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John Venegas

John Venegas is a half-Mexican writer and editor, living in the San Fernando Valley, with a BA in creative writing from California State University at Northridge. He is the Lead Editor and Book Review Editor for Angel City Review. He sells pool supplies, works as a handyman, and tutors students to pay the bills. He likes long walks on the beach, going to the opera, and really stupid dad jokes.

Book Review

Reel

by on October 19, 2016

downloadReel, by Tobias Carroll

 

Tobias Carroll’s Reel is a fascinating observation on interconnectedness, cause and effect, and the absurdity of the arbitrary values we imbue upon moments of our lives.

This novel shows a penchant for defying prediction.  Its plot is cleverly arranged such that there are teasing moments where the reader is encouraged to guess at what might come next, only for those guesses to prove completely wrong.  This is not a case of twists for the sake of twists; rather, the sequences of events play out as the lives of two people would, unexpected because real lives are just that.  Despite the connective bookends at the beginning and end of the novel, there is a consistent rejection of storytelling conventions that never calls attention to itself and therefore avoids causing the story to stumble.  Red herrings are raised again and again (one in particular would make Chekhov roll in his grave), but even calling them “red herrings” is problematic, because they are more akin to the details that two obsessive, meaning-driven people like the protagonists would consistently take note of.  We as readers immediately attach meaning and have to confront the fact that any disappointment in the lack of significance for those elements is both our fault and misplaced.  In this, Reel serves as a meta-commentary on art and its consumption, beyond the surface layer the protagonists’ employment.  The novel highlights the subjectivity of experience and how easily such experiences can be manipulated or even randomly and irrevocably altered.

While nothing happens in the novel that would easily fit under the definition of absurdist, it still leaves such a taste in the mouth, which leaves considerable food for thought.  The sequence of the plot plays out in what I can best describe as a romantic comedy in reverse, where the fated meeting of the protagonists occurs early and the story ends with an unexpected, almost deus-worthy connection.  The effect of this is powerful in how it asks the reader to look beyond quick impressions and dismissive leaps to presumptive conclusions.  In its own way, it subtly shows the consequences of not exploring the truth depth in people and how that lack of curiosity and engagement engenders feelings of isolation and stagnation.  At yet, despite that, the characters of the novel are profoundly affected by their interaction, even when that interaction is brief and unpleasant.  Imagine how often your mind discards other people from its memory, even those who momentarily frustrate or obstruct you.  In a true hallmark of quality storytelling, Reel highlights the potential of imagining people complexly, and without being preachy about it.

One moment of particular note is the catalyst for the story’s action.  Early on, Timon, one of the protagonists, attempts to start something like a mosh pit, though his efforts to make it inclusive are highly suspect, and he ends up alone, thrashing and wantonly impacting people for what is probably close to half an hour.  The moment is beautifully symbolic for reasons that will become apparent when you read Reel, but for me, by the end of the novel, one idea inspired by that moment stuck out from the rest.  There is, I think, a subtle class commentary underpinning much of this novel.  We the readers are essentially presented with the effects of boredom and how it drives so much of what those of the middle and upper classes do.  Timon in particular, while acutely aware of his depression and dissatisfaction, seems curiously oblivious to his privilege, especially and most immediately with regards to the fact that he has a wealthy family to react against in the first place.  This is not to take away from very real fear of being coerced into becoming something he does not want to be, but his one man mosh pits still resonate with the idea that his struggle is as much a form of acting out as it is any real expression.  In this, I think Carroll’s work is much more self-aware than other books that have societal disillusionment as a theme, such as Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club.  Timon might not feel the significance of receiving wads of twenties for lunch with his grandfather, but the reader definitely does.

I think the last word should go to Marianne, the novel’s other protagonist.  She is a woman of displacement, or perhaps it is better to say that she is a woman of repeated placement.  If Timon represents a locus of indecisiveness, then Marianne is a commitment to action.  She and Timon are very similar in many ways, especially concerning their mutual uncertainty and their talent for over-analysis, but Marianne possesses a strength that I think the novel is suggesting would do many people like her some good.  She makes decisions for her own reasons, even if she deeply questions those decisions and reasons, rather than allowing herself to be dragged along for the ride and submitting what little control she has.  There are, of course, unintended consequences to this, and she is no less guilty of presumptiveness than Timon, but the same could be said of anyone and anyone’s actions.

Overall, Reel is both an easy read and a deeply philosophical book, which is no meager feat.  It leaves you wanting to consider other people in more substantial ways, if for no other reason that you understand wanting to be treated as a person with depth.

 

Reel is available now through Rare Bird Books.

Book Review

Origins of the Universe and What It All Means

by on October 13, 2016

9781938103919-frontcoverOrigins of the Universe and What It All Means, by Carole Firstman

 

Mob justice, internet shaming, and the court of public opinion – we live in a time where much of what we considered private has been and will be exposed, for better or worse.  Sometimes, it does tremendous good, shedding light on genuine evil that is operating in the shadows.  Other times, it can be a thing of true cruelty, unfairly and brutally harming someone beyond what a transgression might actually call for.  And often times we are wildly inconsistent about what we are or are not willing to excuse.  The real failing in all of this comes when we fail to imagine people complexly, when we give in to the impulse to treat our heroes as infallible and our villains as inhuman.  Carole Firstman’s Origins of the Universe and What It All Means stands in subtle yet brilliant contrast to that overly simplistic worldview, taking its readers to a place where they must consider the full extent of what it means to be human.

On the surface, Origins is a memoir.  But much of the real substance of the novel lies in its exploration of cause and effect, particularly with regard to how they relate to the narrator’s self-image.  The symbolic wealth present here is hard to overstate – the resonance of the biological tree of arachnids, the scientific descriptions of the effects of brain chemistry, and the repeated use of evolution to frame the narrator’s thoughts are clever and powerful.  As we watch the narrator delve into her relationship with her father, we are very much presented with the daughter of a scientist, a daughter who has inherited his near obsessive need for methodology and objective pattern.  She is detail-oriented and precise, turning over her memories again and again to look for patterns or new evidence.  But she is also very much a daughter of her mother, a character who, while not receiving nearly as much exposure as the father, presents an influence just as strong as his.  The narrator cannot simply excuse her father’s behavior, either as a consequence of his mental state or as the product of some ideology.  She has strong, instinctual emotions, and an emotional intelligence that her father seems to lack, and she is forced to come to terms with the internal duality this creates.

