Book Review

What Does One Call It?

Fiction has never been less like fiction since novels and short stories began. Fiction, nonfiction and journalism seem like conjoined twins. Where does one life form and personality end and another begin?

Storytelling has not changed. Storytelling is the same as it was when people began connecting random thoughts. The precursors of MFA grads were actually prehistoric people who gathered around fires at night with grunts or words that sounded like “Once upon a time . . .” or “This morning I left camp and . . .” What happened next makes up the long history of storytelling and later, with the appearance of print and published texts, the shorter history of fiction—novels, short stories, drama and narrative poetry.

For centuries, it was easy to tell these forms apart, but no longer.

Anyone wide awake could see it coming. We are a visual and musical global community. Cinema and popular music are the arts that entertain and teach; books are increasingly anachronisms and curiosities. Science fuels the growing distance between us and books with new information such as the late maturation of young human brains. Where just a few decades ago human brains were considered developed and mature by ages 18—20, today that age jumps to 24—26. For even longer, we’ve been aware that attention spans are shrinking. Countless aspirants know the grief that comes of attempting to read War and Peace, Remembrance of Things Past or Ulysses with a 15-second attention span. Most, wisely or not, chuck the books after thirty (or is it 10, 20?) pages or so and pull up the movies, which mercifully release them in a couple of hours.

What is the advantage? Well, it’s very little if you’re a reader and lover of books. If you’re not, or just indifferent, the movies align more with the way today’s minds skip and hop, jerk and jitter, implanting perhaps a poignant bromide or two and an inspiring short music track similar in intent to the maddening theme song of the late Disney ride, It’s a Small World. It is a small world, after all, which is not to say it’s a diminished one, just different.

In the last few years of writing fiction chronicles for this quarterly, I’ve wandered into more than a hundred new collections of long and short fiction from all over the world, and just in that short time I’ve witnessed the lines blurring between novels and short stories, fiction and nonfiction. I’ve also noticed that laughter in fiction is practically dead. Everyone is so serious, even when attempting humor. In fiction, at least, it may be harder now than ever to be funny!

The acceleration of this difference is almost dizzying. It’s not just the internet, or food, water, air, soil and weather pollution; it’s not just mass media sloppiness or downright dishonesty or political leaders who do nothing but run for reelection and lie, lie and lie some more; it’s not just the collapse of education, especially in the U.S. or the wispy qualifications of a new generation of musical chairs agents and editors in publishing. It’s all of these factors juiced together, and most certainly more.

From common ground, with centered hearts, we can agree that the rules of engagement in literature are changing. It is always so. No generation or school has yet had the final word. Perhaps a last generation to come will have it, but soon no one will be around to read it, debate it or care. What we have now to consider is new books, always new books, and the task puts me in mind of Thoreau’s definition, forgotten by most, of style: “the art of composition is as simple as the discharge of a bullet from a rifle.”

One author who makes the art of composition seem that simple is Nadeem Zaman, who collects seven stories that remind us how simple good storytelling can be. Up in the Main House & Other Stories[1] shares the lives of a servant class that feels Old World yet still exists today in Dhaka, capital of Bangladesh.

Cooks, night watchmen, gardeners, thieves, vandals and house managers drive these unassuming stories and achieve what feels like unerring truth. They do so because Zaman believes in them and allows them to have their say. Nowhere in this collection does one collide with a sense that the author is compelled to take over because he cannot resist the seduction of the sound of his own voice. The sound we here is determined by what his characters must do and say. So, when the family cook takes over the master suite while her employers are away, trying on clothes and jewels and monologuing in pretend voices that mimic the mistress of the house, the author constructs the scene with the most precise, compressed language. When the cook’s husband insists she stop her foolishness and she locks him out of the room, forcing him to sleep on a couch downstairs, we accept the development because it has all been given us with the grace of convincing brevity. Such things do happen, we say; how could they happen any other way?

Of course, there are many other ways they could happen. Yet, Zaman’s map of relationships and strange incidents are so flawlessly thought out and composed that we accept their emotional accuracy. That can’t be overstated. When emotional accuracy fails to be achieved, the writing fails to rise above noise. Zaman’s clean, understated prose hums and throbs and sings about lives that feel so familiar but would remain hopelessly veiled without its magic. Women, men, elders and reckless young people come alive in Zaman’s fictive world, a world in which stories can stand strong and alone while also uniting to portray a coherent, sustainable community. This is the best of what short stories—short fiction—has always done and can still do.

