Jan 262017
 

Katie Piccirillo Sherman

 

 

The New York Times recently revealed that 74 percent of Trump supporters advocate barring Muslims from the United States. This shocking statistic alone highlights the relevance of Greg Hrbek’s newest novel, Not on Fire but Burning. As CBS News revealed, “It’s impossible to read Hrbeck’s new speculative fiction [released in September 2015] at this moment in time without thinking about the Facebook posts in your feed about Paris, terrorism and Muslims.” Critics struggle to classify the book and alternate between calling it a thriller, mystery, science fiction, and dystopian fantasy. However, it’s unarguably an original with a place in everyone’s collection.

Hrbek opens with 20-year-old Skyler Wakefield witnessing the demise and destruction of the Golden Gate Bridge. This act simultaneously propels the story and produces an element of intrigue as it’s never revealed whether it was a terrorist act, something nuclear, a natural disaster, or extra terrestrial intervention. Some early reports of 8-11 indicate that an Air Arabia plane crashed into the bridge but Skyler says, “It was too bright to be a plane.” She continues to reveal it was, “like something cosmic come at high speed through the atmosphere (3).” Skyler dies with her last thoughts being her 3-year-old brother Dorian.

Meanwhile, in the same future but a different reality, 12-year-old Dorian Wakefield is dealing with the fallout of 8-11 by contemplating killing Muslims and desecrating a mosque. The U.S. has been reorganized as territories and Muslims have been relocated to camps in the Dakotas. Dorian has continuous dreams about a sister who died in the attack. A sister the rest of the family claims never existed. During this time, changes are brewing in the neighborhood. The cicadas hatch. Streets are renamed for former Indian tribes and the Wakefield’s neighbor, Will Banfelder adopts a Muslim, drug-addled boy named Karim. Both Karim and Dorian have been influenced by the prejudices introduced in their social circles. After Dorian instigates a fistfight with Karim and two other Muslim teens, tension and violence within the neighborhood reaches an all-time high.

Hrbek highlights what could happen if prejudice overrides benevolence all the while asking the question, ‘Can a single situation define your core character? Can nature influentially surpass nurture?’ He deftly alternates from first, second, and third person; between narrators; and even, between realties using the space/time continuum. At first, this can have a dizzying effect on readers. But, once you get your footing, you will appreciate the core story and the internal conflict among characters. Said conflict is highlighted through Hrbek’s multiple perspective approach which allows readers to know the thoughts, dreams, truths and falsehoods of the neighborhood. With first-rate skill, Hrbek unveils the realities and prejudices of a 70-year-old retired veteran, a middle-aged mother, a failing writer/father, and pre-teenage boys.

The cicadas, which appear throughout the pages, serve as a continual reminder that something that has boiled under the surface for too long is about to hatch and cause an evolution. What this evolution will be — the perishment of the species or its possible rebirth — is left ambiguous, as is the story. This too is systematic. It’s Hrbek saying to his readers, ‘The choice between hatred and acceptance is yours to make. Choose wisely because the future can hold infinite possibilities.’

Not on Fire but Burning has the potential to make you uncomfortable, as all good literature does. Hrbek places a spotlight on the biggest story of our generation — terrorism in multiple forms. However, he also manages to simultaneously write likeable characters who persistently entertain. Whether you’re deeply involved in all things political or are just looking for a page-turner, Not on Fire but Burning delivers.

 

 

 

Not on Fire but Burning

Greg Hrbek

Melville House

 Posted by at 9:26 am
Jan 182017
 

LeeAnn Celapino

 

 

Caitlin, a rather peculiar 12 year-old living with her single mother in Seattle, keeps company with the fishes at her local aquarium. Her mother, loving and determined, works long hours as a laborer just for the two of them to live paycheck-to-paycheck. She hopes that one day they’ll be able to “get ahead” but, until then, they’re trapped in their cramped apartment next to a flight path on the wrong side of town. Though they’re living in this impoverished state, the bond the two share helps keep them afloat. They truly are best friends. With a dark past that she avoids mentioning, Sheri, Caitlin’s mom, works hard to shape a better future for her daughter.

