Tangled Muses: On Chelsea Martin’s ‘Tell Me I’m an Artist’

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Early on in Chris Kraus’s cult feminist classic I Love Dick, the book’s heroine is shown a video made by the object of her infatuation, Dick, and concedes:

As an artist she finds Dick’s work hopelessly naive, yet she is a lover of certain kinds of bad art, art which offers a transparency into the hopes and desires of the person who made it. Bad art makes the viewer much more active. (Years later Chris would realize that her fondness for bad art is exactly like Jane Eyre’s attraction to Rochester, a mean horse-faced junky: bad characters invite invention.)

For better or worse, I can understand and have shared Chris’s soft spot for so-called “bad art.” So has any critic who’s been seduced by Jean Dubuffet or a 1970s Super 8 film. A hearty dose of bad art’s charm can be found in indie author Chelsea Martin’s new novel Tell Me I’m an Artist, a coming-of-age story about an art student in her late teens who is producing what is decidedly a bad remake of Wes Anderson’s Rushmore, without having seen the film before.
“The world needs bad art,” says Martin’s narrator Joelle Berry (“Joey” for short). She imagines her Rushmore remake might look something like this:

Jason Schwartzman meets an older woman in line at Jimmy John’s. They spend an intense three-day weekend together, including one long breakfast montage. On Monday as he is getting ready to leave to go to class (Astronomy) she reveals that she is from the future, and wants him to drive her to the suburbs (they’re in Sacramento) later that day and break into her old house so she can visit her deceased cat (deceased in the future she’s time traveling from; the cat is alive in the present time in which the movie takes place) whom she desperately misses.

Deploying her signature sarcasm and wit, Martin utilizes what author Sharma Shields calls the “portrait of the artist as a work in progress” to frame a host of interpersonal dilemmas that extend beyond the frame of Joey’s affluent San Francisco art school. To be sure, the Rushmore plot line is not the only example of bad art in the book. The circumstances preventing Joey from completing her class project—family troubles, lack of budget, self-doubt—are described with the kind of bemused irony one might express toward an uninspired work of art. When Joey’s sister Jenny, who struggles with addiction, goes missing from their home in Lodi, California, and later harasses Joey on social media, our disillusioned protagonist thinks, “Maybe this was art.” When their mother asks Joey to pay Jenny’s bail, Joey thinks, “Intro graphics of MTV’s hit new show Everyone Has Taken Care of Me My Entire Life Because I’m a Selfish Asshole Who Doesn’t Give Them a Choice! Starring Jenny!”
But despite her air of detachment, Joey’s growing pains manage to worm their way through her nonchalant facade. Through a succession of fast-paced, interlaced plot threads, we watch our narrator outgrow—in fits and starts—her family’s codependency and her peers’ superficial artspeak. This growth is nonlinear; it oscillates, just as time in each modular section of the book shuttles between past and present. The effect is one of vertigo and fragmentation.
I’ve observed variations of this modular form in numerous contemporary novels, in which the plot threads—one about a love interest, one about family, one about the line between life and art, one that provides a critique of history, one that satirizes the present, and so on—are doled out evenhandedly and ushered swiftly to a point of cohesion at the end of the book. Danzy Senna’s New People is one such novel that performs this weaving technique in a deft and remarkable way. There, the protagonist’s cyclical return to a library cubby, where she is writing a doctoral dissertation on the Jonestown massacre, is a rhetorical gesture that enfolds the reader in an analysis of madness and coercion. Tell Me I’m an Artist shares formal affinities with Senna’s novel but diverges in its aims. Joey’s school project does not function as a lens onto a cultural phenomenon. Instead, it telescopes us into Joey’s mind, revealing the depths and limits of her imagination, as well as the glaring discrepancy between her public and private personas.
Erratic gestures toward broader critical discourse are made throughout the book, but ultimately, due to Joey’s narrow point of view, the novel focuses more on individual works of art in the context of Joey’s art school than it does on contemporary art in any larger context. Even the city of San Francisco is depicted in broad strokes, owing to the narrator’s tendency to live inside her head.
Discussions of contemporary art—that is, discussions with a foot in reality—are largely stilted and superficial. For example:

Do you know the artist laura owens, I texted Benji.
Yeah! She is awesome, he wrote back.
Just discovering rn, I texted.
Oh man, lucky, he wrote.

The conversation ends immediately after, with Joey throwing her phone across the room, angry at Benji for outpacing her in his knowledge of art history. Elsewhere, the names of real artists—Kara Walker, Henry Darger—are sprinkled into conversations between Joey and her peers, often without elaboration, which is certainly true to the way people speak. It seems, however, a lost opportunity to have such a sharp and opinionated narrator withhold, elide, or halfheartedly allude to her thoughts on art, rather than state them frankly on the page.
There are plenty of opportunities, too, for larger art-world stakes to enter the picture. For instance, when Joey attends a gathering on her wealthy friend’s roof and a well-connected but aloof acquaintance offers to introduce everyone except Joey to a local gallerist, Joey’s simmering rage reminded me of a scene in Rachel Kushner’s Flamethrowers, in which Kushner’s narrator and her boyfriend Sandro (an older, more established artist) run into a gallerist in Manhattan:

Helen Hellenberger, in her tight dress and leather flats, holding her large black pocketbook as if it were a toolbox, had said she wanted so badly to come to Sandro’s studio. Would she have to beg? […] He tried to redirect her by introducing me, not as his girlfriend but as “a young artist, just out of school,” as if to say, you can’t have me, but here’s something you might consider picking up. An offer she had to maneuver around…

In Kushner’s book, the disparities in economic status, gender, and age are formalized and explicit. The characters occupy different positions in the art world, and each knows his or her place. Martin takes a different approach: in her book, the disparities are subterranean, evident only in Joey’s mind. Her peers are cloaked in privilege and unaware of the carelessness with which they wield their power. Conflict does not come to a head, nor does Joey experience a moment of revelation. Instead, anger fizzles out, and dissatisfying social interactions repeat themselves.
As a result, the narrator’s interiority does little to drive the plot, and the novel’s first 200 pages or so read as exposition. The narrative stakes become apparent only when Jenny reappears in the present action, in need of bail, which Joey pays using what would have been her rent. Facing eviction, Joey panics until her friend offers her a place to stay. The crisis is resolved anticlimactically, within a handful of pages, with her obliviously wealthy friend saying, “Oh my god. Easy. Problem solved.” And unlike the overworked academic in New People, who, in the end, breaks into the home of the poet with whom she’s been obsessed and hides under his bed, Joey never does anything untoward in the world of her privileged peers. She never calls them out, smashes their handmade porcelain dishware, or kicks over an easel in her insipid art class. She even submits her Rushmore remake on time.
In a way, Joey presents the same frustrating enigma that bad art does. Art, for instance, is criticized for being too opaque as much as it is for being too transparent. Likewise, Joey gives the reader at once very little introspection and a barrage of unfiltered confessions. Art is often criticized when it fails to please the eye, and again when it fails to revolt against aesthetics. Joey antagonizes every other character in the book and meanwhile does too little to offend their absentminded upper-class sensibilities. Art is also “bad” when it’s poorly thought out and rough around the edges, but such a liminal state interests me. In it lie the tangled muses and unconsumed potential of the artist, whose work in progress is her life.

A Paragon of Nature Writing: On Doug Peacock’s ‘Was It Worth It?’

In his 1975 novel The Monkey Wrench Gang, Edward Abbey famously based the character of George Washington Hayduke, a Vietnam veteran turned ecoterrorist, on the real-life environmentalist Doug Peacock. Hayduke was a hero for increasingly excessive and exploitative times. Peacock’s own entry in the canon of environmental literature, the 1996 book Grizzly Years: In Search of the American Wilderness, was an earnest if rather quiet paean to living more respectfully, even reverently, in relation to animals and the planet. Since then, the environmental movement has spiraled out of the wilderness and finds itself far beyond Abbey’s and Peacock’s American West—it matters everywhere, in all regions and at all levels. So what is the role of such traditional environmental literature these days?

