The Ecology of Storytelling: Marrow Island by Alexis M. Smith

marrow-islandAs a girl, I consumed everything terrifying and twisted. It’s a habit I’ve never managed to shake. To this day I’ve seen nearly every horror and thriller film I can get my stubby fingers on. So I couldn’t help but pick up Marrow Island by Alexis M. Smith.

Smith utilizes the novel form to create a sense of urgency and tension. We are enveloped into the fabric of the story from the first stunning handful of pages – ripe with the kind of action that marks a successful storyteller.

Smith propels us into the strange new terrain of the Pacific Northwest. And yet, it’s not new. I’ve heard of Spokane; I’ve read Sherman Alexie. I know how to point out Oregon and Washington on the map. The landscape never seemed so different from other parts of the United States. But somehow I feel as if I’ve entered undiscovered territory. I’ve stepped away from the Midwest and entered the scathing and glorious forests and islands of the Northwest. I’ve learned a new love for the fascinating relationships between organisms and their environment.  It isn’t until now, at the end of my journey with our main character, Lucie, that I see the thread of ecology tying the whole novel together.

I wonder why Smith’s novel is structured in a nonlinear fashion. Why do we move between past and present, beginning with the lynch pin prologue? Why not include the prologue as a dated entry like the other chapters? I understand why the first scene had to come first. It’s like jumping into the splintering cold river and feeling the shock of death that the cold can bring so close. We feel Lucie’s shock and her traumatic departure from Marrow Island in our guts. It’s an interesting and also gratifying way to begin a novel. And we end Marrow Island with a cleansing of fire, where Lucie’s hope of revealing the evidence that her first love, Katie, visited her before her death is lost. Smith’s choice to end the novel on such a tense scene is masterful. However, everything that comes between feels shallow. Perhaps it’s Smith’s ability to craft spectacular nature scenes and her ability to play with narrative time during pivotal moments that leaves me feeling cheated. The book felt too short. The encounters on Marrow Island in particular could have been expanded. I couldn’t figure out why we were getting Lucie’s present perspective with her new lover in Oregon – until Lucie explained that she was having a hard time looking to the past while writing her book. Then it began to make sense, and I saw Smith explaining her choices within the text. Lucie is not only the narrator but this book is also the depiction of the story she is struggling to write. I still would have liked to have more of Lucie on Marrow Island, more of her relationships to the people there, more of their relationships to each other. That’s where it felt the real story was, where I was reading on the edge of my seat. While I appreciate Smith’s choices to craft the novel by Lucie’s voice and instinct, I wonder if there wasn’t another way.unnamed1

What I appreciate most about Smith is her willingness to explore desire and sexuality. I wasn’t prepared for the tender moments of love and connection between Carey and Lucie or between Lucie and Katie. I wasn’t prepared at all for Lucie’s romantic love for Katie, but I was excited to see this accurate depiction of sexuality and love. It felt like Smith had finally ushered fiction into the realm of reality, where life is fluid and unpredictable, and people have love and desire beyond the societal binary.

I’ll be looking forward to Smith’s future work and hoping I find some the same narrative elements that appear in Marrow Island.

June 7th, 2016

Hard Cover, 9780544373419, $23.00 (USD)

Lucky Jim

Each week Drew Wade will attempt to read and review a book by an author who’s new to him, and then he’ll tell you if it’s worth your time or not.

I’m making rapid progress through my bookstacks, but I’m still in the A section. This reminds me of a man with a reputation as a fast walker deciding to make his way through Texas. (“What did you think this was, son? Rhode Island?”) This week I’m hitting Kingsley Amis, who, besides having the coolest first name I’ve ever heard, has a son with an even more stellar reputation as a novelist. But more on Martin (who doesn’t have nearly as cool of a name as his dad) next week. I’ve wanted to read one of Kingsley’s books for a while now, mostly because he comes up as part of the crowd who started changing British literature after World War II. I figure he’s worth the read.

