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.
In her introduction to Alia Trabucco Zerán’s groundbreaking new novel — recently shortlisted for the 2019 Man Booker International Prize — Lina Meruane frames the narrative as an exercise in “mortuary maths,” asking how we reconcile the number of people born with the number of those who die in a country stuck in the shadow of Pinochet’s dictatorship. Meruane suggests The Remainder, and other examples of post-memory literature, respond to a specific need: “the need for a kind of grief that manifests in the counting of dead bodies and the recounting of stories.” These stories, Meruane observes, question whether or not “borrowed or imposed memory [can] be separated from one’s own memories,” or if the cut will lead to another kind of death.
Told from the dual perspective of childhood friends struggling with the weight of this collective memory, Zerán explores the ways in which those coming of age in the wake of a dictatorship attempt to forge their own identities out of sustained trauma — a cycle that any number of careful calculations will almost certainly fail to undo. Yet they persist, as all characters of Latin American fiction are wont to do, searching for a cure to what ails the progeny of colonialism: the original sin.
In The Remainder, Felipe, Iquela and Paloma, the children of former militants, embark on a journey to recover Paloma’s mother’s body after it is diverted away from Santiago. Their attempt to repatriate her forces them to reckon with what they remember of the past–the brutality and grief threaded into every inch of recollection, whether experienced directly or as a product of the strange osmosis that permeates their shared stories.
We see this as the book’s narrators, Felipe and Iquela, build the story through alternating passages, effectively representing the duality of the questions Zerán attempts to answer. In Felipe’s countdown to zero–the end goal in which all of Chile’s dead have been accounted for–we see a manic, hunger-panged reaction to grief. Felipe’s is a form of suffering in which the whole and all its parts are seen at once. Nothing can be unseen, therefore, nothing can be forgotten. Everything flows from him in a wild rush of sensory overload. His passages, which go on for several pages, contain only one long stream-of-conscious like sentence. Iquela, on the other hand, is tethered firmly to reality, preoccupied with imposing her own memories (interspersed throughout the text in parenthetical asides) on the narrative of her life, and in doing so, forging a new language. In childhood, both narrators inflict and endure physical pain in an attempt to feel something that is their own–”a pain that was visible and mine,” as Iquela remembers it.
Paloma’s arrival forces the trio to examine the past and finally put it to rest, allowing them to arrive at zero. She leads them to the cure, the final reckoning, by allowing Felipe and Iquela to join her in recovering her mother’s body. It becomes an offering, which we see in Iquela’s final passage as she faces the prospect of returning to Chile:
…Only by ridding myself of it all would I be able to face going back, only by shaking off the “scars,” “grief,” “sorrows,” and repaying, syllable by syllable, that incalculable debt, a debt that would have rendered us mute…I’d walk toward my mother, gazing at her affectionately, carrying the weight of all the things she’d ever seen (carrying remains, debts, sorrows). And in an old voice–no less mine for being inherited–using frail and untranslatable syllables, final words which, once spoken, would leave me empty and alone in a desert full of new lines (to be spoken in a timeless language), I would say to her with a hint of sadness, ‘I’ve brought you Ingrid Aguirre, and here is Felipe Arrabal.’ And I would hold her (her skin so close to her bones and her bones so close to mine), and only then, from within the perfect parenthesis of our interwoven bodies, would I open my mouth to tell her: ‘Mother, I’ve done all this for you.’
excerpt from The Remainder by Alia Trabucco Zerán
The pain Felipe, Iquela and Paloma carry with them — that which was passed along to them and which they inflicted upon themselves — will pass. Holding onto it will not repay the “incalculable debt” of loss, from those who disappeared to those who were killed or forced to flee. There are too many deaths to square, but the return of one body–Ingrid’s repatriation–is the key to being at peace with their ghosts.
Zerán’s formidable command of two distinct styles throughout the novel (translated beautifully by Sophie Hughes), her ability to plumb the depths of generational trauma and her ability to engage with and deconstruct the concept of collective memory propels The Remainder to the status of masterpiece. She continues the longstanding tradition of Latin American writers attempting to make sense of political violence by rendering the darkest sins of a country, and the pain of its people, into a beacon of light.
