Review: The Dark Dark by Samantha Hunt

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The Dark Dark
by Samantha Hunt
Published 2017 by FSG Originals
$15.00 paperback ISBN 978-0374282134

By Noah Sanders

Samantha Hunt’s new collection of short stories, The Dark Dark, looks at the everyday struggles of life through a softly supernatural lens. Her characters, mainly women teetering on the edge between breakthrough and breakdown and their oftentimes oafish male counterparts, find solace and repulsion in their most primal urges, build sex robots to save the nation, and slip between the veil of animal and human. At the core though, Hunt writes about the unknown and its power over us. “The Dark Dark” of her title is a broad spectrum—the shadows at the end of a bed, the affairs of our spouses, the shallow, frightening expanses of our nightmares—and Hunt builds connections to the mundane in every inky, black corner. The very best of Hunt’s short stories use the vaguely magical as an entryway into an exploration of life’s major moments and themes, nearly all of the morbidly beautiful stories held within a flashlight illuminating its own unknown.

If we aren’t all a little scared of the dark, then we’re at least frightened by the unknown. Hunt understands this deeply. The stories in The Dark Dark plumb the depths of what “the unknown” is exactly, but also how the effects of peering into it (or not), affect us, good or bad. In “A Love Story” (the collection’s strongest piece) a woman, paralyzed by her own fears of the bad in the world that could happen, sends her husband to deal with a potential intruder. In the stillness of the night left in his departure, her mind expands, the possibilities of who she could be and who she is now, unfolding outwards. In “Love Machine” a loving relationship between two men never sees fruition, but its damning effect of what it could have been follows them through their lives. What could’ve been sits on one man’s shoulders like an immovable weight, the cost of lifting it immeasurably high.

In Hunt’s words, it isn’t what lies in the closet that’s important, it’s the attempt, or the lack thereof, to figure out just what it is that adds meaning to her character’s lives. Two strangers sleep together after one kills the other’s dog in “The Yellow,” opening a rift in time and space that somehow brings the dog back to life. Instead of finding joy in the reanimation of a beloved family pet, they decide to kill it again, the act peering behind the slim curtain of their lives too much. Even if you finally see the monster that lives under the bed, in Hunt’s world, the best option can be to stuff it back in, try to pretend that everything can, and will, revert back to normal.

Hunt’s writing manages to meld a soft, almost rural feel (her characters seem to always be returning to some Midwestern heartland) with an angular sense of the unnatural. Each story throbs with an existential dread you might find in a schlocky horror novel, but with Hunt’s skill as a writer, it adds a near constant rise to the hairs on the back of your neck. Without rhyme or reason, you worry, from the first page of each story, about where these characters are going to be taken, where they might eventually lead themselves. In “Wampum,” an older suitor’s advances towards a much younger woman are seen as “Either he’ll chop her up into body parts or he’ll drop her off at the house.” Hunt describes the half-consumed carcass of a fried chicken in “The Story Of” as “The hen had been split open down the middle, unzipped like a parka.” And though both stories are apart seemingly simple, human interactions—a man courts a teenager, a woman wants to get pregnant—Hunt’s prose keeps the reader on edge, forces you look over your shoulder, to keep an eye on the periphery.

Finding the balance between definitively supernatural, atmospherically haunting, and genuinely moving isn’t an easy task. The best stories—“A Love Story” amongst them—use the supernatural to propel themselves into new and unusual places, but are still rooted by the presence of simple, universal, human moments. Early on in the book—“All Hands” in particular—Hunt’s scale tips too steeply towards the odd and unknowable, the reader to left to muddle out just what the hell occurred.

In general though, Hunt confidently walks the line between off-kilter and human. The stories in The Dark Dark entertain with their clear-eyed peek into the strange presences looming just out of our sight, but its Hunt’s ability to use these to craft meaningful observations on the shared moments of human life that allows them to transcend. Though not every story shines as brightly as the next, each and every one of them peers into the dark, attempting to illuminate.

