[REVIEW] The Boy in the Earth by Fuminori Nakamura

nakamura

Soho Press , 2017

REVIEWED BY GABINO IGLESIAS

Fuminori Nakamura is one of Japan’s most talented contemporary writers. Besides the critical acclaim and translations of his work into various languages, he was won a plethora of awards including the ?e Prize, Japan’s largest literary award, the David L. Goodis Award for Noir Fiction, and the Akutagawa Prize. Despite these accolades, the reasons to read his work are easy to explain: he approaches noir from a multiplicity of unique and seldom-explored angels and injects his dark narratives with a distinctive combination of ennui, melancholy, philosophy, and classic elements of crime fiction. In The Boy in the Earth, his latest novel to be translated and published by SoHo Press, Nakamura turns up the dial in terms of ennui and melancholy to construct a haunting story about a man whose death wish stems from unbelievable trauma.

The Boy in the Earth follows an awkward, disengaged unnamed narrator who drives a taxi around Tokyo for as living after quitting his sales job at a company that produces educational materials. The narrative kicks off with the man picking a fight with a group of motorcyclists and getting a beating for no other purpose than the beating itself. The idea that lead to the scuffle was just one of many the man has been having lately, and they point to a warped frame of mind. At home, he only interacts with Sayuko, a former work colleague. She tries to take care of him after the brawl and they end up in bed, but she is emotionless during their encounter. Later, the man receives information about his parents, who abandoned him 20 years earlier. His mother has died, but his father is still alive. That knowledge forces him to ponder the linger effects of his childhood and how different his life would have been if he had been nurtured. As the narrative movies forward, the man’s past is revealed, and the darkness it holds explains a lot about the nature of the man.

Nakamura always deconstructs violence and explores the relationship between human nature and brutality, both that which we inflict on ourselves and that which we inflict on others. The Boy in the Earth is not different, expect for the fact that the thirst for self-inflicted violence is a mystery to the narrator and reconnoitering the spaces where those thoughts are born and where his need for violence festers becomes a crucial elements of the narrative. This contemplative state begins early and is expressed well after the beating that opens the novel as the narrator thinks back to his childhood, a time in which he murdered lizards:

Grasping a lizard that had already lost its tail or an unsuspecting frog, I would thrust my arm through the fence and suddenly let go. This living thing would fall, and although it wasn’t dead yet, surely it would be a few seconds later. Watching this happen always evoked anxiety, but for some reason, I found solace in that anxiety. In the midst of my agitated emotions, I felt a clear awakening as nostalgia tinged with sweetness spread within me. When I did this, I would also be thinking about “them”—the ones who had tormented me. This habit was persistent in its cruelty; it was almost as if by what I was doing to those lizards now, I was validating what had been done to me in the past, as if I were exploring the true nature of it.

Coming in at 147 pages and with short chapters that make it a very fast read, The Boy in the Earth is one of Nakamura’s darkest, gloomiest, most emotionally draining books. The narrator suffered horribly as a child, and the result is a detached man for whom tedium is a way of life. In that regard, this is a narrative that pushes past all the boundaries usually associated with the genre to enter a unique, obsessive realm where violence, alienation, suffering, the impossible weight of memories, and self-loathing coexist in a maelstrom of pain, shattered innocence, and a very flimsy will to continue living.

Although Nakamura does many things well here, perhaps his greatest achievement in this novel is that it holds a giant secret until the end and reveals it only after showing how the putrid thing at the core of the story corrupted the soul of the protagonist. The writing is fast-paced from the star, but once the visions from the past start appearing in the third act, the lines demand to be read even faster because they reveal the kind of truth that’s simultaneously hard to look at and impossible to look away from:

Beyond the sound of the shovel digging of the earth and the beam of a flashlight feebly illuminating the darkness, I had a hazy vision of their expressions as they spoke hurried Lee to each other, their faces twitching as if they were frightened. I laid there, looking up at them asked, shovelful by shovel for, the earth was heaved on top of my small body.

The time to call Nakamura merely an outstanding thriller author or a very talented Japanese noir master is over; the man has demonstrated time and again, and does so again here, that he is one of the best crime novelist working today.

Marginalized Voices

BY NATALIE DAVIS, CHEYENNE LaROSE, and JENNIFER SAS

The Marginalized Voices from Jennifer on Vimeo.

Artist Statement:

This piece, The Marginalized Voices, was created with the goal of sending a message while combining a variety of art forms including dance, music, and film. As business students who will soon be entering this male-dominated profession, Natalie Davis, Cheyenne LaRose, and Jennifer Sas wanted to give hope and empowerment to women. With the abundance of male CEOs, it is evident that women are viewed as the less powerful sex in the boardroom. This industry expects women not to be as successful as their male counterparts because it poses a threat to the status quo.

Davis, LaRose, and Sas asked a few of their close friends–also business students–to choose which statements resonated with them the most. Each woman was passionate about the sentence they chose which truly transmitted through the work of art. The women featured in the short film present the audience with relevant insecurities that women face when dealing with a predominantly male industry. It is critical that people become more aware of the tribulations placed upon women in our society today. Our primary purpose is to spread awareness of this gender issue in the workforce through various mediums of art and to think about dance as a liminal space for encounters and confrontation.

