Roxane Gay’s Reading Roundup, Fall 2012
Coming of Age
Three Cubic Feet by Lania Knight is not the novella you might expect from this author but that’s the beauty of fiction, how it allows writers to embody characters who are wildly different or who seem wildly different from who they are. What works so well in Three Cubic Feet is how believable Theo, the protagonist, is written, and how honest his struggles are as he comes to term with his sexuality, an inappropriate encounter with an older man, his feelings for his best friend, and his family, who want to help Theo but don’t quite know how. Knight demonstrates a genuine tenderness for Theo and the heated intersection of high school and sexuality and love and family. At times, Theo has no idea how to stay in his skin but by the end of the novella he finds a way to be himself and to be there for someone else. Theo’s best friend Jonathan is also a compelling character because for a good portion of the story, he tries to push Theo away while holding him close and there’s a driving need to understand why. When all is revealed, the truth is both poignant and violent and the contrast really sharpens a strong book. Novellas are a curious form because they’re longer than a short story but not quite a novel. As I read Three Cubic Feet I wanted to know more of the story, more about Theo and Jonathan and the people who make up the constellation of their lives. It is not a bad thing, though, to read a book, and be left wanting more, always more.
Tamara Faith Berger’s Maidenhead is also an exploration of adolescent sexuality, the confusion of it, the irresistible torment of it. Myra is sixteen and on vacation in Key West, she meets Elijah, a mysterious older man she wants to give herself to. When Myra returns home, Elijah and his girlfriend Gayl, who holds both Elijah and Myra in some kind of thrall, follow. Maidenhead is powerful because the novel’s ambition is towering. There is an odd narrative interjection at times with dialogue between Gayl and Myra’s friend Lee that felt, at times, unnecessary but it was still interesting to see Berger experimenting with form and function. Sexuality is used in Maidenhead as a frame for exploring race and class. There are no easy moments, no comfort to be found in the searing prose. This is the kind of book that reveals how no one is truly innocent as Myra falls in deeper and deeper with Elijah and Gay, searching for some kind of satisfaction. When writers get young female sexuality right, stories become a revelation and such is the case with Maidenhead. The writing pulls the reader desperately close. At times, the language is coarse but in the best possible ways. While on vacation, Myra and her family see a slavery exhibition and after her first encounter with Elijah, Myra observes, “I saw those slaves for what they really were: people caught in a horror show. Men were now wanting something from me too. Having an orgasm was like this private transmission of what their wanting did to me.” Maidenhead exposes, starkly what wanting does not only to Myra, but to all of us.
Coming of age stories remain popular because they allow us to see the ways we once were, the way we fumbled toward who we are. These experiences are beautifully captured in Aaron Teal’s chapbook, Shampoo Horns a series of interconnected flash fictions about a boy named Cherry Tree, his best friend Tater Tot, his vicious older brother, Clay, Lupe and Maria, two Mexican girls they befriend, and the trailer park where they all live. Teel captures the oddness of Cherry Tree and of his particular boyhood and crafts a strong sense of place, making it effortless to imagine this almost forgotten trailer park during the heat of a Texas summer. These are the people we don’t read enough about—people who don’t have enough and won’t ever make enough but get by anyway. Teal does a fine job of revealing the innocent cruelties of the young, how boys love when they don’t quite know what love is, and how even after a destructive tornado tears through the trailer park these people call home, there is still joy to be found. In the final story, “Bottle Rockets,” Cherry Tree and Clay and Tater are lighting fireworks. “Multicolored balls of fire scattered in all directions and then exploded as they dropped. We ooh’d and ah’d while wave after wave of luminous fury danced around our heads.” If there was a phrase that could capture the power of Shampoo Horns it would be luminous fury—the bright, intense energy of Teal’s prose, it illuminates.
Sometimes all you need in a short story collection is one perfect story. While each story in Luke Geddes’s debut collection, Magical Teenage Princess is strong, each playing with popular culture and retelling familiar stories in interesting ways, there is one story that has quickly become one of my favorite short stories—“Betty & Veronica.” In the story Geddes reinvents the characters from Archie comics. Betty and Veronica are lovers, though their affair is secret. They each express their love in different ways—Betty through desperation and Veronica through damage. Betty is unabashed in her feelings while Veronica shares the same intensity but is deeply invested in maintaining appearances and making it seem like she’s just another girl dating an All American guy. There is an exquisite yearning in “Betty & Veronica” and that yearning is brought to the only possible conclusion. Each of these stories works in that way, where the writing and the choices feel absolutely necessary. In “The Modern Stone Age,” Geddes re-imagines The Flintstones, as having just emerged from a more primitive period and what happens when Fred and Wilma and Barney and Betty surrender to their baser urges, their truer selves. The nostalgia in these stories never overwhelms the prose and Magical Teenage Princess is the kind of debut that makes me wonder what Geddes will come up with next.