Chilean actress and writer Nona Fernández has a rich story to tell about adults who as childhood friends suffered much under the oppressive Pinochet regime, which was the beneficiary of yet another U.S.-backed military coup d’état that took place in 1973. Pinochet remained in power until 1998 and was never tried for alleged human rights abuses.

The terrorized children, now adults with full-fledged PTSD in Fernández’s novel, Space Invaders,[2] share their memories, especially about their doomed classmate, Estrella, and a compulsive need to play a particular video game that fires “ghostly green bullets” over and over. “Our mattresses, like our lives, have been scattered around the city, have drifted apart. What has become of each of us? It’s a mystery that scarcely needs solving. We share dreams from afar. Or one dream, at least, embroidered in white thread on the bib of a checkered school smock: Estrella González.” What else do the children dream? Spare hands, ships made of colored paper, girls at a beach, coffins, wreaths and funerals, and always the game.

Fernández’s brevity calls attention to itself, for Space Invaders is, after all, a “novel” of 88 pages. In fact, it is a small collection of interesting notes that might with expansion and time become a novel. In its present form, the book is closer to a short story, yet as such it also falls short. What it is, this collection of prose snapshots, is a meditation on power. These damaged children, now damaged adults, never had power. They live in fear of it, and with good reason. The safe video game confers power on the powerless, and in dreams a murky sorting out of reality and hallucination takes place. I am sufficiently intrigued by the storytelling to wish that Fernández had fully developed it. As it stands, the story is closer to a theater or television treatment. Given today’s publishers and readers of fiction, perhaps that is enough and does not matter.

Brevity is not an issue in Loudermilk[3] by Lucy Ives. She has written a novel, yes. It’s just not a good one.

Set in the summer of 2003, the story’s protagonist, Troy Augustus Loudermilk (described as “fair-haired, statuesque, charismatic”), arrives with sidekick Harry Rego to dazzle the faculty and fellow students at The Seminars, America’s most prestigious creative writing program. It’s obvious that the program is really the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, from which Ives graduated (she is also a graduate of Harvard and teaches in an MFA program at Ithaca College). The goal of Loudermilk is to tell deep truths revealed with savage wit, irony and barrel-of-monkeys laughter. The trouble is, the wit is dull, the irony nonexistent, the barrel empty.

Yet, the goal is to have fun! One might think it possible, given the subject. MFA programs and the venerable Iowa Writers’ Workshop in particular lend themselves to the best that the writers of Saturday Night Live might come up with to lampoon them. For the MFA programs and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, especially, have succeeded in creating and maintaining a small, thriving cottage industry for teaching creative writing and producing industry-accepted writing the world over.

This has been both good and bad for writers and readers. MFA programs provide writers with good livings and built-in, small audiences. If the trade-off is a certain sameness of attitude and performance, perhaps it is worth it. Thinking of it historically, I imagine American writers like Helen Hunt Jackson, William Cullen Bryant and Thomas Wentworth Higginson would have thrived as students and eventually as teachers in MFA programs, but those programs would have destroyed Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson.

That ongoing legacy is the elephant in the room in Loudermilk. It’s all that matters. The cookie-cutter characters never become real people and so never convince anyone that they are talented or funny or even socially aware of what goes on in the world outside the ivory castle. As one might expect then, the writing never gets up off the page. In fact, it is unrelentingly like this:

Lizzie, a true artist, turns and sits and maneuvers Loudermilk’s heavy, hot cranium onto her bare thigh.

“MPHHphlfg,” Loudermilk is saying.

“I know,” says Lizzie. “So true!”

Set in a suburban competitive performing arts high school in the 1980s, Trust Exercise[4] by Susan Choi delivers a familiar set of characters and plot lines that seem destined for a TV or movie treatment, coming soon!

At the beginning of her Acknowledgements, Choi explains her method. “Writing fiction is like dreaming; the recognizable and the unthinkable, the mundane and the monstrous, coalesce in the least predictable ways, in the end turning into something entirely unlike real life, and yet hopefully relevant in some way to our shared human life.” Choi sticks to this method and produces an exploration of adolescent memory that does not quite come together.

Too frequently, the writing itself betrays her. Clichés mount. A gaze burns a hole, a glance darts out. Handwriting is effusive, therefore almost feminine. Someone grins frankly. Another character whispers hotly. Yet another sits alone in a bar in a funk. This laziness (what else to call it?) goes on and on, then it goes on some more.

It goes on until in the late stages of the book it almost becomes something else. The writing shifts because the story seriously changes, becoming almost a mystery. To avoid playing the spoiler, I’ll not add details, but the last twenty-two pages do not feel like the end of the story that precedes them. Rather, they feel like the beginning of a much more interesting book.

