Thursday, February 28, 2013

Conduits of Emotion: Amelia Gray's "AM/PM"

With all due respect to Amelia Gray, I stumbled upon her writings in my usual fashion: while researching literary magazines, I read and loved several of her flash pieces, and I've seen her name promoted through the usual mentions on social media sites. I was very curious to read one of her published collections, so I made a point to snag AM/PM, Gray's 2009 story collection (or is it a novella? Perhaps a novella-in-stories?), based on its publication by Featherproof Books, one of the most impressive independent publishers in Chicago. It's one of the more deceptive books I've read in awhile. It's a very slim volume that could almost be mistaken for a chapbook, and it can be read fairly quickly in one sitting, as I did a few weeks ago. However, I kept thinking about its characters and careful mix of keen relationship observations and explorations of personal identities, and I found it necessary to read again. Upon this second reading, I found myself torn between classifying it as a story collection or a novella, and I also found myself drawn to different passages than the ones that initially jumped out at me. I wish I had the time to re-read longer works, but a small gem like AM/PM can be read dozens of times and still manage to reveal some great passages. It's a great sign when a small work can evoke just as many feelings and questions as a long form novel and demands constant attention.

Also, I believe it's the kind of book that can't be explicitly "reviewed," since it's such an aesthetic experience with no concrete plots or inherent climaxes. It is set in alternating chapters ("AM" and "PM") and focuses on the lives and relationships of characters the reader only knows on a first named basis. I'll start with citations of the first two chapters. This will give you an idea of the layout, as well as the kinds of themes and actions that are presented throughout. The beauty of these pieces is that a potential reader will get a feel for Gray's style, but still have no clue what else is in store throughout.

"AM 1: Terrence cannot think of a job position with more weight in the title than lifeguard. 'Firefighter' simply describes. 'Pastor' makes little sense, outside of a treatment for meat in Mexico. Usually pork. However, 'lifeguard' carries with it a great deal of gravity which many might consider unearned by the lanky youths typically found atop most lifeguard stands. Terrence offers himself as a humble exception to the rule: out of shape and in full awareness of the importance of his position.
Three bathers prepare to enter the water. Terrence watches very closely from his stand, his red rescue buoy strapped across his lap. They are three women in thick one-piece suits. The pocked texture on their upper thighs is visible from fifty feet. They hold hands like girls and jump, shrieking, and Terrence holds his breath with them until all three surface, blissfully unaware of the risks they take when they place their blind faith in that water (Gray)."

"2 PM: There is a poetry to the wasted life, but little beauty. The poetry to an empty bed is beauty, Charles recognizes, and there is a poetry to the second hand of the clock, which is a kind of beauty, but the only beauty in the wasted life is of efficiency, and grace, and a complete knowledge of a small portion of the world. Charles recognizes the grace of a trip to the store. He feels the efficiency in slipping the same type of milk into the same place in the refrigerator door, between the pickles and the mayonnaise. Charles accepts the knowledge of the second hand (Gray)."

The ideas presented in these sentences--identity, work, routines--are just a small sample. Further into AM/PM, there are explorations of sexuality, relationships, and friendship. These might seem like typical fodder for pieces of flash fiction (or really, any kind of story), but Gray does a lot of digging to present minute details, and sometimes the pieces are surreal. Some of the chapters present conversations between Charles and Terrence (it's merely coincidental that they appear in the chapters I cited above), while they sit together in a box. Gray writes these chapters in such a way that the box could be metaphorical or strangely literal. Even after my two readings, it wasn't until I started writing this piece that I gave concrete thought to the box. I was caught up in the chapters to the point that the box was just there and can be read both ways. This might seem like I'm reading far too much into such a small aspect, but the dual natures of the box are excellent metaphors in themselves for the rest of AM/PM. Even in Gray's most surreal prose, the reader can be forgiven for not questioning the shifts.

"AM 17: It was still dark, but Terrence's eyes adjusted enough that he could sense the movement of his hand before his face. 'Charles,' he said. 'I believe we are in a small box.'
'Indeed,' Charles said, from the darkness. Terrence judged him to be about five feet away, but when he reached his arm out, he touched Charles's knee, which startled them both. The knee was cold and hairy. Charles's knee made Terrence more nervous than the existence of the small box.
He leaned back and startled again when he touched the soft walls of the box. The thick velvet felt deep enough to sing his fingers into, but he didn't want to know what was down there and instead let his hand rest on the surface.
Terrence considered the letter he would write to his girlfriend when he was free. He thought fondly of the time they ate cotton candy until she vomited (Gray)."

Gray's writing does so much in such small confines, but she never delivers any concrete answers to the questions raised by the text. The characters make small developments, and there's a sense of drastic, looming changes and revelations, but as they break down, fall apart, and gain better sense of themselves, there's still no real closure, but the point isn't a tidy collection with fully rounded people ambling toward a happy ending. The reader discovers more and more about the people, but at the end, they are still just as mysterious and flawed. With all of these understandings piling up, Gray takes pleasure in unleashing moments of great humor. While I've stressed the complex character studies, there are more than a few moments of funny happenings and dialogues.

"108 PM: Carla stepped out of the dressing room and took a modest turn. 'How do I look?' she asked.
Hazel looked at her mother with a critical eye. The knot halter cut of the gown revealed her slender shoulders. The vibrant pink, which had looked a little young on the rack, added color to the woman's face. Carla looked in the mirror, put one bare foot forward, wiggled her hips a little.
'Mom,' Hazel said. 'you look like a brand new bitch.'
'Well, that's fine,' her mother said. 'I somewhat feel like a brand new bitch (Gray).'"

