The OF Blog

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Adam Sternbergh, Shovel Ready

I kill men.  I kill women because I don't discriminate.  I don't kill children because that's a different kind of psycho.

I do it for money.  Sometimes for other forms of payment.  But always for the same reason.  Because someone asked me to.

And that's it.

A reporter buddy once told me that in newspapers, when you leave out some important piece of information at the beginning of a story, they call it burying the lede.

So I just want to make sure I don't bury the lede.

Though it wouldn't be the first thing I've buried. (pp. 4-5)

Noir is perhaps the most distinctive literary genre.  Its staccato sentence bursts, fragments compounding, syntactical gaps left for readers to fill in the blanks – these are some of its narrative trademarks.  It is also a very violent style, as the short, sharp sentences convey this sense of abruptness, of some force crashing into another.  It is a style that occasionally appeals to me, although there are times that less is not more, that I am left wanting some of those gaps filled in order to ensure that I do not miss an important bit of information. 

Adam Sternbergh's debut novel, Shovel Ready, combines noir elements with a post-nuclear, post-apocalyptic setting.  Spademan, a former garbage man who is now a hit man years after a "dirty bomb" and related terrorist attacks devastated New York City's core, has been presented with an attractive case:  kill the daughter of a megachurch pastor.  Yet he cannot bring himself to do this after discovering that she is pregnant and that her own father was the one who impregnated her.  His mission turns from killing her to protecting her and exacting revenge on her father.  It is not the most original of tales, yet sometimes entertaining stories can emerge from stock material.

The narrative depends upon Spademan's point-of-view to carry the brunt of the load.  Certainly this is a fascinating character, as his backstory slowly emerges in his narrative.  Hard, yes, but with a surprisingly funny dark sense of humor, as seen in this aside after a previous hit job:

The most holy relic, by the way, is the Eucharist.  The communion wafer that's the literal flesh of Christ, transmuted the moment you receive it on your tongue.

Like I told you, I took First Communion.

If you believe in that sort of thing.

Edible flesh.

The holiest ritual.

But don't worry.

I didn't eat the lawyer.

But I did take some souvenirs. (p. 168)

If it weren't for this macabre humor, Shovel Ready easily could have collapsed under the weight of its artifices.  The complex, meandering path from Spademan's initial encounter with the daughter to his eventual arrival at the pastor's compound takes some getting used to, as Sternbergh jumps back and forth in narrative time.  The post-nuclear setting felt a bit too contrived, as though it were only a mere plot device in order to establish the gruesome environs in which Spademan operates.  Yet despite this sense of a stock, underdeveloped setting, Shovel Ready largely works because the Spademan character is so fascinating that the reader almost looks forward in anticipation to his next witty repartée after he kills another victim.

This violence, although largely shown in its aftermath rather than the moment of its brutal occurrence, can be a bit much at times.  However, there is something to be said for narrative and audience expectations and for the most part, Shovel Ready's violence is within the norms of noir literature.  Certainly it is not gratuitous violence, at least not in the sense of there being relatively more descriptions paid to the deaths than to other events.  Yet the deaths are narrated in such a deadpan fashion that the reader may find herself shivering slightly after contemplating just what sort of personality type Spademan might actually be.  I myself have conflicted feelings about how this character is portrayed:  I get the point behind him and find his witticisms amusing, but part of me is disturbed by just how casual the violence is at times.  It's not something that detracts from the flow of Sternbergh's narrative, but it is something that made me pause a few times in reading it.

Despite this slight unease, Shovel Ready is one of the better-written recent noir novels that I've read.  The action moves at a crisp pace, only occasionally getting bogged down in establishing Spademan's backstory.  Spademan's characterization is very well-done, while the others could have used a slight more fleshing out to make them even better.  Sternbergh's prose is effective, helping raise Shovel Ready above the clichéd story it so easily could have been.  A very good debut effort, with only a few minor flaws marring it.  Highly recommended to those who enjoy noir fiction.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Finally resumed working on a long-delayed translation project

Just a brief note:  I am planning on devoting some time in the coming weeks to completing a translation project of a story collection that I believe is now in public domain.  When I finish the first story and have revised it, I'll check and see about posting here.  My ultimate goal is to sometime in the next couple of years get this published, so I might need to keep this under wraps some, just in case I don't go the self-publishing route.