Dad created a perfectly detailed but flat rendition of a non-human organism. He created the center of his montage universe. Mom created an imperfect portrait of the woman who came before us, a rendition that oozes with sharp-tongued personality.

Structurally, Origins does a fantastic job of using this duality again and again to energize everything from pacing to plot.  Tangential memories are frequent and always feel vital to the main story being told, without feeling overt in their relevance.  Deeply introspective and confessional moments are cut with descriptions of action that are allowed to speak for themselves.  Conversations and other dialogue are used sparingly but usually with impeccable timing and layer upon layer of meaning.  If the narration can be said to spare little expense in expounding on possibilities, then the dialogue can be said to be both minimalist and extremely effective.  This efficiency extends to the chapters themselves, which are arranged to serve as both independent individual stories and part of a greater whole.  Any one of these chapters could be excised from the text and presented as its own work to proper acclaim.  And yet somehow the overall novel feels like a real novel, rather than an anthology.  The chapters also manage to reinforce the clinical, scientific nature of the text.  In their self-existence, they can stand as small specimens to be examined and studied.

The thing really being examined at the heart of Origins is the narrator’s relationship with her father, and the whole of the experience, from the reader’s standpoint, is beautiful and upsetting.  There are several heartbreaking or genuinely uncomfortable moments where, were this a work of rote fiction, we would likely see the narrator’s father descend into some villainous madness.  But there are moments where he is every bit a hero, whether in something small like picking up his daughter from school or something huge like saving her life in an earthquake.  The narrator genuinely does not know “how to feel” about the man, and she seems to slowly come to a place where she realizes that she must feel all of it in order to remain honest.  This in turn allows her to realize that she in turn is not the “protagonist” of existence, an understanding that most of us fail to acquire.  Firstman’s use of this is exceptionally powerful in a first person novel, and watching her narrator understand that events happen, rather than happen to her, is valuable and profound.

Wait. I take that back. Truth be told, I actually do understand why he is the way he is. What I wonder is why I ended up with such a parent.

I think my favorite contradiction in Origins is the simple rejection of simplicity.  Firstman does not attempt anything revolutionary with language or adorn her words with copious flourish.  The narrative is relatively straightforward in a climate where experimental is increasingly the order of the day.  But like the narrator, I was left humbled and appreciative of the fact that, despite my brain’s attempts otherwise, the universe and its meaning cannot be reduced down to basic concepts such as good and evil.  The novel isn’t claiming that such concepts do not exist or are irrelevant, but it is pointing out that we all exist as a combination of those concepts, and many, many more.

 

Origins of the Universe and What It All Means is available now through Dzanc Books.

Book Review

The Wine-Dark Sea

by on October 6, 2016

sb016_svalina_cover-front-300The Wine-Dark Sea, by Mathias Svalina

 

There is a lot we take for granted.  This is not an indictment of anyone – in this age of information it is impossible for everything to stay relevant to everyone.  But it is something to be accounted for, because its effects can be more profound than we can appreciate.  For example, when William Gladstone counted the mentions of colors in Homer’s epic “The Odyssey”, he found that there wasn’t a single mention of the color we call “blue”.  In fact, there may very well be no ancient Greek stories that contain the word or its concept.  Blue is something we take for granted.  We are surrounded by it every day in our water and in our skies and, despite this near omnipresence, it is rendered by our minds as background information.  It is believed that the Greeks did not have a notion of the color blue, that they might not have even seen what we see as blue.  Homer described the sea in his Odyssey as “wine-dark”, and this is where Mathias Svalina gets the title and ethos of his collection, The Wine-Dark Sea.  But Svalina’s work is so much more than a clever title – it embodies the exposure of that which we take for granted, the information lost in the imperfect nature of communication, and the novelty and significance of seeing the world through another’s eyes.

The structure of The Wine-Dark Sea is our first resonant presentation of the theme and tone of the overall work.  There are seventy-six poems, each no longer than a single page and yet wholly owning their own spaces, each sharing their title with the collection itself.  The effects of this are fascinating.  As one glances at the table of contents, seeing the repeating title over and over again creates a kind of literary metronome that at once links the poems and gives the reader a taste of mystery, encouraging the reader to delve and pry and find out what makes these pieces different from one another.  The physical act of turning or scrolling through pages as you read and seeing the title repeated over different poems, each with unique forms and curious observations, reminds one of the tide, continually rolling in again and again with familiarity and strangely new configurations.

a comb with teeth

bent back.

Around me the white

draws a ring,

a one.

The choices of language and imagery in The Wine-Dark Sea continually reinforces this contradiction in a truly engaging fashion.  Unlike the ancient Greeks, contemporary readers definitely have a concept of blue and the idea of a “wine-dark sea” can be unnatural for many of us, leading to both a beautiful strangeness and a sense of foreboding.  There is an undeniable taste of hope in stanzas such as “My utopia opens / from both directions: the beautiful line, / the glossy rind.”  But dark wine shares colors with blood and infections, noted in lines such as “That rot / at play” and “Yet water / continues to reflect / the black pain / of mountains”.  From poem to poem, and even from line to line, there are repeated and random jumps as the speaker(s) regard their vivid, vibrant surroundings with seemingly contradictory ideas.  There is an attempt to regard the forest and its trees simultaneously, and it stretches the capacity of the speaker(s) to engage with it.  The fear and the need are deeply personal and vulnerably intimate, often confessional or conspiratorial in nature.

