book reviews

Poems of Wry Reflection

Review of Houses, New and Selected Poems by Don Barkin


Are there consolations of aging in place? For New Haven poet Don Barkin, poetry lends a kind of formal ascendancy over the quotidian feelings and everyday events that make up a life. In his earlier volume, That Dark Lake, Barkin earned respect as a patient observer able to make music of the unspectacular, as he does here with the “flaking stucco wall of Magruder’s Service Station.” There are poems that find their apt subject in a ruined swimming pool or getting stuck in the snow; others that let a gentle symbolism creep into a deft image, as in “The Persistent”’s description of a swimmer who disappears “for a frightening while” only to reappear on a rock “so far away / he seems almost to be standing on air.”

In Houses, his new and selected poems published by Antrim House with a handsome cover painting by Peter Van Dyck, Barkin’s eye for the detail that inspires a poetic reflection remains, but his concerns have expanded somewhat. There are several poems that make gestures to that old poetic procedure of justifying the ways of God to man; poems such as “He Plays No Favorites” and “Erratum to an Elegy for a Doomed Youth” take a certain satisfaction in deeming the almighty to be rather indifferent and only looking for amusement: “slowly you start to realize / that God must surprise himself, or no dice.”  I like the way that often a key line in Barkin’s poems, always close to the matter at hand, can expand to complete a thought we didn’t know he was thinking. As, for instance, how the question of God’s surprise at how things turn out mirrors our own, and, perhaps, suggests why one bothers to write poems.

Then, there are the poems, in Part II, where Barkin the rhymester gains ascendancy, a tendency that lets Barkin’s often wry humor turn toward the act of poetry itself, letting us take some of his grimmer insights with a smile: “Still if you find such pining thick, / you’re right. And love’s a dirty trick.” With rhyme, Barkin is willing to jingle if that helps us acknowledge how cloying the commonplace can be, where a moon may appear “round as a baby’s naked bottom / yet yellow as a leaf in autumn” (in a poem about the girls that got away), or where a poetic teen, getting dropped by a girl, can long to “see the late light glaze / the rock-face of her gaze.”

I tend to like the unrhymed poems better, though there is sometimes an air of Housman in some of the rhymes, with occasionally a deliberate cadence of Yeats. Then there are times when rhyme sets up a pattern that pays off with off-rhyme in apposition:

Now it’s a ski-loud lake,
words crumble like stale cake.
To a mind that’s walked the plank
itself is what it’s like.
And the sky above it blank,
and beneath that sky, your bank.

While “the plank” may primarily be there for the rhyme — though there may be a plank over the lake — the key line “itself is what it’s like” lands with more force for sticking out — like a plank — from the fluid supports of the rhyme. The natural scene suggests the rhymes, but the mind detached even from its own versifying effort to, as in the previous verse, say what something is “like,” maintains an unrhymed diffidence.

Indeed, Barkin’s verse has a tendency to let diffidence keep the upper hand, sometimes to good effect, as for instance in what seems, with its easy rhymes, a little parody of what might be a Frostian scene that ends: “I’ll sit here till I hear the front door close. / A man must fight the devil that he knows.” We watch a scene play out and let the final line take us beyond the everyday situation — a wife yelling at a husband who is burning up his motor trying to get out of the snow — to Barkin’s greater purpose. Here one finds a suitable proverb in the moment, but sometimes, more tellingly, we might see the poet finding out what lurks in his own heart.

There are such glimpses, but the lyric for Barkin seems less an occasion for self-exploration than for keeping the self at bay. A teacher, Barkin, in “Schooled,” when asked “did you always want to teach?” says “I never did. I’m not sure why I’m here. / When you start out, you do things on a dare— / to test your strength, and then to pay the rent / as you guys go to school because you’re sent.” The poem’s conclusion — which takes us back to the text being studied (Wordsworth) — gestures toward the poetic imagination, in which earth and moon “praise the sun while trading doubtful looks,” but lets the “doubtful look” control the entire enterprise: both the speaker as a teacher and as a poet. Too much paying the rent? Too much going where one is sent?

The consolations of age are that one is no longer doing things on a dare or to test one’s strength; one can look back on the ones that got away and take stock: “You knew / way back when you held love at bay / you’d flourish in your own way / like wildflowers in their dark array.” It’s a nice thought — that “dark array” for a poet fond of keeping in mind “that dark lake” to which we tend — but the poem’s rhyme scheme, with its terza rima, skims across the important central verse of five, with verbs as rhymes: “show, know, go.” The “love at bay” looked back on, in other words, scarce causes a pause for thought, in the poem; all effort is to make the lesson of wildflowers the departed lover left become manifest — “the darkest gold, the deepest blue.” Do we trust the terms, the image, the lesson? Form and rhyme, after all, can be a manner, a way to dodge all those notions of life that don’t opt to be apt.

Don Barkin

Don Barkin


Don Barkin reads today from his verse at Mitchell Library in Westville, New Haven, 3 p.m.

Houses, New and Selected Poems
By Don Barkin
Antrim House, 2017; 88 pages

No Time Like the Future

Something for Cyber Monday?

Review of Labor Day by Joseph Farley

With Labor Day, Joseph Farley, a longtime fixture in Philadelphia’s underground literary scene, has raided parts previously unknown and come back with a science fiction novel, of all things, worth a second and even third reading. Of course, for those familiar with Farley’s poetry, it’s hard enough to imagine the poet behind the emotionally complex yet dispassionately composed Longing for the Mother Tongue working in common prose, let alone the most popular of popular genres. And yet, despite the whiff of pulp inherent in genre fiction, we should remind ourselves that on the same shelves where so much of tomorrow’s hamster bedding resides we also find the works of Philip K. Dick, Arthur C. Clarke, George Orwell, Anthony Burgess and Ray Bradbury.

Of course, this is only to say that even the most sophisticated readers among us should keep an open mind. And, indeed, in the case of Farley’s novel, they won’t be disappointed if they do. What is delightful about Labor Day is, in a word, how thoughtful a book it is, without sacrificing an inch of plain, giddy Twilight Zone-style dystopian fun. Farley seems to have had a hilariously good time upending the conventions of both speculative fiction and literary pretension, without letting these ends eclipse the kinetic drive of a book with enough pulse to stir those looking for an exciting read over the holidays.

But perhaps the most interesting part of all this is how Farley strikes this balance: science fiction, like all genre work, has its conventions, and its fans expect, nay, demand them—to the point that (as yours truly can attest, having worked as a pro comic-strip writer) such readers will often react ferociously if a story swerves even slightly from the comfort zone of their cozy clichés. Farley, however, fiddles with the convention of convention itself, assembling Labor Day from a hodgepodge of smart readings and re-renderings. We find bits of 1984 in how the novel’s protagonist, Tom Fried (and do notice the dual pronunciation here, by the way), finds himself under constant surveillance; we also have something of an homage to The Metamorphosis, insomuch as Fried’s world is dominated by man-size cockroaches; and we even discover random references to key scenes from other works, as when a couple of police in Labor Day kick the bejesus out of an old drunk, à la A Clockwork Orange.

Still, to merely name these easy allusions isn’t to do Labor Day full justice. Labor Day ’s middle-age author, it seems, wasn’t satisfied until he had appropriated pieces of everything he grew up with, including one work that is about as sci-fi as an alarm clock: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Nor is this allusion nearly as oblique as that made to Burgess’s “bit of the ol’ ultraviolent.”  Arguably, any reader who isn’t reminded of the Draytons by Fried’s near apoplexy at learning of his daughter's plans to bring a cockroach home isn’t actually reading. Moreover, the scene comes after Farley makes it expressly clear that the world of Labor Day is, quite literally, post-racial as far as homo-sapiens are concerned; Fried, for instance, is described as having a “flat nose … almond-shaped eyes … [and] black curls,” as are all the other humans we meet throughout the novel. So, while at first glance it might seem Sidney Poitier’s Dr. Prentice is being compared to a man-size cockroach in Labor Day, Farley’s book is quite obviously aiming for something else altogether.

No doubt, race is a standard theme in American sci-fi. Don’t believe me? Consider whether ET is just an extraterrestrial, or whether our several definitions of alien are coincidental. No, by convention the bulk of today’s mainstream American sci-fi seemingly can’t keep itself from pitting a majority of lily-white humans against a malevolent minority of humanoids with a few features unnervingly dissimilar from humans’ (think Star Trek’s Klingons); at its softest, this implicit racism takes the form of a token alien friend like, say, Star Wars’ Chewbacca. But we must also remember that Han Solo wastes a good number of other others at the Mos Eisley Canteen before picking up Luke and company.

In Farley’s Labor Day, in contrast, the humans, including the protagonist, are the disenfranchised, oppressed minority segregated to the outskirts of civilization by man-size cockroaches. What’s more, the roaches are themselves, absurdly enough, descended from human scientists who spliced their genes with cockroach DNA to help their offspring survive a nuclear war. As for roach behavior, in Labor Day a cabal of elite roaches introduced late in the novel can only be compared to how the characters in the soap opera Dallas behave; these malevolent roaches are not so much a race in Farley’s novel but a class, more akin to Russian oligarchs than anything else.

Thus, it is important to clarify here that Farley’s treatment of race in Labor Day isn’t just a great example of how to turn a genre convention on its head but of how to do so while remaining socially conscionable. Granted, the novel opens with a scene in which Fried dines on putrefied rat yet is more nauseated by the sight of a fellow diner, a cockroach with “multifaceted eyes like an insect” who “slobber(s) a dark liquid onto (his) lobster.” But Farley eventually pushes Fried past his fear of the other: in an attempt to visit his soon-to-be in-laws at their high-rise apartment, he witnesses the deplorable conditions the building’s roach residents deal with daily. Not only is the elevator a death trap; the building’s security guard isn’t even remotely interested in guarding the place, and there’s filth strewn everywhere. Indeed, the prospects look so bleak for these roaches that Fried’s own poverty pales in comparison. (And that’s saying a great deal, considering Fried’s luxuries consist of eating a rotted rat once a month and occasionally buying a patch for his battered shoes).

So, eventually, the novel shows us that not all roaches are equal, and not all are the affluent oppressors Fried initially assumes they are, a revelation that has plenty of real-world resonance not only in terms of race relations but because of what Fried subsequently realizes on the heels of this epiphany: in actuality, his fight always was with economic exploitation and the select few in his world who benefit from oppressing the rest of the population, be those oppressed individuals human or roach. Furthermore, the lucky few in question consist of those Dallas-style roaches mentioned above: a handful of roach plutocrats planning a Nazi-like final solution for Fried and his fellow humans. So if we sum the entirety of Labor Day’s retake on standard sci-fi treatments of race, only Farley’s rich roaches have anything in common with the lily-white humans of mainstream sci-fi; in contrast, our protagonist, his friends, his family, and most of the roaches we meet decidedly do not.