Natalia Ginzburg’s novella The Dry Heart famously springs forth from an unnamed narrator’s matter-of-fact statement, “I shot him between the eyes.” But even before we get her pronouncement, our narrator asks this man, her husband Alberto, to, “Tell me the truth,” and he responds, “What truth?” In this brief exchange—in the moment just before such an extreme act of violence—Ginzburg presents the core theme of her story: what truth can be found in this narrator’s life? Can it be found in her marriage? Her motherhood? Her role as a daughter or friend? The simple answer embedded within this shocking, tension-filled portrait of marriage is that truth does not exist for our narrator. It has been, by turns, misinterpreted, morphed, stolen or replaced—an alchemical transmutation, collapsing deceptive imagination and a husband’s fatal weakness of character into an eerily exacting portrait. Our narrator observes, “It’s very difficult…to know what we’re really like inside,” and we see, in Ginzburg’s incisive, direct prose, how an ill-defined life has pernicious and tragic consequences.
Our narrator, a woman in her late twenties, lives a dull life. She dutifully visits her family every weekend and returns to her boardinghouse to read novels in her spare time. When she begins seeing Alberto, an older man who cares for his elderly mother, a new, entirely imagined world opens for her. Ginzburg writes:
When a girl is very much alone and leads a tiresome and monotonous existence, with worn gloves and very little spending money, she may let her imagination run wild and find herself defenseless before all the errors and pitfalls which imagination has devised to deceive her.
-excerpt from The Dry Heart
She and Alberto have no real love for each other, but the anticipation of their meetings—the visions for the future she constructs from the possibilities associated with their pairing—lead to an imagined love, which happens to be as powerful and all-encompassing as the real thing. Of their dates, she says, “We went for long walks along the river or in the outskirts of the city, where lovers go, and yet we exchanged none of the words or gestures of love.” Such is the only excitement she can find, perhaps, within the strictures of Italian society in the 1940s.
Her thoughts are entirely preoccupied with Alberto. Her work as a schoolteacher no longer interests her, and she sits and waits for him to visit or call. Eventually, they marry because, it seems, they have nothing else to do with their attachment, and a child is born. The narrator is uncertain about her relationship with Alberto, the love she breathed into being disappeared with the birth of her child. Although she knows about Alberto’s long, torturous affair with a woman called Giovanna, she carries on with the care of their child by herself while he leaves for extended periods of time.
She obsesses over the child, placing all of her care and affection into the rearing of her daughter’s sickly form. When her cousin Francesca comes to stay, the younger woman’s disregard for social convention reveals to the narrator a different sort of life, jaded as she is trying to understand her own motivations and those of the people around her.
In just under 90 pages, Ginzburg offers up a clean sliver of the human heart, revealing all its frustrations and limitations; its foolish desires keeping us pinioned within worlds we can’t remove ourselves from even if we wanted to. In the end, our narrator’s final act takes on a frightening logic. Why wouldn’t we attempt to break the cycle and free ourselves from these hellish turnings of the mind? Only a writer of Ginzburg’s caliber could turn this simple sketch of life into a trenchant examination of despair.
In her latest collection of short stories, Jac Jemc explores the tenuousness of morality, plotting the ways in which good and evil intermingle with fear, desire and violence. Each story—touched with a sense of foreboding or uncanniness—depicts some small imbalance in the realities of its characters. From a woman who takes refuge in a crumbling, allegedly ghost-ridden former plantation to an ex-con delving into the therapeutic effects of taxidermy, Jemc reveals herself to be an ambitious writer willing to take risks for the sake of cutting into the heart of something sinister.
Jemc presents readers with a mixed bag of odd stories, alternating between sketches like “Any Other” and “Loitering” with longer pieces such as “Manifest” and “Don’t Let’s.” In some instances, Jemc writes deceptively simple narratives that contain a hint of unease. Other stories eschew conventional plotting altogether for something more impressionistic. We see this in “Get Back,” where she begins with the following sentence: “Villard took my grace with an undone, half-paralyzed anger, and so I found him daily and burned his house down on what I deemed a repeated whim.” A succession of violent acts ensue, none of which come with context or explanation. Is this the psychological portrait of a torturer, or is it another exercise in questioning the boundaries of morality?
