Review: Last Days, by Brian Evenson

>>Published: February 2009

>>Finally got around to it: January 2011

A dim howl went up through the house and Kline heard, scattered through the chairs, a dull thumping, the sound of stumps beating against one another. She made her way toward one side of the stage, spinning slightly, and then snapped the stump of her arm against her remaining hand and Kline saw three fingers wobble loose and slough away. The crowd roared. He tried to stand up but Ramse had his hand on his shoulder and was shouting in his ear. “Just you wait,” Ramse shouted, “the best is yet to come.”

And then the woman sashayed across the stage and reached up with her remaining finger and thumb to tear free her ear. She spun it around a few times before tossing it out into the audience. Kline saw a group of men rise up in a dark mass, trying somehow, with what hands they had left between them, to catch it. And then she turned away, turned her back to them, and when she turned back her artificial breasts had been pulled away to hang like an apron around her belly, revealing two shiny flat patches where they had been. She spread her legs and squatted and Kline imagined her legs were beginning to separate, to split up. Jesus, God, he thought, and tried to stand, and felt Ramse trying to hold him down, and felt the blood rush to his head. He staggered forward and into the small table, hot coffee sloshing all over his legs, and looked up to see the woman on the stage gouging her fingers beneath one side of her face, but mercifully, before she had torn it away, he had fallen and did not, despite Ramse’s urging, get up again.

***

Violent. Vulgar. Uncomfortable.

The three words that first come to mind when I try to reflect on Brian Evenson’s Last Days, a quick, pulp/hard-boiled mystery laced with dismemberment, cults, and possibly more blood per page than any book I’ve ever read. And, maybe not surprisingly if you know a thing or two about me and my phobias (I don’t stand up so well to blood—matter of fact, sometimes I fall straight over at the sight), this made it a bit difficult to see this book through to the end. I don’t think I’ve struggled to want to finish a book this much since Ryu Murakami’s Audition (to which the film version is almost equally horrifying). Maybe that’s why I’ve posted as much of the book as I have up above—as a disclaimer to anyone who might still be interested once I’ve said my peace.

Because this book most definitely has an audience. It moves at a wicked pace, and it has a great deal of comic sensibility, especially between the characters of Ramse and Gous, and I appreciated the partially fresh take on the oppressive, whacked-out-of-its-mind religious cult (the somewhat skewed biblical conceit of removing one’s hand should it offend, and taking that to the Nth degree by continuing to remove body parts as needed—because less is more, and less will bring you closer to God).

BUT.

And this is a big one.

If the section I’ve quoted at the beginning has your stomach turning ass over teakettle, or if you have any squeamishness towards blood and funny little things like dismemberment, think twice. Because the quick pace and fired-up style doesn’t outweigh the paper-thin characters, or the recycled tropes of the religious leader who seeks absolute devotion no matter the cost, winding the hero around his thumb (whether it’s there still or not) by answering only with misinformation. And when those details are stripped away, all that’s left are the blood-splattered bed spreads of too many devotees and not enough promise to have given their lives for.

Recommended for the shock-and-awe reader, but no one else.

Review: Krakow Melt, by Daniel Allen Cox

>>Published: August 2010

>>Finally got around to it: January 2011

This was the Euro Disney of cemeteries, a necropolis. Death is done right in Poland, and I don’t mean that with any disrespect. I mean that angels are sculpted of marble, not granite, tombs are kept clean and accessible, the catacombs and columbariums pristine. Corpse names are written in fonts so sexy they make you want to cum. The architecture of remembrance is not left to lie fallow, not here. The parents of Pope Jan Pawel II were buried here, but that wasn’t why we’d made the trip.

Dressing in black to visit a cemetery is cliché, but when the purpose of your visit is to candle-bomb the place, it’s just practical. Stealth is prime in such situations.

***

Incendiary is an easy word to toss around with any book that strives to make a political or social statement, that features protagonists who seek to dismantle the oppression of a religious belief structure, a regime, or most destructive of all, an idea. The idea that one way of living is right, and another is wrong. Amoral. To be judged and deemed as something less than human—less than respectable. With Krakow Melt, incendiary is of critical merit, not only because of the social strata that Cox paints with a gasoline-soaked brush, but because of the methods by which his heroes tackle that which would deny them their basic human rights—to be as free, socially and sexually, as they want to be.

