Anyone who has made a living sitting in a cubicle has at one time or another wondered if there is more to life than pushing the proverbial pencils. These second thoughts are central to our existence as working folk. Often, when that meeting has dragged on an hour to long or when the boss is peppering you with inane suggestions, you wonder what it would be like to do something that really matters. Absolutely American by David Lipsky is about a group of people, West Point cadets, who have decided to or been thrust into a profession that, in the eyes of the government and much of the population, really matters. Their concerns are not the cubicle but of hewing to countless regulations, eight-mile road marches in full gear, and ultimately sending people into battle one day. According to Lipsky’s introduction, he went to West Point, the military academy that trains army officers, to write an article for Rolling Stone, and he eventually found himself fascinated by the enthusiasm he found there. Lipsky ended up spending four years following the cadets. The book reads like a magazine article, and Lipsky’s writing rarely falters. He presents a West Point that is infinitely more complicated than the typical stereotype of the army. It is an Army that is at war with itself internally, as it tries to become more diverse and progressive. The book covers the years 1998 to 2002, so we get to see the transformation that September 11 causes in both the cadets and the army itself. Lipsky’s greatest feat is to make the reader realize that behind the “high and tight” haircuts, the uniform, and the stern demeanor, those who are called to the military are as complicated and conflicted as the rest of us.
Shadows 1. The Paradox: I don’t want to discuss Karen Green’s Bough Down in the shadow of her husband’s death; if it is impossible not to, this condition replicates another mode of cultural violence, namely, subsuming a woman’s texts to her more famous, more serious, male writer counterpart. 2. Because Green’s book is an achievement in that it resists such closure -- resists naming her dead husband, the author, or his texts -- making him, instead, her own shadow figure, one haunting the text and her life endlessly. 3. And yet if Green refuses to name the Dead Author, I have yet to read a review of Bough Down that hasn’t named him, or, indeed, identified her as his widow. That this is inevitable does not make it less complicated. That Green, a visual artist, was a writer long before she met said husband, and certainly long before his death -- and that this is the first we’ve heard from her -- is no less insignificant. That her text, like her life, is marked by an awareness of suffering -- loss, grief, psychic alienation -- makes Bough Down, as excruciating as it is, if you are of a certain persuasion, which I’d argue we all are at one point or another, deeply satisfying. Lamentation Because if Bough Down is a love story, it is also a documentation of a very specific trauma, that of loss -- a documentation which a scholar could read as positively valued, as something able to provide many things, not least of all the removal of artifice. If the Public Widow and the Memorial Ceremonies (Green’s references to the post-suicide ceremony) are rendered as alienating public displays -- that is, Artifice -- then Green’s book can be described in terms of lamentation, antidote to the artificial, lyric revealing something of the language (and silence) of loss, inextricably linked to love. 4. Anticipating this, the text includes a call from her son: “Happy Birthday Hag Widow,” a moment which marks both Green’s sense of humor and her willingness to de-mystify her plight. Her plight (she won’t elevate it to Fate and neither will this review): to live in the shadow of her husband’s death, to become his symptoms, to embody the taboo of suicide yet resist it. To create art -- to write a book -- which resists. 5. So if our reading of the book inevitably invokes the loss of the writer, one reading of its function is to provide psychological witness, cultural artifact, gendered performance, and political tool. Political because it is dangerous to be ill in this country, not to speak of within a larger system or paradigm, which makes individuals into “consumers” of mental health care. Dangerous because it is maddening to be an artist under capitalism, a spiritual seeker within a dominant psychopharmamedical complex where they take “drugs that give the well-insured tremors” that “make patients speak in incomplete” (It is here that Green’s line breaks off, a moment, like many in the book, pointing to the failure of language to represent grief, or anything else, with accuracy.) Interlude for Memoir 6. 1992: I’m in the classroom for the first day of Death in Modern Fiction; my professor explains the focus of the course and its title this way: “I had to admit to myself -- all of my favorite books are about death.” Now I am able to put something important into words: All of my favorite books are about death. 