Student Picks: Danielewski and Price

K.A. Hamilton-- If point of view is the frame of a story, House of Leaves is a kaleidoscopic masterpiece. There is no central hero, but a chorus of multiple candidates vying for the role in a dark and shifting world. The effect is a book that will haunt you well after you've put it down. 

At its core, House of Leaves blends the unlikely bedfellows of horror and romance, as a couple attempts to repair their marriage under increasingly terrifying circumstances. This is wrapped in layers of metafiction, footnotes, and secret codes.

Of course, no review of this book would be complete without mention of its layout. Central to the story is a terrible, endless labyrinth and an intangible monster that are reflected in the chaotic spread of words across the page. Danielewski engages not just the five senses, but a sense of time and space as well. House of Leaves is ergodic literature at its finest: genuine, heartbreaking, and infectious. In an age of ebooks, there are few novels I own a physical copy of, much less two. But I keep an extra around for lending, should anyone else want to lose themselves inside the House.

Jemiscoe Chambers-Black-- I have been looking for books that contained similar themes to my writing in hopes that it might improve my craft, and stumbled upon Richard Price’s Samaritan by accident.

In the vein of episodic police procedurals, Samaritan encompasses characters from all walks of life crammed together on the page, surrounding an amplified criminal case. The novel follows Ray Mitchel, an ex-English high school teacher, ex-cab driver, and ex-screenwriter, who has returned to the Dempsey, New Jersey projects where he grew up. But Ray returns as a wealthy man, and his altruism leads him to the hospital’s intensive care unit with a massive brain injury after being “tuned-up.” As his childhood friend, Detective Nerese “Tweetie” Ammons, tries to solve Ray’s case on the "who did it" and "why," past secrets are revealed.

What’s most intriguing about this novel is that the most painful moments, and the most insightful pieces of these characters’ pasts, are all done through dialogue. Samaritan has a magical quality, mixing poetic figurative language with an urban tongue that I got sucked into immediately.

Time for the Short Story

by Terri Alexander

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I used to write travel articles for local and regional magazines and newspapers. My goal was to eventually be published in a national glossy, like Travel + Leisure or Conde Nast Traveler. At the same time that I was sending what felt like hundreds of query letters, the publishing industry was undergoing a dramatic sea change in the transition from print to digital. Some magazines folded and others adopted paid articles with tiny print centered on the top margin that read “advertisement.” The quality of the writing plummeted. Despite my love of travel and travel writing, I eventually tired of reading nationally published authors (a club to which I did not belong) who demanded, via listicle, that I go to some “eponymous” restaurant that “boasts” fresh Kumamoto oysters.

It’s not news that the Internet has changed creative writing. One aspect of it that I find interesting is the ascent of the short story within the context of the Internet. It makes sense – short stories are easily digested on mobile phones and tablets and can be consumed in small doses, such as during a commute or wait. Short stories fit in with the rapid-fire lifestyle of popular culture, as manifested in short attention spans and the premium placed on leisure time. Recently, authors of short story collections have been winning prestigious awards, which bolster the format’s presence alongside the novel and drive sales. Further, the proliferation of literary journals makes short stories increasingly accessible.

When I started my fiction track at the Mountainview Grand MFA program, I believed that my thesis would be a novel. At my first residency, I heard the testimony of several students who started out that way and then switched their thesis to a short story collection. I vowed that wouldn’t be me, but midway through my second semester, that’s exactly what happened. My initial avoidance of the format has evolved into a love affair. Short stories have become a place for me to hone craft elements in approachable, bite-sized pieces, and it’s something that writing programs across the country are emphasizing.

According to Rust Hills in the book Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular, as recommended by my instructor Mitch Wieland, there are two aspects of the short story that differ from the novel. First, a short story tells of something that happened to someone. This is straightforward and can be applied to any successful short story that comes to mind. The second aspect Hills describes is more daunting: the short story shows a “more harmonious relationship of part to whole, and part to part,” than a novel. In other words, all of the story’s elements must work in concert with one another and do so in a compact space. Accomplishing such a feat makes me think of a gymnast performing a floor exercise – back handspring, twisting somersault, splits, front layout, and then stick the landing in that tiny corner without going outside the lines. Such is the prescription for a successful short story.

In an interview with the Star Tribune, Charles Baxter describes the short story form like this: “The intensity level is higher. These landscapes are more like ones lit by lightning than by candles or incandescent lamps.” This simile makes it easy to see the appeal of the short story in today’s world. The Internet has primed readers’ desire for a certain level of stimulation that cannot be attained within the long stretch of a novel. With the short story, a reader generally does not have the luxury of meeting a character and walking with them over the course of the character’s life. Rather, the reader meets a character for a much shorter time span and knows little of their backstory or future. This echoes the increased mobility that some people adopt through options like telecommuting and earning money online, which in turn translates to truncated relationships. The short story’s aspect of “something happens to someone” fits right in with this phenomenon.

