26. The Guild of Saint Cooper, by Shya Scanlon

1 May

The Guild of Saint Cooper, by Shya Scanlon

This post was cross-posted earlier this week at Volume One Brooklyn.

As an alternative teenager in 1990 I was friends with many people obsessed with the TV show Twin Peaks. I could see that it was cool, but I found it baffling, not in the right way. The Kyle MacLachlan character in his dark suit was handsome, strange, an outsider, and vibrating with something that looked romantically like misery—and the actor had been Paul Atreides in Dune, my God, my forever-love—but he was a hokey FBI agent?  I couldn’t get it.

If 20 years have given me any insight into a series I still haven’t really watched, I realize now that discomfort was the point. Twin Peaks’ pleasurable narcotic anxiety comes in the distance between its two peaks, from how each character is an archetype and its opposite.

The Guild of Saint Cooper by Shya Scanlon, a novel coming out in May from Dzanc Books, is an homage of a sorts to Twin Peaks and MacLachlan’s Special Agent Dale Cooper. Scanlon’s hero is a struggling writer named Blake, who pursues a mysterious Dale Cooper through a post-apocalyptic Seattle and across various meta-fictional hijinks. Dzanc is a small imprint known for cultural insider-ness, and this is a manhood tale for the type of reader who knows he’s chasing archetypes, necessarily ephemeral, fictional, hey, based on a surrealist TV show, fuck it, it’s what we’ve got.

When the story starts our hero Blake is living with his mother in a Seattle that has been evacuated for a happening-any-minute global-warming catastrophe (melting polar ice cap, tsunami) and left to the survivalists, cult members, bicycle-pot-dealers and other people who won’t leave. At first there’s kind of a pleasant summer-in-a-college-town vibe. Blake has stayed—actually he’s come deliberately from elsewhere—because his mother lives there and she’s dying of breast cancer. But he’s also slacking, avoiding writing a follow-up to a first novel and has been abandoned by his wife.

Scanlon’s prose is wonderful and very funny. An emergency radio crackles “like a dog eating bones,” a pretty girl’s shirtsleeves fall back “to reveal pure white arms like lines of cocaine.”

Men other than Blake—his younger brother, a survivalist neighbor, a man building a bathysphere to protect his wife and child during the upcoming flood, are grappling with the situation. Of himself, Blake says that “neglect was a lifestyle decision.” The action opens with him stealing a TV from a neighbor’s abandoned house instead of doing anything useful.

I found this flawed character engaging because he cares what kind of man he is. Most of the book’s riffs and variations seem to ask, on one level or another, What am I doing in this emergency and what does it say about me?, a question that can be extrapolated to all of life. Blake’s answer is nothing, or storytelling, or having, as he once puts it, a “deep faith in symbols.”

Scanlon has published a book of poetry as well as other novels, and he uses resonance like a poet. Most of the book’s ideas come out in riffs and juxtapositions, which are both messy and thought-provoking. For example, in one scene Blake and his brother are trying to install a broken sculpture sent by their absent father, who most likely seems to have abandoned them. Kent, the competent brother (banker, kids, survivalist mojo), has poured cement and Blake says,

“…without him, I would never think to use cement. Intellectually, I recognized that it was doubtless a simple task, and the bag indeed bore clear instructions for its use. But there was something remarkable about my brother’s seemingly native expectation that such instructions would be perfectly suitable, would fill the gap between experience and effort. I had no such faith.”

A few sentences later Kent asks,

“‘Blake, are you going to help or just stand there?’”

Blake can’t take on the man-of-action ethos, which requires you to grab tools and do home improvement projects with confidence. But, broken sculptures are one of the book’s beautiful echos, and they join many broken things, from Kandinsky paintings to disassembled clocks as metaphors for the book itself. And Blake, we know, is a writer of books. So which brother is the more successful inheritor of the father’s gift, the one who can pour concrete or the one who is making a sculpture?

It doesn’t matter, Blake is disappointed in himself, and in a conflicted, half-assed way wants more from himself, and the increasingly broken narrative rises to the challenge. The book is divided into five sections, with chapters labeled Day 1 through Day 38, and there are enough structural innovations as we move through skewed versions of Blake’s adventures that I don’t want to spoil anything by saying more about the plot. I was not ultimately sure how it all tied up or if it perfectly did so.