7. 2013: My dad’s only sister, my beloved Aunt Mimi, dies on the first day of the year; one year earlier my dad suffers a near fatal heart attack. I hold his hand as a former priest administers last rites. I find myself reading what I can now identify as an important genre, which I begin to term Grief Memoirs: David Rieff on Susan Sontag, Manguso on a friend who jumped in front of a train, Meghan O’Rourke on her mother, de Beauvoir on her mother -- books written by, for lack of a better word, survivors: children, parents, spouses, friends. Books written through or beyond grief. How Literature Didn’t Save My Life 8. Not so many weeks later, I read a galley copy of David Shields's collage text, How Literature Saved My Life, also about death -- which is to say, about life. I begin to wonder: who isn’t a survivor? Who isn’t doomed? I think: We are all doomed 9. Bough Down is a collage of text and image surrounding life and death and the ways in which Art or Literature fail to save us collectively. If Green’s book feels inevitable, it is also surprisingly confessional, painfully vital in its affirmation: Nothing will save a life, not even suicide. Not even the constant refrain of “What If?”: What if I had come home earlier that day? What if I hadn’t left him alone? Bough Down is, perhaps, the book Shields is calling for in his latest texts -- a book which avoids the obfuscations of fiction, of the novel form. A book whose hybrid qualities -whose refusal to occupy one definite genre -- and yet insistence on invoking a multitude of forms -- lends urgency to it. 10. My aunt’s death casts a pall over the start of the year, but that isn’t why I read these books. I would have read them anyway. 11. In "Room and a Half," Brodsky writes that our parents teach us how to die -- but what a messy process that is, where no one wants to be the teacher and the lessons lack both structure and objective. Don’t Let Me Be Lonely 12. Bough Down recalls Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely in structure: a hybrid text of images, prose, conversations, images. Like Rankine, Green posits a shifting “I” voice, there and not there, painfully present and yet refusing to participate in public ceremony -- and when she does, it is decidedly performative: she is “the widow” but not the Public Widow. There are others ready for the public displays: the Romantics, the Support Guys -- all prepared to run the industry devoted to our latest favorite Dead Author. 13. Green’s text proffers -- and refuses -- to give voice to the howl of grief; to the self that will not Get Over It, that will not find solace in death’s beautiful tug, that never learned to Move On. As she puts it: “I could love another face, but why?” 14. Anyone who has ever loved and lost -- which is to say, anyone who has lived long enough -- knows that to move on, to let go, is to (a) betray the one who has gone and (b) betray the validity of the void. The rousing daily chorus of our cultural voices of self-help, the paeans to Good-Living like to proclaim Carpe Diem and so on -- an erasure or coercion that reinforces the isolation, the alienation of grief, which is part of what we wish to deny about being human -- not a linear process so much as an undoing. If life isn’t about loss and separation -- about a realization that we hurt people we love and need, that we bear grief and guilt -- then I don’t know what it’s about. Redemption does not exist in Green’s Bough Down; the book rejects Art as Redemptive; the same goes for Shields’s book, deceptively titled as it is. (And one might argue, if the unnamed Dead Author’s life and death proved anything, it was that LITERATURE WILL NOT SAVE YOUR LIFE.) 15. As in Rankine’s masterful work, Green’s book contains larger, implicit questions: for example: what can we be to each other? What to make of a system that failed “you” -- of a doctor who did not see a person, but instead a set of symptoms? What of a system that insists on dehumanizing the self, the spiritual, the artistic -- of a spouse who refuses to return to a psych ward? refuses the world of the well-adjusted (not an accidental term)? What of a spouse who becomes precisely that which she couldn’t save? And yet, a self must move (if not quite on); Green writes: “Ultimately, the loss becomes immortal and hole is more familiar than tooth.” 16. In her beautiful essay on Francesca Woodman, Ariana Reines invokes Woodman’s note to interrogate the seduction of suicide: This action that I foresee has nothing to do with melodrama. It is that life as lived by me now is a series of exceptions...I was (am?) not unique but special. This is why I was an artist...I was inventing a language for people to see the everyday things that I also see...and show them something different...Nothing to do with not being able “to take it” in the big city or w/ self doubt or because my heart is gone. And not to teach people a lesson. Simply the other side. It’s hard not to imagine a note from Green’s husband saying something similar -- it seems that his entire adult life was this struggle: to be special and not unique. To live in a world that didn’t see him as he saw/felt himself: an extraordinary ordinary person. But, as Green writes, “Some people would rather die than be understood.” 