TOKENSby Charles Bernstein, Caroline Seklir, Paul Charles Griffin, Raina Lipsitz, and Cole Larsen
While Greg Ames’s novel, Buffalo Lockjaw, contains all the elements of a classic Buffalo story—snow, sports, drinking, despair—Ames has created a narrator, James Fitzroy, who rises above caricature. The situation James finds himself in is painfully familiar to many young adults who leave their hometowns: after moving to New York City, he must return to Buffalo to care for his terminally ill mother. What makes this story unique is the difficult decision James faces: whether it would be an act of mercy or murder to kill her. Ames writes about his character’s harrowing dilemma with sensitivity and nuance. Buffalo itself is a central character in this novel, and Ames reveals the city beneath the snow. The book is populated by hard-drinking sports fans who are also complicated, struggling people reaching for a better life, whether they strike out for bigger, brighter New York City, or get left behind in their shriveling hometown. James chooses to leave, but Buffalo Lockjaw is adept at conveying the persistent glory of the ghost town to which he returns. Like other once-great cities that manage to retain a certain faded majesty, Buffalo is, to its returning natives, at once familiar and alien. It’s a city trapped in time: so much of the landscape stays the same, year after year, and almost every change is for the worse: a beloved restaurant is forced to close, someone else’s dad loses his job, the Bills lose another big game, a beautiful building is torn down, and another friend or relative moves away. But no one who loves the place can stay away for good. By capturing what it feels like to come home to a place you half-wanted to leave forever, Ames has written a Buffalo story you don’t have to be from Buffalo to appreciate. —Raina Lipsitz
Gérard de Nerval
Richard Sieburth, trans.
The Salt Smugglers
Straightforward fiction was unthinkable to 19th century French writer Gérard de Nerval. His work The Salt Smugglers occupies an ambiguous space between fiction and non-fiction, rendered through historical account, historical novel, satire, and gonzo journalism. The book is a response to the Riancey amendment, which was, as translator Richard Sieburth explains, “a stamp tax on any newspaper featuring a serial novel in its pages […] to safeguard the morality of the press.” The Salt Smugglers is subtitled “History of the Abbé de Bucquoy,” and de Nerval tells us the book is going to be about the Abbé. This character is missing from most of the novel, however, and instead we get: a romance involving Bucquoy’s aunt; the doomed fate of one of de Nerval’s own plays; his experience looking for old books in second hand stores, libraries, and auctions; and finally, the story of the Abbé’s prison break.
Like his book, de Nerval is hard to categorize. He was a minor French author who was a major influence on Marcel Proust. His two most popular stories, “Sylvie” and “Aurelia,” are too long to be short stories, too short to be called novellas, and only quasi-autobiographical. He is perhaps best known for walking the streets of Paris accompanied by a lobster clad in a blue ribbon. He was not quite a dandy, not quite a bohemian, politically concerned, and irreverent. De Nerval blew a generous inheritance and wrote for money collectors.
The Salt Smugglers starts out strong, with a rich description of Paris’s political turmoil and the search for a rare book about an obscure historical character. It feels like a Robert Bolaño novel: an elusive character, dusty libraries, lost histories, and detective work. But this feeling quickly fades into variations on Nerval’s inside joke with his readers: “Have no fear—this is not a novel.”
The book is episodic, but the quality of its episodes varies so greatly that, three quarters of the way through, it becomes clear why de Nerval’s most respected writing is under seventy pages. His subjects and genre often change, but often they do not build on each other. The Salt Smugglers becomes difficult in the same way a collection of short stories can—it feels like its stories should not be read all at once. Originally, The Salt Smugglers had this luxury, published as it was in serial form.
The novel is satirical, but it’s missing its historical context. The work’s now punch-less joke is a sleight of hand which challenges the Riancey amendment by blurring the relationship between historical and fictional narratives. One can imagine the pleasure of reading the serial of The Salt Smugglers’s while the new law was very much in play, but the book no longer benefits from this relevance—it now depends on the reader to imagine a political drama which took place over a hundred years ago.
