Category Archives: Uncategorized

Man Turns Beast, In Fantasy and Fact

Whether they take place in an apocalypse, the hypothetical universe of a fairy tale, or the author’s home state of Virginia, the stories in Lincoln Michel’s debut collection Upright Beasts place their characters in situations where conventional rules and habits can no longer help them.

“Our Education” is set in a school from which the teachers have mysteriously disappeared. A student clique has consolidated power like a militia and is denying that the teachers ever even existed. In “Our New Neighborhood,” a pregnant wife feels neglected by her husband as he devotes his energies to an increasingly Orwellian neighborhood watch program. In “My Life in the Bellies of Beasts,” a man recalls being swallowed by a fox soon after birth, only for that fox to be swallowed by a hound, which was swallowed by a bear, and so on.

These stories are absurd, but subtly so. They never slap the reader in the face and yell Look how crazy this is! Instead, they recount the bizarre changes taking place as most people would recount the changes of a normal human life. Michel’s characters are not stranded astronauts in a sci-fi epic but immigrants in a new country, children on the verge of adulthood. Here’s the boy in the bellies of beasts recalling life in a bear:

When I tried to escape the bear, she grew angry and climbed up a tall tree. I was almost a teenager now, and life felt like a rotten trap. Everything that seemed sweet contained hidden thorns. If I had fresh honey in my grasp, it was followed by the painful sting of swallowed bees.

The line about life feeling like a rotten trap is universal; the detail about swallowed bees brings us back into the particular.

Even in the more realistic stories, beasts linger just underneath pretenses of civilization. In “Some Notes on My Brother’s Brief Travels,” a reflection on two brothers’ relationship during the early years of the recession, a traveler imagines a highway McDonald’s as an oasis in the wilderness: “You could imagine wild beasts romancing the edge of the forest, held back by fear of the torch-like M.”

My favorite story here, “The Room Inside My Father’s Room,” reads like a fable. A boy feels that he’s grown too big for his room, and complains to his father, who lives in a slightly bigger room. After his father laughs him off, the boy continues his appeals all the way up to his great-grandfather (who lives in the largest room of all), only to be told, “Every young’un thinks they’re a rebel. But we can only build what we know, and from the space we have.”

In this story, fewer than five pages long, Michel presents a perfect allegory of the infiniteness of generational squabbles. It’s just one of many treats in this diverse, wonderful collection.

Upright Beasts by Lincoln Michel. Published in October by Coffeehouse Press. 224 pages. $16.95

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“Bad Sex” by Clancy Martin

It’s a literary conundrum for the modern era: how to write about boredom in a way that is not itself boring. In his novel Bad Sex, Clancy Martin plunges the reader into the mind of a woman who’s done it all before and will probably do it all again. The result, though not entirely compelling, is worth reading for its intimacy and honesty. Brett, a writer on the brink of middle age, lives in Mexico City with her husband, a businessman. Her life is as ordered as it’s ever been. She’s not drinking anymore, but she’s not writing much, either. Then a one-night stand with Eduard, her husband’s banker, develops into an affair, and the lies pile up as she travels throughout Central America to be with him. She starts drinking again. Brett’s asides let us know that this is familiar territory. She is experienced at, among other things, hiding her drinking from a lover. “A secret drinker,” she tells us, “looks for restaurants with bars next door: if necessary, she can exit out the back, take a quick drink at the neighboring place, and come back again.” The novel is shrouded in the fog that melancholy puts between the self and the world. Whether she’s at a club, drinking alone, or confronted with the end of her marriage, Brett remains numb. Numbness for the narrator often turns into flatness for the reader. There’s not a lot of motion here, and the vignettes of drinking and rough sex quickly grow repetitive. But Martin—author of a previous novel and memoir—has written a slim, slight, bleakly beautiful novel of resignation.

Bad Sex by Clancy Martin. Published in September by Tyrant Books. 182 pages. $23.00

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The End of the Universe Begins in the Suburbs

Writers have long mined the suburbs for rich veins of ironically sunny ennui. The highways, big box stores, and mathematically precise grids of identical houses are easily made to stand for culture and ambition left at the wayside. The sprawl extends to the horizon, then swings back and plunges just as far into your soul.