I'm very tempted to cite passages at random in addition to presenting them with analysis and context. There's such a variety in Gray's work, and rarely have I read one that practically begs to be read out loud to people in the vicinity. For everything the characters represent and go through, the reader can't lose sight of Gray's abilities as an artist as well as a storyteller. Quite a few of these pieces were published as flash fiction, and I'm constantly amazed by writers who have mastered the form. There are links between the characters' multiple chapters, but some of them stand alone as nearly perfect examples of standalone stories.

"AM 19: By then, the cats were used to the sound of construction next door. Carla hoped it would make the move easier for them, though she anticipated the startled cat noises, the wide eyes and that low groan like the sound a machine makes. This didn't help the prospect of the big move, of course. There were boxes that needed to be opened and checked for contents, and still more boxes that had to be created and filled with the last of it, including perishables, spillables, and the last of the glassware. Packing glassware in secret sounds more stressful than it is. With the newspaper softened by the humid air, it would be easy to wrap and pack her wine glasses without waking Andrew at all (Gray)."

As I've said so many times before, I'm adding Amelia Gray to an ever-growing list of writers whom I need to follow closely. She has other publications, including the 2012 novel Threats, and my feelings upon my two readings of AM/PM are akin to how I felt upon my first book-length readings of Matt Bell, Lindsay Hunter, and Amber Sparks. Gray is a serious artist who has done an amazing array of compact fictions, and I can only imagine what her novel-length writing accomplishes. To close on a painfully obvious, repetitive note, the chapters I've cited are only a sample of the remaining stories and ideas presented. The citations are the full chapters, so sharing more would take away from the full reading experience. For anyone who claims they don't have time to read, I present AM/PM: not only can it be consumed quickly, it provides an experience and selection that demands further attention. I'm absolutely positive that my future third reading will reveal even more sentences and ideas that I missed, and I'm thankful for Gray's work and its accomplishments.

Work Cited:
Gray, Amelia. AM/PM. Copyright 2009 by Amelia Gray.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

No Single Why: Dave Cullen's "Columbine"

Strangely, I remember the publication date of Dave Cullen's 2009 book Columbine. I was working for Borders, and the book was the best-selling title of the week. Unlike other heralded, anticipated titles, there was no excitement or earnest conversation when customers picked it up. It was a sadly necessary work that contained definitive information and explorations of an often misread and misinformed event in American history, much like the 2004 publication of the 9/11 Commission Report. Borders categorized Columbine in the "True Crime" section, which isn't technically wrong, but it seemed sorely out of place among the usual lurid examples of "murder/torture porn" mass market books that dominate most True Crime bibliographies. A co-worker of mine read it and recommended it highly, but it wasn't until this month that I finally got around to reading it. My book club's February topic was "True Crime," and I don't think I'm wrong in assuming that my group picked this book in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings in December. Personally, the images of that recent shooting kept weighing on my mind as I read Cullen's work, and therefore, I kept thinking about the effects of media, politics, and gut reactions. However, Columbine is generally pure journalism, going for the "hows" and "whys" rather than the author's opinions and judgement. Given the intensity and the ripple effects of the 1999 happenings, it's impossible to read it and not make comparisons. The Columbine shootings are no less horrific now than they were fourteen years ago. And in today's continuing debates over gun control and mental illness, it shows how the events are still all too contemporary and raises many questions.

In most of my reviews, I tend to reserve the second paragraph for a summary and synopsis, but the events of Columbine are so well-known that they need a full recap; also, the book itself is the best documentation available, but with emphasis on the build-up and the aftermath. On April 20th, 1999, Columbine students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold attempted to blow up their high school and shoot any remaining victims who attempted to flee the wreckage. Their homemade bombs didn't explode as planned, leading the two to enter the school and open fire. Before they committed suicide, they had killed twelve students, one teacher, and injured dozens of others. Cullen's writing style is reserved and journalistic, opening with an account of the prom ceremonies held the previous weekend, and then getting into the horrific details of the shooting. Some of the victims are explored with personal details of their lives. There is no hyperbole, no unnecessary dramatization, but rather a standard exploration of the events. Cullen is sensitive to every life affected by the massacre, but he engages in no emotional ploys or exploitation. For example, his characterization of teacher Dave Sanders (the only faculty fatality) is full of factual details, but he lets these details paint the picture without any assumptions.

"When someone crossed Dave Sanders, he responded with 'the look:' a cold, insistent stare. He used it one time on a couple of chatty girls in business class. They shut up momentarily, but went back to talking when he looked away. So he pulled up a chair right in front of them and conducted the rest of the class from that spot, staring back and forth at each girl until the bell rang (Cullen 21)."

The shooting is presented chronologically and fully detailed. Reading it is very uncomfortable, because, like any piece of good writing, the reader visualizes the events, and the imagination can add unsavory details to already traumatic happenings. This idea is essential as the aftermath unfolds, since police and media outlets were consistently fed misleading information and eyewitness testimony, since trauma and shock can lead to imagined details and assumed truths. Cullen's writing is based on complete research, yet the act of reading fills in any gaps. One can only imagine what it was like in the school during the actual unfolding.

"Nielson expected the shooter to arrive any moment now. But Eric was not following. He had been distracted. Deputy Gardner had pulled into the lot with lights flashing and siren blaring. Gardner had stepped out of his car, still confused about what he was walking into.

