[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.

[REVIEW] Marigold by Troy James Weaver

Image of MARIGOLD BY TROY JAMES WEAVER

King Shot Press, 2015
138 pages, $10.00, Paperback

REVIEW BY ALEX THOMAS

Troy James Weaver’s Marigold speaks to suburban depression and 21st Century existentialism with a fresh new voice.  The novella focuses on a young man grappling with the issues of suicide and loneliness and their meanings in a seemingly meaningless society.  The piece opens with an epigraph by Franz Kafka: “The meaning of life is that it stops,” a quote that fits nicely into the Kafkaesque search for meaning that is the driving force behind the piece. Marigold is Weaver’s third publication and is published by King Shot Press which produces what it refers to as “literature for the unheard.”

In Marigold, Weaver appropriately casts a protagonist that is not original but rather plays the role of the everyman; he could be inserted in any existential fable.  In fact, Weaver seems to actively stray away from even naming his main character.  But he quickly establishes the lead man as somebody who is frustrated with life’s ambiguity through prose like “these lines point us toward our menial jobs, our stupid Wal-Marts.  The true rebels, the heroes to the causes of disorder and anarchy, are the martyrs who die in the easiest ways possible: accidentally.”  This Meursault-like character works in a flower shop, which is a superb setting, where he encounters different people but unites them in their struggle to make meaning of the world and their own demise.  These characters are also drawn very well, even though they are a bit clichéd.  There’s the kid-who-twirls-his-hair, the woman who will die from skin cancer and the tough Hawaiian and all of them are locked in this vicious battle for meaning.

The theme of the marigold as a parallel to the human condition is revisited throughout the novella with pages bare except a sentence or two of prose dedicated to the flower.  Weaver writes “Marigolds bloom from September to the first frost.  Then they die and return to the soil, where they wait for the next September sun.” And then later, “Marigold florets are often mixed with chicken feed.  Makes the yolks a brighter yellow, I’m told, for those who care for such things.  The marigold excerpts can be interpreted as chapter breaks but they can also be read as a reminder that life is shit, but it’s also kind of beautiful and it goes on.  This may summarize the thinking of the main character, who at one point even says “I know life can beautiful for a lot of people, but not for me.”

Suicide plays such a large role in the novella that a fitting epigraph might have been the Camus quote “should I kill myself or have another cup of coffee?”  There are a lot of darkly comic bits where the protagonist calls the suicide hotline and nonchalantly chats with the voices on the other end.  About halfway into the piece, one of the workers at the flower shop kills himself and the protagonist is caught in the moment surrounding the incident.  He muses, “he was more than a hair-twirling coworker, he was a human being.”  But then Weaver brings him back to life for the second half of the text.  The last few pages paint a beautiful picture of the meaning of life and the absurdity of suicide when the hair-twirling kid calls and Weaver writes “and suddenly I’m crying, too, and we are in this immense moment of existential togetherness, astray in the wilderness of being, but hand in hand.”  He goes on to say “’Listen closely.  You want to know the best way to kill yourself?’ He sniffs, says ‘yeah’ I tell him ‘that’s good I’ll tell you tomorrow.’”  And there is the hard-hitting punch that the novella has been building toward, the coup de grâce.  It’s the subtle call back to the marigold which, like life, is beautiful and meaningless and sometimes people care about it and sometimes they don’t but that doesn’t make it any less important.

Though Marigold is a strong work, it does almost feel like this has been done before since the theme of suburban existential angst is nothing new.  But the power of the piece is in the presentation. Weaver pushes the text at us in short bursts.  Rather than berate the reader with existential musings he presents us with a novella that, when considered as a body of work, is one large existential statement.

[REVIEW] Gutshot by Amelia Gray

Gutshot Cover

Gutshot by Amelia Gray

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

224 pages, $14.00, Paperback

REVIEW BY T.M. SUMNER


Amelia Gray is a mortician with an overactive imagination.
Gutshot, her fourth publication, is an unflinchingly gory examination of life and the human interior told through stories and flashes that go for the gross out. Gray dissects human anatomy and the human spirit: blood, severed appendages, and mucus. Her stories extract the weird darker side of society—violence, vileness, longing, and despair. She punches us with a reading experience that is at times surrealist, absurd, or, on occasion, sentimental. This work is a complement to her three previous publications of oddities: AM/PM, Museum of the Weird, and Threats.

 

Gutshot is divided into five sections that vary in theme and influence, but they connect through Gray’s unmistakable style. She draws from literary fiction, horror, surrealism, romance, fabulism, thriller, and science fiction, often breaking from traditional storytelling altogether. She pulls in readers while pushing them into unfamiliar environments that inspire feelings of confusion and conflict. Her prose is punctuated by micro-epiphanies that challenge us to consider what we’re made of—emotionally and biologically: “Your heart is a wall of the same brick repeated,” she writes in “Loop.” She questions what we’ll leave behind when we die: “Every body of work deserves its spoils. When we keepers go, we’ll get maps and plans and cenotaphs in miniature, all housed deep under slabs bearing the names of every man, woman, and blue-faced baby we drew down, a towering monument to our work,” she writes in “Legacy.” She examines what interior and exterior spaces haunt us: “Our home was once the preparation wing of a garment factory, in which material was boiled with chemicals to change its color and character,” she writes in “House Heart.”