Then again, all this talk of Labor Day’s racial themes might give the false impression that it is exclusively a serious book. In fact, it’s not, or rather, it is only serious insofar as you want it to be. If you’d rather forego focusing on all the poignant and socially relevant subtext, Farley so expertly pushes social satire into the realm of laugh-riot you’ll be far from bored. For example, early on he offers this bit of over-the-top absurdity:


The horizontal [subway] cars were filled with horizontal tubes. The cars resembled rolling beehives. Riders were forced to slide into tubes headfirst. They rode in stacks to the next station, smelling the sweat and other human excretions of former tube occupants. If the passengers wished to be discharged at a station, they had to push a button. If it worked, they were ejected at the station. If it did not work properly, there was an emergency button that could be pushed. If that button was also broken, a commuter could end up riding inside his or her tube for hours or days before anyone noticed. It was not infrequent for passengers to pass out or become hysterical from claustrophobia. This was not always a bad thing, for if the passenger was subsequently diagnosed as truly being claustrophobic or having post-traumatic syndrome, that individual was issued a special pass, enabling future transport on a car with seats.…


All this is to say, then, that Joseph Farley’s Labor Day isn’t just a book that riffs on and mines the best of the past half century’s literature, film and pop-culture; it plays with these pieces in such a way that we’re made to think even as we’re laughing ourselves silly.

Labor Day
By Joseph Farley
Peasantry Press
$29.99 HC; $10.99 PB
206 pages

On the Doorstep

Review of The Familiar, Volume 1: “One Rainy Day in May” by Mark Z. Danielewski

 Admirers of Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves who pick up his enormous new volume will be surprised at how inviting it is—how linear in thrust, how accessible. Since the novel is intended as the first of twenty-seven volumes (the details can be found here), with Volume 2: “Into the Forest” scheduled for October publication, it seems natural to assume that The Familiar, Volume 1: “One Rainy Day in May” will prove a work of truly forbidding complexity.

Danielewski’s first novel, the immensely successful House of Leaves, consistently challenges its less than-than-committed readers:  Johnny Truant’s footnotes (the middle set of three) interrupt exciting passages, go on too long, and manage to punish (although in different ways) both those readers who have grown to care about Truant and those who could not manage to read the notes in their entirety. The immediate observation about “One Rainy Day in May”—and most observations, this early in Danielewski’s project, must needs be provisional—is that the new novel presents far fewer obstacles to a first reading than does House of Leaves. Not because the narratives of each of the nine major protagonists are color-coded on their pages’ upper-outside corners, nor that the first and last pages of each chapter are time- and place-stamped (these are merely convenient), but because each narrative sets into motion a story that is linear as a vector. When there are interruptions by third parties—and there are many—they come as brief comments amid the flow of action, as though spoken by a chorus whose identity will at some point become clearer, rather than, as in House of Leaves, long footnotes or orthogonal interpolations that compel the reader to uncouple from one sustained discourse and follow another.

This ease of entry is important, for Danielewski’s “story”—nine discrete narratives, plus other material not so easily categorized—is taking the form of something extremely complicated. All nine stories take place on the same mid-May day in 2014, all of them told in the third person, and limited to the perspective of a single individual. Each narrative—of a twelve-year-old girl, a young LA gang leader, an Armenian-born taxi driver, to name a few—is presented in its own layout and font to aid identification.

Although the schema does not privilege any one character over the others, the “center” of the novel is clearly the girl Xanther, whose parents’ stories constitute two of the other narratives, and whose five chapters give her more space than any other character. In an unlabeled section (its pages unnumbered) that stands at the novel’s center, an entity that has been commenting upon the text suddenly identifies itself and offers some information about what we are reading. The only character to get more than a passing mention is Xanther:

And Xanther is extraordinary. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that. Adorable too. Loves magic tricks, scary movies, scary video games, painting her fingernails, experimenting with C++, watching Speculative Fiction, or what her friend Che calls “Speculative Science.” We’ll meet him later. Unlike many of my subsets, Xanther remains captivated by the scurry of life around her, whether in the rustle of branches or how fog slips down a steep hill. Both starlight and LED light enchant her. She could chase fireflies for hours but would never cap the jar.

Fearless, inquisitive, loving, Xanther possesses every quality to catch the sympathy of a reader. Indeed, the just-adolescent girl—resourceful yet vulnerable, neither a child nor quite a woman and, Roger Zelazny once wrote, “at the point in her life where all young girls are most beautiful and most pathetic”—seems especially attractive to male writers. From Dickens’s Little Nell and Henry James’s Maisie to the young protagonists of Richard Hughes’ A High Wind in Jamaica, Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Charles Portis’s True Grit, Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass, and recent novels by Geoff Ryman, Jonathan Lethem, and David Mitchell, the intellectually precocious but not yet sexually mature girl seems emotionally engaging and (perhaps crucially) comprehensible to men. The appearance of this familiar figure—as straightforward an incarnation as that in the new Pixar film Inside Out—is perhaps the most conventional element in Danielewski’s new novel.

As tangled as its structure is, one can descry the shape of House of Leaves: it comprises the professionally annotated edition of a manuscript discovered and “edited” by a troubled young man, a manuscript that purports to discuss a documentary film. While easier to read, the first volume of The Familiar offers us few hints as to the final work’s overall design. Four (by my count) sections precede the title page announcing Volume 1, and might be taken as prologues to the entire work. Their nature is unclear, although one appears to originate in the far future and another in the prehistoric past, suggesting enormous vistas whose relationship to each other will presumably become clear in succeeding volumes. The unnumbered central section offers a bit more clarification; an iteration (typographically distinct, as all such have been) that has been making unannounced appearances throughout the novel, abruptly introduces itself: “I’m a Narrative Construct. Narcon for short.” This Narcon—there are two others—is chatty and seems to explain much, though what it confides finally tantalizes more than it illuminates, and moreover seems subject to censorship from yet another entity, not otherwise known. When the Narcon declares that “There is not space in the universe to tell the universe to the universe. Therein lies the peculiar beauty and sadness of stories: to tell it all without all at all,” we perhaps get closer to Danielewski’s intent: to tell the story of everything. House of Leaves curls inward on itself, but The Familiar moves forward like a wavefront, its every section (however initially bewildering) comprising narrative, as in “story,” as in What Happens.

Before the novel and the day is out, all nine of the distinct characters encounter something extraordinary. Some have led hitherto mundane lives, while others have long dealt with wonder, which they now find kicked up to a higher level. 

There was real terror here. Beyond whatever obvious extensions Cas could easily foresee, whether at the hand of local police, federal agents, or even some abstract laws twisted enough to decry them as traitors, terrorists, seditious to the point of world toppling. Forget jail cells or street-corner executions. This was something else. To have put so much out there and watch it be swallowed without a trace.

Cas is owner and co-inventor of the Orb, a viewing device capable of bridging time and space that has driven its creators into hiding from a powerful and malevolent secret organization; her musings are presented in a prose that is vivid but concise and straightforward. But the left-hand margin of the paragraphs on this (right-hand) page all bulge inward, as do the right margins of the opposite page. To look at the open book is to see here an empty circle within the lines of print: a vacancy (or Orb) like the limb of the eclipsing Moon moving across the disk of the Sun. This typographical Orb first appears on the chapter’s first page; by chapter’s end it occupies dead center of the page.

This combination of normalized prose and pictoral typography is reversed in other sections, such as the one set in Singapore, about the young man JingJing and Tian Li, the older woman everyone calls “auntie”:

jingjing love the parks too. he and auntie same like that. botanical gardens abruthen, but also just sit in toa payoh, pearl’s hill, or emerald park. or cross over to sentosa to lay backs down in the sand, jingjing finding monster cards in the clouds, tian li swinging her arms around like repelling monkey. green both their thing. even if  , xanh lục, [ ], 綠色, зеленый,  , are still not enough to know what that means. Words so tua kang. Words need worlds in order to be words. Worlds though don’t need words in order to be words.

The brackets here designate a word printed in an alphabet that I cannot reproduce (I was lucky to manage the Cantonese). The Russian word, “zelenie,” means green, as does “xanh lục” (Vietnamese), as well as and 綠色 (a subtle distinction, a helpful website tells me), and presumably the other as well. There is a lot of this in the JingJing chapters, and often the reader can work the meaning out through context. If you can’t, and you find this annoying, you are certainly not alone.

And what “happens” in this 839-page tome?  The nine characters are all confronted with problems, some urgent, but the closest thing to a climax takes place when Xanther rescues a kitten and brings it home. Cats, and sounds perhaps made by a cat, have figured throughout the novel, though only fleetingly. Clearly there was something about the kitten (and Xanther’s role in saving it from drowning) that partakes of the supernatural; almost certainly it is the “familiar,” as in witch’s familiar, of the title. Every use of the word in the text is printed in a distinct color (as was “house” in House of Leaves), but these have all been as adjectives, not the noun. The familiar has appeared, perhaps repeatedly, but only by implication.

In Danielewski’s 2005 novella, The Fifty Year Sword, the words “Then what happened?” occupy the entirety of one page. It is the question that Danielewski wants us to ask at every moment, although “What just happened?” may sometimes occur to us as easily. The second volume will certainly tell us more, although “What just happened?” will likely remain a frequent refrain for some time to come. Popular press reviews are already describing “One Rainy Day in May” as a “doorstop,” but a better term might be doorstep—the threshold of a vast edifice whose dimensions we, standing on the verge, can only begin to discern.


The Familiar, Volume 1: “One Rainy Day in May”
By Mark Z. Danielewski
Pantheon, 2015; 839 pages


Something for You

Review of Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being

Reading A Tale for the Time Being, the third novel by New Haven-born author Ruth Ozeki, played with my head in a way I’ve not experienced since John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman. Whereas Fowles' novel dealt with existentialist philosophy, Ozeki's strange blend of fiction and “not fiction” ponders Buddhist thinking intertwined with quantum theory. It can make for a bewildering read.

Ozeki's novel is written in the first-person perspective of a troubled teenaged Japanese girl and in the third-person perspective of an almost equally troubled author who finds the girl's diary washed up on shore. In penning her thoughts, the Japanese girl, Nao (short for Naoko, and playing on its sounding like “now”), contemplates suicide and intends to make a written record of Jiko, her 104-year-old great-grandmother who is a Zen Buddhist nun with awesome “supapawa.” The author, named Ruth, struggles to find the confidence to write her next book (believing her powers are fading like her mother's mind did) and with the lifestyle she shares with her husband, Oliver.

I struggled too. In the first few chapters I found Nao a little unbelievable. She was too upbeat, too interesting to be convincing as a girl intending to kill herself. At the same time, the characterization was wonderful—I really liked her and cared about her well-being. Ozeki constructs Nao's diary as an account written to some undefined, future “you” which draws in the reader just as it draws in Ruth. The novel interweaves chapters between the two characters throughout, taking the reader on a journey with both women. Nao says she is writing for “one special person, and that person is you.” And that person may be Ruth.

