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Poetry Book Review

Tangled by Blood: a memoir in verse
by Rebecca Evans

Moon Tide Press, 2023, 89pp, moontidepress


Reviewed by Lisa C. Peterson

Power. Silencing. Child abuse. Tragically, these themes co-exist. When perpetrators steal their victims’ voices, they rob them of a precious gift—the ability to express and protect themselves. Yet not all victims remain silent. And when the one who speaks is a poet, adept at massaging words to circle difficult experiences, the effect can be profound.

In Tangled by Blood, Rebecca Evans exposes the reverberating nightmare of childhood sexual abuse that was etched into her body as a child—by parents who were supposed to protect her but violated her, instead. Silent no more, Evans uses her lyrical voice to reclaim her power by shouting, whispering, and singing her story. The arc of this memoir-in-verse progresses from childhood recollections to adolescent struggles to adult reckonings. Throughout, echoes of the narrator’s dysfunctional upbringing remain—in the form of disordered eating, suicidal ideations, domestic violence, and the shame, secrets, and lies that abuse often engenders. Yet through verse, Evans guides the reader through this difficult subject matter, building understanding and empathy by presenting poems and prose from different points of view and by using a variety of styles and forms to create a multi-faceted story of her experience living with this trauma.

A chorus of female voices (sister Tina, a young “Beckala”, the mother, and a wiser adult Rebecca) offers a glimpse into the narrator’s youth. The preface poem, “I wanted to be your womb,” written in the voice of Tina, introduces the theme of innocence poisoned by “Daddy’s” uninvited intrusions. The rest of the book is broken into three parts, which works well to separate childhood experiences from adult reflections and lingering pain.

Part I creates a mosaic of abuse—a stepfather sexually assaulting his young daughters as well as a biological mother who knows yet doesn’t intervene. In powerful lines that build between descriptive stanzas, the narrator condemns the complicit mother: “Mother…Mother was…Mother was worse…Mother was worse than…Mother was worse than Father.” In “Cremation” she reiterates this blame, yet also hints at the complexity of their relationship in a stanza containing the apt title for the memoir-in-verse:

            …. If she asks my forgiveness,
            I’ll fail her,
            though we remain
            tangled by blood….


Poems written in the mother’s overbearing and dismissive voice further cement this image of a child alone and undefended against the force of an abusive stepfather.

The entirety of Part II is a six-part poem in Tina’s voice. In “I wanted to be your wall” Tina weaves the story of two sisters facing a cruel reality at the hands of a monster. Yet Tina also imparts a sweet song of sisterhood —a picture of what mothering should have looked like.

            …. In our after time,
            I’d wrap you, Sweet Baby
            Sister, curve you
            in my arms, wait ‘til
            your heart slowed
            and your eyes slid low….

This loving voice provides a stark contrast to the mother’s condescension as well as a more appropriate role model for young Beckala that offers a glimmer of hope.

In part III we find the adult narrator grappling with life in the shadow of abuse. Having survived her traumatic childhood, Evans explores the persistent memories that she carries in her mind, soul, and body, even as she moves forward—tales of her own sons, spousal abuse, and finally an un-silencing.

In “Tombstone Roses,” the narrator uses the model of Norma Jean transforming into Marilyn to morph from child, Beckala, to adult Rebecca—renaming herself, owning herself.

            …After I entered the military, I unnamed my-
            self, introduced Rebecca, no longer Becky—no

            longer victim. Not as drastic as Norma Jean spinning
            into Marilyn, though I thought I could alchemy

            into gold, story selected memories…

Yet the desired transition proves elusive, and Evans goes on to write of her own adult struggles in poems that are increasingly complex and metaphoric. In “Not the Land of Milk and Honey” Evans uses images from nature to reflect on her pain:

                         …And I wonder

            if there’s ever a right time—for war or tears
                        or feeding a hunger that’s selfish
                        and red. Wonder if the tubular

            felt raped and left for dead after her
                         nectar-draining, like blood-drawn
                         from empty veins…

In this and other poems, we see that the trauma is never truly left behind. Instead, it contorts in form from daily threat to haunting memory.

Despite the lingering anguish, Evans allows us to witness her extraordinary love—in the exquisite joy she feels in becoming a mother herself. We see her humility, strength, and humor in the checklist-formatted “The Non-Standard Parenting Plan for Turning Boys into Men,” including advice that is humble, “Say I’m sorry. Say it often,” profoundly true, “Tell them to value their own body and the bodies of others” and humorous, “Sing aloud in public when they misbehave. Get the lyrics wrong.” We journey alongside our narrator as she transitions into a conscientious caregiver (with a self-deprecating sense of humor) even as she continues to face adult struggles. And we cheer as she reclaims her power in “Yellow Declaration”:

            …. Some say detasseling corn is like rape, savaging female stalk centers. But I,
            Rebecca, declare, don’t compare rape to anything but rape or yellow

            to anything but yellow.

This truth-telling feels well-earned after so many years of silencing.

Throughout the memoir-in-verse, Rebecca Evans bravely condemns the abuse for what it was and attempts to break the cycle through her own fierce style of mothering. Although ripple effects linger, there is an increasing sense of, if not “healed,” at least healing. Overall, this lyrical memoir presents a personal journey through breathtaking imagery, word choice, and rhythm. It confronts pain, struggle, resentment, and ultimately, resilience with vulnerability and honesty. Its poetic styles immerse us into the mind and body of a survivor, a woman who has taken her trauma and turned it into art, so that her story is no longer shrouded in silence.



BIO

Lisa C. Peterson holds an MFA from UNR at Lake Tahoe as well as a BA and an MA from Stanford University. Her work has appeared in Hypertext Magazine, HeartWood Literary Magazine, Writer’s Foundry Review, Sport Literate, The Closed Eye Open, Sierra Nevada Review Blog, and elsewhere.



Plums For Months by Zaji Cox

A Book Review by Deb DeBates


I watch as Micah walks through the gray doors of his high school and crosses the parking lot. He is smiling, and in his usual slow gait, crosses the street in front of a long row of school buses. It’s a frigid winter day. I quickly unlock the passenger door so he can enter without hesitation.

“Hey kiddo.” I take his backpack, help him remove his puffy black parka.

“Hi mom.” He looks at me, then stares at my phone. I know he wants to watch movie clips on YouTube. It’s his way of unwinding on the thirty-minute drive home.

But he knows the drill.

“Tell me about your day.”

 He mutters something about gym or performing arts, his two favorite classes, then falls silent.

“What was the kindest thing you did for someone today?” I’ve had luck with this one before.

“Mom, no more questions!” I sigh and hand him my phone. Perhaps he’ll tell me more on another day.

This familiar scene in my life reminds me of the book, Plums for Months, by Zaji Cox, a beautifully written collection of short essays in which Cox shares snapshots of her life growing up on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon. The author is keenly aware of her surroundings, her feelings, and emotions, describing it all in wonderful sensory and visual detail. I found her memoir to be intelligent, heartwarming, and often bittersweet.

My son is as Cox describes herself to be—neurodivergent. Micah is on the autism spectrum, and although Cox does not use that diagnosis in her writing, she does divulge about her struggles with non-verbal cues and social interaction, skills most individuals with autism have difficulty with as well. It is the foremost reason I loved this book so much—she articulates so well what it’s like to process the world around her differently and to face such challenges.

In one essay entitled, “The Intricacies of Social Interaction,” Cox explains this struggle and how she uses the tool of observation hoping to learn social skills that come so naturally to others. She draws the reader into a restaurant scene where she is with her sister and a few of her sister’s friends:

…between bites I’m observing and taking mental notes like usual: the lilt of their voices in casual speak; the rise of an eyebrow when making a joke; the blank look during a moment of sarcasm; how they sit, how they stand, how they gesture.

Reading this story brought me back to my son being mainstreamed into classes and extracurricular activities with those who are neurotypical so that he has the chance to learn, as Cox does, through watchfulness and interaction. Micah’s interest in performing arts has led to his participation in school plays and summer theater programs during which he’s absorbed a variety of social cues from his neurotypical peers. I can’t be certain that he is intentional in his observation as Cox is, but it is possible to learn social skills through osmosis—absorbing behaviors while participating in a group. The improv and sketch comedy classes Micah is taking this summer have given him the opportunity to learn how to think on his feet and jump into a scene like the other kids do. Being included with neurotypical peers gives him the chance to watch, to learn, and then try. He is improving in interjecting lines that are original and appropriate instead of phrases said by favorite Marvel characters like Spiderman or Black Panther or perhaps Scar from The Lion King, a movie he has watched dozens of times.

In this essay and others, Cox illuminates how being around neurotypical peers can help one learn to live in this world more effectively. It’s how most of us learn social skills, and why it’s vitally important for a child or teenager with autism to have ample time in community with others both on and off the spectrum. When my son was much younger, I enrolled him in a mostly neurotypical gymnastics camp. Jumping on the blue spongy floor trampolines, climbing rock walls, and being able to play games and run around amidst these peers also gave him the opportunity to learn turn taking, sharing, and how to encourage others.

Cox writes about living with her mother and sister in her grandfather’s time-worn 100-year-old house. Her close relationship with both her sister and her mother is reflected in much of her writing as is her fascination and connection with nature — especially the feral cats that often visit them on this property. Her essays about the cats were thoroughly delightful and, for me, so relatable because of Micah’s similar connection with animals, his being dogs (although he would love for me to give him a cat or two). Like Cox’s fascination with the wild felines that loiter on their property, Micah has always been enthralled with a larger variety of feral cat–the mountain lions at our local zoo. He could spend hours watching them prowl around in their not-nearly-large-enough cage.

Cox also shares about her domestic cat, Jerry, who is a warm companion. “I soon find in Jerry a listener,” she writes, “He is there when I can’t communicate right with the human world to which I supposedly belong.” I love that she has touched on the importance of animals in her life; I see this same relationship with Micah and our black lab mix who is always there for him to sit and snuggle with after long days at school, who helps him decompress and be comforted after being in a largely neurotypical world.

This book is so well written, and not surprisingly, as Cox is an avid reader, writer, and lover of books as she demonstrates in her essay, “The Scholastic Book Fair.” In this brief, yet beautiful and bittersweet piece, she takes the reader with her to her school’s book fair where she peruses the shelves knowing she has money for just one or two. She watches as her peers, able to have all they desire, load their arms with merchandise. She imagines her bedroom filled with towers of books separated into genres and categorized by ones read, not yet read, and those worthy of being read again. She soothes herself by inventing a way she can have as many as she wants: “I will simply pay for them with need.” 

