Literature Reviews

A Review of Death to the Bullshit Artists of South Texas

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A Review of Death to the Bullshit Artists of South Texas, Vol. 1: A story cycle by Fernando A. Flores (Chicago Center for Literature and Photography (CCLaP), 2014; Hypermodern Editions, a handmade book-series, available in electronic form at cclapcenter.com/bsartists)

by Elizabeth Jackson

Death to the Bullshit Artists of South Texas, Vol. 1 reads like a collection of fables recently excavated from under a pile of rocks and a dead coyote. But the subject of these short stories is small-town punk bands in the 1980s and early 90s, who invent their own scrappy mythologies and sooner or later implode. Like poignant, comical figures all the way from Don Quixote to Holden Caulfield to Sid Vicious, these characters—both grandiose and absurd—laugh their way toward extinction.

Bands with names like Crispin Glover Deathwish, A Fish is Not a Bull, Pinbag (whose members all adopt the name “Pin” (Robert Pin, Pamerla Pin, Tom E. Pin)), work in a métier of daily absurdities, like low-budget performance art. With a different set of privileges, these folks would be followers of Dada or its offspring, Fluxus and Joseph Beuys; their idea of art is communal, experiential, expansive—where a transitory act is as valid as any painting at the Louvre. The following quote could as easily be from the drummer for “The House Band for the Hotel Cuerpo de la Paz,” as from the Fluxus Manifesto in 1963: “Purge the world of bourgeois sickness . . . and commercialized culture . . . . Promote living art, anti-art . . . to be grasped by all peoples, not only critics, dilettantes and professionals.”

Flores’s stories track a life-cycle like that of “The First Ever Punk Band in the World (Out of Raymondville),” like a miniature universe—appearing, briefly swirling and dazzling, and expiring—among countless others. The repetition conveys how art and transformation are equally fleeting and endless: “[L]ike the Buddhist belief of the tulpa, once imagining something to the point of becoming a real thing it is harder to get rid of, harder to unimagine.”

Each band in turn assembles a creative microsphere as precious for its short lifespan as for its inventiveness. During their short career, “The House Band for the Hotel Cuerpo de la Paz” takes band field-trips to expand their palette of influences—driving around in the desert, getting high, listening to Miles Davis and Chopin, Selena and War of the Worlds, and visiting local happenings like a Tejano-themed production of Macbeth. They have an omnivorous cultural appetite that predates the ease of perusing YouTube. They have to leave the house; they have to drive around nowhere together; they have to show up places, as they improvise creative outlets in the Valley. Their biggest shows are wedding receptions. But their raw potential fizzles the moment their integrity is threatened by the commercial mindset of a record producer. He constricts them into seven identical takes of a drums track, he directs the singer toward a radio-friendly tone, and in the process extinguishes forever any creative impulse the band ever had. But in the end, regardless of any of it, the band is “like scientists satisfied to have participated in an experiment and somehow having proven something to mankind.”

The centerpiece of Death to the Bullshit Artists of South Texas, Vol. 1 is “Bread8 v. Copal Brandt (R.),” a wry account of accidental political activism by the punk band Bread8. They would have been a harmless set of McAllen, Texas, malcontents, with no ambitions other than epic drinking at their trailer home and explosive shows at the VFW hall, if not for the saga that began when they kidnapped the mayor, Copal Brandt—that is, threw in the back of their pickup one of the eight-foot tall, hand-waving cutouts posted all over town for his reelection campaign. When they costume the cutout in a Hannibal Lecter mask and use it as a stage prop, it leads to a rash of more sign-swiping. In retaliation, the powers-that-be sensationalize the mischief as evidence of gang activity—an exaggeration that fills local news and justifies a curfew. This is when the adventure really begins, as Bread8, with casual subversiveness, plumbs the background of the mayor’s powerful family. They unearth an obscure, 1970s documentary (note this is pre-Internet research; they use the library!) about migrant workers in the Brandt family’s onion fields, that includes footage of a young Copal Brandt’s racist proclamation that Mexicans, as a people, are satisfied with deprivation. Naturally, gleefully, Bread8 uses the recording at their next performance. When the budding controversy comes to the notice of Brandt’s mayoral challenger, the band finds themselves joining an unaccustomed practical effort—fighting the good-ol’-boy oligarchy by promoting voter registration among their own disaffected kind: young adults. Although the outcome is foiled by corruption, Bread8’s impact endures—as much in the promise of eventual political reform as in this lasting artifact: the media repeatedly announces the band’s name, a literal translation of “panocho”—a male vagina, in Spanish slang. The idiomatic clash must linger in residents’ memory, like the recent thrill of hearing news anchor Diane Sawyer repeat the words “Pussy Riot” when reporting on the Russian protest band.

Flores tells these stories in a tone that’s by turns lyrical, ponderous, as if relaying the legends of a forgotten people, self-parodying, and itself punkrock—full of bitterness, joy, and abandon. When Bread8’s efforts are foiled, they’re “so angry they smoked cigarettes outside.” On field trips “[m]ore than a few times they even had some drinks in Mexico and allowed themselves to act and behave rock and roll.” Another band optimistically sets aside “100 records, vials of each member’s blood, and . . . special instructions for the screenprinting of band shirts, in case they ended up popular in their posterity.” At the same time, “deep down, [they] knew it to be bullshit, too.”

In its further extremes, “Death to the Bullshit Artists . . .” reflects a vast array of influences. “The Swear Junction” gets fully psychedelic, bordering on the surrealism of Gabriel Garcia-Marquez. Elsewhere, character names like The Mechanic’s Son, the Single Mother’s Son, evoke The Canterbury Tales (the Wife of Bath, the Man of Law). And the penultimate story, “The Performances of Liliana Krauze,” finally lays bare intellectual bases that undergird the whole story-cycle. For her fledging avant-garde performance art, the protagonist explores Herodotus up to Jean Genet, Bataille to Diane Arbus and the early movie star Lupe Vèlez. For her highly abstract, first performance, she splices together gaps of silence from Montgomery Clift movies into a thirty-minute loop.

