‘On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous’ by Ocean Vuong – A Letter to Mother

 

‘On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous’ by Ocean Vuong (2019) – 244 pages

‘On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous’ is a novel I feel extremely ambivalent about. It takes the form of a letter written in English by a young man in his late twenties who is nicknamed ‘Little Dog’ to his mother who cannot read English. First ‘Little Dog’ tells of his grandmother when she was living in Vietnam during the Vietnam War. His grandmother meets and marries a United States soldier, and later the family winds up living in Connecticut which is where our story finishes.

‘Little Dog’ does not shy away from telling the true story about his family and himself no matter how gruesome and painful that story is. It is written in exquisite and evocative language that makes for a compelling read. The prose is over-the-top, poetic, gorgeous. The story is intense, and Ocean Vuong does not shy away from the grotesque. Sometimes and in some places life is grotesque.

‘Little Dog’ gets some good advice from his mother:

Remember, don’t draw attention to yourself, you’re already Vietnamese.”

When the American police come to arrest his father for beating up his mother in Connecticut, the father gets out a twenty dollar bill to offer the police to avoid arrest. That’s what the wife beaters did in Vietnam.

They say nothing lasts forever and I’m writing you as an endangered species.”

This is a novel that intentionally sets out to disturb its readers. It disturbed me, so I guess it accomplished its goal. That doesn’t mean I enjoyed reading it. There is a lot of intentionally disgusting imagery. Early on there is a scene in Vietnam of a group of men slicing out the brain tissue of a live Macaque monkey and eating it. That scene sets the tone for the rest of the novel. Later there are graphic scenes of young-man-on-young-man sex as well as excessive unrestrained drug use, and the drugs they use are the killers, heroin laced with Oxycontin or fentanyl.

This is dark decadent fiction on the order of Jean Genet and ‘Our Lady of the Flowers’.

So on the one hand ‘On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous’ is exquisitely written, but it is appalling, sad, and painful to read on the other hand. The truth is not always easy to confront or deal with.

 

Grade:   B

 

 

‘Disappearing Earth’ by Julia Phillips – Two Young Sisters Disappear in Kamchatka

‘Disappearing Earth’ by Julia Phillips (2019) – 256 pages

 

I never expected to read a novel that takes place in the far remote location of Kamchatka. Kamchatka is a long peninsula located on the far northeastern coast of Russia. Not least of Julia Phillips’ many feats is making the residents of this far-flung place so likable and accessible to us readers.

And air and sea were the sole options for leaving. Though Kamchatka was no longer a closed territory by law, the region was cut off from the rest of the world by geography. To the south, east, and west was only ocean. To the north, walling off the Russian mainland, were hundreds of kilometers of mountains and tundra. Impassable. Roads within Kamchatka were few and broken: some, to the lower and central villages, were made of dirt, washed out for most of the year; others to the upper villages, only existed in winter when they were pounded out of ice. No roads connected the peninsula to the rest of the continent. No one could come or go over land.”

‘Disappearing Earth’ is a novel consisting of several subtly connected stories all relating to the mystery of two missing girls, Alyona and Sophia, at the center. The girls are eight and eleven. Their mother Marina must deal with their disappearance alone, her ex-husband now living far away in Moscow.

Everyone’s lurid questions. Their suppositions. Every conversation Marina had over the past year was long, unbearable, one after the next in a rhythm as steady as dirt shoveled into a hole.”

Most of the people of Kamchatka are now Russian and white, but there is also a large native population who traditionally made their living through reindeer herding.

Though Marina couldn’t tell northern people apart. Even or Chukchi or Koryak or Aleut. Her grandparents used to speak fondly about how the peninsula’s natives had been pushed together, Sovietized, with their lands turned public, the adults redistributed into working collectives and the children taught Marxist-Leninist ideology in state boarding schools.”

