I read two hundred books this year. Crazy, I know. “Suffering” from segmented sleep certainly “helps,” as does “suffering” from the seemingly un-ebbing anxiety of not having read everything I need/want to read. In any case, throughout the year, I intermittently came out of book criticism retirement to write capsule reviews of some of the books I’d read: Below you’ll find my thoughts about forty-eight books, all save two of them published by small presses, books by Nick Francis Potter, John Reed, Daniel Borzutzky, Robert Lopez, Jennifer MacBain-Stephens, Carole Maso, Jessie Janeshek, Lynn Crawford, Lidia Yuknavitch, Patricia Smith, Vanessa Roveto, Melissa Range, Bret Easton Ellis, Jeff Bursey, Johannes Göransson, Robert Vaughan, John Keene, Michael J. Wilson, William Walsh, Jennifer Firestone, Christopher DeWan, Hannah Lillith Assadi, Jorge Armenteros, Eleni Sikelianos, Karen An-hwei Lee, Andrew Joron, Donald Breckenridge, Airea D. Matthews, Tomás Q. Morín, Margo Berdeshevsky, Alejandra Pizarnik, Albert Mobilio, Constance Squires, Eugene Lim, Stephanie J. Urdang, Mai Der Vang, Craig Morgan Teicher, Gabino Iglesias, James Reich, Jeremy M. Davies, John Haskell, Roberta Allen, Horacio Castellanos Moya, Chen Chen, Joe Pan, Joanna C. Valente, Layli Long Soldier, and Kaveh Akbar.
Nick Francis Potter’s New Animals (Subito Press) is a startling book, an unleashing of all-too-human humans and other monsters within wildly conceived spaces. While echoing Ben Marcus’s absurdist eviscerations of the nuclear family, George Saunders’s satirical takedowns of post-industrial society, and Brian Evenson’s bleak mind- and landscapes, Potter’s prose is its own animal. These often bizarrely humorous, humorously bizarre short fictions—featuring sundry amputations and beheadings, resurrections, sacrificial killings, climbs into and out of holes, and a host of angels and “more than animals” animals—are suffused with an overwhelming sense of impending doom and certain death, with all the uncertainties coming before and presumably after the worst has happened. The book’s innumerable odd juxtapositions, engagingly clunky phrasings, and obsessive inventorying are all in service of several overarching projects, namely, a peculiar dissolving of genre boundaries, an imploding of narrative conventions, and a singular dismantling of fairy tales and fables, and, especially, of biblical stories. The book’s art, all adroitly drawn by Potter, takes different forms: as chapter heading illustrations, as embedded pictures within other stories, or as standalone panel sequences. While less lexically dense than the other stories, Potter’s comics are certainly as visceral and darkly comical. Gnarled and barbed, the drawings sometimes bring to mind the Paleolithic cave paintings in Lascaux, Potter’s various beasts conjuring an odd evanescence, a similar air of mystery and menace. In short, New Animals is where the wild things irreally are.
Very much enjoyed reading John Reed’s Free Boat (C&R Press), which dynamically disrupts ideas about identity and authorship with as much intense rigor, humor, creativity as it does elastically revivify the rhythms and form of the sonnet.
I read Daniel Borzutzky’s The Performance of Becoming Human (Brooklyn Arts Press) on my way to the nation’s capitol, and found it to be the perfect read before entering the belly of the beast. Like every book, it’s political and personal. Here, mutilations and stabbings and shootings abound, leaving a pile of festering carcasses in their wake. You’ll find that even blood and the “waters of dawn” are privatized in this book-length critique of empire and state violence (usually perpetrated by “unitedstatesians”). Meticulous collage, juxtaposition, and punctuation play are the book’s primary organizing strategies, evoking horror, laughter, revulsion, and surprise sentence by largely un-end-stopped sentence, question marks and ellipses occasionally dotting these suppositions, provocations, queries, unpunchlined jokes, and desperate run-ons. “The best way to end a sentence is with the word “blank,” one of the book’s few end-stopped sentences posits, upending, upsetting one of the book’s projects while simultaneously affirming another, finally serving to engagingly unsettle this human, something this book did over and over.