The post-apocalyptic and metafictional elements slowed me down as a reader, which might go back to the fact that I am not a Twin Peaks fan and have limited patience—and specific tastes—when it comes to the surreal. But still I was seduced by the prose and the puzzles. The book needs to be read forwards and backwards, several times, underlining symbol groups from birds to aliens to underage girls in order to get the drift. Do it that way and Dale Cooper, manly man, FBI agent, fake, lover of New Ageism, trafficker in symbols, becomes more and more interesting as the focus of a manhood-quest, especially as his existence becomes more questionable and theoretical.

Here’s another riff: Our hero Blake’s absent wife is also named Blake, a really nice post-gender twist that creates an equivalency between two human beings and allows Blake to compare himself  as well to the women in the book. How do his actions stack up to the coping skills of his mother and wife? And he’s not emasculated by them, either, always a sexist trope; it’s a sincere comparison. In this leveled world “manhood” itself is questionable, theoretical, and surreal. Sort of like Dale Cooper. Pretty brilliant, no?

Jillian, by Halle Butler

28 Apr

Jillian by Halle Butler

I saw Halle Butler read recently, and she kicked off the introduction to her first novel, published by Curbside Splendor, with a line something like, “This book is about a girl who is obsessed with hating her co-worker. And that’s all that happens.”

Everyone laughed.

The girl’s name is Megan, the hated co-worker’s name is Jillian. The book begins like this:

“Jillian was in the rapture of one of her great musings.

‘But what I really want is to be a personal assistant or go door to door and help people get organized. Not, like, as a psychologist, but I might be good at that, too. More like helping people get the right bins and sort through their stuff. Just go in and help people get organized.’

‘You really like organizing?’ Megan asked. Megan was not listening. She pronounced it flatly. ‘You really like organizing.'”

I bought the book hoping that Megan, the girl who obsesses about hating the co-worker, will turn out to be much crazier and more pathetic than the co-worker, Jillian. Nail the right voice, and you could do great things with this kind of backwards, outer-focused way to tell someone’s story. And it was partially the case. Megan, who is 24, quickly reveals herself to be lost and insecure, jealous of her friends’ successes, smoking and drinking too much, whining to her boyfriend, taking poisonous hangover shits, suffering embarrassing accidents, and so on.

Butler also has a knack for the horrors of office life. Here’s the description of that endless micro-nightmare, the communal mini-fridge:

“The microwave beeped in the background. The microwave was in the closet where they kept drug samples, and it sat atop of the mini-fridge. People used the mini-fridge to store both lunches and biological samples, side by side. Megan did not like to use the mini-fridge or the microwave. She did not like to think about how the heat from the microwave might combine the side by side contents of the mini-fridge.”

It’s funny, but the existential horror of the young person upon entering the workforce and discovering its textureless banality—the biological samples are right next to your lunch, and no one cares—is meaningful. Megan is facing the blank wall of either successfully entering corporate America, as her friends are doing, or failing and doing mind-numbing clerical work. Two bad choices many of us have faced. There’s a moment of perfect satire in this vein when Carrie, a loathed young-corporate-creative character that Megan is jealous of, is showing photos of a llama her boss bought from a homeless guy (presumably a stuffed llama), which Carrie thinks is hilarious. Megan knows enough to be aware of how the story shows Carrie’s privilege, and disgusted by it.

However, the overall premise wasn’t what I hoped it would be. The narration is third-person omniscient (despite that it sounds mostly like Megan) and spends equal time following Jillian as a character in her own right, as well as jumping into a few other people’s heads along the way. The point, I think, was to show us that Jillian and Megan’s two downward spirals resemble each other, and that both characters are equally trapped. But humanizing Jillian sort of killed the humor.

I also had problems with Jillian’s character. She was a single mother written by someone who seemed to have no idea what taking care of a five-year-old is like. Jillian comes home with her child, parks him in front of the TV and goes to peacefully make phone calls. Oh ha ha, sure she does. Jillian cleans while the child doesn’t harass her. The child asks for dinner and then seems to eat it without difficulty or requiring assistance. Or then there was this brief, gloriously passive sentence: “Adam was put to bed.” If fucking only. Jillian is supposed to be a narcissistic, neglectful mother….but even they get interrupted when they’re on the telephone.