In his screenplay-as-novel The Glacier, performer and writer Jeff Wood exaggerates this common anxiety to fantastical, end-of-the-universe proportions while managing to say surprisingly little.

Early on, we see a crew of three driving through the snowy landscape and taking measurements, chatting and arguing among themselves. But this is no ordinary survey crew, and something otherworldly is taking place beneath the surface of this nameless Ohio suburb.

A mushroom cloud appears in the distance, and “a wall of atomic fire rolls across the grid.” Jonah, the quietest of the surveyors, pauses the cloud, is vaporized, then reappears along with all else that has been destroyed.

We see other characters, all somehow affected by these stitches in reality, who eventually cross paths. There’s Robert, an old man who’s barely stopped himself from committing suicide with a shotgun to the head. Samson sells hot chocolate from an ice cream truck, but can offer more powerful substances to those who ask. Simone is a caterer for the polite but cold Mr. Stevens, and suffers from an unnamable fatigue.

While time keeps stuttering, they continue, faintly aware that something’s off. Strange things keep happening: the characters glimpse face-painted apparitions of themselves, something smells like it’s burning, and a flock of cardinals crashes into Robert’s house. All this is rendered in flawless, crystalline prose: “Red birds are piled like roses, circling the house.”

What’s happening? We keep on being reminded that it is getting closer, but never quite learn the nature of it. Instead we’re treated to pretty but vapid monologues, such as this one when Jonah reads aloud from his notebook:

 It came like a great tide, sweeping them away. A continual, invisible explosion of white heat particles twinkling and glittering in the ether between entropy and determination. Suspended and informed somehow, and brutally awake. A throbbing nerve mode. Arced-mass breathing in the curvature of space as if released from its cage of flesh and skull in one precise flash. Titanium veins pounding incandescent armies of nano-teleology.

Toward the end, we witness the prologue to “it”—a grotesque mass suicide orchestrated by the catering boss Mr. Stevens. He gives some speeches of his own, marked by the same mix of philosophical and scientific terms name-dropped in a muddled frenzy, before the novel culminates in “a field of brilliant white light” and what appears to be another reset in time.

(Mr. Stevens makes some interesting Biblical allusions. He calls the mass suicide “the last supper,” and he sees himself as the snake in Eden, who he considers the hero of the story. These allusions raise intriguing questions. What’s so bad about knowledge of good and evil? What’s the relationship between the faithful and death? But they connect to nothing else in the novel. Throwing out ideas like this without developing them adds little to a work, like a brilliant philosopher’s quote presented without context or analysis in one of my high school essays.)

We learn nothing about the characters here, their origins or motivations, as they go their murky business. No themes develop either, though Wood constantly tells us how bleak everything is (“Rising light bleeds over skeletal treetops”), and that this is in the suburbs. Even during the climax, it’s about as coherent as one of the more hastily written episodes of Dr. Who.

Wood’s prose, as I’ve acknowledged, can be lovely, but imagery does not a novel make. Atmosphere may be able to carry a film by itself; on the page, it grows cloying. The Glacier is not as much a novel as a collection of vignettes that glitters, weightless and mundane, in the ether between entropy and determination.

The Glacier: A Cinematic Novel by Jeff Wood. Published in September by Two Dollar Radio. 214 pages. $24.99

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Praise God and Live

The Abbey, Jesuit priest James Martin’s fiction debut, is not strictly a conversion story or even a prologue to one. This is the novel’s greatest strength. If nothing else, it deserves credit for being more honest than the common, smarmy man is sad…man finds Jesus…man is happy conversion story that reduces faith to a good mood and Christ to life coach.

Its protagonist, Anne, is by her own admission “not so big on God right now.” Raised Catholic, she drifted away from the church as a young adult. She still grieves for her thirteen-year-old son, hit by a car while biking home from a movie three years ago.

