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51943ghzzil-_sx317_bo1204203200_One of Hollywood’s favorite genres is the contained thriller: its budget probably won’t involve an enactment of World War III, a city-destroying earthquake, or a meteor headed towards Baltimore, all relying on too much CGI, which gets expensive fast. But this: a bus is going to blow up if it drops below a certain speed; a man is stuck in a phone booth and if he hangs up on the caller he will be shot dead; a young woman is stuck in an underground shelter with a possibly insane John Goodman. And don’t forget Alien: within the confines of the spaceship Nostromo, in a place where no one can hear you scream, a killer is on the loose, having evolved from a small and slithery reptilian piece of belly-bursting nasty into a very large slithery reptilian thing with chrome teeth and battery acid for blood. But in Hamlet we’re in a world that isn’t so different. After all, As Hamlet himself says, “Denmark’s a prison.”

Hamlet was written somewhere around 1601, and is the longest of Shakespeare’s plays. It takes place within the walls of Elsinore Castle, an isolated, wind-swept fortress, modelled on Kronborg Castle on the isle of Zealand, across the strait from the Swedish town of Helsingborg. Outside it’s cold and damp, and in the play we only leave the castle proper to visit the royal graveyard, hardly a place to warm the heart.

61iva2-e5vl-_sx327_bo1204203200_Wendy C. Ortiz could be called a bruja in the sense that she is a conjurer, a master of creating an illusion of reality and interchanging it with fiction where she sees fit. Having written the memoir Excavation in 2014 and her self-described “prose poem-ish” memoir Hollywood Notebook in 2015, there hardly seems like a better choice than her to create a “dreamoir”, an elegant pastiche of the reality of a life lived and the unreality created within the subconscious. Bruja, which has just been released on October 31st from Civil Coping Mechanisms, is exactly that, in an ambitious and beautiful form. Ortiz chronicles a period of her life through the uncanniness of her dreams, which blends together fantastical elements and people from her waking life. The result is a strangely relatable magical realism, charting the highs and lows of her day-to-day living through the frustrating ambiguity of dreams.

 

“To be without a feeling for art is no disgrace. A person can live in peace without reading [novels] or listening to [music]. But the misomusist does not live in peace. He feels humiliated by the existence of something that is beyond him, and he hates it. There is a popular misomusy… The fascists and Communist regimes made use of it… But there is an intellectual, sophisticated misomusy as well: it takes revenge on art by forcing it to a purpose beyond the aesthetic… The apocalypse of art: the misomusists will themselves take on the making of art; thus will their historic vengeance be done.”

–Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novel

 

“Misomusist: n. rare A person who hates learning (also, in recent use: art).”    

–Dictionary

 

With Kundera’s strong opinions and talent for rhetoric come a penchant for overstatement, even hyperbole; an inclination that causes him to contradict himself from time to time. This is the problem with broad pronouncements—statements of absolutes, even from a master like Kundera—there is almost always an exception to the rule, whatever the rule. In this instance, Kundera’s work, and its focus on the political, provides the exception.

Kundera’s concept of the novelist as someone who poses questions (rather than answering them) is a notion I return to often, and his idea on the misomusist’s hatred of learning and art seems linked to that, even though it might not initially appear so. When Kundera speaks of misomusy, he’s speaking metaphorically, not issuing a metal-clad prohibition against “any vestige of the political in art,” even though it sounds as though he’s suggesting just that—that if we want to save poor, little Art from the encroaching idiot hordes we’d better stuff it in a covered wagon and get the fuck out of Dodge.

If we peel back Kundera’s hyperbole, he’s speaking of a problem of degrees, the way too much focus on politics, religion, or commerce (as examples) might negatively impact art. Though Kundera almost certainly wouldn’t approve, you might even extend the point to include too much “artistry,” suggesting that if you are too concerned with pursuing beauty as you see it, whether out of some overly idiosyncratic aesthetic or a lack of more visceral narrative elements like plot and story, you could damage your own art, create something unrecognizable to anyone but yourself.

