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Month: September 2019

Read it: THREATS by Amelia Gray

ThreatsThreats by Amelia Gray
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I just reread Threats for the third time, just to see if I can figure out how Amelia Gray does it.

At times the experience of reading Threats reminds me of having a conversation with a schizophrenic person: the grammatical logic is there, intact, but the semantic sense unthreads by the end of each sentence. You know it’s nonsense but still your mind grasps for meaning, and sometimes finds it. In other passages reading Threats was like looking at random patterns on a wall and finding faces there, because our minds are so good at imposing that kind of order on random things. Sometimes a verb or an adjective was so unexpected in a given sentence that I imagined the author playing Mad Libs.

And yet I am so moved by this writing. That is the amazement of this novel for me. This is a novel that nearly obliterates the typical relationship between novelist and reader. Novels usually engage parts of the brain that are rational, logical, social. That’s the kind of exchange between text and reader that novels can do well. Reading Threats was very different. I’m disoriented by this writing. I feel the book leaves me to flounder on my own. But then suddenly I find myself making connections. As I read I have feelings of compassion, recognition, and joy, feelings that may or may not be anything at all to do with the “author’s intent.” I also have the feeling that whatever I decide to feel or imagine is happening will be completely ok with Amelia Gray.

As I read this novel I try to think of literary precedents. “Lenz” by Buechner comes to mind, or in contemporary literature, Remainder by Tom McCarthy. A few reviewers mention that the novel reminds them of Murakami. But in Murakami’s novels any fantastic elements are corroborated by multiple characters, where I feel I can count on a certain mode of reality being the “correct” reality to believe in, within the framework of a Murakami novel. Threats gives me absolutely no framework to count on. No firm ground where I could say “this is really what I’m meant to believe is the ‘real’ for this novel.” The reality you believe in for a few pages is quickly undermined by a new happening. The disorientation is marvelous and though-provoking.

The word “original” is so sloppily used for almost everything that I almost hate to use it, but there it is: This is original writing. It gives me joy just to know that something so new and unexpected can still be written after all the thousands of years we humans have been writing stories.

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Read it: An Orphan World by Giuseppe Caputo

An Orphan WorldAn Orphan World by Giuseppe Caputo

An Orphan World is written in a tone that I would call playful, absurd, post-modern, and surreal. The story itself, on the other hand, is ugly, violent, and extreme. Tone and story clash jarringly for me here, making this a difficult book for me to interpret. The novel reminds me a great deal of Chilean-French director’s Alejandro Jodorowsky’s 2013 film “The Dance of Reality,” for the way it combines fantastic absurdity with horrific reality. It’s not a comfortable combination for me as a reader. So this novel is going on my “reread” list, because I feel like I didn’t understand it, and also, that it deserves a more open-hearted reading next time, when I’ll know what to expect.

In some places the scenic renderings are so visceral, and so full of smell and touch and need, that I had that delightful feeling as I read along that we readers get sometimes, too rarely, when we read something unlike anything we’ve read before. There is a father and son in this story who show their love for one another in goofy and particular and touching ways. The sea in this story offers up clocks that still work. A kelp-festooned couch on the beach becomes an absurd and effective representation of the poverty of the main characters. The writing throughout is poetic and pleasingly cryptic, with the exception of a passage that seems meant to bore me, as it demonstrates at length the inanity and emptiness of online sex.

While the story’s thematic undercurrent is serious—homophobic violence, and the degradations of poverty — the tone is so detached and absurd that these serious themes disturb me and unsettle me and distance me from the horrors. I felt little emotion as I read other than delight about the prose, and curiosity and puzzlement and occasional boredom about the story itself, especially when it turned to these darker themes. The second chapter, for instance, describes bodies after a horrific mass lynching. The bodies have been mutilated in what should have struck me as revolting ways, but the tone is so detached and absurd that my feeling was muted.

Maybe that was the point. Lately I’ve been having conversations elsewhere on GR about the way a writer might choose flat affectless prose to get to the truth of horrific themes, rather than trying to amp up the reader’s empathy artificially by writing emotionally. Colson Whitehead in The Nickel Boys for instance writes in a flat tone when describing the most horrific of realities in his novel. The tonal detachment here, though, was in the direction of a exaggerated surrealism, and not in the direction of trying to render a reality that allows readers to experience their own emotions. It will take some acclimation and hence my plan to read this novel again.

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This is just my excuse to post more possible illustrations! It helps me to see what they look like onscreen.

“Here is your father, owl-baby, in a nutshell: He has complete faith that, now that he’s involved in the day-to-day, you’ll shape right up. ‘Once we apply the right parameters, she’ll outgrow it,” he says to me. ‘Don’t you think she’ll outgrow it, once we apply the right parameters?’ And in a swift and manly motion he picks you right up off the floor and tosses you toward the ceiling a few times, the way he imagines fathers toss their children, before setting you back down.”
 (from the eventually-forthcoming novel THE BOOK OF OWL by Lark Benobi)

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Reading Contemporary Fiction Together

I co-moderate a group on Goodreads where we read the latest literary fiction together. Come check us out.

Newest Literary Fiction’s bookshelf: read
Newest Literary Fiction
257 members

Discover and share your discovery of the most recently published literary fiction. If you love reading novels before anyone else decides they are good or bad; if you love ARCs; if you love hearing about the latest-published novels by authors you know, and by authors you never heard of. 

Books we’ve read

Red Clocks
The Largesse of the Sea Maiden
Son of a Trickster
Grief Cottage
Stephen Florida
In the Distance
North Station
So Much Blue
The Widow Nash
The Resurrection of Joan Ashby
Sing, Unburied, Sing

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“The next day the school summons me back to sign some papers. I take you along with me, owl-baby, to remind them that you, like any other child, deserve understanding, and also because I have no choice—there is no sitter left in all of Sacramento, I think sometimes, who hasn’t heard of you. You’re still just a baby, practically speaking. As we sit here together in the head teacher’s tiny office, the formerly optimistic head teacher won’t look us in the eye. She’s looking down at the Russ Berrie collectibles on her desk instead. I can tell I’ll get nowhere with her. The best I can hope for is a pro-rated tuition refund.” (From my unpublished, most recent manuscript)

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THE BOOK OF OWL by Lark Benobi

My next novel, THE BOOK OF OWL: A MOMOIR, is ready to go, more or less, and now it’s time for me to decide whether to choose the traditional publishing route or the indie route with this particular novel. I’ve published novels both ways now, and I’ve learned that each has a lot of upside. Traditional publishing upsides = more money and more readers. Indie publishing upsides = total control of your creative product, and total control of timing and distribution decisions. I’m really not sure yet what I’m going to do, but in the meantime I wrote my first draft of a back-cover blurb, and here it is.

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