There’s also the little problem that a single mother with financial troubles and a crappy job who self-medicates with inane positivity, surface piety and cute cat photos, as Jillian does, is not nearly as annoying (to me at least) as the 25-year-old hipster girl who thinks making fun of her is funny. That Megan-ish take on Jillian seemed itself unaware of its own privilege.

In the end, both characters crash and burn without much really happening, which had a certain futile aplomb.



25. You Deserve Nothing, by Alexander Maksik

15 Apr

Screen Shot 2015-02-25 at 8.38.35 PM   “Well-written and loathsome” is not often how I find myself making a recommendation but… You Deserve Nothing by Alexander Maksik deserves it. The book is about a charismatic American high school teacher in Paris who has an affair with a student, gets her pregnant and gets fired, told in gorgeously intertwined POV threads between the teacher, the girl, and a male student who worships the teacher. Its claim to fame, besides being a very good novel, is that the author was also a teacher in a Paris high school who had an affair with a student and was fired, and former students have come out to say that the book is basically all true. Such things happen, and dissecting them can make good literature. The teacher falls victim to something that’s not quite a great passion, call it maybe a sexual urge for self-destruction or a moral urge for not-giving-a-fuck. Or maybe that’s what a great passion looks like. Here he is just before the fall, in prose of representative beauty:

Waiting…in front of the building I was taken by the same kind of euphoria I’d felt repeatedly over the last few weeks—that sense of being precisely where I wanted to be, of having made it through. The wind rushing harder and harder up the river seemed to lift me and I was overcome with a sort of impatience that was only loosely connected with the night.

Later that night he gets with the girl for the first time, almost at random. It’s not a particularly happy union. Here he is, later, about to text her after a period of resistance and disinterest.

A local drunk was sitting alone in the entryway of an apartment building across the street. He cracked his head against the door. Over and over again he snapped his head back. As hard as he tried he couldn’t seem to knock himself out. I was holding the telephone.

Smash your head into a wall, or call the girl? Same diff. I haven’t read a better illustration of the destructive impulse behind this kind of affair. I adored this book for the polished surfaces, the crimes of passion, and the intensity, intelligence and controlled anger of Maksik’s prose. The characters speak and think in a three-dimensional stream-of-consciousness that spins with information, experience, dialog, setting, memory. Making this look so easy and flow so naturally is the hardest thing in the world to do. I can open the book and find passages like this at random:

He folded his arms across his chest and waited. I watched him up there, that familiar expression, the cocky demeanor, the posture of expectation, of control. He’d been charming, had spoken with those irregular pauses, a slight grin when he suggested the possibility of savoring the novel. And again the restrained smile, amused with himself. I raised my hand. He faced me and gave a slight bow. “Gilad,” he said. “Tell us.”

The words are simple, but the sentences slip all over the place. Between the lines is an entire world of nuance involving the relationship between the resentful, disappointed, seduced student and the teacher who knows just how he comes across, a man timing his pauses to impress teenagers. Incidentally, the quote above is from the worshipful male student, whose infatuation with the teacher and inevitable disappointment forms the third corner of the love triangle between man, girl, and collateral damage. The book’s epigraph is a quote from Camus that reads, “I do not want to choose between the right and wrong sides of the world, and I do not like a choice to be made.” Maksik uses existentialism to examine the affair (the teacher is teaching it; there are many parallels with The Stranger) and seems to say that there is no right and wrong here, that life is fundamentally absurd and meaningless, and that each person’s responsibility is to create himself according to his own lights. In this fashion the affair is whatever we make of it, or whatever the characters do. The teacher, at least, is not sorry. In the very end, when he is being exposed and fired, someone asks,

“I wonder—perhaps I don’t understand—but is it true that you’re not sorry for what you’ve done? Morally. Are you sorry? I mean fundamentally. Do you regret what you’ve done here? Or are you utterly unrepentant? Do you understand what you’ve done is wrong?”

