The stories in Sabrina Orah Mark’s newest collection, Wild Milk, are as careful, diamond-sharp, and surprising as the narrative poems of Elizabeth Bishop. Dorothy, a publishing project, which is committed to “works of fiction or near fiction or about fiction, mostly by women,” has, for nearly 10 years, proven an ally to genre-bending writing. Mark’s book is on a par with the best work they’ve put out, such as Leonora Carrington’s The Complete Stories and Jen George’s The Babysitter at Rest. By turns absurd, fantastic, and autobiographical, these stories—all living in the exciting space between the traditional short story and the prose poem—build upon the world Mark has been constructing for 15 years, starting with The Babies (2004) and Tsim Tsum (2009). Within a single story, the register will shift with breathtaking speed from a fairy tale or Hasidic folktale to a Beckett play and then, in the blink of an eye, to the fiery candor of confessional poetry. At one moment you’re arrested by Mark’s wit, her penchant for puns and malaprops, and the next you’re soaring into the visionary territory of mystic literature. As in “Tweet,” when “following the Rabbi” on Twitter transforms into an actual ritual procession, the metaphorical becomes literal and the literal becomes metaphorical, much like Kafka’s play on Ungeziefer in The Metamorphosis. First and foremost, however, this collection is about family and its various hoods—motherhood, step-motherhood, daughterhood, sisterhood, childhood, fatherhood, grandfatherhood, grandmotherhood, et al. Each of these roles is shot through with joys and obsessions and is taxonomically open, in that the roles shift and blur when emotional (or imaginative) pressure is applied. The narrator’s personas circle around an array of family members, such as the incorrigible brother Gary, a husband named Poems or Louis C.K., a usurping Sister, sons who metamorphose into daughters, a stepchild named Ugrit, a father shrinking (quite literally) before the specter of a pogrom, imaginations of mothers like Hillary Clinton and Diana Ross, and literary parents such as Emily Dickinson, Franz Kafka, Walter Benjamin, Samuel Beckett, and Gertrude Stein. Although Wild Milk is much more than the sum of its parts, a collage of lines from the stories “Everything Was Beautiful and Nothing Hurt,” “Mother at the Dentist,” “For the Safety of Our Country,” “Spells,” “The Maid, the Mother, the Snail, & I,” and “There’s a Hole in the Bucket” can provide a small window into Mark’s unique world: “Poems cries so hard a cloud bursts, and children spill out”; “A man can only wait for his wife at the dentist for so long until he wanders outside to buy a newspaper and never returns”; “Under his left eye appears to be a small patch of moss where a flower could grow if only he believed in himself a little more”; “I dream my sons return to me, floating through the kitchen with bundles of wood”; “I read somewhere that some Jews escaped Poland by hiding in coffins”; and my absolute favorite: “With a stone in his hand, Mendelssohn reaches all the way into the bucket, past the hole, past god, and summer, and almonds, and shame, and the ocean, and mice, and love, and fevers, and worship, and snails, and teeth, and lilac, and forgiveness, and a song about a bucket with a hole in it, and past all the children singing the song, and past their children singing it, and their children’s children, and past my broken heart until he reaches the oldest water and wets the stone.” To read a Mark story is a beautiful spectacle, to experience a wonderfully choreographed tightrope performance. But it’s a melancholy performance, too, since none of her characters are expert funambulists. They are nervous, tender, cruel, funny, and messy human (and sometimes nonhuman) beings. Wild Milk is not fantasy untethered to our historical moment. The social commentary is cutting, sometimes on the nose and at others skillfully oblique: Mark’s narrators are bruised by an economy that doesn’t properly value teaching and creative writing, in which a patriarchal boy’s club (represented by “Donald … the man none of us will ever be”) presides over a moribund academic job market; the current presidential tragedy is given its day in court; age-old anxieties about miscegenation are addressed with bitter irony when Grandpa—who cannot escape his own legacy of persecution—grudges the narrator’s marriage to a black man; and the unabated ripple effects of the Holocaust are still felt powerfully by her Jewish characters in their inner and outer lives. In short, Wild Milk is original and unforgettable—without a doubt my favorite book of 2018.
Like many kids who grew up in small towns where there wasn't much to do, I spent my adolescence going to punk rock shows. I wasn't an actual punk, mind you. While other kids bleached their hair and affixed Black Flag patches to their backpacks, I wore Wrangler jeans and ill-fitting sweaters, looking every inch the sheltered homeschooler that I was. But my complete lack of effort had the useful effect of making me appear harmless and amusing in the eyes of local gatekeepers. At least I wasn't a poser. I was an awkward kid looking for something to do, and that put me in good company. Even if I didn't dress the part, I loved going to the shows. Sure, it was fun to let loose in the mosh pit and yell along with the band, but what I loved most was the sense of meaning, the feeling that seeing this particular band on this specific night was the most important thing in the world. I may have lived in a nowhere town with no culture to speak of, but those punk shows held in park pavilions and VFW halls were our own personal TV channel, our radio station, our makeshift religion. The perfect vehicle for that mix of earnestness and pretension that defines adolescence. Jeff Jackson's new novel Destroy All Monsters dedicates itself to depicting these feelings of isolation and transcendence. It follows several different players in a local music scene that will be familiar to anyone who's hung around a merch table. But this is no nostalgia trip. You won't find wistful odes to the scene of the author's youth. Instead you'll find violence and contagion leaping from scene to scene, leaving real bodies in its real wake. Is this the dormant spirit of rock and roll, come to wreak vengeance on its halfhearted acolytes for their lack of faith? Or is some malevolent force using the music as a means of locating victims to satisfy its urges? The novel begins (for the first time, but more on that later) at a theater in Arcadia, a kind of everytown whose abandoned factories and dilapidated warehouses can be found everywhere in the country. It's the night of a concert put on by the Carmelite Rifles, local heroes who look to be on the verge of making it big. (The band's name, combining devotion with violence, is a good encapsulation of the book's style.) The Rifles do make it out of Arcadia to start playing bigger shows, which has the unintended consequence of causing the bands left behind to become grouchy and unambitious. Such a dynamic has happened before, of course. But what happens next is unexpected. The bands start dying. The first act of violence occurs in Arcadia. A local band consisting of scenesters who were present at the Carmelite Rifles is attacked by a concertgoer wielding a handgun. One of the band members dies. The assailant is captured, but he offers no explanation for his actions, as if he were a puppet being controlled by someone else. And this is just the beginning. The same scenario recurs in other towns. An obscure local band is attacked by a gunman who gives no reason for his actions. Again and again this happens, quickly being designated an epidemic. But no cause—no original virus—is discovered, to say nothing of a cure. The victims go on to relive the violence, forming new bands to play the same venues, as if they're daring the killers. Ever since Buddy Holly died in a plane crash, death and rock and roll have always gone together. Many of the greatest rock musicians played with this legacy. Perhaps most germane to Jackson's project is David Bowie, who encouraged (and possibly started) rumors that he was going to be killed onstage during his glam rock phase. But Bowie was a star and a genius, making him a plausible target for a psychopath looking to claim some meager portion of fame for himself. These are local bands whose only distinction is being targeted for violence. What is compelling the killers? One of Arcadia’s scenesters, a young woman named Xenie, has a theory. Even speaking it aloud frightens her. "The killers wanted music to matter again. They wanted to purify it. It's like they were thinning the herd, putting wounded animals out of their misery." Disturbing, yes, but also undeniably punk. Punk is the anthem of negation, of ripping it up and starting again, to paraphrase both the song by Orange Juice and the book by Simon Reynolds. But the very real violence visited upon these bands feels like an empty gesture, what happens when the spirit of punk has drained away, leaving only blood and safety pins. It reminds me of a meme that's been pinging around Twitter. Yes, Donald Trump is president, degrading our laws and culture with his every tweet, but at least he'll inspire some decent punk songs. I am struggling to prevent myself from typing "Make Punk Great Again," but it appears I'm unsuccessful. But that seems like a lousy deal right now. I don't even think it's accurate, either. Far from inspiring artists, Trump seems to be exhausting them, warping reality more quickly than they can depict it. Is this all that Destroy All Monsters has to offer? An elegy for a subculture that's run its course? Not at all, and the real clue as to what this book is up to lies in in its unique structure. Destroy All Monsters is really two books: a novel called "My Dark Ages" and a novella called "Kill City." These are Side A and Side B of the book, literally. You flip the book over to read the other story, just like a vinyl single. Expanding the universe of a story is a device that more and writers have been trying out recently. Jeff VanderMeer did this with The Strange Bird, a novella that expands on events only glimpsed at in Borne. David Mitchell's entire oeuvre takes place in the same shared universe, and eventually will cover millions of years, from the dawn of humanity to its eventual transformation. But Jackson is up to something different. "Kill City" isn't an expansion of "My Dark Ages." It's more like a retelling, or—since this is a story about music—a cover version. It takes some of the characters and events from the other story and shuffles them, changing backstories, fates, and so on, as if the story was retold by someone who heard it secondhand at a crowded bar. It transforms the story as thoroughly as Joan Jett transformed Tommy James when she covered "Crimson and Clover." But that's still just the secondary point. The main point is that stories—any story, anywhere—are being capable of being transformed. Their meanings can be altered, their contexts shifted, if you just know where to push. Perhaps that sounds hopelessly postmodern—metanarratives endlessly in flux and whatnot. But at a moment when the narratives that define our daily lives can seem inflexibly constricting, it sounds downright hopeful. It can take a while to hear it, but when punk says "no" to this world, it's a way of saying "yes" to a new one.