17. I tried and failed not to mention the fact that hovers beyond the text, the suicide of the writer who was also the very particular, specific man married to Green; and yet -- how does one not feel the levels, the layers or the eventualities? How does one not see in his choice the destruction of lives and the creation of art? Or the very particular way in which the depth of life is limited through the creation of art. Green writes: “You’ve won every argument except the one about my being better off.” 18. Bough Down makes a point of refusing the romance, reminding us to see it another way: “I don’t want him at peace.” She, after all, was an artist long before he married her, before he met her. She fell in love. He was perfect for her (The doctor says if you were so "perfect for me" you'd probably still be around, no offense.). Part of the shock and shimmery ache of the book is the way she resists, not only redemption, but revelation, rendering these moments of seeming-disclosure more cutting. Or: “They talk about him like he’s meant to be dead and that makes me mad.” and “Death excites people but from a distance.” 19. Art is not enough. Art is never enough. Life is what matters and out of that we make out the words within the book's art among her text, pages, this meditation on the impossibility of redemption or release, the rejection of fitting conclusion, the fiction of closure. 20. Writing about Simone Weil, Sontag said something about a culture’s need for the Suicide: The culture-heroes of our liberal bourgeois civilization are anti-liberal and anti-bourgeois; they are writers who are repetitive, obsessive, and impolite, who impress by force — not simply by their tone of personal authority and by their intellectual ardor, but by the sense of acute personal and intellectual extremity. The bigots, the hysterics, the destroyers of the self — these are the writers who bear witness to the fearful polite time in which we live. It is mostly a matter of tone: it is hardly possible to give credence to ideas uttered in the impersonal tones of sanity. There are certain eras which are too complex, too deafened by contradictory historical and intellectual experiences, to hear the voice of sanity. Sanity becomes compromise, evasion, a lie. Ours is an age which consciously pursues health, and yet only believes in the reality of sickness. The truths we respect are those born of affliction. We measure truth in terms of the cost to the writer in suffering — rather than by the standard of an objective truth to which a writer’s words correspond. Each of our truths must have a martyr. The suicide-as-salvation mythos exhausts itself here, where the writer has a wife, not to speak of parents and a sister and the many friends who loved him. To claim the suicide as a sort of present (as he himself may have put it) message surrounding his death is to reject the sheer violence of it to the life of, for one, his life partner. 21. How many have looked to Him, our collective Saint Suicide, for answers? That the person who did that must have answers -- when Jonathan Franzen suggested that his suicide was a sort of career move, an inability to finish his book, he was slammed as heretical and yet -- what do those who now read him -- the many new readers since his death -- hope to learn from his death? “I can’t wrap this up.” Green ends her book with the insistence that, like language, closure fails, endings fail. The bough is down, and something else has begun: a new way to tell a story, a new way to understand the relationship between art and death. 22. The humor and ache of Green’s position, the loneliness and the rage behind the desolation, suicide’s widow -- one who cannot see him as Saint or Martyr but rather as a guy who sweats, who was intimidated by lingerie, who hated the psych ward even if he knew he needed to be there, is enough to render this argument baseless, facile. That art is always an engagement with another human being cannot be denied -- that art must ask the questions posed by Rankine: “What can we be to each other?” “What do we mean to each other?” In this sharp, devastating book, Green finds a way to engage with the lost Other -- a self both elusive and specific, who has left us, yet again, asking these impossible questions.
