This week: the first novel by George Saunders, plus a history of cannibalism.
This searingly sad but often hilarious novel chronicles the last dance of a few old codgers, and Drabble (The Sea Lady) has filled her tale with characters desperately trying to make sense of life and loss, of beauty, talent, missed opportunities, faded passion. She burrows inside the head of Fran, a manic 70-something elder-care specialist who drives around England studying—but would never in a million years actually live in—retirement communities. She introduces us to Fran’s literary friend Josephine, with whom she shared her first few harrowing years of solitary “baby-minding,” and who now teaches adult- and continuing-ed classes, and to Claude, Fran’s ex-husband, whose career as a surgeon left Fran home alone to take care of the children. Claude is now bedridden, listening to his beloved Maria Callas while waiting for Fran to bring him plated dinners. We meet Fran’s childhood friend Teresa, dying of cancer, and Bennett, a benignly pompous Spanish Civil War expert who lives with the slightly younger Ivor in the Canaries. Fran’s two children, Christopher and Poppet, provide some relief from hammer toes, fractured hips, and terminal illness. Each character has a passion—classical music, art history, Beckett, Unamuno, and Yeats—which gives rise to Drabble’s exposition on issues that dog her. And expound she does, on “effortless, meaningless, soulless beauty,” on the philosophy of free will and coincidence (including Jung, Catholicism, and moral luck), indeed on “what on earth literature is for.”
In this stunningly lyrical debut, Johnson probes issues of queer culture and love from an array of existential perspectives, creating a melodic and thought-provoking symphony on queer identity. This enchanting display features gay bonobos; “a streaming metropolis of// masculinities vested in/ tweed, plaid, velvet, seersucker”; and nods to the queer literary canon, such as references to The Price of Salt, Elizabeth Bishop, and Gertrude Stein. A friend performing karaoke is described as “gleaming like a gem on Liberace’s finger.” In “In the Dream,” Johnson powerfully captures the psychic scars that manifest from living in a homophobic culture, while celebrating the spirit of community that flourishes only among the persecuted. In “Aria,” she crafts a sonnet crown about music, gender, solidarity, and suffering that is almost impossibly elegant. Johnson is a romantic, and she exhibits this without a hint of self-consciousness, declaring “I long to be leaf-whelmed,/ lit by fire pinks and wild sweet Williams,” or even more ornately, describing how the “lanceolate leaves/ of the flame azaleas along/ the shoreline shiver in the/ wind.” At one moment, Johnson muses on the potential pleasure of having a tail, romping “in a midnight alley, flashing my snowy underside like a switchblade.” The metaphor perfectly epitomizes the beauty of this miniature opus, alternately joyful and heartrending, achingly bittersweet.
Over the winter holidays, college freshman Marin opts to remain in an empty dorm in New York rather than go home to California. The reasons she decides to stay gently unfold one layer at a time, in an introspective novel that powerfully explores her solitude and conflicted emotions against the backdrop of a stormy, icy winter. Marin’s temptation to burrow under the covers and “stay in bed all day” has to be put on hold when an old friend, Mabel, comes for a visit. As Mabel attempts to persuade Marin to return to San Francisco (at least for a while), Marin is forced to confront the past she is trying to forget, namely the summer that began with Marin and Mabel taking their friendship into thrilling new territory and ended with the death of Marin’s caretaker grandfather and the exposure of disturbing secrets. Through Marin’s memories and cautious conversations with Mabel, LaCour (Hold Still) conjures a moving portrait of a girl struggling to rebound after everything she’s known has been thrown into disarray.
Sherlock Holmes returns to center stage in Millett’s outstanding eighth historical set in Minnesota after playing a supporting role in 2014’s Strongwood. In 1892, Holmes, who was believed to have perished in a struggle with Professor Moriarty, found himself in Bavaria, where he speedily identified a killer called the Monster of Munich, though his quarry escaped. In 1920, the detective, who’s battling emphysema caused by decades of smoking, is about to return to London from a visit to the Mayo Clinic, when he discovers a taunting note under his hotel room door. The anonymous author of the cryptic missive promises him a second chance to catch the Monster of Munich if Holmes will meet him in nearby Eisendorf, a community founded by German immigrants. Before arriving in the eccentric town, Holmes learns of some recent suspicious deaths, which, despite his declining health, he also attempts to solve. Millett does a superb job of portraying Holmes without the familiar Watsonian narration and creating a creepy setting for his inquiries.
