An Invisible Sign of My Own, Aimee Bender

An Invisible Sign of My OwnSoundtrack for this post: Pretty Little Head, Eliza Rickman


Published in 2000, An Invisible Sign of my Own is Aimee Bender’s first novel-length work. The story opens with a fairy tale which serves a controlling metaphor. In a town where nobody dies, the king orders each family to sacrifice one of its members in order to control the population. One family refuses. Instead, each member agrees to amputate a part of their body—a nose, an arm, a leg. However, the resulting change in the townspeople’s attitudes towards them drives the family out of town anyway. “That’s the story my father told me at bedtime on my tenth birthday.” the narrator, Mona, explains.

That same year, Mona’s father fell ill with a serious, but unnamed affliction. After that, she “started to quit,” pulling back from anything fun, interesting, or risky, or at which she excelled–piano, dance, dessert, movies, track, jobs, boyfriends. Like the family in the story, she made the decision to sacrifice parts of herself. Around the same age, she also developed a compulsive need to “knock on wood,” to wash herself, to eat soap–compulsions that help Mona to calm herself in moments of stress and anxiety.

The one thing Mona “loved but never quit…was math.” Her special relationship with numbers enables her to see each figure as multidimensional, fully formed, and deeply meaningful. Other residents of Mona’s slightly surreal hometown appear to share her fascination. A local man has a business making numbers for the addresses in town. Her former math teacher and neighbor wears small wax number signifying his state of mind beneath his clothes–an act of self-assertion that inspires Mona’s desire for her own “invisible sign.” The shapes and essences of numbers permeate the text: square roots, Pythagorean philosophy, and the way everyday objects seem to hold numbers within.

An Invisible Sign of My Own (hardcover)At nineteen, Mona is deeply pained by her father’s illness, trapped in rigid inertia, hemming in and controlling herself with a range of OCD-like coping mechanisms. Then, the principal of her former elementary school invites Mona to become the new math teacher. Through she accepts the position reluctantly, in interacting with her students Mona finds a new kind of satisfaction. For the first time she can share her appreciation for numbers with a receptive, even enthusiastic audience. She feels a particular kinship with her second graders, especially Lisa Venus, whose mother suffers from a terminal illness. Through her work she also meets Benjamin Smith, the new science teacher, with whom she begins a tentative relationship.

Mona’s internal struggle between rejoining the rest of the world and maintaining her distance at the cost of pleasure and human connection lies at the heart of An Invisible Sign. In one climatic moment, Bender splices fragments of Mona’s abandoned track career into a sex scene, driving this point home in no uncertain terms. In women’s fiction, TV and movies, we’re more used to seeing this particular story played out through an eating disorder–but it remains familiar when recast as a sibling mental illness, also related to control and self-determination.

Benders prose is–as always–dynamic, surprising, and beautiful, with the casual brutality of a fable, and a very high quirk factor. The Washington Post quote on the back of the paperback edition calls An Invisible Sign “unique as a snowflake.” Perhaps eighteen years ago this compliment may not have carried the backhanded sting it does today. It’s a simile that nevertheless holds true in its best and worst connotations. I was getting pretty sick of Mona’s eccentric struggles when a truly fantastic extended classroom scene redeemed the book for me.

Acquisition

I was utterly charmed by Aimee Bender’s debut short story collection, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt (1998). I heard the author read the first selection, “The Rememberer,” about a woman whose lover de-evolves into a sea turtle over the course of maybe two pages, one night at San Francisco’s Makeout Room. I bought a copy on the spot. Bender’s selective unreality, with the rule-bound fanaticism of an old-world fairy tale is endlessly appealing in short form. In her longer works however, that magical quality can pall–something I hadn’t yet realized when I picked up this used copy of An Invisible Sign of my Own at Pegasus in Berkeley.

Disposition

Goodwill.

 

The Secret Life of Bees, Sue Monk Kidd

The Secret Life of Bees cover

Soundtrack for this post: Oh, Susanna! The Be Good Tanyas


Another book down in my quest to read and destroyThe Secret Life of Bees, by Sue Monk Kidd. A wonderfully distinctive narrating voice, a real heavy handed metaphor, and a good deal of repetition make this novel read like a prime candidate for a 9th grade book report. Which is pretty much the reason I never read it to begin with. Charming in the beginning, tedious by the end, ultimately not a bad way to pass a few hours in the sunshine.