The Internet, relatively new in our culture, has been widely credited with the surge in the popularity and recognition of short stories. When Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2013, she said, “I would really hope this would make people see the short story as an important art, not just something you played around with until you got a novel.” Now that I’m halfway through my third semester at the Mountainview Grand MFA program, I’m glad to have made the switch.


Needles

by Danielle Service

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This past week the President of the United States of America, Donald Trump, flew into Manchester, NH, less than three miles from my apartment. He blamed Lawrence, Massachusetts for my state’s opioid epidemic and called for the death penalty for traffickers and he did not speak of recovery but I could have told him about hope had he driven to my 650-square foot apartment. Maybe he would have cared. Probably not. Last night on my way home I drove down Pettingill Avenue where the planes come in near the airport, and one flew in literally dozens of feet over the top of my car, scaring the crap out of me. For a moment I imagined it was Donald Trump in the plane and that my car really was a Batmobile (I call it that) and that I ejected the driver’s seat from the roof and clung to the plane and defeated his evil empire but obviously nothing happened.

Hope is essential for recovery: I know this, because I’ve been in recovery from addiction myself for almost ten years. I try new things in this realm – in my spiritual program of action – all the time. Case in point: a recent visit to an acupuncture clinic with my friend Liz.

 “What the fuck, Liz,” I mouthed, glaring at my seated friend who’d brought me to the community establishment. A man ushered me past her and through a dark room. Filled with pastel, blanket-covered chairs, a weird hum enveloped the area. Open-mouthed, closed-eyed people lolled their heads toward the ceiling. Needles stuck out of their arms, collarbones, and heads.

It is worth noting I watch too many horror movies. This place looked exactly like one.

It is worth noting I watch too many horror movies because I find it an excellent way to escape fear in real life. I figure if I can channel my fear – cultivate it like a well-nourished vegetable in a garden, contained in fertile soil for two solid hours – then I will never have to experience it in actuality. Life managed via art.

But here in the clinic where Liz had brought me it was too real. I was paralyzed by fear. I hate needles. It’s so common it’s a cliché – I hate needles – but I’ve never understood them.

Four of the people I love and trust with my life are recovered heroin addicts. They tout their love of the needle as one of the hardest things to shake.

Andy, the man who’d been leading me through the acupuncture treatment room, sat me in a chair next to Liz (who already had needles poking in her body and seemed more than content) and talked to me as I trembled. Andy looked at my intake sheet: “You say your anxiety is nine on a scale of ten? We can fix that.” He touched my arm. I closed my eyes. Prick. Prick. Prick. Prick. I flinched each time in terror. Finally he put a soft hand on my shoulder and told me to rest for at least twenty minutes.

Fifteen minutes in: a soft balloon of love floats from my chest and drifts toward the seahorse mobile at the center of the room. I turned my head to Liz, slumbering peacefully. Prick. The anxiety in my chest deflated from nine to three and the voices in my head, the ones that like to jabber-jabber-jabber, muted to a soft murmur. I could see and feel the universe again.

My former heroin addict friends have told me how they used to shoot water when they couldn’t get smack solely for the needle’s relief. I have always appreciated the seeming honesty of heroin addiction: addiction is so dark and awful that an outward needle jammed into skin appears more honest than my own former, sneaky addictive behavior. For the first time in the acupuncture chair I understood what my junkie friends were talking about. When I left I was on Cloud Nine for the rest of the day, anxiety abated, fear dead.

That was March 1. I have been back to acupuncture eleven more times since then, and March is not yet over. Every time I feel a needle prick my skin, knowing the relief I’ll feel later, I want to scream more more more at my acupuncturist. I know it is just a balancing of energy within and not a destructive habit but it does make me feel closer to my four friends, who have all recovered and have been sober for many years at this point. People who go far down often come back up high.

Trump is back in D.C. today. There are plenty of people still addicted to heroin; in recovery circles, we meet lots of them. A lot of them die. But a lot of them recover. Me, today, I might see The Strangers sequel. Go to acupuncture, feel the needle enter; balance my energy. Close my eyes. Imagine hands joining, unscarred, without fear.


Danielle Service is a graduate of The Mountainview Low-Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction. She currently teaches seventh grade Language Arts and yoga in New Hampshire. 

