The Mystery and Mythology of Found Audio by N.J. Campbell

INTERVIEW BY MANDY SHUNNARAH

Two Dollar Radio’s latest publication is hot off the press. Found Audio by N.J. Campbell is a Russian nesting doll of a novel with layers of mystery, mythology, madness, and suspense.

When three stolen audio tapes of questionable origin land on Dr. Amrapali Singh’s desk, along with a large sum of money to analyze them, she has two days to extract any clues as to the origin of the tapes and the identity of the unnamed journalist whose story they hold. Using her keen ear and expertise in antiquated audio formats, she transcribes the tapes, which form the majority of the novel.

From the murkiest bayous of Louisiana to the walled-in city of Kowloon to a chess tournament in Turkey, the unnamed journalist searches for the City of Dreams––a legend akin to El Dorado and the lost city of Atlantis. The clues to where this City of Dreams might be come sporadically, over the course of several decades, and each time he gets close to finding it, something mysteriously happens to affect his perception of reality. Whether under the influence of alcohol, mental illness or the energy-draining humidity of the bayou, our unreliable narrator is thwarted and the City of Dreams remains just that: a dream.

I read Found Audio in one sitting, completely engrossed in the story. Just as Dr. Singh was enraptured by the tapes, I, too, was Alice falling down the rabbit hole.

The novel is a brilliant work of metafiction, and the story within the story is as irresistible as gossip from a friend of a friend. The foreword and afterword are both in the form of letters written by the author, N.J. Campbell, which further add to the mystery by tinkering with the thread-thin line between the extraordinary and the realm of possibility.

There are degrees of truth in the otherworldly tales, which ignite curiosity and propel the reader deeper into the narrative. Found Audio reads like a modern-day version of “Kubla Khan,” where the fantastic is ever-present, just beyond reach.

Being the curious person I am, I Googled many of the myths and legends in the book and was amazed to find that many of them have been documented. The City of Dreams is a renowned myth, the walled city of Kowloon really was torn down in 1993 and The Turk was a chess-playing automaton from the 1770s, later revealed to be a hoax. I even found an obituary for an Otha Johnson in the Times-Picayune from 2003, which fits within the timeline and the location of the story. While his obituary didn’t mention him being a snake hunter, judging by the number of children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren he had, it sounds like he lived to be quite old, just like the Otha character in the novel.

While each of these myths may seem disparate on the surface, Campbell weaves them together with a deft hand.

“I remember things that interest me, and they inevitably show up in my work. Stringing them together is partly happenstance and partly planned catastrophe,” Campbell says. “What I mean by the latter is that I’m very critical of my own work. I don’t want to get bored with it, so I’m constantly trying to push myself to see what might come out of further exploration. If I think I can’t do something, I have to do it. And a lot of this stuff all being strung together is me just trying to see in what way something can or might connect to something else.”

As evidenced in Found Audio, Campbell has found that his best writing comes from challenging himself to write his characters out of seemingly impossible problems.

“My friend Joey said it best: ‘If you’re an artist and you can risk it, you have to. You won’t be able to back down.’ That’s really stuck with me. So, in many ways I deliberately try to see how far I can push my narrative––what if that character tells me to get lost? What if I paint myself into a corner I know I can’t get out of? I can always go back and tear up the floorboards, but I want to see what might happen if I build myself into places that look like dead ends.”

Some of Campbell’s best ideas have come to him while at his day job, which is working for a small university press.

“I am 0% involved in anything to do with the publishing process. I literally pack boxes, take orders, and buy shipping supplies. That’s it. But that gives me total freedom to think all day about whatever I want,” Campbell explains. “My body is absorbed in a mostly physical task, and my mind wanders. It’s been majestic. I’ve worked manual labor jobs most of my life to keep my mind rested in order to write.”

The mystery doesn’t end with Found Audio. His next writing project is in the works, though he’s not quite ready to share. “For some people I know, talking about what they’re working on is helpful, but for me it’s not. I get self-conscious and that’s a distraction,” Campbell explains. “I will say that I work very diligently and very deliberately, but I don’t talk about anything until it’s done.”
––

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, 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.

 

[REVIEW] Mile-high with Mary Ruefle: a review of My Private Property

Wave Books, 2016

REVIEWED BY E.D. MORIN

A bad baby kicks the back of my airplane seat. Bad baby gurgles. A cacophony of jungle ululations (moist, hot and fretful) assaults my ear drums. Bad baby makes strident, vomity sounds as if his caregiver clutches him too tight.

I get it. I want to clutch bad baby tight too.

