Top 10 Best and Worst of 2014

20 Dec

2014 has been an amazing year of reading books for me—thanks to AWP, meeting more publishers of independent presses, and mostly avoiding mainstream literary fiction. The following is a best-and-worst of the books published this year that I happened to read this year. It does not include books by dear friends because I have three dear friends with great books this year, and that just gets silly. (If only all Brooklyn critics could opt out in this way, the year-end lists would be different indeed!)

1. Best: Testo Junkie, by Beatriz Preciado

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An “autoerotic intoxication protocol” by a Spanish post-Marxist feminist and gender renegade that has changed the way I understand my body, my life and that emotional, intellectual and sexual cyber-prosthesis sometimes called a laptop. Scary, scary shit that everyone should read.

2. Worst: Department of Speculation, by Jenny Offill

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This was a very good Brooklyn Mother book, impressively structured, witty, well-written, and deserving of its many accolades compared to the others in its genre, but its existence annoyed me for a large chunk of 2014. I felt that Offill failed to bring any heart or soul or greatness of spirit into the airless chamber of bitching that is her topic. She said it well, but she said nothing new.

3. Best: Seiobo There Below, by Laszlo Krasznahorkai

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Fall down and start screaming and wailing and gnashing your teeth at this cult Hungarian writer’s unchecked brilliance. The Krasznahorkai is  a blizzard of ecstatic layers on art, transcendence and God. The Krasznahorkai is unknowable, immersive and deranged. Please read the Krasznahorkai. I also interviewed the translator for The Paris Review, which was good fun.

4. Worst: The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell

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Has no one else noticed that David Mitchell’s voices are boring? As a young woman, I loved Cloud Atlas, but I also brazenly skipped the parts in dialect. Mitchell has moments of lovely prose and interesting, intricate plotting, but for vast rafts of the novel the point is to enjoy the voices, and I don’t. To me these quirky characters don’t feel like people and, thanks to plentiful mimetic indulgence, bring us gems like “I felt like a clubbed baby seal.”

5. Best: Fear, by Gabriel Chevallier (re-issued this year by the NYRB imprint)

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This obscure volume by a sardonic teenage Frenchman starts with the smell of war and tells us everything from there. The most honest and illuminating book on trench warfare I’ve ever read.

6. Best and Worst: Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel, by Anya Ulinich
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Lena Finkle got divorced and lived on to have hot sex and a happier life, contrary to what mainstream culture would have us believe. Best book, most beautiful illustrations, worst New York Times Review.

7. Best: Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
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A NAB (non-American black) view on race in America in very-funny-immigrant-novel format. Adichie provides social comedy, social commentary and takes neither shit nor prisoners. This book is about blackness, but the send-ups of whiteness are also pretty eye-opening.

8. Worst: Sugar Skull, by Charles Burns
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This is only a “worst” book in comparison to the other two volumes of Burns’s X’ed Out series, two of my favorite graphic novels—or novels, period—of all time. I was let down by the overly literal and tidy end.

9. Best: I Loved You More, by Tom Spanbauer
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Despite having spilled my own ink, I still prefer Rob from LitReactor’s statement on Tom Spanbauer: “The sensation of reading his books is that, while you’re reading them, it’s like he’s placed his hand on your chest, the warmth and pressure and intimacy of it reassuring you that you are alive, and you are not alone.” Yes. That.

10. Best: The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq, by Hassan Blasim 
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The absurdity and horror of living in the political catastrophe that is Iraq is laid out in these tight, disturbing, allegorical stories by an Iraqi writer. I haven’t read anything quite like this.

34. A Really Terrible Review of Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel, by Anya Ulinich

3 Dec

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It’s not that often that a book I care deeply about gets reviewed by The New York Times, so, I was happy and then very sad to see Claudia La Rocco’s review of Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel, a graphic novel by Anya Ulinich, a book I’ve been telling people about and looking forward to writing about for months. (The review came out this summer; I’m writing about it now because the book is rightfully getting some good year-end press).

The Lena Finkle story in its rough outlines is about a late-30s, divorced Russian-Jewish immigrant with two children who falls in crazy, obsessed, high-school love with a Svengali-ish man, and then goes berserk when he dumps her, a time she calls “my year of unreasonable grief.” She writes the book in an attempt to understand what the fuck just happened to her, and why.