Flores’s specialty is a facile interweaving of seeming opposites (academics and dropouts; high art and fuck-ups), which lends a punk song the hypnotic quality of William Blake:

“You look familiar, you’re not

From California are you?

You have a twin in California

Oh well, you made that choice . . .

Your red hair

Your green eyes

Your red hair

Your green cherry eyes

And I hope you don’t mind

Me coming home late

Believe me I won’t mind

Your tousled up hair, bleeding nails

Twitching me away

Your red hair

Your green eyes

Your red hair

Your green cherry eyes

Your red hair

Your green eyes

Your red hair

Your green cherry-cherry eyes”

Bands play for hours in a garage, with no plans, no audience, even, and undergo personal transformation (“They were like time travelers or a pack of wolves.”), however fleeting. They’ll never forget the experience, no matter if they stay in their dishwashing or bottom-rung jobs for the next twenty years. Art is both communal and personal, owned by everyone, equally—performers and fans and passers-by. In this outlook, only four people on the planet having experienced a legend makes it no less legendary.

In that sense, these stories serve as epitaphs, without implying grief; they are celebrations of the irrepressible, creative spirit that bridles inside shithole towns throughout history. “No songs were ever recorded nor did they ever gig—the only people who ever saw them play were the in-and-outs getting stoned at that garage in Donna [Texas].” In a quote worth repeating—“once imagining something to the point of becoming a real thing it is harder to get rid of, harder to unimagine.”

A Review of Hagridden

A Review of Samuel Snoek-Brown's Hagridden

by Paul Adams

Samuel Snoek-Brown’s Hagridden starts with an ambush in the marshes; two women bayonet a Union soldier with practiced ease, and then do the same to the Confederate soldier who had been hunting him. They strip the bodies and tip them into an old well and then sell their worldly goods to an unscrupulous bayou shopkeeper. We are told that this takes place in Western Louisiana in the waning days of the Civil War, but it might as well be happening in the Middle Ages or on the moon. This is not a complaint; this book’s sense of timeless and universal horror is one of the things that makes it such a powerful work.

There is a strain of Gothic dread running through 20th century Southern literature, and it is clearly visible in Hagridden. Stylistically, the novel owes something to Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy: oppressively lush landscapes, dialogue lacking all punctuation, and sometimes jarring contrast between characters’ rich inner lives and their spare, gnomic utterances. When novelists use this style poorly, the result can be almost unreadably dense. When done well, as it is here, it creates a sense that the reader is looking into a separate and complete world, eerily similar to our own but tilted slightly toward the abstract. The characters’ actions become inevitable and weighed down by the burdens of past and future. Things become symbols of themselves.

Despite this metaphysical heft, Hagridden is a lively and fast-paced read. Events unfold according to the book’s interior logic, but the ending nonetheless took this reader by surprise. The murderous peace of the two women (who never receive names: they are “the woman” and “the girl”) is shattered by the return of their neighbor Buford from the war. He is the best friend of Remy, a character whose absence haunts the book. Remy was a son of the older woman and husband to the younger and joined the Confederate Army with Buford. When the war reached its final madness, they deserted together as well.

The war is presented as brutal folly, but swirling in its outer darkness are truly infernal forces. Buford is pursued by Lt. Whelan, the commander of a group within the army who committed certain enormities while wearing the skins of wolves. Calling themselves ‘rougarou’ (one of several instances in which Snoek-Brown uses appealing and accurate Cajun-isms), they terrorized soldiers and civilians during the war and have now given themselves the task of tracking down deserters. Since the protagonists of the story are serial killers (albeit motivated by hunger and despair), the villains must be literally monstrous. Whelan, who seems to be at least partially consumed by his rourgarou costume, is an excellent and well-rendered character, combining elements of the Viking berserker, the cannibal, the werewolf, and the 20th century war criminal.

Whelan is in many ways the character who is most eloquent in speaking for himself, and some of the best passages involve menacing conversations he carries on with strangers during his hunt for Buford. His deliberate and dispassionate will to violence brings to mind the fatalistic killer Anton Chigurh from Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men. One chilling passage describes in detail the process by which Whelan tracks, kills, and skins a wolf before using its remains to carefully craft the new mask and suit that he will wear to hunt Buford.

The attention to the rougarou suit is well done, since it will come to play an important role in the awful escalation of events that bring the book to its climax. The drama of Whelan’s hunt for Buford is an outer circle orbiting the inner circle of domestic conflict between Buford and the two women. The young widow finds herself attracted to Buford (no wonder, given that the only other men in the area are a werewolf, a lech, and an ex-slave whose head was kicked in by a horse) but is unwilling to abandon the older woman, to whom she is bound by ties of marriage, murder, and mutual suffering. The older woman blames Buford for her son’s death and is terrified of being abandoned.

These tensions are worsened by guilt and mistrust, reaching a crisis point when an apocalyptic hurricane hits Louisiana and the resulting flood carries Buford’s shack across the state line into Texas. The young widow (having eloped) is carried along with him, and the forcible separation of the two women leads them to very different conclusions about the way forward. The pleasure of seeing the ending unfold precludes any further plot summary, but Buford, Whelan, the two women, and the rougarou come together in a way that seems both utterly inevitable and completely unpredictable.

Hagridden is not entirely without flaws. Snoek-Brown has a point to make about the eternal suffering of women in war time and the ways in which they can fight against it; depriving the women of names may have been the right decision. It makes them iconic figures who can stand in for the many women who are absent from history but were forced to make impossible choices without aid. Unfortunately, it can lead to confusion. It is sometimes hard to tell which woman is speaking or who is taking action; conversations between the two can be difficult to follow. This is not insurmountable but occasionally requires the reader to start again at the top of the page.

It is also possible that in becoming nameless symbols, the women have lost some of their singular identity. This is especially a concern with “the older woman,” who somehow seems less whole a character, or at least less able to speak for herself than the other characters. This is partly her personality—taciturn, ineloquent, enduring. Yet the reader wishes for more of a sense of her inner life and more insight into what drives her. As the story progresses, her behavior becomes increasingly interesting and unexpected, but her motivations remain opaque.