Set deep in literature’s make-up—perhaps essential enough even to qualify as its DNA—are the ideas of knowledge and progress as identifiable, worthy concepts. We read not only for aesthetics and entertainment, but to expand the scope of our worlds. We read to engage with other cultures and people, to live other lives. And, to some extent, what I want from a writer is their unvarnished perspective on the world. If that view is heavily informed by politics (whether they be governmental or those of race or gender), so be it.

Several of the books I’m covering this month could be considered political, though some are certainly more overt in their politics than others. As someone who writes about politics at times, who has his own strong opinions, I’d say the challenge is (as Kundera has suggested elsewhere) to avoid absolute certainty in your fiction, to maintain some level of impartiality, even though as human beings demanding perfect political neutrality of ourselves is a doomed proposition. Ultimately, you must do what makes sense to you, regardless of what the great Milan Kundera or little, old me say. The only test of success is the reader’s response, the impartial (though always partial) answer to the question, “Does it work?”


patricide-frontcover600I imagine that many things will be said about D. Foy’s highly anticipated novel, Patricide, over the next few months. There will be much hushed and head-shaking praise levied, not only at the arresting way in which it’s told but also about the subject matter—surviving an unsurvivable childhood.

And yet while this is very much the story of one man’s colossal, cyclonic attempt to remake himself from the shards of an annihilating boyhood, I think that it is much more than that. It seems to me that the true subject of this narrative, is the collision of dreams. The lengths to which parents and children break and remake each other and themselves on this contested terrain, this no man’s land of lovesick, homesick, heartsick dreams.

Whether we’re talking about simple book reviews, hardcore literary criticism, or even the deathsport-cum-puffery that goes with writing workshops, it’s easy to make literary opinions about yourself rather than the work at hand. There are a lot of different ways this can happen in reviewing. Some of the more common:

1.  The dispensation of ham-fisted writing truisms (show, don’t tell; adverbs must die; etc.)

2.  The shared personal anecdote, loosely related at best (My word-slinging panda Grimwald brings me a sonnet every night. But you didn’t. And that’s why this is the most horrible dreck I’ve ever read.); and

3.  Conscious mockery, the review designed (through wit, derision, and pithy prose) to show how much better you are than the foolish mortal whose book you’ve deigned to review. (There’s this guy on Goodreads…Actually, there are like three hundred of this guy on Goodreads, but you get the idea…)

I suppose I have a little luxury in the books I review. No one at TNB tells me what to cover, when to read them or where. I just do then say what I think. Simple, right? But not so, not really.

So many of the most famous examples of criticism come from hating a book or an author with a passion, from using that passion and what skill you may have to pen a take-down readers will remember. The goal is perhaps not always to make oneself sound good, but certainly, at the very least, to make the writer or work under discussion sound very bad.

For me, today, book reviewing has less to do with put-downs, more to do with empathy. As a critic, I think you need to be a bit of a chameleon, able to envision each book not just from your own perspective (the white tower of your five-star, ten-point, or four-heart rating scale) but from the standpoint of that book’s best reader, the person the book is intended for even though neither they nor the author have any idea they exist. Rather than the infallibility we sometimes pretend to, book reviewing seems to me a matter of art and hope, maybe even something a little like a prayer. A wish, at least, that the books we’ve chosen will find their best readers, whoever and wherever they are.

In many ways, the greatest praise we can bestow on a piece of art is to say it inhabits its world so fully as to define it. Whether we’re talking about Flannery O’Connor or Jane Austen, Charles Dickens or Ernest Hemingway, the writers we come back to, the ones who maintain readership and critical attention, often capture their environments to such an extent that their claim on the territory comes to supplant the reality they once sought to depict.