Just as in Einsteinian physics, space and time are linked, inseparable, and to some extent the same thing, so Nao seems to reach across time and space to that special “you.” She puns with time, referring to herself as a “time being,” and asks questions of the “you,” wondering how “it feels like I'm reaching forward through time to touch you, and now that you've found it, you're reaching back to touch me!” The diary itself is cleverly hidden in time—secreted between the covers of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Living in New Haven, an ocean away from Japan, Ruth is yet of Japanese descent herself and so the two characters are connected despite such vast distance. Ultimately, Ruth's dreams make even that distance seemingly non-existent.

Ozeki explores the themes of opposites and equalities throughout. First, through Nao, she introduces Jiko's maddening philosophy: “up down, same thing. And also different, too.” Similarly, she blurs fiction and non-fiction. It’s obvious that the characters of Ruth and Oliver are meant to be understood as Ozeki and her husband, Oliver Kellhammer, making it all the more ironic when Nao (a fictional character) begins to doubt Ruth's existence: “But the fact is, you're a lie. You're just another stupid story I made up out of thin air because I was lonely and needed someone to spill my guts to.”

And what of all the people Ruth and Oliver meet on the way? Do they exist? And how real is real? How much of Ruth and Oliver are Ozeki and Kellhammer? Do the couple really own a cat called Schrödinger, for instance? Just as Ruth googles the names and places Nao writes of to see if they are factual, so I quickly found myself doing the same not just for Nao's story but also Ruth's. Nao, in fact, became so real to me, I became not a little jealous of Oliver getting to read Nao's story. He wasn't the right “you,” I felt. His interjections in the appendix (helpfully explaining the numerous Japanese terms used throughout the book) seemed like an intruder breaking in where he had no place. I felt Ruth was betraying Nao by letting Oliver read what was meant for her alone. But, of course, I was reading Nao too. Oliver had as much right as I or anyone, so why did I become jealous?

Later, Ruth seems to struggle with the same feelings herself (which came as a shock), hiding the book from others and resenting Oliver's involvement. Indeed, Ruth’s situation also reaches across space and time, sucking the reader into her world. Often I felt she was describing the reader’s world as much as her own, admitting “she was finding it harder and harder to pick up the phone these days. She didn't like talking to people in real time anymore.” These words resonate with dedicated writers and readers, people who let “real time” fade away.

The contradiction of opposites becomes a central point, as Ozeki's characters find for themselves. Up/down, reality/not reality, being/not being—even reader/writer—“all the same.” But also different too. Most of the time, Ozeki makes this metaphysical equivalent of Schrödinger’s cat entertaining as well as thought-provoking and, towards the end, I finally began to understand why Nao didn't come across as a suicidally depressed teenager. The truth—and not truth—is more complex than that.

For all its interest, Ozeki doesn't quite manage a flawless novel. There are times when the plot is a little too obviously contrived for the sake of her didacticism. In Part IV, the book gets bogged down in philosophy and theory, losing its way a little too. Nevertheless, A Tale for the Time Being gets close to perfection. Its great success is in making its plot—will Nao kill herself in the end?— almost unimportant. The journey entices us rather than the destination.

And it is a challenging journey. There's something about Ozeki's writing which makes you question your own “time being”: Who are you? Why are you? Reading Nao's voice makes it impossible not to engage in introspection. Indeed, even in writing this review, I can’t escape a personal inflection. You're a stranger to me and I to you. Yet here I am confessing a little of my own thoughts and feelings, all because of Nao and Ruth and Oliver and all the others who appear in this story. And you are reading this to decide whether you should pick up Ozeki’s book and, thus, Nao’s diary. There is something quite fitting about this: like Nao, I’m writing this review just for you, in hopes you will read both. And that makes you kind of special.

A Tale for the Time Being
Ruth Ozeki
Canongate, 2013; 400 pages


James Berger’s first book, Prior (BlazeVOX, 2013), is not so much a collection as it is a condensed career. Drawing on decades of poems, Berger compresses his past into a book. We don’t read for a dominant theme but rather to see the different threads revealed. And yet this is also not a “selected,” where the volumes drawn from would be clearly marked. Berger has compiled his poems, we might say, and chosen an arrangement for them. And that’s what we read. That said, we can isolate different versions of Berger the poet, and different interests over time. The book is divided into four sections, linked by recurring short poems entitled, severally, “Prior to Earth,” “Prior to Air,” “Prior to Water,” but the sections seem to blend the kinds of manner to which Berger is prone. There is the abstract poet, pursuing a more disembodied style, where a sense of language is the key pursuit; there is the family man poet, who reacts to a death, to the birth and growth of his children, who reflects on his sisters, and explores the imaginative dimensions of marriage; there is the discontented commentator on culture and, to use the Onion’s phrase, “our dumb century,” a poet who finds little enough to praise and chafes at his status quo; then there is the more profound poet, who sees that the purpose of poetry, after all, is its ability to contain life and thought, the actual existence and the virtual existence. Poetry may be cloying if it tries to be wisdom literature, and Berger is too ironic toward language to endorse gestures too large, but moments of careful reflection surface due to the poet’s willingness to attend to the implications in a turn of phrase, a new shade of the mind.

In the first section, “In the Shape of Breathing,” the dominant mood is the poet’s discontentment with himself and his world. “He asks his father, ‘Am I Oedipal?’” Almost a joke, the question is answered, “Of course not, no one will harm you.” Which, of course, is a tremendous lie. The harm of attachment is interrogated again and again, as the poet tries on alternative lives (“There is always some slim girl”), which seem to include becoming a nature poet, and is haunted by “My sister and her beautiful serious face,” and reflects on, more than anything, the attitude one should wear toward a life that inevitably disappoints.

The section opens with a 10-part poem called “In the Shape of Breathing” (“What have I lost— / the whole fucking deal that’s what—“) that sets a tone anxious and defeated. Toward the end of the first section, “A Place to Start” alerts us to all the things the speaker doesn’t have to do or be: “live forever or be happy”; “I don’t have to be good in bed”; “I don’t have to exude anything.” The idea that “Life might have turned out differently” produces, we might say, mature reflection upon the poet’s task: “seeing it through / all the way / as it is.” Insisting “the imagination has no right / to metamorphosis,” we can see that, “Oedipal” or not, the poet is in a struggle with those who would use poetry as wish fulfillment, or as means to avoid or obscure “the deep, daily commitment to this life’s / limits and needs.”

Section II, “New Resolutions of Memory,” seems to kick back at the notion of a poetry adequate to life as it is lived. The title poem of the section plays with recurring phrases, detached from their referents, seemingly, but still able to be turned to account: “I’ve always found occasional schools / of children living in ruins, / hiding from vehicles. / Everything I’ve loved / will take you away from us.” The entire section is given over to a different sense of poetic possibility—“Word-photons,” “The only thing open is wild / experiment.” And yet a phrase on the first page of the section—“My heart accepts its pitch”—keeps open the sense that discourse on form and on the daily encounters with the assaults of our time (“The Children of Terror”) cannot distract, ultimately, from poetry as operations upon the self: “Tacit” considers as inadequate a theory of writing that has left out of account, till now, the human dimension of a family affliction, and “Epithalamium: The Contraption” has the courage to imagine marriage as a kind of surrealist machine, using all it comes upon in untold and unpredictable ways: “A million parts churn and fidget, we have no idea what’s going on.” Here, the anxious and defeated tone gives way to something more definite, grasped, perhaps, in the final line of “New Resolutions”: “Later, mature, you will enter one.”

Part III, suitably enough, is called “The Enclosure”, and we might say that here we find Berger restlessly at home in his house of poetry, bending his attention on the ways in which the world can still fuck up our best intentions, and having fun at its expense: “There may be a Malthusian problem. / There may be a problem of vaguely defined invasiveness, / It could mean zombies.” “Civilization Credits” even smacks of the truly satiric toward our age of scarcity (for the many) and ludicrous abundance (for the few): “Eternal dominance is the price of comfort. / Amnesia is the prerequisite.”

The main poem of this section is not the title piece, but a 17-part poem called “The Fragilist.” This figure—in some respects an alter-ego—confronts the task of concocting poisons, of registering Jewishness in the figure of Mosiach, of rebounding from imaginative recreations of pregnancy and of making pregnant, of parental injunctions and moments of instruction, of becoming an object: “poured to a shape, / unable to blink; / the same baked function.” Other poems investigate, again, roads not taken (“I could have turned a hundred times”), the burden of family (“I See Where it Leads”), and the “vaguely defined invasiveness” that demands a poetics, a project. Berger hits upon, in place of poetry workshops, the poem makeover TV show, and pronounces his rather more morose goal: “to slog / my mortality in the dried vein / of lyric.”

In Part IV, “I Do Return, I Keep Returning,” we could say the poet has found his way to live up more directly to the injunction about “the deep, daily commitment to this life,” with poems about middle-aged love (“Return”), his daughters’ naming (“The Naming”), a story about, seemingly, ancestors—two sisters (“Sara and Lili”)—and poems that, like “My Goal” and “Only Happiness,” attest to the poet’s struggle to undertake the most quotidian of cares—fatherhood—while retaining a right to his own imagination.

My aim, which is my goal, is to love babblerockthis semblance, ordering of bordering babblerockbatshitdubreturn to the true strophes bbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbthat delineate the catastrophe.

(“My Goal”)

The most problematic poem in the final section, wherein Berger seems to become a much more plainspoken poet, is called “The Art of the Future,” for there we find the poet trying as many pirouettes as possible so as to keep up a hope in an inspiration still to come, while returning to formal experiments dating back to W. C. Williams at least:

theWhat makes it theWhainteresting eWhat thmaare the changes. What makes it theWhatare the changes themakesarewhat makes theWhataretheit interesting are thechangeswhat makes the thechanges.whatchanges arethecthe what makes it changesthewhatwhat makes changestheit interesting changesthe changes

Throughout the book, Berger flirts with what used to be called “confessional poetry”—the poetry that assumed an existential continuity between the author and the speaker of the poem, so that everything said reflected on an autobiographical self. Berger, who studied with Kenneth Koch, is too much an ironist and a lover of the self-animated phrase to allow his poems to reduce to one man’s experience. And yet, there is a presence in the poems that we accept as the peculiar in-dwelling of James Berger as he tries to reflect and represent the world as he knows it and the world as he projects it. As “The Art of the Future” warns: “Don’t mistake / my intention / for intention.” Berger reserves the right to elude his own formulations through radical skepticism, perhaps, but, in middle-age, we may see that he was all along a poet of retention, that rather than having lost “the whole fucking deal,” he has kept it—and at it – all along and after all.

One wonders, then, what work this lengthy debut will be “prior” to.

James Berger Prior BlazeVOX [Books] 2013

James Berger, a resident of New Haven and a Senior Lecture in American Studies at Yale, reads with Joel Lewis, Saturday, March 29, 7:30 p.m., at Infinite Well LLC, 123 Court Street, New Haven.

I Has Cheeseburger!

