Friday, September 28, 2012

Aerogrammes by Tania James

Tania James was raised in Louisville, Kentucky. She graduated from Harvard University with a degree in filmmaking and received an MFA from Columbia’s School of the Arts. Knopf published her debut novel Atlas of Unknowns in 2009 and Aerogrammes, a short story collection, in May, 2012. She received fellowships from the Ragdale Foundation and the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities. From 2011-2012, she was a Fulbright fellow to India living in New Delhi. Now she lives in Washington DC.

The nine stories in Aerogrammes, all very different, all feature Indian characters. In "Lion and Panther in London," two Indian wrestlers have been brought to England in 1912 to challenge all comers. But wrestling has become a staged show and no one wants to challenge them. "What do Do with Henry" shows what could happen when a baby chimp is raised as a human child; the tragedy of the chimp and of the girl who grows up with him. "The Gulf," narrated by an eight-year-old, shows the lives of a family whose father has gone to work in Dubai, returning years later as a stranger.

I found James's writing engaging and supple. Here's the beginning of "Ethnic Ken":

"My grandfather believed that the guest bathroom drain was a portal for time travel. I didn't mind his beliefs until they intruded on my social life, what little I had. My friend Newt and I were playing slapball against the side of my house—I was up to a record sixty-seven slaps—when my grandfather came outside and yelled at me in Malayalam for leaving a clot of my long hair in the bathtub drain, thereby blocking his route. His mundu was tied up like a miniskirt, wet scribbles of hair against his spindly calves. After calling me a 'twit,' my grandfather stormed back inside, leaving Newt to stare at me with a dispiriting combination of pity and shock."

I thoroughly enjoyed these stories for a number of reasons: Even when the premise is fantastic (in the last story, a girl marries a ghost) the situation is comprehensible. James is able to evoke living people in circumstances that seem genuine. In an interview with The Kenyon Review, James says, "...if I’m getting at the core of what I believe, in both writing and reading, I’d say I believe in the potential of words to push a reader to the precipice and look down at what he might normally ignore in his daily life. He may not come away from the experience permanently changed, but he may be momentarily awake to something new, or something slightly familiar but skewed in a surprising way. Such moments are worth all the time and sweat the writer took to produce the book in the first place."

Friday, September 21, 2012

Train Dreams by Denis Johnson

This was one of the three books nominated for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, the year the committee did not award the prize to any one of the three. Denis Johnson had already won a National Book Award for his novel Tree of Smoke, which I read and thoroughly enjoyed.

Johnson has published four books of poetry, nine novels, and what sounds like a memoir (Seek: Reports from the Edges of America & Beyond). Train Dreams is a novella (about 115 pages in a small-format hardback) and originally appeared in a slightly different form in The Paris Review in 2002. Perhaps that's why the Pulitzer committee rejected it: Not brand new. . . and not very long.

It begins, "In the summer of 1917 Robert Grainier took part in an attempt on the life of a Chinese laborer caught, or anyway accused of, stealing from the company stores of the Spokane International Railway in the Idaho Panhandle." The laborer escapes and we follow the life of Robert in Idaho until 1935.

One of the marvels of the book, I think, is how much Johnson does in such a short space. We learn about Robert, his wife, the effects of a massive forest fire, life in early 20th century Idaho, logging, Kootenai Indians, barnstorming airplanes, and more. It's tempting to quote and quote and quote, but I'll just give one more sample: "...Grainier lives in the cabin, even through the winters. By most Januaries, when the snow had deepened, the valley seemed stopped with a perpetual silence, but as a matter of fact it was often filled with the rumble of trains and the choirs of distant wolves and the nearer mad jibbering of coyotes. Also, his own howling, as he'd taken it up as a kind of sport."

In one way, Train Dreams contradicts conventional publishing. There is no "plot" in the sense of a character who wants something, overcomes a series of challenges, and either obtains or fails to obtain what he wants. The book could almost be the biography of Robert Grainier except that his life is, on the evidence of the book, too unimportant to record.

Yet by the time you close the novel, you've experienced an extraordinary life. And you've watched the West's slow despoiliation. All in 115 pages.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Drifting House by Krys Lee

Drifting House is a collection of nine short stories by a writer who was born in Seoul, South Korea, was raised in California and Washington, studied in the United States and Korea, and now (all of this according to the jacket flap copy) lives in Seoul.

