1. I worked with a public speaking coach during my last year of fellowship training. I’d been invited to give a talk at a national meeting, and my division chief worried that my lecturing skills would not reflect well on his program. The speaking coach sat through a practice run of my talk and had two simple suggestions: First, remove half the slides, and second, memorize the talk. “Simplify your message,” she said, “so that it comes across undiluted. And have the talk so committed to memory that you could give it without looking at the slides, as if you’re reciting lines from a script. That will take away most, if not all, of your nerves.” Her suggestions worked, not just for that talk but for every subsequent lecture I’ve given in the 10 years since that session, and I’ve passed along those two recommendations to colleagues and trainees who’ve shared their own angst about public speaking. In their new book, Now Say This: The Right Words to Solve Every Parenting Dilemma, family therapists Heather Turgeon and Julie Wright advocate an approach to parenting that parallels the public speaking coach’s advice on lecturing. They’ve simplified their message to a handy acronym, ALP, which stands for attune, limit set, and problem solve. And they provide a set of scripts incorporating the ALP method that parents can memorize and recite verbatim to their children. The ALP strategy is not particularly unique. Many parenting books, including some recent classics like The Whole Brain Child and How to Talk So Little Kids Will Listen, promote a similar approach to the child in crisis. Start with empathy, then introduce reality, and together come up with a creative solution. Their scripts, therefore, strike conventional notes: “You don’t want to leave the park now because you’re having so much fun,” one such script begins. “But it’s starting to get dark and we need to go home for dinner. Do you want to skip to the car or have me carry you on my shoulders?” Now Say This emerges as a singular title, a parenting book I never thought I’d encounter, in its explicit instructions to parents that these scripts can and should be memorized. Turgeon and Wright established their credentials as parenting experts—and, in some households, divine saviors—with their first book, The Happy Sleeper. Children, from birth, have an innate biological ability and a strong physiologic need to sleep well, they argued in this bestseller. Most sleep issues lie at the feet of the parents and not the kids. Specifically, parents are too anxious, hovering, and present when their children are trying to sleep. With their Sleep Wave technique, which essentially translates to putting the baby down while awake and employing regimented five-minute checks only if the baby is crying, they introduced the concept of scripts with a three sentence mantra to be uttered during the five-minute checks. “Mommy (or Daddy) is here. I love you. Night, night.” The Happy Sleeper encouraged parents to be consistent and almost machine-like in their bedtime routines. Do the same activities in the same order leading up to putting the baby down to sleep, and stick to the five minute intervals and the three sentence script if the baby is crying. Let us design bedtime for you, Turgeon and Wright offered in this book, and we’ll get your kids to sleep all night long. Now Say This takes this approach to bedtime and expands it to the rest of the day. Turgeon and Wright have offered up scripts for how to deal with a range of parenting struggles, from babies who pull their parents’ hair to eye-rolling pre-teens, from siblings who fight with each other to toddlers who refuse to brush their teeth. This seems like a radical leap. It’s one thing for parents to admit they can’t handle bedtime, quite another thing for parents to prefer following someone else’s blueprint rather than their own at all hours of the day. Now Say This rests upon two assumptions—the first, that parenthood can be scripted, and the second, that it should—and makes no apologies for these beliefs. The authors relay the genesis of their new book in an introductory chapter. During their book tour for The Happy Sleeper, the question and answer sessions inevitably spread out beyond sleep issues to general parenting concerns. As Turgeon or Wright relayed an answer to a parent’s question, employing some version of an ALP script (before they’d formally named the approach), the mothers and fathers in the audience frantically scribbled down their responses. After the talks, these same parents approached the authors and showed them their notes to make sure they got the words exactly right. 2. Kim Brooks begins her riveting book Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear, with the story of how she left her 4-year-old son in the parking lot of a strip mall while she ran inside, for five minutes, to buy him a replacement pair of headphones. While she was in the store, someone called the police to report what he or she deemed delinquent behavior. In trying to understand why a stranger would feel compelled to do such a thing, Brooks realizes that she had “tapped into a common and long-established tradition of mother-shaming, the communal ritual of holding up a woman as a ‘bad mother,’ a symbol on which we can unleash our collective, mother-related anxieties, insecurities, and rage.” Her book explores why parenting and fear have become synonymous—how “parenting” has become a pervasive verb that represents, to quote Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, an “endless, anxious journey of guilt”—and one of her conclusions is that “the object of fear correlates less to the level of risk than to parents’ ability (or perceived ability) to exert control over the outcome.” Parents dissect and analyze their every action, their every word, their every gesture and endow them with far-reaching implications for their children’s long term futures. Is it any surprise, then, that such anxious parents are more than willing to recite a family therapist-penned script rather than improvise their own lines? My brother told me recently that he was having some behavioral issues with his 2-year-old, and when I pressed Now Say This onto him, explaining its modus operandi, he brayed at the idea of reciting prefab lines to his crying son. Because my brother is an executive, I appealed to his work life. “If you had to have an uncomfortable conversation with an employee,” I said, “like if you had to fire someone, wouldn’t you plan out what you were going to say beforehand, and try to have that conversation go as close to your plan as possible?” He would, he conceded, and eventually said he’d read the book, although I doubt he will. Not yet. He didn’t seem anxious enough. He still thought that he and his wife, on their own, could right the ship. He had yet to realize what Kim Brooks calls “our darkest fear as parents: the fear of failure.” I concede that I have realized that fear when I see the black eye my 7-year-old daughter gave my 4-year-old son “by accident,” or when I watch my 1-year-old mimic their shouting at the dinner table, and perhaps that is why I am so willing to follow the scripts penned by Turgeon and Wright. Why I’ve snapped pictures of the book for my phone’s camera roll and sneak peeks for suggested lines before knocking on my daughter’s locked bedroom door (“What are you trying to communicate to me right now?”) or responding to my son’s repeated requests for a snack (“It’s almost dinnertime, and it’s important to keep your belly empty so that you’ll enjoy the meal”). In Small Animals, Kim Brooks compares her irrational fears as a parent to her childhood terrors of a wolf that lived in the back of her closet: The wolf was going to eat me, though I begged him not to. He could not be reasoned with. He could not be appeased. The wolf was clever and well-spoken, and one day, amused by my pleading, he told me that if I counted to fifty before I fell asleep every night, he would stay in the closet; he would not come out. I still remember how I lay in bed, tight beneath the covers, counting slowly in my head. It made no sense, but I believed it. I knew that if I counted, I’d be safe. One, two, three, four, I counted every night, all the way to fifty. I never doubted or wavered in my counting. I wanted to be safe. So many parents want that safety, too, and, like the little girl that Brooks once was, seek solace in words. In addition to scripts for parents to recite to their children, Turgeon and Wright in Now Say This also provide mantras for parents to say to themselves in their worst moments, when they must seclude themselves from their children for a few seconds to calm down and muster up the strength to re-enter the fray of parenting in 21st Century America. “I can handle this,” is one such mantra. It may not be true, but it’s simple, and it’s easy to memorize. If anxious parents rehearse their lines enough, they can deliver the performance their kids need.
