1. A hint of a story,–some incident which should bring on a general war; and the chief actor in the incident to have something corresponding to the mischief he had caused.
2. A sketch to be given of a modern reformer,–a type of the extreme doctrines on the subject of slaves, cold water, and other such topics. He goes about the streets haranguing most eloquently, and is on the point of making many converts, when his labors are suddenly interrupted by the appearance of the keeper of a mad-house, whence he has escaped. Much may be made of this idea.
3. A change from a gay young girl to an old woman; the melancholy events, the effects of which have clustered around her character, and gradually imbued it with their influence, till she becomes a lover of sick-chambers, taking pleasure in receiving dying breaths and in laying out the dead; also having her mind full of funeral reminiscences, and possessing more acquaintances beneath the burial turf than above it.
4. A well-concerted train of events to be thrown into confusion by some misplaced circumstance, unsuspected till the catastrophe, yet exerting its influence from beginning to end.
5. On the common, at dusk, after a salute from two field-pieces, the smoke lay long and heavily on the ground, without much spreading beyond the original space over which it had gushed from the guns. It was about the height of a man. The evening clear, but with an autumnal chill.
6. The world is so sad and solemn, that things meant in jest are liable, by an overpowering influence, to become dreadful earnest,–gayly dressed fantasies turning to ghostly and black-clad images of themselves.
7. A story, the hero of which is to be represented as naturally capable of deep and strong passion, and looking forward to the time when he shall feel passionate love, which is to be the great event of his existence. But it so chances that he never falls in love, and although he gives up the expectation of so doing, and marries calmly, yet it is somewhat sadly, with sentiments merely of esteem for his bride. The lady might be one who had loved him early in life, but whom then, in his expectation of passionate love, he had scorned.
8. The scene of a story or sketch to be laid within the light of a street-lantern; the time, when the lamp is near going out; and the catastrophe to be simultaneous with the last flickering gleam.
9. The peculiar weariness and depression of spirits which is felt after a day wasted in turning over a magazine or other light miscellany, different from the state of the mind after severe study; because there has been no excitement, no difficulties to be overcome, but the spirits have evaporated insensibly.
10. To represent the process by which sober truth gradually strips off all the beautiful draperies with which imagination has enveloped a beloved object, till from an angel she turns out to be a merely ordinary woman. This to be done without caricature, perhaps with a quiet humor interfused, but the prevailing impression to be a sad one. The story might consist of the various alterations in the feelings of the absent lover, caused by successive events that display the true character of his mistress; and the catastrophe should take place at their meeting, when he finds himself equally disappointed in her person; or the whole spirit of the thing may here be reproduced.
11. Two persons might be bitter enemies through life, and mutually cause the ruin of one another, and of all that were dear to them. Finally, meeting at the funeral of a grandchild, the offspring of a son and daughter married without their consent,–and who, as well as the child, had been the victims of their hatred,–they might discover that the supposed ground of the quarrel was altogether a mistake, and then be wofully reconciled.
12. Two persons, by mutual agreement, to make their wills in each other’s favor, then to wait impatiently for one another’s death, and both to be informed of the desired event at the same time. Both, in most joyous sorrow, hasten to be present at the funeral, meet, and find themselves both hoaxed.
13. The story of a man, cold and hard-hearted, and acknowledging no brotherhood with mankind. At his death they might try to dig him a grave, but, at a little space beneath the ground, strike upon a rock, as if the earth refused to receive the unnatural son into her bosom. Then they would put him into an old sepulchre, where the coffins and corpses were all turned to dust, and so he would be alone. Then the body would petrify; and he having died in some characteristic act and expression, he would seem, through endless ages of death, to repel society as in life, and no one would be buried in that tomb forever.
14. Canon transformed to church-bells.
15. A person, even before middle age, may become musty and faded among the people with whom he has grown up from childhood; but, by migrating to a new place, he appears fresh with the effect of youth, which may be communicated from the impressions of others to his own feelings.
16. In an old house, a mysterious knocking might be heard on the wall, where had formerly been a door-way, now bricked up.
17. It might be stated, as the closing circumstance of a tale, that the body of one of the characters had been petrified, and still existed in that state.
18. A young man to win the love of a girl, without any serious intentions, and to find that in that love, which might have been the greatest blessing of his life, he had conjured up a spirit of mischief which pursued him throughout his whole career,–and this without any revengeful purposes on the part of the deserted girl.
