Stories lie underneath the world; they underpin our lives in a manner that only certain types of stories can expose with any clarity. Realistic stories about our everyday inner and outer lives can tell us more about them than actual experience, but they don't get underneath. Folktales, fairy tales, family yarns and oddball fantasies are our best means for examining our under-lives, the basic elements with which we construct the narratives that we use to define ourselves. The best of these offer a timeless and seamless blend of realistic and fantastic images. They create a sort of literary sonogram that shows us not the surfaces with which we are so familiar, but the beating heart, the pumping blood, the peristaltic organs, and the connective tissues that keep our minds alive.
Folktales are alas not much in vogue now, not in the short form. We must then be doubly thankful for Alta Ifland's 'Death-In-A-Box,' a thankfully thin volume of very short stories, fables, and tales that aren't easily categorized. Ifland's work is a unique blend of the fantastic and the ordinary, of family fables and mythic imagery. These stories are a delight to read and re-read.
The title story is a perfect example of Ifland's unique work. In a few brief sentences, she sets up a mythic relationship, then brings it into the family: "In the days when Death wasn't hidden behind a plastic door in a rectangular-shaped odorless funeral home, but was Life's sister, Beauty was clothed in the enigmatic glow of Death and walked in its shoes; then gradually, Death's mischievous twinkle in the eye was replaced by icy terror. But when I grew up, some people still remembered Death's playfulness and thought that if only they could beat it at its own game, they would eventually cheat Death and escape its inexorability. My grandfather was one of them."
Of course, there's a box in the family, and the narrator, a box collector, is curious. Ifland's direct and pristine prose is perfect for connecting these opposing points; the great abstractions and the pointed details of life. She surely understands how the story of death connects to those details, but flows freely underneath, a river within our consciousnesses, and has the language to make that connection.
Ifland grew up in Romania amidst a bevy of Aunts and Uncles, and there's a lovely Eastern European lilt to her prose and sense of story. In "Uncle Otto Plays Chess," informers and comrades eat fried brains, and make reports on one another that dissolve as language and reality itself dissolve. In "Fried Brains," "It was the eighties. The store shelves were empty...At Venus, the biggest restaurant in town, there was only one thing on the menu: fried brains." And, in "The Missing Hand," the results of those fried brains becomes apparent; "When the furniture began to sweat, I knew that the world I'd known until then was gone."
Gone indeed, but not the Aunts, Uncles and the Narrator, as Ifland's prose poem experiments, one- and two-page stories like, "No One's Story" and "Mrs. Q's Drug-Store" take us back to the basics of voice and perception. 'Death-In-A-Box' is sly, smart invader, a work of language-as-virus not from outer, but inner space. It's grim, funny, subversive and submersive. Reading these stories, you get the feeling that it is possible to step under the world and look up at life, death, the whole shebang — and laugh, maybe weep. Perhaps, if you're lucky, you might even understand.
05-18-11:Meg Wolitzer's 'The Uncoupling'
"Heart and Soul, one will burn..."
There is a gentle lull in the evening, a moment when it seems that time halts, when the men and women in the houses of a suburban landscape move from the quotidian reality of jobs and bustle to a more intimate setting. The bonds of marriage, of acquaintance, of friendship, of familiarity wrap themselves around the couples in these houses without their knowing. The emotions flow with a disarming ease, and relationships settle into a satisfying familiarity. So long as Meg Wolitzer is not in town.
Meg Wolitzer's 'The Uncoupling' (Riverhead / Random House ; April 8, 2011 ; $25.95) explores the emotional landscape of an American suburb with precision and imagination, using a simple genre trope to unlock the lives of an amazingly engaging cast of characters. With one simple twist of the key, Wolitzer turns everyday lives into compelling stories that she weaves with authority and humor into a disarmingly enchanting novel. She leaves sentiment at the door, but within the world she creates readers will discover the true hearts of men and women. It's a learning experience for readers of both sexes to have the inner lives of the opposing sex so thoroughly explored. Prepare to be better prepared.
At the heart of the novel are Robby and Dory Lang, the two married, popular teachers at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in the suburb of Stellar Plains, New Jersey. Their daughter, Willa is doing well enough, given that she attends the school where her parents teach. Their friends in the high school and the town are nice, quirky, and fun to read about as we get to know them. This is America, now. All their lives are seemingly headed into a quietly satisfying normal procession. Wolitzer's evocation of this is magical and engaging.