Because I was stationed in Korea for 16 months after the war (but have never been back), I probably bring a special interest to these stories, which are set in Korea and in the US. The characters are all Korean with a few minor exceptions. One exception is the black GI father of a girl, a father she never knows because he is shipped to Vietnam and dies in that war. In that story, "Beautiful Women," we watch a young girl grow into a young woman. It begins: "Under her mother's skirt, there is the shimmer of pink gills. Mina strokes the down of her mother's leg past the puckered marks of slugs on her mother's thighs, up to the dark starfish she spies under a strip of translucent fabric. But these mysteries become ordinary, merely thighs and fatty flash, when her mother slaps her hand."

I found all of the stories interesting for their reports from another world—life in Koreatown, life in Seoul during the 1990s financial crisis, life in North Korea. One of the questions such a collection raises is: How representative are these characters? Or are their stories all individual, unique?

Lee's characters—their thoughts, perceptions, actions—are all unique, in fact. Yet, these people in their confusion, anger, loss are also human. The woman who enters into "A Temporary Marriage" with an older Korean man as a way to reach America and find her daughter . . . what she does and why she does it is comprehensible and moving. The daughter in "The Believer" who tries to console her inconsolable father is absolutely convincing.

My only suggestion: Read only one of these stories a day. They are almost too strong to take at a sitting.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Dreams in Fiction

I've been reading a fat biography of Carl Jung and coincidentally thinking about the unconscious, dreams, and fiction.
People have known about the unconscious—or subconscious—for hundreds of years. Shakespeare explored the role of the unconscious in many of his plays without naming it as such. It seems to me that Jung and Freud (and others) thought that they could understand the unconscious through dreams. But that understanding is based on a chain of assumptions:
1) That dreams are manifestations of, or reflections of the unconscious.
2) That the dreamer can report a dream accurately.
3) That with this report, it is possible to interpret what is going on in the unconscious.
I suspect these are all wrong. Based on what I've read recently, it seems that dreams are utterly random firings of neurons in the resting brain. It’s impossible to report a dream accurately, even an exceptionally vivid dream (you may think you're doing so, but you are probably kidding yourself). And because the dreams are random, there’s no sensible way to interpret what they might mean. 
Michael Chabon has an interesting brief essay on dreams in the current issue of The New York Review of Books: 
“I hate dreams...I hate them for their absurdities and deferrals, their endlessly broken promise to amount to something, by and by. I hate them for the way they ransack memory, jumbling treasure and trash. I hate them for their tedium, how they drag on, peter out, wander off...Dreams are effluvia, bodily information, to be shared only with intimates and doctors...Whatever stuff dreams are made on, it isn’t words. As soon as you begin to tell a dream, as Freud reminds us, you interpolate, falsify, distort; you lie...
“Worse still than real dreams, mine or yours—sandier mouthfuls, ranker lies—are the dreams of characters in books and movies. Nobody, not even Aunt Em, wants to hear about Dorothy’s dream when she wakes up at the end of The Wizard of Oz. As outright fantasy the journey to Oz is peerless, joyous, muscular with truth; to call it a dream (a low trick Baum never stooped to) is to demean it, to deny it, to lie; because nobody has dreams like that...If art is a mirror, dreams are the back of the head. A work of art derives its effects from light, sound, and movement, but dreams unfurl in darkness, silence, paralysis...."
Dreams in fiction (says someone who has included a dream in his novel) are a cheat. As Chabon says, "Dreams in art either make sense, or they make no sense at all, but they never manage to do both at the same time." I'll try not to do it any more.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Suite Francaise by Irène Némirovsky

The English edition of Suite Française was published in 2006 so I'm coming to it late (but then, as I tell myself about my own novel, a good book is timeless).

Of course, Némirovsky wrote the novel in 1941 and 1942 and the manuscript was unknown until about 60 years later when her daughter began to transcribe what she thought was her mother's notebook and discovered only then it was the first two books of a planned five-volume novel.

Némirovsky, born in Kiev to a prosperous Jewish family that escaped to Finland during the Bolshevik revolution, eventually settling in France in 1919. In July 1942, the French police arrested her. She was shipped to Auschwitz where she died. In November 1942, her husband was arrested, shipped to Auschwitz, and gassed. Her two daughters managed with the help of French friends to survive the war and keep their mother's notebook safe.

Némirovsky had been a popular and successful novelist before the war, so it was only natural that she use her experience of the German invasion and occupation of France to create fiction. And what fiction! Book One of Suite Française, "Storm in June," follows a large case of characters as they flee before the invading German Army in panic, or irritation, or stoically. Book Two, "Dolce," follows a much smaller (and mostly different) cast as they live under the German occupation in a provincial village.