In 2018, the phenomenon of the magazine “agony aunt” might strike as an outdated relic. Within a climate where reactions and opinions to our most prosaic problems can be conjugated instantly via a parade of always-on messaging apps, “writing in” to a sagacious stranger to solicit thoughts seems quaint; a symptom of a more considered time where distance and perspective were esteemed above the restless tumult of the now. Heather Havrilesky—the long-standing respondent of The Cut’s popular “Dear Polly” column—accounts for this moment of insatiable communication at the cost of actual connection in her third book, What if This Were Enough? She updates the columnist’s stock Q&A format with a collection of more roving, labile essays. Not quite venturing “advice” per se, but brimming with the author’s warmly diagnostic and incisive voice, the pieces crystallize as potent blends of cultural critique, memoir, and anecdote, which take a scalpel to the inured surface of modern American life. Havrilesky’s second book, How to Be a Person in the World, which anthologized a selection of her column’s most insightful questions and responses, was conspicuously more sure-footed in tracing a path for how to navigate the strains of self-actualization. As its title signals, What if This Were Enough? is more hesitant and querulous in tone: less eager to lure readers, in this turbulent administration, with packaged certainties or digestible truths. At the same time, the book doesn’t shirk from the fact that in a late capitalist context, “There’s not much understanding in store for those who hesitate, change their minds, falter.” “Success” is found instead in strict, unwavering fidelity to a “chosen path”; or what the author laments as the dubious, anxiety-infected temples of your “best life” or “your truth.” Always briskly observant, and often mordantly funny, the topics of these 19 chiseled pieces range from an excavation of the blunt hypocrisies of Disney World, “a carefully honed feat of interactive advertising”; to the “callow” premise of the Fifty Shades trilogy, “late capitalist fairy tales that double as sexual daydreams”; to a meditation on the fragile state of the modern girl, “a delicate glass vase, waiting to be broken.” An essay wryly titled “Delusion at the Gastropub” unapologetically eviscerates the polarized and class-segmented food culture in America, which reifies “rabbit larb and Japanese uni” at one end of the spectrum yet feeds the masses on “a wasteland of over processed, cheap and empty grub” at the other, making neurotic, conspicuous consumers of us all. In addition to these flinty shards of cultural critique, autobiographical vignettes peer into Havrilesky’s family and marriage, which allow the author to expand her voice beyond her Polly avatar (“Playing House,” “Stuffed,” “True Romance”). More universal manifestos for women and their sense of worthiness and self-esteem more broadly also feature (“Bravado” effortlessly trumps the fatigued tropes of most Ted Talk scripts). Perhaps Havrilesky’s greatest strength of all, however, is her talent in distilling the specific grain of “the contemporary.” Much of the pleasure in reading her is derived from shivers of abrupt recognition: that Crossfit is kind of bullshit, actually; or that the dutiful quotidian imbibing of probiotics or “decaf coffee drinks” won’t “whisk away” the absence of an inner life (or what Joan Didion, in an essay in the volume Slouching Towards Bethlehem, famously defined as “self-respect”). With a view toward interior integrity—what her first book called “all the magic inside of ourselves”—one of What if This Were Enough’s key messages is that in these over-stimulated times, we must carve out space to “step back” and observe what isn’t good for us, or to claim time for “quiet wandering” out of the exhausting frame of “events and sounds and messages that have nothing to do with where you are.” This is most successfully exhorted in an essay called “Lost Treasure,” which recounts an old childhood friend of the author’s mother taking frequent three-hour walks to amass “aimless junk,” which she would later fashion into crafted artifacts, proudly displayed in her eccentric home. Though spliced with Havrilesky’s typical irreverent admissions—“When I go on walks these days, I listen to podcasts and answer texts and make phone calls and listen to Kendrick Lamar”—the serene state that “Lost Treasure” ultimately ends up counseling feels a little too abstracted, idealistic. Disconnecting and “tuning in on what’s around you” depends on certain material bolsters and secure coordinates, i.e., a baseline sense of privilege. The acknowledgment, in a later essay called “The Popularity Context,” of Havrilesky’s moderate and vaguely out-of-character Twitter addiction—that she likes to “look at her numbers” and attend to the “illusion of a waiting audience”—is therefore gratefully received. It is more in line with the book at large’s ode to “the miracle of the mundane” and the “off-kilter,” chaotic, often contradictory experience of being human. Obsessive shuttling toward being better, more “authentic,” or more abundant, Harvilesky warns, overwrites the stilling peace that can be found in straightforward acceptance: that one may indeed have spent an hour lost in a social media vortex, and, so long as such an act is generative as opposed to “numbing,” then that is, imperfectly, OK. In a short story simply titled “How,” from her 1985 collection, Self Help, Lorrie Moore writes, of the quietly spreading malaise that typifies contemporary adult life, “It hits you more insistently. A restlessness. A virus of discontent.” Today, that virus has spread so capaciously that to “go viral,” or to have your online life eclipse the imprint of your existence IRL is often held up as a way of being ultimately present, more connected and more alive. In What if This Were Enough? Havrilesky’s “answer” (for she retains some sketches of the columnist) to the problem of the now is the intentional “savoring” of the present (whether it be currently experienced online or in a forest, culling twigs) or the mantra that “This is exactly how it should be,” despite the pressures of the perfect, winningly on-brand people in our heads. It is glued together with the awkward bonds of everyday life, or with the rote “rhythms of survival”—attending children’s birthday parties, getting car checkups, watching reality TV—which hopefully encompass other people but sometimes don’t. The most visceral question, in the end, is whether we can sit down with ourselves amidst all the clutter. Yet instead of telling us to “streamline our message” or to excise everything in life that does not unilaterally “spark joy,” Havrilesky’s most resonant piece of advice is also her most simple: Let it all in.
