Belly is a book about a man named Belly. Belly aka William O’Leary is a grandfather now, just out of jail after four years in for illegal bookkeeping, but he used to be a real big shot in Saratoga Springs. He was also a drunk, cruelly dismissive of his family and torn up by the death of his third daughter. When he arrives back home he finds that his old stomping grounds have changed and that his three surviving daughters are wary of his presence. The book encompasses Belly’s first week of freedom and is more a character study of this difficult man than a plot-driven novel. Because Belly is so stubborn and belligerent, it is difficult to commiserate with his bitterness about the incursion of WalMart and fancy chain coffee shops. In fact, I found Belly, the man, to be so repugnant that I thought that Lisa Selin Davis was trying to point out that he was wrong, that those chain stores aren’t so bad, but based on this interview, I can see that that is not the case. Belly is an admirable debut, with a handful of well-crafted characters, especially Belly and his oldest daughter Nora, but I would have more enjoyed reading about these characters in a more dynamic plot.
“I embrace the frightful and the beautiful.”–Al-Bayati
Great war poetry has a profound tension between two fundamental sets of drives; the creative and empathetic drives of poetry and the destructive and divisive drives of war; it has a parallelism with the beauty and lyricism of the language and poetic structure existing with but never becoming one with the gore and horror of being in a WWI trench, for example. As the romanticizing of war faded in Western culture, so did this tension and more often than not when poetry dealt with war, it only condemned war. But war is not totally composed of atrocity, and to understand war and eventually eradicate it, means grappling with the complex effects of strife on human relationships and emotions and poetry has the conceptual flexibility needed to contain all those concepts and contradictions.
Furthermore, the experience of American war has changed and Brian Turner, who served in Iraq, is our first poetic chronicler of the new American war. His previous book, Here, Bullet, (one of the finest collections in recent memory) dealt exclusively with his time in Iraq. Phantom Noise is a broader examination of the new American war. Soldiers now spend much more time identifying enemies than fighting enemies, they are on patrol through marketplaces more than they are on point in combat, and their mistakes lead to the deaths of innocents instead of themselves and their comrades. Death is still the primary experience but American soldiers have a new relationship with it. Contemporary war, in America at least, is now defined as much by coming home as it is by shipping out.
In Phantom Noise, Turner creates a technical definition of the “embrace” in his epigraph included above, by showing the impossible, yet constant, juxtaposition of “frightful” memories of war with “beautiful” experiences of human existence. As in war poetry in general, the two are present but parallel. In “The Inventory From a Year Lived Sleeping with Bullets;” Turner twists that parallelism, “The conceptual and the physical given parallel structure,” to create another pair constantly present without intersecting. Phantom Noise is both the first collection of poetry dealing with the soldier returning from Iraq to a life constantly between the parallel forces of war and domesticity, and Turner’s creation of an embrace that encloses them both.
The embrace begins with the brilliant “At Lowe’s Home Improvement Center.” This poem is the most direct exploration of those impossible juxtapositions as “a 50 pound box of double-headed nails” turns into “…firing pins/ from M-4s and M-16s,” “Wounded Iraqis with IVs/ sit propped against boxes as 92 sample Paradiso fans,” and “Dead soldiers are laid out at the registers.” Though the images share physical space with the home improvement center, their concepts never mix; the ideas of a home improvement center and a war are kept separate. One never becomes a metaphor for the other. In poem after poem, Turner sets the memories that give him nightmares against the present that gives him comfort.
Along with poems of war and poems of returning from war, Turner bravely includes poems without the specter and spectacle of war. With the assertive visuality of short art films, Turner shows a series of formative moments; a young boy caught asleep next to the daughter of his baby sitter in “Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon,” “…the old man strangling the dishes,” and “…a boy of four with a pot of tea/ for an old woman buried in afghans, lit by Chinese lanterns,” in “Lucky Money,” and the closing image of “The Whale;” “and I remember everyone smiling/ afterward, laughing, each of us amazed/ the day a god was blown to pieces on the beach/ and we walked away from it, unscathed.” Though these poems are naturally overshadowed by the poems of war, they are all excellent works that reward scrutiny.
