(Featherproof Press, 2009)
Blake Butler is part of a generation of authors who publish both in print and online as a means of entering a literary dialogue, paying respect to old ways by doing tremendous things with the new. Butler’s first novel and latest work Scorch Atlas is a hybrid work composed of fourteen separate and interwoven stories. The stories, told in prose form, flash form, and longer form, hit a nerve with their explorations of a pain familiar to us all—family dysfunction. “Upstairs the father watched the ceiling. He’d faked deep slumber through his wife’s long sobs.” Butler takes the all-too-common failures of family members in relation to each other, making them into a solid foundation for the triumph of the individual.
Fire is a major part of Scorch Atlas’s design, not only as a combustive event and metaphor in the narrative (“The house had caught fire seven times in seven months…some people used the term bad fortune. The mother’s mother said, ‘Y’all aren’t living right’”) but as an effective element of the book’s overall aesthetic. Pages within the binding take on different shapes, appearing torn, wrinkled, rotting, water-logged, or over-dry; various font sizes and styles are used throughout. Conceived by Zach Dodson, co-publisher and creative director of Featherproof Press, Scorch Atlas’s presentation adds to the reading experience. Performing as an ashen, crumbling work in our hands, the work urges us to push forward before it—and we—turn to dust.
Julie Des Jardin
The Madame Curie Complex:
The Hidden History of Women in Science
(Feminist Press, 2010)
In elementary school, we are taught that science is objective. Experiments are run, results are measured, and truths are uncovered without bias. The evidence uncovered by Julie Des Jardin in The Madame Curie Complex: The Hidden History of Women in Science however, indicates otherwise, particularly within the context of gender.
The Madame Curie Complex uses the biographies of famous scientists like Marie Curie and Jane Goodall—as well as those of women whose names we probably don’t know but should—to illustrate how cultural conceptions of male and female shape the methods, structures, and meanings of science itself. Des Jardin writes in the introduction, “This book is not overly laudatory of female accomplishment in science, but it isn’t a victimology either. To pity women of the sexist past or to celebrate women’s progress in the enlightened present is to write without context.” The various biographies highlight how the different educational and experiential backgrounds of female scientists throughout the last century made no difference in how their work and accomplishments were received by male colleagues, because the masculine qualities incorporated into the definition of “scientist” itself was designed to leave women out.
Traditionally, women did not receive professional training, nor did they have access to resources or mentoring, leading female scientists in such fields as astronomy, biology, engineering, environmental studies, genetics, physics, and psychology to pursue different paths, ask unique questions, initiate new methods, and generate alternative explanations for their observations. One chapter focuses on Lillian Gilbreth, an industrial engineer who made her name as an efficiency management expert in the 1930s. Working with her husband, Gilbreth analyzed factory work processes and developed efficiencies promoting worker health and safety. When her husband died, Gilbreth’s clients abandoned her; undeterred, Gilbreth—mother of 12 children, two of whom went on to pen Cheaper by the Dozen, a memoir of growing up around scientific minds—focused on making homes and housework more efficient. Unable to express her intelligence through traditional categories of science, Gilbreth redefined what science could be. Despite her PhD, her field experience, and her publication history, however, Des Jardin notes that “few of her admirers recognized her as a scientist at all.”
In 2009, for the first time ever, two women shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Around the same time, studies by the Center for American Progress and the National Academy of Sciences found that female scientists’ careers suffer when they start families. In reading Des Jardins’s book, one may take note of some progress made in expanding conventional notions of science to include women’s contributions, but also wonder what we could discover if society was flexible enough to allow more scientific exploration from people with a range of perspectives.
(Ellipsis Press, 2009)
One of the toughest challenges facing an innovative writer is avoiding the trap of one’s un-conventions. That quirk of syntax or of thought can quickly become ossified, making each successive book more polished—and less compelling. Not so with the under-recognized Norman Lock (The Long Rowing Unto Morning, A History of the Imagination), whose work seems to emanate less from any cultivated strategy than from an essential strangeness, an estrangement from easily agreed-upon psychologies, from popular culture, from anything resembling a zeitgeist. It is marked by an eerie tonality and an intense, unsettled intellectual curiosity—a Lock novel might take place during any time period, anywhere in the world.
