There is a strange quiet to the stories in this collection. They wade through an environmentally devastated dystopian future and give off whispered warnings rather than roaring doom. They are uncomfortable, uneasy, but in a way that emulates the fairy tale, chock full of timeless mythic secrets, shrouded in mystery.
This collection of stories follows a fantastic (in all senses of the word) novel The Beautiful Bureaucrat and it feels very thematically and stylistically linked.
The genius of Phillips is the way she constructs a premise and sees it through. You never really seize the meaning until the end of the piece and even then you will doubt whatever it is you think you have understood. We never really distinguish what is metaphor and what is plot. (All are both, but let’s leave it at that…) To each strange circumstance there is in the background a kind of hanging “It’s as if…” that we hope we will see realized when we reach the end of the story. No, it’s not a story about bearing and raising extraterrestrial children, the story is about a woman who feels “as if” she has born alien children. It is not a story about young girls disappearing into thin air but only about a world that feels “as if” young girls are disappearing into thin air. The whole collection is haunted by this ghost simile, moaning like or as…
I’m not totally sure why I picked it up in the first place, except that someone from my Book Riot crew had mentioned it was pretty good and that the main character is unlikeable.
Me, I don’t mind unlikeable women characters. Usually the reason that women characters are unlikeable is that a) they are not what we think they should be, or b) they are not what men think they should be. I always give myself permission to drop a book that has a truly unlikeable character at its center (spending too much time with someone you don’t like is a sure way to incur psychological damage) but I will usually pick them up because, often enough, an unlikeable woman is a very interesting woman. In fiction. As in life.
In some reviews, this debut novel by poet Jill Alexander Essbaum is cited as part of the new breed of housewife/mommy books, including recent works like After Birth, Eleven Hours, American Housewife, and Little Labors. But, of course, while there seems to be a surge of women writing about what it’s like to have too many brains and too little time to use them (spoiler alert: it’s like a bottomless jello cup of melancholia), this theme has a long and very rich history.
Boredom is not an invention of the 21st century middle class. Like one of those viruses that have existed since the days of rats hopping hopeful ships to the New World, we seem to immunize it into submission until one day it rears up again. Probably the boredom most famous to our generation is 19th century ennui, that abiding existential syndrome of being a European male. But the boredom of women in the home is something different. Dark and passionate.
Lately I’ve been making a point of randomly scanning library shelves. Not because I don’t have a long enough list of books to read (this is, in fact, all the more reason for me to never set foot in a library ever) but because I so deeply miss the experience of randomly scanning library shelves. Do you remember those days? Days when your mom would drop you off in the children’s/YA section of the library (for us it was a whole floor) and you could run about the aisles pensively and carefully move from shelf to shelf, waiting for an appealing binding to jump out and seize your imagination? I think the library was my first experience of freedom, which probably explains more than it should.
It’s just as pleasurable an experience as an adult, particularly because there is none of this accompanying mental calculation that one has to go through in a bookstore. My mental calculation looks like this:
Hmm, how much is this book? Yowza! Is this really what books cost nowadays??? Oh wait, I’m in Canada now so considering the exchange that’s…hmm…no that’s still way too expensive. Should I wait for the paperback? Maybe it makes sense to buy it electronically. Does the library have it? *Thumbs phone distractedly.* 5th in line on the reservation list. That’s way too long to wait. But is this something I really need to own? How could I possibly squeeze it into our shelves? Oh look! Something shiny! *Puts book down, walks away, forgets title until eight months later, hearing an interview with the author on Fresh Air.*
The library is an absolutely zero risk environment. It’s a safe space for people with a book addiction. And so lately I’ve been trying to forget my TBR list completely and simply wander through the shelves, looking at bindings, remembering that first taste of freedom that (unlike adult freedom) comes with zero accompanying responsibility.