“I sit on the damn iron seat when I must. Does that mean I don’t have the same hungers as other men? A bit of wine now and again, a girl squealing in bed, the feel of a horse between my legs? Seven hells, Ned, I want to hit someone.” Compare that to anything you’ve heard Aragorn say, and you’ve arrived at the salient difference between George R.R. Martin and J.R.R. Tolkien, even while the frequent comparison of the two remains apt. Aragorn, of course, is the true-born king in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, who spends the trilogy fighting to claim his throne while being handsome and eloquent. The above was said by Robert Baratheon, king of the seven kingdoms in A Game of Thrones. He’s fat, drunk, and far too easily bored to be an effective ruler. The comparison isn’t quite fair, though, because Martin never makes the claim that Robert was destined to be king, or that anybody is destined to be king. That’s just the thing with Martin. He’s created a fantasy world - warring families, usurped thrones, dark magic, heroic creatures - but hasn’t peopled it with fantasy characters. Yes, there are noble characters and yes, there are villains, but there isn’t a good army and a bad army. Although there are epic landscapes, close-knit brotherhoods, and a reverent relationship with weaponry, there is no one hero and no central quest. The particular gift of George R.R. Martin is that he’s adept at both the epic trappings and the gritty details. Within the first 50 pages, we are introduced to the book’s four main families - the Starks, Lannisters, Baratheons, and Targaryens. Put as simply as possible, the Targaryens had long held the throne of the seven kingdoms, until Robert Baratheon seized it, with the help of his wife’s father and brother - the Lannisters, who betrayed and killed the former king - and his lifelong friend Eddard “Ned” Stark. Years later, the last remaining Targaryens - adolescent brother and sister Viserys and Daenerys - are in exile, planning to take back their family’s throne, which Robert Baratheon lazily holds, under the contemptful watch of his Lannister wife and brothers-in-law. When Robert’s closest adviser dies, he travels with his household to Winterfell, the isolated northern home of the Stark family, to ask Ned to take the position. For a spell, almost all of the principal characters are at Winterfell - Ned Stark and his wife and six children, Robert, his wife Cersei Lannister, their three insufferable children, and her two brothers, Jaime and Tyrion. What a tangled, tangled web. Old grudges, new grudges, old secrets, new alliances, and more than one drunken revelation reverbate around the halls of Winterfell, just until you’ve got a feel for everyone, and then they all split up. (Even the Targaryens, off in exile, pack up and start moving.) For the rest of the novel, the cast is always on the move, traversing the vast geography of Martin’s world. I was a Russian major in college, so I can’t read a 500+ page book without Isaiah Berlin whispering in my ear. Berlin was the author of “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” an essay based on an ancient Greek adage: “the fox knows many little things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Berlin divides writers into these two categories. Hedgehogs view the world as a stage for a single, encompassing logic (power corrupts, love conquers all, that kind of thing). Foxes are more fascinated by the infinite variety of the human condition. In Berlin’s signature comparison, Dostoevsky is a hedgehog, and Tolstoy is a fox. The fantasy genre, although I admit I’m not its most versed reader, is full of hedgehogs. Godfather Tolkien, certainly, is pure hedgehog. What I find most fascinating about Martin is that he’s a fox in a hedgehog genre. While his world looks like fantasy (bastards! dwarves! whores! knights!), and the action revolves around the question of the seven kingdoms’ throne (Will Robert keep it? Are the Lannisters plotting for it? Will the Targaryens reclaim it?), the focus is on the clashing relationships and motivations of the people involved in the struggle. Eddard, for example, leaves his home to serve the king, whom he’s lost faith in. He has to work closely with the king’s council, who he fears are in league with the Lannisters. He has to protect his two daughters, who he’s brought with him, and trust in his eldest son Robb, still a teenager, whom he left in charge of Winterfell. His wife Catelyn is traveling around on a secret reconnaissance mission, which is a whole other thing. Each character’s path through the novel is equally hard to navigate, I can’t think of one who doesn’t fundamentally distrust a number of the people around them. Destiny and heroics have little purchase in this murky world. No one is the people’s champion. In fact, the salt of earth rarely show up except to mug rich people while they travel. The conflict is confined to the elite of the seven kingdoms, squabbling over a throne, and no side can claim a right to it. That’s not to say that you won’t take sides. The Starks are the crowd pleasers. They enter the game of thrones reluctantly - always a sign of moral fortitude - and Eddard is honorable to a fault (for which he is endlessly