There are so many other topics Cox covers–gymnastics and dance, dealings with boys, friends, frustrations (and triumphs) with her hair, and shopping at Goodwill. Her essays are a sensory feast bursting with vividness, so much so that I felt I had been in her mind seeing her view of the world. Plums for Months is a book for all ages and for all walks of life. Through Cox’s essays, we learn so much about being human, about wanting to fit in, to achieve, and to feel the warmth, friendship, and love of others.

Oh, how I wish I could plumb the depths of my son’s inner world as Cox has done with hers. For now, I remain inspired by Plums for Months to see beyond the outer layer not only of those who fall outside the neurotypical category, but of everyone I meet—to look more deeply, with more patience, with more love.




BIO

Deb DeBates is a writer and parent of a son with autism and type 1 diabetes. Her experience inspired her to start a blog, micahandme.com, to help raise awareness about all aspects of raising a child with these diagnoses and to encourage others who are on a similar journey. She lives in Southeastern North Dakota with her husband and two children.








Reviewed by Richard Rose

Nights of Plague

by Orhan Pamuk


Published by Faber | ISBN: 978-0-571-35292

Though it is not always true to suggest that from adversity comes great literature, there are many instances where extreme circumstances have led to a deluge of writing, good, bad and indifferent.  Obvious examples, such as the first world war, from which emerged some of the finest poetry of the twentieth century providing a visceral and lasting impression of the horrors of conflict, were vividly expressed in the works of Wilfred Owen, Ivor Gurney and Erich Maria Remarque to name but three. Later conflicts were equally well documented by writers such as Laurie Lee, George Orwell, Norman Mailer and Stephen Wright. What all of these works have in common is the ability to demonstrate the futility of man-made tragedy and what Hannah Arendt with great prescience described as the “banality of evil”.

While the causes of disease and infection are often less easily defined, responses to plague and pandemic have given us a rich vein of literature over many centuries. The fourteenth century writer Giovanni Boccaccio in his great work “The Decameron” captured the fear of the Brigata as they sought to escape the ravages of plague, much as he had done with his movements across Italy. Three hundred years later in his “Journal of the Plague Year” Daniel Defoe provided a vivid account of life during the epidemic that ravaged London in 1665. In “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” Katherine Anne Porter explored love and loss during the influenza epidemic of 1918 that claimed more lives than the first world war.  Later writers including Gabriel Garcia Marquez in “Love in the Time of Cholera” in which the lovers Fermina and Florentina provide a personal response to the fear of disease, and Albert Camus who provides vivid descriptions of life under lock-down in the French Algerian city of Oran, have provided rich accounts of earlier times of pestilence.

It was then, only to be expected that a modern global pandemic, and more especially one that has taken place in the glare of the world’s media, might attract the attention of today’s writers. In the UK, poets, including Simon Armitage, Roger McGough and Hollie McNish reflected on the impact of Covid-19 on their own lives. As might be expected, it is this personalisation of a devastating period of history that has led to much of the writing to emerge thus far from the experiences of the last few years.

The Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk in his latest novel “Nights of Plague” has adopted a refreshingly different approach. By deftly mingling fantasy with history, he has created a Mediterranean story located on a fictional island during the declining years of the Ottoman empire. Pamuk is of course rightly renowned for his interplay of the imaginary with reality. His Museum of Innocence is a real place located in his native Istanbul but contains artefacts linked exclusively to characters from his imagination. In his latest work Pamuk has created the island of Mingheria and even provides his readers with a map to show its location off the Northeast shoreline of Crete, one of the many real places that figures strongly in the text.

Through the telling of a slow burning tale that perfectly captures the tedium of life under quarantine, Pamuk interrogates the very nature of a disease that challenges the understanding of the scientists of the day; Dr Nuri Bey a quarantine expert and the most sympathetically handled character in the bookt, struggles to interpret the ravages of the disease that engulfs Mingheria. In his efforts to deploy a logical approach to tackling the devastation that surrounds him, the doctor comes to appreciate that the island’s population are looking for easy answers that have minimal impact upon their daily routines. Trading a fine line between the diplomacy that will keep the local politicians on side and the implementation of scientifically justified measures to tackle the plague, he presents as a conflicted man under considerable duress. Here, Pamuk has created a character with whom anyone who has witnessed tensions during the management or mismanagement of Covid-19 will immediately empathise. With a subtle combination of humour and commentary, he also demonstrates how seemingly rational individuals quickly descend into a world of pseudo-science and mystical mumbo-jumbo in their response to situations they don’t understand. The carrying of religious texts and the use of untested potions in an effort to ward of the plague demonstrates irrationality akin to the notion of injecting bleach to tackle Covid-19.

As the book progresses Mingheria gradually falls further into a state of decline. Debates around the efficacy of quarantine and the ways in which this may be enforced dominate several chapters. The tensions that develop between central characters, with politicians reluctant to take advice from scientists and religious leaders defying the laws of the land, have a familiar ring. But it is the eventual political collapse towards anarchy, with the overthrowing of democracy through varying forms of insurrection that many readers will be led to consider as being on the cusp of fantasy and reality.

An exiled Princess, who turns out to be one of the most grounded characters in this book, is forced to reconsider many of her relationships. Not least that to her trusted bodyguard, a man who starts out as a humble major, but through circumstance, scheming and personal manipulation of the tragic situation, eventually assumes the role of supreme dictator of the island. Unsurprisingly he comes to a sad end. Here again, Pamuk plays with our emotions as a once sympathetic character is revealed to be a despot who loses the trust of the fictional people who surround him, and thereby also alienates the reader. The theme of an attempted overthrow of democratic institutes and the ease with which an ordered society descends into chaos will certainly resonate with many who read this book.

Pamuk has always had the ability to create places and situations that are both vivid and tense. In this latest novel, as in “My Name is Red” and “The White Castle” he demonstrates the influences of the once powerful Ottoman empire, and the ways in which along with other imperialist ventures these are invariably doomed to gradually fade. He is equally adept as demonstrated in books like “Snow” at weaving social and political commentary and reflection upon modern day incidents into stories that resonate across cultures. At times there are aspects of “Nights of Plague” that seem repetitious, with characters who are indecisive and at times inept. Conspiracy theories and false prophecies abound. But then, perhaps these are phrases that may be aptly used to describe the period of our most recent global pandemic.

Richard Rose, November 2022



BIO

Richard Rose is a UK based writer and university professor. His most recent books include “Breaching the Barriers: Short Stories and Essays from India” and a collection of poetry “A Sense of Place”. “The Artist’s Model and Other Stories” will be published in early 2023.





Reviewed by Julz Savard

The Other Mother: Melodic Prose Deconstructs the Meaning of Motherhood and Family
by Rachel M. Harper

            The Other Mother– a multigenerational, multi-perspective narrative–is as poignant and nuanced as its structure is unique and transpicuous. A moving family drama organized into seven books with seven chapters each, the mix of points-of-view shatters the heteronormative, nuclear family, emphasizing the complexities and vulnerabilities of motherhood.

            The book begins with The Son – Jenry Castillo: a Cuban-Black piano prodigy and freshman at Brown University on an essential quest for his biological father, Jasper Patterson. A premise not uncommon, but one that quickly turns to the other mother, title encapsulated in the novel’s driving force. Upon meeting his grandfather, Winston Patterson, a tenured History professor at Brown, Jenry learns that Jasper’s sister, Juliet, raised him as a young child with his mother, Marisa, her ex-partner.

            Confused and angry at his mother for having kept this secret, Jasper grapples with having two mothers. The following books provide retrospective accounts of what transpired between Marisa and Juliet; ultimately Juliet didn’t feel passionate about Marisa and chose to focus on her career as a touring pianist and composer. Feeling rejected, Marisa took Jenry back to Miami where her parents live for the next eighteen years, cutting Juliet off entirely. Juliet looks desperately for them, but her search peters out as her career takes off. In each account, characters are interwoven and connected.

            In Book 3: The Father, Jasper battles with AIDS but dies in a lake accident at the family cabin. Juliet falls into alcoholism and leaves Marisa. Winston, The Grandfather, hid from Juliet that he kept tabs on Jenry’s childhood through mementos and letters, as well as his financial support to Victor, The Other Grandfather, Marisa’s father, who hides his regular correspondence with Winston about Jenry from Marisa. With Winston’s support and presence (albeit from a distance), Jenry inevitably comes to Providence to study at the same university both his mothers did and to meet his “other family.” Hence all the lies, secrets, and betrayals unravel.

            Harper achieves characterization equally flawed and just. The story is laced with an overarching theme of doing what is “right” to protect someone, but later learning that the protection was merely self-preservation, deferring and avoiding the potential pain of losing that someone again. Harper delicately illustrates the variations of doing right by yourself and others out of “love” that sadly ends up hurting those involved. Choosing to leave your partner because you can’t love her the way she wants; keeping your child away from their other parent because you’re a package deal; hiding what you know from your daughter so she can beat her addiction and succeed at her talent; secretly corresponding with the man who can give your grandson a better future; never telling your son that his biological father isn’t whom he thinks. So many circumstances, so much at stake, so much risk in telling the truth, and yet when the truth comes, it sets everyone free.

            The narrative presents all sides–every truth and fabrication–creating imperfect characters and messy relationships. Welove in different ways. What can feel like betrayal, Harper reveals: Relationships are complicated. People. Families. Husbands and wives. Parents and children. When you’re a child, you can’t see how much work it involves, just keeping everyone connected.”

            Through compelling and complex character dynamics, Harper integrates larger themes on race, gender, sexuality, motherhood, cultural and generational differences. Successful men in their fields–from Winston’s and Victor’s perspectives–struggle being Black in America, and with the disillusionment of emigration, respectively. They try to reconcile their children to themselves, questioning lifestyles that severely defy theirs, or refusing to understand, either due to a generational gap or a cultural norm being breached. From Jasper’s, Juliet’s, and Marisa’s points-of-view, the struggles of being gay, the physical implications in Jasper’s situation, the inability to fully see oneself as an equal parent, the estrangement and rejection from family in which the riff between daughter and mother feels eternal.

