Friday, February 28, 2014

A brief review of Ben Marcus’s Leaving the Sea: Stories

Having immersed myself in Ben Marcus’s fiction for awhile, it dawned on me: every fiction writer creates their own world, ready made. Marcus’s new story collection Leaving the Sea is wide ranging, if variable and perhaps uneven because of the terrain it covers, from the experimental, to the more traditional narrative with a gloss of dystopia—which for being distilled and strained through the Marcus language machine, are still somehow, experimental. Marcus is bold for being an experimental writer with the full endorsement and backing of the mainstream publishing venues. However, here, the variety suggests that some of the approaches aren’t overwhelmingly successful. The most successful stories rely on trusty narrative hooks (“The Loyalty Protocol”), and a sense of scene building, ultimately driven by an ensemble of characters at odds to the protagonist. Often these stories rely on a kind of extreme antagonism between family members, frequently between a father and son. In this way, Marcus mines familial territory with the anomic detachment and numbness of Kafka, and the barely contained rage of a Beckett figure forced into society under duress.

Marcus has roughly three periods: early (enigmatic), middle (slightly less enigmatic) and late (more familiar, if still shrouded in occasional cryptic trappings), corresponding roughly to his three previous books. This collection is almost evenly spread over these three periods. Marcus, besides making this jump from his earlier, often cryptic narrative making, into a more straightforward, perhaps accessible story telling in recent stories, establishes himself as firmly rooted in the modernist tradition. This is to see such a position as a duty to literary history—and the study of it—and perhaps a responsibility, a la David Foster Wallace.

Attention can lag in a few of these stories, in particular “Watching Mysteries with My Mother”. This story might suffer the diagnosis Marcus made himself in “On the Lyric Essay”, a 2003 piece in The Believer, when he talks about “[…] the implied tedium of fiction not driven by story, particularly if a reader is expecting one. ” Is it then still a story? What set this story up for this was the frequent refrains, which felt like code words for “now the author is going to reintroduce the repetitive phrase,” while it didn’t feel as if the story was progressing. The story’s agenda did not meet the reader’s prerogative.

Where he doesn’t use this language toward estrangement, as he does in the early stories, he provides alienating scenarios, particularly as a means of buttressing the dystopia. Where successful, I sensed something new for Marcus was blossoming on the page, as in “The Loyalty Protocol”. The beauty, and fascination for me, of Marcus’s writing, tends to come with seeing his meticulousness with the possibilities in the language. Or, as I said of Notable American Women (here, in a review of The Flame Alphabet), Marcus has a knack for “remarkable description [which] leads the reader to recognition and surprise from which irony elicits hilarity.” One of the earliest published of the stories in Leaving the Sea, “First Love”, feels as if it might have come as a revelation between The Age of Wire and String and Notable American Women. In this story, there’s a sense that the use of language as applied to a physical activity described in the story, is fresh, as if being discovered by the author. Marcus has so often reapplied this approach, however, that in the later stories the effect can feel stale and overworked. That’s why the newest stories, though traditional in narrative form—even, perhaps, conventional—though a departure from his signature style, are a welcome and interesting development. These are stories not of the usual world, but one a few degrees off kilter in an alternative existence. 

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

A brief review of Racher Kushner's The Flamethrowers

Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers has restored my belief in first person narratives. She somehow seamlessly conveys this character in a way that is at once sympathetic, and very convincing. Particularly when it comes to the secondary characters, who come to life through dialogue. First person has always been problematic to me, maybe because of the insistence on the voice of one. Yet Kushner delivers on all of these characters (sure, some more than others) which requires the conviction of the narrator/protagonist to convey.

First of all, Kushner has a good premise, though it’s also just unbelievable enough to work. What I mean is that much of her plot seems to rely on highly unlikely confluence of events. But what remains behind is the story, and getting from A to B to C to Z. It’s as if she had these events, in most cases bigger than the usual personal narrative as a kind of stand in for plot, but the personal also intermixes with the larger events. (The motorcycle racing; the riots in Rome, etc.) So she establishes these premises, and brings the narrator to the fore. This structure of the political/historical frames the narrator’s life story in a way we can viscerally grasp. As if to say, “How would I react to this circumstance?” This novelistic approach seems obvious, yet as a writer, you have to look hard to establish what these events/frame could be. In retrospect, these are among my favorite novels, those that do not necessarily fictionalize history, but use an aspect of its drama to inform a novel “in situ,” shall we say.

This is why realism is so much more compelling than genre, which usually feels off to me. I need to believe the story’s fact base. The limitations, and possibilities, with what we have in this world, are enough. I’m more interested in psychology, in relationships. In genre, secondary characters are usually functionary to the main character. Now, it could be said of The Flamethrowers, that the secondary characters are functionary to the main character, but it doesn’t entirely feel this way. It’s more the difference between round and flat characters: you almost have to be willing to venture into those other characters’ lives, and tell their stories, for them to be believable. (This is, incidentally, the same problem that Downton Abbey is having, according to David Wiegand, and I don’t disagree. You cannot take characters that are round and proceed with “batting them about with amateur abandon” to provide entertainment). As soon as you are biased, or create a character merely to hold up some aspect of your main character—or plot line--I think the story goes dead on the page. It’s not necessarily the case with memoir or non-fiction because all you have is the event and the protagonist driving the narrative—there’s a clear line of plot that is to be arrived at. I’m thinking of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, which was an unrelenting page turning wonder. In these non-fiction/memoir accounts, the secondary characters are often composites, or established to best illustrate the narrow, yet highly specific terrain of the story’s premise.

Of this main character, Reno, I’m not entirely sympathetic. I don’t know if she needs the reader’s sympathy, because she is such a strong character herself. As for Sandro, her love interest, he seems to live down to his expectations, and they only thing you might hope for from this relationship, is that she gains some empowerment. I’d have rather not had her equivocation about Sandro at the end, and would have preferred his fall so to speak, to be more dramatic. But I’m sure novelistically, this would have been too easy, perhaps, or even too conventional. And above all I liked this novel it’s willingness to be both feminist and obliquely sexist, ie., true to the characters. (This is an entire other subject that The Flamethrowers complicatedly presents, perhaps to explore in a longer post.) So Sandro is not a total louse after all, just a victim of Italian patriarchy.

Maybe the novel is a bit too invested in imagery—as per Kushner’s closing note/essay—but I feel she pulled it off so compellingly that I accepted it. Pulled it off in smart, hyper-literate prose; not so ultra hip as you might think by the seventies gloss and Technicolor, but hip enough, and hipper than most. I never flagged in my interest in this book, mainly held by this sophisticated prose. And it fits right in there with the novels that I love enough to remind me why I love them (Norman Rush’s Mortals, Bolano’s 2666, Anna Karenina, Cortazar’s Hopscotch.)