‘Disappearing Earth’ is totally involving, a novel you will live in as long as you read it. It goes well beyond the central mystery of these two girls’ disappearance to capture the entire area’s deep-seated feelings and reactions.

I read a little about the author Julia Phillips. She lived in Kamchatka for two years on a Fulbright scholarship. She totally captures the spirit and the emotions of these people in this remote place so that this reader felt they could be living next door to him. This is a super fine novel about a remote location, but the people are not at all remote.  

 

Grade:   A

 

 

‘Call Me Zebra’ by Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi – An Exile and the Guy Who Loves Her

 

‘Call Me Zebra’ by Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi (2018) – 292 pages

‘Call Me Zebra’ is the winner of the 2019 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.

Our narrator, a woman nicknamed Zebra, is a member of a family which was part of the Iranian intelligentsia which were persecuted by the Iran Revolutionary Guard after the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Her Hosseini family have the first Hosseini Commandment: “Love nothing but literature”. Then Saddam Hussein and Iraq started war with Iran in the early 1980s firing poison gas into Iranian towns, and she, still a young girl, and her father and mother were forced to escape her country and become exiles. Her mother is killed during the escape, and after many stops along the way, she and her father wind up in New York.

After leaving Van (in Turkey), my father, Abbas Abbas Hosseini, and I spent years moving across the surface of the earth in search of a place to think. We were like the slugs that come out after a hard rain: ugly, weather-beaten, dispossessed, the refuse of the world. So it goes.”

Zebra is passionate about literature and about being an exile, having to flee her homeland. Large sections of the novel are devoted to her struggle and her pain at being one of the world’s unfortunates, an exile from her home country. When Zebra is alone her thoughts often turn to abstractions about life, literature, and death. I much preferred the parts of the novel when she is out and about and with other people, at first her father and later Ludo Bembo, an Italian man who she meets in Spain after her father’s death and who falls for her hard.

Most of the story does takes place in Spain as Zebra retraces the route that brought her to the United States.

‘Call Me Zebra’ just did not cohere for me. When Zebra is alone, many of her thoughts are a prolonged lamentation or mournful complaint. And since she is constantly pushing away Ludo the guy who loves her, she is alone much of the time. When Zebra is by herself, her language becomes painful but sometimes opaque. Phrases like “performative transcription” or “The Matrix of Literature” are not evocative or easy to like.

If there had been a girlfriend or a sister to Zebra, it may have brought this story more down to earth. Softening the story does not necessarily mean weakening it. There is too much abstract thinking in the novel, and the many quotes from famous literary and artistic figures did not hit home for me. Of course I have never been forced to become an exile so cannot identify fully with her situation.

I would say that ‘Call Me Zebra’ is an ambitious novel about the struggle and pain of being exiled from your home country that does not fully succeed but is probably more significant than other novels which do not attempt as much.

 

Grade:    B-

 

‘Lanny’ by Max Porter – A Missing Boy During the New Dark Ages

 

‘Lanny’ by Max Porter (2019) – 210 pages

The villagers of the unnamed present-day English town in ‘Lanny’ chant their fears and superstitions and gossip in a chorus of disembodied voices like peasants from the Middle Ages. And listening to it all is Dead Papa Toothwort, an ancient earth and plant spirit who stirs in the air and on the ground.

Dead Papa Toothwort hears the cacophony of English voices.

Dead Papa Toothwort exhales, relaxes, lolls inside the stile, smiles and drinks it in, his English symphony.”

Dead Papa Toothwort picks up on all the chatter.

He swims in it, he gobbles it up and wraps himself in it, he rubs it all over himself, he pushes it into his holes, he gargles, plays, punctuates and grazes, licks and slurps at the sound of it, wanting it fizzing on his tongue, this place of his.”

The Age Of Reason is over, and superstitions, rumors, and lies have more credence than rational truth.