            Grief underlines the narrative collectively. Whether because of separation, the death of a loved one, or an unfulfilled desire, grief allows the reader to sympathize greatly and deeply. Juliet’s sorrows and struggles are constant, causing her to give up her one true love: music. Her character arc is the most prevalent and responsive in that she learns to put family, love, and partnership first; it keeps her sober, married and faithful to her present partner, Noelle, and their future family with their adopted son, Jonah. Harper lyrically describes grief, loss, longing, regret, and guilt in an array of similes and metaphors, for example, “The guilt feels like a wool scarf knotted around his neck, one he will wear for the rest of his life.”

            The descriptive language–raw and visceral–in the sections that pertain to Juliet are the sharpest. Harper uses musical terms to define Juliet’s feelings and mental states. She conveys Juliet’s fears and desires about Jenry–the intensity, the real stakes now that he’s back in her life and how she’s desperate to not make the same mistakes.

            Juliet’s perspective drives the narrative, while other sections, although rich and beautifully detailed, distract from the main plot. Jasper’s account seemed a stand-alone section, pertaining less to the arc than defining his relationships. Yet the structure of the book would’ve been sacrificed (its seven-seven order) without the last three books: Winston’s, Victor’s, and The Other Son – Jonah’s. The history in these sections confused the facts around Jenry’s birth. They also made the rest of the story predictable. If much of the story had been told in the present, it would have allowed for more interesting conflicts between characters. By the time we get back to the present from historical sections, we have already forgotten what knowledge certain characters possess and their feelings towards certain events.

            The ending shifted tonally and didn’t involve or give credit to Marisa, suffering from cancer––or Victor, who played a big role in Jenry’s upbringing. It seemed to alienate them, closing Marisa’s arc with a scene of her discouraging Jenry from continuing at Brown since his first semester was difficult, and then resigning that her son will inevitably grow closer to Juliet because of their shared talent, and possibly her family. We only get the conclusion that Jenry still has a good relationship with his mother and her parents, Victor and Ines, because he is flying to Miami on Christmas Day in the last chapter.

            At the heart of this story are choice, belief, and freedom. What we choose directly or indirectly affects others, especially when that choice is about them. But what we believe has the power to eradicate whatever choice we made that resulted in something damaged or undesired. When Juliet finally believes that she is Jenry’s mother, she is freed from the guilt of her past and the eighteen years she lost. When Marisa sees Jenry play prolifically at the school’s Winter Contest, she believes that he has always been connected to Juliet, despite their long separation and that they don’t actually share blood. Even when the two mothers choose not to tell Jenry that Jasper is not his real father, it is a choice they once again make to protect him—but it’s Jenry’s belief that he is biologically connected to Juliet and Winston that allows him to thrive and to accept his life now. Winston’s belief that Jenry is his actual grandson helps lessen the grief of losing Jasper, as he feels there is still a part of him alive in Jenry.

            This whole thing is about belief,” Harper writes. “—not fact, not proof—and in that way it puts her and her father on the same side. She believes Jenry is her son, and her father believes he is Jasper’s son—it doesn’t matter that neither is correct in any technical issue. The belief is what matters, and what they do with it—the life they live as a result of it.”

            Harper’s novel will engage fans of generational sagas and family dramas where long-buried family histories and secrets are unearthed, and where past choices explicitly affect the present and future of others in a snowball effect. The novel excels at revealing motherhood—or parenting––truly: falling in love with a person you’ve helped to create, and, in doing so, loving yourself in ways you couldn’t imagine; knowing you will sacrifice absolutely everything for them.

            The Other Mother is a respectful, generous nod to same-gender couples, single parents, and adoptive parents. Family is not the people you simply inherit but the people you choose.



BIO

Julz Savard is a Filipino-American writer from Los Angeles. She has a BFA in Creative Writing from Ateneo de Manila University and an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. She works for a nonprofit as a Communications Manager while completing her first Young Adult novel. She has been published in Lunch Ticket, Chalk Magazine, and Meg Magazine.



Review by Jacob Butlett

Heaven’s Burning Porch
by James Dunlap


Texas Review Press, 2022



Replete with visceral images of his native Arkansas, James Dunlap chronicles intergenerational, male trauma in his wonderous poetry collection Heaven’s Burning Porch (Texas Review Press, 2022). A remarkable achievement in storytelling and poetic lyricism, Dunlap’s poetry features striking appositives and gut-wrenching revelations of childhood malaise and spiritual angst. The book’s central mood, ominous and melancholic, looms over each page like a blood-encrusted axe teetering on a high shelf, keeping me on the edge of my seat.

It would be hard, if not foolish, to overlook the craft decisions Dunlap employs throughout Heaven’s Burning Porch. Most notably, he weaves carefully constructed descriptions reinforced with consonance and similes. In “The Dark Herd,” Dunlap talks about his father and dead animals, another unnerving, impressive motif in the book:

                            Daddy razzes my hair too hard and he smells like corn cobs and gin,
                            puts up his calloused palms for me to punch. He grabs me up and heaves me
                            over his shoulder like a stringer of dead rabbits.

The image of a boy dangling “like a stringer of dead rabbits” is shocking enough. But sound repetition, like a symphonic, hypnotic refrain, makes the images and their connotations even more memorable—unless, of course, such repetition is overused.

Beautiful sounding verse for its own sake can have a wonderful effect on a reader. But drawing deeper connections between sound and sense—personal narrative and musicality, for instance—can be for both writer and reader exhilarating and even aspirational. Notice in “The Dark Herd,” for example, the repeated L-sounds: in “smells” and “callused” and in the double similes “like.” Dunlap not only wishes to showcase consonance but to make his images and their similes stand out.

Some critics, however, may argue that Dunlap uses too many similes, that they stand out too much. I would disagree with those critics for one key reason: the similes are nonetheless formidable—refreshing and clear. In fact, I value Dunlap’s figurative language and its profound impact on the reader’s imagination. Similes appear frequently throughout the book; many of his sentences end with direct similes introduced with the word “like.” In “Elegy,” too, Dunlap uses awe-inspiring similes to place readers in a literal landscape with a captivating mood:

                            There is so little light left in the field. April rain
                            rubbing its velvet antlers on the windowscreen,

                            wind in the trees like the rasp of a hog’s punctured lung,
                            fog over the ground like a herd of talcumed horses.

In addition to the dreamlike comparison of rain to antlers, Dunlap imparts intoxicating tension through hyperbole: the stressed UH-sounds in “punctured,” “lung,” and “talcumed” used in his creative comparisons of wind and fog to a rasping hog and a gathering of horses, respectively.

Another poem with a captivating mood is “Front Porch Picking: 2 am: Summer,” in which Dunlap sets a scene with memorable images:

                            The wind, the night, falling away star-threaded, in bone-fanged fields.
                            Childhood porch, childhood sorrows to attend with.
                            Bats trawling through bottomless dark, stitching the twilight with wires of blind noise.
                            I’m here for the inventory of my sickly estate: the heat-killed pig in the back sty,
                            his head split to the thrapple rotting to clusters of shining blackberries,
                            his head a hive for bees picking his tongue clean sweetly, crystal strands
                            of drying maggots braided down the rainwater light of not-yet-morning.

The poem’s transparent, precise diction grounds the reader in a scene with heightened psychological stakes. In fact, a lot of the settings in the book embody Dunlap’s anxiety and consternation. As incorporated in “Front Porch,” words like “bone-fanged,” “sickly,” and “maggots” brilliantly reflect Dunlap’s emotions.

Dunlap’s vulnerability is apparent. From a narrative standpoint, his relationship with his father and grandfather captivates me: even though these determined male figures helped to raise Dunlap, Dunlap’s imaginative, critical perspective allows the reader to empathize with him and his gradual transformation from a disillusioned child to a brilliant adult writer. In “Night of Effigies,” he discloses:

                                                        I’ve lived my whole afraid my daddy’s shortcoming
                            are somewhere pumping through my own blood. The empty, impotent rage,
                            the brain fever—I want to shake loose of it. Momma said shooting stars
                            were pieces of heaven’s burning porch crumbling and falling to earth.
                            I’ve spent years sick and wanting to leave.

Dunlap attempts to reconcile his past with his present. His sense of longing and nihilism makes the poetry collection feel even more human, more dynamic. Dunlap does not completely loathe his family but instead wishes to forge a life not dominated by the demands of others, including of his own kin. In “Boy,” he remarks:

                            Sometimes I think my daddy doesn’t know joy
                            and doesn’t understand why I think my body is made of chickenwire
                                                                                                       because it bows but doesn’t break.

Dunlap, too, does not wish to break under the weight of the past. Gender expectations can be, for instance, a sign of tradition and survival, a way to show loyalty and integrity to a community. But when one dares to challenge or at least question such expectations, one can face solemn consequences for better or worse. Forced to kill animals, for example, Dunlap challenges the strict gender norms imposed upon him by his father and grandfather, the latter he addresses in “We all Live Leaner More or Less”:

                            I don’t trust you, I don’t trust you, grandpaw
                            taught me the persuasiveness of the back of a hand,
                                                          how knuckles are harder than anyone expects.

                            A prayer is no good if you beg
                                                           a man that live on his knees will die on his knees
                            and when you have to die pray to god you die in the night,
                                                                          pray to god nobody sees it.

Even though strict gender norms have aided human survival for ages, Dunlap’s book seems to ask: “When do male gender norms cease to be helpful and start to become hegemonic, a way to perpetuate toxic masculinity and intergenerational shame?” Dunlap attempts to answer this question not by preaching at readers but by reimagining his life.

In addition, Dunlap infuses raw emotions in poems about other people who, too, struggle to be happy while still holding on to their faith, religious or otherwise. In “Beatrice and Cloy’s Essay of Night,” Dunlap talks about the titular couple and the despair that lingers below the surface of their marriage:

                            Cloy didn’t know she smoked in the bars and out in the shed, leaned between ricks of firewood
                            and hanks of hog-casing strung up like Christmas lights. And each Sunday she prayed a little less.

Dunlap interweaves essay-poems with his own personal narratives to make his traumas feel even more relatable. The long lines in his essay-poems are meant to carry a lot of essential information about the characters, including Beatrice’s conflicted religious faith. Ironically enough, shorter lines would make the information feel even more cumbersome. Therefore, expansive imagery and narrative nuance often require an expansive form to make the content more readable and diverting.

I love James Dunlap’s Heaven’s Burning Porch. The music, images, emotion, and figurative language help to make Dunlap’s poetry collection fantastic. One of the best poetry books I have read all year, Heaven’s Burning Porch deserves to be read again and again.



