Fangirling & Fanboying: Sweetbitter, Binary Star, Guster is for Lovers

Guster at the house of blues, courtesy of front row boston.

Guster at the house of blues, courtesy of front row boston.

sweetbitter.

sweetbitter.

Lisa Janicki -- Not surprisingly, there’s a theme of consumption in Stephanie Danler’s Sweetbitter, which takes place largely in an upscale NYC restaurant near Union Square. There’s the eating, obviously, and the drinking and the snorting coke, maybe just as obviously. But there’s also being swallowed up by a new place, its inhabitants, and its rhythms. Some days, the city where you live is on your side: you go from A to B in one continuous movement: you breeze through turnstiles and catch every train; it’s all green lights and walk signals. There’s a welcome loss of self in times like these. Through Tess, Sweetbitter’s narrator, we experience this through the eyes of a server: “Specks of dust taking off from bottles, shadows darting onto the floor, glasses listing over the edges of counters and caught just in time…The reflex was to see beyond my line of vision, to see around and behind myself. The breath between consciousness and action collapsed. No hesitations, no projections, no order. I became a verb.” That passage is immediately followed by the best description I’ve ever read of what it means to be in the weeds during your restaurant shift. And how once you’re there, suddenly wrecked and paralyzed by your own surroundings, you can’t get back to the other side, you can hardly remember it. Danler presents to us these varieties of consciousness, and how slipping back and forth between the two can happen in an instant and is seldom in our control.

Lost Ground.

Lost Ground.

Eric Beebe -- About every Memorial Day I dig through my stacks of old CDs (yes, some of us still have such things) for Lost Ground, an EP by the band Defeater. The band made a name for itself with, aside from its myriad of talent, a distinct narrative style to its lyrics. Frontman Derek Archambault has so far written the lyrics to each new installment of the band’s music as different characters’ perspectives in a story linking all of them together. In Lost Ground, we are reintroduced to a homeless WWII veteran who plays the role of singing sage to the protagonist of the band’s album Travels. But the EP starts from this man’s adolescence, with a song titled “The Red, White, and Blues” kicking off his story as he drinks himself into oblivion before shipping off to war. Through six tracks, the EP takes us along the timeline of this man’s life. In the end track, “Beggin’ in the Slums,” our hero—returned home as a veteran and forsaken by his countrymen—spends his days playing guitar to passing crowds for change, and he sees the young man from Travels, on the run, and recognizes a look in his eyes he once knew as his own. With admittance of the time he’s lost, that he’s amounted to all he will, he finds hope that this young man will do better, somehow for the both of them. Because they both know the same thing: people deserve better.

Binary Star.

Binary Star.

Nadia Owusu -- I should have found Sarah Gerard’s short but intense novel Binary Star to be disorienting. It is structured less like a novel than like a long prose poem. It’s about astrology and anorexia, capitalism and addiction, love and self-hate. It’s about all of these things at once, sometimes all at once in one sentence. Time is undefined. The past and the present collide without notice. Dialogue is unmarked and undifferentiated from thought. And yet, I was transfixed. The novel did not, despite its unconventional structure, feel confused. It was beautiful and raw and thoroughly original. Rather than being experimental for experimentation’s sake, one gets the sense that Gerard followed the architectural principal that form should follow function. Binary Star is about a woman and a world in chaos. The fact that the novel attempts to wrench the reader out of his or her literary comfort zone only serves to heighten the emotional power of the story.

The Laughing Monsters.

The Laughing Monsters.

 

John Vercher -- There’s nothing funny about Denis Johnson’s The Laughing Monsters. It is described as “a high-suspense tale of kaleidoscoping loyalties in the post 9-11 world”, but the end result is, almost impossibly, something far more complex. Johnson’s slim novel is told from the first-person perspective of Roland Nair, a government operative (for which government, we’re never quite sure) on assignment in Africa to track down his former colleague, Michael Adriko, an African native with whom Nair has had some dirty dealings. During their reunion, Michael introduces Nair to his fiancée, Davidia, whose lineage involves Michael’s military past. What follows is a tumultuous journey that leads Adriko and Nair on a path to capitalize on the fears of post-9-11 terrorism with an ill-conceived plot designed to separate bad people from their money. While Johnson adroitly manages the tension of the plot, it’s the machinations of Nair’s mind that cause the greatest discomfort. He is a misogynist, a racist, and while he proclaims a love for Michael, he’s simultaneously looking for a way to steal his fiancée from under his nose. It is in this aspect where Nair’s characterization is most captivating, as his desires for Davidia spiral into obsessiveness in a manner that makes you question his sanity, and perhaps the reality of his perceptions. He is the most unreliable of narrators from which you can’t turn away. And while I found it somewhat difficult, at times, to separate the prejudicial ideations of Nair from the possible perspective of the author (Johnson did in fact spend time as a journalist in Africa prior to writing Monsters), the sentence structure is in fine form and the dialogue is masterful.

Guster is for lovers.

Guster is for lovers.