While I may be harping on the connection to Homer’s epic too much, I cannot help but feel that there is a strong reflection between the speaker(s) of this poem and the figures of that ancient tale.  If one assumes that there is a single speaker, then The Wine-Dark Sea attempts the same thing that Ulysses did, another attempt to reimagine the struggle of a single individual in the face of vast and daunting forces.  But unlike the Odyssey, this collection and its speaker(s) are acutely aware of the flaws – “When the drugs wear off / I am the car / beneath the tarp.”  Flipping that perspective on its head, if one assumes each poem has its own speaker, then there are poems that sing like sirens and lament like souls trapped in Hades.  And the borders between the those individuals, as well as those between them and the speakers, fall away as quickly as they appear – “In the sun I carry / everyone I know & I / am carried on their backs / They are the wine-dark sea.  And I / am the wine-dark sea.”  In becoming the wine-dark sea, their blood mixes and becomes indistinguishable.  People are rendered into both obstacle and companion, making them immediately complex and forcing the reader to consider their layers.

Though The Wine-Dark Sea is not long, I highly recommend taking your time with it.  Like all quality minimalist poetry, the language here is extremely dense and open to interpretation.  Rather like water, it aggressively resists further compression and yet flows in a way that feels very natural.  The collection does an amazing job at feeling like both a compilation and a complete work, fluidly moving back and forth between the two depending on the angle of perspective.  More than likely, that is one of the primary points of the work.  Light heavily refracts through water, and that water only appears as blue or wine-dark in our minds.  There is nothing inherently “real” to either idea.  We are encouraged to read of the pain and pleasure of The Wine-Dark Sea and be reminded of our uniqueness, both as a thing to be cherished and a force for which we must compensate.

 

The Wine-Dark Sea is available now through Sidebrow Books.

Book Review

Ford Over

by on September 30, 2016

focover-1Ford Over, by John Pluecker

 

If you listen to media coverage, or the insensate fear-mongering demagogues that get the most media attention, immigration is described as, at best, something that requires ephemeral and nebulous “reform” and, at worst, an avenue through which murderers and rapists will gain access to your home.  There is a distinct and intense distrust of the brown “Other”, originating in the “Other’s” brownness and rationalized with all manner of dehumanizing fictions.  In the face of such ignorant and racist brutality, a work like John Pluecker’s Ford Over serves as a poignant, dynamic reminders of the fact that the only cure for such a disease is a dose of perspective.

Ford Over is a collection of hybrid poetry that immerses itself in the concepts and sensations that it explores.  Every single poem has its own unique structure, ranging from simple stanzas to whole paragraph stanzas of prose poetry to cut out words laid out on maps.  Some poems see their lines placed under rigid, uncompromising control, while others are delivered with whimsy worthy of a summer breeze.  Ford Over is not a text seeking to convey a single perspective; rather it presents its material in a wealth of poetry’s beautiful and myriad options, never confining the reader but always asking the reader to consider the unexplored. The text cannot be reduced to a generic amalgamation of preconceived notions, nor can it be forced to fit those notions after the fact.

This careful and yet spontaneous application of varying structures reinforces two of the work’s main focuses: the natural world, and how we interact with it.  To the first, Ford Over repeatedly returns to natural imagery, from “Clouds charge with beige and dark” in “Vista” to “plod plots of earth / into Serpentines” in “Strange,”.  The poetry makes constant use of landscape, giving it life and resonance with the people crossing it, putting the very earth in motion as both motive force and character.  In “Fording the Guadalupe”, the collective “we” fords rivers again and again, adding a certain Sisyphean quality to the effort that echoes the struggles of Mexican immigrants in their journeys.  But there is progress in the poem, along with the suggestion of sacrifice, that leave open the possibility of success.  The power of rivers to change the very land, to guide the presence and efforts of humans, is a textual emphasis very reminiscent of “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” in that, like Hughes’ famous poem, Ford Over utilizes the timeless, elemental power of water as witness and sibling to the enduring people being described.

But human interaction with this vivid natural world is given no less attention through the text.  Ford Over is replete with maps and landscape art, most of which are labeled or even covered in text.  These geographical representations cover from California to Texas and from San Fernando to San Luis, and they outline everything from parts of continents to rolling hillsides.  Often times, such as in the case of “The Hunt” or “Ioyaiene”, these maps are the canvas on which the poetry is delivered, further rendering setting into character.  The effects of this treatment are twofold.  First, in order to explore the poetry, the reader is forced to read the land.  The poetry is literally being shaped by the heart of the place from which it springs.  Poetic structure becomes indistinguishable from borders that we have created and imbued with significance.  Second, the whole arbitrary nature of geographical identification is brought into focus.  To be clear, I use “arbitrary” without its modern negative connotation.  The point is that the definitions and borders which we assign to places and peoples are human constructs, as much as our poetry is.  The artificiality of these labels is only highlighted when the land, as an entity in near perpetual motion, shifts and redefines itself and continues well beyond the scope of our boundaries.

This shifting, tectonic immersion is sealed and assured by the brilliant use of language throughout Ford Over.  In the past, when referring to the use of language, I was usually writing of authors using English to convey their text.  Here, Pluecker transitions back and forth between English and expertly utilized Spanish, simultaneously highlighting cultural differences while slowly welding them together to create something else entirely.  He utilizes “untranslation”, in which he begins translating from Spanish to English but soon abandons the effort, only to return again.  Many works he does not translate at all, from English or from Spanish.  On a personal note, I found this to be an exceptionally powerful tool, as I am half white and half Mexican and have felt the pull of both cultures acutely.  The fluctuation in translation is not a thing of frustration – it serves the further break artificial boundaries and to remind the reader of the boundaries’ artificiality in the first place.

As with so many superb compilations of poetry, Ford Over lends itself to quick reading or to in-depth unpacking, as well as to as much rereading as the heart desires.  It hardly ever speaks directly about the focus of its text, and is made all the better for it.  It allows a reader who might otherwise be walled off by their own assumptions to experience something beyond borders.