A Review of Mark Lamoureux’s 29 Cheeseburgers + 39 Years Linking experiment to tradition without becoming stodgy, Mark Lamoureux’s 29 Cheeseburgers + 39 Years (Pressed Wafer, 2013) comprises two short Bildungsromans divided into tidy Elliptical poems that explore the self’s relation to consumerism.

The consumerism theme is apparent immediately, for who can glance at that delicious-looking, orange-and-white cover without craving an Orange Julius; who can see the title’s defiantly analytical plus-sign, and not be reminded of Fugazi’s Repeater + 3 Songs? The fast-food of “cheeseburgers,” the fruit-flavored smoothie coloration, and the typography of a post-Hardcore album sold in Hot Topic all bring to mind a shopping mall.

This is the world Lamoureux’s speaker inhabits, with all its empty glitz, and Lamoureux is well-aware of the fact, even as his speaker clings to his kitschy surroundings as models of how he wishes life were: Dualistic, plastic, with Hollywood-endings—in other words, easy.

Specifically, the speaker’s many enumerations of pop-culture references—some referring to actual products and media, others to imagined “properties”—can all be read as adolescent daydreaming. Intrusions from outside voices only carry trauma, as when the prosaic coherence of “Your father’s not coming back” inserts itself into “No. 5 Bernice Burger, Shady Glen Restaurant, Manchester, CT.”

Locating 29 Cheeseburgers’ scenes within the year-in-review poems of 39 Years, then, we realize these intrusions only exacerbate the speaker’s focus on his naively materialistic fantasies, as in “1982”:

            … Zicon*        X-Ray Man Cryasor, master of elements Chess Man Blue Swordsman‡ poetry review Red Lance§ Steel Star Knights: Lance, Sword, Axe, poetry review Mace, Bow      Thunderball¶ Utopian god of sound & light New Haven Review The terrific Triton Review of New Poetry, New Haven The changing Vulture…

Yes, much of 29 Cheeseburgers + 39 Years is escapism, but, as any American born after 1950 will recognize, escapism is almost universally a very real facet of our late 20th-century childhoods. Perhaps taking a cue from Carolyn Forché, Lamoureux is ostensibly reporting reality. The difference is that Lamoureux’s speaker is both subject and reporter, allowing for all the complex subjectivity implicit in a report on action nearly exclusively internal. Is, for instance, a “Cryasor” a bad-ass ‘cry(ogenic)-(dino)saur’ the speaker idolizes? Or is it the speaker’s at once humorous and tragic name for himself: ‘cry-a-sor(e)’?

In fact, Lamoureux is ingenious in unaffectedly offering such complex, refracting details, and in the case of the “Cryasor,” he is revealing a momentary flash of misunderstood maturity among the speaker’s thoughts. The “Cryasor” is a powerful idol, a disappointing reality and a terrifying beast all rolled into one, not merely a popgun prop or pun.

As such, this piece of pop-culture bric-a-brac foreshadows greater circumspection: As one of the objects with which the speaker identifies, the “Cryasor” is the ideal self, actual self and animal self—or super-ego, ego and id. It is “master of the elements” in every sense because it semantically unites all three elements of self into one word, one identity. After all, as Lamoureux is subtly telling us, power comes to the child when all aspects of the individual accept they are part of the unity; that is what we call, “adulthood.”

Of course, there is plenty of comic relief too, and much of it comes from the many riotous jabs several poems’ footnotes take at stodgy “literariness,” as when, footnoting “Doctor Doom” in “2000,” Lamoureux directly quotes the referenced comic-book character: “Before I tell you of my plan, let me demonstrate the power of my magnetic brainchildren.” Importantly, Lamoureux doesn’t use the footnote in a traditional way to explain what he’s referencing, nor does he surround the footnote’s text with quotation marks.

The reader unfamiliar with comic books, then, has no point of reference for this particular footnote. And, as Lamoureux is not attributing the quotation or even indicating it is one with punctuation, it becomes part of his speaker’s monologue, rather than authorial material intended to elucidate. In fact, cut off from its context as much any group of words can be, the statement becomes a cheeky aside from the speaker, the poem commenting on itself.

Moreover, this meta-text is a bit of facetious showboating, inserted as it is between the deftly executed mouthful of a pop-culture litany and an equally well-executed explication of that litany’s import. In other words, here we are hearing from a fully confident, adult speaker who has no problem taking the words out of Stan Lee’s mouth, while explaining and executing—at once—one hell of a verbal hat trick. Or, put even more simply, the words in the poem’s opening enumeration are the speaker’s “magnetic brain children,” while the less unmooring text following them is the “plan,” and the speaker is who else but Doctor Doom himself.

What more can we say about such goofy, if often bewildering, prose appendages, except that Lamoureux is obviously being a smartass with them. As with the example given above, every footnote in 29 Cheeseburgers + 39 Years bucks the traditional purpose of footnotes and obscures more than it reveals for any reader unwilling to unpack the text; sometimes, Lamoureux uses the notes to argue with the book’s editors, rebelliously reinserting deleted lines, while at other times he is telling readers to research a reference themselves or fuck off.

But, in any case, as with the “Doctor Doom” footnote and the “Cryasor” reference, there is typically a lot more going on psychologically for the speaker of 29 Cheeseburgers + 39 Years behind every word of its kitschy confusion than might initially come across. Lamoureux’s book simply wants acutely engaged readers willing to break out Google and Wikipedia as they read, and should that really be too much to ask?

Finally, we have the question of how to read this book. As mentioned above, Lamoureux is writing Elliptical poetry that, in some instances, borders on Language poetry. Yet the problem with placing these poems in either the Elliptical or Language categories is that Lamoureux isn’t disregarding syntax and diction or using jarring parataxis merely to be cute, unnerving or gimmicky.

Rather, these mechanisms make his poems cinematic, and the reader would do well to read each word as a frame in a montage: As when watching a movie, our minds must construct the book’s narrative out of pieces that are actually discrete. In this way, Lamoureux’s poems, in their presentation as products of Hollywood, are structurally true to their settings and themes. What results, then, is a melding of method and theme into a totality that would satisfy classical aesthetics while doing so in a way that answers the postmodern call to experimentation and disjunction to a degree of which few poets are capable.

29 Cheeseburgers + 39 Years Mark Lamoureux Pressed Wafer, 2013


Mark Lamoureux, a New Haven resident, reads Saturday, March 29, 8 p.m, at WAVEMACHINE, 1175 Chapel Street #601, New Haven, with poets Ossian Foley and David James Miller.

The Mexican Fantastic

Three Messages and a Warning: Contemporary Mexican Short Stories of the FantasticEduardo Jiménez Mayo and Chris N. Brown, eds. (Small Beer Press, 2011)

From where I'm standing, Latin American literature in the United States is still more or less defined by magical realism, and the more colorful, soap-opera edge of magical realism at that, even as—as should be pretty obvious after a couple seconds' thought—the literature itself is much more diverse than that, and even though the countermovements to magical realism are at least a decade old. (Part of the problem, I think, is that fewer non-magical realist works are translated into English, because somebody thinks that English-speaking North Americans don't want to read about Latin America unless it also involves a thousand butterflies flying out of someone's mouth. Are they right?)

As the title implies, Three Messages and a Warning doesn't break realist writers for a American audience. It does, however, show that, even within the realm of the fantastic, literature written in Spanish has more going on than just magical realism. It also makes a compelling case for considering the works to be distinctly Mexican. Writers of the fantastic from other Spanish-speaking countries aren't represented in the book—and I'm not well-read enough to make the comparison myself—but the volume, taken as a whole, points to an aesthetic that the writers seem to share. A certain tone is struck, a certain taste runs through everything; it isn't quite like anything else I've read before, and it's on every page, even as the stories themselves are remarkably diverse.

There are stories of personal anxiety, touched with both humor and horror. In Amparo Dávila's "The Guest"—a cousin of Julio Cortázar's famous story "House Taken Over"—a stranger moves into a house and terrorizes the women living there, while the man of the house doesn't seem to care. In Alberto Chimal's "Variations on a Theme of Coleridge," a man gets a cell phone call, and then a visit, from himself. Guillermo Samperio's "Mr. Strogoff" is constructed as a breathless excerpt of a much longer story, of crime, betrayal, love, and corruption. In Óscar de la Borbolla's "Wittgenstein's Umbrella," seemingly everything that is possible happens to you—the story is written in the second person—in an astonishing four pages. Then there are stories of societal disarray, or straight-up apocalypse, though unlike the usual American version of it—it's zombies! It's a nuclear war!—the causes are stranger, more complicated, more difficult to understand or sort out. A city is overrun by lions ("Lions," by Bernardo Fernández, perhaps my favorite story in the book); a village is overrun by wolves ("Wolves," by José Luis Zárate). In "The Hour of the Fireflies," the country has been plagued by terrorism and a "war among the corporations," which leads the government (or someone) to justify a series of Tuskeegee-like experiments in a certain city. In what can be read as a pretty biting commentary on foreigners' (i.e., us) appreciation of magical realism and not much else from Latin America, the experiments, as a by-product, produce a flood of electrically charged fireflies that swarm the city every evening. The fireflies become a tourist attraction—"visitors from all over the globe pay exorbitant premiums to rent views of the street"—though the fireflies themselves are deadly, the charge from one of them enough to kill three people, which means no one who lives there can go out. Mauricio Montiel Figuerias' "Photophobia" and Liliana V. Blum's "Pink Lemonade" are both much grittier versions of society in total collapse, again from a confluence of several factors, taken from today's headlines. Finally, there are the metastories, which feel most familiar to people who've read, say, Borges and Cortazar: Agustín Cadena's "Murillo Park," in which a man has a friendship with an old woman whom he may or may not have dreamed; Carmen Rioja's "The Nahual Offering," in which the narrator dreams a character who may be dreaming her; Gabriela Damián Miravete's "Future Nereid," in which a woman reading an obscure book discovers that she might a character in it.

See what I mean about diversity? There's more where that came from, too. But about the commonality: What each of the stories share with the other is the overwhelming feeling that there is a much, much bigger story out there, beyond the ability of the narrator or the characters to comprehend, and that story is tinged not just with wonder and tragedy, but with outright menace, toward the narrator, toward society, toward the reader. It's this uniquely eerie sense of threat, just around the corner, just out of sight, that's tempting to label as Mexican—what the editors in the introduction describe as "a multicultural, media-drunk, post-postmodern society" whose "literary culture still enjoys mass appreciation of the importance of verse, where large crowds gather in public plazas to hear poets read their work" while it's simultaneously "plugged into the mediated networks that dominate our global perceptions"—even though the editors also point out that the "stories come from a culture that itself would probably never collect these authors in a single volume."