His latest, Shadowplay, centers on Guntur, a Javanese master of a kind of sacred puppet show in which the audience sees only the puppets’ shadows through a screen. It’s no plot-spoiler to reveal that Guntur’s attempts to use art to manipulate not only people and their affections, but also death, don’t end well.
In the novel, “storyline” is subordinate to the intricate play between layers of mythology, religion, and emotion.This is a cerebral work, and Lock is a heady writer, yet he evokes a deeply sensual world in which the smell of cinnamon all but sings in the breeze and the sea beckons like a lover. At times the reader is carried as if on a redolent current, then roused by a demandingly crisp observation (“It is a paradox of identity that those most absorbed in themselves are most readily transformed”; “The ancient stories are like towering trees in whose shadows only small things can take hold”) suggesting that any piece of writing is a transgressive act of hubris.
Shadowplay is informed by so many stories of the kind Lock sees as towering trees that I initially feared I’d need to haul out my old Bullfinch’s Mythology and a dozen other reference works. But I didn’t. The novel stands on its own and does its tricky work unaided, like the afterlife of a dream. I suspect Lock is less interested in the reader catching everything than in catching the reader. He does.
Then Came the Evening
Brian Hart’s debut novel, Then Came the Evening, is as starkly narrated as his Idaho landscape is bleak and his characters are doomed. But then hope and normalcy can’t be easy to attain for a violent convict father, his adulterous wife and the temporarily crippled son he didn’t know was his.
The novel’s opening scene is the crime that lands Bandy Dorner in prison, shattering both the family and the town, in a raw, hidden West that remains surprisingly barren and still demands brutality of its men, whose lives are bookended with shootings and fires and the occasional sprinkling of snow. The snow, though, always loses its contest with the heat, whether in a house fire or a bonfire, and it is of snow’s fleeting purity that we are reminded as Bandy uses it to bury his excrement—an act almost as futile at his attempt at redemption, for the spring thaw will only uncover his animal nature.
While Hart’s dialogue strives for Harold Pinteresque brilliance, his unsteady ear lets it falter into the improbable or the overly expository. The worst offender is the scene in the convenience store where Tracy Dorner introduces himself to the sister of the man his father murdered. The dialogue goes from the improbably shallow to a warm and friendly exchange within seconds, without ever thoroughly engaging the reader convincingly in either extreme.
If the dialogue sometimes disappoints, the landscape does not. Indeed it is the book’s best-drawn character: vibrant, described credibly and without melodrama. “At the end of an unpaved mountain road, shoved into a dark, windless gap among the lodgepole and black pine, Bill’s tar-paper and scrap-wood A-frame sat like a pouting child.” And even, “He smelled the cold metal smell of snowmelt” is beautiful and rhythmic, in spite of its alliterative tongue-twisting.
The stark landscape and sparse population resonate throughout, and there are plenty of empty roadways for the character to choose from, giving them time to consider and then jeopardize their futures. Hart thinks the roads sometimes might not be long enough: “News travels fast in a town with dirt roads.” Ouch. When he tries to make sublime overarching generalizations between the landscape and its people he runs into trouble: “She wasn’t only walking through a graveyard; she was a graveyard.” But even these can be excused as the self-indulgent musings of characters who are struggling to find structure and meaning in their lives.
In spite of the occasional novitiate clunker, Hart deftly handles two perilously popular archetypes: ashes-to-ashes and like-father-like-son. These themes build gently to an ending that is well-structured and landscape-centered, bringing full-circle the leitmotif of fire and snow. Hart should resist the urge to over-explain to his reader. The characters may be undereducated laborers at the fringes of the law, but there’s no reason to assume the reader is.
Dogtown: Death and Enchantment
in a New England Ghost Town
(Free Press, 2009)
A millionaire carves admonishing messages into glacier-strewn boulders. A painter and a poet receive inspiration. High school kids drink beer. Witches gather. People hike. And in 1984, one of the hikers, a woman named Anne Natti, is brutally murdered.