Cox’s protagonist, Radek, is a bisexual artist living in Poland in 2005, where he practices parkour and firebombs popsicle-stick sculptures of cities—the consummation of cultural norms through the ultimate means of destructive expression. Together with Dorota, a literature student who finds herself absorbed by what Radek’s radicalism represents, they explore one another and attempt to define for themselves where their desires fit in a predominantly homophobic culture that would seek to destroy them rather than understand them.

Radek’s passion for fire and the equalizing power it represents comes from his interest in the art of Christo and Jeanne-Claude, who in their careers together have wrapped the Reichstag in a woven polypropylene fabric, created a 39.4 kilometre fence out of white nylon that ran through the hills of Marin and Sonoma counties, and generally altered the topographical face of the earth for their art. With Dorota at his side, he continues to question ways in which, through fire and by vaulting past the crumbling edifices of a Poland entrenched in fear and homophobia, his art can make any sort of difference.

At a lean 151 pages, Krakow Melt is, in its own way, an incendiary device—a book of ideas and the allure of destruction as a means to bring order and balance to a society. To, quite literally in some cases, level the playing field. Cox writes with a pace he expects his characters to match, never lingering on any one thing for far too long. And when violence, vulgarity and brutality are employed in the service of the narrative, it is done with the same speed, the same sense of shock and surprise that the story has been structured upon, mashed together and unfortunately bereft of sincere depth. Radek and Dorota are surface artists, composed of ideas that burn, and burn quickly, but without the tertiary layers of skin that one would hope to discover once the ashes have been brushed away. Then again, in a book this svelte, packed with anger and condemnation for such anachronistic ideals, maybe the surface is all that needs to burn—because maybe there aren’t any more layers to the world than that.

You’re afraid or you’re not.

You understand or you want to run away, cry foul, shout that the way others are living their lives isn’t what you think is right and they need to be judged for their sins.

Krakow Melt is a firebomb of Cox’s own creation, one that burns and burns brightly for its duration, yet holds back in the end, refraining from peeling away the blackened and charred flesh and showing us just how deep the horror show goes.

Review: Cut Through the Bone, by Ethel Rohan

>>Published: December 2010

>>Finally got around to it: January 2011

I slapped at his arms, his chest. He jumped away from me. We stared at each other, stunned, breathless. I felt I had holes in my head and face from the crush of his fingers. He dropped to his knees and cradled me tightly in his lap, hid his face in my shoulder. Inside the glass, my mother flailed, a tree in a storm, trying to get to us.

***

Like a knife turned on its side, shaving away tissue-thin portions of skin one after another until seeing red, the thirty tales in Ethel Rohan’s debut short story collection Cut Through the Bone are self-contained, sometimes lyrical, often brutal slices of flash fiction, each ending with such a sharp intake of air one might feel lightheaded after reading too many at once.

In the past, flash fiction, as a form unto itself, is not something that I had given a great deal of thought to. The limits—500-1,000 words in most cases—seemed, to me, almost too restrictive. I’ve been writing a lot of short stories over the past two years, and when I first got wind of flash fiction I admit the idea of deliberately confining a narrative into such a tightly formed burst of words seemed, at the time, ludicrous. I was having a difficult enough time keeping myself within the parameters of a few thousand words; competent flash fiction seemed, thanks to a mental block I’d given myself, impossible. My thoughts on the subject, however, were clearly misguided, and like all things, strong work from the right hand will always light the way.

Flash fiction isn’t about restrictions. It’s about paring down, carving away adjectives and nouns, trimming modifiers and superfluous language until what’s left is only the barest of essentials—a breathless hit from a pipe that will spin your world. That’s what Ethel Rohan’s collection, Cut Through the Bone, delivers.

In thirty stories spread over a sparse but fulfilling 112 pages, Rohan gives us minimalist narratives of mostly nameless avatars: families falling apart; sons and mothers unable to communicate with one another; daughters and fathers adjusting to abandonment by the third peg in their once-was trio; a woman who, to the distress of her husband, latches on to an army of lifelike dolls to give her love to when there is no flesh and blood child to reciprocate; acceptance and rejection of the body as a thing to be cherished for what remains, or something to be scarred forever in an attempt to remake one’s life and, at the same time, inspire the jealousy of others. From “Under the Scalpel”:

Carrie’s hand rushed to her mouth. John gaped. The others paled. I shot out of my chair. Mom stood in the doorway in her long white nightdress, ghostly and unsteady. Her wig was lopsided and her make-up had melted. A doll burning in a fire. She looked from the others’ repulsed expressions to me, her lips two wiggling worms. She made small, wounded noises.

