Art As Politics and Politics As Crime in Patricio Pron’s ‘Don’t Shed Your Tears For Anyone Who Lives on These Streets’

Don't Shed Your Tears for Anyone Who Lives on These Streets Book CoverIn Don’t Shed Your Tears For Anyone Who Lives on These Streets, Patricio Pron transports readers to the final months of World War II where, at the Fascist Writers’ Conference in Pinerolo, Italy, a man called Luca Borello is found dead in the dangerous, partisan-held territory surrounding the city. Borello, a member of the Futurist movement and a former fascist, had been estranged from his friends and colleagues for years following the theft of a deceased friend’s work by another Futurist writer several years prior. But, in April 1945, Borello appears as if out of nowhere, intent on righting what he believes to be the ultimate transgression against the Futurist vision of art.

It isn’t until the late 1970s when a university student named Peter Linden takes interest in the goings-on of this fateful conference that the details surrounding Borello’s death – an event intertwined with the history of Linden’s own family – fall into place. The narrative, comprised largely of interviews Linden conducts with the four writers closest to Borello in his youth, recounts the conference and its players while also capturing the frenetic, violent, masculine energy of Futurism in its heyday. With their retelling of events, Pron masterfully explores the Futurist movement and its indelible link to fascism. At the conference, fascist writers from across Europe convene to discuss, in an increasingly futile manner, the tenets and goals of fascism, even as the Axis powers – the representative force of these fascist philosophies – is on its knees.

How art became politics and politics became crime is the heart of Pron’s novel, best represented by these men searching for artistic purity through violent means – art turned into action. As they recall the events surrounding Borello’s death two decades later, the sputtering flame of youthful conviction allows this group of aging artists to examine what they once believed to be true about their art and its aims. In the stark aftermath of the war, where the philosophies of the Futurists and their ilk are wretched, one writer posits the following:

…Our idea, I now think, was an aesthetic utopia, and those utopias should never transcend the realm of books, maybe they shouldn’t have ever even left the heads of their authors.

-Excerpt from Don’t Shed Your Tears For Anyone Who Lives on These Streets

And what comes of nations, people, and movements – the members of which are never fully in agreement about anything – forging political landscapes out of “aesthetic utopias”? This striving for artistic purity, as it is transposed onto life, breeds violence – where those who see it will rip the fabric of reality, ultimately tearing flesh to fit the mold of its vision.

In 1945, after the theft of the work Borello was meant to safeguard, Borello retreats into himself and comes to the realization that literature cannot be used as a political tool successfully. To attempt as much is to degrade the principles of Futurist art. This is why he attends the conference after years of isolation. His attempts to convince the other writers of this belief goes unheeded, but his eventual death, according to one of the writers, signified “the end of the idea of fascist literature, or, at least, the end of the idea that it could somehow help governments that could no longer help themselves and had given up trying.”

Peter Linden, the radically left-wing student who questions these writers, must confront the “schisms [their] story has provoked in his life and ideas,” which, ” divorces a certain idea of justice from the conviction that justice can actually be carried out by individuals or even [an] organization.” The story presented to him insists that our deepest held convictions are never as diametrically opposed to those of our foes as we like to believe.

Linden’s father, Francesco, a leftist partisan fighter during the war, confronts the same questions in the months leading up to the Fascist Writer’s Conference when he is saved by Borello who has been living in relative isolation nearby. The section of the novel that concerns the interaction between Francesco and Borello – two men in doubt about the methods of the organizations and movements with which they’ve aligned themselves, movements they once believed to be fundamentally pure and true – shows the gnawing sense of dread that comes with betrayal and the sudden imperative for a reappraisal of moral code, since what was once clearly defined is no longer so and, perhaps, never was.

The uneasy friendship between Linden and Borello is the most riveting part of Pron’s narrative, one where readers are offered a reprieve from the fascist writers and their remembrances. Here, readers no longer have to wade through ideas of theoretical purity but can instead witness purity in practice – a beautifully rendered scene in which two men realize their sense of self and humanity through compassion.

This paves the way for the novel’s final section, which reveals the narrative to be, in part, a generational exploration of affliction. We meet Linden’s son Tomasso, or T., who represents the outcome of his patriarchs’ track record of trying to align themselves with organizations meant to rectify the wrongs of government, “all of whom have had to compare their convictions to the results of their actions.” The three men are “linked by…an uncomfortable awareness of history and the place of individuals,” and T. becomes, perhaps more than anyone else in the novel, the one who sees that the systems in which we live are simply a “replacement ceremony” where generations will continuously become those they despise.

