Monthly Archives: April 2014

Review: We Were Flying to Chicago by Kevin Clouther

9781936787159At their worst, short stories are a flash in the pan: characters, plots and ideas set on the page and abandoned before they can make a lasting impression. At their best, they make the most of moments and details to tell stories with an immediacy and economy novels rarely match.

The stories in Kevin Clouther’s debut collection We Were Flying to Chicago, thankfully, fall into the latter category. They don’t tower above their contemporaries or play with the conventions of the form—they don’t have to—but they are thoughtful and elegant, and display the short story’s strengths.

In “Charleston for Breakfast,” a young security guard quits his job and drives to his girlfriend’s house. Not knowing what else to do, he decides to drive her up a mountain to watch the sunrise, only to drive up a mountain with a lesser view, or, as he calls it, “the wrong mountain.”  His view of the deer by his former workplace—“it killed me thinking those deer could prance all over town, that they could get up and go anywhere, while I was stuck in a plastic chair, clicking an orange flashlight”—give a sense of his restlessness, while other details show his awe for his more intelligent girlfriend.

The stories in this collection use a variety of timespans and voices, though its themes—faith and the lack thereof, growing older, feeling trapped—keep it from being scattershot. The narrator of “On the Highway Near Fairfield, Connecticut” reflects on his girlfriend and lapsed Catholicism while driving with a cousin, also a lapsed Catholic (they appear throughout this collection). In “The Third Prophet of Wyaconda,” the people of a small Iowa town struggle to respond to a self-proclaimed prophet and his prediction of a miracle.

When Chicago’s stories touch on faith, they often poke fun at simplistic theology, as when a little boy in “Prophet” guesses that god lives in Des Moines (“Des Moines is the capital.”), or in this passage from “Highway:”

I never stopped looking up during my prayers, never ceded the idea that Heaven floats somewhere above us. As if God presides over a kingdom reachable by mountains and ladders. As if Heaven were a New World somehow missed by satellites and planes, and not a different universe entirely, one removed from the unwilling and inconsolable.

Used less elegantly or too often, such reflections could turn a story didactic. Here, they help the stories point toward greater significance while remaining grounded in their narratives and not the ideas behind them.

The only misstep in Chicago is “I Know Who You Are,” marred by vagueness. The narrator follows around a man with a problem he thinks he can help, but we never learn who the man is, what his problem is, or how the narrator thinks he can help. Clouther says in the press materials that “the reader’s interpretation is the only interpretation that matters to me,” but readers puzzling their way through the mechanics of this story may not be able to find much significance in it.

In the title story, which follows two middle-aged women reluctantly taking a flight to Chicago, remembering happier days while getting glimpses of fellow passengers’ lives, Clouther makes more use of unnamed narrators, and better shows the strengths of his collection. We don’t know who the women are, but we know what they’re going through. We’ve probably been there, too.

—Available May 13th from Black Balloon Press



Review: The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison

Leslie Jamison’s essay collection The Empathy Exams examines both people’s capacity for empathy and the feeling’s uses and limits. In these essays, which consider tourists in inner-city LA; different approaches to female suffering; and the sufferers of Morgellons Disease, a skin condition that mainstream medicine dismisses as paranoia, Jamison asks not only if we feel others’ pain, but also what good comes of it.

In the title essay, which relates her work as a medical actor to her experience getting an abortion, she notes that “empathy is always perched precariously between gift and invasion.” Setting the tone for the collection, it asks: In trying to feel others’ pain, how can we avoid laying claim to experiences that we can’t imagine, or excuse ourselves from the task of providing comfort and improving the situation?

Throughout these essays, Jamison moves smoothly between storytelling and analysis, between herself and the world around her. “In Defense of the Saccharin(e)” ties cultural shifts away from sentimentality and toward irony to her early flawed attempts at fiction, and uses artificial sweeteners as an analogy for sentimentalism while relating her own profuse consumption of them.

Jamison uses the writer’s “I” as a surface to reflect on empathy, or storytelling, or as a ligament connecting different parts of the essay—not as a gimmick that makes the essay more about the writer’s affectations than its subject. “How can I express my faith,” she asks in “Saccharin(e),” “that there is something profound in the single note of honey itself?”

She often addresses the challenge of language and narrative. In the acknowledgements, she thanks a mentor for teaching her “that the problem with an essay can eventually become its subject.” In “Devil’s Bait,” the essay about the skin condition, she wonders how she can empathize with the sufferers of Morgellons Disease without accepting the validity of their condition, and notes the difficulty of writing without taking a stand one way or the other: “Every twist of writing is an assertion of doubt or reality.”