Reading jacket copy of Peacock’s latest book, Was It Worth It?: A Wilderness Warrior’s Long Trail Home, one might expect more of the same. But Peacock is hardly at war in this book—there is no monkeywrenching, no dramatic tales of brute survival. The single threat of close combat comes when Peacock fabricates an eight-foot spear just in case a polar bear charges him during an expedition in the far north—an incident that he really, really hopes will not happen. (Spoiler: It doesn’t.)

Was It Worth It? is a collection of essays culled from across the past few decades, all of which reflect Peacock’s decidedly subdued approach to wilderness adventuring, and writing. Indeed, whereas the jacket describes the book as “gripping stories of adventure,” readers might be delighted to find instead a recurrent lack of adventure on the page—at least, by expected standards. If the narratives “grip,” it’s because of Peacock’s prose: the adventure lies in the wording, a suspense built by sentences. Apex predators and sublime wilderness remain curiously—and importantly—elusive throughout the book. The “long trail,” such as it is, is meandering, often mundane, and with plenty of dead ends.

It’s an understandable marketing move by the book’s publisher, Patagonia, to play up Peacock’s mythos. But a very different story begins to emerge within the pages—I found myself surprisingly moved and inspired by Peacock’s mellow, methodical, and meditative recounting of various trips and landscapes. Was It Worth It? is about his friendships with people and encounters with wildlife, and about some solitary experiences too. Simple if simply decadent meals are cooked over campfires; beers are consumed, and sometimes poured out rather than imbibed, to honor past lives.

Peacock is a masterful observer of detail, wherever he is. In many ways the book is a paragon of nature writing. But the detailed accounts often subvert the genre. For instance, on a solo trip down the Jefferson River in Montana, he writes about the many diversion dams that channel and attempt to control the river’s current. These “little dams” are both a physical obstacle to his journey, and a semaphore of the type of human intervention that Peacock often rails against. But he doesn’t blow them up or damn them to hell; he just navigates his old wooden drift boat around them, at times with great effort, on his way down the river. Early in the trip he admits that he’s not even sure how many of these dams there are on his route. But: “It didn’t actually matter, as I had no choice but to keep going; I’d figure it out as I moved downstream.” So long wilderness warrior, hello Taoist ordinaire.

On that same river trip, Peacock occasionally stops to fly fish, but these scenes are delightfully anticlimactic. Seeing some big trout rising at the end of a run of rapids, he “felt all the old magic again.” But unlike Hemingway’s Nick Adams, who feels something similar, the fish don’t bite for Peacock. After the initial anticipation and a few excited casts, the scene fizzles entirely: “Nothing doing.” Peacock quits fishing as abruptly as the trout first appear in all their alluring splendor. Again the book upends the genre conventions, spending more time in a quiet, ruminative state rather than relishing in ornate imagery and dramatic escapades. (Another story includes a slightly more successful fishing interlude, on Belize salt flats, but even it features photo of the fly fisherman above a self-deprecating caption: “Doug fishes poorly; skunked again.”)

Some of the stories told in Was It Worth It? are legendary, such as Edward Abbey’s secret desert burial and the wake that followed. But Peacock tells these stories in plain language and with simple aplomb, the effect being that the mythical figures of the environmental literary canon are brought down to earth—right where they should be. In this way Peacock is paving the way for all sorts of writing and art that is indebted to, but grown up and out of, the earlier phases of green activism. The point isn’t to keep repeating the slogans or elevating the masters: now, we need to make it real, and keep it relevant. After a certain bear sighting in British Columbia, Peacock articulates the outcome of the experience with utter directness and precision: “The presence of this vulnerable animal shattered my anthropomorphic prejudices.” Rather than being outdated or obsolete, we need this kind of ecological humility more than ever—at this moment when, as Peacock remarks in another chapter, “the hot winds of climate change are coming for us all.”

Beyond Peacock’s sober reflections on climate change and imminent ecological destruction, there are at least two other sources of trauma haunting this book. There is Peacock’s own acknowledged PTSD from his time in Vietnam; this comes up several times throughout the book, almost repetitively—just as flashbacks would for someone suffering from the disorder. Then there’s Peacock’s keen awareness of the erasure of indigenous peoples and cultures, and the ancestral role he plays in this ongoing arc of history. At one point, in another episode that almost reads as absurdist, Peacock and his cousin sneak around suburban lower Michigan to “repatriate” a cache of arrowheads and other ancient tools that Peacock had dug up and collected as a kid. The reader hovers above the page as Peacock commando crawls through a flower garden outside a McMansion, to restore some semblance of cosmic order. It’s a touching scene, absolutely serious and a bit funny, too—which is to say, classic Peacock.

I have been reading—or reading about—Doug Peacock since my college years in the ‘90s, when I first started to study environmental literature. We share a mutual friend in the Montana poet Greg Keeler, and Peacock offered a generous endorsement for my book Searching for the Anthropocene. So I was hardly a neutral reader of this new book. But having taught and written about environmental literature for two decades now, I come at this genre with a sharp critical sense of what works, and what doesn’t. When I first heard about Peacock’s new book, I’ll admit that I thought the title was glib. Was it worth it? Was what worth it? What could that even usefully mean? But reading the book, going along with Peacock on his trips through the mind and across the planet, the question takes on multiple registers. It reverberates, pressing on the reader in a way that is not just useful but urgent. Nature writing is more difficult, and more important, than ever. I had thought about this when reading other recent books that loosely fall in this realm, and are actively expanding it, like Lauret Savoy’s Trace, Helen Macdonald’s Vesper Flights, and Barry Lopez’s last book Horizon—all books that show how the work of observing and deriving lessons from our world gets dragged down by all the weights of human history and our present conundrums.

Peacock’s new book isn’t prescriptive, and isn’t overtly heroic. It’s realistic, modest, even. But it shows how close humans always are to our biological being, a fact to be ignored at our own peril. Peacock’s essays reveal how it’s always worth it to pay attention—and not just during high-profile adventures. The true adventures of environmental awareness might always be taking place off to the side of where the action seems to be. Or, really, the adventure is everywhere—we just have to see it, and act accordingly. Doug Peacock shows us how.

Perfectly Realized: On Tove Jansson’s ‘The Summer Book’ at 50

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When a friend asked what I thought was the most perfectly realized novel, I hesitated, almost said To the Lighthouse or Joyce’s Ulysses, but my heart overruled my brain, and I said what I really thought: Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book. Writing during an idyllic summer on a rocky island off the coast of Finland, Jansson managed to enter that trance-like zone of creation where effort becomes effortless and the deepest truths seem to come unbidden from one’s pen.
Now, on the 50th anniversary of its 1972 publication, The Summer Book continues to quietly win over legions of readers around the world, though it still remains a bit under the radar. The novel’s story and style are disarmingly simple: A young child, Sophia, and her acerbic, often hilariously caustic grandmother glide through languorous island summers with Sophia’s father, who is more of a background figure rather than a fully fledged character. They are the lone residents of a small island in the Gulf of Finland, living in a rustic cabin just paces away from the often stormy and temperamental sea.
What happens? Well, not much by the usual conventions of plot: Sophia searches for her grandmother’s false teeth, lost in the garden; a friend comes to stay on the island; a recalcitrant cat won’t return human affection; Sophia and her grandmother discuss mortality amid grazing cows in a pasture. And yet the book is almost unaccountably engrossing.
With a light touch, the deftly sketched vignettes pivot from the mundane—cow pats and feral cats—to metaphysical musings on life and loss, love and happiness, art and mortality. The point of view seamlessly shifts from the precocious young child to the old grandmother so that there is a sustained dual perspective that fleshes out the otherwise skeletal narrative. The chapters are short and self-contained. Much is left unsaid—and this leaving out is the mainspring of the book’s power.
Subtly flavoring everything that happens—like a bay leaf in stew—is the fact that Sophia has recently lost her mother. This is mentioned only once, almost carelessly, but it lodges in the reader’s mind and infuses everything that follows:

One time in April there was a full moon, and the sea was covered in ice. Sophia woke up and remembered that they had come back to the island and that she had the bed to herself because her mother was dead.

