"The Water Diviner and Other Stories" by Ruvanee Pietersz Vilhauer

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New author Ruvanee Pietersz Vilhauer won the 2018 Iowa Short Fiction Award by hewing close to the theme of the culture shock experienced by immigrants to the United States from Sri Lanka. In “The Water Diviner and Other Stories,” these uprooted people react and adjust - or fail to adjust -  in a wide variety of ways to the strange American customs and culture. Their stories are told in effective and unadorned language; the emotions and tensions are plainly depicted, sometimes lurking below the surface, sometimes erupting strongly into the open.

There are the childhood friends visiting in young adulthood, in which old grievances prove surprisingly durable (“The Beauty Queen”); in “The Water Diviner” a woman emerges from the thrall of a televangelist to turn once again to her “real” life when a prophecy turns false. In “Sunny’s Last Game” immigrant parents find reason to back off their tendency to over-protect their junior-high student son. The urge arose from perceived slights inflicted by classmates. 

In one of the more interesting pieces - among 15 absorbing stories collected here - “The Lepidopterist” portrays the struggles of a girl who treats everything she reads and everything everyone says as strictly - abnormally - literal. However she grows to become a scientist spurred by her childhood fascination with butterflies. She triumphs over the prejudices she faced as a young girl, and this is often the case with other characters whose talents and attitudes serve them well and provide the basis for success in life, in the U.S. or Sri Lanka.

It is plainly the skill in executing these stories that won Ms. Vilhauer the award. Pacing and structure, characterization and treatment of theme, all bear the stamp of an accomplished fiction artist. These stories feature both variety and clarity: characters are found and portrayed in very different circumstances and stages of the assimilation process - often within a single story. It’s a pleasing, impressive display taken together. Congratulations once again to the jury giving the Iowa short fiction awards. This is another deserving winner.

"The Lightning Jar" by Christian Felt

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In The Lightning Jar author Christian Felt spins out a curious mix of the imaginative and the impossible - or seemingly impossible. For nothing is really impossible in a child’s imagination. This short story collection contains perplexing shifts in which the reader must allow for fanciful surprises and arresting changes of scene and mood. But how better to conjure a child’s active mind, and where better to set it than in Scandinavia the backdrop Hans Christian Andersen used.

Mr. Felt twirls his spell over us, challenging us with his cuts and swerves, in his adept evocation of a child’s imagination. One loose series of stories leads us on the trail of Karl’s life by a lake, with his sister and cousins. At least I think the cousins are real. He arranges a series of empty jars outdoors during a thunderstorm, hoping to capture lightning, and then wonders what to do about rainwater accumulating in them. 

“She washed their castoff shells, it seemed, every day, yet the cousins always found something smudgy to wear.” Are these hermit crabs? They leave at the appointed time, but leave the youngest. The smallest cousin (the name of one of the stories) apparently falls into a tube of fulgurite; Karl can hear him laughing at the bottom of the tube. Karl then wears a jar with a captured ghost to a bonfire, wants to dance but doesn’t. A guest comes to visit at the lake (he’s presumably real - he smells like Cheerios), and turns out to be an excellent storyteller.

A subsequent series features a deformed youngster named Mons who vaguely pursues collecting a tax on whales in the local pond. He guards a magic ruby from a kind of troll who
apparently takes half of everything you have when you encounter it. 

Midway through this collection and at its end, the author provides vivid tales of family history; these stories are more orthodox, and interesting for the contrast they exhibit. Taken on the whole, Mr. Felt achieves a beguiling mix of fancy and image. We’re never quite sure what will happen next, since it almost always depends on the imagination of a bright and energetic child. The stories mark the arrival of a writer whose future is hard to imagine. His language is effective, his vision highly spectacular. I clearly look forward to more of this young man’s spectacles.

"The Sympathizer" by Viet Thanh Nguyen

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The Sympathizer forces our sympathies in the first-person narrator’s direction. His exposition of a spy’s secret and challenging life endears him to us; it’s honest, funny, even charming. Set in the years following America’s pullout of Viet Nam, Sympathizer presents us with the narrative of one man’s navigation of the treachery, prejudice, and continued illusion of those who would dream of re-establishing a capitalist regime in the South.