Pron’s novel is a tapestry of styles woven together perfectly to create a novel of unexpected force, one that probes beyond monolithic alliances and shifting moral structures. And like so many Latin American writers, Pron gets to the core of political dysfunction with his own brand of narrative ingenuity. The result is simultaneously unnerving and captivating.

Carmen Boullosa’s ‘The Book of Anna’ Is a Masterpiece of Metafiction

The Book of Anna Book CoverThis review appears on paperbackparis.com:

Carmen Boullosa‘s latest novel, The Book of Anna, threads characters from Leo Tolstoy’s masterpiece into an innovative narrative caper that blends history, fiction, and fairytale. In the tradition of Latin American writers such as Roberto Bolaño, Jorge Luis Borges, and Clarice Lispector, Boullosa pushes the boundaries of fiction in a novel that tackles the nature of fiction itself, from the chasm of authorial intent to the presentation of fictitious elements as real objects. The result is an unexpected delight – an oddity that moves within its paces so brilliantly, readers will take each strange turn of events as it comes, knowing Boullosa will lead them to a space of literary transcendence.

In Boullosa’s continuation of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Anna’s son Sergei must decide whether or not to sell a portrait of his mother to Tsar Nicholas II for display in the Hermitage. His wife, Claudia, is thrilled at the prospect, but Sergei can’t shake the fact that he is Tolstoy’s creation, one who, as much as he tries, cannot escape the shadow of his mother’s shame or that of the author’s legacy. Meanwhile, several servants in the Karenin household have aligned themselves with the movement of Father Gapon, a Russian Orthodox priest who organizes a march comprised of laborers and peasants and plans to protest on the grounds of the Winter Palace despite knowing the Tsar will inflict violence on anyone involved. His duplicity and hubris set the stage for a series of events that careen through Tolstoy’s world, Boullosa’s world, the history of revolutionary Russia, and several combinations of each.

As the protest in St. Petersburg comes to a tragic end, Sergei and Claudia are preparing the portrait of Anna Karenina. Sergei wishes to leverage the tsar’s offer into a lucrative position away from St. Petersburg where he can be free of Anna Karenina’s legacy and Tolstoy’s machinations – a place where he can, ideally, forge a self that belongs to him alone, one that exists in the world outside of fiction. Claudia balks at the idea of leaving the city behind and hopes to give the money to Sergei’s sister Anya. As they continue to debate each other and an angry, dream-world Tolstoy, Claudia discovers a box in her attic containing two manuscripts by Anna Karenina: the first, a morality story for children that was lauded by a publisher in her lifetime, and the second, a rewrite of the same story that turns out to be a kaleidoscopic feminist fairy tale written under the influence of opium.

This manuscript, the long lost “Book of Anna,” reveals a woman torn between worlds and how to be. The highly wrought constructed “self” morphs over the course of the fable and ends with something that resembles happiness. A much better fate, readers will agree, than Tolstoy’s Anna. But, in a cruel turn of events, as the revolution chugs forward (not unlike another fateful train, if you’ll excuse the easy parallel), an anarchist called Clementine and the distraught brother of a servant killed in the protest march plant a bomb in the car carrying Anna Karenina’s portrait and her manuscripts to the Winter Palace. All of her selves are destroyed in one instant.

The sheer innovation of Boullosa’s multi-layered narrative presents the reader with a nesting doll of fictions and histories – threads that intertwine questions of self-hood, artistic creation, and the many-layered voices of political change. The Book of Anna marks the rare achievement of a writer who balances the weight of Tolstoy’s complicated genius with her own interpretation of events, real and fictitious, with unmitigated brio and a touch of mischievous whimsy. It will surely become a modern classic.

Maureen Johnson’s ‘Truly Devious’ Series Goes Out with a Bang in ‘The Hand on the Wall’

the hand on the wallThis review appears on paperbackparis.com:

The ‘Truly Devious’ series goes out with a bang in its final installment. The intrepid Stevie Bell makes it back to Ellingham Academy after a series of tragedies disrupt the school’s idyllic environment. She knows who committed the crime of the century, as the original Ellingham kidnapping/murders came to be known. But, now, she must piece together the present-day murders. Are they connected to the original killings? Are they even connected to each other?  In The Hand on the Wall, a page-turner from start to finish, Maureen Johnson provides those who have followed the mysteries of Ellingham Academy from the beginning with a satisfying conclusion.

