Maybe I just didn’t get it. “Duplex,” the newest novel from author and writing professor Kathryn Davis, is certainly a rich and complex narrative that appears to try to parse out the complexities of growing up and experiencing life in as fantastical and surreal a world as possible. How much it succeeds in those goals may be up to the reader. The novel is in its own way captivating, but for the same reasons it entrances, it also alienates.
“Duplex,” I think, is about a young girl named Mary who falls into teenage love with her high-school boyfriend Eddie, who may or may not have died on the street where they both live in the book’s very first moments. Her town’s resident sorcerer (and possibly classmate) is captivated by her and decides she will bear his future offspring, which, I think, is a Teddy bear brought to life by his seed. (“I think” was a recurring theme for me as I read this book.) The reader is dropped into the fantastical, possibly futuristic world of “Duplex” from the first word, given no context or history, not even provided a reliable narrator. Chapters switch perspectives, stories, and time of delivery, and some of them are stories told by an older girl named Janice to her mostly unnamed younger friends. In this world some neighbors are robots, there is a maybe-protagonist who is possibly also a rabbit (or king of the rabbits) named Downie, a daughter (not daughter?) named Blue-Eyes, and references to ominously named but never-explained past events like The Rain of Beads, The Great Divide and The Aquanauts. The entire town is lost in something called Space Drift. Some of these stories are sort of told; others (The Rain of Beads in particular) are often referenced but left unexplained. Some are the titles of chapters, but do not seem to lend context. Read the rest of this entry »
By Sarah Cubalchini
Leslie Stella’s “Permanent Record” follows teenage boy Badi Hessamizadeh, an Iranian-American in post-9/11 America, who wishes to be a normal high-school student. After an incident with blowing up the school’s toilet, Badi is encouraged to attend a new school, where his name is stripped down to Bud Hess and he tries to get involved by writing for the school newspaper. But when mysterious threatening letters appear in the school newspaper, Badi’s troubled past and his much hated nickname, “towelhead,” come back to haunt him, and to prove his innocence, he must find out who’s the one writing all the letters.
After writing three adult novels, what inspired “Permanent Record?”
The idea first emerged as adult fiction about ten years ago. I wrote the book with the same setting (a Chicago private school) and some of the same characters, but from the perspective of a teacher who no longer appears in the book. (Badi, the protagonist in “Permanent Record,” appeared in that version, but as a supporting character.) That version didn’t work for a variety of reasons, so over the years and in between other projects, I rewrote it twice. I was drawn to something in that story over and over, and finally I had to figure out what it was. I realized what I had liked about the earlier versions were not the adult characters and their stories, but the teens. Read the rest of this entry »
Dara Horn has a particular gift for mixing contemporary stories with ancient ones, threading them together with resonant themes. The story of Job, for example, is a common theme in her books. Job, a decent person, suffers a great many disasters, yet never blames God or questions his faith. Why bad things happen to good people or, better yet, how people play the hand they’re dealt, however poor, is a recurring question in her novels. “A Guide for the Perplexed” sounds like it might be useful to someone like Job, and Horn’s title is based on a book called “The Guide for the Perplexed,” by Maimonides. Indeed, the Rabbi’s twelfth-century book is a work that explores the relationship between religion and philosophy. Given Horn’s propensity to delve deep into the past, the book opens somewhat surprisingly in the not-so-distant future. Josie Ashkenazi has invented a program called Genizah that logs basically every detail of your life for easy searching. The Genizah is explained early when Josie’s daughter loses her shoe—Josie simply types in her daughter’s name as well as “shoe” and is instantly shown a picture of the shoe dropping to the floor of the car. The software pulls information using mobile and home devices, and nearly everyone in the world uses it. It’s less widely used, however, in Egypt, where Josie’s jealous sister, Judith, encourages her to go and work on a special project at the library. Read the rest of this entry »
Around the halfway point of Giano Cromley’s debut novel, “The Last Good Halloween,” protagonist Kirby Russo is told by his reserved sidekick Julian that “I just realized this is like that Ferris Bueller movie.” Kirby quickly assures Julian that “What we’re doing is nothing like that movie,” but you can’t blame him for the comparison. After all, “The Last Good Halloween” is set in the eighties and features two young guys and a girl skipping school for a drive in the most cowed of the three’s father’s prized automobile. (In this case the drive is on Halloween 1988 and the car a 1969 Plymouth Roadrunner.) But as Kirby says, unlike Ferris they’re “on a mission,” and anyways Kirby’s grand rebellion much more resembles that of another smart-mouthed teenager’s: Holden Caulfield.