What would 19th century England mean to us without David Copperfield and Oliver Twist? What would 20th century Paris be without The Sun Also Rises? Even though film’s more overt, incandescent iconography has overtaken the literary in the popular consciousness, one of the written word’s chief uses remains its role as historical document and anthropological source, a record of the things that animate geographies and eras, nations and civilizations. And let’s be clear: Even today, there would be no cinema without writing. Whether in the form of novels and stories that provide jumping-off points for screenwriting or the scripts themselves, the production of the images that become our shared memories could never happen without the written word.

The Nervous Breakdown’s inaugural Microbrew showcases the diversity of American letters. Realist and fabulist, lyrical and metafictional, novels and stories, novellas and poetry. Drawn from small and big presses alike, this is a group of writers engaged in the work of claiming their territory, defining their worlds with such linguistic precision and clarity of vision that those worlds, if we’re lucky, begin to feel like our own.

51h6MXJbAjL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_On its face, minimalism might seem like an ironic term for fiction—one more suited to architecture or interior design—but in describing the style of writing that still dominates many MFA programs, it’s entirely fitting. Featuring spare prose and terse descriptions of the everyday, this is the manner of literary writing most easily taught, most simply reduced to a matter of craft. Often purposefully lacking in plot and story—and stripped mercilessly of personality—minimalism in its most realistic form can become a study not in nonfiction but in a sort of antifiction, work that may qualify as literary in ambition, but not effect. Unable to animate the seemingly realistic world it has created, minimalism often fails the most basic of literary tests. Like a song sung to perfect pitch, but without passion, minimalistic fiction can want for soul. It can lack magic.

dear-petrov-cover-1I hesitate to call Susan Tepper’s dear Petrov (Pure Slush Books) a novel; if anything it reaches closest to that magical, ethereal and mysterious realm we call poetry, though I also hesitate to call the sixty-four connected, half-page pieces poems, for taken altogether, they construct a beautiful whole that can very well be a novel. And yet…I hesitate…yes, now I’m repeating, having thoroughly locked myself into a savagely incoherent loop. This is so mostly because this book defies a label, and any fool (like this one) who undertakes the futile task of reviewing Tepper’s offering will be left verbally challenged—doomed to spin his wheels in perpetuity, trapped in a circle of babbling nonsense as witnessed above. The closest we can come to pegging down dear Petrov is “a work of art.”

61OEvAy5j0L._SX373_BO1,204,203,200_One of my favorite lines in the thorough, inspiring, and often challenging new anthology Family Resemblance: An Anthology and Exploration of 8 Hybrid Literary Genres, appears not in any of the myriad prose poems or lyric essays or flash fiction included there, but in the preface. The sentence begins: “Jacqueline had been experiencing a…crisis of genre faith.” So much about this anthology – its writers, its editors, and presumably its target audience – is contained in that phrase, “a crisis of genre faith.” This is a book for those of us that pray at the altar of literature, and as such, both study its many holy tenets, and occasionally (or frequently) question their holiness, prompting us to seek new, expanded ways of renewing our commitment to The Word.

25387388A few years ago a psychologist friend asked me if I was a gambler. Back in my first two years of college in a small Midwestern town—an accidental choice, after all, at least for this East Coast kid—overcome with boredom though periodically buzzing with passels of first-rate psychedelics and crystal meth, I’d play weekend-long poker games, listening to stacks of variously-scratched Rolling Stones LPs in someone else’s dorm room, resulting in lost sleep and most of the cash in my pocket. Each deal on site  was going to be better than the last. Walk away when you’re down? What’s the point of that, eh? Shut up and deal. We do it over and over again, because luck is like some invisible force in the universe: sometimes it’s on your side, and sometimes it isn’t. If you back out, you’ll never know if the next hand’s going to be a royal straight flush. So you ante up and watch the cards sail towards you.

