"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.