19. Two lovers, or other persons, on the most private business, to appoint a meeting in what they supposed to be a place of the utmost solitude, and to find it thronged with people.
20. Some treasure or other thing to be buried, and a tree planted directly over the spot, so as to embrace it with its roots.
From Nathaniel Hawthorne’s American Note-Books.
Purged the books pictured in the lower right-hand corner and picked up a few: Curzio Malaparte’s Kaputt, which has intrigued me for awhile now, Denis Johnson’s Fiskadoro—in the Vintage Contemporaries edition no less!—and Lydia Davis’s novel The End of the Story, which I somehow haven’t read yet. Hypothesis: Lydia Davis and Denis Johnson may be America’s greatest living novelists (?).
The Pink Hotel by Anna Stothard is new from Picador. Their blurb:
A raucous, drug-fueled party has taken over a boutique hotel on Venice Beach—it’s a memorial for Lily, the now-deceased, free-spirited proprietress of the place. Little do the attendees know that Lily’s estranged daughter—and the nameless narrator of this striking novel—is among them, and she has just walked off with a suitcase of Lily’s belongings.
Abandoned by Lily many years ago, she has come a long way to learn about her mother, and the stolen suitcase—stuffed with clothes, letters, and photographs—contains not only a history of her mother’s love life, but perhaps also the key to her own identity. As the tough, resourceful narrator tracks down her mother’s former husbands, boyfriends, and acquaintances, a risky reenactment of her life begins to unfold. Lily had a knack for falling in love with the wrong people, and one man, a fashion photographer turned paparazzo, has begun to work his sinuous charms on the young woman.
Told with high style and noirish flare, Anna Stothard’s The Pink Hotel is a powerfully evocative debut novel about wish fulfillment, reckless impulse, and how we discover ourselves.
Her bedroom reeked of cigarette ash and stale perfume. Two ashtrays were packed with lipstick-stained filters as if she’d just popped out for another pack. A suspender belt hung from a chest of drawers, a mink scarf was curled like roadkill at the floor next to her bed. A mirror opposite the bed reflected an image of me lying fully clothed and out of place on the crinkled sheets. My haircut and body could have been that of a boy, but my oversized eyes made me look like a Gothic Virgin Mary from a museum postcard. I wore a sweat-stained T-shirt and a pair of navy-blue tracksuit bottoms. My skin still smelt faintly of grease and coffee from Dad’s café in London, but now the smell was mingled with dehydrated aeroplane air and smog from Los Angeles traffic.
I was happy to get an advance copy of Matt Bell’s forthcoming novel In the House upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods, because I like titles with lots of prepositions. No, actually, Bell’s novella-in-vignette’s Cataclysm Baby was one of my favorite new books of 2012. Here’s the pub blurb for House:
In this epic, mythical debut novel, a newly-wed couple escapes the busy confusion of their homeland for a distant and almost-uninhabited lakeshore. They plan to live there simply, to fish the lake, to trap the nearby woods, and build a house upon the dirt between where they can raise a family. But as their every pregnancy fails, the child-obsessed husband begins to rage at this new world: the song-spun objects somehow created by his wife’s beautiful singing voice, the giant and sentient bear that rules the beasts of the woods, the second moon weighing down the fabric of their starless sky, and the labyrinth of memory dug into the earth beneath their house.
This novel, from one of our most exciting young writers, is a powerful exploration of the limits of parenthood and marriage—and of what happens when a marriage’s success is measured solely by the children it produces, or else the sorrow that marks their absence.
A passel of unsolicited reader copies arrived in the middle of February, including a trio of strange birds from Akashic Books. Preston L. Allen’s Every Boy Should Have a Man seems especially (and wonderfully) weird. First, there’s that title, which is, you know, strange, and then the blurb:
A riveting, poignant satire of societal ills, with an added dose of fantasy, Every Boy Should Have a Man takes place in a post-human world where creatures called oafs keep humanlike “mans” as beloved pets. One day, a poor boy oaf brings home a man whom he hides under his bed in the hopes his parents won’t find out. When the man is discovered, the boy admits it is not his—but the boy is no delinquent. Despite the accusations being hurled at him, he’s telling the truth when he says he found the man aimlessly wandering in the bramble. Nevertheless, he must return the man to his rightful owner. But when the heartbroken boy comes home from school one afternoon, he finds wrapped up in red ribbon a female man with a note around her neck: Every boy should have a man. You’re a fine son. Love, Dad.