 

Ford Over is available now through Noemi Press.

 

Book Review

Here Lies Memory

by on September 13, 2016

memory-front-webHere Lies Memory, by Doug Rice

 

It doesn’t take long, when studying philosophy or the physical sciences, to be confronted with the subjectivity of reality.  We take in the world, the universe, through our senses and make of them what we will, not by choice, but because that is our only option.  We are compelled by and confined to our individual perspectives.  In reading Here Lies Memory by Doug Rice, I experienced an intense immersion within these very concepts.  This novel is a thought-piece on inconstancy of “fact”, a textual representation of the necessity and fallibility of sculpting an image of existence.

Every tactile element in Here Lies Memory resonates with the details of remembrance and perspective.  The story follows two families in Pittsburgh and how the members of these families try to make sense of their circumstances and environment.  The characters vary wildly in their origins and goals, at times seeming to exist purely to contradict one another.  There is rarely a moment where they openly agree with one another, and the questioning of each other’s intentions or recollections is constant.  Similarly, the city itself is an incredibly deep setting, presented almost exhaustive detail, crusted with grit and grime.  But the environment is never meant to disgust or repel.  Instead, it serves to make the city seem labyrinthine, with layer after layer, turn after turn, connection after connection.  It is the brain upon which the lives of the characters fire like the impulses of neurons – brief, bright, and intent on making a lasting impressing.

One of the simultaneously most frustrating and enjoyable parts of this novel is that you can never be entirely sure anything is really happening.  The depth of detail for the characters and the city disguise the decidedly surrealist nature of the text.  Sex workers, elderly men, mothers, and children will stop what they are doing and begin pontificating on the nature of life and the struggle of acquiring what you most desire in this world, without provocation or request.  That is by no means to say that such individuals are not capable of this type of conjecture, but it happens with such consistency that it reinforces the feeling of Pittsburgh as a whole, thinking entity, the pieces of which are locked in an existential conversation that they cannot escape from.  Moreover, as characters deal with the scars of trauma, ranging from the sudden and total disappearance of one’s child, to the horrors of the Vietnam War, to the living nightmare of incestuous rape, their recollections and reimaginings are constantly subjected to obscurity and confusion.  Again, the novel is rather clear in its implication that the traumatic events did in fact happen.  But as the characters try to process the sources of their anguish, they simultaneously fight for clarity and escape, to safeguard and abandon the memories of what happened.  It is a hauntingly effective and realistic depiction of the consequences of abuse.

With its multi-faceted characters, rich setting, and inconstancy of memory, Here Lies Memory only makes sense – and keeps everything in some kind of organization – through its skilled use of language.  The narrator of the novel has a cadence through which it delivers the text, and that cadence is reminiscent of mantra and epic poetry.  More specifically, it reminds me of stories that originated in oral traditions, prior to the advent or widespread use of writing, where the only way to preserve and share such tales was through memorization.  The dialogue of the characters does not abandon this pacing and tone either, further reinforcing the image of one mind in conversation with itself.  The text uses the words “remember” and “remembered” a total of one hundred and twenty seven times, as if it is trying to chant encouragement to itself or its readers or even its characters.  The whole of the novel feels as though the narrator is deeply driven to pass on the story and the stories contained within it, lest any of them or their protagonists suffer the second death of being forgotten.

Mr. Rice has accomplished something incredibly difficult and has done so with superlative skill.  He has made the surreal feel real, he has blurred the lines between the macrocosm and the microcosm, and he has somehow managed to contribute to the conversation of trauma and abuse in a manner that is not only unprecedented but which feels entirely necessary.  Here Lies Memory is a fantastic work that will require multiple reads to fully process and will never make you regret picking it up.

 

Here Lies Memory is available now through Black Scat Books.

Book Review

The Last Wolf & Herman

by on September 8, 2016

unnamedThe Last Wolf, by Laszlo Krasznahorkai

Herman, by Laszlo Krasznahorkai

At the outset of this review, I must admit to a bias: I am predisposed in favor of audacity and the blending of chaos and symmetry.  This is not a perspective that all potential readers will share with me and I can say, quite objectively, that the writing of Laszlo Krasznahorkai is not for all potential readers.  But for those of you that enjoy brilliant use of language, clever re-purposing of convention, and seamless immersion into vivid perspectives, I dare you to find better than The Last Wolf and Herman, two novellas written by Laszlo Krasznahorkai and translated by George Szirtes and John Batki, respectively.

The Last Wolf is the sentence of a man who, through a case of mistaken identity, is invited to write the story of the last wolf of Extremadura, a region in Spain.  You read that line correctly.  This is the sentence of that man.  The entire work, spanning seventy pages, is written as a single, unbroken, grammatically correct sentence.  In creative writing classes and workshops, authors are perpetually warned against ridiculousness such as this.  They are told that readers do not want to devote the thought and energy required to follow, much less unpack, a work that so thoroughly contradicts traditional narrative structure.  To hell with that.  The Last Wolf is a work of true art, operating under its constraint with such a rigor and life that it seems hardly bound to any rules at all.  The contours of this sentence are shaped in such a way that an experienced reader and writer can actually see the craft as it unfolds, as if watching Krasznahorkai mold everything into its proper place.  And despite there being only one sentence, the narrative and the manner in which it is delivered never feels incomplete.  Pace changes, social commentary, and all of the necessary pieces of the plot’s mosaic are presented as if the story were a mystery, asking the reader to truly participate in the creation of this work.  In the moments where the text slows and looms toward a possible break in thought or an “appropriate” period, it suddenly rushes off again on a new train of ideas, bound in almost perpetual motion.  Which, incidentally, keeps the read from ever being boring.  Of course, the constraint is not merely there for its own sake – it helps to wonderfully encapsulate the perspective of the narrator, who is caught on some seemingly inevitable and relentless descent in perspective, lost in his own melancholy and frustration, so desperate to escape it that he seeks to live someone else’s lie.  He knows that his story, and his part of this story, must come to an end, and so he drags it out to such a length that you wonder if he might not have died after that first and only period.