Daniel Johnson -- It's no well-kept secret that I am a tragic Guster superfan. In truth, I'm a little unsure whether recommending this band is a moment I was made for, or (much more likely) one I should have actively avoided, as there's just no chance I'll be able to articulate what makes theirs such timeless, quintessential, unbiasedly exceptional music. Regardless, here we are--you, me, and Front Row Boston's recording of Guster's January 15, 2016 homecoming concert at Boston's House of Blues, released in May of this year. The video is just over an hour long, comprised of 14 songs from their Night One set (I was at Night Two), spliced with commentary from vocalists/guitarists/bassists/everything-elseists Ryan Miller and Adam Gardner on their band's twenty-five year career. They formed in 1991, right down the road from the House of Blues, at Tufts University, where three of its remaining original members attended undergrad. So what's it like when they come back to Boston, when they come home? "It's always sort of emotional when we come back and play the place where we started--I mean, it's crazy," says Ryan. Adds Adam: "You can feel it, when we play, you can feel it in the crowd, you can see when you're looking out there ... Boston is the place that built our career." Such is the electricity with which they play during this show: beneath their characteristic lightheartedness, there's a palpable wattage of gratitude, sincerity, nostalgic revelry. It's no clearer on display than during their opus from Keep It Together, "Come Downstairs and Say Hello." These guys are object lessons in the rare sort of artistic brotherhood that endures and evolves (for a quarter of a century!), and as a fan, seeing that sort of synergy between them, strong as ever so late in the game, is intoxicating: to witness this concert for the first time or the hundredth is to understand a little better what lasting relationships at their strangest, funkiest, and most harmonious should look like. This is why--as we were reminded during the TNT broadcast of this year's NCAA Championship Game--Guster is for L<3vers.

100 Love Sonnets.

100 Love Sonnets.

E.B. --  While City Lights’s translated collection of Pablo Neruda’s poems, The Essential Neruda, offers a grand overview of his work—his odes, his communist beliefs, his musings on Machu Picchu—it was his love poems that hooked me. Most notable to me was his poem “XII,” from his Cien sonetos de amor (100 Sonnets of Love). It’s impossible not to be enthralled by Neruda’s use of language, albeit translated, that touches upon senses that make reading his love poems feel nothing short of an aphrodisiac. Now, having tracked down and read Cien sonetos from cover to cover, I only find myself more impressed with it. Each poem is titled simply with the Roman numerals marking its place in a progression of Neruda’s musings. The emotions wax and wane, rise and fall, like the moon and waves he drew upon for symbolism. His use of natural imagery and picturesque landscapes blend with romantic sentimentality; whereas lesser writers would butcher such a mixture, this is Neruda’s chief triumph. He draws upon one image or another knowing full-well the associations they brought with them and carefully balanced these associations to create sex on paper. In a time when postmodern thought has cast more doubt than ever on what love is or even whether it exists, Neruda’s work calls out to demand its reality and prove that it’s something floating at will between our senses and psyche. It says we don’t need to know what love is or how it is, just to know it’s there and—most of all—feel it.

Fangirling & Fanboying: Jandy Nelson, Kurt Vonnegut, Arturo Pérez-Reverte

From the cover of I'll Give You the Sun.

From the cover of I'll Give You the Sun.

Daniel Johnson -- Confession: Young Adult Literature, until recently, was oft absent from my shelves, and is admittedly under-represented (read: nonexistent) in these staff picks here at Assignment. It’s a sensibility thing, both as individuals and as a publication, and I get it. However, on recommendation, perhaps on challenge, and also because I’m in the process of renovating and expanding my tastes, I read Jandy Nelson’s 2015 Printz Award-winning novel I’ll Give You the Sun, and I fucking adored it. Seldom have I held characters as dear as I did Noah and Jude, the book’s twin teenage Californian protagonists, who we follow through art school rejections, the separation of their parents, and the eventual death of their mother, all of which leads to a monstrous rift in their relationship. From the very first page, I cared so deeply for their bond, was so invested in its loss and redemption, in each sibling's tumultuous road to individuality and healing; I longed so fiercely to wedge myself between their bodies during what Noah calls “the smush,” a sedentary position in which each twin abuts the other “until we’re not only one age, but one complete and whole person.” How many people, I wondered, read this book and realized that to be one half of a smush is all they’ve ever wanted? Nelson gives us a story that seems, on the surface, elemental because of its elasticity: twins start together, twins grow apart, two arcs that begin as parallels before they bend and meander away from one another, until they eventually snap into symmetry anew. What sets it apart as outstanding, for one, is Nelson's Lerner-esque ability to drive the story almost entirely through the interior registers of her protagonists. And then there's her language, which processes as flashes of color more often than it does as formations of words. Here’s Noah, speaking of his sister: “Jude looks at me. Her eyes are the lightest glacier blue; I use mostly white when I draw them. Normally they make you feel floaty and think of puffy clouds and hear harps, but right now they look just plain scared.” Both twins are artists, and their voices, as here, seem somehow liberated from the representational deficiencies of quotidian language; thus, Nelson’s prose scraped feeling from me with terrifying page-to-page ease, some of which was so complex and overwhelming and new that I struggle to name it here. What I can articulate, and what you need to know, is that I’ll Give You the Sun understands the rhythms of relationships, like Noah and Jude's, that are galactic in importance: it will leave you assured that it’s okay—beautiful, even—if one person is the central star to your cosmos, just as long as you’re unafraid to be ripped from orbit every once in a while, to be forced to go rogue and experience the universe as a sovereign world. Nelson is offering a comfort, here, that when it comes to her characters, or any set of twins, siblings, any and all family—plainly, when it comes to those we love—an inexplicable gravity will always ferry us back to them.