None of this detracts from the overwhelming quality of this novel’s craftsmanship or the beauty of its prose. There are details of almost hallucinatory vividness, and marvelous turns of phrase are everywhere (opening the book at random twice led to “he gored the muck from beneath his fingernail” and “he asked if any recognized the items or knew where he might find their like.”) Despite the desperation and menace that pervade this novel, a dry humor often seeps through in unexpected ways. With radical empathy towards deeply flawed characters and an ability to find the exquisite in the mundane, Snoek-Brown has created a complex and brilliant novel. Though its themes are dark and horrifying, there is a great deal of beauty in this book.

Nobody's Protest Novel: A Review of Your Face in Mine

By Phillip Garcia

It’s complicated.
And what you’re asking is for me to not make this complicated?”
                       —From Jess Row's Your Face in Mine

Lately, there’s been some praise for sentimentality, but personally, I’m not convinced. While Nick Ripatrazone might believe that “[o]ne moment of sentiment in literature is worth a thousand failures,” such a claim seems to ignore the inherent danger that those “thousand failures” might pose for real world issues, particularly for people of color.

In a sense, it feels as though Ripatrazone is confusing “sentimentality” with “emotion”—but they aren’t necessarily synonymous. Consider this quote from James Baldwin’s essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel:”

Sentimentality, the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion, is the mark of dishonesty, the inability to feel; the wet eyes of the sentimentalist betray his aversion to experience, his fear of life, his arid heart; and it is always therefore, the signal of secret and violent inhumanity, the mask of cruelty.

Baldwin might seem harsh here, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that sentimentality (as he defines it here) risks oversimplifying important issues and, in doing so, creates bad politics and, perhaps worse yet, bad art. This oversimplification is what made Baldwin consider Uncle Tom’s Cabin a pamphlet, not an actual novel.  As well-intentioned as Uncle Tom’s Cabin may have been, it was still shallow propaganda, not true art that presented complex characters full of well-earned pathos.

Sentimentality is the reason that when I first heard the premise of Jess Row’s new novel, Your Face in Mine, I was a bit worried. After all, a novel about a white man getting “racial reassignment surgery” could easily go awry. It’s not that I didn’t trust Row’s ability; it’s simply that I live in a world populated by Uncle Tom -esque books: sentimental, flat creations of white guilt that say little more than “Boy, it sure sucks to be a person of color.”

Imagine, then, not just my surprise but my unfettered delight at reading the novel and discovering what depth Row manages to dig out. Row takes what should be a bizarre idea and deftly balances it with a sense of realism. This balance between the real and the absurd reminded me of how Salman Rushdie recently described Gabriel García Márquez’s work:

The trouble with the term “magic realism”… is that when people say or hear it they are really hearing or saying only half of it, “magic,” without paying attention to the other half, “realism.” But if magic realism were just magic, it wouldn’t matter. It would be mere whimsy — writing in which, because anything can happen, nothing has effect. It’s because the magic in magic realism has deep roots in the real, because it grows out of the real and illuminates it in beautiful and unexpected ways, that it works. 

It would, of course, be silly to argue that what Row is doing here qualifies as “magical realism,” but the balance between the unbelievable (or nearly unbelievable, in the case of racial reassignment surgery) and the believable is just as vital to anchoring his novel.

Not only is Row’s novel grounded in real-world Baltimore (and later, real-world Bangkok), it presents characters who are realistic, not simple, flat pawns who act out an Orwellian parable. While the characters deal with the issue of racial identity, they aren’t race-obsessed, and to say the novel is “about race” would be to ignore the layers of complexity Row has given his characters.

Kelly Thorndike, the narrator, struggles with the loss of his wife and daughter, as well as struggling with his own sense of self in a world that monetizes identity. Kelly is by no means a radical; he’s more of an academic who struggles with the real-world application of theory. We see this throughout the course of the novel, perhaps most memorably in a scene where Kelly and his wife argue about Chapelle’s Show. Yes, Kelly knows of white guilt; he knows of his role as oppressor. But Kelly comes to realize that he has been living in “white dreamtime,” a concept that is pervasive throughout the novel. “White dreamtime” really is the best description of Kelly: a passive, detached, and privileged observer, floating through reality. (Note, too, how the concept of “dreamtime” blends the surreal and real together).  

Martin Lipkin, one of Kelly’s old high school friends who undergoes racial reassignment surgery, is something of Kelly’s opposite. Unlike the concreteness of Kelly, Martin has obscured motives, is often unreliable, and is outright manipulative. The only thing that’s clear about Martin is that he’s interested in simplifying race as a means to turn it into a lucrative brand.  The often inconsistent elements of Martin’s character add to the overall dream-like confusion of the novel, and the dynamic between Kelly and Martin gives the novel its shape and carries us through the chaotic issues of race, identity, and capitalism.

In short, Row presents a complicated issue as it is: complicated. If, like Kelly, this book had stuck to the safety of academic theory, it would have been divorced from the rawness of reality; likewise, had it veered into the simplistic brand that Martin wanted to project, it would have been sentimental propaganda. It’s no surprise, then, that as Row worked through these concepts, he consciously follows  Baldwin (who gets a shout-out in both the epigraph and the dedication). Of course, while structurally and thematically there are some similarities to Another Country, to reduce Row’s work to Baldwin homage would also be an oversimplification.

Where Row actually follows Baldwin closest is in his aversion to sentimentality and simplicity in the face of harsh reality. Row deserves praise not simply for tackling a tricky subject, but for tackling that subject so masterfully.  This book could have easily devolved into white guilt and pandering, but Row provides thoughtful balance. For that reason, this book is not Uncle Tom’s Cabin. This book is not a pamphlet. This book is a novel, and a very good one at that.

Reckoning with Reckoning by Rusty Barnes

By Paul Adams 

The northern tip of the Appalachian region juts all the way up into the state of New York and encompasses a goodly portion of western and southern Pennsylvania. Physically close but culturally distant from Amish Country and the Liberty Bell, this area has more in common with West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee than with the East Coast. Resource-rich and money-poor, it is a place of great natural beauty, stubbornly independent locals, and sometimes shocking violence. This is the setting of Rusty Barnes' first novel, Reckoning.

