Friday, November 8, 2013

(Belated) Halloween Flash Fiction

Hi there.

This is a little delayed, but I'm pleased to share this short story I wrote. The Gentleman won the annual Flash Fiction Contest sponsored by the Roosevelt University writing center. You can read the story here.

Included is a story titled Incredulous, penned by my fellow creative writing candidate Ryan Johnson. Ryan and I also gave our first public fiction readings in the writing center during their Halloween party. I was glad to give my first reading for a tiny audience. At some point, I'll be reading for larger groups, but getting my feet wet with seven or eight polite people was a good start. I didn't do any Mitch Hedberg-esque "reading with my back turned," but I do need to work on eye contact and not being so married to the page in front of me. It's a learning process. This is my first semester. I'm not worried.

And here's a gratuitous photograph of me clutching my winning Barnes & Noble gift card. It was used to picked up Notes From No Man's Land by Eula Biss and Hill William by Scott McClanahan. Rock.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Chicago Ex-Patriate: Now on Instagram!

Before 2011, I used to scoff at the idea of Twitter. Now, as you can see from the widget to your right, I'm pretty damn active there, and I've found it to be enjoyable and beneficial.

I haven't scoffed at Instagram, but I never saw the point of it. My thoughts were: "I can already post photos on my blog, Facebook, Twitter, what-have-you. Why in god's name would I need another site, another screen name, another password to remember, just to share photos? Well, here we are. I have an Instagram account. If you're so inclined to follow me, here's my link. I assume you can just search by my handle: @chicagoexpatjy; alas, I'm still getting used to the ins and outs of sharing, posting, etc. I only have two images up, with more to follow.

With how busy I've been with school, I didn't think I'd have time to update it, let alone consider the kind of images and photographs I want to post. But as I spend a good part of my day commuting from home to work to campus and back again, I've seen little moments that I wouldn't mind snapping. Some of these images are obvious: glorious sunrises from the train. Some of these are lesser known: next to the beautiful facade of Roosevelt University, there's a covered alley next to it. There are loading docks, boxes, and a general atmosphere of the industrial side of progressive education. Or something like that. Granted, I haven't photographed it, but I'm sure it'll be next on my list. I've toyed with the idea of doing a photo per day. But, as I've said too many times, no promises. The more I promise, the less my immediate vision translates to what I actually do. And a note to actual, real photographers: I'm using the word "photograph" lightly. I know that whipping out my phone and hitting "click" isn't the same as actual, artistic work. I salute real, dedicated photographers. I'm not cutting into your world, I'm just interested in documenting little things.

Overall, this could be a good writing exercise. By accumulating images that I see in passing, or seeing infrastructures that strike me as odd, I hope to think critically and see how I can use my writing to uncover some of these smaller, tender moments. Perhaps I'm being too grandiose: so far, I have photo of Chicago's Rainbo Club and one from the interior of a CTA train. But hopefully this will make sense as I go along.

I'm only human, and this is the internet. So while I want to shy away from the obvious, I can't promise there won't be the occasional photo of (pick one or all of the above): a.) cats, b.) beer steins, c.) full whiskey glasses, or d.) plates full of food.

So follow me if you wish. And if you're aware of any accounts that specialize in urban visions, by all means let me know.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

A Brief Dispatch From MFA Land


Why, hi there.

It's been over two months since I last updated this blog. One of my last posts explained this: I'm currently in my first semester at Roosevelt University, on the first leg of my MFA candidacy in Creative Writing. While I had hoped to do little "snapshot" updates over the course of these months, that hasn't happened. But I wanted to write something, for god's sake. I was honest when I said I wasn't giving up on this blog, just that doing five book reviews/personal essays a month was impossible, given my jam-packed workload of reading, class writings, workshop editing, and edits, edits, edits. On top of that, I'm one of the student editors of Oyez Review, the MFA program's literary magazine (issue #40 is above; I'm currently editing and reading submissions for #41, coming this spring).

I'm also going to be doing two blog posts for the Oyez website. I'll update those here when they're published. A slight preview of my first blog post: after reading submissions for a solid month, I want to find the editors who sent me detailed, kind rejection letters. And I want to hug them profusely. With a small team of student readers, the workload has been immense. I can't imagine the work that goes into reading for a journal that publishes all year. So when I received rejection letters accompanied by kind notes, I was appreciative, but now, I'm even more touched. The unpaid hours are really, truly done out of love and dedication. So to take the time to send a small, personalized note when time is precious shows just how dedicated the editors of my favorite journals really are.

Some other notes:

1.) The new director of Roosevelt's MFA program is writer and novelist Christian TeBordo. When I found out he was coming to the program, that's what sold me, and I'm pleased to note that his writing skills and personality are in equal abundance. He's nicer than I could have imagined, and he really, truly wants to make the program as good as it can be. So I feel like I've started at the perfect time.

2.) My fellow first year MFA candidates are talented people. There's no competition, but rather a true sense of community and a shared goal of helping each other become better writers. We're very honest with each other, and there are never any hard feelings. And even though we've been together just over a month, there's been a marked improvement overall. I'm sure there will be steps back and steps forward for all of us, but for an opening month, this has been a terrific experience. And for fuck's sake, I need to stop using passive voice. That's been one of my biggest problems as a writer, and seeing this pointed out consistently has helped.

3.) On Monday, October 7th, Lindsay Hunter gave a reading at Roosevelt. As anyone who knows me can attest, I'm a serious fan of her writing, and I was beyond excited about this opportunity. Not only did I get to meet her and hear her read (if you ever have the chance to attend a Lindsay Hunter reading, go. Just go. Her performances are equally stunning and hilarious), but she sat in on our Fiction Workshop. She offered assessments on my story, was encouraging and honest, and she's a very careful reader. To have one of my favorite contemporary writers discuss my own work with me was unexpected a few weeks ago and a reality just this past Monday. I was honored. The photo below was taken for the Roosevelt Creative Writing MFA blog.


4.) I won a $1,000 spring semester scholarship for the above story. An organization called Friends Of American writers offers this scholarship every year to a first year MFA candidate. I was humbled. I guess in a way, it's the first time I've been paid for my writing, in a roundabout way. Actually, not really, but every little bit of cash helps right now.

5.) Two classmates said my story reminded them of George Saunders. I was touched and deep down wanted to say "easy there, tone it down. I'm not even within a couple galaxies of his talent." But it was just an overall assessment on tone and style, and I was touched, even though I was heavily skeptical.

So this is just a random smattering of what I've been up to as of late. I don't want to promise more consistent updates, because whenever I make any kind of promise via this blog, that's a virtual guarantee that said promise won't be kept at all. But I'm happy, a bit overworked and dazed, but overall on the way to where I want to be as a person and as a writer. And the ultimate catch-22: I'm making progress on my writing but have no time to work on things not related to school. I better keep my ass moving during Thanksgiving and Christmas break, yeah?

More updates soon! Just not sure when, exactly.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Spacial Oddities: Paul Auster's "Travels In the Scriptorium"


As my previous posts have shown, I've long been an ardent admirer of Paul Auster. However, with my recently completed reading of Travels In the Scriptorium, I realize I've only read two of his novels so far. His biographies, essays, and creative philosophies have profoundly affected me for years, and I even treasure his collected poems. No matter what comes next, from his future works to my eventual completion of his entire bibliography, I'll always count him among my favorite writers, solely based on his nonfictional works. The first Auster novel I read was Moon Palace, and my review was written not long after James Wood wrote a long, fairly scathing dissection of the major themes in the Auster canon. I was a bit younger at the time, and I probably defended Moon Palace more than I would have today. With Travels In the Scriptorium, it feels like Auster was reaching for everything and ended up with a handful of scattered notions. In a slightly twisted way, I'm glad for the opportunity to constructively critique his work, without sacrificing my overall appreciation of his style. For such a slim, quick read, this 2006 work tries to incorporate a wildly diverse set of literary themes, ideas so broadly highlighted and practically annotated. It's not that Auster's prose is lacking, but the plot tries much too hard to be both experimental and straightforward.

It's a story told within the confines of a single day. An old man dubbed Mr. Blank awakens in a small room with very hazy memories of who he is and how he got there. In addition to the bed, there's a desk, a series of papers, and a stack of photographs. Everything in the room, from the lamp to the walls, is labeled accordingly. Mr. Blank is confused, yet finds the occasional remembrance of his past and potential hints as to why he's in this small space. It could be a hospital, or a prison, or a rest home. He is also careful and thoughtful about his own body, especially in relation to his living space.

"Mr. Blank lowers his body into the chair at the desk. It is an exceedingly comfortable chair, he decides, made of soft brown leather and equipped with broad armrests to accommodate his elbows and forearms, not to speak of an invisible spring mechanism that allows him to rock back and forth at will, which is precisely what he begins to do the moment he sits down. Rocking back and forth has a soothing effect on him, and as Mr. Blank continues to indulge in these pleasurable oscillations, he remembers the rocking horse that sat in his bedroom when he was a small boy, and then he begins to to relive some of the imaginary journeys he used to take on that horse, whose name was Whitey and who, in the young Mr. Blank's mind, was not a wooden object adorned with white paint but a living being, a true horse.

After this brief excursion into his early boyhood, anguish rises up into Mr. Blank's throat again. He says out loud in a weary voice: I mustn't allow this to happen (Auster 4)."

From the beginning to the end, Mr. Blank is a willing and unwilling host to a series of phone calls and visitors, some with seemingly noble intentions, and some who very well be out to kill him. He attempts to piece together information, from the statements of his visitors, the photographs, and the complex manuscript in his office (evidence is given for the manuscript being a novel or an oral history). As each visitor comes and goes, Blank adds a name to a list, whether it's the name of the visitor or a name dropped in the conversation, with the hopes of fitting together the puzzle. Blank is also visited by two women, both nurses, one of whom very well could be a lost love. However, it's slightly embarrassing that the sole women in the novel are nothing more than sexual manifestations for Blank, even if Anna, the first woman, is presented in slightly more noble lights.