The aquarium becomes Caitlin’s special after-school spot while waiting for her mother to pick her up. Here, she’s able to escape from the loneliness she feels, without close friends or a fatherly figure. The aquarium is where she truly feels at peace, at home.

The novel begins on a light note, immersing the reader in colorful descriptions and illustrations of the fish Caitlin visits regularly. The details are concise and telling, allowing for readers to easily imagine what exactly the narrator is experiencing herself. It makes you want to visit your nearest aquarium in hopes that you’re able to feel even a fraction of the amount of wonder and delight that Caitlin does. Incredibly bright and intelligent, her fish-based knowledge is surprising but refreshing as she mozies from tank to tank, pressing her face against the glass, wishing she could grow gills and jump into the water with her scaly companions. She watches them longingly, wondering when she will find her own place in the world. Love, acceptance, and finding where you belong are key factors which drive Caitlin during her endeavors.

However, as time goes on, the true nature of the novel floats to the surface, revealing secrets from within its depths. Soon, Caitlin is accompanied at the aquarium by a fellow patron, an older man, whom she quickly befriends. The two have a surprising initial connection that leaves readers to wonder whether this meeting was genuinely random or completely calculated. Caitlin and the old man engage in thoughtful discussion day after day pertaining to the fish but, somehow, relating their conversations back to a deeper meaning. They project their thoughts considering their own world onto the blank faces of the aquarium inhabitants in hopes of discovering some kind of deeper meaning or understanding of themselves. The unlikely pair learn from the fish and, in turn, from each other. One day in particular raises complications in their thought-to-be platonic relationship.

When Caitlin’s mother learns about her daughter’s new friend, their comfortable mother-daughter relationship threatens to fall to pieces. The old man’s true identity is uncovered and Caitlin is forced from the safety and consolance the aquarium provides and is thrusted into the human world. There, she must face reality without the protection of tank walls. The parable-like quality of the text illustrates a young narrator caught up in their own existence, without even fully being able to interpret what this means.

As an adult, Caitlin recalls this time during her youth, retelling her experiences as she draws on past emotions in pursuit of piecing together her current life. This nostalgic tidal wave pushes Caitlin to explore what it was about growing up that turned her into the broken person she has become. It’s easy to see how much you’re capable of taking away from your youth and how that has the potential to benefit you in the future (whether you realize it or not).

Parallels are drawn between real, human life and the life of those organisms in the aquarium. Life is easier for Caitlin when she thinks of life, past and present, as an aquarium, complete with all of the aquatic inner workings, ecosystems, and dangers. Vann pushes readers to delve into the relationship between human beings and nature and how we may draw positive energy from this, unfortunately, for some people, untouched area of our lives.

This is a story about family, forgiveness, empathy, and, ultimately, exploring the human condition. Are we able to fix what has been broken? Can unforgivable acts be forgiven? Are families able to be put back together? Vann’s use of diction and perspective gives readers a sense of belonging as you’re sucked into the novel’s metaphorical current. Aquarium takes us on a voyage filled with plenty of rough seas and moments of breathtaking clarity.

 

 

Aquarium

David Vann

Grove Press

 Posted by at 9:33 pm
Jan 112017
 

Erin Fannin

 

 

Eric Faye’s novel Nagasaki delves into the mindset of Shimura, a middle aged Japanese man, as he deals with an unexpected guest in his house. The story begins when Shimura notices that his food starts to go missing and Faye expertly explores the fear and paranoia that this discovery brings out in Shimura. Is he going mad? Is someone sneaking into his house after he leaves for work and what could they do to him as he is sleeping? Such paranoia leads Shimura to set up a camera in his kitchen.