Even the new drama teacher at the high school, Fran Heller, who has a rather unusual marriage, doesn't seem to stir things up too much. But her decision to stage Lysistrata, Aristophanes' comedy in which the women of Greece decide to withhold sex from the men to end the Peloponnesian War, seems to have an unanticipated side effect. A spell is cast over the women of Stellar Plains, and one by one they decide that they no longer desire sex with the men in their lives.
'The Uncoupling' uses the spell to cast a spell over the reader, to give readers a new perception of the relations between men and women. As the spell moves through town, lives are changed and those under its thrall look at their old selves and old lives with a fresh perspective. Wolitzer gently and disarmingly destroys the bonds that hold marriages and lives together. It's a Relationship Apocalypse.
'The Uncoupling' manages the unique feat of being both utterly real and under-cuttingly surreal. The smart, grounded characters are all fun to be with. Dory and Robby are our rocks, even as they and their marriage seem to crumble, which is part of the charm of the whole enterprise. Liane, the school psychologist, is having affairs with three men, one married, all now wondering, "What the hell?" Wolitzer gets inside the hearts and bedrooms of the sort of people you might actually meet, and makes every one of them compelling and entertaining.
The driving mystery of the plot — what exactly is the "the spell," and how will it play out, is superbly handled. Wolitzer writes something along the lines of a fairy tale for adults. She creates a simple rule set and then plays by those rules, all the while keeping readers engaged as to the source of the spell. She's smart enough to play fair and offers thoroughly satisfying answers to all the questions she raises, natural and supernatural. She has a light hand with the elements of the fantastic that she uses with precision and intelligence.
For all the background nature of the fantastic in 'The Uncoupling,' ultimately the novel is a triumph of fantasy, precisely because Wolitzer knows that she has a powerful tool to examine the characters her readers come to know and love. The spell she casts is not just over her characters, but over her readers as well. We are all captivated, but not by some external power. Those around us every day of our lives have fantastic powers — to command our time, our attention and our love.
05-17-11:Madison Smartt Bell Knows 'The Color of Night'
Review by Steve Deeble
To say that 'The Color of Night' (Vintage Contemporaries Original: 224p: $15.00) makes your skin crawl is an understatement. The story of Mae, the casino dealer at the center of the novel, flays the reader as it peels back the layers of her life. What it reveals is a complex anatomy. She seems so normal, so much like us. But we all look more or less the same with the skin on.
The twin towers fall. The casino where she works is the perfect insulation. While the rest of us listened or watched obsessively to the images of the dominoes imploding, Mae deals blackjack to regulars in a dusty town off the beaten track — a place built for the work crews who constructed the Hoover Dam. This isn't Vegas — sad enough — this is a lower-wattage version. It's ideal for someone who doesn't really want to see what's skittering along in the shadows at the base of the walls — or to be seen.
Mae only learns about the tragedy after returning home to the trailer park in the desert where she lives. She almost accidentally turns on the T.V. — almost, because Mae sees something in the images of the buildings collapsing, of the ash-shrouded streets and blocks of chain link fences festooned with cheap photocopies pleading for information about the missing. And what she sees she recognizes as no accident.
Her strange reaction — to create a homemade video of selected images from the news — even seems somewhat 'normal', considering the extreme emotions the experience evoked. In a way, that day redefined 'normal' forever for all of us. For Mae, we begin to see, 'normal' is something from the distant past, like the obsidian cutting tool she and her brother found in the forest when they were teens.
Both Mae's character and the plot are revealed like Gordian knots. You see the different layers overlapping, but only glimpses at a first. Her video vision of the towers falling contains the knife blade that cuts both, revealing her complex personality and the history that has produced it. But the knots don't unravel quickly — they take their time, and we savor both her training at her brother's hands — cutting was one of his specialties - and her release from the stasis of her low-profile life.
She's been cut loose, but she doesn't drift. Mae has a mission. She's more like a pendulum, sweeping in a great, cutting arc back across the country to her own personal ground zero. Mae carries her wounds like a soldier as she retraces the rough-trade route that brought her to San Francisco's Tenderloin during the days of flower power. And like some soldiers, she has kept souvenirs, wrapped in a protective covering of happy tie-dye.