"Anna smiles, then bends over once more and kisses Mr. Blank squarely on the lips. In that it lasts for a good three seconds, the kiss qualifies as more than just a peck, and even though no tongues are involved, this intimate contact sends a tingle of arousal coursing through Mr. Blank's body. By the time Anna straightens up, he has already begun to swallow the pills (Auster 17)."

The pills are referenced a few times as part of a mysterious treatment. Are the pills designed to help Blank remember or forget past events, namely atrocities? Is he a military leader of some sort? There are indications that people died or were lost carrying out his orders, although the nature of these are kept intentionally vague. The manuscript he's asked to read is written out within the novel and forms its own compelling story. It's a tale of competing tribes, military lies, deceit, and a young man carrying messages back and forth. It's fairly concise and doesn't confuse the reader, and the overall question is whether it's a true story or part of a larger plan to confuse Blank. Within the manuscript are sentences and observations that make Travels In the Scriptorium feel like a longer metaphor for literature itself.

"What's the matter, citizen? Are you afraid of the truth? His eyes were full of rage and contempt, and because we were so close to each other, those eyes were the only objects in my field of vision. I could feel the hostility flowing through his body, and an instant later I felt it pass directly into mine. That was when I went after him. Yes, he had touched me first, but the moment I started to fight back, I wanted to hurt him, to hurt him badly as I could (Auster 51)." (italics mine)



Travels In the Scriptorium works to a point if the reader quickly surmises that there's not going to be any grand revelation in the end. That's not the point of the novel. The plot and structure are merely boxes to deliver ideas about literature and its potentials. However, Auster makes the mistake of adding just one too many details, therefore ensuring an abrupt ending. If the story of Mr. Blank was told without the manuscript, it could have been fashioned to ask the same questions. If the story was about a man reading a mysterious manuscript and attempting to determine its legitimacy, without questions about his own life and the visitors, the same goal could have been accomplished. Again, Auster's prose is excellent, and his structure is a well-intentioned homage to the likes of Jorge Luis Borges and Italo Calvino, to name a few. But my biggest concern is that it doesn't shed any more light on the subjects. The questions are asked without a need to be answered, but they're the same questions that have been posed for decades. And as much as I admire Auster's worldview, I'm sure he's had his share of much too ebullient praise and much too harsh criticism (James Wood being the aforementioned example). There's a passage within the novel that jumped out at me and made me wonder if it was a sly stab at his own critics, or a humorous take on the nature of literature, since every single writer has his or her detractors. And maybe, just maybe, he's envisioning how readers will react to the story they're reading.

"Mr. Blank tosses the typescript onto the desk, snorting with dissatisfaction and contempt, furious that he has been compelled to read a story that has no ending, an unfinished work that has barely begun, a mere bloody fragment. What garbage, he says out loud, and then, swiveling the chair around by a hundred and eighty degrees, he wheels himself over to the bathroom door (Auster 84)."

And then, as if for good measure, this passage appears near the end. For dignity's sake, I like to read it from the point of view of a writer reading his or her own material. We've all been frustrated with output or a piece of fiction not coming together properly, and we've all envisioned this classic response:

"By now, Mr. Blank has read all he can stomach, and he is not the least bit amused. In an outburst of pent-up anger and frustration, he tosses the manuscript over his shoulder with a violent flick of the wrist, not even bothering to turn around to see where it lands. As it flutters through the air and then thuds to the floor behind him, he pounds his fist on the desk and says in a loud voice: When is this nonsense going to end (Auster 143)?"

Auster has a new memoir coming out this fall, and I believe it's supposed to be a sort of companion piece to last year's Winter Journal, which I adored. I'm thankful that Travels In the Scriptorium wasn't the first book of his that I read--if it had been, I'd likely be hard-pressed to continue. This may sound terribly harsh, but I say this as someone who considers Paul Auster a treasure, someone whose writings have had a direct influence on my own growth as a reader and a writer. I know what he's capable of doing, especially through his essays and prose. I'm going to carefully choose my next Auster novel, since the last two haven't held up to his non-fiction writings. But as I said before, even if I flat-out despise the next piece of Auster fiction that I read, it won't diminish his overall skill. I just hope that there's nowhere to go but up.

Work Cited:
Auster, Paul. Travels In the Scriptorium. Copyright 2006 by Paul Auster.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Dashing: Chuck Klosterman's "I Wear the Black Hat"


My interactions with Chuck Klosterman's writings have been pretty up and down, and upon review, I'm amazed to discover that I've never written about any of his books. When I was in my early twenties, I was completely blown away by Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, his breakout collection. On the surface, the essay seemed like standard deconstructions of culture, but were infused with terrific humor, fantastic connections between seemingly random ideas, and the realization that Klosterman wasn't a pseudo-intellectual: his fascinations and knowledge did run in fantastically different directions. Since 2003, I've admired him, even if his occasional forays haven't held much meaning for me. One of my long-standing assessments has been: I love Klosterman, but hate him for spawning dozens, if not hundreds of writers who try to emulate his style. I was disappointed by Killing Yourself To Live, an account of his travels and thoughts on various music deaths; perhaps I was just hungry for a variety of subjects. I've pretty much avoided his interactions with Malcolm Gladwell, a writer I've had problems with for awhile. I've never had any real desire to read his two novels. And I never got around to Eating the Dinosaur, his 2009 collection. So while I'm nowhere near being on top of his collected writings, I'd still consider myself an admirer of his work, and this has increased a lot with my recent reading of I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling With Villains (Real and Imagined). The title is apt: Klosterman writes about the idea of villains from historical, cultural, and philosophical angles. I went into the reading with high hopes, since his focus on a sometimes abstract idea (villainy) would conceivably allow him to move among a range of subjects. I was correct, and this newest book came the closest to emulating the feelings of awe and discovery that I felt as young twenty-something reading and re-reading Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs.

In the book's introduction, Klosterman sets up the reasoning in his standard fashion: as a teenager, he listened to a Metallica cover of a song by the British band Diamond Head that included the lyrics "Am I evil? Yes I am. Am I evil? I am man." As an adult, he reflects and considers the nature of evil, empathy, and image from the inside and the outside.

"I am typing this sentence on an autumn afternoon. The leaves are all dead, but still tethered to the trees, waiting for a colder future. Outside my living room window and three floors below, people are on the street. I vaguely recognize some of them, but not most of them. I rarely remember the names or faces of nonfictional people. Still, I believe these strangers are nonthreatening. I supposed you never know for certain what unfamiliar humans are like, but I'm confident. They are more like me than they are different: predominantly white, in the vicinity of middle age, and dressed in a manner that suggests a different social class than the one they truly occupy (most appear poorer than they actually are, but a few skew in the opposite direction). Everyone looks superficially friendly, but none are irrefutably trustworthy. And as I watch these people from my window, I find myself wondering something:
Do I care about any of them (Klosterman 2)?"

The opening essay explores three wildly different topics, but Klosterman manages to keep even seemingly divergent ideas grounded into a single narrative. It begins with what could be the most typically villainous act (tying a woman to railroad tracks, a narrative device first introduced in silent cinema), before exploring Machiavelli's philosophy (and the possibility of The Prince being a satire, which I've heard before and find very fascinating) to what truly constituted the late Penn State football coach Joe Paterno's downfall. More so than I remember from his previous writings, Klosterman explores a vast number of gray areas. However, he's uninterested in rehashing old arguments. The media hurricane surrounding Paterno and the Penn State sex abuse scandal was its own entity, and Klosterman isn't going down that path. He uses Paterno as an example for his overall thesis, and manages to create a very apt definition of villainy. It's paired with an assessment of Nike CEO Phil Knight, who eulogized Paterno at his funeral with some poor remarks.

"All those imperfect denouncements are easy. But Paterno's vilification is harder. A handful of media bottom-feeders reveled in his fall, but only to play to the trolls. No normal person wants to hate a dead man he once admired. It feels abnormal and cheap. But what's the alternative? Paterno knew what was happening and chose to intellectually avoid it. He had to choose between humanity and sport, and he picked the one that mattered less. On the day he was finally lowered into the ground, his most adamant defender was the aforementioned Knight, a man who allowed Indonesian children to work in sweatshops so that he could sell $120 basketball shoes to fat American teenagers who didn't play basketball. And then--six months later--even Knight rescinded what he'd said. It was not a good look.

The villain is the person who knows the most but cares the least (Klosterman 18)."

A long chapter is devoted to President Bill Clinton in the aftermath of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. In this chapter, Klosterman weighs the various players, all of whom took turns as victims and villains in the dragged-out process. Later in the book, Klosterman declares himself as apolitical, and in assessing this overtly political scandal, he is true to his word. He's opinionated yet impartial, and manages to write intelligent passages about human sexuality, power, and politics without pointing any fingers, at least not in a biased fashion. Returning to my previous comment about gray areas, Klosterman's views on the position of the Presidency is a perfect look at how every President, Democrat or Republican, is in a position to veer into textbook villainy.

"So this is what people said: 'It's not the sex. It's the lying.' Which was totally idiotic and completely untrue.
Presidents lie all the time. Really great presidents lie. Abraham Lincoln managed to end slavery in America partially by deception (In an 1858 debate, he flatly insisted that he had no intention of abolishing slavery in states where it was already legal--he had to say this in order to slow the tide of secession.) Franklin Roosevelt lied about the U.S. position of neutrality until we entered World War II after the attack on Pearl Harbor. (Though the public and Congress believed his public pledge of impartiality, he was already working in secret with Winston Churchill and selling arms to France.) Ronald Reagan lied about Iran-Contra so much that it now seems like he was honestly confused. Politically, the practice of lying is essential. By the time the Lewinsky story broke, Clinton had already lied about many, many things. (He'd openly lied about his level of commitment to gay rights during the '92 campaign.) The presidency is not a job for an honest man. It's way too complex (Klosterman 119-120)."