To get to Mr. Amis, I had to pass through Julia Alvarez and Jorge Amado. Can we talk a little about Alvarez for a second, please? She is amazing. What’s that cliché that critics sometimes use for books by people like P.D. James and J.D. Robb—“un-put-downable”? Alvarez’s books, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents and In the Time of the Butterflies, were like that for me. Here’s the problem: I can only remember the vaguest details of what’s in them. Something about the Dominican Republic and four sisters—are there four sisters in both of the books? Is one a sequel to the other? Help! I don’t know. In cases like this, my suspicion is that the books were so good because of the writing style itself, not because of the plot details. Which is fine with me, because I love beautiful writing. My favorite memory of reading them is when I was late for a class on the other side of campus because I’d been reading one, and I decided that I just had to walk to class and read at the same time, because I didn’t want to stop reading.

Jorge Amado is a mystery to me. A couple of years ago I read The Double Death of Quincas Waterbray. I couldn’t tell if it was magical realism or not, and that might have been the point. The closest work of fiction to it that I can think of is Weekend at Bernie’s. If you like very short romps set in Brazil starring friends who can’t believe their other friend is dead, you’ll like this book. I don’t know what I was expecting with Amado. I’m going to have to re-read him one of these days and give him another chance. (Can you tell that I don’t care too much for Weekend at Bernie’s?)

Now on to Kingsley Amis’s first novel, Lucky Jim, which is about Jim Dixon, a young professor who isn’t tenured, who is shat upon by his overseers, and who has to put up with academic hypocrisy and pretentiousness all the time. What’s that you say? You think this book was written last year? Aha! You’re wrong! It was written in 1953. Some things don’t change—varying levels of academic-related stupidity among them.

This novel has many charms, though it starts a little slowly. Amis has a keen ear for dialogue and for bringing out the humor in the ordinary things that people say. I guess this helps the mild brand of satire that Amis uses, and I think it would have been really funny back in the Fifties. And it did push boundaries, if ever so slightly. Although none of the characters swear or have sex on the page, these things are mentioned. I wonder if thirty years before its publication authors just pretended that swearing and sex didn’t exist.

The smaller-issue problem I have with this book is Jim’s casual sexism and how that makes me unsympathetic towards him as a character. (I know, that sounds like a big deal, but wait until you hear the larger-issue problem I have.) Jim Dixon is clearly meant to be a sympathetic figure, and sure, we pull for him when his boss is equivocating about Jim’s future, but Jim is utterly, unapologetically focused on women for their appearance. “It was a pity she wasn’t better looking,” he thinks on page 37, going over his reasons why he isn’t going out with a female professor. That is just the first instance I can think of, but it happens quite a bit. This wouldn’t even be so bad if the double standard weren’t so apparent—on page 2 we get a picture of Jim as a short, rounder, weak-shouldered man who doesn’t have much going on in the looks department. Not only that, but Jim is an alcoholic, and he’s borderline sociopathic (calling up his romantic rival and pretending to be a newspaper reporter, lighting his host’s bedsheets on fire, and finding his waiter after the bill has been paid and taking the tip back). Even all that wouldn’t be so bad if the point of the book wasn’t that the older generations have really mucked things up for the newer ones, and society has to change in order to improve. It makes Jim look like a hypocrite, since he’s clearly taking his social cues from that same older generation—taking them right into the second half of the twentieth century.

In spite of its sometimes-cringe-worthy attitude, the book is good fun—which brings me to my larger problem with the book. This book was written in a different time, when books, even serious books, were meant to be consumed as entertainment. Lucky Jim has some genuinely funny parts, but it’s not as funny as, say, a Wodehouse book, and it doesn’t rely on any gimmicks to keep the reader interested. In other words, it might not flashy enough for today’s readers. It’s just a book about a professor trying to make his way in the world—not that in addition to also trying to stop Lucifer from rising from Hell, to give one example of a book that might go over well these days. It’s low-key, and would make a fine rom-com with Katherine Heigl (Is she still a thing?), and it would be completely unpublishable were Kingsley Amis writing it today. Books like this can’t be written anymore, because people don’t read for entertainment nearly as much as they used to, and that makes me sad.

