Appears in Other Voices #45
Crybaby Butch by Judith Frank, Firebrand Books, 2004
Judith Frank ends her new novel Crybaby Butch with a striking image: a woman returns to the home she has fled after a violent falling out with her lesbian partner of several decades, only to be greeted by her estranged lover with an ambiguous “hello stranger.” The End. Fade to black. Does the enigmatic salutation imply a willingness to forgive and forget, or that there is no recognition left between them? The truth is, possibly, both. Frank masterfully wields ambiguity as a method of exploring and critiquing identity formation, and leaves it to the reader to decide.
The fine line between proximity and intimacy is a motif in Frank’s work. Friends, lovers, family, all may be “strangers” if you scratch beneath the surface. Many of the characters find it difficult to see others “in that light, as part of [their] universe,” regardless of similarities in class, race, gender or sexual orientation. Set against the backdrop of Chicago in the present, we get a world where people who have lived in the same city forever “marveled how they were all lifetime Chicagoans and yet were totally unfamiliar with each other’s neighborhoods.” The sense of alienation is a palpable force in Frank’s work, each character standing on monoliths of her own construction, isolated from the nearest human being by miles, light years, galaxies.
It is onto this lonely stage that Frank tosses her heroines, Anna and Chris, butches of two generations with seemingly everything and nothing in common. Using the device of Anna as an adult literacy teacher and Chris as her older, illiterate student, Frank pits the two against each other in a desperate struggle to find common ground, and in the process examines the many vicissitudes of identity. When it comes to identity, however, these women aren’t afraid to split hairs, one defining herself as “not a Harley butch, not a working class he-she with a D.A., a soft cheeked Kevin Costner butch, a Paul Mitchell hair products butch.” Such distinctions have an ironically exclusive rather than inclusive effect, however, wedging them further apart and leading to scenes of surprising yet believable animosity.
In fact, if there is one feature of Frank’s writing that deserves special praise, it is her ability to portray the parallel and inextricably bound tracks of love and hatred running side by side. Affection and aggression are found in equal parts in all the major relationships in the novel, particularly in sexual encounters. Sex is more often used as a method of humiliation and degradation than as an instrument of pleasure. Chris’s partner Kathleen passive-aggressively withholds enjoyment of sex as a weapon, requesting as Chris performs oral sex on her to “get it over with quickly.” Even self-gratification is tinged with hostility: recently dumped Anna “allows her vibrator to yank an orgasm out of her,” a forcefully punitive turn of phrase, the diction of which seems deliberately designed to eliminate any pretensions of pleasure and expose Anna’s repressed self-loathing.
Ultimately, what Anna and Chris receive from each other is the very affirmation they seek: a kind of initiation filled with hazing and eventual acceptance. Anna relentlessly drags Chris kicking and screaming into the world of literacy, and Chris pitilessly exposes Anna to her own world of pool tables and barroom brawls, culminating in a blood-soaked Anna being taken in by Chris after plummeting unconscious to the sidewalk outside a bar full of toughs. Tenderness cannot be achieved until this rite of abasement has been performed. Both women emerge with a clearer (though by no means clear) grasp on their own identity.
As for Frank’s commentary on identity, the oxymoronic tension inherent in the title Crybaby Butch says it all. Identity is an impossibility because we are all in a constant transitional phase depending on what roles we are playing. Frank allows this paradox to inform her rhetoric by creating a narrative with a fluid point of view, where the reader is seamlessly injected into the consciousness of one character after another. Moreover, Frank has riddled the story with chapters written in second person, which literally force the reader to empathize with each “butch” in the story, resulting in disorientation and no easy answers about “whose story this is.” Thus, Frank has succeeded in undermining and confounding any conventional concept of identity, and the reader is left alone to judge who (if not none or all) is the titular “crybaby butch.”
—reviewed by Adam Pasen
Girly by Elizabeth Merrick, Demimonde Books, 2005
When reading a novel it is rare to find its essence contained in a single sentence. In Elizabeth Merrick’s Girly, I found it at the bottom of page 186: “They dump all that on girls, that sweet need to preen, the intricate, endless, colorful, dramatic creative labyrinth of getting to pretty, so that the howling underneath our lives doesn’t turn us into a true public health hazard.” Merrick reveals this “howling” to us, and gives it life in the form of two sisters, Ruth and Racinda Hart.