This used volume, picked up by my mother at a library sale, and later foisted on to me, is now safely deposited in the Goodwill donation box.

The Rosie Project, Graeme Simsion

The Rosie Project, US CoverSound track for this post: (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction, The Rolling Stones (What else?)


The Rosie Project, Graeme Simsion (2013), is a romantic comedy in the vein of As Good as It Gets and Silver Linings Playbook. A little quirkier, a little more human than other offerings in the genre, but ultimately delivering the feel-good romantic triumph that makes RomCom such a joy.

The enormously successful novel stars Don Tillman, a talented but socially-inept genetics professor with a rigidly logical approach to life. Unselfconsciously literal and immune to social cues, Don displays many signs of Asperger’s Syndrome. He schedules each hour the day, eats the same seven meals each week, and tackles each new task with focused precision and rigorous application of the scientific method.

The Rosie Project, Canadian coverAt 39, Don feels ready to marry but, as he explains in the first pages of the book, he has abandoned “the traditional dating paradigm…on the basis that the probability of success did not justify the effort and negative experiences” (p. 3). Instead, Don applies his trademark rationality, and develops a questionnaire designed to identify the perfect partner.

Don’s close friends Gene, a philandering psychology professor, and his wife Claudia, a clinical psychologist, try to assist with Don’s “Wife Project,” but without much success. Until Rosie appears in Don’s office. When she explains that Gene referred her, Don mistakenly assumes that Rosie is candidate for the Wife Project and invites her to dinner. Sparkling screwball hi-jinx ensue.

The Rosie Project UK coverAfter their first memorable evening together, Don finds Rosie illogically appealing. She meets none of his requirements for a spouse, but, irrationally, he wants to see her again. So, he invents a reason. Don volunteers to use his genetics expertise to help Rosie identify her biological father. As the pair interview possible candidates and surreptitiously collect DNA, their relationship evolves. But can Don really win Rosie over?

It’s impossible not to like and root for Don. His inability to fully interpret social interactions makes his narration delightfully engaging, allowing readers a level of understanding Don himself lacks. His many missteps are entertaining, but his underlying sweetness and charm shine through. Don doesn’t have normal empathy. He does not cry at movies, or intuit other people’s emotions. What he does have is an earnest desire to make the people he cares about happy, and a willingness to do whatever it takes.

Its easy to imagine The Rosie Project as a Howard Hawks film (think Bringing Up Baby). The book has a distinctly cinematic feel. That’s no accident. As the author explains in his “Acknowledgements” The Rosie Project began as a screen play.

The Girls, Emma Cline

The Girls, Emma ClineSound track for this post: Rebel Girl, Bikini Kill


In her debut novel The Girls (2016), Emma Cline fictionalizes the events leading up to the Manson murders, recasting the story in Northern California.

In the summer of 1969, fourteen-year-old Evie Boyd meets sexy, bohemian Suzanne, who inducts her into the counterculture lifestyle of “the ranch.” There, Evie joins a group of young women, all worshipfully devoted to their leader, Russell. Greedy for Suzanne’s attention and eager to belong, Evie rebels against her upper-middle class upbringing. She shoplifts and steels from her mother, breaks into a friend’s home, has sex, runs away from both her parents. As the summer draws to a close, the utopian ranch community–such as it is–begins to fall apart, culminating in the most famous and grisly murders of the 20th century.

Though the plot is simple and well-trod, Cline’s style sets The Girls apart. Her writing is so beautifully exact, so astutely observed. Everyday objects are realized with the perfect turn of phrase–Chinese ribs have a “glandular sheen” (p. 76), cork sandals are “grimed with the ghost of my feet” (p. 166). Line by line, every passage is exactly right–evocative and convincing.

Cline’s characterization of Evie is similarly acute. Evie’s gender lies at the heart of her identity in an upsetting way that left me feeling both close to her, and embarrassed by the terrible familiarity of her anxieties. Cline illuminates the inner life of a teenage girl in a brutal, relentless way. Her depiction makes Evie’s indoctrination feel natural, like something that could happen to any young girl. The simmering unease of adolescence gives the novel tension, rather than the looming horror of the approaching murder.

