this is a mesmerizing debut. it's a book filled with poetic yet somehow edgy language, and full of words -- words you don't encounter often, very specthis is a mesmerizing debut. it's a book filled with poetic yet somehow edgy language, and full of words -- words you don't encounter often, very specific words, and, at some point, unspooled words, as if the narrator were so taken by her words that she starts to use them randomly, or maybe following some inner association, or possibly drawn by the compelling combination of the sounds they make. what i mean to say is that, toward the end, some of the writing becomes decisively surrealistic, and some other of the writing becomes a little surreal. but maybe the entire thing is a tad surreal, because -- well, let me start from another angle.
i am finding myself more and more attracted by writing by people of color or by non-american non-english writers, because it seems to me that a lot of the english-language fiction written in the US/UK by white folks has kind of run out of things to say. this is a terribly broad brush with which to paint the thousands of novels or collections of short stories that are published every year, so i'm putting it forward cautiously. but bear with me.
when i started this collection of short stories (if you can call them that; they are not exactly "stories" because nothing happens) i was at first greatly taken by the language and the composition, but after a short while i felt, ugh, another white author who navel gazes because she has nothing important to say.
and then, THEN it occurred to me that the obvious, in-your-face navel-gazing is EXACTLY what bennett means to do, and the sense of spoiled ennui (the main narrator seems to be living somewhere in the country in ireland, even though she's from england; she also seems not to have to work), or spoiled delight in bathing, building fires, walking in the mud, shopping, making tea, spreading jam on toast, etc., exemplify PRECISELY this perhaps-crisis of white middle-class writing in the US/UK. they emphasize it to such extent the the narrator's/writer's life in her cottage in the country goes from delightful to suffocating to scary (the narrator, in one of the stories, is positively terrified), and her words unravel, get jumbled up, lose meaning.
so that the whole of the collection can be seen as some sort of post-modern rendition of what virginia woolf (you will want to connect these two women too!) does in The Waves, a turning upside down of the multivocal inner thinking/feeling of a group of characters that translates into the univocal indulgent self-accounting of a woman staying alone in a cottage being (maybe) a writer and thus building a card castle of words that, eventually, run away from her.
this is not to say that this book is not beautiful. it is beautiful. it's lovely and evocative and a pleasure to read.
i think that one way in which the book can be read is as the work of a writer writing a book about the tiny nuances of the mind and the feelings that accrue in the passing of time, dwelling very lovingly on all that, aware she has not much more to say -- she hasn't been to war, she hasn't suffered persecution, she lives in a a-historical time -- and then slowly getting to a point in which this intimate describing devolves into confusion and fear.
there are also parts about men but i didn't like those so much so i'm not going to talk about them. they are not many.
i will read everything claire-louise bennett writes.
people have favorite stories in this amazing collection, but i listened to the audiobook without knowing ahead of time that it wasn't a novel, and itpeople have favorite stories in this amazing collection, but i listened to the audiobook without knowing ahead of time that it wasn't a novel, and it took me a couple of stories to realize that it was indeed a collection of short stories. it's not that this fact is not clear -- the stories have titles and the first person narrator (consistently employed all the way through) has different roles in each story -- but the tone, the substance of the book remains the same. these are stories about people being people in war, mostly young white men, but in one occasion an older white man and in another a young man of color. and i can't really say that this is an antiwar series of stories, because some of the guys are pretty committed to what they do, and are definitely proud of it, but insofar as you realize that these troops and the people they interact with are human beings, well, it makes you think twice about everything you know about war, all the beliefs you hold, the antiwar and (i imagine) the pro-war. as trish brilliantly and cogently says in their review, "What cannot be clearer is that we have to be very sure of our motives when we place men and women in harm’s way. Otherwise the bargain—one life for the many—is off."
the thing with audiobooks is that you have the same reader throughout, and if the stories are in the first person the characters pretty much blend into each other. but i'm not really sure that wouldn't happen if i had read the book. klay doesn't seem interested in making each narrator unique. as i said, they are all young men, mostly in their late teens, and they all experience war with the same feelings of pride, anxiety, qualms, questions, fear, and valor. so what stayed with me at the end was the composite, the sense of the marine (they are all marines) as someone who is intensely and seriously prepared, who has a conscience (antiwar texts, visual and written, often portray military personnel so traumatized that they are morally broken; not this one), who enjoys killing because that's what he has been trained to do, who feels terrible after he has killed because desensitization goes only so far. who has a pretty loose sense of the general reason why he is in the battlefield but a pretty good idea of what is going on in the place where he's deployed. who approaches his job with seriousness, precision and expertise. who tries to save civilians if at all possible. who wastes civilians if he has to. who perceives the enemy as amorphous haji because that's what war is. who has his stomach turned inside out by brutality against kids and animals. who loves his fellow soldiers. who has a complicated relationship to women, included the one he's married to or seeing. who is fundamentally decent.