Of course, I'd be disappointed if Klosterman wrote a book and didn't touch upon professional basketball. In a particularly illuminating chapter, he presents the public and private images of various athletes, and the one I found most affecting was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. I never realized that Abdul-Jabbar has been viewed as a villain or as disliked figure: he's now universally beloved for his non-basketball work, and he retired as the NBA's all-time scoring leader; and as Klosterman and Bill Simmons have pointed out, his cameo role in the movie Airplane! worked so well because he lampooned his image at a time when people didn't realize he had a sense of humor or a more complex side beside that of a basketball great. Klosterman explains why and how Abdul-Jabbar was viewed as a villain, and how time has made this designation wrong. It proves that concepts and definitions can be wide-ranging, even for people (in this case, me and my overall view of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) who don't assume a person can be classified in a specific fashion.

"As he's moved into the winter of his life, Abdul-Jabbar has grown conscious of his image and has tried to evolve into a conventionally nice celebrity--which is disappointing on two levels. He has grown more patient with interviewers, partially because they have migrated to his side: It seems increasingly absurd that this intelligent, well-spoken, socially conscious person who is the all-time leading scorer in the history of basketball cannot get a job as an NBA head coach, simply because he's not super friendly. He had a cancer scare in 2008, so that generated some warranted sympathy; as an author, he's probably done more for the lost history of twentieth-century African-Americans than every other athlete combined. He made a cameo on a sitcom starring Zooey Deschanel, and it's so goofy and superfluous that only a jerk could criticize the decision. Muslims don't drink alcohol, but Kareem still endorsed Coors. If he's a villain, he's the best possible kind. Still, there are parts of his personal history that will never evaporate. He may ultimately be remembered more affectionately than anyone would have guessed in 1980, but that turnaround will always be framed as a surprise. He played the game, but he didn't play The Game. He refused to pretend that his life didn't feel normal to the person inside it, and he refused to pretend that other people's obsession with abnormality required him to act like the man he wasn't (Klosterman 173-174)."

These are just a handful of the essays presented. There are some that I enjoyed, even if I was detached from the subject (I think I can name two, maybe three Eagles songs, but enjoyed his take on the band's evolution). There are some obvious subjects--The Oakland Raiders, O.J. Simpson, and Adolf Hitler, to name a few--but again, Klosterman doesn't go the obvious routes. He digs, he opines, and he ultimately draws new conclusions on the nature of villainy. I'm sure more than one person has dubbed Klosterman a "pop culture critic," but that label really doesn't highlight his writing skills. He can be funny without being forced, and he can take on subjects that have been driven into the ground and write about them uniquely. His goals have stayed the same, but there's a definite growth here. For such a fast read, I Wear the Black Hat remains true to its thesis, and no matter how many different directions the essays go in, it never feels like Klosterman is rambling. As a reader, this book gave me everything I had hoped for and more. I think it's only appropriate that I eventually return to Klosterman's older works, even his novels, to give my opinions a more well-rounded foundation. For the scores of imitators he has given birth to, he remains an original thinker, blurring the lines between intellect, assumptions, and, most importantly, the notion of deep thought and expanded essays in an era of quick blurbs and bite-sized writings that try to pass themselves off as deep and stimulating.

Work Cited:
Klosterman, Chuck. I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling With Villains (Real and Imagined). Copyright 2013 by Chuck Klosterman.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Some Notes On the Present and Future Of This Blog

I'm going to open with a statement, just to get it out of the way, since what follows might sound like I'm signing off on Chicago Ex-Patriate: I'm not at all giving up on this blog. To be very honest, the thought of stopping my postings makes me emotional. As I've mentioned a handful of times, this site had very hazy, different origins. I had just moved to Washington state after a much too dragged out breakup, with no real prospects or knowledge of what I wanted to do with my life. My first instinct was to write a cute travelogue of sorts--documenting Seattle and its suburbs as I discovered what it had to offer. I was unemployed, living off the charity of my older brother, and living in a place I had never even visited before moving. If you'll glance to your right, I've already explained the (now embarrassing) origins of the blog's name, and the subsequent handle I adopted. Before writing any thoughts on the West Coast, I ended up reading a bunch of Italo Calvino works and thought it would be cool to do some literary criticism. After that, the book essays started flowing. I was slowly reading in a much more intelligent way than I used to; for an undergrad English major, I spent the majority of my twenties bar hopping and reading and writing very sporadically. The last five years' worth of essays and reviews are a noticeable culmination in my maturity and dedication to literature, literary studies, and my own fiction writing.

Because of this blog, my first college English teacher (Jeremy Bushnell) reached out to me to contribute to a music collective, and that led to joining him as he founded Instafiction. Through Instafiction, I had a very short piece published in The Chicago Reader. I've always looked up to Jeremy over the years, and we grew from old acquaintances into close friends. And not long after, he shared some great news: we were offered positions as the Fiction Editors of Longform. Around this time, after reading hundreds of short stories, I rekindled my early desire to write fiction. Taking cues from some masters both old and new, I started churning out new material. Most of it was shaky, a lot of it has been rejected, but I did have my first piece published in April, in, of all places, Hobart, one of my absolute favorite literary magazines. Where am I going with these haphazard reflections? None of it would have been possible had I not started writing my book reviews here, doing a lot of reading and dusting off the skills I had let slide after graduating from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Also, my writing has improved to the point that I'm weeks away from beginning my MFA candidacy in Creative Writing at Roosevelt University. Therefore, much of my time will be devoted to classwork, and while I plan to keep up on outside readings and Longform work, I won't be able to consistently churn out five or six full length book reviews every month. I also need to start submitting my reviews elsewhere. As much as I love having this site as my home, where I'm free to post and muse on whatever I'd like, I want to start putting my reviews in different journals. You might find that most of the upcoming book reviews might be for older backlist titles; the new books that I read will be written about and sent elsewhere, hopefully increasing my number of publications.

I may post book and writing news, but I haven't decided--most of what I discover and learn comes from writers, bloggers, and literary journals with great reputations, so it's not like I have an inside scoop. Any news I post will probably have been documented far and wide by the time I get to it.

I do have some essays in the works before I begin my first semester, but I wanted to take a moment to explain all of this, in case anyone checks this out even semi-consistently and doesn't see as much updating. I'm never getting rid of Chicago Ex-Patriate; it'll just be taking a different form while I work for my Master's Degree. And I'm hopeful that I'll have many publication updates in due time, as well as notes about my time at Roosevelt. I'm often staggered by how much I've grown since starting this space back in 2008. I never thought I'd be at this point, with the maturity I have now, and the dedication to make myself a serious fiction writer. I'm a drastically different person now, and the ups and downs of my writings here show that. And I can't wait to begin even more discoveries and growth as I have my writing praised, derided, ripped apart, and analyzed within a graduate setting. I know I'll be learning and growing so much over the next two years.

Thanks for reading. Much love and respect to everyone who has helped me grow.

-James Yates

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Consumed: Jami Attenberg, "The Middlesteins," and the Social Novel


Upon finishing The Middlesteins, Jami Attenberg's 2012 novel, I realized I admired it for a reason similar to Alissa Nutting's Tampa. Much like Nutting used sexual abuse as a device to reflect other problems, Attenberg's novel uses obesity and food addiction to highlight other issues. Its striking cover design, mimicking a crumpled fast food wrapper, would seem to indicate a novel about a woman's addiction and how it reflects societal addictions as a whole. However, that's not the case: the majority of the novel's core is a story about an extended family with unexpected divisions, unities, and tensions. Edie, the obese, food-addicted mother, is the center, with the problems circulating in spite of and because of her unique problems. While a reader may or may not see the same problems in his or her own family, there are more than a handful of issues that we can relate to, even if in a veiled manner. It's fitting that Jonathan Franzen provided the cover blurb for The Middlesteins, since it so aptly reflects his assessment that (and this isn't an exact quote) "the only average American family I know is my own." By using a series of flashbacks, revealing unexpected crises at various intervals throughout the text, and drawing some unexpected closures, Attenberg practically dares the reader to come in with expectations, knowing that she will break them or at least have them veer into a sharp turn when one expects a straight trajectory.

The Middlesteins are an upper middle class Jewish family in the suburbs of Chicago. Edie is preparing for another surgery in relation to her weight, and her husband Richard is at his breaking point. They are the parents of two children, Robin and Benny. Robin, while worried about her mother, is dealing with her own crises, from her lapsed faith to her uneasy romance/friendship with a young man named Daniel. Benny, at first glance, seems to be the more "stable" of the two--he has a wife, twins, and a large house, but things are tense on his end as well. His wife, Rachelle, feels he isn't concerned enough about his mother's well-being, and she even goes as far as to occasionally spy on her mother-in-law. Edie's food addiction isn't presented as a typical American obsession; it has roots in her upbringing as the child of once starving immigrants. Some chapters are titled with Edie's weight at a given time, and the opening chapter, "Edie, 62 Pounds" is written with dizzying implications. Edie's mother doesn't want to deny her daughter, but even without saying so, she knows something is wrong. However, she always gives in to her too-growing child.

"Her mother sat there with her arm around her daughter, until she did the only thing left she could do. She reached behind them on the floor and grabbed the loaf of rye bread, still warm in its wrapping paper, baked not an hour before at Schiller's down on Fifty-third Street, and pulled off a hunk of it and handed it to her daughter, who ignored her, and continued to sob, unforgiving, a tiny mean bone having just been formed.

'Good,' said her mother. 'More for me.'

How long do you think it took before Edie turned her head and stuck her trembling hand out for food? Her mouth hanging open expectantly, yet drowsily, like a newborn bird (Attenberg 6)."

Because of Edie's condition, several events occur, leading to their own unique plot diversions. Richard abruptly leaves his wife and begins a madcap series of encounters with online dating. Benny and Rachelle's children are preparing for their b'nai mitzvah, adding to their already heavy schedules. Robin is still making sense of her life and where she should be going, a stress in itself in addition to worrying about her mother. She accompanies Daniel to his family's Seder after much deliberation and worry, and she finds a bickering family not terribly different from her own. Her lapsed relationship with Judaism and her family blends very explicitly.