In the next scene, which is the last paragraph of the book, the the teacher says, “I think I’m ready to live my life again.” This does not sound repentant. At this point we’ve discovered his back-story of a broken marriage and a family tragedy, which invites the interpretation that possibly what’s happened in his life before was the pointless and absurd part, and that the affair, however ill-fated, is something he needs to do to create himself. It might be healing despite nothing about it seeming particularly so—another proof of existentialist absurdity. So, back to loathsome. I had a problem with the sections written from the girl’s perspective.  She’s portrayed as a confused and somewhat damaged kid with a beauty-issues mom, an absentee father and a rapey experience with an early boyfriend. Nonetheless, she has a hot sexual awakening with the teacher, who she lusts for in a fairly simple way. Knowing something about promiscuous young girls and sexual abuse, I find this narrative unconvincing, lacking in complexity, and rich in authorial self-delusion. Even so, the rest of the book is so good that it might have drawn little more than an eye-roll if the girl the character was based on hadn’t come forward to condemn Maksik’s use of her story and identifiable personal detail. Here’s the relevant snippet of the Jezebel story:

The real-life “Marie,” whom I corresponded with via email, said that she is disgusted that he is getting literary kudos for re-telling her very real story. She said Maksik included a number of very personal things she told him in confidence in the book, and that she has worked for the past five years to move past the shame and guilt she felt as a result of the affair only to re-encounter it all again in a widely praised novel. Maksik never asked her for permission.

I don’t think he needed her permission to write a novel, but I am sure that these are not the words of a woman who had an uncomplicated hot sexual awakening one semester with a teacher at the school. Knowing that, it’s painful to read passages like this:

“At some point he touched me. He came forward and slid his hands into my hair and then it was over. I mean never in my life have I felt so out of control as I did with him. It isn’t as if he was some big super-masculine guy who just wrapped me up and took me away. But there was something about him I swear to God. … And then he kissed me the way he kissed with that soft slow fucking tender gentle you’re the love of my life way so that I could barely stand.”

It’s a novel. This doesn’t have to be true, but it has to get at truth, and though this is a lovely scene and a hot kiss, it doesn’t get there for me. Interestingly, You Deserve Nothing‘s follow-up, A Marker To Measure Drift, just came out, and this time has a female protagonist as well—a black Liberian woman, no less. I’m excited to read it. You Deserve Nothing was so thoughtful, well-written and intense that I want the Marie POV to be an aberration, a necessary mistake along with the whole train-wreck affair. I like makers of mistakes. I am hopeful. What are the chances?

Sevenwaters Trilogy, by Juliet Marillier (22., 23., 24.)

13 Apr

Daughter of the Forest

I have always wanted to write mass-market romance novels—for which I am completely unsuited—and in my twenties along with loving David Foster Wallace and Denis Johnson and Haruki Murakami, I used to have a serious drugstore-romance habit. These books would pile up around my sofa and be shoved under when anyone came over, soft, splayed bricks printed on cheap paper with bright porn-y covers showing hearts, wedding rings and sexy illustrations of men with long hair and exposed chests. They were ridiculous—so ridiculous!—but sometimes well executed, and I am still jealous of any writer who can build a simple, clean formula and breathe some life into her characters. I was always uncomfortable with the reductive gender roles, the limited and conventional sexuality, the materialism, and the sexy rape, and I am can’t really look around it anymore to enjoy mass-market romance, but this is sad because no book makes me happier than a great romance, and even more so, a great fantasy romance.

And I am now screaming with joy because Juliet Marillier is the best fantasy-romance writer I’ve discovered since Jacqueline Carey (whose Kushiel’s Dart series is a masterpiece of fantasy-adventure-romance that’s also kinky, queer and has a great approach to sexuality). Marillier is more mainstream—if anyone who identifies as a druid and lives in New Zealand can be called mainstream—but she has a mystical early Irish setting, Gaelic names, fairies, druids, myths, sorceresses. And in the first book of the Sevenwaters Trilogy, Daughter of the Forest, a big shaved-red-headed British hero comes along to attack his hereditary enemies and instead falls for an Irish girl who has been cursed. Joy.