William H. Gass loved words. “A word is a wanderer,” he wrote in “Carrots, Noses, Snow, Rose, Roses.” “Except in the most general syntactical sense, it has no home.” Gass longed to make worthy homes for words. He often chose lists. Lists were his secular litanies. Lists allowed Gass, who always longed to be a poet, to ladle his words into natural meter. We are lucky if we find a sentence or paragraph to hold onto—as a reader, as a writer. We write them on index cards and impale them into cork board. We let them collect dust under a lamp. We are strangely blessed if we can find a writer who can carry us even further—through a book, through a life. I return to Gass like a pilgrimage. His final offering, The William H. Gass Reader, is a gift. Nearly a thousand pages of his essays about writers and artists, his theories about fiction, and selections from his novellas and novels. When I say Gass loved words, I mean he genuinely, audaciously, absolutely loved words. Language seemed an infinite gift that he grasped. A typographic deity. “I am an octogenarian now and should know better, but I recently let a sentence reach print so embarrassingly bad its metaphors seemed frightened into scattered flight like quail.” He was not afraid to fail. “Skepticism was my rod, my staff, my exercise.” Gass was pessimistic. He was clothed in doubt. Yet that skepticism, as it does with the best critics, gave foundation and significance to his celebrations. You cannot love words without also loving writers. Gass loved writers. He loved Gertrude Stein. Her play, her power. “There are texts,” he writes in “Fifty Literary Pillars,” “and there are times, and sometimes both are right and ring together like Easter changes.” He thought Stein “did more with sentences, and understood them better, than any writer ever has. Not all her manipulations are successful, but even at their worst, most boring, most mechanical, they’re wonderfully informative. And constantly she thought of them as things in space, as long and wiggling and physical as worms.” We need critics who can admire. We need critics who can feel awe. Gass loved: Plato (“His dialogues are among the world’s most magical texts”). Virginia Woolf (Her diary “alters your attitude toward life”). James Joyce (“Finnegans Wake is the high-water mark of modernism, and not to have been fundamentally influenced by it as a writer is not to have lived in your time”). Samuel Beckett (“Beckett wishes to save our souls by purging us—impossibly—of matter”). Katherine Anne Porter (“From her first tale to her last, she was in complete command of her manner—a prose straightforward and shining as a prairie road, yet gently undulating, too”). Gass makes us want to read more, and to read better. He believed reading was an athletic act. He was not an athlete. But as a boy, he was a member of a speed reading team, and in “On Reading to Oneself,” in his typical self-deprecating form, he writes of how he learned to read as an act of love. He writes of how the “speeding reader drops diagonally down across the page, on a slant like a skier; cuts across the text the way a butcher prefers to slice sausage, so that a small round can be made to yield a misleadingly larger, oval piece.” His vision of the world was always slightly bent. He turned us toward his curves. He thought we were a mess. “Evil,” he wrote, “is as man-made as the motorcar.” He didn’t have much faith in us—our track record has not been particularly splendid—and concluded, “we shall probably be eaten by our own greed, and live on only in our ruins, middens, and the fossil record.” He knew what we are capable of, and it scared him. In an essay on Ezra Pound, Gass wrote of how Pound, in his later years, apologized for his anti-Semitism, calling it a “mistake” and some “suburban prejudice.” Gass’s rebuke is powerful: “The tone of that repentance is all wrong, suggesting that Pound had made some error in arithmetic on his tax forms which turned out to have unpleasant consequences. Anti-Semitism is not a ‘mistake’ or even a flaw, as if it left the rest of its victim okay and in good working order. As with racism, a little does more than go a long way; it goes all the way.” Peel aside his play and Gass, truly, was one to trust. What can a Catholic learn from an agnostic Protestant? More than I could ever imagine when I discovered Gass as an undergraduate—I devoured (to use his word) “The Pedersen Kid,” which is rightfully included in full within this Reader. I would never be the same. We both have an affinity for the word soul, and let me not parse our differing theologies: I appreciate the contours of his unbelief, for they live within a state of wonder. What a wonder it is to make a world of words. “Words are with us everywhere. In our erotic secrecies, in our sleep. We’re often no more aware of them than our own spit, although we use them oftener than legs.” Words “lift our spirits—these poor weak words. They guide and they coerce. They settle fights, initiate disputes, compound errors, elicit truth. How long have we known it? They gather dust, too, and spoil in jokes which draw our laughter like the flies.” While a graduate student at Cornell, where he studied philosophy, Gass took a course with the legendary M. H. Abrams, a seminar course on Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The students read not only the Biographia Literaria—but also “every book it quotes from, mentions, alludes to.” Gass said the method “taught me how to read, how to reread, even how to overread.” He learned “never to rely on secondary sources, but to trust only primary ones—a teaching that leads directly to this ideal: write so as to become primary.” He left us with this book.