The sun is a cold star. It’s heart, spines of ice. Its light, unforgiving. In February, the trees are dead, the river petrified, as if the springs had stopped spewing water and the sea could swallow no more. These ominous lines open Éric Vuillard’s The Order of the Day, which won France’s 2017 Prix Goncourt. Poetically translated by Mark Polizzotti, the book shines a light on the industrial titans and politicians behind Hitler’s might. With chilling precision and moral authority, Vuillard draws a straight line between the marching orders Hitler gave to Germany’s moguls, and the Anschluss. Order of the Day opens in 1933 at a secret meeting in the Reichstag. Twenty-four scions of German industry attend, their names familiar from our washers, coffee makers, and elevators—Krupp, Siemens, Opel, to name a few. They are pillars of German society, fathers of German business: They doffed twenty-four felt hats and covered twenty-four bald pates or crown of white hair …. The venerable patricians stood in the huge vestibule, exchanging casual, respectable banter, as if at the starch opening of a garden party. The men trudge up the steps to wait in the palace of the President of the Assembly. They exchange smiles and “whispers between two sneezes …. nostrils honked in the silence.” Hermann Goering, President of the Reichstag, strides into the room. “The twenty-four lizards rose to their hind legs and stood stiffly,” nodding solemnly in agreement, as Goering announces that it’s “time to get rid of that wishy-washy regime once and for all.” Hitler joins the assembly—affable and friendly. He clarifies the political situation. These men must pony up, which should be no problem since they are used to “kickbacks and backhanders”: “Corruption is an irreducible line item in the budget of large companies, and it goes by several names: lobbying fees, gifts, political contributions. Most of the guests immediately handed over hundreds of thousands of marks. Gustav Krupp gave a million.” We are soon in 1937, following the annexation of the Saarland, the remilitarization of the Rhineland, and the bombing of Guernica by the Condor Legion. Vuillard probes the complicity of England’s elite: Halifax, Lord President of the Council [England’s foreign minister], went privately to Germany at the behest of Hermann Goering, Reich Aviation Minister, Commander in Chief of the Luftwaffe, Minister of the Interior, resident of the defunct Reichstag, and creator of the Gestapo. That’s a mouthful, yet Halifax did not bat an eyelid: the truculent, operatic figure, the notorious anti-Semite with his chestload of decorations, did not strike him as odd. Vuillard discloses that Neville Chamberlain, England’s conciliator-in-chief, owned a number of properties in London, one of which he rented to Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hitler’s ambassador to England until 1938: “From this anodyne fact … no one has drawn the slightest inference.” Vuillard cannot refrain from voicing such opinions; he’s compelled to judge the underlying facts. Austria’s capitulation—its citizens warmly embracing the Nazis—was instrumental to the cataclysm. No matter that Hitler’s military equipment ran into massive mechanical failures lumbering into Austria. That same machine, well-greased and powerful, became the terror of Europe, financed and fueled by its capitalist backers. [millions_ad] Describing the Austrian leader Kurt Schuschnigg’s reactions to the Anschluss, Vuillard writes, “The border lay just ahead, and Schuschnigg was suddenly seized by apprehension. He felt as if the truth was just beyond his grasp.” (Schuschnigg was imprisoned as soon as the Nazis consolidated power in Austria, and interned for the rest of the war.) With the insertion of his personal voice, Vuillard’s narration echoes his countryman, Laurent Binet. Binet won the 2006 Prix Goncourt for HHhH (translated into English by Sam Taylor), an account of the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich by Czech resistance fighters. Heydrich’s was the only assassination of a senior Nazi official during the war. Binet narrates historical events with meticulous attention to facts. But writing in first person, he frequently inserts himself, telling the reader what he is doing and why: I’m now going to paint a portrait of the two heroes with much less hesitation than before, as all I need to do is quote directly from the British Army’s personnel reports. Or: I, too, am transfixed—because I’m reading Europe Central by William T. Vollmann, which has just appeared in French. Whereas Binet’s personal asides are distracting and self-important, Vuillard’s glisten with righteous indignation. Vuillard’s language is beautifully and economically crafted; his judgments raise crucial questions. Commenting on the chaos and failure of German equipment at the Austrian border during the Anschluss, Vuillard offers this: We have to remind ourselves that, at that moment, Blitzkrieg was nothing. It was just a bunch of stalled Panzers. Just a monstrous traffic jam on the Austrians highways, some furious men …. What’s astounding about this war is the remarkable triumph of bravado, from which we can infer one lesson: everyone is susceptible to a bluff. Without a sense of hurry, Vuillard brings us to the Nuremberg trials, presenting a horrifying picture of two men once at the pinnacle of Nazi power: At the memory of [an] overplayed exclamation, perhaps sensing how dissonant that stagey bit of dialogue was with History-capital-H, with its decency, the image it conveys of great events, Goering looked at Ribbentrop and guffawed. And Ribbentrop, too, was shaken by nervous laughter. Sitting opposite the international tribunal, opposite their judges, opposite journalists from the world over, amid the ruins, they could not help laughing. Order of the Day is a stark examination of the price of silence, the cost of sticking to the rules to keep the peace, and the human toll when ruling elites not only go along to get along, but support the ravings of a violent and vengeful leader: We shower History with abuse …. We never see the grimy hem, the yellowed tablecloth, the check stubs, the coffee ring. We only get to see events from their good side. And yet, if we look closely, on the photo showing Chamberlain and Daladier in Munich beside Hitler and Mussolini, just before signing the agreement, the English and French prime ministers do not look very pleased with themselves. Still, they signed. Where are we now? Order of the Day demands that that question be asked. Wealth and power grow together. What are the risks when private capital is concentrated in quantities never before seen? The German industrial complex partnered with and profited handsomely from the Nazis. We buy our coffee makers and luxury cars and cameras and telephones and gasoline from companies that eagerly availed themselves of slave labor: Bayer took laborers from Mauthausen. BMW hired in Dachau, Papenburg, Sachsenhasen, Natzwiler-Struhof, and Buchenwald. Daimler in Schirmeck. IG Farben recruited in Dora-Mittelbau, Gross-Rosen, Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald, Ravensbrück, and Mauthausen, and operated a large factory inside the camp at Auschwitz, impudently listed as IG Auschwitz on the company’s org chart. Agfa recruited at Dachau. Shell in Neuengamme. Schneider in Buchenwald. Telefunken in Gross-Rosen, and Siemens in Buchenwald, Flossenbürg, Neuengamme, Ravensbrück, Sachsenhausen, Gross-Rosen, and Auschwitz. Everyone had jumped at the chance for such cheap labor. Today, we are again experiencing a leader with complete contempt for the law. History is, unfortunately, riddled with them. Here’s Hitler’s reaction to the weakened Austrian leader meekly trying to cite the Austrian constitution: But the strangest part was the reaction of Hitler, who stammered in turn, “So, you have the right…” as if he couldn’t quite grasp what was happening. Objections of constitutional law were beyond him. Order of the Day looks back on a dark time for humankind, but it is also a clarion call to our current era. “Truth is scattered into many kinds of dust,” Vuillard writes. “This great jumble of misery, in which horrific events are already taking shape, is dominated by a mysterious respect for lies.” What is the fallout from a leader whose sole means of communication is lying? Be forewarned, Vuillard cautions. Heads of state can be remarkably effective in bludgeoning perceived enemies and lying their way forward. It’s not too difficult to wreak havoc on your own people with the stroke of a pen. Vuillard suggests that if we are lucky enough to survive, it will be because the lessons of history have not been squandered on us.
