I have a new story online called “Little Brother.” It’s about childhood and darkness and togetherness and escape. It’s one of my favorite short pieces.
It’s had a long life. Though I should say “lives.” It has existed for many years in one form or another. Its longest life was as a chapter of my first novel, which itself had an adventure (agent, submissions, interest, but not enough). I didn’t give up on the chapter. I adapted it to stand alone in these 1,300 words, which encapsulate a lot of overlapping ideas and theories and worlds that tumble around together in my memory of childhood with my sisters. In the story, they’re both older than me. In real life, I’m the oldest. But age is funny. We’re all older and somewhat wiser now, with spouses and children and good and bad jobs. Age doesn’t seem to matter much anymore. I’m so lucky to be close to them now. This story is for them, for us, honoring a piece of the vast, sacred weirdness we went through together.
As a writer, I take matters of style and technique as seriously as I think I should. I listen. I read. I review. I consider and reconsider.
But I am skeptical of all the capitalism deep inside the writing industry. So I sometimes don’t listen. Or read. I ignore. I dismiss and re-dismiss when I see writing advice re-tweeted.
But I did read a craft book by Douglas Glover and it helped. It’s called (ahem), “The Erotics of Restraint.” Subtitle: “Essays on Literary Form.” When I say it helped I mean one specific part of it helped. The very long but very good essay, “Anatomy of the Short Story.”
He would have hands large enough to go to the edge of that green ground, jab his fingerspades into the sod and grip the turf woven with roots and rhizomes to lift the life-giving blanket of the earth, shaking it high in waves through the sky to reveal the giggling children of old and dead and forgotten beneath it, all the bumps and skeletal humps and vertebrae valleys, the shapes of history that are softened and hidden beneath sedimentary layers of the planet’s bedsheets, the holy collective decay of animal and vegetable life like leaf litter under which all the past sleeps until tectonic turmoil strikes at an invisible hour, the dead awaking the living above the blanket, as his hands shake the wavy coverlets free of the day’s greed and corruption.
Gripping the continental edge, standing in the Atlantic off the coast of Maryland, with one shake he sends the concentration camps flying, hurls aside the anti-immigrant shock troops, tumbles the white-power militias, upsets McConnell’s and Miller’s and Kavanaugh’s and Gorsuch’s beers, giving Trump the thump of fate beneath his feet and deep within his temples.
With this generation’s horrors flung beneath the moss, he’d throw his arms out and with his head back shout, “Tsunami!!!!” crashing backwards into the sea, letting his words and energy breach the shore, sloshing back beneath the waves, disappearing into the green black depths, having given, gone, some dreamed echo of justice.
In 2014, I wrote my first experimental book review and I’ve since written seven more, with plans to write as many as I can so long as people keep finding them interesting. Each one is a puzzle to write but I like what they allow me to do, as a form, compared to more traditional criticism. They’re written in third person about a critic, rather than as a critic. Each piece can stand alone, but if they are read sequentially, they show time passing for the critic, and her family, as her career goes on.
The latest review is about Russian author Ksenia Buksha’s novel, “Freedom Factory.” It was published this spring in the online cultural journal, The Critical Flame. Here’s an excerpt, with a link to the full piece below.
The next one will appear this summer in Textshop Experiments. It’s focused on “Aviaries,” a novel by the late Czech author Zuzana Brabcová.
Party On: An experimental review of Freedom Factory
The critic had missed her deadline and couldn’t bring herself to care.
On her couch, with her laptop on the coffee table, she looked at her notes about the book and read a quote: “The factory is a continuation of my father.” Ksenia Buksha had placed it near the end of her book, in one of the more experimental chapters. It had been meant, the critic thought, to convey a sense of something spiritual about the way the place a person works can enter their lifeblood. Continue reading →
My, oh my, how the months fly by. Last I posted it was winter and now it’s fall again. Three seasons later, I have three things to share.
I’m very pleased to have published two new story-reviews this year. These are my experimental book reviews, or critifictions, as I call them sometimes. (A friend of mine said he thinks I might have invented this form/genre? Hard to say. Who knows?)
My latest experimental book review is now online at Full Stop. (It originally appeared last year in the Full Stop Quarterly.) It’s part four in an ongoing series of experimental reviews I’m writing about literature in translation. I’ve been publishing them pretty slowly, about once a year. They’re a bit hard to place, being so different from traditional reviews, but I enjoy writing them. Many thanks to Helen Stuhr-Rommereim for believing in this piece and making it happen.
Another Life On Recitation by Bae Suah, translated by Deborah Smith.
The critic read Suah’s novel, Recitation, on the train to and from a writers conference. At a panel about the art of criticism featuring Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Margo Jefferson the discussion turned to writing, the personal process of coming to terms with bias against different sorts of texts, the ways critics develop an approach for each piece. In the audience the critic listened as Jefferson described the nature of critical writing as “giving real coherence to ambiguity,” saying that not unlike a fiction writer a critic must also, “play different parts, very much adjusting your voice,” when interpreting a book’s potential meanings.
The splotchy thing above is a detail from a finger-painting my son did. He has no idea he created it. He just made it and brought it home from school before disappearing beneath a pile of Legos. I pinned the painting up by my desk at work and there it hung for many months until I noticed the intricate webbings inside the mess, and snapped a photo last week. Not sure why, and I’m probably overthinking it a bit, but it feels like I’m supposed to learn something from that somehow. Or not. I just like it.
Meanwhile, I was very happy in May to have two stories in The Brooklyn Rail. They are both very short stories, and appeared in print and online, so if you need a quick read, they’re on the samewebpage. One is about death, and the title even says so: “Particles of Death.” The other is about love and is called “The Breath of Life.” I’m grateful to Donald Breckenridge for publishing them.