reproached, to reiterate that such nobility has no place in Martin’s universe). The Stark children, in the book’s coolest whim, each have a pet wolf that follows them everywhere, can sense their moods and when they’re in danger. In the HBO series based on the book, the Starks are the heroes. When we meet them in the first episode, they’re wearing dark, dignified clothes and standing up straight, while the Lannisters wear pastels and lean on anything in sight. The Starks deliver their lines in earnest, the Lannisters in sarcasm. But for all that, the Starks have their ugly moments, and the Lannisters are sometimes kind. The series, as it has thus far, will do well not to ignore those nuances in favor of narrative. My favorite moment of the series so far is a scene in which a midnight courier’s message forces Eddard and Catelyn out of bed. As Sean Bean, who plays Eddard, stands by the fire, his night shirt drapes open, revealing a wide swath of pectorals covered in scars. Really awesome scars. It’s a powerful visual, and one that conveys, in a heartbeat, the lives of these men. The men of Game of Thrones are rich, powerful lords, knights, and kings who rule over vast lands and kingdoms, and they’ve all had their asses kicked numerous times. Their lives are expansive, and extremlely hard. “The things we love destroy us every time, lad,” says Tyrion Lannister, early in the book. And truly, if Martin were a hedgehog, I would say Game of Thrones is about the things we let destroy us. Sometimes those things are plotters, usurpers, or vengeance. Sometimes those things are misplaced trust or foolish love. It’s complicated.
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Hari Kunzru’s fourth novel is his most ambitious yet. Like its predecessors it is a sprawling work that refuses to be bound by a straight, linear narrative, one-stranded plot or minimal cast. On this occasion, however, Kunzru has upped the ante to a dizzying degree. Gods Without Men revels in its multifariousness: we come up against a myriad of characters of diverse cultures, warped ideologies and clashing faiths; we skip time-zones and surf alternate realities. “Emotional teleportation” is what one character feels when blotting out his senses – “like staging his own extraordinary rendition, grabbing himself out of one time and place, hoping to land in another.” Kunzru inflicts a similar disorientation on the reader, playing a headshrinker who at the same time expands our mind. The effect is exhilarating. Due to its ambition the novel resists a neat précis. At its center are Jaz and Lisa Matharu, he Sikh, she Jewish, and their severely autistic son, Raj. When the boy vanishes in the Mojave Desert the parents are flung into turmoil. Privately their cultures clash, impeding their course of action; publicly they suffer from the media feeding-frenzy, eventually becoming accused of murdering their son. Their marriage deteriorates in a storm of acrimony and guilt, and after Raj miraculously reappears it is all they can do to repair the rift between them. With a nod to the real-life Madeleine McCann disappearance, Kunzru convincingly paints the relationship’s breakdown and each individual’s personal meltdown. When the couple are at their lowest ebb and merely going through the motions Jaz describes them both as “priests of a faith they no longer believed in.” Around them, Kunzru weaves a fiendish web of plots and subplots, always employing the desert as stage or backdrop. There is Nicky, the louche London rock star, “a scabrous cockney vampire” trying to break America, who needs a time-out from creative differences in the recording studio, not to mention his psycho, gun-toting producer; we are initiated into a mystical cult called the Ashtar Galactic Command which has set up base at the “Pinnacles” in the desert to commune with extraterrestrial forces; and in one of the novel’s virtuosic set-pieces we meet Laila and a group of Arab Americans who have elected to play the role of insurgents in a “fine grained simulation” to give Marines a foretaste of what deployment to Iraq will be like. (In this last section there is even a mock-beheading, all the more mocking and blackly comic because one of the executioners loses his dishdasha and has to improvise by wearing a Little Mermaid beach towel round his waist.) In the main Kunzru excels with his kaleidoscopic storytelling. When Jaz’s boss expounds on a new financial model his words double as justification for Kunzru’s choice of splintered narrative: There’s a tradition that says the world has shattered, that what once was whole and beautiful is now just scattered fragments. Much is irreparable, but a few of these fragments contain faint traces of the former state of things, and if you find them and uncover the sparks hidden inside, perhaps at last you’ll piece together the fallen world. This is just a glass case of wreckage. But it has presence. It’s redemptive. It’s part of something