Book Reviews: December 2013
Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows A Tail, Stories by Kelly Luce
Ear to the Wall, Poems by Carrie Causey
The Face Maker and Other Stories of Obsession, Stories by Joe Ponepinto
Mother Box and Other Tales, Stories by Sarah Blackman
This is the Ocean, Poems by Robert Krut
It is a rare treat to find a collection of stories written in a voice so strange. Yet that is precisely the feat that Kelly Luce has pulled off in her debut collection, Three Scenarios In Which Hana Sasaki Grows A Tail, a book that guides readers through a mesmerizing world of Japanese magical realism to reveal her singular characters’ most tender moments. A daring first offering from the Austin-based upstart press A Strange Object, Three Scenarios is nothing if not a book of strange objects, captivating and hackle-raising at turns.
Luce’s style is embedded in the hallucinatory tradition of Japanese fiction today best represented by Haruki Murakami. One might marvel at her seemingly total sublimation of the Japanese literary voice. Yet Murakami was hardly alone in his forays into the otherworldly and, like many Japanese of his generation, borrowed heavily from psychedelic American literature, especially Richard Brautigan, whose Trout Fishing in America became a bestseller in Japan. But Luce manages to boldly differ from what many have come to identify as Japanophilic subcultures within the US, those that run the gambit from Pokémon to Miyazaki’s fairytale anime to kawaii lolita cosplay, and makes an understated appearance only once in Luce’s collection via the title character of “Rooey”, who is already deceased by the time the story begins. Which is to say, while Luce can be read in the context of both Murakami and America’s long romance with both Japanese pop-culture, what she is doing must not to be mistaken for either by its occasional resemblances.
Despite having genre-surreal elements, each story comes across as deeply plausible, as if one is instead reading the miscellany section of a newspaper and happens across an odd headline that draws us briefly in to a curious and singular world. While the headline catches our eye, it is the smudged black and white photograph which draws us in with its punctum: an expressionless female face halved with long bangs gazing out from behind a Mister Donuts at a mobbed train platform (“Three Scenarios”), a brightly dressed retiree pausing above a river festival of gliding paper lanterns (“Wisher”), a tropical town suddenly blanketed with the snowy flakes of volcanic ash (“Ash”). While the headline for a story like “Ms. Yamada’s Toaster” might read “Hundreds Flock To Consult With Psychic Toaster,” the detail with which Luce paints Ms. Yamada as an evangelical widow still evidently in the throws of grief discloses a lyrical vulnerability that no tabloid could contain.
Several stories leave the reality itself open to interpretation. Whereas hundreds offer testimony to Ms. Yamada’s bewitched appliance, the answers are not always so simple. In “Cram Island” for instance three teens are captivated by the swimmer’s journey to a mysterious island in the graphic interface of a karaoke machine. The headline might read “Is A Haunted Karaoke Machine To Blame In Local Teen’s Disappearance?” This is a question that we are left to ponder alongside the question of our own relationship to the dozens of digital phantasmagorias that interpenetrate our own daily habitus, whether taking the form of a pixelated palm-covered beach always tantalizingly out of reach, or the magic flash with which a finished line of Tetris blocks satisfyingly vanishes. If we had the power to become physically (as well as emotionally) absorbed by a brightly colored animation, how many of us would depart this world if it meant we could never return? Desire, configured in relation to “Cram Island,” does not even require verisimilitude in order to become devotional.
Stories like this take us into a terra incognita where the rules become obscure, or we are only left floating in question marks. The story “Reunion” is a wonderful etching of this flavor of hysterical realism, where from a room full of antique vacuum cleaners in a rented apartment—a widow’s memorial to her vacuum cleaner-connected husband, no less—we are left in a feverish litany of objects:
I picked up object after object: pens of blue black red, one of lavender, tops chewed. Hair ties, single socks. A pile of teeth like corn kernels…. The last table held just one thing, a fist- sized crimson lump that shivered and thrashed like a fish out of water. I stared at it until it became a red blur.
This affective decomposure, this disembodiment of a still-beating heart should feel familiar to anyone who has experienced sudden grief, the unexpected and permanent absence of a loved one which makes the world itself seem to rip apart at the seams. With Luce we find that grief functions as a literary hallucinogen perhaps more powerful than magic itself.
