Andrew’s Brain (Random House, 244 pages), by E. L. Doctorow, is the narrative of a brain whose content has been digitized, whose DNA code has been cracked, and which now resides in a vat or has been uploaded to a computer at some Bush-era detention or torture site, unaware that he is no longer embodied, believing himself to be telling his story to a therapist (who, Andrew suspects, may be CIA), sometimes imagining himself to be elsewhere, writing to or phoning his therapist, sometimes visiting his office, but never realizing that he, like any human perhaps, has no true self-awareness because a brain cannot objectively know itself. Continue reading
“I was pleased to discover in myself an uncanny knack for interpreting the hermetic language of alchemy, as if my book learning had been but a preparation for decrypting enigmatic texts, reading meaning into that which, on the surface, seemed meaningless.”
So says the unnamed narrator of Charles Davis’ The Pilgrim of Love: a ludibrium, an obsessively researched and elaborately plotted parody of an historical romance. (Parody, as I understand the term, is best written by an author who actually loves his target, but who can put some ironic distance between himself and his subject.) The story is set in the abbey of the legendary Mont Michel in 1621, when the absence of roadway access meant visiting pilgrims had to make their way around quicksand between dangerously unpredictable tides. The landscape always plays an important and often symbolic role in Davis’ novels. The pilgrims must interpret the patterns in the sand to avoid sinking in the lise. Continue reading
“Someone had to die for Hal Nickerson to live in the house that he and his wife Jodie bought for a song seven years ago.” So begins this dry-toned, cool, and detached novel Dismantle The Sun (Booktrope Editions, 324 pages) with a line and a sentiment that prove to be something of a mantra for its main protagonist and a lynchpin refrain for the narrative arc. In the world of nature — in the world of man — something has to die for something else to live. Some persons — the Nickersons — include this in their ample proof of the non-existence of a beneficent Creator, while others — the fundamentalists — attribute the state of the cosmos to original and ongoing sin. Both take it all very personally. Hal Nickerson’s atheism in conjunction with that of his wife informs all of his sensibility while providing a certain distance from the most basic issues of life and death, love and hatred. Continue reading
How do the powers that bring aid to displaced and starving people spread over a vast continent? The answer is in ways that don’t meet their true needs because these have long been either erased by or made irrelevant to the imperial incursions, power grabs, and internecine intrigues that go hand-in-hand with the delivery of the aid itself. The immediate merit of N. Caraway’s The Humanitarian (E-Publications, 239 pages) is that it doesn’t dwell upon the depredations that are in play and that any informed reader will bring to the book. The horrors that continue on the African continent are well known and provide for much of our daily news consumption. As of his last writing, one of the locales remains a United Nations no-go zone.
Before I begin this review, let me first recommend to anyone whom it persuades to read The Sea Trials of an Unfortunate Sailor (Amazon,198 pages), that after doing so they further benefit themselves by looking again at their copy of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, Sailor that I shall, however, quote from extensively. Kurt Brindley’s accomplishment should come into even greater focus when looked at through the lens of the nineteenth-century classic novel. Continue reading
In Vox Populi: A Novel of Everyday Life (Texas Review Press, 211 pages) an unnamed narrator endures various brief encounters with strangers while out on errands—waiting for, paying for, or ordering something. Clay Reynolds must have been keeping a journal for years because his little tales ring true in their preposterousness. Truth is stranger than fiction. It is hard to believe people can be so rude, so tactless, so pushy, so dumb, and yet people are. Usually the unrelated event described in each chapter involves some implausibly insensitive and very loud person disrupting the normal course of humdrum business with performances that are as outrageous as they are unfortunately common. We’ve all have been shocked and appalled to witness such scenes in our own daily lives, and once home we say to our spouses, You’ll never believe what this crazy lady did at the grocery store, etc. Continue reading
As the twenty-fist century accelerates toward a new low point in modern political history, eighty-five people possess about forty percent of the world’s wealth (that’s not a typo),* second- and third-generation war-terrorized children are born to benumbed, dehumanized parents, and most news reports would probably seem horribly unreal to even Bradbury and Orwell.
One may ask, What does twenty-first century art have to say about all this? We’ve heard from activists, a few courageous whistle-blowers; we’ve seen Hollywood thrillers with at least one Cheney-like character snarling with glee as he slaughters the hopes of yet another welfare mom. But where is the nuanced rendering of this story about the death of democracy?
Because we were unable to give awards in 2011 and 2012, due to lack of qualifying entries, we decided to give two awards in 2013. The first award goes to The Double Life of Alfred Buber by David Schmahmann, which was reviewed by top DR reviewer Charles Holdefer. The second award goes to Cocoa Almond Darling by Jeffra Hays, which was reviewed by Peter Bollington, also a top DR reviewer, and VN Alexander, DR editor. Both authors receive a $1000 prize. Congratulations to David and Jeffra for their fine work.
Coetzee’s novel of Dostoevsky (The Master of Petersburg, Penguin Books, 250 pages) is a mysterious portrait of the artist surrounding his The Possessed. Suppose a preliminary to Dostoevsky’s demons story could extend it via a narrative featuring the great author himself. Coetzee’s portrayal is that novel. Dostoevsky becomes a half-fiction in this role, somewhat real and somewhat false. Does that matter? It’s not easy to answer. As protagonist-novelist, Dostoevsky’s most important function for Coetzee might be as guide and exemplar, somewhat disheveled and brooding into our own age. Continue reading
As cruel as the world itself.
If a Man be Mad (Permabooks, 156 pages)…there couldn’t have been a more appropriate title for this gem hidden amidst the American literature. Walker Winslow, writing as Harold Maine, had written this fascinating book while living in Big Sur, at a time when other great writers, such as Henry Miller resided nearby. Whether it was Winslow’s gift or the proximity of some of the greatest in modern American literature, Mr. Winslow has achieved what only but a few writers are capable of. He shook my world. Continue reading