Contributor’s Bio

Jacob Butlett (he/him) is a Best of the Net-nominated poet pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing (Poetry). Jacob’s creative works have been published in many journals, including The West Review, Colorado Review, The Hollins Critic, The MacGuffin, Lunch Ticket, Into the Void, and Plain China.



The Land of Stone and River, poems by Claudia Putnam
Moon City Press, 2022
Winner of the Moon City Poetry Award
96 pages; $14.95
ISBN: 978-0-913785-63-8
Cover Art by Nancy Martin: New Land IV, watercolor.


Reviewed by Risa Denenberg


Claudia Putnam starts her poetry collection, The Land of Stone and River, with an elegy and a prediction. In the three-lined first poem, “Hoard,” she notes a mound of “pennies / packrat-piled beneath the shed,” and declares this is a “Sure sign of the end.” In the second poem, “Elegy for Snow,” a speaker from a future time (maybe closer than we think) tells someone the story of “In the time when winter was winter—.” She continues her poignant narration with,

You know nothing of quilts, either.
Nor can you know of that quiet,
related somehow to cold
and to particular greens of evergreens,
particularly to chickadees
who used to perch there, rotund
with secrets of winter.

Although these two poems are the book’s starting point, the remainder of the poems are bookmarked by them—musings on past things lost and fearful things to come, enveloped within the natural world that is both stunning and terrifying.   

There is a set of twenty paintings by Bhavani Krishnan titled, Twenty Mountains and I am guessing this is the reference for the title of first section of poems in the book. In that sense, some of these poems are ekphrastic, or perhaps a more apt term would be meditative. The paintings are mostly muted shades of blue, grey, and sand. And yet there is a touch of pink or yellow in a few of them. In style, they resemble the book’s cover art. In only one of the twenty do we see two distant figures, walking along a path. Similarly, in The Land of Stone and River, people populate the poems like ghosts. Many are ghosts.

In “This Isn’t Really Happening,” Putnam writes, “Each year / the river runs thinner, / fleeing its shrinking glacier.” Warnings of catastrophes abound throughout the book. In this section, the totem animal is a crow, though the warning is for all of us:   

Poor lost crow, these are not
            the best of times
to be falling asleep.

It is the sixth poem in the book in which we learn of the death of a child called Isaac, “who sprang / fully formed into our lives / and died. In “Unawake,” a commingled homonym, Putnam’s words poignantly and disjointedly display how such a death—an infant—weighs so heavily on the child’s parents yet receives so little support from the rest of the human world.

[…] if it is odd to have a dead kid without a funeral believe it or not that is one thing in America with family thousands of miles away that can fall through the cracks camel a mother’s back and there is no heaven.

The feeling that life was muted in that moment is overpowering. Some time later, healing alone with a broken ankle, Putnam’s thoughts turn to others’ loneliness:

We turn dead eyes 
to so many lying solitary. No break
really heals. We try to go on
with our plans.

It always interests me when a poet pays homage to other poets in their work. In this work, Putnam nods to Jane Kenyon, Octavio Paz, Carolyn Forché, Robert Bly, and artist Jayne Wodening, as if to seek their comfort in her grief.

Interesting too, since a crow reappears throughout the book, is her riff on Wallace Steven’s “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” which is titled, “Ways of the Lion,” referring to the mountain lions of American—cougars, lynxes, and bobcats. Her lynx is not a totem, but an animal to be feared when hiking in its territory. The last two stanzas read:  

12.
It doesn’t care if you’re an environmentalist.

13.
For a while she carried mice,
but she didn’t feel
any safer.

Putnam may or may not call herself an environmentalist, but she has a righteous respect for what the environment consists of: plants, animals, and landforms.

The second section of poems owns the book’s title, The Land of Stone and River, where Putnam’s reverence for these elements runs deep. A multipart poem titled, “As the Wind Comes Among Us,” establishes the project of this book—to move forwards and backwards through origins and extinctions with the widest possible lens, seeking an elusive peace.

In the land of stone and river, godless
known by wind, that is, the continent
we name Gondwana, near the place we call
Equator, the range we term Ancestral
Rockies rises,

groundwater seeping beneath its flanks mixing—
in this memory—minerals to
iron oxide, turning in Time
to hematite—desire, surely—
rosy on the range we christen

bloody in our Time, still the Time
of the Conquistadores, and
it is dizzying.

Dizzying indeed. Were we all to study the history of earth so deeply, would we find peace? Of course not, though we would be wiser for doing so. But we must move on if we are to keep up with Putnam. So much so far is ballast for what’s to come in the last section of the book, Nervestorm. There is a warning—a quote from Oliver Sachs—in the epigraph of this section:

Migraine and neighboring disorders [epilepsy, manic depression] … are distinct and individual, but nevertheless have borderlands in which they merge into one another.

I’ve read a good bit of Sachs over the years, and I know the connection between migraine and epilepsy, but manic depression? Still, here it makes sense. In a series of poems titled, “Migraine,” “Limbic,” and “Nervestorm,” we find the protagonist weathering a St Elmo’s Fire storm; we travel through the limbic system; and we witness an “[Inner?] child writhing / hands on head / neck turning head snapping […]”. Such unpacking of the electrical system that is the human brain is rare.

This final section also unpacks suicide, conveying how knowledge and insight do not prevent—and probably instill—a deep desire to die. In “Suicide Note,” “the gun whispers from its safe / I am / here for you.” And in “The Battle of Brintellix,” Putnam asserts,

Nothing is more noisome       than knowledgeable people
believing themselves to be       best at guiding in grief.
Over that awful summer       I ordered suicide
instructions from the       internet,
favoring bags filled with       floaty helium,
though I also thought       then, of guns

In “Backcountry,” Putnam speaks to a dead friend,

Your son is dead now, suicided. Exit
bag drawn over his head.

In life / this would have destroyed you.

Speaking later in this poem, she says what is most true about herself: “You were a poet, sensitive, visionary. / You and I, so proud of our poetic // instability. We thought the world so sick.”      

If you want to experience the awe I felt while reading The Land of Stones and River, you will have to study this book. You will have to google many unfamiliar terms. It is not an easy book to read and will not bring you peace. That is why you should read it.

Order book here –

UAPress



Claudia Putnam lives in western Colorado with her dog, Birdie. The Land of Stone and River, which won the Moon City Press poetry prize, is her debut collection. A short memoir, Double Negative, also published in 2022, won the Split/Lip Press CNF prize. She has also published a poetry chapbook, Wild Thing in Our Known World (Finishing Line Press, 2013); and a novella, Seconds (Neutral Zones Press, 2022). Her poetry and fiction can be found in dozens of literary magazines including Rattle, Spillway, RHINO, Barrow Street, The Fourth River, and Iron Horse. She’s been the recipient of a George Bennett fellowship at Phillips Exeter Academy and a Ragdale Foundation residency, and has taught in the Writing Program at CU-Boulder.


BIO

Risa Denenberg lives on the Olympic peninsula in Washington state where she works as a nurse practitioner. She is a co-founder of Headmistress Press; curator at The Poetry Café Online; and Reviews Editor at River Mouth Review. Her most recent publications include the poetry collection, slight faith (MoonPath Press, 2018) and the chapbook, Posthuman, finalist in the Floating Bridge 2020 chapbook competition. A new collection, Rain Dweller is forthcoming from MoonPath Press in 2023.



Dust Bowl Venus by Stella Beratlis

Reviewed by Linda Scheller

California’s Central Valley is a 450-mile-long stretch of rich soil irrigated by an extensive system of canals. This extraordinarily productive region abounds in fruits, nuts, vegetables, grains, and poets. The hot sun and wide sky have nurtured many noteworthy poets, including Philip Levine, Mai Der Vang, and Juan Felipe Herrera. Another is Modesto Poet Laureate Emeritus Stella Beratlis. Dust Bowl Venus, her new book from Sixteen Rivers Press, is poetry of place grounded in the Central Valley city of Modesto.

During the Great Depression, thousands of people displaced by drought and poverty made their way to California. One of them was Hazel Houser, a migrant from Oklahoma who settled in Modesto and became a prolific songwriter of gospel and country hits. She is the muse of Dust Bowl Venus, memorialized by Beratlis in poems exploring their shared passions and common struggles.

Beratlis writes about desire, folly, and reverence in stanzas that juxtapose incantatory fervor with plainspoken determination, as these lines from “We Write Songs in His Rent Controlled Apartment” illustrate:

                        I beseech thee, stainless quivering leg of bone and ligament,
            allow me to finish the entire song. I’m no lead guitarist.
                        Is the song better served by a sharp tidy solo
            or the Janus tremolo of pure feeling? I wonder.
                        Do not counter with what is known. Fingerpick the hell out of
            these strings, in this small apartment with its brief luxuries
                        and cigarette smoke.

Many of the poems make reference to ligaments, bone, and the heart, most poignantly when the speaker reflects on her daughter’s cancer diagnosis and treatment. “Animal, Vegetable, Mineral” lays bare the terror felt by a mother shown the image of a tumor lodged in her daughter’s chest. “Castle of the Mountain” brings the reader chairside to behold the bag of bright red chemotherapy drug and hear the tick and beep of the infusion machine. Bertatlis depicts a mother’s anguish, endurance, and tentative faith with sensitivity and precision.

Dust Bowl Venus is replete with love and its flip side, loss. “All About Birds: An Elegy” is dedicated to the assassinated Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi. As in many of her poems, Beratlis here employs questions and anaphora to powerful effect, emphasizing the grief of the beloved survivor:

                        Which galaxy

            contains you now? Which bird’s throat?
                        In the pines,
            the wind swept through the thicket, and I saw.

                        I saw.

But not all is gloom in this collection. Beratlis plays with language in asides contained within dashes like a hand slyly screening the speaker’s mouth, “et cetera” waving away a rueful reflection, and parentheses cupping a muttered justification. Numerous poems apostrophize with “O,” and sometimes “Oh” precedes a thought like a sigh. Archaisms such as “whence,” “woe be unto us,” and “thou” echo the King James Bible that Houser, a minister’s daughter, transposed into gospel hits. Simultaneously, the occasional “goddamn” or “busting” keeps the reader in the rough and tumble West. This excerpt from “Conversation with a Lover About the Louvins” exemplifies the poet’s whimsical word play:

                        First,
            step down into street; in darkness delight. Next,
            rye paired with pear, the pair pared

            to leather, bluejean and thigh. Hazel’s rules
            for songwriting: Dip from the deeper well. Well, we are.