A family, Dad Robert and Mum Jolie and young son Lanny, live in the village. Dad commutes to London each day to earn a living. Mum was a former TV actress but now writes gory crime novels. The boy Lanny is too cute to the point of sappiness. Lanny’s Mum asks local notorious gay artist Mad Pete Blythe to give Lanny lessons in drawing and painting.

Lanny likes to scuffle off to the woods and play among the birds and trees, disappearing from his parents and causing them excessive worry. But Lanny always comes back…

After Lanny goes missing, the neighbors all suspect of course old Mad Pete. We are back to hearing the neighbors’ voices. The green and brown spirit Dead Papa Toothwort listens to them too.

The lights went out on the Age of Enlightenment, and we now live in the post-rational society after the end of the centuries-long Age of Reason. But Dead Papa Toothwort, that troublesome being from before recorded time, is still there slurping up our sounds and listening to us.

 

Grade:    B

 

‘Mac’s Problem’ by Enrique Vila-Matas – The Pleasant and Sometimes Inspired Meanderings of a Literary Sage/Fool

Mac’s Problem’ by Enrique Vila-Matas (2017)  211 pages                  Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa and Sophie Hughes

Like several of Enrique Vila-Matas’s previous novels, ‘Mac’s Problem’ is a way-out modernist novel about reading and writing fiction, in this case a group of short stories written decades ago by our narrator Mac’s neighbor in Barcelona. Each short story was based on a famous author from the twentieth century (John Cheever, Djuna Barnes, Raymond Carver, Jorge Luis Borges, Ernest Hemingway, etc.) I won’t go any further into the plot which takes many surprising and wicked turns but would be quite boring if I tried to summarize it.

In this novel, Vila-Matas dispenses literary and philosophical wisdom from a wide variety of sources in an offhand way. I find this technique entirely fascinating, but I’m sure many readers may not take to it. I suppose how you react to this novel will depend on what you think of this first quote that Vila-Matas mentions which is probably the keystone for the entire novel.

As Nathalie Sarraute once said – writing is really an attempt to find out what we would write if we wrote.”

I’m sure some of you will see this quote as meaningless, a tautology. However I find it quite brilliant in its own crazy unique way. So goes this entire novel which is filled with these kind of statements from many persons.

As a writer, Vila-Matas lives for distractions, and sometimes the distractions are the most interesting parts of ‘Mac’s Problem’. For instance, since the narrator of the book of stories that Mac wants to rewrite is a ventriloquist, Mac recalls all the ventriloquists he has encountered in his life. This is a quite amusing distraction.

Occasionally reality intrudes on our fiction writer.

If you ask me, reality doesn’t need anyone to organize it into a plot; it is itself a fascinating, ceaseless creative center. But there are days when reality turns its back on the aimless drifting center that is life and tries to give events a novelish turn.”

Once in a while our narrator even gets down to earth away from his airy fictional concerns, especially when he is dealing with his wife Carmen.

And perhaps the worst thing was not being able to say any of this to my wife, because it would only prove to her that I was already crazier than she already thought I was.”

Sometimes the author can be annoying. First Vila-Matas quotes Schopenhauer saying that the true national characteristic of the Germans was ponderousness. Then Vila-Matas writes his own long ponderous sentence in imitation of the German writers. A reader gets impatient with this sort of tiresome game. This reader also got annoyed with his long summaries of the plot lines of the imagined stories in this collection that he wants to rewrite.

But overall, ‘Mac’s Problem’ is exasperating in a good way.

But we forgive Vila-Matas. He is buoyant; we come back to his pleasant meandering, his strolls around the Coyote neighborhood where he lives.

Like all of Vila-Matas’s works, ‘Mac’s Problem’ is a hit-and-miss affair with plenty of misses, but the hits outweigh the misses so it is well worth reading.