Martin Seymour-Smith was a grumpy fellow. A promising poet who took up writing big reference books of literary criticism, his highly idiosyncratic 1977 survey Who’s Who In Twentieth Century Literature is deliciously highbrow junk food. But like strawberry Pocky or matcha Kit-Kat, Seymour-Smith isn't for everyone. His effort to catalogue the literary scene is full of curiously gleeful put-downs and undercooked psychoanalysis. He pronounces Hemingway “by no means intelligent ... seriously overrated,” sums up Nabokov as “a distinguished lepidopterist” and “a minor writer of distinction,” and tenderly humiliates Updike’s Rabbit, Run as "brilliant ... but too much so." Who’s Who would be an impossible book to write today: Seymour-Smith is skeptical of literary personality at its core. The entries on particularly mythic writers like Hemingway and Faulkner show a dogged commitment to tearing down the aegis of respectability surrounding these figures. As a critic he is digressive, laughably biased, and mean-spirited. For Seymour-Smith, even the century's most celebrated writers deserve about as much humiliation as praise. Faulkner, for example, “worked from intuition and passion and never from what an educated man would call thought ... if anyone believes that he possessed a mind in the usual sense, let him read the text of the Nobel Prize speech (1950): cliché-ridden, naive.” The entry goes on to praise the Yoknapatawpha novels and Seymour-Smith assures us “there is no doubt ... of his high stature; and doubtless the poor work was part of the price—heavy and exhausting drinking-bouts were another—that he had to pay for his achievement.” On Hemingway he is far less generous: “inept ... he knew nothing about bull-fighting, as Death in the Afternoon (1932) which purports to be about it, makes painfully clear.” One has to wonder where Seymour-Smith had gotten his bullfighting intelligence, but no matter. After informing readers that The Old Man and the Sea is Hemingway’s attempt to describe how difficult it had become for him to produce anything of value, he dismisses it as “a portentous and pretentious analogy.” Worse still are Hemingway’s personal qualities: “He was a liar, he was treacherous to those to whom he owed most.” Finally, Seymour-Smith concludes that “the decency [Hemingway] found is limited and answers little.” Seymour-Smith’s suspicion of material and critical success is obvious, and he tries his best to ignore it: The obligatory mention of Nobel Prizes is terse and unaccompanied by commentary, like the very mention of the achievement has to be torn out of him. Listen to him on Sinclair Lewis, who won the Nobel in 1930: “Only of socio-anthropological interest; as a writer he is almost worthless.” And contemporary darlings like Heller, Tolkien, and Kerouac (“On the Road ... was typed on long rolls of art-paper and reads like it”) do not even get the dubious honor of a long polemic: They are characterized more as cult leaders than writers. Yes, Seymour-Smith is nasty, even cruel. And maybe he has too much fun demolishing “important” books and big egos. But Seymour-Smith was much more than a bundle of sassy contrarian impulse. If that was the extent of his contribution to literary criticism, Seymour-Smith could be safely forgotten: a minor figure, as he himself might say. But Seymour-Smith is not a jealous critic, an artistic failure who uses his prodigious intellectual powers to denigrate people who can do what he can’t. His tendency to humiliate the high and mighty is joined with a corresponding instinct to elevate the unknown and the under-appreciated. He is like that pitiful sports fan who roots for the underdog on a sort of sick, masochistic principle. He fawns over figures who are largely overlooked or still underrated today, as when he casually informs the reader that Wyndham Lewis was the greatest writer of the 20th century. The zanily extensive entry on Lewis, more than twice the length of Faulkner’s and probably the longest in the book, calls Lewis’ The Human Age "the greatest single imaginative prose work in English of this century." Seymour-Smith admires Gombrowicz and Rhys; Rebecca West's fiction, "though always evincing respect, has not had its due," and her absolute doorstop Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is “great journalism”—though he can't help adding in characteristic Seymour-Smith fashion—“if journalism can be great.” Isak Dinesin is “one of the most original writers of her time” and “it is hardly surprising that she should be attracting more and more attention.” Other writers Seymour-Smith praises are probably known almost exclusively to graduate students. Seymour-Smith, for all his snobbery, is deeply progressive—he sees that the literary canon is criminally narrow, and he believes in the redistribution of prestige and attention. With his praise of the forgotten and his commitment to interrogating the greatness of the “greats,” he warns readers away from graven images. The famous and successful are not titans, invulnerable and remote figures whose work is sacrosanct. They are as small and compact as we are, they squabble and stumble just as we do. Much ink has been spilled in laments for the death of the negative book review. Readers of Who’s Who nostalgic for the era of pugnacious critics will take immediate pleasure in the spiteful wit displayed on every page. But after that cheap thrill there is something else: gratitude and even trust. You have been taken into a confidence. Even if it is an icky one—after all, you didn't really need to know that Seymour-Smith thought Yukio Mishima was "evil and cruel ... no more than a nasty little boy." Seymour-Smith’s opinions, though designed to some extent to be abrasive, come from a somewhat more different lineage than the hatchet job, another literary tradition in danger of being lost. It is not so much that Seymour-Smith has a negative outlook—though he can be relied upon to dislike things—it is that he has an opinion at all, a clear viewpoint expressed with expertise and self-assurance. He is idiosyncratic, he is bold, and he avoids platitudes. He is a curmudgeon. He has unpopular opinions. He is a voice of dissent. He is an enemy of the comfortably established; he is the ally of the unsung. Most of all, Seymour-Smith's book is an antidote to today's largely toothless criticism, a reminder of a time when literature was more confident in itself and its merits, to a time when critics like Seymour-Smith could be safely unloosed upon the reputations of literary darlings—when we might have even cracked a smile about it. In this way Seymour-Smith is like the boisterous uncle of literature. He is the uncle who hasn't been seen in awhile. He shows up to the house uninvited, has a couple of highballs, and then casually confesses shocking family secrets of which you had never dreamed. He will smoke cigarettes in the formal living room, but long after he's left sheepishly, and maybe in a hurry, you'll still think of what he had to say.
1. In 1922, the same year the USSR entered the world, the poet Osip Mandelstam moved to Moscow, hoping to establish himself as a leading voice of the Socialist utopia he’d supported since his teens. Instead, he found himself an outcast. In early Soviet Moscow, writers as daringly erudite as Mandelstam were dismissed as the vestiges of a corrupt, decadent era. The Stalin regime would later invent a phrase for these types: “rootless cosmopolitans.” The phrase was a dog whistle for “Jewish intellectuals,” a great many of whom—Mandelstam included—had supported the Bolshevik uprising in the hope of ending centuries of state-sponsored anti-Semitism, only to find themselves the national scapegoats once again. By 1933, Mandelstam’s disillusionment with the Soviet state was complete. He composed a piquant satirical poem, suggesting that Stalin (Mandelstam called him “the Kremlin mountaineer,” but everyone knew what that meant) had rendered all of Russia rootless: We live without feeling the country beneath us, our speech at ten paces inaudible, and where there are enough for half a conversation the name of the Kremlin mountaineer is dropped. His thick fingers are fatty like worms, but his words are as true as pound weights. his cockroach whiskers laugh, and the tops of his boots shine. Around him a rabble of thick-skinned leaders, he plays with the attentions of half-men. Some whistle, some meow, some snivel, but he just bangs and pokes […] Inevitably, word got out, and by 1934, Mandelstam had been banned from every one of the USSR’s largest cities. Even after he’d relocated to the provincial town of Voronezh, the newspapers continued to call him a dangerous traitor. The secret police arrested him in 1938, one year into the Great Purge that would claim a million lives; that August, he was sentenced to five years of hard labor in Siberia. By December, he was dead. 2. In 1930, exactly halfway between the end and the beginning of the end, Mandelstam traveled to Armenia, at the time a semi-autonomous arm of the Soviet Union. The Stalin regime was then in the process of sending writers to freshly annexed parts of the country; it was Mandelstam’s job to “discover” the triumphs of Socialism out west, proving that the territory’s belonged under Moscow’s thumb. The report he would complete in 1933—available in a beautiful new edition from Notting Hill, translation by Sidney Monas—ranks among the weirdest and most enchanting works of 20th-century Russian literature. In an era of crudely complaisant books that trumpeted their patriotism on every page, Journey to Armenia dared to be uncategorizable: a travel journal that barely mentions traveling, written in a form that isn’t quite prose or poetry, by an author who hasn’t quite made up his mind about Socialism’s promises. By emphasizing these ambiguities instead of drowning them in propaganda, Mandelstam captured the USSR at a crossroads in its grim history, when Stalin’s crimes were already clear enough to many but the utopianism of the 1910s hadn’t worn off completely—to put it another way, at the last time when something like Journey to Armenia could be written and published, albeit in a censored form. There are times in the book where Mandelstam still sounds like the card-carrying Bolshevik he’d been 15 years earlier. Replace “Armenian” with “proletariat” in the following sentence and you could be reading the transcript of one of Lenin’s early speeches: The Armenians’ fullness of life, their rough tenderness, their noble inclination for hard work, their inexplicable aversion to any kind of metaphysics, and their splendid intimacy with the world of real things—all this said to me: you’re awake, don’t be afraid of your own time, don’t be sly. Journey to Armenia contains too many beautifully composed passages like this one for the sentiment to be altogether phony. Mandelstam didn’t only travel to Armenia because the Soviet Union forced him; he genuinely admired the land and he saw in its proud, strong people a glimmer of hope for international Socialism. Yet he also fretted over his own hopefulness. Unlike many of the great travel writers he alludes to in his work—Goethe, Delacroix, Gauguin—Mandelstam had the presence of mind to wonder if he wasn’t simply seeing what he wanted to see from the USSR’s outer territories. “Am I really like the dreadful child,” he wrote in an early draft, “who turns in his hand a pocket mirror and directs into all the places he shouldn’t the dazzle from the sun?” When the book was published, his question was, naturally, cut. 3. At the end of 1930, on the long journey back to Moscow, Mandelstam composed a short cycle of poems about the country he’d just left. “Not ruins,” he wrote of Armenia, “no, but a cutting-down of a mighty circular wood / Anchor-like stubs of cut oak-trees of a wild and legendary Christianity.” The image of the tree’s rings is quintessential Mandelstam—in his poetry, he’s forever finding ways of translating time into matter and matter back into abstraction—but it also suggests why Armenia interested him. The country had been a province of the Roman Empire; later it became the first to adopt Christianity as the official religion. It was also, traditionally, the land where Jason and the