CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, by George Saunders

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

All the Useless Things Are Mine: A Book of Seventeens by Thomas Walton

WaltonFlash 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

Such is the Scent of Our Sweet Opalescence, read by the author, U.R. Bowie

“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.

Lower Reaches of the River, by M. Conway Dorsey

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

Libra, by Don DeLillo

WHO ARE YOU?

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

I Am Not Sidney Poitier by Percival Everett

“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

Seven Cries of Delight by Tom Newton wins 2019 Dactyl Foundation Literary Award

Newton’s collection of surreal stories, Seven Cries of Delight (Recital Publishing, 170 pages) was nominated by Brent Robison who, in his review, writes, “As legions of MFA students busily workshop their childhood drama into market-friendly ‘realistic’ fiction, Tom Newton has clearly been following a different muse.” At Dactyl Review we value unique and eccentric talent and our readers will find those few authors writing today who aren’t trying to appeal to the most common of those dominating the market. Newton appeals to a special literary taste, to those whose minds tend to wander, who question the act of thinking itself and who often catch themselves in the act, examining the form and structure of the process of meaning-making. In short, Newton writes about thought-art. Continue reading

Nutshell, by Ian McEwan

Freud’s repressed realm of bitter little embryos, spying from their natural nooks, upon the love life of their parents. Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory

There’s the epigraph to my article, and maybe the spark that later ignited in Ian McEwan’s brain; here’s the epigraph (from Hamlet) to Nutshell: “Oh, God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space—were it not that I have bad dreams.”

A Teller of the Tale, Who Is Striving To Be

Ian McEwan specializes in great beginnings and great endings to his fictions. Who has ever written a better bravura opening then this one to Nutshell, Random House, 2016, 197 pp: “So here I am, upside down in a woman. Arms patiently crossed, waiting, waiting and wondering who I’m in, what I’m in for. My eyes close nostalgically when I remember how I once drifted in my translucent body bag, floated dreamily in the bubble of my thoughts through my private ocean in slow-motion somersaults, colliding gently against the transparent bounds of my confinement, the confiding membrane that vibrated with, even as muffled, the voices of conspirators in a vile enterprise. That was in my careless youth. Now, fully inverted, not an inch of space to myself, knees crammed against my belly, my thoughts as well as my head are fully engaged. I’ve no choice, my ear is pressed all day and night against the bloody walls. I listen, make mental notes, and I’m troubled. I’m hearing pillow talk of deadly intent and I’m terrified by what awaits me, by what might draw me in.”

Okay, so we have a fetus narrating the story, and this is a fully conscious and articulate fetus, one, furthermore, who has vast knowledge of the world out there before he—if he is a ‘he’—is even in it. His many observations on the twenty-first century realm awaiting his entry are astute, perspicacious, worthy of his creator—who, obviously, has lent his narrator his own perspicacity, education, wit, vocabulary. The fetus is unnamed. For purposes of this review we can call him FN (fetus narrator). FN is very close to full term, about to be born, almost a babe in arms. His parents, father, mother, stepfather (uncle) have apparently given no consideration to what “it” (they call him “it”) will be called. Continue reading

Elle by Douglas Glover

I read Douglas Glover’s novel Elle (Goose Lane Editions, 226 pages) when it came out in 2003, and over the years I’ve continued, now and again, to read a few pages at random. It’s an excellent book – it won Canada’s prestigious Governor General’s Award – with a remarkable narrator heroine and a curious plot, but I go back to it simply because I enjoy the story teller’s voice. The novel is based on an actual event in Canada’s history when a French noblewoman was abandoned on the Isle of Demons in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in 1542.

The history is simple. In 1541 Jean-François de La Rocque de Roberval, a nobleman privateer, was made Lieutenant General of New France. He set sail from the old to the New France that same year and along with him and the other colonists in his charge he had his cousin, or maybe it was his niece or his sister – the record is confused – but in any case she was Marguerite de La Rocque de Roberval. For some unknown reason Lieutenant General Roberval became infuriated with Marguerite and as the ship entered the Gulf of St. Lawrence he had Marguerite, plus her lover and her maidservant, put ashore on a small unpopulated island, providing them with scant hunting and fishing gear. A few years later Marguerite was rescued by Basque fishermen and by then her lover and an infant whom Marguerite had given birth to had died, as had the maidservant. Continue reading

Enduring Love, by Ian McEwan

THE BRAVURA BEGINNING

The beginning of this novel (Random House, 262 pages), pervaded, as one reviewer writes, with “dazzling cinematic bravura,” is worth citing at some length. The protagonist Joe Rose, a science writer, and his wife Clarissa Mellon—a university professor who has just returned to London from the U.S., where she was doing research on the poet John Keats—are about to have a picnic.

“This was the moment, this was the pinprick on the time map: I was stretching out my hand [for the bottle of wine], and as the cool neck and the black foil touched my palm, we heard a man’s shout. We turned to look across the field and saw the danger. Next thing, I was running toward it. The transformation was absolute: I don’t recall dropping the corkscrew, or getting to my feet, or making a decision, or hearing the caution Clarissa called after me. What idiocy, to be racing into this story and its labyrinths, sprinting away from our happiness among the fresh spring grasses by the oak. There was the shout again, and a child’s cry, enfeebled by the wind that roared in the tall trees along the hedgerows. I ran faster. And there, suddenly, from different points around the field, four other men were converging on the scene, running like me. Continue reading