Slapstick.

Slapstick.

Eric Beebe -- To say I’m a fan of Kurt Vonnegut would understate the eye rolls and sighs of many friends of mine every time I mention his work yet again. I turn into a kind of missionary for his work—ironically, considering many of his themes—every time I meet someone who hasn’t read it, and I make a point of tracking down the gems he produced which didn’t receive the same fanfare as Cat’s Cradle or Slaughterhouse-Five or maybe just fell out of the public eye. This search brought me to Slapstick, which Vonnegut claims in its prologue to be the closest thing he wrote to an autobiography. “It is about what life feels like to me,” he wrote, which may sound strange regarding a story of a malformed, incestuous pair of twins narrated by one who becomes the last president of the United States, but therein lies the joy of the book. The story is so blatantly absurd, with things like telepathic orgies and a campaign platform of grouping the nation into artificial families, that it stands as one of Vonnegut’s best efforts he makes across many of his books with regard to showing us just how ridiculous humans really are. This book is a must while seeking distraction from real-life absurdities like the rise of Trump and other pains of the impending election, but it also satirizes such events like only Vonnegut could. It’s a story of triumph and failure in simultaneity, as is often the only true case, told through a hyperbolic comedy of the journey there which makes us question, in the protagonist’s words, “And how did we then face the odds, / Of man’s rude slapstick, yes, and God’s?” If you want the answer, go read Slapstick.

the painter of battles.

the painter of battles.

Ted Flanagan -- If you make it to the surprising, soul-crushing denouement of The Painter of Battles, it will be as if Arturo Perez-Reverte has combined the blizzard-cold human condition of, say, Crime and Punishment, the tragedy of Anna Karenina, and the construction of the mirrored city of Macondo in One Hundred Years of Solitude, and condensed it into 211 pages without missing a chord of the originals’ beauty and cruelty. The protagonist, Andres Faulques, is a retired war photographer living in abandoned lighthouse on an unnamed stretch of Spanish coastline, and spends his days painting an epic mural along tower’s inner wall, bearing witness to the horrors his camera recorded. Into this solitude arrives a former Croatian soldier, Markovic, whose life was inadvertently ruined as the result of an otherwise inconsequential photo Faulques took of him while covering the brutal war arising from Yugoslavia’s death throes. The photo becomes a worldwide sensation, brings Faulques great fame and money, but also costs him the love of his life, who stepped on a mine near a muddy Balkan road two days later. The picture costs Markovic dearly, too, and he arrives at the tower to engage Faulques in a conversation, ask the photographer some questions, and then: “I’m going to kill you.” Throughout the characters’ extended daily conversations about art, love, death and war, Reverte’s writing is lyrical, philosophical, building to its surprisingly emotional climax slowly, one beautiful word upon another, in the way of all great literature.

From the cover of Half an Inch of water.

From the cover of Half an Inch of water.

David Moloney -- The birth of twin Appaloosa foals on a Western Indian Reservation could be an intense enough event to carry a story. But in his collection, Half an Inch of Water, Percival Everett isn’t content with easy narratives. Here, in “Finding Billy White Feather,” the elusive title character tacks a note on a rancher’s door, offering to sell both horses. Billy claims to be a Sioux, but is described by many in many different ways to Oliver (the rancher): “a tall, skinny white boy,” and, later, “Could be he’s fat,” by another. The note sends Oliver in search of White Feather, but each time he is thwarted. Like many of Everett’s stories, this one is shot out of a cannon, propelled forward without any backtracking or history, all the way to its bleak end—Oliver never does find White Feather, and the twin foals die. So it goes for the rest of the collection: Everett rarely leaves you fulfilled. But in each story, as with White Feather, there’s an intentional mysticism that surrounds the characters. In “A High Lake,” Norma Snow, an elderly horse owner who still rides every day, gets lost with her horse one morning. As she tries to find her way back, she enters a spirit-realm where her dead dog runs alongside her. Everett writes it as if this is a sure sign of Norma having perished on horseback in a meadow—a fitting end to a character who died doing what she loved—but somehow she finds her way home, to her fireplace, where she remains as the story ends. We’re left with the feeling that we were tricked: Did Norma go on that ride? Did she dream it? Again, unfulfilling. You’ll never know the answer, but you’ll be glad Everett showed you what that last journey would have been like.

Between the world and me.

Between the world and me.

John Vercher -- My father and I have never been close. There was a time though, however brief, during the mid-to-late eighties, when we connected for a few hours a week. Several days per week, we’d drive to the neighborhood gym. On those car rides, he’d tell me why my hair was different from other mixed kids and how I should assume all white people were racist until they proved themselves otherwise. Then we’d get to work on building our bodies. It wasn’t until I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between The World And Me that I began to gain some perspective as to what was really going on in those car rides, in those subsequent gym sessions. Written as a letter to his fifteen-year-old son, Between is Coates’s declaration of the imperative need to preserve “the sanctity of the black body”, to protect it from the threat of systematic racism “that makes your body breakable.” Through Coates’s eloquent narrative and frank confrontation of an eminently necessary conversation, I gained some modicum of clarity about what was really happening in those car rides, in that gym. While my adolescent arms quaked under a weight I could barely lift, my father’s shoulders bowed, not from helping me lift the bar, but under a love he almost could not bear, trying to protect me from the world I’d inevitably come to know.