In Jamison’s weaker essays, this attention to self, language and narrative become a hurdle rather than scaffolding. “Morphology of the Hit” uses Vladimir Propp’s structure of the folktale to tell a story she otherwise could not, that of her getting mugged and having her nose broken in Nicaragua. She acknowledges the difficulty of telling this story, but the essay’s self-awareness—“So now I’ve given away the ending.”—drowns out the insights that it should support, and the “I” is more intrusive than insightful. The problem with the essay becomes its subject, but does not make it interesting.

In “Fog Count,” about a visit to a man imprisoned for mortgage fraud, Jamison throws fairness aside in her effort to empathize. She portrays Charlie, the prisoner, as an innocent man scapegoated for the financial crisis, and makes no attempt to see the story of the IRS agent whose investigation led to his arrest, except to wonder about his curiosity for taxes and share Charlie’s speculation that he “was a kid who got his head flushed down the toilet; maybe he thinks Charlie was the kid who flushed it.” How empathetic is it to empathize fully with one side of the story while condemning the other?

An essayist, free from the reporter’s standards of objectivity, should still display a healthy skepticism toward everyone, even the apparently downtrodden, as Jamison does in “Devil’s Bait.” In light of her one-sidedness, her declaration that “a powerful rhetoric insists that we can only be delivered from our old scars by delivering new ones” rings hollow. This is one of few such mis-steps in The Empathy Exams, but in a collection that otherwise wields and examines empathy so intelligently, they deserve special scrutiny.

In the essay about the LA tour, after a participant poses for a photograph with an inner-city native, Jamison notes that “He can pack up his own heightened awareness like a souvenir.” Here, as elsewhere, Jamison skewers the way many of us exploit empathy to feel good about ourselves. (This reviewer’s as guilty as anyone: the New York Times’ reportage on war and poverty have provided me with righteous indignation but failed to turn me into a humanitarian.) The Empathy Exams has many triumphs, but condemning the false equating of awareness and achievement is its greatest.

Published in April by Graywolf Press

West Fork by Tom McKay

Tom McKay’s novel West Fork is narrated by Jim Blair, a young college graduate who in 1968 takes a job teaching in rural West Fork, Illinois and, without much of a plan, stays there for twenty-seven years.

Over that time, relationships bloom and end, Jim makes friends and earns respect in West Fork, and the world changes, changing the rural Midwest with it. School districts consolidate. Farmers sell off their land. The metal factory starts producing plastic products, and hiring mostly Mexican workers.

The novel’s story and characters hold promise, but McKay drowns them in inept prose. Many sentences try to be clever but are simply annoying: “I could tell that the problem with her foot was not nearly so severe as the problem with the foot I had stuck in my mouth.” There’s a surfeit of attention to “the light in her eyes as she spoke” or “the softness in her eyes”—those two examples appear on the same page. Characters don’t just say things: they say things “earnestly,” they “reply weakly,” they say things “in a lame effort to find [their] way into the conversation.” There’s nothing inherently wrong about a novelist having fun with language, noticing people’s eyes, or using dialogue tags other than “said,” but used indiscriminately, these tools become clunky and distracting.

The plot is often choppy as well. Some relationships come and go too quickly to register, and a reunion in the novel’s last chapters strains credulity.

There are moments of beauty, though. Listening to a counter-cultural lover talk about the Vietnam War, Jim notes that “I kept just well enough informed about Vietnam to know that I hated everything that was wrong and knew nothing about what was right.” It’s a rare glimpse of this novel’s themes, which, if developed in better prose, could have made West Fork a competent debut novel.

Published in January by Augustana College’s East Hall Press


Review: Kinder than Solitude by Yiyun Li

Yiyun Li’s beautiful but boring novel Kinder than Solitude follows Boyang, Moran, and Ruyu, three childhood friends who spend a formative summer together in late-80’s Beijing. Separated after their neighbor Shaoai gets mysteriously poisoned, they come back into contact decades later.

Boyang, the boy, is the least developed of the three characters, and is being raised by relatives as his parents teach at a university a bus ride away. Moran, a lifelong friend of his, is so hopeful and kind as to be naïve. Ruyu is a transplant from provincial China. Adopted and raised by joyless Catholic sisters, she is reserved, holding the mortal world in contempt as she follows God’s plan for her.

Ruyu and Moran move to America as adults, marrying, divorcing, and never gaining a sense of belonging or permanence. Boyang attains a similar isolation staying in China. All three see benefits to their solitude—it gives Moran “an odd sense of virginal freedom”—and try to maintain it.