Review: A Twenty Minute Silence Followed By Applause by Shawn Wen

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A Twenty Minute Silence Followed By Applause
by Shawn Wen
Published 2017 by Sarabande Books
$15.95 paperback ISBN 978-1941411483

By Noah Sanders

In modern day America, mimes get a bad rap. Sure, there’s good reasons: the pasty-faced makeup selection, the perpetual confinement within invisible boxes, the invasive clown-like aspects of their entire schtick—all are, in this writer’s opinion, rankle-worthy qualities. Yet, as you will learn from Shawn Wen’s poetic collection of essays, A Twenty Minute Silence Followed By Applause, miming (or the miming of one, er, mime in particular) was, for a spell, a popular enough form of entertainment that it graced the couches of late night hosts and filled theaters with eager, anticipation-filled fans. Wen’s book focuses solely on Marcel Marceau, the most famed mime of the modern era, peeling back the layers of his life, exposing the demons that lived below his foppish effect, his near-total commitment to his work and the invisible box his life became because of it. Through the lens of his biography, the author sheds light not only on Marceau’s life and art, but also on the layered, complicated beauty of the craft itself.

A Twenty Minute Silence Followed By Applause (the name of a record the mime made entirely composed of a twenty minute silence and then applause) follows Marceau from his birth to the early days of training under Charles Dullin at the School of Dramatic Arts through his ascension to a household name in America and beyond and the three wives, miming school and a staggering collection of artifacts he left behind. It is Wen’s great ability in this slim volume that each facet of Marceau’s life she briefly touches on becomes an separate mirror, their combined reflections forming a detailed image of the man. To simplify, Marceau was an asshole. A man so consumed by devotion to his art, and to the mute qualities of that art, everything else—his family, his friends, the press, his own image—became fodder for his work, meat to be sacrificed to his artistic gods. A survivor and revolutionary participant in World War II, Marceau contained multitudes of emotion just beneath the surface. Miming became the outlet for those emotions. “He found no formula for the end of suffering,” Wen writes, “No formula to stir up empathy and understanding. Just a formula for one man.”

Through breathtaking descriptions of Marceau’s work as his most famed character—a Chaplin-like clown named Bip—Wen is able to showcase how Marceau used his art to explore his own inner suffering. If Marceau’s life off the stage was marred by a singular, self-obsessed dedication to being a mime (and portraying himself thusly), his ability to create imagined worlds out of, literally, nothing on stage, seemingly became his only way to outwardly express the range of emotions bubbling just beneath the surface. Wen, writing of Marceau’s daughter Camille, writes, “Her father was entirely inhabited by his art. Mime was his way of building the world as he wanted it to be.”

Marceau surrounded himself with artifacts collected on his travels and showcased at a property he owned in Berchères. The house is described by Marceau’s daughter as ‘a physical manifestation of [the world as he wanted it].’ Wen fills the second half of the book with detailed descriptions of Marceau’s collections—masks, icons, weapons, a catalogue of cultures from around the world—the artifacts reflective of the world Marceau tried to bring to the stage, the world he wished truly existed.

In parts of Silence, there’s a feeling that Wen is trying to refute the stereotypes now associated with mimes. Marceau was a true artist, his miming a layered, complex interaction between physical movement and emotional depth. Simple refutation isn’t Wen’s aim though, rather the author seeks to highlight the difficulty, dedication and mastery involved in miming at the highest form. Miming is, quite literally, the creation of characters, sets, and props out of nothing but a single person’s physical interaction with a crowd. Wen’s abilities as a writer are no joke, and she recreates the magic that occurs between mime and audience with eye-opening clarity. Silence does push back on our mime generalizations, but it also leaves the reader with a notion of its power in the right hands. If our respect for the craft has diluted, if not disappeared altogether, it says nothing about miming’s artistic value when performed by an actor of Marceau’s immense talent. It isn’t that miming is something to be ignored, even hated, but rather that the quality of miming has degraded. Or as Marceau himself once said, in response a reporter’s question about why Americans hate mimes, “Because most mimes are lousy.”

As striking as the writing and Wen’s observations in this book-length essay are, they are bolstered by the actual layout of each page. The author has chosen to place her words—scant as they may be—between stark, wide margins of white. It reminds one of words drifting on an all-white sea. The design becomes a visual representation of what miming, in the hands of a master like Marceau or Charlie Chaplin, could do: create worlds out of nothing. Wen’s book seeks to disabuse the notion that anything is created out of ‘nothing’ though. Instead, miming at this level, for Marcel Marceau at least, is the product of subsuming everything internally, sacrificing an external life in pursuit of artistic epiphany.