Merrick takes us through the adolescence of the Hart sisters as their mother discovers, and foists upon them, Jesus Christ and the home-church Christianity preached in a neighbors’ living room. Though deeply marked by the fire-and-brimstone heaped onto them at an early age (most notably when Racinda witnesses Ruth’s exorcism at the hands of the living-room preacher and his congregation), like many exposed to this fanaticism, they reject these teachings and do what they can to leave them behind.
Ruth, the older sister, exhibits a great ferocity for life and the overwhelming need to live it her way, and ultimately this leads to a descent into madness that lands in her in and out of mental health facilities until she eventually runs away. Through all of Ruth’s episodes, Racinda remains her target and co-conspirator; fearing her older sister yet fascinated by her, Racinda can’t help but be swept along by the tide of mania that carries Ruth. Even when Racinda suffers her own drug-induced breakdown, years after her sister’s disappearance, her life is still overshadowed by the specter of Ruth, as she discovers through a rare phone conversation with her that they share the same treatment program (“I can’t believe this. I can’t even have my own breakdown.”)
Merrick has given us a riveting glimpse into a world that at times can be dizzying and frightening, yet still retains a sense of the familiar. Girly is an insightful foray into the lives of women who are too willful to be constrained by conventional mores, even when they sometimes wish they could be.
—reviewed by Kathryn Kosmeja
The Longest Pregnancy by Melissa Fraterrigo, Swallow’s Tale Press, 2006
Melissa Fraterrigo’s world in The Longest Pregnancy resides somewhere between real and not, in that glorious landscape between fantasy and postmodernism, that crease in the fictive universe once inhabited by the masculine likes of Barthelme and Cheever, and now inherited by the feminine of Aimee Bender and Elizabeth Graver. Fraterrigo’s world is one with giants, impossibly strong women, a land of no men, and glass houses that imprison children guilty of no crime. A world where white sharks have been domesticated for a theatrical show and where people go to theme parks to be hunted by un-domesticated bears, lions, and cheetahs in the desperate hope that they might be caught. A world where an armchair procures jewelry more seductive, constant, and true than any lover or husband, and where an unhealthy marriage or unfettered desire forms a chain of skin binding a couple physically as well as legally. It is a world predominantly of women, where their wishes and hopes—as ambitious as desire is capable of being—once realized, are often destructive and terrifying. In a post-post-modern world and a post “post-feminist” culture, Fraterrigo seems to ask, as her character Devola does in the gem of a story “Bejeweled” in which a married woman is leaving her husband for her lover only to abandon her plans for an armchair that entraps her with jewelry burped from its magic folds: “What else do you have?”—the core of her narrative dare across these fourteen stories.
Fraterrigo’s world is an Old Testament world in many ways, with the same vindictiveness, temperament, and righteousness, only it is unapologetically feminine. The terror and the beauty of Fraterrigo’s writing lies in her betrayal of happiness, in an unconventional fictive universe that often allows her characters to get exactly what they wanted, only to reverse at their stories’ conclusions the repercussions of that want. The women in this collection long to be heard, be seen, be touched, be older, or be safe. In “The Attached Couple” a woman waits six years to become Mrs. Kip Kipplinger, to possess him truly and completely, and when she does, her love for him produces a physical attachment that he then does everything in his power to sever. “The Country of Women” finds an entire town bereft of females, as the women abandon their husbands and homes to create a sort of feminine Eden where the men are only allowed to visit when invited and only for sex, not for intimacy. And in “Girls Do It” a group of teenage girls set out to deflower all the boys in their class, only to discover that one of the girls prefers the intimacy over the sex, and ends the story cradling an innocent to her breast. These are aggressive, unsettling stories rendered in the gentlest of prose, often by innocent narrators confused and surprised by their own need to dominate, possess, or conquer.