Jemc’s transition between these modes of narration can be jarring, like encountering mismatched set pieces in a pristine stage design. But these stories beg to be reread and reexamined, and, in so doing, the grand scheme of the author’s thematic vision becomes clearer. She leaves it to readers to piece together the jagged edged remains of her broken characters and their shame, but the doomishness of it doesn’t come entirely without levity, as in “The Principal’s Ashes.” Can you imagine a classroom of seven-year-olds reciting Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl”? You know, the poem with “waving genitals” and cigarette burned arms, etc. Such is the product of Jemc’s imagination.
Despite its incongruity on first inspection, Jemc manages to construct a masterful collection similar in tone to Maryse Meijer’s staggering 2016 debut, Heartbreaker. These stories, when experienced as a whole, will linger with readers as they attempt to complete the puzzle Jemc has left for us to solve.
Aspiring writers should proceed with caution when reading Rion Amilcar Scott’s second collection of short stories, The World Doesn’t Require You. One cannot delve into these magnificent, genre-bending narratives without sinking into a pool of envy and wonder at the imaginative power of his craft. Like Scott’s debut, Insurrections, this collection features the fictional city of Cross River, Maryland, a town founded in the wake of the country’s only successful slave revolt. Its inhabitants—a motley cast of characters, from gangsters, sirens, and robots to two unbalanced professors studying loneliness and a down-and-out musician who happens to be the youngest son of God—battle with religion, deities, the transcendent power of music and the balance of fantasy and reality. Spanning decades from past to future, Cross River envelops all in its mythos and the brutal nature of its origins.
Scott’s writing zips with electricity, melding vibrant dialogue with pristinely structured prose. His linguistic playfulness, manifesting in asides, razor-sharp deployment of AAVE, and—in his novella, Special Topics in Loneliness Studies—the liberal usage of footnoting and a break from traditional prose structure with the inclusion of PowerPoint slides and photographs, hums with barely contained mayhem. Music comes as staccato bursts on the page, marrying rhythm and language in ecstatic waves—a feat reminiscent of writers such as Junot Díaz and the late Toni Morrison. While Scott allows the world of Cross River to take shape as it must, containing shadow play of the real world, he maintains a formidable level of control over his sentences and narrative structures. Nothing feels out of place as the reader moves from one story to the next, era to era.
Scott’s world-building rests on the specific experiences of African Americans in a Southern border state, but The World Doesn’t Require You fits easily into conversation with the work of William Faulkner and Gabriel García Márquez who created fantastic variations of their own places of origin, namely Yoknapatawpha County and Macondo. Márquez’s particular strand of magic realism—a genre born from centuries of violent political upheaval—presents itself in Scott’s fiction, a frenetic contribution to the “Big Bang” realm of speculative fiction. In this fluid sub-genre, characters often struggle to come into being in the midst of systemic trauma. The collision of forces that brings matter into existence is a gut-wrenching experience, one that leaves those in its wake reeling and overflowing with powerful energy. In “The Temple of Practical Arts,” Scott writes:
Through music, through the land, we were shapers of the world’s destiny, or at least we were training to be. After the Temple we were beggars, wanderers, hustlers, street buskers pitied by passersby and harassed by police, half-formed angels cast from Heaven. We became the stuff of nightmares. None of us, it turns out, were actually the luminous demigods we’d seen gazing from our mirrors…The Kid ruined this place, the Temple. He ruined us. Transformed us all from little symphonies into the faded plucks beneath the bleeding fingers of God the spent guitarist. The last thumps in the dying heart of God.
— excerpt from Rion Amilcar Scott’s The World Doesn’t Require You
These stories are foundational myths—a subtle re-writing of conventional narratives, and Scott’s references are multifaceted. There are obvious markings of certain literary predecessors, but we also see nods to hip-hop, academic discourse, and a subtle homage to the horror stylings of Jordan Peele. It’s impossible not to get caught up in Scott’s masterful command of these elements. And as for Cross River, we can only hope he will bring us there again.
In the acknowledgments section of Casey McQuiston’s debut novel Red, White & Royal Blue, the author cites (among many things) Mitski’s “Texas Reznikoff” as a source of inspiration. This song—the kickoff track to Bury Me at Makeout Creek—distills the purest elements of McQuiston’s book: “But I’ve been anywhere and it’s not what I want / I wanna be still with you,” lilting and melancholic in its longing, then giving way to a raucous closing verse. It is a sketch that captures the niche every pair of lovers hopes to find, a secret place where they can “keep their socks on in bed.” Something ridiculous and hopeful like that.
