Review: ‘The White Devil’ by Justin Evans

In 2008 Justin Evans published A Good and Happy Child, a debut novel that was not only one of my favorites when I read it a year later, but it included a passage that I loved so much that it remains stuck in a way that classic poetry is supposed to lodge itself. (Well, the gist of it is there. I have to look it up to get it verbatim). In describing how the demon child and his family live:

“It was a house halfway between this and that, between upper-middle-class luxuries and absentminded squalor.”

For this sentence alone, I will always read everything Evans publishes.

Evans has a pretty ambitious premise for his second novel, The White Devil. A young American kid who has seemingly fallen backward into some bad behavior lands in an English prep school as a last ditch effort. If he can’t stay sober, stay straight at Harrow — a school that once helped shape the young mind of Lord Byron — his dad is done with him.

Unfortunately, there is something about Andrew Taylor: He looks like Byron. The resemblance stops Persephone, the only girl at the all-boy school, a theater sort who knows that they need a student to play Byron in an upcoming production. He also catches the eye of the resident writer charged with creating the play, Piers Fawkes, a scatterbrained creative who is trying to shake the drink. And, unfortunately, he catches the eye of the Harrow ghost, an anemic-looking soul who seduces Andrew and attacks those he is close to.

Andrew has barely unpacked when the fellow student who showed him around winds up dead in the woods, and the autopsy reveals that he was killed by a pre-existing disease. Although, Andrew is the one who finds his friend dead, and he sees an image of the Harrow ghost atop his new friend, somehow hastening the death. And then there are more victims.

Evans novel takes the super scandalous life of Lord Byron and turns it into a supernatural mystery. Mostly: How can Andrew shake this ghost? What is his secret? What does he want? A sort of Scooby Gang of people willing to believe in otherworldly murderers gathers to get to the bottom of it: A librarian, the aforementioned mess of a writer, the sassafrass girlfriend, Andrew and a sidekick. And they have to do all of this without attracting the ire of school officials, who are watching them all very closely.

Evans’ first novel also includes a demonic presence in a way that feels like literary intrigue. This one seems to lean more toward a creative approach to genre fiction. In this respect, the set up works. The first half is a page turner, which makes the flat characters tolerable. The second half is groan-y and the seams really show. Queue up the romantic montage starring the young lovers running through the streets! While the reveals are very duh-duh-dah, the fix for the situation isn’t very climactic. It serves to plant an “I want to read a book about Lord Byron” seed more than anything else.

This review was posted June 29, 2011 on Minnesota Reads.

Review: ‘My Most Secret Desire’ by Julie Doucet

If Julie Doucet was a man, she would have a girlfriend with huge breasts. She would throw her down on the hood of a car and have her way with her. She would look similar to the woman version of herself, but with more of a V-shaped torso. She would zip up her pants and chuckle. Or maybe she would discover that she had grown a penis, and then shake her male member gleefully.

This is the sort of thing that crops up when the longtime cartoonist is asleep. The “If I was a man” premise creeps into her subconscious along with other super whacky dreamscapes in her collection My Most Secret Desire.

There is also the teeth-falling-out-of-the-mouth dream, the I’m-still-in-school dream, and the I’m-an-astronaut-dream. Each is told in this heavy-handed, darkly etched, highly detailed way that is dark and grisly and delicious. You wish you had dreams like this — meeting Micky Dolenz, for instance.

In another gender bender, she discovers that she has a penis and considers the usefulness of it. She can pop the top off of it and carry things inside of it. Magazines, a toothbrush, condoms. She can stick a flower through the hole at the top or use it as a third leg. She can harness it and pretend it’s a mustang.

One dream-within-a-dream finds her pregnant, sitting in the bathtub with her boyfriend. The child escapes through her stomach. She wakes, thinks that was weird, then proceeds to give birth to a cat that she breastfeeds in her bed.

Early in the collection she is an astronaut who is being sent into space. But first her mom stops by the space shuttle to deliver masturbation cookies. Julie strips down, tests them, breaks the fourth wall to smile at the reader.

This is some wicked stuff. Hilarious and detailed. Layered and interesting. A sort of R.Crumb if R. Crumb carried tampons. Julie Doucet seems to be that fantastic girl doodling dicks on her notebook.

This review was originally posted on June 24, 2011 on Minnesota Reads.

Review: ‘Sempre Susan’ by Sigrid Nunez

In mid-May Bob Dylan, then nearly to his 70th birthday, wrote something a little snarky on his website:

“Everybody knows by now that there’s a gazillion books on me either out or coming out in the near future. So I’m encouraging anybody who’s ever met me, heard me or even seen me, to get in on the action and scribble their own book. You never know, somebody might have a great book in them.”