"'Me and Judaism, we don't get along,' she said.

'It's a family dinner,' he said. 'With just a touch of Jew.'

'Please,' she said. 'Don't make me.'

'I'm the one saying please,' he said. 'You're the one saying no.'

She crushed herself into a ball on his couch, knees up, arms around her legs, head against her knees.

'Why is this so hard for you, to just say yes? It's a dinner, a really good dinner, with some nice people. It's not a big deal.'

'If it's not a big deal, then why do I have go to?' she said.

Daniel sat next to her on the couch, and, in a shocking display of spine, put his face next to hers and said, 'What is this really about (Attenberg 103)?'"

I'll admit to not knowing much about how contemporary Judaism is experienced within modern Jewish families--perhaps there's a struggle or a bigger metaphor that links the Jewish history to the modern situation of the Middlestein family. However, the looming b'nai mitzvah grows closer, and the reader wonders how everyone will come together to celebrate the ceremony of the youngest members of the family. The Seder mentioned above is possibly a way for Robin to interact with another semi-dysfunctional family before another interaction with her own. Richard, despite being estranged from his family after leaving Edie, is allowed to accompany his grandchildren to the temple for a practice ceremony. He's appalled by their behavior and sees many similarities between his granddaughter Emily and the antics of Robin when she was that age. It's a culture and age clash, and is rendered very clearly and painfully. The reader is uncomfortable, as if witnessing the situation in public, and feels sorry for Richard's dilemma.

"Middlestein looked at Emily, smashed up against the window, dark, fearful eyes. She knew she had screwed up.

'If I were your father, I'd smack you so hard your head would spin,' he said.

Emily's eyes widened, but she did not cry.

'But I'm not. I am your grandfather. So all I can tell you is that was just terrible, terrible behavior tonight. You, too, Josh. Just because you're the lesser of two evils, that doesn't mean you weren't being bad (Attenberg 215).'"



Attenberg has fun with family names. A later portion of the novel is told from the point of view of a conglomerate of families attending the b'nai mitzvah. And upon reflection, the Middlestein name is carefully chosen. This might seem like an obvious assessment, but everyone in the family is caught in the middle of something, from Edie's weight to their own everyday problems. However, the name also implies, at least for me, the idea of being average, and not in a negative way. The Middlesteins is about a unique family, but anyone can see similar problems within his or her own family. Therefore, "the middle" is both a larger context and a very apt portrayal of the issues as they are presented and resolved (or unresolved in some cases).

That brings me to another positive reflection with Attenberg's prose. There are many revelations and secrets within the family, but as they are revealed, she does so in a straightforward manner, without any big "ah ha" reveals. The various personal scandals are real and, well, personal and don't need to be accentuated with any needless twists. Richard and Edie end up falling in love with different people. This is hinted at until it becomes reality, and while some could see these relationships unfolding a mile away, they're both handled honestly. At the novel's end, Richard makes peace with his granddaughter in a very moving scene. Attenberg writes very masterful, dramatic dialogue, alternating between dark comedy and unsentimental emotions. There are so many scenes and passages that are begging to be overwrought and sappy, but Attenberg is careful to keep things centered, even in the face of heightened emotions and senses.

"'We're going to talk about your grandmother's health for a little bit,' said Robin.

'Maybe we shouldn't do that in front of her,' said her grandmother.

'Is it going to bum you out?' said Robin.

'The whole thing is already a bummer,' said Emily. Her grandmother started to cry. 'Don't cry,' said Emily, and then she started to cry, and so did Robin. Anna walked up with three dishes of ice cream, made a small, horrified expression with her mouth, and then walked away, silver dishes in hand.

'Everyone cut it out,' Robin said finally, dabbing her eyes with a napkin.

'It's going to be fine, honey,' said her grandmother, who did not stop the tears dripping from her face. 'Come here, bubbeleh.' She extended her arms toward Emily, who slung her one good arm around her grandmother's torso and clung tightly (Attenberg 188)."

It's also curious to note how little of the novel is devoted to explicit depictions of Edie's food addiction. That's not to say that there aren't notable passages of such a large idea in the novel, but again, Attenberg shows wise restraint. As I'm fond of saying, in other hands, there would be many more pages laden with almost pornographic detail. By keeping the focus on the family as a whole, the reader never forgets why everything is happening: Edie is very unhealthy and at risk for even more damage. When Attenberg does show Edie engaged in her downfall, the writing is crisp and unforgiving. A little bit goes quite a long way.

"She cracked open the McRib box and eyed the dark red, sticky sandwich. Suddenly she felt like an animal; she wanted to drag the sandwich somewhere, not anywhere in this McDonald's, not a booth, not Playland, but to a park, a shrouded corner of woods underneath shimmering tree branches, green, dark, and serene, and then, when she was certain she was completely alone, she wanted to tear that sandwich apart with her teeth. But she couldn't just leave her children there, could she? You didn't need to be a graduate of Northwestern Law to know that that was illegal (Attenberg 97)."

The Middlesteins is one of the better family sagas I've read in awhile, and perhaps this is because I've been so focused on short stories as of late (generally, the stories I read, even if they mention families, are focused solely on individuals). As I mentioned before, the packaging of this novel hints to something else--a contemporary novel about grotesque food addiction. But someone picking this up sight unseen and expecting a voyeuristic modern downfall will be steered elsewhere. The food is just one of many problems Edie suffers. Therefore, this novel will remain timely for quite some time, whereas fiction that attempts to capture the modern world solely with too many specifics will grow dated and unnecessary very quickly. However, this is a story of a family with timeless problems, hopes, and fears. There are no gimmicks or attempts to cling to passing modern ideas. The reader becomes swept up in the family's sometimes comical journey, and the the biggest issue sometimes becomes a side note. I'm very impressed with Jami Attenberg's prose and dialogue, and The Middlesteins is a very quick read that still gives the reader a variety of issues to think about and analyze. I may say this often, but it never loses its necessity: contemporary novels can be both entertaining and mentally stimulating. The Middlesteins achieves this quite well and opens up many avenues I didn't expect to encounter.

Work Cited:
Attenberg, Jamie. The Middlesteins. Copyright 2012 by Jami Attenberg.

Monday, July 15, 2013

The Nature Of the Beast: "Tampa" by Alissa Nutting


(The novel Tampa, and some of the related subject matter discussed in this review, is pretty NSFW.)

"A very guilty pleasure indeed. The heroine is an obsessed, masturbating, child-molesting, somewhat homicidal sexual sociopath. Think of a female Dexter but without the redeeming social value. And you'll be cheering for her every step of the way and eagerly awaiting a sequel."

In a very basic nutshell, this assessment, quoted from a Barnesandnoble.com customer review, manages to sum up the fascinating double standards that abound in Tampa, Alissa Nutting's debut novel, in addition to getting a few details drastically wrong. Nobody can read this novel and not feel guilty. It's narrated by a physically attractive young teacher with a sexual and psychological attraction to fourteen year-old boys. There are many extremely detailed sex scenes, rife with slang and clinical terminologies, and when the novel is on the cusp of one of these luridly detailed interactions, the reader is at least subconsciously eager to read what the teacher has in store for her student. But just as quickly, the reader has to blink and remind him/herself: the unfolding act is pedophilia and molestation, not an enjoyably raunchy interlude in a very good book. Tampa isn't a twisted Fifty Shades knockoff, it's an accomplished, scary novel by a very talented writer. While I had my own issues with the novel's ending, I came away with the belief that this really is one of the better novels of the summer. It reads very quickly, but is crafted with a terrific emphasis on the main character's mental problems. While it's based on research of actual crimes, it's not some tawdry, "ripped from the headlines" cash-in. And most importantly, it positively thrives on making the reader confront its many double standards and notions of the differences between male and female sexuality.

Celeste Price is blonde, taut, and married to a wealthy cop. She's beginning her first school year teaching English in a junior high school, but she's there for one reason: to pick the perfect male student to seduce and have sex with throughout the school year. Her criteria is meticulous for a variety of reasons, and she settles on a boy named Jack Patrick:

"But despite the pleasant view, I saw few real options. Goody-goodies like Frank would deny me, and the overly confident type would find it impossible not to brag. There was only Jack--my second choice, Trevor Bodin, had a vast assortment of imperfections; deciding between the two of them was like being asked to pick a dance partner and given the option of a trained choreographer or an epileptic with a wooden leg. Trevor was an artsy sort whose hair was a wiggish crop of curls. A pensive journaler, he'd already asked if I'd look at some of his poetry. Since he walked home from school and didn't have to rush to catch a bus, he often came up to talk books and writing with me after class. But he had a girlfriend; most of his poetry was devoted to professing his love for her--Abby Fischer in my second period, memorable for her chunk of dyed purple hair. Being the romantic type, if Trevor ever did stray, he'd undoubtedly confess to her minutes after the act, likely through a series of frantic text messages that peppered statements of regret with frown-faced emoticons. He also came off as clingy, which could prove to be downright toxic. Trevor seemed like the type who would be ever more demanding, who would accept nothing less than symbiosis (Nutting 53-54)."

Jack Patrick is attractive, not too socially awkward and not too gregarious, and Celeste learns that he lives with his father, who often comes home late from work. These realizations, like everything else in Celeste's life, are analyzed and mentioned solely in relation to how she can feed her addiction and desires. As she states, her marriage is a sham, and her husband's wealth fulfills every need except her sexual ones. She has no hobbies, no outside interests, and no goal except maintaining her appearances (physical and perceived) to indulge her desire for underage males. This puts a strain on her sex life at home, giving her husband only occasional moments of sexual release, with the unspoken realization that it's best (in her mind) to project to others that they have a fantastically happy marriage and sex life, even though this isn't the case. At first, I thought the easy comparison novel would be Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, with the roles reversed. However, Humbert Humbert's seduction of Dolores Haze, for all of its horrifying realizations and implications, is actually an absurd comedy and commentary on youth and desire. Celeste Price is no Humbert Humbert. She's a cold, manipulative criminal, with terrifying sociopath tendencies.