I’m not going to whine anymore. If you don’t read it, it’s your loss—as long as you can get over the outdated attitudes and general unpleasantness of the main character. It’s enjoyable, and laugh-out-loudable, and I especially recommend it if you have a bit of Anglophilia in your veins.

The Disappearance of Seth

This week in my literary quest to become a better person, or at least a better-read person, I’m visiting an author by the name of Kazim Ali.

On my bookshelves, Mr. Ali comes after one of the better modern authors, Sherman Alexie. I have a few of Alexie’s books, and I particularly recommend his short story collection Ten Little Indians. One of Alexie’s biggest strengths is his wide range of interests—he doesn’t just stick with short stories or adult novels; he has written screenplays and young adult fiction as well. Also, his technique is brilliant. He’s a writer who will make you laugh and care and think about the world—how unfair and how beautiful it can be. Yes, I recommend Sherman Alexie.https://www.flickr.com/photos/cuppini/522966079/in/photolist-NdkAx-py3r7n-go63Mg-4invaw-nVM9y5-ioVvTi-7oB47Y-3kGuk8-rb6u2t-i5uQt2-4G2RCt-5WDAmR-9L6oEF-9ZGBTo-dyPy9e-5UNJAW-gt4kTn-yLHgN-jyvi7p-wQuSJ-q3fBgd-fSGnXm-eJDgek-9XJxiL-ew5YuR-3Td2yS-rPy3MY-ezmJBR-r9Qr3L-4bLr7L-fSTii8-aqVmdS-pUG1nn-e989VL-2gALk-6PXp85-nEVaB8-48uECw-dR7hg-2c8JE-4r9DNc-ouFQBd-8CXt3q-JgGGQ-kyC9t1-d3Tj9E-6vZ7kR-4siW5H-ecah1D-s782T6

Another thing I should explain up front is why I’m reviewing a second book by Etruscan Press within two weeks (yes, the infamous Zarathustra Must Die was put out by them, too). Trust me, Etruscan Press is not paying me to review their books (I don’t know if they have the budget for things like that). The explanation is: a few years ago, when I was still an undergraduate, I won a one-page story contest for a great journal called the Penguin Review (shout out to their former editor, Tom Pugh), and part of the prize was the near-complete collection of Etruscan Press books published up until that point. Most of what EP puts out is poetry, but they’ve done quite a few novels, too. My whole point is, this is not the last time I will be reviewing one of their books.

I’m not saying that Etruscan Press puts out poor-quality books; I like their books, for the most part (last week’s selection aside). They are small and relatively obscure, but I think we need more publishers like them. Why? They don’t compromise. I get the sense that most of EP’s authors are full-time professors who, because of the fickle nature of modern universities, have to keep publishing, or else they perish. These writers don’t care about sales, but they do care about putting out a good product, according to their exacting, sometimes quirky standards. That’s honorable. I would love to have that option someday. EP realizes that literature is about more than entertainment—sometimes it’s about trying to wrap your mind around the things in life that are hard to understand.

Speaking about things that are hard to understand, let’s get down to this week’s book. The Disappearance of Seth is everything I was just talking about—uncompromising, hard to follow, daring you to try to understand it. And it still manages to be successful, being easy to read at the same time as being hard to follow. How does that happen? I have a theory: Ali is a poet, first and foremost—he writes like a poet, in clipped, beautiful phrases that sometimes don’t even make it to the level of sentences. He uses odd punctuation and weird tense shifts, and they actually work, most of the time. My theory is that Ali’s book is easy to read because he uses small, beautiful sentences and his section breaks push the momentum—this book is designed to keep pushing you forward, even if what you’re reading doesn’t become clear all at once, or at all.

unnamedMomentum is key in this book, because the plot is not linear, and it’s also key because of the subject. Seth is about 9/11. For something so heavy and humorless as 9/11, we need the pace to be quick, otherwise we bog down in our own sorrow and personal memories. Ali does a good job of keeping us moving, even though it’s tough for anyone to read a book about something as politically loaded as 9/11 in the way it was intended. And are we too far away from that day to remember it in all its rawness? I guess what I’m asking is, can this still be an effective book? If this were just a book about something as broad as 9/11, I don’t think it could, but it is about more than that—it is personal. The “Seth” of the book’s title makes it personal.