What Shimura finds shakes him to his core and he immediately calls to have the person in his kitchen arrested. This point is when Faye’s novel begins to truly shine. Through news articles and police reports Shimura learns the history of the person invading his house.

The woman, who is never given a name, had been living in Shimura’s house with him for months. It is revealed that her life was destroyed when she lost her job and in desperation took up shelter in Shimura’s house until she was arrested. Here we are gripped by a man dealing with feeling satisfaction but realizing that said satisfaction stems from his ruining another’s life. He contemplates the woman’s newfound existence in jail knowing full well he put her there and ponders whether to not press any charges or plea for a lenient punishment for her. Shimura likens the woman to a lover that had abandoned him and wonders what would have happened if they had met under different circumstances. But sadly we can never know what would have happened.

Both Shimura and the woman stand in for the poor and the well-off. And yet Faye makes them more than the types they represent. He makes us care for these characters and want to know more about them by giving us reasons why they behave the way they did. This story in its essence is a commentary on how society responds to the less fortunate.

What Faye does brilliantly is make the homeless character in this story female.  Faye depicts a woman whose struggles are completely ignored by society. She is pushed out of her home with no regard for how she will live after she loses her job and we follow her journey on the street as she becomes invisible to everyone around her. Our main character Shimura who for the majority of the book lives with the woman and yet she is invisible to him until she begins to take what she needs to survive. Then the punishment is swift and merciless. The woman is a metaphor for the larger homelessness problem in modern society. These people are ignored to the point of starvation and when they take what they need to survive the very society that put them in that position jails and fines them.

The woman is jailed and Shimura as mentioned before begins to feel guilt for putting her there. If the woman stands in for the homeless, then Shimura stands in for society. While he feels guilt and regrets his actions, he does nothing with those emotions. He isn’t compelled to go out and volunteer in a soup kitchen or donate money to feed and clothe the homeless or less fortunate. He doesn’t ever actually meet her face to face to speak with her. This is much like society that shakes its head at all the misfortune, calls it such a pity, and then continues doing what it has been doing for years.

Shimura moves away without a change in his attitude and the woman once released from jail will have a record and will most likely remain homeless. And here is the tragedy of Faye’s book, and society as a whole, if nothing changes then this vicious cycle will continue on destroying people’s lives.

 

 

Nagasaki

Eric Faye

Gallic Books, London, 2014

 Posted by at 11:32 pm
Jan 102017
 

Ellen Hughes

 

 

Patrick Modiano’s Paris Nocturne starts with recalling a nighttime collision between a sea-green Fiat and the quiet, loner narrator who is crossing Place des Pyramides. The car snagged the man’s leg, careened through an arcade, and then, when the beautiful blonde driver stumbled out of the car, she and the narrator were herded into the back of a police car by a bulky, silent man. The ride to the station floods the narrator with similar memories of past experiences as the friendly blonde driver continues to give him familiar smiles and squeeze his hand comfortably. Soon, however, the man’s memory becomes saturated with the smell of ether, and he remembers only vague wisps of the rest of the incident. He wakes up some time later and finds himself in a strange hospital called Mirabeau Clinic. He’s given only an envelope of cash and a lame incident report to satisfy his confusion and is pushed out the doors of the clinic without another word.

And so begins the mystery. The narrator becomes absorbed with finding the blonde woman, the silent man, and figuring out what exactly happened that night on Place des Pyramides. His interest and curiosity in solving the mystery quickly turn into a stubborn obsession and a profound paranoia, leading him to manipulate his own memories and start to create connections between distinct events in his life. He even starts questioning his own remembrances, wondering how the blonde woman from the accident had become associated with his childhood. He fabricates links between this accident and a car accident he experienced in his childhood, the silent man involved presently and his distant father who disappeared from his life, and his intense life-long feelings of loneliness present on both occasions. It’s as if the narrator is searching for some grand conspiracy that has secretly wrapped him up. His profound introspection and constant questioning lead the audience to trust his hunch and believe in the mysterious scheme as well.