The story’s narrator is not named, but he works for the victorious forces of Ho Chi Minh, spying on the tatters that remain of the army of the Republic of Viet Nam. Author Viet Thanh Nguyen’s book won the Pulitzer Prize in 2016, and its theme, plot, and style give ample reason. He treats American cultural imperialism, Vietnamese cunning and venality on both sides, and the helplessness of individuals in the face of powerful historical forces, with equal ease, wisdom, and a kind of fatalistic black humor.

This is a highly engaging piece. Mr. Nguyen approaches each idea and episode with an everyman’s pluck and sarcasm. His hero dabbles in some pretty nefarious activities, but when he’s forced into schemes which result in murder, the victims haunt him throughout the rest of the book. In fact, when he returns to his homeland, a spy embedded in an ill-fated recon mission with a motley group of zealots, his capture by the Communists results in imprisonment instead of the favorable treatment he would be justified in expecting.

The book has a light framework into which it fits: in his solitary confinement, he is made to write his confession, and this book is it. He seeks to please the commandant and commissar in charge of the prison, to convince them he is true to the revolutionary cause. But his style displeases them; his decadent Western influences betray him; his consulting work on a major motion picture failed to please anyone, even when he tried to help show Vietnamese in a favorable light.

One element of this story weighs on the personal story of our narrator. He is one of three men who swore a blood oath during their early teens. One of the others fights for the capitalist side, and the other leads Communist forces trying to rebuild the south. The protagonist leads a double life: his heart is that of a revolutionary Communist, but by all outward appearances, he’s a Southern capitalist soldier all the way. In the imprisonment which covers the end of the book, the commissar ultimately brainwashes him and splinters his personality in two.

So at story’s end, he is truly riven in two, and to get on with the remainder of his life he must first find a way to heal his mind and heart. Mr. Nguyen shows stunning cleverness and aplomb with this conceit. His main character loves both sides of View Nam; he tries to reconcile the split that has reached even his own person.
The love of his homeland flavors every sentence and thought here, and the pain in the face of the staggering human cost shows through in unutterable sadness. The author sings a long, loving ballad in the key of the blues for Viet Nam, and places within his protagonist all its elements: grief at the human loss, a knowing and sarcastic nudge for the human failings, and ultimately a wisp of hope. With this debut piece, Mr. Nguyen has run the table: historical sweep, thrills and skullduggery, a sympathetic, Everyman-type hero, and assured treatment of major themes. Take this up, by all means!

"Giovanni's Room" by James Baldwin

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David, a young American man, sleepwalks through Paris in the years following World War II. He lives on money in a trust which his father charily metes out to him - requests for which may or may not be met. David ostensibly awaits the return of his fiancée from Spain, although it’s never clear that he looks forward to her return all that impatiently. 

Instead, he falls in with a couple of lecherous Parisian businessmen, whose tastes clearly run to the homoerotic. David falls in and dallies with these men; these are his own deepest proclivities as well. He’s kept his orientation secret from his father, and has remained in Paris as a way of keeping a distance from him. He does love Hella the fiancée, or thinks he does. He may see her as a way of returning to a more orthodox life, but this isn’t clear.

What is clear in this work is David’s love for Giovanni, a young excitable Italian who falls hard for David. It is the tragedy of the story that David turns his back on Giovanni and leaves him in a desperate situation, with life-and-death consequences. David cannot see a way out of his prison; even the promise of his fiancée evaporates, as she leaves him, disheartened and disillusioned to return home to America.

He has built a prison for himself, out of the worst materials possible: guilt and shame. He sees no escape and argues and recriminates with himself constantly. He rationalizes every move, every cruel decision, as another step in “finding himself,” or in curing himself. But in David’s case, there is no cure for selfish.

The story plunges toward a grim singularity - Giovanni’s death - his desperate crime bringing down France’s ultimate sentence. David knows, or again, thinks he knows, the date; he tortures himself by imagining what Giovanni’s last minutes will be like, but he feels he cannot help from doing so. Such is the love he once had for Giovanni.