 

[REVIEW] Theia Mania by Dallas Athent

9780979149566
REVIEWED BY CHRISTIAN NIEDAN
Words in a book are more useful than the sentences they spell out. They can make beautiful shapes and patterns on a page that greatly enhance the messages they convey. Set those printed shapes and patterns beside hand-drawn artwork that compliments them, and you get a dynamic home for great poetry. Such is the construction of Dallas Athent’s new 66-page poetic tome, Theia Mania, with illustrations by Maria Pavlovska, and book design by Eve Siegel.
The book’s launch event was recently held (April 30) at Pavlovska’s well-lit high-ceiling studio at Mana Contemporary in uptown Jersey City, New Jersey. There, visitors got a closer look at the original abstract sketches used for her art/poetry collaboration with Athent. Those buying the book online via the publisher, AntiSentiMental Society (an imprint of Off the Park Press), will find a short paragraph describing the sketches as “delicately scrawled thread-like drawings that seem to mimic the internal landscapes described and experienced in these poems.”  The original studio wall-hugging illustrations range from toweringly large to book-sized in scale — an appropriate setting for the event’s lineup of poetry-reciting authors, which included Athent, AntiSentiMental Society editor Ronna Lebo, Brooklyn writer and filmmaker Prospero Vega, PANK senior editor Chris Campanioni, and culture chronicler Anthony Haden-Guest. It was the title of Haden-Guest’s memoir about Studio 54 (The Last Party) that helped inspire the launch event’s title: “Theia Mania: The Last Book Launch on Earth.” Indeed, the theme of Athent’s poems echo Studio 54’s long-ago aspiration to host a mix of the sublime and the profane in one swirling space. Hence the the English translation of the book’s ancient Greek title: “divine madness.”
A clue to that aspiration is the oversized presence of thick black words “Degenerate Deity” on page one. Flip a few leaves, and page 5 holds perhaps the most succinct poetic expression of that enigmatic opener:
i am a venus rising.
a venus rising
from the rain fell
to the gutter.
i pick pennies off
the ground
and buy keebler 
wafers from the
deli.
here we call them
bodegas.
i am a scumbag
goddess.
The shapes of such paragraphs live on the book’s right-hand pages — with designer Eve Siegel intuitively moving and morphing word groups around the white space to mimic Pavlovska’s left-page illustrations. Only on page 58 do the words finally cross the spine to stand beside a slim vertical illustration that resembles a dark tower of smudged letters. Siegel situates the nearby poetry lines in similar tight paragraphs, including Athent’s mini-ode to English artist friend Natascha Young:
SO I go to England. Where I belong. I see
the gray and brick and towers of mirth and
gloom. I feel the powers of nations rolling on
history and the river Thames, bones washed
ashore and discarded. And I feel rich. Richer
than a Sulton. There are clocks that could
have paid for my college. There are canes
with marble bells for handles that only a
diplomat could be seen with. We’re so drunk,
Tascha and I. My spirit: Tascha. The mother
of this earth and then some: Tascha. Project
Venus: Tascha. We had all the wine in the
world. All the wine on the table. And then we
had cheese.
 
“those were dark days.”
“those were dark days.”
those were dark days,
we speak of Wolverhampton.
Yet, Theia Mania’s recurring flirtation with dark themes is not of the naval-gazing goth variety — rather, they revel in electric-lit cityscapes of buzzing shadows, where the liquor-infused nightlife drives a writhing kinetic energy that is intoxicating and addictive. Athent emphasizes her modern urban themes with a sprinkling of smartphone shorthand, the text-worthy symbols seeming like printed sisters to their spoken siblings:
 
Pictures of an Atlas
playing baseball with a
semi-automatic weapon and the ball = my <3
 
This is what it means to be Atlas
This is what it means to be Dallas
The divine madness of Theia Mania’s many poetic meanings are allowed to swirl and soar thanks to a very effectively-structured trio-collaboration between author, artist, and designer. The artwork by itself is resonant but abstract. The poems, powerful but shaped as sentences. Together, and jointly reshaped with every turned-over leaf, the resonance and power of the combined product jumps across the pages… and off of them.
Christian Niedan is a Brooklyn-based writer and editor. He is co-coordinator of Brooklyn events for literary nonprofit Nomadic Press.

[REVIEW] Bukowski in a Sundress: Confessions from a Writing Life by Kim Addonizio

addonizio

Penguin, 2016

REVIEWED BY JUSTIN HOLLIDAY

Kim Addonizio, known for her poetry, fiction, and writing guides, has published her first personal essay collection after two decades after writing. As she often does in her other work, she covers topics such as family, writing, drinking, and sex, but what makes this book so different is that it is truly “confessional” writing in the strongest sense of the word. While all of her writing is unvarnished, Bukowski in a Sundress is the barest truth of the persona Addonizio wants everyone to see.