I have little interest in reading slavery narratives. I’m not sure what else there is to be said on the subject but then a writer comes along and does something unexpected with the nearly unbearable story of slavery. Laird Hunt is one such writer with his new novel, Kind One. Ginny is just a child when she marries Linus Lancaster and moves far from her family to be his wife. Before long, Ginny learns her husband is not the man he promised to be. He is a cruel husband, a cruel slave owner, and a greatly diminished man. When he starts raping two slaves, Cleome and Zinnia, Ginny grows resentful, jealous, does nothing to help the young women who have become her friends, who helped ease her loneliness when she first arrived in Kentucky. When Lancaster dies, Cleome and Zinnia imprison Ginny and she is forced to account for her wrongs. The scars of slavery run deep for everyone and Kind One reveals the complexity of slavery and how even the mostly innocent were made complicit by the institution. During her captivity, Ginny considers how she has come to such a pass. “I told my benefactors beyond the wall that after I had heard this fight and understood Linus Lancaster’s errand I had twirled myself up in front of him, thinking in my foolishness that I wanted to be quit of my father’s house and my father’s club and hat sat down on Linus Lancaster’s broad lap under an apple tree and made him look my way, and that I had said soft things about his dearly departed and had blown heat into his heart even though I knew nothing about heat nor about heart. That I had bought up in advance every crumb of the loaf that had been baked for me and now was eating it. For I had and I was.” This is a story of reckoning and redemption and Kind One is told so artfully and so uniquely that the novel is well worth the read.
One of my favorite books is The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith. When I learned Sheila Kohler had written a modern retelling of the book in her novel, The Bay of Foxes, I was thrilled to see how a different writer might approach Highsmith’s timeless story of class and identity and deceit. In The Bay of Foxes, the story takes place first in Paris and then in Sardinia. The year is 1978 and Dawit, an Ethiopian refugee wallows in poverty, and a dark past from which he barely escaped with his life. A famous French writer, M, takes a liking to Dawit, hiring him as her personal assistant and companion and she wants more with that imperialist attitude of the wealthy that people can be bought and discarded when they displease. Dawit and M become bound to each other in intricate ways until M realizes Dawit, who is gay, has a lover and will never want her the way she needs him to which sets off an irrevocable chain of events. Bay of Foxes is erotic and lush, taut and disturbing. It is, in many ways, very faithful to its predecessor (perhaps too faithful) though certainly, the exploration of race adds something very interesting. By the end of the novel, I found myself wanting Dawit to be triumphant and I was pleasantly surprised by what came to pass.
Khosi Saqr, the protagonist of Pauls Toutonghi’s winning Evil Knievel Days, is half-Egyptian and living in Butte, Montana with his mother. His father, from whom he is largely estranged, lives in Cairo. Khosi is in love with his best friend Natasha Mariner, who is betrothed to another man and after an encounter with Natasha at the Evel Knievel Days festival, Khosi decides to go to Egypt to find his father and learn more about where and who he is from. Or he is deciding to put as much distance as possible between himself and the woman he thinks he can’t have. Any number of journeys begin with a broken heart. Khosi manages to find his father in Cairo, even with very little to go on, but the reception is not what he imagined. His father wants him to pretend to be someone else around his family. There’s a new fiancée, Agnes Mouri, and a sprawling extended family. Khosi is having conversations with a ghost and trying not to think about Natasha and trying to belong in a place where he stands out as different, which is much what he encountered back home. After his mother joins him in Cairo, Khosi falls ill and his parents have to work together to save their son and Khosi has to work to save himself, to find himself. This novel succeeds largely on the strength of its protagonist who is complex and charming and you cannot help but root for him. There is an epilogue at the end of Evil Knievel Days, that acknowledges the Egyptian protests and overthrow of Mubarak. In the epilogue, Khosi talks about what he saw during the protests, because he has stayed in Cairo, and is at the airport, waiting for Natasha to visit. While I don’t normally like epilogues, this one seems fitting— it reveals how hard it is for literature to keep up with an ever-changing world.
There are dark stories and there are dark stories. Beside the Sea, by Veronique Olmi and translated by Adriana Hunter, is a slender novella about a woman who has taken her children to the sea but we quickly realize she suffers from mental illness. She is ill-equipped to take care of her children and she has planned this trip, as their last. There is a sense of foreboding and misery throughout the book, with only a few bright moments—a warm cup of hot chocolate, a visit to a carnival. But then there are all the other moments—the mother, exhausted, paranoid, unable to think clearly; the children, tired and hungry and confused; the tension of wondering what will happen to this family and of knowing these three people are alone in the world. They are not safe. What intrigues me about Beside the Sea, is how we can see the ways in which a mother can be the best person for her children and the worst at the very same time. Early on, this mother worries about her son’s wet hair and observes, “Perhaps all mothers do it: protecting their children from fevers, maybe it’s an animal thing, it’s stronger than us.” Ultimately, this novella is about animal things—a mother who desperately wants to protect her children from the cruelties of the world, from the darkness in her mind, and who makes a devastating choice to do what she feels is right. Beside the Sea is haunting and superb.