Intimacy and distance are balanced by scientific allusions interfused with the human condition in references to physics, botany, astronomy, and geology. The long poem “water wealth contentment health” alone contains “neurotransmitters,” “epigenetics,” “atmospheric river,” “genomes,” “fractal,” and “gut-brain.” These notes of erudition embellish poems that prove both emotionally and intellectually satisfying.

Affectionate address—“my love,” “my dear,” “my citadel fortress”—connects the speaker with people and things that inspire joy and spark recognition. A tribute to Modesto, “Republic of Tenderness and Bread” marvels at the community’s kindness. Even poems of disappointment and heartbreak hold commendable grace as in “Fracture Mechanics” and “Instant Messaging with Broken Glass” which invoke hard-earned wisdom with dry humor and a shrug of resignation.

Throughout Dust Bowl Venus, music conveys wonder, vulnerability, and revelation. As well as Houser’s gospel harmonies and rhythm guitar, the poems evoke Paganini, reggae, assouf and corridos, blues, punk rock, and christos anesti sung by the speaker’s Greek family in a Livermore cemetery. Beratlis composes verbal music by means of repeated sounds and careful rhythms, with phrases that cycle back like the chorus of a song, and in the counterpoint of silence. Her judicious use of spacing and punctuation control the tempo to compelling effect. These lines from the poem “How to Possibly Find Something or Someone By Praying” demonstrate the poet’s understanding of the power inherent in end stop and enjambment:

            I’m a typewriter wreck on the highway;
            don’t look at me.
            You are throwing your voice
            into every corner as I hunt and peck
            the light fantastic.

            A neon Lucky Strike sign, vintage automobiles, and other carefully chosen objects conjure the zeitgeist of Houser’s Modesto. “Historic Structure Report” tenderly addresses a specific building downtown—“Hush, my monolith”—and describes its architecture in detail:

            The asparagus fern of commerce
            overspills your planters,
            thrives along your bones,
            while inside, borrowed-money ball gowns
            and loggia daydreams consider a dance. Your glass,
            columns, composite floors, and floral-stamped metal—
            those vertical striations raked in cement—
            all expressions of a certain mid-century mindset.

Dust Bowl Venus is the cartography of two lives. Led to the canneries and dance halls of the “beloved city” familiar to both Houser and Beratlis, the reader is urged to observe, consider, and cherish people and places. In “All About Birds: An Elegy,” the speaker counsels:

                                    Remember to etch images
                        and locations into your mind—
            this poem is a memory palace:

In a region of relentless heat and meager precipitation, nonetheless, plants, people, and poetry can and do flourish. In Dust Bowl Venus, Stella Beratlis maps one Central Valley city and the intricate traces of the heart.

Sixteen Rivers Press        ISBN 978-1-939639-25-7      
$16.00       Paperback       80 pgs.      https://sixteenrivers.org/order/



BIO

Linda Scheller is the author of Fierce Light from FutureCycle Press. Her writing prizes include the 2020 Catherine Cushman Leach Poetry Award and 2021 California Federation of Chaparral Poets Contest. Her book reviews and poetry recently appeared in Entropy, The Inflectionist Review, Oddville Press, West Trade Review, and The American Journal of Poetry. 



BOOK REVIEW

by Brittney Tafoya

 

Title: The Night Ocean
Author: Paul La Farge
Pages: 400
Publisher: Penguin Books

 

Similar to Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, Paul La Farge’s novel The Night Ocean is a fictional story based on the mysterious relationship between H.P. Lovecraft and an under aged boy, Robert Barlow. But it is not just a story about Lovecraft and Barlow. It is a story about a famed writer whose name has been dragged through the mud for his outdated beliefs, a marriage that has come second to his obsession with literary hoaxes, and a story of one man’s chance to redeem himself. This novel touches on our basic human desires to live, to be loved, and to be remembered.

Follow Charlie Willett’s curiosity, obsession and untimely disappearance after falling victim to a literary scandal of his own. The police rule his disappearance as a suicide, but Marina, Charlie’s wife, isn’t convinced. Grief stricken, she follows her husband’s footsteps to find out the truth about H.P. Lovecraft’s influence on the world of science fiction; Robert Barlow; a fan and friend of the writer; and L.C. Spinks, a repairman with ties to the writer who may not be who he says he is.

This multi-layered story is a whirlwind of fantasy and how it can weave its way into reality. While having multiple voices in the same story could make for a daunting and confusing read, La Farge has been able to break down the decades of this mystery into six sections, each one elaborating on another, creating a web of twisted truths.

This novel is a warning to the obsessed. There will be more questions than answers, but don’t fall prey to the obsession. No one has come back.

 

 

BIO

Brittney graduated from Cal State Northridge with her bachelor’s in creative writing, and, after a short hiatus, found a master’s program in the same field through the University of Denver. Her goal to work in the publishing industry began when she served as editor for Cal State Northridge’s literary magazine’s spring 2014 issue, and has since been able to work with various publishers in both fiction and non-fiction.

 

 

 

Fire Ball
Tragedy at the Fair

(with all respect and sadness for Tyler Jarrell)

by Nick Paul

 

hurry! hurry!
step this way
the drunken lips
of a carnie say

step aboard
and ride the ride
without you knowing
its suicide

strap on in
and hold real tight
pumping music
swirling light

it goes real high
it goes real fast
on one young life
a shadows’ cast

somethings’ wrong
you hear a snap
your seat is broke
you have no strap

your suddenly thrown
into the air
this isn’t right
this isn’t fair

you crash to earth
upon your head
your only eighteen
and now your dead

such a waste
such a crime
to be the topic
of this rhyme

a young boy’s future
put to waste
reopen tommorrow
don’t hesitate

he’s more than a statistic
he was a human being
a horrible diaster
this horrible feeling

 

 

 

 

Skid Row Queens and Halloweens

 

I am a haunted poet
who likes to write in rhyme
menacing creatures lick their lips
between my evry’ line

The pagan day is coming
its only moons away
painted faces powdered wigs
better get out of my way

Is my cloth a costume?
These rags that I have found
black feathered horses
pull my coach around

A hag is talking to herself
I think she’s schizophrenic
she squats and pees upon the floor
she is a bit eccentric

Court ordered I start therapy
and talked about my past
he opened the bottle of my soul
and poured me into a glass

as my life was pouring
he held me to the light
he smelled my lifes bouquet
and asked me how I felt tonight

in the cafe I fell asleep
and when I tried to stand
I tumbled to the floor
like a wiggly rubber band

I told him all about myself
to explain the way I dress
I tried to salvage decency
from this indecent mess

So very much to talk about
in such a little span of time
what truths should I discuss
what lies will I leave behind?

Which memories are fabricated
and are nothing more than lies
I’ll make him feel compassionate
I’ll bring tears into my eyes

and I can be such a liar
just to have you on my side
feathered horses galloping
this will be a bumpy ride

did my ghosts get exorcised?
Are they still gagged and  bound?
Moon light cast long shadows
Skid Row queens dance around

GreyHounds bare their teeth
chewing morsels from the floor
I lift my lamp into the dark
another memory to explore

life can be a haunted holiday
a friendly gesture turns obscene
the dead request another dance
and  I waltz within a dream

 

 

BIO

Nick Paul lives in downtown Los Angeles. He loves the people he meets, and is fascinated by other artists and their work. Nick is currently looking for galleries to exhibit his work. Feel free to get in touch with him.

Contact info: nickpaulartist@gmail.com

 

 

 

 

We changed our name: we are now Studio 526 (formerly Lamp Arts Program)!

The People Concern’s Studio 526 arts program is a creative studio platform for all residents of Skid Row neighborhood, rooted in the conviction that equitable access to arts and cultural spaces is a fundamental human right, essential for all people and communities.

 

https://www.thepeopleconcern.org/

 

 

 

BOOK REVIEW: Apocalypse All the Time by David Atkinson

The End Is Never Really That

by Ryan Werner

 

 

The morality of an apocalypse dictates that it can happen only once. Our main characters in David Atkinson’s newest book, Apocalypse All the Time, argue this semantic point to a level of necessity and then live in its tumult. There’s an apocalypse for all the natural disasters one could think of, as well as plenty of anomalies in apocalypse form: locusts show up to be overwhelmingly locust-like, the moon parks itself in front of the moon and fucks up the weather, stairs to a golden city show up and all the Jews start walking up them.

The Apocalypse Amelioration Agency sorts out the different apocalypses and, thus, the world itself. Between them and Marshall, our eyes and ears for end after end after end, we get the power and compliance that propel the book. The narrative structure doesn’t necessarily pit them against one another, but with every apocalypse, the AAA and Marshall rub up together more and more abrasively.

Popping the door open didn’t change much. It was still dark. The hallway had no windows. Marshall didn’t know if it was day or night. Still, the hallway was empty so it was easy to crawl along on the carpet, easy to find the exit to the familiar emergency exit stairs, and easy to follow the guide rail down to get outside.

Easy. This was a normal day with minor inconveniences.

In many ways, the presentation perfectly reflects the chaos. Everything is broken up, if not broken: short chapters, multiple parts, interludes, and, within all those, a ramble that jumps from one piece of situational absurdity to another. At its best, Apocalypse All the Time puts onto the page all the never-ending tangents that a continual series of earth-ending events would cause.

But, at its worst, Apocalypse All the Time has a real roundabout way of getting to the goddamn point sometimes. I see Pynchon’s fondness for unrelated avenues and Vonnegut’s tendency to spend most of a book ruminating, and while those are respectable literary touchstones, I just want the whole thing to be a bit tighter when mixed in with Atkinson’s own style, his bizarro inclinations filtered through the lens of straight up observational fiction.

The sum of the book’s brief 180 pages has the feel of a novel more than a novella. Its length is at the uppermost part of that gray area where it might be worth discussing what to call it, but I really wanted to see it go down instead of up in terms of page-count. When reading, I saw tiny cuts to be done in almost every paragraph: action to be streamlined, more points and less viewing in the POV.

With the exception of the interludes—narrated by one of the mouthpieces for the AAA—that I thought stroked the gimmick of the book a bit too hard, there was great and necessary material in every section. I also fear that too much cutting would, unfortunately, leave us without many of the wonderfully meta aspects of the form. However, if Marshall is walking around looking at stuff and I’m done looking at it before he is, it’s either time to make the style more stylized or trim up at a sentence level.