DJ -- This week, I'll be recording an episode with our friends over at The Critical Breakdown, which, for those of you who are unfamiliar, is a little movie-review podcast with a single hilarious (and existentially lofty) objective: "We review movies based on their Rotten Tomatoes score, starting at the very bottom with 0% and working our way towards 100%. We'll learn what makes a bad movie bad, if ratings are fair, and maybe even something about ourselves." Right now, they're at 8%, and after reading my piece on horror films here, they asked me to help review The Number 23, a pseudo-horror/conspiracy thriller/pulpy, oversexed detective noir flick in which Jim Carrey, as an animal control officer, tries (and so catastrophically fails) to defeat the 23 Enigma. Now see, I'm typically a JC-in-non-comedic-roles apologist, and I remember watching this film in 2007, when I was sixteen, alone in my basement with a take-out order of onion rings, and loving it. You'll have to listen in to hear what my opinion is nine years later (spoiler: the movie is egregious, really, just downright insulting). Scott & Max, TCB's hosts, are erudite and funny, and their rapport with one other is seamless. Perhaps most impressive about their approach is the tender seriousness with which they consider each movie; this is almost impossible not to appreciate, given the broken body of cinema they've handled thus far (Good Luck Chuck and Battlefield Earth, to name two). They've even got an official podcast poodle, Walter, who occasionally drops into the studio for some canine analysis. In other words, they quite organically inhabit the airwave space between smart and absurd; this is why I consider them legitimate and sincere critics, and why they're such good radio.

Fangirling & Fanboying: Ottessa Moshfegh, Luke Mogelson, Nuruddin Farah

from the cover of homesick for another world: stories

from the cover of homesick for another world: stories

Benjamin Nugent -- In his essay "Michael", John Jeremiah Sullivan points out that Michael Jackson’s best songs have the peculiar catchiness of schoolyard chants. You’ve got to be starting something, Hey girl with the high heels on, Billie Jean is not my lover, I’m bad, I’m bad, you know it, etc. One of the reasons I love Ottessa Moshfegh’s forthcoming collection, Homesick for Another World: Stories, out next January, is that she too is a master of the taunting cadence, only Moshfegh’s schoolyard abuts a high school or a liberal arts school: “The deluxe shopping center on Route 4, where the fattest people on earth could be found…”; “But having held my dick in her hand, she seemed to feel she’d earned the right to belittle me as much as possible”; “The shoulder pads nearly hit his ears, as he had basically no neck.” Lesser writers don’t trust the reader to engage with narrators who express contempt, so their narrators are artificially aw-shucks and nonjudgmental. But Moshfegh knows that people make fun of other people to shield themselves from their own self-loathing, fear and loneliness, and she knows how to twist a story at the end so that the mask of disgust falls away and we see the desolation that was always lurking behind.

New American Stories

New American Stories

Daniel Johnson -- Why is it that all the world has yet to acquire a copy of New American Stories (2015), the 750 page anthology edited by Ben Marcus, and gorge themselves on it? Contained therein are over twenty-five pieces of short fiction--including installments by Don DeLillo, Mary Gaitskill, Wells Tower, and Kelly Link--that matter now, not only because they're individually outstanding with regard to their contributions to the endurance of the short story form, but also because, collectively, they're a clip of what the American voice sounds like now. It's The Unprofessionals, but more sweeping in scope. And sure, I'm quite aware this is a terrifically cliché way to talk about any book. But what else is there to say about the most quintessential curation of contemporary stories available? Perhaps that Marcus's intro is knockout: "The potent story writers, to me, are the ones who deploy language as a kind of contraband, pumping it into us until we collapse on the floor, writhing, overwhelmed with feeling." Perhaps, too, that the book as a physical object is gorgeous (see left), and simply feels like something substantial when you hold it. It's got the weight and paper gradation of a Bible. Just saying.

John Vercher -- As a new(ish) father, I find that certain books, movies and the like affect me on an emotional level they wouldn’t have pre-rugrats. Marlin finally reunites with Nemo? My chin crinkles. “Cat’s in The Cradle” plays on the radio? The eyes start to burn a bit. And don’t even get me started on that scene from Interstellar when McConaughey watches the video messages from his children back on Earth. So it went for me with Celeste Ng’s 2014 debut novel Everything I Never Told You. Lydia Lee, the teenage daughter of James and Marilyn, is missing. Her fate is revealed to readers by the end of the first chapter: “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know it yet.” Despite the innards-twisting tension that Ng so deftly ratchets before divulging Lydia’s fate, it’s her family’s reactions to their loss and the memories conjured by it that deliver much of the novel’s emotional resonance. Ng writes with the painful beauty of a parent’s perspective as they bear witness to the cruelty of which children are capable. It’s stories like these that stop me cold, make me set the book down long enough to find my sons and hold them, with the hopes of protecting them from the world.

