Prose Roundupby Jeffrey Cyphers Wright
The Brothers Grim: The Films of Ethan and Joel Coen
(The Scarecrow Press, 2007)
On October 6th, the Coen brothers screened No Country for Old Men at the 45th New York Film Festival. To mark the occasion, New York Magazine published a paean to a group including the brothers, dubbing them the city’s “new auteurs.” In the same issue, David Edelstein said, “writing about the Coens—and mining their oeuvre for Big Ideas—is a sure way of looking like an ass.”
With their craft seemingly beyond critical interpretation, it appears that Erica Rowell has her work cut out for her in The Brothers Grim, a survey of the Coens’ mythic approach to filmmaking. Beginning with 1984’s neo-noir Blood Simple and ending with their second-to-latest (and dubious) production The Ladykillers (2004), Rowell sets out to affirm “the potent lessons of perception” underlying the Coens’ hilarious-horrific-hardboiled blend of postmodern storytelling.
Reviewing the brothers’ conjoined career and analyzing their formal and interpretive lenses (e.g., portentous beginnings, indeterminate endings, dualities, triangulations, crime fiction, Hitchcock, folklore, dreamscapes, social conflict, gender, and Eastern philosophy), Rowell zealously constructs a filmography that connects a glut of inter-film trends and myriad influences. Rowell’s writing benefits from her obvious passion for the art of filmmaking; personal highlights include her discussion of love and a closeted fedora in Miller’s Crossing (1990), the “fiction and fact pull” of Fargo (1996), and the subversion of war-speak in The Big Lebowski (1998).
In a year of new Coen material some may turn to the brothers’ past, in which case The Brothers Grim makes for descriptive reading. Others may simply choose to watch and re-watch their films unaided—as Miller’s Crossing’s Tom Reagan says, “Nobody knows anybody. Not that well.”
The Dissident (Harper Perennial, September 2007)
Nell Freudenberger’s career to date reads like a novel in itself, with her Harvard education, slinky good looks, New Yorker publication, famous literary agent, and mentions in Vogue and Elle. It is a letdown, of sorts, to find that her debut novel is such a banal affair. The Dissident tells the story of Yuan Zhao, an exiled Chinese artist who comes to live with the Traverses, a Southern Californian family that is a Woody Allen-style parody of shallow Beverly Hills life. The dramatis personae include an absent-minded writer father, a sexually unsatisfied homemaker mother, two surly teens, and a Chinese-American student who— surprise!—is authentically talented. Hijinks ensue, secrets are revealed, lessons are learned, etc.
This is, to put it mildly, well-trodden territory. To be fair, Freudenberger is a crisp stylist, and she effortlessly captures the tics and mannerisms of these feckless Californians, as observed by the bemused Yuan in his role as cultural ambassador. Freudenberger’s observational powers and way with a phrase only go so far, however, and as pleasant and absorbing as it is, The Dissident imparts no impact: it practically evaporates upon completion.
Stéphane Audeguy, (translated by Timothy Bent)
The Theory of Clouds (Harcourt, 2007)
In this unusual and intricate first novel, Stéphane Audeguy weaves together the story of one man’s troubled obsession with clouds and the early history of meteorology. The book’s focal point is Akira Kumo, a wealthy collector of cloud-related literature living in Paris, haunted by his memories of the bombing of Hiroshima, which he inexplicably survived. When Akira solicits the aid of librarian Virginie Latour to help him organize his archive, and the two begin working side by side, Akira regales Virginie with stories of the individuals who devoted their lives to the worship and study of the sky above them. These aren’t your typical scientists—Akira speaks of Carmichael, the man driven mad by painting clouds. Or, there is Richard Abercrombie, who set out to photograph clouds, but drifted to a distant horizon. What emerges from these stories-within-the-story is a natural history of clouds fraught with eroticism and awash in the thematic hallmarks of much great literary fiction—connection and love. Unexpectedly sensual, Audeguy’s complex tale unpacks the tension-filled relationship between humans and nature to sketch a vision of interconnection that’s both compelling and troubling.
Yellowcake (Houghton Mifflin, 2007)
In her debut novel Yellowcake, Ann Cummins deftly weaves tales of unfairness without ever condescending to moralize. Considering the book is focused on two families—one Navajo, one Anglo— threatened by the fallout of a now-defunct uranium mill, she’s walking a floss tightrope. When a young Navajo woman shows up at the home of the mill’s old foreman, interested in obtaining government compensation for illnesses related to radioactive exposure, alarm bells ring. The stage is seemingly set for a familiar story of exploitation against an underprivileged group.
Cummins must have engineered this intentionally, placing all the contention up front so she could slowly unravel every possible assumption about this subject. The story focuses not on societal injustice, but on the peculiar fortitudes and frailties of each character, even the strength in their vulnerability, the futility and danger of their resolve. They are so subtly drawn that it doesn’t matter that the book ends in a clump of loose ends. The narrative isn’t seeking closure so Cummins doesn’t supply it. This novel’s triumph lies in its characters being so charged and real that by the last page, the reader can infer the rest.
Punk 365 (Abrams, 2007)
Every carefully-chosen image in Punk 365, a doorstop-sized pictorial celebrating Punk’s first 30 years, amps off the page. Editor Holly George-Warren makes no attempt to catalogue the scene definitively, taking Richard Hell’s dictum that “Punk is an idea, not a band” as her thesis. This is no history, but a roughshod, wild ride —a Day in the Life, winding through thirty years.
George-Warren provides just enough context for each image, but cannily lets them speak for themselves; here, the familiar (Roberta Bayley’s iconic Please Kill Me shot of the Heartbreakers) sits alongside the unexpected (Pere Ubu, the Mekons, the Raincoats, Teenage Jesus). Cumulatively, it adds up to more than a simple sum of its parts—a raucous, insightful travelogue, as much celebration as elegy.
The famous rock n’ roll adage “Live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse” is equal parts boast and object lesson. Those who lived through Punk’s glory days would tell you with hard-won wisdom that they’re grateful to have made it to the other side.
Like Blood in Water (Fiction Collective 2, 2007)
In this, his first work of fiction since 1993’s fantastically peculiar Three Blondes and Death, Yuriy Tarnawsky presents five “mini-novels” which he describes as prose works of short story length that engender the scope and complexity of novels. Each piece indeed achieves an expansive effect, largely due to extreme ellipses that fragment the stories. Tarnawsky leaves the reader with the task of filling in the missing episodes, imagining exposition and causalities as well as the significance of numerous bizarre scenes. The reader is firmly guided by Tarnawsky’s startling prose and exhilarating sense of play. As in Sorrentino or Barthelme, the text brims with the excitement that anything can happen.
The unifying thread is that of nightmare. Rilke is murdered by a rose bush, but not before donating his left arm to a fetus stew. A tailor named Pavarotti is hired to play Agamemnon in an Italian film, then ends up awaiting a presumably real death onstage, in the role of Marat. A doctor chases his patient across a skating rink, mowing down rows of giant flowers before plunging his ice skate’s blade into the man’s chest. Another man’s electrocution causes massive flowers to erupt out of the earth.
Tarnawsky’s stories recall the monumental terror of childhood, beautiful nightmares that resonate poetically and honestly. The fragments of these mini-novels swirl, daring meanings and tantalizing the reader with dreamlike connections—like blood in water, indeed, but like nothing so much as life itself.
—A. D. Jameson
ContributorJeffrey Cyphers Wright
Wright is a New Romantic poet associated with St. Mark's Poetry Project.