Stevie’s deal with the villainous Edward King – a Senator cut from the Donald Trump mold – damages her budding romantic relationship with King’s secret problem child, David. After getting himself beaten up on purpose at the end of The Vanishing Stair, David is missing and, on top of that, Stevie’s advisor has been killed in a house fire. The uncertainty of the school’s future after these tragic deaths, combined with Stevie’s personal problems and academic demands, provide an anxiety-driven sprint to the finish as pieces of the puzzle start coming together in unexpected and chilling ways.

As with the two previous installments, Johnson alternates between perspectives told from the players of the original Ellingham affair and Stevie’s efforts in the present. The link between past and present becomes clearer as time passes, and the mysteries of the school continue to reveal themselves. Stevie’s advisor was convinced Albert Ellingham made a codicil in his will stipulating that any individual who discovers the whereabouts of his daughter, Alice, and returns her, alive or dead, will receive millions of dollars. If such a codicil exists, Stevie wonders, are the present-day murders motivated by the same entity that spurred the original crimes? Money makes a monster of us all, and it seems there are those who will stop at nothing to get what they want.

While this novel and its predecessor, The Vanishing Stair, suffer a little from the sophomore slump destined to plague most sequels, the entire series is a satisfying whodunit for young adults. Rereading the first two installments would be ideal before plunging into the final book, but Johnson’s unflagging ability to engross readers with her suspense-filled prose and character-driven narratives shines through in this ending – a perfect way to spend a few hours in the dead of winter.

Nicolette Polek’s ‘Imaginary Museums’ Is a Surreal Exploration of Timeless Themes

imaginary-museumsThis review appears on paperbackparis.com:

Nicolette Polek’s debut collection of short stories, Imaginary Museums, contains a surreal world in miniature. These stories – more accurately categorized as flash fiction – are parable-like sketches, elegantly rendered, ranging from uncanny to mythical. Moving back and forth between the Midwest and Eastern Europe, Polek exhibits a preternatural control over the tone of her narrative snippets. Each tale, from the runaway bride in “Arranged Marriage” to the mathematician seeking reinvention in “A House For Living,” successfully distills the nature of isolation. Polek’s characters, disconnected in various ways from the realities that face them, move in a dream world that mirrors our own in almost every way. The few unsettling differences that rear their heads are enough to make the reader feel out of step.

Yet, Polek’s stories are not without a sense of profound grace – a need to amend disconnection (between lovers, to one’s homeland, with God) in order to heal the rifts that form. She uses her masterful command of compression to encompass a range of scenarios, from interpersonal relationships (“Garden Party” and “The Dance”) and the prospect of death (“The Nearby Place”), to larger themes such as immigration (“Invitation,” “Your Shining Trapdoor”) and the anxiety that comes with experiencing grief and uncertainty (“Doorstop,” “The Rope Barrier”). In these glimpses, Polek manages to move fluidly from scene to scene without veering outside the collection’s atmospheric tone.

This sense of consistency lies in the smallest details aligning with the collection’s overarching thematic elements, from the stories’ placement in each of its four sections to the pointed strangeness of her sentences. In the title piece, “Imaginary Museums,” the protagonist’s sister is described as someone who “picked vegetables, read the Bible, and always had bad phone reception.” Such incongruous descriptions crop up around Polek’s characters in almost all of these fictions. But, as is the case with most stories that border on the surreal, kernels of truth are embedded in the characters’ strange traits and observations. In “The Rope Barrier,” a woman finds that her habit of cordoning herself off from things and people with a literal rope barrier cannot save her from life’s difficulties. Polek writes:

The woman both despised the rope barrier and hissed at those who approached it. She felt singled out and angry at things that were bigger than her. It felt, now, as if she were forced to put herself on a side of things she encountered, and that she often chose the wrong side.

— excerpt from Nicolette Polek’s Imaginary Museums

The beauty of these stories rests in their simplicity and control, something that Polek has honed to a point in this particular craft of flash fiction. While there are individual stories that lack the structure to stand on their own outside the collection, the whole is well worth revisiting for its elegance and technical accomplishment.