In a dark and horrific sequence, David imagines Giovanni’s last moments before execution. He does this in the home he and Hella had rented in the south of France. He stares into a mirror as he packs to leave; as the daylight shifts, his own image begins to grow transparent and disappear. From the book:

I move at last from the mirror and begin to cover that nakedness which I must hold sacred, though it be never so vile, which must be scoured perpetually with the salt of my life. I must believe, I must believe, that the heavy grace of God, which has brought me to this place, is all that can carry me out of it.

Here I read a kind of surrender, in which David finally finds himself alone in the world, turning to a faith he does not feel, and somehow hopes that it will deliver him from his crisis. This patently will not work.

And further:

And at last I step out into the morning and I lock the door behind me. … And I look up the road where a few people stand, men and women, waiting for the morning bus. They are very vivid beneath the awakening sky, and the horizon behind them is beginning to flame.

David thus accompanies the only person he’s ever loved on the bier to the next world. But he’s been riding down the slippery slope with Giovanni since the beginning of their relationship. David’s absorption in his shame makes this inevitable. Baldwin uses plain language to illuminate David’s state of mind. David’s shame, lust, guilt, and fear all bear the bright unflinching glare of David’s disgust with himself. This is remarkable writing. Baldwin wanted to lay bare the torturous rationalizations and admissions of cowardice felt by a man in this trial of life. He succeeds admirably. 

He succeeds also in aligning the outcome for his hero with a strict morality, in which the completely self-absorbed man ends with nothing, facing a void in the awakening, flaming sky.

"Never Let Me Go" by Kazuo Ishiguro

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Kazuo Ishiguro’s imagination lives in a world all its own. He beguiles his readers in rich and confounding ways, with tricks too outré. In Never Let Me Go he lays out for our edification the lives of three children, Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy. Something is off fairly immediately with these young ones: they spend their days at a boarding school called Hailsham, and we learn nothing of their parents.

At first I expected to see them described, hear them speak, but no. The children age from early elementary school age up on up through their teen years, and the school is their only home. And we begin to hear about “donations,” and school guardians, whom I took to be their teachers, who behave strangely, speaking in riddles and having tearful episodes that seem full of regret. Regret and a certain amount of fear also apparently plague the guardians. So what’s all this add up to? It is well you should ask.

The children themselves appear more normal than normal. The young girls, on whom the story focuses, establish cliques, within which hierarchies rule. Kathy belongs to Ruth’s group, which Ruth rules cunningly; Ruth’s occasional openness and charity toward Kathy strings her along until the ultimate honest moment, in which Ruth finally admits to past transgressions. What she has done stuns Kathy and us, and her motivation for it only lightly touched upon.

The point of dwelling so long on childhood intrigues and teenage rivalries? Mr. Ishiguro wants to leave no doubt as to the full humanness of his subjects. For in his fictional reality these youngsters have no actual parents, other than someone on whose genetic code each of the young people was modeled. The word “clone” does not appear in the book, but these young people are genetic copies who exist only for the grisly purpose of providing healthy tissue to the rest of the population.  He wants to highlight the tragedy of human lives lived only as incubators. It’s so callous, that when a donor finally dies after going under the knife and donating organs three or four times, they call it “completing.”

So the author shows us a horrifying reality from within the victims’ viewpoint, and makes certain to imbue his unfortunates with all-too-real human nature. This book bears the unmistakable Ishiguro stamp of blinkered humanity, and the chilling consequences of single-minded pursuit of ends that never justify the means. As with other Ishiguro works, the author’s conception vies with his execution for aesthetic supremacy; I’m very happy to call it even and recommend this book without reservation. It’s haunting, elegant, cautionary, and masterful.

See New Page for New In-Depth Discussion of "The Other"

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I have published a new page, taking an in-depth look at David Guterson's "The Other."

Thanks for your interest!

"The Seventh Function of Language" by Laurent Binet

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Translated from the French by Sam Taylor

I doubt “fanciful” adequately describes Laurent Binet’s The Seventh Function of Language, although it has its fanciful features. Imagine a Paris police procedural involving international skullduggery, secret debates featuring more erudition than a graduate seminar in philosophy, crimes that cross international borders, including murder and dismemberment … all in a long chase to find a document (or maybe two) about the seventh function of language.