Our main character, Seth, has died in the Twin Towers, or so the other characters think. Seth is the thread that connects all of the book’s characters together, and really the only thread that connects the book together. The other characters reflect on how he has touched their lives, and what he meant to them, and how he has changed them. The book becomes a meditation on loss and how trauma affects us, and it becomes a meditation on the things we cannot say—how we handle grief. As such, it’s a beautiful story, if unclear at times, and the way that the death is only indirectly approached echoes how we try to avoid coming to terms with loss in our own lives.

Seth is thoughtful, deep, and potent, and Ali writes his characters’ thoughts so well that their reflections become the biggest emphasis of the book. These are thoroughly developed characters, never feeling anything less than real.

That is not to say that this book does not have flaws, because it does. Ali’s use of odd punctuation and tense changes mostly work, but sometimes this technique just comes across as though he needs an editor. Need an example? “He stops by a dusty car parked at the curb and fumbled with his map, trying to unfold it” (p. 175). Most of the time I try to leave technical issues like this alone, but in Seth it happens too frequently to ignore. Trying to figure out Ali’s reasoning in these cases distracts from the rest of the book, especially when these slip-ups do not look like artistic decisions as much as they do mistakes.

Another flaw in the book is the “twist” at the end, which I won’t reveal, in case you decide to read it. Good literature, I’ve found, does not need twists to make it interesting—the writing is interesting enough. This twist is not deep enough to change the meaning of the story, and it feels a bit tacked on.

Other than those problems, however, I gladly recommend The Disappearance of Seth. It’s for you if you enjoy difficult texts that reward your effort. It’s also for you if you want beautiful, koan-like paragraphs that you can really sink your mental teeth into.


 

Ali, Kazim. The Disappearance of Seth. Etruscan Press, 2009. 197 pages.

Each week Drew Wade will attempt to read and review a book by an author who’s new to him, and then he’ll tell you if it’s worth your time or not.

Zarathustra Must Die

Each week Drew Wade will attempt to read and review a book by an author who’s new to him, and then he’ll tell you if it’s worth your time or not.

This week in my alphabetical quest to read all kinds of books I haven’t gotten around to yet, I’m reviewing Zarathustra Must Die, by Dorian Alexander (more on Mr. Alexander later). To get from Edwin Abbot (who I reviewed last week) to Mr. Alexander, I had to pass through a few authors I’ve already read. The first of these was Chinua Achebe. I read Things Fall Apart four years ago and loved it; it has everything I want in a good book—mainly brevity and scenes where people eat locusts. I’ve since collected a few more of his novels, and I will read them someday, but since this column isn’t about authors I’ve already read, that day will not be today.

I also passed by my handy Douglas Adams omnibus, which includes every book in the Hitchhiker’s series except for Mostly Harmless. But don’t worry—I’ve read that one, too. Probably too many times. In fact, most of my time in junior high and high school was taken up with reading his books.

Finally, I passed by a weird book called Alternative Alcott, which is a collection of some of the pulpier stuff that Louisa May Alcott published just for the cash under the pseudonym A.M. Barnard. And you can tell why she published them under a pseudonym—they aren’t very good. “Behind the Mask,” a novella in the collection, is the kind of book that seems like a lot of fun to write, but not that much fun to read.

After those books, I came to Mr. Alexander. Speaking of pseudonyms, Dorian Alexander most definitely is one—the pen name of a “prominent academic,” according to the back jacket of the book. I’ve been told that the pen name is a mix of Dorian Gray and Alexander the Great. With influences like that, I’m guessing that whoever is behind Mr. Alexander is the type of person who would think of himself as a prominent academic.