The answer is partially sex—the Svengali, whom she calls “the Orphan,” is the first person she’s had good sex with—and partially everything that informs sex. An incident of sexual abuse she endured as a child, her stilted, emotionally abusive marriage, body-hatred, shame, all the things she’s never done. Here’s a passage representative of the deep, awful honesty with which Finkle exposes herself, writing about her marriage:

“Anyway, we’d be eating some hundred dollar meal, and I’d be so bored, and Josh would snipe at the kids about their manners, and Dasha would cry silently, and we’d inevitably get into a fight… And I hated fighting and my heart would race, but I’d also be relieved because having this $100 fight absolved me from having to have sex later…”

And here she is talking to the Svengali. I’m going to reproduce these lovely and excruciating two pages in full.

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The last segment of the book represents Finkle, after the Svengali leaves her, during her heartbreak and sleepless nights, as a baby chick, endlessly repeating the phrases “I love you” and “Why?” It’s the best representation I’ve seen of that sleepless-weight-loss-breakup-despair. Hilariously, the baby-chick frames repeat with a frame where the depressed Finkle carries on the relentless bare-minimum functions of motherhood, telling her kids, over and over, “Eat your food.”

“I love you.” “Why?” “Eat your food.”

It’s a dark night of a grown woman’s soul, gorgeously rendered, and also hilariously funny.  This book wrote itself into my brain; lines, frames, exchanges were floating up out of the darkness weeks after I read it. I didn’t just like Lena Finkle, I loved her. She made me laugh at my own pain.

The book raises many questions. Why do women fall for Svengalis of the particular type Ulinich writes about? Are you better off divorced and dating than you were unhappily married? Where does that baby-chick place come from, and how do we cope when someone accesses it? Is the crazy-love worth the heartbreak? How do you balance motherhood with finding yourself?

With all of these themes to work with, in addition to class and immigration, the Claudia La Rocco review in The New York Times chose…wait for it… that protagonist was a narcissist and unlikeable, those two time-honored ways of dismissing women’s writing. And the argument for why Finkle was unlikeable was that she dared talk about herself.  Here’s the outrageously negative-slant quote: “She spends the 361 pages of this first-person account relentlessly in search of a self, armed with an OkCupid account, an irrepressible inner voice rendered as a miniature Lena, and a penchant for quickly reducing others to bit players in her one-woman show.” So many pages! So relentless! The horror! And imagine, she’s a main character, that egomaniac!

Ulinich addressed the narcissism issue in the book–which is rich in literary allusion (the title is a Malamud reference)–in a panel where her character Lena Finkle talks to an imaginary version of Philip Roth about how men can get away with writing about themselves and their sexual exploits and women can’t. She’s explicitly aware of how women are dismissed, and quite funny on the topic. La Rocco mentions that, but dismisses it too, in a fabulously incoherent passage about Lena Dunham whose argument is so murky I’m unable to summarize it.

“The success of a writer and director like Lena Dunham, forging her own engrossing brand of 21st-century narcissism, gives a bit of room to hope that this aspect of artistic sexism is easing (either that, or she’s the exception of the moment who proves the rule).”

Did you get that? Lena Dunham’s (narcissistic!) success means it’s OK for women to talk about herself (without being called a narcissist!), so that narcissist Anya Ulinich has nothing to worry about.

That this form of sexism is still happening, and goes unremarked in the pages of The New York Times, makes me sick as a woman, a writer, and a reader. Does anyone, ever, police what kind of man a male protagonist can be? A male character can be a shallow, hopeless cipher, and all we ask is what the author intends with this artistic choice. Women to this day still have to write good girls, or have to write bad girls of a culturally sanctioned sort (sexy, pretty, and nonthreatening to men), or else the debate will be moved off their writing, and onto what kind of woman they are.

And this is just what La Rocco does between the lines by spending the rest of the review, after the narcissism part, branding Ulinich’s book as lightweight women’s entertainment, mostly through association with Girls. I.e., Ulinich is  the kind of woman who is not a serious writer (and also a slut, see below). Lena Dunham, according to La Rocco, is “the artist with whom Ms. Ulinich is most strongly in conversation”—(this is despite literal conversations with Philip Roth and the long passages about Malamud…what a girl would have to do to be taken seriously, I don’t know). La Rocco justifies the comparison because the book is “a fast read, but not a dumb one,” which is “pitched toward the same pop culture consumers who are drawn into the best serial shows.” And because both Lenas are “unapologetic about having personalities more engrossing than likable.”

