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“When the first round snapped by my head, I was still thinking that the only shadows I had seen in the war had been made of angles: hard blurs of light falling on masses of buildings, antennas, and the shapes of weapons in tangles of alleys.”

Kevin Powers, The Yellow Birds

Hard blurs. One of the (generally acknowledged, often emphasized) tensions of war writing is the unknowability of the soldier’s experience, especially since Vietnam, and probably in direct contrast to a broader shared experience of the second world war: the soldier’s experience is different from, unavailable to, much of his audience. So the novel, the tool of fiction, becomes a mechanism to bridge that gap, with the insanity of Catch-22 or the surrealism of Meditations in Green. The Yellow Birds is much more straightforward than those two, at least — but there’s something in its language that’s uncomfortable, weirdly imprecise, that sits wrong. Hard blurs here — it took a few readings to parse out the sentence, to figure out the blurs precede the sharp angles of shadows, but the image doesn’t snap together right. Elsewhere, we hear “last echoes” “ringing through the evening heat.” Powers often uses his prose style very well — he’s excellent with using sentence length and structure for focus, pointed syntax in the moment of combat and long impacted run-ons in post-traumatic aftermath. But metaphors mix, and images hang unresolved, in his diction.

Little, Brown 09.11.12

March 27, 2014, 10:10am  Comments

c joseph greaves, hard twisted

“The gamecocks met like windblown newsprint, clapping and rising and tumbling downward in the grasp of a phantom whirlwind, feathers flying and blood arcing in crimson pinwheels. The crowd, red-mouthed and savage, was a sea of corded necks and pumping fists.”

On the one hand: that’s really an evocative image, at least the first clause. On the other: that’s a lot of iambs and unexamined metaphors. Which pretty much characterizes the narrative style throughout, almost baroque in its ornamentation. So that at the end of the chapter, putting a drunk to bed, this is unremarkable:

“They sat him down and loosened his tentfly, and they eased him like some prostrate catechumen into a canvas baptismal.”

Bloomsbury USA 11.13.12

November 15, 2012, 11:00am   Comments

kay continued

“Two butterflies have landed on Anton’s candytuft hanky chief. Red admirals.
“‘Red admirables,’ I says.”

But even in tiny slices you can see the movement. Here’s a younger Louise, showing the difference between her perception and her self-presentation, with the right name for the butterfly sitting next to hanky chief, and then her out loud mispronouncing. A page or two later — and this is near the end of the book, and another quick sharp flash of Louise’s range — Anton takes her to task for the way she speaks:

“‘You’re going to have trouble with the next bit of French unless we can sort your English out. I mean, when you think, do you think int? Sometimes you say I is and sometime you say I am and I wonder why.’
“‘Just cos can.’”

She follows that by telling him it saves time, and calling him Henry Higgins. And then, when he asks who that is, her answer — heartbreaking, because her neglectful mother had been a monster of self-regard and a musical theater actress — is “Rex Harrison.” And that quickly Kay travels from style, to banter, to the undercoat of pain that forms her character’s foundation.

July 20, 2012, 10:50am   Comments

amelia gray, threats

“The tape on the package was striped with waxed string. David dug his fingernails underneath the perimeter of the tape and clawed at it. He didn’t want to go to the kitchen for a knife, and he spent an extra piece of time examining the entire package to find the loose end that could be pulled up. Inside the package was a Styrofoam carton, sealed with another kind of thick tape. A receipt was attached to the top of the lid, noting a cremation charge of $795, a box charge of $25, and a shipping charge of $20.95.”

I don’t tend to put too much weight on first lines, first paragraphs — they have to carry enough weight anyway, and one assumes that they’re a part of any book that’s been worried over and polished and fought with so much that the passage reveals only what the writer wants. It’s a first impression, a best face rather than the truest face, of the book. That said, this is the first paragraph of Threats. Which I’m pretty enamored of. Not only because it does that short-story-in-a-hundred-words thing well, though it does, and the sucker punch is nice; and not just because it demonstrates the peculiar quality of Gray’s prose, which is really nicely bunted somewhere between Ben Marcus and Tao Lin; but for the phrase “extra piece of time:” that choice of wording gives you both the estrangement Gray works hard for, and grounds the book in a recognizable colloquial reality. It’s something like the David Lynch trick of zooming in to show the rot and madness under the idyllic postcard surface. And so: Lynch, Marcus, and Tao Lin, all positively referenced, and I’m pretty sure I’m not underselling Threats.

FSG 03.06.12

March 06, 2012, 2:19pm   Comments

eowyn ivey, the snow child

“What happened in that cold dark, when frost formed a halo in the child’s straw hair and snowflake turned to flesh and bone? Was it the way the children’s book showed, warmth spreading down through the cold, brow then cheeks, throat then lungs, warm flesh separating from snow and frozen earth? The exact science of one molecule transformed into another — that Mabel could not explain, but then again she couldn’t explain how a fetus formed in the womb, cells becoming beating heart and hoping soul.”
The odd bit of highflown and poetic in a book that manages to stick mostly to matter-of-fact (and good for it for doing so). There must be a sub-genre, or some kind of descriptor, for this kind of book, one that literalizes a fairy tale, places it in a realistic frame, which is what The Snow Child does. Ivey does a thorough job of it, and while the third act pulls focus, unfortunately I think, from the older couple who set the tone for the book in favor of a much more generic adolescent love story, she’s careful and delicate throughout.