But it is nice at least to have a pleasant diversion again to distract me from some stressful situations in my professional life.  That is all, more or less.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Andrés Neuman, Talking to Ourselves

Yesterday I didn't feel so good, I tried to take a nap, then your mum came back, I had a bad night, bah, we both did, I've been thinking a lot lately about when she and I met, it's amazing to think we might have lived different lives, a life without the other, the first thing I did after I told your granddad I was leaving the company was to enrol at the university, and it was a big shock for him, you know?, my father was one of those men who chop cheese with one stroke, you know?  that's where I met your mum, she didn't take much notice of me at first, how can I put it, she was more interested in rich kids, she denies it, we never agree about that part of the story, then luckily she started taking more of an interest in the lousy students, I had spotted her from day one, long before we started dating, do people still say dating?, maybe I sound old-fashioned, your mum would get straight A's, you know what she's like, heaven forbid a B, I used to scrape through, I never went near a classroom, as soon as I found out your mum wrote short stories I quickly did some research, oh yes, dear, I crammed for that all right, it's called doing field work. (p. 26, iPad iBooks e-edition, translated by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia)

Spanish-Argentine writer Andrés Neuman seems to be one of those writers who does not revisit previous works and styles, even when they worked for him.  Talking to Ourselves, his recently-translated short novel, differs significantly from his 2009 Premio Alfaguara-winning Traveler of the Century in structure, form, and content.  It is a short (160 pages in print, 130 on my iPad), compact novel of loss told through the eyes of three family members.  Yet despite these differences, Talking to Ourselves is perhaps just as good as its celebrated predecessor.

Talking to Ourselves deals with the father Mario's impending death due to terminal cancer.  Bent on recording as much of himself as he can for his ten-year-old son Lito to listen to later, Mario's chapters here are transcriptions of recordings similar to the one quoted above.  He decides that before he is too ill to travel, that he will take young Lito to the beach, hoping to provide one last positive memory of the two of them together for his son to cherish.  Lito's chapters, narrated as though he were speaking directly to us, reflect his coming to terms with his father's illness.  By themselves, their chapters would make for an elegantly told, poignant account of mortality and how fathers and sons come to terms with terminal illness.

Yet the true center of Talking to Ourselves is the wife/mother, Elena.  Her reactions to Mario's illness display a range of conflicted emotions that force the reader to set aside any notions that this is another sappy, Hallmark TV-esque telenovela.  She finds herself distancing herself from Mario, even going so far as to beginning a sexual relationship with his doctor, Ezequiel.  But this is but one point on the spectrum of her conflicted emotions:  she also turns to reading literature, meditating on what Chekhov, Atwood, Aira, Bolaño, Marías, Garner, and others have to say about life and loss.  As she integrates their written thoughts into her own patchwork emotional defense, the story becomes deeper, as Neuman teases out deeper, more unsettling layers out of this compact novel of loss.

The prose for the most part is superb.  Each character possesses his or her own unique style.  Whereas Mario's chapters possess all of the hems and haws of transcribed recordings, Lito's direct yet naïve thoughts serve to provide a sense of innocence and exuberance to counter-balance the darker turns in his parents' chapters.  Elena's chapters are more philosophical in tone, keeping with tune with the works that she quotes and also with her wavering emotional state as she tries to forge a new life in preparation for the end of her husband's.  There are times perhaps where possibly a little bit more could have been said by each of the three, but for the most part, it is their silences and circumspect speech that supplement the revelations that they do make, creating a short yet intricately-woven narrative tapestry that should appeal to most readers. 

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Here are a few more books I plan on reviewing this coming week

Managed to get most of this past week's planned reviews written (the two I didn't, I'll try to review Sunday), with another added to the mix.  This coming week, I'd like to review most, if not all, of the following (not in planned review order):

Andrés Neuman, Talking About Ourselves

Lily King, Euphoria

Cara Hoffman, Be Safe I Love You

Adam Sternbergh, Shovel Ready

Joyce Carol Oates, Carthage

Nadifa Mohamed, The Orchard of Lost Souls

Perhaps I'll again swap out 1-2 of these, as I may finish Richard Thomas's anthology, The New Black or William T. Vollmann's Last Stories and Other Stories.  Conceivably, I could also finish Catherine Lacey's Nobody is Ever Missing or Paula Bomer's Inside Madeleine and decide to review one or both of those immediately afterward as well.  If not, these will certainly be listed for the following week.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Scott Cheshire, High as the Horses' Bridles

But first they sit.  They face the empty stage, awaiting the opening song and prayer, the first speaker of the day to take the stage.