Thus begins Every Boy Should Have a Man, Preston L. Allen’s picaresque journey into uncharted territory in earth, sky, and firmament. With echoes of Margaret Atwood and Jack and the Beanstalk, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Octavia Butler’s Kindred, it traces the story of the boy and his three “mans,” Brown Skin who is not his, the tragic Red Sleeves who has no voice, and her quick-witted daughter Red Locks whose epic journey takes her from the backbreaking drudgery of the mines to the perils of the battlefield to the savagery of cannibalism.
Oafs and mans each gain insight and understanding into one another’s worlds, and the worlds that touch theirs—ultimately showing that oafs and mans alike share a common “humanity.” Filled with surprising twists and turns, the novel is in part a morality tale that takes on many of today’s issues including poverty, the environment, sexism, racism, war, and religion, all in lighthearted King James prose.
Seems to have shades of Fantastic Planet — but “in lighthearted King James prose”!
Next up, The Roving Tree, the first novel from Elsi Augustave, which seems like it might be happily at home on a contemporary postcolonial studies syllabus:
Elsie Augustave’s debut novel, The Roving Tree, explores multiple themes: separation and loss, rootlessness, the impact of class privilege and color consciousness, and the search for cultural identity. The central character, Iris Odys, is the offspring of Hagathe, a Haitian maid, and Brahami, a French-educated mulatto father who cares little about his child.
Hagathe, who had always dreamt of a better life for her child, is presented with the perfect opportunity when Iris is five years old. Adopted by a white American couple, an anthropologist and art gallery owner, Iris is transported from her tiny remote Haitian village, Monn Neg, to an American suburb.
The Roving Tree illuminates how imperfectly assimilated adoptees struggle to remember their original voices and recapture their personal histories and cultural legacy. Set between two worlds, suburban America and Haiti under the oppressive regime of Papa Doc’s Tanton Macoutes, the novel offers a unique literary glimpse into the deeply entrenched class discrimination and political repression of Haiti during the Duvalier era, along with the subtle but nonetheless dangerous effects of American racism.
Told from beyond the grave, Iris seamlessly shares her poignant and pivotal life experiences. The Roving Tree, underscored by the spiritual wisdom of Haitian griots, offers insightful revelations of the importance of significant relationships with family and friends. Years later, we see how these elements are transformative to Iris’s intense love affair, and her personal and professional growth. Universal truths resonate beyond the pages of this work.
Also on the colonial-historical tip: Anthony C. Winkler’s The Family Mansion:
The Family Mansion is a historical novel that tells the story of Hartley Fudges, whose personal destiny unfolds against the backdrop of 19th-century British culture, a time when English society was based upon the strictest subordination and stratification of the classes. As the second son of a hereditary duke and his father’s favorite, Hartley, under different circumstances, might have inherited the inside track to his father’s estate and titles. But the English law of succession was rigidly dictated by the principle of male primogeniture, with all the property, assets, titles, and debts devolving to the firstborn son and his issue, leaving nothing for the other sons.
Like many second sons, Hartley decides to migrate to Jamaica at the age of twenty-three. This at first seems sensible: in the early 1800s Jamaica was far and away the richest and most opulent of all the crown colonies, and the single greatest producer of sugar in the world. But for all its fabulous wealth, Jamaica was a difficult and inhospitable place for an immigrant. The mortality rate for new immigrants was over 50% for the first year of residence. Some immigrant groups fared even worse. The island’s white population that ran the lucrative sugarcane industry was outnumbered 10-to-1 by the largely enslaved black population. Slave revolts were common with brutal reprisals such as the decapitation of ringleaders and nailing the severed heads to trees.
The complex saga of Hartley’s life is revealed in vivid scenes that depict the vicissitudes of 19th-century English and Jamaican societies. Aside from violent slave revolts, newcomers had to survive the nemesis of the white man in the tropics—namely, yellow fever. With Hartley’s point of view as its primary focus, the narrative transports readers to exotic lands, simultaneously exploring the brutality of England’s slavery-based colonization.
Akashic, a label I was ignorant of up until now, seems to be publishing some pretty cool stuff.
In the fall of 2001—only a few months before his too-early death—W.G. Sebald taught a fiction workshop at the University of East Anglia. Two of the students from the workshop, David Lambert and Robert McGill have revisited their notes from that workshop and have compiled Sebald’s writing advice into a fascinating document, posted at Richard Skinner’s blog.