so, this seems to me significantly different from all the war texts that depict military personnel as drug-addicted, psychologically in pieces, suicidal, unable to cope, brutalized, and loose like a garment that's kept together only by worn threads. the guys in Redeployment think with their own heads, examine their feelings, do their job seriously, and are pretty much together.
if this is an indictment of war at all, it is so in the sense that the humanity of these young men comes through very, very forcefully, probably because we are so used to the trope of the broken soldier that seeing the unbroken soldier forces us to look more closely. what also comes through very forcefully is how young these guys are, and how old at the same time. if you, like me, are in contact with people exactly this age on a daily basis, you realize that tweens are just as young as the circumstances they are put in. but if you, like me, are in contact with them on a daily basis, you also know how malleable, how inchoate they still are, and wonder what unimaginable damage war cannot but do to them, and how impossible it may be to backpedal it once they get home. ...more
taken one at a time, these stories are nicely constructed and even, on occasion, truly powerful. taken as a collection, this book is unfortunately reptaken one at a time, these stories are nicely constructed and even, on occasion, truly powerful. taken as a collection, this book is unfortunately repetitive. it seems that some of the same themes get repeated over and over. in most of the stories the protagonist is an indian-american gay man with a white boyfriend. while the white boyfriend is generally rather nice, the indian-american guy is dislocated, unhappy, frustrated, and in a funk. since this happens over and over, after a bit one gets the gist.
also, indian families in this book really, really don't like their elderly. some very painful stories about this. probably, in fact, the most compelling. not a happy read. ...more
i found this book exceptional. do you remember when jhumpa lahiri debuted with Interpreter of Maladies and everyone went WHOA? Before You Suffocate Yoi found this book exceptional. do you remember when jhumpa lahiri debuted with Interpreter of Maladies and everyone went WHOA? Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self is that good, though i'll be surprised if everyone goes WHOA, because, let's face it, the readership for young African American female writers is different from the readership for young Asian American female writers. and by different i don't only mean different, but i mean smaller, something i invite all readers of this teensy ickle review to remedy immediately.
beside being WHOA-worthy, these two books have this in common: they pack a punch. danielle evans is less gentle about the punch than jhumpa lahiri. i read this book in a daze because i was tired, independently, and i hope to read it again sometime soon. but i was also dazed by how much these stories contain. young men and women navigating the cusp of adulthood (a process that may and often does take many more years than the designated number), with few and inadequate tools to do so, in a world they have a dated code to understand, and so so alone.
yet, aren't we all? who are the guides of our transition from childhood into adulthood? and the guides of our transition from, say, being 20 to being 40? and who are the guides of our transition from being 40 to being 70? you'd figure that, this process being, literally, a matter of life and death, we would have built a system of chaperoning, mentoring, holding, advising -- also a system in which there is room for people to rest, take long breaks, check out for a bit, find their 20s feet or their 40s feet or their 70s feets.
instead, all we have as guides, most often, is tv shows. really. that's it. tv shows. we are not only alone but lied to, everyday.
but i'm getting sidetracked. danielle evans doesn't mention (that i remember) tv shows, but she does bring up, over and over and with stunningly insight and subtlety, how woefully unprepared we all are to face the world.
this book is significantly devoid of parents. i don't think evans means to say that most parents are bad parents, but i do think she means to tell us that, often, they just don't or can't keep up (cuz no one can).
finally, a comment on the title. unlike the vast majority of short story collections, the title here does not come from any of the short stories, but from a poem by danna kate rushin, a black feminist poet. the poem is called "The Bridge Poem" and if you read it in its entirely (and i hope you will) you will see that it's about translating -- people to people, cultures to cultures -- and being really, really tired of doing so. this is not a recent poem (i'm going to guess it was written in the 80s). following a small section of it in the epigram page there are two lines by audre lorde, another feminist black poet, that go: "I do not believe our wants/have made all our lies holy."