Eric opened fire. He got off ten rounds, all misses. Dylan did nothing.

Gardner took cover behind his police car. Eric didn't even hit that. Then his rifle jammed. Eric fought to clear the chamber. Dylan fled into the school.

Gardner saw his opening. He laid his pistol across the roof and squeezed off four shots. Eric spun around like he'd been hit. Neutralized, Gardner thought. What a relief.

Seconds later, Eric was firing again. It was a short burst; then he retreated inside.

It was 11:24. The outside ordeal lasted five minutes. Eric did most of the shooting. He fired his 9mm rifle forty-seven times in that period and did not use his shotgun. Dylan got off just three shots with the TEC-9 handgun and two with his shotgun.

They headed down the hallway to the library (Cullen 51)."

What makes Columbine so necessary is the staggering amount of false and conflicting information that was reported after it happened. The shooting happened when I was a freshman in high school, and I clearly remember the phrases that made their way into national and personal conversations in the weeks following: "goths," "Trench Coat Mafia," etc. Before setting records straight, Cullen explores the immediacy and necessity for the media to get reports of any kind out, especially in the hours following the shooting. This led to some sickening assumptions and acts: television reporters airing live calls with students trapped in the building, and engaging in rampant speculation. Of all the people involved in sorting out the events, I found FBI negotiator Dwayne Fuselier to be the most important and compelling. He became involved with the shootings on a personal and professional level. His son was in the building, but emerged unharmed. After, Fuselier conducted intense investigations and studies of Harris and Klebold over several years, trying to determine what drove them to their actions instead of relying on the gut reactions and categorizations of "good" and "evil." Even in the confusion, Fuselier arrived at the scene with as clear a head as anyone.

"Fuselier arrived at Columbine with one assumption: multiple gunmen demanded multiple tactics. Fuselier couldn't afford to think of his adversaries as a unit. Strategies likely to disarm one shooter could infuriate the other. Mass murderers tended to work alone, but when they did pair up, they rarely chose their mirror image. Fuselier knew he was much more likely to find a pair of opposites holed up in that building. It was entirely possible that there was no single why--and much more likely that he would unravel one motive for Eric, another for Dylan.

Reporters quickly keyed on the darker force behind the attack: this spooky Trench Coat Mafia. It grew more bizarre by the minute. In the first two hours, witnesses on CNN described the TCM as Goths, gays, outcasts, and a street gang. 'A lot of the time they'll, like, wear makeup and paint their nails and stuff,' a Columbine senior said. 'They're kind of--I don't know, like Goth, sort of, like, and they're like, associated with death and violence a lot.'

None of that would prove to be true. That student did not, in fact, know the people he was describing. But the story grew (Cullen 72)."

The above citation is crucial, since a large majority of Columbine is devoted to unraveling myths. The profiles of Harris and Klebold are of two vastly different psychopaths, in the literal definition. Harris was engaging and a masterful con artist, able to fool adults into thinking he'd changed after several run-ins with the law and some classmates. Klebold was intensely suicidal for years leading up to the massacre. Both boys came from generally good families and were bright. But through interviews (and viewings of the Basement Tapes left behind after their suicides), Cullen shows how they came together in one act for different reasons. Harris had delusional desires about making a mark on the world and eliminating people he deemed inferior; Klebold tagged along and grappled with his own psychological torments and feelings of insecurity. With these very human portraits, is Cullen absolving or forgiving the boys for their acts? Not at all. But it's a very real fact that psychological analysis is essential in regard to determining motives and reasons behind atrocious acts. One element of the current gun control debate is mental health. Stigmas about mental health are still persistent. Mass shootings and killings can't be boiled down to religious notions of good and evil. The human brain is complicated, and there are reasons and defects behind everything.

Cullen explores how religion in the very Christian areas of Colorado had good and bad roles in the aftermath. Some churches opened their doors to people seeking comfort and solace, whereas others, whether overtly or subconsciously, viewed the influx of people as a means of recruiting. There was also the complicated, exploited case of victim Cassie Bernall. The media jumped on the anecdote of her being killed because she professed to believing in god before being gunned down. Churches and citizens quickly held her up as a martyr even though eyewitness testimonies disprove the exchange. A girl who was shot and then asked about her belief was shunned by others believing she was just clamoring for the Cassie Bernall spotlight. Cassie's mother, wracked by grief, ended up writing a bestselling book about her daughter, and the line between healing and profiting was blurred.

"In July, the Wall Street Journal ran a prominent story titled 'Marketing a Columbine Martyr.' The publishing house was obscure, but Zimmerman had called in a team of heavy hitters. For public relations, the firm hired the New York team that had handled Monica Lewinsky's book. Publication was two months away, and [Cassie's mother] had already been booked for The Today Show and 20/20. The William Morris Agency was shopping the film rights around. (A movie was never made.) An agent there had sold book club rights to a unit of Random House. He said he was marketing 'virtually everything you can exploit--and I mean that in a positive way (Cullen 233).'"