The politics in this collection is subtle, culminating in “Al-A’Imma Bridge;” a mini-epic of war death in Iraq. It is a scene of Iraqis falling off a bridge while, “years unravel like filaments of straw.” Iraqis die from the efforts of “Alexander the Great,” “F-16s,” “the German Luftwaffe,” and others. Turner’s collection is filled with dead Iraqis; poem after poem in a catalog of slain enemies. But there is nothing victorious in this catalog. Turner sees not thousands of war deaths, but one war death shared by all, American and Iraqi, soldier and civilian, endlessly iterated. He writes, “Gilgamesh can do nothing, knows that each life is the world/ dying anew,” and concludes with resignation, “..give daisies and hyacinths/ to this impossible moment, flowers to stand for the lips/ unable to kiss them, each in their own bright beauty, flowers/ that may light the darkness, as they march deeper into the earth.” The collection’s political statement is one of empathy; a declaration that death, regardless of nationality, ethnicity belief, or anything else, is always death.
In “Phantom Noise,” Turner comes the closest in anything I’ve ever read to transferring an experience of the soldier to the civilian; to telling us in a way we can meaningful empathize with, what it feels like to be a soldier coming home. The “Noise” is a “ringing” created by “bullet-borne language ringing,” “shell-fall and static,” “brake pad gone useless this muzzle-flash singing,” and other sounds. In a brilliant display of sophisticated poetics, Turner recreates that “ringing” in the ears of the reader; a “ringing” that reappears whenever the poem is read or remembered. The effect is powerful enough that I can almost see “Sgt. Rampley walk[ing] through–/ carrying someone’s blown-off arm cradled like an infant,” at my local hardware store parallel to the grills and gardening supplies and enclosed by Brian Turner’s embrace.
In recent months few stories have been so vigorously discussed by the American news media as the Iranian nuclear issue. While concerns over the intent of their nuclear program go back nearly a decade, if not more, the international outcry reached a crescendo only recently, as the Iranian regime has become more resistant to the demands of the West; and as their internal affairs have become complicated by infighting and sanctions.
As such, the headlines have done little to change the perceptions of many that Iran is nothing more than an irrational actor on the international stage. Starting with the Islamic Revolution of 1979 (which saw the removal of the American-friendly Mohammad Rezā Pahlavi from power, and installed the theocratic regime headed by Ayatollah Khomeini) Iran’s relationship with the West has been contentious at best. Having turned inward, the opaque nature of the regime has allowed few images to escape to the outside world save those of crowds chanting gleefully for the death of Israel and America.
This facile image was upended momentarily in 2009 by the Green Revolution, which showed that Iran — far from being a country of devoted subjects — harbored a palpable dissatisfaction with the ruling regime. But the movement was quashed, and the image returned and has mostly remained intact.
Shiva Rahbaran’s new book, Iranian Writers Uncensored: Freedom, Democracy, and the Word in Contemporary Iran does much to dispel the idea of Iran as a one-dimensional society of religious fanatics. Translated from the Persian by Nilou Mobasser, it details the complex relationships that mark Iranian society through interviews with 11 prominent Iranian writers who, despite the turmoil in the country, have remained within its borders working and writing.
Rahbaran proposed two points with which to approach this study of literature in contemporary Iran: how post-revolution Iran has affected Iranian literature and the role of literature on Iranian society itself. But the intellectual depth of the conversations quickly exceeded her initial intent, and considerable territory is covered, beginning with the very nature of the Persian language and proceeding to cover issues as complex as Iran’s resistance to modernization and the possibility of Iran one day embracing the Western values that, at present, their ruling Ayatollahs so vehemently oppose.