Student Picks: Bachelder and Henderson

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Phil Lemos-- Aficionados of male ritual, 2 ½-star hotels and mangled legs will love Chris Bachelder’s The Throwback Special. It’s the story of 22 men who converge at a hotel annually to re-enact the infamous play from a 1980s Monday Night Football game in which Lawrence Taylor gruesomely shattered Joe Theismann’s leg on national television, ending his career. A lottery system, aided by a complex addendum of rules – you can’t be LT more than once in an eight-year span, the last person selected is Theismann, among others – determines which character portrays which player. 

Casting a virtual makeshift football team in such a short (213 pages) novel yields confusing results, both in mid-life crises and in name — there’s a Chad, a Charles and a Carl; a Randy and an Andy; a Dennis and a Derek.  

But the men, in a way, are one singular character, whose personal strife is their common bond outside of football. These men suffer from fully involved mid-life crises, whether it be failing careers, questioning of their own manhood, crumbling marriages, or a combination thereof, and they manifest themselves in the most bizarre and random situations, such as during the hotel’s continental breakfast and “stage fright” during trips to the bathroom stall.

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Shawna-Lee Perrin-- Details reveal a writer’s willingness to linger in a scene and highlight the parts with exceptional emotional weight. Smith Henderson’s Fourth of July Creek is stuffed with multi-faceted characters and weighty topics, but it’s his attention to detail that makes certain scenes exceptionally haunting.

On Pete the narrator’s cabin: “...a front room with his bed, a leather chair, a kerosene lamp and an electric lantern, two shelves of books, and a bureau... a hatch in the floor led into a root cellar where he kept his milk, beer, and vegetables.” That beer is one of three things he keeps in the cellar is a subtle hint at Pete’s goals of living a simple, but not dour or monastic, life. 

After Pete’s father dies, the relics of his last day reveal Pete’s reluctant affection, despite the complicated, distant relationship they’d had: “An odor of leather, sawdust, and lilac... A half cup of coffee where he’d left it... an unpromising game of solitaire. His father had gotten up when he saw he wouldn’t win.”

I find myself reflecting on this book when I realize I’ve rushed through writing something; it’s a priceless study in slowing way down and really looking around.

Last Resort

by Eddie Dzialo

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During my deployment to Afghanistan, I carried an M4 rifle and a 9mm Berretta pistol should I need to use on myself. Due to the dust and sandstorms, cleaning our weapons was a daily ritual. I changed clothes less than once a week and showered every other month. Each time I cleaned my pistol, I was reminded of what it was for. I’d take it apart, line it with lubricant, coat it with my issued brush to ensure that it was reliably crisp. I became so comfortable with the weapon that I could pull the slide back and catch the ejected bullet with my hand.

Each time I had to clean the pistol, my 9mm Beretta, I was reminded of what it was for. Because it is only effective inside of 50 meters, it’s a last-resort weapon. With all the machine guns and mortars we carried, there would be little use in it. One step below pistol is a bayonet, and then it’s fists.

Prior to deploying, the officers routinely stayed late and met in the boardroom. We listened to intelligence reports, went over tactical scenarios, and drank beers. Before one of the meetings began, people sat around the table and talked. No one looked unhappy or worried. Though I can’t remember what prompted it, my superior said that if anyone felt like they were about to be captured during our deployment, then we should do the right thing and eat a bullet. The comment was made casually, but it was sincere and loud enough for the whole room to hear. If captured, we would be killed, likely beheaded. The act would be recorded and disseminated on the internet. The people we left behind would have to live knowing that our final moments were being permanently broadcast. Killing ourselves was an act of kindness, a selfless way of protecting our families.

When I deployed, I became suicidal without wanting to be. I’d believed what I’d been told.  Sometimes I fought back by not cleaning my pistol, allowing the powdery dust to build up around the barrel and trigger guard. Maybe it would jam. At some point, I stopped fighting. I even worried about the scenarios where I wouldn’t be able to get to my pistol. What if I was in an explosion and someone grabbed me when I was unconscious, or that I was so badly injured that I wouldn’t be able to physically do it? I even knew how to chamber a round if one of my arms was broken or missing.

People become reckless after surviving a deployment because there’s a certain hint of invincibility that comes with it. But I returned home feeling fragile. The myth of immortality gets disproven when someone you know gets killed overseas.

Our unit returned home, and we were obligated to attend classes intended to help us reintegrate back into our old lives. The Marine who gave one of the classes talked about the increased risk of suicide and the mental steps that someone undergoes prior to it. First someone has the idea and then there’s an intent to carry out the act. During that class, I realized that I had done both. Though I wasn’t suicidal then, and I am not now, not only had I risked my life, I had grown comfortable with taking it.