On the back cover of Hanne Ørstavik’s novel Love is a one-line quotation attributed to a significantly more famous Norwegian writer. According to Karl Ove Knausgaard, “Love is Hanne Ørstavik’s strongest book.” The statement is disappointing for two reasons. It is both patently condescending and impossible for readers of English to corroborate. Unlike Knausgaard, whose 12 volumes of fiction are all available in English, Ørstavik has had only two of her 14 novels translated since her debut in 1994. The first, The Blue Room, was Ørstavik’s fourth novel overall. It debuted in Norway in 1999 and in a translation by Deborah Dawkin in 2014. The second is Martin Aitken’s translation of Love, the author’s slender third novel, generally considered her breakthrough, which arrived in February of this year, 21 years after its original release, and has been longlisted for the National Book Award for translated literature. It is in fact a “strong” and stylish portrayal of one family’s loneliness and yearning, one that ought to spur subsequent translations of Ørstavik’s work. The Blue Room and Love are set up similarly. A single mother and her child live alone together in Norway. The child’s father is conspicuously absent and scarcely mentioned. (In Love he appears in the child’s dream and is mentioned in the child’s memory, when the mother tells her son she left her husband because she could not be “tied down.”) The characters are anxious for human connection but channel their desires in incompatible and destructive directions. In The Blue Room the mother lives with her daughter in a small loft in Oslo. When she discovers her daughter’s new boyfriend has invited her on a six-week trip to America, the mother intervenes—by locking her daughter in the apartment and refusing to let her leave. Love, which takes place over the course of a single night, reverses the flow of desire. A young mother named Vibeke has moved with her 8-year-old son Jon to a remote town in northern Norway, where she has taken a job as a cultural officer. Far from trapping Jon in their house, she pays him little attention and wishes he would “just go” and “find something to do, play or something.” She has other things to attend to, namely herself. In the space of four pages she thinks “she deserves” a “new outfit” given “the move and everything” and to sit with “a good book” because of “how well I’m doing at work.” It is Jon who wishes Vibeke would stay home but is powerless to make her do so. He comforts himself with the knowledge that his 9th birthday is tomorrow. Surely his mother is out and ignoring him because she is preparing for his big day. In fact, she has forgotten it completely and spends her evening in the company of Tom, an attractive worker from the traveling fun fair, whom she hopes might change her life. The fair is set to leave town the next day. The book barrels forward by the force of its language. The sentences are driving, like a hammer to a nail, coming one after the other relentlessly. They are decidedly not meditative but hypnotic in their onslaught, drawing us into the continuities and disjunctions in the characters’ thought processes. When Jon is walking home near the end of the book, “He pretends he’s just landed on earth. All the people are dead. Killed by death rays. He hurries between the buildings, scurrying in the direction of the road. The tips of his ears are cold. He must have left his knit cap somewhere. He had it when he came out. He puts his hands to his ears to warm them up.” Dense and economical, the lines burst with anxious life. In the next sentence, the last and longest of the paragraph, the words move from enacting Jon’s mania to describing his paranoia: “He forces himself not to see the trees, the forest; whenever he’s on his own it’s like there’s always someone standing there.” The paragraph’s power, and that of the writing generally, is a testament to Aitken’s translation, which portrays the act of thinking not as trip down a stream but the punctuated pulse and discharge of electrical current. Ørstavik cuts, sometimes every other page and sometimes every other paragraph, between a close third-person account of Vibeke’s night out with one carnival worker and Jon’s with another. She offers no clear transitions to ease the reader’s passage from one scene to another. If at first the continual change in perspective induces a feeling of whiplash, it quickly becomes seamless. The two streams of narrative enact the same anxious, futile search for connection (with one another) as the wandering characters and staccato language. The cuts also function as a constant source of energy for the story. Before any whiff of burnout can gather around Jon’s arc, we jump to Vibeke’s, and vice versa, and each jump ruthlessly reemphasizes the irreconcilable differences between the characters’ desires. What of the title, Love? It is easy to take as a coldly ironic, even judgmental comment on the nature of Jon and Vibeke’s relationship: The boy loves his mother, and the mother loves herself. That is too simple and unfair to Vibeke, whose roving narcissism Ørstavik portrays in such a way as to make her both unlikable and relatable. The love in Love is mostly an isolated affair, one delimited by the bodily realities of life as a human. It is rarely shared between people, in other words. It is hemmed in by the head. Jon loves Vibeke but cannot see the myriad ways she forgets him. Like most children, he loves an idealized version of his mother. When she is out late with Tom on the eve of Jon’s birthday Jon insists “She’s been baking a birthday cake for me and there was something she’d forgotten to get, so she had to pop out.” The thought that she might be doing something entirely unrelated to him does not cross his mind. For Vibeke, other people are surfaces on which to project her vague desires for status, security, and warmth. Aside from her affection for Tom, there is an engineer she fantasizes about. At the end of the night, Vibeke wants to sleep with Tom, but he demurs and drops her off at home instead. She looks through her windows and “thinks how empty they look, her plants always die on her.” Her practiced focus on her own life prevents her from keeping them alive. Her impotence pains her, but never too deeply. Aside from the plants, she cannot even convince Tom to go to bed with her, much less make a life with her. She cannot make him into what she wants him to be. But she can enjoy her own body—she can take baths, buy clothes, and stroke her luxurious hair. And she enjoys escaping into the many books she reads. She relishes their capacity to replace the real content of life with a carefully structured narrative. Jon opts for American cowboy-hero media and fantasies of torture, scenarios in which one party’s power is absolute and the other’s practically nil—scenarios that allow him to play roles very different from the one he occupies in his daily life, in which he is at the mercy of his mother’s wavering attention. Love is in many ways an elegant warning. Fantasy is wonderful until it is fatal.
