A Review of The World Without You, by Joshua Henkin

The World Without You: A Novel

The World Without You, by Joshua Henkin encouraged me to pick up E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, a book given to me a decade ago. Though I’ve read and loved many of Forster’s novels, I’d never read his meditation on the art and craft of the novel before, but there was something so exquisite about the structure of The World Without You, I wanted to discuss it in regard to a master’s idea on novel writing.

I sort of relish my position here as perhaps the most old-fashioned, curmudgeonly of Big Other’s contributors. The World Without You is a classically constructed book, with a rich narrative, plotted over the long weekend of the Fourth of July, a year after the Frankel family lost their only son, Leo, a journalist killed in Iraq, and the only brother to three sisters. Henkin uses these worldy issues (the Iraq war and an almost ironic Fourth of July celebration) as a backdrop for a detailed examination of a family and the intricacies of the complicated dynamics of any family. And by doing so, by not ignoring the world around the Frankel family, Henkin only adds more depth to the story of their lives.

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Brian Allen Carr’s Short Bus and Flannery O’Connor’s “Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction”

Brian Allen Carr’s collection of stories, Short Bus (Texas Review Press), is dedicated to the memory of William Patrick Carr (1977-2000). I rarely start a review, or consideration of a book with the dedication, but it seems apt to do so with this enormously sorrowful, beautiful collection of stories. I’ve yet to meet a human being who hasn’t suffered, usually tremendously, a horrible loss at some point in their lives. But not everyone can or will turn that loss into art. Carr does just that and more. This does not mean his work is entirely autobiographical, but Carr knows from where he writes.

Most urgent, moving writing is born out of suffering and tragedy. But it  can also be funny, even hilarious, even if underlying that humor is a felt darkness and raw pain. And in suffering, moments of grace are even more evident, unexpected, and not taken for granted. Continue reading

Is Anyone Else SHOCKED by Ben Marcus’s Traditional Short Story in The New Yorker???

I always think of him as the King of experimental form—and from some interviews in the past, thought he had a serious attitude about it. This short story brings to mind people finding Jesus later in life or something—that’s how radically different it is from what I know of his oeuvre. Here’s a link to an interview about his New Yorker story. Regardless, I loved the story; it was hilarious, brilliantly so. Mean and funny. Good stuff. Before this story, I found his work impenetrable.

Travels with My Aunt: A Look at Satire and Outsiderness

I’m in the Dominican Republic, sitting on the porch of the cabin we’ve owned for six years now. We dream of the expatriate life, but there literally is no high school here and I have two teenage sons. I have no doubt that the next few years I have with them will pass quickly and so I cling to them—the years, my sons—while I have them. And yet, I know that when they have gone off to college, I’ll spend more and more time travelling and living in foreign countries. Not that my boys haven’t seen a great deal of the world—we’ve been fortunate enough to travel often with them, and they are good travelers at this point, even seasoned ones.

When on vacation, especially in the familiar comfort of my cabin, I can read a novel in a matter of days. I’ve been working hard on revising a novel that I originally wrote years ago; and it’s a satire pure and simple (and I say that ironically, as I’ve discovered there’s nothing pure or simple about satire). Continue reading

An Alternate Reading of “Pride,” by Alice Munro

I am one of the many who think that Alice Munro deserves the Nobel Prize in Literature, so I am offering an alternate reading of “Pride” (Harper’s, April 2011), a short story, which is what Munro almost exclusively writes. “Pride” (a story John Madera discussed earlier on Big Other) is exemplary of her work, a classic Alice Munro story, encompassing a fullness of vision, examining social class, love, death, the history of the middle of the past century, and most significantly, our human nature to fail each other, which could even be interpreted, in this story, in a nearly biblical sense.

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Touching on Grief: On the Story “Dreaming Before Sleep,” by Kathryn Chetkovich, and Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen

Due to a violent death in my family, I found myself unable to read or write for about five months. It’s as if being robbed of a person wasn’t enough: I was also robbed of the things that made up my identity, that gave me joy. I could sleep, loaded on booze and other drugs, and I could watch, blindly, endless movies. That was about it.
Slowly, I attempted to read again, after the complete uninterest and the inability to concentrate faded slightly. I read two short stories, but I could barely remember them. Still, it was a start. I read a great novella by my friend and colleague, Jen Michalski, called May/December (Press 53 Awards 2010). This was heartening and the very beginning of some opening up in me.

Then, I went on a vacation with my family to a tiny cabin in the Dominican Republic that we generally go to three times a year. It had been over a year since we’d been able to go. I read very little contemporary novels–contemporary short stories I do read—and for some reason I brought Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen. I had read both excerpts/stories in the New Yorker, and, like previous short pieces of his, also in the New Yorker, I had liked them very much. I had maybe even loved them.

And so, I read Freedom at the beach, on our shady porch, and then even in the car as we drove to the grocery store or the dusty tennis club owned by an Italian expatriate. After finishing it, I found myself on the verge of tears. And then next day, and the day after. That was about it–three days of intermittently fighting back tears. How could these people do these things to each other? I felt anger, frustration, remorse. Why couldn’t they love each other “better”? And yet, I knew that they were, like all of us, doing the best that they could. But why wasn’t it enough? Or was it?

I then bought Franzen’s two books of essays. I wrote him a three page letter and sent it along with my recently published short story collection to him via his agent, knowing full well it could end up in a garbage can next to her assistant’s assistant’s desk. Then I remembered he had a girlfriend who wrote an essay called “Envy” that had appeared in Granta. I subscribed so that I could re-read it–there was no way I would be able to find it on my bookshelves which seem to eat books rather than hold them.

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On Reading Dan Chaon’s “Falling Backwards” and Mary Gaitskill’s “The Arms and Legs of the Lake”: An Essay on Compassion

I’ve read about Dan Chaon and possibly have read other stories by him (because I’ve read many journals over many years, and he’s widely published in lit mags), but I recently purchased the collection, Among the Missing. I had read an interview and something he said, and I’m paraphrasing here — “I don’t understand how some people can devote themselves to excessive drinking and write…writing is destructive enough for me” — intrigued me. The idea that writing fiction is a destructive behavior is sensible enough, but the idea that someone “devotes” themselves to alcohol abuse perplexed me. In the article, he was a bit apologetic for the comment — again, I am paraphrasing here — saying something like, “sorry if that sounds unkind,” and also explained that he knows many “writers who do abuse alcohol.”

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