By contrast, Herman is, on the surface, a more traditional pair of stories.  It consists of “The Game Warden” and “The Death of a Craft”, two short stories so wildly different that I would have believed anyone who had told me they were written by different authors.  It is as if Krasznahorkai, after writing The Last Wolf, then set out to show his grasp of familiar narrative, as if to retroactively justify his previous boldness.  And I can genuinely say I enjoyed these stories even more than the larger novella.  Both stories provide a wealth of commentary on human excess and existential motivation, but they approach the topics from entirely separate angles.  “The Game Warden” could almost be classified as a satirical take on the hero’s journey, if not for its profoundly serious conclusion.  A simple story about a hunter and groundskeeper, the titular Herman, trying to hold back the advance of nature quickly and systematically devolves into a visceral, brutal examination of human arrogance, self-righteousness, and willful ignorance.  “The Death of Craft” is one of the finest examples of atmospheric writing I have ever read, with the use of language and narrative tone so perfectly encapsulating a hedonistic mindset that I found myself feeling wanton and unclean as I read.  The story involves the same general setting and chronology of events as “The Game Warden”, but it does so through the eyes of a traveling group of sensationalist dilettantes, with perspectives about as far from Herman’s as it is possible to have.  Krasznahorkai’s chameleonic skill in writing such vastly different narrations is incredible, immersive, and engrossing.

Do yourself a favor and pick up these companion pieces.  They are not long, but they are so well written that they hold up and present fascinating value whether they are read in a quick sitting or whether they are deliberately unpacked and interpreted.  I could not be more impressed by my introduction to Mr. Krasznahorkai’s work, and I cannot wait to read more.

 

The Last Wolf and Herman are available for preorder now from New Directions.

Book Review

On The Edge

by on September 1, 2016

41p6CV9+ABL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_On the Edge, by Rafael Chirbes

Translated by Margaret Jull Costa

 

It is perhaps easier to see the beauty in art when that art deals with a subject that is, for lack of a better term, beautiful.  On the Edge, by Rafael Chirbes, does not deal in what most of us would consider beautiful.  But there is no denying the skill, emotive eloquence, and resonant power of this book.  It openly attacks youth-worshiping culture and sentimental idealism in a way that demands the reader listen, laying down the gauntlet after having slapped the face of naïve ignorance.  It manages to be both allegorical and extremely direct, doggedly rejecting subtlety but somehow rife with commentary and implications that take multiple reads to fully process.  This is the kind of book that, given its density and tone, you will want to reward yourself for having finished, and yet that same reward may very well be another crack at the text.

One of the best things about truly skilled authors is that, when they break “the rules” of writing, they do so in ruthlessly effective fashion, making their violations serve a purpose and enhance the atmosphere of the work.  Chirbes’ version of this is his mercilessly long paragraphs.  Whole sections of pages, whole pages, and even multiple pages can be taken up by the same interconnected, unbroken thought process.  Even to an experienced reader, this can be intimidating.  But the way to make this style work to the author’s advantage is to make excellent use of language and make the block feel authentic to the speaker.  Esteban, the novel’s protagonist, is bitter and desperate and intelligent and utterly lost.  His sentences are rarely complicated but they are delivered one after the other in otherwise unbroken litanies expressing his grievances and observations.  These paragraphs possess a deceptive and clever flow that both speed the process of reading them and immediately convey to the reader that Esteban has had enough time to carefully hone his thoughts in a highly organized and extensive essay on society.

Those thoughts are rarely unclear.  A reader can turn to any page of the text and pull something biting and poignant – “If money serves any purpose at all, it at least buys innocence for your descendants”.  But the lack of ambiguity is not a hindrance in the novel.  If anything, it assists the reader’s digestion.  The point is made, and the text moves on.  But that is not to say that there is not room for interpretation.  Moreover, while the novel gives us ample amounts of Esteban’s perspective, it doesn’t seem entirely settled on the idea that he is “right”.  For example, consider the following quote: “The easiest way to attract attention is to do extravagant, stupid things.  Standing out from the crowd because of your work is a lot harder.”  On the surface, the point is simple and particularly relevant in an age where Kim Kardashian and Farrah Abraham get more attention than most genuine, supremely talented artists.  But is this quote the resulting point of view of a bitter old man who watches as wealth and culture have left him behind?  Or is it the voice of someone who has suffered greatly from a system that extends far beyond his control?  An argument can be made for both, or neither.

Special note should be given for one of the most powerful and difficult moments in the book, in which Esteban gives his elderly, disabled father a bath.  The experience is described in intimate, uncomfortable detail that would be familiar to any who have dealt with such a situation before.  This is the book’s crescendo, where the sum total of its philosophy and perspective can be found in a multi-layered event.  And while it is perhaps the most strenuous part of the book to read, it deserves the utmost care while reading.  The relationship between generations of families and of nations, the human needs for understanding and respect, and the visceral, grimy nature of the book’s perspective on the world are all addressed as part of an intense metaphor.  It many ways, it leaves the strongest and most lasting impression.

Mr. Chirbes has written many stellar novels, and this definitely deserves to be counted among them.  On The Edge presents a demanding critique of modern Western society, including culture and economics, in such a way that it avoids the common pitfalls of soapbox preaching and not trusting the reader to common to their own conclusions.  The book is not for those who do not value a challenge, but, in all honesty, why wouldn’t we?

 

On The Edge is available now through New Directions Publishing Company.