The men in this collection long to be saviors, long to protect and to provide for each of their objects. In several of the stories—“The Hunted,” “The Sisters in the Glass House,” and “Madera Bree,” most notably—feminine wile deceives and destroys the male characters at their story’s core. Each of the male characters in these stories mistakenly assumes that the girl or woman he longs to save is innocent of the thing he thinks to save her from (a rumored blow job in a school hallway, a love affair with an abusive lover, and an accepted dare to enter her private kingdom of loneliness and longevity). Each of the men do get close to his goal, and yet each of them is destroyed by it—punishment, it seems, for thinking that these characters needed saving to start with. The priest in “The Hunted” ends up eaten by a bear after he finds that his adolescent innocent is actually the aggressor of the sexual acts he’d assumed perpetrated on her; the architect artist in “The Sisters in the Glass House” sacrifices his entire savings account to liberate the object of his affection from what he’d assumed was a socio-economically based abusive affair and finds the object of his love dead; and the town man, who dared to take the bet and fall in love with the recluse Madera Bree, is eaten by her pigs in punishment for what she perceived as a betrayal.
The collection ends with “The Strongest Woman in the World,” a love story of sorts with its unnamed narrator, a literally impossibly strong woman at its center, who is also the last single woman she knows, who, finally, on a blind date, learns to love herself. Finally “seen” by her date and told that he finds her “cute,” the narrator’s body shrinks to a normal size, stripped of its power and strength that have defined her, and Fraterrigo ends the collection with her words: “Finally, I know who I am supposed to be.” As with all the characters in these delicious stories who have struggled to be saved, to save someone else, or to simply utter a similar line, it is only this narrator who realizes that who she is supposed to be is a transient amorphous thing, and not the thing she thought she was at all—the nucleus of Melissa Fraterrigo’s The Longest Pregnancy and the question she dares to imagine over and over.
—reviewed by Karen Dwyer
Nothing in the World (a novella) by Roy Kesey, Bullfight Media 2006
Opening the first page of Roy Kesey’s Nothing in the World is like slipping into a dream and never waking up. Josko is an ordinary young man, yearning for his sister, who has married and moved away. It is only after the Serb guerillas attack Krajina that Josko is forced out of his childhood and into the extraordinary role of a soldier/hero, in the midst of a country falling apart. The winner of the Bullfight Little Book Prize, Kesey’s novella astounds as he portrays Josko’s nightmarish journey efficiently, effectively and engrossingly.
The first glimpse we get of Josko is poignant and indicative. He has just taken a drink from the spigot, when two butterflies settle at the puddle by his feet. He stills, then leans down to capture them. He “felt the faint beat of wings against his palms, parted his thumbs and peered inside and saw that his hands were empty.” Josko comes up empty many times throughout the book. He assigns himself a series of missions, the first being to enlist as a soldier in order to protect his family and his country. It is then that the terror begins. Expecting glory, he is instead placed with a mix-match of half-fit soldiers, in the middle of nowhere and with next to no means of defense. On his next mission, he journeys through the wilderness to find his sister. He finally reaches her town, only to find the house she is supposed to be living in empty and falling apart. On his journey, Josko battles starvation, delirium and dehydration so badly that when he tries to drink, his throat closes up and it is a battle even to swallow. In his delirium he has been hearing a strange girl’s voice in his head. He follows it, taking her screams as a warning and her singing as encouragement, all the while searching for his next mission, next meal, next drink of water.
Kesey does a wonderful job of representing ordinary people caught up in the madness of war. At one point in his travels Josko asks a girl for food. She, thinking he is going to rape her, tells him that there is nothing for him to take that hasn’t been taken once already. When he tells her he wouldn’t rape her because then the others would come, she laughs and tells him that there are no others. The two share a bed without sharing each other, and both are grateful for the civil company of a like soul in the midst of takers and destruction. Both Josko and the girl have been tested beyond the limits of how much a human being should be tested in a lifetime, and the two bond over separate sorrows.
It’s amazing how much Kesey manages to tell in such a short amount of time. He writes with a sense of urgency that matches Josko’s, keeping the story moving along at breakneck speed. In a matter of only a few pages, Josko learns that the war has begun in earnest, enlists, goes through training, and is manning an “air defense system…a relic from World War II, its barrel pitted with rust inside and out.”
In between the accounts of Josko’s travels, Kesey also inserts a few italicized chapters, each beginning more or less the same. “What happened was this: There was once an old woman/man….” The repetition of these stories adds to the surreal quality of the novella. In addition, the three italicized tales seem to indicate Josko’s attitude toward his changing missions. The story of the old woman who makes the best of her misfortunes represents Josko’s idealism and naiveté in the beginning. The man whose vineyard burns just as he receives financial help is told at a time when Josko feels that life keeps pulling the rug out from under him. The story of the old woman whose roof has been blown up begins with her being happy at living directly under the sun and the moon, and ends with the ominous innuendo of the coming winter and death. It is at this moment that Josko considers abandoning his mission, but then the girl’s voice rises again in a scream, and he knows he must hurry.