I hurried to her, my arms out. “Mommy. It’s okay, Mommy.”

I led her back to the stairs. My lies echoed in the hall, came back at us. She felt so tiny inside my arm, fragile and childlike, ,and yet the burden of her slithered up my spine, tightened around my throat.

Rohan understands the sparseness of language required in each of her stories, and she doesn’t abuse that. While some are admittedly stronger than others—the entries “Lifelike”, “Gone”, and “Next to the Gutter” are the fiercest pieces in the collection—the thirty stories in Cut Through the Bone offer a wealth of emotion and control, guiding readers through a minefield of disturbingly fragmented lifelines.

As a short aside, this is the first product I’ve had the pleasure of reading from Seattle-based Dark Sky Books. The chapbook-style is perfect for flash fiction, and the book maintains a very clean sense of style and organization, not to mention some beautiful cover art by a Seattle artist named Siolo Thompson. I’m very curious to see more work from Dark Sky if this is the quality of their early offerings.

Review: Napier’s Bones, by Derryl Murphy

>>To be published: March 2011

Math is the language of the universe. A bold statement, but a true one. Dialects and language barriers divide our world into smaller and smaller pieces, but mathematics remains a universal constant—a reality we can use to define one another and the means by which our world and all worlds exist, rather than the verisimilitude faith and social artifices provide. Mathematical rules—numbers and nigh-unfathomable calculations, to be more precise—are the heart of Derryl Murphy’s upcoming supernatural thriller from ChiZine Publications. Most interestingly, Napier’s Bones posits a question that gives credence to the axiom that math is indeed the backbone of our universe by looking at the numbers that surround us—those we see and those we don’t—through the guise of the fantastic that the perceived rigidity of mathematics seeks to undermine: What if math could be magic?

Able to manipulate numbers as if they were magical tools and spells, Dom, a numerate, is seeking an item of unfathomable strength—a mathematically imbued treasure of such power that if it were to fall into the wrong hands, could change the world. Together with Jenna, a fledgling numerate still discovering her abilities, and Billy, the long-dead, disembodied voice of a former numerate inhabiting Dom’s mind and body, the trio must cross country and continent to track down the item, all while eluding a mysterious numerate of almost mythic strength.

Napier’s Bones is something of an original beast—a melding of historical, cultural, mystical, and mathematical conceits that comfortably co-exist in Murphy’s vision of our world, a world ignorant of the hard science at the core of everything, even those elements seemingly supernatural or mystical in origin. The pacing is tight throughout; the book reads with the speed and buoyancy of a pulp novel that has been paired with logarithms, numerical swarms of oncoming death, and stone giants from ages past, yet it all comes together as a complete—and sometimes descriptively sparse—narrative.

Near the middle of the book, the sense of magic and impossibility begins to impose on the mathematical rules of the world, as the numbers begin to feel more and more as if they are a part of the very atmosphere, seeping out from the pores of the earth, rather than continuing to have something of a grounding in reality. As a result, what started out as a work that tread the lines between the axiom and fantasy lost a little of the charmingly obsessive detail it first presented the reader with. However, this is a small, niggling thing that barely scrapes away any of the original paint on a model that is altogether unique.

With Napier’s Bones, Derryl Murphy has given readers a new toy box to play in, one with a set of rules so widely accepted and understood that, regardless of the fantastical nature of the narrative and characters, our feet remain firmly on the ground. That, and an ending that screams out for a sequel of mathematically mind-numbing complexity, is a surprising and all too rare treat.

 

Review: The Sentimentalists, by Johanna Skibsrud

>>Published: October 2009

>>Finally got around to it: January 2011

The talk of the publishing world. The darling about town from the little press that could. Such is the weight that Johanna Skibsrud’s debut novel has been saddled with since its unexpected Giller win back in November 2010. Against what some guessed were sure bets—Light Lifting and Annabel immediately spring to mind—this hand-crafted, small print run title surprised everybody, taking home the largest prize in the Canadian publishing industry.

I managed to snag a copy of this, conveniently and to my surprise given its limited availability, almost immediately after the Giller win, but, like Franzen’s Freedom, I just wasn’t able to sink into it right away. The hype—the countless stories and baseless debates about whether or not her publisher, Gaspereau Press, could handle the suddenly atmospheric demand of the title—was practically deafening, and in the face of that much noise, I kept my distance. If this book was everything the Giller claimed it to be, I wanted to go into it with a clear head.