In case you’re wondering, Twentieth Century British philosopher John L. Austin posited six functions of language as speech acts, and his work was seconded and expanded by the renowned John R. Searle of the University of California. One key takeaway is that Austin described the functions, but did not include any instructions on how to wield language’s power. Here are the six:

  1. The referential function - providing information about something.
  2. Emotive or expressive function - information about the sender and her attitude toward the message.
  3. Conative function - directed toward the receiver.
  4. Phatic function (regarded as the most amusing) - talk for the sake of talk, where the message is not the point.
  5. Metalinguistics function - concerned that the sender and receiver understand each other.
  6. Poetic function - aesthetic in nature: the sound of the words - rhyme, alliteration, assonance, repetition, rhythm of the message.

This entire novel focuses on the purported seventh function of language, and why governments would engage in trickery and murder to possess and understand it. François Mitterrand uses it to defeat Giscard in a debate ahead of the French election in 1981. Jacques Derrida doubts its existence, or at least its performative power, and attacks it and its devotées, arguing that so much human communication is simply rote repetition, a parroting of outside influences. (I for one believe people intend to communicate with one another across a whole series of levels, depending on the urgency or the strength of the intention. This often includes attempting to influence their actions. These communications involve a subtle understanding between interlocutors, and sometimes the interests or desires of the two diverge, leading to conflict. The performative function - where language either performs an act itself, or attempts to induce another’s actions - exists in the statements and may or may not succeed.)

The novel at any rate follows thinkers who are famous in today’s philosophical circles: Derrida, Michel Foucault, Philippe Sollers, Umberto Eco, Julia Kristeva, who all have an interest in either finding or suppressing the seventh function. They speak endlessly (and depending on your familiarity or interest, do it fairly entertainingly), they chase across Europe and the United States, and much of what is said has topical importance in today’s thought. I don’t profess to have caught all the references and implications, but I caught enough to follow at a distance from which my cultural knowledge kept everything a little indistinct.

Binet has written a novel that deals with the refined points of current linguistics, psychology, and philosophy. He takes up the question of the performative function of language - the seventh function in this framework - and by making a somewhat comic romp out of it, very faintly takes the side that the function does not exist as Austin and Searle posit it.

I’m not sure I would recommend this book to readers who are not versed in today’s cutting edge philosophies. The author makes current historical characters the actors in his farce/thriller, and the level of discourse is the highest you will see in current fiction.  But if you don’t know why Derrida and Searle are having a dispute, or why in this story Roland Barthes was attacked, robbed, and murdered, this book won’t make much sense, or hold your interest. The author manages to point out along the way that language has real power in today’s world. It’s a power wielded by the wealthy to keep minorities and the poorer classes in “their place.” It’s not the only power wielded to that end, but it is the most important.

"A House Among the Trees" by Julia Glass

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A highly honored and beloved children’s author dies just before the outset of Julia Glass’s wonderful A House Among the Trees, and plunges his associates into a temporary chaos. This book features intimate views on acting, museum curation, the pressures of celebrity, loneliness, art, literature, and grief. It’s packaged up in typical Julia Glass fashion: characters with gratifying depth, lots of humor, and lots of striving for the best outcome.

Tomasina (Tommy) Daulair, for three decades the indispensable assistant to world-famous children’s author and illustrator Morty Lear, inherits a whirlwind at the time of his sudden death. Not only does Morty leave her the stately Connecticut house, property, furnishings - the whole physical kit and caboodle - he also makes her the executor of his will. And it’s a will with some very unpleasant surprises for a children’s museum curator in New York. Tommy is nowhere near ready for the responsibilities.

Into this fraught moment steps a young British actor, fresh off an Oscar win for a film from the prior year, and a truly fetching young man he is, with a posh accent to match. He’s visiting because he’s going to portray the author in a film. There’s Meredith (Merry), the spurned museum director and Dani, Tommy’s put-upon younger brother. As Tommy struggles to cope with her postmortem duties, all descend unexpectedly on Tommy, and the house, at a kind of impromptu summit meeting.