Zarathustra Must Die (henceforth shortened to ZMD, because “Zarathustra” is a mouthful) takes on as its subject Friedrich Nietzsche, who “…intended to supplant Christ as the central figure of Western culture” (2). With someone as hubristic as Nietzsche for a subject, my question to Mr. Alexander is, “Why didn’t you go bigger with your pen name? Why not Elvis Apollo? Why not Sid Vishnu?” (Sid, of course, being short for Siddhartha.)

To understand this book, we have to go in a non-intuitive direction. Let’s take a quote at random: “Inspired by hash and sex, I stood erect and danced naked as their withered eyes became transfixed with longing by my vermicular writhing” (6). My first response to this is a whoop of joy—I mean, with sentences like that, we could be in line for the next Fifty Shades of Grey. Unfortunately, the book does not live up to the promise of this sentence. Sure, it may be about a doctoral student’s adventures while researching his dissertation (sounds fun to me!), but half of the time, the text is so cloudy that I can’t even tell what’s happening. Reading ZMD is not an enjoyable, picaresque romp. It isn’t even a guilty pleasure, because none of the action in the book is coherent or concrete enough to make me feel guilty, and there’s no pleasure in reading what amounts mostly to an undergraduate-level paper about nineteenth-century philosophers.

The people who blurb on the back jacket of ZMD try to convince you that it is genuinely funny. I disagree, though I do detect what I think are attempts at humor throughout. I might be wrong in my disagreement, though. You might find this book funny if you enjoy penis jokes that aren’t actually jokes, but just mentions of the word penis. A particularly awful example of Mr. Alexander’s “humor” is the therapy session on pages 78-80, where Dorian regresses to baby talk and says vulgar things to his therapist. Really hilarious. (Sarcasm.) But if you do like that kind of humor, this book is certainly for you.

Part of the book’s problem is that Alexander never sticks with one subject. The book is about everything and nothing, and it never stays in one place long enough to support any one point. ZMD is at its best when it tries to syncretize old philosophers’ ideas and make them new and real. It never succeeds in that endeavor, however, because of its thick, stew-like prose. At times it sounds like an essay (one wonders if Mr. Alexander needed new material quickly, so he raided his college philosophy notebooks and old journals), at times it sounds like a Joycean stream-of-consciousness rant, and at times it sounds like an attempt at poetry. Looking for any kind of unity in the prose, then, is a waste of time.

Mr. Alexander probably expected that criticism, however, because his book seems to offer a counter to it. While talking about Dorian’s doctoral defense, the prose takes on metanarrative-type qualities. In speaking about the dissertation, Alexander writes, “On the one hand, the work revealed philosophical talent. On the other, the bizarre inclusions suggested at best a maverick and at worst an unstable mind. Revision was initially proposed as an option, but he would not hear of it. ‘The work is an indivisible whole’ he urged…” (96) Coming very near the end of the book as that segment does (yes, ZMD is blessedly short), I am forced to admit the possibility that Mr. Alexander may have been trolling me the whole time. The ultimate joke is that I stuck with it.

So, should you read this book? Do you appreciate difficult, unenjoyable books that offer very little in the way of payoff at the end? Do you like reading books that hide their insecurity and lack of content in convoluted phrasing and impenetrable jargon? If you do, then I highly recommend this book. For everyone else, find something better to do with your time.

Alexander, Dorian. Zarathustra Must Die. Etruscan Press, 2012. 106 pages.

Flatland

Flatland by Edwin A. AbbotEach week Drew Wade will attempt to read and review a book by an author who’s new to him, and then he’ll tell you if it’s worth your time or not.

For my first review, I’m reading Flatland, by Edwin A. Abbot. Fun fact: my friend Jody told me the middle “A” in Abbot’s name stands for Abbot, too. Is it stereotyping to think that with a name like Edwin Abbot Abbot this guy is probably A.) British, and B.) upper class? Maybe, but it turns out to be true. (I just checked Wikipedia on that, so you know it’s right.) Abbot’s also a Victorian, if that influences your opinions one way or the other.