 

 

Book Review

Alien Weaving

by on August 25, 2016

alien-weaving-cover-350x450Alien Weaving, by Will Alexander

 

In the Allegory of the Cave, Plato writes about a man who has literally added an entire dimension to his thinking.  The man’s eyes are opened to the world’s depth and complexity in a way that nearly blinds him twice.  And when he tries to share his newfound knowledge with his friends, they reject him and it in favor of their comforting darkness.  I cannot help but think of the Allegory of the Cave when I read Alien Weaving, by Will Alexander.  The protagonist of the story, a woman named Kathrada, reads as if she is stepping into the glare of the sun, her skin and retinas searing but vehemently resisting destruction, as if through sheer determination she can transcend physical limitation.  She goes on a psychological and metaphysical journey that somehow encompasses the entire planet and yet never truly leaves the confines of her cacophonous mind.  The result of this transformative trial of endurance is that she becomes a prophet of perspective.

The first thing that takes hold of you as you read Alien Weaving is the language.  From the first paragraph, the complexity and the intricacy of the word choice and sentence structure are of paramount importance.  It could said that this is the case for any work of literature, regardless of quality, but the difference here is that Alexander is using every vocabulary tool the English language can provide to describe the sensations and thought processes that Kathrada experiences.  It transcends pretention through sublime specificity, and it makes no apology for its quest to find the place where language and reason meet.  In fact, the closest thing to an apology is a demand of the reader: “You must excuse the complexity of my aboriginal fulguration, of my feral-first seeing.”  And, indeed, you must, if you have any hope of traversing the text.  Make no mistake – this work is demanding, challenging, and complex.  It is not for casual reading, winding down, or clearing the mind.  Kathrada has had her mind opened to the hypercomplexity of the cosmos and its vast interconnectedness, and she has no reason to wait for those who lack curiosity.  The words pour from her like light that simply cannot be contained by her physical vessel.

But for all of her intellectual apotheosis, Kathrada is still remarkably human, and that fact keeps Alien Weaving accessible and relatable through the myriad vistas and experiences.  As so many revelations are, the concepts that she encounters and describes are alternately beautiful and horrifying.  The aloof distance in the tone (made ironic by the use of the 1st person) buffers tragedies in a fashion reminiscent of Vonnegut – “When I renounced the Christ child as phasma I was no longer spared by believers, I was plunged into thickets of anathema, and then labeled as protectress of infernos.”  The descriptive terms are vivid and poignant, but the many sentences like these are spoken of in remembrance, almost as if they had happened to someone else, a possibility that, given the transformation of the character, is philosophically justifiable.  This distance cracks more than once, however, giving the reader critical insights – “I am an exile because of this fierce resistance I carry about me.  I refuse to be a resident within the statutes of crime.”  Lines like this are delivered with sudden venom and a flavor of defensiveness as if, even post-evolution, she still feels an instinctive impulsive to guard and justify herself.  Moreover, the work’s repeated invocation of the concept of vertigo is very telling.  Kathrada is overtaken by it more than once.  As she slips in and out of the flow of time, across the wide expanses of nations, and between schools of thought, she seems to be able to sense the sheer distance she has traveled and can traveled.  She finds it nauseating as often as any other descriptor.  Whether her alchemical reshaping is, as of yet, incomplete, or she exists in some Christ-like duality of human and divine is left for the reader to decide.

Alien Weaving is an amazing text and something of a love letter to the act of writing.  When Kathrada opens the text by stating “I create.”, she means that on multiple levels.  She understands now that, as a writer dedicated to her craft and crafted by her experiences, she possesses the tools and capacity to shape reality itself.  Moreover, she understands the responsibility that comes with such power, but she does not let it burden her.  She weaves in spite of the wounds, allowing blood the mix into the tones, forsaking the pristine in favor of the real.  Mr. Alexander has presented a masterclass in the use of language and the interconnectedness of emotion, thought, and existence.  I would encourage anyone who dreams of being a writer to engage this text again and again, so that they might see what can be achieved through choice alone.

 

Alien Weaving is now available through Anonymous Energy.

Book Review

The Information Crusher

by on August 12, 2016

informationcrusherThe Information Crusher, by John Colasacco

 

Many of our stories follow a certain structure, one that feels as though it fits with causality, or rather what we wish causality meant.  But slipping out from underneath such a definition can lead to experiencing a profound freedom of perspective.  John Colasacco’s The Information Crusher is a case study in such an experience.  The text is presented not as a puzzle with pieces meant to be rearranged “correctly” by the reader, but as the fragments of a shard of four-dimensional reality, intentionally smashed and left to create patterns based on existential whim.  No judgment is forced on these patterns.  They are allowed to be the product of random chance or the careful machinations of fate; sometimes both.  The fragments have connective tissue that is readily apparent, but that tissue is not so binding as to prevent the reader from creating her or his own meaning.

If that point sounds intellectually vague, it is because The Information Crusher is so open to personal interpretation that any attempt to rigidly define it is terribly vulnerable to counterattack by contradiction.  Is this book written in prose, poetry, or prose poetry?  Are there multiple perspectives in the novel or is it a singular mind smashed into tense and time fragments like the text itself?  Is the narrator only one of the characters or the author in some grandly mutated autobiography?  Does the narrator address the reader or one of the characters, or does the act of reading the text make require the reader to become a character in Colasacco’s story?  The real power of this book lies in, rather effortlessly, making the reader ask all of these questions while retaining both interest and intrigue.  The whole of The Information Crusher explores the fluidity of identity, be it with respect to sexuality, gender, childhood, parenthood, siblinghood, friendship, cosmology, or biology, and it consistently remarks on the inadequacy of outdated definitions – “In the middle of the night you were amazed your mother’s clothes would go onto you just as easily as your own”.  There is a story in the text, one of jealousy and consequence and need for acceptance, but discovering that story is akin to seeing the pieces of a former vase present in a mosaic.