Red, White & Royal Blue can claim all the above-used adjectives: pure, raucous, melancholic, ridiculous and hopeful. With it, McQuiston has given us an uproariously funny and beautifully crafted romantic comedy which also serves as a no-holds-barred indulgence for what could have been if the events of 2016 had happened differently.
Alex Claremont-Díaz, son of the United States’ first female president (yes, it takes us there), has only ever wanted to pursue a career in politics. His manic high energy and fierce intelligence charm everyone, making a name for himself as a man about town and a member of the White House trio—a formidable triptych consisting of Alex; his sister June, a budding journalist; and Nora, their best friend/Veep granddaughter/wunderkind of data analysis. Media outlets hail them as the pinnacle of high-achievement and effortless cool—the who’s who of millennial success. Everyone wants to know them.
Despite the constant press attention and the pressures associated with being a part of the First Family, Alex has no intention of slowing down or avoiding the limelight. Ambition reigns supreme until he reaches his goals. After graduation from George Washington University and a much-coveted stint on his mother’s re-election campaign, it’s upward and onward for the handsome, bold-as-brass twenty-two-year-old. Until, of course, it isn’t.
An invitation to the British royal wedding leads to a run-in with Alex’s arch-nemesis, Prince Henry of Wales, and everything goes up in flames. Upending a $75,000 wedding cake tends to piss off a lot of people, and in the midst of another election cycle, the potential for Revolutionary War Part II could prove disastrous at a time when all parties involved are under constant scrutiny. Until things blow over, the two must pretend to be best friends. Charity events, Wimbledon, polo matches: the goal is to make this one colossal mishap look like a misunderstanding.
What begins as mutual disdain—or what Alex believes to be mutual disdain—begins to give way to something inscrutable. Their charade (miracle of miracles!) turns into real friendship. Henry is not the “stuck-up product of inbreeding” Alex believed him to be. But when everything in Alex’s life can be analyzed, memorized and filed away for future use, the fact he is unable to parse his feelings towards Henry is troubling.
When the trio hosts their New Year’s Eve gala, the flood gates open. Henry kisses Alex, and, like the most banal eureka moment of all time, Alex realizes the “prickling, unsettling annoyance” he felt all these years was actually longing. The relationship that develops between Alex and Henry invites all manner of calamity, essentially sealing their death warrants if anyone were to find out. What they have grows in pitch and fervor over eight months.
The stumbling, ebullient thrill of the new comes accompanied with the disorienting levels of obsession that so easily expel all rational and cohesive thought for the sake of endless cataloging. The inexplicable shock to the system that transforms lovers into seasoned archivists: every inch of flesh, every breathing pattern, every embarrassing tic, every sour mood—all collected in a whirl of sensory overload. Then, as the pressure surrounding their circumstances builds even greater, it shifts to the incandescence of a love like sleep, as John Green famously described it—something that happens slowly, and then all at once. Despite their best efforts, Alex and Henry cannot quit each other, and what starts as a fling turns into unadulterated devotion.
The tricky part of any novel such as this is moving past the romantic bits. So many of them end with the lovers coming together after a game of cat and mouse, but such is not the case for these two. The latter third of the book exemplifies McQuiston’s true prowess as she reveals Alex and Henry to themselves and to us as readers when they are forced to decide whether or not they can pursue their relationship.
Can the half-Mexican son of the first female president go public with such a relationship without destroying his parents’ political careers as well as ending his own nascent ambitions? More pressingly, can Henry unshackle himself from the pillory of monarchic tradition and allow himself happiness?
McQuiston delves into all this and more while remaining pitch-perfect in her balance of comedy and emotional turmoil throughout the novel. Her command of character development, plot pacing and narrative give the impression of a writer who has several novels under their belt rather than one. The fact that this book has caught on like wildfire is testament enough to her abilities.
Despite my initial reservations upon reading the book’s description, this novel never feels like wishful thinking, though many might suggest the imaginative haven McQuiston creates is just that. It is certainly something to retreat into when everything seems so existentially bad all the time. Yes, it is, at its core, a gooey, queer love story, full of foul-mouthed Texans and icy monarchs and millennial jargon, but this re-imagining of what could have been can just as easily foment a desire for real change in some unsuspecting reader.