Having been raised in that area, the reviewer can attest to the precision with which Reckoning captures its physical and human geography. Barnes nails it, with an ear for dialogue and a sharp eye for both the broad strokes of the environment and the little details that bring a place or character into focus. From the CDs on a shelf to the color of a rough girl's nail polish to the rinsing-off of dishes taken from under the couch, Barnes is able to parlay incidentals into a complete and vivid picture. By family tradition, a house has no bathroom doors. A boy is told to keep out of trouble by shooting ants with a pellet gun. Families who've lived in town for less than a century are still “flatlanders.” This world is wholly realized and presented through the carefully crafted mind of a teenage boy.

Reckoning is the story of an ordinary summer in the life of Richard Logan and its sudden interruption by chaotic forces of sex and violence. He and Katie, the new girl in town, come upon the naked body of an unconscious woman in the woods. This is Misty, a well wrought character combining jaded vulnerability and bruised innocence with the hard bark of a girl who has seen too much. Helping her back to town, they unleash a series of events, which draw them into conflict with a local thug, Lyle, and his criminal associates. Beset by conflicting adolescent urges and dangerous curiosity, Richard finds himself drawn ever deeper into the ugliness and darkness beneath the surface of the town while those he loves begin to suffer the consequences. The idle summer days become complex and troubled as the story rushes to a harrowing conclusion.

Barnes has previously published two collections of short stories and brings those skills to his first novel, which has a brisk pace and increasing momentum. As the novel unfolds it reveals many facets: coming-of-age tale, love story, mystery, character study, and dark revelation. Reckoning works because it takes the time and energy to establish a believable world and real characters, and then begins to dismantle the facade of that world and interrogate the true nature of those characters. It also works because it is true to its setting and to its narrator. Barnes' depiction of a small town in a rural area has all the expected horrors (pill addicts and scamsters and deers butchered in the front yard) but it is not a caricature of rural idiocy. Neighbors may snoop and scold, but they come to your defense and have philosophies of life and codes of honor. Characters act with dignity and depth, and the human and physical landscapes are beautifully sketched.

This is not a take-down of small-town Pennsylvania, but an exploration of the painful loss of innocence and the danger of peeking behind veils.  Although Richard lives the aimless and  insular life of an Appalachian adolescent, he is a bright boy with an intuition that there is something more. This fateful curiosity leads him to the novel's frightening climax, but also to meaningful connections. He is fascinated with the new girl Katie and the troubled out-of-towner Misty partly because they are part of another world. Richard's life has been limited to the very convincingly rendered small town in which no one is a stranger and secrets are impossible to keep. Barnes has done well in driving this point home, making Lyle not just a menacing criminal and an antagonist, but Richard's boss and boyfriend to Katie's mother. All the characters are connected by blood, history, or geography, and this lends the novel an air of claustrophobic suspense.

Although this book is certainly part of an Appalachian literary tradition, containing echoes of Pinckney Benedict's Dogs of God and some early Cormac McCarthy novels, the recent work which most often came to mind while reading it was Adrianne Harun's A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain, which is set in British Columbia. Another first novel by an author better known for short stories, it is also narrated by a small-town boy from a rural area who is faced with an evil thug and a paralyzed community. Although profoundly different in many ways (Harun is more given to post-modern meta-fiction), both novels deal with a young boy discovering evil and questioning whether and how to confront it. More similar in form is the “literary thriller” A Land More Kind Than Home by Wiley Cash, which has multiple narrators but echoes of Reckoning’s excellent dialogue and some of the same issues of rural youth and community secrets.

If this novel has a flaw, it is that Barnes seems to not entirely trust his audience. At the conclusion of a chapter full of well-crafted dialogue, keen observation, and Richard's own astute perceptions, the reader is told that “He felt as if he and Katie could be friends, but there was something else there too, complicated by Misty . . . they found her so vulnerable. But she talked tough.” There is nothing wrong with this, and in a lesser novel or a genre work it might be necessary to advance the plot or hammer out a character. In this case, however, Barnes has already given the reader all of that information and more; we have heard Misty's tough talk and observed her contradictory behavior and have seen Richard's conflicted attitudes toward his tom-boyish girlfriend and this intriguing older woman.  Barnes has very effectively brought the reader into this adolescent mind, and it is jarring to hear that “he was running on an internal compass that he trusted to point him the right way to go”, since this remark pulls the audience out of Richard's mind and seems to suggest some outside observer. The author has already shown us the boy's peculiar motivations and code of conduct through his actions, conversations, and scattered thoughts, so this isn't really necessary. The prose stands on its own, without the need for summation. This is, of course, a fine sort of problem to have, since it arises directly from the effectiveness and quality of the work.

This is an outstanding work which is simultaneously exciting and thoughtful. Strong on dialogue and atmosphere, it is recommended for the general reader but essential for anyone interested in the Appalachian region or its culture. At a compact 239 pages, this suspenseful novel moves quickly to a devastating climax  that will leave readers appalled but satisfied. It is a crisp and engaging story with fully developed characters, striking images, and an appealing wit.

A Review of The Expedition to the Baobab Tree

We Were All One Woman, Interchangeable, Exchangeable: A Review of The Expedition to the Baobab Tree by Wilma Stockenström

By Jason DeYoung

Appearing over fifty times in this slim, 129-page novel is the word know, or its past-tense variant knew. Myself appears with nearly the same frequency. Captured by slave hunters in her youth, the nameless protagonist in Wilma Stockenström’s The Expedition to the Baobab Tree (Archipelago Books, 2014) details her erstwhile life in slavery, as a possession: a position that stripped her of identity, history, and native language. It is a darkly imagined narrative, with occasional hopeful turns as the narrator strives to hold onto her sense of self, but is ultimately doomed.  