Modiano gives us very little plot development, focusing instead of the narrator’s memory. His dreamy, elegant writing style transports the reader into the mind of the narrator – almost as if we are searching through our own minds to connect memories that we do not possess. The narrator admits multiple times to the haziness of his thoughts, saying, “Everything about the period before the accident is confused in my memory” (53), which, instead of making him more suspicious, actually made him more trustworthy to me. The narrator, although melancholy, is simple and easily likable, and I soon found myself beginning to share the narrator’s intoxicating paranoia and was easily sucked into the thrill of the chase that is Paris Nocturne.

The theme of memory throughout Paris Nocturne couples well with Modiano’s play with time. The narrator recounts various events in his life from almost 40 years ago – a time jump that the audience doesn’t learn about until almost the end of the book. I constantly found myself questioning the chronology of the narrator’s memories as his only real time stamp hinges upon the car accident in the beginning. He speaks of time only in terms of before and after the accident, which he often muddles up with the previous accident from his childhood, often leaving the audience unsure of when things actually took place. By the end of the book, I was unsure whether the narrator was still in the past or the present, a daze he expressed as well. One night as he is walking down a street that resembles something familiar, he says, “All I have to do is walk along this road to realize that the past is gone for good, without really knowing which present I exist in” (74). The haunting potentiality of past, present, and future cloud his consciousness as well as our own, drawing the audience closer still to the narrator.

The further I read, and the deeper I fell into the narrator’s delusions, the more I began to expect with him some great reveal at the end. As I had two pages left and still little had been resolved, I flew through the sentences as the narrator rushed through his own actions, both searching for the satisfying resolution to this madness that had captivated me for 148 pages and him for over 30 years–a stunning and thought-provoking book.

 

 

Paris Nocturne

Patrick Modiano

Yale University Press

 

 Posted by at 9:36 am
Jan 072017
 

Rebecca Manning

 

 

The story takes place in the basement of Bruno Schulz, a deceased author, most famous for his two collections of short fiction released before his murder by a Gestapo officer in 1942. Maxim Biller follows the surfaces and depths of Bruno’s mind. There is a cross between real and subconscious thought. In many parts of the story, the plot blends Schulz’s mental illusions.

Bruno is progressively writing a letter to Herr Thomas Mann, a writer whom Bruno admires. It is the year 1983 and Bruno believes he has overheard a meeting between an imposter pretending to be Thomas Mann, who he assumes to be a Nazi spy for the government. Bruno decides to warn Thomas Mann of this imposter, which attempt takes up the length of the story.

The setting is dark and unnerving. The basement, located in Drohobycz, Poland, where Schulz writes is damp and he is consistently reminded of events from his past because he is surrounded by memorabilia such as his father’s chair. As a result, Bruno oscillates between the present, past, and fantasy, which each seem to manifest with every passing thought. Biller paints Bruno as an artist who is slowly losing his mind from the fear and anxiety of the unknown. Bruno is alone, but is constantly surrounded by “creatures in his day dreams” that he creates within the depths of his mind, which drive him crazy. The mental state of Bruno is consistently being questioned as the story progresses further. Bruno has an obscene obsession with his face and the faces of others. The face is used innumerably throughout the work as a representation of the emotional state, as well as the character’s state of being.

In the opening of the story, Bruno is described as a “small, thin, serious man” (Biller, 9). The descriptions of Bruno presented in the story paint him as helpless and stationary in regards to his current situation and mental state. Bruno holds his head and hides from the noises that he hears in an attempt to clear his mind. However, he always seems to find another fantasy to conjure up. The world of Bruno seems unbearable to live in. It is difficult to read this story without drawing conclusions about the mental state of Bruno. Conversely, a critique of the previous statement might add that Biller may be trying to capture the crazy artist prototype. However, the plot deviates from the usual structure of stories that are based on this same prototype. The length of the story focuses mainly on fantasy and the reality that Bruno experiences, which leaves the reader questioning how to interpret the meaning of the story. Ultimately, Bruno finishes his letter to Mann, but ends up crawling naked to the center of town by the end. How does one draw conclusions on such an ending?