Some of the essays are written in second person. Rather than feeling ersatz by ostensibly addressing the reader, these particular essays allow Addonizio to express insecurities and frustrations in a way that discusses personal experiences and shows the ways they may relate to others. In her essay “How to Succeed in Po Biz,” she provides a step-by-step guide of sorts for poets:

Feel anxious about the upcoming trip because you hate to travel. Feel anxious because you are basically a private person and can’t live up to the persona that is floating out there in the world acting tougher and braver than you. You are a writer, after all.

This rhetorical strategy is a way to explore the anxieties that many other writers feel. Other essays in the collection similarly meditate on the difficulty of writing itself, from procrastination to writing that appears “DOA” on the page. These essays reveal the possibilities, or perhaps the pitfalls, that even successful writers contend with.

Addonizio’s caustic sense of humor shines in the memoir as well as it does in her other work. From failed relationships to odd encounters in the Midwest, she considers nearly everything worthy of witty, often critical response. Even titles like “Necrophilia” and “Children of the Corn” are used to redefine readers’ connotations of such terms. For example, “Necrophilia” refers to loving the emotionally dead, those who appear alive but cannot reciprocate love. Further, she plays with clichés with other titles such as “Pants on Fire, ” an essay that acts as the ultimate confessional for any poet. Here, Addonizio reveals the “lies” in her poems, which are considered lies only because of the contentious space of poetry within the often-false literary binary between fiction and nonfiction. Amidst her “confessions,” she intersperses other truths she has learned as a writer: “I swear on a stack of Bibles that some men really will want ‘to fuck your poems.”’ Such claims not only express the humor and chagrin of Addonizio’s experiences, but also reflect the mentalities of readers.

The titular essay actually comes from criticism by a member of the National Book Critics Circle Award committee. When Addonizio was under consideration for the award, one critic dismissed her as “Charles Bukowski in a Sundress,” suggesting her writing was derivative, uncouth, and anti-literary. Regardless of Bukowski’s success, his work is often viewed as flouting “literary” standards, whatever the vaguely and sometimes arbitrarily defined standards may be. While the insult does anger Addonizio, she responds with analogies of her own:  “Frankly, I’d have preferred a different, though equally nuanced, characterization of my work—say, ‘Gerard Manley Hopkins in a bomber jacket,’ ‘Walt Whitman in a sparkly tutu,’ or possibly ‘Emily Dickinson with a strap-on.”’ As a poet and a woman, she strives to fight for self-definition, wanting her self-generated comparisons to reflect the creative and occasionally strange but always evocative elements she blends in her work.

Other essays tackle difficult topics that are harder to laugh at; however, Addonizio adeptly reports the seriousness while also trying to acknowledge the humor we can find in our own pain. Essays about her dying mother show tenderness toward her family, reflecting the balance of the woman who has also written about necrophilia, homemade pornography, and the importance of alcohol consumption elsewhere in the memoir. “Flu Shot” provides a look at what it is like for her to be the outsider daughter who rarely sees her mother because they live so far apart. When she writes about the ordeal of trying to get her mother to the pharmacy so that she can be inoculated, Addonizio reveals a struggle that so many families must deal with as parents age. And in this meditation on aging, Addonizio also confronts the emotionally distant relationship she and her mother, renowned tennis player Pauline Betz, have had in the past, finally making some sort of peace with it.

Whether writing about failed romantic relationships or familial conflicts, Addonizio evokes a clear idea of what her life has been like as a writer, a mother, a lover, and a daughter. Although she has reclaimed “Bukowski in a Sundress” as a wry moniker, she is more than that. Kim Addonizio is her own woman, and her writing has revealed that she stands nonpareil, though I would not blame her if she became “Emily Dickinson with a strap-on.”

Against Metaphor

BY LORA MASLENITSYNA

It’s Tuesday, 12:27AM. The palm trees bend over backward to let the wind sweep past their stalks. There is an ocean of rain seeping in from under the front door. Outside my window, a tree topples over onto its side. The wind weaves through its naked roots. While the wind howls and the rain pounds at my door, I crave the steam that emanates off a warm bowl. The fluidity of vapor, sweet as breath and just as quick to dart away, glazes over my intentions. The clouds’ furrowed brow hangs low enough for me to cover its face with my palms. I am a few sharp words and a stretched lapel away from condensation. I take in a shallow breath.

 

I’ve been in bed since 10:30PM, hoping that if I gave myself a wider window of opportunity to fall asleep, I’d be on my way to a slightly less bruised expectation of morning. Nevertheless, I’m still wide awake. Here in my dorm room in Tokyo, sleeplessness clings to me like a stray dog that followed me home off the street. I never asked for it, but for whatever reason, it took a liking to me. Now, it won’t leave my side. Whenever I try to fall asleep, it nudges its cold nose under the covers with me. I might as well feed it while it’s here. I throw off my blanket and pull on a pair of leggings and a sweatshirt. I head out to clear my head at the only place that’s still open in my residential nook of Shinjuku: the sento, or the bath house.

