Monday, February 22, 2010

A Million in Prizes

In some ways, Carl Phillips' selection of Justin Marks' A Million in Prizes as the winner of the 2009 New Issues Poetry Prize is a surprise, and not because the poems disappoint. Taken as a whole, the book reads more like three distinct chapbooks rather than a cohesive utterance. In fact, the book's structure mimics this: split into three parts--one part poems, one part long poem, one part prose poems. The best of these sections is, by far, the last. Marks' prose poems are both wonderful and strange; and they're also comic and tragic at times, often to the point that his voice makes it difficult to distinguish between the two. One paragraph of "The Detonator Always Has a Red Button" is particularly emblematic: "What's most important to me now is water, my complexion, and urinating. In bed last night, I kept my genitals to myself." Clearly, a sense of playfulness and mild nonsense characterizes these lines. But it's difficult to know how, exactly, we're meant to interpret that last sentence, which is precisely what makes it so great. Yet, the line also resonates. After we're done laughing, we wonder what emotional register resides beneath the humor: Desperation? Loneliness? Other poems contemplate the dilemma of interpretation itself. "Last Year's Model" is a poem more about the tremulous relationship we, as humans, have with language and less about being outdated: "I have this idea, but then I have to make the language. Which is more a reflection of the spirit of the market than anything else. On the palms of my hands are the words, Love me." And that's what makes Marks' poems, when they're good, really good--his ability to make the comic something worth returning to, and not because it's a veil for the truth, but because it's the truth itself. Thus, he asks questions many of us have long been asking ourselves, in quiet moments: "All I can say is, Where have I been my whole life?" Only he does this loudly. With laughter and unease in the background. Maybe a cocktail in hand. And some music overheard in the parking lot. If only these moments occurred with greater frequency. They will: This is, after all, a first book.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Await Your Reply

Part thriller, part cultural commentary, total literary breakthrough, Dan Chaon’s Await Your Reply is a book you’ll have a difficult time putting down, even after you’re done reading. In fact, you might read it all again before it even finds its way to the bookshelf. I did. The plot weaves together three storylines. In one, a recent high school graduate and her former history teacher turned boyfriend flee their small-town Ohio life to run away together. You get the idea that they’re on the lam, but from what or from whom? It’s a question only one of them can answer, but it’s also a question the other is hesitant and ill-equipped to ask, perhaps until it’s too late. A second story follows one brother, Miles Cheshire, as he continues his desperate and futile chase of the other, Hayden, a man as troubled as he is troubling, which has little to do with Hayden's perceived schizophrenia and more to do with his unswerving penchant for swindling the wrong people. The brothers might be identical twins, but they are as different as two people can be, and in more ways than one. Finally, a third narrative follows a father-son team of computer-age crooks in rural Michigan as their past identities and present schemes catch up to them, with startling consequences. Their story is more complicated than that, of course, as is the rest of the book and how the narratives relate: Ryan, the son, has purposefully vanished from the only life he's known to be with his father, Jay, a man he was raised to think was his uncle.

In his blurb on the back of the book, novelist and essayist Jonathan Franzen writes, “I’ve been waiting for somebody to write the essential identity-theft novel, and I’m very glad Dan Chaon’s the one to have done it.” Thematically, Chaon meditates on the liquidity of modern identity, in terms of how the essence of who we are, at least according to the world around us, is nothing but data entry and busywork. We are expendable and interchangeable, which is both a good and a bad thing. But Chaon also expresses how this literal truth has become a psychological condition as well, a lens through which we not only view ourselves, but the entire society around us. And Await Your Reply succeeds because of Chaon’s masterful touch. Split into chapters that are split into sections, Chaon constantly dislocates the reader, thereby building suspense. But he also does things less noticeable. Time itself is conflated, and often unaddressed, so that, as a reader, you’re uncertain as to whether what you’re reading is sequential or not when compared to the chapters directly before and after. Metaphorically, that’s a good statement for what it’s like to live in the era that we do, filled as it is with endless white noise and imperceptible digital traffic. As the novel poses its essential question (Just what is the link between these three stories?), the relationships of the characters to each other, and themselves, constantly changes. Thus, as Chaon answers each question, three or four more pop up, each one of greater consequence than the last. Suffice it to say that Chaon answers every single one by the time it’s all said and done. More than a warning against the burgeoning threats of our era, Chaon’s novel poses an age-old existential question: Is it even possible to change who we are? Is anybody truly a dynamic character? Perhaps that's just an invention of novelists. Or, as one of the characters rhetorically reflects near the novel's climax, “What did you call an absence that ceased to become an absence, what do you call a hole that has been filled in?”

Monday, February 8, 2010

Girl Trouble

If you’re a fan of short shorts (No, not those kind of short shorts), Holly Goddard Jones’ debut collection of stories, Girl Trouble, isn’t the book for you. At three hundred plus pages, Jones’ eight stories prefer a longer narrative arc, even in their shortest instances. In terms of style, her narrative voice, whether in first or third person, is nearly one without a quirk, which becomes its own idiosyncratic gesture in today's multi-styled world of fiction. In fact, in a Q-and-A session with her former teacher Nancy Zefaris at the end of the paperback P.S. edition, Jones admits that she “like[s] seriousness and sweep and—to one of [her] professor’s constant aggravation—exposition.”