Sarah Eisner -- My mother often writes me lengthy emails about her childhood in Savannah, Georgia, and sometimes asks me questions about the way I remember mine in suburban California. I tend to respond like I’m less interested than I am, like I don’t know that I’m privileged to have a mom who wants to relive my life and share her own, like I don’t realize that someday I’ll wish I asked her everything I could. So when she mentioned that I should read The Rainbow Comes and Goes—a back and forth correspondence between Anderson Cooper and his mother, Gloria Vanderbilt—I told her it wasn’t my thing, thinking it was another lame celebrity memoir. It arrived on my doorstep on Mother’s Day anyway. I was surprised to find how deeply satisfied I was with the way Rainbow explores motherhood, ambition, identity, aging and grief, framed within a unique narrative of a very particular kind of American privilege and pain. The relationship between Anderson and Gloria illustrates the way families remember through parent and child, and inspired me to ask my mom a few more questions.

from the cover of bright lights, big city

from the cover of bright lights, big city

Eric Beebe -- After far too long, I finally picked up Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City and got to making up for the lost time it spent buried in my reading list. It quickly shot into place among my favorite books. The novel gave me the feel of following thoughts rather than plot, but with no lack of an arc to show for it—just gems of true consciousness that seem universal to human experience: “No. Stop this. This is not your better self speaking. This is not how you feel.” The universality of the protagonist’s thoughts is one of the novel’s greatest triumphs; it’s only aided by the way McInerney's style allows us to feel we know the character so well. In a world where we’re constantly pummeled with the differences, assumptions, and enigma surrounding baby boomers, millennials, or whichever generation, it’s an extreme relief to read work which—touted as definitive of one age and place—feels purely, innately relatable in its humanity. Bright Lights, Big City isn’t just a coming-of-age novel, or a New York novel, or an eighties novel. It’s a story about the disillusionment and disappointments that can strike anyone, anywhere, at any time, and the fleeting efforts we make to cope. Rumor has it that The Paris Review’s sitting on a forthcoming interview with McInerney, and after this, I’ll be counting down days.

David Moloney -- Luke Mogelson’s first collection of stories, These Heroic, Happy Dead—a title borrowed from the E.E. Cummings poem, “next to of course god america I”—would have you know that when veterans return from war, there’s no glory awaiting them. Rather, what happens is a continuance of trouble and violence. What is especially empathetic about these stories is how Mogelson not only focuses on the veterans, but also the people close to them: mothers, neighbors, and co-workers. In “Visitors,” a mother, Jeanne, loses her son a second time when he returns from war and kills a man in a bar fight. Jeanne is in denial, as she believes her son merely “had to go away again.” But Mogelson doesn’t condemn his characters for feeling wronged. Instead, he allows them to act out their anger and anxiety---as in “Human Cry”---only to find them in a worse way. The protagonist in “Human Cry” explores his own involvement in a man’s death and how he subsequently dealt with it with a self-imposed isolation from the world. But the full extent of the isolation isn’t understood until Mogelson switches point of view in the final page, revealing the protagonist’s bizarre and embarrassing actions to the reader---he’s been living in the man’s home, the man he is responsible for killing. These Heroic, Happy Dead is a book of war stories---perpetual war---and the consequences of sending men to kill and then asking them to return to family, work and normalcy no different.

from the cover of maps

from the cover of maps

Nadia Owusu -- In Nuruddin Farah’s rich and lyrical novel Maps, a young boy by the name of Askar bears witness to the violent redrawing of Farah’s native Somalia and neighboring Ethiopia post-colonialism. At the same time, he must make decisions about who he wants to be and what he is willing to fight for. Although the political and geographical context of this novel is specific, there are many parallels between Askar’s wars (internal and external) and the wars that are currently being waged, from the Sudans to Syria. Examining themes like religion, class, and community, Maps reminds us that identities and borders (particularly, perhaps, in Africa) are fluid and rarely easily defined.

Ted Flanagan -- The recent paperback reissue of Richard Price’s The Whites drops the hardcover’s unfortunate author attribution of “Richard Price writing as Harry Brandt” in favor of simply his name, which any devotee of Price would have known by the end of paragraph one. Consider the opening lines: “ ... a quarter past one in the morning and there were still far more people piling into the bars than leaving them, everyone coming and going having to muscle their way through swaying clumps of half-hammered smokers standing directly outside the entrances. He hated the no smoking laws.” The book has all the Price-ian staples. Its protagonist, Billy Graves, is a conflicted veteran police detective, now working a kind of overnight bunco-cum-broken-windows squad in NYC, all the while stewing about a case from his past involving a triple-murder suspect Graves could never pin with the crime. And then there’s the mysterious stalker, intent on destroying the Graves family. The change on the paperback cover just goes to show that a Price novel, even one intentioned to be a simple whodunit penned under a pseudonym, will always be a Price novel. If there’s a writer living today with a better ear for honest, human dialogue, or a more pathological inability to see every character in anything but full 360-degree, four dimensional view, who illuminates the wider world around us by focusing on the narrow world within his characters, and turns up the heat slowly, so you don’t realize you’re in hot water until it’s too late, I don’t know who they are.  

