Lore Segal’s Other People’s Houses

Like her first book Other People’s Houses &#8211 a novel that reads like a memoir &#8211 Lore Segal’s newest work Shakespeare’s Kitchen has an unusual, shifting form. On the surface, it seems like a collection of short stories about an immigrant from Vienna, Ilka Weisz, and the friendships she develops while teaching at a think tank associated with a college in Connecticut. Ilka comes to the Concordance Institute from New York City where she has been living since she came to the U.S. She is alone and determined to find friends or “elective cousins” (Segal’s twist on the German word Wahlverwandschaften, commonly translated as “elective affinities”).

Ilka’s need for these “cousins” is connected to loss. She left Austria because of World War II and no longer has her extended family near her. But the narrative of her search for friends is often light because of Segal’s approach to her material. In an author’s note, she refers to Ilka’s quest for a new social group as a “sometime-comedy.”

The humor of the comedy is both dry and quick, especially in “An Absence of Cousins,” the second story in the book. In it, Ilka finds herself calling up strangers who live in Concordance. The phone numbers she’s dialing come from various friends and acquaintances back in New York. And one of the numbers is from a man whose name Ilka can’t recall: “[She] was dialing the number of the woman who had dated the man whose name Ilka was never able to remember, so she was relieved when they didn’t answer.” Still she persists. “She dialed the number Leina Shapiro had given her. They didn’t answer. She dialed Jacquelyn Rosen’s number and when they didn’t answer, Ilka felt snubbed.”

Soon her efforts pay off. As she starts to find her “cousins” at the institute, the stories in the book come together like chapters in a novel. These chapters are connected like a small group of witty friends: they keep mentioning the same people, the same events. Ilka starts spending time around Leslie Shakespeare, who heads up the institute, and his wife Eliza. Guests in the Shakespeare’s home tend to gather in the kitchen where Eliza cooks and “keep[s] conversation flying like some high-wire act.”

Segal is remarkably honest in her fiction. Her characters have common flaws which the author renders matter-of-factly. The result is brave, fascinating fiction that makes the characters in most other novels look like prim, false things around the edges. Segal discusses her frankness in a recent interview in Bomb magazine in which she tells playwright and novelist Han Ong: “I believe in a community of rottenness and a community of goodness. There’s nothing I can tell you about myself to which your understanding does not have access.”

This “community of rottenness” rears its head after some minor thefts occur at the institute. Leslie Shakespeare calls a meeting of the faculty to discuss the problem. One solution offered is to rebuild an old wall that surrounds the college. “Put a layer of cement on it and embed broken glass,” suggests a police officer present at the meeting. The idea is to keep people who live in a nearby housing project off of the campus. (The wall also would keep these people from easily getting to the supermarket.) The talk that ensues is like broken glass with people making small, cutting remarks. “Something had to be done about the project,” someone says, which prompts another person to say, “I always wanted to fund a project project.” Here we find the same wit that enlivens the Shakespeare’s home but now it seems like glass embedded in the concrete reality of class prejudice.

Ilka argues against putting up a wall. Unlike Eliza Shakespeare, who has a sharp tongue and a lack of compassion, Ilka is a sympathetic character, at least in the first half of the book. In the second half, she is transformed by the people around her. Segal draws upon Goethe’s novel Elective Affinities to show how the attraction between people in a group can be a powerful force. It can pull apart marriages, rearrange couplings. Acting upon Ilka and the people around her, this force simultaneously creates and destroys. By the last story, the attraction that initially drew Ilka to her group of friends is pulling her apart.

Ultimately the form of Shakespeare’s Kitchen is charged with the energy of its dynamic subject. In her author’s note, Segal says that when she started the book, she had “a theme in search of a plot”: she wanted to write about the human need for a “circle made of friends, acquaintances, and the people one knows.” From this beginning, she ended up creating a masterful collection of short stories held together by a charge, an affinity, that draws the reader toward the book’s surprising end.