Jansson quietly plants this fact, this momentous event, into the reader’s consciousness, and it is the reader, not the writer, who endeavors to probe and understand what must be going through Sophia’s mind—a masterclass in the art of less being more. In the hands of another writer, the theme of the lost mother would have been dissected and analyzed and returned to over and over. By mentioning it only once, as if in passing, without comment, Jansson activates a universe of doubts and questions conjured from within the reader’s own psyche. This reservoir of shadowy hopes and fears is magically siphoned from the reader into the book, making the novel feel as though it was written specifically for you. In this way, the book gets under your skin. You register the weight of every word, taste the salt spray as waves batter the island, huddle with the family round the fire as a storm rages outside. You become Sophia, and you become the grandmother. And, in an odd way, you become the island.
Islands were always central for Jansson—geographically, metaphysically, and artistically. In her literary imagination, islands stand for independence, succinctness, and austere beauty. They are emblems of transience amid the eternal. Sands shift, seasons change, storms rage, and shorelines disappear, but the sea remains, and a new day dawns.

Jansson spent much of her life living on isolated islands, an essential ingredient in her prodigious literary and artistic output. Islands were also a catalyst to self-knowledge. As Jansson explained in a letter to a friend: “You become different and think new thoughts when you live a long time alone with the sea and yourself.”
Early on, Jansson had gained fame and independence through her wildly popular Moomin stories for children, which she wrote and illustrated and developed into a syndicated comic strip. When, after several decades, the Moomin empire became too much for her, she handed responsibility over to her brother and retreated to her island sanctuary to write and refocus on art. Over the next three decades, a steady string of novels and short story collections alternately amazed and puzzled critics, many of them perennially aggrieved that Jansson had abandoned their beloved world of Moomin.
The Summer Book was Jansson’s personal favorite among her novels, and deservedly so. In The Summer Book, she distills her art and philosophy into a thing of perfection. As Jansson once wrote, “One mustn’t have a single unnecessary thing in a boat,” and this is also how she approached her writing. Hers is a nautical aesthetic—sentences as beautiful as a gull’s wing, dialog sharp with the tang of salt air, all daily events undergirded with the faintly heard bass line of ocean breakers crashing on the shore.

When at the age of 77, Jansson and her life partner, Tuulikki Pietila, decided it was finally time to leave the island and move back to Helsinki, they left their cabin unlocked with notes for any storm-bound fishermen or wanderers who happened by: “Don’t close the damper, it will rust shut,” or “Wool socks and stockings under the boot shelf.” In the cabin’s small “secret room,” they left a bottle of rum for anyone lucky enough to find it. The Summer Book is like that small bottle of rum left behind in a secret room. Now that you’ve found it, go ahead and pour yourself a glass.

A World of Fear: On Geraldine Brooks’s ‘Horse’

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The possessive is potent in Geraldine Brooks’s latest novel Horse, a painful study of America’s history set in the world of thoroughbred racing. Horse braids together several storylines over centuries, scrutinizing race, ownership, identity, and justice, and like the novel’s title suggests, a horse—whether composed of paint, bones, or flesh and blood—anchors all of the characters’ disparate tales of longing. 

Horse is set, primarily, in three complicated realities, revealing its largely likable leads deliberately and intricately, their stories converging in satisfying stride. Opening in 2019 America, the Trump presidency is nearing its desperate final act, and the rise of a more blatant and virulent strain of racism in political and popular discourse is unignorable. Theo, a 26-year old Nigerian American graduate student in Washington, D.C., lives amidst these thumping tensions daily. He sports his Georgetown-branded best when he goes out for some exercise because, as he notes, presaging the 2020 murder of Ahmaud Arbery, “a Black man, running, should dress defensively.” One day, at the yard sale of a newly widowed neighbor, whose deceased husband “had made clear, through his body language, what he thought about having a Black man living nearby,” Theo discovers a nineteenth-century painting of a horse. Theo is an art historian and, before he was driven out of the sport by racism, was a star polo player, but he knows little of American equestrian art.  

Theo soon meets Jess, an Australian scientist managing the Smithsonian’s osteology lab. Their first encounter is cringe-inducing, but the two share a common interest in horses. In fact, Jess has been asked by a colleague to locate a skeleton of a horse by request, and she does, in a long-forgotten attic. Jess works to “extract the testimony” from the bones, “seeking answers to questions she didn’t yet know how to ask.” Meanwhile, Theo begins to research the history of the painting, uncovering a lost history of Black horsemen. 

Concurrently, Brooks skillfully paints the picture of an enslaved Black youth named Jarrett in 1850s Kentucky. As the son of a freedman, Harry Lewis, and the stableman for his enslaver Dr. Warfield, Jarrett is afforded a relative degree of freedom that allows him to pursue his love of horses. That love is so profound it is practically part of him: Jarret is described as “half colt himself” and “flighty as a colt” because of his long, skinny arms and his raised-by-equines upbringing. Through nights spent sleeping on stall floors or in hay lofts, Jarrett sees “from the horse’s point of view,” observing that “horses lived with a world of fear, and when you grasped that, you had a clear idea how to be with them.” 

Jarrett’s pride and joy is a recently born colt, who enters the world with four white feet. The two develop an unbreakable bond. Jarrett trains the newly minted Darley to become a racehorse, and a winning one at that. The champion’s likeness is captured by painter Thomas J. Scott, who is eager to understand how the horse “feels about the world… what kind of soul he’s got.” Soon, the backdrop of the Civil War, at first a faint pulse on Dr. Warfield’s estate, becomes a racing heartbeat as Jarrett and Darley venture out into a deeply divided South. 

Finally, we meet Martha Jackson, a 1950s New York art dealer, her stable of artists including contemporary greats none other than Jackson Pollock. Martha was raised by a horseback riding mother, but she doesn’t just “like horses,” as a friend observes. “It’s far more complicated than that,” she tells us. Martha eventually acquires for sale a painting of a horse, clad with four white socks. 

Brooks’s textural barn scenes divulge a personal admiration for horses, illustrating, lovingly, the “mellow scent of horse” and “mud-caked foals” throughout the novel. Long the beasts of burden, fighting battles not their own, the proper treatment of horses is consistently pushed, as with Jarrett’s view that “both his father and Dr. Warfield treated horses like mechanical contraptions: do this, get that,” and an equine veterinarian’s regrettable reflections in conversation with Jess:  “There was so much abuse of the horses you see. I’m afraid I realized rather too late that I was abetting it.”

Throughout the story, it is impossible to miss those parallels between the treatment of horses and enslaved people. While at times clunky and over-engineered, some comparisons are torturously resonate, exemplified by Harry’s take on the “bad omen” white socks that grace the greatest racehorse of all time—“My way of thinking, a good horse has no color, it’s what’s inside that’s worth the fret”—or Theo’s observation while studying artwork: “Loyal, muscle, willingness—qualities for a horse, qualities for the enslaved.”