That's not to say that Tampa doesn't dive into sociological and cultural ideas. In a wonderful interview with the website Jezebel, Nutting states that her goal was to explore female sexuality. She says "I think female predators tend to be sexually objectified and obtain a sort of celebrity status. I can’t remember the specific names of a single male-teacher/female-student case that got national attention off the top of my head. It’s not sensationalized or sexualized in the same way." There's a fantastic double standard at play. The awful consensus that many people have is that sexual abuse of a boy isn't as bad as sexual abuse of a girl; in addition to being wrong, it's also a shameful, sexist mentality of our times. Nutting carefully shows that Jack is a child. His actions, from the initial seduction to the aftermath, are those of someone not in control of his sexuality or maturity.

"'That was the best sex of my life, Jack.' He smiled; his eyes bashfully dodged my own but his face held a definite glow of pride.
'Mine too,' he said, then realizing his own joke, began to giggle. Now that it was over, the lust no longer there to suppress his modesty, Jack seemed embarrassed of his body--he'd lifted his knees up to his chest.
I reached up into the front seat and turned the key, blasting a cool stream of air-conditioning back onto us, and looked at the clock. It felt like we'd been there for hours, but it had only been twenty minutes.
'Are you hungry? Do you want to go through a drive-through?' Jack nodded (Nutting 113)."


While looking online for reaction to Tampa, I stumbled upon an excerpt in, of all places, Cosmopolitan Magazine. The introduction to the excerpt (which details Celeste and Jack's first round of sex) is "This summer's baddest, buzziest novel—about a hot young teacher who seduces her student—has enough biting humor and sexually graphic detail to make our Cosmo editors blush. It's also a brilliant commentary on sex and society. Here's your sneak peek." There's no mention of Jack's age, and the snippet makes Tampa sound like a dirty, acceptable beach read. I can only imagine the outrage and backlash had this appeared in GQ or Esquire, with the book being about a grown man who seduces a fourteen year old girl. I highly doubt the editors of Cosmo had this in mind, but perhaps that's another layer to the double standard. In society, it's more or less accepted that a young man would want to have sex with his attractive teacher, therefore making the act "less scandalous" than the male teacher/female student dynamic. Elsewhere in her Jezebel interview, Nutting says:

"I do feel like there are rigid boundaries for sexually explicit female characters (and for females in society in general), and when you cross them or go beyond those prescribed confines people are quick to devalue the book. I think one of the reasons that Fifty Shades was able to be such a commercial hit with its female-driven sexual content is because it’s ultimately an extremely traditional love story. As a culture I’d say we’re most comfortable talking about female sex when it’s in the confines of romantic love.

There are very, very few sexually explicit books about female sexual predators, which is part of the reason I felt the need to write Tampa. There’s a way to write a novel about a female sexual predator that would be quite accepted—to do so the same way the issue is largely discussed in the national media: talk about the ways or reasons the woman herself is a victim (which we care about far less, if at all, when the offender is male), show her being contrite and ashamed, take the focus off the sex or belittle its harm and violence. But that all goes back to precisely the reason that it’s hard for us to see females as sexual predators with male victims in the first place in our society."

I've barely scratched the surface of Tampa's other elements. Celeste's marriage reaches a breaking point long before the cracks in her "relationship" with Jack surface; a tired, demoralized teacher at her school becomes an unexpected ally; and unexpected people, from Jack's father to another lover, appear to dangerously send Celeste's private world into chaos. For as much as she plans, she cannot account for these detours. Jack becomes more mature and demanding, and the reader can see how the sexual relationship is wearing on him. Again, Nutting pays very careful attention to even the smallest details. Nothing is gratuitous, and Nutting manages to illuminate even the smallest ideas and consequences.

"I tried having him wear his old Halloween costumes and sports equipment while I pleasured him--a favorite of mine was the now-too-small cup that had been part of his junior soccer uniform. It barely held him; his genitals spilled out from its edges, like a snake-in-the-can practical joke that had been halfheartedly pushed back inside after popping open.
But nothing seemed to nudge Jack back into the mode of abandon I was searching for. The problem, I soon realized, wasn't simply between us. The way Jack would flinch at the slightest noise when we were alone, the moments during sex when I'd open my eyes to find that Jack's gaze wasn't trained on me at all but on his closed bedroom door, make it clear he couldn't let the catastrophe of Buck finding us together go: it had left Jack with a post-traumatic stress disorder that was heartily interfering with my getting off (Nutting 176)."

I had some issues with some of Nutting's craft choices: Celeste is an English teacher, leading to some stretched metaphors between her situation and the novels being discussed in the classroom. Some of the events (I'm being vague to avoid spoilers) seem too dramatic, especially given how detailed Celeste is in her manipulations. The novel, for the most part, is chilling in its depiction of Celeste as a sociopath. Toward the end, the revelations and domino-effect actions veer the novel into summertime melodrama. As for the commentator I cited at the beginning of this piece, the reader should not be rooting for Celeste. She's not committing these acts for any greater good; she's a pedophile. And as she starts a new chapter of her life at the novel's end, there's no hope for a sequel. She's still very damaged and in need of psychiatric help. How anyone could view her as a cheer-worthy hero is beyond me.

But again, these are the questions raised by the novel, and it forces everyone to have, at the minimum, an internal conversation about how male and female sexuality and perversions are viewed. While these potential conversations can be hazy or downright uncomfortable, Nutting should be commended for putting them out there in the first place. She's a wonderful writer and, most importantly within the context of Tampa, fiercely honest about what goes on in certain places. Some will laugh, some experience dirty thrills, but overall, these discussions are needed. We still live in a heavily patriarchal society that is able to turn an eye to male sexual abuse. In a way, fiction can sometimes be the only way to trigger these discussions. Nutting isn't out to shock, but to say "This happens. How do we feel about this? And how can we change these expectations and gut reactions?"

Work Cited:
Nutting, Alissa. Tampa. Copyright 2013 by Alissa Nutting.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Nothing But the Sky: "The Avian Gospels" by Adam Novy


As I went into my reading of Adam Novy's The Avian Gospels, I had no idea what to expect. Recently reissued by Hobart as a single edition (after its 2010 publication as a two volume set), it was gifted to me by my friend Jeremy. At the 2011 AWP book fair, I happened to make a mental note when he bought himself the two editions, and I looked up Novy's novel online. I had a very basic understanding of the plot and virtually no knowledge of Novy as a person or as a writer. Seeing that it was published by one of my favorite lit journals/publishing houses, I figured it was worth the time, sight unseen. Without having read any other short fiction by Novy, and since the book has always been in at least semi-limited availability, I was able to dive into terrific reading sessions without any outside influences, unless you count some of my favorite writers and readers praising the work over the last few years. After reading the first few pages of The Avian Gospels, I was expecting a fairly standard plot infused with experimental and magical influences. While this held true, it turns into a complex package of many themes and unexpected turns. There are love stories. There is political drama and violence. There is an intentional muddling of place and time. Family relationships and identities are explored, questioned, and ripped apart. There are double-crosses and thriller sequences worthy of the "keeps you on the edge of your seat" cliche. Last but certainly not least, there is a heavy influence of religion as a personal and social construct, befitting the novel's tassel and black leather composition, making it resemble a bible (last week on the train, a passenger asked me if I was reading the Torah). As I'm fond of saying, these descriptions form a summary and not a spoiler. When I was finished, I was taken aback at how many ideas Novy was able to pack into the narrative without making it messy.

The Avian Gospels takes place in a truly strange world (there are mentions of Norway, Hungary, and Oklahoma being within the same area). A Swede named Zvominir, known as the Bird Man, loses his wife during childbirth; the son, Morgan, survives and is referred to as the Bird Boy. The father has the power to manipulate and control birds, and his son is also born with the same powers. Their land, a destitute place with mixed poverty and scores of abused Gypsies, is dominated by millions of birds.

"Seventeen years later came the strange and extravagant birds' nests, the heaps of sticks and bark and rocks like haystacks in the trees. Then the flicker of larks and sparrows, the profusion of mergansers, terns, auks, shorebirds, hummingbirds, ospreys, magpies, chickadees, blackbirds, bluebirds, orioles, buntings, grosbeaks, waxwings, warblers, mockingbirds, wrens, thrushes, juncos, coots, cuckoos, kingfishers, doves and owls, bending our branches and spattering the air with their songs as we pushed our baby strollers down the boulevards, we had so many children then, the cemeteries' tumult had gone silent. We had never given too much thought to birds until that Sunday on the Steps, when a pulsing flock of hoopoes blotted out the sun, a hundred thousand cardinals in the Square like a sea of dried blood. They overflowed our city in a day (Novy 18)."

The city is ruled by a despot named Judge Giggs. He lives with his family in opulence and controls the RedBlacks, a military/police force. When it's known that the birds can be controlled, Zvominir is "hired" to control the populations, even though he's often crassly mistaken for a Gypsy. The Judge's family is aware of his power: his son Mike, being trained as a RedBlack, is a dimwitted punk no better than the average high school bully. His youngest daughter, Katherine, is the most level headed, offended by her father's control and secretly attracted to Morgan. The family and political dynamics are dangerous, but oftentimes ludicrously silly. Even in the face of extremes, the novel's narrator is always ready with an aside or a random observation that lends an air of thoughtfulness to the destitution and power struggles.

"A group of RedBlacks stood guard by the high stone gate of the Giggs house, surrounded by thousands of giant and laconic birds of prey, confident and taut in their power, like the Judge himself. They may have chosen his house because of him, though perhaps we only think that to inject coherent themes into the nothing of the everything (Novy 37)."