Of course, I am predisposed to love The Girls. I was also a girl growing up in Northern California, and I sympathize with the author’s choice of subject. As a teenager my friends and I shared her fascination. Someone had a paperback copy of Vincent Bugiolosi’s Helter Skelter, which we read as a kind of group social activity. I remember my best friend describing Manson’s antics before the parole board, so this was probably around the time of his 1997 hearing–the one where he said he’d go “poof” if released. We would have been Evie’s age, thirteen or fourteen.

Returning to Helter Skelter as an adult, I was surprised by the book’s focus on trial evidence and testimony. As girls we skipped over all that to focus on what we saw as the interesting stuff–the ranch, the Beatles obsession, the messages on the walls of the LaBianca home, and the girls. I remember the folio of black and white photos at the heart of the book best. I can picture us, in someone’s living room during the nomad hours between school letting out and parents getting home, pouring over those pages.

At that age, the details of exactly what happened and why became tangled in my mind. I conflated facts with peripherally related cultural touchstones. Rosemary’s Baby (which I hadn’t seen) and devil worship; playing The Beatles backwards; Nazis and mind control and charismatic personalities; Trent Reznor’s haunted house. The whole story had an aura of black magic about it, eerie and unknowable.

And yet–there was a similarly infamous murder house in my own hometown–though not as famous as Cielo Drive. Horrific things could happen, close enough to touch you. Reading Emma Cline’s novel reminded me of that revelation, and the precariousness of girlhood.

Bone, Fae Myenne Ng

Bone, by Fae Myenne Ng
Original cover art for Bone, by Fae Myenne Ng

Soundtrack for this post: I wish I was the Moon, Neko Case


My most recent selection in the slow but dogged effort to purge my overflowing bookshelves of unread titles is Bone, by Fae Myenne Ng (1993).

Acquisition

Bone was required reading for my Spring 2003 Literature course, “Asian American and Pacific Rim Literature.” I purchased my copy used–and not just a little used, either. Five different resale stickers, three shades of highlighting, underlining in both pencil and pen. I never read it. Never even started it, as far as I can recall. I suppose I felt honor bound to keep this book, since I received college credit for pretending to have read it.

Notes

In the aftermath of a sister’s suicide, Leila Fu examines her family’s past in search of justification. With simple clarity, she narrates her experiences growing up with her younger half sisters, Ona and Nina, and their lives in San Francisco’s Chinatown, a city within a city, where she and her family are known to everyone. Her stepfather Leon emigrated from China, sponsored by a “paper grandfather” whose lost bones have been interred in Colma, instead of being sent home to China as he wished. Her mother was abandoned in San Francisco by her first husband, forced to tirelessly as a seamstress. In a bid for independence, the family opened commercial laundry. Its failure and dissolution proved a precursor to the partial dissolution of their family–Leila’s move across town to the Mission to live with her longtime boyfriend, Nina’s exodus to New York, and Ona’s leap from the top of a Chinatown housing project.

The narrative is structured like a tightening spiral, looping through time, but always anchored in grief and personal diaspora, loss and escape. The clean narration and corkscrew timeline create an effect that elevates the story above the simple facts it relates. It’s a fast, absorbing read. It was a special delight to read knowing the city. I work within a few blocks of the landmarks Leila describes. If I had read Bone as a college sophomore like I was supposed to, I would have missed that.

Final Disposition

Goodwill. (Success!)

 

Snow and Shadow, Dorothy Tse, Nicky Haram, Translator

Cover image for Snow and Shadow, by Dorothy TseSoundtrack for this post: 50 Words for Snow, Kate Bush

I was invited to review Snow and Shadow (gasp!). That means some poor assistant charged with scouring niche book blogs copy-pasted my url into a spreadsheet. This type of outreach was one of my responsibilities at my very first (paying) publishing job, so I was irrationally thrilled when in 2014, I received a digital copy for review. That’s right THREE YEARS AGO. Let me say it now: I’m so sorry.

I started reading immediately and finally finished over the weekend (again, SO sorry). The marketing campaign is of course long over, but archaeological evidence still remains: several blog reviews, posted as part of what must have been a major blitz, respectable coverage in more established outlets, an excerpt in the Guardian, another in The Margins (accompanied by a fairly literal piece of art), even a skeleton book site. (I was particularly charmed by this interview in which Tse, while gracious, essentially tells the interview, repeatedly, that they are mistaken, and/or asking the wrong sorts of questions.) Clearly, this was THE book at a boutique small press. I wish I still had access to Bookscan, because I’d love to see the numbers.