De Nerval finally buys the book about the Abbé de Bucquoy, and tells the story of his jailing and subsequent escape. Having lost its political punch, the Abbé’s story is now the most interesting part of the novel, tracking adventures which are sensational, charming, and sad. In the 21st century, The Salt Smugglers’ most original qualities have become its most taxing, and its most conventional qualities have become the attraction. —Cole Larsen
Departing at Dawn: A Novel of Argentina’s Dirty War
(FEMINIST PRESS AT CUNY, 2009)
“They threw him off a balcony at FOTIA, headquarters of the Tucumán Federation of Sugar Cane Workers.” So begins Gloria Lisé’s Departing at Dawn: A Novel of Argentina’s Dirty War, a disillusioned account of a woman’s exile and escape from the military junta that deposed Isabel Perón in 1976. After witnessing the murder of her union organizer boyfriend, Berta, branded as one of the dissidents known as the “disappeared,” flees the city. And things only get worse for Berta.
In her introduction, Lisé writes that twenty-five years after the coup d’état, “this novel burst forth, surging up from my deepest being, where it had been stored in memories.” Indeed, her book reads less like a novel and more like a private memory excavation, an exercise in cathartic recollection. Shifting from first to third person, and breaking up the narrative with long letters, Lisé writes in an episodic style that at times fails to move the reader through the story in a direct and integrated way. But perhaps that is the point. After all, Berta’s life has been completely upended; she is forced to live in hiding and in constant fear. What she remembers of her years in the countryside—her uncle watching slugs slither, her aunt listening to records, her own angry outbursts against the government or the revolution or God—these desperate fragments do in fact constitute her life in exile.
“Get out of this shitty country,” writes Berta’s mother in a letter to her daughter. This frank, brutal, and matriarchal tone is the strength of Departing at Dawn. The mother’s voice of bitterness and resignation—“The poor have always been with us”—is also the voice of wisdom—“Nobody gives you anything, you have to earn it all on your own, even more so if you are a woman.” This is war told from a woman’s perspective—the anti-Hemingway—an authorial voice stripped of all romance and idealism.
Departing at Dawn feels more like a work of history and fact than of fiction and craft, in part due to the book’s 17 historical footnotes. Yet, while the novel veil is thin and at times unsatisfying, the book’s underlying reality is compelling. Tim O’Brien wrote, “If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted...then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie.” Lisé’s tale of Berta’s disillusionment is neither uplifting nor moral. Berta remembers even her revolutionary boyfriend as a “shit-faced angel.” Nevertheless, even as her faith in the possibility of the “new society” is challenged, as Berta scurries from village to village, she begins to believe that perhaps “somewhere on this earth each person must have a place of her own, an accessible, simple paradise—not the one available only after death,” and that “finding it was just possibly the whole point of living”—even if she never finds it. —Paul Griffin
(HENRY HOLT & CO., 2009)
Paul Auster’s Travels in the Scriptorium (Holt, 2007) was something of a companion to his delightful and ingenious movie, The Inner Life of Martin Frost, which, more than any other film I can think of, centered on the acts of writing the movie unfolding before us—with a sharp dose of Orpheus and Euridice and lots of delightfully classic Auster moments. With Travels in the Scriptorium, the magic of imaginative making (poesis) occurs right before our eyes. Auster’s new novel, Invisible, is something else again. What begins in 1967, with the memoir of a budding poet at Columbia University getting an opportunity to start a literary magazine melts into a thriller revolving around an apparent murder, replete with sexual passages as explicit as Henry Miller’s. Two interconnected traumas puncture the narrative: the accidental death by drowning of the would-be poet’s very young brother, and his subsequent, and apparently joyous, incest with his sister. Formally, Invisible is made up of a series of stories within stories, written in the third, second, and three first-person perspectives, which bring into active play the illusory borders between the imaginary and the real. These borders are the invisible protagonists of the novel; or you might say the invisible is the protagonist. Invisible provides a staging area for experiencing unconscious processes, which, in the psychoanalytic sense, can be approached only through memory and recollection. The undecidability of what actually happened (the textbook case: did the incest actually occur?) is, here, just another part of the story. Invisible unveils through its rhythmical serial veiling. —Charles Bernstein
Madison Smartt Bell, ed.