Argonauts sailed to find the Golden Fleece, and where Noah’s Ark came its final resting place. Traveling through Armenia was for Mandelstam a way of slicing cleanly through history, revealing the layers of Greek, Roman, Hebraic, and Christian that together made up Western civilization. As a young man, Mandelstam had learned to think of all civilization as a kind of cross-pollination process in which ideas were constantly mixing, shooting off in unforeseeable directions, adapting to new environments. His formative years mirrored this process. He was born in 1891 to Polish-Jewish parents; his father, a wealthy merchant, was able to purchase the right to move his family to Saint Petersburg, where only a handful of Jews were allowed to live. In 1911, Mandelstam renounced Judaism and converted to Methodism in order to enroll at the University of Saint Petersburg. In his rich, allusive poetry, the Old and New Testaments sit shoulder-to-shoulder with Homer and Ovid—like other Modernists, he seems to have decided early on that art was his true religion. His sect is harder to define. For most of his adult life, Mandelstam identified with the Acmeist school of poetry, the tenets of which are almost comically obscure; the Mandelstam scholar Clarence Brown once wrote, “I doubt that the program of Acmeism, as originally formulated, could ever be arrived at purely … on the evidence of the poems alone.” A typical way of defining Acmeism (Brown himself gives it a shot) is to contrast it with Symbolism, the dominant aesthetic mode in Russia at the dawn of the 20th century. Notable Symbolists, among them the writer Andrei Bely and the composer Alexander Scriabin, strove to unify all artistic disciplines: poetry, prose, music, and art were, by their reckoning, different dialects of a single human language. At one point, Bely and his peers theorized that all speech was descended from a set of phonemes with universal meanings—the phoneme “bl,” for example, signified tension, frustration, repression. (Bely later tipped his hat to this theory in his novel Petersburg, starring the tightly wound Nikolai Apollonovich Ableukhov.) Symbolist manifestos—and there are plenty—tend to strike a delightfully loopy note, blending mysticism with hard science. Acmeists thought they were beyond all that nonsense. Their poetry was blunter, their imagery more concrete; as Brown put it, “Their strength … was to come from contact with the earth.” With the benefit of hindsight, however, the two schools, whose members thought they were diametrically opposed on every issue, look pretty near identical. Like the Symbolists, Mandelstam believed in the existence of many tiers of language: not just the semantic meaning of words but also a deeper, hidden set of meanings. The difference, of course, was that his beliefs were real and scientific and the Symbolists’ were fairytales. At the core of Mandelstam’s interpretation of Acmeism was the idea that people of antiquity were highly aware of the world’s materiality, its sheer thingness—and were made so aware by the languages they spoke. Studying and imitating elaborate Homeric similes, then, wasn’t just an act of homage for Mandelstam but a way of reclaiming man’s connection with the world, which had been broken by the chaos of modern life. In a stanza from his first collection of poems, published in 1913, time itself is revealed to be a Classical literary device; to understand this literary device is to understand time in its full complexity: This day yawns like a caesura: a lull Beginning in the morning, difficult, going on and on: The grazing one, the golden langor powerless To call out of the reed the riches of one whole note. When he wrote these lines, Mandelstam saw no disagreement between Acmeism and Socialism; there are even passages in his work when he suggests that one can’t survive without the other. To Mandelstam, the Socialist revolution was a way of lifting up the veil and seeing the world as it truly was, without the Marxian alienation brought on by class and mechanization. For this, one needed poetry—clear, concrete, and grounded in the traditions of antiquity. The tragedy was that the Soviet Union saw no need for Mandelstam. 4. It’s impossible to read Journey to Armenia without being struck by the scope—and the sometimes charming, sometimes frustrating eccentricity—of the author’s thinking. Dodgy-sounding scientific proofs are offered for strange aesthetic prejudices; semi-mystical interpretations of history are discussed as matter-of-factly as the multiplication table. Mandelstam is especially fond of Paul Signac’s impressionist color theories, with their proto-Symbolist union of aesthetics, biology, and psychology. Harder to follow is his rehearsal of Alexander Gurwitsch’s largely discredited theory of mitogenetic radiation—in essence, that cells grow in different ways because they’re exposed to different kinds of light. It’s easy to dismiss these passages as pseudoscientific, maybe too easy. At a glance, is mitogenesis any less plausible than special relativity, DNA replication, the X-ray? In Armenia, Mandelstam thought he’d found the embodiment of his Hellenic theories. The common people, with their rough integrity, were utterly “of” the land as few moderns could be, and Mandelstam emphasizes the connection by likening their bodies to rust, brick, and clay. Allusions to the Armenian genocide of the previous decade (which the Soviet Union, to its credit, was one of the first nations to denounce) are rare in Journey to Armenia, but when they show up, Mandelstam always underscores the people’s indestructibility. He can’t visit an island covered in “yellowed bones” and “nameless graves” without mentioning that most of the inhabitants are healthy, energetic children with long lives ahead of them. His belief in the superiority of the Armenians’ bodies was inseparable from his belief in the superiority of their language, which he never mastered but continued to study with an almost supernatural awe. “Speech is work,” he writes (not a bad way of summing up his poetry), and the Armenians’ speech was the noblest kind of work, the heartiest, the most resilient: The Armenian language cannot be worn out; its boots are stone. Well, certainly, the thick-walled word, the layers of air in the semivowels. But is that all there is to its charm? No! Where does its traction come from? How to explain it? Make sense of it? I felt the joy of pronouncing sounds forbidden to Russian lips, secret sounds, outcast, and perhaps on some deep level, shameful. This passage (the first half, at least) fit nicely with Russia’s propaganda aims in the 1930s. A popular linguistic theory of the era, discussed at length in Journey to Armenia, held that the languages of the Caucasus—the region the Soviet Union had largely swallowed up, that is—shared a common proletarian heritage. The evidence for this was shoddy, to say the least, but Stalin was quick to ready upon any cultural bond between the Communist state and its surrounding territories, and he used the theory to flatter Armenia and Georgia into unification. Then in the 1950s, when the so-called Japhetic hypothesis was no longer of any use, he denounced it. The difference between Mandelstam’s claims and those of the Soviet propaganda machine, of course, was that Mandelstam genuinely believed in the majesty of Armenia, a country that, much like his poetry, was infused with Greek, Roman, Christian, and Hebraic influences. A bigger difference is that Mandelstam was humble enough to admit that he might also be wrong—that he might be drawn to the novelty of Armenia simply because he’d been sick of Russia for most of the last decade. The “sounds forbidden to Russian lips” he mentions aren’t just the literal noises of the Armenian language; they also suggest the free, open-minded conversations Mandelstam could pursue only while he was outside of Moscow, unburdened by the fear of surveillance. And so he relished his months abroad—also, perhaps, because he sensed they’d be the last happy months of his life. 5. One reads Mandelstam on race, politics, aesthetics, knowing what happened to him and to the Soviet Union, with a mixture of wonder and dread. The word “science” appears again and again in his writings, smoothing out the facts, patching over wide gaps in logic. Much of his long essay on Dante, also included in the Notting Hill edition, seems to rest on the claim that the author of the Divina Commedia was a learned crystallographer of “monstrous exactitude.” Mandelstam seems to know of no higher compliment than that his idol was a great scientist: Dante’s poetry partakes of all the forms of energy known to modern science. The future of Dante criticism belongs to the natural sciences … [Dante’s] “reflexology” of speech is astonishing—a science still not completely established … The tic-like use of the word “science” where it didn’t belong was also (as George Orwell notes perceptively in Animal Farm) a mainstay of early Soviet rhetoric. This comparison isn’t as arbitrary as it may seem. The Bolshevik Revolution had the overwhelming support of Mandelstam and the rest of the Russian intelligentsia, which had been taught that the rise of the proletariat was as much of a certainty as the revolution of the Earth around the sun. It was, in no small part, this scientific certainty in decidedly non-scientific matters that led Mandelstam and his peers to back a group of thugs and con artists—the same smug confidence that led an entire generation of Western intellectuals to ignore genocide and mass starvation, because the workers’ revolution was finally here, and facts were stubborn things, anyway. Both Mandelstam’s prose and the rise of the Soviet Union were—though in vastly different ways—triumphs of pseudoscientific reasoning. It’s easy to assume the best of writers because they so rarely have any real political power. We have no way of knowing what kind of societies would have emerged under the governance of George Bernard Shaw, D.H. Lawrence, or W.B. Yeats, to name only three authors with political ambitions and questionable politics. It’s probably better that way. For all his political passion, however, Mandelstam seems to have had little interest in forcing his ideas upon others, aside from a few literary rivals (and this makes him very different from Shaw, Lawrence, or even Yeats). He had his beliefs—some of which look pretty foolish in hindsight—but he also understood that belief, like art, like civilization, existed in a constant state of evolution; “an event, a happening, an arrow.” Unlike the bulk of early Soviet intellectuals, he never let his utopianism to harden into dogma, and this is largely why he fell out of favor. “Lamarck,” we’re told in Journey to Armenia, “fought sword in hand for the honor of living nature,” and it is significant that Mandelstam praises this half-forgotten French naturalist who believed that animals “chose” how to evolve over the millennia. While Stalinist officials offered crafty misreadings of Darwin’s theory of natural selection, with its emphasis on grand, overarching processes, Mandelstam celebrated the idea that individuals play a role in their own fate, that by consciously striving for improvement—a longer neck, a bigger brain, maybe even a better society—they can help themselves and pass the rewards on to their descendants. A pseudoscientific belief, to be sure, but also, at a time in Russian history when the individual was being rapidly obliterated, a heroic one. He died at 47, but his wife, Nadezhda Mandelstam, lived for another half-century. For much of that time, she had to travel across country to avoid arrest, never staying anywhere for more than a few weeks. Because she could never be sure that she’d be allowed to keep her own possessions, she devoted herself to memorizing thousands of lines of her late husband’s poetry; after the death of Stalin, she came out of hiding and set to work transcribing and publishing them. By the 1970s, Osip Mandelstam was beginning to be acknowledged as one of the 20th century’s great writers. He would have appreciated that, in order for his reputation to survive, his wife had to live after the fashion of that great, possessionless wanderer of the ancient world: Homer.
