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

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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“In the Wagon” (“На подводе”), by Anton Chekhov

 

 Telega (Wagon, Cart) With Wounded Soldiers

[Note: the story has appeared in English translation under a variety of titles; I know of at least three: “The Schoolmistress” (Constance Garnett trans.), “A Journey by Cart” (Marian Fell) and “In the Cart” (Avrahm Yarmolinsky, the translation discussed by George Saunders in his book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain). My method, were I to be teaching this story in a course on Russian literature: I would read the original first, then compare translations, trying to pick the best one for my students to read. In quoting here from the story in English I use the Marian Fell translation, which appears in the Norton Critical Edition, Anton Chekhov’s Short Stories (edited by Ralph Matlaw). I have made slight changes in certain passages and have changed her title.]

The Structure of the Story, the Protagonist, the Venality, the “Slice of Life” Continue reading

Renato! by Eugene Mirabelli

Renato! (McPherson & Co, 577 pages) is a vast, rambling, delightful tale about the life and loves of Renato Stillamare, a once noted painter who mourns the decades-long dwindling of his reputation. He is also struck to the core by the loss of his wife, his near life-long love, and his complicated muse. The story is three previous novels merged through adroit craft into one. The first section offers the fantastic family origins in Renato’s mythic grandfather, a man half human and half horse. The second section is set a century later, covering the life of Renato, an aging painter wishing to reclaim his prominence in the art world. The third section follows Renato as he tries to revive his reputation and endure the scorching misery of widowerhood. Continue reading

The Feast of Love, by Charles Baxter

The Title, the Epigraph and the Prelude

Somebody gave me a copy of this book (Charles Baxter, The Feast of Love, Random House, 2000. Vintage paperback edition, 2001, 308 pp.). It lay about my house for a long time, the bright blues of the cover occasionally calling out to me, “Read me.” I resisted, probably because the title put me off. “The Feast of Love” promises a light read, maybe a melodrama, nothing serious. The book, however, turns out to be a wonderful piece of literary fiction.

Here’s the epigraph, from Samuel Beckett’s Molloy: “Yes, there were times when I forgot not only who I was, but that I was, forgot to be.” Is the novel that follows about forgetting to be? Not really. This book as a whole is about being, and all the messiness of being human in flesh. That epigraph misleads the reader into thinking he’s in for something resembling Kafka, and the “Preludes” part that comes next—first subheading under “Beginnings”—reinforces that expectation of the Kafkaesque. In the prelude the writer Charles Baxter—most people call him Charlie—wakes up in the middle of the night and “cannot remember or recognize myself . . . I can’t manage my way through this feeling because my mind isn’t working, and because it, the flesh in which I’m housed, hasn’t yet become me.” Continue reading