Robert Lopez’s darkly comical collections and novels are full of bizarre, dissolute isolatos moving in and out of desultory relationships, talkative heads navigating through absurd situations, bleak states of mind and being, the mud and murk of day-to-day doldrums. All Back Full (Dzanc Books), Lopez’s fifth book, offers three such characters: a husband and wife and the man’s friend, who aren’t having it, who’ve had it with each other, each one talking to each other, talking at each other, around each other, as if the addressee weren’t there, as if they, the addresser, weren’t there, the “there” sometimes not there either, the “there” that’s sometimes there for the most part a nondescript kitchen in a “toxic” house. Juxtaposed against the characters’ funny, odd, or banal conversations are these mini-encyclopedia-entry-like sections, among the subjects paraphilia, dolphins, Ancient Greeks, storm names, CPR, artificial respiration, asthma, Cape Cods and Colonials, Aristophanes, Georgia, seagulls, poodles, fibromyalgia, occupational therapy, trade unions, alcohol distillation, submarines, dementia, Ancient Carthage, Sherpas, the waltz, naturism, and more besides. You might think of these sections as screenshots of the husband’s “digital daydreaming”: the hours he spends drowning in—as opposed to merely surfing—the internet, getting lost in this or that “factoid.” They serve less as explanations than to make everything else far less certain, far more stressed, fractured, an array of fragments to shore against one’s ruins but no promises. Subverting conventional dramaturgy, All Back Full interrogates what is arguably society’s most confining convention: marriage. How appropriate, if ironic, that it was published on Valentine’s Day. All Back Full doesn’t so much fuse the novel and the play as dissolve each genre, creating something not only different but disturbing, disorienting and reorienting. It’s that Barthelme-via-Oppenheim “strange object covered with fur,” which, in this case, breaks everything up and apart.
Jennifer MacBain-Stephens’s The Messenger Is Already Dead (Stalking Horse Press) is both exorcism and séance, a visceral and evocative collection of poems brimming with images of blood and bone and skin and death and rot, where angels and devils and monsters cavort among visions vivifying visionary Joan of Arc and ekphrastic engagements with Jenny Holzer, Guillermo del Toro, and Man Ray.
Carole Maso’s a marvelous collagist, and Beauty Is Convulsive (Counterpoint) finds her fusing Frida Kahlo’s imagery and language with her own lyrical fragments, all of which coheres into a fluid, visceral whole. Representative passage: “Once again desire has made a ruin of us. A pile of loamy soil—a dome; or concave—a grave. And sweet pain is a tablet in your hand dissolving, a host beneath your tongue. A sugary skull. A rose. Where does your life go?”
Whiskey-soaked and Ambien-fogged, The Shaky Phase (Stalking Horse Press) traverses urban and suburban whatevers eyes wide open, with a sensibility equal parts Kathy Acker, Annie Sprinkle, and David Lynch. These viscous poems—full of blood and bone and slop and piss, dead dads and dog corpses, “bumper thighs and funicular clits”—transgress every vanilla sensibility, physical, literary, and otherwise.
Lynn Crawford’s Shankus & Kitto: A Saga (DittoDitto) is a complex chronicling of two interwoven families, who live—sometimes thriving, sometimes surviving—in the blight and fright of the American cityscape. Each chapter finds a member of one of these alternately eccentric and endearing families narrating overlapping events, comically proving that “eyewitness” testimony can sometimes be another kind of blindness. Stories within stories abound, references to Walt Whitman, Gertrude Stein, Anna Karenina, Anne Boylen, and the mythological Pandora further complicating and illuminating things. Storytelling, its windfalls and pitfalls, is a recurring theme, Meg Kitto at one point asking, “What is the difference between believing stories and being delusional?” Nonjudgmentally attentive to her characters’ fables and foibles, with a style reminiscent of Lydia Davis and Deborah Eisenberg, Crawford masterfully reveals how and where we go awry, the fumbling ways we interpret each other’s words and deeds, slights and sleights.
Lidia Yuknavitch’s Real to Reel (FC2) is an impressive engagement with cinematic techniques, language, and themes, and a virtuosic dismantling of narrative structure, these short fictions often preoccupied with language qua language, being qua being, form qua form. Yuknavitch’s style—alternately lyrical, disjunctive, and paratactic—is a marvel.
Patricia Smith’s Incendiary Art: Poems (Northwestern University Press) is a remarkable book, its poems harrowing, elegiac, provocative, and/or inspirational, the series of poems reflecting on the Emmett Till’s death and its aftermath, and its continuing legacy, particularly masterfully crafted.