Her tenant, Mark, is a once-promising architect now supporting himself by working as a handyman at a monastery. He is thirty years old, and uncertain of the future.

One day, car trouble forces Anne to ask Mark for a ride. He swings by the monastery on the way home, and Anne remembers the place where her parents spent so much time.

She is skeptical of church, and largely ignorant of it—listening to what she thinks are psalms, she wonders if those are in the Old or New Testament—but she is drawn to an icon of another mourning mother: Mary. And so starts a series of conversations with Father Paul, the abbot.

Paul tells her about God, His mercy, His Love. When Anne complains that she sees God as a judgmental man in the sky, Paul concedes that, yes, the judgment is there, but the love is more important:

“[A]t least as I see it, a God who didn’t judge what we do is a God who doesn’t care how we live. And who would want to believe in a God who doesn’t care how we treat each other? But for me God is much more about mercy and love than about judgment and punishment. We see that over and over in Jesus’ parables.”

Paul’s conversations with Anne, and his reflections as he attends to his labors, are the high point of this novel, but would seem more at home in an essay than a novel.

Martin’s narration is both workaday and needlessly ornate. Note the overloading of adjectives in “The vivid color of the flowers in the bright May sunlight was like a scene from a postcard,” or the redundant third sentence in “The silence enveloped Anne. It was like something she could touch. Like a blanket.” Getting through this brief novel is a bit of a slog.

But while this novel may be inelegant, it’s never unintelligent. Martin (also the editor of the Jesuit magazine America and author of many nonfiction books) never lets us think that faith is easy or quick.

At the end of The Abbey, neither Mark nor Anne has become a Catholic. They have found no road to Damascus, and their problems still exist: Mark is still a handyman, and Anne’s son is still dead. But the possibility of faith has brought a glimmer of hope that wasn’t there before.

The Abbey: A Story of Discovery by James Martin, SJ. Published in October by HarperOne. 212 pages. $24.99

The Cat Video As Art Form

In the summer of 2012, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis hosted the world’s first International Cat Video Festival, or CatVidFest for short. Thousands gathered to watch cat videos, honor recipients in categories including best comedy and best drama, and vote for the recipient of a Golden Kitty—“a cross between an Oscar, a People’s Choice Award, and Best in Show,” according to a festival organizer.

It sounds like a punchline, or a satire on academic considerations of low culture. Perhaps it is. But CatVidFest is also the inspiration for Cat is Art Spelled Wrong, a collection of fourteen essays on the allure of cats and the videos they star in.

Here, Fusion editor Alexis Madrigal recounts the adventure of finding a new home for his cat when it didn’t get along with his newborn. Music critic Carl Wilson looks at the history of cats in the arts. The late media critic David Carr, in a lone anti-cat piece, writes that he prefers the unconditional love and loyalty of a dog. “If I wanted another being to take me in with baleful indifference when I come home every night,” he tells us, “I would have stayed married to my first wife.”

In “Feline Darlings and the Anti-Cute,” her exploration of the symbolism attached to cats throughout history, Sasha Archibald writes that the cat’s cuteness is heightened by its resistance to our adoration and pity:

As most cat lovers acknowledge, the cat’s imperviousness is key to its charm. Knowing the object of our attentions will never be subjugated makes its pursuit enjoyable: In chasing the cat’s exquisite not-need, we allow ourselves to need….In a cat-and-mouse game of our own invention, we attempt subjugation, and the cat resists, over and over and over. With the online cat video, however, our attempts at mastery have acquired their most powerful arsenal to date.

A dog doesn’t mind slobbering all over us, but a cat stubbornly tries to keep its dignity, even when dressed in a shark costume and placed on a Roomba. That explains why dog videos haven’t caught on the way cat videos have. (Similar points are made throughout.)

This collection’s implicit thesis—that a cat video festival is a legitimate thing for an art museum to host—rises to the surface in the final essay by festival co-organizer Sara Schultz. “People have idiosyncratic tastes,” she writes, “and they always have; the internet just allows us to indulge them more freely. Cultural institutions should embrace divergent and seemingly contradictory aesthetics and practices…Questioning rather than imposing what is worthy of our attention can only give us a richer experience of who we are and who we might want to become.”