It goes without saying that the concepts of “dissent” and “resistance” should extend beyond the use of the words themselves in casual conversation. McQuiston’s goal with this novel was certainly one of comfort. Of course. Surely we needed it. But Alex and Henry were able to obtain freedom for themselves through action and the support of a close-knit community, so the idea at the heart of this book—that those in a state of precarity can eschew the restraints of political and social tradition for what is actually moral—can inspire the movement from vision to reality. Like the final verse of “Texas Reznikoff”, such freedom is their raucous exit music, something demanding to be heard.
Margaret Renkl‘s debut,Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss, contains multitudes for such a slender volume. Structured as a series of vignettes through which Renkl juxtaposes her family history with observations of the natural world, this timely collection presents the universe in miniature—the violent, painful, heartbreaking realities of daily life that, when accepted for what they are, yield hope.
Renkl writes with the well-trained eye of a seasoned naturalist despite her not being one. Her thorough attention to detail—her ability to name things in the natural world for what they are—imbues each piece with an authoritative grist and a tapestry-like quality, aided by Renkl’s assured poetic flair. Her encyclopedic knowledge of the natural world, particularly her knowledge of birds and flora, stems from the adventurous days of an uninhibited childhood during which time was spent running barefoot in the red clay of southern Alabama. Such is her attachment that a twenty-something Renkl could not complete her graduate course in Philadelphia, where she came to understand the loss of nature was like the loss of home.
In the present, Renkl makes a small haven for wildlife out of her backyard in Tennessee, where she observes the “red in beak and claw” behavior of territorial passerine birds and the steady predation of rat snakes and raptors alike. “This life thrives on death,” she writes, and with that, the difficulty in knowing when to provide aid and when to leave things as they are. Through these observations, Renkl tells stories of her family, her universe—an endless source of deep love, support, and humor. Their struggles, presented in tandem with scenes from the natural world and the insight Renkl draws from them, weave together to form a narrative that discourages cynicism and despair. And while it might take the reader some time to gain purchase in the short, seemingly desultory passages at the book’s beginning, the overall effect is something deeply moving.
When I began Late Migrations, I feared what conclusions Renkl would present concerning the ever-growing existential threat to our natural world. After all—the longstanding hope of our species, all our talk of eternity—rests on the fact that life will continue beyond our oblivion until the sun reaches the end of its life cycle and the entire galaxy is destroyed. How do we manage the weight of this knowledge? And with it—how do we possibly maintain hope? Renkl touches on the effects of climate change lightly, going into some detail about the ways in which the migrations of certain birds are altered by changes in climate patterns and the forced encroachment of non-native species into areas where their presence threatens native wildlife. I was saddened by these accounts, but I was also unexpectedly comforted by Renkl’s optimism about the resiliency of these living things. She does not place blame, or attempt to shame anyone, the implication being that, while the situation is dire, there is always the chance for life to regain its balance with death. Ultimately, the cycle continues as we expect it to. Every living thing adapts to tragedy.
On her imagining of what an early human would have thought upon encountering the “flare of light on moving water,” she writes:
The first instant must have felt the way waking into darkness feels–not knowing at first if your eyes are open or closed.
In that instant, the river is not a life-giving source of water and fish and passage. In that instant, it is not the roiling fury that can swallow whole any land-walking, air-breathing creature. It is only itself, unlike any other thing. It was here long before we were here, and it will be here after we are gone. It will erase all trace of us–without malice, without even recognition. And when we are gone to ground and all our structures have crumbled back to dust, the river will become again just the place where light and water and sky find each other among the trees.
The beauty of Renkl’s writing in Late Migrations is staggering—on a par with other naturalist writers such as Annie Dillard and Peter Matthiessen. The honey-tongued lilt of southern dialogue and the verse-like quality of her prose show a writer with full command of her craft, effectively transforming a slim, unassuming collection of essays into a magnificent microcosm of the multitudinous universe.
In How Not to Die Alone, Richard Roper explores loneliness and isolation as a modern phenomenon from the perspective of a man in pursuit of his own happiness. Fascinated by a news piece about government agencies responsible for burying those who die alone, Roper tells this story from one such government employee named Andrew—a 42-year old who spends day in and day out bearing witness to the lives of the poor and lonely. Some of the people Andrew deals with have been dead for months before anyone realizes, and those who come around afterward claiming to be friends of the deceased are often opportunists hoping to stake a claim on anything they might have left behind.