The setting for these and other events is a place called Dogtown, located in the woodland interior of the island tip of Cape Ann, Massachusetts, 25 miles northeast of Boston. A series of Dogtown paintings by modernist painter Marsden Hartley starts author Elyssa East on a personal quest to find the source of Hartley’s inspiration. Ten years later, she produces an extensively researched and highly detailed “narrative nonfiction” recording the long, strange history of Dogtown as a sort of alternative America.
The relationship between the land and its people is East’s focus. Cape Ann’s isolation and its residents’ rootedness result in some strong opinions about what Dogtown represents. East chronicles more than 300 years of Cape Ann and Gloucester New Englanders projecting their fears and aspirations (since 1984, mostly fears) on an area roughly three-and-a-half times the size of Central Park. The Natti murder and its impact are detailed in alternating chapters, along with a chronology of other significant events. East’s chronology includes a great many characters and intriguing incidents of local import, almost too many for her own story’s good. At points, East’s own tale of completing her study of Dogtown—a storyline which comes on strong in the beginning—gets lost in the effort to leave nothing out.
East proposes that Dogtown represents a form of collective unconscious among the seafaring Cape Ann population, a fascinating idea. Considering the area’s importance to Colonial New England (nearby Gloucester was America’s first seaport), this collective unconscious may be said to encompass the entire United States, a notion reinforced in a chapter listing various “Dogtowns” throughout the country.
Although East comes to a personal understanding about her relationship to Dogtown, in the end, the town’s meaning, its seeming dual nature, and its continued influence on Cape Anners prove to be as mysterious as the motives of Anne Natti’s assailant.
(Random House, 2009)
Gail Godwin’s highly-anticipated novel, Unfinished Desires takes the reader into the personal memoirs of Mother Suzanne Ravenal, as she documents her experiences as headmistress at the prestigious North Carolina girls’ Catholic School, Mount St. Gabriel’s. Godwin (New York Times bestselling author of Evensong and The Finishing School) thoroughly portrays the intense bond formed between women (both during their student years and later as adults) who attend Catholic school together, sharing that additional element of faith that students of non-Catholic school do not experience with one another.
This novel jumps between various points of the current decade and the 1950s, as Mother Suzanne Ravenal tells her personal history set within the history of Mount St. Gabriel’s. She completes her memoir at the request of a former student, exemplifying how attached former students are to their alma mater, that they would request such a work and provide accommodations for this ailing nun in the twilight of her life.
The seemingly tight-knit small town community unravels as the stories of individuals are told. In true small southern town fashion, everyone is related by blood, friendship, or conflict. There is nowhere to hide in either a small town or the Catholic church, and ghosts are everywhere.
Tildy, Chloe, and Maud (all daughters of Mount St. Gabriel’s graduates) are a triangle of girls with a moody friendship. Needy, histrionic Tildy is at the helm, controlling first Maud and then Chloe from under her delusional, self-important mother’s wing. Home lives receive equal weight to school lives, as the girls are influenced heavily by both settings. Ravenal, a feared and respected headmistress, recalls the drama of that particular class via memoir chapters, interspersed with Godwin’s thorough narrative of events. Gail Godwin has a strong grasp on the bond formed in a setting as intense as Catholic school, and provides complex characters with authentic personalities who could be envisioned in these roles as clearly as if it were a movie.
—Tatiaana L. Laine
Dawn Raffel's short story collection Further Adventures in the Restless Universe is just out from Dzanc Books. She is also the author of Carrying the Body, In the Year of Long Division, and The Secret Life of Objects, which is a memoir in vignettes. Her work has appeared in O, The Oprah Magazine, Conjunctions, Open City, The Mississippi Review Prize Anthology, The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories, Art & Letters, and numerous other periodicals and anthologies.Suzanne Reisman
Vanessa Neumann is a contributing writer for the Brooklyn Rail.Peter Morris
Peter Morris is a contributing writer for the Brooklyn Rail.Tatiaana L. Laine