@

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 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.

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.

Actress-JacketSitting down to read The Actress, Amy Sohn’s newest novel, is even better than standing in line at the grocery store while the person in front of you disputes the price of a carton of orange juice, giving you extra time to read the tabloids. The Actress might be as licentious as a tabloid, but it is far more intelligently written. And, you probably won’t be reading it while standing in line inside a grocery store.

mad-and-badHe felt envy for Fuentès, which reminded him that he had to kill the man. The Arminius was in his left hand. Hartog crouched among the flowers and kept watch. From not far away, behind the walls, came the sound of gunfire. He counted four reports. He waited.

Lepucki_CaliforniaIn Edan Lepucki’s California, a novel about life after widespread economic, political, and ecological collapse, a main character regards herself as a performer without appreciators. This character, Frida, lives in the woods after cities have crumbled due to all manner of human weakness, and she realizes that here, “No one was looking. Her audience was sucked away.” It’s one of the stranger promises of the end of the world: should you somehow survive it, no one will see you anymore. If, however, you’re inclined toward narcissism and an unmet craving for attention, you might already have experience with this heightened sense of yourself surrounded by little else.

all the light we cannot seeAnthony Doerr’s sentences are as perfect and precise as the crystals and seashells he writes about. Open his new novel to any page, pull out any sentence, and you’ll find his lyrical perfect pitch. “That first peach slithers down his throat like rapture. A sunrise in his mouth” he says about his protagonist. We could say the same thing about Doerr’s prose.

urlSometimes I feel that the city is vanishing from fiction. The books I’ve been reading and reviewing lately have taken place in nowhere towns along highways; or they have taken place in transit, zigzagging from one locale to another, the author never settling in anywhere; or they have focused on interior landscapes, the ‘where’ of the characters’ lives less important than the ‘why.’

For this reason, I read Anthony De Sa’s Kicking the Sky with pleasure. The novel begins as a coming-of-age story, but from there it broadens out, poking around in the dark corners of a city in transition. Midway through my reading, I made a note that the book kept getting bigger as it moved forward, instead of narrowing its focus. I thought this was a flaw. But no—this turns out to be the book’s design.

51dKKLBZ1jLThe first time I was ever terrified by a story was during my sixth grade class’s reading of Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars, which we finished just before going to see a live production of The Diary of Anne Frank. Though Number the Stars is fiction, it’s an imaginative retelling of stories told to Lowry by her friend Annelise Platt, who herself was a child during the Nazis’ occupation of Denmark and who saw so many of the things that the book’s protagonist, Annemarie Johansen, had seen. The book captivated me then—it still captivates me, in its moments of rushed and slowed momentum, a drama that can’t be replicated by a horror movie. Because Annemarie had been about my age when I first read it, because I had not yet known about such a horror of history, Number the Stars quickly, effortlessly became my first favorite book.  And I’ve decided to revisit it here.

ows_138203116777579Like so many others, I read Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch in a single day, or nearly. For weeks I hadn’t been able to get past the first fifty pages, and nearly gave up on finishing it. Then I picked it up again and didn’t put it down until it was finished. It kept me up all night, and it made me babble about it to friends. I caught my breath at the unlikely perfection of single sentences; I cried on the subway at harrowing passages. In short, it evoked every reaction that a masterful novel is supposed to evoke.

Except that I hated it.

220px-FlowersForAlgernonIn my seventh-grade English class, we read Daniel Keyes’ novella Flowers for Algernon, the first-person narrative of a mentally challenged janitor, Charlie, who briefly becomes a genius after undergoing an experimental procedure. It was my introduction not only to an unreliable narrator but also to one whose unusual speech patterns and perspective on the world opened to me the possibilities of the “other” in literature—whether those others were disadvantaged, culturally different, sociopathic, or just plain crazy. It’s difficult enough for writers to get inside the heads of ordinary characters with ordinary problems; writing from the mindset of a person whom one might not even understand—say, a serial killer—or just not empathize with—a narcissist—can seem downright impossible. And when writers succeed, what does that say about the writer?