Solmaz Sharif’s Look (Graywolf) is a radical dismantling of a military text, its oft-obfuscatory lexicon, its subsequent impact on popular discourse, each poem and poetic sequence suffused with grief and righteous anger.
Vanessa Roveto’s bodys (University of Iowa Press) sententially and paratactically limns limbs—phantom and otherwise—and other appendages; depicts the disconnect in supposed connections, whether internal or external, dissolving their supposed borders; explores and imagines bodies and their various disembodiments and dismemberments, these ever-morphing bodies floating in strange places where memory and invention are blurred, “where the pain of others [is] foreplay,” where arms move away from hands, where the “beautiful question” of “the relationship between a body and nobody” is interpolated in multiple ways.
Melissa Range’s Scriptorium (Beacon Press) musicality and evocative formal play bring to mind Gerard Manley Hopkins, Lucie Brock-Broido, and Timothy Donnelley, and the series of poems inspired by colors is especially powerful.
Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho came up in conversation with other writers recently, and I was the only one who hadn’t read it, largely because of having read DFW’s utter excoriation of it in an interview, and also because of the many detestable fanboys who’d sung its praises years ago. While there are things I like (like the various inventories that stand for character, the vapidity of the conversations, the overall seeming dismissal of any kind of “redemption,” etc., i.e., the very things DFW was apparently critiquing; and the juxtaposition of the highly stylized violence against the saccharine sweet music reviews, etc.), I wish these aspects of the novel would have been pushed even further, that the various material accumulations would become so dense a linguistic surface as to suffocate—you know, become a mash-up of Beckett, Pynchon, Bernhard, Krasznahorkai, and Vanessa Place. I also wish more had been done with the shift from first- to third-person point-of-view. And the intimations throughout the novel that much of Bateman’s ultraviolent acts are largely if not entirely imagined diminish the novel’s impact, are as equally unsatisfying as it-was-only-a-dream endings.
Addressing widespread resistance to William Gaddis’s books, to his so-called difficult fiction, Jeff Bursey writes: “[A]ll that’s required is patience and an active participation of a reader.” Bursey is just such a patient and actively participating reader, repeatedly demonstrating these qualities to marvelous effect in his criticism. Centring the Margins (Zero Books) is the perfect title for this smart, generous, empathetic book, Bursey privileging writers writing against convention, against the mainstream, writers like César Aira, Alexandra Chasin, Joseph McElroy, Sam Savage, Davis Schneiderman, Gilbert Sorrentino, Jean-Philippe Toussaint, Mati Unt, William T. Vollmann, and many more besides. Bursey also engages a number of fellow critics, like Marcelo Ballvé, John Domini, and Scott Esposito, whose thoughts largely align with his own, as well as critics with whom he disagrees, that is, disparate voices, not to mention the voice of the author of whichever text or texts are under scrutiny, all of which makes for an expansive, almost democratic conversation. That said, Bursey’s analyses and conclusions set him apart, distinguish him as a singular critic, one who balances aesthetics and politics, one as equally enamored of artful sentences as of playful disruptions of narrative form. Over and over again, Bursey succeeds in bringing deserving but largely unknown writers to greater visibility, effectively demonstrating that, as he writes, “we need these authors who explore new terrain with equipment of their own devising.” Concomitantly, we need critics like Jeff Bursey, who seek out and engagingly write about writers outside of the margins: writers from small presses, writers-in-translation, the many un- and under-recognized “Outliers, Innovators, and Explorers” (the title of one of the book’s sections).
What to call Johannes Göransson’s Haute Surveillance (Tarpaulin Sky), which fuses memoir, novel, theater, dramaturgy, and dream journal, operates at their extremes? Near its end, one of its many voices asserts: “This will teach my readers to take me seriously when I talk about the body as if it were a heap of texts.” With its host of soldiers and children, burn victims, its many strange character-functions (e.g., Father Voice-Over, the expresident, the ki-ko-pee body, the Starlet, Mother of the Machine Gun, the Black Man, and most frighteningly, the Anti-Abortionists), not to mention its many corpses, cunts, and cocks, perhaps we can talk about this text as if it were a heap of bodies. Cysts and bruises abound, blood and other excretions spurt and spill amidst a proliferation of flowers, particularly roses, carnations, and hyacinths. With its flood of disturbing images, its density of event, its defiance of various ordering systems, let alone ready-made interpretation, Haute Surveillance is engagingly relentless. A vital bewildering of linguistic and narrative norms, in other words.