So.

It’s always best to lead off on a high note, and I can’t think of any better place to begin than the book’s amazing look and feel. This was my first Gaspereau book—after seeing the rather unfortunate D&M redesign, I was thankful for my luck—and their reputations as aesthetes is immediately apparent. From the thick, textured cover stock adorned with a lovely graphite etching, to the little stylistic flourishes speckled throughout the interior, there is no doubt to the publisher’s commitment to producing a book that is meant to be bought, valued, and passed on to another, rather than being unceremoniously discarded or treated with ambivalence. Gaspereau’s eye for aesthetic detail is seldom seen in an industry that is all too often required to strike a very fine balance between form, functionality and cost.

You’ll notice I’ve refrained from talking about the text itself. There’s a reason for that.

Hype. It’s unavoidable.

I felt like I had given myself more than enough time to let the shadow of the Giller victory wash away from the book’s surface, hopefully allowing me to enjoy as I would any other title—with little to no preconceptions. As I read, I found this to be almost impossible.

The story, told from the perspective of a nameless narrator, tells the tale of a husband, father, and war veteran, Napoleon Haskell, as he moves from Fargo, North Dakota, to a fictional Ontario town, eclectically named Casablanca. There, we’re treated to a third-person account of Haskell’s life—his failings as a husband and father to two girls, the long friendship he has cultivated with the father of a comrade in arms lost in the Vietnam War, and yes, his time in the war itself. The strength of this story rests on the shoulders of the narrator’s relationship to not only her father, but also to the father of the young man lost to mysterious circumstances while in Vietnam. As her life is met with rather sudden and unpredictable change, she seeks to learn more about why her father is the man that she has come to know. The story itself is not the problem—it’s how it has been served.

Skibsrud is a poet first, and that is more than obvious in the deliberate layering of the text into almost labyrinthine series of ever more delicate (and arrhythmic) curlycues. She employs an almost obsessive compulsive amount of commas and dashes—so much so that sentences and entire paragraphs wind themselves into circuitous thoughts that are seldom resolved. The result of this, unfortunately, is a book that struggles to say so very little by saying more than it ever should—and somehow, in the process, says almost nothing at all.

Reading The Sentimentalists, I was repeatedly jostled out of the experience by such a seemingly deliberate lack of rhythm. Each time that happened—and sadly, it was more than a few times—I found myself inadvertently thinking back to the one thing I was trying to forget: This book, this gorgeous little identity-crisis of loving, minimalist design and confounding, over-complicated sentence structure, took home the most prestigious prize in Canadian publishing.

Did I hate the book? No, not at all. There were several places where the little sparks in the relationship between Haskell and his unnamed narrator daughter were genuinely moving, and I quite enjoyed the sudden starkness and break from form that the interrogation provided. However, the simplicity of the back-and-forth interrogation was such a departure from what had come before that it only seemed to heighten the frustration I felt towards the rest of the book.

The Sentimentalists is a lovingly produced book, and very unique, but I couldn’t help but feel, as I was reading, how desperately in need of a strong editorial hand it was. While some may cry out that I’m calling for the book to be lobotomized in favour of pandering to the easy-reading public, I would counter by saying that I found the poetic, lyrical trappings of the narrative as nothing more that a method for masking the writer’s insecurities. It was as if she was fearful of presenting a concrete thought or idea, one way or another. The result of that is a book that has left a slightly sour taste in my mouth, as if I’ve been shown a portrait of a once-young man through the divided white space of a crossword puzzle.