Snow and Shadow is not a direct equivalent to any Tse short story collection previously published in Chinese, but rather a greatest hits designed to introduce English-speaking readers to her work. The collection is an assemblage of dreamy, anti-moral parables set in the shifting topography of a surreal Hong Kong. Tse’s style is direct yet obscure, characterized by a loose physicality, impersonal, often iconic, characters, overtones of classic fairy tales turned in on themselves, and, as translator Nicky Harman notes, “a total absence of sentimentality.” Together, these elements create a sense of unreality that enables extreme violence with a minimum of true horror.

In the first selection, “Woman Fish,” a lying wife transforms into a sort of grotesque mermaid, her head and torso morphing into those of a fish while her legs remain human. The piece reminded me of  Aimee Bender’s “The Rememberer” in which a woman watches her lover devolve into a turtle. In “The Love Between Leaf and Knife” a suffering couple engage in an inverted “Gift of the Magi” scenario in which each competes to sacrifice more. In another selection a boy wakes without a head. “Monthly Matters” features these amazing, jarring, violent one-line descriptions of pregnancy, popping balloons, stabbing of pregnant women, discarded fetuses, a girl cut, like Riding Hood, from the belly of a wolf. In the final, title selection, Tse re-imagines Snow White as a brutal hall-of-mirrors story of doppelganger princesses and obsessive emperors, in a snowy country where dwarves and animals with surgically enhanced human features patrol the forests.

I found myself drawn to my favorite tale, “The Mute Door,” initially by the lyricism of the language in the introductory passages. In it, an anonymous pizza delivery boy known only as “the stranger” wanders the constantly shifting halls of a maze-like building, searching for an apartment that may or may not exist. Its an ominous, alienating piece, one of the most concrete, and, for me, “easiest” offerings in the collection.

Reading Tse isn’t, generally, all that easy. The experience reminded me how little I know of Chinese literature. I’ve read the stories of Lu Xun, and Pu Songling’s Strange Tales–but that’s more or less it. This collection eluded me on some level, not only because it is deliberately fantastic, but because I’m only catching about 30% of the references. I know just enough to know that I’m missing something substantial. Serious critics could (and in Chinese I’m sure they probably do) spend scores of pages unpacking each of Tse’s tales, but the criticism that has appeared in English, at least online, is of the thinner “review” type, like the above. These works seem to deserve a deeper, more formal, more contextualized inspection than I can offer.

 

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Territory, Emma Bull

Cover Image for Territory, by Emma BullSoundtrack for this post: Silver Stallion, The Highwaymen

I can trace my love of Emma Bull back to The Other Change of Hobbit, yet another Bay Area bookselling institution that hasn’t survived the age of effortless online sales1Everyone should go to Boarderlands and buy something fast, before it sinks into the ocean or something.. I’d never, ever have caught on to the awesomeness of Emma Bull if someone hadn’t hand-sold me War for the Oaks.2n another example of how the Bay is really not all that big I later worked with one of the ‘Hobbit founders at a local publisher—though I failed to make the connection at the time. I worry about what I might be missing now that a disturbing percentage of my new book recommends come from Twitter.

I found my copy of Emma Bull’s Territory in the used Sci-Fi section at Green Apple in or around 2013, and for whatever reason, just didn’t get to it. I had it on the shelf, I tried to bully other people into reading it on multiple occasions, I even packed it on vacation. It just wasn’t the moment, I guess. Spiritually I wasn’t ready.

Set in an ever-so-slightly-fantastic version of the Arizona Territory, Territory deals with the conflicts and politics that divided the iconic Wild West community of Tombstone during the summer of 1881, and which would eventually lead to the infamous Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.3Bull promises the sequel Claim “will really truly contain the Gunfight in the Vacant Lot Behind the O.K. Corral, this time for sure.” Bull’s Tombstone is a slippery blend of history, fiction, and fantasy. Fictional characters mix with real historical figures,4The Earp brothers and their wives, Curly Bill Brocius and Ike Clanton, Tom and Frank McLaury, Sadie Marcus and Kate Elder all make their appearance. and a complex magical power struggle underlies real legal and physical battles.