Enter Funhouse (Unknown Press): a multi-tiered, many-roomed dwelling sheltering jeweled mosaics of short fictions; a wistful illustrated abecedary for adults; a collection of highly textured poems responding to signature sung lines from a pantheon of divas, including Aretha, Billie, Ella, Janis; your host, Robert Vaughan, offering evocative portraits of innumerable strange, sad, anxious people on the verge of madness and sadness, their urges, yearnings, failures, quirks, and kinks empathetically and commandingly drawn.
Dense, erudite, allusive, John Keene’s Annotations (New Directions) eloquently engages numerous subjects, including desire, time, memory (“a vast orchard of myriad, variegated moments”), the body, the “fires of history,” language, love, sex (“that sublime sum of bodily attraction”), knowledge, religion, and the imagination. It’s a powerful Künstlerroman, marked by its compression, parataxis, point-of-view shifts, fracture, glosses on historical texts, and marvelous aperçus: “Loneliness is solitude unfulfilled by its own presence.” “Oppression is most effective when its aims are effected voluntarily.” “Reality, that rude intruder.” “Our dreams are but hulls for our souls.” Additionally, there’s ongoing commentary about the art and artifice of narrative and of Annotations itself, the narrator concluding: “[T]hese remarks should be duly noted as a series of mere life-notes aspiring to the condition of annotations,” the text from which said “life-notes” are drawn not merely an open question but an ongoing one.
“May the echo that is my ghost skip on your page like a frame of film melting,” writes Michael J. Wilson in “Faraday Cage,” a poem from A Child of Storm (Stalking Horse Press), a collection reverberating with engaging themes, invention, electricity, perception, power, and memory among them; a collection populated with many ghosts, like Nikola Tesla, Thomas Edison, Mark Twain, J.P. Morgan, Leonard Cohen, Alfred Nobel, Allen Ginsberg, and Henry David Thoreau, who skip on the page in singing-the-body electric poems, where tactility is evocatively foregrounded, Wilson’s deft use of punctuation (of em dashes and colons in particular, but also commas at one point and exclamation points at another) among A Child of Storm’s many highlights.
Engagingly appropriating fragments from biographies, children’s books, and popular and scholarly books, William Walsh’s Forty-Four American Boys: Short Histories of Presidential Childhoods (Outpost19) draws a portrait of the POTUS as a young child: of forty-four of the most powerful men in history, underscoring how much mythology and hagiography shapes the average American’s understanding of history. Walsh’s use of the pronoun constraint of “he,” “him,” and “his” in place of proper names underscores the common threads, factual or not, of biographical details, which oddly coheres into an entity you might call transhistorical, the POTUS as someone, some thing, all-encompassing, a “possibility space” open to everyone, false narratives all. Forty-Four American Boys invitingly raises many questions about history, historicity, and historicizing, about narratives in general, about how we perceive and conceive childhood, especially boyhood, in the U.S., about how often mystery, hearsay, and legend is regarded as history.
Spare, rigorous, poignant, Gates & Fields (Belladonna*), by Jennifer Firestone, unsparingly reveals things we’ve seen yet haven’t seen, seemingly known things—like tree, sky, stone, wood, bone, gate, field, seed, earth, moon, sun, star, eye, snow, light, bird, air, egg, skin, door, heart, brain, cloud, ice, and sea—each of these familiar things made unfamiliar and newly illuminated in poems that suggest Sapphic fragments, erasures of Dickinson lines, and traces of lost stories.
Christopher DeWan’s Hoopty Time Machines (Atticus Books) is a fabulous collection of fabulist miniatures, where you’ll find monsters, in a labyrinth, in a well, and innumerable creatures in and out of holes, drains, pipes; where you’ll find an atheist bearing stigmata, an obsessive wallpaper-er, a boy changeling, trolls, conscious salmon, an un-scary bogeyman, a haiku-reading Godzilla, Poseidon’s cuckold, Frankenstein’s cuckquean; and defamiliarized myths and legends sending up Goldilocks, Ulysses, Shiva, Theseus, Superman, and others. These “fairy tales for grown-ups” offer satirical takes on post-industrial society, clever plays on social media and the blogosphere, bringing to the surface its resulting angst, estrangement, anonymity, and loneliness. These stories are among my favorites: “Intrusion,” “The Bundle,” “Blog of the Last Man on Earth,” “The Fibonacci Forest,” “The Garden,” and “Rapunzel’s Tangles.”