One time a bad baby howled for my entire long flight, not so much shrieking as emitting gulpy, infant cries meek enough to draw co-traveler sympathies. This bad baby is not sympathetic. An exotic hell-parrot foments in this bad baby. Bad baby howls, lazy and wanton, hatchling of lazy parents. I can just see it. All those tricks these parents perform at home to calm their squalling babe in arms (loud punk music, baby bouncer in the kitchen doorway) are inoperable here.

If I turn to peer behind me, I fully expect snap! a forest canopy. Down fall the oxygen masks. Rubber liana air tubes, snot-and-milk soaked and strung with fruit loops.

Don’t turn. Don’t even think about it.

In the air, time goes by as if in a dream, seconds and seconds and minutes and minutes and suddenly hours are gone. Somewhere above our destination and nearing the Greater Toronto Area, surely by now, I hold my book open, Mary Ruefle’s My Private Property. The writing here is reduced to essential, devastating truths. “You may decide to take up an insane and hopeless cause,” she writes in “Pause,” a piece about menopause.

“You may decide to walk to Canada, or that it is high time you begin to collect old blue china, three thousand pieces of which will leave you bankrupt. Suddenly the solution to all problems lies in selling your grandmother’s gold watch or drinking your body weight in cider vinegar. A kind of wild forest blood runs in your veins.”

The back dust-jacket flap tells me that Mary Ruefle lives in Bennington, Vermont, which Google later tells me is a town with two colleges and a population of just over fifteen thousand. In other words, small. Google will also inform me that Mary Ruefle is off everything, Facebook, Twitter, doesn’t even have her own website. Certainly not Snapchat. There will be images of Bennington’s fall leafage, the world’s tallest ladderback chair, a covered bridge. There are reports of a recent heroin scourge.

My guess is the town’s folk don’t know Mary Ruefle the star poet. They may notice she visits the same coffee shop every day. And if they know her as a poet, she’s approachable enough that the police headquarters will ask her to compose something for the chief, a “dry and understated” statement as she writes in “Little Golf Pencil.” Maybe people do ask such things. If they even know about her being a poet.

I yearn for such off-the-grid seclusion. What writer doesn’t yearn for seclusion these days? A reprieve from the endless distractions, cut off from WIFI, cell service. Incommunicado. This cross-country flight is a gift, then. And only now, when I’m almost at my destination, does my mind grow quiet enough that I’m able to even begin. My own private mile-high writing retreat, however brief.

And so I observe.

The man in the row ahead of me has just put away his bagpipes, an electronic device. A black stick and box with earphones so he can practice Prince Charles’ Welcome to Lochaber in silence. He opens a paperback and begins to read, but I can’t make out the title or author. One of the Scandinavian crime writers or British, could be. Likely a male author, bloody minded, perhaps with a military background providing a nice foil to the piper’s sensitive finger manipulations.

In the row ahead of the piper, another infant, pudgy and brimming with health. The tray covered with infant paraphernalia, which is a word in today’s crossword, paraphernalia running the height of the puzzle’s grid of black and white boxes. I can’t recall the clue for this word and I can’t look it up now because I just relinquished my paper to the flight attendant for recycling, assuming the airline actually recycles its papers. A national paper it was, originating in Toronto. I bought it in the Calgary airport where I began, and now here it is almost back home, like a return to Mecca. Such a short life for that paper. Only just begun, and now it’s about to be shredded and pulped and relegated to an enormous pile.

I didn’t finish the crossword. I might have kept it and, after a time, returned to scan the clues and they might have finally made sense such as happens sometimes. But instead I said, fuck it (inaudibly as I was still on the airplane), who needs an unfinished puzzle hanging over their head? It’s not like this crossword is Mount Assiniboine, the mountain I hope to summit two months from now. “We’ve begun our descent. Hope you enjoyed the flight. Welcome to Toronto,” the pilot’s disembodied voice announces, and as usual the voice is male.

So I guess that’s it for my private writing retreat. Only a few minutes left to pull that long, long ribbon out of the carpet bag and examine it. Never mind that there’s a barf bag in the slot at my eye-level, there are seeds at my feet from the sandwich I brought with me on this no-frills flight, or that my toes are ensconced in no-nonsense footwear. Menopausal sandals, the kind of sandals that have small, rubbery, self-massage bumps on the footbed, and a wide cover over the toes to protect them and so that no one can see, heaven forbid, any of my nail fungus.

My younger self wouldn’t have been caught dead wearing these sandals. Or maybe, just maybe, she would have worn them ironically the way young women dye their hair gray these days. I don’t know what they’re getting at. I sometimes still wish I was a full brunette.