The three pronged narrative is presented through the eyes of Doc Holiday, Wyatt Earp’s hard living dentist-cum-professional-gambler right hand man, “so good at being bad that it seemed like a genuine gift” (59), Jessie Fox, an iterate horse trainer with East Coast manners and supernatural talents he can’t quite face, and Mildred Benjamin, a young widow making her living as a typesetter by day while writing sensational fiction at night. After the Benson stage robbery, all three find themselves, in different ways, embroiled in the escalating conflict between the ranchers and townspeople, and facing a mysterious and powerful magic.

The Genre Mash is always a crowd pleaser, instantly refreshing favorite tropes by placing them in a new context, and the Sci-Fi/Old West smashup is arguably the most fail safe.5Back to the Future III, Firefly, Wild Wild West…I was going to do a whole huge list but I’m sure someone else has already got that covered. If, in the process, the author manages to inject social morays that are a bit more palatable to the modern mind, so much the better. In most retellings of this particular Wild West creation myth women are incidental6Available to be fought over or sent away for their own safety, to gather up the poker winnings, and generally to dress up the set with their puffy skirts. or explicitly problematic.7Overdoing it with the laudanum, getting their men arrested in a fit of pique, and never wanting to move anywhere good. Territory, however, is overtly feminist. Mildred comes into her own as a writer over the course of the novel. Kate sees through Earp’s plots and manipulations, engineering Doc’s arrest not because she’s angry with him, but as a means of protecting him. Wyatt Earp’s public infidelities call his character into question. Both Doc and Jessie, in very different ways, seem to value strength and individuality in their women folk.

Totally enjoyable, engaging read, but ultimately not destined for my future estate sale. I’d put this one on Amazon, but unfortunately in the process of reading it I managed to completely destroy it, so I’m afraid its bound for the Goodwill, if they’ll take it. One down. Approximately 200 to go.

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References   [ + ]

1. Everyone should go to Boarderlands and buy something fast, before it sinks into the ocean or something.
2. n another example of how the Bay is really not all that big I later worked with one of the ‘Hobbit founders at a local publisher—though I failed to make the connection at the time.
3. Bull promises the sequel Claim “will really truly contain the Gunfight in the Vacant Lot Behind the O.K. Corral, this time for sure.”
4. The Earp brothers and their wives, Curly Bill Brocius and Ike Clanton, Tom and Frank McLaury, Sadie Marcus and Kate Elder all make their appearance.
5. Back to the Future III, Firefly, Wild Wild West…I was going to do a whole huge list but I’m sure someone else has already got that covered.
6. Available to be fought over or sent away for their own safety, to gather up the poker winnings, and generally to dress up the set with their puffy skirts.
7. Overdoing it with the laudanum, getting their men arrested in a fit of pique, and never wanting to move anywhere good.

Fun Home, Alison Bechdel

Cover illustration for Fun Home by Alison BechdelI started Fun Home after attending yet another Radar Reading Series event where it was repeatedly held up as the pinnacle of what graphic novels can achieve (brilliant, soul-eating, MacArthur Genius earning, Tony Award winning Broadway musical inspiring, and so forth).

Lucky me, it came into the library just before young Brian Grasso’s inexplicably well publicized protests to the effect that images of naked lesbians are against his religion.

I don’t feel particularly compelled to pick this 18 year old apart, trusting that he’ll do enough of that himself once he gains a little perspective on one or more of the following: life, art, picking one’s battles. That said, his Washington Post op-ed is fairly amusing if read in the popper spirit (“even Freud, Marx or Darwin”….my you are open minded!) NB: Seriously, I hope that its impossible to graduate from accredited university without reading at least some Freud, Marx or Darwin–especially somewhere with that much ivy.

This isn’t exactly the first time Bechdel’s opus has come under fire. The same thing happened last year at the University of Southern Carolina, and from time to time various public libraries have been petitioned to take it off their shelves. Still, I feel very timely and fortuitous reading it just now. Everyone loves a banned book, or barring that, a moderately controversial one. Feeling rather guilty that my copy is overdue from the public library, as I’m sure the wait list is exploding.

Not that it wasn’t already. The 2006 graphic memoir has enjoyed enormous success overall (see above MacArthur Genius and Tony Award winning musical) earning a place among great literary memoirs like Liar’s Club and This Boy’s Life.