Hannah Lillith Assadi’s Sonora (Soho Press) lyrically limns geographies, of the blood-red desert and the dirty city but also the geographies of intimacy, of love and loss, of memory, exile, and grief. “I knew beauty for me would only ever be derived from loss,” the teenaged narrator Ahlam says, subsequently losing herself in a torrent of sex and drugs and booze to somehow find herself: a body and mind free of specters, of disappointments, of other people’s burdens, especially her parents’, each of whom suffers from anger, sadness, and dread, and the peculiar trauma of having against all odds survived. Musical, evocative, and elegiac, Sonora is a deftly and empathetically drawn portrait of wounded people, who attract other wounded people, each one easily wounding themselves and others, each one baring their scars, whether physical or emotional, as testaments of their resilience, their individuality, their beauty.
Breathtakingly lyrical, and deftly employing poetic fragmentation, Jorge Armenteros’s The Roar of the River (Spuyten Duyvil) is a fabulist wonder, blurring the boundaries between the real and unreal. Set in a village perched in the French Alps, where a river crashes and rolls and an ominous moon shines, a mysterious man seeks refuge from his past, whether genuine or imagined. Strangely, he encounters an iconoclastic assembly of characters that offers him love, instigates fear, provokes revenge, while also probing the meaning of language, its limits and possibilities. An engagingly experimental novel, The Roar of the River follows the musical structure of the 17th century fugue, the narrative voices succeeding each other until coalescing into a polyphonic search for light within the darkness of their origins.
“Reality’s really / dirty,” writes Eleni Sikelianos in Make Yourself Happy (Coffee House Press), a collection of poems exploring the so-called real in all its dirt-dusted, mud-splattered “glory,” poems in conversation with William Carlos Williams, Aristotle, Cecil Taylor, Csikszentmihalyi, the Dalai Lama, Flaubert, Aeschylus, Pliny, Bernadette Mayer, Jacques Roubaud, John James Audubon, Robert Smithson, and Sappho, especially Sappho, poems digging into the earth, an earth threatened by the ongoing catastrophe that is humanity, in continent-hopping poems elegizing many extinct animals, poems that indict the animal largely if not wholly responsible for the extinctions, the animal’s at best dubious and likely doomed pursuit of happiness.
Karen An-hwei Lee’s Sonata in K (Ellipsis Press) sits comfortably between Barnes’s Nightwood and McCourt’s Mawrdew Czgowchwz, or Nabokov’s Lolita and Theroux’s Darconville’s Cat, or Jeremy M. Davies’s Rose Alley and any of Mary Caponegro’s collections: books foregrounding vivid, clever, and audacious prose, a dense, neo-baroque textual surface, where everything is heightened, elaborate and elaborated, but without ever coming across as labored. Speaking of Nabokov, he once stated that a writer combines storytelling, teaching, and enchanting “but it is the enchanter in [them] that predominates and makes [them] a major writer.” Lee enchants in Sonata in K, expertly drawing a fabulist portrait of Franz Kafka, who’s either been cloned from a bone fragment from exhumed remains or a corporealized hologram derived from photographic portraits. Kafka’s been summoned to Los Angeles—a “radiolucent subterranean garage”—to work on a screen adaptation of an alleged work of his, Lee deftly weaving together deadpan dialogue, poetry, recipes, bits of German and Japanese, and excerpts from Kafka’s letters, all playfully shedding new light on the famed absurdist’s doubts, quirks, phobias, and familial tensions.
Working at the level of the phoneme down to consonant, vowel, and letter, sonically, textually, and texturally, and navigating through silence in its many forms, as pause, as vacancy, as rift, as nothing, Andrew Joron’s The Sound Mirror (Flood Editions) rigorously revivifies the rigor mortised body: body as distinct mass of matter, as evidence, as the bulk of a text. “‘The eye makes space; the ear makes time; the mind makes silence,’” Joron writes, each poem in this collection playfully and evocatively realizing these assertions.