Kirby Russo is a member of that long line of literary protagonists that have come in the wake of JD Salinger’s most famous creation. Just as Holden calls everyone out as phony, Kirby refers to the majority of his parental figures by their first names, save for his actual father, whom he refers to as “Original Biological Contributor.” Also like Holden, Kirby takes a certain pride in his middling academic performance and claims not to be that smart. This is because Kirby is the kind of wounded asshole who you can’t help but feel bad for even as he willingly alienates the people he wants, and needs, to take him seriously. Read the rest of this entry »
At Highland Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, mental illness was cured with a balanced diet, exercise, and a few treatments of insulin coma or electro-shock therapy. The hospital was considered cutting edge in the treatment of mental health, and was where Zelda Fitzgerald spent half her life, until she and eight others perished in a fire that destroyed Highland Hospital in 1948.
Author Lee Smith takes this fascinating place in history and weaves it with fiction through the eyes of the fictional character Evalina Toussaint. Evalina narrates her own story, beginning with her childhood. Orphaned by the death of her mother, Evalina loses her home and place in life, ending up at Highland Hospital for depression. As Evalina starts to feel at home in this place, she encounters people like Robert, a young genius who can recall the most obscure facts; Dixie, a self-proclaimed debutante who just wants to be happy being a wife and mother; and Zelda Fitzgerald, the wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald, a woman who suffered from schizophrenia and excelled in every art form she touched, yet is haunted by the career as a dancer she couldn’t have. Read the rest of this entry »
If you were a writer, would you accept a deal to write a book that would only be read by one person, in exchange for two-hundred-and-fifty-thousand dollars? Sounds like a no-brainer to me—the only downside is you might write your magnum opus and it would sit in obscurity on a rich man’s book shelf instead of garnering world recognition. In Adam Langer’s new novel “The Salinger Contract,” Conner Joyce is offered this unusual deal: write a book for an eccentric millionaire and never show or tell another soul about it. It doesn’t take long for Conner Joyce to accept and, naturally, it turns out to be a bit of a deal with the devil.
The story is relayed through Joyce’s friend, Adam Langer, much like Nelly Dean conveying the shenanigans of Heathcliff and Catherine down the road. Langer shares many similarities with the author, beyond his name—he’s from Chicago but lives in Bloomington, Indiana, he’s a former editor of a New York magazine that folded, his wife is a professor. There’s something charmingly egomaniacal about the author naming his fictionalized character after himself—as if to prove once and for all that we really are the superstars of our own lives. The character, Langer, is experiencing the tortured luxurious existence of a house-husband whose spouse waits patiently for tenure at Indiana University. He’s a down on-his-luck author, estranged from most of his family who he portrayed in a thinly veiled roman à clef, and is something of a publishing pariah, having also lost his job as a book editor at a Manhattan magazine. When Conner Joyce swans in with his curious story about his contract, Langer’s feelings barely proceed beyond pure envy. After having distanced himself after his own experience, the idea of writing a book for an audience of one seems ideal. Read the rest of this entry »
Donna Tartt inspires the kind of loyalty in her readers that survives the approximate ten-year span between her books. This long-awaited third book, “The Goldfinch,” will provide a salivating public with almost 800 pages to tide them over for the next decade. It begins in Amsterdam, after some trauma has rocked Theo Decker. Resist the urge to Google-translate the few Dutch phrases and enjoy the mystery of what might have happened. Amidst his anxiety, Theo casts his mind back to a winter day with his mother in New York, the day she died. In an event that is never fully explained, he comes to possess a masterwork by a Dutch artist of little renown, Fabritius. The small, lovely painting features a goldfinch, which Theo hides. By complete coincidence, this real-life painting is currently showing at the Frick. Tartt fans, watch your worlds collide if you have an upcoming trip to Manhattan.