And sometimes too the book reads like a novel, the story of a woman, being pulled apart.

Originally posted on 8.29.2007

Maureen Webb’s Illusions of Security: Global Surveillance and Democracy in the Post-9/11 World

George Bush is fond of saying, “9/11 changed everything.” Hidden beneath this expression are the specific ways in which the U.S. government has transformed since the twin towers fell. In her book Illusions of Security: Global Surveillance and Democracy in the Post-9/11 World, civil-liberties lawyer Maureen Webb takes a look at some of these changes. In clear, direct language, Webb reveals what Bush is not so fond of talking about: how the U.S. government is now practicing torture and spying on most of its citizens.

Webb is detailed in her treatment of her subject. She names the locations of many U.S. prisons around the world and discusses the specific ways in which detainees are tortured. Her descriptions can be harsh in their simplicity. At one point, the book provides a sidebar in which methods of abuse such as “torture with a chair” are defined. The U.S. government, in effect, is using these techniques by sending people to countries that permit torture, a practice known as “extraordinary rendition.”

Webb examines one of the most well-known cases of extraordinary rendition, that of Canadian citizen Maher Arar. U.S. officials apprehended Arar while he was waiting for a connecting flight at Kennedy Airport. Denied access to a lawyer, Arar could not find out the charges being brought against him. He was sent to Syria where he was forced into making false confessions. Webb says: “Among other things, he was told to write that he had attended a training camp in Afghanistan. When he objected, he was kicked and threatened with torture with the ‘tire.'” For ten months, Arar suffered abuse, never learning why he was being held. The truth was that no reason for his detainment existed. Webb writes: “Neither Canada, the United States, nor Syria ever had any evidence that Maher Arar was involved in terrorism or any other crime.”

Webb explores the connection between such abuses and U.S. policy under the Bush administration. She talks about how after 9/11 the administration became concerned with “‘preempting’ or ‘disrupting’ terrorist plots before they happened.” She believes that this focus on the “preemption of risk” has caused a “profound policy shift in law enforcement and security intelligence.” The concern has become less with “specific risks” that entail “specific leads on specific suspects.” Instead, the government is taking sweeping measures that violate the rights of the individual. She cites Bush’s domestic eavesdropping program as an example of such a measure. She reminds the reader that, under the program, the government is “essentially wiretapping the majority of people in the country.”

But the wiretapping program brings up questions about the casual relationship between 9/11 and a more invasive government. Bloomberg reported in June of 2006 that the National Security Agency (NSA) wanted to start wiretapping domestically before September 11. The agency contacted AT&T about setting up the program seven months prior to the attacks. This information goes against Bush’s claim, which Webb cites, that he conceived of the program as a way of preventing another strike against the U.S. Webb doesn’t mention the Bloomberg article.

She also neglects to say that the U.S. used extraordinary rendition before 9/11. She only refers to this fact implicitly near the end of the book when she quotes a CIA agent named Bob Baer. Baer covertly worked in the Middle East up until the mid-1990s when Clinton was still in office. Webb quotes him as saying: “If you want a serious interrogation, you send a prisoner to Jordan. If you want them to be tortured, you send them to Syria. If you want someone to disappear &#8211 never to see them again &#8211 you send them to Egypt.”

Certainly, September 11 ushered in more illegal surveillance and torture, but the U.S. government was having problems obeying the law, especially in its dealings with Al-Qaeda, prior to the attacks. Webb doesn’t talk about these problems, but she does say that 9/11 has brought about changes that “law enforcement and intelligence agencies have been wanting for years.” She says that the attacks brought about “preventative policing and secret service work on steroids.”

She also warns us that the government is only planning on increasing surveillance in the coming years. Her chapters on new forms of personal ID show a future with even less privacy. She talks about Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) chips, which quite possibly could make their way into future passports and other kinds of ID. These chips can be read from far enough away that the government “may soon be able to track us wherever we go and scan us wherever we meet together.” And the U.S. government is showing an interest in tracking people. “Among the ideas being tested by the Department of Homeland Security is a technology that would allow the scanning of up to fifty-five passengers on a bus passing through a border point at about fifty mph.”