Point taken. But in this case and many others, the answer to the question “is this cultural phenomenon worthy of our attention?” is a resounding “not for long.”

Our relationship with cats reveals something about the human condition, and cat videos are part of that. But the scholar of the cat video can only dig so deep before hitting mewling, furry bedrock.

What rises to the level of an art form, like literature, can provide something new with every encounter. On my second reading of The Sun Also Rises I noticed the extent of the casual anti-Semitism directed at Robert Cohn; on my third I noticed the loneliness of Harris, the Englishman Jake and Mike meet on a fishing trip. In contrast, no matter how many times I watch a video of a cat playing the piano, there will still only be a cat playing the piano.

Does CatVidFest turn a solitary activity (watching cat videos) into a communal one? Yes. Does it bring more attention and funding to the Walker than a gallery of paintings? Probably. (This second issue goes discreetly unmentioned by the writers here.) But is it art?

There’s nothing wrong with partaking in guilty pleasures, like cat videos, thin but thrilling novels, and inane pop music. To raise these pleasures to the level of art makes as much sense as saying we can get our daily serving of fruit from a pack of Skittles. There is still good reason for gatekeepers like art museums to influence culture rather than merely reflect it, to both question and impose.

But I digress. Like its subject, Cat is Art Spelled Wrong feels no need to justify its existence. It is nonetheless lovely and well-constructed, and succeeds in making something compelling out of a rather scanty subject.

Cat is Art Spelled Wrong edited by Caroline Casey, Chris Fischbach and Sara Schultz. Published September 15th by Coffee House Press. 208 pages. $16.95


A Classic Japanese Writer, Republished in English

Junichiro Tanizaki (1886-1965) falls into the same modern Japanese canon as Natsume Soseki and later writers ranging from Kenzaburo Oe to both Murakamis. An English translation of his novella “A Cat, A Man and Two Women” and two short stories has just been republished. It’s not a particularly exciting occasion, as I’ll explain later, but is still of interest.

Shozo, the hapless husband of the title novella, absolutely loves his cat. Other than his devotion for the tortoiseshell Lily, most of his character can be defined by absence. He lacks a vocation. He lacks will. He lacks love—real love, not just domestic familiarity—for his wife Fukuoka, just as he lacked it for his last one, Shinako.

When Shinako writes asking for Lily, Shozo grudgingly sends her over at the insistence of his Fukuoka. The household—Shozo, Fukuoka, and his mother—speculate over his ex’s motives and adjust to life without Lily, which is not terribly different from life with her.

Other than that, not much happens. Tanizaki retraces Shozo’s aimless or follows his characters’ thought processes in minute detail. Here, Shozo ponders his ex-wife’s intentions:

Was that it? Was Shinako planning to lure him back, with Lily as the bait? If Shozo was found wandering in the vicinity of her house, did Shinako think she could somehow grab hold of him and win him back with her feminine wiles? The very thought filled Shozo with resentment at his ex-wife’s cunning; at the same time, he felt all the more worried about Lily being used as a tool in such a plot. His only hope was that Lily might escape from Shinako’s house in Rokko on the Hankyu line and come back home, as she had from Amagasaki some years before.

Much of “A Cat” runs in this vein, and the result can be soporific. Blocky paragraph after blocky paragraph, Tanizaki catalogs thoughts instead of telling a story.

It doesn’t help that we don’t learn much about these characters other than the types they fall into. Shozo is the ineffectual man, and the women in his life are scheming, jealous manipulators. Petty domestic dramas can rise to the level of literature, and often have, of course, but only when they’re populated with something more than caricatures.

Toward the end of the novella, when Shozo runs to his ex-wife’s house to try to get a glimpse of that beloved cat, some pathos breaks through the two-dimensional characters and workaday prose. We see, that, underneath the comedy of henpecked Shozo, there’s a deep sadness: “Yes, it was true—Shinako and Lily were both to be pitied. But wasn’t he to be pitied even more? He, who had no home to call his own?”