There is a moment in the mosaic in which one of the primary characters falls off of a bridge that, for reasons made apparent through the novel, has a very direct metaphorical resonance.  It is not entirely clear whether or not the fall happens before or after the events that make the fall poignant, but that is part of the point.  The character injures his arm and says “But I wouldn’t admit to myself it was broken.  I could see and hear that it was broken, but I refused to accept it.  It felt like air blowing into a part of my armpit it had never touched before, nothing worse than that”.  In the interest of creating subjective meaning from a novel that embodies subjective perspective, I see that quote as a critical theme running through the text.  The character, a proxy for us, cannot accept that his body, his reality, his sense of self is broken.  He has been presented with the sharpness of circumstance, that existence is not the neatly structured arrangement he took for granted, and he refuses to accept it – until, of course, he later passes out from the pain and injury that he refuses to acknowledge.  This whole novel can be seen as a struggling and, at times, very brutal effort to escape from underneath a dominant ideology, as well as the violent, ignorant, and instinctive resistance against such movement.

This book deserves multiple reads from each of its readers, and readers of this book deserve to give themselves multiple angles from which it experience it.  Like a puzzle with disfigured pieces or an unfastened mosaic, The Information Crusher paints a new picture with each pass, many of which I doubt even Colasacco intended.  It is one of the most thoroughly engaging novels I have ever read, not because of immersion or agreeable tone, but because it has the frankness and trust in the intelligence of its readers required to make demands of them.  It challenges you, in what language it chooses to include and leave out, in how it presents itself as a beautifully and intentionally unfinished idea, and in what river bank it deposits you on at the end.

 

The Information Crusher is available now through Spuyten Duyvil.

Book Review

Baho!

by on August 9, 2016

9525a5_ab5c974884a648cb865219e102fe9de2Baho! by Roland Rugero

 

There is something enchanting about the dichotomy of simultaneous simplicity and complexity.  The intertwining of the two, I believe, creates some of the best writing ever made.  In a time when Hollywood and many publishing houses are on the perpetual search for the next apocalyptic franchise, the beauty of a focused, microcosmal narrative is too often overlooked and undervalued.  There is no shortage of such narrative or such beauty in Roland Rugero’s Baho!, a novel that, despite (or perhaps because of) its brevity, provides an enthralling and profound slice of life.

Baho! ends almost as quickly as it begins.  The novel is not even a full one-hundred pages and yet it tells a story that weaves across and around generations from Kanya, a village in Burundi.  Time is an ever malleable concept in the novel, with the story’s plot and narrative structure delivered out of chronological order.  The narrative jumps between perspectives and between present, past, and future tenses.  In the vein of proper poetry, words are never wasted on the page.  The word choice is never pretentious and the sentence structure is never boring, leading to that rarest of combinations – quick pacing and rich language worth unpacking.  All of these effects flow together to leave the reader feeling as if no time has passed at all, whether measuring the minutes spent reading or following the lives of the characters.  This is beautifully exemplified by the novel’s use of the Kirundi word “ejo”, which can be translated into English as either “yesterday” or “tomorrow”.  There is very little difference between the two in Baho!, lending the story a cyclical nature that is pregnant with commentary on human nature.

And if Baho! has a great deal to say about time and the repetition of events, then it has a veritable oration waiting for patriarchy.  All of the horrific events mentioned in the novel, ranging from war and murder to rape and domestic abuse, are laid at the feet of a deeply sexist system.  Feminine sexual “purity” is regarded as a matter of life, death, and eternal salvation for the village of Kanya.  When a suspected rapist is caught, the group of judges that have taken justice into their own hands cry out “Let’s go, men!  We must defend ourselves!”, as if masculine honor and pride are of higher priority than personage of the potential victim.  The female characters, especially the poignantly unnamed, one-eyed woman, provide ironic and unintentional commentary on the mixing of alcohol and perceived emasculation.  Sexist ideology is so ingrained that the one-eyed woman, herself an otherwise strong-willed character, recites a story for children that can only be seen as romantic through male-dominated lenses that treat women as wares.

Rugero’s skill is doubly apparent in moments such as this because the reader is never instructed on how to think about the issue – he merely presents a sequence of events and allows them to speak for themselves.  All of the social commentary present in Baho! is expressed in this way.  The scars of war, the twisting of morality to justify fear and vengeance, and the very human need for scapegoats are all addressed as part of an interconnected landscape, not pleading to be the center of attention but also impossible to ignore.  This, in turn, plays perfectly alongside Rugero’s use of form and structure.  Just as is the case with his use of time, Rugero’s style alternates between all available to him, from Western hero’s journey to African oral tradition.  The novel tries on different presentations like a person tries on clothes, sampling the comedic, the absurd, the tragic, and even a pinch of deus ex machina which, rather than detract from the story, provides its own commentary on the nature of family and obligation.

I imagine that the comparisons this novel will draw are going to be multitudinous, but I am reminded most pleasantly of both Chinua Achebe and William Faulkner as I read it.  Baho! is a story of pride and masculinity run amok, of the aftermath of war and what it means to have definitions forced upon you by society.  It is a beautiful breath of perspective from the type of voice that we in “Western society” so rarely hear (oftentimes because we willfully ignore such voices).  And as the translator, Christopher Schaefer, so aptly points out, Baho! does not spend its time on the wider conflict between the Hutus and the Tutsis.  Rugero seems to understand that many of his potential readers have, rather shamefully, become desensitized to large-scale statistical depictions of the violence in the region.  So he has narrowed our focus down to a few people, a single village at the widest, and made us see the people as people, rather than numbers in a news report.  I highly recommend this novel, for the strength of its story, for the depth of its characters and commentary, and for the fact that you probably have read nothing it like it before.

 

Baho! is available now through Phoneme Media.

Book Review

Neon Green

by on July 28, 2016

51riiFrjYQL._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_Neon Green by Margaret Wappler

 

Most any reader can come up with a circumstance in which descriptions cannot do a novel justice.  When I was asked to review Margaret Wappler’s Neon Green, I was told it had aliens and environmentalists and cancer, and I took the book with one eyebrow raised.  Now, in all fairness, this book possesses all three of those things in ample supply.  But I have not regretted taking the book for an instant.  Neon Green is not science-fiction adventure, or science-fiction horror, or a morality tale on the treatment of the planet.  At its heart, the novel is a questioning of beliefs, of self-importance, and of our multitudinous blind spots.