Wendy was the best salesperson in the store, which meant she was the best liar, which meant her co-workers should have been suspicious of her “homemade” pie. She made it for the ramshackle Thanksgiving dinner in the store that year, a potluck for the staff to sustain them through the Black Friday deluge. It was a hit, apparently, among all the dishes served, and so was Wendy, who refrained from eating any of the dessert herself. “Everybody was saying how nice she was, how thoughtful,” but Wendy was neither of those things. “Wendy and I were the only ones who didn’t have the shits that day,” says the lone co-worker, our narrator, who smelled bullshit in Wendy’s poisoned pie. “That was when Wendy was sales lead. Which meant she had the highest sales goals” that Black Friday, which would be her last. “Who knows what she put in that pie. I made it my mission to beat her. And I did … I’ve been lead ever since.” He’s proud, even though he knows he shouldn’t be—but in the cutthroat and unstable world of retail, pride in being the last one left alive is the only kind in stock. Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s new collection, Friday Black, weighs individuals’ small, short-term victories, like this one from the titular story, against the long-term solidarity they prevent. But he doesn’t do so to chide his characters for choosing themselves over others—if this can even be called a choice. Instead, Ajdei-Brenyah’s imperative in these 12 stories is showing how this hard world ossifies even the softest souls. These are hard times and these stories traffic in hard subjects—the state-sanctioned murder of Black children, dog-eat-dog capitalism, school shootings, eugenics, nuclear war, among others. But while Friday Black is unforgiving in its depictions of a racist country, a rigged economy, and the eerily recognizable dystopias that might replace them, it is equally unwavering in its moral optimism. Adjei-Brenyah loves his main characters as much as he loves his readers, both of which groups want justice and not its facsimile. Friday Black gives them the catharsis they demand, only to let them discover in its aftermath that nothing has really been purged. In “The Finkelstein 5,” the gutting first story, teenager Emmanuel Gyan joins a wave of Black-on-white reprisal killings after a white man is acquitted of beheading five Black children with a chainsaw. As Emmanuel is about to assist his first killing, he “wondered if his rage would end … but as he thrashed and yelled and saw it all, he felt nothing leaving him,” right when the police arrive. The climax is gruesome and infuriating, and a sharp reminder of who is allowed the catharsis of public rage and retaliation, and who is expected to bare their souls for the edification of a (white) public. This first story hits hard, perhaps the hardest of the 12, but Adjei-Brenyah’s exact prose, engrossing storytelling and occasional humor make “The Finkelstein 5” as frictionless to read as the rest of Friday Black. He is a nimble writer, and each sentence is measured—not out of caution, but because Adjei-Brenyah knows exactly how much he needs to say. At times, that means clipped, jaded sentences; at others times, sentences that are tender without being precious. “Sentence-level writer” appropriately describes Adjei-Brenyah, especially in the two-page story “Things My Mother Said.” A story about a mother and son with very little to eat, its sentences wound the reader one by one: One day I came home to the warm smell of chicken and rice. I hadn’t been able to steal a second burger in the cafeteria at school that day. My stomach whined. At home the fridge had become a casket bearing nothing. The range and oven had become decorations meant to make a dying box look like a home. Hunger colored those days. Adjei-Brenyah spins something beautiful out of a bad situation here, but this story doesn’t romanticize anything, nor do any others in the book. Rather, they draw into relief how easy it is as readers to interpret any desire to salvage something good from so much bad as a weakness, an uncomfortably earnest strategic error. Like how Wendy poisons her co-workers in “Friday Black,” good faith and kindness are frequently things to be betrayed in this book, and to a certain extent, each of these stories asks an old question: Am I too kind, or too dumb? Or are these the same things? One of my favorite iterations of this question is the dystopian story “The Era,” which follows an adolescent boy, Ben, through his daily life among genetically engineered superhumans. This future world is a radically honest one, where people say exactly what they think, and where the destruction of the weak by the strong is morally nonnegotiable. In history class (“HowItWas class”), Ben learns that “emotional truth clouding was the main thing that led to the Long Big War and the Big Quick War,” ancient, Lucasfilm-scale conflicts over water supply. “The wars going on now, Valid Storm Alpha and the True Freedom Campaign, are valid/true wars because we know we aren’t being emotional fighting them.” Choices made without self-interest are seen as evolutionarily inferior, and when a classmate wants Ben “to make her happy for no reason,” he enters her world of birthday cakes and jokes and forgotten heartwarming traditions. Soon, he rapidly descends the social ladder. Adjei-Brenyah’s stories tell the truth; they don’t “intervene in the discourse” as if they were just waiting for their turn to speak and not actually listening. While all of them are distinct and distinctly good, the most polished stories are those that riff on the dissatisfactions of retail sales associates. They are the most multidimensional and the most precise. Adjei-Brenyah is such a virtuoso at curating telling details; those powers are on display the most in these stories. “How to Sell Jackets as Told by Iceking” recounts the slow fall from grace of a celebrated salesman of expensive winter coats. “In the mall the only truths that matter are the kinds you can count,” he tells us, laying bare the contradictions of a line of work that pays lip service to “good customer service” while rewarding only good customer shilling. “Sales goals, register tills, inventory. Numbers are it. Everything else is mostly bullshit.” Iceking knows numbers are all that matter, but won’t admit to himself he hopes that this isn’t entirely true. This is obvious when he makes a strategic error in choosing to cover a late co-worker, Florence, punching her timecard for her at her request, even though she hasn’t yet arrived at work. He was too nice. Florence “practically filled out her application while in labor. That’s why she’s so good,” he says, repeating his manager, Angela’s, early praise of the new hire. It says less about her than it does about what we consider to be a valuable employee, and the kind of ruthlessness that otherwise good people are encouraged to emulate. Florence’s impression is apparently quite good: After building a large sale with an affluent family, Florence arrives at our narrator’s side. “ ‘Angela told me to tell you to go on break.’ Her voice is sweet and acid. I stand for a second. Today they had officially promoted Florence,” and our proud, rainmaking narrator can’t dismiss her. A few minutes later, he’s punching out at the register, where the manager is ringing out the family’s large purchase. She asks if anyone helped them. “‘Absolutely, she even hauls the goods.’ [The father] chuckles as he points his thumb toward Florence … Mother, Father and Son look at me and see a stranger.” The situation seems banal, the unfortunate circumstances of someone who didn’t learn how to play the game. But everything has been made into a game in this country, in this world, in this economic system, and the rules are rigged. The dystopian futures he brilliantly imagines here somehow seem more believable than the ones he writes about the hellish now, not because they are, but because we don’t want to believe that this is the reality of our burning little world. Friday Black is written with force, Ajdei-Brenyah’s language sharpened into tiny blades that cut deep and fast, down to the soft insides that, he urges us to remember, are still there.