Flatland is a book containing a lot of geometry and other types of math, and as such, I’m approaching it with a slight sense of dread. (Is geometry a type of math? I seem to recall it vaguely from my high school days. As I recall, I didn’t like that class, so I’m guessing it is indeed a type of math.) According to the book’s introduction, a reviewer in the late 1800s called it “mortally tedious,” and if I know one thing about Victorian critics, it’s that if they call something boring, then I’m in trouble. So basically, this book already seems to have a couple of strikes against it.

But wait! Apparently Abbot was an Anglican minister—“Boring as hell,” I hear you saying—who viewed himself as a kind of prophet! So this book must be a kind of allegory, like the pieces that Jonathan Swift and William Blake write. A math allegory. A weird, spiritually suspect, math allegory. So, kind of fun? I don’t know what you want me to say here; I can’t stop reading it at this point—one of my biggest rules for this column is that I have to actually read every book. And yes, I know that I made up that rule and this is the first column and I could go back and retroactively change it, but that would make me feel like a cheater. Essentially, what I’m trying to say about Flatland is, it’s going to be that kind of book.

With books like this, tone carries the day when excitement fails. I’ve found that by switching my internal reading voice to a jovial-yet-scholarly old British man, this kind of book flies past. The book stays reader-friendly even when Abbot is writing about the finer points of how Flatland’s society operates. Imagine it this way: you are drinking brandy and smoking pipes with C.S. Lewis in a pub, by a fire, on a rainy afternoon. Lewis decides to tell you about his latest etymological research into the nuances of some Greek and Latin words. Sure, the talk may not be the most exciting thing in the world, but his pleasant voice and the warm surroundings are more than enough to keep you there. Reading this book is similar to that. Now I want a pipe.

Let’s get straight into it. The plot, whatever there is of it, revolves around a Mr. A. Square (get it?) who is completely two dimensional, and everyone else (ranging from triangles to hexagons to near-circles) in his world is completely flat, too. Square is visited by a sphere from Spaceland, who comes only once every millennium to reveal the gospel of the third dimension. The rest of the book is an account of how Square is completely unsuccessful in his attempts to convert the other shapes, and ends up in prison. Sad, right? Well, it would be, if the characters weren’t so…two dimensional. Rim shot!

Okay, so the book is seriously lacking in plot, which a novel doesn’t necessarily need, as long as it has ideas. And does this book have ideas! Chief among these, I would claim, is, don’t be an arrogant jerk. See, in the course of the rest of the book, Square travels to both Pointland and Lineland (the lands of no dimensions or just one) and laughs at the ignorance of their inhabitants. He has a conversation with the king of Lineland, and the upshot of this is, “It seemed that the poor ignorant Monarch—as he called himself—was persuaded that the straight line which he called his Kingdom, and in which he passed his existence, constituted the whole of the world, and indeed the whole of space” (101). Do you see where this is going? For a major part of the book, Square can’t even fathom the existence of a third dimension. Now, expand that progression a little further, to the inhabitants of the third dimension (us), who can’t fathom the existence of a fourth dimension, and you start to grasp the power of this idea. The argument that we are small and limited in our knowledge is a convincing one, and Abbot makes a great case for there being something more out there.

At the same time, this is a good book for our new modern age, because it doesn’t give us easy answers; while it makes the argument for something bigger than us being out there, it neglects to tell us what that something more is. This might be a weakness of the book—the incompleteness of Abbot’s arguments and metaphors—but the base idea is a hard one to refute.

So, angles! Points! Lines! Progressions! If I keep using exclamation points, it will all sound exciting. The fact that Abbot makes the book even a little entertaining is a testament to his skill. This is a guy who knows how to make a point. And a line. And an angle…

All that said, I recommend this book. After all, it’s only about 160 pages sopping wet, so what do you have to lose? And if it hits you at the right point in your life, it could be very influential, though hopefully not in the bad way, which of course I mean as the way that makes you want to become a mathematician.