Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Hunger and Desire: Ramona Ausubel's "A Guide To Being Born"

"Ramona Ausubel's 'Atria' is like too many New Yorker stories: 'daring,' metaphor-heavy, and ultimately bland (3 Apr 11)."

After a lot of searching, I found this Tweet disparaging one of Ramona Ausubel's story publications. The writer of this misguided assessment was both right and wrong. "Atria," like the rest of the pieces presented in the recently published story collection A Guide To Being Born, is indeed daring at times, and not worthy of sarcastic quotes. There are many metaphors carefully placed within the plot, but ones that progress the main character's feelings and developments (she's in the midst of a teen pregnancy, there's evidence of two potential fathers, and she astutely imagines her looming child as a series of animals). And finally, the story is anything but bland. It ends on a completely unexpected note, an act that is both vile and somehow oddly tender, and leaves the reader wondering just what is going through a new mother's head at the moment. If I ever have the fortune to meet Ramona, I owe her an apology, and I hope this serves as one: I myself wrote that Tweet back in 2011, and frankly, I don't know what the hell I was thinking at the time. While I still feel The New Yorker tends to publish fiction that falls into obvious weekly categories, I don't know why I singled out Ausubel's terrific fiction. I'm not making any excuses, but I in the midst of being laid off during that time period, and I wasn't as well-read as I'd like to hope I am now. I made myself scroll through nearly 2,000 of my own Tweets to find this one (from my early days of Twitter), and instead of deleting it, I'm saving it as a kind of penance. Ausubel's stories are amazing, and this is the least I can do.

Her fiction has been gaining a lot of steam lately, fueled by this debut collection (her first novel, No One Is Here Except All Of Us, was published in 2012). The stories are presented under subcategories, in backward fashion of expected progression: "Birth," "Gestation," "Conception," and "Love." While the reader is aware of these headings when reading the individual stories, the pieces are fiercely unique and singular. The subcategories are not set in stone, but rather serve as polite guidance. Right away, I was amazed at how Ausubel manages to blend entertaining fiction with doses of grim reality and original takes on magical realism. "Poppyseed," the second story in the collection, is told from the points of view of a mother and father. They are raising a retarded daughter who is entering advanced puberty. The father works as a guide in a ghost tour, and the mother writes letters to the daughter, exploring their day-to-day activities and actions. These letters are intensely honest, refusing to sugarcoat any emotions or realities.

"We went to the grocery store in the afternoon. I decided that I wanted to make a nice supper for us all. I chose a cart over a basket and made my way around the store with two sets of wheels, yours and the food's. I chose lamb chops and the makings for a salad. I put four red potatoes into a bag. I still think it's weird to cook for only two. You do not ever, not ever, eat what I make. I think you are ungrateful sometimes. I think you do not even see what I do. You laugh and smile while I measure your medicines and attach a new bag of food for you. You laugh and smile while I clean you.

An old lady in the cereal aisle stared up at me with my two vehicles. She looked into your bed and waited for me to pull you over so that she could pass.

'You are a saint,' she said to me.

'What am I supposed to do?' I asked back. 'Take her outside and shoot her
(Ausubel 34?'"

Alongside these amazing looks at honesty, Ausubel can immediately take the reader on sometimes grotesque journeys. "A Chest of Drawers" is the literal title of one piece, as a young man's body forms his chest into a series of drawers. In that world, he and his pregnant wife take this development in stride: they're shocked, but quickly adapt to the changes. It's a great meditation on feelings of inequality and masculinity, as the husband and father-to-be tries and sometimes fails to be a supportive partner. Ausubel is extremely detail-oriented, and in this case, it made me squirm and feel physically uncomfortable, since the "body drawers" are rendered so carefully.

"Over the next three days, the one drawer was joined by five more. They were small, about two inches square, and pulled out halfway, seeming to have mechanisms that stopped them there. They were stiff and did not slip open when Ben bent over to pick up a fallen napkin or clean the shower drain, but were not watertight, so it was important that he dry each cavity out to keep it from getting dank and moldy inside. He used a washcloth followed by a Q-tip for this job, and the process extended his morning routine by six minutes (Ausubel 81)."