Illustration for Fun Home, by Alison BechdelBechdel describes her childhood in the family funeral home (the titular “Fun Home”) managed by her father, juxtaposing her growing self awareness through childhood and the process of coming out to her family at the age of 19 with her father’s life as a closeted gay man in a straight marriage in rural Pennsylvania. The work opens with and continually circles back to the death and probable suicide of the author’s father weeks after her own coming out, the end of his life of secrecy at the beginning of her adulthood in the open, the parallels and opposites in their lives a new variation on the Ouroboros themes of parent and child. That moment both typifies and is the underlying point of the work.

The work operates on two levels–the childish interpretation of events, replete with misunderstandings, deliberate obfuscations, and missed details, and the adult’s more informed assessment, consciously aiming for transparency. What was her father’s relationship with the family’s teenaged babysitter? Was that court case really just about giving a 17-year-old a beer, or was Bechdel’s father suspected of something more serious?

Unusually for such a well regard work, Fun Home does not demand much from readers. The author has given us the truths she expects us to know, the hard work of interpretation done for us, clearly articulated in mixed media, each point driven perfectly home, more like a play than a novel.

Illustration from Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel
Bruce Bechdel leading his English class.

Except, perhaps, that the work is dense with eerily appropriate literary references drawn from the family’s reading material. The Bechdel’s was a household of artists, the mother an actress and musician, the father an English teacher and antique enthusiast, books and letters the vehicles through which the author and her father communicated best. The personal lives and works of Proust, Salinger, Colette, Wilde, and others run through the memoir like additional characters.

I was particularly struck with the role of place, the fatalism of living in the Alleghanys. The circumscribe existence, the isolation, and yet the fairy tale parallel to Kenneth Grahame’s Oxford. The fun home itself, lovingly restored by Bechdel’s antique enthusiast father over the course of her childhood, ostentatious and baroque, the Victorian trappings a strange but pleasing contrast to the family’s 1970 jeans and t-shits, a variation on an aesthetic faintly familiar from television (Six Feet Under, The Munsters).

Despite the seriousness of the subject matter, Fun Home retains Bechdel’s comic style, filled with humorous asides and flashes of irony, making the sometimes oppressive subject matter more palatable.  I’ve already put Are You My Mother on hold…

Serena, Ron Rash

Cover art for Serena by Ron RashIts difficult to say anything about Ron Rash’s Serena that the novel itself doesn’t convey more clearly, possibly even more quickly. Possibly its difficult to summarize in part because it is such a simple story. A Depression-era timber baron, George Pemberton, and his fierce, beautiful new bride, the titular Serena, push to finish clear-cutting their land in the Great Smoky Mountains before the newly formed National Park’s eminent domain forces them to sell. The ruthless couple will stop at nothing to secure control of their fortunes or revenge themselves on their enemies. Like Julius Cesar played in World War II costume (or MacBeth—ahem—recast in 1930s North Carolina) Serena is a familiar tale against a novel background.

The story opens as the new couple’s train pulls into the station in Waynesville, North Carolina. Pemberton is bringing his wife home for the first time after several months in Boston. Rachel, one of the timber camp mess staff, awaits the train, visibly pregnant, her infuriated father beside her. With his wife’s encouragement and support Pemberton kills the other man in a brief, brutal fight on the station platform using the knife that was Serena’s wedding gift to him. The incident defines the three central characters and establishes a pattern that will play out again and again throughout the work, the stakes rising as Serena assumes an increasingly active role. The pervasive violence and fear slowly degrade Pemberton’s personality, driving him to alcoholism and subterfuge, demonstrating to Serena that he may not be the mate she deserves after all.

The novelist Ron Rash is also a poet, so its unsurprising that the complexity of his novel comes from the layered symbolism and spiraling foreshadowing, rather than from the plot. Like a good poet, Rash doesn’t throw words away. Every line builds toward the conclusion until it feels inevitable, prophetic. Every thread is woven back in and neatly tied off.

Serena is dense with images of grandeur and destruction. Serena supervises cutting crews from the back of an enormous white horse, carrying an eagle trained to hunt snakes. Pemberton and his partners slaughter deer by the dozen on their hunting excursions. Rattlesnakes haunt the camp. The land is destroyed. Buildings burn. Serena herself suffers a harrowing late-term miscarriage. Workers are killed grotesquely, bitten by snakes and spiders, struck by misplaced ax blades, slipping between the logs in the millpond to drown trapped beneath. They die in such numbers that when the business prepares to relocate to a new camp, the graveyard is the first thing they build. And of course, there are all the people the Pembertons murder.