 

The sento glows with the kind of heat only a well-cared for home emanates. A television hung over a small table hums the NHK network. The sound of running water babbles through two noren-covered entrances. Before I enter the bath, I undress and head to the showers to wash myself. I pass an elderly woman on her way back to the changing rooms. She smiles and strides past me, wearing nothing but a towel wrapped around her head. So good, so far, I think to myself. At least the other women are still smiling, so I haven’t muddled the customary practices.

 

Unlike restaurants in Tokyo, where old men have turned adjacent counter seats to face me and watch me eat, all the other women in the sento are enjoying their own experience. The middle-aged woman to the left of me scrubs under her arms. Meanwhile, another girl I think I recognize from the university pushes her back up against the jets. I take care to properly clean my body, then step into the steaming water. While I settle in against the bar jutting out from the center of the pool, a woman painted with red imprints from apparently full elastic-supported clothing leans against the jets behind me. Her left hand holds on to the bar just centimeters away from my cheek. It stays there for the entire time I spend in the bath. I’ll take this proximity over an old man’s sustained stare any day.

 

I admit that I feel more comfortable sharing the bath with all of the other women, rather than bathing by myself. Taking a bath on my own never felt quite as satisfying as the physical relationship I share in the sento. This, of course, is not a new concept in Japan. Here, “skinship” (skin + kinship) is as much of a health benefit as the water of the baths, itself. In the United States, where I grew up, this idea attaches itself almost exclusively to the relationship between a mother and her newborn child. What about the relationship between myself and my own body? Haven’t I fought through enough beauty standards and patriarchal preferences? My existence is pluralistic. It’s time I respect myself by confronting my progressions.

 

In the bath, I look at the body of the woman next to me. Then, I look at mine. The same red elastic marks span across my chest. Her skin wrinkles in the same places that mine folds. Not a single woman in this place has perfectly groomed hair or a belly as flat as a board. Perhaps in a society where the distinctions between sex and gender could be less rigid, bodies would move comfortably and without unnecessary embarrassments. Since that is not the society we live in today, my choices limit to a space that makes concessions to appearances. Books and films and so the people I intertwine with tell me that my self separates from the shell of my body. Before I “blossomed into a young woman,” my naïve flesh longed to disengage. I discarded my body as a home. Placed into metaphor and kept at a distance from my self, my body metamorphoses. I call my body a “temple” or sometimes, a “dump,” compartmentalizing my flesh and mind. My self has no immediate reality. I do not ground into my own body. I’m sick and tired of binaries that restrict me. I want to clearly assess my form and movements.

 

I think about another phrase I hear and repeat just as often: “You are more than just a body.” In an effort to throw off objectification, I separate from my body. Where I step away from sexual objectification, I cast my body away entirely. I tell myself I am more, that the self is its own environment. This more elevates itself above my body. I objectify my own ecology. If I continue to treat my body like a shell, my self can never really be tangible. I will continue to let others act as sieves for my memory. I will hold my empathetic potential and emotional intelligence at a distance.

 

This storm reminds me that I am wild and undisciplined (like everyone else). I bark when I can speak. The mottled sounds fling out from underneath my nails and pores. I lunge when I can stand still. But, my wildness is not a weakness. It is content within the form of my body. This form guides me. Without my body, I could have no self. The storm is also a form, but I deceive myself with romance and drama by not centering myself within its context. To live in metaphor is to deceive myself. My body is not rain, nor wind. It is muscle and sweat. My stomach is not a tumultuous whirlpool of fear or anticipation. It is acid and tissue. My palms are not curtains. They are sinew and flesh. I align my back against the plane of honesty.

 

In the morning, I call my mama. She advises me to actively level myself during this storm. The drama of the wind and rain is almost too romantic to resist, but it is a deceiving setting. Mama warns me against seeking out any sweeping emotional declarations, tonight. She tells me that honesty rests at 2pm on a Thursday, mulling under a thin veil of sweat and the taste of coffee in the corners of lips.

 

So, I turn my face to the window and listen to the wind and rain. They are exactly what they appear to be. They are not the currents of romance and drama come to sweep me away. It would be wrong for me to project a larger symbolic meaning onto their being. If I can focus on hearing my own breath and feeling the curve of my spine, then I can hear the honesty that permeates this setting. I lay on my back with my palms against the floor. I never fall too deeply asleep. The small of my back gently planes in parallel to the carpet.

Lora Maslenitsyna studies Humanities at Soka University of America. Her writing has been published by Litro Magazine and The Commonline Journal, as well as other zines. Her translations have been featured by ODALISQUE Magazine.

[REVIEW] All that Glitters by Liza Treviño

all-that-glitters-coverKoehler Books , 2017

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN MARCANTONI

Alex is a survivor. This is both a simple statement about the main character of Liza Treviño’s debut novel, All that Glitters (Koehler Books), and a starting point for one of the most unexpected literary powerhouses to come out this year. Ms. Treviño does not just show us that Alex is a survivor, she also asks what circumstances lead her to being one? What does being a survivor mean to her? How does being a survivor help her, but more importantly, how does it hinder her? How does a person navigate through life when their biggest strength and biggest weakness are the same thing?