——

Winner of the 2007 Brenda Strathern Writing Prize, E.D. Morin co-edited Writing Menopause: An Anthology of Fiction, Poetry and Creative Non-fiction (Inanna Publications, 2017.) A native Albertan, she is a director of the long-running Calgary reading series Writing in the Works. Her work has appeared in such publications as The Antigonish Review and Fiction Southeast and has been produced for broadcast on CBC Radio.

[REVIEW] Mapping the Interior by Stephen Graham Jones

mapping

Tor Books, 2017

REVIEWED BY JESSE LAWRENCE

What can one say about a novellette without giving it all away? I know there are guidelines for what constitutes what, but I’d be hard pressed to tell you the difference between a novella and a novellette. The good thing, for all of us, is that length truly doesn’t matter (I’m sorry, really). It’s all about the story. And Jones delivers that. Every. Single. Time.

I’d wager you’re all, you great readers out there, familiar with the work of Stephen Graham Jones. If not, obligatory (but still emphatically sincere) directive: dive into his catalogue. Start wherever. It doesn’t matter. In fact, if Mapping the Interior is your first Jones book or if none of them are yet and you’re reading this review to see if you maybe might want to read his work, then, honestly, a huge part of me is jealous. To discover and read those books for the first time? You don’t forget those things.

At any rate, Mapping the Interior is Jones at his best. It’s distilled. It’s got some signature touches, like family, bargaining for a better deal, a better outcome, and characters who get themselves into the craziest of situations that even we would have gotten ourselves into had it been us, and [spoiler alert] Frankenstein’s Monster dogs. Okay, that one’s original to this story, but it is so, so Jones. And, did I say family? Yeah? Yeah. Family is important above all. The things we would do, would sacrifice, for our family, it’s all there, all here.

Jones takes us through the dark hallways of the human heart, and he shows us that axe-heavy beauty that lies within.

Like so many of his stories, I found myself lost in the world, still, minding my own business, yet something always manages to get in my eye…

[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.

[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.”

[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.

[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] Human Acts by Han Kang

hang

Hogarth Books, 2017

REVIEWED BY MATT E. LEWIS

Can something be called a war crime, if there was no war? If a government truly wishes to obliterate the occurrence of a despicable act they committed, can they do so with only a well-placed bullet or torture or destruction of physical evidence? Or do they accidentally create something immortal – a memory of a person that is lodged in the minds of family and witnesses forever, like shrapnel that burrows into the body and aches in cold weather? These are the kinds of questions asked by the people in Han Kang’s newly translated book, Human Acts, which focuses on the connection between multiple people surrounding the death of a teenage boy during the South Korean “Gwangju Uprising” of 1980. It was during this time that a South Korean president, Park Chung-hee, was installed in power via a coup d’etat, declared martial law, and used lethal force against unarmed civilians and unspeakable torture on those deemed to be enemies of the state. Kang uses several perspectives in her writing to capture this snapshot in time, this all-too-recent authoritarian massacre, and the lasting effects on the people that survived it. Best known for her bestselling book, The Vegetarian, which examines the brutality in which gender roles can be enforced, Human Acts looks at another aspect in which humanity reveals its ugly, violent, primal nature – when those in power seek control, by any means necessary.

The books starts with a teenage boy, Dong-ho, searching for his friend in a gymnasium converted into a morgue. He is soon conscripted into service in the task of recording data about the corpses of those killed in the protests. In this way Kang begins a conversation repeated throughout the novel, the question of when exactly a soul leaves a body, what separates a human being from a rotting corpse, and how one can grapple with a person you once knew putrefying in front of you. During the course of his work, the banality of Dong-ho’s work – cataloging things like the height, gender, clothes, and shoe brand on the corpse – demonstrates the parallel with the banality of the evil that put them there, the indiscriminate and merciless killing of unarmed protesters, whose only crime was to intellectually oppose a government run by brutal thugs. Dong-ho hopes to find Jeong-dae and his disappeared sister, Jeong-mi, alive, despite the fact that he watched a bullet cut down Jeong-dae at the beginning of the protest. Without the confirmation of the physical body of his friend, he continues to engage in magical thinking, a way of coping with such a brutal loss at such a young age. As if in response to this, Kang begins the next section with the narrative of Jeong-dae’s spirit, still stuck to his rotting body as soldiers dump him and others in a field to be burned. Jeong-dae’s spirit mourns for the loss of his potential life, and seethes with the anger of his mindless execution. He meditates on the lives of the soldiers that killed him:

“I want to see their faces, to hover above their sleeping eyelids like a guttering flame, to slip inside their dreams, spend the nights flaring in through their forehead, their eyelids. Until their nightmares are filled with my eyes, my eyes as blood drains out. Until they hear my voice asking, demanding, why.”