 

Grade:    B+

 

‘Orange World’ by Karen Russell – Vivid Peculiar Situations

‘Orange World’, stories by Karen Russell (2019) – 266 pages

Each story in ‘Orange World’ has a supernatural element which drives the story. In ‘The Prospectors’, two young venturesome women visiting a ski resort are entertained by a group of twenty-five men who were buried in an avalanche when the Evergreen Lodge was first being built. In ‘Bog Girl: A Romance’, a teenage boy falls in love with a girl who was murdered two thousand years ago and whose body was preserved in a peat bog. In ‘The Tornado Auction’, customers buy and sell tornadoes for their own enjoyment and fun. ‘In ‘Orange World’ a woman makes a deal with a porcupine-looking devil in hopes of keeping her baby healthy. And so on. Each story has its ghostly or fantastical premise.

The stories of course require a suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader. Through the clever use of metaphors, similes, and other literary devices, Karen Russell makes each of these stories almost believable to the point where we readers withhold our skepticism. The author puts us inside the persons who are experiencing these strange things. These situations are vivid and entertaining throughout. There is also quite a lot of comedy and humor as the characters in these stories react to their strange unusual circumstances.

I mentioned Russell’s use of simile, and this is a tried-and-true literary method that she uses effectively throughout. When the aforementioned young women look out the window of the ski lodge, they see the face of one of the ghost men who inhabit the place.

His wild eyes were like bees trapped on the wrong side of a window, bouncing along the glass.”

In each story Russell builds a complete fascinating imagined world where this strange event might actually happen.. The stories are long, usually 30 or 40 pages,

Usually in story collections there are stories near the end that don’t quite measure up to the early stories, but in ‘Orange World’ there is not a weak story among the eight. I see Karen Russell as a writer who has learned to use the proven literary techniques so effectively that the reader willingly enters the world of each story no matter how off-kilter it happens to be. Karen Russell is one of the most effective, imaginative, and entertaining writers of today.

Grade:    A

 

‘Afternoon of a Faun’ by James Lasdun – An Era of “Errant Masculinity”

 

‘Afternoon of a Faun’ by James Lasdun   (2019) – 164 pages

Here is a novel with a story ripped from today’s headlines, and I actually liked it.

A woman accuses a man of raping her while they slept together in the 1970s, and she is going to get her story published in a magazine. By this time, both man and woman are in their sixties. The man realizes that soon his life may be ruined for all intents and purposes by “the ritual of public denunciation”.

Yes, this story focuses on the assault and harassment scandals that seem to be breaking every week in the news. It is also a firsthand account of the sexual mores of the 1970s.

The gist of it was that men were more overtly sexist then; more condescending, imperious, entitled, aggressive and preeningly lustful.”

It was an era of “errant masculinity”. All kinds of behavior we question now were considered perfectly acceptable in those days. One-night stands , the sexual revolution, the birth control pill, “The Joy of Sex”.

If you think James Lasdun vehemently takes either the man’s side or the woman’s side, you do not know James Lasdun. The narrator of ‘Afternoon of a Faun’ sees himself as “an appraiser of the truth” who is only interested in finding out what actually happened. He meets with the woman who is an old family friend of his deceased mother who was a confidant to her.

There was no such thing as rape in those days, once you’d gotten in bed with a man. I didn’t even think of it as rape myself, at the time. The word didn’t enter my head.”

The narrator decides she is telling the truth. The narrator is also a friend of the man accused.

On one occasion he said he was surprised I hadn’t already written a book about a predicament exactly like his. I’d explained the difficulty: that in a made-up story you’d have to clarify in your mind who was lying, the man or the woman, and that this would inevitably read as a larger statement about the relative truthfulness of men and women in general, which would in turn reduce the story to polemic or propaganda.”

I have read all of the novels and stories James Lasdun has written including his first wonderful collection of stories, ‘Delirium Eclipse’. Lasdun also writes poetry, some of which I have read. I have found all of his work reliably well-written and fascinating, and ‘Afternoon of the Faun’ is no exception.

 

Grade:    A

 

 

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