Washington Black is a terrific new narrative about enslavement, but that description fails to do it justice. Canadian writer Esi Edugyan’s third novel, long-listed for the Booker Prize, is a multi-faceted tale that travels across geography and history. In its rich details and finely tuned ear for language, the book creates a virtual world, immersing the reader in antebellum America and Canada as well as in Victorian England. The novel opens in Barbados, 1830, where Washington Black, an orphaned and enslaved boy, lives in brutality. “I cleared the cane, only my sweat was of value. I was wielding a hoe at the age of two.” Washington, or “Wash,” relies on Big Kit to care for him. Big Kit infuses Wash with her dream: to kill them both so that in death they can return to their Dahomey roots. Fate, however, has other plans. The master dies—“no one grieved him”—and his nephew, Titch, arrives from Britain to assess the estate. Titch, a scientist inventor, soon recognizes Wash’s talent for drawing, derived from his great powers of observation and insight. Wash’s description of the master’s cousin Philip, newly arrived in Barbados, serves as exquisite foreshadowing: Across from me Master Philip stared out at the distant tamarinds, their tops bowing in the dull wind. There were red fissures in the whites of his eyes, and under the mountain’s shadow his skin appeared grey. I noticed the flaking red knuckles, so strange on a man of leisure, the mesmerizing whiteness of his teeth; I saw the oddity of a body used for nothing but satisfying urges, bloated and ethereal as sea foam, as if it might break apart. He smelled of molasses and salted cod, and of the fine sweetness of mangoes in the hot season. I eyed him uneasily. Titch convinces his brother, the new plantation master, to “loan” him Wash. Together Titch and Wash work on experiments and Titch begins to educate Wash. Titch builds a Cloud Cutter (flying machine), in which he and Wash are forced to escape following a suicide for which Wash is framed for murder. Since Titch has not paid his brother for Wash, Wash is in jeopardy both as an alleged criminal and as “stolen property.” Wash travels—hunted and battered—through America and Canada. Here is Wash, escaped from America but still at peril in Nova Scotia: I was everywhere uneasy in my skin, and this made me irritable and nervous and desperately melancholy, though I could not then have expressed it so. The fear, the fear was always with me. And not just of [the bounty hunter’s] agents—kidnappers generally roamed the coast, and in the rainy, grey dusk they would stun a freed man in the street and drag him half-conscious onto a ship bound for the Southern states, to make of him a slave again. Spoilers prevent explaining why and how Wash and Titch end up in the Arctic, but the trek is fraught with danger and thoroughly engaging. Edugyan captures the Arctic so artfully, you want to reach for your parka to stay warm: Ah, but the cold. I dreamed about that cold for years after. It had a colour, a taste—it wrapped itself around one like an unwelcome skin and began, ever so delicately, to squeeze…. I had been warned … that snow was white, and cold. But it was not white: it held the colours of the spectrum. It was blue and green and yellow and teal; there were delicate pink tintings in some of the cliffs as we passed. As the light shifted in the sky, so too did the snow around us deepen, find[ing] new hues, the way an ocean is never blue but some constantly changing colour. Nor was the cold simply cold—it was the devouring of heat, a complete sucking of warmth from the blood until what remained was the absence of heat. When the wind stirred, it would scythe through the skin as if we were the cane and the wind were our terrible reaping. This isn't just a novelist’s flight of fancy; only a few decades after the time period in Washington Black, Matthew Henson began accompanying Robert Peary on his arctic expeditions. For over two decades, Henson, a black man, proved pivotal to the missions. He mastered Inuit and served as an indispensable physical and intellectual guide, despite Peary’s efforts to obscure Henson’s role. [millions_ad] More important than travelogue, however, is Washington Black’s interrogation of human attachment. Now a man, Wash struggles over his relationship with Titch. Their connection is encumbered with race and class issues, as well as Titch’s emotional baggage. Wash raises questions that are a template for examining the insanity of slavery and its damaging aftermath, even when the players consider themselves well-intentioned. Is Titch trying to be Wash’s father? If so, he is a crushing letdown. With his own selfish cares, Titch turns out to be emotionally stunted. He fails as a protector, unable or unwilling to appreciate the threats to Wash’s life. This is Wash, assaulted as he arrives with Titch in slave-holding Virginia, following their escape from Barbados: I was so frightened I closed my eyes…. I did not know where Titch had gone to, but I understood, in that moment, the terrible bottomless nature of the open world, when one belongs nowhere, to no one. At great peril, Washington Black makes his way to England, where he struggles to survive. In an effort to recapture his scientific past, he returns to drawing and acquires a student, Tanna, the adored daughter of a foibled zoologist/marine explorer. Tanna is a young woman who defies the stereotypes of her class and sex, and is nothing if not forthright. “You are like an interruption in a novel, Wash….” “I do not read novels.” “Do not let my endorsement dissuade you. They are not all as I describe.” Wash may an exemplar of the rational man, but the love story between Tanna and Wash is refreshing in its oddities and unconventionalities. Edugyan is a virtuosic writer. Her second novel, Half-Blood Blues, captures the racism and terror in 1939 Berlin and Paris through the lives of two jazz musicians. There too, she demonstrates an ear for dialogue and a facility for conjuring time and place. Along with creating an entire world in Washington Black, Edugyan satisfies the ultimate demand we make of novels: an intriguing examination of unanswerable, but essential, questions.
1. One of the themes that speak most powerfully from Christian Wiman’s writings—poems, essays, memoirs—is that of the absence of inspiration or the absence of God. To begin with the first formulation, Wiman concedes of the texts most close to his heart that for page after page after page they will fail to inspire. For one of the most prominent Christian poets working in North America today, it might seem surprising to see how he calls the Bible, for the most part, “cold ash.” It is also in these pages—his first volume of essays, Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet (2007)—that Wiman relates his time reading Milton in Guatemala in similar terms: reading for hours on end while getting nothing in return. The poet has to be patient, as his art doesn’t care for him in the same way he cares for her. The absence of God, the second form that this absence takes in Wiman’s writings, is a motif he takes from Simone Weil and, for the present volume, from the Spanish poet Juan Ramón Jiménez. The absence of God in the contemporary world is, to Wiman, the cue par excellence for Christian faith to seize on. What presented him decisively with this cue was when, a year after he married the poet Danielle Chapman, he was diagnosed with a life-threatening form of cancer. Coming from a deeply religious family and culture, in the years following his diagnosis Wiman began to revisit the words, forms, and stories that belonged to his Christian upbringing. This theme of the absent God and the absence of inspiration connects to a crucial stake of Wiman’s work. This is the redemptive work of the poem itself, how it absolves the poet, and releases him from ambition. The poem, it seems, mediates between the self and grace. This is evinced by Ambition and Survival, as well as Wiman’s poetry, for instance “From a Window” from Every Riven Thing (2010) which ends with the lines “that life is not the life of men / And that is where the joy came in.” Joy, grace, God—as these concepts are not subject to ambition, which means they cannot be secured by the exercise of free will. All of Wiman’s writing brings out how the poet, with his own measure of skill, his form and style, attempts to come to terms with this lasting truth. Within poetry, there is something greater at stake than poetry itself—not just an expression of Christian thinking on Wiman’s, this is an essential stake of his poetics. Christian Wiman was known in literary circles for his poems and work as a critic, when he came into the spotlight as the editor of the renowned Poetry journal, at a time when that institution was gifted a massive financial bequest from Ruth Lilly in 2003. In fact, the present volume talks about his time working at Poetry’s Chicago offices, and it seems to hint at a running gag about Wiman’s resolution to stay with the journal for a year, maybe two or three at most, while in fact he ultimately held the job for a decade. Notwithstanding his legacy as the editor of Poetry, Wiman definitively made his name as a writer and thinker when in 2013 he published My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer. In this book, Wiman uses poetry and theology to contemplate his mortality and his illness as he searches for the words to articulate his faith. Currently, Wiman teaches religion and literature at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music and Yale Divinity School. With Wiman, absence effectively becomes conditional to whatever presence it denies. This is true for his poetics as well as his theology. In the case of poetry, Wiman often relates his discoveries in reading other poets as well as his own creative process as significantly coming from a place of intense boredom. For example, it matters to Wiman that Milton’s towering Paradise Lost is, for the most part, practically unreadable and certainly disagreeable to the contemporary reader, as it is also important to him that Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his prison letters, only seems to find his voice in the correspondence with his friend Eberhard Bethge. These examples are from Ambition and Survival and My Bright Abyss. Similarly, He Held Radical Light: The Art of Faith, the Faith of Art, his latest publication, takes its cue from a particularly uninspired performance of A.R. Ammons to build its narrative arc (Ammons is also behind the book’s title) while it also tells a funny and moving story about how Wiman finds unexpected joy and insight in the work of Mary Oliver—an experience that is confirmed when they meet. In this respect, the time with Poetry journal must have been highly formative, as it equipped him with the capacity of reading poetry as a desk-based job, describing himself as ”a clerk of verse.” The absent God is a point of theological principle to Wiman—influenced by Weil, Bonhoeffer, and other avant-garde Christian thinkers like Jürgen Moltmann, who take as their point of departure the image of Christ dying at the cross, crying out his abandonment. Importantly, however, Wiman speaks in this sense from experience, about this dangerous and unpredictable form of cancer that he has lived with since 2007. 2. He Held Radical Light displays the poetical prose familiar to readers of My Bright Abyss: Every sentence is chiseled into stone, beautiful and lasting. Although Wiman can be casual in his formulations—for example when he declares his regret with ever having put Lolita “into his brain”—his ear for the rhyme of a prose sentence, enhanced with great precision and sincerity, makes for a reading experience that is extremely rare. The transparency of the writing is so strong that it illuminates and reflects on the reader. There are also structural similarities between He Held Radical Light and My Bright Abyss, like Wiman’s fondness for telling sobering anecdotes about meeting older poets, as these play their part in preparing the young poet for a lifetime waiting on poetry. These two books are different on another level. While in My Bright Abyss, composed from standalone essays, Wiman is really writing aphorisms, He Held Radical Light consists of one single narrative thread. If the subject matter of the earlier book might have constrained Wiman to short bursts of writing, here his endurance has expanded. This dissimilarity aside, both books are difficult to revisit, to dip in to. The insights or thinking they inspire come with the flow of the writing; they are not reducible to any particular content. Wiman’s motif of underlining the absence of inspiration invites a comparison with his younger colleague, the poet and novelist Ben Lerner. In his essay The Hatred of Poetry (2016), Lerner has argued the radical inaccessibility of poetical content, one that is waymarked and forbidden precisely by the poem itself. The true poem, to Lerner, is forever absent. Lerner is dissatisfied with the contingent form every poem has to settle on, as it will inevitably fall short of the heavenly music it refers to. In this sense, it is revealing why Lerner values Dickinson over Keats: Personally, I have never found Keatsian euphony quite as powerful as Dickinson’s dissonance. I think this is because Dickinson’s distressed meters and slant rhymes enable me to experience both extreme discord… and a virtuosic reaching for the music of the spheres. In Dickinson, embedded into the very score of divine music, Lerner finds an immanent division and critique of poetical form, which is something his taste for poetical authenticity demands. Lerner perceives in Keats’s work a claim to a structural integrity that, to him, is simply untrue to the experience of poetry. In a spot-on digression, Lerner illustrates the divide between poetry and world as he relates the illusion of recognition when laymen hear the names of poets. I think this is phenomenologically accurate. It is telling, then, that even Lerner locates our botched attempts