La Rocco can’t come out and say it, but by invoking fast-and-dumb, and calling the readers “consumers,” she’s calling the book chick lit.

This is a graphic novel, starring a Russian-Jewish immigrant and named after a Malamud story. Can we really say that anything named Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel is making a wide bid for lightweight popularity? Really? And why are female readers of stories about sex suddenly “consumers” and not “readers”?

There is a case for the Girls comparison. A writer as allusion-savvy as Ulinich did not name her protagonist Lena for nothing. But it’s not the case La Rocco makes. The real case is in La Rocco’s second point, that both Lenas are “unapologetic about having personalities more engrossing than likable,” which itself is a fig-leaf for something nastier. I am not an expert on Lena Dunham, but I’d be very surprised if she were really unapologetically unlikeable. Lena Finkle certainly isn’t. Both are, however, unapologetic about having sex while being not-what-they’re-supposed-to-be: not stick-thin and not (conventionally) pretty. (For the record, I think both Lena Finkle and Lena Dunham are gorgeous). In Finkle’s case it’s also daring to have sex while being divorced and a mother. La Rocco clearly finds this unlikeable, and tries to dismiss it as a valid topic by saying that a woman’s sexual fulfillment “shouldn’t be noteworthy at this point in pop culture.”

I would say that the hubbub over Girls and the recent vicious attacks on Lena Dunham’s character make it totally, painfully clear that the type of woman allowed to have sex is a topic that’s not old, not boring and not at all over, but instead is pure cultural dynamite.

And when the wrong type of woman has sex, what do we do? We slut-shame her. The opening line of La Rocco’s review is,  “There are a lot of men floating around in Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel.”  Sounds vaguely pornographic, doesn’t it? I don’t want lots of men floating in my barrel. The next describes Finkle’s “myriad, typically dispiriting sexual adventures,” despite that the book’s focus is a love story, albeit disastrous, about a woman having the best sex of her life. In another place, La Rocco describes, “Lena’s full-on downward spiral after the dissolution of the most substantial sexual bond she forges, a four-month entanglement…” Doesn’t Lena sound flighty and promiscuous, with her sordid, brief affairs? These characterizations completely ignore the love story (calling it an “entanglement”) and another substantial part of the novel detailing a life-long relationship with a first boyfriend in Russia. It’s like La Rocco saw the promiscuity (yes, there is some, and it’s thoughtful, deeply mined and hilarious) and couldn’t see the rest of the book.

She does some divorced-woman shaming, too:

“Lena’s is bankrolled by her ex-husband’s child support; he toils away at a deadening day job, while she nonetheless manages to think ungenerous things about him as she toys with her going-nowhere second novel.”

It’s appalling that a writer in The New York Times can get away with saying that a woman (or a man, or anyone receiving child support) is supposed to feel guilty and beholden for it. It demonstrates complete unawareness of the complexities of unpaid domestic work. And to say that a woman with a well-received first novel (as Lena’s in the book is characterized to be) is “toying” with her second book is equally disgusting.

My overall impression was that the reviewer had a personal dislike for this character—based exactly on the hot-button issues Ulinich is pushing, and instead of saying so and saying why, which could have been an interesting review at least, fell into some lazy and confused conventions in order to use her position to dismiss the book. It’s maddening that I’ve spent this many words writing about a bad review instead of an excellent book, and I can only beg you all to go buy Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel and see for yourselves.

33. Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

27 Nov

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What a beautiful and heartbreaking, sweeping, great novel, told from a multiplicity of interwoven perspectives in the 1960s, during the brief, doomed life of the African state of Biafra.

The only thing I knew about Biafra was Jello Biafra (front-man for awesome punk band The Dead Kennedys, once upon a time), so I enjoyed a nearly perfect process of suspense and discovery as I first got to know the characters and then began to suspect where their political situation was headed, and then understood what role they played as metaphors for their social class and their society.

Chimamanada Ngozi Adichie is a beautiful writer, with the skill to describe and stay in the moment and let events tell her story. Her characters are romantic—Odenigbo the handsome African revolutionary, the elite Ozobia twins, daughters of a corrupt Nigerian businessman, the hapless Richard writing his expat novel—but in the best sense, as people who are fun to read about, who grasp our attention and mean something a little more than themselves.