The two short stories in this book also explore thwarted male ambition. “The Little Kingdom” follows Kajima, a poor schoolteacher, as he marvels at the power of a new pupil to control his peers, only to find that that power may have grown out of hand. In “Professor Raddo,” a reporter performs a frustrating interview with a laconic professor, only to meet him years alter and get asked to perform an odd favor.

These pieces, published in their native tongue between 1918 and 1936, say surprisingly little about the changes taking place in Japan during the first half of the twentieth century. (This translation was originally published in 1990.) Nor do they offer many memorable moments, the exception being the end of “The Little Kingdom,” which translator Paul McCarthy in his introduction calls a “double twist”. I am sorry that this classic leaves me with so little.

A Cat, A Man and Two Women by Junichiro Tanizaki. Translated by Paul McCarthy. Published August 27th by New Directions. 180 pages. $14.95

Failing Up

One morning, writer and teacher Jessica Lahey waved her son Finn off to school, only to find his homework lying on the coffee table.

“It would be so easy,” she thought, “to deliver Finn’s homework to his classroom, maybe even surreptitiously slide it into his locker or backpack.” Yet she decided to let Finn go without his forgotten papers.

He returned that afternoon with no noticeable scars or trauma. He’d had to practice math during his free reading time, and his teacher had told him to write a note so he wouldn’t forget his homework again. Mother and son sat down to a plate of cookies.

This anecdote illustrates the thrust of Lahey’s goodhearted if largely redundant new book The Gift of Failure: Let your children face the consequences of their actions, even if that means letting them fail. In the long run, parents who “rescued” them from the vagaries of life, robbing them of motivation and persistence, will hurt them far more than unsympathetic referees or low grades.

Skimming recent developments in psychology, Lahey reminds us that children learn best when motivated by intrinsic, rather than extrinsic, factors. Grades can fluctuate, but self-motivation persists.

She also emphasizes the importance of keeping a “growth mindset,” or of seeing one’s competencies as things to be improved through practice, not finite capacities handed down at birth. For parents, that means praising children for effort (I’m so proud of the work you put into that!) rather than innate ability (You’re so smart! I love you!).

Children need a sense of ownership and responsibility in their lives, she continues, one that’s not provided by a routine in which they’re shuttled from activity to activity and return home to meals that appear on the dining table as if by magic. Children should help out around the house, and see this not as “chores” but as “family contributions.” Why should there be anything special about helping to maintain the household you’re part of?

Lahey, to a limited extent, advocates treating children as the adults-in-training they were for much of history. “Children want to feel capable,” she writes, “and we used to let them, before we took the onus of household duties away from them.”

She is not, however, advocating hands-off parenting. Parents can set firm expectations for their children without micromanaging how they reach them. Tell your children to keep up their studies, but please, don’t write their essays for them.

Like many books borne from magazine articles—this one’s from “Why Parents Need to Let Their Children Fail,” published in The Atlantic in 2013—The Gift of Failure is quite bloated. Lahey makes a good point, then makes it again, and again, and again. She offers few specifics, though her occasional lists—of chores that toddlers can help with, or ways to improve the parent-teacher relationship—are worth photocopying and distributing at the next PTA meeting. And none of the findings in her brief tour of psychology will be new to those who’ve partaken in the collective anxiety surrounding middle- and upper-class education over the last several years.

The Gift of Failure’s greatest shortcoming, however, is its limited scope. The children Lahey addresses in this book, who are so pressured to succeed that they are afraid to fail, are a well-off minority. Harmful as helicopter parenting is, it’s often representative of family wealth that can also be put to tutors, schooling, and a domestic stability conducive to studying.

The predicaments Lahey describes are largely foreign to those growing up with two parents (or one) working full-time jobs. The unacknowledged exclusion of the lower classes from a book on education, so tightly linked to social mobility, makes this one all the more insubstantial.

The Gift of Failure: How The Best Parents Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed by Jessica Lahey. Published August 11th by Harper. 272 pages. $26.99