Cullen's overall writing style is extremely strong. At first, I had issues with his casual vernacular (his preface stresses the differences between actual, documented dialogue and unverified, imagined conversations). He writes some scenes with an attempt to mimic the casual slang of late 1990s teenagers, but after while, I realized he wasn't doing this to distract. His style is giving visual and emotional immediacy to the dozens of outlying subplots, and as I've mentioned above, nothing in his writing is flippant or geared toward emotional pandering. After the chapters on the actual shooting, he alternates chapters between the victims and survivors, the shooters, and the authority figures. This style gives equal attention to every side of the story and aftermath. Obviously, the psychological and chronological profiles of Harris and Klebold are the most crucial, but the ripple effects are no less important. The phrase "healing process" often gets used casually in regard to shootings, but having it documented and tastefully explored is fascinating. I'm not going to use this review to explicitly link this study to my own views on gun control and the culture of violence. Cullen presents this case without personal asides or his own opinions. He devotes a brief section to the NRA's response to Columbine and its refusal to cancel its scheduled Colorado meeting. In his documentation, the NRA comes off as indignant to the pleas to postpone its meeting, and closes with a telling paragraph with a nod to the NRA's equivocal "olive branch."

"The group observed a moment of silence for the Columbine victims. It then proceeded with the welcome ceremony. Traditionally, the oldest and youngest attendees are officially recognized at that time. The youngest is typically a child. 'Given the unusual circumstances,'[then-NRA President Charlton] Heston announced that the tradition would be suspended this year (Cullen 212)."

There are many, many other angles I've left untouched: the histories of Harris and Klebold are complicated, detailed pages, and to conclude this review, I'm taking a note from Cullen's writing and not offering any revelations or closing arguments. The evidence and history are in the pages, and the reader can explore them any way he/she wants. I get a strong feeling that Cullen was aching to provide his own beliefs and sketches, but he wisely and bravely remains a reporter. He admits to his own mistakes and assumptions on the day of the shooting and uses Columbine to mark down the definitive account and to erase the myths and false reports that still seem to pass for public knowledge. Overall, this is a beautiful book in spite of its terrible, grisly origins. Unlike Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, this isn't a document that's half truth, half author creativity. It's a sadly necessary account of a turning point in American history with residual effects still being felt all too vividly.

Work Cited:
Cullen, Dave. Columbine. Copyright 2009 by Dave Cullen.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Victory Laps: "Tenth Of December" by George Saunders

I end up writing pieces about a good 99% of the books I read, yet I had to decide if it was worth the time to explore Tenth of December, the latest story collection by George Saunders. I adored the stories and ended up finishing the book in record time, so it's not a question of me not liking it. My reservation was due to the book being celebrated and reviewed to the point that I was convinced I couldn't add anything new to the already diverse conversations. However, I realized this feeling was silly. It's rare that a short story collection, especially one published so early in the new year, immediately takes hold as a candidate for one of the top books (Joel Lovell's New York Times profile all but guaranteed Saunders a place on the bestseller list, and for very good reason). Saunders has been revered in the literary world for quite some time, with several collections in print. The opening story, "Victory Lap," begins with a teenage debutante receiving callers. In a way, this newest publication is Saunders' debut to a much wider audience. And while this review might not add any new revelations or details, it will be a small admiration and addition to his much-deserved whirlwind.

Keeping with the trends of my favorite story collections, Saunders explores a variety of ideas and genres, with equal parts humor and somber reflection. Even in the most extreme, fantastical scenarios, the emphasis is on emotion and human reactions to a wide range of possibilities and happenings. The aforementioned "Victory Lap" starts with the interactions between a girl and men, yet takes a sharp detour into the life of her neighbor, a sheltered, over-parented boy who is faced with an escalating series of tough choices and reactions. The climax is hilarious and tense at the same time. The boy swears constantly in his own head and is in the middle of placing geodes in his family's yard (one of his many odd chores) when he has to come to the girl's rescue.

"He imagined the guy bending Alison in two like a pale garment bag while pulling her hair and thrusting bluntly, as he, Kyle, sat cowed and obedient, tiny railroad viaduct grasped in his pathetic babyish--
Jesus! He skipped over and hurled the geode through the windshield of the van, which imploded, producing an inward rain of glass shards that made the sound of thousands of tiny bamboo wind chimes.
He scrambled up the hood of the van, retrieved the geode.
Really? Really? You were going to ruin her life, ruin my life, you cunt-probe dick-munch ass-gashing Animal? Who's bossing who now? Gash-ass, jizz-lips, turd-munch--
He'd never felt so strong/angry/wild. Who's the man? Who's your daddy? What else must he do? To ensure that Animal did no further harm? You still moving, freak? Got a plan, stroke-dick? Want a skull gash on top of your existing skull gash, big man? You think I won't? You think I--
Easy, Scout, you're out of control.
Slow your motor down, Beloved Only.
Quiet. I'm the boss of me (Saunders 22-23)."

Saunders writes some stories set in suburban/rural settings, but the featured angst is not typical. The characters try to build their lives and make connections to their surroundings, often with unforeseen results and realizations. In "Sticks," a father builds figures for specific events and holidays. In the process, there's an overwhelming sense of futility and breakdowns. Saunders provides a terrific blend of physical and sensory details. The reader has to balance a sense of the visual and a sense of the intangible.

"We left home, married, had children of our own, found the seeds of meanness blooming also within us. Dad began dressing the pole on its side and spray-painted a rift in the earth. Mom died and he dressed the pole as Death and hung from the crossbar photos of Mom as a baby. We'd stop by and find odd talismans from his youth arranged around the base: army medals, theater tickets, old sweatshirts, tubes of Mom's makeup. One autumn he painted the pole bright yellow. He covered it with cotton swabs that winter for warmth and provided offspring by hammering in six crossed sticks around the yard. He ran lengths of string between the pole and the sticks, and taped to the string letters of apology, admissions of error, pleas for understanding, all written in a frantic hand on index cards. He painted a sign saying LOVE and hung it from the pole and another that said FORGIVE? and then he died in the hall with the radio on and we sold the house to a young couple who yanked out the pole and left it by the road on garbage day (Saunders 30)."