Ausubel consistently creates some of the strongest female characters I've encountered in a story collection. Both men and women are flawed, mistake and accident prone within these pages, but Ausubel's female protagonists are gritty, tough, and honest. Over the years, I've read various essays about the lack of strong female characters in contemporary literature. A Guide To Being Born is a perfect response to this argument. One of my favorite stories is "Catch and Release," in which a young woman with dreams of being a big league baseball player encounters the ghost of a confederate soldier. The two talk about life and baseball, and while the ghost agrees that she's a skilled for the big leagues, he says "except you're a girl." She doesn't take this as an insult, but rather keeps showing off her acumen. The story ends on an evocative image, with the girl throwing chicken heads into the woods and being cheered on by her mother and grandmother.

"The women went outside, where Mother Mom and Grandma Pete cheered for Buck, who threw the beaked heads, pitch by pitch by pitchy, into the usual place.

'That must have been ninety miles an hour, that one,' Mother Mom hollered, and Grandma Pete said better than that. The woods offered up the many-legged creatures from deep within the bramblebush to catch everything Buck threw. Life crawled over other life, devoured it, opened itself up to whatever it had been given. The whole world squirmed with hunger and desire, in the thick and thin places, in the trees and in the clearings (Ausubel 126)."

But even within these serious, complex issues, Ausubel does have a gift for humor, both obvious and sly. "Magniloquence," one of the final stories in the book, is a terrifically absurd, touching story about professors and students awaiting a guest lecturer. The guest never shows, various people take turns at the microphone, and the entire scene turns into a chaotic send-up of academia. The terrifically named Faustus Macelovich, a recently widowed English professor, is dealing with a lot of personal strife, issues that are carefully juxtaposed against the lunacy surrounding the lecture hall. It's a great combination of satire and emotional drama, evoking some of George Saunders's forays into humorous insanity.

"Faustus and the rest of the spin-the-bottlers lay down in a circle like toppled dominoes, each head finding rest on a foreign set of legs. Faustus's right ear was suctioned to the monochromatic woman's bare calf. The calf did not make noises the way a stomach might. It must have been busy in there, distributing blood to each sinew of muscle, but it did so in silence.

He could not see it, but in the dark around him, some players held hands, sweaty and excited. Faustus looked into the dark and tried to make a list of reasons for existing. Kissing was on there, and so were hollandaise sauce and racquetball (Ausubel 179)."

I've barely touched upon half the stories in this collection, but the wildly different samples are a good sneak into the kinds of worlds Ausubel creates. In addition to Saunders, these worlds are akin to Jamie Quatro and Karen Russell, alternating between our perceived world and how the actions in said world can be affixed to strange fantasies and surreal atmospheres. In a way, A Guide To Being Born can sometimes offer passages that are experimental. Ausubel is determined to give new insights into age-old themes and emotions, and she succeeds consistently. I simply don't know how I overlooked this when I first encountered her writing two years ago. However, I'm glad I've grown enough to appreciate her talents. These stories and characters are going to stay with me for quite some time, and I'm still adjusting to the variety of emotions she dares to stir up in her readers.

Work Cited:
Ausubel, Ramona. A Guide To Being Born. Copyright 2013 by Ramona Ausubel.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Death Completes Me: Edouard Levé's "Suicide"

Looking back on a previous essay, I realized that it's been nearly a year since I read Edouard Levé's Autoportrait. I was very much enthralled with his semi-fictional/autobiographical sketches, a collection of seemingly random observations and reflections that managed to tell his whole story and say almost nothing about him at the same time. His most famous work, Suicide, has been on my list since then, stemming from a desire to complete these related texts. Suicide is famous for the details surrounding its publication. It's a fictional imagining of a friend's suicide and the details surrounding the act and notes from the friend's life and philosophy. Levé turned in the manuscript just days before his own suicide, therefore making it impossible to read or acknowledge the work without wondering if it was meant as a creative suicide note. Based on the few details I know about Levé as a writer and photographer, I didn't go into my reading with any sense of mystery or subconscious dread, but rather with burning curiosity. I expected my reading to be full of wonder as to how the passages related to him, in a way that truly blends the text and the end of the writer's life. However, I was much more aware of Levé's presence in Autoportrait than I was with Suicide. While this book has dashes of creepiness and morbidity, his writing strengths pull through and put the majority of the emphasis on the words, not the idea of "novel as goodbye."