The takeaway, teed up in discordant endings of triumph and heartbreak, seems to be while celebrating progress we must continue to rebuke racism. Our reckoning remains incomplete and unresolved. Horse is a poignant check-in, a lookout point, for how far we’ve come, and how far we still yet must ride. In 21st century America, privilege is still purchased by proximity to power, which is too often equivalent to whiteness. Horse stands as a convincing case that time alone does not heal all wounds.

Found in Translation: Mapping Budi Darma’s ‘People from Bloomington’

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The Tulip Tree apartment building in Bloomington, Indiana, sits on the edge of the Indiana University campus, 11 stories high with over 200 units. I recently drove past the structure, which curves inward around a wide expanse of grass. I had just been tent-camping in the nearby forest beside Lake Monroe with my son and his Boy Scout troop, where we orienteered, hiked, and spotted turtles, frogs, and deer in the woods. After days and nights spent beneath towering pines and the stars for a roof, the concrete-and-glass Tulip Tree Apartments looked otherworldly.

These apartments make an appearance in the Indonesian writer Budi Darma’s 1980 story collection People from Bloomington. The first English edition of the collection, translated by Tiffany Tsao, was published by Penguin Classics in April. The book’s version of the Tulip Tree reaches 50 stories high, “capable of swallowing five hundred large families whole,” as the story “Charles Lebourne” begins. The characters in People from Bloomington are isolated by their living situations, whether it be an apartment with many units or a rental house with a disagreeable landlord, or neighbors who confront a man who indiscriminately brandishes a gun (“The Old Man with No Name.”) The universal problems of the stories’ titular “people”—loneliness, longing for connection—could be set anywhere. Yet they are distinctly and precisely here, in this southern Indiana town. 

People from Bloomington was largely written during Darma’s time as a PhD student in English literature at IU, with far-ranging influences that include Jane Austen, Franz Kafka, and William Faulkner, among others. Austen was the subject of Darma’s dissertation, and as he waited for his advisor’s feedback on drafts of each section, he took walks around Bloomington. Most of the stories in the collection were inspired by his observations of the “old timers,” students, and others he encountered while walking around town. This is also when he wrote his novel, Olenka, which likewise features a Bloomington setting. (IU’s Wells Library lists one copy in its catalog, in Indonesian.) He wrote that novel in only three weeks, and the short stories arrived very quickly, too. “There were times when, to my surprise, I ended up writing an entire story without realizing it,” he describes in People from Bloomington’s preface, where he congratulates Tsao for a successful translation. The realist mode of the Bloomington-based work is a departure from his mostly absurdist fiction. 

“After finishing the stories I wrote in Bloomington, I realized that even though my method, style, and subject matter differed, I was still writing about the cruelty of life, as I had done in my previous stories,” Darma continues in the preface. “The difficulties that people face in relating to each other while negotiating their own identities—it is this that has always colored my fiction.” 

Bloomington, an hour-and-a-half south of my home in Indianapolis, is a college town where students, alumni, and fans flock to Memorial Stadium for football games, and Assembly Hall for Hoosier basketball games. IU is an R1 Research institution, drawing students and scholars from around the world. The city and campus are surrounded by beautiful hills, lakes, and the nearby Hoosier National Forest, over 200,000 acres of densely packed woods that bordered my son’s Scout camp. Every day I studied the map. I was a stranger to these woods, a parent volunteer responsible for guiding children. I needed to know where I was.

15 minutes away was the campus where I visited friends at IU more than two decades ago. Back then, I often felt lost, disoriented, dependent upon them to lead me to the restaurant or bar, to point me back to the highway, to home. I am a good navigator with a sound sense of direction, but in Bloomington and its surrounding areas, I could never get my bearings. Maybe it was because I didn’t have to. I could count on someone else to take care of the details and be responsible for me. I had chosen another school twelve hours away; I was welcome to visit Bloomington, but I did not belong there. I was a temporary visitor with in-group privileges.

Darma’s narrators know no such luxury. They are often isolated, longing to know others, and their embedded and necessary knowledge of Bloomington’s map permeates each story: Tulip Tree, Fess Avenue, the now-defunct Marsh Supermarkets chain, the Union, Dunn Meadow. At times the map is used fictitiously, though the details remain precise. In translating Darma, Tsao referenced online archives and maps of Bloomington to be certain of the place, and she also consulted with Darma. (He died in 2021, prior to the English edition’s publication.)

The characters who populate People from Bloomington may not know others as they would like, but they know the place. Darma’s Bloomington renders people strange, sad, or harmful. His characters have little awareness of how they affect one another, particularly how they impact the unnamed first-person narrators in each of the collection’s seven stories. Darma maintains a cool, distanced control over his narratives; he easily veers from realism into absurdism, with a nod and a wink to the reader.

The story “Yorrick” begins with a short guided tour, wending along Grant Street, South Tenth, the Union, the bookstore, and College Mall. It is on Grant Street that the narrator catches a glimpse of a woman named Catherine, and sets his sights on winning her affection. She finally notices him when he offers to patch her flat bicycle tire, but it’s clear that she doesn’t reciprocate the narrator’s intense interest: “She answered all my questions thoroughly. Yet she never showed any desire to learn more about me. After I told her my name, she didn’t inquire where I lived, or about my job, or my background or family.”  

Later, the narrator is invited to a party by Catherine and her friend Yorrick (who, in an allusion to Hamlet, is described as looking skeletal). He accepts and, once there, the jealous narrator realizes he is odd man out; moved to action, he deflates the partygoers’ car tires. Soon after, an elderly woman, who had been dancing that evening “like a bucking bronco,” needs medical attention; the flat tires create delay and confusion as people try to get her to the hospital. No one suspects the narrator as perpetrator, nor does he admit what he’s done. But he knew exactly where to find a pump to let the air out of the tires, a tool he’d observed earlier at the corner of South Tenth and Fess. 

If only we could pinpoint human motivations with such map-like precision. The characters in People from Bloomington overlook and underestimate the first-person narrators, who respond with secretive and vindictive behavior. Even if the characters’ self-perceptions are muddled, Darma sees them clearly. In “The Family M” the adult narrator feuds with children over a scratch on his car, then hides in the bushes and throws a large rock at a child, sending him to the hospital; “Orez” is a strange child (zero spelled backwards) who invites others’ scorn, confounds his parents, and pushes them to the brink of a horrific action; “Joshua Karabish” features an unloved and ill roommate who dies, and the narrator passes off Joshua’s poetry as his own; in “Mrs. Elberhart,” the narrator changes his walking route to further observe this unusual older woman and her unkempt yard, and then he becomes wrapped up in her health woes after she wrongly accuses him of giving her an illness.

Darma draws these characters in sharp relief, as if looking down from the roof of a multi-story apartment building with a birds-eye view. As I drove by the Tulip Tree four decades after Darma wrote these stories, the building reminded me of a giant spaceship. I wondered about all the lives housed inside.

The Shape of Thought: On Emily Hall’s ‘The Longcut’

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At the end of Emily Hall’s debut novel The Longcut, the book’s unnamed narrator runs through the streets of New York toward the studio of an artist friend, brimming with a story to tell. “What was important,” she thinks to herself, “was to not find the right words.”
This revelation, the culmination of over a hundred pages of mental meanderings from the point of view of an artist struggling to pin down the meaning of her work, reminded me of a conversation published in The Margins in 2017, between the poet Jenny Zhang and the memoirist T Kira Madden, in which Zhang described a particularly tantalizing desire to “waste” words:

I want to be wasteful with language…. I do love spare prose, but there can be a misogynistic attitude about it. An attitude that says women should be prim and neat and not spill over and please take up as little space as possible and walk around with your shirt tucked in nicely and your slip can’t be showing; I don’t care about that.