Fangirling & Fanboying: This Week's Recs from Assignment

Enclosed: Facebook activists, but opposite

Enclosed: Facebook activists, but opposite

Benjamin Nugent -- I’ve used a metal detector to extract a lead .59 miniball from the dirt near Manassas. I’ve sipped whiskey from a party cup at the site of one of the last charges of the Army of the Potomac. I’ve been to the Chancellorsville gift shop and seen the bookshelf that’s divided into three sections: Northern, Southern and neutral. But until recently I was fairly ignorant about what came after the Civil War. So I picked up Black Reconstruction in America, by W.E.B. Du Bois, and The Metaphysical Club, by Louis Menand. Du Bois is interested in the masses: why, he asks, did five million poor whites support a war on behalf of eight thousand rich whites to keep four million blacks enslaved? It’s required reading for the Summer of Trump. Menand is interested is the intellectual foment that attended and followed the war. His book is set in the salons of Cambridge, Baltimore and Chicago. There are characters like Zina Peirce, who believed that adultery should be punished by execution or life imprisonment, and her philosopher husband, Charles, who cheated on her a lot. It serves as a reminder of how hard it is to find role models in the nineteenth century; even the most ardent abolitionists espoused some pretty appalling views. Their heroism resides in what they did, not in what they said. Sort of like Facebook activists, but the opposite.

Eric Beebe -- Ever since reading “The Weirdos,” I’ve grabbed any piece of Ottessa Moshfegh’s work I can. Her short stories fit my tendency to read in twentyish-minute bursts, but when I heard about her novel, McGlue, I had to see what she did with the extra length. The book follows the title character’s inner monologue, picking up where he’s accused of murdering his shipmate and best friend, Johnson. McGlue’s constant state of impairment by both alcohol and head injury keeps clarity to a foggy minimum, and that was perhaps my favorite aspect of the whole story. Being tied to his altered reality, I learned to stop trying to distinguish the corporeal from hallucination and simply accept what he saw in front of him. The dichotomy between these two forces becomes integral to the plot as the weight of events leads McGlue to seek escape by any means necessary, even if it kills him. The resulting feel falls somewhere between reading The Things They Carried and watching Reservoir Dogs while our narrator teeters back and forth between blacking out and drying out. Moshfegh doesn’t hand us just any drunken sailor; she gives us a man floating between two worlds, battling with himself over which to choose, if he can at all.

From the cover of Bright, Dead Things

From the cover of Bright, Dead Things

Lisa Janicki -- My favorite poem in Ada Limón’s collection, Bright Dead Things, is “Downhearted,” which begins, “Six horses died in a trailer fire. / There. That’s the hard part. I wanted / to tell you straight away so that we could / grieve together.” She’s a city girl who moved for love to the south, where even the tragedies are foreign. She bumps up against new idioms and “tornado talk”— the subtle stuff that’s peculiar to regions and can be so disorienting to transplants (“All the new bugs.”). And from these small moments, she elaborates larger impressions of her existence. She had imagined herself differently in this new life—more agreeable, more open to its magic, more like a child. But when our grown-up selves allow us to become children again, it’s often in a way that’s less magical and more sullen: in “The Last Move,” she writes, “This is Kentucky, not New York, and I am not important.” I root for Limón as she cleans her big new house and tries to like gardening, though it seems clear she’d rather be in her Brooklyn apartment. I root for her because she threw it all in for love, because she moved to Kentucky for it, because she had no Plan B. And mostly I root for her because I get the sense that she’s resurrected herself before, and she’s about to do it again: “What the heart wants? The heart wants / her horses back.”

David Moloney -- You’d think Olive Kitteridge would be the focus of Elizabeth Strout’s novel in stories titled in her name. But we’re instead given thirteen stories that concern themselves more with the residents of the small, coastal New England town of Crosby, Maine. Olive is a math teacher there, and she seems to have had all the book’s characters in class at one point; she always finds herself crossing paths with them when they’re stalled in a threshold of self-destruction. It’s these characters that are most central to the novel. Whether it’s a former student who contemplates suicide on a beach, an anorexic teen, or even her own husband falling in love with a much younger employee, Olive---through her staunch and sometimes misplaced contemptibility for weak people---says what we’d only wished to have the courage to say. She tells the anorexic girl in “Starving,” after giving sound advice about never giving up, “I know you’ve heard all this before, so you just lie there and don’t answer. Well, answer this: Do you hate your mother?” Olive isn’t always right (sometimes far from it); that’s when the book is at its best. The stories are so human, so New England, and in the closing moments, we know Olive did her best, and we know she never gave up—and isn’t that all we can do? 

Nadia Owusu -- I first encountered Lydia Davis two years ago. I was thoroughly confused. What was I reading? Were these monologues? Prose poems? Scenes? “She is the master of the short story,” declared the instructor of my workshop as she assigned three of Davis’s stories to me. “But, where are the stories?” I fretted to myself as I diligently did my assigned reading, certain that I had made some sort of mistake. Don’t get me wrong: I liked what I was reading. I just couldn’t easily categorize it. Later, once my obsessive, ‘I need to make sure I’m doing the assignment right’ voice was quieted by a glass of red wine, I was able to admire the way that Davis was able to imbue such brief moments, untethered by much context or character development or setting or structure, with such feeling and meaning. This month, I worked on my upper body strength by carrying around her Collected Stories. In making my way through it, I tried to give some thought as to how she does what she does and why it works. I found myself particularly admiring how she takes her characters’ specific circumstances and in a matter of a few pages, or in some cases even just a few sentences (Davis’s stories are known for being minimalistic and very brief), makes them universal, raising and exploring difficult questions about the things in people’s hearts and heads that are often heartbreakingly left unsaid.

