Quinn Dalton’s recent collection Bulletproof Girl contains eleven stories about women in peril. Not physical peril in the tied to the railroad tracks “save me Indiana Jones” way, but social and emotional peril. Each story is a snapshot, a day or two in the life of a woman who has come up against something in her life that is big and hard to move. My favorite story was “Lennie Remembers the Angels” about an elderly woman who is paranoid about her neighbors but turns a blind eye to her son’s transgressions. There is a physicality to her language in this story: damp heat, dark apartments and overpowering food smells. Like “Lennie,” several of the stories in the collection could be mistaken for chapters in a novel; they aren’t self-contained. Dalton is very good at fleshing out her characters, and we know their individual histories. As she leads her protagonists through their hard times, we are given stories that are as character-driven as they are plot-driven. The long title story broadens the themes the Dalton explores in the rest of the collection. Instead of one woman, we have three: Emery, May and Celeste, three generations from the same family, all at difficult crossroads and alternately comforting and pitying one another. Emery is smarting from the loss of her boyfriend, her mother May has been driven to odd obsessive behavior ever since her husband moved out, and old Celeste the grandmother is vibrant, but will not sympathize with her daughter, and instead takes them all on a macabre errand.
Sometimes subject matter is secondary. John McPhee, for example, can write about long-haul trucking or lacrosse, subjects I’ve got no interest in, and I’ll read each word and marvel at how he’s able to make the topics so compelling, rich, and human. Kerry Howley’s subject matter, in her potent and consuming debut Thrown, falls into the same disinterest bin as trucking and lax, but she brings such vigor and aliveness, such seductive use of detail and tension, that it’s impossible not to lose oneself in the bloody, funny, brutal, balletic world of mixed martial arts. In other words, I don’t care about cage fighting, ultimate fighting, MMA; Kerry Howley made me care.
Bored and disillusioned at an academic conference on phenomenology, Howley, an essayist who’s written for the Paris Review, the New York Times Magazine, the Atlantic, and a graduate of the University of Iowa’s non-fiction program, wanders off for a break from the blowhards. She happens upon a sign that announces the Midwest Cage Championship, and takes a seat in the crowd. She’d never seen a fight before, and is taken in immediately, the blood and spectacle in righteous opposition to the chatter about Husserlian intentionality she’d just fled and academic ivory-towerdom in general. “It was as if someone had oil-slicked my synapses,” she writes, “such that thoughts could whip and whistle their way across the mind without the friction I’d come to experience as thought itself.” This first fight, witnessed by accident, is a path-changer, and Thrown is the account of Howley inserting herself into the lives of two cage fighters. Sean is an aging jab-eater, a fighter looking at his last chances who moves “like a fat man on hot coals”; Erik is a rising star, tall and lean, “a slippery-fast blossoming prodigy.” Howley gains her place as a “spacetaker,” a step up from a groupie, part of a fighter’s inner posse, with access to most aspects of their living, from the size of their burritos and videogame habits to fraternal feuds, possible parenthood, forehead sutures, and months and months of training for minutes of combat in the octagon.
She gets close to Sean and Erik both and masterfully builds tension in the lead-ups to fights–not only will they or won’t they or how well will they do, but will she still be welcomed into the fray. Howley is aware of the fragility of her role, how tenuous the position of spacetaker is–a trusted member of the group can be snubbed at any moment. It’s necessarily a physical book, and there’s sex between some lines: “I lay in bed at night picturing Erik thrown back in the swell, all his perfect plenitude, the pressure of his abundance, the way it would overbrim its boundaries at some unknown date and time. I could only wait, the energy all gathered and damned up in my limbs, for the moment of release I knew to be coming.” These fights for her are orgasm, are ecstasy.
What Howley finds during the first fight she stumbles on, and what she chases afterwards is exactly that experience of ecstasy, and she places the sport, and herself as a spectator, in a long tradition of ecstatic spectacle. The Lotus Eaters, the frenzied maenads, spirit questers on peyote. To experience this sort of ecstasy is to be removed from oneself, to be stripped of the body’s tired reminders of hunger, thirst, need. “The categories of sight and sound no longer applied,” Howley writes, “for a mind in the throes of ecstasy had expanded outward, beyond these rough tools of perception, to greet the universe without the interference of anything so frail as an eye or an ear.”