Daughter of the Forest, which is Marillier’s first novel, is based on The Six Swans, a Grimm’s fairy tale where six brothers are turned into swans by their evil stepmother. In order to turn them human again, their sister has to spin six shirts out of stinging nettles, during which period she can not speak or communicate her story. While she is trying to accomplish this, she meets and falls in love with a man, but she can’t explain herself to him, and so of course drama ensues.

Marillier makes the fairy tale her own, placing the action in an early Ireland and creating impassioned, romantic characters who are all operating at the kind of high emotional pitch to make a book like this work. I knew I was going to be thrilled when the child Sorcha (sister-girl soon to be spinning nettles) helps one of her brothers rescue a tortured captive from their father’s dungeon and then has to spend a season in a cave nursing the boy back to health and trust. A romantic interlude in a cave! A damaged man who cannot trust! No romance novel is complete without these features, and the boy, Simon, isn’t even the eventual love interest but will play a role in events to come.

Son of the Shadows, Juliet Marillier

The second book, Son of the Shadows, continues the story into the next generation and is almost even better. In this one the male lead is a nameless tattooed bandit leading a band of mercenaries on a rampage through the Irish countryside. His men kidnap our heroine Liadan for her healing abilities, and though the bandit leader at first hates her and doesn’t want her along, he soon grows to respect her courage and sass. I’m sure we can all see where this is going. Mad love in the ruins of some cairn-thing, influenced by the spirits of the Old Gods.

Still, these are romance novels, if really good ones, and by halfway through the third volume, Child of the Prophecy, I’d had enough of sexually predatory male villains and people keeping secrets from their loved ones that, if only they’d just speak up would remove all necessity for the plot. Still, Marillier creates great characters, writes at a luscious and beautiful fever-pitch and mostly makes the flaws of the genre easy to overlook.

20. & 21. Works by Robert Stone, “Under the Pitons”, Bay of Souls, and The Death of the Black Haired Girl

11 Apr

Under the Pitons, Robert Stone

“Under the Pitons” by Robert Stone is one of the world’s perfect short stories, a hard-edged thriller about an Irishman named Blessington, a line cook at French resorts who is piloting a sailboat full of drugs between St. Vincent and Martinique. In the opening lines Blessington is

“trying to forget the anxieties of the deal, the stink of menace, the sick ache behind the eyes.”

He’s a civilian in over his head, and the adventure quickly turns nail-biting and possibly fatal as he nearly runs into a barge under tow “a big black homicidal juggernaut, unmarked and utterly unlighted, bearing down on them” and then admits that the close call was his fault,

“stoned and drunk as he was….  his peripheral vision was flashing him little mongoose darts, shooting stars composed of random light.”

Stone is masterful at conveying the fear of being in the hands of this flawed captain in a tiny boat on dark water. And then the boat’s other occupants come into view and things get scarier. The boss is a drug-crazed Frenchman named Freycinet. Two women have come along in the misguided spirit of fun. Freycinet is sampling the product and irrationally insists that the boat take anchor off St. Lucia, within view of the Piton mountains, despite the reefs, the current and the inevitability of unwelcome attention from shore.

The story has all of Stone’s themes rendered down. There’s a flawed man, physical bravery, a world where Christianity is losing its grasp, the wonder and terror of nature or fate in such a world, and finally the religious question. Why is this man named Blessington? Are we to believe that in the end he was blessed, and if so by what?

A possible answer—though in a very backwards way—might be “blessed by love”. Blessington’s “designated girlfriend” on the trip is an American model named Gillian. Her first line upon seeing the Pitons is “Oh wow, look at those pretty mountains” a comment which as Blessington explains, is

“exactly the kind of American comment that made the others all despise and imitate her”.

But Gillian quickly turns out to be playing the other three as fools. By the return trip, Blessington is “starting to see the point of her” and they half-seriously vow to marry if they both survive.

Gillian also has most of the story’s great lines. In one exchange Blessington asks her if she’s a cop, and she says No, are you? And he replies, “Me? I’m Irish for Christ’s sake.” Her retort is, “‘Is that like not being real?’” Cutting and also very clever.

But she’s self-destructive. She says,

“‘Just between you and me, Liam, I have no fear of dying. I would just as soon be out here on this boat now as in my comfy little bed with my stuffed animals. I would just as soon be dead.’”