The unnamed narrator addresses the now-dead friend, and there's no buildup or foreshadowing. The suicide is referenced immediately, as if to get the obvious details out of the way to spend more time on the past and the life that preceded the death. Suicide is a marvel of psychology and sometimes intangible details, but the opening is stark and pointed. The explanation and intensity is heightened through the unemotional, careful attention to detail.

"One Saturday in the month of August, you leave your home wearing your tennis gear, accompanied by your wife. In the middle of the garden you point out to her that you've forgotten your racket in the house. You go back to look for it, but instead of making your way toward the cupboard in the entryway where you normally keep it, you head down into the basement. Your wife doesn't notice this. She stays outside. The weather is fine. She's making the most of the sun. A few moments later she hears a gunshot. She rushes into the house, cries out your name, notices that the door to the stairway leading to the basement is open, goes down, and finds you there. You've put a bullet in your head with the rifle you had carefully prepared. On the table, you left a comic book open to a double-page spread. In the heat of the moment, your wife leans on the table; the book falls closed before she understands that this was your final message (Levé 1-2)."

Some of the aftermath of the friend's suicide is written, but then the text immediately goes into a biographical mode, full of observations about the friend's personality. Levé doesn't seem interested in how these traits explain the suicide, nor is the book an exact "celebration" of the friend's life. Much in the same way Autoportrait covered a wealth of small reflections, Suicide is an examination. At times, the actual suicide seems like an afterthought. It is referenced, yes, but it doesn't seem to be intended as a cast shadow. The friend is very complex, with some concerning psychological traits, but he's never uninteresting.

"Since you seldom spoke, you were rarely wrong. You seldom spoke because you seldom went out. If you did go out, you listened and watched. Now, since you no longer speak, you will always be right. In truth, you do still speak: through those, like me, who bring you back to life and interrogate you. We hear your responses and admire their wisdom. If the facts turn out to contradict your counsel, we blame ourselves for having misinterpreted you. Yours are the truths, ours are the errors (Levé 6)."

When the suicide is mentioned, it's done so in very original ways. Levé has astute examples of how society views suicide, and explores it in ways I haven't thought about, such as:

"When I hear of a suicide, I think of you again. Yet, when I hear that someone died of cancer, I don't think of my grandfather and grandmother, who died of it. They share cancer with millions of others. You, however, own suicide (Levé 9)."

Given that the reader knows this friend only through these passages, the seemingly random assemblage actually creates a fully-formed character. There are some passages that brought me back to wondering how autobiographical the novel actually is, since they are so precisely detailed. This doesn't detract from the reading, but rather enhances it. The reader goes from the intense reality and confusion of suicide to the inner workings and complexities of a character to the idea that Levé could very well have been drawing from his own experiences.

"It was twelve thirty. Back at your hotel, you took notes on the last two days. You described what you had seen, done, and thought. While you believed that you had only passed through a zone of emptiness, the writing of this text kept you up until five in the morning. When you reread it the next day on the train that was carrying you back home, you added numerous notes in the margin. And when your wife asked you what you had done, you spent the entire night telling her, with innumerable details. You had felt idle in this city through which you had paced only to kill time. But the emptiness that you believed yourself to be confronted with was an illusion you had filled those moments with sensations all the more powerful in that nothing and no one had distracted you from them (Levé 57)."

My only critique of Suicide comes at the end. The last several pages are devoted to short poems supposedly written by the friend, found by his wife following the suicide. The stanzas are short, personal notes on how various ideas, objects, and emotions affect the friend, but they seem out of place following such a painstakingly detailed book on occurrences, interactions, and an ultimately tortured human being. It's not that the poems are bad, it's just that I found the forms to be such a jarring change of pace. But then, I found myself thinking of Levé the person and not the writer, and I wonder if these notes were his own. On a positive spin, these could be seen as an extension of Autoportrait, but with a somber atmosphere of the rapidly approaching end.

