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291pp. Vintage Contemporaries. 2007. US$12.95. 978-0-307-27885-2 paper.
If the greatest pleasure of Jesse Ball’s «Samedi the Deafness» is the gentle, peculiar, subversive quality of the prose, this delight is closely rivaled by the titillating tension of the structure, which meanders between the intricate, interlocking plotting of a thriller, and the strange, dark glow of poetry, like the light of an eclipse. James Sim, professional mnemonist, on the track of an archterrorist who vows to end the world in seven days, comes to dwell in a verisylum for the treatment of pathological liars, where all intercourse is governed by a rigid rigmarole of rules, corridors are dutifully labyrinthine, rooms are hidden behind rooms, and the egg room is fearsomely forbidden. All the nurses are named Margret; all the servants are named Grieve; the patients all play rovnin, an ancient game of strings, sticks, markers, and duplicitous fictional proxies. James falls in love with the daughter of the villainous mastermind, who is herself inclined to mendacity in word if not in deed. The most assertive of the several themes is James’s fluid apprehension of truth and trustworthiness, but Ball does not belabor the point. The chapters are short and addictive; the flow of the plot is more, not less, entrancing for its eddies, shallows, and tributaries. And Ball’s writing is like nothing on earth: woundingly lovely, shyly nocturnal, but stiffened with a certain manneredness and reserve. The book is like an antique mechanical toy: primary colors are sunbleached to pastels; a shrill carnival tune plays off-kilter with rusty melancholy; innumerable nested gears hidden safely within the heart of the machine betray their presence with the faint, silvery tinkle of falling cogs and pins; the painted face of an animal, tentative and delicate behind a spray of mildew, stares out with kindly gravity.
93 pp. New Directions. 2007. 978-0-8112-1706-4 paper.
An old-young narrator drifts through Jenny Erpenbeck’s «The Book of Words»: a wizened child, a perilously innocent woman. In fact, the narrator grows up in the course of the novel, which takes place during a brutal regime, somewhere in South America. But if her knowledge of the violence of her everyday, of the complicity of her parents, becomes more complete as she ages, her understanding remains timid, stunted, unwilling. In a book of blindness and muteness, Erpenbeck does a careful, delicate job of revealing to us what is not seen and not said. It’s fitting that the tone comes across in a whisper, a murmur; the girl acknowledges her secrets with cautious reticence, tender allusions. Repetitions of phrases throughout are underscored with the lightest emphasis, the singsong of a child sunk in herself, slurred gently through the thick haze of daydream. The murdered ghosts that haunt her house are mannerly, reserved; even the specters here are neatly buttoned-down, with compressed lips and tucked-in hands. An infinitesimal but inviolable distance intervenes between the protagonist and the savagery around her. This blurred, dazed naiveté is an act of mercy on Erpenbeck’s part on behalf of her narrator; or it is a act of cowardice on the part of the narrator despite Erpenbeck’s best efforts to force her through the membrane that separates childhood from its bitter consummation. The moral implications of ignorance of the incomprehensible hover above the lines, graceful and ethereal. This approach forces Erpenbeck to risk that her book will affect readers with the same silky-smooth, aqueous intangibility that defines the impression existence makes on the timorous narrator. Inhumanity has rarely been rendered in words so lovely, chaste, and shy, so softly muffled.
BOA Editions Ltd. 2008. USD$14:00. 978-1-934414-10-1. paper.
Daniel Grandbois’s stories in «Unlucky Lucky Days» are tiny and explosive, like a violent series of sneezes. Two techniques are key to Grandbois’s style. First, he is unabashedly a comic writer. This is avant-garde stand-up, right down to the punch lines flashing and fritzing like short-circuited bulbs at the end of his paragraphs. ‘Did you know that cranberries got their name from cranes? A crane without an ear named them so. It cut the letter e off the word because e stands for ear. That one could fly quite well. Unfortunately, it could only hear in circles.’ Respect is due to a writer who plays the buffoon in a field like flash fiction, which is so often icicle-cold and–sharp, with the occasional brittle, bleak frost laid on for texture. And as the humor in these pieces gets hokier, the possible parallels with the American folktale tradition become more suggestive and sophisticated. The second marked tendency in Grandbois’s work is that his love-hate affair with abstraction drives him to anthropomorphize everything from animals to inanimate objects to body parts to actions to cerebral immaterialities. A typical character in one of these stories is the urge. ‘Forty days and nights later, the urge left the clouds. It landed on a stone, which was grateful, as it had never had much of an urge to do anything.’ Or the sound. ‘There was once a sound that made a nest of the hairs in some woman’s ear.’ Or the finger. ‘Skidding beneath the bed, the lost appendage withered and curled. It lay dormant forty years before the now old woman looked down there. The finger beckoned her under and struck like a snake.’ Or the Chinese finger trap. ‘The scattered straw had had enough of the elephant foot’s pranks. It wove itself into a large-scale Chinese finger trap and waited, crouching.’ Other protagonists: the mirror, the drapery, the nose, the left hand, the sea squirt, the hair, the chair, the singing.