From the cover of Crimes in Southern Indiana

From the cover of Crimes in Southern Indiana

Ted Flanagan -- Reading Frank Bill’s gut-punch collection of loosely-linked stories, Crimes in Southern Indiana, is to bear witness to a nihilistic muscularity of prose one might expect of the love child of Jim Thompson and Donald Ray Pollock, if such a thing were possible. Bill’s slim collection packs a weight far beyond its pages, delivered at a high-velocity. His characters hint that their squalid, violent lives are the result of choices, often (as in drugs or alcohol or regret) the righteous reward for their own. But also, as in poor teenaged Josephine, who’s own grandfather, Able Kirby, sold her into sex slavery to a local gang—some pay debts incurred by someone else. The opening story, Hill Clan Cross, follows two drug dealers avenging their losses against two associates who got all entrepreneurial with the gang’s drugs, a big no-no in a desolate landscape where the only thing thicker than blood are dollar bills. From there, the book accelerates through the bleakness and darkness until the titular story, the collection’s last, in which Mitchell, a local police detective, attempts to help Crazy, a member of the notorious gang MS-13, which has populated the ranks of workers in a chicken processing factory. For me, that’s the brilliance of the collection. Crimes in Southern Indiana, as it insinuates itself, whispers amongst the brawling, crashing, and exploding backdrop that this isn’t just Indiana. It’s the 21st century Animal Farm, decrying not Fascism, but a distant offspring of it.

John Vercher -- Addiction has a name, and that name is “Scotty.” He’s an incubus and succubus for men and women alike, dangerous in his charm and seduction, fulfilling all cravings while reaping wanton destruction. Scotty is, literally, crack cocaine. He is funny, repulsive and impossible to ignore. In his PEN/Faulkner award-winning novel Delicious Foods, James Hannaham tells the story of Eddie, his mother Darlene, and her relationship with Scotty. It is a story of tragic loss and horrific violence infused with irreverent humor. The novel explores the depths of maternal love pitted against chemical dependence in the shadow of the titular farm where both Eddie and Darlene find themselves held captive. Hannaham’s stark and concise prose is instantly engaging, and doesn’t shy away from the horror of the subject matter while avoiding the melodrama that could easily overcome it. In between the braided flashbacks of Darlene’s youth and the tragic events that lead to her eventual addiction, we’re treated to Scotty’s dark humor and cruel charisma. He’s a twisted conscience in a novel of painful truths about desperate acts and the systematic racism that lead to them. Delicious Foods is at once heartbreaking and breathtaking with richly textured characters that has stayed with me long after the final page.

From the cover of Vitals.

From the cover of Vitals.

Daniel Johnson -- You've got enough to read (and if you're really interested in what I'd recommend, check out my weekly selections at The Paris Review Daily's "Staff Picks"). Meanwhile, let's talk obscure music. Like many of their fans, I discovered MuteMath when they debuted their first single, “Typical,” on Letterman’s Late Show in the summer of 2007. The band’s performance—and particularly that of drummer Darren King—stunned Ed Sullivan theater such that once the music stopped, all Dave could say was, “How bout that drummer!” Eight years later, in the Fall of 2015—one guitarist, a Transformer’s theme and two underappreciated records since Letterman—MuteMath started its own label, Wojtek Records, and released their first self-produced studio album: Vitals. King’s percussive energy and Roy Mitchell-Cardeńas’ critically acclaimed bass-playing have been at the forefront of most of their music; Vitals, however, is unquestionably frontman Paul Meany’s opus. It’s all vocals, all keys. The result is something like a contemporary eighties record, if only, say, Earth, Wind and Fire had grown up in bluesy New Orleans, where Meany and the rest hail from. Both the album’s single, “Monument,” and “Light Up” share the insane vocal range of “September”; both have that same wedding-reception-banger vibe. And though the album feels at times like a throwback or an homage to Meany's influences (The Police being a big one), it's actually a welcome step into the future for the band: Vitals is heady and joyous and wonderfully hypnotic in a way that most MuteMath is not. Meany has said himself that, when composing a work, he wants the end product to be “a picture of something dark, but it should be framed in light.” This is their first album that’s more frame than picture--just listen to "Stratosphere," my favorite of all eleven tracks: "The sun has lost its gravity / and severed my connection to the starlight. / I never meant to have to start all over / without you."

 

A Digital Ghost Story

by Nadia Owusu

I have been haunted for five years and six months. The voice first came to me through my Blackberry and then through my iPhone. Mostly there is just raspy breathing and incoherent whispering. Sometimes the voice hums my name and laughs. Sometimes there is nothing but background noise—horns honking, a fork clanking against a plate. Once I heard a baby cry and then the call was ended.

Occasionally, I am haunted through my Gmail. The sending address is always different. It is always a man’s name like Fred or Robert or Carl followed by seven or eight numbers. The messages are not especially interesting. Often there is just a question. What did I have for lunch? Was I enjoying the beach weather? Recently, Larry7678919 wanted to know what I thought about the Republican presidential debate. In 2013, the emails were mostly one-sentence directives. Let love in. Don’t be afraid of what you really feel. Open up to new possibilities.