Nothing in the World chronicles a runaway soldier on a courageous journey in which he must give literally everything for his family and his country. He is stretched to the limits of human endurance, taking every test thrown at him and throwing it right back, still suffering as he does so. In the end, Josko’s story is truly a nightmare, and one can’t help but shudder and wonder whether or not he will ever wake up.
—reviewed by Kelly Zavala
Public Works: Short Fiction and a Novella by Christopher Grimes, Fiction Collective 2, 2005
Reduction to our ilk is an animal’s instinct for blood. Words, pictures, sculptures, buildings and nebula are like rabbit droppings on a field of snow from which we strive to infer the meal that produced them.
Applying this interpretation-as-scatology analogy to Public Works, it appears Christopher Grimes has been dining well at the table of postmodern fiction while snacking on innumerable invisible literatures (codes of ordinances, scientific journals, task-force reports) that saturate our textualized lives. Bottom line: Grimes’s debut short-fiction collection contains some good shit; his stories are always clever and often profound takes on the limits of human cognition. Aficionados of postmodern minimalism and maximalism will appreciate how Grimes successfully fuses the maximalists’ art of expansion—their will-to-master excessive amounts of ever-proliferating information—with the minimalists’ art of retraction—their aversion to verbosity.
Recently, the most ambitious and successful postmodern fiction has been prodigious meganovels (Infinite Jest, Mason & Dixon), but Public Works demonstrates that addressing systemic complexity doesn’t require a rainforest’s worth of paper. Tackling potentially massive topics under extreme constraints, Grimes brings a systems sensibility to short fiction. Collectively, his fictions provide a vision of systemic interconnectedness that subtly challenges the individualistic neoliberal ideology informing most mainstream political and fictional representations.
Exhibit #1: The narratees of “Customs in a Developing Country: A Prefatory Story” are foreigners who, whilst having their possessions inspected, receive a lecture on acculturation by an alternately brusque and gregarious customs officer. Though he espouses ostensibly progressive values—promoting multiculturalist tolerance, condemning grotesque celebrity culture, appreciating cultural differences—his platitudes provide rhetorical cover for systemic and habitual politico-economic exploitation. We realize we’re visiting a fascist regime, and when the officer, a contemporary Virgil guiding us into postmodern purgatory, cautions, “like everyone else who passes through here, there was no way to know where her visit was going to lead. It’s ironic, a vicious, vicious irony that we are made to labor under…please keep this in mind as you strike out now amongst us,” (107) his words sound doubly ominous: first we hear the implicit threat; then we recognize how this “developing country” uncannily resembles our bushwhacked homeland. It’s a vicious irony indeed.
Exhibit #2: “The Public Sentence” is an eight-page, single-sentence story concerning a more benign civil servant, a young Doctor, the Assistant Regulator of Flowage for Bismarck, ND’s Public Works, who is struggling to respond to a bizarre environmental accident—a sewage spill and a “burgeoning turtle population” (24) that threatens the Missouri River ecosystem—for which he is partly to blame. Just how blameworthy is the multimillion-dollar question this hilarious tale about agency panic raises. The doctor committed a simple mechanical error to be sure; but what about the “bad advice given…by the Indian Municipal Government in Delhi,” which recommended releasing a species of turtles that “subsists on decaying matter” into the river? And why didn’t the Emergency Advisory Committee foresee that Midwestern Americans, unlike the Dehlians, wouldn’t keep the turtle population in check by eating them? Grimes packs a multiplicity of captivating mini-narratives, from the Doctor’s relationship with an Argentinean musician to turtle-eradication plans intended to promote “cultural events,” into his dense, digressive tale which, in the growing annals of American Lit about waste and excretory systems, may rank up there with Slothrop’s mythical sewer descent in Gravity’s Rainbow .