The foundation of any society is, of course, its language, and in Iran, Persian holds special significance as a symbol of the country’s cultural resilience. Revived in the 9th century, 200 years after the Arab Muslims conquered the area and began to Islamicize it, it was the sole language to survive in the region; those spoken by the Assyrians, Babylonians, Egyptians, and Phoenicians, were eliminated. Rahbaran notes in her introduction the significant symbolism attached to the language: “It is in the resurrection and prevalence of the Persian language that Iranians see their glorious victory over all invaders…the language of the conquered invariably became the language of the conquerors.”
At the risk of being exposed as a graphic novel novice, my problem with the genre has always been that graphic novels never quite seem to take full, exuberant advantage of the potential afforded by the form.Too often, no matter how visually accomplished and how intricately plotted, the characters (paradoxically perhaps) are too one-dimensional. To put it simply, they are mopes. Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth is a towering achievement of intricate artistry and bifurcated plotting, but Jimmy himself doesn’t buzz and hum along with the rest of the presentation that Ware provides.In my experience with graphic novels, Art Spiegelman’s Maus is the towering exception to this rule. The two-volume set eschews the angst to give a gripping history lesson. The books were, for me, a stirring departure from angst-filled graphic novels like Chester Brown’s I Never Liked You, and Daniel Clowes’ Ghost World, which tread the same emotional ground as Corrigan.And so I picked up David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp knowing next to nothing about it and wondering if it too would shroud an awkward, angst-filled character in glorious, hand-drawn finery.The answer is no, but before I get to that, I should note that Polyp is a gorgeous book, an object with beautiful textures and colors within and without. This isn’t a new insight, but Polyp reinforced for me that these lavishly produced graphic novels will be among the niches in which the future of the physical book is secure. I would not have wanted to experience the book via the wan light of the screen.Polyp the book is pleasingly tangible, and so is Polyp, the book’s eponymous protagonist. Asterios Polyp is an architect, drawn in sleek geometric form by Mazzucchelli. Polyp’s twin brother Ignazio died at birth and narrates the story from the ether, while also appearing regularly in Polyp’s dreams. Unlike Corrigan, Polyp’s as assured and complicated a character as you’ll see stride through a graphic novel (this side of the super heroes of course). Mazzucchelli threads two plots in alternating chapters, one plot following Polyp from birth to a successful career and to marriage and the other following an older Polyp beginning with his 50th birthday, when his apartment catches fire and he gets on a train to go as far as his money will take him. Polyp is drawn in the classic mold of the hard-headed architect that so many writers have found to be fruitful archetype. But unlike the stony Howard Roark, Polyp is brimming with contradictions and a capacity to evolve under his architect’s mask.Joining Polyp is a colorful cast of characters, who, like Polyp with his architectural angularity, have their own traits subtly mirrored in the style Mazzucchelli uses to draw them. At its heart, Polyp is a love story about Polyp and Hana, a sculptor. In some ways the plot follows a more recognizable romance (or even romantic comedy) trajectory, but Mazzucchelli has many other threads going and delves into – with glorious abstract detail and inventive art and hand lettering – questions of free will, theories of representation, and the nature of the self. But the path of Polyp and Hana is the most moving element of the book. Here Mazzucchelli’s artistic cleverness is used to great emotional impact. When Hana and Polyp are getting along, they are drawn in with same line weight and color, but when they aren’t, Polyp becomes a jagged, assembly of orthogonal solids, while Hana becomes sketchy and impressionistic.A note: It took me about two hours to read this book. The book lists for $30 (Amazon has it for $20). It was a very immersive two hours, and the pages are detailed and would support repeated readings. It occurred to me that most books occupy your time for many more hours but often cost less. But its also true that few books are as engrossing and offer a visual experience on this level. A better analogy is a DVD of a favorite film, also offering two hours of immersion and bearing repeated watching, but costing more than a paperback might.Another note: I know next to nothing about Mazzucchelli, but I’ve heard that he is very highly regarded for his Batman: Year One book and also that Polyp, unlike his comic-related projects (no matter how worthwhile), is an opportunity to see his vision unmitigated by the necessary adherence to the the established tropes and tics of characters like Batman. PW said of him, “For decades, Mazzucchelli has been a master without a masterpiece.” Is Polyp a masterpiece (as PW goes on to assert)? It might be. Polyp doesn’t have the mind-bending density of Corrigan, but it has both a novelistic and artistic exuberance that will make me much more likely to reach for it again.
