“Dear American Airlines, My name is Benjamin R. Ford and I am writing to request a refund in the amount of $392.68. But then, no, scratch that: Reques“Dear American Airlines, My name is Benjamin R. Ford and I am writing to request a refund in the amount of $392.68. But then, no, scratch that: Request is too mincy & polite … I am rather demanding a refund in the amount of $392.68. Demanding demanding demanding.”
So begins Jonathan Miles’ offbeat novel, Dear American Airlines, which is either a slight novel at 180 pages or an epic, profane rant of a letter depending on how you look at it. The aforementioned Bennie Ford has gotten stranded overnight at O’Hare airport on the way to his daughter’s wedding in California, and is now in danger of missing the ceremony completely unless he can catch a flight out of there by 8:00 AM. Bad enough, but it becomes immediately apparent that there was a lot more at stake for Bennie by getting to the wedding than it would seem at first glance. This was to be the first time he saw his estranged daughter, Stella, since her toddler years – his wedding invitation the first communication between them since Bennie’s ex-wife took her away from him all those years ago. And it was supposed to go well; Stella was even open to the possibility of letting him walk her down the aisle – provided that they meet the day before the wedding and talk things over first. Now that opportunity is gone forever since Bennie is spending the night before the wedding moving between a series of uncomfortable chairs in Chicago, hopeless miles from the rehearsal dinner. This was to be more than Stella’s wedding for Bennie: this was supposed to be his big shot at atonement.
Understandably, he is outraged. Understandably, he needs to vent his enormous frustration. So he begins composing a venomous letter to American Airlines with the above stated intention of claiming a refund for the flight. But by page four he has begun his first digression and started telling his life story instead, leaving the narrative to go back and forth between Bennie’s past and his present situation.
Ultimately, It isn’t the refund that matters to Bennie, it’s the chance to be heard. To be understood. To unburden himself of the details of his misbegotten life – even if, as he expects, the peon at American Airlines who receives his letter never even reads the entire thing. Bennie’s story is predictable, yes. His mother was a bi-polar artist prone to suicide attempts and runaways – with young Bennie in tow. He was once a promising poet but currently makes a living translating other writer’s work into English. He threw everything he ever had (marriage, career, fatherhood, etc.) away thanks to alcoholism and has only been sober five years. He has turned his life into a ravaged, scarred mess and never did know how to go about fixing things. Until this opportunity presented itself, that is.
Bennie’s past may be predictable, but Miles’ fresh perspective and unique approach make this novel new(ish) enough to be worth your while. The stumbling points are the passages Bennie throws in from the book he is currently translating, which feel apropos of nothing and distract from the real attraction that is Bennie’s plight. Ultimately, these parts feel like padding more than anything else and don’t really add to the novel’s substance, which is a shame. Because aside from that this novel skews toward pretty darned clever....more
The stories in Mary Gaitskill’s Don’t Cry reflect characters who are profoundly vexed, but not in a profound way. I Unmitigated, Unreadable Despair
The stories in Mary Gaitskill’s Don’t Cry reflect characters who are profoundly vexed, but not in a profound way. It seems that Ms. Gaitskill has contrived both them and their situations with the simple goal of shocking her reader. The stories are visceral, yes, but they lack substance, and the fact that Gaitskill herself seems to harbor nothing but disdain for her characters makes it impossible for the reader to feel anything for them either. That’s all that there is to this collection – a shame, because Gaitskill does seem like a talented writer, albeit one whose brain I would never want to pick over coffee. By the halfway point I began questioning the point in slogging through the rest of the collection, and when I was about seventy-five percent through I gave up. This is not something that I typically do. Yet I have no regrets.
I had decided to read this collection because I was interested in reading Gaitskill’s novel Veronica. Emphasis on was. Instead, I’ll be looking for a writer with a touch of empathy, whose goal is not to shock and appall for no purpose other than the joy of having shocked and appalled.
Bizarre, profound, and gorgeously written, the thirteen stories in Steven Millhauser’s collection will transport the reader to a world that is strikinBizarre, profound, and gorgeously written, the thirteen stories in Steven Millhauser’s collection will transport the reader to a world that is strikingly similar to our own, but where impossibly strange things are dangerously possible. A lonely, ignored woman literally vanishes into thin air after preparing a cup of tea one night. In the titular story, a group of teenagers experiment with laughter as a potentially deadly new drug whose high they cannot resist. A miniaturist becomes obsessed with creating invisible, pristine pieces of art. A tower rises higher and higher into the sky until it finally pierces Heaven itself. A historical society courts controversy by obsessively recording the details of the present (or, as they refer to it, the New Past). In each installment Millhauser skirts the line between fantastic and mundane, sane and insane, to create a collection rich in depth and profundity.
“A book is a dream machine. Its purpose is to take you out of the world.” If this was indeed Millhauser’s intent, he succeeded with aplomb. Each story is grounded in the real world’s sensibilities, but Millhauser’s wild imagination and prose style weave in just the right amount of oddness. I can see that for some, his quirks and outlandish twists could be seen as irksome, but I found myself enthralled with every story and each new take on his themes.
“For we are no longer innocent, we who do not see and do not remember, we incurious ones, we conspirators in disappearances.”
If the stories in the collection’s last segment, “Heretical Histories,” are a touch weaker than the rest, they still stand head and shoulders above the majority of other offerings in the fiction section this year. The stories in Dangerous Laughter are a towering achievement, and Millhauser pulls them off with panache – making this very likely the best new book of 2008.
Also recommended: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, The Garden of Last Days, and Purple America. ...more