Alert to love, fear, dream, grief, and sadness, how they entangle and unravel us, Donald Breckenridge’s And Then (Black Sparrow Books) weaves at least three different narratives, memoir, literary drama, and ghost story among its organizing threads. Breckenridge employs a pared-down prose, its quiet tonality bolstered by dialogue embedded sans tags, etc., within exposition, description, etc., said embeddings infusing the narrative with a throbbing and often poignant immediacy. With its graceful portrayal of complex and often troubled intimacies, its depiction of memories and other spectral disturbances, its inventorying of possessions and the containers that hold them, And Then might also be called The People, Places, and Things They Left Behind.
Virtuosic in form and language, Airea D. Matthews’s Simulacra (Yale University Press) reimagines numerous forms of communication, in lineated and prose poems haunted by ghosts and gods, both Egyptian and Greek, and the fragile imagined pasts we regard as memory and history, Matthews playfully and dynamically offering redacted epistles and beyond-the-grave sexting, dismantlings of so-called holy scripture, and various engagements with texts from a panoply of writers, including Jean Baudrillard, Anne Sexton, Gertrude Stein, and Ludwig Wittgenstein.
Christ, Garbo, Rimbaud, Son House, Adam and Eve, Neruda, Odysseus, Vermeer, Caravaggio, Cleopatra, Goethe, Frost, Dickinson, Sagan, Stravinsky, and Blind Willie Johnson are among the ghosts you’ll encounter in Tomás Q. Morín’s Patient Zero (Copper Canyon Press). Like the indomitable structure in “Sing Sing” here, these poems float in and through the porous interstices of past and present, have “a way / of making the mind // forget what was real.” Poem after crystalline poem, Morín interrogates what and how we remember and what we talk about when we talk about loss and love and life, about language and death and “the nature of things.”
Margo Berdeshevsky’s Before the Drought (Glass Lyre Press) is, alternately, elegy, jeremiad, prophecy, disturbing phantasmagoria, impassioned love letter to Paris, and startling act of witness, these “filthy poems” and “harsh songs of desire” exploring the vectors in and within “words and frames and walls.” Ghosts and other beings people these visceral and ethereal poems, Apollinaire, Benjamin, Levi, Verlaine, Kuan Hsiu, Monet, Merwin, Jarrell, Colette, and (Rosmarie) Waldrop among the interlocutors. Soaring things wing through these pages, moths and herons especially, but also rooks, mourning doves, orioles, owls, fruit flies, cardinals, blackbirds, sparrows, pigeons, egrets, and even phoenixes. Like Farrokhzad, who provides an epigraph for one of the poems here, Berdeshevsky is compelled to heed birds’ calls to “commit flight to memory,” flight as movement, flight as brilliant, imaginative, free expression. Reading, you’ll see red: blood, rubies, lava, flames, and “the bright red hat of virginity.” Inventive hyphenated compounds abound, each one evocatively expressing the difficult or impossible to say: “body-beloved-bully,” “swallow-corpses,” “Body-monster,” “brain-beat,” “kiss-humping,” “sex-legged,” “cut-a-limb,” “swell-bellied-pregnant,” “woman-ing,” “heaven-hung,” “night-net,” “blood-fall,” “blood-moon,” “dove-moan,” “cloud-exploded,” “leaf-fall-fire.” Before the Drought is a lyrical reliquary, where you’ll find bone, skin, fire, love, bombs, ghosts, soldiers, and mothers, and so much more, each bravely written poem a vital, pulsating companion during these “frayed days.”
Extracting the Stone of Madness: Poems 1962 – 1972 (New Directions), by Alejandra Pizarnik, and translated by Yvette Siegert, is an utterly harrowing read.
Manual of strange amusements and entertainments, or evocative collection of linked stories, or both, Albert Mobilio’s Games & Stunts (Black Square Editions) shows us how fun “tennis without a net” can actually be. Here a group, of adult-like children or childlike adults, assembles to play, the raw materials of games, whether objects, balls, sticks, cards, etc., or body parts, or simply words (puns, polysyllabics, word endings, etc.) used to dissolve the boundaries between the so-called real and so-called unreal. “It’s good to escape even if the act is mere simulacrum,” we’re told at one point—commentary on the act of reading and writing, themselves, both acts at best forms of playacting, albeit with representations and substitutes. Playful as each story is in Games & Stunts, though, melancholy, mystery, and something outright sinister is suffused throughout, which is true, after all, of much of the games we play. Highly recommended. Oh, and publishing it on April Fool’s Day was a nice touch.