Asking such questions is what separates this book, a chronicle of a young South Texas woman seeking fame and fortune in Hollywood, from so-called “chick lit” and “beach reads” and makes it a literary tour-de-force. The structure of the story could have been a soap opera, as we meet Alex on the night that she becomes the first female and Latina to win both the Academy Awards for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. The story is set in the 90s, which seems absurd at first, but later proves to be an asset. We see Alex in a limo with a man named Nick, who complements her night of glory by going down on her, a juxtaposition that appears to start the story within a feminine fantasy. Yet, Alex is miserable, anxious, and seemingly quite uncomfortable with this man who appears to be at her beck and call. There are some telling hints that this façade is not all that it seems, and without giving away too much, as the story backtracks to lead us back to this moment, we begin to see this scene in a new light, not as a moment of feminist triumph, but rather of a culmination of sexist power games and self-degradation, in which Alex is on the losing end.

The eighties/nineties time frame may seem like a strange place to set the novel, since racial progress in Hollywood was not a major issue at that time as it would be in the #OscarsSoWhite age, but the time period ends up illuminating a fascinating aspect about modern technology. Today, every offhand thing a person says online is kept in storage for use against them at a later time. How many times have scandals erupted over twenty year old quotes, after all? The fact is, Alex is a celebrity whose manner and behavior would be very hard to conceal in the Twitter/Facebook age. She has a personality that would incite a large number of trolls, although, given her personality, she would likely eat such people alive, she would nonetheless be a gossip magnet. While celebrity gossip has existed even before Hollywood (for some interesting research, look up 19th century gossip on theater actors; it is rather illuminating), the hyper-aware nature of social media would likely consume a person such as Alex, who is unapologetic about how she navigates the sexism of the Hollywood system. Aside from that, many of the relationships in the book hinge on the ability or inability to communicate. Treviño reminds those of us who lived during that time period just how difficult it could be to get a hold of a person, and how we take the instant gratification of our modern technology for granted. Yet this disconnect serves the story astonishingly well, adding tension to moments that nowadays would be resolved almost instantaneously, or adding to the loneliness of a particular character.

While Treviño places Alex and her friend Elly in many situations we have seen before—such as model parties turned sex parties, or directors taking advantage of female staff—her focus is always on further developing Alex’s personality. Alex is a character who, if she were a man, would be applauded for her ambition and confidence, but as a woman, is demonized. Treviño makes the smart decision to show that ambition itself is not Alex’s problem, but rather her need to survive at all costs is. She is a person who may need ambition and drive, but she also needs moral certitude and boundaries. One cannot maintain dignity if they are willing to compromise their deepest selves at a moment’s notice. The battle Alex wages is with herself—how can you be a powerful woman while maintaining your sovereignty and integrity? This is the question that haunts women of all professions. While Alex encounters and becomes the slave to misogynistic, hateful men, they are not as much the problem as her doubt in herself. That internal struggle is one that is too rarely explored, and Treviño pulls no punches in examining the dark side of femininity. Do not let the cover and promotional material for this book fool you, All that Glitters is a serious, complex, and stirring examination of the female soul that is uncompromising and unapologetic, much like its magnetic protagonist.

sec—;

BY STEPHANIE E. CREAGHAN

sec—; from Stephanie Creaghan on Vimeo.

Artist Statement:
My name is Stephanie E. Creaghan, and I’m a writer, curator and video artist based in Montreal. My work tries to show how violence inserts itself into different forms of communication. I use video as a two-prong attack against it, layering my writing and visuals to try and uncover the bad and the pain so we can talk about it.
Two years ago on April 17th, I quit drinking. Since this January, I’ve been working on a video piece that’s about that, or what it’s like to experience life with a layer of protection removed, with everything a little bit more raw/painful/great.
Stephanie E. Creaghan’s other work can be found at http://stephaniecreaghan.com/

[REVIEW] The Yellow House by Chiwan Choi

yellowhouse

Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2017

REVIEWED BY GABINO IGLESIAS

Chiwan Choi’s The Yellow House is one of those rare poetry collections that simultaneously serves as a manifesto of Otherness, a heartfelt and brutally honest journal of the most crucial moments of the poet’s life, and a celebration of the feelings, moments, and places that great poetry can invoke even when the writing itself is rooted in earthy, memory-tinged simplicity. As if that wasn’t enough, the collection is also an enjoyable recounting of how Choi found himself; a surprisingly cinematic series of vignettes that present the reader with loss, love, desire, friendship, family, and the city of Los Angeles.

The Yellow House opens with a simple three-line declaration that manages to set the mood for the rest of the collection while also proving themselves contradictory:

i chose poetry
over honesty
then lived this unremarkable life.