For me, one of the great feats is to find a book that is so good you can’t put it down. I mean literally – a book that engulfs every spare moment you’ve got, forcing everything else that isn’t necessary to the side. A book that, after reading just the first few chapters, you know is going to be one of the best you’ve ever read.A book this good doesn’t come around very often. To Kill a Mockingbird. East of Eden… Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.Okay. I swear I’ll stop talking about Jonathan Safran Foer. I have to. I’ve read everything he’s written. And I’m glad I saved Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close for the end. So you’ll have to forgive me this month – I guarantee I’ll stop from now on.My first encounter with a Foer was actually with his brother, Franklin, in How Soccer Explains the World. I ran across Jonathan Foer later on, thanks to the Penguin Pockets 70th anniversary set, and then finally read Everything is Illuminated last month. The Penguin Pockets book – The Unabridged Pocketbook of Lightning, was a Vilhauer Book of the Month. Everything is Illuminated would have made it last month, except I chose Other Electricities instead.The reason I chose Other Electricities is because I didn’t want to “over-Foer” my welcome. This month I can’t say the same.Our narrator is nine-year-old Oskar Schell. And his grandmother. And his grandfather. In true Foer style, there are three separate voices embarking on three separate missions – Oskar is looking for a lock. The lock needs to match the key he found on top of his father’s dresser. Oh, and just to add a little timeliness, his father died in the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11th, 2001. Meanwhile, his estranged grandmother and grandfather are writing letters that will never be read.First of all, EL&IC is not a novel about September 11th, 2001. It is, however, a book that feeds off of the misery and fears of that day. Because really, everything that happens has a shadow of the 11th looming above it, a constant reminder of the fact that someone so kind, so unassuming – in this case, Oskar’s father – has died. You can see it in everyone he meets – the sorrow and the sudden protective nature in their actions. No one wants to talk about it, yet here, in the middle of New York City, you’ve got a boy that’s trying to solve a riddle that is nearly directly tied to that fateful day.You can’t expect a young boy to understand fully what happened on September 11th, and Oskar is a great example. He’s a genius, a boy that considers himself a Francophile and gets his news from international news sites. He’s wise beyond his young age, but he’s still a scared boy. He’s picked on at school, and he at times takes on the role of “pretentious little twit,” the smartest guy in the room – a kid that knows too much and isn’t afraid to say it.It’s Foer’s ability to twist relationships – the stranded relationship of Oskar’s grandparents, the strained relationship between Oskar and his mother, the lost relationship of Oskar and his father, the one man that he truly respected and looked up to – that makes the book work. The themes are dreadful, if you think about them too long, but you’re not doing yourself any justice by ignoring them and moving along. All three narratives chronicle disappointment. Sadness. The threat of never being able to say goodbye.But most of all, you find the dead hope of an unanswered question, the “what ifs” that torture each character as they try to go on with their lives. Oskar tries so desperately to be strong in the face of every unanswered question, but he keeps remembering back to that day, to the things he missed and the things he didn’t. What if his father would have lived? To Oskar’s grandmother, it’s a “what if” about her husband, a man who has been gone for years. To Oskar’s grandfather, it’s a series of questions from the 40s that have never been touched.September 11th. The bomb at Hiroshima. The napalm storm of Dresden.A lack of communication. The lost years of childhood. The connections between father and son.How can you spell out the feelings invoked in EL&IC? Because that’s exactly what this book does. It invokes feelings. It brings all of your emotions to your throat. It’s that powerful.What if a book was so intense, so full of questions, so full of the exhilaration that comes from discovering a character’s secret that you couldn’t put it down, and when you finished, all you could do is close the book, stare at the ceiling and think?What if?Corey Vilhauer – Black Marks on Wood PulpCVBoMC Jan, Feb, Mar, Apr.