Exhibit #3: “Moving Vehicles,” a tale told by a self-absorbed psychotherapist frustrated by her inability to cure Pauline’s acute “automobile anxiety,” lampoons the presumptuousness of narrative therapy, which vulgarizes deconstructive and psychoanalytic theories about how one’s sense of self-identity is linguistically mediated by reducing them into trite self-help slogans like the ‘healing power of narrative.’ The psychotherapist repeatedly recounts an annual, pre-river-crossing ritual during which nomadic Kirghiz tribespeople say their final goodbyes to “old and infirm” members whom they must leave behind to die: thus, a tale illustrating the sacrifices required for a pre-modern community to sustain itself becomes an inspirational anecdote for bourgeoisie facing ‘lifestyle choices.’ However, she can’t figure out how to apply the tale to Pauline’s phobia; her musings on this “intolerable” situation leads to a startling revelation: a car hit Pauline, and she will probably die. The comedy gets darker: the psychotherapist’s naive commitment to a reality shaped entirely by individual acts of renarrativization and her crudely materialist view of language (which she likens to kitty litter covering up, you guessed it…) render her oblivious to others’ real suffering. The story closes with the psychotherapist’s imaginary account of Pauline’s accident, which ends abruptly at the moment Pauline went unconscious. The psychotherapist’s failure of imagination parallels her constant failure to reflect upon the ethics of her narrative appropriations and her reductively utilitarian approach to narrative.
In sum, Grimes provides a public service by presenting readers the opportunity for substantive yet fun reflections on the perversity of our neoliberal condition.
—reviewed by Eric Dean Rasmussen
Second Language by Ronna Wineberg, New Rivers Press, 2005
There is not much in life more melancholy than divorce, cancer, adultery or loneliness, and yet Rona Wineberg writes all of this so brilliantly we forget to be sad and instead cheer the characters on for their courage. Her collection of stories, Second Language, deals with heartbreak and unrequited love in all of its various forms. In the process, her characters learn how to survive on their own.
While chronicling the endings of relationships, Wineberg is actually planting the beginnings of new life for her characters. In “A Crossing,” a woman faces the removal of her breast and knows nothing will be the same. “She didn’t return to any world she knew. But it was what she had.” Aware that everything from now on will be different, the woman faces her cancer head-on and without fear. In the title story, “Second Language,” Lucy takes a lover in a familiar hotel room. She discovers her father is an adulterer too and balks at the thought of continuing her own indecent relationship, thinking about her lover’s children one day finding out the same way she just has. While mourning the end of her affair, she begins to ponder the questions of love and life.
A character in “After We Went South” says, “People are always searching for the one thing they think will change their lives.” This is the crux of Wineberg’s fiction. Sonia, in “The Coin Collector,” is left with only her husband’s coins when he dies. In an effort to deal with her grief, she calls Mr. Vesper, the appraiser. In an effort to understand what she is supposed to do next in life, she finds herself relating her sense of loss to him in detail. “I’ve lived my life,” she tells him. “This is what I have left. Coins.” She thinks that by selling them, she will forget her husband and be able to move on. Mr. Vesper, instead, has the beginning of an answer when he tells her, “It may not be my place to say this. But it looks as if you’re still living your life.”
While not always graceful, these stories possess full, beating hearts that capture our attention and our sympathy. We are immensely attached to the characters. We yearn for understanding in the same way they do. We follow their trains of thought, their emotional highs and lows, their sometimes illogical conclusions. Many of the characters, in the end, feel trapped in the decisions they’ve made, and, as a result, so do we. The estranged daughter finds herself unwilling to go back home to her lover, but unable to stay in Paris where her father lives. A man practicing the Shabbat is taunted by his wife’s evolving interest in psychics and politics, undermining him even when she is not there. Their daughter is coloring in the living room and he tells her that they do not work on Saturdays. She tells him, “Mommy said it’s not work. It’s O.K. to have fun.” We feel the pain of the character as he struggles to defend his beliefs and to not seem the bad guy to his wife and children at the same time.
His story ends, as do most of the others, in heartbreak. Very old and recovering from complicated heart surgery, Cora strives to regain a closeness that may never have been there. Right before her daughter leaves, the two open their hearts to each other in a wordless exchange of unconditional love. “‘What have I left to give?’ Just the touch of old rough skin. The flutter of breath as Cora’s lips grazed her daughter’s forehead.” Cora shows us what is at the core of all of these women and their struggles, the one question they all need to ask themselves: “What have I left to give?”