The Bird Man and the Bird Boy perform elaborate shows with the birds, controlling them into shapes, performances, and, in some instances, weapons. When some of his favorite birds are killed, Morgan finds himself at odds with his father and part of a revolution. He teams up with a Gypsy girl named Jane, secretly engaging in acts of violence against the persecution. This leads to secrecy, defiance, a love triangle between himself, Katherine, and Jane, a murder, and escalating double crosses from people on both sides of the war. The violence depicted is brutal, but never gratuitous; there are so many passages when one expects Novy to unleash a firestorm of stomach-clenching details, but it never becomes as intense as expected. However, this makes the violence that much more intense. The scenes he does share are terrible, but only hints at what more is happening behind the camera, so to speak:

"Shrugging, the soldiers struck the Swedes with their gun-butts, wrestled them onto their stomachs and kicked them, emptied their pockets of lint, debris, rags, calling them Gypsies, pickpockets, thieves, accusing them of stealing, subversion, black magic, spells to dupe the charitable, well-meaning populace, stomping on their knees and their ankles and their softer parts as Zvominir begged for Morgan's life, even as the soldiers picked the boy up by his feet, dangling him upside down to shake loose any contraband he might've swiped as he trawled through the suburbs with their charitable millionaires so naive to a Gypsy beggar's wiles; tore off the rags of Morgan's shoes and searched them, ransacked his body and squeezed his prostate, and his father's...(Novy 57)."

There are a seemingly equal number of beautiful passages, too. Novy's descriptions of the bird shows are stunning, and he creates some of the most visually compelling imagery. Even as the novel progresses down darker paths, passages like the one below pop up, and they are truly awe-inspiring:

"Morgan used ring-billed gulls for Katherine's face, cardinals for freckles and chiaroscuro hawks, curlews for her hair--their red bending beaks broke the picture-plane, illustrating wind--eyes of green ducks and raven-colored pupils, the shadow of her nose a parallelogram of plovers, nightingales, and parakeets for pigment, every bird a spot within a massive field of color-clusters, which all made Katherine Giggs. We know he selected birds for their brilliance, a repertory company of colors. We would like to show you Katherine's face, but we can't see it for ourselves, a madman sought her portraits and destroyed them (Novy 214)."


So far, these passages are stressing the balance between magic and horror in The Avian Gospels, but in hindsight, Novy never makes anything as simple as it seems. The novel's heroes have terrible habits and impulses, and the villains are sometimes presented in a sympathetic light. For example, the Judge is a monster, but there are stories of a personal loss that don't absolve him from his tyranny, but at least add some complexity to his dominance. Morgan wants to do good, but he's prone to lashing out and alienating the people close to him. He's young and selfish, and sometimes unable to see the bigger picture. This personality forms the basis for what was probably my favorite line in the novel, assuming I had to pick one of many: "The only thing I care about is birds, Morgan said, I'm a patriot to nothing but the sky (Novy 233)." These dual natures snowball, and as the novel concludes, the rampage and unexpected actions and deaths are nothing short of biblical. The Avian Gospels has probably the most depressing, abrupt ending in contemporary fiction, but somehow, it's oddly fitting. Nobody is truly redeemed, and the aftermath of the aftermath, left to the imagination, is probably more staggering that was was presented in the pages.

Adam Novy is almost frighteningly talented. There are so many young writers who could attempt a novel like this and end up creating an overwrought melodrama. Novy, however, makes the themes explicit and lets the reader make his or her own judgement. There are countless moral dilemmas, but the author never shows his hand to subconsciously make the reader think one way or another. And in a way, The Avian Gospels rides on the strength of both its prose and the conflicts. There are many examples of nature vs. infrastructure, peace vs. violence, family vs. country, and the obvious life vs. death. Are Zvominir and Morgan prophets, or merely humans caught up in their singular ability to manipulate a force of nature? And, to keep the idea of opposites intact, I believe The Avian Gospels is a combination of classic and contemporary. Novy blends ideas as old as humanity with experimental flourishes that eliminate any true sense of time and space, and in doing so, has created a work that can illuminate and compare to so many events and struggles. This novel is ambitious in so many ways, but manages to be a rollicking adventure through these complex questions. I very highly recommend this to anyone who ever claims there's nothing out there to read.

Work Cited:
Novy, Adam. The Avian Gospels. Copyright 2010, 2013 by Adam Novy.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

A Zone of Insensibility: Jonathan Crary's "24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends Of Sleep"


In addition to being very interested in its subject matter, I recently read Jonathan Crary's 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep with increased determination after stumbling upon a book that is the exact opposite. As a bookseller, one of the joys of early morning shelving is skimming the books being put away, and as I do this, I tend to spend half the time making mental notes and the other half scoffing. Rarely has a book made me pause out of fear, but a few weeks ago, I saw a copy of Unconscious Branding by Douglas Van Praet. Of course, I'm committing the sin of judging a book by the cover, but I don't think I can be blamed for doing this. The cover image shows a woman with her eyes closed, possibly sleeping, with bar codes under both of her eyes. The subtitle is "How Neuroscience Can Empower (and Inspire) Marketing." Yes, technological advances are always developing and expanding; I'm not trying to come across like a cranky Luddite. But the idea of scientific advances for marketing/financial gain is terrifying to me. Without going into any discussion of the recent NSA revelations, everyone has at least a vague idea of how algorithms and unseen data mining are being used for the sake of marketing and commerce. The central theme of Crary's book shows that sleep is being considered a nuisance in the wake of nonstop capitalism. A human function and necessity that shouldn't even be questioned is being circumvented and chipped away in the name of filling every available moment with a chance to sell or add to the infinite collection of branding. This book, classified as philosophy in my bookstore, isn't an everyday screed against big capitalism and corporate dominance. It takes its title seriously, offering sobering examples of how sleep isn't taken into account in the dizzying world of global markets.

This book isn't presented from an angle of scaremongering, but with sober, detailed examples of the hypothesis. Military research studies of a species of bird are done to determine how to make humans (workers/soldiers) eliminate the bodily need for sleep. There are no timetables for when these developments could come to pass, nor does Crary claim it's right around the corner. His style is more focused on the fact that these kinds of researches are being done with the hope of them coming true. There's no scaremongering because it simply isn't needed; the examples alone do all the work.

"The sleeplessness research should be understood as one part of a quest for soldiers whose physical capabilities will more closely approximate the functionalities of non-human apparatuses and networks. There are massive ongoing efforts by the scientific-military complex to develop forms of 'augmented cognition' that will enhance many kinds of human-machine interaction. Simultaneously, the military is also funding many other areas of brain research, including the development of an anti-fear drug. There will be occasions when, for example, missile-armed drones cannot be used and death squads of sleep-resistant, fear-proofed commandos will be needed for missions of indefinite duration. As part of these endeavors, white-crowned sparrows have been removed from the seasonal rhythms of the Pacific coast environment to aid in the imposition of a machinic model of duration and efficiency onto the human body (Crary 3)."

Of course, times change. Humans engage in different activities, there are more opportunities to engage in various media outlets, and the digital revolution means that access to information and connection is always within one's reach. But before this century, sleep was an afterthought, except for people with sleeping problems. Now, there's the ever-nerve wracking idea that those precious hours are precious not for respite, regeneration, and cognitive means, but as a series of hours that could be engaged in some form of capitalist outlet. Crary mentions people waking up to check e-mail or the internet--I think everyone has done this out of habit, with a cell phone on the nightstand. But the idea of sleep as another social aspect, a part of our lives that can be broken down, into, or otherwise manipulated, is clarified.

"The huge portion of our lives that we spend asleep, freed from a morass of simulated needs, subsists as one of the great human affronts to the voraciousness of contemporary capitalism. Sleep is an uncompromising interruption of the theft of time from us by capitalism. Most of the seemingly irreducible necessities of human life--hunger, thirst, sexual desire, and recently the need for friendship--have been remade into commodified or financialized forms. Sleep poses the idea of a human need and interval of time that cannot be colonized and harnessed to a massive engine of profitability, and thus remains an incongruous anomaly and site of crisis in the global present (Crary 10-11)."


This keeps making me come back to my initial reaction to the Van Praet book--the woman on the cover could very well be sleeping, therefore adding a visual element to Crary's ideas. He doesn't write about physical means of harnessing data or statistics while we sleep, but there's an uneasy feeling that these capabilities are not too far away, along the same lines of the military studies on reducing the need for sleep. But the whole concept of 24/7, while tied with sleep, is a philosophical/cultural notion of itself, of a world and money never stopping, and therefore putting everyday citizens within its control. The notion of communal access to widespread information seems democratic at its core, but as Crary explains, this isn't the case. The powerful will want and get access to the information they need, even if its solely in the name of dollar signs. Because this is through digital means, it gives new meaning to the adage of "large, faceless corporations."

"For the vast majority of people, our perceptual and cognitive relationship to communication and information technology will continue to be estranged and disempowered because of the velocity at which new products emerge and at which arbitrary reconfigurations of entire systems take place. This intensified rhythm precludes the possibility of becoming familiar with any given arrangement. Certain cultural theorists insist that such conditions can easily be the basis for neutralizing power, but actual evidence supporting this view is non-existent (Crary 37)."

The above citation shows the strengths and weakness of Crary's writings. He can present complex ideas and make them logical without stooping or dumbing down the material, but many passages end in a similar thread. As a reader, I want evidence of "the actual evidence supporting this view." There are citations in the back of the book, but at times, there are so many ideas that almost demand concrete evidence. For me, it doesn't take away from his overall thesis, but these are the kinds of dead ends that critics can leap on and offer counterpoints to, potentially with statements like "evidence supporting this view does exist." This might be a weak example, but in today's age of intense, divisive opinions on where the world is going, it doesn't take much for a critic or someone desperate to shake a finger at someone's opinion to jump on this kind of wording. But Crary saves himself quite often by offering details explanations of other theorists and ideas that relate to the concept of 24/7 dominance.

