Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders

“All were in sorrow, or had been, or soon would be.” (Roger Bevins III, p. 304)

Okay, so what happens when we die? Writers of fiction have been peering across into that unfathomable abyss from time out of mind. You might even say that this is what great fiction writers do: they look at the grand questions, and especially at immortality, or the lack thereof.

George Saunders’ rather ironic take on the afterlife (Lincoln in the Bardo, Random House, 343 pages) goes roughly like this: after death some of us get caught up in the fulgurant thing called “the bone-chilling firesound” of the “matterlightblooming phenomenon.” Amidst lots of explosions and smashing to smithereens—imagine something like the shoot-em-up-blow-em-up special effects of Hollywood—this phenomenon transports us off to . . . well, the author never tells us exactly where. Is it a nice place? That’s a good question. At times there are suggestions that it might be fine, but only for the better-behaved of human beings in their fleshy existence, and not even for all of them.

Some of the deceased, so we’re told, resist the matterlightblooming, preferring to hang around in a limbo, neither fish nor fowl. Saunders uses the term “bardo” (borrowed, apparently, from Tibetan religious tradition) for that liminal state, although a better title for this book might be something like Lincoln in Liminality. Why? Because the novel is eminently American, it is anchored in American history; therefore, it might be better not to bring in an obscure term from an alien tradition. Sometimes it seems, at any rate, as if we were looking at some standard purgatory, as in the passage where a former hunter is forced to sit before an enormous heap of the animals he had killed over a lifetime, “each of which he must briefly hold, with loving attention, for a period ranging from several hours to several months.” Continue reading

Worthy of This Great City by Mike Miller

This tale of the inner workings of city politics in Philadelphia, Worthy of This Great City (Jam Publishing, 249 pages), is what you might term an impressionistic novel. Meaning that it consists of a plethora of descriptions of people and scenes with very little progression of plot. The reader steps back from the many colored dots and contemplates the thing as a whole, and that’s when it begins to come into focus.

Teeming with characters who play minor roles, the book has essentially only two main characters. The first of these is Constantine Manos, an investigative journalist, who is doing a feature article on the second, Ruth Askew, a radio personality on a local station and the wife of Councilman Thom Askew. Continue reading

The 2016 Dactyl Literary Fiction Award goes to Sea of Hooks by Lindsay Hill

seaofhooksSea of Hooks (McPherson & Co) was nominated by Barbara Roether, author of This Earth You’ll Come Back To. In her review of Hill’s unusual novel, Roether writes,

There is a paradox that floats through the Sea of Hooks, which is that the experience of reading it is almost the opposite of how it is written. That is to say, while the story is told in its short collage-like segments, their effect is an almost seamless classical narrative. The way sections move from multiple perspectives, dreamtime, real-time, then meld together with such cohesive and penetrating storytelling, is a testament to the author’s insightful eye for detail and character.

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The Wild Horses of Hiroshima by Paul Xylinides

Wild Horses cover

The wild horses in The Wild Horses Of Hiroshima (240 pages) are certainly intriguing, as with the title and cover art, and play a strong role at the story’s end by appearing in the streets of Hiroshima to wander about as a healing force, cared for by the citizens. They  derive from the imagination of a novelist who is also a character in the novel, who is also creating a narrative. The horses seem to emphasize purity and nobility, pounding through the city in herds, a shield against nuclear war and against the violent nature of the human species itself.

This novel inside the novel begins approximately half way into the story, following a background beginning with the atom bomb attack on Hiroshima and its hideous devastation. A young American man has been a penpal with a young Japanese girl, and after the war, he goes to Hiroshima to find her. They marry and move to New Hampshire, bearing a son, Yukio. Yukio becomes a strong, husky young man who survives the attack of a bear which kills his father. He and his mother, Miyeko, return to Japan where he becomes a sumo wrestler. Time passes and he retires to write novels. The novel within a novel begins, with occasional returns to the exterior story of Yukio and his mother, plus Yukio’s geisha, Satoko. Continue reading

Her 37th Year, An Index by Suzanne Scanlon

ScanlonCover

The abecedarium has a long literary history, and some of its best-known examples, such as Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary or Gustave Flaubert’s Le Dictionnaire des idées reçues, play with the form’s implied authority for purposes of satire. Recently Matt Bell’s Cataclysm Baby used the template to convey hellish fragments of an environmental dystopia. Suzanne Scanlon, author of Promising Young Women (2012), turns to a woman’s experience in contemporary America and offers a probing and artful inventory in Her 37th Year, An Index (Noemi Press, 161 pages). Continue reading

Vox Populi by Clay Reynolds

voxpopuliIn 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

The Inevitable June by Bob Schofield

Scholfield

“This morning I crossed a river on a horse made of lightbulbs.”

That’s just another day (June 4, to be exact) in Bob Schofield’s The Inevitable June (theNewerYork Press, 120 pages), an agreeably strange book structured around an unnamed narrator’s calendar for the month of June. Using text, cartoons and distinctive graphics, it is unclassifiable in terms of genre but it manages to create a self-contained world of its own. Continue reading