It is worth noting that the title story in the collection is by far the shortest, although Hana Sasaki’s bushy black tail rears its glossy tufts elsewhere in the book. As a story, “Three Scenarios” is a studiously brief triptych, which shows three situations of loneliness and becoming. The mechanism of this loneliness is perhaps most vividly illustrated in the middle panel, where a chicken pox infected Hana misunderstands contagion, worrying that “…getting too close to a hideous, wrinkly grandma will make her ugly and old, too.” Despite her isolation, Hana finds a private sort of solace in her tail, which is small and springs from a mole just above her coccyx. Both the tail and the mole illustrate an obscured sensuality that runs throughout Three Scenarios, where the latter perhaps gestures towards Kawabata’s use of the mole in A Thousand Cranes.* Kawabata’s mole lies between the breasts of Chikako, the mistress of the protagonist Kikuji’s recently deceased father. After the funeral, Kikuji is plagued by thoughts of the mole as an objectification of guilt and evil that he feels toward his own illicit desire for Chikako. Which is only to illustrate the way that even in a most minute of details, Luce has selected highly resonant symbolism to complement Hana Sasaki’s slender portraits.
Unlike Murakamian or Miyazaian familiars, Luce’s objects are neither animated by a hidden world of secretive associations nor a mystical power able to break rules in time and space. Instead, they seem drawn out by a seemingly boundless capacity to interrupt the mundane. Consider how in “Ms. Yamata’s Toaster” Luce bestows upon a kitchen appliance the power to prognosticate a person’s cause of death, or how in “Amorometer” an imagined scientific instrument capable of measuring a person’s capacity to love sparks the possibility for new romance between two retirees. In both stories the object is used as a fulcrum rather than a focus; these stories are hardly detailed still life, and the ripples with which the objects warp and turn the characters’ sense of the everyday proves far more revealing than the objects themselves. Even with the eerie jizo, little statues representing the lost souls of unborn children, she refuses the mystical temptation, and even her furthest forays into fantasy occupy the indeterminacy of speculation. For this reason it is not even really important if the strange objects themselves even exist, only that they are capable of motivating action, much like the ontologically uncertain presences that drive many of our most basic passions, the ungraspable value of love or faith or a meltingly beautiful sunrise. Which is precisely how, despite Luce’s dazzling suspensions of disbelief she never once misses the trapeze. Any explanation would remain forever superfluous.
*Kawabata’s story “The Mole” is also a germane literary reference, though not considered as relevant for the purpose of this review.
A tremendous publication by a young poet, Ear to the Wall, Carrie Causey’s debut poetry chapbook, is woven with anguish and a lust for what lingers behind the wallpaper and beneath the floorboard. The chapbook physically feels and appears to be wallpaper, with its gothic paisley suggesting nothing short of sinister. Causey, a lyrical storyteller, illustrates the deathly musings of a young girl speaker who dreams of soured memories overtaken by fog and decay.
Ear to the Wall suggests that the speaker always eavesdrops, always finds herself in some time and place she should not be. In “Fog” Causey personifies and defamiliarizes fog in a way which embodies death, crawling and easily manipulated, persuasive to a young girl eager for strangeness:
the fog settles over like the shallows
and I lie back and pull its strings.
I stand up in the gauze and collect it around me as a skirt.
I jump through, the way laughter can be
parting a cloud, straight through,
with the moon close enough to lick
as a stamp.
The spacing here is phenomenal, creating tension between the fog and the speaker, who vividly takes control of an untamable substance. Wildly alone yet a survivor, this girl is depicted throughout Ear to the Wall. In “First” the girl is assaulted by her boy cousins:
drug me out by both legs, boy cousins
me down the yard with a dead King
me wear it as a necklace.
This childhood memory suggests quiet violence, a power that the speaker does not have yet have, and a distinct binary between male and female authority. The speaker’s hatred then materializes into “dark heat.”
“The Woman Overhears” is one Causey’s several prose poems with a distinctive slacker-tone voice. The speaker states, “Put my ear to the wall? Hell no. That’s asking for it.” The poem plays with and recreates the iconic Bloody Mary, suggesting that there are ghosts and devilish creatures we should fear. This piece highlights the fear of memories that deeply haunt us, the true possessive nature of beings who want to consume you entirely.