Here and throughout Illusions of Security, Webb unflinchingly returns the stare of the U.S. government and reports on what she finds. Usually, it’s invasiveness. In the case of what happened on September 10, 2001, it also seems to be either incompetence or an inability to deal with the amount of information that was being gathered at the time. Webb writes: “The Al Qaeda messages that were reported intercepted by the NSA on September 10, 2001 (‘Tomorrow is zero hour,’ ‘The match is about to begin’), were not translated until days later. Three years after the attacks, more than 120,000 hours of recorded telephone calls had yet to be translated by the FBI.” Webb leaves the reader with the impression that what the U.S. government needs is not more surveillance but a better understanding of its enemies.

Originally posted on 6.14.2007

Simin Daneshvar’s Savushun

Wanting to learn more about Iran, I decided to read a novel by an Iranian author and had the good luck of choosing Savushun by Simin Daneshvar. Originally published in 1969, this historical novel takes place during the Second World War when the British and the Soviets were occupying Iran. The Allied forces were using the country as a passageway to get supplies into the Soviet Union. While the movement of goods over Iran’s eastern border helped the Soviets in their fight against the Germans, it devastated the economy in Iran. The occupying forces bought up much of the country’s grain, leaving many Iranians to starve. But as Daneshvar shows, not everyone in the country suffered from these shortages. She opens her novel with a wedding scene in which a large loaf of bread sits on display. The daughter of the governor is getting married, and the heroine of the novel, Zari, is in attendance with her husband Yusof. Zari thinks of the bread: “What a mound of dough! How much flour they must have used! And, besides, as Yusof said, ‘At a time like this!'”

Yusof is an outspoken critic of the government, while Zari remains silent out of fear. At first it’s not apparent how much of this fear is habitual and how much is actually warranted. What happens to those like Yusof who take a stand against the government? Daneshvar takes her time answering this question, letting the plot slowly unfold while keeping the narrative limited to Zari’s point of view. Many of the larger themes of the novel are political, but the scenes in the book are almost all domestic because of the nature of Zari’s existence. She spends most of her time in her beautiful home in Shiraz where she worries about her husband and three children. The narrative gains a dreamlike tension as the difficulties of the outside world start to seep into her confined, affluent life.

Also lending the novel a surreal quality is the volunteer work that Zari does at a mental hospital. She started going to the hospital soon after giving birth to her son Khosrow. She brings food to the patients as a part of a vow of charity that she made in the hopes of easing her labor pain: “For Khosrow’s delivery, the agonizing pain had led Zari to make a vow to take homemade bread and dates to the mental patients.” Zari has come into this hospital because she is a woman, and the sense of isolation that she feels within its walls soon becomes palpable. After one of her visits, she asks Yusof, “Why should there be so much misery?” She goes on to explain about how one of the patients, a midwife, mistook her for a woman who died in childbirth years ago. Zari always has viewed the patients with detachment and some measure of sympathy too, but as the novel progresses, the distance between her and the people whom she’s helping begins to break down.

Through the character of Zari, Daneshvar creates a dynamic narrative that starts to change as the heroine shifts from fear to bravery, from detachment to engagement. Zari’s point of view is complex and often poetic. “Time stood still, as if it had gone to sleep under the heavy quilt of the sky.” It is nighttime when this thought comes to Zari, and as usual, she is worried. She is thinking about her son, who has gone off somewhere. “She wished the wind would blow, or that, like the wind, she herself would stir up the people and the trees.” As usual, Zari is quiet and thinking in this moment. But she is such a strong presence, one feels this brilliant novel – the world of it – moving through her. “She wished the sky would clear up and become a garden with millions of eyes. She wished the trees would open their chattering lips and begin to talk.”