Regan Arthur 02.10.12

February 10, 2012, 6:37am   Comments

marcus continued

“LeBov enjoyed the rhetorical vague. He relished not naming something, in not even talking about something. I felt his pleasure as he refused to say whatever he was obviously thinking. He didn’t even really say what he was saying. Instead he found some way to make it seem that someone else was saying it, someone he looked down on. He was only the vessel, raped in the mouth and made to channel the words of an invader. This kind of concealment was supposed to create tension, build mystery. We spoke in code, but no one was listening in, and we no longer knew the original language to which our niceties would be translated back. We were trapped in the code now for good. A language twice removed, stepped on, boiled into a paste, and rubbed into an animal’s corpse.”

LeBov isn’t quite the villain, but he’s absolutely the snake in the garden, or perhaps just Wallace Stevens’s Lunatic of One Idea. The plague of language isn’t his fault, but his battle against it incurs awful costs, warps and cracks anything it touches, not least of all Marcus’s diction and syntax. The result is something complex and difficult, defeated and hopeless, hard to read but impressive in its comprehensiveness and sorrow.

January 20, 2012, 11:00am   Comments

marcus continued

“When I thought of Esther alone in the house, without us, I pictured her being waited on by … us. Facsimiles of us. Robot usses. Father and mother us, hovering over Esther with bowls of berries, with the special dinner of steamed greens, the de-meated slab of protein and sauteed bread she liked. Her own baby bowl of salt, hooked onto her dinner plate like a sidecar. I couldn’t see her, Esther didn’t exist, without a satellite of us orbiting by, although I’m sure Esther had no problem imagining her solitude.”

And here’s a hint at what Marcus does — with the de-meated slab of protein and sauteed bread, with the weirdness of the image of the sidecar of salt. The things he describes are a little bit off (or a lot off, as with the odd mode of Jewish worship he describes, hiding in a hut in a forest listening to clandestine radio transmissions with a two-part receiver rig), but only in the manner of a near-future dystopia or a wet science fiction story, mild little unsettling differences from a mostly-recognizable setting. But the diction — the diction continues to get uglier, more viscerally awful, as the book goes on, the ugliness and hopelessness of Marcus’s world coded into the words he uses. In this, The Flame Alphabet resembles something like Blake Butler’s There Is No Year, which I thoroughly disliked. But The Flame Alphabet succeeds in a way that No Year doesn’t (still unlikeable, but because of a visceral recoil from the language, a calculated effect) because the diction is a vehicle for and an emblem of the plot, and the layered metaphors built up like sediment over top of that plot.

January 18, 2012, 11:00am   Comments

daniel woodrell, under the bright lights

“A sort of fond sadness meandered through Shade. It was partly because he loved his brother and knew him perfectly, partly because he did not know him at all. The unlighted chamber where one’s true and most secret longings and convictions are housed has a door that is impressively sealed. The more you turn the knob and peek through the keyhole, the more you have to guess, and the less you know.”
Absolutely a piece that’s carried by style, as it’s rooted in a place and a geography; this is a book that doesn’t pull you along to find out what happens, because mostly you already know and the plot’s just something to hang everything else on. Instead, it’s a book you wind up reading slower to keep up with the nuances and stay within the voice. Or, really, voices: Woodrell is great at dialect, at rhythms of spoken language, and in his narration he drops into a southern gothic semiformality that’s just as distinctive. Both of these voices are cadenced, rhythmic; the gulf between narration and speech, high and low, is huge and striking.

“There had been a time, not too long ago, when Francois has been energetic in his defense of the stepped-on multitudes, passionate in his pleas for those mendicants before the bar, those old neighborhood losers whose humanity he would not deny. He’d had a threat in his stance toward the system that had not always been kind to those close to him, and a mind quick to become belligerent in his quest of justice for the smallfry.”

reprinted in The Bayou Trilogy, Mulholland Books 04.28.11

May 11, 2011, 10:21am   Comments

blake butler, there is no year

“Usually the cable’s crap connection delivered all the channels with a rind of fuzz. The screen would sometimes spurt and bubble with long rips of swish, often in the most important moments of a program, or at least the moments the person watching would most like to see. The cable company had sent several repairmen with no success. Several of the men had fallen off the roof, cracked bones or bruises. One of the men had lost his thumb.”

Not quite a random paragraph, but close enough to serve as a core sample. Most everything is here: the banality of the situation and the problem in poor cable reception; the swooping diction and exuberant images (spurt and bubble with long rips of swish, which only makes sense in an onomatopoeic or imagistic way); the sense of decay (rind of fuzz); the breakdown of grammar (cracked bones or bruises); the touch of macabre in the lost thumb.

Harper Perennial 04.05.11

April 09, 2011, 7:57am   Comments

michael crummey, galore

“They were practical and serious and outlandishly foreign. They described the deathly ill as wonderful sick. Anything brittle or fragile or tender was nish, anything out of plumb or uneven was asquish. They called the Adam’s apple a kinkorn, referred to the Devil as Horn Man. They’d once showed the doctor a scarred vellum copy of the Bible that Jabez Trim had cut from a cod’s stomach nearly a century past, a relic so singular and strange that Newman asked to see it whenever he visited, leafing through the pages with a kind of secular awe.”

This is from the start of the second part of Galore, where Crummey introduces Dr. Newman, an outsider to the Newfoundland fishing community he’s spent the first part cataloguing through several generations. It seems to signal a shift in perspective, stepping out of the magical-realist family chronicle that’s preceded by giving the reader a fresh outsiders’ perspective on these towns. But this is about as far as that shift goes: Newman winds up married into one of the feuding families, and we recommence our trek through the generations.

Other Press 03.29.11

April 04, 2011, 12:48pm   Comments