I couldn’t stop thinking about this as I read one writer’s memoir, using life with another writer as a trigger. Sigrid Nunez’s short-shorty Sempre Susan is a memoir about essayist, feminist, prickly personality Susan Sontag. Nunez, herself a decently accomplished writer, has as much reason as anyone to write about Sontag: In 1976, when Nunez was in her mid-20s and recently graduated from Columbia’s MFA program, she dated Sontag’s son David Reiff. The three of them ended up living together for about a year, a scenario that had the lit community speculating about some twisted threesomes between the trio Sontag referred to as “the duke and duchess and duckling of Riverside Drive.”

Nunez had signed on to help Sontag catch up with her work after Sontag’s first go-round with cancer. Ultimately, Sontag played matchmaker between Nunez and Reiff, who was very shy.

Nunez paints Sontag as a lover of travel, who was always up for anything — including a Bruce Springsteen concert amid an audience of much younger fans. She didn’t work every day, but when she did it was at a drug-addled feverish pace. In the past, she’d had David assist her by lighting up cigarettes for her as she wrote. She hated to be alone and after a night on the town would wander into the room shared by Nunez and Reiff to deconstruct her evening. She took cabs everywhere and humiliated waitstaff. She was hugely complimentary of people, but also harsh about them. She couldn’t keep a secret. She loved men and women. She hated makeup and did not carry a purse and made fun of Nunez for slipping a handful of tampons into her purse. She made diluted Cream of Mushroom soup from a can the first time she and Nunez worked together.

Nunez writes this story at as a sort of stream of consciousness. As if she just plopped down in front of a computer and started writing and digressing and writing more. It hops from past to further past to recent past and back again. While it is really not at all about Nunez, occasionally something a bit biographical — perhaps about her own parents — will fall into the piece in a way that seems like maybe the material hadn’t been sifted well enough. It is a sort of journalistic take on Sontag that shows plenty of sides to the woman, including this interesting character who was a good ally, and the parts that would make her a terrifying person to spend time with. It’s heavier on the latter, which is consistent with most reports about Sontag. But sometimes it’s hard to find evidence to support that this was a mentor or any sort of inspiration to Nunez — who concedes that while Sontag’s essays are awesome, her fiction is meh.

This review was originally posted on June 22, 2011 on Minnesota Reads.

Review: ‘Your Voice in my Head’ by Emma Forrest

My boyfriend had a writing professor in college who said: “Don’t write about your dead grandma because I don’t want to give you a D on a story about your dead grandma.”

I should maybe alter that to: “Don’t read memoirs with mentally ill protagonists because I don’t want to give someone a D on a story about suicide attempts, cutting and bulimia.” Especially not someone who has already been pummeled with toxic internet sludge by Colin Ferrell fanatics who found her too fat, too ugly to be the actor’s girlfriend in the latter part of the 2000s.

Emma Forrest’s memoir Your Voice in my Head is billed as a love letter to Dr. R, the therapist who, for the most part, kept her off the ledge and helped her cope with life-long demons that were pushing her to end it all. It is also about those demons. But mostly it is about her relationship with a character she calls GH (“Gypsy Husband”), who is, according to the giant decoder ring in the sky, that easy-on-the-eyes, hard-on-the-heart actor Colin Ferrell — with whom she was in a relationship for somewhere between six months and a year. Dr. R dies in a way that is sudden to his patients — he hadn’t told them about the lung cancer — right around the same time that GH tells Emma he needs space and that, oh yeah, the baby they had planned on making, Pearl, is going to be a no-go.

Emma Forrest’s story starts with Ophelia, the painting she regularly visits at the Tate in London. She’s a teenaged girl sitting in front of it weeping. Scanning the background of the painting by Millais for a super secret man in the bushes who will emerge and save the woman in the water. This is an easy metaphor: Our protagonist will spend the rest of the book looking for a dude in the bushes to save her.

She’s young, but already a rock journalist and novelist, when she moves to New York City, which seems to pull her issues to surface level in a way that her mother likens to a fever breaking. There is bulimia and there are instances of cutting that are coaxed along by a boyfriend who shares this predilection and spends time with her in the bathroom and in bed carving into her flesh. She lands in Dr. R’s care, which is immediately followed by a suicide attempt which is followed by a more earnest attempt at healing.

The second half of the book is GH-heavy. This long distance, text heavy relationship that had Mr. H sending her gifts from location, including a worn T-shirt with a poem written on it. They are talking through the building of a life together, despite the negative online critiques she is receiving from the kind of people who post anonymous comments on celeb gossip websites.

The writing is nice. Sometimes even funny. The story is interesting in that way that all stories about being one fistful of pills and a warm bath from a funeral dirge are interesting — but also quite similar to everything that is shelved around it.

The protagonist, however, is a little hard to take. She never misses a moment to point out a chance meeting with an unnamed famous writer, a named famous former White House intern, or the story about the time she told Brad Pitt before interviewing him that her boyfriend was way hotter than him.