Originally posted on 5.11.2007

Peter Conners’ PP/FF

In his introduction to the 2006 anthology PP/FF, Editor Peter Conners sets out to explain the title. It turns out that the letters are more than an abbreviation for the two forms that this book, at first glance, appears to contain: prose poetry and flash fiction. Conners begins his explanation by talking about these two forms. Quoting writer Michael Benedikt, he says that prose poetry is “characterized by the conscious, intense use, of virtually all of the devices of verse poetry” except for rhyme, strict meter and the line break. Conners goes on to say that prose poetry cannot offer too much plot or else “it becomes fiction.” The extremely short story, or flash fiction, runs a similar risk of turning into prose poetry if it fails to “follow a narrative arc.” For this anthology, Conners selected much work that lies near to, but outside of these parameters. He refers to this writing as “PP/FF,” and he believes that it is vital. In fact, he calls it “so contemporarily important as to define a zeitgeist.”

He does not support this statement with further explanation, which he should be able to provide. Not only is he an associate editor at BOA Editions – a publisher of poetry – he is one of the founding editors of Double Room, an online journal specializing in prose poetry and flash fiction. While his introduction is sketchy at points, the writing that follows is often alive with detail, and as Conners suggests, many of these pieces fall in between established modes of writing in exciting, creative ways. On the line that separates memoir from pure fiction, for instance, lies “Sister Francetta and the Pig Baby” by Kenneth Bernard. In it, the first-person narrator repeats a story that he first heard from his childhood teacher, a nun named Sister Francetta. She had many stories but this one was different from the others in that “it had no moral.” The tale was short: as a child, Francetta once looked into a baby carriage and saw an infant “with a pig head.” The narrator analyzes the symbolism of the baby with dry brevity and says about the story in general: “it was just there: there had once been a baby with a pig’s head.” Bernard’s story too is just there, displaying a curious blend of traits, much like the pig baby. It is both fantastic and seemingly honest.

Other pieces in PP/FF such as Joyelle McSweeney’s “Apolegit” and Arielle Greenberg’s “The Amityville Horror” explore boundaries both in and through language. McSweeney’s narrator moves through roles like an actor seen on a bright screen of words: “I practiced my Jackie Gleason in the spoiling sodium light. My gut arose. I never got home that night or any, I wore the mark of cane like a gold golf club’s shaft above the eye.” This voice sometimes asserts its legitimacy with blithe hostility, making remarks such as: “I thumbed and kicked through the flut Seminoles.” He also describes a town as being “preserved in its ruined, ha-ha, state.” It’s hard to say who is really laughing in this last line since the person speaking is playing a role and this role keeps changing. On the next page, he – or she – takes on a part much different from that of the lone traveler: “I was an ingénue again. I was folded frilled and strategically in and out of the doorjamb.” Now the joke appears to be on the speaker whose body, like everybody and every place in this piece, is foldable nonsense, existing solely as a polished style on the page.

Physical boundaries and borders have more meaning in Arielle Greenberg’s “The Amityville Horror.” They also are harder to discern, at least initially. Greenberg punctuates her writing with long lines that seem mysterious when they first appear in the opening: “Hey, Eloquence. Stardust. &#8212&#8212&#8212 all about the common currency.” The horizontal line appears to mark a place where words have been excised, but it’s not obvious what sort of phrase is needed to complete the sentence “______ all about the common currency.” Soon Greenberg gives us sentences that better lend themselves to this game of Mad Libs: “One night &#8212&#8212&#8212 walked until night was gone, a neighborhood of very new houses.” What’s missing from this sentence is its subject. All we need to know is who was walking, but while we are trying to fill in this particular blank, the prose suddenly quickens, and Greenberg draws us into these long lines so that we are the ones walking down this street; we are encountering what has been silenced in this neighborhood. Soon inflammatory phrases start to appear. Right before we hear of how “&#8212&#8212&#8212 father drove &#8212&#8212&#8212 home in a scotch glass,” we read of “the abnormal smear of &#8212&#8212&#8212 lynched sex.” A few paragraphs later, Greenberg writes: “&#8212&#8212&#8212 religion is a velvet cloak someone else will sew for &#8212&#8212&#8212 to wear to the rape fair.” The prose starts to elicit a visceral horror, recalling the movie and book that gives this piece its title.