So it’s not just the drama of busted elbows, landed punches, and split brows, though Howley’s descriptions of bodies in fight are memorable; something much greater is at stake. There’s epic poetry in the cadence of her sentences, a Homeric sort of rhythm: “When the man in charge ran out of fighters he’d ask the fighters to fight again, and Sean always said yes. He never lost an amateur fight, not once. Thirty times he fought this way.” Howley signals with the elevated language, and with references to Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, that what we’re dealing with here is not just two dudes kicking the shit out of each other on a mat, but something on the level of war and wandering of the Iliad and the Odyssey, and perhaps even more elevated than that.
It’s a brushing up against the eternal, the infinite, and it’s antithetical to paying bills on time, desk jobs, and high fiber cereal. One of the most striking aspects of the book, and one I found most compelling, is Howley’s disdain for conventional middle-class life. I suspect some will find it offputting when she writes: “I would not fraternize with the healthy-minded; better to leave them to their prenatal yoga, their gluten-free diets, their dull if long lives of quietest self-preserving conformism.” Or “Should I ever decide to spawn a nuclear family and enjoy their dull companionship between bouts of desk-ridden drudgery–to live, that is, in what Sartre called “Bad Faith–I shall return with all due haste to [my hometown]. But until then, I resist the temptation, lest the comfort and simplicity of a conformist life suck me back into its maw.” The fights and her fighters serve as antidote to the “entangling mundanities of the ordinary world.” There’s an electricity here, a welcome and unexpected fervency in opposition to the widespread messages we get regarding rest, weddings, carbohydrates.
We’re all of us looking for people to justify and reinforce our own choices (which is why some no doubt will feel scoffed at by Howley), and she justifies hers with a quote from Nietzsche: “A preference for questionable and terrifying things is a symptom of strength.” One’s left wondering what pulls Howley in those directions. Early in the book, she makes short and offhand mention of a fact about her parents which I had to read three times to make sure I understood, and it raised questions the answers to which could only be guessed at. What we know: Howley seeks to flee the self and the battles serve as an expressway to that end. But if fighting is a fleeing, so is storytelling: “All narrators are fiction,” Howley writes.
The book is about fighting, yes, about an extreme sport and some of the men involved, who maybe aren’t, after all, Odysseus or Hector, but possessing of a more earthbound sort of humanity and heroism. It’s about the the strong pull of home, the powerful binds of blood, and the press, everpresent, of time. In what we seek, Howley shows us what we fear. We flee ourselves–in fights, in sex, in the light hitting the trees in the late afternoon, in the bottom of a third glass of wine–to find something else, to escape time and entangling mundanities, in an effort, ultimately, to avoid the experience of being alone.
I first discovered René Belletto’s novels when some years ago I fell upon a review in the Times Literary Supplement of his book Le Revenant, which seemed to be a combination of literary fiction and what the French call the roman noir, a kind of thriller sometimes involving cops, villains, and those dubious inhabitants of Soulless-on-the-Seine, though in his case we were firmly entrenched between the Rhône and Saône, in the heart of Lyon.
I ordered a Livre de Poche edition, and came to identify the tough guy in the fedora on the cover as the author himself. Though he often shares traits with them—a love and knowledge of music, expertise in teaching and playing the Spanish guitar, a fascination with fast cars and the best stereo equipment money can buy—Belletto only occasionally looks like the heroes of his novels. Of all the writers he’s sometimes (and sometimes capriciously) grouped with, whether the more modern stars of the roman noir such as Jean-Patrick Manchette or Thierry Jonquet, or those, like Jean Echenoz, who borrow from the genre but belong to a more nebulous group, René Belletto is the one most likely to surprise and entertain us.
His earliest publications were on the experimental side: Beckett seems to be the governing shade there, with a touch of Maurice Blanchot and a sprinkling of Mickey Spillane. And then came his breakthrough, Le Revenant (The Ghost), which on the surface seems to be a straightforward thriller told in the first person, but becomes a highly personal and compellingly readable narrative of loss and redemption set within certain recognizable tropes of American B-movies. It’s also the story of a man attempting to escape fate: the fate of family, the fate of vengeance, the inescapability of his own actions in a world full of traps and false smiles. This was followed by the second part of the Lyon trilogy, Sur la Terre comme au ciel (On Earth as it is in Heaven), and finally L’Enfer (Hell, or, as it was published in translation here several years ago, Eclipse). These days, Belletto sets his fictions in the narrow streets of Montmartre, where he now lives. His newest work, Hors la loi (Outlaw), is a complex and riveting novel of reincarnation that, as with some of his more recent works, goes beyond the limits of reality into unexpected realms of other genres as, by using the musical concepts of theme-and-variation, prelude and fugue, and stepping into the regions of science fiction, it explores the inescapability of fate, the pleasures and traps of desire, the loss of identity through passion for another. Yet Belletto’s novels really don’t adhere to the standard plot devices of polars or romans noir; his concern is with character caught through wayward fate in a plot not of his own design, drawn into a world that on the surface seems familiar but bristles with unreality and danger.