King Louie, the orangutan king in The Jungle Book, did not appear in the classic stories by Rudyard Kipling. He was an invention of the 1967 Disney film, a way to shoehorn a great swing number for Louis Prima into the second act. But Kipling’s more ambivalent, less sunny thoughts on the consequences of imperial colonization, so present in the original—after all, a human being can’t grow up among animals—wiggled their way into the forefront of the Disney version. King Louie scats his way through the happy major key of the chorus, singing “I wanna be like you / walk like you, talk like you too / you see it’s true / an ape like me / can learn to be human too.” But the verses, the specifics of those human desires, sink into a minor key.
Now I’m the king of the swingers—oh, the jungle VIP.
I’ve reached the top and had to stop, and that’s what’s bothering me
I wanna be a man, man cub, and stroll right into town
And be just like the other men. I’m tired of monkey’in around.
King Louie may be a lot of fun, but those desires—to be human, to get to be powerful on a human level—leave us with a lot of doubts. Do we really think Louie could learn how to be human? And even if he could, is that something we’d want to happen?
Who gets to be human? To what end evolution? What do education, language, sophistication portend? Can an animal learn emotional maturity the way they learn circus tricks? What aspects of humanity can—and cannot—be taught? These are the questions circling the haunting story of Benjamin Hale’s The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore. Hale does not have all the answers, but that makes his story even more powerful. A recent graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Hale gives us a debut novel short on arrogance or pretention, but full of confidence and life. And if there is anything high-falutin’ to say, Hale manages to pull it off by putting it all in the mouth of Bruno, a precocious, erudite, and wildly romantic chimpanzee. In Bruno’s epic journey from the zoo to the primate lab to the human world and back again, no detail or emotion goes unnoticed. Yet, despite Bruno having the most romantic narrative voice since Humbert Humbert, he lacks that definitive trait that comes with lived-in humanity: humility. By giving us a narrator with so much passion, and so few successes in acting on it, Hale has created one of the most tragic literary heroes in recent memory.
As a baby chimp in the Lincoln Park Zoo, Bruno is already beginning to seize on the limitations of the animal world. Instead of taking to his father’s technique of crude buffoonery, Bruno begins to fall in love with the visitors to the zoo. His admiration of these humans, particularly of beautiful young women, is as seductive and ominous as Humbert’s first appreciation of supple nymphets. “I have always been secretly pining for humans,” says Bruno, “longing to someday get to slither between the legs of those dazzling sapiens sapinettes I saw clip-clocking past me all day in those high-heeled shoes that make their calves taut and thrust their beautiful bulbous asses up, up, up in the air, just a little closer to God, like a streaming buffet of delicious desserts on display for Bruno behind impenetrably thick glass, to be admired but not to be touched.” When he is brought into the primatologist labs of the University of Chicago, he is given both his name (an acronym for Behavioral Rearing into Ultroneous Noumenal Ontogenesis) and a muse upon whom he can project all his yearnings for humanity. Lydia Littlemore, the lone female researcher in the lab, becomes Bruno’s first lust object, and in mixing research with affection, Bruno’s linguistic development and emotional evolution are inextricably linked. “I went with the human. I went with love, I went with lust, I went with language. I went with Lydia.”