at identifying unknown poets within the capacity of memory, and of soul-searching, as if even those of us whose stated position would take an indifference to poetry think of it as something close to the heart. [millions_ad] Wiman’s stance is remarkable because he never gives up the point of the significance of poetry, even for a world that is indifferent. And this significance depends on the balance between the presence and absence of inspiration, of God, and the question of salvation. To some, perhaps, this explains Wiman as a religious poet. Indeed, Wiman is attuned to the miracle of experiencing poetical content, not in spite of the mediocrity of poetry—as with Lerner—but thanks to its genius. However, for Wiman it is a poetical demand that the poem moves beyond itself, moves beyond artistic or creative accomplishment. So when for a poet like Lerner there is a clean separation between the divine and profane, for Wiman the poem works as an intermediary, and can unlock eternal truths within a finite context. The existence of poetry has this religious meaning, it plays a part within the soteriological scheme of things. Soteriology means the study of salvation. As a field within systematic theology it has in recent years been taken up more and more in philosophy and political theory. For Wiman, the way he discusses soteriological questions has everything to do with the motifs I commenced this review with, the absence of God and the absence of inspiration. And this implies, crucially, how the poem itself is never enough. The poem is a means to purge the poet of their literary ambitions—not to realize them—and to help its audience navigate a way toward a truth that overrides the beauty of its language. It has to make the self see the innocence and vulnerability of the soul. One particularly moving motif from He Held Radical Light is that of the lineage of poets, of how the experience of the older poet is not just useful to their younger colleagues but eerily similar. It is as if the poets go through the same life, or at least confront the same ethical dilemma between life and art. Wiman suggests this, and more, by weaving certain patterns into his relationships with the world of poetry: his bad starts with female poets Susan Howe and Mary Arnold—after which reconciliation follows—and the way in which older male poets mentored him, notably Donald Hall, C.K. Williams, and Seamus Heaney. Especially within the context of such a short essay, and even when the writer concedes that perhaps every poet has a choice to make between art and life, these patterns stand out and remain puzzling. They remain puzzling as the poet’s dilemma is overshadowed by strange coincidences of fate, as the book relates an orchestrated scattering of illness striking, almost always cancer, among Wiman’s professional acquaintances. These are of more than superficial interest, and Wiman’s writing—and in this the new publication is more pronounced than its predecessor—works to save by remembering. And remember it does, if only for some time. Highly contingent and uncertain, this is how memory saves. Nothing illustrates this better than Wiman’s brief and entirely parenthesized recollection of another departed friend, halfway through the book, and his final struggle to remember a forgotten word from childhood. This restricted view on salvation, as always falling short, is the most radical idea from He Held Radical Light. 3. My Bright Abyss and He Held Radical Light—the change of pronoun between these titles indicates the bolder resolution of Wiman’s latest work. The new book is less personal, yet allows for more intimacy. For instance, in My Bright Abyss the poet Danielle Chapman, Wiman’s wife, was only indicated by her initial, while now she is named. In He Held Radical Light, Wiman sounds more at ease, surer of himself, as he is more generous to share his life with his readers. This readiness, by the unescapable paradox that Wiman analyses so well, of course means that he reveals less. Less personal, then, the condition of the absence of inspiration is attributed a more general pertinence, as indeed we see how the poets share their affliction, as human beings share their suffering. At the same time, the existence of the poem—lone bastion within this wasteland of boredom—holds a soteriological significance: The poem saves, yet it is not enough. Indeed, the poem can be soteriologically instrumental because it is not enough, and in Wiman’s reading every poem knows and enacts this insufficiency. This is Wiman’s explicit position, outlined halfway through the book within a brilliant discussion of Philip Larkin’s final poem “Aubade.” This is also the important difference between Wiman and Lerner: The poem’s very insufficiency is drawn into the matter of salvation. We might call it Wiman’s wager: You must act as if the act itself were enough. There can be no beyond. You must spend everything on nothing, so to speak, if nothing is ever to stir for and in you. This stance goes with Wiman’s mature and sobered position of the significance of his, or any poet’s, legacy, as he gives up on the aspiration of his youth to write a poem that would “live forever.” Can the poet chance his salvation on writing great poems, perhaps on writing a single great poem? This question animated Ambition and Survival before, it remained in the background of My Bright Abyss, and here again it takes centre stage. “Yes and no” is Wiman’s answer, just as any religious stance is flawed in a way. (As Marilynne Robinson, a writer close to Wiman’s heart, has said, ”As soon as religion draws a line around itself, it becomes false.”) Ultimately, the poet has to risk it all on the creative life itself and suspend their share of this finished article that would last forever. To this truth, between these two incomparably accomplished works, perhaps My Bright Abyss will still bear stronger testimony. It successor, however, certainly benefits from its eerie assemblage of poetical recurrences within the lives of poets to bring out the soteriology of remembrance.
“It’s peculiar to me… that everybody pays so much attention to living and so little to dying,” Gloria Beatty says in the third chapter of Horace McCoy’s 1935 novel They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? “Why are these high-powered scientists always screwing around trying to prolong life instead of finding pleasant ways to end it?” Though the first chapter already reveals that Gloria was shot dead by the novel’s narrator at her request, the line still shocks the reader, like the alarm of a ship that has just hit an iceberg. Even in the Great Depression, this was simply too much. “The ending of McCoy’s novel is what the average mortal would call bleak. Naturally the bleak-minded readers… swoon with relief when the gunshot has done its work.” So writes Thomas Ligotti of the novel in The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, his 2011 survey of pessimism, republished this year by Penguin Books. “Yet even the consolations of bleakness have their limits,” he continues, “for those who treasure philosophical and literary works of a pessimistic, nihilistic, or defeatist nature as indispensable to their existence. And should bleakness itself fail them, they have been failed indeed.” Thomas Ligotti has been a “best kept secret” in literature since he began publishing in the 1980s. As a writer of horror fiction, he eschewed the basic tenets of concrete storytelling in favor of lyrical and atmospheric “weird tales.” Imagine Kafka on Creature Features. “Best-selling horror fiction,” Ligotti said, “[is] like network television. I’m your local cable access station.” It was only recently that this started to change. Concepts from Conspiracy, his only nonfiction book, began to seep into the zeitgeist. “The only honorable thing for our species to do is deny our programming, stop reproducing, and march hand-in-hand into extinction,” Matthew McConaughey spoke playing miserablist cop Rust Cohle in True Detective. Creator Nic Pizzolatto acknowledged Ligotti’s influence—some claim not enough—on Cohle’s character, whose musings io9 described as “drunken atheistic dorm room philosophy.” But four years removed from the show, and seven from its original publication, Conspiracy can now be judged on its own merits. And Conspiracy is not a screed but a copiously cited, elegantly argued examination. Consider it the literary equivalent of an offbeat wax museum, the kind found off a blink-or-you-miss-it highway exit, with one proprietor and startlingly uncanny tableaus of human ghastliness. Ligotti, with the wit of a decadent and the eloquence of a funeral organ, guides us confidently through the grimmer corners of intellectual and cultural history. It is gothic nonfiction in the tradition of Sir Thomas Browne, Thomas De Quincey, and Montague Summer. “This is the tragedy,” Ligotti writes. “Consciousness has forced us into a paradoxical position of striving to be unself-conscious of what we are—hunks of spoiling flesh on disintegrating bones.” This is his gloss of what he calls “Zapffe’s paradox.” Peter Wessel Zapffe, a minimally translated Norwegian philosopher, concluded that humanity’s uniquely acute consciousness merely altered it to “the brotherhood of suffering between everything alive,” and so sought to avert its consciousness as a way of surviving. Zapffe is perhaps the most cited author in the entire book—Ligotti strings the ideas of other philosophers, authors, religions, neuroscientists, ethics, and others back to Zapffe’s thesis, and he tests conventional optimism against Zapffe’s ultimate conclusion. “The sooner humanity dares to harmonize itself with its biological predicament, the better,” Zapffe said. “And this means to willingly withdraw in contempt for its worldly terms, just as the heat-craving species went extinct when temperatures dropped.” As Ligotti notes, anti-natalism is not a popular field of study. But Conspiracy falls chronologically between two other recent books: David Benatar’s Better to Never Have Been and Sarah Perry’s Every Cradle Is a Grave, published in 2008 and 2014 respectively. While these are more ethical studies, Conspiracy is a bit more multifaceted. Indeed, Ligotti is effectively intertwining two theses. Much of the first half of the book is taken up in bringing the reader up to speed on all the ways people have concluded that “being alive is not all right.” Going forward, Ligotti then shifts to aesthetic matters, and specifically to horror. Supernatural horror was one of the ways that would allow us to live with our double selves. By its employ, we discovered how to take all the things that victimize us in our natural lives and turn them into the very stuff of demonic delight in our fantasy lives. In story and song, we could entertain ourselves with the worst we could think of, overwriting real pains with ones that were unreal and harmless to our species. [millions_ad] This passage is a familiar to any committed horror fan and anyone who’s had to listen to them. But Ligotti’s lead-up to it shows that it is no casual truism. He exposits on horror’s themes and its canon with practitioner’s grace. Ligotti describes the uncanny as “a feeling of wrongness. A violation has transpired that alarms our internal authority regarding how something is supposed to happen or exist or behave.” He lauds Sweeney Todd as a celebration of the human propensity for tragedy: “[Sweeney Todd] is as edifying as any sage when he sings ‘We all deserve to die,’ given that none of us can remake our making.” He contrasts character and supernatural possession in William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist, in which good characters triumph over an evil intruder, against H.P. Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, in which characters—good or bad—are at the mercy of the same “wall-to-wall nightmare.” “Apart from vulgar mortality,” Ligotti writes, “supernatural literature also centers on the death of sanity, identity, ideals, passions, and hand-me-down conceptions about the universe and everything in it.” In Danse Macabre, Stephen King describes the viewing of horror as “reintegration” of confronting a fear and having it excised. He likens it to the “feeling that comes when the roller coaster stops at the end of its run and you get off with your best girl, both of you whole and unhurt.” Ligotti’s horror—amoral and pervasive; a feature, not a bug—offers no such thrills, easy outs, or escapism. It is the thing from which to escape, if you can. Lovecraft “strove to the end of his life to do what no horror writer had done before him nor will ever do: lay bare his consciousness in an artifact.” He “existed in a no man’s land of disillusionment” and walled it off with his own “earthbound illusions” of his aristocratic pretensions and virulent racism. The pessimism Ligotti details may, as he is aware, forever be too bleak to be palatable to most people. Yet the cultural landscape has shifted toward his strand of horror since Conspiracy was first published, preferring pervasive dread to narratively and morally coherent thrills. “Horror films dominated the cultural conversation this year,” goes a New York Times Magazine video feature. “Scary movies had an unusual hold on the collective imagination in 2017. Maybe it’s because reality was pretty horrifying, too.” “No other life forms know they are alive, and neither do they know they will die. The curse is ours alone. Without this hex upon our heads, we would never have withdrawn as far as we have from the natural.” Perhaps this is “dorm room philosophy” after all, and perhaps Matthew McConaughey’s voice on the audiobook will be its spoon full of sugar. But as Ligotti shows, this very thought has haunted our species to such an extent that we’ve committed endless imaginative power to just barely comprehend it. The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, in sum, corrupts Reinhold Niebuhr’s line: “Man’s capacity for paradox makes horror possible. Man’s incapacity to resolve its paradoxes makes horror necessary.”