The author meticulously prepares the reader for this gathering, so that the way it plays out and its effect on the participants ring perfectly true. All the novel’s notes of selfishness, betrayal, of love, professionalism, and devotion come together to sound a lovely carillon arpeggio. The reader comes away with further devotion to Ms. Glass.

This novel mixes its lighter threads (the actor’s apprenticeship to a brilliant older actress in his Oscar performance, and his later relationship with Tommy, and the dead author’s oeuvre and his creative process, described sumptuously with depth and color) with its more discouraging story lines (Merry devastated by the snub in the author’s will, and Dani’s imagined slights, nurtured over the decades). Like the other Julia Glass  pieces I’ve read, this one shows a deep love for New York. I recommend this book - it’s vivid, gratifying, paced beautifully, and has Ms. Glass’s signature big heart.

"Chant of a Million Woman" by Shirani Rajapakse

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"Chant of a Million Woman" by Shirani Rajapakse
Toward the end of Shirani Rajapakse’s plaintive and eloquent book of poetry, she has a piece called “The Poetess.” In its final lines she writes:

She walked with a spring in her step.
Her expression serious. They turned around
as they saw her pass.
She felt such pride. At last to be known.
Even if to just a few.
They did not know she had
nothing to show.

The last line surprised me, and moved me to immediate disagreement. Chant of a Million Women is certainly a notable achievement: it chronicles so many moods, in so many stories, from ancient Indian epic legends to the insurmountable challenges of every day. It consolidates and focuses our attention on the myriad ways men subjugate and objectify women, and the paltry few effective means women have to fight back. This applies particularly to cultures bound by tradition, such as one finds in India and the Middle East.

And women’s situations are so hopeless in this collection that fighting back isn’t really what it’s about. It’s about maintaining something so basic as one’s identity. So often used as a simple ornament, a status symbol, or property to be hidden away, the women in these poems lose their onetime promising selves to a male society, be it as some idealized - but definitely owned - prize, or a simple, reviled piece of furniture, or worse, a victim of violent crime.

Ms. Rajapakse places her poems in a number of milieux: traditional sexist households, dangerous, sometimes murderous, public thoroughfares, urban settings and rural. Often, no setting is specified, except the consciousness of the dispossessed woman.

A million women would indeed raise this chant. They would be fortunate were they to make it this resoundingly, with such force. The poetess distills their suffering to a specific litany, as though a bell were ringing to toll the offenses, forming a high-relief frieze of the hundreds of thousands of wives, daughters, and princesses whose stunted lives impoverish us all.

This is a distinctive, consistent collection in which the milk of human kindness has no place. Nowhere are the kind whispers of a lover or even the support of a life partner. Ms Rajapakse has consistently chosen her pieces with a eye to the plaints and sorrows of women. I salute the courage with which she lends her voice for the forgotten and uncared-for women suffering in so many places in the world. Take up Chant of a Million Women and experience its elegant phrases and its moral force.

"What Counts as Love" by Marian Crotty

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"What Counts as Love" by Marian Crotty
Readers in need of insight into the lives of young women today - challenges, fears, aspirations, consternations, could do no better than take up What Counts as Love. Marian Crotty has been awarded the 2017 John Simmons Short Fiction Award for these nine haunting stories, which testifies to their power and their topical nature. 

The protagonists here, mostly young women, struggle to cope with the duress they encounter trying to navigate and negotiate their way. They, the stories, remind us of the lasciviousness, callousness, abuse, or plain indifference the world heaps in their path. The author depicts these struggles in an honest yet plaintive way; this leads to a certain sameness in tone and diction. However, after completing this collection, I became impressed rather with the variety and fairness on display. Ms. Crotty spares no one, not the young woman with the eating disorder, nor the violent teen about to be banished to the desert, nor the poor heroine addict on the verge of death.
We trespass on these private moments, some of which hold despair, and some what passes for hope, or at least attaining of a plateau of freedom.

The girls and women here emerge with clear character: hope, motivation, delusion, misguided desire, naked aggression. They’re crystal clear. The male characters, even when they lead a story, are less clearly drawn, but that doesn’t matter here. This collection succeeds very well because of the author’s unblinking honesty and very subtle sympathy in the face of the horrifying 21st Century. Congratulations on the award, it’s well deserved.