The sense of threat has some resonance in contemporary current events in Mexico: the persistent questions regarding just how much control the government really has over the place; the constant allegations of corruption; the increasingly unsettling sense that large-scale drug traffickers operate with impunity; the wave of murders in Ciudad Juarez, in which hundreds of women have been killed and nobody still seems to know who's doing it or why. (Roberto Bolaño barely fictionalizes these killings in the fourth, and, in my and apparently most people's opinions, best part of 2666, "The Part About the Crimes.") But it also resonates here, in our own insecurities and sense that things are getting a little out of control. U.S. culture is seeing its own wave of popularity of weird and postapocalyptic stuff; if this strain of pop culture is here to stay in the United States, then these writers on the other side of the border offer a way for it to move forward.

Poetry Review: Sarah Lindsay's 'Twigs & Knucklebones'

Sarah Lindsay is in the minority, a poet uninterested in the self. Rare is the appearance of the first-person pronoun in her 2008 collection, Twigs & Knucklebones, a conspicuous absence that sets her apart from other poets compelled to reveal and confess every secret shame.

Even the sole love poem, “Stubbornly,” is externalized, cordoned off from the self. No one gives or receives love. It’s a mock argument over poetic symbols of love. Lindsay picks the unlikely lichen over the “showy rose” and the “changeless diamond,” because the “alga and fungus [that] made one fleck” will continue:

crocheting its singular habit over time, a faithful stain bound to its home, etching on the unmoved rock the only rune it knows.

Lindsay does this kind of thing throughout Twigs & Knucklebones. To express what’s inside, like love, she turns to the material world. Of course, this is what poets do. Her poetics call to mind William Carlos Williams, who advised poets to let ideas emerge from things rather than things from ideas. In “Stubbornly,” love is not like lichen; it’s lichen, rather, that’s like love. A “faithful stain,” something that doesn’t go away, that combines with a “singular habit,” a behavior that’s focused and steady, best fits love as a metaphor. In this way, what appears ironic might instead be read as something heartfelt and genuine.

Lindsay resembles Williams in another way — she has a day job. The 1997 nominee for the National Book Award is a copy editor for a company that publishes trade magazines. Williams linked his poetics with his profession as a doctor, in which he experienced the immediate and “the local” every day: “That is the business of a poet,” he wrote. “Not to talk of vague categories but to write particularly, as a physician works, upon a patient, upon the thing before him, in the particular to discover the universal.”

I don't mean to make too fine a point of this, but I’m sure Lindsay spends time working on the thing in front of her, the words that need her attention, and dealing with its immediate particulars, words and their meaning. Given the mostly unambiguous nature of copy editing — language is used correctly or not — Lindsay likely avoids Williams’ “vague categories” in her daily routine. If she’s like other writers at all, the force of habit at least informs aesthetic principle and not as much the other way around. So my gut tells me this copy editor-poet finds value in intensifying the “external moment,” as Williams advised, stuffing her poems with all sorts of concrete things from the natural and ancient worlds.

In “Why We Held On,” an external moment begins with the slow gathering of petty details and culminates in what Williams might have called a “radiant gist” — an image so clear that you get it without knowing you’ve gotten it.

Future doctors, Lindsay writes, may learn that an infestation of parasites in our minds explains why we cling to the past, to the “illusionary satisfaction” of mimicking “the letter / that mentioned Granny’s mules were named Huldy and Tom.” We obsess over “the leavings of people we couldn’t get back, / wouldn’t see again or never saw —.” Even so, “[i]t wasn’t our fault.” We cling just as:

the housefly filled with a fungus knows only that it must land in a high place, and dies there obligingly in an odd position suitable for the firing of spores at sunset.

What an image!

Sure, it’s a grim worldview that sees human behavior as pre-determined as a housefly’s gut fungus. And sure, it’s made grimmer by Lindsay’s lucid style in compact lines. But cynicism in Twigs & Knucklebones is often counterbalanced by the sublimity of her images and the force of their implications.

That includes the disconnect between nature and man — the workings of an amoral universe independent of human notions of morality. Good and bad don’t really apply to nature. She’s perfectly indifferent. Even so, how do we “labor to comprehend” and find meaning in a world, Lindsay writes in “Song of a Spadefoot Toad”:

where minute crustaceans pierce the side of a swordfish to lodge in its heart, where spadefoot toads wake from eleven months’ sleep and sing till their throats bleed, where humans do everything that humans do, where a fig wasp pollinates a flower while laying her eggs, then lies on her side as baby nematodes crawl from her half-eaten gut … ?

Lindsay frequently returns to parasites. It seems they are an apt metaphor for her tragic worldview. Parasites need a host but slowly kill it in spite of themselves. One's desires lead to one's undoing. And Lindsay jams human behavior inside a list of horrible things parasites do, obscuring the divide between thing and idea: Are we like parasites — or are parasites like us?

But just as you find tragedy, you also find external moments of stunning beauty.

At the end of “Spadefoot Toad,” Lindsay answers despair with another image. Meaning can be found inside this image, the thing itself, but unlike a rose or a diamond, it has no metaphysics beyond itself. It is what it is — a thing of beauty, a stripped down picture in which we might take comfort.

These images reflect a wholeness of understanding in Twigs & Knucklebones, an old-fashioned way of seeing the world that used to be called wisdom, in a place:

where faithfully every day in a mangrove shallows paired seahorses — armless, legless, without expression — dance with each other at sunrise.

ABOUT THE BOOK Twigs & Knucklebones by Sarah Lindsay Copper Canyon Press, 117 pages, $15

The Anatomy of Harpo Marx


by Wayne Koestenbaum

UC Press, 2012

336 pages


It's no secret that scholarly books on cinema can be deadening, and any play-by-play of 13 movie comedies sanctioned by a university press might reasonably seem like one to avoid. Not so The Anatomy of Harpo Marx, from the poet and cultural critic Wayne Koestenbaum, and published by UC Press, which has the nerve not to be just another impersonal, theory-glazed boredom generator. Instead it's a zesty and deeply literate joy to read.

Just as his previous nonfiction work, Humiliation, seemed like an apotheosis of new literary possibility in the age of overshare, so Koestenbaum's new book reinvigorates film studies. There's no special trick to it, really, just his own eruditely intimate way of seeing in the silent Marx brother a profound physical presence.

"As Andy Warhol filmed a man sleeping, and called it Sleep," Koestenbaum writes, "I want to commit media-heist, to steal a man from his native silence and transplant him into words, if only for the pleasure of taking illusory possession of a physical self-sureness that can never be mine." By casting his project in such confessional terms, Koestenbaum makes a sort of pact with subject and reader alike. He proceeds not just as an insightful scholar but also as a brainy, randy, vulnerable flirt.

Unpacking the famous screen comedian's nonverbal lyricism is of course a worthy academic undertaking, and Koestenbaum's subjective musings neatly disguise his rigor. It's his alertness to "foreshadowings that appear when we view earlier artifacts in hindsight" that allows Koestenbaum to coin the phrase "Kristallnacht Preview" for a given moment of 1933's Duck Soup, in which "Harpo apprehends catastrophe." Later, he writes, "I will lean on the Nazi theme; Harpo leans on it too. Harpo was a comic genius before the Third Reich came along, but the Third Reich gave Harpo's anarchy extra pointedness." And of course those retrospective foreshadowings continue into subsequent epochs; in 1937's A Day at the Races, for instance, "he has the traumatized expression of Jackie Kennedy on Air Force One as LBJ is sworn into the presidency."

Obviously that analysis may be subject to debate; what matters most is the peculiar and palpable force of Koestenbaum's investment -- the "ecstatic clarity" to be had from studying a screen persona through one's own history-sharpened lens. Diaristic and deceptively digressive, The Anatomy of Harpo Marx becomes a secondary celebration of context itself. Yet it never loses sight of the endlessly watchable man, and the endlessly meaningful mannerisms, in all those movies.

If Koestenbaum seems like exactly the right writer for this job, it's as much for the refinement of his appreciation as for his recognition of what makes something appreciation-worthy to begin with. As he rightly puts it, "Harpo beams upward at you, whoever you are."

Geoff Dyer: Zoning In


Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room

by Geoff Dyer

Pantheon, 2012

240 pages


Last spring, an interviewer asked the British writer Geoff Dyer which movie he would choose to live inside. In retrospect that seems like a leading question; obviously Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker was the only possible answer.

Stalker is a long, slow, metaphysical Russian film from 1979. (“Andrei Tarkovsky” in Russian means “long, slow, metaphysical, film.”) It involves three men on a trip to a forbidden place, each for private personal reasons. Stalker is the name of the character who leads expeditions to this place -- a Room, inside a Zone -- where the deepest of desires are said to get fulfilled.

Today, what’s so special about the film, aside from it being a great cine-poet’s mesmerizing road movie of the Soviet twilight, is the fact that Geoff Dyer has written a book about it. Dyer is one of those rare geniuses who writes well about everything because he always winds up writing about himself. The navel into which he gazes is the world’s as well as his own. Thus is he, somehow, very possibly the only English-speaking person alive who can hold forth at length on Tarkovsky without boring the hell out of you.

Zona, the newest of Dyer’s nimble nonfiction category-busters, describes itself as “A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room.” It is that, and also an essay on wish fulfillment, the management of time, and the variable likelihood of perception-expanding cinema, among other art forms, to exist in our distraction-addled lives.

“At first there can be a friction between our expectations of time and Tarkovsky time,” Dyer writes, “and this friction is increasing in the twenty-first century as we move further and further away from Tarkovsky time toward moron time in which nothing can last -- and no one can concentrate on anything -- longer than about two seconds. Soon people will not be able to watch films like Stalker or to read Henry James because they will not have the concentration to get from one interminable scene or sentence to the next. The time I might have been able to read late-period Henry James has passed, and because I have not read late-period Henry James I am in no position to say what harm has been done to my sensibility by not having done so. But I do know that if I had not seen Stalker in my early twenties my responsiveness to the world would have been radically diminished.”

In short, Zona is a characteristically digressive memoir of what this one movie has meant to this one man, which turns out to be a lot. (Meanwhile a whole alphabet of other art-house darlings -- Antonioni, Buñuel, the Coen brothers -- come in for parenthetical skewering.) Dyer’s carefully articulated stake in Stalker, one asymptotic quest to comprehend another, proves an invigorating counterforce, if not an antidote, to the very atrophy of attention he laments. The book is not long, but it is one in which several pages may pass with footnotes taking up more surface area than the body of the main text. Dyer sees it as “a catalogue or compendium of proposals for potentially interesting studies,” and he’s right about that, and nobody these days can get away with such a book in quite the way he can. Which is not to say it’s unprecedented. Writing in defense of writers, like himself, who offer commentary “without seeking to disguise the vagaries of their nature, their lapses of taste and the contingency of their own experiences,” Dyer speaks to and for the spirit of the original essayist, Montaigne.

And of course Dyer is to Zona as Tarkovsky is to Stalker: the contriver of a work through which he explores himself. Contriver, that is, as gainfully apart from originator; true, only Dyer could write this book, but not without Tarkovsky’s film, just as only Tarkovsky could make something “synonymous both with cinema’s claims to high art and a test of the viewer’s ability to appreciate it as such,” but not without Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s novel Roadside Picnic to inspire him.