I assume that the voice on the phone and the words in my Gmail are from the same person. It might be the guy I went on one date with in the summer of the year that I got the first phone call at 1:30 in the morning. The guy’s name is Rob. It’s not really Rob, but I don’t want to use his real name because he has a wife and two children now. I know this because I looked him up on Facebook. I was looking for evidence. I don’t know what kind of evidence I expected to find on Facebook, but you have to start somewhere.

On our date, Rob told me that, years earlier, he had stalked a woman who he was too afraid to ask out. He didn’t do anything to her, just followed her around as she ran errands and met friends for brunch. When he told me this, his voice was gurgling in the way that comedians’ voices gurgle when they are telling a joke that they think is really clever. We were eating lasagna and drinking white wine on the patio of a restaurant in the West Village. It had been one of those sticky New York days when you feel like you are breathing in dirty steam instead of normal air. But, now that the sun had set, there was a breeze that tickled the romantic candlelight at our table. The breeze and the perfect crescent moon made everyone happy and beautiful with rustling hair and luminous skin. But, Rob looked like he had smoked a lot of pot. His eyes were red and half-closed.

The stalking happened before he knew how to talk to women, he said. He didn’t have trouble with that anymore because he had taken a weekend-long seminar with a man who wrote a book about picking up women at parks and bookstores. I met Rob at the Guggenheim. I was annoyed that he approached me to let me know that I furrowed my brow when I looked at paintings and that might give me permanent wrinkles in the future. But, after that, he started talking about Analytic Cubism in a way that was endearingly nerdy. Later, I learned that the book about picking up women written by his seminar instructor encourages readers to say something mean instead of something nice as an opening line. This is supposed to change the power dynamic and make the woman feel as though she needs to impress the man. I think that is stupid advice. I agreed to go out with Rob because of the endearing nerdiness and because I liked the idea of telling people that I met a man at the Guggenheim. It had nothing to do with him informing me that I was going to be wrinkly.

I did not go on a second date with Rob. He said “Stop being so uptight” when I told him that all the talk of stalking was making me uncomfortable. Then, he said, “Why do women have to make everything such a big deal?” I got up from the table without saying another word to him. I walked home, looking over my shoulder whenever I heard footsteps close behind me. The breeze no longer felt enchanting. Now, it felt ominous. A shiver worked its way up my spine despite the heat. At home, I told my roommate the story, laughing. I left out the part about being scared.

Rob is at the top of my list of potential haunters. Also on the list are:

1. The guy I worked with at the Pizzeria Uno at South Street Seaport during my freshman year of college. He got my phone number off the schedule that was posted on the staff changing room door and called me to tell me he loved me. I told him that I was flattered but I did not love him. He told me that he would wait until I did. Two weeks later, he started dating the pretty hostess with very large breasts, but sometimes he looked at me when he kissed her hello or goodbye.

2. The ex-boyfriend who showed up in front of my job to say that he was getting married to the woman he cheated on me with unless I told him not to. I did not tell him not to. I had let him break my heart for long enough. He got married at City Hall and texted me a photo of his smiling wife. I texted him ‘congratulations.’ I really wanted to text him ‘you’re an asshole.’

3. The creepy yoga teacher from the studio I used to go to on the Lower East Side who asked a lot of students out, including me. He could easily have gotten my information from the registration system. He got fired for masturbating in the acupuncture room.

4. A robot.

The calls generally come between 1:30 and 3:30 in the morning. They come from a blocked number. I answer because what if it is my brother calling me from Ghana or my friend Pascal calling me from jail? My brother sometimes forgets about the time difference between Accra, where he lives, and New York. Pascal is one of the kindest souls I have ever known when he is sober, but he gets too drunk and fights people in front of bars.


The only thing I ever say to the voice on the phone is ‘hello’ and ‘who is this?’ and ‘stop this.’ I say these things several times, then I listen for a few seconds before hanging up. I never respond to the emails.

I do not believe in ghosts, but sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night with a feeling that something is in my room, floating above me or standing silently in a corner. I have had this feeling since I was a little girl who was afraid of the dark and had to sleep with a nightlight. It is a thumping of heart, a tightness of throat. Recently, I jolted awake and saw a man-like thing sitting in the armchair by my bed. When I turned on my lamp, the shape of the man became a pile of unfolded laundry. Fear is an unpredictable and, at times, irrational emotion. It can be caused by dangers both real and imagined.

The number one lesson in the book about how to pick up a woman is to keep her wanting. Smile at her but then talk to her friend instead. Pretend that you have somewhere important to be so that she thinks that she has to sparkle to convince you to stay. Very slowly increase physical affection. Wanting is perhaps the opposite of fear, but they are both urgent forms of anticipation. The book aims to teach men to create in women the kind of wanting that works like a phobia—a type of persistent fear (want) of a being, object, or situation that the affected person will avoid (pursue) in a way that is disproportional to the actual danger (appeal) posed.

My ghost is a seemingly benign presence. It never threatens or rages. Sometimes, months will go by in which I won’t get a call or an email. Then, the familiar ringing in the dead of night, the realization that I have been waiting for it. The goal of a haunting is the same as the goal of a seduction: to become embedded in the consciousness, to not be forgotten.

Perhaps this is why I am convinced that my ghost is the voice and words of a man who failed to seduce me. Perhaps this is why, once in a while, a summer breeze against my back as I walk home at night makes me pick up the pace, makes me turn to see who is at my heels, makes me, still, just a little afraid of the dark.