My favorite section:
On Reading and Intertextuality
- Read books that have nothing to do with literature.
- Get off the main thoroughfares; you’ll see nothing there. For example, Kant’s Critique is a yawn but his incidental writings are fascinating.
- There has to be a libidinous delight in finding things and stuffing them in your pockets.
- You must get the servants to work for you. You mustn’t do all the work yourself. That is, you should ask other people for information, and steal ruthlessly from what they provide.
- None of the things you make up will be as hair-raising as the things people tell you.
- I can only encourage you to steal as much as you can. No one will ever notice. You should keep a notebook of tidbits, but don’t write down the attributions, and then after a couple of years you can come back to the notebook and treat the stuff as your own without guilt.
- Don’t be afraid to bring in strange, eloquent quotations and graft them into your story. It enriches the prose. Quotations are like yeast or some ingredient one adds.
- Look in older encyclopaedias. They have a different eye. They attempt to be complete and structured but in fact are completely random collected things that are supposed to represent our world.
- It’s very good that you write through another text, a foil, so that you write out of it and make your work a palimpsest. You don’t have to declare it or tell where it’s from.
- A tight structural form opens possibilities. Take a pattern, an established model or sub-genre, and write to it. In writing, limitation gives freedom.
- If you look carefully you can find problems in all writers. And that should give you great hope. And the better you get at identifying these problems, the better you will be at avoiding them.
Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet is newish in trade paperback from the nice people at Vintage. I’ve been wanting to read it after absorbing Marcus’s The Age of Wire and String last year. I hear that The Flame Alphabet is more conventional than that earlier work, although a breakfast-menu-as-novel would be more conventional, really. Anyway, this one is up on deck, so no blurbage this time.
In place of the normal blurb I offer with these “book acquired” posts, here’s Marcus on David Markson (from “The Genre Artist,” published in a 2003 issue of The Believer):
. . . when, for example, David Markson, an expository novelist who fired the starting gun for fictions of information and proved that pure exposition can be alarmingly moving, who purposefully tells instead of shows, is dismissed in The New York Times for failing to provide a story in his novel Reader’s Block, no discussion follows about why, exactly, fiction must have one (at 150 words in the book review, how could any discussion follow?). Nor do we learn what a story might have looked like in such an exquisitely felt book that, to summarize, catalogs the various ways historical figures have hated whole races of people and/or died by their own hands. (Yes, you should read this book.)
Markson should have presumably, under the fiction-must-have-a-story criteria, zeroed in on one of his hundreds of characters and gone deep, doing that good old-time psychological work, the person-making stuff, dramatizing how such an interesting fellow had gone on to hate Jews and/or kill himself. Markson should have used more words like “then.” He should have sequenced. He seems to have forgotten that literature is supposedly a time-based art.
Markson’s amnesia is one of the happy accidents of the last decade of fiction writing. By eschewing a fetishistic, conventional interest in character, or a dutiful allegiance to moment creation, to occurrence itself, Markson accomplishes what a story, slogging through time and obedient to momentum, arguably could not: a commanding, obsessive portrait of single behaviors throughout history, a catalog of atrocity that overwhelms through relentless example. In truth, it’s a novel that can be read as an essay, but unlike most essays, it’s lyrically shrewd, poetry in the form of history, and it’s brave enough to provide creepy, gaping holes where we normally might encounter context (the burden of the conventional essayist).
A few weeks back, Matt Bucher (via Twitter) suggested that because I enjoyed David Markson’s “notecard” novels so much, I should get a hold of Evan Lavender-Smith’s anti-novel From Old Notebooks. I went to order it from my bookstore, promptly found out it was out of print, and was bummed. And then like maybe a week after this, Matt let me know that the book was back in print from the good people at Dzanc. Anyway, it’s good stuff, and I’ll have a full write-up later this month.
Because of a postage screw-up, my original order was lost. When I let Dzanc know my book hadn’t arrived yet, they promptly sent another copy of the book, along with Jennifer Spiegel’s story collection The Freak Chronicles:
An American missionary sleeps on the dung floor in a witch doctor’s hut in South Africa. Two women contemplate “poverty porn” while trying to start a nonprofit in China. An heiress locks eyes with a whore on the streets of Cape Town. A college girl stalks Mickey Rourke. A professor from New Jersey gets scammed in Old Havana before Castro’s demise. A mom obsesses about the fate of Sesame Street characters. A study abroad student goes home with a Russian street artist. Backpackers question their global idealism. Terrain, both ordinary and extraordinary, work on the imaginations and perceptions of people on the run, freaks in the making, eccentrics by choice.