Most stories that culminate in human transformation use love as the final ingredient—Pinocchio’s love for Geppetto, the princess finally kissing the frog, Beauty returning the love of the beast. These are the signals that characters have earned the right to their full humanity. And for Bruno, his ascent to linguistic expression comes part and parcel with his love for Lydia. He expresses it perfectly, albeit clinically: “Prerequisite to language is the desire to communicate, and prerequisite to the desire to communicate is the acknowledgment of the existence of the consciousness outside of oneself.” Romantic love—the first moment of emotional investment in someone else’s world—is Bruno’s motivator to language, to “exchange worlds”, and how he comes to express himself through spoken language feels as much like romantic poetry as it does developmental science. Hale takes the tragedy of Bruno and Lydia’s love to its fullest extent, tackling all aspects of the nature of love, sex, and emotional connection. By way of “nightly nonversations” with a “mildly retarded autistic night-shift janitor extraordinaire,” Bruno comes to speak his own name, and Lydia is the first to hear him speak. Through Bruno, we believe Lydia recognizes his humanity, and ultimately, his compatibility with her as a romantic and sexual equal. Their first sexual encounter is one of the most suspenseful and cringe-worthy moments I’ve read in recent fiction. I prayed for them to stop, and thrilled that they gave in. And they do appear to fall in love—a deep mutual love and lust that knows no taxonomy.
Or do they? Bruno may be an engaging narrator, but he is deeply untrustworthy. This is not because he does not have passion or desire or empathy, but because everything he has learned about the world has come through the lens of his own evolution, not through the evolution of others. Hale is communicating something very sophisticated in how Bruno comes to learn to express himself, but not the world around him. For all Bruno’s marvelous engagement with the written and spoken word, he knows how limited his capacity for self-expression truly is. “Every word removes the thing it is supposed to represent from the real world. Thus, every word is a lie . . . Just when you want most to speak the truth, the ineffable nature of your subject matter clogs your mouth with lies. An unchewable wad of lies, like a mouthful of cotton balls. Words get in the way of what you want to say.” Language has unlocked his vocabulary, but not necessarily his understanding—he has learned many concrete nouns and ideas, but remarkably few adjectives. He knows how to employ metaphors, but not how to reign in his own hyperbole:
For the first time in my life, I saw the sun melt below a naked horizon, reminding me of a golden egg frying in a pan. For the first time in my life, I saw land, I saw a blue sky made giant by the absence of visual landmarks, I saw vast tracts of empty space. And it amazed me. No one had ever told me the world was this big . . . My heart filled to bursting with the excitement of all this newness, the adventure of it, all the shallow hills sloping and rising along with our rapid traversal of the land, the sky meeting the visible edges of the earth in every direction! Look! This is the world!
Some readers might think Hale of being heavy-handed, and certainly sections like the one above would lead you there. This is impassioned, often melodramatic writing—but would you imagine an ape, suddenly empowered with language yet imprisoned by a lack of dignity, speaking any other way? With his formative emotional experiences being grounded in romantic love, Bruno knows nothing but melodrama, and those brief moments of his life that are simple and calm are quickly subsumed in high tragedy. When his relationship with Lydia is exposed, the realities of the world come crashing down upon him, including his own physical reality that he is, despite all his evolution, still a chimp. Though Bruno experiences language, sex, and emotional loss, he never gets to defend himself among equals, for who are his equals?
His humanity estranges him from the wild, and his wildness estranges him from humanity—yet Bruno continues to hold onto his complexity even toward the end of his ill-fated life. “I have heard . . . that self-authorship is the bourgeois fantasy par excellence. But why condemn the rebel angel for the fantasy of self-invention? Like Satan [in Milton’s Paradise Lost], I made myself with words. I wrote myself into the world.” We have to give Bruno—and Hale—credit for delivering a story like this through sheer force of will. As Bruno writes through dictation to a handy amanuensis, we can see how much language has come to mean to him, despite all that its acquisition has cost him. Though he goes on and on, the fact that he can do so and in such depth sets him apart from all others of his species—which is, after all, only a step away from our own. “Do I digress?” he asks in the middle of a long rhapsodic digression. “Very well, then, I digress. I am large, I contain multitudes.” Good for Bruno, and for Hale for delivering him to us—I’d rather have a monkey with multitudes than a human with platitudes any day.