Despite the degree to which this interview resonated with me at the time of its publication, I’ve been, like many writers, deferring the decision to shape language in a way that spills over and takes up space. I’ve long thought of unruly prose as an indulgence, a potential to be explored only under ideal circumstances. As if angling for permission to write this way, I have searched for examples of it in novels, particularly those about intelligent, neurotic women (for instance, Christine Smallwood’s The Life of the Mind or Jana Casale’s The Girl Who Never Read Noam Chomsky). In The Longcut, I found, possibly for the first time, a genuine expression of what Zhang might call “wasteful language.”
Hall’s prose has that white-hot, unedited, circular logic of a first draft, the kind that pursues every agitation and impulse down its respective rabbit hole. The narrator swerves, for instance, from discussing the cost of her materials to wondering “what was Cambridge blue, why was no aria by Handel as beautiful as ‘Forte e lieto,’ what was the difference between perhaps and maybe, when did a handshake begin and end.”
Conspicuously casting off traditional narrative concerns like rising action and character development, The Longcut blends elements of flânerie and stream of consciousness, allowing the narrator’s mind to grasp far and wide beyond the single day in which her story is circumscribed. When we first meet her, she is on her way to a potentially career-advancing meeting with a gallerist, a meeting set up by her artist friend whose work, we learn, is better-known and more conceptually unified than hers. However, all we know about our narrator and her art is that she works with a “small suitable camera.” She has made photographs of a granite egg, as well as a film about a construction crane outside her office window. She eventually gets the idea to make “carryaround sculptures”—small sculptures that would reside in people’s pockets—but cannot decide how these sculptures should look. “They—the carryaround sculptures—were an idea but not a form,” she admits.
For such an artist’s story, Hall chooses the form of a monologue that twists and turns over the course of a hurried walk down the “long side” of Central Park. Curiously, the author manages to write a perambulatory novel that, like Zeno’s arrow, stays fixed in one place. She also manages to lodge readers firmly in a woman’s subjectivity while withholding the vast majority of her emotions, memories, and motivations. It’s a fascinating project, one that prompts readers to ask in the end: what can wasteful, imprecise language—paired with a minimalist approach to plot and character—reveal about the world?
In The Longcut, this pairing boldly reveals the unmediated, unadorned, and unpolished shape of thought. The catharsis of thought—interrelated ideas and their movement through time—provides an unrelenting central tension. As is the case in novels like Brenda Lozano’s Loop or Ariana Harwicz’s Die My Love, the tension lies not in what the narrator will do next but in what she will think. Of this our narrator is conscious. She seems to know that the reader is analyzing her thought patterns. “Was my cognitive space a loop, a constant returning,” she wonders, “or was my cognitive space a knot, or not a knot but a tangle, a tangle anchored by a spike which if pulled would allow the tangle to instantly resolve itself.”
Tellingly, while filming a crane outside her office window, the narrator refuses to fast-forward the recorded footage; doing so, she argues, would prevent her from having the same experience as a potential viewer—that of the monotony of the office window punctuated by unpredictable appearances of an intriguing object. In another instance, the narrator admits she likes taking the long way from place to place—the “longcut”—more than she likes shortcuts, which, according to her logic, foreclose the process that separates art from mere gesture. In that both are winding and purposely time-consuming, the shape of the narrator’s thoughts is inextricably linked to the path she chooses to walk.
The world within this slim novel is clearly observed by a writer who shares the practical and conceptual concerns artists have for their art, as seen in the scrupulous attention Hall’s narrator pays to the durational aspect of her construction crane film. The book also scrutinizes social relations and behind-the-scenes labor in the art world, showing us how objects circulate and how discourse is molded. However, Hall’s criticality demystifies, as well as dampens, the subject matter of her book. Manhattan is maligned for being as wasteful in its presentation of art as the author is with language.
“I could be looking at page after page of gallery advertisements in an art magazine,” the narrator states, “or looking at artworks in one gallery space or gallery window after another,” and in these spaces, she laments, all the social transactions and work hours that have gone into making a work of art are flattened into empty signifiers that gesture noncommittally toward meaning—“art being the theme and different artists’ work being the variations.”
As a reader hungry for nuanced discussions of art and process, close visual analysis, and ekphrastic experimentation, this sentiment left me feeling both desensitized and impatient. I had hoped for either a more comprehensive or a more challenging take on the state of contemporary art. Instead, feeling glutted and numb, overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of art around her, the narrator likens the works to “so much merchandise on display… one thing meaning precisely as little as another.”
This particular topography, in which galleries sit on top of one another, competing for viewers’ scattered attention—this surplus of art and its social and economic scaffolding—is an attribute of many major cities, but not all. Those living in areas without such easy access to art spaces and galleries would likely be less blasé in dismissing large swaths of contemporary work as mere merchandise in a featureless grid. However, the satirical—and therefore purposely narrow—discussion of art in The Longcut reduces the endeavor to a binary: starting point versus end point, privacy versus exposure, question versus answer, the artist versus the commercial gallery. If anything, after reading this book I felt grateful that the art world consists of more players than just the artist and the gallerist, that it is buoyed by, as Hall’s narrator observes, vast and unruly networks of collaborators, for whom copiousness is not a burden to carry but a salve for the rest of life’s discontents.
Perhaps we can think of the state of contemporary art described in this novel the same way we approach Hall’s subversively “wasteful” approach to language. The shape of thought, in this case, morphs in accordance with the shape of the city. For the flâneuse, and particularly the artist, thought is a provisional, shifting street. The more the city rambles, the more it expands both upward and inward, so too does the mind.

Say You Were Gonna Make a Bomb: On Bud Smith’s ‘Teenager’

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“Just let the happy couple have their happiness, okay. Shakespeare had it wrong. So did all the copycats. Everything didn’t have to end so viciously.”

Fiction writers are always taught to complicate. To engineer adversity, tension, so that, presumably, the final reading experience will feel more realistic—more like life as we know it, but not necessarily as we want it to be. But wouldn’t it be nice if, for once, everything worked out? In Bud Smith’s Teenager, it does—at least for a while. The novel’s first pages see Kody Rawlee Green, the 17-year-old protagonist, escape from a juvenile detention center with relative ease. The stolen keys work. No alarms go off. He manages to steal a car, a gun, canned goods, MREs, lottery tickets, a bunch of cash and a credit card before rescuing his girlfriend, Tella Carticelli, whom he fondly calls Teal Cartwheels, from getting shipped off to Rome by her abusive parents. What follows is a freewheeling, heartbreaking, too-much-too-fast-too-soon journey across America, where the only constant is the couple’s love for each other, their delirious visions for the future rooted in nothing but that all-consuming, all-forgiving love.

That Kody manages an impossible escape in the first two pages is a shrewd move by Smith. It invites the reader into this world with a challenge: if you can’t suspend your disbelief on page one, Teenager warns, you’re going to have a bad time. If, however, you can accept a certain degree of good fortune smiling upon impossible pursuits, if you can look nowhere else but forward, your reward is a beautiful, doomed adventure steeped in a lovely and vital escapism, crashing through the underbrush toward salvation.

For Kody, salvation—of any kind—is sorely needed. Of the many crimes that Kody commits throughout the book,  all in varying degrees of seriousness, the most shocking one comes at the start of Teenager, when he murders Tella’s parents. The righteousness of the act settles in as the narrative progresses: the parental figures inhabiting Teenager leave so much to be desired, the kids seem better off raising themselves. Kody’s birth parents abandoned him from the jump. His foster mother showed him affection, but was unperturbed when her intermittently violent boyfriend knocked him out of a tree, resulting in the metal plate in his head responsible for headaches, seizures, a general off-centeredness. Tella’s father regularly sexually abused her while her mother turned a blind eye, sleeping with ear plugs and a double layer of eye masks to block out the nighttime violations down the hall. The murder is an act of vigilantism, a crime of passion, albeit one with a pure intention behind it: when something harms the one you love, all you want is to destroy that thing, regardless of the consequences. Like Alyosha of The Brothers Karamazov or Prince Myshkin of The Idiot, Kody Green is Smith’s holy fool, taking cues from nothing but his heart, the source of all pain and divine knowledge. Saints, Kody says, “heard instruction from the divine source and had scrambled eggs for brains because of it.”