Eliese Colette Goldbach’s Memoir ‘Rust’ Is a Poignant Debut

Rust_Book-CoverThis review appears on paperbackparis.com:

Eliese Colette Goldbach has lived every dreamer’s nightmare. In her book-length debut Rust: A Memoir of Steel and Grit, Goldbach details how the recession and her struggle with bipolar disorder effectively precludes her from securing meaningful employment post-university. Through the overarching framework of her working life at the mill, Goldbach’s memoir describes a downward trajectory of disappointment. The largely halcyon days of her childhood – distinguished by ambition, promise, and a naïve, unguarded piety – give way to years of self-doubt and loneliness in adolescence and young adulthood. Most strikingly, her account of working in a massive steel mill encapsulates the dark side of a certain fantasy peddled to millennials since their youngest days in elementary school: if you get a college degree, you are guaranteed work. Like many others in her position, Goldbach finds that the combination of a liberal arts degree, an economic recession, and a severe illness do not lead to the image of success imparted upon us by working-class parents.

When relating her early memories as a child growing up in a devout Roman Catholic family, Goldbach describes what I imagine is the near-universal desire among young girls in the Church to become nuns. The obsessive, fearful need for goodness, combined with the competitive nature of a younger sibling trying to out-do an older sibling in everything, imbues the author with what she comes to describe as a hunger for the extraordinary. As with most strict religious upbringings, and a future weighed down by expectation, Goldbach’s later years are marred by disillusionment followed by the need for course correction. She finds that the institutions she once believed represented justice, morality, and compassion are not so when difficulties arise in her life, namely her battle with bipolar disorder and a sexual assault during her college years.

The mill provides Goldbach with financial stability as a union laborer. And while her illness continues to cast a shadow over her personal life during these years, she finds herself part of a community among her fellow workers. By extension, she finds a new identity underneath the auspices of Cleveland’s famed grit – a place where the backbone of America’s infrastructure is born. Steelwork is known for its hazards, and Goldbach makes a point of comparing the steelmaking process with hellfire. The extremity of the work – along with the “snitches get stitches” attitude of her fellow workers – requires a new level of toughness, or else, a newbie will get chewed up and spit out by the mill. This rough-and-tumble education belies everything she thought she knew about the blue-collar industry in her hometown. Goldbach writes:

I heard about it from pundits and economics professors, and I’d come to believe that the Rust Belt was the collection of tidy metaphors that everyone else wanted it to be.

-excerpt from Rust

Goldbach’s personal experiences during this time of young adulthood provide a poignant, relatable reading experience for those who have been negatively affected by the post-recession economy, for those who have struggled with an incapacitating illness, or for those teetering with the religious values of one’s youth.

But, in the same vein as J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy and other post-election literature, the strongest components of Goldbach’s memoir rest on keen observations of life at the steel mill, specifically as a woman in a largely male environment; how the identity of laborers is consistently exploited by politicians; and the myriad ways households are divided by hyperbolic political rhetoric. In a characteristically Biblical description, she describes the “rift” between Americans as something that “had been borne from a particularly human failing.” Goldbach writes:

 We had forgotten how to see each other. We had let our guard down. We had closed our eyes. Now the weavers of shrouds and fantasies had come along recognizing our self-imposed darkness. They believed that we were too blind to know better, so they covered our eyes carefully, hoping that none of us—both steelworkers and lawyers alike—would ever see clearly again.

-excerpt from Rust

Unfortunately, Goldbach fails to delve into the nitty-gritty of the economic disillusionment and pure rage that changed the tide of our 2016 election, which would likely uncover a slightly more nuanced portrait of this oft exploited demographic. Human failing certainly plays a role, but decades of poor economic policy and plain old political opportunism likely play a larger one.

As a whole, Rust is a moving portrait of Goldbach’s formative years, with gems of societal observation strewn throughout the narrative. Its shortcomings, which stem from too many narrative threads vying for center stage throughout the book, are mitigated by the author’s clear talent for observational storytelling.

On “The Need” by Helen Phillips

the need2019 ended on a strange note with a reading of Helen Phillips’ widely acclaimed second novel, The Need. In this heady blend of domestic fiction, fantasy, and science fiction, Phillips creates an atmospheric narrative that begins with a mother sensing the presence of an intruder in her home. In her fear, Molly, our narrator, operates solely on instinct in what becomes an increasingly futile effort to protect her two young children from such a violation.