 

Gray’s writing possesses an intimate quality. Yet like the accouterment—spatulas, incision spreaders, mirrors, embalming fluid, an absorbed twin—resting on a mortician’s tray, it also hints at the grotesque. Her prose is brutal and bizarre. It incorporates unusual images. A whale’s heart. Crowbar. Swan poop. A Dunkin Donut’s in flames. Benzoyl peroxide. Scorched plastic. She utilizes the mundane to call attention to apparatuses we often overlook: “Every problem in the world can be traced to attention or its lack,” she writes in “Loop.”

 

Most of her characters would make nightmarish neighbors (unless you want to live next door to the Klopeks from the Tom Hanks’ movie The ‘Burbs). They rent a young woman and lock her in an air-conditioner intake duct, develop chronic puking problems, become cannibals, mutilate, castrate, and devise strategies for killing their boyfriends. But her freakishness is tongue-in-cheek and balanced with humor and heart. For instance, in “Date Night,” a couple goes to dinner and begins physically ripping their bodies apart: “Another man flicks open his button fly. His public hair scatters like dandelion florets. The man howls and a woman rips his dick off and drops it into a bowl of soup. What’s the deal with soup!” While Gray may be the queen of differentiation, here she points to a universal if not familiar theme: what it means to be alive. The mutilation isn’t an incursion; it is a celebration of humankind. She writes, “Every piece of internal armor on each individual is so thick with shine that even light from the recent past and future finds a way to burst forth, shattering across shattering glass, covering all in a blinding healing bleeding screaming LIGHT because that’s what LIFE is, you assholes! That’s what it means to be alive!” Her words remind us that the human body is a casing similar to a beetle’s shell. Inside, we’re soft.

 

Gutshot’s heavy-handedness is both its shortcoming and its strength. Gray tries—with great success—to be different and deliver what no one else has said. Underneath her eerie, original imagery and sentences, she explores ubiquitous themes: relationships, love, death, and life. The heart is a central image to her work, as is the house. She is a mortician who spends time with the dead, but her job doesn’t depress her. No, no. It makes her more alive. Lucky for us, she’s brought to the page her secret, which is hard to succinctly write but I’ll give it a try: To live without ghosts is not to live at all. Tell me, what will you do with the rest of your life?

T.M. Sumner is a freelance writer and the managing editor of Rathalla Review. She is an MFA candidate at Rosemont College, where she is writing her first novel. She holds a MS in Publishing from NYU and a BA in English from VCU.

Books We Can’t Quit: Autobiography of a Face, by Lucy Grealy

face
Harper Perennial
236 pages, $14.99

 

Review by Megan Culhane Galbraith

 

Just when I needed it, when I’d planned to write about Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy, for “Books We Can’t Quit,” the book quits me. I couldn’t find my 1994 edition in my own bookshelves (had I loaned it to someone?), I went to the Saratoga Springs library and it was listed as “lost” in the catalog. I found one copy, a reprint, and the last one on the shelf at a local, independent bookstore. How, I wondered, could I have allowed one of the most important books in my life to vanish?

Was this a metaphor for what Grealy’s book has meant to me? Why has it haunted me since I first read it in 1994?

Autobiography of a Face is an excavation of Grealy’s soul. In it, she dissects the pain endured by multiple surgeries to her face as a result of a Ewing’s Sarcoma discovered when she was just nine years old. Skin grafts, bone grafts, tissue expanders, chemotherapy, and radiation, these are all physically painful, but it was the emotional agony that resonated with me: her throbbing, metaphysical pain. Continue reading

[REVIEW] Pool Party Trap Loop by Ben Segal

pool

Queen’s Ferry Press

136 pages, $16.95

 

Review by Michael Vegas Mussman

 

 

What is up with palindromes? Seems like any palindrome longer than “racecar” is unwieldy both to sense and to sound. Plus, they’re fake. “Able was I, ere I saw Elba,” Napoleon never said. “A man, a plan, a canal: Panama” makes sense only for advertising copy. And who is this Panamanian man, anyway?

And yet. Certain palindromes like “radar” do shine a pretty light. I bet we invented them to feed our craving for symmetry. It’s like they’re taunting us – what if, instead of randomly combining 26 letters, we follow some logic to build our words? It’s a nifty trick.