Li spends much of the novel describing characters and their thoughts, and flashing back to the events that shaped them. She does so effectively, giving the novel its strongest moments.

However, Kinder than Solitude is sunk by its glut of aphorisms. Some of the aphorisms are not inherently boring, but used to excess, these constant leaps from the personal to the universal shift the novel’s focus from the characters’ lives to generalizations about the human condition. After Moran recalls her marriage to her ex-husband, Li tells the reader that

Time is the flimsiest surface; to believe in the solidity of one moment till one’s foot touches the next moment, equally trustworthy, is like dream-walking while expecting the world to rearrange itself into a fairy-tale path. Nothing destroys a livable life more completely than unfounded hope.

These are pretty sentences. Appearing every page or so, however, they grow tedious and redundant.

When exposition is devoted to specific things, such as Ruyu and Moran’s struggle to relate with Americans, Ruyu’s drift away from her Catholic faith, or Shaoai’s justification of her political dissent at the expense of her future prospects, it’s much more compelling.

When Ruyu recalls working in a laboratory, for example, “she suspected that in her colleagues’ eyes, she, like the instrument she managed, was a well-tuned machine—a machine that, once trusted, could easily be forgotten.” Li doesn’t strive for political statements, but that sentence hits the model minority stereotype head-on.

Likewise, Li follows Ruyu as she starts thinking of god not as the force that gives her life meaning but as an invention of her guardians. Her doubt starts as questions—“what if [god], like her parents, found little merit in her to keep her?”—and blooms into full-fledged doubt, though she keeps the coldness her Catholicism gave her.

Such redeeming features, however, are vastly outnumbered by the sentences about the flimsiness of time or how “loneliness is as delusive a belief in the pertinence of the world as is love.” Had Li used aphorisms as sparingly as her more specific musings, Kinder than Solitude could have been a much better novel.

Review: All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu

Two parallel relationships are woven through Dinaw Mengestu’s novel All Our Names. One’s the love affair between Helen, an aimless Midwestern social worker, and Isaac, a client of hers newly arrived from Uganda. The other’s the friendship between Isaac, then a student and aspiring writer attending university in Kampala, and his future namesake, a bolder student who starts mocking the privileged through a “paper revolution” and goes on to join a real one.

Helen and Isaac narrate alternating chapters. Helen’s tell the story of the affair; Isaac’s tell the story of the friendship, which takes place before he goes to the Midwest. Both narrators yearn for belonging in the world and in their relationships, and tell their stories, as Helen notices Isaac speak, in restrained, stately prose.  Helen and Isaac lack distinct voices, but their backgrounds and stories are so different that the chapters are easily distinguishable, and the multiple narration doesn’t fall flat as it so often does.

Events that occurred in Uganda help explain what happens in the Midwest, and vice versa, though these threads aren’t explicitly tied together until the novel’s last sentence. When Helen and Isaac encounter polite but brutal racism at a diner, in the next chapter, Isaac has a similar experience in Kampala.

Both relationships are strained by the secrets the characters keep from each other. Isaac is left in the dark about the extent of his namesake’s activities in the revolutionary movement, while Helen is left in the dark about Isaac’s past, and what he does when she’s not around. Each wants to grow closer to the other, but sees that there may be benefits to secrecy. Helen says of Isaac, “I wasn’t sure if the distance between us hadn’t grown larger the more he told me.”

The narrators explore their own and others’ psychology, proving that despite the creative writing mantra “show, don’t tell,” exposition can be beautiful. Isaac notes that his namesake “was far from being a saint, but there was more decency and kindness in him than I had assumed, traits that both of us were learning to suppress.”

However, the exposition is occasionally unnecessary, doing no more than restate what’s made obvious through the characters’ actions. And some of Helen’s thoughts cross the line between earnestness and pure sentiment: “He squeezed my biceps. ‘You’re the strongest woman in the world,’ he said, which is exactly how I felt when I was with him.”

Isaac’s chapters show the disappointment and trauma of faded political hopes—first hopes for a prosperous post-colonial Africa, then hopes for a successful revolution that’s fair to all. “Vigorous cheering and constant applause” are described as “the lifeblood of a would-be demagogue.” A recounting of a father’s fairy tale, the only point where All Our Names strays from realism, serves as an allegory on totalitarianism. The novel acknowledges the history and ideologies of late-20th century Africa without letting historical details get in the way of the characters’ stories.

The narrators’ voices are indistinct, and the prose has its hiccups, but the combination of love and distance in its relationships, and the insights they produce, raises All Our Names above its minor imperfections.