Mourir, first published in France in 2002 and now expertly translated by Alexander Hertich as Dying, has just appeared in a handsome paperback original published by the Dalkey Archive Press. It’s a work of unusual though never-confusing complexity, a novel of reflections and correspondences that contains all of the author’s strengths: Belletto, who has a brilliant grasp of pacing and possesses a connoisseur’s knowledge of film, is a natural storyteller with a strong, sure voice, and his books prove difficult to put down.
Although the original French edition of Dying contains a section of reproductions and photos (discussed in the translator’s introduction, but sadly left out of the Dalkey Archive edition, as they playfully comment on and supplement the story surrounding them), the governing image is Las Meninas, by Diego Velázquez.
What at first seems to be a portrait of the artist painting the Infanta Margarita with her attendants becomes, the more we look at it, a study in realities. The painter himself looks away from his canvas to glance up at us. Or is it us? Reflected in a mirror behind the Infanta are the girl’s parents, Philip IV and Queen Mariana, placed nearly where we, the viewers, would be. Which suggests that the painter is in the process of painting a royal portrait. Yet this is called Las Meninas, “The Girls,” which from his vantage point is not what he’s painting at all. Isn’t this instead a painting of an artist painting another painting altogether, one that we may never see? And where is Velázquez in all of this? Has he basically vanished into the work itself? The reflexiveness of this complex work is echoed—indeed mirrored—in Dying, where a character is even known as Reine, Queen, or, as Hertich renders it, Queene. In this novel we are, in fact, in a world of mirrors, not as mere literary trickery, but as a skillful, serious and indeed brilliant play on levels of reality in a story that, at heart, is about conquering death. And yet this is also a book filled with Belletto’s characteristic humor and melancholy, to which Alexander Hertich is especially sensitive.
As Dying opens, the voice we meet, or rather the voice that creeps up on us, is a familiar one: it could be the narrator of any of the titles in Beckett’s trilogy, Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnameable, croaks and wheezes of men in extremis, or at least at their worst, a man so solitary that the presence of another—whether character or reader—unleashes a torrent of words, an obsessive and mad swirl of internal logic. For the narrator is a resident of the Rats and Vermin Hotel, and he may well be in that shimmering transitive state between life and death. But wait… Because on page thirty, just as we’re becoming lulled into thinking this might be another Beckettian exploration of the human condition, we’re in a kidnapping story—one we’ve seen before in a Belletto novel and that we’ll see again in subsequent works. It’s then that the narrator known as Sixtus claims to be the husband of the kidnapped woman; at that moment he has stepped into the plot and left his miserable life behind him.
Armed with the ransom, showing up at the specified time, Sixtus discovers that the kidnapped woman he has just met is an imposter. Not the Armelle of the ransom note, but Queene, with whom he’s immediately smitten as they drive to Madrid and a room at—where else?—La Casa Margarita. We are inside the world of Las Meninas, where reality can either be tangible, something glimpsed in a reflecting glass, or a tale that we tell ourselves to make sense of another’s universe.
And then, suddenly, part one—“An Old Testament”—ends and “A New Testament” commences, with a new narrator and a new voice, more human, more direct, more trustworthy, more modern and, dare I say, more Belletoesque. We’ve walked through the mirror, and we’re in another world. Or is it? “I know today…our story was nothing other than the world without us,” the narrator of this new section writes, and the line is like the center of gravity for this work: a tale told by a man present at his own absence. “We toil relentlessly to hide beneath artifice that which is naturally out of reach,” he continues, as though to inform us that the man behind this voice, René Belletto, is giving us a kind of self-portrait, though one so deeply coded that whenever we seem to catch a glimpse of the author (his passion for the music of Tomás Luis de Victoria is known to me, but I’d be hard pressed to say that the character he writes about is Belletto himself), he slips out of view.
Even whole passages in Dying are lifted from his earlier novel L’Enfer, as though Belletto were looking at his life and works through the lens of a kaleidoscope, capturing the shifting and changing details as they create new visions, new worlds, and the endlessly-repeated reflections that constantly alter our view of the author’s reality.