larger than itself. Kunzru’s second novel, Transmission, was told from the perspective of three characters. By employing far more, some of whom we meet, some not, the reader is tasked with making sense of those “scattered fragments” and working out how, if at all, they interconnect. While the fate of the missing child is the novel’s epicenter, the Pinnacles is its geographical hub, a meeting-point for each of those seemingly disparate plot strands. Schmidt, the founder of the UFOlogist sect, seeks to harness the “paraphysical energies flowing through the rocks.” Kunzru has mixed success with the exploits of his cult. Its members, led by Wolf and the slippery shape-changing Coyote, proclaim themselves not settlers but “unsettlers.” At the outset we see them attempting to subvert “negative energy vibrations” and prepare mankind for “full galactic consciousness;” later they are dabbling in drugs and reaping the benefits of free love. The manipulation of the duped followers is effective, but getting there means wading through agonizing chunks of cosmic gobbledygook concerning Space Brothers, Oracles, plus a machine called the Mux. “Under the guidance of Merku, Voltra and the other members of the Command, including Aleph, Lord Maitreya, Sananda-Jesus, the Comte de Saint-Germain and on occasion Director Ashtar himself, I have worked tirelessly to spread the word” - and so on. We return to familiar ground with Jaz and Lisa, before being swept off again to be introduced to a friar in 1778 and later a pilgrim in 1871. Such to-and-fro scene-shifting and time-traveling demonstrate Kunzru’s inventiveness while simultaneously evincing a kind of novelistic restlessness. Each new tale is the equivalent of watching a child prodigy playing one instrument after another, each one swapped calmly for the next, with seldom a duff note produced. We watch, we marvel, but we occasionally grow irritated by the showmanship and jarring of sounds. In Gods Without Men it is the voices that jar, simply because they are too many. Just as we are becoming engrossed in one of those scattered fragments, the section ends and the next tale picks up the baton and whisks it off in a completely different direction. What is intended as variety can seem instead rag-bag miscellany. We don’t mind floundering like so many of the drug-addled characters – the cult members on sugar cubes and blotters, Nicky’s artistic highs from his psychoactive peyote kicks – but the sheer busyness of the novel engenders a peculiar claustrophobia, its clutter hampering us from truly engaging in plots or connecting to characters. Mercifully, Kunzru is still, in the last analysis, able to rein in some of that abundance so as not to mar the entire novel. James Wood’s charge of hysterical realism has cut down a few literary reputations, and felled novels crammed with facts and hyperbolic happenstance but which do not know “a single human being.” Kunzru’s novels are packed with such vitality but ultimately he escapes censure by knowing when the facts clog the narrative’s impetus, and so when to quit. We hear that Deighton, an expert on the ethnology of the Mojave, “had worked with coastal tribes in Oregon and Washington State (it was his proud boast that he knew more about the mythology of salmon than any white man alive).” It is tempting to believe that Wood’s guilty parties, writers such as Don DeLillo and Zadie Smith, might have gone off on some tangent to embellish Deighton, authenticate him with fishy back-story. But for Kunzru this bizarre boast stays incarcerated in parentheses, and rightly so. Kunzru has been compared to DeLillo, if not for style then certainly thematic interests - conspiracy theories and apocalyptic cults, the function of terror, the disintegration of family and its dubious reassembly. My Revolutions, Kunzru’s 2008 novel about a man’s extremist past and its effect on the present, bears this out; as does Transmission from the moment an insidious computer virus is unleashed to wreak havoc on the world. Gods Without Men’s more immediate cousin is David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. That novel was compared to a Russian doll, spawning tales within tales; Kunzru’s narrative, also fractured, is however more intricate, and resembles the description of his Arab actors in the desert – “tiny moving parts, like cogs in a watch.” Both writers operate like Kunzru’s coyote: “He had to mess with stuff, connect things together. He had a rage for transformation.” Kunzru used transformation as a conceit is his masterly debut, The Impressionist, in which his protagonist sloughed off and assumed a series of identities. In Gods Without Men Kunzru puts his whole cast through one transformation or another, whether as signed-up disciple in a cult or anguished parent sliding into madness and despair. It is an extraordinary novel. Closing it, we can be satisfied that the better sections easily outweigh those that are more whimsical and loose-ended. And we can only applaud Kunzru for that ambition and scope. Dawn, one of the disciples, learns, albeit with help from acid punch, “how to open up the world of existence and let the vastness of the Universe enter in.” Kunzru sets himself the same gargantuan task and succeeds, aided only by his considerable talent.