Every once in a while, a short story collection comes around that requires slow sipping—stories that silence you in the lamplight or make you pause, watch the outside daylife without really seeing it because you are still immersed in the world of the book. Such is the spell that Basements and Other Museums by Vedran Husić weaves. Winner of the St. Lawrence Book Award from Black Lawrence Press, Basements cycles in and out of the tumultuous history of the Balkans—more specifically, Husić’s Bosnia and Herzegovina, where he was born. But the writer doesn’t overwhelm the reader with complicated backstory of the region’s past. Instead, we are often tossed into the middle of the anxieties of war or the unsettling peace that follows. These are stories rooted in place and the loss of that place, stories anchored in the wars of the 1990s as much as in the Bosnian diaspora, where characters live in the present day in places like suburban Phoenix, Arizona, and wrestle with their inherited histories of violence. These stories interrogate borders and ethnicities, how a person who lives on the other side of town could be an enemy just as soon as they could be a friend, whether Serb or Croat, Christian or Muslim, Jew or atheist. From the very first page, Husić’s stories come at you with the rushing velocity of the bullets that fill his collection. The opening “A Brief History of the Southern Slavs,” a micro-story, does excellent work to shape the rest of the collection not just by introducing the writer’s skillful lyricism but also by framing the overarching narrative. These are stories driven by characters who become “prisoners of ideas, then arrogant like all nonbelievers, then violent like all who regain their faith.” Ultimately, each story is a test tube in which the characters wrestle with ideology—whether religious attachment, nostalgia, romantic longing, or some other powerful force—and the stories end with a full embrace or rejection of what was first felt at the outset. The characters we meet, such as Ivan Boric, a fictional Serbo-Croatian writer, are often consumed by an idea that morphs into something else entirely, characters who come face to face with profound loss. Boric, for instance, in “Witness to a Prayer,” is described as a writer who seeks to “[i]mprison beauty in a padded sentence,” to illustrate the “overlooked miracles of life.” Yet Boric, according to a narrator telling the tale in the style of a biography, is “embarrassed” by the sentimentality of his writing vocation, as if it is incomplete. The story shifts—surprisingly, as Husić often does—into a second section that reads more like lyrical fiction and less like biography. Here we see the character Boric from another side, a man who has fallen in love with the quiet of the world, who is consumed by the small beauties of life with his wife Vesna and daughter Mila. But as a Boric’s mind cascades through memories—glimpses in which he watches “Mila sleep in the candlelight”—the dark violence of trauma inserts itself until he must confront the truth that Mila has been killed by a “fragment of a mortar shell.” The miracles of life that he had tried to capture have evaporated, memory only dancing in the shadows of war. The narrator speculates at the story’s end that instead of sentimentalism perhaps Boric has been “trying to capture beauty and raise the dead.” In this story and in others, Vedran Husić uses form to constantly destabilize the reader, to recreate the effect not just of war but also of exile, of longing. The story “Translated from the Bosnian” is written in the form of letters exchanged between a deceased father and his living wife and son. In the silence and white space between each exchanged letter, the longing and disconnect between characters is amplified. Another story, “Documentary,” cycles through linked first person monologues, as if each character was being interviewed as they try to describe Dario, the central figure in the story who is unable to be content in a changing world, to move on from love, to truly value the lives around him. Time also is a character in these stories. Husić uses the slippages of memory combined with the complexity of point of view shifts as each character quests for truth. Central to these narratives, however, is a city that seems strangely unaltered by time and war, despite the many violences that happen in and around it. The city of Mostar acts as a constant place of physical as well as psychological return, bordering on the spiritual. Take this beautiful passage from “Deathwinked” when the narrator elegizes the city of his past: Mostar, my city, you are far from me now, but I peek through the spyglass and you appear so near. In my third-floor apartment, in the neverdesperate America of my childhood dreams, at my desk, armed with pencil and paper, sensitive as a landmine, fumbling similes like live grenades, I, the young, triple-tongued poet, write down the name of my birthcity like the name of a former lover. Mostar. Mostar, my city, stunned quiet. Husić invokes writers that similarly channel form for cerebral effect—from the poet Paul Celan to novelists Fyodor Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy, and the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard—and any reader who might be a fan of these heavy lifters would certainly do well to pick up Basements and Other Museums. Among contemporary writers, Husić reminds me of Orhan Pamuk, who in books like Snow similarly questions how a fractured present can somehow be traced back to a more intact past. Vedran Husić’s Basements and Other Museums is a collection where absence is felt acutely, where characters become strangers to themselves. A monk at a Greek monastery in the book’s final story vocalizes what is perhaps the book’s central idea: “A man in doubt is therefore a man in perpetual exile.” This is a collection, after all, where belief is lost and found and lost again.