Her eventual fate seems to play into a Stone theme of wasted gifts—which I gather he thinks is one of our central problems.He struggles with the idea that there is something sacred, divine, worthy about our raw material. Life is a gift, so then what are we going to do with it?

He has a character say so in a different book, writing about abortion:

“‘We are taught that the universe is beautiful. We believe it is good. We believe its phenomena reflect a perfection beyond our understanding but that we can partly experience. Sort of. Man–I should say humankind, shouldn’t I?–is also sacred. Reflecting that being we know as God. Matter, stuff, quickened to human life, is therefore sacred.”

Stone recently passed away, and his thumbnail bio tells us that he was partially raised in a Catholic orphanage so it makes sense that for him the religious question is pressing. It haunts the other two novels of his I recently read, Bay of Souls, and Death of the Black Haired Girl (from which the above quote was taken.) Both are about married male academics wasting their own gifts by having affairs with dangerous women, and the metaphysical questions these affairs pose. Death of the Black Haired Girl, especially, was a work of interesting construction, with multiple viewpoints and folded layers.

I love Stone as a writer but I find “Under the Pitons” more perfect than the novels. It’s a faster and more deadly way of asking the recurring question: Why is this man named Blessington? In what ways might he be blessed?

19. Leaving Before the Rains Come, by Alexandra Fuller

2 Apr

Leaving Before the Rains Come, Alexandra Fuller

Forming a lifelong relationship with an autobiographer is a strange thing. How much personal detail do I need or care to know about a woman whom I don’t even know? Yet I have now read three of African-expatriate Alexandra Fuller’s four memoirs, including this latest, Leaving Before the Rains Come.

Fuller is one of those strange footnotes of history, a white African. She grew up in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in the 1970s during the civil war between the breakaway white-governed republic and black independence parties. Her farmer parents stayed on in Africa after the war, living a eccentric, alcoholic life, plagued with drama, hardship and yet also apparently a fair amount of love and joy.

“My parents pitied me the fact that–at least as far as they could tell–all my dramas had to be self-inflicted. They considered the acceptance of the certainty of pandemonium an essential ingredient to the enjoyment of life.”

Fuller’s first memoir, Don’t Lets Go to the Dogs Tonight was the tale of growing up under the dubious supervision of these hard-drinking, tough-as-nails old Brits, who loved a country and a continent they had no rights to. The second, Scribbling The Cat, was about an even tougher war veteran neighbor of theirs in Zambia with whom she had an entanglement in her 20s. The third, Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness focuses more on her parents’ experience and their troubled legacy as whites in Africa. And this one, Leaving Before the Rains Come, is about the end of Fuller’s 19-year marriage to an American with whom she eventually left Africa and had three children, now grown.

In the West, we learned that attitude and ambition saved you. In Africa we learned that no one was immune to capricious tragedy.

Her African family is her perennial topic, and in this book she tries to understand how these roots affected her marriage. As she says in different ways throughout the book, her American husband, whom she met while he was a rafting guide in Zambia and then followed to a much less interesting Upper Middle Class life in the American West, was “a gallant, one-man intervention wanting to save us from our recklessness.” She wanted to be saved, but then she felt erased. Her river-guide husband became a real-estate broker who, “always expected something more.” This is a relationship in which she writes “dread played a long, low note in my chest.” Elsewhere, she says,

“Divorce…is like a pot sitting forever on a stove suddenly coming to a boil.”

As a divorce story, this one makes perfect sense. And the desperate seriousness with which Fuller examines this material feels right. She’s looking for a version of events she can live with. Of course there isn’t ever really an answer on the end of a complex, decades-long relationship no matter how hard we seek one, so the reader is along for the gory details, a few hair-raising twists, and the frustrating half-wisdoms that come up along the way.

These are pretty interesting. I do want to know what Fuller’s dysfunctional parents think, since these are two people who have “lost three children, a war and several farms,” yet who

“had lived, worked and played together for the better part of forty years. Their tastes have cleaved and overlapped; they share bathwater, silently conceding that the grubbiest person goes last; they sleep under the claustrophobic confines of a single mosquito net.”