137 pp. Fence Books. 2007. US$15.00. 978-1-934200-07-0 paper.
A left-wing, sci-fi cautionary allegory on enslavement and the media, its tut-tuts ringing depressingly hollow and familiar — a dangerous, mystical, exalted intonation, a pounding, unremitting, wordplay-driven paean to social and animalistic evolution, particle- and fracture-based existence, cartography, and authorship — a charmingly awkward hipster romance — a brutal psychological study set post-Armageddon: cruel, intimate, blurred in ultra-closeup. «Flet» shows what Joyelle McSweeney can do; in fact, it shows she can do everything, and in one fell swoop at that. The book tracks a skeptical if vulnerable young aide named Flet, who works in the administration of a Nation that has been devastated by a single apocalyptic act of chemical warfare, the ‘Emergency’. The post-Emergency world is void of flora and fauna, at least in the safe sectors, and is in thrall to an omnipresent media that sells consumption-fueled fantasies and acts as government mouthpiece. When Flet, already seduced by the pheromonic radioactivity of pre-Emergency relics, sees a ‘filetape’ (odd archaism) of the Emergency that is at shocking variance with the official footage, she drives off the map into forbidden territory to discover the truth, blundering into the much-hyped Emergency Reenactment, which turns out to be ever so much more than faithful to the original. Rescued from the devastation, traumatized Flet becomes a prisoner again, even more repressed, even more coddled than in her previous existence. The chaos of genres and styles is not evenly dispersed: the first half of the book mostly apes the conventions of speculative fiction, while the latter portions spiral off into cosmic winds. The quality of McSweeney’s writing and the riotings of her imagination are impressive: indefatigable, aggressive, muscular, bathed in an ice-cold sweat. If her narrative premise were slightly less predictable, readers would likely be more willing to ride her kicking, bucking novel all the way into the dirt.
278pp. Little, Brown and Company. 2007. US$23.99. 978-0-316-11264-2 cloth.
Few figures are more glamorous, more sophisticated, more erotic, more mysterious than Mata Hari, dancer, courtesan, and spy. Cloaked in intrigue, clothed gauzily in mystique, she is believed to be a symbol of powerful femininity because the veil dance she performed was her own: she assumed the draperies, she cast them off. She created her own ideal, her own mask; she was her own lie. Yannick Murphy’s dangerous task in «Signed, Mata Hari» is to humanize this most exotic of women, though it is her myth that has protected and exalted her. Through the narration of Mata Hari’s bleak youth, brutal marriage, steamy Indonesian infidelities, thwarted motherhood, doomed love affair, and gray withering in a Parisian prison, Murphy must gently betray, lovingly degrade, reverently depose, solicitously humiliate her heroine. And if Mata Hari is still to some extent idealized in Murphy’s eyes — sexually, spiritually — great violence is done to her legend indeed. Tawdriness, pettiness, dreariness, and shame have usurped the place of danger, passion, and betrayal. That the novel itself is not dreary but mournful, not hopeless but elegiac, is due to the rich, crooning musicality of the writing, which undulates with all the artistry, grace, and sensuousness that are ultimately denied to its protagonist. Chapters are brief, rhythmic — a breath in, a breath out — and move between first and third person. Though they are not stand-alone pieces, each chapter has a roundness and wholeness like a prose poem; each ends consciously, artfully. Despite the intimate, unflinching exposure to which Murphy subjects Mata Hari, the opulence and opacity of the writing act like a smokescreen, a veil, protecting her, hiding her, blurring and fogging what stands nude and shivering behind it.
151pp. Grove Press. 2007. US$23.00. 978-0-8021-1855-4 paper.