“The Amityville Horror” is one of many effective pieces in PP/FF, a book that is an essential read for anyone interesting in cutting-edge writing. If Conners’ description of the work that he has collected is sometimes unclear, it’s because much of the book is hard to describe, a point that he himself addresses at the end of his introduction. He says that the writing in PP/FF “resists definition” and “often challenges readers’ assumptions about genre, form, style, and content.” It is a book in which lines are drawn, explored and crossed.

Originally posted on 2.24.2007

Juliet Patterson’s The Truant Lover

I am rereading Juliet Patterson‘s first book of poetry The Truant Lover. The poems, which clearly reveal the influence of Lorine Niedecker, are both pared down and startling. Through her precise language, Patterson evokes profound ambiguities of the heart and mind. Many of the poems in this thrilling collection have appeared in journals before. One of my favorite ones “A Narrative” was first published online in three candles journal.

[Note 7/2009: the above link to three candles does not work, the journal having gone offline. Links to Patterson’s poems, including several audio samples, can be found here at her website.]

Originally posted on 10.31.2006

Helen Humphrey’s Wild Dogs

In her most recent novel Wild Dogs, Canadian author Helen Humphreys returns to a theme from her previous book The Lost Garden: the wildness of the heart. In both novels, Humphreys pursues this theme through a central metaphor found in the book’s title. In The Lost Garden, the heroine, a horticulturist named Gwen, sets out to understand a secret, abandoned garden overgrown from years of neglect. Part of what Gwen finds while working is her own heart shaped by loss and yearning. The crucial metaphor in Wild Dogs brings up an unruliness that’s more disturbing than Gwen’s lost garden. Here a pack of feral dogs is living in the woods in a depressed, northern town. Many of these dogs used to be domesticated but appear to have forgotten their former lives and human owners. Six of these humans come to the edge of the woods every night to call out their dogs’ names. It soon becomes clear that these people are calling out for something in their own hearts that doesn’t respond to anything as civilized as names or words.

Judging from Humphreys’ use of metaphor, it’s not surprising that she wrote poetry before turning her attention to fiction. Wild Dogs is her fourth novel and the first one set in the present. The Lost Garden takes place in England in 1941 and touches upon the tragedies of World War I and II. The wildness of Gwen’s garden is rooted in the devastating losses that the English suffered in the fighting. Almost all of the gardeners who used to work at the estate where Gwen lives were killed in the Great War, and so the plants, flowers and trees on the property have gone without care for years. Wild Dogs grapples not with the recorded violence of history but with a brutality that is silenced, intimate and of the moment. The novel takes place in an unnamed town where the main factory has closed. Some of the townspeople have been setting their dogs loose in the woods because they can’t afford to feed them anymore. One of the novel’s main characters Alice has been supporting her boyfriend, who’s been laid off from the factory. She pumps gas, a job her boyfriend thinks is beneath him. He is the one who drops her dog off next to the forest, and she leaves him at the beginning of the novel because of it. Her story is not unusual among the six people who regularly gather to try to get their dogs back. These strangers come to tell each other how they lost their pets. The reader soon learns that Alice is not the only one whose dog was turned out by someone close to her.

The plot of Wild Dogs is unusual and hard to describe without giving away too much. Carol Seajay talks about the problem of summarizing this novel in her newsletter Books to Watch Out For. (If following the link, scroll down on the newsletter’s page for the entry on Wild Dogs.) Seajay contacted Lambda to insist that Humphreys’ novel be added to the shortlist for Lesbian Fiction, and this past May, it won the literary prize, tying with Babyji by Abha Dawesar. In writing about Wild Dogs this past spring, Seajay wanted to introduce the book to a wider lesbian readership. I am following in her footsteps by recommending it to anyone interested in poetic and emotionally substantial novels. This book is moving, and its structure, which recalls Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury, is both solid and subtle. What is best about the book is what causes it to defy the glib, twenty-five-word descriptions that sum up so many novels: its depth and wildness.