In summary, Biller pushes the reader to analyze the mind of Bruno, which is a difficult task. This task is made more difficult when Bruno is unsure of his own reality. The mixture of fantasy and reality in this story is brilliant and the flow of thought stands out. Bruno’s character is enticing and the ending of the story grew more mysterious with the progression of Bruno’s character.  Fantastical. Complex. Compelling.  And well worth reading.

 

 

Inside the Head of Bruno Schulz

Maxim Biller

Pushkin Press

 Posted by at 12:23 am
Dec 282016
 

Angela Raper

 

 

“All this leads me to the conclusion that with people, it’s just the same: just because you’re uncultivated doesn’t mean you’re not cultivable. You just need to stumble on the right gardener.” – Germain Chazes

In Soft in the Head, Marie-Sabine Roger tells the story of an unlikely friendship that develops between a middle-aged man and an elderly woman who connect over a mutual love of pigeons and words. Germain Chazes has been neglected and emotionally abused by his mother and ridiculed by his peers for being slow. Margueritte is a retired teacher who is slowly going blind. Germain and Margueritte bond over their interest in counting the number of pigeons in the park.

According to his friend Landremont, Germain is just smart enough to realize how stupid he is, but as the story unfolds, we learn Germain can learn – is even self-motivated to learn – under the right circumstances. In fact, Germain is not as “stupid” as everyone except Margueritte believes him to be. In primary school, he had a bad teacher who belittled him consistently; he learned nothing from the teacher and was left feeling worthless. As an adult, he describes his life as a “shit sandwich but someone forgot the bread.”

Margueritte changes his view on both learning and himself when she introduces him to books. She reads to him from Camus’s The Plague and gives him a dictionary so he can expand his limited vocabulary. From then on, Germain demonstrates his new-found knowledge by giving synonyms throughout the narration: “that’s a real disillusion – see also: disenchantment, disappointment.” By the end of the book, both Germain’s attitude and his life have undergone a profound transformation, and he finds a touching way to repay Margueritte for the gift she’s given him.

Soft in the Head is a quick, light read that speaks to the power of both language and education. Things fall together a little too perfectly for Germain at the end – there is a convenient death, among other things – but the book never becomes saccharine. The book is not an in-depth character study or infused with gritty realism; instead, it works almost on the level of a fairy tale or allegory. Like Sleeping Beauty, Germain is awoken from his functional illiteracy by Margueritte’s friendship and her gentler approach to teaching him how to read and appreciate the beauty of language.

The one thing that jarred me, especially early on, is that the translator used British slang in a French setting. Terms such as “bugger off” and “chavs” are mixed in with references to playing belote and the boulevard de la Libération. But this linguistic bobble was not enough to keep me from enjoying both the book and its message. Soft in the Head reaffirmed my belief in the power of writing to touch the heart and the power that teachers have either to squelch or inspire their students.

 

 

Soft in the Head

Marie-Sabine Roger

Pushkin Press

 Posted by at 9:27 am
Dec 232016
 

Gwen Holt

 

 

Mary Gaitskill’s newest novel, The Mare, is a sensitive exploration of class, love, and strength born from damage. It revolves around the polar worlds of Ginger and Paul, an artsy couple from upstate New York, and Velveteen Vargas, a Dominican girl living in Brooklyn with her brother and mother. Ginger, a recovering alcoholic and artist, is desperate for children, and believes that hosting an inner city child in the country for the summer through the Fresh Air Fund will be a good way to test her mothering skills. Velvet is assigned to stay with them and immediately takes to the “wonders” of middle-class life in white America. Most notably, she discovers her love for horses through visits to the stables next to Ginger’s neighborhood.

