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
Throughout most of our lives, we can ignore our fears about the threat of non-existence that yawns beyond the casket with as much reality as the non-existence out of which we came into our cradles. But when facing death, our own or that of a loved one, we feel compelled to review the idea of after life. Believers ratchet up their beliefs and atheists, like Hal in Jim Snowden’s Dismantle the Sun (Booktrope, 324 pages), hang tough.
According to conventional wisdom, atheists are imaginary creatures. No one (except other atheists) believes they exist, certainly not in the foxhole of impending death. This is why deathbed conversions are expected, even in the most “literary” of end-of-life novels, despite the fact that one of the accepted roles of a literary fiction author is to question how we make sense of our lives. If most novels have the same after-life-affirming answer, I wonder if these novelists are really asking themselves the question, or merely posing it rhetorically for the sake of a denouement. Every deathbed conversion, it seems to me, is another failure to actually question the meaning of life. 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.
The next time you walk into a bookstore, it’s worth remembering that unseen battles have raged over the shelf-space in front of you. Winning the prime, eye-level locations and avoiding the dustier corners requires strategy, charm, the offer of a good lunch and perhaps even hard cash.
The stores themselves, of course, want you believing that here is either what you want, or should want, and so going into London’s largest bookstore last week, I decided to be led. With time-plus-cash in hand, and my cynicism tucked away, I roamed only within a restricted locus near the main entrance. And it was here that I picked up Train Dreams, by Dennis Johnson (Granta, 128). The first thing to remark upon, is size: it’s eye-catchingly small. Continue reading
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
Composed in 1948, Albert Camus’ The Plague (Vintage International, 308 pages) is a study of human habit and frailty in a time of widespread destruction and crisis. A plague appears in a modern city called Oran in Algeria, afflicting the community for most of a year, then as abruptly lifts. Residents celebrate, much in the way of celebrations for the ending of world wars, with renewed energy for humanity’s “humble yet formidable love” (301). It is this love, an adult’s understanding of love in the view of protagonist Dr. Rieux, that Camus highlights toward the ending of the novel—that is, love as desire to join with another, whether adult son with mother, father with child, doctor with patients, wife with husband, or “true healers” who seek peace (254). Continue reading