The story, “The Piano,” portrays a woman succeeding at this—one of the few in Wineberg’s stories who sees what she wants and immediately seizes it. After caring for her husband and children, devotedly, for years without question, a woman buys a piano. “I had wanted a piano like this my whole life,” she says. Having given nearly everything to the people she loved, this woman finds that she needs to finally give herself something or she will be no good for either herself or her family. It is the only thing she asks for, and while her husband disapproves, he grumpily lets her keep it. She plays beautiful music and it is as if she was never tied down. It is as if she is free.
Rona Wineberg does a wonderful job of showing all her characters fully in the world they inhabit, writing almost in real time of the pain that walks hand in hand with beauty and joy. All of her characters make leaps and are awkward from time to time, and all of them come to a realization of how they want to live their life. At the heart of it all, “Second Language” is a collection of stories about how women free themselves.
—reviewed by Kelly Zavala
The Smallest People Alive by Keith Banner, Carnegie-Mellon University Press, 2004
The heart of Keith Banner’s America smells like cat piss and is littered with unpaid bills. At work, his characters wear humiliating uniforms with nametags that have their names spelled wrong. K-Mart is doing well in Keith Banner’s America. So is Old Country Buffet and Lay-Z-Boy. The pills people take are not the fun ones. The colors are institutional green and cement gray. When there is carpet, it’s shag. The citizens are uniformly overweight, gay, and pale. They drive small, unpaid for cars, live in tiny apartments in crappy apartment buildings, dream minor dreams—like to stop working at a mental institution. They are the smallest people alive. But they have big, achy desires. And they love in varied and endless ways.
The title story, which was awarded an O. Henry prize, has a young man coming to terms with the botched suicide of Ben, his best friend and first lover. Ben tried to asphyxiate himself but only succeed in killing off parts of his brain and is now stuck at home with his parents, trying to relearn everything. In “The Wedding of Tom & Tom,” lifelong institutional inmates and obsessive lovers are about to be separated, because a manager thinks their passion has made them a danger to each other. The narrator, who witnesses Tom B. on his knees in front of Tom A. during her first night shift at the institution, takes pity on them and throws the lovers a wedding before they’re forced apart. In “Spider in the Snow,” a father traveling to his ex-wife’s house for Christmas to see his children has a detour on the way: he blows a stranger named Spider in the bathroom stall of a Greyhound station. The gorgeous, sad story “The Doll the Fire Made,” depicts a man going through the motions of being a good friend to his ex-lover after the lover has decided to go straight and get married. In the resulting loneliness, Banner finds the moment when even the best-intentioned middle-aged man crumbles before his desires, and forces his lips on a teen-age boy. In “Where You Live,” an EMT saves a boy from suicide only to seduce him. “Holding Hands for Safety” is narrated by Brian, a fat awkward boy, a boy people suspect of being gay not because of some particularly fey quality, but because he “has the look in his eyes of someone who wants things way too much.” Brian’s problem is he loves the wrong man: Trent, his psychopath of a cousin. After Trent confides in Brian that he has killed his younger half-sister and thrown her in the dumpster, Brian can’t bring himself to turn Trent in.
If Banner keeps writing these stories, he will float up into the stratosphere presently reserved for the likes of Mary Gaitskill, Katherine Anne Porter, Denis Johnson, and Flannery O’Connor. He’s not scared of drama. His touch isn’t particularly light. He doesn’t lean on the quirky and clever as so much of contemporary writing does. These stories don’t burp out some subtle bittersweet truth in the end. They are bold and harrowing and, starting with the first sentence, they will make you ache. They will ask you to laugh your ass off, then immediately feel bad for laughing, then laugh some more. Keith Banner has found the loneliest and scariest paths to beauty. His characters travel these paths with passion, grace, and a wicked humor. And the map of contemporary American literature is larger because of them.
—reviewed by Michael Anthony Fitzgerald
The Royal Ghosts by Samrat Upadhyay, Houghton Mifflin, 2006
In his first story collection, Arresting God in Kathmandu, Samrat Upadhyay introduced Western readers to the changing society of present day Nepal. Modernization had affected not only the outward appearance of Kathmandu, but the inner lives of its residents. Upadhyay recorded with precision the divide between individual desires and the will of traditional society. Parents brought together in arranged marriages, for example, grew frustrated when their children fell in love and resisted tradition.