Though Gaitskill tells the story through multiple points of view, Ginger and Velvet being the most prominent, this is ultimately Velvet’s story. She shines in every scene. She affects everyone she comes into contact with and seems to live and breathe in each chapter, even those that she isn’t narrating. Gaitskill’s command of Dominican slang is worth noting and adds authenticity to Velvet’s voice. Her neighborhood, plagued by violence and insecurity, is a strong contrast to the peace that becomes her second home with Ginger. As the two struggle to meet each other in the middle, they end up learning about life and themselves in unexpected ways.

Gaitskill doesn’t avoid uncomfortable situations of race, but rather, confronts them head-on. Velvet and Ginger spend long nights talking about their differences and similarities. Ginger attempts to give Velvet a moral compass to follow and Velvet tries to sort out where she belongs and in the process, discovers that she is a talented equestrienne with a gift for understanding abused animals. One horse in particular that everyone at the stables calls Fugly Girl has a long history of abuse and neglect, as does Velvet. The two quickly bond and carry the story to a deeper, unexpected level. Those familiar with horses will be pleased with Gaitskill’s knowledge and ease at writing about them, their temperaments and the people working with them. She captures Velvet’s relationship with Fugly Girl in an exquisite way. As Velvet learns to trust herself, she inspires trust in her horse.

The full cast as a whole makes for a satisfying romp through very unique pastures. The ideas of abuse and neglect, coupled with sex, maturation and self-discovery, are not new to Gaitskill’s writing, but this particular novel handles them in an unexpected way that I feel most readers will enjoy exploring.

 

 

The Mare

Mary Gaitskill

Pantheon

 Posted by at 12:25 pm
Dec 142016
 

Maha Shahid

 

 

Italian writer Piero Chiara’s The Disappearance of Signora Giulia is a slim novel that will draw readers in and keep them hooked all the way to the end and beyond with the promise of resolving tantalizing questions that will never get answered.  The novel takes us into an idyllic setting near Milan, in the breathtakingly scenic Lombardian region of Italy, where a beautiful woman has disappeared. The mystery of how she disappeared, where and why, is what drives the narrative, told through the perspective of the police investigator and commissioner for public safety Corrado Sciancalepre who becomes obsessed with solving the case. In the process, he uncovers the secret life that this lovely, high-society, apparently popular woman has been leading. Also along the way, the writer in a subtle manner exposes the sordid reality and darkness that underlie the relationships and the justice system of the area and its inhabitants.

The novel opens by letting the reader into the life and work of Sciancalepre. He clearly loves his work, and getting into the personal affairs of the people in the area. He even likes the petty criminals he occasionally nabs, and they “almost” enjoy being caught by him. He also likes “reconciling married couples and putting their kids on the straight and narrow.”  For someone like him, who is practically “an institution” priding himself on his knowledge about everyone’s personal issues, the disappearance of Signora Giulia is almost a personal affront. This sense of personal affront gets exacerbated as he finds out more and more about her that he didn’t know.

On another level, there are the legal, moral and ethical issues raised by the disappearance of this society woman into thin air. Her husband, the lawyer Esengreni tells the police officer that he suspects his wife was having a secret affair and has run off with a lover. Sciancalepre gets Esengreni to write a complaint suspecting adultery as this will make it easier for him as a police officer to pursue the case. Sciancalepre is apparently intent on getting her back. But is his zeal based in professionalism or a secret fascination with the woman that so many men had their eyes on? As Chiara leads us through the sequence of events that unfold, it becomes apparent that Sciancalepre had indeed watched Guilia closely, to the extent of recognizing a piece of jewellery that she always wore on her breast when the bag is discovered.

In any case, nothing is as it seems in the town of “M_____.” The man Guilia had been seen with, initially identified by her husband, is clearly not the culprit. There was indeed a lover, but as events unfold, it becomes apparent that he too, could not possibly have had a hand in her disappearance.

