Thursday, April 24, 2014

A New Dork Review Short Storypalooza

Here in Chicago, you normally have to wait for a month or (often) more for any nominally popular book or ebook from the library. However, that's not the case for short story collections, which for reasons I can't even begin to fathom, seem to be much less popular among librarian patrons. But other readers' loss is my gain, and I've been on a huge short story binge the last few months. Here's a round-up of four collections.

1. I Want to Show You More, by Jamie Quatro — Man, this was great - by far, my favorite of these four, and one of the more entertaining, sad, smart, funny short story collections I've read in a long time. Quatro has a lot going on here - running as a metaphor for life, several stories about a woman carrying on a long-distance-but-ever-face-to-face affair, and a few stories about a woman who dies of cancer (the story "Here" is one of the saddest things I've read). My favorite story is titled "Demolition" about a southern church that slips, seemingly innocuously, into a sex cult. How could that happen? This collection — which wound up on several readers' best of 2013 lists — is highly, highly recommended.

2. Bark, by Lorrie Moore — This collection was, frankly, a bit disappointing. Of the eight stories included here, only two seemed like well-developed actual short stories (i.e., more than 12 pages), while the other six, all fewer than 12 tiny pages all felt incomplete — like first drafts of longer projects. The two longer stories, however, were both very good. Lorrie Moore is one of those writers for whom the curtains are never just blue — everything means something else. The first story, titled "Debarked" is about a divorced guy named Ira who begins dating a crazy woman with a teenaged son, and a very uncomfortable-making relationship with him. Poor Ira just can't seem to get it together. The other long story - my favorite in the collection - is titled "Wings." It's about a failed musician couple who live in a rental house in the suburbs. The woman befriends a dying old man in the neighborhood, which creates more problems than she could've thought. Fascinating story, in which Moore's trick here is making the easy way out not seem like the easy way out. You'll have to read it for that to make more sense. This collection is worth picking up just for this story.

3. Leaving the Sea, by Ben Marcus —This collection ranged from straighforward-and-awesome stories, to experimental-and-awesome stories, to experimental-and-WTF-is-he-talking-about stories. The stories in the former two categories were mostly really interesting and fun to read. The stories in the latter (of which, mercifully, there are fewer) were a bit of a slog — you have almost no clue what is going on, like Marcus forgot to include the Rosetta stone that would translate his words into a recognizable story. But so, the collection is arranged in six section, the first of which includes four pretty straight-forward stories, all of which are really good. "I Can Say Many Nice Things" is a highlight — an amusing, slightly sad story about a guy teaching a writing workshop on a cruise ship. The last story in the collection, the longest - almost novella length - was a mixed bag, a microcosm of the collection itself. It's titled "The Moors," and it's ostensibly about a creeping guy following a woman to the office coffee bar. But throughout the story, Marcus is digressive and philosophical and sometimes hilarious and sometimes unintelligible. I'd recommend reading this story first, actually, and then starting at the beginning with the more traditional short stories. (Oh, and I'd recommend skipping "The Father Costume" all together - it doesn't make a lick of sense.)

4. The Fun Parts, by Sam Lipsyte — There's a fine line between amusing self-deprecation and just plain sad, and many of the characters in Lipsyte's collection - generally drug-addicted or otherwise down-on-their-luck - blow past that line with reckless abandon. They're just pedantic and pathetic, and you feel more sorry for them than you're willing to laugh at them, or even try to empathize with them. There are few highlights: "The Wisdom of the Doulas" is a really funny story about a guy who worms his way into a job as a doula for a couple, but quickly oversteps his bounds, and vastly overstays his welcome. "The Climber Room," the first story in the collection, is another highlight — it's about a failed poet who a rich guy enlists to pay special attention to his spoiled son at the daycare where she works. Overall, though, this collection was a huge downer, and largely disappointing.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Rehearsal: The Play's the Thing

Eleanor Catton's debut novel, The Rehearsal, written as her master's thesis, was published when she was only 23 years old. Her follow-up, The Luminaries, is a hugely complex, massive novel that won her a buttload of awards, recognition, and fame.

David Foster Wallace's debut novel, The Broom of the System, written as his undergraduate thesis, was published when he was 24 years old. His follow up novel, Infinite Jest, was a hugely complex, massive novel that won him a buttload of awards, recognition and fame.

Interesting, isn't it?

There are other comparison between the two, especially, it seems, in their theories on pushing the envelope on what a novel is. And I'm quite certain David Foster Wallace would've LOVED Eleanor Catton's stuff. But it's a little sad to think about. I can tell you this, though, now having read both of Catton's novels: I'll read every word she publishes forever. She's that good.

And but so, The Rehearsal — what a strange, inventive little novel! Publisher's Weekly wrote about The Rehearsal when it was first published in the US in 2010: "It's a good piece of writing, but not an especially enjoyable novel." I actually think it's a GREAT piece of writing, and as piece of fiction read for pleasure, PW might be right that it's not as enjoyable as say, a Dan Brown novel, but it's still immensely enjoyable. It just takes a little work.

The story is this: In the aftermath of a sexual scandal (a teacher slept with a student) at an all-girl's high school, several girls attempt to come to terms with what happened. These girls are all connected by a mysterious saxophone tudor, to whom they tell about the daily goings on in their lives, including the fallout from the scandal. There are three protagonists — one is Isolde, the younger sister of the girl Victoria, who was seduced (or was she the seducer?) by the teacher. Julia is another, she's an outspoken saxophone student and in the same class as Victoria. She and Isolde become acquainted and begin a relationship (or do they?). Finally, intertwined with the story of these girls is the story of acting student Stanley, who has been accepted into the prestigious Drama Institute. The stories converge near the end as Stanley becomes more involved in Isolde's life than he'd probably want to.

Part of the point of the novel — and I highlighted about 37 passages in this novel that relate to this; Catton is AMAZING on a line-by-line basis — is that it's so hard to tell what's genuine and what's an act. Catton writes: “Every word that comes out of your mouth – they’re just lines. They’re lines that you’ve learned very carefully, so carefully you’ve convinced yourself they are yours, but that’s all they are. They’re lines I’ve heard many times before.”

I loved this novel, but I may be in the minority. It's not a "difficult" novel, per se, but it's certainly not a straightforward, point-A-to-point-B type of fiction. We jump back and forth in time, we have several points of view, and sometimes we're not sure if we're in real-time action, or if a character is simply telling a story. It's heady stuff, but even if you don't understand everything Catton's up to here (and I sure didn't!), it's still an absolute pleasure to read. She's quickly become one of my favorite writers.