at first, since i didn't remember who rushin is, i read the excerpt from her poem as the tired lamentation of a woman who has to deal with clueless men. but no, this is the tired lamentation of a woman who has to deal with clueless everyone. maybe the mysterious lines from the lorde poem are also about excuses for not being willing to engage in the hard work of interpreting and understanding life.
and this is how, finally, i read both epigrams together. as if evans, this young black feminist who writes with equal compassion about men and women, were picking up the slack and giving these old (i'm not talking about age) and valiant warriors a break and a spell. i hear her saying, "hey guys, you can get a spot of rest now. let me pick up the battle. i'm young and the world has changed. hey, it has not changed much for the better, but maybe it has changed enough that y'all can rest and let me carry on your work. i feel fresh and i feel equipped. plus, quite honestly, i'm a heck of a writer."
this is pretty fabulous short story writing. maybe not everyone's cup of tea, but definitely splendid. it's quite impressive, for one, that wells towethis is pretty fabulous short story writing. maybe not everyone's cup of tea, but definitely splendid. it's quite impressive, for one, that wells tower should have waited so long to put out a collection, piling up stories in this and that first-rate magazine seemingly with no hurry whatsoever, giving thus the impression of being after beauty and intensity of narration rather than a book. my friend mike compares these stories to flannery o'connor's but the only similarity i see, besides the extraordinarily precise, rich, and sensual use of language, is their intensity. tower is not interested, it seems to me, in messages. (o'connor is, though one tends to have no clue what the message is). maybe the title story, though, and that story's title come as close as anything to give us a sense of what this collection is about. by my count, there are three abused children (nothing graphic at all) and more children, some in flashback, whose childhood seems pretty blown; a number of youngish-to-middle-aged guys who have been taken by the currents of life to places they didn't really want to go, with no idea about what to do now that they are there; and a lot of non-protagonist characters with distinctly unhappy or unappealing lives.
yet the stories are not sad. they are very funny. they are veined with desolation, but not in a way that'll hit you, because they are not meant for identification but for distance.
maybe the distance comes from the humor and the preposterous language. lots of it comes from the intensity of the descriptions. language this beautiful and stark and desecratingly vernacular gives you 3 minutes of a startling film, not a feature-length story in which you can recognize yourself.
also as mike has observed, there is no psychology going on here. you can do the psychological work yourself, but tower is not after motivations and traumatic roots. the relentless superficiality – this determination to stay on the surface of things – is perhaps what makes these stories so stunning: surely these characters are coming from someplace horrid. surely we will be told what the horrid place they are coming from is. surely we will learn what afflicts them. tower doesn't satisfy.
except, there's a lot lovelessness. people not connecting. children left casually to themselves. people being mean and selfish in unexplained way, as if it were the most unremarkable thing in the world. it's as if tower had no desire whatsoever to raise our moral outrage. this is how it is. wanna laugh at it or what?
my favorites are “Executors of Important Energies,” “Down Through the Valley,” and “Everything Ravaged.” ...more
don't know if it was me being meditative or moody or under the sobering influence of the recession, but i found this absolutely gorgeous book SO DAMNdon't know if it was me being meditative or moody or under the sobering influence of the recession, but i found this absolutely gorgeous book SO DAMN SAD. there are, let's see, at least two suicides but it might be three, three deaths but it might be more (one the death of a very young person), intolerably sad aging folks, a myriad broken relationships, and a ton of god-awful loneliness. how can a town as sweet and stably populated as crosby, maine, foster so much loneliness? aren't small towns supposed to be all about people knowing each other and supporting each other and all that? why don't the lonely people go hang out at the diner and have themselves a cup of coffee, chat the day away? i mean, really. i understand being alone in miami or new york or los angeles, but how can you be so lonely in crosby, maine?
i guess american writers and filmmakers have worked very hard at showing us that you can be plenty lonely in small town america, but somehow this is sinking in now for the first time, thanks to Olive Kitteridge. i think i'll stay in the big city, where at least you can be lonely with some privacy, out of the probing gaze of your gossiping neighbors.
but see, gossip is this two-sided thing. one the one hand, it can cut you down and shrink you (if you let it). on the other, it keeps people talking. when someone dies, everyone shows up at the funeral. when someone goes to the hospital, everyone asks after them. maybe the person who is asked would rather be left alone, but there's something to be said in favor of being asked (this is actually the point of one of these thirteen stories). a gossiping community is a community in which everyone is mourned. there is no indifference and almost never glee at people's death, however disliked they may have been in life. groups come together for the death of their own. this is something to be said for small towns.