The town is abuzz about the vanishing act but the real emotion that many people feel more than concern for her safety seems to be indignation that she left without taking them into confidence. Or they are concerned that she was having an affair – shocking. There is no genuineness about people’s feelings for Giulia as a person in this elite, classist society. Even her daughter doesn’t seem particularly torn up that her mother has disappeared. Chiara doesn’t really get into people’s emotions but he skilfully exposes the shallowness of those who claim to care about a woman who seems to have disappeared into thin air. Gossip is rife in the town of “M______,” and many speculate that the husband has something to do with the situation. How could he not know, they wonder. The age difference between the couple – Esengreni is twenty years older than his wife – also becomes a point of discussion.

This old-school detective story raises many questions about the unpredictability and complexity of human nature. Chiara shows us how similar are the disappeared woman’s husband, a noted lawyer, and a lowly but intelligent gardener who seems to also be a social-climber. Both men, despite the class differences that still exist in Italy at that time, try to frame each other. Who is the real culprit? The unexpected ending, with a huge twist at the end, doesn’t reveal either this, or the reason for Guilia’s disappearance.

Even when her suitcase is found, the jewellery is missing right. Sciancalepre is confident that finding the jewellery will lead to the person responsible for Guilia’s disappearance. But even when that is found, the mystery is not solved.

Chiara, who worked in the courts, as well as in journalism and teaching before retiring early to become a writer, has an intricate knowledge of criminal courts and behaviour that he draws upon for this engaging little novel. Originally published in 1970, this was his first work to be translated into English.

One of Italy’s most acclaimed post-war writers, Chiara was a politically engaged, anti-fascist activist. Sciancalepre, the main character of this book, is also driven by the need to provide justice. The story Chiara has woven makes the reader realize how fragile the justice system is, something that we in modern-day America can relate to even today. We see how easy it is to make false accusations that are totally convincing, and how people get away, with no one being punished, despite a serious crime having been committed.

 

 

The Disappearance of Signora Giulia

Piero Chiara

Pushkin Press

 Posted by at 11:36 pm
Dec 072016
 

Mackinley Greenlaw

 

 

You’d assume that a story called The Man in a Hurry would be an exercise in efficiency—a flash-seared piece of meat with the fat trimmed, and the garnish minimized.  But, you probably assume a lot.  You assume you can drive through that yellow light without some bozo turning left into you.  You understand your situation, so naturally everyone else should.  It’s common sense that one can’t turn left into an oncoming car, and yet there you sit in the hospital, getting shards of glass tweezed from your face, having made too many assumptions about mankind’s observational skills, and your own capacity for control.  Is it your lot to barrel through the yellow lights, willing the cosmos to ferry you through unscathed?  Isn’t that brand of arrogance what elevates us from ape status?

Oh—but I digress.  And so does The Man in a Hurry.  Quite often.

Written by Paul Morand in 1941 (and recently translated from the original French), the novel has a quaint take on short attention spans.  We open with Pierre Niox, the titular hurryman, unable to wait for his aged server to fetch his drink.  So, he leaps up and grabs it himself from behind the bar, only to return to his table and realize that he was never thirsty to begin with.  It’s a flawless character introduction—rife with behavior that stands perfectly on its own.  But Morand reveals his intentions after the first line break, as Pierre is approached by an actual psychoanalyst (a German Jew, no less!), who proceeds to parse out our protagonist’s actions and motivations across multiple pages of exposition.  The two men talk and talk—analyzing, musing, making historical references.  It’s all extremely French.

And herein lies the horror of The Man in a Hurry.  Nothing is left open for interpretation.  All informative actions are immediately intellectualized.  It’s like a precursor to the nation’s new wave cinema, which often treats audiences to aggressive narration and dialogue, while the protagonists sit staring at each other in a bedroom, or over coffee at a street side café.  It’s terminally cerebral, which is all well and good, were it not for the fact that speed is inherently visceral.