"Birth befalls me
Life occupies me
Death completes me

To climb is difficult for me
To descend is easy for me
To be stationary is useless to me

Homage obliges me
Oration touches me
Eulogy buries me

The flash blinds me
The beam dazzles me
The reflection intrigues me (Levé 113)."

In spite of the poetic ending, I was surprised at how Levé created a character, likely based on himself, but still wholly original. To have such a notorious final act (a submitted manuscript, an immediate suicide) and to make it more about the text than the writer's own ending is no small feat. Autoportrait was meant to be about Levé in all of his internal and external forms; Suicide is a novel at heart, even in the face of the surrounding timeline. The reader is drawn to the friend as an actual friend or a fictional character and not always as a stand-in for the author. This book went in a much different direction than I expected, and for that I am grateful. This isn't to downplay or dismiss Levé's actual suicide, but taking the text at face value, it's the work of a terrific, still relatively unknown artist. The randomness of the character's life feels like a combination of improvised events, carefully edited character sketches, and autobiographical honesty. Suicide is simple and complex at the same time, and stuns in its deviation from the obvious.

Work Cited:
Levé, Edouard. Copyright 2008 by P.O.L. éditeur. Translation and afterword copyright 2011 by Jan Steyn.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Book Forms: "How Literature Saved My Life" by David Shields

"What I believe about memoir is that you just happen to be using the nuts and bolts of your own life to illustrate your vision. It isn't really me; it's a character based on myself that I made up in order to illustrate things I want to say. In other words, I think memoir is as far from real life as fiction is. I think you're obligated to use accurate details, but selection is as important a process as imagination."

I stumbled upon this quote as I reviewed my essay on David Shield's 2010 manifesto Reality Hunger. I don't remember if Shields wrote this himself, or if it was one of the hundreds of quotes culled and reused from other sources. However, it's an apt introduction to a look at his latest book, How Literature Saved My Life, a work that is almost jarringly straightforward when paired with his often-criticized, often-praised previous work. I'm not sure if this newest book is a personal endeavor for Shields or a sort of backlash against the people who heavily dismissed his manifesto. To recap: in 2010, Shields made the claim that current literature was dead, and would eventually be replaced by memoirs, essays, and collages/remixes/sampling. Three years later, the novel is still alive and well, balanced between experimental artists and contemporary writers who are able to explore reality and create complex sociological conversations within the "confines" of a standard narrative. Today, the question is whether or not the short story has a future, but I imagine that in 2016, that form will be fine, and we'll be wringing our hands over another form (I often wonder if poetry have this problem). If all of this seems like I'm picking on Shields' argument, I'm not. As my link above shows, I loved Reality Hunger, even if I disagreed with some of his assertions. That's what made it such a satisfying experience--he formed his arguments and opinions very carefully and confidently, creating a work that truly meant to foster discussions rather than bitter arguments. In How Literature Saved My Life, Shields creates a sort of autobiographical manifesto. This isn't the writing of a person who hates or dismisses literature, but of someone with a major debt to how the form has changed and shaped him. Sure, there may be some embellishments, but the statements are refreshingly honest.

How Literature Saved My Life is written with progressions, but also goes back and forth between passages of memory and critical analysis of various texts, not so much to provide written examples of how literature reflects the reality of life (Shields is too smart to take such an obvious path), but to provide ideas he can shape into his account of his development. He mentions the reaction to Reality Hunger, but also writes many passages that reflect how art and memory are not concrete:

"Yeats said that we can't articulate the truth, but we can embody it. I think that's wrong or at least beside the point. What's of interest to me is precisely how we try to articulate the truth, and what that says about us, and about 'truth (Shields 133).'"

Shields' memories are painstakingly precise, and when he pairs them up with passages from literature, he's not going for the obvious links. Yes, there are dozens, probably hundreds, of literary memoirs out there, books on literature as life, on writing as therapy, on the world explained through select texts, etc. But Shields aims for an atmosphere of reality. This isn't a love letter to literature so much as it's an intense account of literature illuminating the truth about various life events, not just for Shields, but for everyone. For anyone who considers him/herself a writer or a serious reader, it's inescapable.