Causey manages to take her readers to a haunted place where walls are plagued by spirits, all terrifying and powerful. This contemporary southern-gothic spell the poet puts us under is a magnificent ode to the familiar and the familial, swamps and creeks, and a fascination with the after-life.
Award-winning Joe Ponepinto offers a voice reminiscent of Edgar Allen Poe in The Face Maker and Other Stories of Obsession. Ponepinto’s leaner and unadorned language results in riveting modern tales of the macabre, with damaged and warped characters who are at once repellant and sympathetic. In the titular “The Face Maker,” we are drawn into the earnest and good intentions of Alistair Leeds, who could keep good company with Victor Frankenstein. In “Caging the Butterfly,” we approach something near tenderness when we first encounter the vulnerable Charles, a geriatric take on Othello. And it is not possible to denounce the narrator Tim in “Dark Houses.” When he describes the houses he knows, he condemns also the lives within: “Being in one was like being a front line soldier during a war—violence remained, inevitable, unscheduled, unpredictable, and its possibility saturated every minute, every thought.” Ponepinto reveals how each of us teeters at the edge of obsession, where one dark interaction or trauma can push us toward committing or contemplating appalling acts. These stories will make you wince, flinch, and flush with keen foreboding and anxiety. And as with any good obsession, you will keep turning the pages toward the inevitable, yet often surprising, outcomes of the actions of these “raw and exposed, but honest” characters.
Winner of the Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Prize, Sarah Blackman’s debut collection, Mother Box and Other Tales, features stories that defy simple summary. It would be a mistake, for instance, to write: “In the title story, a daughter learns that her mother is—perhaps always has been—little more than a cardboard box.” And it would be equally preposterous for one to describe “The Groomsmen” as a story in which “parents to seven boys are shocked to find their sons are truly foxes.” These descriptions, while accurate, fail to capture the feelings beyond Blackman’s fiction, reducing her tales to mere transmogrification, when in fact her characters’ physical states are not nearly as engaging as their emotional stiltedness.
On one level, “A Terrible Thing,” is, in fact, the story of a terrible, unnamed event that has transpired to a woman in a workplace. But the subtext runs much deeper: exploring the threatening nature of men, the dreaded silence of women’s voices coalesce to nothing more than “one very high noise, so high that no one can hear it.” Likewise, “Many Things, Including This,” ostensibly tells the story of a woman whose unspoken dissatisfaction with her relationship prompts her to disengage with the world. But it is also a story of abject distress, as well as the horror of seeking solace within an uninspired life. In this particular story—one of seeing and not seeing—Blackman describes her character’s eyes as an “uncomplicated color” that demand “very little from their audience.” Blackman’s tales do the opposite, creating worlds inhabited by complication, dreaming stories that demand work from their readers. Yet the work is well worth it, a modest price for Blackman’s journeys to the fringes of the imagination.
Call these stories what you will—magical realism, surrealism, fabulist. Blackman’s work refuses these boxes, each of her wondrously spiraled sentences serving to untangle all we thought we knew about fiction.
This is the Ocean, a new collection by Los Angeles poet Robert Krut, reminds us that even standing on dry land, it’s easy to get lost in the vast sea behind our eyeballs. For instance, “Jellyfish” begins, “He knows he is dead because he is floating in the ocean.” It’s initially unclear if “he” is a jellyfish or a corpse until ten jellyfish that have spent days rising from the black water suction onto his fingertips, “pulling each through their gravitational center.” The body blends with its decomposers, and in the final stanzas, the buoyant corpse expands to the fullest limit of his environment and achieves a consciousness not unlike Wallace Steven’s snowman:
His fingerprints mark
the universe’s inside,
He knows he is dead because his body is here,
and it isn’t.
He’s not there to feel the relief of discovering–
I am here floating in the water–
This is the Ocean’s philosophical musings and tight formalism echo Stevens, but Krut takes the blue guitar and plays it electric. “The Glass Jars” begins: “The Santa Ana winds knock over a wine bottle, / roll it down the driveway, sound a hollow chorus.” While Stevens’ jar in Tennessee seems firmly placed and “took dominion everywhere,” Krut’s wine bottle rolls down the hill and becomes an active member of the clanking, spilling chorus, an orchestra that sends “a jittery message in high-pitched Morse code.”