Urgent and electric, Live from Medicine Park (University of Oklahoma Press) is a devastating take on a wayward maverick, a moving portrait of singer as wistful recluse, of love triangles and broken families. An intense rock novel in conversation with DeLillo’s Great Jones Street, Rushdie’s The Ground Beneath Her Feet, and Spiotta’s Stone Arabia, Live from Medicine Park finds Constance Squires’s potent prose tackling love, family, creativity, responsibility, and the perils of celebrity and history, memory and dreams.
Following Fog & Car (Ellipsis Press) and The Strangers (Black Square Editions), two great novels in their own right, Eugene Lim’s Dear Cyborgs (FSG Originals) is an effortless fusion of melancholy realism, superhero fantasy, and action-packed thriller; where some characters explore the limits of identity and connection, and where others deliver impassioned essayistic monologues on art and politics, the fraught necessity of the former and the oft-terrible spectacle of the other. Masterfully handling the tandem narrative structure, Lim offers prose that shape-shifts from serenely lyrical and supremely musical to encyclopedia-entry-like historicizing to outraged-against-the-machine.
Navigating through nostalgia to embodied reality, Stephanie J. Urdang’s Mapping My Way Home (Monthly Review Press) vividly tracks a life in exile. Lyrical, evocative, and keenly observed, Urdang’s memoir is an act of fierce witness, where life, love, death, family, history, memory, loss, and uncertainty are deeply explored.
The poems in Mai Der Vang’s Afterland (Graywolf) are as engagingly allusive, as imbued with loss, residue, and residual memory as its neologistic title. Highly recommended.
In The Trembling Answers (BOA Editions) Craig Morgan Teicher works out notions of and questions about fathers, fathering, and fatherhood with fear and trembling, yes, but also with acute awareness, stark honesty, and comic self-deprecation, the collection’s evocative images carefully observed and rendered, its narratives alternately sad, angry, loving, nurturing, defiant, doubtful, and hopeful, self-portraiture, the epistolary, and poetry qua poetry itself among the genres both deftly employed and deeply interrogated.
Equally hard-boiled and grisly, Gabino Iglesias’s Zero Saints (Broken River Books) cleverly upends the horror novel genre. It’s narrated by anti-hero Fernando, a wronged drug dealer, whose violent proclivities are tempered by religious devotion and a distinct code of honor, Fernando desperately fighting to live in a dark underworld, in both senses of the word, that is, criminal realm and the fabled abode of the dead. Iglesias’s muscular prose, equal parts Walter Mosley, Raymond Chandler, and Denis Johnson, is marked by its fluid movement from English to Spanish and back to English again, as well as its oscillation between first- and second-person, the latter of which has the unsettling effect of both bringing you closer to the narrator and implicating you in his increasingly ultra-violent actions. The narrative’s porosity of borders, both tangible, policed and otherwise, and phantasmatic, throws you headlong “somewhere between this world and the world of dreams,” as Fernando describes the zone of pain and bliss where he often resides. Zero Saints’ many subtexts, that is, exile and assimilation, fluidity and fluency, shape-shifting and hybridity, further distinguish this visceral novel as a necessary intervention into the horror genre.
James Reich’s Soft Invasions (Anti-Oedipus Press) is a powerful fusion of noir, thriller, and historical fiction, sentence after sentence evincing great style and intelligence, its metaphors as refreshingly unusual as they are perfectly realized. Think Nathanael West, Graham Greene, and Joseph Conrad. With a pre- and post-Pearl Harbor bombing Los Angeles as its backdrop, Reich deftly explores peculiarly American anxieties and prejudices, while theorizing about identity, doppelgängers, mirrors, artificiality, consumerism, and militarism. So much darkness in this book, which is often countered by light, albeit light, and often sunlight, that blinds, that scorches. So much violence in this book, its unflinching depictions of war and empathetic rendering of a ritual disembowelment and subsequent arson particularly noteworthy. The novel’s jumping backward and forward in time is engagingly disruptive, its “momentum” further disrupted by nightmares, or are they hallucinations? Finally, its ending(s), which mirror(s) the novel’s various doublings, is nothing short of masterful.