20308537“Then there is the other secret. There isn’t any symbolism. The sea is the sea. The old man is an old man. The boy is a boy and the fish is a fish.” ― Ernest HemingwaySelected Letters 1917-1961

Even if we take Hemingway at his famously reductive words—doing our best to forget the dead snow leopards and clean well-lit places that haunt so many a term paper—those words weren’t the first on literary symbolism nor were they ever destined to be the last. A century earlier, Hawthorne was spinning his yarn about Young Goodman Brown, a woodland walk with the Devil, and his wife…ahem…Faith. Decades after Hemingway, Salman Rushdie was dropping angels from airplanes at the beginning of The Satanic Verses, Martin Amis styling his unholy apocalyptic trinity of Keith Talent, Guy Clinch, and Nicola Six in London Fields, Ian McEwan compressing the whole of modern European history in the last few paragraphs of Black Dogs. When it comes to literary symbolism, one size has never fit all.

51zq2-7RLLL._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_“When I discover who I am, I’ll be free.” — Ralph Ellison (Invisible Man)

It’s not hard to see the need to understand ourselves as the central motivation for art. Whether we’re talking about painting or sculpture, poetry or the novel, the fictionalization of reality—its depiction and abstraction, its reordering and refocusing—offers the chance not only to escape into someone else’s life, but a new lens through which to see ourselves and our world, a means to reckon with reality and our place in it.

9780393249187_custom-6d99ab5183fa2e212a7f36feafc85944b3bfa3d0-s300-c85There was a time when, at least in England, theatre mattered, and by theatre one must also include television drama and plays written for radio; in those days a director could draw from the same stable of actors and often directors: stage, screen, radio. There was really no shortage of opportunity for original plays, which led to many novelists also writing scripts. Money is money, exposure is always good, and learning how to do more than one thing with your craft is a kind of gift. Finished your book? Great—write a script. Quality was usually high back in the late 70s and early 80s, and sometimes the plays chosen, cast and taped were either banned outright from broadcast, such as Roy Minton’s Scum, written in 1977 and only seen fourteen years later, or Dennis Potter’s 1976 BBC play, Brimstone and Treacle, which had to wait eleven years before it could be shown, or so controversial that they made the editorial pages of the stately broadsheets of the day. Many of the actors who appeared in them are still box-office draws: Dench, Mirren, Nighy, McKellen, Irons, among others. The late 70s and 80s were, at least in the UK, thought of as the Golden Age of Television. Then there were only three channels: BBC1, BBC2, and ITV, this last one an independent station that drew programming from both regional and London sources. Channel 4 was still in the future. The major TV slot for original plays was BBC’s Play for Today, which meant that what you wrote for these weekly 50-minute slots uninterrupted by commercials (one paid, and still does pay, for a television license simply to operate a set in the home) should reflect what was happening now in Britain. Unlike in the great big United States, where the effects of anything short of a Supreme Court decision or a government shutdown often takes time to roll out and be felt, in Britain the fan would get very messy the moment the shit hit it. Back in 1977 there were several different labor-related slowdowns and strikes that would result in piling garbage on London streets, striking fire brigades being replaced by soldiers on army equipment, and electrical outages often preannounced by time and location in the London Evening Standard. These had an immediate effect, and the public was polarized between those who supported Labour and the trades unions and those who were vehemently against them, the latter being responsible for electing a Conservative House of Commons and causing the rise of the Iron Lady herself, Margaret Thatcher.

Lidia Yuknavitch has said, “I believe in art the way other people believe in god.” Her devotion to art as both solitary practice and collective communication is gorgeously evidenced in her new novel, The Small Backs of Children (HarperCollins, 2015). The novel is a love letter to the power and pulse of art that can destroy us, unmake our world, and reassemble us as something we could not have imagined.

9781612481364-1I met Lori Horvitz several years ago at an artists’ residency, where she was writing this book, then tentatively called “Dating My Mother.” She read the title piece, about her recent break-up with a woman whose eccentric restaurant behavior rivaled that of Lori’s mother, who once responded to a bug in a bowl of soup by saying, “It’s pepper. Just eat it.” The piece was sad, not only because it was about a failed romantic relationship but because the mother in the title died young, when Lori was in her early twenties. I was moved by Lori’s struggle on the page to disentangle herself from a dysfunctional way of paying homage to her mother by unconsciously choosing to date women who resembled her.