Her mother’s view on how to have a happy marriage is  something like “Oh, I don’t know. Marry the right bloke in the first place?” Her father’s doesn’t approve of divorce, but has a wonderful line where he says that life is basically, “You’re born, you die, and then there’s the bit in the middle.”

These refreshing viewpoints are probably why I’ve read three books about these people. And I like Fuller more all the time.

18. Mitko, by Garth Greenwell

20 Mar

Mitko by Garth Greenwell

Last summer while vacationing in Bulgaria I picked up my copy of The Paris Review and read a stunning and unforgettable story about a semi-anonymous, dangerous BDSM sex scenario between gay men that coincidentally was also set in Bulgaria. The country is so homophobic and the material was so graphic and disturbing that I felt somewhat anxious about having The Paris Review in my luggage, which was amusing, but probably not a first in that magazine’s history.

The story made me uncomfortable in many ways, but I haven’t been able to forget it in the ensuing months, so I went ahead and ordered another of Greenwell’s published works, a novella called Mitko, which is a about a gay American college professor’s brief and tortured relationship with a Bulgarian street hustler.

Like the story that captured my attention, the novella is an exploration of a shameful passion that reason cannot justify. The college professor meets the hustler, Mitko, and almost immediately embarks on a series of humiliating, possibly dangerous encounters that none of his intelligence or better nature can stop.

Desire here is presented as an absolute force, divorced from rationality. Early on he writes of Mitko, who is drunk, possibly dangerous, reeking, and partially contemptuous of the narrator, clearly in it for the money…. “in my own estimation this body, the enjoyment of which I was contracting to rent, seemed almost infinitely dear.” And later, after several such encounters in a public bathroom at Bulgaria’s Palace of Culture, he brings the man to his apartment (dangerous, stupid) and writes,

“I felt myself gripped yet again by both pleasure and embarrassment, and by an excitement so terrible I had to look quickly away.”

One of the novella’s symbolic motifs is double-faces and double-sides. As a hustler Mitko is double-sided, of course, “vulnerable, over-exposed, and unrelievedly hidden behind impervious defenses.” And the narrator  has his own faces. He wonders how Mitko has transformed from a prosperous boy to a homeless man, and of himself

“how it was I had become one of these men in the dark, offering whatever was asked to rent something we wouldn’t be given freely, accepting without complaint our own diminishment.”

There’s double-sidedness as well in the novel’s treatment of passion, whose overwhelming physical, emotional, sensual force Greenwell meets with an outpouring of language, which is “as always interposing itself between ourselves and what we see.” The paragraphs sometimes run for several pages, and the whole, short 86-page novella sometimes feels like one long, very articulate, breath.

There’s tension in this treatment of passion. Can all this analysis say anything about desire in the right register? Is this book finding the truth about this affair, or obscuring it? Is there even truth to be had between two people? Greenwell seems to think not, explaining that in sexual encounters,

“our responses are never in any simple way our own, where they are always balanced against the responses, perceived or projected, of our partner, and also against our own fears and enthusiasms, our claims and generosities, our failure of nerve, so that sincerity, authenticity, flees ever more swiftly away from us, like a shadow that we ourselves cast out. “

Or maybe the narrator is just justifying the moment because Mitko has faked an orgasm and he’s faked believing in it.

Passion in Mitko is both overwhelming and fleeting, doomed to dissatisfaction almost before the satisfaction has come. The narrator doesn’t get the thing he longs for. Maybe what he wants is not the thing but the longing. Or, in another layer, the shame. “The whole bent of my nature is toward confession,” he says.  But his confession is in such a clinical, flaying tone, one wonders how there can be pleasure in it. Until one realizes that the twinning of pleasure and pain is the point.

It’s all very thought-provoking and I really enjoyed reading it.

From some Google-stalking of Greenwell, I’ve discovered that he has a book-length novel coming out in 2016 called What Belongs to You, which seems like maybe it’s an expanded version of the story in this novella. I will be interested to see these themes drawn out more, and to read more of Greenwell’s flaying prose. Where, for example, at a Bulgarian seaside resort “elaborately themed facades” are described as having “garishness mitigated by desolation.” This is both a good echo of the dual-faces theme and—as I can attest from personal experience of traveling in Bulgaria—a spot-on accurate description of the seaside town he’s describing.





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