In a few words, Jones is smooth, serious, heartfelt, not overly intellectualized, and yet not especially descriptive either, with no shock factor in her tone. Which is a good thing, because the subjects of Girl Trouble are sometimes shocking themselves, both in event and character. At their best, the contrast between the soft style of Jones’ narration and the violence of her stories fuels a building and occasionally breathless tension. (Conversely, in the one or two stories where her narrators or protagonists are adolescents, or adults looking back on adolescence, the stories disappoint precisely because this tension is lacking. It’s hard, looking back, to see the trembling immediacy in some coming-of-age moments, however much it may have felt so one at the time.)

Thematically, Jones’ characters are most often introduced to us as they struggle to stay afloat in the wake of larger, disastrous events. All of the stories are set in and around Roma, Kentucky, and its working-class environment. “Good Girl,” the opening story, tells us about Jacob, a widower whose troubled, apathetic son has just been arrested for raping a fifteen-year old girl. Jacob realizes he can’t move forward with his own life, especially with his own newfound relationship, until he completely lets go of his past, including his son. The story’s structure, which tunnels farther into the past as the plot builds, reflects this. And it’s a choice with which Jacob struggles. Is he paralyzed by grief or guilt? Maybe both. In “Parts,” the consequences of a college-age daughter’s brutal murder include the eventual rupture of her parent’s marriage. While the father moves on, remarries, and prepares to become a father again, the mother, who narrates the story, refuses to do so, because harboring the memory of her daughter, Felicia, requires her to. Or so she thinks. Here are her concluding remarks when she speaks of both her husband and her daughter: “…I believed, despite everything, if I gave enough of myself I could have them back again. That wanting it badly enough could make a difference.” Jones is also comic,though: In still another story, “Allegory of a Cave,” a father introduces his son, not only to the adult and surprisingly human version of himself, but also to the larger world around them, by taking him to a strip club one afternoon while the wife and mother goes Christmas shopping.

One of the strengths of Jones’ writing is that she’s willing to shoot for the moon, to embrace the emphatic gesture, to paint a canvas as broad as she can imagine, and to do it her way. First books should always be read with the notion of potential in mind, and there’s a lot of that in Girl Trouble. Perhaps Jones voice is best-suited for a novel. She herself, however, might resist such an idea, and it would be interesting to watch her master the challenges of writing big short stories. Either way, it will be more than noteworthy whatever she does next; it will be something to which we should give our attention.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Too Much Happiness

What can be said about Alice Munro that hasn’t been said already? Even the complaints about the overused Chekhov references have grown as tired as the Chekhov references themselves. Too Much Happiness, Munro’s thirteenth collection of short fiction–if you count Lives of Girls and Women, her novel in stories, among those numbers–doesn’t find Munro covering new ground as a storyteller. It is, though, a return to form. Her previous collection, The View from Castle Rock, was a calculated departure (in style, on one hand, in how it used the facts of Munro’s family and personal history for fictional gain, but also in success, on the other hand, because The View from Castle Rock was an uneven collection, however much it appeased our collective voyeurism.) Around the time of its release, Munro even suggested the book would be her last. On a couple of levels, then, Too Much Happiness is cause for celebration, but not just because it finds Munro revisiting familiar territory, or because it signals Munro’s return to writing. (Most of the stories here, incidentally, were published prior to The View from Castle Rock’s release.). No, the stories themselves are damned good.

Two, in particular, showcase the uncommon gravity of Munro’s world. “Dimension” opens the book. The story explores the aftermath of absolute horror. A young mother whose three children have been murdered by her controlling husband struggles to break her connection to him, even after he’s imprisoned and continues to drift ever farther away and out of touch, physically and psychologically. What is she grieving, exactly? we ask ourselves. Just how enmeshed is she in her own subjective experience? And just when the mother, Doree, seems completely lost, deciding to do away with her only personal connection in the world, her therapist, Mrs. Sands, and just when we begin to think the story is going to drift into utter darkness, a different kind of calamity strikes, out of the blue, only this time it spares her. Almost literally, she learns to breathe again. Normally, Munro’s stories do not ascend to such brilliancy.

Another story, “Wenlock Edge” presents a familiar Munro archetype, the small-town-college-girl’s-abrupt-coming-of-age-in-the-big-city, with an unexpected twist: There’s a seduction without a seduction this time around, a striking scene in which the protagonist ends up at dinner with her roommate’s older, obsessive lover, a man who seems a strangely potent cocktail of reticence and restriction, fetish and feebleness. Needless to say, the protagonist agrees to dine naked while the man, Mr. Purvis, remains completely clothed. And while the two never touch, it’s an experience that alters the reality of every character in the story, including the roommate, Nina, and the protagonist’s cousin, Ernie.

The title story is the real gem of the collection, and also a change of pace. At fifty-plus pages, it’s too difficult to summarize in a few sentences. But it’s a piece of historical fiction that introduces readers to the life of Sophia Kovalevsky, a late-nineteenth-century Russian mathematician, both romantically and professionally, in the days before her death. In that story, and others, Too Much Happiness contains all the narrative fireworks of a typical Munro collection. At times, the book doesn’t feel as cohesive, thematically speaking, as previous collections, like 2004’s Runaway. In fact, one might wonder what Munro even stands to gain by publishing another book. If she succeeds, she only fulfills our expectations, nothing more. If she fails, she dents her own reputation. Well, suffice it to say that, after all the page-turning is over with, everything we think about Munro is still intact, and even strengthened.