages), in the year 1967, the narrator visits the Antwerp Nocturama. There he comes upon a woebegone raccoon who “sat beside a little stream with a serious expression on its face, washing the same piece of apple over and over again, as if it hoped that all this washing, which went far beyond any reasonable thoroughness, would help it to escape the unreal world in which it had arrived, so to speak, through no fault of its own.” Continue reading →
Timely literary fiction is uncommon. Stories deemed “topical” by major media outlets flicker at us as frantically as a strobe light. Literary fiction, in contrast, offers a slow burn. Lag times in the publishing industry exacerbate the situation. By the time a story ripped from the headlines reaches the reader, it can exude a whiff of old news, precisely because it’s been ripped from the headlines. Continue reading →
George Saunders, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, Random House paperback edition, 2016, 198 pp. Originally published in 1996.
Two Instances of Prevarication
On a Writer’s Acknowledgements Page
“I often marvel at the persona engendered by the influence of the form. The writer presents himself as one surrounded, cushioned, buoyed up by wonderful friends. He is, he says, ‘blessed,’ ‘in luck,’ ‘serene’ even in his obligations. Not a word on the acknowledgements page about grievances, or about offenses received and inflicted. Who would suspect a curmudgeon behind such handsome avowals? But perhaps this is what they are good for. By their virtue, ill-humor, rancor, resentments are temporarily purged, and the author is given a glimpse of the person he might have become, had he formed the habit of privately closing each day with such notations as are called for by the publishing of acknowledgements.” Leo Steinberg Continue reading →
Flash fiction has enjoyed a boom in recent years but sometimes overlooked are shorter prose forms which don’t respect the conventions of flash—e.g., at least an implied plot or hint of closure—in order seek out other literary effects. Thomas Walton’s All the Useless Things Are Mine: A Book of Seventeens (Sagging Meniscus, 138 pages) is an intriguing entry into this field. It is both experimental, in the sense that there isn’t really a label for the genre, and traditional, for it deploys aphorism and image in a manner which is readily accessible, despite its peculiarity.
The author calls the pieces in this collection “seventeens” because each freestanding entry is composed of exactly seventeen words. A few pieces are titled, but most are not, and the book is arranged in 26 chapters with titles like “Animal Sketches,” “Art Criticism” and “Birdsong.” The fixation on seventeen words recalls the haiku form, which in its English rendering is typically composed of seventeen syllables in three lines. Here, though, instead of relying on poetry techniques like line breaks or rhythm assisted by white space on the page, Walton opts for a “prosier” approach, working with short, punchy sentences. Continue reading →
“The Grim Reaper visits Florida wearing a silly tie. One man’s life is done…or is it? What happens if you subvert the cosmic order?”
Dactyl Review friends at The Strange Recital have released another great podcast. Head on over there and listen to U. R. Bowie read from his recent collection of short stories. Stay tuned for an interview at the end of the recording.
In the last several years I have developed a steep impatience with contemporary fiction. Before I opened M. Conway Dorsey’s debut novel, Lower Reaches of the River (Adelaide Books, 172 pages), it had been quite some time since I had even finished a novel without putting it down in a fit of mistrust and frustration. After I read the last sentence, I thought hard about why Lower Reaches had not incited me; why it kept my attention. I decided, finally, that there were two cardinal reasons.
Before I get to these, let me first open a brief parenthesis to summarize the story. Dorsey’s novel opens deep in the marshlands of the Southern US, where a lost people live, a population of dislocated souls dwelling on a floating village of lashed-together boats and rafts, an almost organic construct, mazed with passageways. This ad hoc archipelago, Camptown, is a secret waystation for the forgotten and disconsolate, run jointly by three people: the local sheriff, barroom owner Early Watts, and oilman Nolan Flynn. Camptown is, on the surface, a charitable organization that helps the wayward start new lives. Continue reading →
In an interview that she gave some fifty years after the fact, Marina Oswald Porter is still puzzling over the whole business. What happened, how and why, and by whom was it made to happen? She isn’t sure she knows even the least thing about the man she married in the USSR and lived with, bore two children with. The interviewer asked her what question she would ask Lee, were he to return somehow miraculously from the dead. She said, “I’d ask him, Who are you?”
Scads of books have been published since November 22, 1963, all trying to answer questions that arose on that date. In fact, interlarded with the story of Lee Oswald and the assassination of President Kennedy in Libra (NAL/Penguin, 1989, 456 pages) is the tale of a researcher, Nicholas Branch. This fictional character is a retired senior analyst of the CIA, “hired on contract to write the secret history of the assassination.” We first meet him on page 15, and already he is overwhelmed by facts, fictions and factions. “Sometimes he looks around him, horrified by the weight of it all, the career of paper. He sits in the data-spew of hundreds of lives. There’s no end in sight.” Continue reading →
“Once after dinner, as we sat in front of the television watching an Adventures of Superman rerun, I asked, ‘Was my father handsome?’
She replied, ‘Some might say yes.’
‘Was he smart?’ I asked.
She stared at the television. ‘Why is it that after all the bullets have bounced off Superman’s chest, he then ducks when the villain throws the empty gun at him?’
I looked at the television and wondered, knowing also that my quest for some detail about my history had been again thwarted, albeit with a very good question. I never pressed terribly hard, thinking that someday the story would surface, but then she died.”
I’ve quoted this out-of-context gem to give you a taste and because it made me laugh the first time I read this brilliant book about a boy who is named “Not Sidney Poitier” although he is the spitting image of a young Poitier. I laughed while I moaned. This is serious and hilarious stuff.
However a year after my first reading, when I read this book for a second time, I had a different experience. I hardly laughed at all for the first half (second half is funnier). Instead I was moved by the pain. Continue reading →