I was skeptical when I first read Scott Hutchins’s A Working Theory of Love, because on the surface, it seemed like another novel about a man nearing middle age who doesn’t quite know how to relate to other people. We have seen the story of the disaffected man before. Neill is living alone in San Francisco, divorced, and set in his ways because, “Bachelorhood, I’ve learned, requires routine.” He works for Amiante Systems, where he and his colleagues are trying to teach a computer to process natural language so that the computer can fool someone into believing it is a person. Though Neill knows little about computers, he has been drafted into the project because his father kept extensive diaries throughout his life, and those diaries are being used to give the computer, a memory to draw from. Neill meets a younger woman, Rachel, with a troubled past and while there are ups and downs, a great deal of the novel is about how they find their way to each other. This is also a book about the ways people distance themselves emotionally, and how hard it can be to step out of the comfort of numbness. It’s a novel about a son trying to understand his father and mourn his passing. And it’s about a man trying to be different, to live better. A Working Theory of Love, opens with a cautionary tale—Neill’s older neighbor, Fred, who lives alone, is taken away by ambulance after suffering, alone, in his apartment for two days having broken his hip. Every moment in this novel is Neill trying to distance himself from that eventuality. How he changes course is compelling, strange, but very endearing.
There have been many calls as of late for writers to take up war more explicitly and T. Geronimo Johnson does just that in his new novel, Hold It ‘Til it Hurts. Achilles Controy and his brother Troy, both adopted, have just returned from Afghanistan where they served together. When Troy disappears, Achilles must shoulder the burden of finding his brother, a journey that takes him to Atlanta and New Orleans where he settles for a spell, because sometimes, some people can’t be found. While in New Orleans, Achilles meets Ines and they fall in together and it is when he’s still for a moment, with someone else, that we see how deeply he has been affected by his service. After a separation, and in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Achilles finds Ines who tells him, “I don’t need a soldier. I need a man. You can’t always be in soldier mode.” How does a man who has been trained to be a soldier, to be always vigilant, learn how to be just a man again? That is one of the questions Geronimo tries to answer while also exploring the complexities of interracial adoption and the unbreakable bonds between brothers. I was deeply moved by Hold It ‘Til It Hurts, and impressed by the ambition of the novel.
I don’t read a lot of young adult fiction but I recently read Uses for Boys, by Erica Lorriane Scheidt, out in January. I love when fiction captures a moment or a feeling perfectly and Uses for Boys is a novel that explores the loneliness of girlhood, and how ill-equipped many young women are for the intentions of boys. Anna doesn’t know her father and lives with a largely indifferent mother who careens from one husband or boyfriend to the next, leaving Anna to raise herself and long for the time when she could more closely feel her mother’s love. There is so much to relate to in this book, so much that is bittersweet. Like Anna, I was a young girl and teenager who spent a lot of time narrating my life to myself and to see Anna doing that when she met a boy she liked or had an important moment, was so familiar. As Anna comes into herself and learns how to be truly loved by a boy, she also starts to build a family of her choosing, and comes to realize that there are people who have lived harder lives than she has, people who need her to there for them. By the end of Uses for Boys, Anna has learned how to rise to the occasion and it is a glorious achievement.
The eighteen stories in The Miniature Wife by Manuel Gonzales, out in January, are wildly imaginative, at times surreal, and always captivating. In the title story, a husband has accidentally shrunk his wife and an enmity develops between them as the husband tries to undo the damage he has done. In “Pilot, Copilot, Writer,” people are trapped on a plane that has been circling a city for twenty years while on the ground their lives go on without them. Gonzales creates these bizarre scenarios that are so utterly believable you forget how impossible they actually are. There is an intelligent economy to his prose throughout the collection and I was thrilled by the originality of his ideas and how they were rendered.
I came to The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, by Ayana Mathis and out in January, without knowing anything about the writer. Mow I want to find everything from her I can get my hands on. This novel does an exceptional job of capturing a historical moment—the Great Migration, and how that moment affected the lives of the children of Hattie. Each chapter focuses on one or more of Hattie’s children, and in learning about their lives, we learn about her life, the sorrow of it, and even. The book opens with twins, Philadelphia and Jubilee, sick with pneumonia and not long for this world. The loss of these babies does something to Hattie, hardens her and with that hardened shell around her heart, she loves the children who follow as best she can. There is a richness in this novel—a richness of time and place, and though there are so many characters, each one is so fully drawn, deep and distinct. There are so many turns of phrase that made me gasp, and though Hattie’s children are each broken in some way, they are not defined by the breaks. They are, instead, defined by the mother who bore them and what she made them become. For a time, Hattie leaves her family with her then youngest to go to Baltimore, with another man. They are driving through the city when Hattie says, “Somebody always wants something from me. They’re eating me alive.” In that one utterance, we can see the cost of being a mother to too many, a cost so high we are more than willing to forgive Hattie all her trespasses.
Also on my radar: How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, by Mohsin Hamid, This Close, by Jessica Francisc Kane, In The House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods, by Matt Bell, Magnificence, by Lydia Millet, and Percival Everett by Virgil Russell, by Percival Everett.