Jeremy M. Davies’s The Knack of Doing (David R. Godine) is a virtuosic collection of fictions, which can easily be placed alongside John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse, Robert Coover’s Pricksongs & Descants, Julia Elliott’s The Wilds, John Keene’s Counternarratives, and Lidia Yuknavitch’s Real to Reel, that is, other virtuosic collections that demonstrate the writer’s undeniably powerful command of/over form, style, and language, etc. Here you’ll find Davies subverting the essay, the epistle, the brainteaser, the conversation, the sad, realist story, and more besides, for deviously comic and devastatingly tragic ends, his wit acerbic, his prose supple, his intellect as expansive as his imagination is wild. While Barth and Coover’s literary panache often came to mind as I read these fictions—as did Mary Caponegro’s robust lyricism, which itself echoes Henry James, William Gass, and William Gaddis—Davies’s The Knack of Doing is a singularity: a masterpiece for an age that doesn’t deserve them.
John Haskell’s The Complete Ballet: A Fictional Essay in Five Acts (Graywolf Press) is a brilliant fusion of essay, memoir (maybe), and fiction, where sentences limn a peculiar kind of self-absorption, a sensibility as comedic as it is bleak.
Roberta Allen’s The Princess of Herself (Pelekinesis) is an artful collection of linked engagingly elliptical miniatures, each concentrated story obsessed with its own telling, each narrative continually questioning its own making, the artifice of its art, their narrator’s smart, comic, whimsical, and wistful reflections on art and identity and dating and aging and more bringing to mind the best of Lydia Davis, Deborah Eisenberg, and Diane Williams.
Reading Horacio Castellanos Moya’s scathing Thomas Bernhard tribute/parody Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador (New Directions), translated by Lee Klein, a book-length diatribe against El Salvador, I’m tempted to write a similar novel about the United States, a morally bankrupt nation, to say the least.
Knowingly and comically upending millennial oversharing and other false confessionals, Chen Chen’s When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities (BOA Editions) is a series of meditations on family, identity, and sex, and especially exile, as horror-show and possibility space, externally forced or self-imposed exile toward, within, and away from “this country of burning,” offering a “metaphysics of madness,” but also a grammar of grief, an ontology of loss, and an epistemology of unknowing.
Worlds collide in Joe Pan’s Hiccups (Augury Books), these collisions, of nature and manufacture, of landscape and soundscape, of silence and language, making new worlds, worlds made of words: jeweled miniatures cohering into a kind of travelogue about attention and apprehension, Pan’s unwavering eye and scrutinous ear empowering the voice that gives voice to the missed and the minuscule, the peculiar and the particular, the quotation and the quotidian, the seasons and the seizings of the day, afternoon, and night.
Plunge into the watery depths of Joanna C. Valente’s Marys of the Sea (The Operating System), where you’ll find all sorts of aquatic life, whether real, like jellyfish, silverfish, betta fish, and octopuses, or wholly imaginary, like sea demons. Emerge from its lakes, seas, and oceans, and see crows, blue birds, blue jays, starlings, hummingbirds, pelicans, swans, bees, bats, wasps, dragonflies, and moths, not to mention cats, wolves, and antelopes, not to mention demon demons, and witches, Sirens, and ghosts. Hearts, skulls, uteruses, vaginas, breasts, and bones also abound in this visceral collection, Valente deftly employing and radically upending tropes, symbols, and figures from the bible and other mythological texts, foremost a series of re-imagined Marys, to question and attack conventional, pervasive, and deeply entrenched notions of womanhood, motherhood, and personhood.
“How do I language a collision arrived at through separation?” Layli Long Soldier asks in Whereas (Graywolf), her commanding and utterly necessary collection, this query informing the book as a whole, Long Soldier deftly employing a poetics of fracture, erasure, and obscuration toward attacking the American empire’s innumerable, and woefully ongoing, lies to and betrayals of Native Americans, Long Soldier’s lyrical indictment of oppressive legalese, not to mention oppressive language generally, absolutely astonishing in its rigor and ingenuity.
John Madera is the author of Nervosities (Anti-Oedipus Press, 2024). His other fiction is published in Conjunctions, Salt Hill, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His nonfiction is published in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other venues. Recipient of an M.F.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University, New York State Council on the Arts awardee John Madera lives in New York City, Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.