Set during the time when the world was thought to be flat, the novel opens with the narrator already taking refuge in the trunk of a baobab tree, a genus of the great Adasonia trees of South Africa. Her existence is defined by that which surrounds her: the eponymous tree, the veld, its other inhabitants—“I found too that I was plucking, digging, picking [food] in competition with animals.” Freed from bondage after her owner mysteriously abandoned her and her fellow slaves on a failed trading expedition, the narrator is now isolated and malnourished, and the present tense action of the novel never ventures far form the baobab tree. She leaves for water and food, returns, and does little else aside from ponder her situation. Her only contact with other humans is through the “little people” (perhaps a group similar to the Pygmy) she sees, who worship her as a tree spirit but will not communicate with her.

Where the novel’s action lies is in her recollections. Other than a scant few memories of her girlhood—primarily the trauma of capture—her memories start with her mentors, other female slaves, women who taught her to “remember the rapture and the torment, but inwardly remain untouched, remain whole.” The narrative moves gently (near-imperceptibly at times) between past and present as she tells her story, with each movement defined by her owner. The first had a taste for young girls, who sells her after the birth of her first child to a spice merchant, who then gives her to his youngest son. After the death of her third owner, she ends up in the service of spice merchant’s eldest son, a thoughtless and cowardly man who abandons his expedition, and the men and women he “owns.”

Piercingly intelligent and heartbreaking, Stockenström’s savage portrayal of female slavery lends witness to what human possession means: “We were all one woman, interchangeable, exchangeable.” Despite the luxury of her owners’ houses or the education she is given (so she can entertain and converse with master and guest more intelligently), she is tormented by visions of the other slaves, brought to the city to labor in the sun; and she is wrecked by the loss of the children she bears. Here is what she says of the experience of having her first child taken from her and sold:

I am dried-out ape dugs and fresh slippery ox eye and peeled-off human skin and the venom of the deadly sea slug with the sucker mouth. I am hatred and hatred's mask. I am deformed. There is a snake in my blood. I drink my own blood. I kick in my swoon. I flounder.

Deformity, the most apt of descriptors, is what happens to our narrator in this novel. She is deformed by ownership, by colonialism, by its cruelty, by what it has taken from her. As she points out later in life, it is the absence of grandchildren, the lack of grown children—which would convey a sense of her own body’s history—that makes her melancholy all the more palpable because there were “no links backwards or forwards” for her. “Deformed” is the word J. M. Coetzee, the translator of the novel, uses, too, to describe South African literature in his acceptance speech for the Jerusalem Prize: “The deformed and stunted relations between human beings that were created under colonialism and exacerbated under what is loosely called apartheid have their psychic representation in a deformed and stunted inner life. All expressions of that inner life, no mater how intense, no matter how pierced with exultation or despair, suffer from the same stuntedness and deformity.”

Remarkable as a narrator, little is lost on Stockenström’s character despite her bondswoman education, and one of the rewards in reading this novel is her insights and wisdom: she is actually quite heroic as she often “stands full” of herself. But, she is still stunted by history and time. History is identity, and time is an obsession of the narrators, as the word itself occurs fifty-four times. While she subsists on grubs and tubers and fetches her water in a broken ostrich egg from a nearby stream, she tries to maintain a sense of time with colored beads she has found, moving them around so that she gives structure, classification, and sequence to her days. But she also fearfully knows that it “threatens” her and wants to “annihilate” her. And it eventually does.

Although The Expedition to the Baobab Tree takes form as prose, there’s a great deal of poetry in its paragraphs, which isn’t surprising. Twice the recipient of the prestigious Hertzog prize, Wilma Stockenström has published ten books of poems written in Afrikanns, a language derived from the Dutch who settled in South Africa in the 1600s and historically spoken by the marginalized. Glimpse her lyricism in this passage of exhalations, which translator, J. M. Coetzee, has finely wrought into English: “The sea drew back hissing over its destruction, drew in a last tortured, foaming breath, and subsided to a gloomy calm, and the wind subsided too, leaving such a rarefied stillness that a sob could have shattered it.” And passages such as this one could easily be imagined as broken into lines:

One is so used to regarding other inhabitants of the earth as food, to accepting them, as it were, as self-evident sources of food, and to putting whatever is edible in service of one's digestion, to raising the ingestion of food to an art by adding condiments and tastefully serving up a dishes that go together, to making a huge fuss of a meal and to developing customs around it that ossify into rituals, to making a whole rigmarole of the utterly bodily function of eating—one is so used to it that it seems terribly funny when other-consuming man is himself eaten. The untouchably mighty, revealed to be nothing but food, was knocked into the water with a well-aimed flick of the tail—actually not well aimed, actually executed with unconscious perfection—and drowned and devoured.

Yes, poetic, but also deliberately chosen to impart a final sense of The Expedition to the Baobab Tree. The novel acknowledges the earth and its power and is nearly Wordsworthian in its recognition of it. In the end the estrangement the narrator feels is too much for her. The “little people” who have been worshiping her are overrun and killed by another group, and all she is left with are bones: “White skulls around the tree. Little by little the wind brings in dust to fill up the brain hollows and the pelvises.” The Expedition to the Baobab Tree renders a bleak judgment about the nature of men and women, and of the self. Within its lush and delicate prose is a frank imagining of existence, one that strikes hard once again the unmistakable tocsin that all is vanity, a warning one cannot come away from the novel without.

 

* J. M. Coetzee, Doubling the Point: Essays and Interviews. “Jerusalem Prize Acceptance Speech (1987). Ed. by David Attwell. Harvard University Press, 1992. Page 98.


Jason DeYoung lives in Atlanta, Georgia. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous publications, including REAL: Regarding Arts & Letters, Corium, The Los Angeles Review, New Orleans Review, Monkeybicycle, Music & Literature and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Best American Mystery Stories 2012. He is a Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq Magazine.

“Wanting the End to Be Happy:” Elizabeth McCracken’s Thunderstruck & Other Stories

Written by Jené Gutierrez

“The truth about stories is that that’s all we are.” – Thomas King

“Let it go” is common advice that we are often told to put into practice, usually after something or someone has been lost. Though meant to decrease our suffering, this simplistic conception of how to manage loss and grief does not account for the near impossibility of this task, for everything that is lost is returned to or stays with us in a myriad of ways. Or, as the narrator in “Something Amazing” explains, “Whatever you have lost there are more of, just not yours.”