The short stories in this collection explore, both implicitly and explicitly, the notion of freakiness. They worry over eccentricity, alienation, normalcy, and intimacy. What is it that makes one a freak, makes one want to embrace quirkiness, have the fortitude to cultivate oddity? Is there a fine line between abnormality and the extraordinary? Jennifer Spiegel’s stories delve into these questions and others.
Essay describing the structure of Infinite Jest as Hofstadterian strange loop, the novel’s structure being that of a circle with a missing section—between the last and first pages—which must be filled in by the reader who has been, by the end of the novel, prepared, practiced, coached to do so, just as life allegedly teaches one how to die.
From Evan Lavender-Smith’s From Old Notebooks.
TheNewerYork is a new little magazine or journal or whatever you want to call it, featuring short fiction, poetry, art, lists, labels, fake reviews, and other stuff. Issue #2, clocking in at just over 80 pages fits neatly into a man’s jacket pocket and can be read in queues or at red lights or in between other readings or discreetly during end of semester faculty meetings. (I’m pretty sure you could read it in other occasions but I didn’t). You can see the front cover above; here’s the back cover, featuring this worrisome promise:
Maybe the best way to summarize (what I take to be) theNewerYork’s aesthetic/literary mission is to show off the issue’s disclaimer (which is preceded by a fancy Foucault quote):
“You won’t like some of this work” seems like a fair warning, but theNewerYork is more hit than miss, starting with its excellent opener, ‘The Thank You War” by Elliot L. Ackerman, a four-paragraph flash that tackles how would-be patriotic citizens bungle human relationships with returning soldiers. Also very good is Jamie Grefe’s list “Over Thirteen,” which is a lovely little horror story that makes meaningful use of the reader’s imagination. Another list, Bruce Harris’s “Nearly A Dozen Things Sherlock Holmes Never Said” made me laugh (sample: “Watson, you’re right.”)
One of my favorite pieces in the volume is “Not a Writer” by Joseph Rathberger (indexed as “A Put Down”). You can see it below, filling up a page; you can also see the art that precedes it and the nifty bookmark that comes with the issue:
Most of the art in the issue is black and white and all of it is varied (in style and in quality). Here is Food Poop by Shaina Yang:
TheNewerYork’s willingness to showcase experimentation in what goes on paper for people to look at and read is both a strength and a weakness. Most of the pieces succeed, even when they shouldn’t (why is a Google translation from “Baby Got Back” from English to Latin and then back into English so funny?). The pieces in the issue that don’t succeed fail on their own terms: half-formed or poorly executed ideas, the occasionally gimmicky experiment, and, thankfully more rarely, pieces that feel too imitative. But like I said, most of the texts in theNewerYork’s second issue succeed, which is to say they entertain or amuse or baffle or occasionally move the reader. What I like most about theNewerYork is its spirit, which is daring and experimental without the heavy robes of irony that often cloak these sorts of operations. A promising beginning.
These two shorties in Chris Ware’s Building Stories showcase the novel’s thematic recursion, a recursion doubled in both its metastructure (14 pieces that the reader can read in any order) as well as the structure of many of the individual pieces. In the case of the two parts pictured above, we get Möbius strips that become richer with rereading. The strips seem to twin each other not just in their format, but also in their theme.
Both strips feature Lonely Girl, who perhaps emerges as the dominant protagonist of Building Stories. The one pictured at the top gives a voice to her daughter, a girl who seems to repeat some of her mother’s tendencies toward isolation and depression.
Ware’s strength here (and always elsewhere) is the economy of storytelling: He packs entire short stories into just a few panels, coloring his narrative:
The second loop features a solitary Lonely Girl who trudges through the snowy night in a near-suicidal despair:
Read recursively, the strip dooms Lonely Girl to an endless loop of despair—and it’s at moments like these that I’m happy there are other parts to Building Stories—some kind of existential “out” for our poor heroine.
Continuing this project:
I’ve thus far titled the pieces I’ve been reading of Chris Ware’s Building Stories in a rather ad hoc fashion, but this entry is a wordless affair.
It continues the story of the “lonely girl,” the “cripple” who is the primary narrator of September 23rd, 2000.
Here, we see her raising her daughter in a series of wordless, precise panels that span roughly a decade.