Funnily, I read a slam of Adichie in the Los Angeles Review of Books this month, by the writer Mukoma Wa Ngugi reviewing the collection Africa39, which criticized her characters for just this quality, saying that hers is “an aesthetic that is so concerned with not telling a single story of poor, fly-infested Africans, that it goes overboard into the academic halls of Princeton, of mansions, housemaids and casually worn and perhaps ill-gotten wealth.” Wa Ngugi says that this is an “African, middle-class aesthetic.” I suppose I can see that, but it seems caviling, given the scope and lusciousness of this grand Africa novel. Wa Ngugi also says that her “writing style does not allow her to enter into her character’s inner lives, nor does it allow her a grasp of their trauma.”  He’s speaking of Americanah, which is up next for me, so I suppose I’ll see. I loved this book, and thought Adichie was a master of character, storytelling and theme.

 

32. Women, by Chloe Caldwell

20 Nov

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“When Finn and I are drinking in dark bars, we forget we are in public, it’s as though we go underwater. When we finish kissing, she pulls away and looks around, saying, Woah, everything is still here.”

Every white-hot train-wreck passion deserves a book, at least in the eyes of the person experiencing it. These are moments of unbearable clarity, longing, sex, perfection—the sun coming through the curtains of a rented room, a particular person’s skin, the little things they said, the way one feels that one could not possibly feel more. And then so all that feeling overflows into writing. In Chloe Caldwell’s case it’s the story of her first female lover, an affair she had with a woman twice her age, who was also in a relationship, with whom she’s pushed off the emotional edge of the world with an intensity and desperation that clearly won’t end well. The book is an e-book published by Emily Books, Emily Gould’s awesome alt-lit project.

“I ask Finn if things are always this insane and dramatic between two women, and she says yes. She says it’s either like this, or monotonous and boring. As if there is no in-between.”

I liked this book. Caldwell has a directness and clarity in writing about herself that works really well, and the casual brushstrokes of her surroundings in a small, unnamed liberal city (I dunno, Portland?) are precise. The transgender best friend, the coffee shop, the bars and library and house-sitting for wealthier friends serve to let the reader in rather than locking us out, harder to do than it appears to be.

“We lay in bed together, stoned from the cookies. The bed was against a brick wall and I began to imagine we were alone in a different city together. Let’s pretend we’re in Paris or Brooklyn, I said.”

Caldwell is young; the story takes place in her early 20s, and she makes everything she doesn’t yet know or doesn’t yet understand one of the writing’s strengths:

“Sometimes I wonder what it is I could tell you about her for my job here to be done. I am looking for a shortcut–something  I could say that would effortlessly untangle the ball of yarn I am trying to untangle here on these pages. But that would be asking too much from you. It wasn’t you who loved her, or thought you loved her.”

She’s not sure, really, what the ball of yarn is about, and doesn’t end up with an answer. There’s a quote I now cannot find where she says, something like, Oh, meaning, I’m sick of it. I give up.

I usually find that to be a drawback in writing by young writers. Two other excellent books about mad passions I’ve read this year, Cris Mazza’s Something Wrong With Her, and Anya Ulinich’s Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel, are both written by women experienced and self-aware enough to start finding answers to Why this person?  Why now? Caldwell isn’t there yet, but she knows how to tell a story based on what she’s got. At one point her therapist says about Finn, something like “you’ve got your hand an inch from your nose, she was never your friend,” which I thought was true. Respect to a girl who can write a good book with her hand in front of her face.

That hand, though blocked the view of the lover.

“I worry that if I cannot make you fall in love with her inexplicably, inexorably, and immediately, the way I did, then you will not be experiencing this book in the way I hope you will.”

I wanted to fall in love with her, but I could barely see her. I had so many questions about her that went unanswered. Why was she so stuck in the relationship that she wouldn’t leave for Caldwell? (I suspected a child had been elided from the text, though Finn seemed to have a bit too much flexibility to party and sleep over for that). It’s implied that she’s stone-butch. How did she get there? How did Caldwell feel about it? How did Finn get to this point where she’s in her 40s and has fallen in love with a 20-year-old outside of her relationship? Does the affair leave both parties alienated and unknowable? Does sexual chemistry that intense need a particular brand of otherness and pain in order to thrive? I really enjoyed thinking about these things while reading, and didn’t feel the book needed to have the answers.