Review: Hollow by Owen Egerton

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Hollow
by Owen Egerton
Published 2017 by Soft Skull Press
$26.00 hardcover ISBN 978-1619029408

By Noah Sanders

Even the most non-religious amongst us has somewhere along the line stumbled across the story of Job. A devout family man from the Old Testament, Job’s faith is, to put it gently, tested by the spiteful, sometimes petty hand of lightning-tossing God. His family is stripped from him, his health worn down to near-deathly capacity, his entire being—both physical and mental—crushed beneath the hand of an all-knowing, all-seeing deity just so God can see how far he can fall before he loses his faith. In Owen Egerton’s new book, Hollow, he revamps the story of Job into modern times to ask questions not only about the extent of our faith, but what it is we choose to believe in. This is a dark, gritty, and nearly depressing novel that finds a former religion professor repeatedly striking rock bottom, but Egerton is able, even in the deepest, darkest bowels to drag his main character through, to find a bleak, often laugh-out loud, streak of humor.

Oliver Bond has bottomed out. A former professor of religion in Austin, Texas, he has lost his young child, his wife, and the life he once knew. Bond, smug and intelligent in the appropriately obnoxious ways, finds himself living in a metal shack, unable to pay rent, trying to figure out just what he did to make everything go so very wrong. Lyle, his chain-smoking, drug-dealing, laxly criminal, compulsive liar of a ‘best friend’ turns him on to the idea of the Hollow Earth, an age-old conspiracy theory that posits a second world inside the one we know accessible by gaping holes in the North Pole. Searching for anything to help him find purchase, Bond, barely a believer, grasps the loose threads of Lyle’s crackpot theory. On the edges of his life are other, even more destitute characters—a dying man quietly smoking himself to death, a Russian prostitute and her abusive, dangerous pimp, and a former student still trolling the edges of danger and seduction. Bond searches for funds for a scam-feeling expedition to the Hollow Earth, and as he spins further and further out of control, Egerton weaves in the events that lead Bond so close to the edge. This is a book about a man trying to find his way back to the light, small and distant as it may be.

In Hollow, Egerton asks an age-old question: “If there is a God who delineates our path in life, why would that path ever lead into the darkness?” Bond has lost his child, and unable to cope with the loss of his wife, he now perches precariously on the edge of homelessness and trauma-induced mental illness. Bond is a former academic, a bright mind with an observant, spiritual bent, and through his purview, Egerton is able to chronicle the fall from grace, and the nail-wrenching struggle to pull oneself back up. Bond is, like Lyle’s beliefs of the insides of the Earth, hollow, gutted by the tragedies that have befallen him, attempting to fill the empty space inside with whatever he can. He wants to believe, in the idea of the Hollow Earth, in the frayed threads still connecting him to his ex-wife, in the friendship between him and the dying Martin, hell, in anything that might give him reason to believe what has befallen him has reason. It is a quietly beautiful rumination on what it means to have faith, and what we do when that rug is suddenly pulled out from underneath us.

Egerton is relentless in his abuse of Oliver Bond. If his past is riddled with hardship, his present life dips from pretty shitty to almost unbearably bleak. By the end of the book there has been murder, betrayal, a swing into mental breakdown and more; all of it an intricately wrought narrative that seeks to expose the very core of whom Bond is. Amazingly enough, as pitch black as this book gets, Egerton still finds humor in his characters. Almost entirely, these are characters as close to the bottom as possibly could be, but there’s a morbid sense of humor and of existence that threads through all of them. Lyle in particular is a one-liner machine, a knuckleheaded believer who, in trying to help Bond, pulls him further away from who he really is.

There’s a believable sweetness in Bond’s relationships with Lyle and Martin—his dying friend—and it stems from Egerton’s warm, evocative writing and his ability to take big philosophical ideas and imbue them with simple, yet revelatory statements. At one point Bond, as close to the end of his rope as possible describes his mental state: “The universe is not killing me. The universe is not saving me. The universe is just here.” As straightforward as the statement is, it illuminates the theme of the novel—Bond wants nothing more than to find a reason for why so much shit has been heaped upon him, but in the end, his fate (if such a thing even exists) is his own. And even if there’s nothing above, or nothing below to believe in, he can find a way back from the bottom, by the power of his own two hands.