1. The term solecism—an error in syntax; a minor infelicity; a violation of social protocol—was one of Merriam-Webster Dictionary’s Word of the Day selections in spring 2004, around the same time that Cassie Black (née Claire Stankowitcz) began considering a move to Brooklyn in earnest. The United States had been at war in Afghanistan for three years and in Iraq for one; a bedroom in Greenpoint was $600 a month; and the oldest millennials were galloping into adulthood. Cassie, about to graduate from Wellesley, heard people were moving to Brooklyn and decided she would, too. Not one for solecism of any kind, following is what Cassie always did. Mark Brumfeld, however, a Colgate alumnus and soft-boy mandolin player, would try to change that in the course of Daniel Torday’s Boomer1. “Solecism” appears again and again in this book, where its widest possible meaning—doing things out of order—captures the conflict at this novel’s heart. Partly the (un)love story of Cassie and Mark, partly a chronicle of New York from post-9/11 to post-recession, Boomer1 is entirely a story about the generation that came of age in between, whose members will likely not live better than their parents. Or, to be unambiguous: This is a “millennial novel,” and I wasn’t sure I was ready for it. For the millennial novel. For millennials being history, which we are now, officially. In March, Pew Research Center declared that anyone “born between 1981 and 1996 (ages 22 to 37 in 2018) will be considered a Millennial” henceforth “to keep the Millennial generation analytically meaningful, and to begin looking at what might be unique about the next cohort,” emphasis added. While this new clarity heralded the welcome end of categorizing everyone under 40 as a millennial, it also insinuated that millennials were now an archive that was ready to be examined, finally. As if our individual histories—our data, our old online selves, our texts, our itinerant nudes—haven’t been at our fingertips, if not in the palms of our hands, for quite some time. “Had any generation in the history of the world been so duped about the nature of time, been rendered so complacent by the appearance of control over perception?” asks Mark’s mother, Julia, in the novel. According to the millions of words published about millennials in the past decade, the obvious answer is no, and I was apprehensive that this book would be a long-form reiteration of that answer. To a certain extent, it is, yet Boomer1 tweaks recent history just enough to avoid being a draining re-litigation of events we’re still collectively processing. Though it returns to well-tread paths, Boomer1 is a refreshingly (if at times devastatingly) uncanny, funny, and clever retelling of the events that made millennials mad. 2. Arriving almost exactly seven years after the first Occupy Wall Street protests, Boomer1 reimagines that movement as a decentralized, dark-web-conspired wave of “generational domestic terrorism.” In this case, it’s not the 1 percent against the 99 percent, but baby boomers against millennials, the latter camp having been been radicalized by the video missives of angry, unemployed, and masked YouTuber “Isaac Abramson,” who is actually not a millennial but identifies as one. The unsubtly biblical name is the grandiose pseudonym Mark assumes upon leaving Brooklyn for Baltimore (and his parents’ basement) sometime in 2010; an ignominious goodbye-to-all-that is not what Mark had in mind when he arrived in New York in summer 2001. He came to the city to be a Great American Writer, “marry a strong-minded woman and have strong-minded children and lead a strong-minded life.” Three years later, when Cassie arrives in Brooklyn, he is arguably on his way. An editorial assistant at a glossy men’s magazine, Mark also moonlights in a Brooklyn bluegrass band and is generically desirable enough for Cassie, who did not come to New York desiring to be any particular thing and who did not particularly desire men (she’s slept with mostly women). A cocktail waitress at the Chelsea Hotel and the bassist in a band, Cassie needs only to watch “old Polish women in their babushkas push their black wire carts home from the Pathmark” in her “ugly enough” corner of North Brooklyn to feel “she’d arrived,” full stop. Unequally ambitious and about six or seven years apart, Cassie and Mark share a musical background in bluegrass, which provides the pretext for their very early-mumblecore Brooklyn introduction. Early in the book, both of their bands play a gig at a Williamsburg warehouse that “was pre-cancerous with artists’ lofts” where “bespectacled college grads milled around drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon from the can and Miller High Life from the bottle.” A few weeks later, they reconnect after Cassie’s show at CBGB’s, which Mark, “an ironic-thrift-shop-T-shirted twenty-something-year-old-boy,” had seen advertised in the print Village Voice. “Did they have a CD? They didn’t, but they’d made a MySpace page where you could stream two tracks they’d recorded on Cassie’s iMac.” Torday’s prose is lapidary with such period details that range from authentic to ~authentic~. Often they’re deliciously precise subtweets aimed at Brooklyn or millennial stock characters (“Well, I work for a start-up but mainly I’m the editor of Czolgosz Quarterly”). A few other details, like the nod to PBR above, are Brooklyn as Told by Lana Del Rey circa 2011 calling cards that try a little too hard—which is what I think Torday intends. If this is a book about history, it’s also a book about people who have become caricatures of their own. Cassie and Mark find themselves in the same bluegrass band, then in a relationship, and after several years that elapse in a few pages, in almost inverted professional places in a post-recession New York. Cassie has become a competent fact-checker at Us Weekly thanks to Mark’s network, and he has left journalism for a Ph.D. program in English, “so he had all the time in the world – to worry about what was ahead. The world wasn’t conforming to his ideas of what it should be.” Unsuccessful in the sclerotic academic job market, he comforts himself writing a 10,000-word review of an Emma Goldman biography for “the most prominent hipster intellectual journal in the country,” The Unified Theory. His contributor bio reads, “‘Mark Brumfeld is a writer living in Brooklyn,’ which seemed to Cassie a tautology, or at least a solecism.” (Cassie is the funniest character in the book.) The story of the famed anarchist consumes Mark, compounding his long-simmering resentment for the baby boomer literati who just won’t retire and give their jobs to him. “They had and they had and they had, as if that was the very condition of their own existence,” Mark thinks, disgusted by the opulence of his unremarkable professor’s $4 million Joralemon Street townhome. Meanwhile, “his own generation had not. They, too, wanted plenty, but they did not have.” Angry and increasingly isolated, Mark begins to wear on the patient Cassie, who rekindles her romance with an old girlfriend, because at “least if she was with a woman, she would be not procreating while experiencing pleasure.” She threatens to leave him, and after he ambushes her with a desperate marriage proposal and a hideous, chocolate diamond and titanium ring (“It was everything she wouldn’t have picked”), she does, abandoning him at the table of a trendy restaurant in a gentrifying DUMBO. 3. Mark decamps to Baltimore shortly after his jilting. The first of his “Boomer Missives” appears on YouTube shortly after that. And shortly after that, he is spending entire days on dark web chat forums under the handle Boomer1, nourished by the “unerotic, unromantic space” so reminiscent of the “sausage-fests of parties he and his guy friends had in middle school” – spaces where even “the idea of Cassie…or any woman listening in…was ridiculous.” The solid straight line that connects these dots is the sexual and social rejection of a young, white man who believed he need only to show up for his due sex and success. It’s a clear citation of incel internet culture, one that casts doubt on the motivations of men who want to move fast and break things—even those like Mark who “learned in his academic life not to make heteronormative assumptions.” Tellingly, it was an act of intergenerational male aggression—a fist fight Mark loses with his stock-market-playing former high school history teacher—that sparks his cuckolded tinder, leading him to make his first radical YouTube video. Bleeding and furious in his parents’ basement, in front of a poster of Jerry Garcia, he warns his elders: Retire or We’ll Retire You. Much to Mark’s surprise, his video strikes a nerve with his disaffected and precarious peers: Viral fame ensues and soon an anti-baby-boomer movement of “boom boomers” is born that’s more SHAC 7 than Occupy Wall Street. Rather than mass protests, the “boomers” conduct a series of widespread “distributed denial-of-service” attacks against baby boomer symbols, like the AARP website—which is as ridiculous as Torday intends it be. Someone “threw a trash can through the windows in front of Terry Gross’s production studio.” In a stroke of millennial ingenuity, someone else “used a drone to spill pigs’ blood all over the roof of Stephen King’s Bangor home” (very ~millennial~ but still funny). Some of the rage is evidently misplaced: Every night the news was filled with interviews with the name doppelgängers of boomer heroes whose home had been vandalized—every Robert Dillon and Jon Erving and Irving Johnson in America suffering for the sins of their homophonic namesakes, for the lack of attention to detail in the millennials who perpetrated them. In Baltimore alone a guy named Jonathan Watters had a series of pink lawn flamingos thrown through the bay window at the front of his house. The confused identities of its targets reflect a more important confusion of identities at the source of the boom boomer movement—a movement that Mark inadvertently started but which appears to be set on finishing without him. After his first blistering videos go viral, his editor at The Unified Theory and another “hipster intellectual,” Regan, insist that he take them down to “erase the footprint” and “move all of this over to the Deep Web.” He complies and begins recording new missives behind the anonymity of a David Crosby mask. Intended to protect him from becoming traceable, the tactic works a little too well, and rather than becoming a recognizable icon of disgruntled American youth, “Isaac Abramson” becomes a meme format. Soon, copycats are making versions of Boomer missives in their own basements, wearing their own David Crosby masks, with their own Jerry Garcia posters in the background tilted at slightly different angles. “The Boom Boom movement was supposed to be his Boom Boom movement,” Mark thinks, wondering how his scheme to claim his place in history has worked out for everyone else but him. As the movement grows, it swallows him entirely and shits him out, and the novel ends with him certainly gaining a place in history, but not the one he wanted. 