Madison Smartt Bell's writing gets under your skin, vibrating like a knife along the bone as it scrapes you clean. His writing is tight and spare. I'm guessing cutting is one of his specialties as well. 'The Color of Night' has momentum. The swing of Mae's pendulum flew by. I read the book in two sittings. I haven't read a book this fast in decades.
The only reason I stopped at all was I kept holding my breath.
05-16-11:Keith Thomson is 'Twice a Spy'
The Family Tradecraft
There's no shortage of destruction, action, violence and profanity in Keith Thomson's 'Twice a Spy.' Thomson has a unique take on the spy genre that allows him to approach the stories in a fresh and exciting manner. Like his excellent first novel, 'Once a Spy' (which one really must read to fully enjoy this sequel), his book is filled with insider knowledge that lends it an air of eerie authenticity.
But for all these strengths, what stands out most in 'Twice a Spy' are the engaging characters at the center of the work; fading, aging Drummond Clarke, a one-time CIA operative who is succumbing to early-onset Alzheimer's and his son Charlie, a horse-track habitué who must learn a new trade or join his father in permanent early retirement.
'Twice a Spy' picks up shortly after 'Once a Spy' ends, with Charlie once again at the race track, only this time in Switzerland, with his violence-prone lover, Alice, an ex-NSA operative, at his side. Drummond is doing quite well with a promising new treatment, but of course, every oasis of peace has its limits. In short order, Alice is kidnapped and the ransom is steep; those who hold her want nothing less than the contents of Drummond's memory. They're looking for a washing machine that contains a nuclear device, which they intend to bring to America. Any way you look at it, lives will be lost.
Thomson's strengths as a writer are many. He writes crisp, smart scenes of action, putting the reader on the spot and keeping things visual but not overly complicated. The story is briskly paced and easy to read. Thomson knows how to give readers enough knowledge so that they don't feel left in the dark, but manages to pull a lot of pleasing twists and surprises that feel organic and logical to the story. As a page-turning thriller, 'Twice a Spy' is truly a rocking good time.
But there's a bit more than page turning and action to engage the reader. Thomson knows his spy craft and in particular the technology. He's the Drone Tech Blogger for the Huffington Post, and he uses the results of his reportorial skills to create a vision of the present as more science fictional than we might suspect. As impressive as iPads and cell phones may be, we see only the trailing edge of technology. The government and the military have access to tools that are frighteningly advanced, and to the degree that they are deployed to keep washing machine nukes out of the country, these tools are a good thing. But Thomson keeps his characters at an admirably entertaining level of paranoia that can't help but creep out readers as well.
And of course, it is the characters who matter most. Charlie, Drummond and Alice are hoot to read about. The interactions between the three of them have a raw edge that is cut with an affection that the writer has for his own creations, and that carries over to the reader as well. Thomson even creates engaging characters with terrible motivations and morals. We're happy to see these people thwarted and even meet fates they deserve, but they're fun when they appear on the printed page.
'Twice a Spy' accomplishes everything readers of 'Once a Spy' could hope for. It brings back the characters we loved from the first book and lets them entertain us again with a new and thoughtfully constructed plot. It treats them fairly, which often translates to "not gently," but just as importantly, treats the readers fairly as well. There are lots of great nuggets of tech and truth buried in this work of fiction, but it's not about them. 'Twice a Spy' is a smart, funny, thought provoking and page turning story about a father and son who happen to bond with the help of nuclear weapons that will have readers hoping the third time is the charm.
New to the Agony Column
09-05-15: Commentary : Susan Casey Listens to 'Voices in the Ocean' : Science, Empathy and Self
08-21-15: Agony Column Podcast News Report : Senator Claire McCaskill is 'Plenty Ladylike' : Internalizing Determination to Overcome Sexism [Incudes Time to Read EP 211: Claire McCaskill, Plenty Ladylike, plus A 2015 Interview with Senator Claire McCaskill]
Agony Column Podcast News Report : Emily Schultz Unleashes 'The Blondes' : A Cure by Color [Incudes Time to Read EP 210: Emily Schultz, The Blondes, plus A 2015 Interview with Emily Schultz]