Building Stories’s brilliance derives in large part from its precision and economy—Ware tells a story on every page, a chapter in every small panel:
I’m a parent (my daughter is five, my son is two), and so much of this untitled piece struck me as utterly real and authentic—so true in the details.
There’s a moment when our mother looks up to see her daughter reading—silently, to herself—that is bittersweet, a kind of gentle heartbreak:
There’s a fine line between the precise evocation of emotion and sentimental schlock, but Ware never comes close to treading it here—he’s always firmly on the side of the real.
And yet this doesn’t come at the expense of evocations of wonder, as we can see in the panels below:
As I’ve suggested a few times already, Building Stories is a sort of Möbius strip; this particular comic nearly literalizes this metaphor.
It begins with our mother drifting from sleep to waking memory, and ends thusly, a strange loop documenting how fast and how slow life changes.
. . . Borges is arguably the great bridge between modernism and post-modernism in world literature. He is modernist in that his fiction shows a first-rate human mind stripped of all foundations in religious or ideological certainty — a mind turned thus wholly in on itself. His stories are inbent and hermetic, with the oblique terror of a game whose rules are unknown and its stakes everything.
And the mind of those stories is nearly always a mind that lives in and through books. This is because Borges the writer is, fundamentally, a reader. The dense, obscure allusiveness of his fiction is not a tic, or even really a style; and it is no accident that his best stories are often fake essays, or reviews of fictitious books, or have texts at their plots’ centers, or have as protagonists Homer or Dante or Averroes. Whether for seminal artistic reasons or neurotic personal ones or both, Borges collapses reader and writer into a new kind of aesthetic agent, one who makes stories out of stories, one for whom reading is essentially — consciously — a creative act. This is not, however, because Borges is a metafictionist or a cleverly disguised critic. It is because he knows that there’s finally no difference — that murderer and victim, detective and fugitive, performer and audience are the same. Obviously, this has postmodern implications (hence the pontine claim above), but Borges’s is really a mystical insight, and a profound one. It’s also frightening, since the line between monism and solipsism is thin and porous, more to do with spirit than with mind per se. And, as an artistic program, this kind of collapse/transcendence of individual identity is also paradoxical, requiring a grotesque self-obsession combined with an almost total effacement of self and personality. Tics and obsessions aside, what makes a Borges story Borgesian is the odd, ineluctable sense you get that no one and everyone did it.
—From “Borges on the Couch,” a 2004 NYT piece republished this month in the David Foster Wallace collection Both Flesh and Not.
“The Mundane History of Lockwood Heights” is a lovely little chapbook, new from Pilotless Press, an Athenian outfit (uh, Greek, not Georgian) that knows how to put together an aesthetically-pleasing text. “Lockwood Heights” is their first release. It’s by Allen Kechagiar, who, full disclosure, I’ve been email-friendly with for a several years now.
What’s “Lockwood Heights” about?
An unnamed narrator, a young man, returns to his hometown in California, the titular Lockwood Heights, “another far station, another dead end valley prone to fire, another far suburb with no other cause than the profit it would generate for its contractors.” With little going for it in a depressed economy, the citizens of Lockwood Heights allow porn production to become their town’s raison d’etre. Studios move in and the girls of Lockwood Heights soon find they can essentially auction off their virginity on camera:
They struggle to keep their virginity intact (or at any rate their parents struggle to keep it so) and hope that they will be chosen as the royal heir’s queen consort. Here, at Lockwood Heights, we had our very own race: at its finish line there was no prince to greet the winners, but a whole menagerie, or more accurately a bestiary, comprising of artificially tanned Californian would-have-beens, barely legal girls with gigantic strap-ons, transvestites and hermaphrodites, midgets and giants, obese, anorexic, effeminate, silicon-enhanced or not, all of them with a ticket to her body, standing in a metaphorical queue. A body that wasn’t hers to control anymore. The studio owned it from then on, through the unwritten contracts of promised fame that is rarely delivered.
They were also called the Treasurers or The Knights Who Say No. Their motto was non numquam. Their herald was a locked gate.
The various histories of these girls fill most of “The Mundane History of Lockwood Heights,” and as the narrator often uses the first-person plural “we” (that is, the high school boys), the story sometimes takes on a melancholy and wistful tone similar to Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides. These are the finest moments of “Heights,” compact and precise narratives that relate the sad (and sometimes not-so-sad) lives of these girls who make porn (or, in some cases, refuse to).