Every year his department sees an increase in these lonely deaths, but no one is worried about Andrew. Everyone knows he has a wife and kids to go home to every night…at least that’s what they believe. For five years, Andrew’s been harboring a secret. A misunderstanding during the interview for his position becomes the lie that he’s too embarrassed to rectify. When his boss suggests the department staff bond by visiting each other’s houses for dinner, Andrew is faced with the weight of his lie and the mortification that will come when people find out he doesn’t actually have a family. The wife and kids he made up in his interview don’t actually exist.
Over time, he creates intimate details about his imaginary family, creating endless fabrications about who they are as individuals and the goings on of their daily activities. Allowing himself to fall into that world is a comfort, one that bars him from the reality of his life. The relationship with his only living relative—his sister, Sally—is strained at best. She feels obligated to call him every few months out of guilt over their shared past and a trauma that she has never been able to help Andrew get over—a trauma he refuses to address, but which he is triggered by often. When Sally dies, he’s forced to contend with her leftover guilt and the ways in which he never allowed himself to open up to her.
It’s the constant proximity to the reality of living life alone that forces Andrew to take comfort in the little things he places around himself as a shield—his nonexistent family, the music of Ella Fitzgerald, and his model train collection. The only substantive personal interaction he has on a daily basis is with the other model train enthusiasts he chats with on an online forum. Such is Andrew’s life until Peggy comes along.
Peggy is funny and genuinely warmhearted. She tries to comfort Andrew after Sally dies, even as she struggles with the tragedy of their work and her own marital problems; she befriends him even when he makes doing so difficult. Interacting with others is difficult for him, but he soon realizes that it’s easy to talk to Peggy. They develop a routine—house inspections together and lunch at the pub on Fridays. Like a brick to the face, he comes to understand one day that he’s made a friend.
But how can he be a friend? Peggy is honest with him, and Andrew continues to hide from his past and has yet to reveal the hoax that is his family.
Roper’s efforts in this novel are often genuinely warmhearted and funny, especially in its first several chapters. The flashback to Andrew’s interview—and a handful of his other foibles—are laugh-out-loud funny. As a non-fiction editor by trade, Roper has a grasp of economical writing and tells the story with spot-on pacing. As the story progresses, some elements of the story come across as haphazard and hastily drawn within the narrative, e.g. the feud with his brother-in-law and his somewhat relentless obsession with quirkiness. Regarding the latter point—quirkiness is fine. Lovable even. But relying too heavily on, say, Andrew’s obsession with Ella Fitzgerald or his love for model trains—while ultimately essential to the plot—become affected rather than naturally occurring.
Fans of Gail Honeyman‘s wonderful novel Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Finewill find more than a few similarities with How Not to Die Alone. I wouldn’t be surprised if Roper drew inspiration from Honeyman’s debut, which was a massive success in the UK before hitting shelves here. His efforts are admirable, and a lot of the narrative’s shortcomings are made up for in dialogue and wittiness, but the finesse and the distillation of these novels’ major themes—loneliness, isolation, and the means by which we open ourselves to friendship—is exemplified more wholly in Honeyman’s Eleanor than it is in Roper’s Andrew.
All that being said, How Not to Die Alone is still a nicely done novel that successfully explores the tragic reality of people spending the final years of their life alone. While it doesn’t delve too far into the wider causes of this increasing likelihood—Roper choosing to focus on Andrew’s personal struggles—the topic is done some modicum of justice.
Melissa Rivero’s debut novel, The Affairs of the Falcóns, is a rich, multilayered narrative about the struggles of a young Peruvian family attempting to make a life in America. Ana Falcón, and her husband, Lucho, live in a vacuum where everything is dictated by money–trying to make it, not having enough of it, or coming up with ways to find more of it. Ana is driven to keep her family together in New York and clings to her dream of one day opening a restaurant. But the endless struggle for a comfortable life has Lucho prepared to send the children back to Peru–or have the whole family return. After all, he wasn’t the one who wanted to come to America in the first place.
The novel spans just a few weeks in time as the Falcóns’ troubles come to a head. We see how Ana is forced to bear the brunt of her family’s financial concerns, while also bearing the judgment leveled at her from her husband’s relatives with whom they are forced to live until they can find another place of their own. The threat of deportation and an unexpected pregnancy add fuel to an already blazing fire.