I want you to read Pool Party Trap Loop, by Ben Segal. The stories that Segal writes reflect each other, sometimes in mirrored pairs. But where palindromes create an illusion of order by deforming words, Segal assembles elegant words to evoke a fucked up reality. Continue reading

[REVIEW] Communion, by Curtis Smith

comm
Dock Street Press
153 pages, $14.00

 

Review by Cate Hennessey

 

In her marvelous book, I Could Tell You Stories: Sojourns in the Land of Memory, Patricia Hampl ponders some of Rilke’s advice from Letters to a Young Poet. She comes to rest on this:

[Rilke] was not a sentimentalist of childhood. He is directing the young poet, rather, to the old religions of commemoration in whose rituals the glory of consciousness presides. He believes, as I cannot help believing as well, in the communion of perception where experience does not fade to a deathly pale, but lives evergreen …

This ‘communion of perception’ characterizes Curtis Smith’s new collection of twenty-one essays, aptly titled Communion. And while the book’s cover bears three holy wafers, perception here is driven not by a devotion to God or church, but by an ordinary father’s love for his son. Continue reading

[REVIEW] Dowry Meat, by Heather Knox

dowry
Words Dance Publishing
$15, 81 pages

Review by Corey Pentoney

What, exactly, makes a poem? A hotly debated topic, surely, but one that always deserves a little attention. Can a poem be a single line? Absolutely. Alberto Rio published a great piece about that on Poets.org. A poem that takes up an entire book is often called epic, and usually contains men in armor slaying each other with blood-ripping swords. After my third reading of Heather Knox’s first book, Dowry Meat, I’m starting to think that it is an epic in a sense, and I will say that it is best enjoyed in its entirety. That is, perhaps one of the most interesting things about this book—besides the poems themselves, or itself—is that it feels like one whole, living, breathing beast. And what a beast it is. Continue reading

[REVIEW] Blood, Sparrows and Sparrows by Eugenia Leigh

blood
Four Way Books
$15.95, 84 pages

Review by Rachel Mennies
In Greek myth, the seven sisters we call Pleiades committed suicide after the death of their father, the titan Atlas (tasked with separating the heavens from the earth upon his back). While alive, each individual sister lived at the mercy of the impulses of various gods and men, sometimes even bearing their children; in their individual mythologies, their legacies are not kept separate from the ones men made with them or onto them, and they appear in our sky today as a unit of sisters—bound together as stars.

In Blood, Sparrows and Sparrows (Four Way Books), the poet Eugenia Leigh’s first collection, we meet Sisters; we meet Father, too, and Mother. Leigh builds these figures out to the scale of myth throughout her book, both as forces bound together by trauma and as personae often compromised by their fraught, epic-scaled loves. Steeped in questioning worship and a profound hunger for bodily life, the speakers of Leigh’s gorgeously imagistic, lyric book search for ways out of and back into the family unit, casting an unflinching stare on abuse, desire, and the destruction wreaked by both forces. Continue reading

[REVIEW] The Uncanny Reader, edited by Marjorie Sandor

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St Martin’s Griffin
576 pages, $21.99

 

Review by Dan Bradley

 

 

The hardest readers to shock and surprise are, perversely, voracious consumers and lovers of horror; we’ve read it all before. So with this new collection of 31 uncanny tales, refreshingly attentive to international and contemporary voices, can editor Marjorie Sandor revamp the strangeness and power of the uncanny for a new generation of readers?

The collection is inspired by the ‘haunted word’ itself. Sandor introduces the collection by tracking the etymology and semantic shadows cast by ‘uncanny’ and how its broad insinuations snake through languages and cultures, touching upon so many parts of our lives, enabling it to inspire such a wide ranging collection of tales ‘from the darkly obsessive to the subversively political, from the ghostly to the satirical.’ In Sigmund Freud’s 1919 essay ‘Das Unheimlich’, commonly translated as ‘The Uncanny’, his catalogue of experiences capable of creating an uncanny sensation, which ‘speak to the uninvited exposure of something so long repressed… that we hardly recognize it as ours,’ could easily read as a template for the greatest horror art, fiction and cinema of the past century:

When something that should have remained hidden has come out in the open.
When we feel uncertainty as to whether we have encountered a human or an automaton.
When the inanimate appears animate. Or when something animate appears inanimate.
When we see someone who looks like us—that is, our double.
The fear of being buried alive.
When we feel as if there is a foreign body inside our own. When we become foreign to ourselves.

Continue reading

[REVIEW] The Folded Clock: A Diary by Heidi Julavits

folded clock
Doubleday
304 pages, $26.95

 

Review by Lisa Rabasca Roepe

 

Writers will find The Folded Clock by Heidi Julavits hard to resist. Who among us hasn’t kept a diary, often from the time we were children?

“Like many people I kept a diary when I was young,” Julavits writes. “Starting at age eight I wrote in this diary every day, and every day I began my entry with ‘Today I.’ ”

And so begins Julavits’ book, which even from its cover looks like a diary, reads like a diary with dated entries (although they aren’t in chronological order), and each entry begins like her childhood diary. Even the name, the folded clock, conjures up images of a diary because a diary, like a clock, measures time.

And time, as we get older, speeds up. “The ‘day’ no longer exists,” Julavits writes. “The smallest unit of time I experience is a week. But in recent years the week, like the penny, has also become a uselessly small currency. The month is, more truthfully, the smallest unit of time I experience.” Continue reading