Long, long ago These things happened or maybe no. Let’s start with the image on the cover. Three women sit in a courtyard. One holds a long-handled pan over a coal brazier; the other two, one of whom has her back to us, hold small cups. They wear identical pale head-scarves. Between them, an elegant coffee pot rests on an ornate purple and gold table. The women’s aprons are vividly colored, geometrically lined, and seemingly coextensive with the mosaic tiling of the surrounding courtyard, as if all were made from the same bright, fearless stuff. Behind them is a verdant garden, potted flowers and flowing trees in full bloom. We cannot see the face of the woman who is turned away, but those of the other two are striking. Neither smiles fully, but their expressions suggest contentment, even if we have clearly interrupted their conversation, stepping into their space. Cover art featuring one or more women with back turned (and/or headless, perhaps in traditional garb) is both ubiquitous and potentially problematic, as Anna Solomon has previously discussed on The Millions. But women on the cover of Najla Jraissaty Khoury’s Pearls on a Branch are not presented as objects of passivity or erotic desire. They are the storytellers whose stories the book collects. The cover image is from a gouache painting by Beirut-born artist Helen Zughaib called Subhiyya at Teta’s House (Morning at Grandma’s House). In her remarks on the painting, Zughaib describes a morning coffee ritual, a “routine that never changed” in which “six or seven older women, all widowed, would gather at [her] grandmother’s house.” Each would enter without knocking (the door was wide open anyhow) and sit in the same place every time. They would drink coffee and share news: births, illnesses, deaths, gossip, the arrival of new produce at the marketplace. But mostly they were there to tell stories. And the stories, Zughaib reminds us, “were always the same, told each day by the same woman and yet the women never seemed to tire of telling or hearing them.” The complete gouache, as opposed to the narrow-cropped version appearing on the cover of Pearls on a Branch, includes an enormous blue fountain, two additional women enjoying a hookah, and, far off in a perimeter doorway, the small shape of a curious boy. Storytelling women in the foreground: It’s a fitting visual for a book collecting traditional Lebanese folktales, told by women, to women, celebrating women’s cleverness and resilience, and asserting their ability to define their own identities. Khoury, now a grandmother herself, still remembers her grandmother’s stories. In the late 1970s, while civil war flared, the theater company Khoury founded traveled throughout Lebanon, using marionettes and shadow puppets to perform traditional stories in rural villages, air raid shelters, and refugee camps. Their plays were based upon oral tales, patiently coaxed from the memories of the elderly. She describes her process: I often spent hours listening to the narrator—they were mostly women—tell me all about herself, her experiences during the war, her health problems, personal reminiscences, or even some cooking recipe ... before I finally ventured to ask: “Who told you stories when you were a child? Which story did you like best?” After removing the chaff—for example, those narratives apparently lifted from television—Khoury revisited each story, perhaps several times, so as to catch nuances, variations, commentary. Initially, her goal was material for the theater troupe. But in 2014, she published a book, collecting a hundred stories in written Arabic. Thirty of these, translated into English, form Pearls on a Branch. The collection is immediately recognizable as a cousin to other collections of traditional oral folktales from around the world. There are tricksters, ghosts, personified animals, themes of love and transformation, justice and revenge, ample humor. The stories are reliably didactic, full of wisdom and warnings, if sometimes cryptic. But Pearls on a Branch is unique in emphasizing women as the creators, audience, and in most cases the protagonists of such tales. Khoury reminds us in her introduction that until at least the middle of the 20th century, Lebanese society, like that of its Arabic-speaking neighbors, was highly patriarchal. Men could go out to the coffee house with other men to hear the hakawati (storytellers) recite the old epics. But the women were typically confined to their courtyards. There they would gather with other women to tell their own stories, “stories in which men are dependent on women who are sharper and more intelligent than they are, where women become the true heroines if only through their patience in the face of oppression.” Take, for example, the couple in “A House without Worries.” Every night, the man beats his wife with a series of switches, demanding that the woman assure him of his worthiness: With each blow he would ask her a question and she would answer him: “Is there anyone pleasanter than I am?” “No.” “Is there anyone handsomer than I am?” “No.” “Is there anyone cleverer than I am?” “No.” “Is there anyone wealthier than I am?” “No.” Satisfied, the husband would leave the house and the wife would gather and replace the sticks with which she had been beaten. But the wife confides in a wise old woman, who tells her to stop answering “no,” and instead answer that Shah Bandar, a merchant, is in fact pleasanter, handsomer, cleverer, and wealthier than her husband. Mad with jealousy, the husband seeks out Shah Bandar, who asks the husband some questions of his own: “Is your wife beautiful?” “Yes.” “Is your wife young?” “Yes.” “Is your wife bright?” “Yes.” Upon which Shah Bandar gives the husband a magic comb, a present for the woman. When she uses it she is lifted into the air and taken to Shah Bandar, who takes her as his own wife. The old woman’s sage advice has proven effective: Not only does the long-suffering wife get her escape; she also gets the satisfaction of knowing that her abusive husband appreciates what he has lost. [millions_ad] Or consider “The Frog and His Wife,” about an amphibian couple who quarrel but are mostly content until the husband, angry when his wife wakes him with a sudden splash in the water, insults her harshly. Stung, the wife returns to her parents’ house, leaving the husband frog dejected and depressed. A parade of animals offer to mediate, but it isn’t until the sultan’s stallion gets involved that the wife responds. From horseback the frog’s wife demands that her husband list all of his various failings. When he does, albeit in a way that reminds her of his positive qualities, she takes him back, to live together happily ever after. Again, we see a female solving her problem with tenacity, cleverness, and a little help from some friends. Challenges with marriage and children are major themes throughout Pearls on a Branch, but the men aren’t always the problem. Take, for example, the story of Lady Tanaqeesh, whose sisters are jealous of her beauty and intelligence and general pleasantness and give her peacock eggs to eat, causing her to become pregnant. Banished from her father’s house, Lady Tanaqeesh finds herself lost and alone in the wilderness. She cries but finds her strength, following some pigeons to safety and giving birth alone in a small hut. Ever resourceful, she enlists the birds as her allies, instructing them to return to her father’s house to ruin his wheat stores and sing the truth about Lady Tanaqueesh’s innocence. Vindicated, Lady Tanaqeesh is invited to have her revenge against her sisters, which she imagines in satisfying detail (“Their guts will serve as ropes to hang my washing on,” she promises) but in the end she chooses mercy, grateful for the beautiful child she would not have but for her sisters’ jealousy. In her introduction, translator Inea Bushnaq notes that for all the stories about “rebellious daughters [who] venture bravely into the world, there are quieter girls who realize their hopes through patience and endurance. This too takes courage.” Sitt Yadab falls in the latter category. A serious, hard-working student sent to study with the sheikh because