In The Royal Ghosts, Upadhyay returns to his native Kathmandu, but this time his characters must reconcile their duties and desires against the backdrop of violent Maoist insurgencies and a slain royal family. In the title story, a taxi driver observes the royal corpses on television, bodies wrapped in white cloth, faces ashen and twisted. They have been caught, he thinks, in the final moments of their own horror. But murdered royals fail to be the primary concern of this narrator. On the day of the massacre, he discovers his brother in bed with a man. Now he must choose. He must leave his sibling behind or fight to understand homosexuality, facing the death of his own rigid convictions.
Upadhyay remains a great observer of the forces at work in Nepali society. His women and men contend with their responsibilities as parents, children, and lovers, but rarely linger in resistance. He finds them walking fast, afraid of their own anger, afraid of their capacity for acceptance and to surrender.
In “A Servant in the City,” a young man from a mountain village finds work as the servant to the long suffering mistress of a married businessman. He develops an attachment to her that nears obsession. Captivated by her desperation and misery, he pledges himself to her. He believes he cannot escape her temperament or history, and “somehow he knew that this was how things would continue for a long time to come.”
“The Weight of a Gun” is a fine example of the precision and control that led early reviewers to call Upadhyay “a Buddhist Chekhov.” A mother finds a gun in her schizophrenic son’s mattress days after he threatens to join the Maobadis. Searching the valley for him, the child she finds is not her disabled son, but her husband’s troubled new wife. The final moments of the story may surprise readers, but on further consideration the same events seem truly inevitable.
Each story in The Royal Ghosts shines with emotional truth. Upadhyay provides an important human context to our news reports of Nepal’s tattered monarchy and ongoing political crises, yet his words carry the timeless appeal of enduring literature. His characters find answers and connections where they least expect them, and certainly Upadhyay’s unflinching focus on his homeland insists we look more honestly at our own.
—reviewed by Stacy Bierlein
The Three Incestuous Sisters by Audrey Niffenegger, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2005
Audrey Niffenegger’s oversized “visual novel” contains sparse wording and rich illustration. The haunting, minimal fairy-tale includes an abundance of hand-colored drawings. These etchings engage the reader in Niffenegger’s story of three longhaired sisters who dwell together in an isolated house near the sea. Ophile is intelligent, has blue hair, and is consumed with misery. Clothilde is a talented redhead who practices levitation. She suffers from headaches brought on by birds that pluck out her hair. Bettine is a pretty blond who falls in love with Paris, the purple-haired son of the recently deceased lighthouse keeper. After Bettine becomes pregnant with Paris’ son, Clothilde connects with her future nephew in the womb, spiritually and intellectually. She teaches him astronomy, mathematics, and the theory of flight. However, Ophile is consumed with jealousy over the pregnancy, and causes an accident that leads to Bettine’s death. After the child is born in a pool of his mother’s blood, Paris is consumed by grief and runs away. Ophile and Clothilde wrestle with despair over the loss of their sister and the disappearance of their green-skinned baby nephew.
Niffenegger incorporates the gothic and the disturbing into her tale through her aquatints. Macabre etchings of unquiet minds accompany spare lines of text like “drowning, drowning in sadness, and the sea.” Niffenegger’s black cats, pecking birds, and desperate humans echo unsettling images found in stories by Poe and movies by Hitchcock. Several drawings evoke the alienation found in Edvard Munch’s classic painting The Scream. As a visual artist, Niffenegger also incorporates the linear qualities of Gustav Klimt. Her illustrations feature angular characters dressed in grey hues. Violet, blue, scarlet or yellow hair colors add a splash of light. Niffenegger’s aquatints effectively convey tenderness, sadness, temptation, and rebirth.
An interesting and offbeat creation, Niffenegger’s book was begun long before she wrote her best seller, The Time Traveler’s Wife. She calls her visual novel “the book of my heart, a fourteen-year labor of love.” The book comments on despair and the human search for meaning. Persevering through life’s difficulties can bring redemption, and this is the message in The Three Incestuous Sisters. It is a tale of madness and enchantment, darkness and beauty, tragedy and resolution.
—reviewed by Sarah Klose