Through Ana’s experiences, Rivero creates a deeply moving portrait of immigrant life in the United States, focusing on the ways in which large communities of people are forced to live in the shadows as they silently form the backbone of our society. The endless struggle to make ends meet only reinforces Ana’s resolve. The opportunities available to Lucho in Peru–a college educated young man from a family of European descent–would never be available to Ana. As an indigenous woman from the hills of Santa Clara, Lima was not a welcome place. She was an outsider. Even Lucho’s mother never ceases to remind her that she is only a Falcón because her son was obliged to “do the right thing” when she became pregnant. Why else would her son marry so far beneath him?
Despite the violence of Peru’s military and its rebel fighters, Lucho longs for his days as a student and activist in Lima. Working as a laborer makes him bitter, leaving Ana with the feeling that life with her and the kids is a burden he never wanted to carry.
In The Affairs of the Falcóns, Rivero masterfully explores the intricate dynamics of family, love, and longing while effectively illustrating the intersections of race, class, and identity. It will almost certainly become one of this year’s finest debuts.
I’m a little embarrassed to say that my goal of writing about every book I read this year crumbled about a month and a half into 2019. Instead of trying to catch up with everything I’ve missed (which was the original plan. Yikes), I’m going to write up a brief recap of everything I read in February and the beginning of this month. I might delve a little deeper into a few of them in separate posts, but until then–this foothold:
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
Kamila Shamsie’s latest novel–winner of the 2018 Women’s Prize for Fiction–is the most well-crafted book I’ve read this year. As a retelling of Sophocles’ Antigone, Shamsie builds her novel around the play’s central plot device: the repatriation of a body. We don’t know who it will be, or how the events will unfold, but we have five locations and five narrators leading the reader to one of the best endings in fiction I’ve read in many years.
Shamsie breathes life into fully formed characters–molding them from the bones of an ancient narrative that carries just as much weight today as it did thousands of years ago. The five perspectives of Shamsie’s characters create a complex image of Muslim identity in the West, and, in turn, render, discover, and reject the notion of “home” as events unfold. Her retelling shows us that these constructions of identity remain the same, whether they rest on nationality, ethnicity, or religion.
“Mr. Salary” by Sally Rooney
I’ve made it known far and wide that I love Sally Rooney’s work. The way she renders emotion and the minutiae of relationships with inimitable precision will earn her a place among the greatest writers of my generation. Her short story, “Mr Salary,”–first published in Granta in 2016–functions as a skeleton for her first novel Conversations With Friends. More than anything else, I was intrigued to see the matter of her brilliant first novel as it was in its earliest iterations.
The Friend Sigrid Nunez
Sigrid Nunez’s latest novel is not one I would have read of my own accord. It appeared on several “best of” lists at the end of last year, and I’m not ashamed to admit I’m a sucker for those. I actively try to read books I’ve never heard of or ones I would not normally read. When it comes to literature, I am easily persuaded.
In this instance, I wish I’d spent time reading something else. The Friend wasn’t a bad book, but it lost focus early on. Ostensibly, this novel is about the narrator’s loss of a close friend who has committed suicide. After his death, she ends up taking ownership of the friend’s Great Dane. Had the narrative focused on the loss of the friend and the narrator’s subsequent care of the dog, the book might have made a better case for itself. Even better if it had focused on one of those two things more than the other. In my opinion, the narrator’s exploits with the dog are the book’s strongest elements.
Unfortunately, Nunez ends up weaving three distinct narrative threads–the narrator’s contemplation of the friend’s death, the narrator’s reflection on man’s relationship with animals, and the narrator’s thoughts on the changing nature of those who become writers–much to the books detriment. To her credit, Nunez moves between these three elements fairly well, but it’s too much to tackle in a book that’s just over 200 pages.
Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan
This was my go-to gym read during the early weeks of February. Kwan transports readers to the wealthiest places on earth in this novel, which is not something I would typically care to read about, but I heard a lot of positive things, and I was looking for something light to read. Nothing about the main romantic plot line is original in any way, which is fine. The novel’s appeal, I thought, stemmed from its intimate knowledge of how the ultra-wealthy of Southeast Asia live their lives. More than that, it was entertaining and funny–a solidly enjoyable read.