The strength of this novel lies in its use of little absurdities to camouflage the poignant realism at its heart.  The presence and occasional perspective of the aliens are jarring interruptions to the mundane lives of the Allen family.  The agreement between the federal government and the aliens to allow visitation through sweepstakes is as ridiculous as it is random.  The suddenness of Cynthia’s cancer and its lack of concrete explanation seem to be products of an author trying to create conflict for her characters.  And yet none of these are true.  Despite their self-absorption, the Allen family is forced to come to terms with the notion that they are part of a larger universe, and a universe that is not going to behave in patterns that they would find acceptable.  Wappler sets the stage for some grand conspiracy reminiscent of that in “To Serve Man” by Damon Knight, but there is no forced payoff or glaringly obvious “aha!” moment.  Everything may happen for a reason, but that reason is beholden to no one’s ability to understand it.

The commentary provided in this denied resolution is brilliant and powerful.  It takes the Allens, especially Ernest, a long time to arrive at their understanding.  Aliens have been visiting for some time and yet Ernest’s primary focus is about his involvement in the local Earth Day celebration.  After Cynthia’s diagnosis, he becomes convinced that he is on the trail of, at best, a gross oversight, and, at worst, a terrible machination.  Through his example, the reader is driven to think beyond their figurative and literal spheres of influence, to question their sense of self importance.  Ernest’s quest to root out pretenders to the environmental cause and Gabe’s obsession with posers and quality musical tastes are biting critiques of what it means to be a “believer”, or an activist, or to have passions about a particular topic.  They force readers to ask themselves where true dedication ends and using a cause for status begins.

In order to accomplish something like this while avoiding heavy-handedness or soap-box preaching, an author has to carefully weave the messages into the story in such a way that the reader only realizes what they have seen well after actually reading it.  Wappler achieves this through fantastic control of language, scene, and pacing.  The book opens with description that is extremely vivid and pregnant with commentary, but delivered in a tone that suggests sterile observation and a heightened sense of being watched.  Then, without visible effort, it flows into an over-the-shoulder view of Ernest and his thought process, which describes the most mundane details with a nervous passion that are immediately telling about his character.  This flow happens with stellar ease throughout the book, and it allows Wappler to introduce things, like alien visitation sweepstakes, in a way that causes the reader to do a satisfying double take.  At the same time, Wappler breaks from several writing conventions to drive home the nature of the universe that she is describing.  White space breaks happen right in the middle of scenes, with no indication of time or perspective change, emphasizing the futility of trying to contain events into narrative cause and effect.  Ernest, the “hero” and protagonist, is continually denied an enemy that he can fight, or even an enemy that can regard him, and his attempts to create one only do him harm.

It is no easy feat to write something that is both simple in its delivery and yet vividly complex in its meaning, but Wappler has pulled it off.  And in that very act, there is yet more commentary.  The novel itself is an exercise in looking at the universe not from the perspective of a protagonist from some grand, carefully plotted story, but from the point of view of one piece of a larger cosmos.  It suggests that readers should take a moment, fight the instinct to take the familiar for granted, and appreciate the scale and depth of what lies around them.  And while the novel fully acknowledges the fear and strain of such a change in understanding, it also delivers a taste of the awe and majesty on the other side.

 

Neon Green is available now through Unnamed Press.

Book Review

Mighty Mighty

by on July 19, 2016

61F0kS8DGCLMighty Mighty, by Wally Rudolph

 

It is easy to point out that the stories we tell each other are, at least in part, signs of the times in which we live.  Our fears and dreams play out in fictions that we tell ourselves are not real but which rely on plausibility and relatability to drive their observations home.  But less common, and I think more poignant, are those stories that do not pass judgment on the scenarios they present.  Mighty Mighty is such a story.

Within the pages of Mighty Mighty, questions about class, race, justice, parenthood, siblinghood, friendship, sexuality, escapism, faith, honor, responsibility, and fate appear constantly and without reservation.  The text shows no fear or reluctance in showing the foul sides of its characters and of its setting.  The story presents itself in effective language that is meant to put the gravity of the circumstances in the most direct terms.  And amidst this stoic delivery,  achieves its most impressive feat: it never insists upon itself.  It is unfortunately common for stories like this to become preachy, existing as little more than soapboxes for their authors.  Mr. Rudolph lets his story tell itself, never asking us to cheer or deride his protagonists, never telling us how we should feel as events unfold.  The reader is presented with people that feel very real in their virtues and their flaws and then left to come to their own subjective conclusions.

Of all the stories I have reviewed, I find Mighty Mighty the most difficult to discuss without revealing too much information.  I specifically chose not to sample the most quote-worthy material for this review precisely because the language is used so efficiently that any quotes could be major spoilers.  This is an ensemble work, with a cast of characters that would easily be at home on The Wire or in a Dashiell Hammett novel, and they truly are the strength of the novel.  The manner in which their stories repeatedly interweave and jettison away from one another is completely engaging and keeps a pace that, when combined with the use of language, allows the reader to devour the story.  Any reader with a modicum of experience knows that the tales of the various characters presented are going to intersect on some level and at some point.  But the delivery of information, the sequencing of events, and how Mr. Rudolph subtly plays with time are handled so well that neither the ending nor the critical points along the way are revealed before their time.  People often complain about the lack of unique stories available to them, and to them I would hold up Mighty Mighty as a stellar example of how a story can be familiar and refreshing; of how a story you think you have heard before can be told in a thoroughly effective and engaging way.

I dare to say that most of us are at a crossroads with the social issues that Mighty Mighty presents: the supposed virtue or vice of the police, the moral standing of those who some call addicts and others call junkies, crime and culpability, etc.  This novel provides something all too precious at such crossroads: conjecture and discussion without the screaming and the shouting.  It is a thoughtful and evocative questioning of assumptions and beliefs that are overdue for such attention.  And that questioning is anything but rhetorical.

 

Mighty Mighty is available now through Soft Skull Press.

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