On one hand, Choi lets us know that there was a point in the journey of his life where a decision had to be made, and poetry won. However, the second line attempts to extract honesty from the process, and the poems that follow it prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that Choi’s writing is very personal and honest. Furthermore, the word unremarkable is the exact opposite of what’s presented in this collection; poems filled with the agonies of every coming-of-age tale, the magic of a childhood spent navigating different cultures, and nights spent in a massive, violent, strange city that tends to become part of those who spend enough time in it. After reading the book, coming back to those three lines is crucial because they reveal the playful man behind the poems and let us know that we were on a sad, humorous, carefully constructed trip from the very first page.

Choi’s style is a mixture of sincere sharing and words being used to deal with certain memories. However, more important than his approachable, enjoyable style is the vulnerability Choi brings to the page. From dealing with death to plucking pieces of life that were happening in 1980, Choi treats his subjects and his writing with the same openness, and that candor translates into beautiful poetry:

this is stupid and emotional
and not poetic at all,
but life is so weird and beautiful
and i can’t tell whether it’s slipping away
or if it’s drowning me.
i can’t get out of bed
and if there was skin next to me
i would bury all the feelings in it
to some 80s soundtrack
like a non-stop loop
of the best of the church.

There is a yellow house in The Yellow House, and its appearances are just one of the many elements of cohesion that make this a very complete collection. The other cohesive elements are love, loss, memory, dreams, the role of parents, and the equal importance of things said and things left unsaid. Ultimately, the beauty of The Yellow House is that is personal and universal, and that allows the reader to recognize Choi for what he is: a survivor who’s seen many things, a son, and a man concerned with recognizing the things that came before and made him who he is now:

on the porch
drinking barley tea so my legs won’t fail
(that’s what mother says)
and, for a moment,
looking at my hand.
it is still.
sometimes it shakes,
trembles.
sometimes it holds
tight
the world.

On the most basic level, The Yellow House works because it is, simply put, beautiful poetry. Devastatingly beautiful. However, for those who care about the details of the genre, Choi also demonstrates a unique understanding of the way blank space can affect his message as well as a sense of rhythm that gives his work a particular flavor. These last elements make this collection a must read for fans of language and poetry and a superb addition to the Civil Coping Mechanisms catalog, which already includes some of the best contemporary poetry collections: There Should be Flowers by Joshua Jennifer Espinoza, Lady Be Good by Lauren Hilger, and The Book of Endless Sleepovers by Henry Hoke, to name a few.

 

[REVIEW] Night in the Sun: Stories by Kyle Coma-Thompson

nmightinthesun

Dock Street Press, 2016

REVIEWED BY CALEB TRUE

Reading Kyle Coma-Thompson feels somehow universal, as though he were writing in a tradition of philosophical inquiry and his writing just happened to take the form of short stories. The pursuit of big questions, a sharp sense of humor, and sly skepticism unify the stories in Night in the Sun, Coma-Thompson’s second collection. Diverse in form, structure, tone, and perspective, and employing an eclectic host of characters and situations, these stories provide functional answers to the meaning of life, answers sometimes neither pretty nor conclusive, but always elegant.

The first two stories in the collection inhabit their subjects through memory, anecdote, and comparison. “Idaho” observes Djuka, a Hungarian history professor. Coma-Thompson’s unnamed narrator synthesizes Djuka’s character through various evidence—Djuka’s own offhand admissions, his history, his battle for career and marriage—with the ultimate goal of understanding Djuka’s impulses following a street massacre he witnesses in Florence. Memory is used similarly in “New Delta Future,” a short piece about a return to old haunts, but in this case memories are reanalyzed in an attempt to understand a town forsaken by time. Both “Idaho” and “New Delta Future” paint their resolutions circumspectly. In “Idaho,” the narrator reconciles Djuka’s academic elitism—and all elitism, possibly—while Djuka and the narrator drink at a workingman’s bar in an unnamed Midwestern town. The narrator’s consolations act as an answer to Djuka’s trauma of witness. “New Delta Future” employs a more intimate anecdote, poetically drawn, to point optimistically at the title, suggesting there is indeed a future for the dying town.

In “Back Pay (& Other Vagaries)” the character under scrutiny is fortune itself. This story tracks the ironies of economic success and failure of city planning and the dashing caprices of society’s striving dregs. It ends with a vagabond’s binge after hours in a Kroger grocery store. A folk hero, he is found the next day covered in vomit and dozing happily in the ceiling, having “sle[pt] it off above the heads of shoppers, swimming like a dead king in the circuits of their haloes.”

In a handful of stories in this collection, narrative is constructed seemingly out of history itself. For instance, in “Dread Elders,” a triptych story, a handshake between a cop and a young man holds an entire misunderstanding and potential for positive communion. At the end of “Judges,” the second piece in the triptych, when the ‘judge’ and the newlyweds are no longer furniture in each other’s tangential lives, one can sense a heavy emptiness in the intersection of strangers. In these vignettes, and more singularly in “Story for Fire,” the narrative reaches its critical point only beyond the page, as though Coma-Thompson has suspended the final piece of the puzzle, preserving in these stories an ouroborical permanence.