Originally posted on 8.13.2006

Nina Shope’s Hangings

The first line of Nina Shope’s Hangings, a collection of three experimental novellas, shows the connection between a mother and a daughter and, while doing so, immediately connects the reader to the scene at hand: “When they are reading like this, her head on her mother’s breast, the empty shell of her ear covering her mother’s nipple, it is as if they have become one fused and fantastical creature.” Shope, expanding on this line, endows the scene with its own calm and reverberating breath. “The girl hears her mother’s voice resonate with each ear. The stories entering her right ear are of myths, monsters, transformations. Words of the mouth. Yet the left ear, pressed to the breast, hears a second strain of sound. A language that comes from the nipple. A humming, which begins in her mother’s throat, fills her ribcage, echoes through the dome of her breast.” Shope evokes the essential magic of words and of the mother through this sensual description of reading. She also reminds us to listen with both of our ears &#8211 one taking in the resonance of the words &#8211 when reading this memorable, original novella.

The plot of this first novella, “Hangings,” is, like Shope’s language here, rooted to the body. We soon learn that the mother, who is never named, has become ill with breast cancer. To describe this change, Shope uses words that create a rhythm of disruption; and in between these words come silent spaces that are filled with a new sense of isolation for the daughter: “And her mother’s breast sounds suddenly hollow. Emptied of everything but tissues. Glands. Tumors. And knotted veins.” The mother will no longer be reading to the girl, who also is never named over the course of the novella. The girl is becoming a woman and now is too old to be read to, says the mother, who believes her daughter “should be going out. Seeing friends. Meeting boys.” As the once “fused and fantastical creature” falls apart, the mother and girl must embark on their own physical transformations into, respectively, illness and womanhood. Shope illustrates how these transformations are every bit as strange as the myths that the mother is describing in the opening scene when she is reading out loud from what turns out to be Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

In her second novella, Shope uses Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities as her central allusion. “In Urbem” is an exploration of an ancient city populated by winged women, vestal virgins, priests, lovers, Caligula, Caesar, his mother, architects, nurses, senators. Part of this crowded city is powered by “the friction of bodies in moments of desire”: “when lovers quarrel the quarter is dark for days. sometimes it is lighted for weeks on end. luminous. the lovers’ bodies raising the temperature to an unbearable degree.” Shope is drawing upon Calvino’s cadences in Invisible Cities, altered by her own preference for sentence fragments, and throughout “In Urbem,” she is also borrowing on the basic premise of Calvino’s book: her city, like his invisible one, dwells within the imagination and appears to be many different cities at once. But unlike Calvino’s novel, which reads like a fanciful and philosophical poem, Shope’s “In Urbem” is often airless and without whimsy. It sits beneath the architecture of Invisible Cities and stays there, suffering from a lack of movement.

The last novella “Hagiographies” begins and ends with a quote from Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood. Shope enters the territory so sharply explored by Barnes in Nightwood by taking on the subject of obsessive, destructive love between two women. The prose is polished as it is throughout the book and the ending is a quiet surprise, but the relationship between the women remains superficial throughout much of the piece. It doesn’t help that one of the women is solely referred to as “the girl with the black eyes.” The phrase is repeated often, along with “the girl with the pixie haircut,” another character, who, quite possibly, is friends with Aimee Bender’s “girl in the flammable skirt,” I don’t know. I do know that the repetitive phrases soon annoyed me, and I realized that Shope was not living up to the wonderful promise of her title novella, “Hangings.” She was not allowing her girls to transform into women, and as a result, the last novella suffers from an odd gap. The external reference to the complicated and poetic Nightwood seems disconnected from the flatness of the characters contained within the story and the coy clichés Shope uses to describe them.