“Would we regard this landscape of fields, abandoned cars, tilted telegraph poles and trees as beautiful without Tarkovsky?” Dyer asks. “And could it have been brought into existence by any medium other than film?” There’s a beauty, too, in the asking, and a satisfaction from seeing that beauty brought into existence by this particular asker.

It helps that the intensity of his attention is not attenuating. Tarkovsky’s film is easy to recognize in Dyer’s prose, even for the reader who has never seen it. Here a character “has the knack of imbuing the simplest task with grudge,” there a color scheme exudes “a kind of submonochrome in which the spectrum has been so compressed that it might turn out to be a source of energy, like oil and almost as dark, but with a gold sheen too.” Everywhere, “the most distinctive feature of Tarkovsky’s art: the sense of beauty as force.” And the best way to grasp the movie’s essential slowness is simply to luxuriate in Dyer’s insanely companionable zeal.

In his nonfiction especially, Dyer’s education -- autodidact by way of Oxford -- seems useful; he seems to have seen and read everything, deeply. His habit is to refer unabashedly back to earlier gleanings. “John Updike reckoned that America was a vast conspiracy to make people happy,” Dyer writes, fortifying his own speculations about Soviet unhappiness. Or: “The light, which has been silvery and dank, glows gradually golden and warm, then fades, Turrell-ishly, to dank and silver again.” If you haven’t yet had a go at Stalker, you can look forward to recognizing that highly Tarkovsky-ish moment, here so Dyer-ishly described, the very instant you see it.

The Dyer Name Drop could be a cocktail. It is hard to get right. Even he occasionally flubs the proportions, making his own literacy seem merely like compulsive indexing. Mostly, though, it goes down very smoothly, giving pleasure and encouragement. Rather than torture his references into submission, he lives in them, inviting frequent reader visits. Writing on couture for Vogue, for example, Dyer has handy an observation John Cheever made about Persian carpets. That must be because he did that great piece on Cheever’s journals, the reader thinks, already feeling quite at home and a little tipsy.

Writing on Tarkovsky for the hell of it means bringing on a serious buzz: “Stalker is framed against a green so dark it is almost black -- what Conrad, with his irresistible urge to over-egg any and all puddings, would have called an impenetrable darkness. This darkness makes Stalker’s face and blue eyes burn more brightly as he speaks. With what? With the intensity of his belief, but also -- and it is this which distinguishes him from jihadists and born-again Christians  -- with the intensity of his despair. The Zone is not simply a source of solace, the heart of Marx’s heartless world, it is a source of torment, a system of traps that constantly tests, teases and threatens not just his clients but Stalker himself.”

It’s tempting to keep quoting because here Dyer is only a few sentences away from bringing Werner Herzog into the huddle, but one must learn to pace oneself.

Historically, Stalker was a beleaguered beast, heavily rewritten, reshot, and at one point relocated to just downriver of a chemical plant whose toxicity may later have caused the filmmaker’s fatal cancer. Tarkovsky also had a heart attack during postproduction, and was prone, as Dyer gently puts it, to “megalomaniacal uncertainties.”

Aren’t we all? One of the real joys of reading Zona, thanks to its peculiar candor, is the privilege of picking up on how even Dyer’s most enthused engagement still can feel like fidgety misgiving. Another member of Tarkovsky’s trio is a washed-up writer seeking inspiration. “Maybe by going to the Zone he’ll be rejuvenated,” Dyer writes. “Man, I know how he feels. I could do with a piece of that action myself. I mean, do you think I would be spending my time summarizing the action of a film almost devoid of action -- not frame by frame, perhaps, but certainly take by take -- if I was capable of writing anything else? In my way I am going to the Room -- following these three to the Room -- to save myself.”

Dyer’s own stalkers surely will have noticed Stalker references piling up in his previous writings, and maybe they felt a whole book coming on. But then, who ever knows? He’s flighty. One of Dyer’s earlier books is called Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It. Another, Out of Sheer Rage, is a biography of D.H. Lawrence by an author who couldn’t be bothered to do it. (Of course, in the end, he did. Sort of.) One essay in Dyer’s recent collection, Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, extemporized a proto-proposal for yet another book, Great Pastries of the World: A Personal View. Was that just a quip, or a promise?

McGrath's American Hero

Campbell McGrath, Shannon. Ecco/Harper Collins, 2009. $23.99 This long poem’s opening, spoken in the confiding, companionable first-person voice of a young man eager to stand out on Lewis & Clark’s team in the summer of 1804, rolls through unsettled American land near the Missouri river. Determined to prove himself, this youngest member of the Corps of Discovery rides out, without much food or ammunition, after runaway horses. He finds the horses the first day. Two weeks pass before the Corps finds him, starving, with buffalo all around him (no bullets left). The subsequent sections of the poem mark the days of the young man’s solitary trial.

The historical George Shannon—c. 1785-1836, eventually a Missouri judge known as “Peg-Leg” after an Indian ambush nearly killed him—left no journal or memoir, so the poem’s language is entirely McGrath’s. His Shannon is alert to every sight, sound, smell. He’s working. And wise, right away, to more than the surface: “the fugitives appeared/Not unhappy at sight of me.” He’s curious, excited, humorous, ambitious, self-conscious—all in the first moments of his first day alone.

For Shannon McGrath has found language that opens the mind of this emblematic New (white, Christian, colonizing) American without intruding on the reader’s experience of him. There’s Action: killing one rabbit with hard wood in place of a bullet. Suspense: in the quest for food; more, in the struggle to register every lesson in the landscape. And fantasy sex, reluctant theology, geopolitical prophecy, ant visions, buffalo dreams. It’s a film you want to watch again and again.

Actual journal entries by William Clark record Shannon’s departure before he begins to speak and his rescue after he stops on the fifteenth day. The lines of irregular length feel transparent, at the far end of the poetic scale from the charged, boisterous lines of the work McGrath is best known for. In Shannon it’s the line-breaks that make music:

Small herds Of elk coming out from the arroyo To silver water & shadows Of clouds over the same hills & wind Amongst the grasses grown Ceaseless now.

Shannon enjoys time to think. At first a conqueror, naming the place around him “Shannontown,” he begins to question

. . . our grand purpose Here, that being to keep moving To forge if even blindly Onward.

All the political fury and rhetorical dazzle McGrath packed into “The Bob Hope Poem” in Spring Comes to Chicago (1996); all the fire of his quest for America in road-trip poems from his first book, Capitalism (1990), through his prose-poem book, Road Atlas (1999), to his lumpy, fascinating journal book, Seven Notebooks (2008), take new form in Shannon (2009), his eighth book. All to ask: How do we (Americans) serve—let alone deserve—this glorious land we have lucked into?

Shannon’s hunger for food NOW becomes his ambition for the future; his awareness that he’s lost in the land becomes the new nation’s uncertain development. McGrath enlarges upon Shannon’s ambitions in this major work that has been under-noticed because Shannon doesn’t sound like “McGrath,” and because readers balked at the subtleties of Seven Notebooks. Concluding his Afterword, McGrath links our hopes to his hero’s: “George Shannon often got lost, but he always got found. May the same hold true for those who continue to follow in his footsteps, the majestic land he wandered, and the nation he was proud to call home.”


By Catherynne M. Valente (Bantam Books, 2009)

Through incredible energy and talent, Catherynne M. Valente has been steadily building a name for herself pretty much since the day she started publishing. Her two-book story cycle, The , was at one point perhaps her best-known work, nominated for several awards and winner of a few, too. That was until was nominated for a , while Amazon's editors deemed it the best science fiction and fantasy novel of 2009. All of this success, however, still doesn't quite prepare you for—and perhaps disarms you against—the fact that Palimpsest is kind of freaky.

As the gossip preceding its publication went—possibly lifting a phrase from the author herself—Palimpsest is about a sexually transmitted city; that is, you're only allowed to visit if you find someone who has already been there and have sex with them. When you fall asleep afterward, you go to the city in your dreams; and if you are so blessed—or so unlucky?—after you visit it once, the waking world seems much diminished, and you do everything you can to return. Aiding you is that everyone who has visited is marked with a tattoo—perhaps small, perhaps large—that is itself a piece of a map of, a part of, that dream place. So you spend your time moving away from the life you knew, looking for those other people, for those tattoos, to connect with them, just to stay, in your dreams, in Palimpsest, as long as you can. The plot of the book follows four people who arrive in Palimpsest at the same time, first relating what each of them are willing to do just to get back—and then what happens when they discover that they are connected in a deeper way than they first understood.

Those of you who aren't habitually science fiction or fantasy readers—and maybe some of you who are—may be turning away at this point. You should not. Because Palimpsest, to me, works best as an extended metaphor: for addiction, disease, and profound loss; for the ways disparate people build their own tribe based on a common need, a dissatisfaction that overrides their differences. It's a fantastical book about some very real things, and in its fantasy, comes perhaps closer to letting the reader touch the real than a more realistic portrayal of the same thing ever could.

Which is another way of saying that the best reason to read Palimpsest is because it's absolutely beautiful, heady, hopeful and sad. This isn't just because of Valente's muscular imagination, her seemingly inexhaustible ability to create image after arresting image; it's also because she writes as well as anyone out there. The idea that literary fiction has all the best writers is as false as it is shopworn—obviously, there are great (and lousy) writers in every genre of both fiction and nonfiction. But Valente is a particular feast for those who love language and literature. To me, her writing is folkloric, medieval, Romantic, and at the same time, startlingly modern. There aren't many people who can write sentences as eerie and gorgeous as hers. How gorgeous are they really? I can hear you asking. You'll just have to find the book and find out.

P.S. Here's the word palimpsest in Merriam-Webster:

1 : writing material (as a parchment or tablet) used one or more times after earlier writing has been erased. 2 : something having usually diverse layers or aspects apparent beneath the surface.

Yes, I had to look it up. You're welcome.

Review of Kentauros

Lois Tilton over at Locus magazine has posted a of Kentauros, our new book by Gregory Feeley. Here's just a little of what she has to say:

Every part of this work casts a light, provides a different insight. But these lights are all aimed in a single direction and not at the fantasy story told in the second and sixth chapters. They are aimed at illuminating the myth. A fantasy story is one way of doing this; a literary story is another, and the several essays cast separate lights of their own. Pindar’s ode, no more and no less, was doing the same thing, thousands of years ago (the Greek poets notoriously made stuff up as much as today's fantasy authors). This work is a set of floodlights, and it is the myth itself on the stage, wearing different costumes in each act.

Thank you, Ms. Tilton. And for those whose interests are officially piqued, please visit our .

The Whole World

By Emily Winslow (Delacorte Press, 2010)

For a while, I've been obsessed with what you could call the line of plausibility in fiction, and how it differs from the line of plausibility in nonfiction—or, for that matter, real life. There are coincidences that we accept in real life that we don't accept in fiction; somewhat contradictorily, there are also ways that we expect a fictional story to come together at the end in ways that we don't expect real stories to. And everyone's lines of plausibility are in different places, aren't they? One person's exasperation is another person's thrill.