Employing fierce language and eschewing fear of unflattering light, Parker (Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up at Night) pays homage to the deep roots and collective wisdom of black womanhood. In “13 Ways of Looking at a Black Girl,” Parker reflects the rippling noise facilitated by patriarchy and white supremacy. Her word choices—“sex,” “sassy,” “low-income,” “mean,” “exotic,” etc.—emphasize the way that black women are dehumanized and objectified through language. It’s a representative example of Parker’s vision of how a woman’s identity can be shaped by the labels forced upon her. In “Freaky Friday Starring Beyoncé and Lady Gaga,” the two pop stars are posed not as adversaries but as host and parasite; Lady Gaga becomes a metaphor for white supremacy’s theft of black culture and its compulsion to discredit black genius. Parker writes, “I’d miss my booty/ in your butt/ would hate/ to reach back/ and find history/ borrowed not branded.” She also examines self-doubt in the roiling poem “The President’s Wife,” wondering “What does beautiful cost do I afford it/ Do I roll off the tongue/ Is America going to be sick.” Parker’s poems are as flame-forged as a chain locked around soft ankles.
In his haunting fourth collection, Salerno (ATM) weaves a morbid kind of melancholia into the mundane and negotiates the experience of loss and a lack of fulfillment. These poems are not about sorrow but are still sorrowful. The death of Salerno’s father infuses the poems with grief, capturing the way loss invades a life in small and often indefinable ways. “The difficulty of sorrow/ is the way it coheres, never/ staying distant as it once did,” Salerno writes. Across the three poems titled “In Vitro,” he evokes a sensation of limbo, which within the poems is where an unborn daughter plays Chopin on grand pianos swaying alongside the Titanic’s wreck. The picture reveals a powerful mournfulness that reflects the writer’s own state of limbo, his unease in a fatherless world. As Salerno puts it, “Disquietude, that’s a word/ with a dial.” The poems disquietingly hum with questions of what to do after death—whether one’s own or another’s. For whatever simple answers the poet seems to have for great unspoken questions—“There are ways to say die/ without a findable body”—Salerno wields just as many queries, yielding a book ripe with eerie and meaning-filled unknowing: “Do you think it (death) is supposed to come as a surprise?/ Like the moon claiming you?”
English composer Peter Harper, devastated by divorce and deserted by his muse, travels to Ireland in hope of healing, in Spanish author Santiago’s hair-raising debut. Although inspiration remains elusive, Peter finds living in a remote seaside cottage in Clenhburran, Donegal, restorative. A promising new relationship with go-getter Judie Gallagher, who runs a shop and teaches yoga classes, is a plus. But then one stormy night, shortly before his son and daughter’s scheduled visit from their home in Amsterdam, Peter is struck by lightning while returning from a dinner party at the house of his neighbors, Leo and Marie Kogan. Excruciating headaches ensue, along with increasingly harrowing dreams. Are these hallucinatory visions of horrors that are befalling Judie, his beloved children, and even Marie and Leo just a bizarre effect of the lightning—or could Peter somehow be glimpsing the future? Weaving quicksilver supernatural strands into an evocative tapestry of rural Irish life, Santiago conjures a truly haunting page-turner.
Saunders’s (Tenth of December) mesmerizing historical novel is also a moving ghost story. A Dantesque tour through a Georgetown cemetery teeming with spirits, the book takes place on a February night in 1862, when Abraham Lincoln visits the grave of his recently interred 11-year-old son, Willie. The distraught Lincoln’s nocturnal visit has a “vivifying effect” on the graveyard’s spectral denizens, a gallery of grotesques who have chosen to loiter “in the Bardo”—a Tibetan term for a liminal state—rather than face final judgment. Among this community, which is still riven by racial and class divisions, are Roger Bevins III, who slashed his wrists after being spurned by a lover, and Hans Vollman, a “wooden-toothed forty-six-year-old printer” struck in the head by a falling beam shortly after marrying his young wife. As irritable, chatty, and bored in their purgatory as Beckett characters, Bevins and Vollman devote themselves to saving Willie from their fate: “The young ones,” Bevins explains, “are not meant to tarry.” Periodically interrupting the graveyard action are slyly arranged assemblies of historical accounts of the Lincoln era. These excerpts and Lincoln’s anguished musings compose a collage-like portrait of a wartime president burdened by private and public grief, mourning his son’s death as staggering battlefield reports test his (and the nation’s) resolve. Saunders’s enlivening imagination runs wild in detailing the ghosts’ bizarre manifestations, but melancholy is the novel’s dominant tone. Two sad strains, the spirits’ stubborn, nostalgic attachment to the world of the living and Lincoln’s monumental sorrow, make up a haunting American ballad that will inspire increased devotion among Saunders’s admirers.