Jacqueline Woodson suffers none of the shortcomings shouldered by the three previous authors mentioned here. Her novel, Red at the Bone,[5] hinges on an unexpected pregnancy joining two families from different social classes. The tale flows between the 2000s and the 1980s, between Brooklyn, Ohio, Oakland, Berkeley and Santa Cruz, California, and three generations of the two families. Red at the Bone is a rich and delicious read. It is so because Woodson listens to her characters, gets out of the way and takes her sweet time. By doing so, she achieves writing like this. In this scene a man observes his daughter approaching her wedding ceremony:

His baby girl was coming down those stairs and he was crying now, outright and silently, and no one had told him what to do with his hands. As he slid them into his pockets, Iris shot him a look. He pulled them out again, quickly wiped at his eyes. Clasped behind him? Against the wall? Arms raised, fingers laced on top of his head? Arms folded? What was the right thing? Why did he never know the damn right thing to do?

This is a flawless paragraph (among so many) that would earn the enthusiastic approval of Virginia Woolf. Woodson’s focus on her character’s hands is so exact. She allows the moment, an important life moment shared by so many, to develop seemingly on its own, like a bud slowly gathering force, then blooming. Because she does not rush, Woodson’s riff on those hands creates empathy. For me that beautiful moment of transition occurs with the almost absurd yet believable image of those anxious fingers laced on top of his head. Lesser writers would have left this scene before reaching the true emotional payoff. Not Woodson, who reminds us that the best storytelling truly does take on a life of its own as the imagined world becomes the world we actually inhabit. The process takes time and cannot be rushed. This is the simple truth that so many writers fail to embrace.

Taking one’s time, trusting the characters and storyline, writing not an egoless prose, but prose in which ego is cinched to a larger vision, a multifaceted, populated world, Woodson takes the reader places that will feel familiar and utterly unique all at once. This is the real magic of storytelling in any form. It’s why we keep coming back for more—to find in the reading our deeper selves.

Garth Greenwell’s Cleanness[6] doesn’t feel like a novel or read like one. Each of the nine segments stands alone, yet they also work together to create an expatriate experience that has long been satisfying in American fiction. Whether it is the American teacher abroad who leads us into this dense world, the gay student who confesses to him, the S&M master who abuses the protagonist or several other local and expatriate characters in the southern landlocked city of Sofia, Bulgaria, all of them share certain qualities that fascinate their creator. A good thing, too, because fiction cannot be without this connection.

In Greenwell’s world, everyone is always aware of not belonging. They reach out only to be disappointed by wispy connections. They remain anhungered seekers turning down dangerous alleys, falling in wrong directions, never quite learning the truth about those they desire or the peace and awareness they yearn for within themselves. It’s a somber world of grays and blues, browns and black, so it’s no surprise that Greenwell’s prose unspools at a leisurely pace as his contemplation of people, encounters and places deepens. Here is a representative passage:

I barely caught myself before I reached for him, wanting to place my hand on his, though I had been teaching long enough to know never to touch students, or almost never, even innocent touches can be suspect. And he wouldn’t have welcomed it, I thought, he wasn’t the type to want it, it would have been an intrusion. But maybe I was wrong, maybe it was precisely what he wanted, maybe it was some better or wiser part of me that I restrained. That’s the worst thing about teaching, that our actions either have no force at all or have force beyond all intention, and not only our actions, but our failures to act, gestures and words held back or unspoken, all we might have done and failed to do; and, more than this, that the consequences echo across years and silence, we can never really know what we’ve done.

Here is Greenwell’s signature longing expressed in the context of the teacher/student relationship, the dynamics of which have globally altered at warp speed in the last forty years. His spin on it is more evocative with that “or almost never” qualifier, which smells of danger and remains in our minds as we read along yet wonder “What does he mean by almost never?” At least this narrator imagines a better, wiser part of himself that must be there for the restraining. Many authors today never get that far. Greenwell, armed with run-on sentences doubtless employed to mimic interior argument and self-explanation, walks an emotional edge with earned agility.

What comes next for this author will be worth watching. Personally, I hope he moves out of Iowa City. I hope he lives long enough and edgily enough to discover that, after all, we can discover what we’ve done and to whom. That’s where the truest stories are.

