Far Bright Star by Robert Olmstead

Readers unfamiliar with Robert Olmstead’s lyrical style will be delighted to discover this prolific and productive midwesterner’s work. In Far Bright Star (Thorndike Press, 279 pages ) the newest tale of the West, Olmstead weaves a minimalistic account of one man’s confrontation with his mortality and the deeper reaches of the human psyche.

Napoleon Childs is a noncommissioned officer in the U. S. Expeditionary Force sent into Mexico to get the sometimes bandit, sometimes revolutionary Pancho Villa. Detailed to scout for signs of the elusive Villistas, Napoleon leads a squad of green recruits and seasoned soldiers into the trackless Sonoran desert, where they are ambushed by a strange and savage band of independent outlaws. Led by a mysterious woman, the renegades are principally interested in Palmer, a trooper who has maimed a prostitute in the village where the army is bivouacked.
Napoleon, captured and tortured, is the lone survivor of the attack, left to make his way back to tell his story. Continue reading

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

Dismantle the Sun by Jim Snowden

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

Her 37th Year, An Index by Suzanne Scanlon

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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

Andrew’s Brain by E. L. Doctorow


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

The Pilgrim of Love: a ludibrium by Charles Davis

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“I was pleased to discover in myself an uncanny knack for interpreting the hermetic language of alchemy, as if my book learning had been but a preparation for decrypting enigmatic texts, reading meaning into that which, on the surface, seemed meaningless.”

So says the unnamed narrator of Charles Davis’ The Pilgrim of Love: a ludibrium, an obsessively researched and elaborately plotted parody of an historical romance. (Parody, as I understand the term, is best written by an author who actually loves his target, but who can put some ironic distance between himself and his subject.) The story is set in the abbey of the legendary Mont Michel in 1621, when the absence of roadway access meant visiting pilgrims had to make their way around quicksand between dangerously unpredictable tides. The landscape always plays an important and often symbolic role in Davis’ novels. The pilgrims must interpret the patterns in the sand to avoid sinking in the lise. Continue reading