Presented as a memoir of Captain John Smith, founder of Jamestown Colony, Virginia in 1607, The Weight of Smoke (McPherson & Co, 389 pages) is the work of a self-described antiquarian, rare books dealer whose imagination is stacked to the ceiling with historic archives and Elizabethan letters. With this volume of historical fiction, Minkoff truly does seem to inhabit the language of those times.
Smith’s narration has a reflexivity to it that radically alters the reader’s sense of time. Every line is both fraught with Smith’s rich backstory and, at the same time, is nervously peering into his bleak future. Such tricks with time are only possible in literary narrative. And it’s a reading experience that is mind-expanding. If his narration had a shape it would torus-like, perhaps, or arabesque, but definitely not linear. Continue reading
Though I spent a not inconsequential portion of my early-twenties leisure time at Bay Street in Sag Harbor, where such reggae luminaries as Steel Pulse, Black Uhuru, Burning Spear, and Lucky Dube frequently performed, I did not know that not far from the concert venue was a neighborhood that had been built by African-American families after World War II. That neighborhood, made up of Azurest, Sag Harbor Hills, and Nineveh, is geographically and existentially at the center of Colson Whitehead’s Sag Harbor (Penguin/Random House, 352 pages).
Early in the novel, the now grown-up narrator Benji recalls his fifteen-year-old self settling into Sag Harbor for the summer of 1985 and contemplates the mythical aura that surrounded some of the people who came before him:
“What I did know about DuBois was that he fell into the category of Famous Black Folk—there was a way people said certain names so that they had an emanation or halo. The respectful way my mother pronounced DuBois told me that the man had uplifted the race.”
Three Approaches to Liam’s Going
You find in your hands a work of great beauty, like Michael Joyce’s novel, Liam’s Going (McPherson, 207 pages). It makes you uneasy. You feel like one of those Trojan elders chirping the perilous beauty of Helen. Send her back. You warily mention to a friend that you have discovered a 21st century novel of great lyric beauty. Right, she says, a baby born with a beard. That kind of fiction went out with Virginia Woolf. What about Michael Ondaatje and Margaret Atwood, you say.
OK, moments of lyricism, but very provisional and nervous. Continue reading
In The Age of Insight, Eric Kandel writes about the role of the observer in art: “Not only does the viewer collaborate with the artist in transforming a two dimensional likeness on canvas into a three-dimensional depiction of the visual world, the viewer interprets what he or she sees on the canvas in personal terms, thereby adding meaning to the picture. Riegel called this phenomenon the “beholder’s involvement.” Kris’s study of ambiguity in visual perception led him to elaborate on Riegel’s insight that the viewer completes a work of art. As a neuroscientist, Kandel focuses on the plastic arts, but his discussion brings us to the question of writing and specifically to the question of the “historical novel”. What does historical writing demand from the reader in order to “complete a work of art”?
There are three dimensions involved: Time, the writer’s mind, and the reader’s perception.
We know that writers filter reality, compress time, squeeze events, introduce ‘fictional’ aspects to such an extent that often the historical novel masquerades as a “quasi-memoir” splicing together documentation from time past with the writer’s art and craft of invention.
In other words, how much of an historical novel is history and how much is literary fiction? And, really, does it matter? And what has Eleanor Sapia Parker done in A Decent Woman (Scarlet River Press, 364 pages)? Continue reading
Don’t bother reading all the blurbs that go with the paperback edition of this book (The Sympathizer, Grove Press, 382 pages). Just read the first page; already you know you are in the presence of a talented writer. Here’s how we begin:
“I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds. I am not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or a horror movie, although some have treated me as such. I am simply able to see any issue from both sides.” Continue reading
What to say about Things we Lose (New Island Press, 228 pages) a book that stunned me, time and again. I might call Billy O’Callaghan a “writer’s writer,” if that term did not immediately consign a writer to obscurity. (In the USA, Richard Yates is often referred to as a “writer’s writer,” and until the movie Revolutionary Road, few people, apart from those who taught in MFA programs, knew his name.)
I would like to invent a new way to describe what I think Billy O’Callaghan will leave as his literary legacy. I would call him a “human’s human” (with a pen) or an “explorer’s explorer” of our dreams. I would call him a poet of the spirit. Or, maybe, to use a more prosaic analogy, he is a housekeeper who assiduously dusts the cluttered rooms we keep closed, even from our conscious minds. Continue reading
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