The first person that pops into his mind when social services arrives after his mother’s death is a not-so-close friend, Andy Barbour. The distant, wealthy family invites Theo into their home, but never provides the love and comfort he knew before. Eventually his estranged father appears and moves the boy to Vegas. The father is a gambler and an alcoholic, clearly after any money that might be coming their way. Theo is left alone in a huge, empty house in an abandoned subdivision, just down the street from a Russian kid whose father has left him in a similar situation. The Vegas portion of the book steers the book into the arena of economic unscrupulousness—as if the mortgage crisis and the fall of the economy boils down to inattentive fathers and boys run amok, doing drugs, ditching school, and hiding Dutch masterpieces in the bedrooms. Read the rest of this entry »
By Naomi Huffman
Despite the piles of books I encounter as a book reviewer and editor, I’m still often seduced by a book the old-fashioned way: a delightful cover design, a formidable number of pages, a titillating title. With Karen Joy Fowler’s “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves,” it was the latter.
But a few chapters in, Fowler seduces with something else entirely, delivering a shock that quite literally changes the “truth” of the story, at least as the reader has come to understand it so far. It’s a trick, but it’s one Fowler deals deftly, and there’s nothing cheap about it. What follows is a story about how a young girl named Rosemary grieves the loss of her sister Fern, and how the memory of that loss has haunted her even into middle age. Rosemary tells the reader what she remembers, but because she was just five years old when Fern was lost, much of the novel pertains to memory and explores how what we remember is often just as important as what we choose to forget.
Karen Joy Fowler spoke with me recently from the road, while touring to promote “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.” Read the rest of this entry »
Robert Walser might be hailed the forgotten modernist. Beyond academic circles and lovers of German literature, the reverberations of the Swiss writer are scantly felt in the English-speaking world. They are more easily perceived through the writers he influenced: Kafka, Hesse and Musil. Here is an artist who, rather than demand the special attention of the reader to appreciate a fierce, innovative style, writes from an absolutely basic level of prose. His devices are by no means a destruction, or of themselves a statement. His only tragedy, if he can be accused of having one, was being born with too big of a heart.
“A Schoolboy’s Diary and Other Stories” is a collection of short pieces translated by Damion Searls, many appearing for the first time in English. Searls’ selection spans twenty-six years, from Walser’s first work in print “Greifen Lake” (1898) to “A Model Student,” (1925) a piece from his last book “The Rose.” The work is divided into three sections—first is “The Essays of Fritz Kocher,” the essays of a recently deceased schoolboy, followed by an expansive collection of short stories, topics ranging from adultery to military service to the life of an artist and finally, his sensual odyssey through nature, “Hans.” Read the rest of this entry »
Jhumpa Lahiri’s new book, “The Lowland” begins in Calcutta. Two brothers live near two ponds—during the monsoon the ponds flood and become one. The brothers’ lives are intertwined. They are intellectual equals and beloved by their parents. Udayan is the boldest, but Subhash, the first-born, musters the bravery to join him in their childhood adventures. Udayan becomes a rebel and a revolutionary, while Subhash becomes an intellectual. While one brother becomes more extreme, the other settles into isolated university life in the United States.
Lahiri explains at great length the Naxalite movement that rose in India in the late 1960s to seventies. The movement began with a rebellion of peasant sharecroppers who rose up against unfair landowners. It was supported by students like Udayan who promoted Maoist ideology. The Naxalites were considered terrorists by the Indian government and members were often tortured if captured. Udayan is shot and killed by the police in the lowland while his parents and new wife watch. After losing his brother—the yang to his yin—Subhash returns to India and rather compulsively convinces his brother’s widow to return to Rhode Island with him. The woman, Gauri, is not safe in India and his parents clearly dislike her. She’s pregnant with his brother’s child. Together, they raise the child, but choose not to tell her about her origin. Read the rest of this entry »