Until reading Tenth of December, I had no idea that Saunders wrote science fiction stories. There are two examples: "Escape From Spiderhead" and "The Semplica Girl Diaries." The former is a more standard science fiction narrative, but the complexity and philosophy are the true emphases, not the fantastical surroundings. In a futuristic prison, prisoners are the subjects of experiments and are given doses of medications that fully control moods and perceptions. Jeff, a prisoner, has controlled sex with two female inmates as a way to test medications that give the appearance of true love. He's then ordered to control the doses of a medication (DarkenfloxxTM) that gives the patient the most awful, lonely, harmful fears. Saunders explores a variety of questions and concerns and highlights the uneasy realization that experiments like these have actually happened, albeit in more "realistic" scenarios.

"The DarkenfloxxTM started flowing. Soon Heather was softly crying. Then was up and pacing. Then jaggedly crying. A little hysterical, even.

'I don't like this,' she said in a quaking voice.

Then she threw up in the trash can.

'Speak, Jeff,' Abnesti said to me. 'Speak a lot, speak in detail. Let's make something useful of this, shall we?'

Everything in my drip felt Grade A. Suddenly I was waxing poetic. I was waxing poetic re what Heather was doing, and waxing poetic re my feelings about what Heather was doing. Basically, what I was feeling was: Every human is born of man and woman. Every human, at birth, is, or at least has the potential to be, beloved of his/her mother/father. Thus every human is worthy of love. As I watched Heather suffer, a great tenderness suffused my body, a tenderness hard to distinguish from a sort of vast existential nausea; to wit, why are such beautiful beloved vessels made slaves to so much pain? Heather presented as a bundle of pain receptors. Heather's mind was fluid, and could be ruined (by pain, by sadness). Why? Why was she made this way? Why so fragile?

Poor child, I was thinking, poor girl. Who loved you? Who loves you (Saunders 69-70)?"

"The Semplica Girl Diaries" is science fiction in a very odd, unassuming manner. It's a diary kept by a struggling family man who only wants to provide the best for his family. He wins the lottery and has his yard remodeled for his daughter's birthday, complete with "Semplica Girls:" foreign girls strung together by brain wires to create decorative lawn ornaments. What Saunders carefully does is make this idea "normal" in the context of the story. It's a small piece of a larger puzzle, and while the notion is grotesque and absurd, the diary narrative doesn't put any extra emphasis on this, until necessary (the Semplica Girls become important figures in the sense of finances and family struggles). When Saunders returns to more "normal" plot structures, there's never a sense that he's showing off or attempting to inhabit too many genres. Every story in Tenth of December is linked by the connections made by people and the existential problems presented by these connections. Even when he does "show off," it's done for comedic effect. "My Chivalric Fiasco" is genuinely laugh-out-loud funny, telling the story of an affair engaged in by two workers at a Medieval Castle/Theme Park. When the reader digs away the hilarious veneer, what's visible is a story about honesty and secrets.

"Glimpsing Martha's Visage--which, though Merry, bore withal a Trace of some Dismal Memory (and I knew well what it was)--I grew, in spite of my recent good Fortune, somewhat Melancholy.

Noting this Change in my Disposition, Martha didst speak to be softly, in an Aside.

Martha: It's cool, Ted. I'm over it. Seriously, I mean it. Drop it.

O, that a Woman of such Enviable Virtue, who had Suffered so, would deign to speak to me in a Manner so Frank & Direct, consenting by her Words to keep her Disgrace in such bleak Confinement!

Martha: Ted. You okay?

To which I made Reply: Verily, I have not been Well, but Distracted & Remiss; but presently am Restored unto Myself, and hereby do make Copious Apology for my earlier Neglect with respect to Thee, dear Lady (Saunders 210)."

I haven't covered all of the stories, but as I'm wont to say, it would be tedious and pointless to give brief synopses and quotations of every piece. Without being sappy or pandering, the acclaim received by Tenth Of December is exciting for Saunders' recognition, but also for the short story itself. Outside of literary circles and journals, it's rare to see a short story collection hit the bestseller list and even sell out in certain bookstores (for a solid week, my store would sell the book just as fast as it came in, and while it's been available for over a month, it's still enjoying steady attention). Really, it reaffirms something I've said before: someone as talented as Saunders should and must get attention from casual readers, and I think this has been true. His blend of genres and emotions are touching and beautiful, and it's impossible to not be moved by the worlds he creates. Even in the most absurd situations, there are moments reflected that every reader will recognize. However, there are challenges in these pieces: some of the stories are so careful in their execution that it takes a few pages (and even the occasional re-read paragraph) to realize what's going on. Saunders is never obvious about what he's doing or what he's trying to say. And that gives people who champion smart reading a good dose of hope. In addition to being embraced by wider circles, Tenth Of December requires rolled-up sleeves and careful attention. Needless to say, the work is worthwhile, and the stories reach for a staggering number of feelings.