4. The ambivalence of digital history—which can be gamed despite its democratizing potential, and which can abet social inequality as much as it can attenuate it—is one of the book’s more interesting moral concerns; Torday has written it in such a way to engage with its complexity. Boomer1 is a novel in 10 parts, each told from the perspective of one of its three protagonists: Cassie, Mark, and his mother, Julia. All three of them have a distinctly different relationship with the interminable memory of the internet, and by arranging their narratives contrapuntally (Mark’s missives are called “fugues”; the last section is titled “Counterpoint”), Torday engages with the ambiguities of being the first generation to be so immersed in its own history so constantly. What else, after all, should we ultimately make of social media, personal online brands, and the dopamine jackpot of going viral, other than a monetization of individual histories? Cassie’s relationship with the internet is the most positive. After she leaves Mark and he begins his Boomer missives, she takes on the handsomely compensated job of Director of Research, Native Content Division at the thinly veiled BuzzFeed-dupe “RazorWire,” where she plays bocce and smokes freshly rolled American Spirits. Coincidentally, her workload increases considerably when Mark’s missives go viral, spawning a deluge of anarchist™ listicles and think pieces. In this way, ironically, Mark directly contributes to the meteoric rise of her own career as a sought-after editor of “content”—both advertorial and editorial, which she increasingly can’t distinguish. She doesn’t really care to try. Cassie pivots to video and while editing what would become a career-defining viral smash of a clip, she wonders: “What did it do to her conception of time, to her sense of memory, spending her day manipulating time like this? Did writing, slowing and condensing the world into words, do the same? Cassie wasn’t sure,” but she does it anyway because it will accrue clicks and money and fame. She moves to San Francisco, where young “meme developers” adore her as “the Cassie Black.” The girl who came to New York as a follower leaves it as a leader, locked into a place in history—whatever that means anymore. It’s difficult not to wonder what Torday’s attitude is toward Cassie—the text insinuates that she’s a sellout, a favored insult among Generation X, to whom Torday dedicated the book. Mark, however, is simply a man born in the wrong generation. Parts of this novel veer a little too close to sympathy for a type of white American man who’s been radicalized only because he wanted his life to be just a little easier than it is already. As Cassie’s former lover, Natalia, succinctly states: “Where the fuck are the Panthers Mark’s supporting? This boom boom thing sure seems white as fuck.” Torday’s book is eerily prescient of the America we’ve struggled to reckon with since Nov. 9, 2016, and all the more unsettling even in spite of its clever humor: All of this writing was on the wall, but in the hyperdrive of digital history, we were moving too fast to see it. Only two years ago, social media was still vaguely and cheerfully “democratizing” instead of undermining democracy itself, and “leaning in” was what people were saying women had to do to be taken seriously. With or without the current situation, that former self-deceptive tech utopianism could have never lasted because nothing does, even for youth who’ve grown up with a sense of mastery over history. That’s the melancholy theme that runs through this book from beginning to end, which Torday focalizes through the sad character of Mark’s mother, Julia. Reflecting on her own childhood in suburban Philadelphia at the dawn of the postwar boom times, she recalls “the beginning of a period, an era, that appeared then to have no limit.” A former Haight-Ashbury hippie and talented musician decommissioned by hearing loss, sexism and pregnancy, Julia reminds the reader that young people have always been young people, that men have always been perpetually too young for too long, and that the order of things is provisional and random. History has always moved too fast to betray that much of it is, in the end, accidental. The point seems to be that millennial rage, while merited, is nothing out of order. This generation may appear to have been especially duped about the nature of time, but this is a distinction of degree rather than kind.
When I seek lonely women in literature, I usually find them flocked by too many perfectly un-fun creeps. You know what I mean: those lonely boys who trail behind the lonely women to make it clear that true love with an equally lonely person is the cure for all ills. It usually works out so that a quirky, lonely woman finds her complementary quirky dude partner and a happy ending ensues. Alcy Leyva’s novel And Then There Were Crows succeeds at giving us a very weird, super isolated, lonely woman protagonist whose story is not sodden with a shoehorned love interest. Instead, Leyva’s lonely woman protagonist fulfills the role of the antisocial slayer who mostly just needs to make friends. Crows stars an agoraphobic Queens native named Amanda Grey whose combination of financial instability, neuroses, and family issues lead her to seek a Craigslist roommate. The search quickly goes awry: “When she inadvertently rents a room to a demon, Grey goes from a woman concentrated on her own personal demons to the woman responsible for recapturing the six Shades from Hell she’s unleashed upon the city.” Grey’s efforts to recapture all of the pesky Shades obligates her to go outside, talk to strangers, and assemble a ragtag group of friends (including a very shifty seraphim). Leyva pits Grey’s agoraphobia against the Shades’ desire to dominate New York City. Grey prefers to hide in her apartment, avoiding everything she hates: “Staying indoors was perfect for me and I never complained, never thought I was missing out in life. I only came out when necessary ... but every time it was like landing on an alien planet. People are weird, sick, creatures; mouth breathers.” Grey’s loneliness and total hermit status is as an addiction, a best friend, and a trap. She clings to solitude but feels deeply guilty when the Shades incite chaos and slaughter. As much as she longs to hide in her comfort zone, she also wants to clean up the mess she’s accidentally made. The text plays with this dichotomy between the safety of Grey’s apartment inside and the anxiety-inducing world outside. New York also plays a part in the novel; even though Grey abhors the mouth-breathers of the world, she begrudgingly admits that she values the hell out of Queens and resents the encroaching gentrification. When she visits Brooklyn, she notes the borough’s “assimilation limbo” with disgust. She’s protective of her fellow New Yorkers and resentful of “the young hipsters” who have “no idea what a piping hot two dollar chop-cheese with extra onions does for a person’s soul.” What Grey values about Queens, her neighbors, and other ungentrified pockets of New York reflects the best facets of her own personality, too. She likes the ultra-casual, I-plainly-do-not-give-a-fuck-ness of the super in her building, or the eclectic indifference of the Polish couple who run a greasy burger joint across the street from her apartment. Clearly, Grey respects a willingness to be funny and weird. This respect for quirkiness explains why she devotes so much time digressing from her quest to explain the terrible “ramen pop” recipe she crafted while holed up in her apartment. Digressions aside, when Grey lovingly describes the crazy idiosyncrasies of her neighborhood, it urges the reader to care more about whether or not demons overtake New York. Also, the whole business of protecting New York from pure evil could devolve into a depressing and torturous burden, but Leyva is willing to be funny about it all. The text respects hijinks—Grey, her wily seraphim, a good-natured neighbor who Just Wants to Help, the demon roommate, and Grey’s estranged sister all team up to vanquish the Shades in a series of very wacky plots. When Grey and her crew target a Shade who aspires to commandeer the local government, the novel twists into a Mission Impossible-meets-Scooby Doo ploy that involves a children’s programming host and a large bookstore full of riotous people. The whole thing is so wild that the seraphim refers to it as “the worst fucking plan I have ever heard in my life. And I’ve lived for several thousand centuries.” As mentioned, the text notably does not shove a lonely boy love story down the reader’s throat, nor does it decide that a heavily romantic subplot will cure all of Grey’s neuroses. The book provides a slight romantic interest in the form of the caring neighbor, but Grey’s transformation from total recluse to Shade slayer prioritizes her increasing ability to relate to other people and challenge her social anxiety and agoraphobia. The book avoids using their chemistry to engineer a simple, happy resolution. The final chapter is not romantic, nor quite of this world—but despite some serious turns, Grey retains her ability to make fun of just about everything. Even after learning of a bruising and supernatural betrayal, she decides to laugh it off: “I figured that’s where I should start—just straight up laughing at the whole thing.”