Originally posted on 6.9.2006

Paulette Poujol Oriol’s Vale of Tears

In her novel Vale of Tears, Haitian author Paulette Poujol Oriol brings us a day in the life of Coralie Santeuil, a destitute woman who, slowly and with a great deal of effort, is making her way on foot across the city of Port-au-Prince. Coralie is visiting old friends, family and acquaintances and asking them for money. Tomorrow is New Year’s Day, and she will be evicted from the small room where she lives if she cannot come up with six month’s rent. She is around sixty years old and walks “with legs like a pair of wooden stilts, putting one foot forward, catching herself, finding her balance with difficulty, and bringing the other leg back again.” Near the end of this absorbing novel, we learn the reason behind Coralie’s pained gait. We also find out how she has come upon such hard times when she was born into privilege. Her father was a wealthy wholesale merchant, and in the opening pages, Oriol shows a seven-year-old Coralie playing with a doll “at the far end of an immense garden.” Her father gave her this beloved doll, which her stepmother, at the end of the first scene, breaks in an effort to punish Coralie.

Mr. Santeuil also gives his daughter his passive nature. He does nothing to stop his wife’s psychological abuse of Coralie, who, as an adult, surrenders to life’s onslaughts without first putting up a fight. “Everything glided over her,” writes Oriol about the older Coralie; “she gave in to fate without any sort of struggle other than that of the most rudimentary survival.” Coralie’s story is illuminating and tense rather than merely depressing thanks to Oriol’s direct but lyrical prose, her deep insights into character and the novel’s dramatic structure. In every chapter, a scene from Coralie’s earlier life is juxtaposed with an account of the next stop on her walk through Port-au-Prince. This structure makes the reader focus on the connections between Coralie’s past, including the many mistakes she has made, and her current condition. As the book progresses, we begin to wonder about what other missteps have brought Coralie to this point on her journey through poverty and pain.

Oriol, who is one of the most celebrated novelists in Haiti, ultimately renders the character of Coralie not only with honesty but with sympathy too. Vale of Tears is Oriol’s first novel to be published in English, and I hope translations of her other books will follow soon because I want to meet more characters as complex as Coralie Santeuil. Every step in her journey seems both like an extreme exertion of will and a matter of tragic fate. While for Coralie, this walk is a painful balancing act, it reads like the effortless creation of a master storyteller.

Originally posted on 4.30.2006

Dubravka Ugresic’s The Ministry of Pain

In its style, Dubravka Ugresic’s new novel The Ministry of Pain is markedly different from her earlier work. Gone is the fanciful surrealism present in much of her fiction, including her 2002 novel The Museum of Unconditional Surrender. There, Ugresic creates an angel whose feathers cause forgetfulness in human beings. The angel scatters some of his feathers among a group of friends who, in turn, must scatter when their country, Yugoslavia, comes apart. Nothing as strangely light as those feathers can be found on the pages of Ministry of Pain. When, in this novel, a group of men and women from the former Yugoslavia are sent from their war-torn country into exile, they appear to be disconnected from the divine protection of angels. The forces governing their fates seem as capricious as a breeze sending feathers in every direction.

But the forces that destroyed Yugoslavia were not of nature but of mankind. In Ministry of Pain, no one is spared the effects of the violence, not even those who manage to flee the war. The narrator of the novel, Tanja Lucic, has left the city of Zagreb and now lives in Amsterdam. The time is two years before the 1999 NATO bombing of Belgrade, and Tanja has landed a job at the University of Amsterdam teaching Serbo-Croatian literature. Almost all of her students, like her, grew up in the former Yugoslavia. “They’d come with the war,” explains Tanja about her students. “Some had acquired refugee status, others had not.” They support themselves with menial jobs. Some of them are “playing tennis,” which is slang for housekeeping; others work as dishwashers or waiters. “But the best-paying job you could get without a work permit,” says Tanja, “was a job at ‘the Ministry’…soon the whole gang was working there. It wasn’t strenuous: all you had to do was assemble items of sadomasochistic clothing out of leather, rubber, and plastic.”