The first half of Cees Nooteboom’s «Lost Paradise» follows a young woman, Alma, an art historian who treasures paintings of angels and Annunciations, on a voyage through Australia. She has traveled to that continent to visit an Aboriginal site called the Sickness Dreaming Place, to recover from a brutal gang rape in her home in Sao Paolo. Though she never arrives there, she does attain a state of survival, in part through communion with the timeless landscape and in part through a brief love affair — almost a passionate estrangement — with the Aborigine artist who has created a painting of ‘defiant, impenetrable black with a shimmer of light glinting through it’ that wrenches and exalts her. At the close of the section, she gains a part in the Perth Angel Project, a massive installation artwork in which winged angels and other heavenly and Miltonian symbols are hidden throughout the city. The second half of the book relates the visit of a cynical, beaten book reviewer, Erik, to a health spa in Austria. Through constant attention to the body — deprivation diets, baths, exercises, and massages — he achieves a kind of spiritual incorporeality, an ecstatic bodilessness. Toward the end of this half, Alma reappears as a masseuse at the spa, and Nooteboom reveals that Erik has loved her since he discovered her, clad in an enormous pair of wings, curled in an attic cupboard in Perth. There’s a shimmering lightness to the narration; the story floats just above its themes, hovering without quite touching. The characters are like ghosts who become radiant when the author’s ideas pass through them; they are exquisite but insubstantial. That’s not necessarily a flaw in the work, so much as a facet of it: Nooteboom brackets both halves with brief interjections in an authorial voice that overtly emphasize his characters’ existence in the interstices between full-blooded fiction and spectral abstraction. Still, this is indisputably a moving novel rather than a lyrical essay, though its structure is made of lacework almost finer than dust.
291pp. Little, Brown and Company. 2007. US$24.99. 978-0-316-67746-2 paper.
Alice Sebold has chosen a dark topic in «The Almost Moon» — a daughter’s murder of her elderly, mentally ill mother — and if the darkness is sometimes a blossoming blackness, opulent, velvety, gothic, it exhibits as well the steely, bitter grimness of despair. Sebold opens with the killing itself, unpremeditated and abrupt, almost curt, then lengthens her stroke as she moves into the rhythm that will define the rest of the novel, a rocking to and fro between her protagonist Helen’s attempts to cover up her crime, and her obsessive, submerging flashbacks to childhood. Readers will draw out the moral implications from the stuff of the story for themselves; as for the author, she is almost exclusively intent on rendering her characters, and indulges in ethical abstractions as little as in flourishes of language. The mother, elegant, nasty, cruelly fractured; the father, kind, tentative, suicidal; Helen, a patchwork of tight stitches and loose gaps — Sebold renders them with an intimacy that is nearly invasive, and with an accumulation of sharp, biting details that pile up relentlessly. With a premise this morbid, it might be wished that Sebold had reveled a bit more lusciously, but she is sternly, strictly committed to transparent, straight-shooting narrative. The primary effect of this is that the story becomes unnervingly immediate; the downside of such principled honesty is an odd conventionality, a stilting of imagination. The characters are fully, nakedly human, while the context is shadowy, even macabre. Both elements are gripping — ferociously so — but they circle each other at spitting distance, like two cats tensing to fight.
215pp. New York Review Books. 2007. US$16.95. 978-1-59017-249-0 paper.
T.H. White’s memoir of the taming and training of a goshawk he named Gos is a complex document of brutality, adoration, unpardonable naiveté, incarceration, toil, cruelty, longing, mastery, and submission. With no formal education beyond a few archaic texts on falconry, White acquired Gos as a subject for study and writing, and a kind of soul’s companion. His attempts to break the bird included bewildering it with sleep deprivation, wooing it with constant stimulation, manipulating it with starvation, and coaxing it with stupefying over-feeding. If White conceived of the bird in idealistic terms, prepared for it academically, met it timidly, and postured before it majestically, the real relationship between man and beast was one of equals locked in combat: Gos ardent and terrible in his rejection and his solitude; White besotted and unrelenting in his desire. There seems to be no end to the implications raised with regard to the relationship between man and nature, the jealous love of humans for animals, the power of captive over captor, or the heartbreak and ecstasy of the union, however fleeting, between two alien minds. The narrative meticulously details every technique, each disaster and victory of the process of preparing Gos to fly free, to kill, and to return of his own accord to his trainer. But White fails, and his blunder, born of carelessness, has devastating consequences for the bird. The tone is informal but reserved, with the occasional outburst of rage, bewilderment, or awe. By and large, Gos’s history is presented pragmatically, and the author involves himself directly in none of the more abstract questions. Those surface out of the precision and clarity with which White undergoes his testimony, or confession. Despite the degree of privacy that he maintains, however, the slow, merciless revelation of Gos’s fate is shattering. White’s refusal or inability to speak to his own unthinkable weight of responsibility has a savage pathos. The intensity of the intimacy between White and Gos, however barbarously the relationship was forced on the bird, and however violently the animal attempted to reject it, constituted for both man and beast a knowledge of self and other that some might consider a prize worth paying for with suffering, even that of an innocent.
Micaela Morrissette is a senior editor of Conjunctions. Her reviews have appeared in Jacket and Rain Taxi, and she is editing a portfolio on Ashbery’s domestic environments that will appear in the Summer 2008 online issue of Rain Taxi. She is the former managing director of the Ashbery Resource Center, and a trustee of The Flow Chart Foundation.