"The everyday was the vague constellation of spaces and times outside what was organized and institutionalized around work, conformity, and consumerism. It was all the daily habits that were beneath notice, where one remained anonymous. Because it evaded capture and could not be made useful, it was seen by some to have a core of revolutionary potential. For Maurice Blanchot, its dangerous essence was that it was without event, and was both unconcealed and unperceived. In French, the adjective 'quotidienne' evokes more strikingly the ancient practice of marking and numbering the passing of the solar day, and it emphasizes the diurnal rhythms that were long a foundation of social existence. But what [other philosophers] also described in the 1950s was the intensifying occupation of everyday life by consumption, organized leisure, and spectacle. In this framework, the rebellions of the late 1960s were, at least in Europe and North America, waged in part around the idea of reclaiming the terrain of everyday life from institutionalization and specialization (Crary 70)."

As I mentioned before, he never lapses into personal opinions. He lets the ideas, whether his own or someone else's, flourish and stand on their own. 24/7 is a slim title that easily could have been doubled in size with meandering. What amazes me is how much information and how many ideas are packed into less than two hundred pages. This also leaves no space for an afterword or a summary of how people can stop or evade the 24/7 complex. Had he done this, it would have pushed the book into the pile of political and sociological books that cast blame or claim to have all the answers. By merely presenting how the world is changing and adapting, it's enough for readers to come to their own conclusions that some capitalist mindsets are scary and dangerous. Overall, we need to cling to the hours spent devoted to sleep--every other waking hour has been commercialized, and for the sake of what it means to be human, solitude and evasion of outside influences is imperative. There are other books that approach these same issues, but Crary outlines the ideas in ways even the most conscious citizens haven't realized. As technology grows, we need more reminders of our intangible natures, free from cash, exploitation, and data.

Work Cited:
Crary, Jonathan. 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep. Copyright 2013 by Jonathan Crary.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

A Stasis Of Secrets: Matt Bell's "In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods"


Even before the publication of his debut novel, it was hard to imagine what else writer Matt Bell was capable of doing. His short stories are diverse, often complex studies of religion, history, and interactions, freely moving themselves in and out of a variety of genres. 2012's Cataclysm Baby took this even further. It's a small novella packed with creepy, post-apocalyptic and/or historical stories by twenty-six fathers beset by mutated, demonic offspring. The recent release of In The House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods was preceded by a stunning array of praise, so much that anyone unfamiliar with Bell's work would likely lump it into the "over-hyped" category. Booksellers and writers took to social media after reading their advanced copies and called it the best novel of 2013. Publisher's Weekly featured the novel on a previous cover issue. And Soho Press, the publisher, took out a full-page ad in Harper's. As I wrote in my review of Cataclysm Baby, I almost wish that Bell would write a poor story or piece of fiction; as much as I support and admire him, I wouldn't be afraid to constructively criticize a piece of his that I found lacking. However, I recently finished In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods, and my assessment is pretty much the same as everyone else: this is really one of the best books of 2013, and on top of that, it's one of the most original pieces of fiction in recent memory.

I say this as someone who doesn't read much fantasy/fabulist/magical realist fiction, but In The House Upon.... is a stunning, contemporary fable, and works along the same lines as shorter, classical fables: it tells so much with such basic information, and allows Bell the room to create a staggering array of possibilities. The story centers on a recently married couple: the wife is unable to birth a son (or any child), and the husband, a fisherman/hunter, grows increasingly angry and grave. The wife has magical powers through the strength of her songs, the ability to create and conjure anything except the child. There are miscarriages, false hopes, and disappointments. The husband begins to spend an increasing amount of time outside.

"My wife frowned but did not deny me, for in those days we refused each other nothing. She created and created, and when I could not abide any more of her objects--shapes meant for a once-expected childhood, now only mocking, robbed of any right utility--then I began to take more of my hours outside the house I had built, inhabiting instead the lake and the woods, whose strange failings could not be laid so squarely upon my deeds, nor the body of my wife (Bell 16-17)."

In the process, the husband becomes the host of a fingerling--a spirit/entity, representing a lost child, swimming throughout his body and speaking to him. In a sense, the fingerling represents his darker thoughts, his doubts, and the urges he seeks to repress:

"I circled round behind the house, and there I discovered the garden already unmade, its dank sod overturned, the many buried objects of baby raising now ripped anew from its earth so that they might be reinstalled in the house, each useful at last.

And then to have to look back at the house I had built, filled now with what I had not.

To have to listen to the fingerling say, I TOLD YOU SO, I TOLD YOU SO TOLD YOU SO.

To have to have him be right, and yet to not yet know what that meant (Bell 37)."

As time passes, the husband notices a large, menacing bear around the property, and the wife finally has a baby. However, the husband doesn't approve of the child and doesn't believe that it is truly his own offspring. He names the child "the foundling," and his interactions with him are either nonexistent or grim. This isn't just a case of absent or unwilling parenting--along with the voice of the fingerling, the husband finds himself in a complex, mystical game between his wife, the child, and increasingly, the bear. Bell's writing manages to go down two very different paths at once: it relies on what appears to be simplistic storytelling, the kind found in historical fables and fairy tales, but at the same time, like those tales, there is so much happening. The metaphors come slyly and forcefully. The father's narration is sometimes uncomfortable.

"For that foundling, our false son, my wife and I played at parenting together, and in those early years we learned him in the ways of our family, and also the first four of the elements, dirt and house and lake and woods: Cross-legged upon the fur-covered floor, we told him what we had been taught, that those four aspects were all we were--but then my wife said there was another, a fifth, and that this element was called mother, that it was her mothering that made the foundling, more so than any other. I thought this to be a lie but said nothing, kept silent my concern at her greedy deception--and then as I withdrew I came as well to discern elements previously unknown (Bell 41)."


The synopsis above and the cited passage could be viewed as spoilers by readers whom have read the novel. However, even while hinting at the looming outcomes, it says nothing while, in hindsight, saying much. These dynamics hold steady for several pages before stunning revelations and further plot developments arise, including a mysterious world both similar and different from the house upon the dirt to the father's communication with the bear and the ability to take other forms. Bell highlights these fantastical developments by playing with the novel's format. Some chapters are barely a page long, and others are broken up by stanzas and brief, staccato paragraphs. The mysteries and forms sometimes reminded me of a nineteenth-century novel written by experimental writer Blake Butler. I'm not alone in noting thematic similarities between Bell and other writers; Brooklyn-based writer Tobias Carroll said In The House... reminded him of Angela Carter and Cormac McCarthy. However, Bell isn't copying anyone else. It's unique writing that wonderfully evokes what has come before it.

"And in this room: The voice of the foundling as I had rarely heard it, as he talked to my wife when they were alone. A voice high and eloquent, curious and questioning, so different from the silence that blanked his wild face whenever I appeared.

And in this room: the number of times my wife hurt the foundling, even accidentally. A number so close to zero.

And in this room, the number of times the foundling touched me without fear, counted up and counted through, each enumeration instanced, made distinct. Here was the foundling, wiggling his tiny fingers in his crib.
Here him clutching my then-offered finger, here him putting that finger into his mouth, biting hard (Bell 118)."

There is really no tidy way to summarize this book, or to place it in any true time period. There are elements of history, but also no real references beside the house, the woods, or the lake, save for the mysterious place resembling them. At times, I found myself imagining the family as an isolated frontier settlement, but there are references to a watch and photographs. The novel doesn't need a definitive place or setting--again, like other fairy tales, the emphasis is on the immediate happenings, morals, and identities. Also, there are so many themes to consider that it sometimes becomes delightfully overwhelming--to name a few, Bell writes about family, marriage, parenting, masculinity, humanity's relationship to nature, and the consequences of assuming new forms and identities. The reader will also find him or herself amazed at some of the sentences. As Bell as consistently proved, his writing and imagery are beautiful and rife with layers. In this novel, there are so many unique paragraphs and sentences worth underlining and quoting. The passages I've shared in this review are for context, and I haven't even come close to highlighting my favorites:

"The days were thieves, and the happier ones the worst, their distractions allowing the hours to pass unnoticed, allowing the minutes to be snatched away without knowledge of their passing (Bell 57)."

And this passage below has been shared countless times via social media, with emphasis on its killer final line:

"That was the question I worried at, that I gnawed at like a bone, a cast-off rib too stubborn to share its marrow. And when at last that bone broke, what truth escaped its fracture, was by it remade: for even our bones had memories, and our memories bones (Bell 26)."

I very nearly didn't write this review, since so many other outlets and readers have shared much more eloquent assessments of the text. Also, having followed Bell on Twitter and Facebook, he's allowed people to share glimpses of the creative journey, from outlines to excerpts to last week's publication. But In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods truly is one of the best reading experiences I've had, and writers like Bell are showing glorious new avenues for the novel, a constantly eulogized format. If anything, I hope that someone stumbles upon this review and decides to pick up a copy. I've spent years writing about old and new literature, and this is one of the best works for someone to buy or check out on a whim and be vastly entertained by great fiction. As I mentioned in regard to Cataclysm Baby, there are so many books and writers worthy of being discovered and enjoyed by newer, bigger audiences. In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods is not only no exception, but a shining example of this.

