Review: The Ghost Notebooks by Ben Dolnick


The Ghost Notebooks
by Ben Dolnick
Published 2018 by Pantheon
$25.95 hardcover ISBN 978-1101871096

By Noah Sanders

Grief is an unpredictable thing. In the throes of sadness—over death, divorce, the end of anything really—we are, as humans, quite capable of anything. Sure, we’ve tried to place the abstract concept of grief within structured boundaries, to explain it in concrete forms (waves, steps, stages) but in truth, grief is an unwieldy force with no real direction or shape. It is an unquantifiable mass that overtakes us; there is no rulebook and there is no way to adequately describe it or cope with it. Grief will do with us what it will, it is only our need to cling to the our most basic tenets of being human that allows us to move forward. Ben Dolnick’s The Ghost Notebooks is about loss, about the way grief haunts us, and, at its core, about what we become and what we do, when we let grief run unchecked. It is, to a certain degree, a ghost story and a mystery, but these are just window dressings to Dolnick’s themes of what we are capable of in the midst of the grieving process.

There is a surfeit of books these days—millennial ghost stories you might call them—about hipsters moving to the country to try and escape the crushing responsibilities of adulthood, of leaving one place in hopes of finding solace from the inevitable crush of growing up, but instead finding their problems, like a malevolent spirit, have tagged along. In The Ghost Notebooks, Nick Beron—an assistant music editor—and his fiance, Hannah Rampe—a curator of eccentric museums—are in the grey place near the end of a relationship when things really could shake out either way. On a whim, Rachel—mental illness at the edge of her emotional periphery—agrees to become the caretaker of The Wright Historic House, the deceased author Edward Wright’s former residence in the distant, upstate New York town of Hibernia. Things go well for a bit, the relationship straightens out, the couple remembers what they love about each other and enjoy the quiet, solitude of small town living. Rachel begins to hear voices, stops eating and sleeping, spends long hours scribbling in her journals obsessing over the supernatural rumors that swirl about the place. And then she disappears and Nick, right or wrong, becomes entirely unglued.

Told through Nick’s perspective, the reader is firmly situated in the darkest corners of his grieving process. This is not a low-key type of grief, this is a fully consuming, physical and mental grief. “I remember feeling flayed inside,” Nick says, “like every vein in my body had been scraped with a blade.” Devoured by sadness, Nick obsesses over the smallest details of Hannah’s disappearance, stepping further and further over the line, until he’s escaping from mental hospitals, gently assaulting the elderly in his attempt to understand, to free himself from the overwhelming cloud of sadness Hannah’s disappearance has cast over him. Nick is, in the most extreme way, just processing his grief—riding the waves, taking the steps, moving through the stages—he’s just doing so outside of imposed idea of grieving.

The mystery of The Wright Historic House and Hannah’s disappearance are at the heart of the book, but Dolnick sort of casts them away at some point, turning his focus towards Nick’s grief and the haunting affect it has on him. It shackles the book a bit, placing it within the confines of a ghost story, because it leaves the reader always thinking about what the solve to the mystery might be. And when the author veers towards his more emotionally centered conclusion, the book seems to stagnate, but only because what the reader thought they were getting is suddenly wrenched off the table. Sure, Dolnick returns to the more ghostly themes in the end of the book, but at this point they’ve become superfluous—we no longer care about Edward Wright, or even what about Wright drove Hannah to madness, because Nick’s struggle to escape his grief is so much more interesting.

Dolnick is at his best in The Ghost Notebooks when the more supernatural themes become reflective of the characters. Because, yes, Hannah is haunted before she disappears and Nick is haunted afterwards, but it has nothing to do with ghosts. They’re haunted by their emotions, as we all are, to the point that both of them start to fade, so hounded by their own emotional states they become ghost-like themselves. Nick is haunted not by the specter of Edward Wright or its effects on his missing girlfriend, he’s haunted, obsessed even, by the memories of his lost relationship. Everything in his life—buildings, objects, relationships—become entangled in the ghostly limbs of his grief.

Review: The Friend by Sigrid Nunez


The Friend
by Sigrid Nunez
Published February 2018 by Riverhead Books
$25.00 Hardcover ISBN: 978-0735219441

By Wesley Cohen

The Friend tells the story of an unnamed writer who inherits her best friend’s Great Dane after her friend has committed suicide, but it covers a lot more ground than that. The book’s triple epigraph should warn readers of The Friend’s complicated nature. The first is by Natalia Ginzburg, about the futility of “consoling yourself for your grief by writing;” the second is about a dog in Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Tinderbox;” and the third is from Nicholas Baker in the Paris Review: “The question of any novel is really trying to answer is, Is life worth living?”

These lines run the length of The Friend, as well as musings on trauma and abuse; muteness, blindness, and disability; the changing literary world; and sexual harassment and assault.

The Friend is audacious, often thorny writing. Addressed as an elegy to the narrator’s womanizing friend, the novel doesn’t shy away from his adulterous ways, his affairs with students, his confusion and anger with the changing status of sexuality in the classroom. It’s hard not to wonder if author Sigrid Nunez was the victim of unfortunate timing, with growing conversations about sexual harassment in academia and the #MeToo movement bringing this element of her title character into awkward focus.