Atkinson’s writing is at its best when he breaks it down into scene. Marshall and Bonnie, Marshall’s more alpha-minded companion who he meets while going through the doldrums of yet another apocalypse, are on point when they banter and scheme and, occasionally, find each other the perfect place for a dump of plot-related information. They’re united mostly by their desires outside of one another, and good on Atkinson for not coasting off what could be easy thrust from a relationship thread. Their chemistry is one of the most appealing aspects of the book. Aside from the friction of the AAA and Marshall, it’s also one of the better propelling devices for the narrative as a whole.

“Yeah, the oceans and rivers are currently solid,” Marshall continued. “The fish are all probably dead. The agency rationed water until the situation gets fixed and sealed the water treatment systems away from external sources. Travel to anywhere near the frozen stuff is prohibited.”

“So?” Bonnie yawned. “What’s bugging you? Were you planning a trip or something?”

“No.” Marshall threw up his hands. “It’s Ice Nine.”

Despite some clashes between the straightforwardness of the narrative and the absurdity of the overall conceit, Atkinson dances between the two quite gracefully. At the moments when he makes the explosion meet the philosophy, it becomes a clearly wrought story about perception and determination. Even through the dissonance I see the parallels with the form: not one thing, not the other.

Within Apocalypse All the Time is a solid, enjoyable story. There’s perhaps too much of it, but Atkinson’s creative form and cinematic dialogue make this a fun journey for anyone willing to take the ride through all of its twists and digressions. When it’s over, perhaps you’ll wonder if anything is ever truly over.

 

 

BIO

Ryan Werner is a cook at a preschool in the Midwest. He plays an old Ampeg VT-22 in a loud, instrumental rock band called Young Indian. He’s online at RyanWernerWritesStuff.com and @YeahWerner on Instagram.

bleeding edge close up

Book Review

 Bleeding Edge Thomas Pynchon

BLEEDING EDGE

by THOMAS PYNCHON
Penguin Press HC, 2013
496 pages

 

How to Read Bad Books by Great Writers:

A Review of Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge by David Letzler

 

Over the years, I’ve come to group readers into two categories: some of us are aficionados, and others are connoisseurs. Aficionados devote themselves utterly to a small stable of writers: for instance, on the day that a budding Margaret Atwood aficionado first reads The Hand-Maid’s Tale, she hurriedly looks up the release date of the next Atwood book to mark it on her calendar, then runs off to acquire and read everything else Atwood has written, back to The Circle Game. Nothing can deter her: if reviewers are unimpressed with the latest book, they must simply lack her own deep understanding of Atwood’s artistry. A connoisseur, on the other hand, believes that since even an excellent writer only manages a couple of great books in a career—and since there are many great books out there—he is better served reading widely than deeply. Even if impressed with Junot Díaz’s The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, for example, he might decide, upon seeing that This is How You Lose Her is yet another compendium of tales about how Dominican men just can’t stay faithful to their women, that there are probably other books out there worthier of his time. If a connoisseur has favorite writers, it is because he loves their very best books, and he believes the best way to honor those books is to avoid reading those that do not live up to their standards.

For music and film as well as books, I tend to be a connoisseur(*1). However, just as even the most devoted aficionados occasionally break fidelity to experiment with someone new, I sometimes turn aficionado: as a teenager, I strayed from my dutiful survey of the Greatest Rock Albums of All Time to spend time with the lesser works of Paul Simon, and as an adult I have read all five thousand dense pages of Thomas Pynchon’s nine published books. Gravity’s Rainbow is, I think, the greatest American novel, and Mason & Dixon and V. are also on my long list, so consequently, I’ve decided any new book he puts out deserves my attention. Being a part-time aficionado in this way reminds you that there are some wondrous things just beyond the mainstream: the only way you’re going to find songs like “How Can You Live in the Northeast?”, for instance, is to listen through the new album Simon puts out every five years, and the only way you’ll read scenes as sparkling as the apotheosis of the airship Inconvenience is to get all the way to page 1085 of Against the Day. That said—you have to sit through a lot of mediocre Simon songs to get to the revelations, and Against the Day, though it has plenty of beautiful passages, doesn’t have one thousand and eighty-five pages of them. Being a part-time aficionado, in other words, also reminds you of the arguments for connoisseurship in the first place.

This year’s Bleeding Edge, though, looked as if it might add to Pynchon’s impressive list of era-redefining masterpieces, rather than his second tier of minor delights. It was to be set in New York, circa September 11th, 2001, and would focus on fraud investigator Maxine Tarnow’s exploration of the darker corners of the young Web, making shattering discoveries along the way about the connections between era’s financial malfeasance and geopolitical catastrophes. Upon its release, the book got all sorts of positive press, including a National Book Award nomination. When I agreed to review it for The Writing Disorder, I was optimistic that it would, as several of Pynchon’s books had in the past, cut through our morass of incoherent cultural discourse to clearly and powerfully articulate where our civilization might be headed.

After I had read it, though, I considered withdrawing my offer. It’s a lousy book, probably Pynchon’s worst, and negative reviews of books by famous writers usually benefit no one(*2). But I don’t like refusing assignments, so I’ll use this essay, instead, to talk about an important and underexplored element of the reading life: what to do with bad books by great authors. While most people choose simply to avoid discussing bad books (“if you can’t say something nice,” etc.), there is a lot to be learned from them about craft: after all, nothing quite highlights the artistry of Raiders of the Lost Ark so well as Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. In this review, then, I want to point out four specific problems in Bleeding Edge, which collectively make it fail where Pynchon’s masterpieces have succeeded. (For those who have not read the book yet, I’ll arrange them in order of least to greatest spoiler content.) If the goal of criticism is to call attention to the valuable aspects in art, then a negative review of Bleeding Edge can at least use the book to demonstrate, in relief, what is so excellent about Pynchon at his best.

Problem No. 1: On the Present Tense

Bleeding Edge is written in the present tense. Many of the book’s reviewers have noted this metaphorically—i.e., that it does not have a historical setting, as did the colonial Mason & Dixon and fin-de-siècle Against the Day—but it’s also literally true. On page 1, we read, “It’s the first day of spring 2001, and Maxine Tarnow, though some still have her in their system as Loeffler, is walking her boys to school” —not “It was the first day” or “walked her boys to school.” Perhaps that doesn’t seem so strange—given the setting, it might even appear appropriate—but Pynchon’s three other novels set more or less at the same time they were written (V., The Crying of Lot 49, and Vineland) all use the simple past: it’s only in his chronologically-loopy historical tours de force Gravity’s Rainbow and Mason & Dixon that Pynchon uses the present. As innocuous as the choice might seem, I think it’s at the root of the book’s problems.

In 1987, William Gass, one of the few living fiction writers that postmodernists will allow in Pynchon’s league, penned an irascible essay about the present tense for the New York Times Book Review, lambasting its use in the minimalist stories that were then gaining favor over his brand of erudite metafiction. When used by great writers, Gass notes, the simple present signifies a “habitual present”—things that happen persistently and without change—which can then be juxtaposed to singular events operating in other tenses, collectively generating a “thick present, a present made of a deep past.” However, he adds, this is not how the present tense is used in much contemporary fiction: there, it is frequently deployed under the pretense that it makes a story feel more “authentic” or “immediate”—even though, of course, no one uses the simple present this way in real life(*3). Consequently, Gass claims this use of the present is “thin,” and even readers who find his essay overwrought and reactionary otherwise can probably agree that this adjective is appropriate for describing a certain kind of creative-writing-workshop piece written in the present.

Now, Gravity’s Rainbow and Mason & Dixon have thick presents. Famously, Gravity’s Rainbow begins, “A screaming comes across the sky”—but that is only because a supersonic V2 rocket has already hit, foreshadowing the novel’s extended treatment of complex and inverted causalities. Similarly, Mason & Dixon’s opening sentences, setting up the book’s frame-tale about the young republic’s subjunctive possible worlds, span a variety of verb forms—“Snow-Balls have flown their arcs,” “the Sleds are brought in,” “shoes deposited in the back Hall,” “the Children, having all upon the Fly, among the rhythmic slaps of Batter and Spoon, coax’d and stolen what they might,” “Here have come to rest a long scarr’d sawbuck table,” etc. Even Pynchon’s books written in the past tense tend to apex when timeframes scramble, as when Sidney Stencil in V. realizes that there is “No time in Valletta. No history, all history at once” or when Merle Rideout in Against the Day uses the Integroscope to run his deceased daughter Dally’s old photograph forward in time. Pynchon, in other words, has always been at his best when the time is out of joint.

Bleeding Edge does not use the present tense this way, however. Instead, it sticks to the linear, close-third present tense that we see in the first sentence, consequently forcing Pynchon to spend much of the book recording his hard-boiled heroine’s perceptions of ephemeral minutiae and local color rather than deploying his characteristic syntactic fireworks. It may not quite be minimalism, but it’s not really Pynchon either. I had wondered if he does this to mimic the conventions of the female-investigator genre, but no: the annals of Maxine’s predecessors—Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone, Patricia Cornwall’s Kay Scarpetta, Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum—are all written in the first-person-past. Regardless of the reason, this decision severely constricts Pynchon’s prose. Reading him describe adolescent disgust at organic food (“‘Sprout Loaf? Organic Beet Fritters? mmm-mmm’”) and relay Jewish women’s reminiscences of their first visits to Loehmann’s (“It was boot camp. Gave you discipline and reflexes”) is occasionally amusing, I guess, but it tends toward pastiche rather than insight, and it’s not his strength. If Don DeLillo’s Ratner’s Star came off as a Pynchon novel written by someone without Pynchon’s scientific acumen, then Bleeding Edge sometimes feels like the reverse, Pynchon trying to write a DeLillo novel without the latter’s feel for mimetic chatter and idle musings.