The collection closes with two excellent form plays; “Spite & Malice” and “Andrej Lives.” The first is a sixteen-part mosaic associating the risk-reward strategies of the card game Spite & Malice with a wide array of cultural and historical curios. This masterful story marries Coma-Thompson’s essayistic, analytic penchants to formal structure.  A narrative forms from this mélange as once-seeming coincidences are inextricably interwoven. “Andrej Lives” is written in the form of a reply letter to a friend who has asked his friends to provide him with reasons why he should not commit suicide. It’s meandering and beautiful, and as funny as it is touching; the sincerity of it makes the humor in “Andrej Lives” all the more biting. Perhaps we could decide, given the title, that Andrej does not in fact kill himself, but the heart of the story lies in the ambiguity through which it is written, all the way to the final aporia, in the final paragraph, which also happens to be the last line of the collection itself: “Tell us[, Andrej,] about Vitamin D, how prolonged exposure to sunshine is as dangerous as it is vital to your health.”

The stories in this collection where the author is addressing the reader feel the most original, the most unique. There are, by contrast, a handful of stories written from different perspectives and without the strong presence of the author coloring our understanding one way or the other. These more conventional stories are, on their own, excellent, and if I were to discover them in journals rather than in this collection, they would shine from the pages. However, next to Coma-Thompson’s more personal, weirder stuff—where the intense authorial presence elevates the stakes—these ‘normal’ stories feel comparably ordinary.

Coma-Thompson is at his strongest when he is working in this omniscient, essayistic mode, just kind of talking, pondering, all the while slyly assembling a narrative before our very eyes. It is difficult to accurately describe this unadulterated, unmanipulated form of narrative without getting messianic. In a way this type of storytelling feels like pure narrative, motive free. There is so much formulaic elicitation in modern short fiction, so much effort towards and emphasis on locking in a reader’s emotion early on in the hopes of hedging against a reader’s flimsy attention span. This strategy becomes tiresome; the real thing—what feels like honest storytelling—can feel like a good friend telling you a story, and that makes for effortless reading. In many of these stories, Coma-Thompson achieves something like that.

The stories in Night in the Sun ponder outsize questions. The ruminations of the author—on history, his subjects, narrative trajectory, the purpose of narration in general—seem at least as important as the stories themselves. Some have compared Coma-Thompson to Danilo Kiš and Alexei Remizov. I would add Bolaño to that list, for the Chilean’s preoccupation with the meaningfulness (or lack thereof) of art; and Kundera, for Coma-Thompson and Kundera are both explicit ponderers of the meaning of life. There is something very global in Coma-Thompson’s fiction, even when he’s addressing the pitiful tribulations of provincial America, one of Thompson’s preferred arenas for grappling with life’s penetrating absurdities. This philosophical grappling is crucial, and is part of the reason this collection stands out. Without this kind of grappling, modern fiction risks irrelevance, becomes twee. At the same time, Coma-Thompson understands that fiction must be an escape from certain realities, an opiate against life. Coma-Thompson has navigated a middle ground to that paradox of literature: Night in the Sun feels simultaneously like an escape from certain realities and an intensification of them.

Haints, Horrors, and Hilarity: JD Wilkes on The Vine That Ate the South

 

INTERVIEW BY MANDY SHUNNARAH

Vine-That-AteIf you grew up in the rural South, you’ve probably heard tales of big cats, vampires, the Bell Witch, flesh-eating kudzu, and other terrors that go bump in the night. You may have even encountered some yourself, though probably not all in a single outing. Unfortunately for the protagonist of The Vine That Ate the South––and fortunately for us––he did.

Author JD Wilkes spared hardly a Southern folk demon in his debut novel, The Vine That Ate the South. It’s a Homeric tale of going into The Deadening, a patch of haunted woods in western Kentucky, in hopes of coming out not only alive, but with an adventure tale so heroic as to woo his One True Love away from his sworn enemy.

The ultimate destination of our unnamed hero is The Kudzu House, where legend has it an elderly couple was eaten alive by carnivorous kudzu and their skeletons can still be seen strung up by the hungry vine, like two burned out bulbs on a strand of morbid Christmas lights.

When the myriad of Southern haints and frightful creatures are encountered alongside the more corporeal menaces, like trigger-happy hunters and murderous Masons, you’re not entirely certain what’s real and what’s not––and that’s where the magic happens. Rather than a moonlight-and-magnolias glorification of the South, Wilkes shows just how fearsome it can be––literally and figuratively.

The Vine That Ate the South is not only suspenseful, but also uproariously funny. Whether he’s recounting a run-in with a lisping, overly eager pastor or remembering the day his girlfriend-stealing nemesis found his family’s “shit knife,” our protagonist is like that hilarious uncle who always tells the best stories, genuinely unaware of his natural talent for comedy.

The style and tone of the novel, as well as its deft storytelling, mirrors the music of the band The Legendary Shack Shakers, of which Wilkes is the frontman. With the band’s punk, blues, and rockabilly tunes, lyrics rife with apocalyptic Biblical references and Wilkes’ onstage persona as a Southern gothic preacher, The Vine That Ate the South is like a Legendary Shack Shakers show contained between two French flaps.