My own lines of plausibility lie across the source of both my difficulty and my admiration for Emily Winslow's . See, I'm a reader who, generally speaking, likes his plots messy; I like them to resemble what I see as the chaos of real life to the greatest extent possible. I like them to make just enough sense. But The Whole World is not like that. Like Daniel Handler's , which The Whole World reminded me of in a few places, Winslow's novel is a puzzle, a machine, working at several levels, and the fun of the book—as with most mysteries—is in trying to figure out how it all fits together before the book tells you. That the pieces fit together so neatly is almost a little dissatisfying; it requires a certain tolerance for coincidence that I'm not sure I possess. One could say it makes too much sense. But it's also what makes the book so elegant, and ultimately so affecting.

Because The Whole World is a mystery, I will tell you only that the plot revolves around two American exchange students at Cambridge, Polly and Liv, who are friends and like the same young man, Nick, who, in turn, has confused feelings for both of them as well. The students have been working on a research project with an older professor, Gretchen, who has been looking into writing a biography of a famous writer to whom she is related. Then Nick disappears, drawing in the authorities. The plot's machinations are further complicated by Winslow's excellent decision to reveal the truth of what happened—to everyone involved—by switching viewpoints from Polly to Nick to Morris (the cop put on Nick's case) to Gretchen to Liv, each of whom are observant and unreliable in their own way. All these moving parts make for a really absorbing read; even when the plot occasionally crossed my own line of plausibility, I didn't really care all that much.

What has kept the book in my thoughts since I finished it, however, is not its formal complexity, but the prose it's written in—like Handler's book, revealing just enough to chill and compel through the final pages. The Whole World also takes up what for me was a surprising theme in a mystery: parenthood. Many of the parents in Winslow's book are, well, kind of bad. But just when you think that The Whole World is an extended riff on Philip Larkin's famous statement on how "" along comes Morris, who takes fatherhood so seriously that it turns heroism into stupidity. It's my favorite moment in the book, and one that, as a father myself, I'll carry for a long time.

En Français, s’il vout plaît

Treason.  Poems by Hédi Kaddour.  Translated by Marilyn Hacker.  Yale University Press, 168 pp. 2010. Hédi Kaddour writes a verse with clear antecedents in the meditative, ironical poems of Baudelaire and Verlaine.  If that dates him a bit, so be it.   Kaddour’s poems enchant with their ability to retain an intonation we immediately associate with Romanticism and Symbolism, hardly “state of the art” these days, combined with a wry sense of how a poet of that tendency inhabits uneasily, or maybe at times breezily, our much less “poetic” world.  The flâneur of today must live in a world where “a man declares / That buying books will soon become a clear / Sign of derangement, yes, insanity” (l’homme affirme / Que l’achat de livres sera bientôt un signe / De très forte aliénation mentale).

The world Kaddour’s poems partake of is a world where that possibility has always been the case inasmuch as “the Poet” has always been a figure of “très forte aliénation mentale” – a view that became commonplace after Romanticism, and, one suspects, Kaddour finds no reason to relinquish it.  He wears that outlook, we might say, as a mask over the features of his more persistent strain of polite skepticism about the Poet’s grand sense of outsider status, the inspired “folie” that makes poetry possible in that tradition.  “‘Save your tears,’ his mother told him early on, / ‘For more serious things.’ Poetry, / Grief contained by meter.” (“Garde tes larmes, disait très tôt la mère, / Pour des choses plus graves.” Poésie, le chagrin contenu par le mètre.)

Can this interplay with familiar territory in French verse come across in English?  I have my doubts, but those are doubts of long-standing since French is simply too flexible to suffer transformation into English, so that translations tend to seem hamfisted in comparison.  Take for instance a poem on the rather phallic bust of Verlaine in Jardin du Luxembourg:  “Verlaine?  He stands erect there on the grass, / Lyre and palm tree behind him, a bronze bust / Of Verlaine atop three good yards / Of cement prick around which writhe three / Unlikely Muses …” (Verlaine?  Il est dressé sur l’herbe / Lyre et palme dans le dos, Verlaine, / En buste, au sommet de trois bons / Mètres de pine granitique où se tordent / D’improbables muses…).  Kaddour’s “lyre et palme” references symbols for Apollo, but "palme" can simply mean the leaf, generally a symbol of success, the way we use the term "laurels," whereas "palm tree behind him" causes us to imagine an actual palm tree behind the statue which is a bit surprising, given that "dan le dos" suggests "on his back" as much as "behind him".  And we lose that repetition of the great man’s name that Kaddour uses with a shrug as if to say “eh, Verlaine, as a bust” (with all the attendant irony at the spectacle) that “a bronze bust of Verlaine” cannot convey, simply a flat declaration of the object of the poem.

Which is to say that I’m very pleased that this edition contains the French on facing pages.  Reading Hacker’s Kaddour without the French tended to leave me with very little impression of the tone of the poem.  She renders faithfully enough the words of the poem, but even there I have my cavils, as for instance here in “The Double,” one of the denser poems.  Kaddour says: C’est presque aussi la même folie de poussière / dans le même rayon de soleil; Hacker says: “It’s almost the same dusty madness / in the same sunbeam.”  Literally the phrase is: madness of dust, not very felicitous but closer to what Kaddour wants: the image of dust motes in their “mad” dance in the sunbeam, a figure that I can’t find in “dusty madness” – which reminds me more of my unvacuumed desk.

Ultimately, all I’m pointing out is how hard it is to render the effect of verse like Kaddour’s in English.  In French such effects may seem a bit staid, but I’m enough of a classicist in things French to appreciate the effort of these poems, most of which begin with lines that are rhetorically quite graceful.  And every now and then there’s a jab of that Gallic spleen we expect from the French:

Knothead wears jeans knothead Wears blue he writes to be A writer writes that he is a writer And gets his pals to write That no one could be more a writer His photo says it all it’s the face Of a writer with a flair for writing.

Hédi Kaddour reads his poetry (in English) at the Whitney Humanities Center, Room 208, 53 Wall Street, New Haven, Wednesday, October 27th, 4:30 to 5:30 p.m.


By Piotr Szewc, trans. Ewa Hryniewicz-Yarbrough (Dalkey Archive Press, 1999)

In what is perhaps the best use of jacket copy I've ever seen, we learn from the back of the book that this novella is about a day in the life of a Polish town in 1934, a few years before it is completely destroyed during World War II. It's tempting to wonder if Szewc and his editor intended to use the jacket to divulge the single major plot point from the onset; maybe I just don't know enough about Polish history to catch the clues (very likely), or maybe something is lost in translation (very unlikely), but this sharp, beautiful book itself gives very, very little indication of the catastrophe to come. Certainly without the jacket copy, I would have missed it.

But the copy does divulge its single, overwhelming fact, and as a result, in —which really is, no more and no less, a snapshot of a single day in the life of a town doomed to destruction, a single day in the lives of a handful of its inhabitants, who are not going to live much longer—every detail hums with urgency and, yes, meaning, carried along by some of the most exquisitely understated prose I've read in a while. The book is almost unutterably sad, because it doesn't succumb to the pretense that by documenting these characters, they've somehow been saved; that's a copout. It's the other way around: For all the calmness that the narrator describes, the narrator himself is frantic, running from street to street, from person to person. Look at this house, he says. Meet him. Meet her. Because they aren't going to be here when you come back.

Yet somehow, in all that frenzy and sadness, as the details mount and the day progresses and draws to an end, the mourning starts to feel like celebration, and at the same time, defiance. When I finished it, I didn't want to crawl into a grave, or ruminate on how lousy people are; I wanted to hug my wife and kid, to call my parents and my sister, to visit my friends. To walk around my neighborhood and fly around the world, to meet as many people as I could. Because if you believe that everything is temporary, this book opens your eyes again to how important it is, as Marvin Gaye once said, to love before it's too late.


One of the real pleasures in perusing writers’ meditations on the books they read is the occasional flash of real insight they offer because they have not hemmed themselves in by the standard views agreed upon by, say, literary scholars of a genre or literary tradition.  That at least was my experience reading P.D. James’ recent collection of essays on the mystery, Talking about Detective Fiction. What caught my eye were not so much her thoughts on Edgar Allan Poe or her fondness for Arthur Conan Doyle or even her views of Dame Agatha, but her almost off-the-cuff inclusion of John le Carre. Most know Le Carre as the most revered of spy novelists.  James suggests that Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, the first novel to feature spymaster George Smiley as a main character, is actually a mystery—an idea that got my attention, especially since the novel had been sitting on my bookshelf for a few years. In fact, it was one of several Le Carre novels in my possession that for years I had been meaning to get to but never set aside the time to actually read.  Now I was intrigued.

Although Le Carre’s earliest breakout novel was The Spy Who Came in the From the Cold, it is Tinker, Tailor that lets the curious peer at the clockwork of a British spy agency (referred to throughout as “the Circus”).  I let no cats out of bags by pointing out how this 400-pager has, at its center, the story of ferreting out a mole who has corrupted nearly every one of the Circus’ covert operations.  Like most locked-room mysteries, there are five suspects and Smiley, as Le Carre’s Hercule Poirot, has set himself to the task of uncovering the mole’s identity.

It all works as far as the tropes in spy novels and detective fiction go.  But there is something more to LeCarre—something with which his readers are already familiar and for me was a bit of a shock to discover, albeit a pleasurable one.  In brief, the life of a spy is a shabby one.  Not morally shabby…well, that, too, of course…but materially shabby.

Through Tinker, Tailor—and you see this repeated in Le Carre’s Looking Glass War—there are interminable complaints about lack of funds for necessary resources.  The spymasters are always looking over their shoulders to make sure that there is enough data to show their superiors, enough action to be had to justify next year’s budget.  Even as the mystery reader in me consumed pages in Tinker, Tailor to see who that damned mole was selling British assets (human ones, that is) up the river, the culture critic noted how the success of the mole and the support unknowingly granted by others in his artful mendacities were all the direct result to keep budgets intact by supplying higher ups with a steady flow of information (or “intel,” as today’s wonks call it).

There’s no getting around how much the novel’s actors are driven by the filthy lucre.  There are drafty rooms, unpainted walls, old file cabinets, dirty teacups, and never, never enough coal for the fireplace.  The offices of the Circus are not even close to the squeaky clean hallways and super-secure labs of Tom Cruise’s Mission Impossible’s or the more mundane, but still nicely situated glass-walled offices of the Bourne Ultimatum.  For the staff of the Circus, piles of paper, undusted shelves, and peeling paint reflect the daily drudgery of the spy trade, which involves mostly a lot of bureaucratic wrangling for the spymasters and twiddle-your-thumbs waiting for the agents.