Granted, The Crying of Lot 49 and Inherent Vice were similarly focalized on the linear narratives of investigator-protagonists, but at least in those books Pynchon could sketch their sixties California milieu effortlessly and with precision. (Think of how Shasta Hepworth’s “sandals, bottom half of a flower-print bikini, faded Country Joe & the Fish T-shirt” so effectively place us in 1970 L.A. in the latter’s opening paragraph.) The present-ness of Bleeding Edge is especially limiting because Pynchon is much less adept at the culture of the present. To place us in 2001, he relies on references to the Jennifer Aniston haircut and Doom, which, in addition to being pretty standard-issue, are about six years too late. Outside of brief shout-outs to Mitch Hedberg, Bart Simpson, and Ace Ventura—funnymen that, while in tune with Pynchon’s comic sensibilities, don’t inspire the prophetic cultural insights of, say, Underworld’s Lenny Bruce interludes—Pynchon only gets comfortable when given the opportunity to invoke 2001’s nostalgia for the late 1970s: you can see him relax considerably when he gets to drop references to Steely Dan and write a parody of “Car Wash.” Overall, then, Bleeding Edge’s entire technical framework seems, from the first sentence, to be a peculiar misuse of Pynchon’s immense talents.

Problem No. 2: On Character

The book’s setup also prevents Pynchon from doing what he does best with his characters. Pynchon’s characters have always been something of a litmus test for appreciating his books: his huge casts of eccentrically-named nutjobs tend to fascinate his fans and wear thin on everyone else. On the surface, Bleeding Edge seems to have the usual rogues’ gallery: the inadvertently-acclaimed documentarian Reg Despard, who asks Maxine to look into some fishy accounting by his mysterious tech client hashslingerz; the transplanted West Coasters Vyrva and Justin McElmo, the former of whom knows Maxine through their children’s neo-Freudian private school and the latter of whom is working on a proprietary Deep Web venture called DeepArcher; the Luciferian hashslingerz tycoon Gabriel Ice, who has his eyes on Justin’s project; a foot-fetishist hacker named Eric Outfield; a pair of Russian goons named Misha and Grisha; and so on.

But in Pynchon’s masterpieces, his characters are not weird just to be weird. Their quirks, in addition to providing comic value, explore the practical consequences of certain abstract concepts. The story “Entropy,” for instance, features a quartet that plays jazz without any melody, harmony, or instruments, but that’s not just a joke on the bare-bones tendency of modal experimentalism: it addresses the very limits of communication itself. In Bleeding Edge, though, quirk tends to be gratuitous, as in the case of Conkling Speedwell, a man with eidetic smell who wants to find out what cologne Hitler wore. This restricts our emotional engagement with the characters, and especially with the villains, who have, ever since the Lady V., been so vital to Pynchon’s metaphysical terror. James Wood once argued that Pynchon’s cartoonish characters made his treatment of evil unconvincing, writing “everyone is ultimately protected from real menace because no one really exists. […] The Nazi captain Blicero in Gravity’s Rainbow, or the ruthless financier Scarsdale Vibe in Against the Day, are not truly frightening figures, because they are not true figures.” That is a grossly inadequate description of Blicero, terrifying precisely because he is so similar to the Herero hero Oberst Enzian, whom he loves passionately and abuses grotesquely. It is, however, a fair treatment of Vibe, and it’s even truer of Gabriel Ice. Ice is a caricature of the sniveling tech profiteer, a foul-mouthed Snidley Whiplash who gets dialogue like, “Listen to me bitch, I’ll buy as many judges as I need to, but you’ll never see my son again. Fuckin never.” Characters like Ice may be “true” in the sense that people as blandly awful as them do exist, but I think what Wood means is that their one-note crassness prevents readers from having to spend any time thinking about them, which severely limits their fictional function. Far scarier is a villain that makes readers realize what can be so enticing about such personalities, and how thin is the line between good and evil.

It’s possible that Pynchon simply lacks the intuitive grasp of the paradoxes of high finance and computer science (in contrast to his earlier work’s command of physics, astronomy, and vector theory) to make the book’s characters as interesting as they could be. Though Maxine knows enough math to name-check interesting phenomena like Benford’s Law, she does so only to engage their practical rather than theoretical implications. When Igor Dashkov asks her about the safety of his investments with Madoff Securities, she simply replies (with the immense benefit of hindsight) that Madoff must be running a Ponzi scheme, which is not especially edifying to any reader who follows the news(*4). Maxine may be the one character in the book who isn’t just a slapdash oddball, but as contrasted to Oedpida Maas’s philosophical seeker, she’s more a pragmatic Jewish mother (albeit one toting a revolver): you’d prefer her as a friend, but she’s not an ideal protagonist for a systems novel.

As a result, Bleeding Edge’s dramatis personae are often reduced to little more than plot explication. If someone with more patience than I were to run Bleeding Edge though an OCR scanner alongside Pynchon’s other books and do some data-mining, I suspect they’d find that it has the highest percentage of dialogue in his oeuvre. Without the time-warping, expansively-inclined central narrators of his earlier books, the requisite intricacies of Pynchon’s narrative end up having to be exchanged verbally, which makes both the prose and the characters speaking it much duller than Pynchon is capable of writing. Combined with the problem of the present tense, the effect is sort of like what basketball fans felt in 1994 watching Michael Jordan, on hiatus from the NBA, play minor-league baseball badly for the White Sox: the strides and leaps that looked so spectacular when executing free-throw-line dunks seem far less impressive when they fail to catch fly balls.

Problem No. 3: On Conspiracy Theory

There is one place in the book, though, where Pynchon pulls off one of his patented ontological time warps. It occurs on the night of September 10th, at a techie instant-nostalgia party for the 1999 dot-com collapse, which concludes to the chords of Semisonic’s “Closing Time” as everyone stumbles home “under silent assault, as if by something ahead, some Y2K of the workweek that no one is quite imagining.” Pynchon is not original in yoking together turn-of-the-millennium tech-finance instability and 9/11, but the link is worth exploring. After all, in tandem the two at least partly refuted the 1990s thesis that we were at the “end of history,” that the new century would bring perpetual peace and prosperity in the form of a unified world-system of liberal democracies joined by an optimized capitalist market that would simply make everyone richer and richer. New York on September 12th, then, might be depicted as something like the postwar Zone in Gravity’s Rainbow, a site of catastrophic destruction awaiting (in both anticipation and terror) the arrival of a new worldview to replace an old one still freshly smoldering in the streets.

That idea’s great promise makes what Pynchon does with 9/11 quite disheartening. I’ll put it this way: the word “al-Qaeda” appears exactly once in Bleeding Edge, as does the name “Osama bin Laden”; all other references to any other individuals potentially involved with either of them take up less than one page total. Many more pages, meanwhile, are devoted to what has long been Pynchon’s hobbyhorse, conspiracy theory. There’s video of suspicious feds with Stinger missiles; a set of financial records linking hashslingerz and the CIA to certain Islamist groups; a litany of truther talking points, including the suspicious fluctuations in United and American Airlines stock prices in the week leading up to the attacks; and so on. If the book’s not a full-on truther manifesto—these plot strands, to be fair, never lead anywhere concrete—it’s clear that Pynchon thinks they’re the most promising avenue for analysis. As Maxine’s friend Heidi tells us, “No matter how the official narrative of this turns out […] these are the places we should be looking, not in newspapers or television but at the margins, graffiti, uncontrolled utterances, bad dreamers who sleep in public and scream in their sleep.”

But if the late-twentieth-century novels of Pynchon and his cohort had elevated paranoid conspiracy theory into something of an epistemological weltanschauung, the September 11th attacks ought to have reminded everyone that it usually derives from nothing more complex than bigotry and ideological rigidity. Take, for instance, the view—held by a not-insignificant number of people both in 2001 and today—that every major event in contemporary politics is controlled by a malevolent cabal of Jewish financiers. 9/11 should have been received as a rejection of that thesis: after all, if the defining global event of the early millennium was executed by anti-Israel terrorists, targeting the city with the world’s highest Jewish population and destroying the center of world finance, then that vaunted Jewish cabal couldn’t really be all that omnipotent, could it? However, faced with an irreconcilable conflict between empirical reality and dogma, these individuals, of course, find it much easier to revise reality than their worldviews, so there emerged a rumor that the Jews working in the WTC were warned of the attack and stayed home, proving that 9/11 was an inside job plotted by the Israel lobby to turn world opinion against Islam and further Zionist imperialism. 9/11 conspiracy theory, in this way, tends less to validate any postmodern thesis about the inaccessibility of truth or the machinations of all-powerful institutions than to recall Richard Hofstadter’s argument about the paranoid delusions that have always run along the margins of American politics.

Besides, in Pynchon’s best fiction, he uses paranoia not to celebrate it, but to raise questions about how we map large social formations. In Gravity’s Rainbow, Tyrone Slothrop discovers the Bland-Jamf-IG Farben conspiracy against him by becoming more paranoid, but his resulting belief that everything he encounters is connected to that plot leads him narcissistically to conceive the whole war as a stunt to manipulate him; upon finding that approach untenable, his resulting “anti-paranoia” causes his identity to scatter. Pynchon’s take on 9/11 paranoia, by contrast, is not so sophisticated. In many respects, really, his approach may derive from nothing more complicated than ideological distrust of the cops. Having invested so much energy in Vineland warning us that shows like CHiPs and Hawaii Five-0 had undermined the counterculture from within by presenting the police as benign authority figures, he has become constitutionally incapable of acknowledging genuine police heroism: regarding the NYPD’s work on 9/11, he has Heidi say, “Dating cops is like so over. Every chick in this town regardless of IQ is suddenly a helpless little airhead who wants to be taken care of by some big stwong first wesponder. Trendy? Twendy? Meh. Totally without a clue’s more like it,” which prompts Maxine to reflect upon how “arrogant” the police have become post-9/11, guilty of such acts of oppression as “yelling at civilians for no reason” and getting free “Hero” jelly doughnuts from local bakeries. (Portraits of the department’s work during the long and draining response efforts are, as you might expect, entirely absent.)

I have not made a thorough survey of 9/11 literature, but it strikes me that one reason we so far lack any really great fiction on the subject is that no writer has been able to integrate two indispensable facts about the attacks: on the one hand, the clear culpability of a deeply conservative Arab religious and political worldview in executing them; on the other, the place of that worldview within a larger global situation. To do both at the same time seems beyond the capabilities of our current ideological camps: those on the left, like Pynchon, have generally been unable to acknowledge that there could be any terrible global event for which Western imperialism is not ultimately responsible, and those further right (at least as far right as anyone in letters gets—say, John Updike) have been unable to deal with the role of Western global dominance in making Islamism so popular. That’s probably why many writers have shied away from the big picture, dealing instead with small-scale family portraits. That’s fine so far as it goes, but it’s inadequate to a lot of the event’s bigger issues and, for that matter, tends toward treacle. I don’t know how this problem will be resolved, but the writer who manages it will be the one who gets ensconced in our grandchildren’s syllabuses.