her parents “had not been blessed with a boy,” she accidentally sees the demon sheikh “devouring” a small boy. The sheikh presses her to admit what she has seen, but, terrified of his wrath, Sitt Yadab refuses, earning a lifetime of his harassment. Years later, after the sheikh has killed her parents, kidnapped her children, and punished anyone who might show her even basic charity, she finally unburdens herself with the help of the Stone of Patience and the Knife of Sorrow, retrieved from Mecca: Sitt Yadab wept as she etched with the knife a cut on the stone for each of her sorrows. She shed tears as she recited her refrain. She cried through the day and cried through the night. But, as darkness was lifting, the ground at her feet split open and the Sheikh appeared. He speaks: “O Sitt Yadab, no human has existed Who defied my orders or strength resisted Until your patience and your tears, For the first time in all my years, Sapped my strength and conquered me!” Having finally defeated the demon Sheikh after a life of suffering, she gives the Stone of Patience and the Knife of Sorrow to her daughter, “for they would give her strength when she had to endure in silence.” It’s not all heaviness and sorrow. The great thing about folktales is that they can be both deadly serious about their message and also great fun. Humor, one suspects, is one way in which a story might persist through the years, relayed through various storytellers, made relevant to various generations, amidst various historical circumstances. And many of the stories in this collection, for all of their gravity, are delightfully silly. And so we have “The Singing Turd,” about a woman so desperate for a child that she asks God to grant her “a little one, even if she is just a turd.” God grants her wish—after nine months, she gives birth to a turd—and she is overjoyed: Happy to be a mother, the woman picked up her little daughter and placed her in a bowl of cut crystal, which she set on a shelf in the bathhouse. She pushed back the window shutters so the child could look outside and not feel lonesome. The daughter liked to sing and she had a voice that could move the world. It’s a clever little story, incorporating many of the collection’s themes: mistaken identity, inner beauty versus external recognition, the sultan. I won’t give away the ending except to say that love wins, and virtue is rewarded, and it’s possible that someone ends up getting married to human excrement. Each story begins, and sometimes ends, with a farsheh, a brief verse that may or may not be directly related to the story but sets the tone for the flight of imagination that is to come. (Bushnaq reminds us that the word farsheh literally refers to the bedroll that transforms the Lebanese living space into a bedroom at night). Like the painting on the cover, these verses remind us that the stories within this volume come from a place both familiar and removed; quotidian and special; traditional and yet, somehow, subversive. Khoury has done us a great service by preserving them. This is our story and we have told it In your pocket you can now hold it.
In her preface to this often stunning, always measured debut book of essays, Meghan O’Gieblyn captures her essayistic identity in a quote from William James: “The most violent revolutions in an individual’s beliefs leave most of the old order standing.” Interior States is an examination of the Midwest and the self—a wry, ambitious catalog of what happens when a writer abandons belief yet retains a religious language and latitude. O’Gieblyn grew up in “a dwindling Baptist congregation in southeast Michigan, where Sunday mornings involved listening to our pastor unabashedly preach something akin to the 1819 version of hell.” “Saved” at 5 years old, she entered Moody Bible Institute at 18. There, the Word was literal and absolute. But don’t fall for the “widespread misconception that biblical literalism is facile and mindless.” Rather, the peculiar erudition of Christian literalism “is even more complicated than liberal brands of theology because it involves the sticky task of reconciling the overlay myth—the story of redemption—with a wildly inconsistent body of scripture.” A former evangelical whose audiences are primarily secular—think Harper’s, The New Yorker, The Guardian—O’Gieblyn calls out the lethargy of contemporary American culture. “I developed a physical allergy to NPR,” she writes, suspicious of narratives that center the narrator and, in doing so, praise that narrator. She thinks they are somewhere between self-satisfied and self-congratulatory: “It seemed to me then that we suffered from the fundamental delusion that we had elevated ourselves above the rubble of hinterland ignorance—that fair trade coffee and Orange You Glad It’s Vegan? cake had somehow redeemed our sins.” As a pox against that mindset, O’Gieblyn would “unwind by listening to a fundamentalist preacher who delivered exegeses on the Pentateuch and occasionally lapsed into fire and brimstone.” During those long drives home from her night class, charged by a cadence which stirred her, about a God in which she no longer believed, “I would slip into a trance state, failing to register the import of the message but calmed nonetheless by the familiar rhythm of conviction.” That need for conviction—perhaps more its hymn than its literal message—enables O’Gieblyn to arrive at interesting and refreshing conclusions. She laments that “at a time when we are in need of potent metaphors to help us make sense of our darkest impulses, Protestant churches have chosen to remain silent on the problem of evil, for fear of being obsolete.” Here O’Gieblyn carries what she calls the evangelical Protestant tradition of public profession. These essays are her peculiar testimonies. More than anything else, they are stories of the Midwest, where exists “a profound loss of telos, the realization that the industries and systems that built the region are no longer tenable.” Her literal and metaphorical home, the Midwest has been “less a destination than a corridor,” a place where you can easily develop “an existential dizziness, a sense that the rest of the world is moving while you remain still.” The Midwest breeds outward kindness and inward skepticism. “When you live at the center of the American machine,” she writes, “it’s impossible to avoid speaking of mechanics.” She’s a welcome guide through this machine. “Awareness is not the same as perspective; sometimes the former is an obstacle to the latter”—aphorisms paint the atmosphere in this book. O’Gieblyn earns her pronouncements. In an essay about subtlety, that which she proclaims her “chronic foible,” O’Gieblyn shares “when I finally abandoned my faith, I believed I was leaving this inscrutable world behind”—an evangelical world of impossible theologies, in which God was absent but longed for. “But as it turns out,” she knows, “the material world is every bit as elusive as the superstitions I’d left behind.” Rather than a jeremiad against the Christianity of her youth, Interior States asks her former faith to return to its previous authenticity, one lost to a consumerist sense of worship. O’Gieblyn retains what she calls “an abiding anthropological curiosity” to her past life, and it has created a curiously powerful result. She’s a writer who speaks in tongues—Biblically trained, and yet now her own—and who understands America from the middle. After finishing Interior States, I returned to the William James essay that O’Gieblyn so appropriately quoted. He finishes that piece with a meditation upon the value of pragmatism: “Rationalism sticks to logic and the empyrean. Empiricism sticks to the external senses. Pragmatism for her part is willing to take anything, to follow either logic or the senses, and to count the humblest and most personal experiences. She will count mystical experiences if they have practical consequences. She will take a God who lives in the very dirt of private fact—if that should seem a likely place to find him.” O’Gieblyn is a writer worth trusting, a writer who audaciously, and stylistically, seeks truth.
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.