Still LeCarre manages to make it all work because of these quotidian realities.  To be blunt, it’s almost impossible nowadays—for me at least—to watch any of the spy shows and their now-ridiculous comic spoofs, from the newest James Bond flicks to Spy Kids, and not in the end be bored by the unreal and usually ridiculous exploits (Transporter 2 comes to mind, having done laundry through it a few days ago).

It’s rare to find books and movies clearly enmeshed in a genre (in this case, “spy thriller”) that are brave enough to deflate our culturally projected fantasies.  I like the Bourne movies (they’re actually better than the books) because they try, albeit feebly, to “humanize” Jason Bourne.  But they are still kung fu fighting fantasies, ones where we admire the Jackie Chan-like ingenuities of battle from the flung ashtrays to rolled-up magazines-turned-truncheons.

Perhaps the best cinematic equivalent to what Le Carre did to the spy novel—an essential defrocking of the genre—is Steven Spielberg’s Munich.  Here is a movie about spywork where everything that can go wrong does, without the film devolving into comedy.  In Tinker, Tailor, the same can be said for the participants of the Circus, who show themselves to be preening careerists with degrees from Oxford and Cambridge.  By the novel’s finish, you can’t help but feel that the true “spymasters” are not the agency’s directors—in Tinker, Tailor the former agency director brought down by the mole is ironically named “Control”—but the accountants who keep the books and have the power to dry up the resources that make possible the spy fantasies that we indulge in the act of reading books of this ilk.

Jeff VanderMeer's "The Goat Variations" and "Three Days in a Border Town"

One of the abiding pleasures of writing books, and being lucky enough to have them published, is the way in which they have led me to discover parts of the literary world I may not have discovered otherwise. Among them is a brand of science fiction and fantasy that's been given all kinds of labels—my favorite is the New Weird—but basically boils down to books in which many strange and interesting things happen, and in which the writing is really, really good. My running favorite author in this group, which makes him one of my favorite living authors, period, is Jeff VanderMeer, a prolific and vastly talented writer perhaps best known for his books about a fantastical, decaying, and distinctly postcolonial city called Ambergris. In these books, VanderMeer displays not only an astonishingly rich imagination, but also a pretty ridiculous command of numerous fiction styles, from quasi-Borgesian to hard-boiled noir. His books are social, political, personal: everything I want in fiction. If I were the competitive type, I'd say he's the man to beat. Which is why when —an NHR contributor, among many, many other things—asked me if I'd contribute to a on VanderMeer's new short-story collection, , I was all over it.

I said before that one of the things I like so much about VanderMeer's writing is his deft mixture of the social, political, and personal. "The Goat Variations," which Kevin Brockmeier singled out for praise in his blurb of The Third Bear, accomplishes this to great effect, as the leaders of a nation falling apart at the seams catch wind that a calamity is coming, but don't know how to stop it. Oh, right—this story also involves alternate realities and time travel, which makes for a really heady mixture. Conceptually, VanderMeer sets up a very difficult task, that of writing directly about George W. Bush without hitting us over the head, and yet still giving the story teeth. He might not quite get away with it; there's still a sense that VanderMeer's too close, that there hasn't been quite enough time to digest it all. I say this with humility, though: I would have been a bit frightened to even attempt to write a short story like this, and certainly wouldn't have done as well. And the story still has plenty of teeth, as I find myself returning in my mind to VanderMeer's vivid image of George W. at the beginning of his administration, bludgeoned by catastrophe, the world as he knows it ending all around him, and him just not knowing what to do.

And then there's "Three Days in a Border Town," which is one of the best pieces of short fiction I've read in years; it's no wonder it showed up on awards and best-of lists when it was published in 2004. In it, a sharpshooter moves through a dusty border town in the middle of a desert, looking for her husband, but it's about so much more than that. It's about devastating loss, hovering just beyond the horizon; it's about figuring out how to move on. has said why this story is amazing as well as anyone, and he's right. It's Beckett, it's the better end of Dennis Lehane (particularly the short story "Until Gwen," with which it shares a narration written, with wild success, in the second person), and it's VanderMeer at his best, precise and luminous, transporting and transfiguring. "Three Days in a Border Town" is the kind of story that seems to take in the whole world, to be about everything at once, and it shows that when VanderMeer's writing at the top of his game—which is pretty much all the time—it's foolish to talk about beating him, because you can't.

Strange Bedfellows

David Rabe, Girl By The Road At Night, NY: Simon and Schuster, 228 pgs. One could say that David Rabe is obsessed with the Vietnam War.  Best known for a trio of award-winning plays in the '70s that deal with that conflict and its effect on those who fought in it, Rabe has more recently turned from theater and taken up fiction-writing and now, with his latest novel, returns to the war that made him famous.  We could say that he does so because he knows he can write about it well -- Rabe served in Vietnam in the mid-'60s -- and because, perhaps, it's a part of our history that never goes away.

I found myself questioning that last supposition in the early going of this poetically spare, episodic novel.  Is Vietnam a national obsession still, or is it Rabe's more than ours?  Perhaps more to the point -- regardless of what you think of the war and its era -- is the question: is there anything more to be done with it?

It may be an unfair question, but when you see the novel's rather taciturn and self-involved protagonist Joseph Whitaker, on the eve of his depature into the army, hanging around in DC hoping to get laid by a war-protesting flowerchild, you might be excused for thinking it all a bit too familiar.  But when Whitaker drops in on his former girlfriend, now involved with a new guy, he begins to come alive a bit more, taking on dimension due to a feeling of unfinished emotional business that could lead him to more interesting experiences.

Rabe alternates the chapters depicting Pfc. Whitaker's misgivings about service in the war and his general lot in life with chapters that introduce us to Quach Ngoc Lan, a Vietnamese prostitute plying her trade at Madame Lieu's, where GIs can get their jeeps washed and their junk moved simultaneously.  Rabe is very effective at rendering how the GIs view these locals, but there aren't many surprises here amidst the general racism and, occasionally, grudging appreciation of what would've been thought of as "oriental mystery."  But gradually the interiority of Lan, attenuated as it may be by lack of education and a rather elemental sense of life, becomes louder and louder for the reader as her pidgin English -- where Rabe gets to show his command of dialogue -- comes to seem not a limitation so much as a unique form of communication.  Her motives and her actions are often glimpsed through the viewpoint of others, but Rabe's greatest achievement is making us feel not that we know Lan but that we would very much like to.

Is Lan the all-too-familiar whore with a heart of gold, and Whitaker the GI who tries to save her from a world they never made?  Frankly, Rabe's tale is not as far from that soapy terrain as some readers might like, or, alternately, doesn't wallow in it to the degree that others might wish.  There is a connection between the two and it might mean something, but Rabe keeps us furnished with enough sense of the grim realities of the setting to prevent us from expecting any improvement for either of them.

But what the interest of Girl hinges on is not its depiction of prostitution and the war -- as forms of exploitation that put both Whitaker and Lan in something of the same position as expendable vassals -- but in its willingness to look unsentimentally at the power that even a minimum of communication and connection can provide between people who are strangers to one another and, to some extent, the situation in which they find themselves and each other.

"Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows" Shakespeare said, and the journalist Charles Dudley Warner famously stated that "politics makes strange bedfellows"  Rabe's novel takes for granted that the politics of the war and the misery it gives rise to create a condition that might throw together unlikely bedfellows, and the novel's best effect is making us believe they might have something to offer each other.

David Rabe reads at RJ Julia Booksellers, Wed. June 23, 7 p.m., $5, which may be used toward purchase of the book; 768 Boston Post Road, Madison, CT;

My Baby just wrote me a letter.

Continuing a theme: on letter writing: I’ve written and mailed two handwritten cards in the last few days, and I’ve been a magnet, recently, for books about letters. One is a book that came out a couple of years ago, Other People’s Love Letters: 150 Letters You Were Never Meant to See, edited by Bill Shapiro. The other was Ben Greenman’s forthcoming collection of short stories, What He’s Poised to Do.

Bill Shapiro’s book appeared before me, in perfect condition, at a tag sale. I’m not sure it had ever been read. It had almost certainly been given as a romantic gift to someone (the book lacked an inscription, so I can’t prove that; but experience as a bookseller tells me the odds are good). The book looked unread. Clearly the owner had decided, “All right: enough’s enough, I don’t need this anymore.” And the book was banished to the church tag sale donation pile, along with old children’s books, dogeared and chewed up, and bad cookbooks, bought with good intentions but never used.

I bought it because its appearance was, I felt, a Sign. A few days previous to this, an old friend of mine -- someone with whom I engaged in extensive written correspondence for years and years (we now communicate, sporadically, via email) sent me a copy of Ben Greenman’s forthcoming collection of short stories. My friend clearly thought, “Hm, stories about letters. Who would want to read this? Oh: Eva.” I’m not sure what this says about me, but I’ll take it. The book was sent, received, and read pretty much in the same little windows of time in which I acquired and read the Bill Shapiro book, and it’s been an interesting little experiment, continuing what seems to be an ongoing concern of mine: what it means to write letters to anyone these days.

I don’t have any hard and fast proclamations on the subject but one thing is clear to me: people can say all they want that letter writing is dead, but it clearly is not.

Shapiro’s book is fascinating in that voyeuristic way you’d expect. It’s fun to leaf through -- some of the letters are just beautiful to behold, some of them are really works of comic genius, and some of them are gut-wrenchingly sad; you remember every stage of your own roller-coaster ride through romantic life as you go through the book -- but it’s not a book I lingered over.

Greenman’s book, on the other hand, is more of a challenge. The book isn’t a collection of letters; it’s a book wherein letters are central characters in their own right. The fourteen stories in What He’s Poised to Do are set in different places and different times. Each story starts with its title and a postmark serving as a dateline (“Seventeen Different Ways to Get a Load of That,” Lunar City, 1989; “Against Samantha,” New York City, 1928), which is a nice touch.

I’m afraid that, the older I get, the less good I am with fiction. I read it less and less, and I have a harder time just enjoying it. So I balked, a little, but I found Greenman’s collection houses really delicately good pieces. This will not surprise Greenman’s fans. He is a nimble and clever writer. His essays are always a pleasure to read; I now would actually like to go take a look at the novel he recently published, Please Step Back.

In What He’s Poised to Do, there were several stories that left me uninterested, unintrigued, completely, in what the characters had to say. But then, others crawled into my head and wouldn’t leave. Greenman’s collection is noteworthy. To elaborate on that much would, I feel, crush the stories -- they’re kind of like butterflies that way -- but the last story in the book, “Her Hand,” really struck me particularly. I read it once and immediately read it again, though it was hardly heartwarming. It’s a four page long quiet sigh of resignation.

The personally-directed written word -- letter, postcard, email -- written to be read by one person and one person only, is alive and well. Even if reading it doesn’t always make you happy. I’m going to go listen to the Bay City Rollers’ “Rock and Roll Love Letter,” followed by the Box Top’s “The Letter,” and see if I can cheer myself up.