It’s not just the girls of Lockwood Heights who sell their bodies on film—our protagonist comes home to sell all he has left, his “twin virginity” to be lost for a director who is sometimes called the Stanley Kubrick of porn. Scenes of the narrator meeting the casting director, his costar, and other workers on the film’s production are interspersed with the girl stories, as well as the backdrop of the narrator’s homecoming. His father has died, his mother is absent, and a strange little ersatz closet has been constructed in one of the house’s corridors. The interrelationship between these three elements is not as fully developed as it could be; I found myself wanting more. I also wanted more of the strange, aphoristic asides the narrator occasionally offers, like this one:
When we sleep we do not live in the full sense of the word. We rehearse death. Our dreams, the fallout of our daily lives, can only be remembered. They cannot be lived.
When they happen, we do not exist.
In its best moments (and there are plenty of those), “Heights” commands the reader’s attention with its bizarre mix of pathos and the pathetic, with sharp humor that threatens to tip into something more sinister. The southern California exurb Kechagiar crafts recalls the slightly off dystopias of George Saunders—the kind of place we wish were more removed from our immediate reality. “The Mundane History of Lockwood Heights” feels like the starting point of something bigger, more expansive, more detailed—and I’d want to read that something. Recommended.
I got a copy of Kirby Gann’s novel Ghosting a few week or so ago, and finally have had time to dip into the first three chapters this morning. Gann’s prose—and perhaps the framing of his characters—reminds me a bit of Russell Banks or Thomas McGuane—that combination of the rough and the refined, that rawness that actually comes from meticulous reworking. Sample of that prose (context not important):
The first cop to show nods at Dwayne Hardesty and stands beside him at the feet of four kids who lie spread-eagled face-down on the muddy portico steps leading to the graffiti-strewn boards that shield the seminary entrance. The wash of the cruiser’s spot frescoes their captive forms in hard outline, three underfed and thin and the fourth a fat block squeezed into a Kentucky basketball sweatshirt that strains to withstand his heavy nervous breathing, the grommets in their jeans and an occasional earring flashing agleam in the white light; four pairs of white sneakers, expensive and rain-wet, shine stark and severe and unworldly.
Ghosting is a thriller, and Gann propels the narrative forward with these cinematic images (and realistic dialogue), engaging the reader to keep turning the pages.
Here’s the jacket copy:
A dying drug kingpin enslaved to the memory of his dead wife; a young woman torn between her promising future and the hardscrabble world she grew up in; a mother willing to do anything to fuel her addiction to pills; and her youngest son, searching for an answer behind his brother’s disappearance—these are just some of the unforgettable characters that populate Ghosting, Kirby Gann’s lush and lyrical novel of family, community, and the ties that can both bond and betray.
Fleece Skaggs has disappeared along with Lawrence Gruel’s reefer harvest. Convinced that the best way to discover the fate of his older brother is to take his place as a drug runner for Greuel, James Cole plunges into a dark underworld of drugs, violence, and long hidden family secrets, where discovering what happened to his brother could cost him his life.
A genre-subverting literary thriller explored through the alternating viewpoints of different characters, Ghosting is both a simple quest for the solution to a mystery, and a complex consideration of human frailty and equivocation.
“Clara,” a short story by Roberto Bolaño:
She had big breasts, slim legs, and blue eyes. That’s how I like to remember her. I don’t know why I fell madly in love with her, but I did, and at the start, I mean for the first days, the first hours, it all went fine; then Clara returned to the city where she lived, in the south of Spain (she’d been on vacation in Barcelona), and everything began to fall apart.
One night I dreamed of an angel: I walked into a huge, empty bar and saw him sitting in a corner with his elbows on the table and a cup of milky coffee in front of him. She’s the love of your life, he said, looking up at me, and the force of his gaze, the fire in his eyes, threw me right across the room. I started shouting, Waiter, waiter, then opened my eyes and escaped from that miserable dream. Other nights I didn’t dream of anyone, but I woke up in tears. Meanwhile, Clara and I were writing to each other. Her letters were brief. Hi, how are you, it’s raining, I love you, bye. At first, those letters scared me. It’s all over, I thought. Nevertheless, after inspecting them more carefully, I reached the conclusion that her epistolary concision was motivated by a desire to avoid grammatical errors. Clara was proud. She couldn’t write well, and she didn’t want to let it show, even if it meant hurting me by seeming cold.