It’s not just the dead who ask these questions, but the living as well. One of the women working at the gymnasium, Eun-sook, sees things in Gwangju that attempt to normalize the landscape of the town. Specifically, the water fountain at the center square is turned back on again, which is the government’s subtle way of disregarding the sacrifice of the protesters. Instead of going along with this underhanded legitimization of the corrupt ruler, she complains to her town provincial office: “What I mean is, how can it have started operating again already? It’s been dry ever since the uprising began and now it’s back on again, as though everything’s back to normal. How can that be possible?” Eun-sook soon learns that in times of martial law and authoritarian control, even such benign protests can have serious repercussions. When working as an editor, she witnesses mass censorship of texts that disagree with the government, and she herself is viciously questioned and beaten in her connection to it. Kang finds beautiful ways in which to respond to these fascist tactics, such as when Eun-sook attends a play with the censored language that she worked on, only to find that the actors soundlessly mouth the forbidden words instead of actually speaking them. It is in this dialogue that a quote is made that reverberates for nearly every character in the book, a kind of elegy for those who survived this horror: “After you died I couldn’t hold a funeral, so my life became a funeral.”

Human Acts has moments when it gorgeously exemplifies the spirit of dissent, and the characters who choose to stand, even when faced with death and torture. The mothers of children killed in the protest risk their own life to demonstrate at the president’s parade through Gwangju, thrown in jail again and again for the crime of their morning. The account of a prisoner who, though savaged by the guards and conditions of his political imprisonment, looks at his actions with pride rather than regret.

“I remember feeling that it was all right to die; I felt the blood of a hundred thousand hearts surging together into one enormous artery, fresh and clean…the sublime enormity of a single heart, pulsing blood through that vessel and into my own. I dared to feel a part of it.”

While such a triumph of hope is possible in the face of this dark time, the core focus of Human Acts is the remembrance of the pain of loss, which in itself is an act of dissonance against fascist revisionism. The last part of the book is Kang’s own account of her experience during the uprising, and of the later discovery of the story of Dong-ho, which moved her to write the book. After pouring over stacks of documents relating to the uprising and interviewing those that knew him, Kang finds herself haunted by what she has learned – she becomes plagued by nightmares of being bayoneted by soldiers, finding herself in dreamlike recreations of the situations these people had faced. Even at a friend’s wedding, surrounded by happy, well-dressed peers, she finds herself plagued by the survivor’s guilt that the research has inflicted on her. “How was such a scene possible, when so many people had died?” she asks herself, still shaken by the connection of the horrors her research has to reality. But she finds solace in the fact that “Human Acts” accomplishes the goal of any account of a crime against humanity seeks to achieve – the fact that these events, these people, these names are not forgotten or lost to history. To do so disrespects the memory of their sacrifice and the eternal ache of loss felt by their loved ones. Perhaps most timely is the lesson that the threat of fascism is not a distant nightmare, but a very real threat, waiting only for an ideal series of events to wedge its way into our lives and cause havoc once again. As such, we as readers must absorb the stories of these people and their lives, allowing their sacrifice to embolden our vigilance and our resolve.

 

[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.

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[REVIEW] Washing the Dead, by Michelle Brafman

dead

Prospect Park Books

344 pages, $19.99

 

Review by David S. Atkinson

 

Barbara confesses an odd thing to her sonographer when eighteen weeks pregnant with her daughter. She says she “prayed that God had spared a girl from landing in [her] womb.” That’s a pretty heavy way to start Washing the Dead, the debut novel by Michelle Brafman (a teacher at The Johns Hopkins MA in Writing program whose writing has appeared in Fifth Wednesday Journal, the minnesota review, Blackbird, Slate, the Washington Post, and elsewhere). Regardless, knowing what I know now, it seems like a pretty apt place to begin.

Barbara is terrified about raising a girl because of her traumatic relationship with her mother. Her mother was loving, but could occasionally be inexplicably distant:

My mother’s mood hovered over us, a mist that could either turn to rain or vanish into the sunlight. During our family walk to Shabbos services, I saw her eyes honeying over, the first sign that at any moment she could dip away from us, into that place inside herself. Even since last April, the mist had turned soupy, and I worried that we would both drown in it.

“Let’s do the last block fast, Mom.” If we moved quickly, we could outrun the fog.

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