New Stories from the South 2009
(ALGONQUIN BOOKS, 2009)
Southern writers are known for producing literature as deep and rambling as the swamps of the bayou, and the 24th edition of New Stories from the South 2009 carries on this tradition. The 21 stories in this anthology feel haunted—in some cases by literal ghosts, in others by hidden emotions, family secrets, and sexual longing. As with any new Southern fiction, Hurricane Katrina is a presence, though it seems to be finding its way differently into these current works. As the anthology’s editor Madison Smartt Bell notes in the introduction:
The hurricane tore New Orleans to shreds and left it to put itself back together in a new way…but maybe something like that has happened all over the South, with no need for a material hurricane. Against the great longing for home we all share is the fact that so many of us are unhoused and uprooted by our own choice (maybe unreflecting choice)—that we have cast ourselves upon the wind…That tension, then, becomes a germ of the stories we now have to tell.
Some of the voices in this collection are well-known—Wendell Berry, Elizabeth Spencer—while others are relatively new and surprisingly strong. Kevin Wilson’s “No Joke, This Is Going To Be Painful” marries comedy with sadomasochism (“I wanted to fuck him so bad but he seemed so strange that it felt like it would be illegal”) without losing its focus on the nuance of sisterhood. In “Between Wrecks” George Singleton traps his characters at a roadside diner, a situation which allows them to shed all pretense—trying out jokes (“There used to be a tree farm with migrant workers back behind the place, and everyone yelled out ‘Quatro!’ after hitting tee shots”), drinking bad wine, and feeling like themselves for once. Stephanie Powell Watts returns us to an older South in “Family Museum of The Ancient Postcards” where unmarried women live with their mothers, can fit all their belongings in one suitcase when they do leave, and impact their observant nieces along the way. The talent in the collection is consistent, but the voices are varied, making this a provocative and insightful anthology of Southern craft. —Caroline Seklir
Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln’s Mother and Other Botanical Atrocities
(ALGONQUIN BOOKS, 2009)
Wicked Plants is reminiscent of a Starfleet captain’s log, or of Cook’s diaries. This mini-tome, complete with ribbon bookmark and exquisite etchings, is the result of Amy Stewart’s latest obsession—plants with dangerous tendencies. Stewart divides these leafy offenders into six categories, ranging from Painful and Intoxicating to Dangerous and Deadly. The attention to detail is impressive. Not only does Stewart provide scientific information for each plant, she explores its history and the havoc it has wreaked: “Kudzu has devoured cars and buildings in the American South, and a seaweed known as killer algae escaped from Jacques Cousteau’s aquarium in Monaco…The horrid corpse flower reeks of dead bodies; the carnivorous Nepenthes truncata can devour a mouse…” Stewart makes it clear she is not a botanist, but an enthusiastic gardener whose intent is not to demonize but to explain the power of plants. Arranged in alphabetical order, the book offers up warnings about common plants (who knew rhubarb could induce comas, and even death?) and mind-boggling facts about known killers like tobacco. Whether she is writing about obscure death camas—possibly responsible for the illnesses that plagued the Lewis and Clark expedition—or the controversial coca leaf, Stewart keeps her research conversational and current. For those who wish to pursue the deeds of wicked plants, Stewart provides an extensive bibliography, as well as a list of “Poison Gardens” where the main offenders dwell—visit at your own peril. —Caroline Seklir
Charles Bernstein’s most recent books are Pitch of Poetry (2016) and Recalculating (2013), both from the University of Chicago Press. He is the co-editor, with Tracie Morris, of The Best American Experimental Writing 2016 (Wesleyan University Press, 2017). He teaches at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is co-director of PennSound.Caroline Seklir
Caroline Seklir is a writer based in New York City.Paul Charles Griffin