Each of Elizabeth McCracken’s stories in her newest collection, Thunderstruck & Other Stories, tells a different tale, but they all illustrate universal themes about our relationships and how our stories hold our love and losses. McCracken, with humor and intellect, illuminates the fact that nothing is ever truly lost, but lives on through our stories and the stories of others that inevitably intersect with and are informed by our own. It is through the knowledge of other stories and the way they intersect with our own that we come to a deeper understanding of our entwined narratives, reminding us that the stories we tell ourselves are not the same stories told by others.

Most of McCracken’s humor emerges out of her controlled voice, the description of characters and surroundings that ring absurdly familiar, points of recognition in the text that arise out of observations of the seemingly mundane. In “Property,” McCracken’s description of a home and its detritus are peppered with a humorous, funny-because-it’s-true familiarity. While cleaning, a man finds old, sticky spices in the kitchen, “the stubby plastic kind with the red tops;” these same spices familiarly seem to thrive in the near-abandoned places I’ve lived as well--the ubiquity of these specific spices spans all homes. By the end of the story, the man discovers that the owner’s home is a commemoration of a life; its belongings hold the weight of a love and loss that the man had not experienced, but feels a familiarity to in the loss of his wife, and the weight of the belongings of hers he still carries.

In her strange, dark love story, “Some Terpsichore,” McCracken writes of harmony and discord in a relationship, offering a breathtaking meditation on the definition of love:

It was not nice love, it was not good love, but you cannot tell me that it wasn’t love. Love is not oxygen, though many songwriters will tell you that it is; it is not a chemical substance that is either definitively present or absent; it cannot be reduced to its parts. It is not like a flower, or an animal, or anything that you will ever be able to recognize when you see it. Love is food. That’s all. Neither better nor worse. Sometimes very good. Sometimes terrible. But to say--as people will--that wasn’t love. As though that makes you feel better! Well it might not have been nourishing but it sustained me for a while.

Though the relationship between the couple is strained, the narrator finds it hard to leave, explaining that it wasn’t love or the fear of being alone that kept her there, but “…it was wanting to know the end of the story, and wanting the end to be happy.” And though love and the prospect of loss binds us to others, in this narrative, it’s a craving for story, wanting to satisfy a curiosity about how this life could play out that commits the narrator. Perhaps we could then ask, isn’t dedication to a story and its unfolding--personal or otherwise--a kind of love itself?

Nowhere is it more apparent that one’s story is not just one’s own than in the way our media responds to mass killings. The stories of victims are always subsumed by the singular story of the killer or killers--who they are, their motivations, psychological makeup, and childhood. The things they’ve written and said become objects of scrutiny, evidence of a captivating, if tragic, story that becomes part of the culture’s larger narrative. In “Juliet,” McCracken tells the story of a murdered young woman from the perspective of the town’s librarians--individuals who are surrounded by walls of stories on a daily basis. The librarians refer to the young woman as “Juliet” because she reminds them of the title character in Shakespeare’s play. Here, the title itself already contains a whole other story. This woman’s death resonates throughout the town, affecting many people in the process, including the accused killer. Yet the narrator explains that the murder becomes known as “The Tommy Mason Case,” not “The Suzanne Cunningham Murder;” this woman’s story is subsumed by the story of the killer. The story ends with the children’s librarian--Suzanne’s closest friend at the library--confronting the accused murderer’s sister about the accused killer, resulting in an emotional intersection of these two women’s stories. This narrative framework demonstrates the ineluctability of stories crossing paths and creating new loves and losses that carry the previous ones along with them, and McCracken executes this idea candidly, with careful attention to the transformation of her characters.

As a man who will be remembered the way his “friend” documented him, and not as he was in the flesh, Peter of “Peter Elroy: A Documentary by Ian Casey” comes to a couple of poignant realizations:

 “There wasn’t a man in the world smart enough to see his own subtext.”

“Only in person can you be larger than life. On a television screen, you’re cropped, alone: a buffoon.”

Peter, his death on the horizon, realizes that as a subject of a successful documentary, he leaves behind the legacy of a story told by someone else; the rest of his life has been subsumed by the images and words a friend captured and contexualized years ago, some of which portray him in an unsavory light. At the end of his life, Peter must accept that his story is out of his control, that it belongs to the web of stories that contains it.

And this is McCracken’s impressive accomplishment: her appeal to the only refuge we have when all is said and seemingly over, the refuge of stories that hold our love and loss, and the humor and heart that is necessary to sustain them. Perhaps our most defining experiences are the relationships we have to each other and ourselves, the threads of love and loss that tie this all together, and the acceptance of our stories as having lives of their own, entities of which we are a part, but ultimately have no control over. Each story in Thunderstruck & Other Stories demonstrates this fundamental truth with humor and tact, and McCracken approaches this delicate, universal subject matter with style and heart.

Thoughts on Sarah Cornwell’s What I Had Before I Had You, Bruce Springsteen, and the Imperfect, Messy Magic of the Jersey Shore

There’s something inherently literary about the Jersey Shore—we know this not from Snookie but from Bruce Springsteen, whose best songs are like beautifully succinct short stories. They capture the messy reality of a working class vacation town—the airy hopefulness of the sea juxtaposed with the longing for escape from the complications of family and life. Springsteen’s lyrics are like blue-collared poetry—the slamming of screen doors and radios playing…a chicken man being blown up.

One of my favorite Springsteen songs is “Thunder Road,” in which he coaxes “Mary” off her porch with a harmonica and killer lyrics like “You ain’t a beauty, but hey you’re alright.”

“Show a little faith,” he tells her, “there’s magic in the night.”

It’s a palpable and imperfect kind of magic in “Thunder Road”—dresses swaying in the heat, Roy Orbison on the radio, and a sense that the “one last chance to make it real” he’s singing about probably won’t pan out. It is both fleeting and gripping at the same time, and it’s exactly this kind of magic that sinks into the spine and shines out from the pages of Sarah Cornwell’s debut novel, What I Had Before I Had You.