Another direction that the text goes, but only implicitly, is to raise the issue of how Caldwell’s own mothering is tied up in her sexual relationship with Finn. Almost the only details we get about Caldwell’s life outside of the affair concern her mother, with whom she’s very close and feels even closer to during the affair.

“Though I’ve always felt affectionate with my mom, I feel it more acutely now. Taking her hand under the table at bars. Noticing whether or not she touches me during the night while we sleep or rubs my back in the morning.”

It’s my theory that this is why the book has the generically wide but actually quite pointed title, Women. Heaven help us when we get together. It makes a good story though.

31. The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro

8 Nov

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Now, it’s funny that I remember The Remains of the Day from high school as the boringest-looking movie of all time. A butler goes on a driving trip of the English countryside to revisit a housekeeper he once loved, played by Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompsen. Actually, 25 years later it looks preeety good, and I think I remember my mom being very jazzed about it, but as a punk-rock teen, not so much.

Which now is even funnier because this is a dark, nasty tale with a brilliant experimental usage of voice and one of Ishiguro’s trademark sliding reveals, where the tale takes shape, deepens and gets more disturbing with each tightly crafted chapter. It’s the very furthest thing from a feel-good story about a butler in love, and is enjoyable only in the punk-rock way that there’s a wicked, awful thrill in some of the terrible things it says about humanity.

If I have a criticism, which I don’t, really, it’s that he misses an opportunity to make the female lead quite as complex as the male.

30. The Shimmering Go-Between, by Lee Klein

29 Oct

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The dedication of Lee Klein’s The Shimmering Go-Between, published this August by Atticus Press, is to “everyone who has ever suffered from disbelief,” which gives a hint that the book that will lope baldly through the unbelievable.

As in, the story starts with an immaculate conception by a 12-year-old, moves into a plot about gelatinous little people who appear in a man’s facial hair after he has sex, and then enters an afterlife where people live in a town inside the man with the gummy-bear beard, committing recreational suicide by hot-air-balloon.

It’s so inventive that it almost works—or is an interesting failure, at least.

Klein has a unique voice, a combination of surreal and twee that’s not quite like anything else I’ve read. He bestows strange adventures on ordinary young office workers, denizens of minor cities. He brilliantly inhabits a space between pretty and icky.  Here, for example, is our hero, Wilson Amon, eating one of the little ladies who appear in his beard:

“One of the larger women, her features more defined, was stunning, really beautiful. Before he realized what was happening, he had her on his fingertip, admiring her beneath a desk lamp. A gorgeous creature. A living pearl with womanly curves. There was something perfect about her size, her proportions: she was only hours old, a newborn, yet already looked like a woman, no larger than the digit on which she stood. He wondered what she’d taste like. He popped her in his mouth. Just by pressing his tongue to her, he savored a delicate milky flavor. Like white chocolate. Or a thin slice of mozzarella.”

With voice alone Klein is changing the rules. Once you have a person with a “delicate milky flavor” like “white chocolate” or “a thin slice mozzarella,” and you’re ok with that person getting eaten…. you have no earthly idea where you are. And there’s good tension is in wanting to know. I was ready to absorb book-logic, and not let my expectations on murder or cannibalism disturb the narrative.

That was especially true once The Internet entered the picture, in the third chapter, with a website called autofellator.com (run by Wilson, who can suck his own dick and does so on web-cam, strangely chastely). We moderns are used to spending time in the worlds of the unreal online. I was willing to link up Klein’s fantasia with virtual reality, and to read the “world” within Wilson where the dead people live as metaphor for the Internet. The mystery of the little women—something strange that propagates indirectly with sexual connection—felt fruitful.

There are many lovely turns of phrase—an ugly chandelier is “an eternally airborne octopus of ice;” the women long to “transform into a marble, and collapse into rose-smelling mist.” But The Shimmering Go-Between is poorly written. The problem with “anything can happen” is that nothing matters when it does, and when a writer takes those risks, he or she needs exceptional scruple in other areas to keep the reader interested. Klein simply can’t get away with a narration that’s tell-not-show, or with the endless explanation and re-explanation of the plot. It’s bad writing on the craft level. Here’s a typical piece of heavy-handed plot-summary-as-dialog that should be indicative of the problems:

“So you slept with one of those mysterious naked women and then melded consciousness with Wilson and assumed control of his body and then slept with a woman named Delores and then ate some tiny women and then returned here to swallow a goop-covered marble that had been the woman you’d slept with just a little while ago?” asked Rue. “Have I got that right?”