Olive, Again[7] by Elizabeth Strout is a novel that lives on the interest created by its leading character, Olive Kitteridge. (This is the sequel to the novel Olive Kitteridge that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2008.) We meet Olive firsthand in the second chapter two days after she delivers a baby in the back seat of her car outside a baby shower in Maine. An unpretentious, edgy widow partial to expressions such as Hell’s Bells and Phooey, Olive is inclined to eat in her car while gazing at the ocean in profound loneliness and occasionally phoning her estranged long-distance son who is edgy, too—like mother, like son.

The other main character, Jack Kennison, actually opens the action, getting pulled over by cops in Portland, Maine, where he drove to purchase whiskey rather than buy it near his home. Why the hour-long drive? Because he wants to avoid running into Olive at the market in Crosby. Almost enjoying the freedom of being “an old man with a sloppy belly,” Jack, a widower, is lonely, too. In fact, Jack and Olive are athletes in the Sport of Lonely whose parallel training had already brought them together briefly in the dating arena. When the story opens, they have not seen each other for a couple of months, but Jack is reaching out in Olive’s direction, who had liked him then withdrew out of fear.

Fear of what? Of commitment and connection, of course, and that is mostly what this book is about. It’s a good story, in part, because these people are older, a widow and widower well into the last acts of their lives. Will they find happiness, together or apart? Will they reconcile with their kids? Along the way, there will be the thousand slights and humiliations that are generously heaped on those aging in America. One of these involves a former U.S. Poet Laureate. Olive runs into this former student while eating alone in a restaurant and makes an effort to reconnect. She thinks it goes well enough until, months later in the pages of American Poetry Review, she finds herself humiliated in a poem about their encounter. Ugh! There are a lot of grim, sedate surprises like this in store for Olive and others. And though the poet is hit by a bus (she survives), there is little of the sense of redemption in anything that happens here.

None of the characters in Olive, Again is heroic or memorable. They’re not even especially likeable, yet they are genuine. They develop and tell their stories without haste, sloppiness, cleverness or flippancy. For some readers, like me, this will feel almost refreshing. Such a book might not have stood out so in an earlier time of literary fiction, but in this age it does.

There is a reading moment when a book hooks you, if it ever does, and from that moment one reads and connects with the ongoing narrative on a higher level. In Amitav Ghosh’s Gun Island[8], the moment for me came with this passage:

There were even a couple of occasions when I felt the glow of faint embers of hope…but only to discover, as I had many times, that there are few expressions in the English language that are less attractive to women than “Rare Book Dealer.”

I laughed. I reflected, thinking how true, and I eagerly read on.

Protagonist Dr. Deen Datta, rare book dealer in Brooklyn, annually joins the great flock of expatriate Calcuttans to overwinter in his home city. About to return to New York, he is reminded of an ancient story, The Merchant and Manasa Devi, which still exists in many versions. The story itself is intriguing on its own, but it is also a vehicle to draw in the reluctant bookdealer, who embarks on an ambiguous quest. Along the way Datta reengages with an old beloved mentor and indirectly explores the possibility of a relationship with a scientist who may or may not be deeply involved in the unfolding mystery.

Datta’s personal struggle to embrace the adventure that calls him to action poignantly reflects our increasingly fractured world. Environmental collapse and human displacement and abuse on a massive scale mirror Ghosh’s own transformation as he emerges from the cloistered life of a devout bibliophile to journey, an unlikely modern-day Odysseus, from New York to India to Los Angeles and Venice for answers that will forever change his life. Without giving anything away, I will say that readers will discover two terrific women characters who are essential to the story’s resolution.

Ghosh’s novel provides a beautiful reading and reflecting experience, reminding us that time-honored, often forgotten tales open up portals, doors and windows into new tales and renewing experience. Ghosh’s style is flawless, his aim true.
[1] UP IN THE MAIN HOUSE & OTHER STORIES, by Nadeem Zaman. The Unnamed Press. $17.00p.

[2] SPACE INVADERS, by Nona Fernández, trans. by Natasha Wimmer. Graywolf Press. $14.00p.

[3] LOUDERMILK: Or the Real Poet Or the Origin of the World, by Lucy Ives. Soft Skull Press. $16.95p.

[4] TRUST EXERCISE by Susan Choi. Henry Holt and Company. $27.00.

[5] RED AT THE BONE, by Jacqueline Woodson. Riverhead Books. $26.00.

[6] CLEANNESS, by Garth Greenwell. Farrar Straus & Giroux. $26.00.

[7] OLIVE, AGAIN, by Elizabeth Strout. Random House. $27.00.

[8] GUN ISLAND, by Amitav Ghosh. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $27.00.