Published in 1967, Ice (Peter Owen, 158 pages) is a harrowing, oblique, beautiful novel increasingly viewed as a modern classic on par with1984 and Brave New World. Kavan creates a world overrun by vast ice sheets caused by nuclear winter. The anti-hero narrator, a man obsessed with a frail, stunning young woman, chronicles the doom he foresees for his world and the girl who is the object of his fascination. Kavan’s prose swerves breathtakingly from the delicate and the brutal.
Ice shifts between bleak realism and a haunted panorama of psychological terrors. The plot is episodic, evading conventional patterns. None of the characters has a name or is “likable” or “relatable,” as the current jargon has it; but do not read Kavan for those ends. Lyric mastery and a tone of brooding psychic disturbance are the bedrock of the novel, a startling penetration of beauty couched within doom. Continue reading
In Martin Amis’ The Zone of Interest (2014), set in a Nazi death camp, the Commander, Paul Doll, has his wife, Hannah, and two daughters living with him in the “zone,” where the smell of rotting flesh from the mass graves functions as a persistent clue that things have gone very, very wrong in the world.
How did the German civilians go about their lives and continue to be human beings in such an atmosphere? That’s the question that must have compelled Amis to write this novel. While no sane person can fully imagine the answer to that question, Amis creates a few plausible stories that people might have told themselves. Continue reading
What made Orwell’s 1984 a classic? The language of this high-school required reading isn’t particularly memorable, with the obvious exception of phrases like, “war is peace,” and “ignorance is strength.” The plot swings rustily on an ill-fated romance in the first part. The lovers, Winston and Julia, are unlikable, one-dimensional, selfish anybodies. In the second part, Winston’s torturer O’Brien, like Milton’s Satan, steals the literary stage for a bit, but, even so, his evil nature lacks style, compared to, say, Medea or the Judge. Remarkably, however, I will say, that, as tragedies go, 1984 pulls its hero down lower than any Greek drama or Cormac McCarthy novel that I can think of. Winston Smith ends in total dehumanization when he accepts Big Brother into his heart as his savior.
It may be the bleakest book.
What made the book so popular—beyond its utility to American Cold War propagandists targeting Soviets—is that the literary naturalism brought the imagined surveillance state into reality. The gritty dismal future was made concrete and literal. Fully realized fear powerfully attracts readers. This is your future. Here we are. Continue reading
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
Deep oppression pervades Brian Booker’s collection of seven stories Are You Here for What I’m Here For? (Bellevue Literary Press, 256 pages). The mood is confining, suffocating, maddening, the writing evocative of a heart pulsing beneath the floorboards of a cabin far from anywhere. Booker awakens—allays—awakens—allays—and awakens again profound tensions: Something is wrong. Everything is ok. But something is wrong.
Prepare to contend with psychic turmoil, ordinary figures sick in unusual ways: “…The bus didn’t come and Francie caught a chill. Then she got sick, lost her legs; they burned her toys in the backyard. She ended up in that school for damaged children, sweet Francie among the mongoloids and midgets…” Continue reading
Tokyo, 1994. Japan is now well into what observers will later call the “lost decade,” a downward spiral triggered by the Japanese central bank’s bursting the speculative bubble of the 1980s. The seemingly inviolable climb of the Japanese economy—and society—has reversed.
Triangle, the 2001 novel by the respected Japanese writer Hisaki Matsuura released in its first English edition by Dalkey Archive Press (233 pages) this month, is an attempt to transform the Japanese downward spiral into a metaphysical thriller. But novels—even literary ones—based on conceptual ideas rarely work. Continue reading
Death is always bearing down in Dennis Must’s somber, disquieting novel, The World’s Smallest Bible (Red Hen Press, 232 pages). Death knocks on the window above the bed shared by brothers Ethan and Jeremiah Meuller in the small town of Hebron, in north central Pennsylvania; death is in the hand-me-downs they receive as gifts from the parents of soldiers who have just been killed in World War II; death brews inside their suicidal mother Rose, who has been scorned by their father; death dogs at their Aunt Eva, a stripper at the Elks Club; and death badgers their neighbor, Stanley Cuzack, as he tries to invent a perpetual motion machine. Half suffocating himself, Must’s narrator, Ethan, tries to push himself away.
Dismantle the Sun (Booktrope, 324 pages) is literary, but if you are looking for a novel of bright sunshine, lollipops along with skittles and beer, this is not the book for you. It reeks pathos; “wrenches” is the term used on the back cover of the book, and the work lives up to that term. It is an uncomfortable read because you are being dragged into the intimate, excruciating dynamics of a couple where the wife is dying and the husband is struggling with that reality.
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
At the onset, our protagonist in Editorial (CreateSpace, 140 pages) is sent to live with an aunt/uncle after the untimely death of his parents, and he finds the routine and familiarity therapeutic in a sado-masochistic sort of way, until the day comes when his aunt and uncle basically throw him out on his own with nothing possession-wise to speak of other than his porn mag collection. Well, at least our narrator handles it well: with wit, sarcasm, and what was probably a heat stroke induced delusion.