The reader does not have it right. With all the people living inside other people, possessing other people, and using more than one name for various characters, by the end of the book I’d forgotten or maybe never knew the identity of the first-person narrator. I think it’s the nameless goop-covered marble, from inside “Brad Pitt” from inside Wilson, but I’m not sure. Passages like the following do nothing to clear it up:

“Being in Rue, wasn’t nearly as wonderful as being in Wilson or even in Brad Pitt. A lot of it probably had to do with the fact that Rue was dead. Plus, this was also around the time she’d stopped tutoring Brad Pitt, and it was clear his carousing caused her some pain. … Plus, what also detracted from my experience within her was that each time I returned to her body she seemed to have lost some elasticity, and this, as she tried to reason her way through her chronically exacerbated brittleness—combined with envious tension—made Rue much less fun, in terms of controlling, than Wilson or Brad Pitt.”

The internal state being described, from “chronically exacerbated brittleness” to “envious tension” just makes no sense. the writing is chewy, the “plus”s add up ominously, and we have no idea who is describing their experience or why we care.

I stuck it through to the end hoping for an ah-ha moment that never came. The echos of characters longing for their own annihilation (women who want to be eaten, people who suck their own cocks, people who jump from balloons….) feel relevant, but the author doesn’t seem to know what to do with them.

Klein’s wrap-up is a typically explain-y passage declaring that Wilson “felt like his capacity for affection had been caught up in his computer monitor, like a runaway puppy found frozen in a lake…. It became clear he needed to turn himself toward something outside the screen, someone beyond the confines of self.”

At that point I just woefully laughed at the cliché that we can turn away from the screen, and that good old hetero affection is the cure of over-mediation….  Like, this is an insight we can get from women’s magazines or New York Times editorials. Surely I didn’t read this whole book for this?

 

 

29. Unaccompanied Minors, by Alden Jones

16 Oct

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This post originally ran on Vol.1 Brooklyn.

In the 1980s, I went to an East Coast boarding school that was made notorious by a gang-rape of a drunk girl by a group of boys, a few years before I attended. It happened in the dorms after lights-out, and dozens of kids who weren’t participants knew about it and did nothing, including an eventual friend of mine. He was 14, terrified, and hid under his bed. As a teenager I found this bit of lore noteworthy not because it was surprising but because it wasn’t. The rape and the silence seemed just like what would happen, given the school and the people around me. The surrounding adult hysteria felt distant and insincere.

Looking back, I can no longer summon that youthful brutality but I do remember it, and was startled to find it parsed and made meaningful in the excellent, excellent Unaccompanied Minors, a collection of short stories by Alden Jones. The book won the 2013 New American Fiction Prize, and was published in June 2014 by New American Press. It takes the young and the brutal—anorexic suburban girls, bad babysitters, gay boys paying for sex from boys slightly less fortunate, a drunk party-girl making fun of homeless people, and yes, a girl who sets her friend up to be maybe date-raped—observes them omnivorously and, with the lightest of touches, makes their dramas morally relevant.

(I suppose now would be a good time to say that Alden is a college friend of mine, and I’ve seen earlier versions of most of these stories, and remember the real-life events they’re loosely based on. Reading them as a collection has been a disconcerting experience, full of new insight.)

The opening piece, “Shelter,” starts like this: “We’re in a homeless shelter in Asheville, NC. We think it’s funny. How did all these people in some hellish hickish place like Asheville, NC, get homeless, that’s what we want to know. It’s so crowded we have to sleep on the floor.” The narrator is funny, but she’s also just a little bit of a sociopath. And then the next line dislocates her further: “I’m with this dyke Spike who I met in Ft Lauderdale, FL. She’s got an old white Toyota and a tent where we’ve been sleeping the past month.”

Who is this girl, who is adrift, yet able to carelessly despise people more adrift than she? She clearly doesn’t know. She’s on the road, rootless, uncertain of her sexuality (Spike’s the dyke, not her), following her urges. Wherever she’s from, it doesn’t matter. Where she’s going, she doesn’t care. In the end, she blows off thought in favor of beer, saying, “My brain’s all clear, way too clear for me to handle much less sleep, so I say Spikey, let’s hit the road, let’s drive all night until the 7-11 decides it’s Monday and we can get ourselves a six pack.”