Regardless, the problems with the book’s politics run deeper than Pynchon’s contempt for the police. Subsequent to the diatribe above, Pynchon has Maxine and Heidi critique how “irony” has been scapegoated for 9/11, treated as a “fifth column” because “somehow it did not keep the tragedy from happening,” which they believe is just part of an opportunistic Establishment attempt to discredit “urban gay humor.” A number of reviewers, however, have pointed out a more obvious demographic connection involving irony, discussing its place in the intellectual white male humor of Pynchon and his aging contemporaries. In addressing this subject, several have invoked David Foster Wallace’s 1992 essay “E Unibas Pluram,” which famously claimed that the ironic strategies used by that school in the sixties and seventies for political subversion have been coopted by TV and now merely further consumerism. Through Maxine and Heidi, then, Pynchon seems to be pushing back against that attitude, advocating for the continuing political value of postmodern irony in the post-9/11 world. Yet this entire debate has always struck me as somewhat silly: irony, in the end, is just a literary trope, one that can be used well or poorly, and subsequently lacks any inherent axiological standing. (Can you imagine an aesthetic being championed for, say, its resolutely synecdochic perspective?) Arguments like Wallace’s, I think, are a byproduct of academic histories of literature: to talk about literary history, you need to identify movements, and to identify movements, you need to emphasize a broadly-defined common denominator uniting disparate writers—but by their nature, common denominators are the least interesting things about any particular book, and, moreover, they tend to be the easiest features for bad writers to mimic. If irony seems less effective now than it once did, that’s simply because a lot of mediocre writers have been using it. Irony used well can be as cutting as ever it was—just as irony used poorly was as ineffective for Daniel Defoe’s 1702 “The Shortest Way With the Dissenters” as Wallace found it in early 1990s fiction.

Pynchon does write irony well when he wants to, though it’s not on the short list of his greatest skills and certainly isn’t all-pervasive in his work. At his best, he uses it to bring out the uncomfortable tension between possible attitudes toward a complex situation: at the end of Gravity’s Rainbow, when the wisecracking narrator tells us to “Follow the bouncing ball” by singing an old Protestant hymn as we face nuclear doom, the ironic lightness of the statement highlights American cultural passivity but also suggests that there is something to be held onto in the communal experience of religion and the cinematic sing-a-long. But there’s another kind of irony that sometimes pops up in his work, too, which uses its double-voicing to sidestep problems that Pynchon doesn’t know how to solve. This type appears all too often in Bleeding Edge. For example, at one point, Pynchon has Maxine’s family spend a night out at what she calls “the last unyuppified bowling alley in the city.” Of course, Maxine is herself a yuppie through and through, but while Pynchon presumably realizes this point, there’s never any acknowledgment of our heroine’s mild hypocrisy, nor any exploration of how the anti-gentrification gentrywoman ought to conduct herself in modern New York. More seriously, it’s irritating to see Maxine’s circle of comfortably settled Upper-West-Siders (whose demographic, as many reviewers have noted, Pynchon shares) relay talking points about the city’s economic disparities that are best exemplified by their own dominance of the Upper West Side. Perhaps Pynchon is smirking behind all of this, but that’s not a sign that he’s got it all figured out—instead, it’s that he’s hasn’t got figured it out, and isn’t particularly interested in trying.

Problem No. 4: On Utopia

The book’s political vision isn’t entirely negative, though. In fact, as with much of Pynchon’s later fiction, there are some utopian impulses, which are here related mostly to the DeepArcher project. The program is originally designed as a private, dreamy oasis on the Deep Web, somewhat reminiscent of SecondLife and centered on a train depot with departures heading out to…well, it isn’t that clear, because we don’t spend much time there. This isn’t groundbreaking for fiction—William Gibson’s Neuromancer did much more with technical aspects of the idea thirty years ago—but it does extrapolate the idealistic escapes of Pynchon’s last few historical novels into a logical contemporary space. On 9/11, though, DeepArcher’s security becomes compromised, which prompts Justin and his partner Lucas to make it open-source. Unsurprisingly, the site is immediately overrun with tourists. As one longtime user complains to Maxine, “All these know-nothings coming in, putting in, it’s as bad as the surface Web.” The techie dream of an Eden insulated from the corruption of the material world is, as with so many would-be Edens before it, destroyed.

But isn’t that always the trouble with utopias—they’re perfect until any actual people get to them? There’s something distinctly elitist about disowning one’s beloved projects as soon as the masses find out about them. If striving for the beyond has any positive function in art, it has to be striving to get beyond something other than just other people. For all the energy that Marxism has devoted to theorizing about commodification and the culture industry, this line of thought always reduces to a peculiarly self-defeating form of hipsterism: anything that succeeds for a small audience is dismissed for lacking transformative scope, but anything that expands to a large audience is condemned for having been coopted. The absurd consequences of this view might be best seen through how Maxine’s disappointed interlocutor now wishes to set off for the Even Deeper Web, telling us, “They drive you deeper, into the deep unlighted. Beyond anyplace they’d be comfortable. And that’s where the origin is.” Indeed, we later read that some of the book’s other hackers have gone off the grid to devote themselves to building such a place. But if they are to create anything more than a private playground for a programmer aristocracy, it, too, will be overrun, and they’ll have to find an Even Deeper Deeper Web.

Pynchon’s best work, of course, has long struggled with this problem, but elsewhere it has more obviously acknowledged it, deriving its power from the beauty and dread involved in idealists’ efforts to create a world anew. Toward the end of Mason & Dixon, for instance, Pynchon imagines an alternate narrative in which the famous survey concludes differently:

One late Autumn, instead of returning to the Coast, the Astronomers will just decide to winter in, however far west it is they’ve got to…and after that the ties back in to Philadelphia and Chesapeake will come to mean that much less, as the Pair, detach’d at last, begin consciously to move west. The under-lying condition of their Lives is quickly establish’d as the Need to keep, as others a permanent address, a perfect Latitude,—no fix’d place, rather a fix’d Motion,—Westering. Whenever they do stop moving, like certain stars in Chinese Astrology, they lose their Invisibility, and revert to the indignity of being observ’d and available again for earthly purposes.

Using all his powers of syntax and figuration, Pynchon here tackles everything awesome and terrible about the American sublime (at least, as seen by Europeans): its possibilities for discovery and wonder, its freedom from orthodoxy, its capacity for remaking—and its potential for dissolution, destruction, and conquest. As it happens, this passage is echoed, tellingly, in Bleeding Edge. After a late night of investigation in New Jersey while her family is visiting the Midwest, Maxine reflects:

Maxine’s hair is a mess, she’s been out all night for the first time since the 1980s, her ex and their children are somewhere out in the U.S. sure to be having a nice time without her, and for maybe a minute and a half she feels free—at least at the edge of possibilities, like whatever the Europeans who first sailed up the Passaic River must have felt, before the long parable of corporate sins and corruption that overtook it, before the dioxins and the highway debris and unmourned acts of waste.

This is not the voice of a writer who approaches his book’s political implications in a spirit of exploration, his thoughts holding “no fix’d place, rather a fix’d Motion.” It is the voice of someone firmly set in his beliefs, who sees his work largely as a way to rehearse those beliefs to an audience he expects to share them. This is the voice of complacency; from a writer who has for decades so fearlessly and with such enormous scope challenged his readers’ beliefs, these provincial limitations to Bleeding Edge are deeply disappointing.

In Search of the Twenty-First-Century Novel

At some point, someone will write a novel that makes sense of the September 11th attacks—and maybe, in the process, the Internet, our financial system, and America’s role in the twenty-first century. That novel will rewrite all the contradictory dogma and platitudes plaguing existing avenues of cultural discourse: it will find figuration adequate to economic interrelations that are increasingly less comprehensible to anyone but the most specialized of specialists; it will engage a world in which radical egalitarian desires to improve access and choice are indistinguishable from the “frictionless” ideals of neoliberal technocracy; it will acknowledge that any technology that makes the transmission of information more “open” will also make it more exposed (surveillance and transparency being, after all, synonyms), eroding the private self that the literary novel has for so long fostered; it will treat religions seriously, not as arbitrary and indifferent collections of ethnic traditions but as deeply-held integrations of experience that are mutually incompatible with both each other and secularism; and it will discover why an event that killed fewer people on the day of September 11th, 2001 than did AIDS in South Africa alone should have so utterly remade the way our civilization understands the progression of its history.

I had hoped that Thomas Pynchon, who forever altered how we understood the founding of the United States and the end of World War II, might be able to pull that off. Perhaps that was too much to expect. As all connoisseurs know, most writers only have a few miracles in them, and Pynchon has given us more than his share already. If there is another Pynchon novel in the future, hopefully it will show, as did Mason & Dixon after Vineland, that everyone is allowed a bad book now and then, and that they do not imply any irreversible loss in talent or insight. But for the sake of appreciating the brilliance of his masterpieces, it’s important to understand how totally Bleeding Edge fails. I titled this essay, “How to Read Bad Books by Great Writers,” and my answer to that question is that you must admit they’re bad—it’s the only way you can explain why the good books are good. Bleeding Edge is the novel that people who hate Pynchon think Pynchon always writes; to praise it is to tell the world that the rest of his output is what they thought it had been all along, nothing more than the rantings of a stoner crank.
Reviewed by David Letzler

 

 

BIO

David LetzlerDavid Letzler teaches English at Queens College in the City University of New York and lives in Briarwood, Queens with his wife and cat. He’s just finished his dissertation on the enormous novels of Thomas Pynchon et al, so you can trust that he basically knows what he’s talking about. Most of the time, he promises, he likes Pynchon more than Michiko Kakutani does.

 

 

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1. My wife, meanwhile, is an aficionado: that’s all that’s behind the otherwise arbitrary gendering of my two categories.

2. It’s hard not to come off as envious, splenetic, and self-serving. Plus, there’s not much upside: while people love to lampoon negative reviews of books later considered to be classics, I have yet to see anyone mock positive reviews of works later considered to be terrible.

3. This need for artificial felt immediacy probably only appears necessary, I suspect, in stories when there is little worth having feelings about otherwise.

4. If you want novelistic insight on high finance, the best place to go is still William Gaddis’s J R.

David Letzler on Thomas Pynchon

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