Both books can be read as studies of human character under stress. And Némirovsky has no illusions about humanity. Decent people will do terrible things with the right provocation. Ordinary people can rise to a kind of unexpected heroism. The invading Germans are not all brutes. The French villagers can be selfish, petty, and cruel. Everyone is reacting to forces and conditions—political, emotional, psychological—beyond their control. The books have no clear villain although they are filled with people who are not very nice.

I cannot judge the quality of the translation (by Sandra Smith), but here is a sample of the writing. From the first book, refugees are in a town, there are German and Italian planes overhead, but they appear to be harmless. "Suddenly, one broke loose and swooped down at the crowd. He's going to crash, Jeanne thought, then, No, he's going to fire, he's firing, we're finished . . . Instinctively, she covered her mouth to stifle a scream. The bombs had fallen on the train station and, a bit further along, on the railway tracks. The glass roof shattered and exploded outwards, wounding and killing the people in the square. Panic-stricken, some of the women threw down their babies as if they were cumbersome packages and ran. Others grabbed their children and held them so tightly they seemed to want to force them back into the womb, as if that were the only truly safe place. A wounded woman was writhing around at Jeanne's feet: it was the one with the costume jewelry. Her throat and fingers were sparkling and blood was pouring from her shattered skull. Her warm blood oozed on to Jeanne's dress, on to her shoes and stockings . . ."

Suite Française does not read like an American novel, although I would have trouble explaining why. It reads like something true and real. I believed these characters would think and speak and act the way Némirovsky shows them. I agree with other reviewers: Suite Française is stunning.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

Swamplandia! was one of the three novels nominated for the Pulitzer Prize that the full Pulitzer committee did not award this year. (The others were The Pale King by David Foster Wallace and Train Dreams by Denis Johnson.)

Russell, according to the flap copy, is a native of Miami, was chosen as one of Granta's Best Young American Novelists, and is currently writer-in-residence at Bard College. Her first book was St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. 

Swamplandia! is the story of the Bigtree family, alligator wrestlers who live on their own island in a Florida swamp that sounds very much like the Everglades. Years earlier, Grandpa Sawtooth Bigtree had founded an alligator-themed theme park on the island and mainlanders came over on the ferry for a show, a tour of the Bigtree Family Museum, a souvenir from the Bigtree Gift Shop, and a snack in the Swamp Cafe. Grandpa's son, Sam, had married Hilola who had three children, Kiwi (the 17-year-old son), Osceola (the 16-year-old daughter), and Ava (13). When Hilola, star of the show, dies of cancer, both the park and the family start to fall apart. Grandpa Bigtree is in what sounds like Florida's worse rest home. Father Bigtree (the Chief) takes off for parts unknown on the mainland. Kiwi, sensitive to Swamplandia's fraught financial condition, goes to the mainland to earn enough to save the park leaving the two girls. Osceola falls in love with a young dredgeman who died in the 1930s and elopes with him. Ava goes after her sister with the help of a swamp character, the Bird Man. Complications ensue.

At the beginning of the novel, Ava tells the story in her own voice, i.e., first person. At Chapter 6 (p. 61), the point of view shifts to the limited third person as we begin to follow Kiwi and his adventures on the mainland where he finds a job with The World of Darkness, a competing theme park. From that point on the POV shifts back and forth. At first I found the shift jarring, but I think it works. I'm not sure I always believed that Ava, as a home-schooled 13-year-old, would have the sophistication (about some things) and language she has. But I was willing to suspend my disbelief.

Because there's no question that Russell's language is wonderful. Examples from a random walk through the pages: "Nights in the swamp were dark and star-lepered—our island was thirty-odd miles of the grid of mainland lights—and although your naked eye could easily find the ball of Venus and the sapphire hairs of the Pleiades, our mother's body was just lines, a smudge against the palm trees."

"I would vanish on the mainland, dry up in that crush of cars and strangers, of flesh hidden inside metallic colors, the salt white of the sky over the interstate highway, the strange pink-and-white apartment complexes where mainlanders lived like cutlery in drawers."

"The teacher was a tall, unsmiling woman in high-waisted pants with a nickle-bright Afro. Her body had a switch-blade beauty that Kiwi was not encouraged to continue appreciating by her face."

There's so much good, it's hard to stop, so here's just one more example: "Curtains of Spanish moss caught at my hair like fishermen's nets. The night had developed a suffocating wetness—breathing felt like drowning in a liquid you couldn't climb out of."

Swamplandia! is almost as remarkable a performance as Hilola Bightree's regular dive into a pool filled with alligators.