During a session with Dr. R, Forrest mentions the band Coldplay.

“OK. Fine. You’re seeing one of them?” He asks.
“Hell NO! Jesus, Dr. R! Why do you assume that?”
“Track record.”

(Barf). I’ve spent a lot of time this past week thinking about what it is about namedropping that is so insufferable and have come up with this: It isn’t, per se. It is when there is a feeling that the namedropper is using the roster of Page Sixers to somehow validate her story. In post-publication interviews Forrest has said things like: It’s not necessarily Colin Ferrell that I’m writing about. I date a lot of movie stars. Sheesh.

Forrest is a good writer, descriptive and thoughtful. Sometimes even funny. At one point she writes about a random man she is diddling:

“The cat rescuer comes back for me, once, twice. We don’t know each other’s number, he just appears. Each time I am caught unawares and wearing something more schlumpy, bizarre and unflattering than the last. Like I have on a poncho and worms are coming out of my eyes and one of my arms is made out of Dudley Moore.”

Dudley Moore. But she shoots herself in the foot by leaning too hard on the tell-all side of the story. The I’m hanging out with a famous writer and we are writing together in this cabin and he’s downstairs and I’m downstairs and he’s famous and I’m singing and he comes upstairs and tells me to stop singing so loudly … moments that she can’t resist finding a way to drop into her story. I’d love to see something written by her — and maybe this exists, but I doubt it — that doesn’t include a lick of her own life.

This review was originally posted on June 19, 2011 on Minnesota Reads.

Review: ‘The Alcoholic’ by Jonathan Ames and Dean Haspiel

The answer to the age-old do I like him or do I lump him Jonathan Ames riddle is this: He is at his best when he is collaborating with someone else. Done. Signed. Sealed. Sent.

Now I just have to take a stand on Chelsea Handler, and my life will make a lot more sense.

Ames’ graphic novel-ish The Alcoholic is a words-by-Ames, visuals-by-Dean Haspiel story of a rapidly balding man named Jonathan A. and how he got to this moment: Emerging from a black-out drunk, in the backseat of a dirty car with a very old woman (and her cats) who wants to make sweet, sweet love with him. When policemen bust in on the scene, Jonathan A. takes off on a mad sprint through Asbury Park and ends up hiding out, buried in sand, beneath a boardwalk. Then comes the introspection.

He starts with his first pulls off the bottle as a high school student who spends weekends getting wrecked with his best friend Sal, all while deceiving his parents by getting good grades, getting into Yale, playing sports. Relations with Sal go south (Ha!) when they engage in some drunken bumbly fumbly one night and then vow to never speak of it again. “It’ll be better with girls,” Sal tells him.

Then Sal starts running with a new crowd and Jonathan mourns the loss. He graduates, his parents die together in a car accident, he lands in New York where he navigates the drinking life, the writing life, a misadventure as a writer in residence at a school with at least five randy coeds who want to tag-team him and, mostly, a relationship with a much younger woman that is first exhilarating and then IBS causing. This break up finds him staring at his telephone, leaving unanswered messages on her machine, weeping into his vodka, and boring his aunt — his only living relative and own personal wise old sage — with his tales of romantic torture. She eventually jolts him awake with the words “No one gets everything they want. That’s the way it is.”

He wakes up hung over on the morning of September 11, and here the story deviates into something new, both helping a widowed neighbor and simultaneously worrying about what will happen when he tries to donate his Cocaine-flavored blood. This part of the story is a strange digression that feels inset and doesn’t really jibe with the rest of the story so well. It also includes cameos from Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton — not at the same time.

In all of the ways Jonathan Ames has chosen to tell his life story — and there have been plenty including columns for alternative publications, essays, novels loosely based on his life and even his television show “Bored to Death” which is peppered with instances of autobiography.

Haspiel has plenty to do with this effectiveness of this graphic novel, sometimes humor-fused drama of addiction and loss and self-destruction. It’s black and white with purposeful shading that gives the book a real dark-side, rock bottom feel, with a touch of noir — specifically when it comes to the ladies. He’s also unflinching in the face of sexual positions, episodes of irritable bowel syndrome, and depicting the sort or morning after that includes a cab driver who sidelines as a drug dealer and Jonathan A.’s head lodged into a garbage can.

When he flies solo, Ames has a tendency to fall into the edgy pre-teen habit of hiding his writing talent behind shock jock-ery in a way that doesn’t seem as real as this, which is probably as close to his real life as anything else he does. The moments are still there: The Coke, the six-some, the soul-sucking moments of getting fired while wearing just a single shoe. But it’s tempered here and genuine. Hard to tell if it is maturity or making psychological space for Haspiel’s illustrations that makes this the most palatable thing he has done.

This review was originally posted on June 15, 2011 on Minnesota Reads.