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Paradoxically, this is the reason to write and read about Zelda, because she deserved a life much more interesting than the one that she got. Interesting to her, that is, a life she could have given her energy and talents to, not just a life made interesting by famous friends and European capitals.
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A minor lapse in comprehension caused me to believe, for about the first half of this collection, that I was reading a book called Imitations. I liked that title (though the actual one, Intimations, is more than adequate), because it struck me as slyly self-aware, particularly when applied to an author’s first story collection. (Kleeman’s debut novel, You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, was published last year to great acclaim.) Writers learn to write stories by imitating their influences, and Kleeman’s collection is more mindful than most when it comes to sampling the various traditions of American short fiction. The book is divided into three sections (which promotional material describes as “birth, living, and death,” though that is an oversimplification). The first offers a set of surreal stories that feature characters floundering under the expectations of others. In “Fairy Tale,” the narrator might be describing a dream: she is at a dinner with her parents and a man who claims to be her fiancé, though she does not recognize him and feels no attraction to him. As the story proceeds, more and more men show up at the table, each claiming to be a boyfriend or lover or paramour, and the pressure for the narrator to choose one leads to increasingly extreme scenarios. In “The Dancing-Master,” the eponymous instructor is goaded by the village philosopher into teaching a feral boy to dance like a proper gentleman: “Portesquieu would claim that this is impossible, that a body cultivated in the wild assumes the essence of wildness, turns swampy and will not admit of the growth of more refined habits. But with my labor, I prove him wrong: my wild child dances the minuet on command, as well as several other current dances.” The dancing-master achieves his pedagogical aims through use of a rod. When left to his own devices, the poor wild boy much prefers to chew on whatever objects are available. In their cold, fantastic minimalism, these first stories recall the work of Aimee Bender or Robert Coover (whose lengthy blurb, given its own page at the beginning of the book, functions like an oddly self-referential epigraph). Section two begins with a suite of stories following the trials of a woman named Karen. “I May Not Be the One You Want, But I Am the One For You” finds her attempting to write a profile of a humane dairy farmer shortly after breaking up with her boyfriend. She meets a German man in a cafe and the two begin an awkward flirtation. “Choking Victim” flashes forward half a decade, when Karen is now married to an architect and the mother of an infant daughter. She attempts to acclimate to life in a new city, but finds she is forever at odds with her surroundings. “Jellyfish” skips back to the day the architect, Dan, proposed to her, while on vacation at a resort in a developing country where the seas are plagued by blooms of jellyfish that unnerve the swimmers. These stories are naturalistic, if quirky: more Rivka Galchen than Bender. Kleeman proves herself an skilled conjurer of familiar life. In “Choking Victim,” Karen observes the hacking cough of an unseen neighbor: “The coughing continued, louder and more urgent. It grew and solidified simultaneously, like a skyscraper seen from an approaching car.” The section ends unexpectedly with “Intimation,” a nightmarish parable where an unnamed narrator finds herself trapped in a dynamic house with a man who seems to think that they are in a relationship. Though the story reverts to the surrealism of the first section, after the three Karen stories it is difficult not to read this narrator, too, as Karen (or a version of Karen), and to interpret the story not simply as an allegory for marriage in general but for Karen’s marriage to Dan (or her awkwardness with the German). What’s more, the piece invites the reader to think back to the stories in section one, particularly “Fairy Tale,” and insert Karen into those narrative as well. Like an avocado pit surrounded by malleable flesh, the Karen stories orient the pieces around them, providing the reader a notion of center. The third section is more similar to the first than to the second, though categorized less by anxiety than by full-blown