A Review of Kevin Barry’s City of Bohane

Written by A.W. Marshall

Kevin Barry’s City of Bohane imagines the future in a mythically colorful way that dares his readers to catch up. From page one he bolts forward in a unique dialect, introducing mean-eyed hooligans and lovely whores while the plot chases Logan Harnett, the mafia don of this exotic array of lively and vivid characters, into the foggy underworld of Bohane. Through the unfamiliar colloquial language, many intricacies of place, and the generally chaotic world, the reader is left happily confused. Though it can be annoying and preoccupying to have to go back or look up a word to stay present in a story, this immediate indoctrination is part of the wonder of City of Bohane.

City of Bohane is closer to a graphic novel than a hyper-focused view of how-shitty-things-could-become, like most futuristic settings where humans are on the cusp of nearly all-dead (or undead) due to the ruinous overindulgence of humans. However, Bohane is, thankfully, nothing like that. Its many neighborhoods within—from the Back Trace to Smoketown to the Pikey Dunes to Big Nothin’—are wonderfully brooding and pulsating locales somewhere between Tom Waits’ “Singapore” and Sondheim’s Sweeny Todd, between Jamaica’s Trenchtown and the Marvel’s fictional outlaw town, Madripoor, again in Singapore. However, Barry’s fictional setting lies in Ireland fifty years in the future, and the city of Bohane is fought over by various gangs who want to control the interests, enact revenge, and grab their piece of the future of the town they all seem to adore, lament, and love.

Nicholas Grider Masterfully Examines Contemporary Relationships in Misadventure

Nicholas Grider Masterfully Examines Contemporary Relationships in Misadventure

In a pristinely designed, 5x7 book of 152 pages, Nicholas Grider’s collection of stories, Misadventure, accomplishes something difficult and rare: it explores relationships, human nature, sexuality, and eccentricity with writing that is engaging and refined, yet intrepid in the best of ways. Grider engages his readers with lovely, precise prose aimed squarely at these complex topics, while intrepidly utilizing daring, avant-garde style and form.

Take for instance the first few lines of the collection’s opening piece, “Millions of Americans Are Strange:”

 

Thoughts on Jennifer duBois's Second Novel, Cartwheel

Written by Sofia Sokolove

Jennifer duBois's second novel, Cartwheel, can only be read at a manic, stay-up-all-night kind of pace. It’s a story that moves with such urgent momentum from the very beginning that you don’t even quite realize its intensity—how swiftly and dizzyingly and fully you have been swept up into its world—until the whole thing is over.

It’s a story that has already pulled us in once, albeit in a different, “real-life” form, through tabloids and international media coverage. Pretty, young, well-off American exchange student is accused of murdering her equally pretty and young roommate. Drugs, sex, and a mysterious foreign boy all become wrapped up in the narrative that we—personally and as a country—construct.

On Kevin Sampsell's "This Is Between Us"

On Kevin Sampsell's "This Is Between Us"

Sometimes I feel like I’m reading in fiberglass. Restless itching and sick of everything. But I love this book like a school girl loves a fresh-faced Math teacher. Blindly. 

It’s hard to know what to call Kevin Sampsell; a novelist? Memoirist, editor, curator of books, reader? He is all of these things. And perhaps this is why it’s hard to know what to call his new book, This is Between Us. A novel, sure, but the story is built from individual moments like bricks, like flash, like poetry, and calling the book fiction feels like a cop-out. There’s something too nervously real about the beautifully complex five years of relationship Sampsell’s characters are mired in to give it such an easy label. 

Sampsell’s phrasing and imagery never fall short of wonderfully surprising or equally heartbreaking. When asked about the influences for his poetic writing in This is Between Us, Sampsell said, “I like poetry that is emotionally jarring. I think Ghost Machine by Ben Mirov was one of the first in a newer wave of poetry books that I loved in the past few years. There was also Coeur de Lion by Ariana Reines, which felt eviscerating to me. Discovering Sharon Olds was a beautiful and important moment as well. There was also Dan Magers, Emily Kendal Frey, Dorothea Lasky, Gregory Sherl, Diana Salier, and most recently, James Gendron. I love how these poets craft lines that whisper and sting and bloom, all at the same time. I love how poetry, more than prose, uses unconventional language and imagery to create a mood that was not there just a few words before.”

Paul Harding Explores the Haunting Pit of Grief in His Second Novel, Enon

Paul Harding Explores the Haunting Pit of Grief in His Second Novel, Enon

Written by A.W. Marshall 

The second novel conundrum is a bit of a cliché: an unknown writer succeeds spectacularly on his or her first outing, only to crumble under the pressure to outdo this success. Paul Harding’s first novel, Tinkers, was a tour de force of language and metaphor, aesthetically similar to Marilyn Robinson’s Housekeeping, but where Housekeeping was haunted and wonderfully alienating, Tinkers was laced in a mystical hope and such exquisite language that each sentence seemed its own kind of love letter.

The impression I get from Harding’s new novel Enon is that he decided to write the novel he wanted to, regardless of pressure. And like Robinsons’ second novel, Gilead (and for that matter her third, Home), he chose to not be limited by his or anyone else’s “Tinkerish” (or “Housekeepingish”) expectations.   

 

Drawn Out Dissent

In the spirit of Banned Books Week, we have another scandalous review to share. Enjoy!

Written by Morgan Engelmann

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There is a collective outcry going on right now about Things Happening Far Away from Here. Things that have been Happening Far Away for some time, and will continue to happen for many more times. It’s tricky to understand the Things Happening Far Away from Here because we are not There. It is not our life, our experience, our world. It is terribly hard to be in something so tangibly removed from our physical selves. This is where brave books become our tiny window, our sliver of light. In honor of Banned Books Week, I’d like to make some space in our consciousness for the beam that comes from Persepolis, a graphic novel/memoir of Marjane Satrapi published in 2000. This book has been shuttered in Iran (naturally), and the United States is sadly following suit.