As Pierre manages to alienate his friends and employees throughout the first half of the book, the reader finds that it’s not so much a result of haste, but of dour self-obsession.  Pierre never shuts up about himself.  Even when left alone, he exists to soliloquize—pacing around his flat, trying to jam himself (a square peg) into the round opening of his own life.  Aside from the occasional near-miss traffic accident, this seems to be the only “hurry” he’s in—to justify himself.

When he meets the requisite love interest, Hedwige, she provides some sedative relief.  But her pregnancy thrusts him back towards mania—He simply can’t wait nine whole months for a baby.  In this fashion he pushes away his love, falls ill, and finds that the only thing that can sate him is complete demoralization brought on by acute mortality.  That finally shuts him up, but implies that the only solace a man in a hurry can find is in sadness, and ultimately death.  Bleak stuff.

Ultimately, Morand’s distaste for a life briskly lived is palatable.  Pierre is drawn as a joke, but one that is specifically unfunny.  The joke’s on him, is him, and he’s left twisting in the wind for crimes that don’t seem altogether punishable.  One can only imagine how the author would survive the digital age, where all information is available immediately, and even food is slung at you the second you order it.  It kind of makes Pierre seem sluggish in comparison.  Sure, the man likes his drinks served straightaway, but he’s happy to ruminate on that drink for all eternity.  Is he really that hurried?

 

 

The Man in a Hurry

Paul Morand

Pushkin Press

 Posted by at 12:54 pm
Nov 302016
 

Shianna Whitner

 

 

Dana Spiotta’s novel Innocents and Others captures an artist’s journey, the deterioration of friendship, and the misconduct of the lonely.  The three main characters are all so different yet Spiotta weaves their stories together wonderfully.

The book follows the lives of Meadow Mori, a rich artsy Los Angeles native, her lifelong best friend Carrie Wexler, and a woman named Jelly who uses her listening skills to get well-to-do men to fall in love with her over the phone.  The story traces their lives from the present, back to the 70’s and up to the present again.  It shows how Meadow and Carrie forged their friendship and their careers, and how the latter led them in different directions, though they held on to threads of what remained.  It also traces the path that led Jelly to a life of lies and seduction.

Meadow is an immersive type of artist who dives into her work, one project at a time and does not surface until she is either satisfied or ready to discard.  She goes from filming her best friend to filming trains to filming her new boyfriend.  It is this final thing that changes her as an artist.  In this moment she pushes someone close to her in order to improve her art.  This becomes a defining moment in Meadow’s life and raises the question:  How far must one go for their art?

Carrie is the social one.  She cares more about making people laugh and forming emotional bonds than about accolades and bigger messages.  Carrie marries and starts a family while maintaining her career as a screenwriter for female-led comedies.  While Meadow is focused solely on her career, Carrie tries to salvage what remains of their friendship.

Jelly on the other hand never had the friendship that Meadow and Carrie shared.  She has only had relationships with men that ended.  However, one very important relationship with a man named Oz, led her to phone phreaking.  This ability to manipulate tones and connect to people across the world led Jelly to forming her own phone identity and using it to build connections with men in Hollywood.

All three of these women have experienced their own highs and lows on their journeys, whether their search was for art, family, or love.  I enjoyed the depth of character that Spiotta explored with these three women.  She allows Meadow to explore the darkness within herself in a way that called everything she had ever done into question.  This sort of self examination is risky business, but in this case it was done so in a way that was evocative and emotional.  As for Carrie, she has to fight to maintain her friendship with Meadow as it falls through the cracks, and Jelly has to face her actions after years of misleading men through the art of conversation.  For these characters, the story lies in what they do to get what they want and in many cases the question is: Did they go too far?  However, no matter the answer the story itself is a ride worth taking.  Spiotta’s characterization is exceptional.  Her development of the three main characters makes the story a fast read as you turn the page and delve deeper into the lives of these intriguing women.

 

 

Innocents and Others

Dana Spiotta

Scribner

 Posted by at 5:26 pm