"As a nine-year-old, I would awake and spend the entire night sitting cross-legged on the landing of the stairs to my basement bedroom, unable to fathom that one day I'd cease to be. I remember being mesmerized by a neighbor's tattoo of a death's-head, underneath which were the words 'As I am, you shall someday be.' (Now, do I yearn for this state, the peace that passeth all understanding? What if death is my Santa Claus?) Cormac McCarthy: 'Death is the major issue in the world. For you, for me, for all of us. It just is. To not be able to talk about it is very odd.' I'm trying to do a very un-American thing here: talk about it. Why? Pynchon: 'When we speak of 'seriousness,' ultimately we are talking about an attitude toward death, how we act in its presence, for example, or how we handle it when it isn't so immediate (Shields 100).'"

Mixed in within longer passages are some beautiful vignettes, none of which are throwaway memories, but rather essential pieces to Shields' longer goal.

"Entering St. Francis Hospital to receive some not particularly crucial test results, I thought What the hell and crossed myself. A beatific nun passed me and said, with astonishing intensity, 'Good morning'--as close as I'll ever get to religion (Shields 118)."

"The question I've been trying to ask all along

Do I love art anymore, or only artfully arranged life (Shields 183)?"

I can't imagine How Literature Saved My Life will generate the same attention (or, more appropriately, the same controversy) as Reality Hunger, but I can see people familiar with Shields reading this and pausing. However, the reader needs to realize that definitions are flexible. This isn't a book that merely defends the novel, but takes into account the written word in all of its forms--novels, stories, documents, and essays. In one of the more compelling sections, Shields records "Fifty-Five Works I Swear By." Some of these are novels and some are even television shows (Curb Your Enthusiasm). To use a very tired phrase, Shields explores these works in small snippets, but shows how they've been life-affirming for him. He's almost intimidating as far as how well-read he is, and he gets inspiration out of some very different texts. This isn't a "Top Fifty-Five," and he never claims that readers will reap the same benefits out of these works that he does. Also, some of the descriptions are intensely short and say nothing about the text except for a brief explanation. Like anyone, I imagine that Shields came to this list after years of trial and error. In my own case, my "favorite writings" have drastically fluctuated over the last ten years or so. I get the impression that Shields doesn't care what anyone thinks of this list, but at the same time, he's not disregarding the reader's feelings--it's just fiercely personal.

"Charles Lamb, Essays of Elia. The freest form: the essay.
Philip Larkin, The Whitsun Weddings. Both poetry and the essay come from the same impulse--to think about something and at the same time see it closely and carefully and enact it. An odd feature of poetry is that it's all 'true': there's no nonfiction poetry and fiction poetry. Whether it's Larkin or Neruda, it all goes into the poetry section of the bookstore (Shields 149)."

And as with Reality Hunger, I disagreed with some of Shields' opinions. Perhaps this is just a difference in opinion, but even if I understand where Shields is coming from, I can't get behind assertions such as

"The undergraduates I teach are much more open to a new reading experience when it's a blog. I know there have to be a hundred complex reasons as to why that is, but none of them change the fact that un- or even anti-literary types haven't stopped reading. They just don't get as excited about the book form. The blog form: immediacy, relative lack of scrim between writer and reader, promised delivery of unmediated reality, pseudo-artlessness, comedy, naked feeling (Shields 168)."

Nor was I drawn to detailed accounts of his early sex life. The autobiographical details are brutally honest, always tied into the text and his points, but I found myself less concerned with Shields as a person and more interested in Shields as a literary critic. In a way, despite his coming to a relatively satisfactory conclusion, How Literature Saved My Life reads as an artist's struggle with what defines art, especially in literary forms. As his two latest books show, the definition of the novel and the written word can be expanded to include a dizzying array of ideas, but the beauty comes from the constant bending, breaking, and re-imagining. When Shields ventures into old age, I can see him writing a follow-up to this, and his opinions might very well be different then. For as much as he strives for concrete answers about literature's place in today's world, he arrives at no definite assertion. And I think he knew this going in, but as any writer/reader can tell you, it's impossible not to try. I admire Shields' devotion to the subject, even if I disagree with him. Again, it's about discussions and ideas, not any face-off between ideologies.