Tanja starts out teaching the class with what seems like sympathetic leniency. Attendance is not mandatory, and those who do come to class don’t have to think about literature. Their only homework is to write down their memories of a now non-existent Yugoslavia. But as the months progress, Tanja’s attitude toward her students changes. She becomes harsher, and this shift in her behavior gives the reader a new perspective on the kindness that she showed her students at first. The essays that she assigned at the beginning of the year start to seem passively cruel when questions about memory and trauma arise. Do her students even want to recall their past, or do they want to forget about their destroyed country and move on with their lives? With a fascinating blend of boldness and subtlety, Ugresic exposes the limits of Tanja’s nostalgic point of view to give the reader dramatic insight into the powers of memory and forgetting.

In Ministry of Pain, forgetting is connected not to angels but to the earth, specifically to the Dutch landscape. As one of Tanja’s students says: “Flat, wet, nondescript as it is, Holland has one unique feature: it’s a country of forgetting, a country without pain. People turn into amphibians here. Of their own accord. They turn the color of sand; they blend in and die out.” Ministry of Pain is a novel of survival and succumbing to death, of pain and the numbness offered by oblivion. Through a masterfully simple approach, Ugresic reveals the complexities of paradox.

Originally posted on 3.15.2006

Jane Stevenson’s Good Women

I picked up a copy of Jane Stevenson’s Good Women, a collection of three novellas, during a visit to the Chicago bookstore Women and Children First. It was two days after Christmas, and I wanted an entertaining read to help me forget the stress of the holidays. I was intrigued by the description printed on the back cover of Stevenson as a “diabolically clever prose stylist,” and I also liked the opening lines of the first novella entitled Light My Fire: “The really ironic thing is, I hadn’t been thinking about sex at all. I’d been thinking it would’ve been the perfect day to murder your wife, and I’d probably get in less trouble if I had. You get away with murder, if you keep your head, but stonking great errors of judgment don’t get forgiven, ever.”

The speaker of these lines is David Laurence, an architect in Scotland who leaves his wife for a woman he meets on the train. When Freda Constantine first appears across from him on a train car, she’s enjoying the ride so to speak, engaging in a “slight rhythmic play of her thigh muscles, clenching, holding for a moment, releasing.” She concludes a little later with a sigh. It doesn’t take long for David to decide to marry Freda, and his “stonking” error in judgment soon leads to disaster. The couple moves into a stone house built in the seventeenth century and last decorated in the 1970s. David describes the drawing room as looking “as if someone had spent a long dark winter throwing fried eggs at the wall.” The drama that unfolds after the couple moves in is, like the house, a comical horror. Out for a quick profit, the couple wants to renovate and then sell the house while real-estate prices are still on the rise. Unfortunately for them, they lack the money and time to make real improvements. Stevenson’s humor is sharp as she shows the couple trying to fix up the scene of their deepening misery.

In all three novellas, Stevenson sets up a conflict with a socially satiric edge. In Walking with Angels, she explores the New Age movement through the character of Wenda, a woman whose growing awareness of angels pits her against her skeptical and annoyed husband. In the third novella Garden Guerrillas, Stevenson returns to the subject of the recent real-estate bubble, but this time she makes her protagonist more sympathetic. Alice Wright is a widow who is being pushed out of her London home by her son and daughter-in-law. She has lived in her house on Kew Green for over thirty years, taking care of her husband, her son and her garden. Now, with her son grown and her husband having died, she is being forced out of what has become a two-million-dollar property. As she plans what to do next, she starts purchasing invasive plants to put into the beloved garden that she’s on the verge of losing.

I found Alice’s story the strongest of the three novellas. It is quietly cunning and effective, much like Alice herself.

Originally posted on 1.14.2006