Work Cited:
Saunders, George. Tenth Of December. Copyright 2013 by George Saunders.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Chains Of Thought: Don DeLillo and "Mao II"

I'm trying to keep on top of writings about my readings, and there are still a handful of 2012 readings that I plan to review/explore in the coming weeks. While it's frustrating that I didn't have time to do immediate write-ups, therefore creating one of my rare backlogs, it's a blessing in disguise that I've had time to let certain works really sink in and take shape. When I was deciding on my second book essay to start February, I had a few choices and found myself constantly thinking about Don DeLillo's 1991 novel Mao II. Admittedly, I'm still very behind on the majority of DeLillo's bibliography, but the few novels I've read have been profound experiences. Mao II was no different, but I was struck by two different realizations. One, the novel's main protagonist is a reclusive novelist, and I generally find books or stories with novelists or writers as main characters to be tiresome. For example, I've never read any Stephen King books, but I remember reading an article expressing dismay over his constant use of blocked or troubled writers as protagonists. Two, the novel is almost scary in its timelessness, a word I try to avoid as much as possible. Twenty-two years later, DeLillo's story of creativity, political violence, and the necessity/diminished returns of art in an increasingly changing landscape feels like it was recently written. There are so many other themes and ideas presented in its pages, so forgive me if I don't touch upon all of them. This is a rare novel that manages to be entertaining, intellectually stimulating, original, AND tied into themes that might be more relevant today than when it was originally published. These statements might seem like they border on hyperbole, but I carefully chose my above description: this is a rare example. Before reading Mao II, I would have cited Underworld as DeLillo's shining example of an expression of artistic philosophy in the contemporary world. While that novel still holds up as one of my favorites, I believe Mao II achieves this almost perfectly.

The novelist Bill Gray lives an isolated, rural life and has agreed to be photographed by Brita, a photographer brought to the house by Scott, Gray's faithful assistant. Scott is involved with Karen who, in the novel's prologue, is married to a Korean man in a mass Unification Church ceremony at Yankee Stadium. Underworld also had a prologue set in a baseball stadium (the Polo Grounds in 1951), and in Mao II, DeLillo engages in some deft cultural upheaval. Yankee Stadium is packed with spectators in a venue designed for a distinctly American game, yet this time it's showcasing a surreal act of mass marriage by a cult leader. However, some of the crowd observations wouldn't be out of place at a regular baseball game.

"Master leads the chant, Mansei, ten thousand years of victory. The blessed couples move their lips in unison, matching the echo of his amplified voice. There is stark awareness in their faces, a near pain of rapt adoration. He is Lord of the Second Advent, the unriddling of many ills. His voices leads them out past love and joy, past the beauty of their mission, out past miracles and surrendered self. There is something in the chant, the fact of chanting, the being-one, that transports tem with its power. Their voices grow in intensity. They are carried on the sound, the soar and fall. The chant becomes the boundaries of the world. They see their Master frozen in his whiteness against the patches and shadows, the towering sweep of the stadium. He raises his arms and the chant grows louder and the young arms rise. He leads them out past religion and history, thousands weeping now, all arms high. They are gripped by the force of a longing. They know at once, they feel it, all of them together, a longing deep in time, running in the earthly blood. This is what people have wanted since consciousness became corrupt (DeLillo 15-16)."

The photo session with Brita leads to a layered conversation between her and Bill about the nature of photography, image, and the act of writing. The dialogue is philosophical and sets down a foundation for the looming themes. That's not to say that the conversation foreshadows anything specific, but DeLillo starts slowly, outlining Bill's beliefs before larger actions and developments arise. As I mentioned before, fictional writing about writing can be dangerous--it can veer into a sort of lecture or wink at the reader. But in DeLillo's case, Bill's thoughts are fascinating. He reveals a lot about his character while avoiding concrete details. He's working on his latest, most complex work, and the question of whether or not it will be published is raised.

"He swiveled his head until the cigarette at the corner of his mouth came into contact with the flame.

'The more books they publish, the weaker we become. The secret force that drives the industry is the compulsion to make writers harmless.'

'You like being a little bit fanatical. I know the feeling, believe me. But what is more harmless than the pure game of making up? You want to do baseball in your room. Maybe it's just a metaphor, and innocence, but isn't this what makes your books popular? You call it a lost game that you've been trying to recover as a writer. Maybe it's not so lost. What you say you're writing toward, isn't this what people see in your work?'

'I only know what I see. Or what I don' see.'

'Tell me what that means.'

He dropped the match in an ashtray on the desk. 'Every sentence has a truth waiting at the end of it and the writer learns how to know it when he finally gets there. On one level this truth is the swing of the sentence, the beat and poise, but down deeper it's the integrity of the writer as he matches with the language. I've always seen myself in sentences. I begin to recognize myself, word by word, as I work through a sentence. The language of my books has shaped me as a man. There's a moral force in a sentence when it comes out right. It speaks the writer's will to live. The deeper I become entangled in the process of getting a sentence right in it syllables and rhythms, the more I learn about myself. I've worked the sentences of this book long and hard but not long and hard enough because I no longer see myself in the language. The running picture is gone, the code of being that pushed me on and made me trust the world...(DeLillo 47-48).'"

This is followed by a series of quick developments. There are flashbacks to Karen's harrowing life in the Unification Church, as well as a depiction of her sexual relationship with Bill. A fierce argument at the dinner table after the photography session breaks everyone up: Brita heads back out on assignments, and Karen looks after her apartment in New York City. Bill and Scott head into the city so Bill can meet with Charlie, his publisher. Charlie explains that he's now the "chairman of a high-minded committee on free expression," and reveals that a poet has been taken hostage in Beirut by a Maoist terror organization. The hope is that Bill will do even more traveling, to head to London and do a reading on behalf of the hostage. This idea turns even more complicated, and Charlie's explanation of the logic is a sharp critique of how art is used for "feel-good purposes" that don't reflect its true power for change and upheaval.

