With his debut novel, Colson Whitehead follows in the admirable and envy-inducing tradition of taking a subject of interest and creating a whole damn world around it. Whitehead’s topic is, broadly, elevators, and, more specifically, elevator maintenance. He creates a world where elevators aren’t just a convenient mode of transportation that we take for granted until the one we are on stalls for half a second and our entire life flashes before our eyes. No, in the world of The Intuitionist, the creation of elevators in placed comparably next to cars, and the people in charge of making them work are treated with the type of respect architects receive. And Whitehead embraces his story world concept with so much passion and invention that as I ride the elevator to and from my office each day I find my thoughts shifting from what meal I’ll eat next to being aware of just how incredible that box of machinery I’m riding truly is.
Let me say right off the bat that I absolutely loved Yoko Tawada’s gloriously strange and perverse novella The Bridegroom Was A Dog. I have some specific thoughts on Bridegroom stored somewhere that I will post sometime in the future.
With that out of the way, I can now say that I got nothing out of Facing the Bridge. The three stories that make up the collection are meandering and gratingly abstract. Actually, that’s not exactly true. I quite liked “The Shadow Man” in spite of it’s jarringly abrupt ending that felt as if Tawada ended it simply because she ran out of steam with the narrative. It follows Amo, a young African boy who is kidnapped and brought to Europe and takes refuge in literature and eventually becomes a scholar. In a parallel story line centuries in the future Tamao is a foreign exchange student living in Europe and struggling to find any connection to his new surroundings. Their circumstances are vastly different, but the ways they are forced to manipulate their personalities in order to live in places where they are both physical and cultural outsiders is fascinating. But while Amo both ages and intellectually matures in his part of the narrative, Tamao drifts aimlessly and nothing much happens to him.
It’s crazy to realize that I read Jesse Ball’s debut novel Samedi the Deafness a year ago. I remember reading it and being infected by his style. Finished it in three days (only that long because I read it during the work week), and on finishing it immediately wanted to go and write my own novel in the same style, and read the rest of his work one after the other.
Neither of those things happened. Not even slightly. I wrote no novels, and a year later I only just now read my second book by him – his third, The Curfew. Why did this happen? All I can say is that life never fails to get in the way of plans. Over the course of the year it took me to finally crack another book of his, Jesse Ball has been on my mind frequently. Originally I was going to read his second novel, The Way Through Doors, then I was going to jump ahead and read the book that seems to be considered his masterpiece, A Cure For Suicide. I even bought a copy of two Paris Review issues featuring short fiction of his, which reminds me that I did read his story “Archon LLC,” which I remember being short, fascinating, and very Kafkaesque. I didn’t ever read “The Early Deaths of Lubeck, Brennan, Harp & Carr” and I have no clue why not.
Separated into two parts, “Tender Bodies” and “Tender Landscapes,” the first half of Sofia Samatar’s short story collection Tender is the strongest. Of the first ten of the twenty total stories, “Selkie Stories Are For Losers,” “Honey Bear,” and “How I Met The Ghoul” are the best, with the other seven have their own flashes of greatness.
“Selkie Stories” and “Honey Bear” take place in worlds much like our own. The former tells a touching coming of age story of friendship/romance and loneliness that is grounded in reality in all ways except the existence of Selkie’s, mythological creatures that take the form of women by shedding their skin, but return to their seal form once it is returned to them. In the latter, there is a sense of ominousness from the beginning: a mother, daughter, and father are on a road trip where everyone seems on edge. But the feeling could be explained away by marital problems, and health issues, and over-protection of their young daughter. But then there are checkpoints they must cross and the mother and daughter seem strangely elated by their dreary beach destination. And then a terrifying encounter on the beach reveals that the world the story is taking place in is nothing like our own. Samatar has written a monster story where the monsters are a constant reminder of innocence lost, and asks if the memories and love that remain are worth the inevitable horror. Continue reading “Tender (Stories) by Sofia Samatar”