And, lo and behold, I find awesome things…
Helen Phillip’s The Beautiful Bureaucrat is so astoundingly smooth. There’s no other word for it. The prose has not a single jagged edge. It has that mark of a perfectly manicured editing job and I know that sounds like a sort of boring endorsement for a book but here, it’s really everything. Because. Being so smooth is how Phillips manages to pull off this feat of landing the reader right into a semi-dystopian-yet-all-too-familiar place.
The novel comes after a book of vignettes and a book for children and precedes her recent collection of stories Some Possible Solutions (Henry Holt, 2016). It tells the story of Joseph and Josephine, newly arrived in the city from what they semi-affectionately, semi-disparagingly call “the hinterland,” which is a combination of suburban landscape and natural scenery. Though they move to the city due to the difficulty securing jobs, Josephine continues to suffer the pangs of soul-wrenching unemployment even in the concrete jungle. That is, until she finds a job entering data from the confines of a depressing, grey, entirely secluded office.
Probably most well-known as the editor and founder of (the alas, soon to be former) Bookslut.com and of Spoliamag.com, Jessa Crispin also reads tarot cards for artists of all sorts. In this book, she provides a very useful history on the practice and goes through the deck in a way similar to most volumes on tarot, explaining the significance of the cards individually and offering suggestions for how to read them when put in play with others.
But she gears her reading of the cards specifically toward navigating the trials and tribulations that come with creative projects. Writer’s block, boredom, lack of focus, structural difficulty, finishing a project, going public with work, the list goes on. (Because there are infinite problems with creative projects…)
“Wait. Tarot?” you say. “But isn’t that a bunch of spooky weird psychic fortunetelling incense-candle-crystal type stuff? How does that apply to creative work?”
Well, okay, I see your point. Tarot readings do seem to be favored by the incense-candle-crystal set. That is a thing. But you know who should really favor tarot? Really? Literary theorists.
If you have ever done any kind of literary interpretation and thought “Gee, this is fun” then get yourself a deck of tarot cards. Really. It’s like hermeneutics poker.
Rebecca Solnit’s prolific and varied career as a woman of letters is remarkable in its scope. Though I believe she is most often thought of as an essayist, she is in fact many different people, depending on who you ask. To feminists and women in general she is the brilliant champion who introduced the concept of mansplaining in her Men Explain Things to Me. To art historians she is the author of As Eve Said to the Serpent, a meditation on harsh landscapes and the feminine sublime. Sociologists read her reflections on disaster areas, most particularly Hurricane Katrina, in her Hope in the Dark and A Paradise Built in Hell.
To me, she is one of those rare souls who not only understands but is also able to explain the strange and wondrous existence of those of us who live most of our lives inside fictional worlds. That is the thing I have notes about: the way in which The Faraway Nearby so wonderfully captures the inseparability of our own stories from those gained through literature and other arts.
It begins: “What’s your story? It’s all in the telling.” It continues: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live…tell ourselves stories that save us and stories that are quicksand in which we thrash and the well in which we drown, stories of justification, of accursedness, of luck and star-crossed love, or versions clad in the cynicism that is at times a very elegant garment.”
Rivka Galchen: Canadian-born, Oklahoma-raised, New York City-dwelling author of a novel (Atmospheric Disturbances), a collection of stories (American Innovations) and the forthcoming Little Labors (New Directions, 17 May 2016). Her style is something of the whimsically eerie and she is one of those great writer’s writers who likes to be fairly clear (while also a bit mysterious) about what literary influences are swimming around up there in her imaginary.
Here are my notes on a thing – the toilette – in Rivka Galchen’s American Innovations.
The way that Galchen describes the “toilette” – or, what most people think of as getting dressed and making oneself look as presentable as possible – has to be the most perceptive and true depiction I’ve ever come across. There are a few passages in the collection about looking in the mirror or about scaling the odd bumps and curves of feminine territory with the trappings of contemporary style that I read over, and over, and over again. I read them aloud to my husband saying, “Honey! This is IT! This right here. This is what it’s liiiiiike!”