"'If I hadn't run into Brita that evening, you wouldn't fit in at all. But when she said she was taking your picture, bells went off in my head. If you're willing to be photographed after all these years, why not take it one step further? Do something that will help us show who we are as an organization and how important it is for writers to take a public stand. Frankly I'm hoping to create a happy sensation. I want you to show up in London and briefly read from the poet's work, a selection of five or six poems. That's all (DeLillo 99).'"

Bill ends up opting for more daring solution. But as he ruminates about the hostage, lines become blurred. Art and writing are natural, necessary responses to grim situations, but Bill realizes his actions need to speak louder. But the nature of the situation (a writer being held hostage because of his work) brings about a sort of existential crisis. For as much as Bill is committed to helping free the hostage, the notion of dealing with the situation by writing is never lost.

"But he tried to write about the hostage. It was the only way he knew to think deeply in a subject. He missed his typewriter for the first time since leaving home. It was the hand tool of memory and patient thought, the mark-making thing that contained his life experience. He could see the words better in type, construct sentences that entered the character-world at once, free of his own disfiguring hand. He had to settle for pencil and pad, working in his hotel room through the long mornings, slowly building chains of thought, letting the words lead him into that basement room.

Find the places where you converge with him.

Read his poems again.

See his face and hands in words (DeLillo 160)."

Karen's stay in New York City also turns into a strange internal battle. She finds herself wandering around homeless parks and seedy areas, slumming and immersing herself in an unknown world. Like Bill's struggle between writing and doing, Karen could be commended for seeing firsthand what most people avoid, but since she has her own safe world, is she really doing anything beneficial? She's constantly haunted by her memories from the Unification Church and used to find herself in dire, poverty-like scenarios. Does she know true empathy? Or is she so separated from that life that she's pandering? DeLillo rarely offers concrete answers to these questions--cases can be made for both sides.

"Omar told her, 'Once you live in the street, there's nothing but the street. Know what I'm saying. These people have one thing they can talk about or think about and that's the little shithole they live in. The littler the shithole, the more it takes up your life. Know what I'm saying. You live in a fuckin' ass mansion you got to think about it two times a month for like ten seconds total. Live in a shithole, it takes up your day. They cut the shithole in half, you got to go twice as hard to keep it so it's livable. I'm telling you something I observe.'

She imagined the encrumpled bodies in the lean-tos and tents, sort of formless as to male or female, asleep in sodden clothes on a strip of cardboard or some dragged-in mattress stained with the waste of the ages (DeLillo 152)."

Today, DeLillo's ideas still ring true. How does art truly engage a world best by violence and terrorism? In a widening gap between wealth and poverty, what constitutes empathy and true understanding? In reference to my opening paragraph, I now realize that it was essential for Bill to be a writer in this novel. DeLillo has consistently been a phenomenal explorer of the American psyche and philosophy, and while I don't take Bill to be an autobiographical character, I believe that DeLillo and most writers grapple with the same problems. Critics can go in circles over the question of what makes for true social fiction. By pure coincidence, Mao II is one of the great social novels. Last year, I remarked on the writing, music, and imagery that came out of the fears and landscapes of 9/11. The act of creation is a natural response to the idea of loss and uncertainty. But in DeLillo's world, nothing is black and white. For all that art can accomplish, it needs to be balanced with action. This novel is going to stay with me for awhile. It's not just a collection of eerie descriptions of terror acts and political hostages. It's a landscape that has taken on all too real significance today, and comes amazingly close to defining what social and political writing can and should do.

Work Cited:
DeLillo, Don. Mao II. Copyright 1991 by Don DeLillo.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Inheriting the Fire:"May We Shed These Human Bodies" by Amber Sparks

In my usual readings and literary magazine research, I first noticed the name Amber Sparks a few months ago, but it wasn't until even later that I finally read a full excerpt of her fiction. In October, I was awed by "Birds With Teeth," a fantastical work of historical and scientific fiction published in The Collagist. Based on this story alone, I made a mental note to check out May We Shed These Human Bodies, her recently published story collection. Having finally read it, I'm still analyzing the various ebbs and flows of her creativity. I've read many a short story collection and have enjoyed the majority of them. But there are very few that have affected me like this one. For such a slender volume, Sparks has managed to incorporate every conceivable emotion and almost every conceivable genre. I'm not one to dole out breathless praise with no context, but in the week or so since I finished reading the collection, I find myself thinking about the stories constantly. To put my emotional reaction into that much-needed context, I was engaged by her fiction much like I was with the works of Matt Bell. The strength of a single story (in Bell's case, this was "His Last Great Gift") has led me to make sure I don't miss any future works by the writer. May We Shed These Human Bodies contains a similar variety to Bell's 2010 book How They Were Found. And in both cases, the originality and depths are astounding.

The stories in May We Shed These Human Bodies have been previously published in a variety of journals. It opens with a piece titled "Death and the People," and this serves as an excellent opening, since it combines great examples of what Sparks will show in the following pieces. It's funny, sometimes goofy, yet philosophical and grounded in thought-provoking ideas. Death, a suave, well-dressed, handsome entity, brings the entire human population to the afterlife, and has to listen to their endless complaints. In the midst of this humor comes some touching, beautifully detailed sketches:

"Death was starting to understand why he felt sympathy for the people, why he was even beginning to grow fond of them. They were so brave and stubborn in the face of things that couldn't be changed. Even dead, they clung to their sense of what it meant to be living, and they seemed utterly unable to give up. Over the eons, Death had watched countless beings shed life like a skin, wriggling free and wrapping themselves in the elemental instead. Most beings seemed to delight in losing the weight of the world. But the people held hard to weight, to the heaviest things like furniture and loss and other people. They seemed determined to be solid, to be planted--to be unavoidable roadblocks in the flow of the Afterwards. They were strange beings, the people. There was nothing else like them (Sparks 17)."