I talked to Wilkes about his writing process, his influences and his varied artistic talents.

Shunnarah: I so enjoyed The Vine That Ate the South. The story kept me turning pages well after I probably should’ve gone to bed. The novel reads like a bard finally wrote down the South’s oral mythic history. Were you conscious of that bard-like quality as you were writing? How do you think the oral tradition plays into Southern culture?

Wilkes: I wanted the book to read in a “high prose,” florid manner that mirrored the lushness of the Kudzu. The words needed to overwhelm you at times. But I also tried to cut it back and clear room––much like the characters do with their machetes––by allowing plain speech in spots. That way you hopefully get a nice balance of old-school verbosity and simple Southern humor and wisdom.

Shunnarah: I know The Vine That Ate the South wouldn’t be considered a humor book, but there were parts where I laughed so hard I couldn’t breathe. I’m curious to hear more about your thoughts on how humor factors into Southern culture and storytelling.

Wilkes: I think humor is or should be a part of Southern writing. Flannery O’Connor was satirical and humorous, of course. John Faulkner is a bigger influence on me than his brother William.

Irvin S. Cobb, from Paducah, Kentucky, is too. To write about a place with such an intense history, one must occasionally pop air into it. Levity is what keeps novels like mine from descending into depressing historical fiction or even horror.

Shunnarah: It seems like going exploring in the woods and seeing at least one big cat or mythical creature is a Southern rite of passage. I say that having explored some creepy shacks and seen a big cat or two myself. I’m curious to know if your own explorations and otherworldly encounters fueled some of the scenes in The Vine That Ate the South.

Wilkes: Yes, I also enjoy walking around in abandoned places in the woods, ha! Careful we don’t get shot!

One place nearby is an actual ghost town in the woods along Clarks River. It’s called Carter Mill (it’s talked about in the novel) and there’s nothing like letting your imagination run wild through all those old dilapidated timbers and tar paper. You can even make up your own stories about what happened there… mix it in with the truth a little. Let the storytelling take on a life of its own. It’s something I did as a kid and still do.

Shunnarah: I noticed that the unnamed protagonist calls his companion in adventure, Carver, “crazy” on several occasions. Though Carver is his best friend, he’s self-aware enough to know Carver has a few screws loose. As someone who calls the South home––but who has left, traveled the world, and come back––are there times when you feel like an outsider like the protagonist, too?

Wilkes: I think I’m secretly jealous of people like Carver, a simple redneck who can handle himself in any situation. He’s not that nuanced and he’s the absolute opposite of an intellectual. But it’s his ability to blend into the wild that makes the main character wonder if he’s just crazy… Carver even seems to be an extension of the terrible forest itself. But I see the character as less crazy and more visceral, even feral. A man in complete union with nature at its deadliest.

Shunnarah: Your first book, Barn Dances and Jamborees Across Kentucky, was a work of nonfiction published by History Press. Did you always know you wanted to write a novel at some point or was there something about writing Barn Dances and Jamborees that inspired you in that direction?

Wilkes: I never dreamed of really writing a novel. It was really all just a lark.

While on tour with my band in Norway, I cracked a laptop open for a light source while riding through a long tunnel in the mountains. I was homesick so I figured, “Hell… Why not start waxing poetic about Kentucky?” Those Arctic Circle surroundings might’ve inspired my slightly-Tolkienesque approach, though. It really looks like Middle Earth up there!

So I reckon I just started thinking about the lore of the South, as opposed to the Anglo-Saxon stuff that Tolkien studied. Thinking about how we have stories, too.

Shunnarah: In addition to writing the novel, you drew all the illustrations. And on top of that you’re an accomplished musician, both as a solo artist and as a member of multiple bands, most famously The Legendary Shack Shakers, and a filmmaker. How does your love of one inspire and influence the others?

Wilkes: All my pursuits are aimed at telling the same kind of story: epic southern mythology. So there’s always this overarching theme despite the varied media I dabble in. Each medium is just a different discipline that I have learned “good enough” to get the stories across to the public. The hope is that each and every creation will combine to form my own little universe, one that people will enjoy visiting from time to time.

Shunnarah: What’s next for you? I’m interested in any creative projects you’re working on, though I’m especially curious to know if there are more books in the works.

Wilkes: There’s a solo record in the works with some of the Squirrel Nut Zippers guesting. There will be another mural project or two––I just did a large painting for the historic Coke Plant in Paducah. And I’m always writing tunes for The Legendary Shack Shakers. New album comes out in April!

Despite the workload, I’m still vaguely entertaining Carver’s next move, way in the back of my brain. Wonder what he’ll do next…

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Mandy Shunnarah is a writer based in Columbus, Ohio, though Birmingham, Alabama, will always have her heart. Her creative nonfiction essays and book reviews have appeared in The Missing Slate, Entropy Magazine, Deep South Magazine, and The New Southerner Magazine, where she won Honorable Mention in their 2016 contest. You can read more of her work at her website, OffTheBeatenShelf.com.