Teenager is not expressly billed as YA (though it’s easy to see younger readers falling in love with it), but it illuminates the inner lives of teenagers from the sensitive perspective of a writer who hasn’t yet had the exuberant optimism of youth wrung out of him. He writes from what feels like an authentically teenaged vantage point, rather than as an adult trying to imagine how a teenager would see the world. Case in point: when Kody, who suffers from intense seizures, accidentally leaves out his mouthguard during an episode, he bites off a piece of his tongue. Tella finds him face down in a pool of blood on the bed. Instead of worrying about the tongue, she holds him, makes him feel better, they kiss, the tongue starts bleeding again. She understands that all he needs in that moment is her love, medical attention be damned. Meanwhile, I worry about infection and anxiously hope she can figure out how to cauterize the wound. That’s the kind of reader I’ve become—hopelessly practical, analytical to the point of pain.

But, as a moonstruck romantic, I am also Teenager’s target reader. One almost has to be in love—or at least remember being in love, or at least be uncynical enough to still feel charmed by a good love story—to get at the bedrock idea of Teenager, which is that love, regardless of time or place or circumstance, is always right and worth the trouble, and true love, to paraphrase Elizabeth Wurtzel, tends to take care of its own. I was especially moved by the many parallels between the love story of Teenager and my own: like Kody and Teal, my husband and I knew—decided, solidified—that we were It for each other within a few days of meeting. We, like Kody and Teal, were also married by a guy named Bob after six months of courtship. Our wedding, like theirs, also lasted a whole ten minutes, catered with takeout French fries and cheap champagne.

Although various aides and adversaries regularly cross Teal and Kody’s path, it feels as if no one else truly exists in this rendition of America. This American landscape, populated with its cast of fallen angels—drunk boatmen, child psychics, every variety and flavor of pathetic cop—nonetheless feels drab, empty, so tightly are we locked into their world of two. Unlike Kerouac’s American landscape, which Teenager pays homage to, there is not much to learn from the people inhabiting it. For all their personalities, they are ghosts, passing visions in the mad rush to an ever-shifting idea of freedom. Juxtaposed with its timeless narrative, this makes the novel undeniably modern, speaking to our baseline isolation. Over-connected as we are, to the world, to each other, we are also, at the end of the day, just passing through.

Rae Buleri’s hypnotic illustrations, punctuating every chapter, stylistically remind of Ralph Steadman’s contributions to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, as does Teenager’s organizing principle: no matter the question, the road is the answer (“Every now and then when your life gets complicated and the weasels start closing in,” writes Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing, “the only cure is to load up on heinous chemicals and then drive like a bastard…”) Deftly blending media influences and literary genres in ecstatic, rhythmic prose that echoes quintessential American greats, Teenager’s influx of influences is audible, visible—you hear Allen Ginsberg in “Howl”-inspired repetitions, Louis L’Amour in the sprawling, exuberant action sequences, Quentin Tarantino in the decadent violence and off-kilter dialogue, a salute to Thompson in the expansive meditation on the elusive (nonexistent?) American Dream—but Smith’s outsize, cinematic prose is wholly his own.

Teenager is about hope, trauma, self-reliance, the necessity of carving out a piece of the world for yourself—but above all else, it’s a testament to young love. Not necessarily love between young people, but love that is fresh and hungry and luminescent and lifesaving. Love that feels like salvation, for the time we get to have it.

The Punctuation of Life: On Chloe Caldwell’s ‘The Red Zone’

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I was 15, sitting with friends in the schoolyard, having lunch and trading stories—as teenage girls do—about our periods. We griped, we commiserated: Swimming with a tampon in? So annoying! Getting your pubes stuck to a pad’s adhesive? The absolute worst! And what really ground my gears, I said, joining the chorus, was the immobilizing pain, shooting down your legs, radiating up your back, ripping through your abdomen, and then you become a receptacle for all that pain, and no thoughts could form because everything was pain. The other girls fell silent. Finally one spoke: “I don’t think I’ve ever had that.” The rest shook their heads. “Yeah, that doesn’t sound super normal,” another said.

Early in The Red Zone: A Love Story, author Chloe Caldwell has a similar experience. She is 31 and on a beach trip when she gets her period and is beset by severe cramps and diarrhea (both of which, I learned as a 12-year-old, are caused by the hormone prostaglandin’s indiscriminate approach to muscle contraction). “Back at the picnic table, I burst into tears telling my friends how sick I was,” she recalls. “They softened. I asked them if they got this sick on their periods. Not really, they said.” Four years later, her friends still remember the trip: “Something was really wrong,” one says. “I felt bad for you. You were really sick.”

The Red Zone is Caldwell’s attempt to grapple with her disruptive menstrual symptoms and find community through them. From debilitating cramps to premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), Caldwell’s existence is governed—often tyrannically—by her cycle. Early in the book, she learns she is nowhere near alone. In a series of interviews with loved ones and strangers, she creates a compendium of menstrual experiences. Her interview subjects often say “I wish I’d known” and “If only someone had told me.” “My periods had such pain I didn’t tell anyone about,” her own mother tells her. “I would cry in bed holding my stomach, trying not to let anyone know, even your dad. I thought it was normal ’cause no one talked about it.”

So Caldwell talks about it—all of it. The clotting, the shitting, the crying on the bathroom floor and meltdowns in public places. Asking friends, as a teen, to “check my butt” for blood stains. Taking photos of her blood in the toilet, diffused across the water in the shape of a lotus flower. The night her cramps were so bad that she, delirious, gave each one a name as it passed through her. The prayers to a period god that she “wasn’t sure existed to make it stop, to please make it stop.” The darkness, the dread, the helplessness.

As she reflects on her past, Caldwell also investigates her still-changing body. Her thirties brought with them more painful periods, as well as the onset of PMDD, the more severe form of PMS. As many as eight percent of those who menstruate experience PMDD, yet its symptoms—bouts of extreme irritability, depression, or anxiety in the week leading up to your period—are often characterized as run-of-the-mill mood swings that accompany PMS. After years of struggling to articulate the difference between the two conditions, she finally finds an explanatory image, “a photograph with a split screen: one side reads PMS with a photo of a woman pulling her hair out, and the other side reads PMDD with a woman on the edge of a rooftop.” Online, she discovers a vast community of women with PMDD, who live like she does, in perpetual fear of what they call their “werewolf week.”

She eventually attends a conference centered around PMDD and its treatment. Recommendations from conferencegoers include: yoga, acupuncture, a tryptophan-heavy diet, calcium supplements, vitamin D supplements, vitamin B6 supplements, chasteberry supplements, aromatherapy lamps, light diffusers, weighted blankets, jumping jacks, and Prozac. She is conflicted about going on medication, having been “conditioned to think antidepressants were for weaker people.” She had felt “superior” for not having to take them and suspects even her mother “doesn’t want to have a daughter on Prozac.” But after many conversations—with her doctor, with writer and friend Sheila Heti—she starts taking Prozac and finds it an indispensable addition to the arsenal in her battle against PMDD. “I decided to think of it as a really good vitamin,” she writes.