Not just any stage beneath any painted sky.  Up there, you'll find no less than the heavens of Venice.  You want proof – the famed Rialto Bridge, one tenth of its original size, a reconstruction, spans the top width of the stage.  The favorite bridge in a City of Bridges, burned once, twice fallen, and both times a crowd collapsed with it.  Down they fell under the waters of Venice.  Which means the audience, here, in the grand Queens Howard Theater, tucked on a wide city street between a mechanic's garage and a Mexican takeout, are assembled in something like a dry canal.  More than four thousand worshippers sitting, and anxiously waiting for the day's first prayer for His Kingdom Come on Earth as It Will Be in Heaven, and the long falling rain of salvation, falling stars, blackened sun, and fiery burning rain, for the coming of His Holy War and Christ.  They pray for Armageddon, End of Ends, Great Bringer of all meaning in Death.  And the worshippers are both a sum and parts, a throng, a sea of people beneath a decorative replica of the real-world Rialto.  But, sure as any day, you can walk this bridge spanning the Howard's stage, and some actually do, mostly maintenance men tending to the delicate bridge's woodwork.  Like a painted crown it spans the stage beneath the stars of Venice, City of Bridges, of Water, of Light.

Howard Theater, Theater of Lights, every heavenly star is here. (pp. 4-5)

For many of us today, there is another F word.  It may not trigger Parental Advisory labels or bring down the wrath of the FCC if uttered on American TV, yet open discussion of it can make people as skittish as if they had to discuss their sexual history.  Yet Faith, to capitalize this particular F word in order to underscore its quiet loudness, is a key part of so many peoples' lives even in secular societies.  It may be something that we think we have abandoned along with beliefs in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, but in moments of crisis it lurks, waiting to burst our internal dams and flood our emotional states.  Yet faith is something that rarely is explored in depth in fiction.  Sure, how someone lacks faith or loses it can make for great literature, but that central element of faith is usually circumscribed.  This perhaps isn't as much due to authors not having clue to what it entails, but more likely due to a reticence to exploring something so personal and yet so universal.  In a day and age when various conceptualizations of belief and non-belief are thrown about as though they were competing sports teams or political parties, complete with ready-made commercial jingles to condense any nuances into marketable, memorable catchphrases, it seems at times as though discussing faith of any sort is fraught with peril.

Therefore, my interest was piqued when I read a blurb for Scott Cheshire's debut novel, High as the Horses' Bridles (the title is taken from a passage in Revelations concerning the depth to which the blood of unbelievers would flow).  The author, a former Jehovah's Witness child preacher, has written a tale of a former child preacher in Queens who decades later has come back to New York to take care of his ailing father after his mother has died.  Much has changed in the life of young Josiah/Josie from that fateful day in 1980 when he gave a powerful sermon to 4000 congregants.  He had a crisis of faith and abandoned his church while his father went the opposite way, becoming more and more fervent in his faith in the Bible and the "codes" for life and apocalypse that might be embedded within it.  Too easily this could have been a book about how family members split over widening differences in belief or it could have been a tale of too-easy reconciliation and a facile patching-over of disagreements.  Yet this book is neither one of these things and for that, it possesses an inquisitive, reflective quality to it that makes for a thought-provoking read.

High as the Horses' Bridles is divided into three main sections, two of which, 1980 and 2005, deal with Josiah/Josie and his father at different points in their lives.  In truth, the 1980 section comprises only a tenth of the novel and it is different in tenor, being more an encapsulation of fervent youthful faith told through vivid images, such as the scene quoted above.  The second comprises four-fifths and deals with Josie's conflicted feelings about his childhood and how the issue of faith seems to have separated him from his now-ailing father.  This section is more mundane in its description, as there are no clarion calls to await the Second Coming.  Instead, there are scores of flashbacks to the intervening years, as the material world has slowly eroded Josie's faith.  He is not left feeling hollow, per se, but he has difficulties in reconciling his childhood with his present life.  As he resumes the care of his father and the two are in close physical proximity, issues that Josie had forgotten or presumed were buried slowly flood his thoughts.  Thoughts of the Howard Theater, thoughts of what "high as the horses' bridles" meant, questions about how do the remnants of faith guide us in ways that we never really consider until after the fact.  While the type of thoughts are not especially original in origin, there is such a tender earnestness to both Josie and his father's thoughts on the issue of faith that it is refreshing to see an effort made to explore these divides with understanding and not correctness being the primary goal.