desperation. In “Fake Blood” a woman arrives in costume to a non-costume party, where her bloody outfit is construed by the other guests as evidence of a murder mystery game. Their belief in such a game causes people to misinterpret the real murders that begin to occur, even as the narrator attempts to convince them otherwise. The disjointed vignettes of “Rabbit Starvation” use the conceit of fluffy whiteness to explore the existential horror of aberration and loneliness, from a cotton ball sorting facility to accounts of Robert Falcon Scott’s fatal South Pole expedition to the thoughts of a person trapped in a room full of rabbits: “Stack the rabbits. Number the rabbits. Place a fingertip on the nose and stroke from forehead over spine to the tip of its adorable puff. Regret and regroup. Enumerate the possibilities. Write messages in the sky.” The final story, “You, Disappearing,” is a dystopian tale of a world laid waste by the incremental disappearance of objects: apples, trousers, magazines, parts of Ferris wheels. “Nobody thought the apocalypse would be so polite and quirky. Things just popped out of existence, like they had forgotten all about themselves. Now when you misplaced your keys, you didn’t go looking for them.” But pets disappear as well, as do people, memories, even entire concepts. The narrator is unnamed, though she is in love with an architect. They are unmarried, without children, torn apart by the disparate ways they react to a world in which the disappearance of all things is inevitable. “There had been times,” the narrator writes of her boyfriend, “when I thought I might be with you indefinitely, something approaching an entire life. But then when there was only a finite amount of time, a thing we could see the limit of, I wasn’t so sure. I didn’t know how to use a unit of time like this, too long for a game of chess or a movie but so much shorter than we had imagined.” The story is perhaps the collection’s strongest, benefiting not only from the intimacies of this unnamed couple, but from the accrued emotions of all that has come before it: the lives (or potential lives) the reader has lived with Karen, lives which will not occur in the world of this final tale. It is interesting that Intimations should appear so shortly on the heels of the American publication of Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond. Though the books are largely dissimilar, they both take well-established strategies for giving a novel an innovative kick and apply them to the medium of the short fiction collection. (Some reviewers have referred to Pond, which is composed of self-contained short stories, as a novel. They are mistaken. Mislabeling a linked short story collection as a novel does a disservice to both forms.) In the case of Pond, Bennett adapts the accumulating, knot-of-language aesthetic used successfully in the works of David Markson and, more recently, Eimear McBride. Kleeman, on the other hand, is working in the surrealism-neighboring-naturalism tradition of preceding wunderkinds like Téa Obreht and Jonathan Safran Foer, where sections of dreamlike allegory supplement sections telling the primary “real life” story. These tropes, when employed by novelists, have grown to feel quite domesticated over time, anchored as they are to book-length narratives that mostly guarantee a sense of progress by the end. In applying them to story collections, Bennett and Kleeman have essentially thrown out the instruction manual, allowing the reader to assemble whatever larger narrative they are able, knowing it will be incomplete and that there may even some parts leftover. Save for a few standouts, the stories are not as strong, individually, as their original publications (The New Yorker, The Paris Review) might suggest. Several pieces obstruct more than they aid in explication. At 40 pages, “A Brief History of Weather” is a collection within a collection, divided into titled sections that follow a family’s attempt to create a house immune from and absent of any weather. It feels like Kleeman’s attempt to create her own Cooverian fragmentary epic (à la “The Gingerbread House” or “Seven Exemplary Fictions”), but the motifs are a bit too spasmodic and numerous (games, Russian dolls, unattributed quotes, an invented twin) to add up to anything coherent. The ethereal “Hylomorphosis” reads (purposefully) like a piece of 16th-century angelology that, while initially promisingly, refuses to solidify into anything digestible for mortal readers. Even the Karen stories are rather unexceptional when removed from their context in the book. Cumulatively, though, the collection offers an experience that is more surprising and, in some ways, more provoking than that of a standard collection composed of better stories. Kleeman is masterful at the sentence level. At the book level, she is ambitious and inventive. Once she works out the interstitials, she’ll be spawning imitators of her own.