These gentle follies lull the reader into a false sense of what to expect, because Sparks then brings out some serious, intense studies. In "Study for the New Fictional Science," she explores childhood isolation and peer ridicule in the form of a class schedule and assignments. The emotional details are aching, and the creative forms serve as an essential part of the story, not a distraction. Sparks doesn't shy away from anything and succeeds in making the reader both sympathetic to the character as well as shocked and uneasy.

"Fourth Period: Shop Class

You don't mind shop class so much. You like making things with your hands. You like using the circular saw, the protection it gives you, how it makes you feel powerful for the fourteen seconds you're sawing through a two by four. You like to picture Paul Boehler's neck pressed to the metal table, those teeth slowly driving toward his jugular. You like to picture the fountain of scarlet that will spring up and spill out, his life yours for the minute or so it takes to bleed out onto the sawdust floor.

Still, you'd be better off fashioning weapons you can take with you. The kind of weapons a hero wields. You could carry them to your locker, to your classes, to the cafeteria. You could hold them threateningly on the long bus ride home. You could demonstrate how the meek will truly inherit the fire, if not the earth (Sparks 34)."

Some of the stories even manage to combine these two sorts of examples, being both funny and shocking at the same time. Sparks writes some of her stories as odd, contemporary fairy tales and fantasies. "Cocoon," for example, is so much more than its generic description. One could truthfully summarize it as a story about elderly cannibals feasting on a children's choir (yes, you read that correctly), but written out in Sparks' style, it's grotesque and undeniably hilarious at the same time. It's not a fairy tale per se, but when put alongside the dreadful imagery presented in classic tales, it manages to serve that purpose, at least in my mind. This also presents another important aspect of Sparks' writings: in addition to her literary talent and collages of ideas, there's no doubt that she's having fun with her creations without sacrificing any value.

"The old people stand up and push their metal chairs back, hiking elastic waistbands up under their armpits and tying terry cloth bibs around their saggy necks. The children's voices grow quieter, worried-sounding. Some children forget the words to the song. The choir director is scowling at his choir; he doesn't notice the old people shuffling forward like zombies behind him. Now they have utensils, knives in their right hands and forks in their left hands. Their hair is white and flat in the back and you can see their pink scalps underneath. They are walking like monsters with wide, deliberate steps. The children all stop, except Corey Anthony, who is nearsighted and won't wear glasses in public. The cattle are lowing, he sings, and then trails off, realizing no one else is singing.

The choir director turns around, finally, but it is too late; one of the old people stabs him in the neck with a fork and blood sprays out from somewhere near his vocal cords. The children scream and try to run, but it's like a movie: the old people are slow but many, and they surround the children, coming close enough for the choir to see the brown scabs on their faces and their tiny, murderous eyes.

The children are savory and tender, more delicious than the Grand Slam breakfast at Denny's. The old people pick bits of children from between their remaining teeth and smile big, camera-ready smiles. They are as full and friendly as babies.

Happy New Year, they say to each other (Sparks 112-113)."

Sparks also weaves long, complex, metaphorical pieces, some that grandly go against some of the more offbeat selections. Some of these (like the title story) are more fairy-tale like than others, while some (such as the terrific "The Ghosts Eat More Air") are careful combinations of horror and family connections. A teenage girl lives in a haunted house with her father. Her aversion to the ghosts is a correlation to her aversion to her father's personality. Both notions are explicit, but they play off each other metaphorically, being singular problems as well as representations of each other. And throughout, the terror is palpable and amazingly rendered.

"The daughter wakes up screaming. She looks across the room and sees in her mirror a gaping violet-black void, and the ghosts streaming out, spinning free of it like fast winds off the desert. One of them flies too fast, and his skidding stop over her leaves a long narrow burn mark on her arm.

Don't be afraid, her father says when he comes to check on her. The ghosts like to be close to us. They feed off of our warmth. They need us.

His daughter shivers under the blankets and covers her head with her pillow. No one else has ghosts, her muffled voice says. No one else even believes in them. She massages her hurt arm.

That's why we are very, very lucky, says her father. She can't see him but she can tell his smile is pointed, rat-like; she hates him just now (Sparks 94-95)."

As I tend to say constantly, there's no need to pick a favorite in this collection, nor is it necessary to analyze every piece. The joy is in the discovery, and any initial perception I had of Sparks' writing has been confirmed and upended at the same time. I'm actually happy that I didn't read some of these pieces before, since the entire collection unfolds in so many different ways, almost novel-like. When I love a given book, I back up my assessments with examples and constructive analyses, since random praise is just as unhelpful as a critique of a poor work without constructive criticism. In this case, the citations I've given are a good start, but simply don't do justice to all of the stories combined. May We Shed These Human Bodies is a marvel, and stands as one of my favorite story collections ever. I'm already looking forward to re-reading it, and I can't wait to keep up on Sparks' future works, stories, and collections.

Work Cited:
Sparks, Amber. May We Shed These Human Bodies. Copyright 2012 by Amber Sparks.

"You Against You" in Hobart; "I Don't Want to Pry" in Pidgeonholes

Hey y'all. I'm a little late posting these, but I was fortunate to have two new publications this week, working in new genres, a...