Review: ‘Cecil and Jordan in New York’ by Gabrielle Bell

Imagine a linear story. Now imagine cartoonist Gabrielle Bell studying it with her hands on her hips. She takes a giant scissors, the kind used by mayors at ribbon cutting ceremonies, and makes two incisions into the tale. A snip here, a snip there. What’s left is a short story without context, unfettered by fatty back story and neat closing statements. Like walking into the middle of a conversation and then leaving before it ends — or before being told, for instance, it was all just a dream.

Cecil and Jordan in New York is a collection of graphic novel style short stories by Bell. It’s a mix of real low-impact slices of life, twisted tales in which a woman transforms herself into a chair or a giant man plucks a woman out of thin air and keeps her in a cage in his home, eventually filling it with a pet and a friend, an artistic re-telling of a Kate Chopin story, and seemingly autobiographical coming-of-age stories.

This review was originally posted on June 12, 2011 on Minnesota Reads.

These stories are all told in the same steady no-panic voice — whether a woman is getting a potty-mouth bird caught in her hair or an artist is tutoring another artist’s neglected young son. At the center of these stories is usually a woman who stands unblinking in the face of the absurd or cruel, almost aware that in three panels things might change again.

The best of the collection is “Felix.” It opens with an art class in which an instructor is talking about negative space. When he lands on Anna’s painting of a nude woman with her feet in water, he describes it as “… Everything I dislike in painting.”

A visiting professional artist’s young son, Felix, digs Anna’s work, though, so the professional — who can pull in a cool million for an egg-shaped sculpture, hires her to help the kid make art. Anna’s unsure how to respond to a 12-year-old boy, so she lets him tag along while she works with a nude model. They work on flower arrangements. In his spare time, Felix works up portraits of Anna, which he stashes under his mattress. Things get wonky when Felix overhears his arty father telling Anna about how neither he nor his ex-wife wanted a child.

Gabrielle Bell is my favorite of favorite graphic novelists. Her brain lacks boundaries and you get the sense that she can get real weird with herself. The ordinary moments slant to wonky digressions. Then, like in the case of “I Feel Nothing,” the sort of bizarre encounter between a morning drinker who owns a trendy bar and the normal friendly girl downstairs, everything just goes back to normal.

Review: ‘Atmospheric Disturbances’ by Rivka Galchen

Leo Liebenstein, a middle-aged psychiatrist, believes that his young Argentine wife Rema has been replaced by a doppelganger. She looks like his wife. She’s dressed like his wife. She’s wearing his wife’s shampoo. But it isn’t her, he’s convinced, and the fact that the former dog-hater has picked up a stray and brought it into their home is a clue in his favor. He refers to her as a simulcrum.

Rivka Galchen is no joke. For my $5.99, the best short story from The New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 Fiction series was a comedic piece by her, “The Entire North Side Was Covered With Fire.” With Atmospheric Disturbances, her debut novel, she’s written a witty and complicated story starring an unreliable narrator who is trying to solve this missing-Rema riddle in a convoluted way, using exactly the kind of reasoning that has landed his paranoid schizophrenic patient Harvey in his care.

Speaking of Harvey: This all kind of starts with him. This patient believes that he is able to control weather and that he is a secret agent for the Royal Academy of Meteorology. He specializes in local weather patterns and receives orders through Page Six of the New York Post. It’s Rema who suggests to the doctor that rather than bringing Harvey back to reality, why not join in his unreality and play the part of his handler. That way Leo can keep Harvey from disappearing for days while he handles various missions.

Leo snags the name of an actual member of the Royal Academy of Meteorology, opting for Tzvi Gal-Chen, and this name becomes the one he uses to refer to as a liaison.

Harvey goes missing again around the same time that the Simulcrum replaces Rema, which sets off a series of events in which Leo travels to Argentina, develops an email correspondence with Tzvi Gal-Chen — who turns out to be dead, takes on the identity of a young ice climber and joins forces with Harvey to fine Rema. Meanwhile, “Fake Rema” follows him around the world.

Leo Liebenstein is no dummy. He begins considering his case from both the perspective of patient and doctor and considering the validity of what he believes to be true. He decides in favor of the patient. Psychosis, afterall, is the patient’s narrative and reflects his fears and desires. Since Leo never imagined his wife would be replaced by a double or that he would become involved with weather controllers, this was all borne externally and is likely true. If, for instance, he had instead imagined that Rema was seeing other men or thinking of killing him, that would be psychosis.

This book is tricky. It gets hard to follow the chain of associations Leo makes that link different facets of the Rema case, but it is well-worth hanging in there and wading through it. Any sort of plot disinterest I had was more than made up for by what Galchen is doing and how she is doing it. There are some really lovely parts, usually starring Rema. And there are some interesting ideas about the way the mind works.

This review was originally posted by June 11, 2011 on Minnesota Reads.