Cheshire's prose eloquently captures the power that faith can have over lives.  His descriptions of the father becoming more and more like a religious ascetic contrast well with his son's rather non-discrepant appearance sets the stage for the deeper, more personal differences.  The certainty of the father's faith, balanced by the son's questioning of where he lost his, is captured excellently in this passage near the end of the second part:

His long hair moved, and a sleepy medicinal smell of bedclothes and of days long ago home sick from school, and of that terminal air you find in waiting rooms and clinics, and of my mother's soft and hairless camphorous head filled up my senses.  I steadied myself and set him down on the sofa.  Even if I could get to know all the space in my own skull, I'd never get inside of his.  I combed back his hair and looked at his face.  This was not a gullible man, not at all.  I saw a man who was hungry and cunning in his own curious way, and was stubbornly still here, his lost and lank body afloat there on the mystery of the world. (p. 262)

It is this passage where Josie has a breakthrough.  It is not a profound one, not something that changes his life, but rather it is a recognition that who he was and who he is are parts of something greater, something that he might not fully understand, but regardless is powerful.  As the scene closes with an end, there is a sense of a new beginning, of a personal apocalypse that has just been unveiled.  This then dovetails into the third section, set two centuries before during the Second Great Awakening, which retells much of the themes of the first two in a way that ties lives and faith together into a captivating mystery.  At first, it seems incongruous to have a final section with different characters, yet this coda works because it revolves around the true central character, not Josie nor his father, but instead that ultimate F word.  The theme of High as the Horses' Bridles may not appeal to everyone, but for those willing to give it a chance, it might just be one of the more powerfully-written debut novels published this year.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Can Xue, The Last Lover

Joe heard this chatter and found the man disagreeable.  He picked up his book to read again.  He couldn't understand its contents, and even the characters' names had changed.  The plot seemed to speak of a serving cook avenging herself on her unfaithful lover.  The cook's name was also strange, Yi Zhi Mei (or Iljimae, "a plum branch").  The lover went to eat at a small restaurant.  Yi Zhi Mei threw a bowl of boiling soup at him.  The soup didn't touch the man; all of it splashed onto her own boy.  Within a second, her skin and flesh fell to the floor and all that was left was a skeleton standing in the restaurant.  The man stared fixedly at the bones in front of him...Continuing, there was an explanation of the name Yi Zhi Mei.  The book said that it was "Eastern."  The serving cook came from some island nation in the East, these things had happened in ancient times, the cook's status was somewhere between a prostitute and a respectable woman, and the lover was in truth a patron of brothels.  That lover, after seeing the cook's accident, went completely insane.  He brought the cook's bones back home, made a glass cabinet, put them inside, and locked it from outside.  From then on every time the lover fooled around with a woman, his eyes saw the objects inside of the glass cabinet.  The glass cabinet was set next to the bed for a long period.  Joe read this and started to smile.  He felt that the novel was too hyberbolic.  However, he still wanted to know the whereabouts of that glass case, and imagined the look of the skeleton wearing a light, graceful summer kimono. (pp. 112-113, iPad iBooks e-edition, translated by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen)

Can Xue is one of those rare writers whose stories I enjoy reading yet when I finish them, there is little for me to say.  This is not because her stories aren't memorable, no, far from it!  Instead, they possess such a combination of narrative form manipulation and wild, billowing metaphors and sublimely weird scenes that if I were to attempt a review that wasn't a full-blown literary analysis, I would be tempted to quote copiously and say, "Yes, this is wicked cool, no?" over and over again.  Yet despite numerous stories appearing in publications like Conjunctions, her latest novel, The Last Lover, is only her second novel to be translated into English.

