This spring, I became involved in a fence dispute with a neighbor. Vegetation was cut, surveyors were called, lumber shortages were cursed, Robert Frost was invoked, and a barrier was erected. Gazing out my window now at the pressure-treated pine, I have decided to transmute any lingering resentment into literary channels, and thus my year in reading focuses on fences literal and metaphorical, wonderful books in which boundaries (generic, moral, disciplinary) are crossed. Should one reasonably argue that this conceit seems forced, I would counter that this is my coping mechanism and I’ll shoehorn these works into Contemporary Themed Reviews in any way I see fit.
In the beginning was the curse word: “Fucking’s the crux…Fucking’s the beginning. Fucking’s the end.” Robin McLean’s florid Western Pity the Beast opens with two fence-hopping misalliances: Ginny has been sleeping with her rancher neighbor; her mare has been impregnated by her neighbor’s gigantic stud, a “villainous Percheron,” and follows her stillborn foal to the grave. As her sister looks on—and indeed instigates—the adulterous Ginny is brutally assaulted and left for dead by her husband, (“a good man in a bad mood”), her brother-in-law, and the “rodeo kid.” She survives, though, to escape, and her assailants commence a long, grinding chase; one member of the posse sounds like Blood Meridian’s Judge Holden (“I operate at the outer bounds of human nature”). The novel is as much a spectacle of violence as an exercise in style, a beastly tale as recounted by a metaphysical poet: “Thinking was made for inversions, perversions, residue of events. The mind contracts around paradox like a pearl.” Unlike most contemporary fiction that I read and enjoy, it opts for the portentous (“The sun came up anyway. Tomorrows are blind and ruthless”) rather than the ironic as a means of representing the grotesque human comedy: “This ride,” says Ginny’s husband toward the end of the miserable pursuit, “is the king of jokes.”
Another particular delight was Harald Voetmann’s Awake, which in its archly comic learnedness reminded me of Adam Erlich Sach’s inimitable The Organs of Sense. Here, Pliny the Elder, who perished during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, and Pliny the Younger engage in a kind of dueling banjos commentary on the former’s Naturalis Historia, “an unparalleled feat to relay the world in writing, and one that I [Pliny the Younger] doubt could ever be repeated.” That feat is fueled by the “urge to name and classify the world’s miseries… Keep your eyes open and give each shade of pain and ghastliness its proper name.” With desert-dry irony, one chapter that begins with a quotation from the Naturalis Historia, “I certainly do not believe that life is so valuable that it must be prolonged at all costs,” concludes with: “When my father died, he had drunk the blood of sixteen gladiators, put his lips to their wounds and sucked. Maybe it kept him alive. I have nothing more to say on this.” The novel also touches on the futility of fences. As Pliny the Younger notes of his uncle’s exotic plant collection, “I believe that the gardens at Tusculum were my uncle’s attempt to contain the unknown, create a perimeter around it and become its master.” And I would be remiss not to include a description of a disastrous author reading at Emperor Vespasian’s summer home, which might give comfort to nervous writers two millennia later. Surely it won’t be that bad:
Then he commenced reading from the thirteenth book of his Natural History, a mix of oldish wrath against the use of perfumes and dry listings of ingredients and trade routes. Before an audience of men who had just spent their entire morning having their bodies rubbed in exotic balms he now ventured forth in his feeble, hissing voice…Had the emperor not been sitting in the first row, emitting such strong, exotic fragrances himself, the poor perfumed men would have believed the reading had been arranged with the sole purpose of mocking them.
Silver lining: the emperor subsequently appoints him admiral of the fleet at Misenum to “get him out of town.”
The title story of Brian Phillip Whalen’s excellent Semiotic Love dramatizes a relationship built on structural opposites (e.g., my property, your property, not my property, not your property). Most of the tales in the collection are a page or two. Stories of parental loss like “The Father Bell” demonstrate the power to be gained by such compression. Others are droller, and even shorter: “[Est. 1929.] On Main Street, his father, pointing to a stone engraving, says, “Bad year to start a bank.” In “Semiotic Love,” a man and woman, she an academic and he a “commoner,” quarrel over the sense, or nonsense, of the “visual representation of the CONSTITUTIVE MODEL describing the elementary structure of signification.” Got it? Neither does he, and yet they do simultaneously cry “You just don’t get it!” an echo of their meet-cute at T.J. Maxx buying “identical pairs of men’s socks.” That is, they are mismatched intellectually, erotically (“I wanted jouissance, replete, never-ending. He wanted, simply, me”), and emotionally, yet bound together in tenuous unison. As with the semiotic squares depicted throughout this story, the sense of their relationship depends on the contradictory and the contrary. If reviewers often fault unsuccessful fiction for its schematic qualities, here Whalen’s logical dissection of eros wittily demonstrates the narrative potential of the schematic. This holiday season, I’m tempted to throw myself and my spouse in a semiotic square and see what happens. In the meantime, I’ll cherish this sentence summing up their doomed affair: “She could have loved him, yes, perhaps—if she’d never read Baudrillard, never had a father, never watched TV.”
Sergio Missana’s The Transentients was riveting, a tantalizingly suggestive, and immersive read. In the novel, a middle-aged Chilean adman has out-of-body episodes in which he sees and experiences the world through other people’s eyes. (A good neighborly exercise.) Are these chosen vessels—a homeless woman, a stranded mountain climber, a man working on a script for a film set in the Atacama desert—figments of his own personality or clues to some overarching structure, “causal junctions that had not yet been revealed to me but through which I would be able to eventually figure out the rules of the game”?
Finally, I hope to write a longer piece on her in the coming year, but I’ll briefly mention here Barbara Kremen’s The Figure in the Glass and Other Stories, a beautiful edition of the 99-year-old’s darkly enchanting stories in which humans observe the natural world (especially winged insects) so intently that they risk, or are rewarded with, metamorphosis. The Damsel Fly reaches particularly lofty heights, and “Tree Trove,” the story of two children undergoing a magical arboreal education, is more winning, and condensed, than Richard Powers’s sap-filled The Overstory.
And now to begin Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian…
Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.