and after all, no one is immune to loneliness. it's the human condition. which is precisely why this book is so sad: one would rather not be reminded.
in one lovely scene (there are countless lovely scenes in this book) olive kitterdidge finds out that an elderly man, an out-of-towner she stopped to talk to, just lost his wife of a lifetime. "then you are in hell," she says, matter-of-factly. "then i am in hell," he replies.
olive kitteridge, the nominal protagonist of this "novel in stories," is a masterpiece of writerly wisdom. she is wrong and intolerable in all sorts of ways: she is rude, judgmental, selfish, a bad mother, and a bad wife. she is ungainly and has bad taste in clothing. she is one of those people who, by rights, should not be much liked, and in fact she isn't. but to us she is us. if we were her, we'd find a way to come to terms with ourselves and be proud of at least something. so we come to terms with olive kitteridge. we forgive her. we forgive ourselves. we return over and over to the things she/we did well, that one time when she/we saved a person's life without much awareness of what we were doing; that other time when this kid who didn't talk to anyone talked to her/us.
it's amazing how a novel that does not focus entirely on one character (in some of the stories she is just named once or twice) should manage to make this character, nonetheless, so real and compelling. the compulsion is to identify with her.
but maybe it was me, bummed and worried about the recession and not too pleased with myself. i identified. identification is the path to compassion. this book helped me be see others, maybe myself too, with a little more compassion....more
i really enjoyed this book. who knows, maybe i would not have loved it as much without katrina, but katrina happened, ain't a thing i can do about it,i really enjoyed this book. who knows, maybe i would not have loved it as much without katrina, but katrina happened, ain't a thing i can do about it, unfortunately.
noir, broadly defined (is intrinsically linked to a deep (if possibly controversial) attachment to the city and its neighborhoods, so i think the format, of dividing the stories by neighborhoods, works well. the city, as in many of the stories here, especially the post-katrina ones, is a city that's going to seed. at the same time, the characters love it. they love it even when it lets them down. they love it even when it's dangerous and tragic. they love it with an unbreakable heart.
i am someone who's quite in love with descriptions of seedy locales, both internal (dives, clubs, brothels) and external (rundown 'hoods, industrial wastelands, etc.), so that, too, spoke to me.
but i really, really liked the characters, which is another feature of the noir. however scuzzy, however morally shady they are, however loserish, noir characters are characters you can't help but like. they are good at heart. they would do better if they just could. they are down on their luck. often they do the right thing only because they can't help doing otherwise.
this would be, for instance, jack in angola south, by ace atkins, a black (yes?) cop who tries to hold it together, in spite of the utter breakdown of post-katrina civilization. people who looted a bottle of water (i don't remember the details -- i'm making this one up) are in the same makeshift jail cells as people who shot and maimed. in fact (doesn't another story mention this?) the only thing that seems to work in post-k. N.O. is the swift transport of apprehended criminals from the makeshift cells at the train station (again, maybe not getting the details right) to angola. the fact is that jack does not hold it together, not really, because, frankly, it's mayhem out there. but there's something tough and old-worldly to his lone, watchful, dedicated patrolling, to his sleeping in hard chairs, to his wading in the deep city swamp to catch a shooter who turns out to be a dead kid.
stories i really liked (short version, to keep this post from being too long):
two-stories brick houses by patty friedmann. not exactly noir, but chilling and powerful. i guess uptown in a nice part of town? i guess this is about the ghosts that haunt the well-off, the white people who live in nice houses and whose parents were killed in the holocaust. because this is definitely a story about class.
another story about class (and, inevitably, race), but with a nice & happy leftist/social justice twist at the end: loot by julie smith.
i loved james nolan's open mike, partly because i really dug the narrator, partly because i loved reading about the french quarter, and more than partly (imagine a large part) because of the writing. finally, i liked it for the moral debacle of the end. we all do what we can. no heroes in noir.
barbara hambly's there shall your heart be also was a winner with me, too. really really cool.
maureen tan's muddy pond stuck with me, and so did christine wiltz's night taxi, because the bad guys get it at the end, and because the tension is awesome.
i could go on. i'm picking at random. one more: the closing story, marigny triangle, by eric overmyer, because of how it's written, loose and desperate and obsessive, and because it brings home how sometimes the world really, really sucks. ...more