In this comprehensive account of a taboo practice, Schutt (Dark Banquet), professor of biology at LIU-Post, finds that cannibalism is more widespread than generally believed and proffers insight as to why different species resort to the practice of cannibalism, with plenty of scientific evidence to support his conclusions. Schutt covers the commonly known cannibalistic practices found among tadpoles, chimpanzees, sand tiger sharks, and polar bears, but the real intrigue is found in his descriptions of lesser-known instances of cannibalism in humans that have been actively struck from history, including during the 1941 siege of Leningrad and the medicinal cannibalism practiced by a range of European and Chinese rulers. Schutt cites starvation, overcrowding, and even global warming as reasons that humans and animals have turned to cannibalism. Depending on the culture, cannibalism has also been practiced as a learned behavior, as filial piety, as a form of luxurious indulgence, as a funerary ritual, and even as a mood stabilizer. With plenty of examples of cannibalism in humans past and present, Schutt’s well researched and suspenseful work is a must read for anyone who’s interested in the topic—and can stomach the gore.
Two tales of personal and familial anguish, decades apart, drive this chilling standalone from Icelandic author Sigurdardóttir (Someone to Watch over Me). In the present, single father Ódinn Hafsteinsson, who works for the State Supervisory Agency, investigates abuses that may have occurred during the 1970s at the Krókur care home for delinquent boys, located on a former farm in a remote part of Iceland. Those who were mistreated could be entitled to damages. Meanwhile, Ódinn fears that he caused his ex-wife’s death and that he has thus done irreparable psychic damage to his 11-year-old daughter, Rún, who suffers from nightmares involving her late mother. Flash back to 1974. Aldís, a teenage girl who’s estranged from her mother and performs grueling domestic duties at Krókur, becomes infatuated with Einar, a boy at the home with a terrible secret in his past. When Einar and another boy disappear, Aldís pays a terrible price. The two narratives converge on an exciting climax that testifies to Sigurdardóttir’s command of psychological nuance and bitter irony.
Using the 1955 murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till as her anchor, Smith (Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah) explores how the lives of black Americans get cut short by racism, particularly by white fear of black masculinity. She opens this rich and cutting collection with “That Chile Emmett in That Casket,” an unflinching analysis of the significance of Till’s death within the context of black survival in white America. Smith writes of black families keeping a snapshot of Till in their homes as a reminder of black people’s place in America’s racial hierarchy: “your daddy shook his head, mumbling This why you got to act// right ’round white folk.” In the book’s third of four sections, Smith blends lyric with news report to write of police brutality and the murders of black men, women, and children by unaccountable police officers. A refrain rings out, “The gun said: I just had an accident.” Smith exhibits razor-sharp linguistic sensibilities that give her scenes a cinematic flair and her lines a momentum that buoys their emotional weight. This is best captured in “Elegy,” a stunning, long-lined poem about her thick-as-thieves relationship with her father, who found it difficult to be his wife’s “sky and root.” Smith’s urgent collection lives up to its title, burning bright and urgent as a bonfire.
Zoboi’s powerful debut, set in current-day Detroit (but based on the author’s experience as a Haitian immigrant in 1980s Bushwick, Brooklyn), unflinchingly tackles contemporary issues of immigration, assimilation, violence, and drug dealing. Although born in America, teenage Fabiola has grown up with her mother in Port au Prince, dreaming of a better life with her aunt and cousins in Detroit. Upon arriving in New York City, Fabiola’s mother, lacking proper documents, is sent to a detention center while Fabiola must go on alone to Detroit. Shocked by the rough urban environment, her pugnacious cousins, her aunt’s lethargy, and her cousin Donna’s physically abusive, drug-dealing boyfriend, Dray, Fabiola turns to her Haitian spirits (lwas)—as well as a mysterious street man—for guidance, while embarking on a tentative romance with Dray’s friend Kasim. When she strikes a deal with a police detective to set up Dray for arrest in exchange for her mother’s release, it results in a dangerous situation with devastating results. Mixing gritty street life with the tenderness of first love, Haitian Vodou, and family bonds, the book is at once chilling, evocative, and reaffirming.