Essay on Norah Lange’s “People in the Room”

My most recently published piece, an essay and (sort of) review of Norah Lange’s “People in the Room,” appeared over at Literal Magazine recently. With a little time from the publication of this first-ever English translation of this eldritch avant grade novel (thank you, And Other Stories) I tried to create some obvious distance from the way the book had been covered so far. Instead of talking about Lange’s biography, which mostly occasioned reviewers the chance to talk about Borges again, I explored more in-depth the ideas and metaphors Lange employed in the novel:

People in the Room belongs with a subset of novels that seem to have set a foundation upon which the edifice of many subsequent works has been built, or at least it anticipated what that foundation required. The moment has come to head down to the basement and find out what we’ve overlooked.

Old Picture of Johannes Brahms.

I recently stumbled across an old picture while mindlessly browsing the internet. I was struck with the exact way I pictured Johannes Brahms when I was writing my short story “Brahms’s Lullaby“:

My story was set a few years earlier than 1897 — and based on true events, with a lot of fictional embellishment — but the Brahms I imagined (and the Brahms in reality) definitely possessed the epic beard seen in the picture.

If you want to read the story, it’s available in Arts & Letters.

(H/T to Reddit)

“Here There is No Rainbow” at Emrys Journal

Pleasantly surprised to receive my copy of volume 36 of Emrys Journal, which features my short story “Here There is No Rainbow.” Here’s the cover:

The story has become the seed of a much longer, and evolving project, although I’m still not sure the scope of it—what it will turn into, if anything. It also served as assay into a different style I’d been playing around with for some time, and which has seemed to stick for me. Who knows. I have some personal connections with the material, too, in some ways; the story involves writing about characters that I hadn’t in any serious fictional way before: people with disabilities.

If you truly know people with disabilities, especially intellectual disabilities, what you see portrayed in contemporary fiction is, bluntly put, terrible. For example: I read what was an otherwise fairly good novel by a prominent and prize-winning author, who portrayed the relationship between a woman with intellectual and physical disabilities and her sibling. Within a page or two it was obvious the author had no idea what she was talking about; it’s hard to describe, but it’s the type of inauthenticity that one can usually only see when one has the authentic feeling him or herself. The book was otherwise impeccably researched, but this portrayal—from a lack of personal experience I found out—was hollow and unrealistic.

I hope that “Here There is No Rainbow” isn’t that, even though it is confined by being just a short story, and not having the novel length to explore the characters in more detail. People with disabilities, intellectual or otherwise, want what everyone else wants, and their parents and brothers and sisters want the same things for them as any other family member wants for their “normal” family. This is what such fiction should understand.

Thanks, again, to the wonderful folks at Emrys for giving my story a chance.

Update: You can order a copy of the issue here.

“Brahms’s Lullaby” in Arts & Letters.

I don’t recall, now, how I stumbled across the story, but I was reading something—probably half into some Wikipedia hole—when I came across a small anecdote about the early days of recording technology. The story went like this: Thomas Edison had sent an associate to Vienna in the late 19th century to get a recording of Johannes Brahms. The recording—using the nascent technology Edison’s labs had developed—still exists, and involved Brahms playing a few pieces on piano, a few comments in English, and some other indecipherable things.

Having always been fascinated with, and a fan of, Brahms, the story instantly struck me, and I wondered, exactly, what must have transpired during that recording. I pulled a couple Brahms biographies and tried to put the visit into context, and it was there I stumbled—always stumbling, because that’s the best way to find a good story—on the history of the Wiegenleid, his famous lullaby. Suddenly it all fit: the recording, the lullaby, and everything that was going on in my life, which included the stress and joy of being a new father. I’d never written historical fiction before, so this story ended up being a fun experiment, too.

Much of that, to use a musical metaphor, was transposed into this story. Theo’s not me (though Theo was the associate’s real name his personal background is all fiction) and the Brahms in there probably isn’t quite the real Brahms, although the actual pieces he plays, his apartment’s location, the panoply of trash cans, and many other details etc., are all real-life things.

You can purchase the issue here.

Review of “Plaza Requiem.”

My review of Martha Bátiz’s fine collection of stories, Plaza Requiemhas been posted up over at Literal Magazine. On this blog, I wanted to share a few thoughts that didn’t make it into the review.

Reading Bátiz’s stories, I was struck by another short story collection I’d read recently, which, for reasons that should become apparent soon, I will leave nameless. The other book, which has received a reasonable amount of critical claim, was terrible. I’d read writers gushing over it on Twitter, and other rave reviews. It was by a young, Latin American writer, who covered some of the same themes that Bátiz writes about in her collection. Yet those stories, I thought, were—with one or two exceptions—insipid.

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Recent Work.

Hi, everyone. I’ve been working on some longer projects these days (some fiction and a longer essay), so the only things that have recently seen the light of publishing are a few book reviews. Fortunately I’ve reviewed some interesting books, so I hope they make for some interesting reading:

  • On Here in Berlin by Cristina Garcia, and its eldritch collection of postwar German voices;
  • On The Idiocy of Perfection by Jesús Silva Herzog-Marquez, a collection of metaphorical and sharp political essays; and
  • On the story collection The Tower of the Antilles, by Achy Obejas, showcasing the depth and struggles of the Cuban-American identity.

Otherwise I’m reading a couple books I’ve been meaning to get to (but won’t be reviewing) right now: Ronald C. White’s biography of Grant, American Ulysses, and the Tournament of Books-winning The Sellout by Paul Beatty. (Everybody is talking about the Chernow bio of Grant now, and that may be great, but White’s bio really is fantastic.)

The Lip of the Grave: On “Imagine Me Gone” by Adam Haslett.

Imagine Me Gone, Adam Haslett’s second novel, achieves something difficult: it manages to dramatize depression and mental illness without being tiresome, fatuous, or boring.

The novel opens in the mind of John, an Englishman who suffers from the something he calls the “monster.” When John had been hospitalized for depression, Margaret, his American girlfriend at the time, decided to stay with him. They married, and had three children: Celia, Michael and Alec. While the kids’ interweaving life stories—dealing with their father’s eventual suicide—make up the bulk of Imagine Me Gone, the true focus is on Michael, who replays his father’s tragic illness in a different key.

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Two Recent Reviews.

This summer has brought a couple more book reviews o’ mine:

I have a couple short stories out for submission, and while they’ve received some really, really nice comments from a few editors—especially for the weird little tales they are, one set in a Mongol Kingdom and other in 1891 Vienna—so far neither has found a home yet.

New review of an old fave.

Slightly late to posting: my review of Javier Marías latest novel, Thus Bad Begins went live awhile back at Literal Magazine. I have written about Marías before, having reviewed his penultimate novel, The Infatuations, for The Millions.

Here’s how my review starts, picking up on a line I had mentioned in my review of The Infatuations:

Javier Marías doesn’t want to be “what they call a ‘real Spanish writer.’” These are authors who, Marîas says, prominently feature themes and motifs of classic Spain, including bullfighting and passionate women. While these tropes are certainly absent from his novels, which tend more to involve analytic and voluble narrators dissecting the vagaries of life, Marías is still obviously fascinated with the Spanish character, and with its gestalt, and perhaps that is in no clearer form than in his latest novel, Thus Bad Begins.