Revolving around a girl growing up during the Islamic Revolution, Persepolis is at once a charming coming-of-age story and a frank, frustrating peek into a world of compounding oppressions. The graphic component engages the reader by lending the voice of the narrator through simple but telling facial expressions and with literal or embellished illustrations of her memories. The artwork is both effective and affecting, establishing a crucial emotional connection to the characters. The insight provided by Satrapi envelopes religious identity/adherence, gender conformity and equality, refugee adaptation, youth revolution/activism under a powerful regime, and how an artist’s voice is essential in a censored environment.

These important viewpoints alone are enough to make the novel indispensable, but the true magic comes from how all of this is woven into the typical narrative of a developing young adult. Ignorance blooming into enlightenment. Childhood blooming into awkward adolescence. Self-worth. Depression. Rebellion. Expression. Yes, in Marji’s life there is a side of torture and executions--but I dare you to find a middle schooler who doesn’t identify with this character despite their physical and cultural distance. However, in March of this year, the third largest school district in the US (Chicago) had Persepolis removed from classroom shelves in grades 7-10, protecting 7th graders from its “inappropriate” material and requiring further review on how to tackle its weighty issues with students as they move through their education. There is no timeframe currently set for this, or expected date to reintroduce the material into the curriculum. To understand why a public school district is so afraid of a comic book, one need only to experience the honesty of this beautiful literary contribution. The candid reality that is made so accessible to students is not an easy thing to teach. They won’t get bogged down with words and difficult language, instead they will be excited by flipping through a familiar format that just so happens to address the real, heavy parts of humanity.

Perhaps this is what makes Persepolis so dangerous. Not the inherent violence of the tale, not the mention of sex or drugs. There are far more graphic and disturbing images in almost every corner of your typical Chicago teenager’s life. What may be frightening our public schools is the possibility that children will begin to question what they are seeing in their own communities. And what better time to encourage them to do so? What other outlet do young minds have to ask the big questions and be given an opportunity to gather facts? Through the extra/ordinary life of one child in Iran, future generations can open into discussions of global identification, US foreign policy, religious oppression, censoring of information--all while recognizing the inherent human struggle we all face, thereby helping to dismantle racial fear. Fear of the “other”. Bringing things that were Far Away, right Here.

Education and exposure does not directly result in the youth of America adopting radical ideas and organizing. But maybe it could result in a more thorough understanding of the world we live in, and provide students with the tools or incentives to think for themselves. All that said--comics aren’t just for kids, and neither are these takeaways. More adults need to read Persepolis, too.

 

You Should Read Everything (But You Should Really Read Ulysses)

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In honor of Banned Books Week, we’d like to share the following review.  To learn more about Banned Books Week, visit www.bannedbooksweek.org.

Written by Phillip Garcia

When I was in undergrad, a friend of mine wrote a story called “The Dumbest Person Who Ever Liked Ulysses.” The piece was a comedy that followed the day of a gym teacher who was a fan of James Joyce’s masterpiece, while making (then topical) jabs at the TV show 24. As you might guess, the premise was based off a commonly held assumption: you have to be pretty smart to read Ulysses.

Famous grumpy person Jonathan Franzen is probably the loudest person to espouse this point of view, but he’s hardly alone; last year, for example, the increasingly less famous Paulo Caelho declared that Ulysses was harmful to literature. The root of this argument is that Ulysses is hard to read, and, of course, no one wants to read things that are hard to read. Instead, you’re much better off reading The Corrections, The Alchemist, or some other book that doesn’t take a lot of brain power to digest. Leave Ulysses to the writers and the scholars.

Now, I’m not a dumb guy. I’m a writer. I have a MFA. Like my fellow elitist snobs, I divide my time between writing stories, adjuncting at a community college, and watching Murder, She Wrote with my girlfriend. So of course I like Ulysses.

But hear me out. Ulysses doesn’t just appeal to me as a pompous, egghead writer; it also appeals to the small part of me that’s left that isn’t a snobby monster: my heart. Clearly, the book is a triumph of style; Joyce’s uncanny ability to test the boundaries of language are unquestionable (even to grouchy folks). But style aside, Ulysses is full of the strange complex joys and miseries of being human.

Nowhere is that clearer than in the final episode of the book: Molly Bloom’s soliloquy (yes). The scene is a nearly unpunctuated lyrical rambling from a woman who is having an affair despite the fact that she still (spoiler alert) loves her husband. Molly is presented to us as an incredibly rounded character, someone who is worth being emotionally invested in.

Compare her to Joyce’s other creation, Anna Livia Plurabelle, from Ulysses’ less successful little brother, Finnegans Wake (another book you should definitely read, despite its “difficulty” warning). Anna is a walking, talking symbol, representing a number of different concepts that permeate human existence. She’s incredibly amorphous; some critics dispute the fact that she even exists. Anna closes out (and re-starts) Finnegans with a similarly beautiful (and nearly indecipherable) soliloquy, comparable to Molly’s in its execution.

The key difference is that Molly Bloom is a living, breathing character. We are not just moved by the emotion of her words but by the emotion of her being. Strip away the style of Anna, and you have something akin to a rambling essay; strip away the style of Molly, and you still have the essence of human complexity. I do think that what Joyce does with Anna is an incredible feat (that’s another essay for another time), but on a basic, working class level, how am I supposed to emotionally connect to a monomythical symbol of matronly love? At the same time, how can I not relate to the all-too-human contradictions of Molly Bloom?

As a writer, Joyce appeals to me most because the evolution of his writing is so clearly documented. Reading Joyce’s fiction, from Dubliners, to Portrait, to Ulysses, to Finnegans, you can see a writer frustrated with what fiction had to offer him, and you can see him push and break beyond those limitations (admittedly, with varying degrees of success). That has served as a roadmap for my own writing. Why should we as writers be comfortable writing only the same things over and over and over again? How are we to grow and test are abilities if we are content to write only in the same style? Why should we be so scared to fail?

The same should be true of readers: why should we be scared of not understanding? Why should we be content with retreading the same ideas and styles and concepts? Why should we be so scared to read?

 

Ulysses was banned in The United States from 1921-1933.