Disjoined messages and rhythmic refrains appear throughout, and despite the hint of Stevens and the author’s engagement with Lowell’s work, most of “the ocean” is channeled through desolate downtowns, unlit highways, and gutted motel rooms. Upon these noir sets, Krut presents sudden planetary shifts witnessed by fortunetellers, bats, bishops, and misbelievers. Together, the subjects and scenes would seem to suggest a surrealist dreamscape, and even Krut admits “these days…one by one, everyone / I know has a panic attack /over the spinning of the earth,” yet the speaker seems unfazed by it all.
Indeed, at its best, Krut’s speaker is able to pull back from the somersaulting of time and space to take deep breaths. In a careful, deliberate style he maps upheavals and reversals down to, and into, the very center. For example, “The Center of the Earth” offers a vision of the geological sublime and then undermines that vision with a farcical reality check:
You used to picture the center of the Earth
as a churning sphere of skinless biceps,
flexing muscles to keep the core rotating,
their heat rolling the world along—
but, of course, it becomes more than clear
with time that the center of the Earth is a hollow globe,
filled with turkey feathers and arsenic.
And there’s nothing to do but deal with it.
This final line seems to smack of apathy, and we might read a little regret into the promise in “Half Persona” that one would “kick the ass of the banging-pots / version of your younger selves if given the chance.” However, Krut strikes an effective balance between a heady, evocative imagism and straight shooting. In fact, many of the poem titles could pass as alt-country tracks: “Walking towards the Blue Song,” “Radioing the Flood,” “Leaving at Night is the Only Way to Leave.” In the up-tempo, “The Engine is an Amplifier, the Headlights Are My Headphones,” the speaker speeds into the night, stops in the middle of nowhere, and stands in the middle of the road:
…before I lose time and space in that light,
I will beg for the sound to blare out my memory
like a blowtorch on a forty-five.
It’s hard to read This is the Ocean and not to hear a soundtrack. A good candidate would be the recent LA transplant Jake Bellows’ album New Ocean. In the title track, Bellows’ buttery voice assures us again and again “we can fall into, the new ocean.” Like Krut’s “Jellyfish,” Bellows offers his body to be decomposed by sea life. Listeners feel like melting into a liquid landscape that, despite centuries of exploration, still promises to escort us into the unknown. While the two works may be complementary, on New Ocean, Bellows conceives the ocean as kind of an afterlife, a beautiful expanse and a last source of hope. For Krut, the ocean seems already woven into our lives, a somnambulant state with which we are all familiar. It’s already here, he suggests. And this, all of this, is it.
Edmund Zagorin is a writer and argument teacher in Detroit, USA and Iowa City, USA. His novelesque Sorry, Our Unicorn Has Rabies is serialized electronically through Jukepop and he curates the monthly print broadsheet Stories By Mail. Read his data-fossils @multiplicit.
Gina Vaynshteyn is currently studying poetry in San Diego and has work published or forthcoming in PANK, Treehouse, Milksugar, and The California Journal of Women Writers. She regularly writes for Hellogiggles and The Rumpus. You should read her thoughts on breakfast cereal and quasi-politics on Twitter @ginainterrupted.
Susan Thurston is a published poet with work that has appeared in Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac, journals, and anthologies, including Low Down and Coming On (Red Dragonfly Press). Her novel Sister of Grendel will be issued as an ebook by The Black Hat Press later this year.
B.J. Hollars is the author of two books of nonfiction–Thirteen Loops: Race, Violence and the Last Lynching in America (the 2012 recipient of the Society of Midland Author’s Award) and Opening the Doors: The Desegregation of the University of Alabama and the Fight for Civil Rights in Tuscaloosa—-as well as a collection of stories, Sightings. He has also edited three books: You Must Be This Tall To Ride: Contemporary Writers Take You Inside The Story (2009), Monsters: A Collection of Literary Sightings (2011) and Blurring the Boundaries: Explorations to the Fringes of Nonfiction (2013).