Phillips’ strongest efforts in this novel can be attributed to her clever layering of a complex narrative timeline. Molly’s work as a paleobotanist brings her into contact with an excavation site known as “the Pit,” where, prior to the events of the novel, she discovers several everyday items with strange variations in their composition: a toy soldier with a monkey’s tail; a Coca-Cola can with the font shifted the opposite way; and a Bible that references God as “she.” Each is harmless, but something about these differences lends the objects an uncanny, otherworldly quality. The latter object in particular makes a splash in local papers, leading to a rapid increase in tourists to the Pit–some of whom do no take kindly to this new edition of the Holy Scriptures. In this way, Phillips introduces another threat of violence to the narrative, infusing the skewed world of the novel with dread.

As Molly confronts the prospect of an intruder in her home, the narrative cuts back to her time at the Pit and the significance of these small objects. When the plot pushes forward to Molly coming into contact with the intruder–an excellent buildup of suspense from Phillips–we find that this interloper is none other than Molly herself. “Moll”, as this variant of Molly comes to call herself, is a version of our narrator from a different reality–one of an infinite number of realities in which a tourist viewing the discovered Bible detonates a bomb, killing Molly’s children. In her grief, Moll finds her way to Molly via the Pit–a seam in the fabric of the universe that allows the alternate realities to come into contact with each other.

Moll demands access to the children, forcing Molly into an arrangement in which the two share care-giving duties. The threat of violence, combined with the weight of grief and the physical need to be with the children form this novel’s backbone. Phillips uses Molly’s experiences–and by extension Moll’s experiences–to explore motherhood, from the quotidian grind of caring for small children, who are more creature than human, to the extreme lengths a grieving mother will go to for the sake of those children…or what she will do to avenge their deaths.

Phillips writes with unparalleled beauty and grace about how the instinctive, physical  elements of motherhood–the trappings of nursing combined with the touch and smell of these small lives produced from one’s body–transcend mortal pinions to the realm of some unknowable universe; a higher existence in which infinite realities can take shape from a knowable present.

While Phillips’ prose is not consistently clean in craft, it is often stunningly understated and clear in intent. At just 272 pages, the author shows her ability to expand the short story form for which she is known, successfully executing the same succinct exploration of theme in the extended novel form.

A bit bleak for year’s end, but well worth the time.

Rick Barot’s ‘Galleons’ Examines Love, Identity and Colonialism

the-galleons-rick-barot-reviewThis review appears on paperbackparis.com:

In his latest poetry collection, The Galleons, Rick Barot explores identity, love, aging, knowledge, and sight within the context of post-colonialism. With the consistent, steady pattern of couplets—a mark of Barot’s attempt to impose what he calls “muscular logic”—the reader experiences a rendering of the world that ranges in scale from the heavy-bellied Spanish galleons of empire to the indulged son making wooden models of galleons in his basement. Barot’s “grudging faith / in the particular” leads to a meticulous effort to name things—an imposition of order on the distinctly human cycle of paradox, violence, and grief that marks the passage of time. His ability to pinpoint specific moments or elements within larger phenomena, and vice versa, shows a poet committed to sight—to noticing and putting down on paper the ways in which our personal histories intertwine with nature and the universe at large.

In his poem titled “The Marrow,” Barot writes, “I saw things / mostly as they were, which meant a kind of health.” In this sense, it’s easy to consider the poems in The Galleons as an exercise in healing. Barot devotes a significant portion of the titled Galleons poems, of which there are ten, listing stolen items from Spain’s colonial rule in the Philippines. When “research is mourning,” and when what we’re capable of doing differs from that which we want to do, the ability to recognize what exists and what has passed becomes a crucial part of identifying the self. We see this in “The Galleons 6″—a poem in which Barot makes an inventory of ships used by the Spanish empire from 1564 to 1816, and again in  “The Galleons 8” where the personified ships yearn for that which is lost to them.

Similarly, in the collection’s quieter moments, we see the poet lose faith in the “romantic notion” of overarching narratives when attempting to understand what defines a life.  He observes, “The shard and not the whole / comprises a life, the image and not the narrative,” pointing to world-shattering moments in which the smallest details remain clear in the mind rather than knowing as it occurs that the moment itself will change everything. These shards—these small defining moments that Barot strings like pearls throughout the collection—speak to the sense of relief that comes with being able to remember and give names to that which animates our existence.

With this naming comes precision and a clear sense of narrative purpose. Barot’s efforts reveal a reckoning with the past, personal and historical. The awareness that comes with forging these observations into art allows for hope and beauty to enter spaces where they had not existed. He writes, “And the window within the eye, / which you don’t see until you see, is white as a winter sky, / though you know it is joy that is held there.” Barot gives us the gift of sight in The Galleons, and with it, the power to capture hope.