Work Cited:
Shields, David. How Literature Saved My Life. Copyright 2013 by David Shields.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Altered State: Laird Hunt's "Indiana, Indiana"

My reading of Laird Hunt's 2003 novel Indiana, Indiana made me think about the idea of "Midwestern literature." Generally, there isn't much of a niche genre for Midwestern lit, whereas there's long been a fascination with Southern Gothic and certain pockets of West Coast writing (I'll leave Brooklyn and New York out of this due to sheer obviousness). Of course, there are many, many books set in the Midwest, yet there doesn't seem to be any overt designation for the literature set in the area. This even goes for Midwestern writers--for example, as much as David Foster Wallace is loved, and for the amount of his writing (fiction and nonfiction) focused on central Illinois, he's generally not referred to as a Midwestern author. I'm mentioning these ideas because as I read Indiana, Indiana, I kept having a general feeling of "this is a wholly Midwestern novel," and not just because of the title and setting.

The novel tells the story of Noah Summers, a simple Indiana man with traces of paranormal senses, who longs to have his wife Opal returned home from her stay in a mental institution. Opal is a pyromaniac, and evidence is given for this trait being literal as well as supernatural. Noah lives his life, stays in touch with Opal via letters, and engages in various interactions with his parents and the occasional acquaintance. He's very much a product of his upbringing on an Indiana farm, yet his visions, which he takes in stride, hint to a much more complex mentality. In Hunt's writing, these visions are intense metaphors but could also be taken literally. The reader sees and feels what Noah sees and feels, even if there's obviously much more to explore and examine than what's presented.

"For many years, Noah saw things, all kinds of things, had visions, dreamed things while he was awake. Now, if he sees anything worth mentioning, he generally sees it, like most people, when he is asleep, but for a long time when he was wide awake interesting things would appear. Once, out in the south field, for example, Noah saw a clock. He did not ask Virgil, who was driving the tractor, if he could see it--he knew he couldn't--but he did ask him to stop.

What is it?

A clock.

What kind of clock?

It's tall. Old looking. Flowers carved into it. It's got one of them things. It's moving back and forth.

A pendulum.

Must be.

You say it's moving back and forth?

Virgil stopped the tractor and Noah jumped off and walked over to the clock, which Virgil could not see and which, Noah told him, was standing taller than either of them at the edge of the field.

It's ticking, said Noah.

Virgil nodded. Virgil smiled. What time does it say (Hunt 49)?"

Opal appears in the occasional flashback, but for the most part, she's presented from the letters she writes to Noah. At first, these messages are beautiful, innocent, and sweet, but once more examples are given as to her mental state and obsession with fire, they take on a spooky atmosphere. The letters are amazingly detailed and evocative, and it's a challenge to assess the complexities behind them. We're not meant to question whether her memories are real or not, but how they fit into the context of her sometimes dangerous personality. This takes on an even more heartbreaking atmosphere as the reader finds out just how devoted Noah is to her. He knows she has problems, but in his mind, she's his wife and should be with him no matter what. Opal's letters are full of images and an imagination that one can easily fall in love with, despite the outside problems.

"Dear Noah,

Do you remember when we went to the cave? Do you remember how we walked down into the ground and the ceiling dripped and part of the time it was stone? I like how a drip can come up out of the floor. I know it doesn't really. But I like how it can. Do you know what I pretended? I told the doctor I was pretending. I pretended we were in the cave. I pretended I was on the ceiling and you were on the floor. I smiled and the smile dripped onto your head and stretched me and you grew. Then I grew and you stretched. I told the doctor. I said our heads had dripped into each other. He wrote this down on a pad. He said there was nothing wrong with this and had the nurse give me a glass of milk. He asked me if such thoughts made me happy or sad. I laughed. I told him I wanted to stand up and dance. I told him we were a single column now.