Serena is a force, exerting her power over nature, disturbing the balance, a point driven home repeatedly throughout the work, as when the workers discuss the rat problem in camp (“The thing to kill them is snakes…but that eagle done upset what the Orientals call the yen and the yang”), or when Serena expresses her pride in the destruction wrought on Nolan Mountain, telling one rich couple, “leaving something as it is leaves no mark at all” (p. 241), and insisting on having her photograph taken before the wasteland of stumps.

The novel is similarly highly structured, divided into five parts, the chapters focusing on the central couple periodically interspersed with commentary from one of the timber crews, with slightly longer segments following Rachel and her baby, Pemberton’s illegitimate son. The film copy includes an interview with Rash, reprinted from the journal Grist, in which he explains that modeled his novel on Marlowe, envisioning it as a five act Elizabethan play, punctuated by a chorus of rustics, and that both Serena and the elderly Mrs. Galloway speak in “lose iambic pentameter.”

With its striking dramatic imagery and growing sense of foreboding its easy to see why the novel was selected for a film adaptation–though the critics don’t seem to have appreciated the results very much. I think I’ll steer clear.

The Keep, Jennifer Egan

Cover illustration for The Keep by Jennifer EganI read The Keep one and a half times: the first half, on a beech in Thailand, and a second complete time, on the commuter train, or while lying on the bed wearing gym clothes in lieu of actually going to the gym. Its a short novel, easily tackled over the course of a day or two, but broken into discrete sections in such a way that putting it down and letting it rest feels natural.

The Keep, by Jennifer Egan, is a clever, weird, book full of the kind of humor that comes from the unexpected and the out-of-context, and studded with odd, surprisingly genuine moments of real feeling.

The story opens at 2:00 am with Danny, a New York hipster approaching 40, marooned in “some German-sounding town that didn’t seem to be in Germany” (p. 4) looking up at the medieval castle that his semi-estranged millionaire cousin Howie has recently purchased.

In a story made of up strange contradictions and juxtapositions, this is the first, and most pervading: image-obsessed, technology addicted, undignified modernity, against a background of atmospheric decaying gothic grandeur–like an episode of Scooby Doo where Shaggy is a middle-aged goth boy with a satellite dish in tow.

The first chapter introduces us to Danny and his cousin, their childhood friendship, and the familiar story of the decline of that friendship in their early teens, as Howie becomes increasingly and painfully nerdy, while Danny grows into a popular soccer star, anxious for approval. Danny sees Howie for the last time when, at a family picnic, he and an older cousin play a cruel trick on Howie that results in his being lost for days in a series of underground caverns. The guilt and shame Egan conjures in this recollection is startling–its incredibly evocative and relatable for such an over-the-top sequence of events.

Now, twenty years later, Danny has lost his latest restaurant job and fallen afoul of the mafia. Basically, he needs to get out of town for a while. Conveniently, a rich, successful Howie offers him a one-way plane ticket and a job helping him to help convert a medieval castle into a hotel.

Chapter 1 also introduces a variation on another trope of classic gothic fiction, the nested tale.  The narrator of Danny’s story, Ray, is present from the very beginning, but breaks in unambiguously for the first time on page 12 to critique his own work:

“He was heading into memory number two, I might as well tell you that straight up, because how am I supposed to get him in and out of all these memories in a smooth way so nobody notices all the coming and going I don’t know.”

Ray, we learn is a student in a prison creative writing class led by Holly, a newish teacher and the object of his erstwhile desire. Danny’s story is his contribution. Her voice will provide a final coda to the novel, like Nelly in Wuthering Heights or Captain Walton in Frankenstein.

Like Egan’s more recent work, The Keep is meticulously structured, full of echoes and bread crumbs, everything neatly tied up, everything connected. The last line harkens back to Chapter 3, when Howie’s wife describes her vision for the finished hotel. I remember thinking that piece of the story was a little off in my first reading–a little too tangential, just slightly out of character for a woman who otherwise barely speaks. But there’s always a reason.

The author calls readers’ attention to the mediated nature of the tale early and often, complicating what is otherwise a simple story with questions of perspective and reality. Is Danny the one obsessed with power–or is that Ray? Is Howie out to revenge himself on Danny, or is that pure paranoia?

The machinery of the story is so evident, the plot so outlandish, the physics of the world the characters inhabit so questionable–yet, like the gothic fiction it takes as a model, The Keep is compelling and, on emotional level, believable.