Friday, April 18, 2014

Fairy Tales

The first line of Helen Oyeyemi's Boy, Snow, Bird could have been “Once upon a time”. A fairy-tale quality permeates the story, a modern twist on the Brothers Grimm. A young girl named Boy lives in New York with a violent father who makes his living as a rat-catcher, using techniques that would horrify the Pied Piper. She runs away to the small New England town of Flax Hill, where she marries a man with a beautiful little daughter named Snow. After the birth of her own child Bird, Boy becomes something of an evil stepmother, and the story becomes a distorted version of “Snow White”, complete with banishment, mirrors, and difficult questions about who is the fairest of them all.

Oyeyemi's style retains the rhythm of a fable, but, especially in the portions where Boy is the narrator, it captures the complex, layered voice of a modern observer, facing issues that are still unresolved in modern society.

Monday, March 31, 2014

My First

If I were drawing up my literary bucket list, Zombie Novel wouldn't be on it. But there's a first time for everything. And how better to dip my toe in the genre than with respected literary novelist Colson Whitehead? So with some trepidation I stepped into Zone One.

The story is set mainly in Manhattan, in the section south of Canal, where the narrator, nicknamed Mark Spitz, is part of a team of three “sweepers” searching for “skels” - short for sleletons. The word zombie is never used, but these skels are the walking dead and they feed on human flesh, so you get the picture. An unexplained plague has struck the world, and those unaffected are attempting to seal off a section of the island as a safe zone, while unnamed powers in Buffalo devise the structure of a new civilization. All survivors suffer from P.A.S.D. (post-apocalyptic stress disorder), but Spitz, a self-proclaimed slacker who was content in his mediocrity, functions better than most because his expectations are low and he views his situation with clear-eyed honesty. And yet, his flashbacks reveal a touching tenderness and sadness for what has been lost.

The story covers just three days. Whitehead's prose may seem over-wrought early in the book, but he is masterful at conveying grim humor, horror and tenderness, with social commentary stirred in. I can't compare this to other zombie novels, but let me just say this - the third day is scary, scary, scary.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

It's Not You, It's Me

Rachel Kushner, your novel The Flamethrowers is beautifully written and deserves the many accolades (including National Book Award finalist) it has received. I admire the power of your prose, the engaging stories your characters tell, the deft weaving of fiction with historical events, the subtle skewering of the art world, the vivid scene you painted early in the novel of the speed trials in the Bonneville Flats.

And I really wanted to like it. I know the problem is mine, not yours. But it just didn't work for me. I'm frequently critical of readers who insist that a good novel must have a character they like, even admire. But I now realize I have my own prejudice. I need to feel engaged. Reno, a young woman from Nevada who enters the New York art scene in the early 70's, is by nature a passive observer. She is acted upon but rarely initiates action. This is not a failure by Kushner – she means for Reno to be a non-judgmental narrator. But this kept me at a distance from her, and I had trouble staying interested.

Sorry, Rachel. I look forward to trying again with you.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Life's a Mess

Life doesn't run smoothly when you're a character in an Andre Dubus III story. In his earlier novel, "House of Sand and Fog", he sent his characters on collision courses with each other, with disastrous results. His latest work, Dirty Love, is a collection of four stories, somewhere between long short stories and short novelllas. The setting is a small New England coastal town. His characters all yearn for love, but they make desperate choices and are often their own worst enemies.

These stories are not for readers who like characters they can admire. I often wanted to grab them by the shoulders and shake hard. But Dubus's talent is to make them so vividly real, so desperate and vulnerable and frightened by their choices, that I was never tempted to judge them. And in each story the characters are left with a flickering of hope that they might yet sort out the mess in their lives.