When I finally sought medication to treat my periods, I felt like I’d failed, like I couldn’t handle one of the most basic aspects of womanhood. (Of menstrual pain, Caldwell’s mother-in-law recalls she simply “sucked it up and carried on.”) At the same time, I could see no way to live a full life while menstruating like I did, incapacitated seven days a month. When my doctor agreed that medication was the best shot at treating my symptoms, I was stunned. “Women are infamously ignored, degraded, and condescended to in doctors offices,” Caldwell writes, “so even when someone believes you, it is hard to believe they believe you.” How many others were experiencing the kind of pain I was but weren’t seeking help for fear they would be exposed as failures or be disbelieved entirely?

On the whole, The Red Zone is an uneven work that never quite lives up to its potential. Caldwell’s prose is unremarkable and often prosaic. Her inquiry into women’s menstrual lives fails to culminate in a meaningful way, as she compiles primary texts (interviews, online forums, advertisements, etc.) without performing any analysis. The book’s subtitular love story, between the author and a mystifyingly tolerant man named Tony, never feels fully integrated into the story. That said, the project of the book—to make literary the body horror and psychological turmoil that are part of so many women’s lives—is an exciting one that, in the hands of a more inquisitive writer, could be culture-shifting.

By the end of The Red Zone, Caldwell finds that Prozac combined with diet, exercise, supplements, and therapy largely “shrunk and healed” the symptoms of her PMDD. But she remains vigilant, constantly monitoring her cycle. Caldwell calls her period “the punctuation of my life” (pun intended?), an apt metaphor for a biological force that imposes temporal structure on our otherwise amorphous existence. It’s an idyllic thought— promulgated by tampon commercials and authors behind self-help books with titles like In the Flo, Period Power, and Beyond the Pill—that women can live in harmony with their periods, but Caldwell recognizes that many women struggle to simply to live with their periods, period.

The medication I went on to manage my menstrual pain had an unexpected side effect: It eliminated my period, and therefore my pain, altogether. I remember some of my friends saying getting rid of my period was unnatural, an affront to physiology; recall Caldwell’s mother bristled at the use of Prozac to manage moods that she saw as the natural product of hormones. “Over time,” Caldwell writes, “you realize you cannot control most of your life, so you do the things you can control.” Just because something is natural doesn’t mean it’s hospitable to life, and the natural functions—and dysfunctions—of our bodies are largely out of our control. 

The Red Zone tells a story about looking for and finally claiming some control, meager as it may be, over a part of women’s lives that has been historically obscured, devalued, and stigmatized. It’s is an entry in a contemporary canon of menstrual literature that I hope, in the future, will be shaped by more depth, style, and rigor. I am grateful for Caldwell’s book nonetheless.

Don Winslow’s ‘City on Fire’: Good, Old-Fashioned American Pulp

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Don Winslow’s latest novel, City on Fire, set in the author’s native Rhode Island, is the first in a trilogy about a mob war between Irish and Italian crime families in 1980s Providence. It is not, to be frank, top-shelf Winslow. The plot is leisurely in ways his novels rarely are, and I felt the dearth of fully realized female characters more keenly than I had in his earlier books.

But to put it this way is unfair to City on Fire. Winslow has set the bar so high with books like Savages, his paean to homicidal SoCal stoner cool, and with his masterwork, the Cartel Trilogy— The Power of the Dog, The Cartel, and The Border—about Mexico’s bloody narco wars, that what for most writers would be a career-capping achievement is, for Winslow, just ho-hum, another solid crime tale fresh in from the Winslow assembly plant.

Still, City on Fire isn’t a bad place to start building your Winslow collection. Before he wrote novels, Winslow was a private investigator, and he brings to all his books a deep understanding of criminal organizations, both at a human level and as business enterprises.

This is especially true in City on Fire, which opens as two local crime families, the Murphys and the Morettis, gather for a big clam bake held every year to cement the peace between the families and keep the junior mobsters from killing each other. As the scene unfolds, we learn how the Providence mob works, the Irish Murphys running the longshoreman’s unions and the Italian Morettis the Teamsters. “How they had fought each other, these two immigrant tribes, for a place to put their feet,” Winslow writes. “The Irish in Dogtown, the Italians on Federal Hill, toeholds carved out of grudging New England granite.”

In the years since, the mob leaders have forged an uneasy peace, which is broken after the clam bake when a brash Murphy lieutenant makes a play for the girlfriend of one of the Moretti mobsters. She claims he assaulted her, and the Moretti men, in full chest-thumping fury, beat the offending Irishman nearly to death with baseball bats, setting in motion the mob war at the center of the book.

The press materials for City of Fire attempt to coat all this with a frosting of Greek mythology, likening the novel’s hero, a young Irish dockworker named Danny Ryan, to Aeneas, and Pam, the girlfriend whose accusation sets off the mob war, to a modern-day Helen of Troy. Maybe. The novel’s more obvious antecedents would seem to be Mario Puzo’s The Godfather and the mobster films of Martin Scorsese. City on Fire is good, old-fashioned American pulp fiction—intelligent, well-written pulp, even—but pulp nonetheless.

In the 1980s, when the novel is set, the port of Providence is slowly dying, and the local mob outfits, always in the shadow of the big-city Mafia outfits, risk being swallowed up by New York’s Five Families. This leaves local mobsters to make Lincoln-esque tactical calculations aimed at maximizing their fighting strength without sacrificing their criminal enterprises or the goodwill of local politicians and police, who look the other way so long as they stay away from drug dealing and don’t leave too many dead bodies on the streets.

For Danny Ryan, who gradually gains control of the badly outgunned Irish mob as other family members are killed off or prove unworthy, the calculus is brutal. His Italian rivals can call on hired assassins from the
New York Mafia families and own the city’s mayor and a sizeable portion of the local police force, while he’s stuck with a handful of local men and a lone Northern Irish separatist, who quickly gets himself shot.

The financial mismatch is even more lopsided: “the Irish have the longshoreman’s union, the docks, and some small gambling and loan-sharking; the Morettis have the Teamsters, the construction unions, the vending machines, cigarettes and alcohol, major gambling, major money on the street, strip clubs and prostitution.”

“That’s the problem with a war,” Danny reflects, “you have the challenge of trying to stay alive and at the same time make a living. Hard, when you’re being hunted, to go out and make your collections, or make a score, or even get back and forth from work.”

Of course, this being a gangster novel, Danny makes up for what he lacks in men and materiel with brains and pluck, and he survives, battered but unbowed, to take what surely will be a starring role in the next two installments of the trilogy.

And of course, Danny being a man, he gets to use his brains and pluck. For the most part, the women in City on Fire are relegated to the role of worried wife, or, in the case of Pam, the novel’s would-be Helen of Troy, the face that launches a thousand mob hits.

The lone exception is Danny’s estranged mother, Madeline (an Aphrodite stand-in, according to City on Fire’s press materials scorecard), who has traded on her beauty to escape her trailer-park beginnings and become first a Vegas showgirl and then one half of a marriage of convenience to a spectacularly rich, and spectacularly ugly, manufacturer of women’s undergarments.

This is a common figure in Winslow novels, the calculating woman who uses her beauty to buy power and influence over men. But here, perhaps because Madeline’s Vegas milieu isn’t drawn with Winslow’s usual exacting verisimilitude or else because Madeline doesn’t have a lot to do in the novel other than be fiercely maternal toward Danny and his family, her character feels flat and not a little contrived.

This strikes me as a problem male crime writers need to solve. Crime is, almost by definition, a male-dominated world, but Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn and Tana French, who writes the Dublin Murder Squad novels, have found ways to make women central to their plots without resorting to clichés. And because women read many more novels than men do, their books have been runaway bestsellers.

One senses Winslow puzzling out how to pull off this same trick, but even in his best novels, a woman’s principal power resides in her beauty —that is, in how men see her and how she’s able to use that to get what she wants. That was never really how the world worked, but in books written and talked about exclusively by men, it could plausibly seem that way. But those days are gone and men with protean storytelling talents like Don Winslow need to adapt to the times.