Work Cited:
Bell, Matt. In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods. Copyright 2013 by Matt Bell.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Older, Wiser: A Delayed Appreciation Of Flannery O'Connor's "Wise Blood"



A few weeks ago, I reviewed Ramona Ausubel's A Guide To Being Born, and in the review, I had to offer an apology. Two years ago, I read and dismissed one of her stories, only to read it again and be enthralled. The change in my reading skills and styles always changes for the better as I get older, and I feel a strange disconnect between who I am now, and the kinds of books I read (and the quality of my critical readings) years ago. Of course, I'm being very harsh on myself--everyone goes through adjustments, changes in taste, and develops a better eye with more learning and much more reading. However, I'm still on my little self-critical soapbox. During the summer before my senior year in high school, one of the required books was Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood. I have some memories of reading it and coming to a seventeen year-old assessment that it was "weird." I've owned the book since then (part of an out-of-print trilogy of her work, including Everything That Rises Must Converge and The Violent Bear It Away, both of which are on my list). It's graced several bookshelves and book piles from Chicago to Seattle back to Chicago and in various apartments. However, it was only recently that I decided to give it another look, and I'm still amazed. O'Connor's strikingly modern prose, her scary, unrepeatable characters, and her intense looks at philosophy and religious fervor are just as fresh now as they were in 1952. Of course, I'm not even close to being the same reader at thirty that I was at seventeen. However, I'm shocked that I wasn't even remotely as hooked as I should have been. I can't imagine that anything I think about Wise Blood hasn't been thought or written countless times, but I want to do so anyway. In a way, this is a celebration of my growth, and a meaningful apology to a writer who died nineteen years before I was born.

Wise Blood follows the humorous and grotesque interactions of Hazel Motes, a World War II veteran determined to start an atheist movement of The Church Without Christ. His dark clothes and hat give people the assumption that he's an actual preacher, and he comes from a lineage of holy men ("His grandfather had been a circuit preacher, a waspish old man who had ridden over three counties with Jesus hidden in his head like a stinger"). After shacking up with a prostitute, he meets the acquaintance of a crazed zookeeper named Enoch Emery. Enoch, despite his nonstop attempts, fails to forge any kind of friendship with Hazel, who keeps rebuffing him. The obsession is very likely a repressed attraction, and the two men's personalities bounce off each other. This is evident even in the most basic dialogues, and Enoch's fascination/obsession becomes more disturbing than Hazel's steely resolve to be left alone with his goals.

"'I'll look after him,' Enoch Emery said, pushing in by the policeman. 'He ain't been here but only two days. I'll look after him.'

'How long you been here?' the cop asked.

'I was born and raised here,' Enoch said. 'This is my ol' home town. I'll take care of him for you. Hey wait!' he yelled at Haze. 'Wait on me!' He pushed out of the crowd and caught up with him. 'I reckon I saved you that time,' he said.

'I'm obliged,' Haze said.

'It wasn't nothing,' Enoch said. 'Whyn't we go in Walgreen's and get us a soda? Ain't no night clubs open this early.'

'I don't like drug stores,' Haze said. 'Good-by.'

'That's all right,' Enoch said. 'I reckon I'll go along and keep you company for awhile (O'Connor 22-23)."

Enoch and Hazel meet Asa, a corrupt, blind preacher and his innocent daughter, Lily. As a reader will quickly assume, their public personas are lies--Asa isn't blind, and Lily is very sexually confident, leading to a series of sexual tensions and games between her and Hazel. Enoch, consumed with the idea of "wise blood" and being more noble than he really is, takes it upon himself to serve Hazel, and eventually his "church." All of these characters and their missions lead to a series of mishaps, some that are natural plot progressions, and some that seem to come from nowhere. Enoch, despite being a supporting character, drives the developments with his creepy obsession. He steals a mummy that he hopes will be an idol or prophet for Hazel's mission; this mummy eventually causes the biggest clash between Hazel and Lily. Hazel's preaching gains no attention or followers, until another corrupt preacher appears out of the blue, claiming to the crowds that Hazel has "saved" him.

"'Then I met this Prophet here,' he said, pointing at Haze on the nose of his car. 'That was two months ago, folks, that I heard how he was out to save me, how he was preaching the Church of Christ Without Christ, the church that was going to get a new jesus to help me bring my sweet nature into the open where ever'body could enjoy it. That was two months ago, friends, and now you wouldn't know me for the same man. I love ever'one of you people and I want you to listen to him and me and join our church, the Holy Church of Christ Without Christ, the new church with the new jesus, and then you'll all be helped like me!'

Haze leaned forward. 'This man is not true,' he said. 'I never saw him before tonight. I wasn't preaching this church two months ago and the name of it ain't the Holy Church of Christ Without Christ (O'Connor 77-78)!'"



I'm trying to tread carefully in my plot summaries--while the statute of limitations on spoilers has passed, each of the developments and characters are so ripe for analyzing and quoting that virtually every one is worthy of multiple essays on their symbolism and personalities. Also, a summary without context wouldn't hint to half of what truly happens. For example, the gorilla scene, which leads to Enoch's final, desperate acts, is one of the more unique scenes in literature, and is only truly appreciated and understood in the context of how Enoch gets to his current point. The scene is exactly what I described as "weird" in high school, and today, I'd describe it as "weird" in a positive way. It's suspenseful and absurd at the same time, as Enoch is driven to madness, not out of religious or anti-religious desperation, but out of an insult by a man in a gorilla suit.

"There were only two children in front of him by now. The first one shook hands and stepped aside. Enoch's heart was beating violently. The child in front of him finished and stepped aside and left him facing the ape, who took his hand with an automatic motion.

It was the first hand that had been extended to Enoch since he had come to the city. It was warm and soft.

For a second he only stood there, clasping it. Then he began to stammer. 'My name is Enoch Emery,' he mumbled. 'I attended the Rodemill Boys' Bible Academy. I work at the city zoo. I seen two of your pictures. I'm only eighteen year old but I already work for the city. My daddy made me com...' and his voice cracked.

The star leaned slightly forward and a change came in his eyes: an ugly pair of human ones moved closer and squinted at Enoch from behind the celluloid pair. 'You go to hell,' a surly voice inside the ape-suit said, low but distinctly, and the hand was jerked away.

Enoch's humiliation was so sharp and painful that he turned around three times before he realized which direction he wanted to go in. Then he ran off into the rain as fast as he could (O'Connor 92-93)."

In the end, Hazel opts for a drastic action that, despite its hinting at a serious mental illness, proves his conviction to his cause. It leads to him being subjected to yet another con, which then turns into a hazy, strangely genuine death, as he suffers for his personal shortcomings and sins. When the novel concludes, the reader is swamped with almost too much sensory and tangible information to process. A simple "What is the moral of this story?" is almost an insult to ask, since O'Connor leads us down so many paths. Religion and its negative effects is an overriding part of the narrative, and I can only imagine the backlash it received. In a way, the novel shows how any fundamentalism, from extreme religious belief to extreme distancing from religious beliefs, can have harmful outcomes for an individual, and therefore society at large. Corruption in various forms is so rampant that the reader becomes jaded, insofar as any emergence of a new, minor character toward the end immediately puts us him or her on alert, since a con or some form of violence is likely near. All of the characters have their own innate views of salvation, even if said salvation is some grotesque, surreal closure. Hazel is at odds with the world, and even the most basic actions exasperate him. Early in the book, the simple act of buying a cheap car puts him up against two strange characters selling the automobile.

"He bought the car for forty dollars and then he paid the man extra for five gallons of gasoline. The man had the boy go in the office and bring out a five-gallon can of gas to fill up the tank with. The boy came cursing and lugging the yellow gas can, bent over almost double. 'Give it here,' Haze said, 'I'll do it myself.' H was in a terrible hurry to get away in the car. The boy jerked the can away from him and straightened up. It was only half full but he held it over the tank until five gallons would have spilled out slowly. All the time he kept saying, 'Sweet Jesus, sweet Jesus, sweet Jesus.'

'Why don't he shut up?' Haze said suddenly. 'What's he keep talking like that for?'

'I don't never know what ails him,' the man said and shrugged (O'Connor 37)."

There are so many small subtexts as well, as Wise Blood truly demands multiple readings. While flipping through after my reading, I discovered this passage:

"Hawks kept his door bolted and whenever Haze knocked on it, which he did two or three times a day, the ex-evangelist sent his child out to him and bolted the door again behind her. It infuriated him to have Haze lurking in the house, thinking up some excuse to get in and look at his face; and he was often drunk and didn't want to be discovered that way.

Haze couldn't understand why the preacher didn't welcome him and act like a preacher should when he sees what he believes in a a lost soul (O'Connor 74)."

Haze rebuffs and dismisses every shred of Christianity and religion, yet feels confused when salvation isn't offered to him. Of course, Hawks is hiding a big secret, and Lily's presence in the sexual dynamic is a delicate balance in the power struggle between her father and Haze. Haze is new to sex, but not inexperienced; he knows that sleeping with Lily right away will give Hawks the upper hand, even though he knows he's a con man. In a way, Enoch is the least corrupt of the characters. He's very likely bipolar, he's alienating, yet tries to be pure in his own misguided way. Mrs. Flood, Haze's landlady at the end, schemes a plan to steal from him, yet ends up with her own form of peace and salvation. Long studies of even the most minor characters could take up several pages. Getting even a simple grasp on them is complicated.

However, with all these forms of symbolism and sociology, Wise Blood is a fantastically entertaining novel. Without resorting to stereotypes, it explores the Southern relationship to religion in a way that sociologists and historians could likely glean major parallels between sects and actual preachers and the way religion permeates the book as a whole. Corruption and dishonesty are expected from leaders, but O'Connor doesn't go for obvious examples or actions. Even from the start, the reader has an idea that unsavory ends are going to meet the characters, but the climaxes come in very unique ways. In the end, we have to wonder who is truly saved or at peace when the novel reaches its end. This very well may be one of my more scattered book pieces, but I kept thinking about so many of the nuances and imagery that O'Connor kept putting into the text. There is so much that I missed in my early reading years ago, and today, this has taken a place as one of my favorite novels ever. I'm very excited to read Everything That Rises Must Converge and The Violent Bear It Away. I have a tendency to state reading goals that don't always come to pass, but I'll be finishing this trilogy, hopefully by the end of the summer. I have no ideas or synopses of the other two books, but I'm eager to see what else O'Connor's works can do. Wise Blood 's imagery is going to stay with me for awhile, and the fact that this is a debut novel is even more astounding. I hope I've somewhat atoned for my high school transgression.

Work Cited:
O'Connor, Flannery. Wise Blood. Copyright 1962 by Flannery O'Connor.