Love, Opal
(Hunt 31)"

What makes Indiana, Indiana such an amazing reading experience is its balance of the literal and the symbolic. Hunt is a storyteller as well as an artist. His style is painstaking and unique, with beautiful, very carefully written and edited sentences. Some writers make the reader aware of the structure in a distracting manner; with Hunt, you take note, but it only adds to the amazing storytelling. Some of the passages are mini poems, but he's not showing off. The entire novel is so structurally sound that I never paused and wonder where he was going or what he was doing. So when a chapter opens with a poetic format, it's accepted as part of the longer narrative.

"Sometimes, as he sits in the shed, as he does now, Noah closes his eyes and listens, and, after a moment, though he has not stopped listening, the sounds of the shed, of the surrounding night, of his own faint, rough breathing fall far away, and every sound he hears is remembered.


rain like cold ropes

rain in later winter cold


Or spring. Spring and the rain falling

was rain they wanted and they would stop what they were doing every now and again and say


Noah would listen (Hunt 85)"

As original as Hunt's writing is, I couldn't help but be reminded of another favorite, Ben Marcus, and I mean that with all due respect to both writers. Whereas Marcus goes all out for surreal symbolism and reinvention to create plausible worlds, Hunt's Indiana is a wholly real place that gets reinvented by the surrealism. The novel doesn't namedrop any specific Indiana locales or citizens (save for the fictional family members and neighbors), nor is it any kind of love letter to the area. However, we're so drawn into Noah's world that his Indiana becomes unique and mystical without any sentimentality. In my mind, this is a landmark of Midwestern literature, whatever that means or encompasses. At the same time, Hunt's minute details are just as evocative as the bigger landscapes. Even a seemingly random (again, nothing is random or thrown in here; Hunt sets up every chapter with almost religious meticulousness) paragraph about food is written in such a stunning format that it becomes intensely realistic.

"It suddenly occurs to Noah that he is hungry, that he can't remember when or what he last ate, that the situation should be dealt with as quickly as possible. He would like to eat some corn, or peas, though not the frozen kind that sits in small plastic boxes in the deep freeze. What he wants is an ear of sweet corn, its kernels bursting with moisture and sweetness, or a tomato so ripe it has split in two or three places, or a fistful of raw snow peas with their ends snapped off. A melon would be nice. A juicy muskmelon pulled out of the garden that morning and setting in the refrigerator all day to chill. Or spinach. Huge sweet leaves of spinach tossed into a salad. Noah has the fixings, he must have, somewhere in the kitchen. Even a carrot would do. Not some wilty old thing that's been sitting in the crisper next to some played-out celery and apples for weeks, but an honest to goodness garden-fresh carrot ready to scrub and peel and eat (Hunt 145)."

As I tend to do in some of my reviews, I've been so focused on the smaller details that I've left the more concrete aspects of the plot untouched (for example, I've only casually mentioned Noah's relationship to his parents, and I haven't mentioned whether or not he sees Opal again). These details can be easily ascertained through a reading of the novel, but the real highlight were the smaller, more technical parts of Hunt's prose. I follow many writers who speak of Laird Hunt in almost reverential tones, and I've been aware of his gift as a sentence craftsman for some time. I've read two or three of his short stories and was impressed, and I checked out Indiana, Indiana on a whim. I was in the middle of other projects and getting ready to move, and I didn't think I'd have the time to devote to a reading. But I was hooked immediately and finished the novel very quickly. And now, I can't wait to read more. The novel showcases Hunt's complexities in ways that his excellent short stories can't do. I'm almost positive that I'll end up counting him among my favorite writers, and in a way, he already is: this slim, out of print novel from 2003 is one of the best reading experiences I've had in 2013. I'm glad I listened to my whim.

Work Cited:
Hunt, Laird. Indiana, Indiana (the dark and lovely portions of the night). Copyright 2003 by Laird Hunt.

"Everything Sounds Better on Vinyl:" New Fiction in Gulf Stream Magazine

Good morning, y'all! I have a new short story up today. You can read " Everything Sounds Better on Vinyl " in the Spring i...