Believe the Blurbers
Dead Souls (A Novel by Sam Riviere, NY: Catapult, 2021, 289 pp.) is a rare example of a book containing believable blurbs. This wild gallimaufry of a novel, which runs a monologue through almost three hundred pages of text, without pauses for paragraphs or new chapters, is a tour de force of literary mania. Reviewers have pointed to possible influences: Roberto Bolaño, Georges Perec, Thomas Bernhard, Italo Calvino. One blurber, Nicolette Polek, describes the novel as “a rare and brilliant pleasure, a coiling, searing fugue of a book that takes our deranged culture and pulls forth from it a box of stars.” She’s right. Or, to put it in the fully neutered style in which the book is written, they are right.
There are chapters of sorts, but you have to figure them out yourself. In the front matter the author provides a kind of contents page—not labeled as such—listing names of characters as names of chapters, along with the pages where they start. Begin with an introductory chapter (not listed in these “contents”), then go, first, to “Zariyah Zhadan,” p. 32: this is, presumably, Chapter One. Proceed from there, filling in the chapter numbers beside the given name and page number. Chapter Six comprises two named characters. We end up with “The Scholastici,” p. 253, which is the last of twelve chapters. Continue reading →
Where is Eugene K. Garber now? Some years ago he distinguished himself as a writer of dazzling short stories, many of them with an experimental edge. His Metaphysical Tales won the Associated Writing Programs annual prize for short stories, and a later work, The Historian, took the William Goyen Prize for fiction. Those two books, a dozen years apart, established Garber as an intellectual fabulist, a dazzling juggler of narrative devices, a witty and self-conscious artist with a subversive vision.
Joyce Carol Oates wrote a brief foreword to Metaphysical Tales which sounded more like a warning to readers than an introduction. After remarking on the author’s “extraordinary skill and vision” she wrote, “Garber is also stubborn, eccentric, self-conscious, and so willfully dazzling -– to be a virtuoso, or to be nothing! — that readers must be enjoined not to attempt to read this volume straight through, or even to read more than one story at a time.” And she concluded with, “Like all gifted writers, Eugene K. Garber is not to be understood – or loved – too quickly.” Clearly, that brainy Garber guy was some kind of card sharp, but with words. 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 →
Seven Cries of Delight (Recital Publishing, 170 pages) is not like most collections of literary short stories. As legions of MFA students busily workshop their childhood drama into market-friendly “realistic” fiction, Tom Newton has clearly been following a different muse. These stories (two dozen of them!) range widely in setting and imagery and allusion, but all are hung on a solid spine: a lively curiosity about the deeper, invisible nature of what we call reality. This curiosity is expressed as speculative imaginings and unharnessed mental rovings, with an articulate, wryly humorous voice that obviously springs from a well-traveled and well-read intellect. At every turn are enjoyable discoveries of unlikely connections, unpredictable logic, and unanswerable questions.
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Victor Fet, a colleague with whom I have shared adventures in art and science, offers Alice and the Time Machine (Evertype, 134 pages, illustrated by Byron W. Sewell) on the 150 anniversary of the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and the birth of H.G. Wells. The novella brings together Alice Liddell, Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll), John Dalton (of atomic theory fame), Charles Darwin, Francis Galton (Darwin’s half-cousin) and Wells, who arrives in Darwin’s time of 1862 from 1892 via a time machine. Together they determine that Alice’s mad tale is actually a message from the future, warning them of coming chaos, bloody wars, catastrophic pollution and tyranny. They form the Time Corps and use the time machine to contact scientists past and future to enlist their aid to try to change the world for the better. As they do their work, they notice changes in their own time. At the beginning of the tale, Wells is a nobody but becomes a famous science-fiction author while the other Wells fades in his memory as if a dream. Continue reading →
How should we suppose poor Isaac felt — son of a father all-too-willing to sacrifice him at the suggestion of some voice in his head? Christians are wont to overlook the obvious horror and absurdity of the Biblical tale. According to some (less awful) Jewish interpretations of events, it was perhaps Satan, as an agent of God, who spoke to Abraham, which would make more sense to those who imagine God to be not quite so sadistic. Either way though, what kind of man would this traumatized son become? In Isaac: A Modern Fable (Permanent, 223 pages), Ivan G. Goldman has arranged it so that Isaac, after the mishap at the altar, has been granted the gift of eternal youth. The identity of benefactor is not clear; the gift may be from Satan or from Jehovah. Isaac himself has never been able to decide, as his immortality and eternal youth often seem to him like a curse.
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Ted Williams once said that the hardest thing in the world was to hit a baseball with a bat. The second hardest thing, he continued, was to throw baseball where a batter couldn’t hit it with a bat.
Williams might have added that the third hardest thing to do is to write an original novel about baseball. Oh, it’s been done. But for every home run such as Ron Hays’ The Dixie Association or Ray Kinsella’s Field of Dreams, for every Bull Durham and The Natural, for every book by Ring Lardner, Jim Bouton and Lawrence Ritter, there are volumes of strikeouts. Continue reading →
Gifted chronicler of American life, Jonathan Franzen offers a rather quiet plot in The Corrections (FSG, 568 pages), which follows the lives of the Lambert family headed by Enid and Alfred, typical Midwestern parents, whose children have scattered, eager to find their own definitions of happiness. The oldest, Gary, is a money manager, an asshole son, whose inner workings are described with surprising compassion; the middle son, Chip, is a lecherous and pretentious academic who’s just lost his position and his girlfriend and is working on an autobiographical screenplay that betrays a dreadful lack of self-awareness; the youngest, daughter Denise, is a talented chef who keeps throwing herself into undesirable relationships. Will they succeed? Is the aging patriarch going completely mad? And why is Alfred such an unhappy old man? Will Enid get all her children to come home for one last Christmas together?
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It starts in adolescence. The questions come to you while lying in bed (certainly now with a growing awareness of your sexuality), the walls of your room expanding into endless grainy darkness, as if the room itself could encompass the entire world: why am I here, why is there anything at all?
The questions may haunt you at age 13 or 15 or 17, but by adulthood they tend to feel banal. Unanswerable, impossible, if taken seriously debilitating, they are in a word blinding, and so you tend to avert your gaze. But suppose you can’t, suppose the inviolable white light only draws you closer, to madness possibly, to paint or write or drink or pray (to what God, tell me?) almost certainly. And so perhaps you scribble, the pages of your notebooks filling with furious script, like eons of sediment piling into sad mute mountains no one else will ever excavate or carve or climb. Continue reading →
This wry, touching novel, The Grievers (The Permanent Press, 175 pages), takes an intelligent look at the meaning of friendship, a distinctly pertinent topic in an age when “friend” and “unfriend” are ubiquitous verbs referring mostly to people we’ve never met. It’s a novel of ideas that also dares to be funny, a dangerous strategy when so many critics see humor as a crime against literature. After all, doesn’t serious writing demand uncompromising hopelessness and despair? Continue reading →