The Maybe-Messiah and His Grandmother’s Ghost: On Olga Tokarczuk’s ‘The Books of Jacob’

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At last, it has arrived. Nobel Laureate Olga Tokarczuk’s dark star epic, The Books of Jacob, has been released in English with Jennifer Croft’s stunning translation. For Ms. Tokarczuk’s English-speaking readers, The Books of Jacob has long hovered on the horizon, promising the full realization of the powerful and idiosyncratic vision we’ve encountered in books such as Flights and Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. That her Nobel nomination was rumored to be greatly based on the accomplishments of this book has only magnified the anticipation. And now, it is here.

The Books of Jacob is a singular, anomalous work, a massive novel overwhelmingly researched and intricately plotted. Rife with paradoxes, the book is a fictional rendering of factual events centered around a controversial and fascinating figure named Jacob Frank who instigated a largely forgotten religious movement in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the 18th century. Though it is an unabashed epic in scope—a book that luxuriates in detail—it is not a slog. In fact, it moves briskly, its tone often leaning toward satire but never sacrificing its humanity, tragic sensibilities, or deep sense of mystery.

The novel portrays the life of Jacob Frank, as seen through the eyes of those surrounding him, opening first with the story of one Father Chmielowski, a Catholic priest who “knows the world only through books” and has written an encyclopedic volume titled New Athens, “a compendium of knowledge of the sort that could be found in every home.” Father Chmielowski breaks from custom to borrow books from a prominent Jewish businessman named Elisha Shorr, and their interaction hints at an alternate reality that could have unfolded between their Catholic and Jewish communities. And, in another turn of imagined reality, Tokarczuk portrays the fictionalized meeting—and subsequent friendship—of real-world poet Elżbieta Drużbacka and Father Chmielowski. These quiet and mutually edifying interactions—first between a Catholic man and a Jewish man and then between a man and a woman—serve as an ironically peaceful false start. For, after this, things turn strange.

At the Shorr’s house, Frank’s ailing grandmother Yente has swallowed an amulet intended to keep her from dying during an upcoming wedding and “is surprised to discover that she can easily slide out of her body and be suspended over it; she looks right at her own face, fallen and pale, a strange feeling, but soon she floats away, gliding along on the drafts of air, on the vibrations of sound, passing without difficulty through wooden walls and doors.” She floats through the story while the family is now burdened with a body that refuses to die. Yente provides bird’s-eye witness to public and private acts alike, her presence interpolated at pivotal moments with gentle reminders: “Yente, who sees all,” “Yente, who is never far.”

Providing a counterpoint to Yente’s detached witness is Nahman, a rabbi and Jacob Frank’s troubled biographer whose writings intersperse the main narrative with gospel-like first-hand accounts. Nahman, who was raised in a milieu peopled by “Kabbalists with clouded eyes,” shadows his enigmatic acquaintance in Smyrna, where he witnesses his beginnings as an indomitable and confident religious rebel. Born Yankiele Leybowicz, he renames himself Frank, which “means foreign. Nahman knows Jacob likes this.” In fact, Tokarczuk tells us, “in every language Jacob speaks you can detect a foreign accent.”

Jacob Frank “always has the garland of an audience around him,” and yet “you can’t tell if he’s actually joking in what he says or being serious. He looks you straight in the eye, says a sentence like he’s firing a shot, and then waits for a reaction.” Nahman muses that “prophets must come from elsewhere, must suddenly appear, seem strange, out of the ordinary. Be shrouded in mystery…” This otherworldly man, it begins to occur to those around him, may be the long-awaited Messiah. His brazen assuredness is mesmerizing, if perplexing, and he comes to be called “the Lord” by his increasing throng of followers.

Mainline and esoteric Abrahamic theologies alike are utterly malleable in Jacob’s hands and conflations abound. “In this religion of the end of days,” we are told, “all three religions will be braided into one.” In this way, Frank recalls Sabbatai Zevi, a 17th-century messiah claimant who notoriously converted to Islam to escape death. Jacob Frank is Jewish but, after arriving in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, he continues to dress in a fashion associated with Islam. Eventually, he persuades his Jewish followers to be baptized into the Catholic faith, to the shock of all. And, upon being baptized, Frank’s faithful are assigned new “Christian” names, which results in confusion for Frankists and readers alike.

With each theological development, the central question deepens: does he intend to truly reunite the three Abrahamic faiths, or does he simply use conversion as a means to better navigate the local social structures? It is not so easy to say: again and again, he is regularly overcome with ecstatic visions and seems to possess inexplicable power. His followers know that they defy him at their peril, and the surrounding Jewish and Catholic communities struggle to understand what is happening. And, all the while, ethereal Yente looks on.

As the novel progresses, Frank takes on Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh-esque dimensions. In his system, “divinity and sinfulness are everlastingly connected.” Religious rite and convention are abandoned, and rumors of sexually-charged secret rituals are confirmed in a bizarre ceremony wherein Frank’s cousin Hayah, who also seems in possession of unexplained power, is presented half naked to a group of men—including several family members. Supposedly, “the Torah itself has entered… Hayah; that is what beams out now through her skin.” Throughout the book, Frank attempts to elevate femininity conceptually to actually subjugate the women around him. Thus, women remain at his beck and call—to the point that, when he falls ill, he demands to be nursed with breast milk.

“The Lord” revises theological and social norms to maintain purchase upon his followers. The inherent slipperiness of his mystical outlook provides a convenient framework to contain the cognitive dissonance required to follow his leadership. He presents himself as both cunning and aloof. Even when tried for heresy by the Catholic church, Frank neither refutes nor acknowledges claims that he believes himself to be the Messiah.

As the book continues, Frank’s obstacles become numerous, yet he always manages to emerge victorious. He escapes betrayal, a life sentence to prison, war, massive debts, and the trouble brought on by his ever-precarious position. Through it all, “Jacob’s spirits were not dampened… On the contrary: this chaos was giving him strength.”

However, not all of the chaos remains in his control: the book portrays the evolution of the previously insular setting as it becomes increasingly exposed to what lies beyond its borders: Descartes, Paraguay, Africa, Alaska, Canada, hurricanes, Kant, Mozart. Foreshadowing the Holocaust, a Catholic priest, annoyed with the Jewish community, longs to do “something decisive, irreversible.” And toward the novel’s close come reckonings with the Enlightenment and the Napoleonic wars. The world that produced “the Lord” is changing, and the relative (though imperfect) calm he has exploited is disappearing.

With The Books of Jacob, Olga Tokarczuk has performed an incredible reversal: while the real-life Frank fabricated to conceal, Tokarczuk has invented to reveal. Through the use of fiction, Tokarczuk fleshes out what has been lost to history through a portrayal replete with beautiful period illustrations, the ghostly presence of a forgotten woman who cannot quite die, and a cacophonous ecosystem of characters. Especially moving are the closing portrayals of the characters that have been most used by Frank: Eva, his daughter and heir-apparent; Hayah, his cousin; and Nahman, his devoted apostle. To name just a few.

The Books of Jacob is a sui generis work that presents a beautifully nuanced take upon belief. Lesser writers incorporating this almost unbelievable set of real-life events into fiction would have likely veered into easy mockery and dismissal. As Frank’s health deteriorates and his tenure as the “maybe-Messiah” comes to a close, Tokarczuk’s narrative gracefully considers the legacy of the Frankists. Jacob was an extraordinary swindler, but was there any part of his life that deserves our pity? His followers may have been naïve and beguiled, but was it so wrong to hope for more than the world had so far offered them? In the end, The Books of Jacob provides narrative closure but few answers. Like Yente, we are left hovering in consideration over this beautiful and dizzying book that will almost certainly become a defining work of its generation.