The Principle of Ultimate Indivisibility: A Web of Stories by Brent Robison


As a reader, my career has fallen off precipitously since my eyes went bad during a misspent late-innings career in adversarial journalism, peering directly into the radioactive maw of a circa 1998 Gateway CRT monitor for 18 hours a night, four nights a week. Much earlier, back when I was a long-distance commuter slouching daily into servitude in downtown Manhattan from various exurban hellholes, I would devour up to four novels a week on the train, trying to avoid conversation and making friends. Over the past few years, striving to get a handle on thriller plotting and structure, I listened to various incarnations of the ubiquitous “Homeland Security porn” genre (Alex Berenson, Vince Flynn, Lee Child, etc.) in the car, until the CD player went south. Now it’s podcasts and, with a new pair of reading glasses, the occasional book. Short stories, however, have almost never been on the menu. I am naturally attracted to long-form entertainment; the longer and more involved and loaded with digressions, the better. My brain does not like to stop and start, and instinctively resists efforts to reset for the next tale in a chain of literary non-sequiturs. I’m pretty sure the only compendiums of short stories I ever got through from start to finish were Kurt Vonnegut’s Welcome to the Monkey House and the five collections put out by Charles Bukowski, each segment of which was pretty much like every other piece of stream-of-consciousness lyrical rambling he ever wrote, including his “poetry.” I might have read a book of Poe’s stories back in elementary school, but that experience has been lost to the mists of approaching dementia, and is no help at all.

Thus I was under-prepared and nervously anticipating a case of low-attention-span anhedonia when I was asked to read and review the thirteen stories in Brent Robison’s The Principle of Ultimate Indivisibility: A Web of Stories (Bliss Pot Press, 194 pages). Continue reading

On Nikolai Gogol

There’s Gogol, and Then Again, There’s Gogol

Among others, Ivan Turgenev could not believe that The Inspector General, the greatest play in Russian literature and “one of the most subversive comedies ever to appear on stage,” was written by the same man who wrote the bloated and ingenuous sentences of the essays in Arabesques—and, later, the moralizing and preachy epistles, coruscating with derangement, in Selected Passages from Letters to Friends.

Of course, it was not the same man. The Gogol writing fiction was a genius, and that glorious fiction welled up from some genius of a neuron deep in his brain. The Gogol writing nonfiction was a sententious fool. As Karlinsky writes, “nonfictional Gogol is hard going: verbose, rhetorical, convoluted, and all too often beside the point.”

Gogol lived and wrote in the nineteenth century, but the most prominent theme of his fiction is a twentieth century theme: the illusory nature of all human identity. The man who wrote Gogol’s fiction is a twentieth century writer.
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Flights by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Jennifer Croft

“Every time the flight I’m on takes off. Or if I can hear a flight take off.” – From “Come As You Are,” in Harper’s “Readings,” April, 2019. From accounts of nonsexual orgasms documented in “Orgasm Range and Variability in Humans: A Content Analysis.” Study published in The International Journal of Sexual Health, November, 2018

Flights (Riverhead Books, 403 pages) is a fascinating, while quirky, eccentric book, often factual, non-fictional, often clearly fictional. The fiction is mixed in with the fact to the point that you sometimes cannot tell which is which. The ‘I’ narrator informs us early on that she

“started writing a book. It was a story for travelers, meant to be read on the train—what I would write for myself to read.” She continues as follows: “I was able to concentrate and became for some time a sort of gargantuan ear that listened to murmurs and echoes and whispers, far-off voices that filtered through the walls. But I never became a real writer . . . . In my writing, life would turn into incomplete stories, dreamlike tales, would show up from afar in odd dislocated panoramas, or in cross sections—and so it would be almost impossible to reach any conclusions as to the whole.” Continue reading

On Literary Fiction: Nabokov’s Influence on Updike

CARICATURES BY DAVID LEVINE

“Writing shows its influences by the contagion of rhythm and pacing more often than by exact imitation or ideas. We know that Updike read Nabokov in the nineteen-sixties by the sudden license Updike claims to unsubdue his prose, to make his sentences self-consciously exclamatory, rather than by an onset of chess playing or butterfly collecting.”

Adam Gopnik

U.R. Bowie

The Head & The Hand Press

The Head & The Hand, an independent cooperative press, opened a pop-up bookstore today in the Fishtown/East Kensington area of Philadelphia at 2644 Coral St. The community-focused bookstore will provide curated fiction and local lit and hopes to make it a permanent thing.

Nathaniel Popkin, a Dactyl Reviewer and author of Lion and Leopard , is part of The Head & The Hand press. Find out more, theheadandthehand.com

Milligan and Murphy by Jim Murdoch

I’ve always been fascinated by stories of doubles, twins, doppelgangers, minds and actions mirrored (perhaps as a reaction against the profound truth that each of us is utterly unique, and therefore alone). Jim Murdoch’s short novel, Milligan and Murphy (Fandango Virtual, 180 pages), is not really one of those stories, but it toys with the trope of twins who together make a single person. The half-brothers Milligan and Murphy (both named John!) are not twins but are enough alike that their non-twinness is just a technicality. Murphy, the firstborn, may be a shade more introspective, and Milligan a trifle more action-oriented, but essentially they are one mind, and the fact that they inhabit separate bodies is primarily a storytelling device. Without it, the extensive dialogues exploring their limited reality would become claustrophobic solipsism. Such is the reason for the respectable literary history of twins, brothers/sisters, bosom buddies, even the hero/sidekick construct: it works. Continue reading

On Literary Fiction: Flannery O’Connor

Wise Blood

Fifty years after its publication Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood is still quite the bizarre little book. “Its parts seem not to fit together. For a book about the defiance of God it is strangely sportive, at once seedy and shiny bright.”

Paul Elie, The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage

That “strangely sportive” can be applied to nearly all of Flannery O’Connor’s fiction. It lends to her stories their special little gleam.

“Good Country People”

O’Connor wrote one of her most famous and memorable tales, “Good Country People,” in only four days. The story practically wrote itself. A quote from O’Connor: “I didn’t know he [the bible salesman Manley Pointer] was going to steal that wooden leg until ten or twelve lines before he did it, but when I found out that this was what was going to happen, I realized that it was inevitable.”

O’Connor read Nikolai Gogol while she was a grad student in Iowa and admits to being influenced by him. You wonder how aware or unaware she was of the similarity between Manley Pointer, her gatherer of human dead souls, and Pavel Chichikov, wholesale buyer of dead souls in Gogol’s novel Dead Souls. Both characters are traveling rogues, in the employ of Satan. Manley is Chichikov’s little brother.

U.R. Bowie