For Belletto is first and foremost a storyteller, a devotee of the films of, among others, the director Richard Fleischer, and the novels of Dickens (he’s also the author of a fascinating 700-page work devoted strictly to Great Expectations), and so his venture into a world as complex and as full of reflection and echo as Dying never once grows heavy with theory, or with the machinations of consciousness. To Belletto this all comes naturally. The ease with which he shifts between genres—whether they be straightforward thriller, detective story, spy tale, or the blisters and flames of a thwarted romance—is breathtaking and highly entertaining. One reads Belletto’s books both for the humor and the intricacies of plotting. Which isn’t to say that character doesn’t count, for all of his works depend on richly-drawn protagonists, many of them variations on a single theme: the man we first met in Le Revenant, a man with an honest soul and only the best of intentions for whom we feel only the warmest affinity.
But Dying isn’t just a literary trick that slips like mercury between genres. There’s a haze of anguish that lies over the tale, indicating that the author has brought his most personal side to the page. Loss, mourning, regret—all of these come into serious play in this most playful of books.
Just a few days before I embarked on Colum McCann’s new novel Let the Great World Spin, we had a movie night at the Magee household. Lauren made some ice cream and our neighbors came over with Man on Wire, the 2008 Oscar-winning documentary about Philippe Petit and his walk on a tightrope strung between the two towers of New York City’s World Trade Center in 1974, in hand.While the film portrays Petit as a roguish eccentric (as anyone with his “hobby” would have to be), it also captures his famous walk as not so much a stunt as a sublime gesture – a graceful figure, clad all in black, impossibly high up, framed by massive towers and set against the huge morning sky. The film builds to this impressive, balletic payoff, a beautiful counterpoint to the antics of Petit and his cohort as they plot out and set into motion their daring plan.Petit’s personality is larger than life and so was his act. So it is perhaps no surprise that in centering his novel around Petit’s walk, McCann makes the walk the book’s gravitational center and ignores the voluble Petit almost entirely. In an author’s note at the end of the book, McCann writes, “I have taken liberties with Petit’s walk, while trying to remain true to the texture of the moment and its surroundings.” And anyone who has watched Man on Wire will also find that with his few descriptions of the Petit’s preparations, McCann has invented for him a new, if thinly sketched, backstory.A tightrope walker graces the cover of the book and though many reviews (as this one has) will likely devote ink to the famous act, it is little more than a backdrop to a disparate cast of characters. If Let the Great World Spin were a play, the action would take place in front of a painted backdrop showing the towers and the speck-like walker bathed in the morning light. The backdrop would sometimes be alluded to, but the action it depicted would never be a part of the foreground. The book traces a number of lives, ranging from mother and daughter hookers to a judge to an Irish priest of a particularly ascetic order. The priest is Corrigan, who, as a peculiarly selfless child, wandered from home and gave the blankets from his bed to homeless drunks. As an adult, he entered the priesthood and got himself posted to the Bronx where he lives in a housing project and becomes a sort of den mother and mascot to the complex’s many prostitutes. Among them are Tillie and Jazzlyn Henderson, the mother and daughter pair, deeply jaded, scarred by heroin, but still irrepressible. These three, Corrigan’s brother, and several others form one of the book’s poles, and they are tied by a car accident to the novel’s other pole, a couple living on Park Avenue, Solomon and Claire Soderburg. He is a judge, she an heiress, devastated by the loss of their only son in Vietnam. Claire has joined a support group with other mothers who have lost sons. She is painfully self-conscious, on the morning of the tightrope walk, about having the group – all hailing from the outer boroughs – into her status-signifying Park Avenue penthouse. There are a number of other characters as well, all tied to New York City in the 1970s in one way or another.To string his line between the towers, Petit shot fishing wire across the gap with a bow and arrow, and then he and his helpers tied progressively stronger and heavier ropes together until his heavy, steel wire could be hauled across. In the same way, McCann’s characters are at the outset connected by only the thinnest of filaments – proximity and shared experiences and not much else – but through the machinations of the plot and by dint of mishap and employment and chance they become more connected, sometimes tragically.McCann’s mastery of character and voice is on full display in Let the Great World Spin, especially the Claire Soderburg’s fragile inner monologue and the mournful, staccato prison diary of Tillie Henderson. The novel is a bit shorter on plot, with much of the narrative energy devoted to the car accident at the center of the action and prizing out its impact on the lives of the characters. Some readers may wish the novel had more narrative to it, but McCann’s well-sketched characters and sense of place may be enough to satisfy.