Thoughtless, charming, seeking—she’s a surprisingly complex character (they all are), and as the first perspective in the book, she sets up many themes—self-knowledge and its lack, compassion and its lack, the lack of familial ties, sex as an agent of change.

The second story is about an abortion, that feature of the wealthy suburbs. In the third, “Thirty Seconds,” a little boy drowns in the country club pool, seen from the point of view of his babysitter. “The fact that Johnny Kirk is dead has little to do with me,” the narrator says. Her hours were over, she wasn’t technically in charge of the boy at the time, and overall, she thinks, “I handled it well.” She’s monstrous in her lack of compassion (or possibly denial), but she’s also almost a child herself. And through her eyes we glimpse the milieu that created her and endangered her charge—the distracted, wealthy parents, the unpleasant gender expectations, the bad marriages and venal concerns. This milieu’s children, as Jones wonderfully puts it elsewhere, are “orphaned by leisure and frivolity.”

“30 Seconds” is the only story where the lack of parenting is made overt, but I felt that the silence was deafening. Parents, family, nurture, inform every page by their absence. Either that, or the author’s point is that every kid has to, eventually, invent themselves without help.

Sex is a force that drives the inventing, perhaps because it drags even the self-absorbed into contact with other people, or at least into contact with themselves.  The narrator of “Freaks,”  says that sex “lifted you out of your skin at the same time it put you more solidly inside your body than you ever had been before.” She’s explaining the feeling to her best friend, who is casually described as a “rexie,” despite the life-threatening seriousness of her condition. In this story, the body-embracing girl lives and the body-denying girl dies, a chilling winnowing that nonetheless feels true.

This story also contained a detail that’s emblematic of just how granular and good Jones’s observations are. The anorexic best friend “would pull a stick of gum out of her pocket, place the stick of gum flat on her tongue, and play with the wrapper until it was a mess of little foil-and-paper balls.” Every shade of anorexia is contained in just lying the gum flat. She’s tasting it for as long as she can without chewing it. She’s delaying the moment of taking a bite. Realizing that made  a pool of sympathetic synthetic-sugar-spit puddle on my tongue. I remember those days, too.

The point-of-view matures through different narrators as the collection advances. The sexual power discovered by the narrator in “Freaks” is refined upon by the narrator of “Heathens.” Now she’s an English teacher in Costa Rica, trying to distinguish herself as less clueless and exploitative than the evangelical American teens who come through the town to proselytize. Somehow this leads her to set up one of the evangelicals—a girl in whom she sees herself—on a date that will possibly turn into a date-rape.

Here’s her reasoning (the story is voiced as a monologue from one girl to the other):

“Molly, if you want Jorge I hope, I hope you’ll take him. But it will be more likely that you won’t. He’ll have the condoms, and he has my blessing—but even without those things Jorge might feel he has a right to you. And I’m giving you a chance to take matters into your own hands; this is my gift to you. No one to hide behind, no one to give that cute pout to, Molly. Just you. Deciding what you want and taking it.”

This terrible idea has a kind of power to it—at least, a power I would have recognized as a teenager. I think the narrator is doing the wrong thing, but I appreciate the experimentation, the narrow margins, the raw electricity of the idea. This way, when a character finally makes a good decision, for a right reason (at the very end of the last story), it’s been hard-enough won.

Before the book ends, though, there’s a pivot from stories about primarily American characters to “Sin Alley,” about a gay boy fighting to win the affection of an allegedly straight rent boy, set in Costa Rica with an all Costa Rican–cast. (His victory, naturally, comes at an enormous price in child-blood.)  The story was bridged by “Heathens,” also set in Costa Rica, but still feels anomalous since we’ve made the cultural leap from American suburbs. Ultimately I thought the linkage of such disparate groups by sexuality and danger was one of the book’s most effective surprises.

Unaccompanied minors are created by all kinds of circumstance, but they have this much in common: They were formed by a deficiency of care, and don’t know the first thing about it, and if they’re very, very lucky, hopscotching along the signposts of sex and love, they might figure it out and make it out alive. The title for the last story is a good note to end on: “Flee.” You flee something life-threatening—childhood, in this case—into the future. It’s called growing up.

 

 

 

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