The Last Lover begins innocently enough, with a manager named Joe working for the innocuous-sounding Rose Clothing Company.  But even in the very first paragraph, there are some interesting shifts that foreshadow the ride ahead:

His pale green eyes sometimes have a blank expression, either because he's absentminded or because he's eccentric.  He often harbors thoughts of madness.  Joe has a mania for reading, and for years he's read one book after another, muddling all the stories in his mind.  His memory is of the kind that's excellent at making choices – a grafting memory – so the pathway of his thought is always clear. (p. 8)
This shift from a fairly typical character description straight into questions of madness before caroming off into discussions of his reading habits and memory signals right away that this will not be a typical narrative.  His wife, Maria, a talented tapestry maker, likewise possesses strange qualities, often blurting out comments that are totally out of left field.  Joe and Maria comprise one of three couples whose perspectives Xue explores in The Last Lover and as she switches from one to another, the scenes become ever wilder.  Of particular interest to Xue is that of country depictions by outsiders.  Although she eschews having actual country/city locations, it is clear through the context just which countries are represented by "Country A" and "Country C."  In passages like the one quoted at the beginning of this review, Xue delves into the issue of story constructions and how stories transmogrify as they cross linguistic and cultural boundaries.  Certainly the quasi-US that Joe and Maria inhabit is not a "realistic" portrait of this country, but by Xue flattening out certain details and expanding upon others, she has created an impressionist version of the US, one where actions and reflections cast new refractions through these warped interpretative prisms.

The narrative too takes on an impressionist, almost surrealistic quality.  As these characters, Joe, Maria, and others associated with them, like Reagan and Ida, interact with their world and their thoughts, seemingly mundane things take on new contexts, such as this odd proximity between a wasp's nest and a Tibetan travel book:

When Joe entered his office he saw the wasps.  An enormous wasps' nest was tied to the air conditioner, where they massed into squeezed, black piles.  But these little insects didn't make any sound at all, which was unusual.  Joe opened a drawer, took out a Tibetan travel book, which he hadn't seen for ages, and turned to the middle.  He couldn't read a single one of the Tibetan words, nor did the book have any pictures, but over a long period of time he had turned its pages one by one.  What was inside this book?  He didn't know.  He only knew that perhaps inside there was a world, an unfathomed place.  As he fixed his eyes on the Tibetan script, a wasp dropped onto the surface of the page.  The Tibetan words suddenly leapt up like flames burning the little insect.  It struggled for a few minutes and then didn't move. (pp. 288-289)
 In other novels, a scene like this might be utilized to show a disconnect between narrator and reality.  Yet Xue is not concerned with this as much as she is in exploring the ways that humans of various cultures can dream of other cultures while still seemingly awake and engaged with everyday life.  As her three couples move in and out of their imaginative/real worlds and their lives warp and weave like one of Maria's tapestries into each other's lives or dream selves, the overall effect is one of sheer admiration for just how well Xue (and by extension, her translator, who has done an excellent job in making this feel as though it were originally composed in English) has created a narrative that has to be experienced before any analysis could make much sense to the reader.  It seems that I did indeed quote copiously and said "this is wicked cool" after all.  But yes, it is, and yes, it is the sort of work I would recommend for those who like experimental fictions that succeed because the narrative joins are so expertly hidden within interesting characters and fascinating scenes.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

2014 Booker Prize longlist announced

This year, American writers were eligible for consideration for the first time and four were selected to the 2014 shortlist (Ferris, Fowler, Hustvedt, Powers).  Don't know much about these books yet, but I shall...soon.  The Fowler I read last year and plan on reviewing it later this year and I already had the Mitchell pre-ordered.  Likely will order the Hustvedt first out of these others and then wait and see for the shortlist to be announced.

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, Joshua Ferris (Viking)
The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan (Chatto & Windus)
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler (Serpent's Tail)
The Blazing World, Siri Hustvedt (Sceptre)
J,  Howard Jacobson (Jonathan Cape) 
The Wake, Paul Kingsnorth (Unbound)
The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell (Sceptre)
The Lives of Others, Neel Mukherjee (Chatto & Windus)
Us, David Nicholls (Hodder & Stoughton)
The Dog, Joseph O'Neill (Fourth Estate)
Orfeo, Richard Powers (Atlantic Books)
How to be Both, Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton)
History of the Rain, Niall Williams (Bloomsbury)
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