The Vanishing Stair by Maureen Johnson
I loved the first installment of Maureen Johnson’s Truly Devious series, so this was a highly anticipated follow-up for me. The Vanishing Stair showcases Johnson’s great technical ability as a writer, but it lacked some of the first book’s polished shine. And as with so many second books in a trilogy, the plot of this one spends a lot of time setting things up for the final installment. Johnson did do a great job of lacing a lot of dark elements throughout the book without them becoming overwhelming, and overall, I think it was well done.
Cherry by Nico Walker
Much has been made of the fact that the author of this book is currently serving an eleven year sentence for bank robbery. Buzzfeed’s profile of Walker, published in 2013, details his horrific experiences in Iraq and his descent into PTSD. Obviously, a lot of autobiographical content went into Cherry, but it is ultimately fiction–brilliant, fucked-up, devastating, earth-shattering fiction.
The novel’s narrator is a dirtbag, but he’s likable–more and more so as the novel progresses. The book’s latter half, from the section called “Cherry” forward, is so gut-wrenchingly well-written that I had a hard time wrapping my head around the fact that Walker had never before written fiction because what he’s produced says more about the futility and stupidity of war, and the pain of drug addiction, than any book I’ve read.
Cherry is now nominated for the PEN Hemingway Award, and it was (allegedly) Hemingway (though it probably wasn’t) who said, “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit a typewriter and bleed.” And that’s what Walker did.
The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel that Scandalized the World by Sarah Weinman
I was really looking forward to this book, but it fell far short of my expectations. Sarah Weinman published an article in 2014 linking Sally Horner’s kidnapping to Vladimir Nabokov’s classic controversial novel, Lolita. She adapted her article into this book, which was a huge mistake. There’s simply not enough information for a manuscript of this length. What you end up with is a lot of filler and very little substance.
I have no particular feelings about Lolita other than that–on a technical level–it is brilliant and deserves “classic” status. I did not know that Nabokov actively opposed the discussion of real life influences on his fiction, and I don’t really care that he felt that way because fiction is not real life and vice versa.
Weinman draws a lot from the fact that Nabokov briefly mentions Sally Horner’s kidnapping in the book (which makes it obvious that he knew about her, so I don’t understand why she felt the need to justify her argument with tenuous evidence?) to support her claim that Nabokov could not have written the book had he not mined Horner’s case for inspiration. I understand the concept of wanting to tell Sally’s story and return agency to a life that was filled with horror and tragedy, but to what end? Do we vilify Nabokov for writing his book? Weinman toes a weird line between respect and condemnation when writing about the Nabokovs, and it was unclear what she wanted the purpose of this book to be other than as a means for readers to bear witness to Sally Horner’s life.
Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret by Craig Brown
I just watched both seasons of The Crown and thought this would be a fun book to read in tandem. It is meant to be funny but I didn’t find it so because of my age and deeply ingrained American-ness. As a whole, it gives readers a fairly comprehensive look at an improbable life. She was kind of an asshole, but also a bit of a legend. A little tragic, and almost entirely ridiculous.
Night Sky With Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong
Ocean Vuong has an upcoming collection that Jia Tolentino–one of my favorite humans–recommended. I thought it would be prudent to read his debut collection Night Sky With Exit Wounds to learn more about his work. Some of his poems are very good. In general, specific lines and images stand out as exemplary elements rather than whole poems taking on the quality of greatness. He draws on visions of water and night and dreamscapes to build his poems, and it becomes repetitive by the end. I can only imagine he’s developed over time. I liked this collection enough to be optimistic about his new one.
Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata
I read that Sally Rooney, Lisa McInerney, Harriett Gilbert, and a bevy of other writers/readers whose opinions I respect loved this book. It’s a slim novel, but it packs a lot of commentary about alienation, solitude, capitalism, and societal obligation into just 160 pages. The narrator–a thirty-six-year old convenience store worker named Keiko–is neurologically atypical in some undefined way. For eighteen years, she’s remained a part-time worker at this store because she’s found within its aquarium-like environment a microcosm of “normalcy” where she becomes a cog in a well-oiled machine.
A lot of Keiko’s observations are astute and genuinely funny, but I felt a little something might have been lost in translation, particularly as it pertains to the style of Murata’s sentences. Overall, it was really enjoyable and only slightly unnerving.