2011: Starting All Over Again

1. The Sentimentalists – Johanna Skibsrud
2. Napier’s Bones – Derryl Murphy
3. Cut Through the Bone: Stories – Ethel Rohan
4. The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less – Barry Schwartz
5. Krakow Melt – Daniel Allen Cox
6. The Bone Cage – Angie Abdou
7. Uglies – Scott Westerfeld
8. Pretties – Scott Westerfeld
9. Specials – Scott Westerfeld
10. On Writing – Stephen King
11. Extras – Scott Westerfeld
12. You Are Not A Gadget – Jaron Lanier
13. Popular Hits of the Showa Era – Ryu Murakami
14. Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World – Jane McGonigal
15. Nexus: Ascension – Robert Boyczuk
16. Witness to a Conga and Other Plays – Stewart Lemoine
17. Daytripper – Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá
18. House of Spells – Robert Pepper-Smith
19. Vancouver Special – Charles Demers
20. Ghostwritten – David Mitchell
21. Be Good – Stacey May Fowles
22. The Colony – Jillian Weise
23. Strangers – Taichi Yamada
24. The Beggar’s Garden – Michael Christie
25. One Day – David Nicholls
26. The Illumination – Kevin Brockmeier
27. The Rest is Noise – Alex Ross
28. Kafka on the Shore – Haruki Murakami
29. Pink Noise – Leonid Korogodski
30. What I Saw and How I Lied – Judy Blundell
31. The Unit – Ninni Holmqvist
32. Among Others – Jo Walton
33. Sleepless – Charlie Huston
34. Every Shallow Cut – Tom Piccirilli
35. Up Up Up – Julie Booker
36. Fear and Trembling – Amélie Nothomb
37. The Terminal Experiment – Robert J. Sawyer
38. The Door to Lost Pages – Claude Lalumiere
39. Machine of Death – Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo, & David Malki !
40. Paying For It – Chester Brown
41. The Canterbury Trail – Angie Abdou
42. Grace – Vanessa Smith
43. The Character of Rain – Amélie Nothomb
44. The Stories of Ibis – Hiroshi Yamamoto
45. More Money than Brains – Laura Penny
46. The Order of the Odd-Fish – James Kennedy
47. Infinite Reality – Jim Blascovich and Jeremy Bailenson
48. Business As Usual – Michael Boughn
49. A Visit from the Goon Squad – Jennifer Egan
50. Robopocalypse – Daniel H. Wilson
51. The Lake – Banana Yoshimoto
52. Monoceros – Suzette Mayr
53. Who Fears Death – Nnedi Okorafor
54. The Life of Hunger – Amélie Nothomb
55. Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth – Chris Ware
56. Divergent – Veronica Roth
57. The Art of Racing in the Rain – Garth Stein
58. What You See in the Dark – Manuel Muñoz
59. Lemon – Cordelia Strube
60. Who Are We and Should it Matter in the Twenty-First Century? – Gary Younge
61. In Search of a Distant Voice – Taichi Yamada
62. Skim – Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki
63. Blankets – Craig Thompson
64. The Imperfectionists – Tom Rachman
64. Revolver – Matt Kindt
65. All Men of Genius – Lev AC Rosen
66. The Red Market – Scott Carney
67. Long For This World: The Strange Science of Immortality – Jonathan Weiner
68. The Geographies of a Lover – Sarah de Leeuw
69. Restless White Fields – Barbara Langhorst
70. Western Taxidermy – Barb Howard
71. Dance, Gladys, Dance – Cassie Stocks
72. Greedy Little Eyes – Billie Livingston
73. Harmony – Project Itoh
74. The Man Who Killed – Fraser Nixon
75. Sulphuric Acid – Amelié Nothomb
76. Ready Player One – Ernest Cline
77. Once You Break A Knuckle – D.W. Wilson
78. Venous Hum – Suzette Mayr
79. Eeeee Eee Eeee – Tao Lin
80. The Burning – Jane Casey
81. Eutopia: A Novel of Terrible Optimism – David Nickle
82. The Odious Child – Carolyn Black
83. Hull Zero Three – Greg Bear
84. The Antagonist – Lynn Coady
85. Awakenings – Edward Lazellari
86. Beauty Plus Pity – Kevin Chong
87. Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlife – David Eagleman
88. Boneshaker – Cherie Priest
89. Dreadnought – Cherie Priest
90. Ganymede – Cherie Priest
91. Better Living Through Plastic Explosives – ZsuZsi Gartner
92. The Mere Future – Sarah Schulman
93. Reality Hunger: A Manifesto – David Shields
94. Half-Blood Blues – Esi Edugyan
95. Incognito – David Eagleman
96. Tokyo Fiancée – Amélie Nothomb
97. Beautiful Chaos – Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl
98. Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations – Clay Shirky
99. Daybreak – Brian Ralph
100. The Sisters Brothers – Patrick DeWitt
101. Embassytown – China Miéville
102. Wolf Boy – Evan Kuhlman
103. Crimson Labyrinth – Yusuke Kishi
104. Enter, Night – Michael Rowe
105. We Need to Talk About Kevin – Lionel Shriver
106. Cleavage – Theanna Bischoff
107. Glass Boys – Nicole Lundrigan
108. The Death Ray – Daniel Clowes
109. Haunted – Philippe Dupuy
110. 1Q84 – Haruki Murakami