But Nunez engages intensely with the nameless friend’s faults, refusing to minimize his misogyny or to condemn him for it, showing the narrator struggling with his behavior before and after his death. Readers fed up with stories of straight white men who are beloved despite their dehumanizing treatment of the women in their lives may decide to skip this novel, and have my blessing. Those who proceed anyway will find their concerns addressed explicitly in the book: in the first chapter, at the friend’s funeral, the narrator overhears an attendee noting “Now he’s officially a dead white male.”

This is how Nunez approaches each question The Friend raises. On whether writing can or should be therapeutic, she cites Virginia Woolf’s assertion that in writing about her mother “I did for myself what psychoanalysts do for their patients,” and Isak Dinesen’s belief that writing could “make any sorrow bearable,” but also Natalia Ginzburg’s warning against seeking consolation in writing, and Toni Morrison’s statement that basing characters on real people is “an infringement of copyright.” The Friend is expansive, guiding readers in a thousand directions instead of one, collecting anecdotes and literary riffs on its central themes without curating these into a single argument, leaving loose ends and self-contradiction on display for the reader to consider and explore.

Through these quotes, arguments, and musings, runs the story of a woman living in a very small apartment with a large, bereaved dog. Apollo the Great Dane is the beating heart inside The Friend’s more abstract work; through his misbehavior—when brought home, he immediately lays across the narrator’s bed, and later eats her Knausgård hardcover—and his baser needs, he brings fresh air and humor into the story. Although she is loath to discuss her own sadness, the narrator’s descriptions of Apollo’s grief and her growing attachment to the dog open the door to a new language of loss, a space in which to consider the absent man through the present dog.

By its end, The Friend rewards readers with tenderness and specificity that is all the richer for being found alongside abstraction. Challenging, elegant, and expansive, The Friend delivers a stunning portrayal of grief, joy, and friendship that is completely unique.

Review: Jagannath by Karin Tidbeck


by Karin Tidbeck
Published 2018 by Vintage
$16.00 paperback ISBN 978-1101973974

By Noah Sanders

You would imagine that a short story collection featuring a sentient bug-monster with a stomach full of secretion licking child-beasts would be defined as horror. You would also think a collection that features a man falling in love with a dirigible—and then being spurned by said machine—would be considered science-fiction. Or a book could be seen as fantasy, if it contains gods playing croquet with the heads of their servants. Jagannath, Swedish author Karin Tidbeck’s first collection short stories, finally making its way stateside, contains all these things, but like so many genre-defying works nowadays, it does not fit easily into any one description. This is a collection that pulls deeply from its genre predecessors—as well as the eerie folklore of Tidbeck’s native Sweden—in the pursuit of exploring mystical worlds, some just out of reach, some that live within us, and what sacrifices we make to get close enough to touch them.

The stories in Jagannath run the gamut from realistic prose flecked with fantastical elements to outlandish tales of opulent gods to small, steam-punk inflected fables. Through all of them, though, runs a familial through line, a sense of the supernatural living within our bloodstreams generation to generation, always seeking a way out into to the world. In many of the pieces within Jagannath, it is creation—birth or otherwise—that allows the characters to become one with the bizarre. In “Beatrice” a man falls in love with a showroom dirigible, a woman with a steam engine; their strange family made whole, and brought to ruin, by the arrival of a half-machine child. The title story, “Jagannath” finds a child birthed into the interior of a shambling machine bug, her life goal to keep “Mother” finely tuned. In some it is the reverse, a man-made clock turns a world of gods on its head in “Augusta Prime”; the human need to place structure upon the most abstract of concepts beyond the grasp of creatures birthed from myth and folklore.

“Reindeer Mountain” is Tidbeck’s story that drives the overriding theme home. In it, a family of three arrives in the far flung wilderness of Scandinavia to clear away the remnants of a decrepit family home. In most of her stories, Tidbeck does one of two things with her fantastical elements: she either approaches the more out-there aspects as if there’s nothing special or strange about them (the plague of bugs and specter-like caller of “Who Is Arvid Pekon?”) or she leaves it lingering on the periphery, just out of sight. “Reindeer Games” falls squarely into the latter category. The protagonists—two children, Cilla and Sara—are normal kids, venturing into the cold wilderness, but there’s a “sickness” in them, a mental illness that as one elderly character says, you “can’t get out of your blood.” Tidbeck dances between the idea of the sickness being genetic schizophrenia and it being a mystical sensitivity passed down from an ancient relatives dalliance with a vittra (a mythical Swedish creature). Though steeped in the realism of two teens experiencing the boredom and rare excitement of deep country adventure, the story speaks of what lives within us, the thin line between folklore and reality we all inhabit. As Tidbeck writes, “In some places, time,” or reality perhaps, “is a weak and occasional phenomenon.”

Tidbeck’s stories—warm and inviting even at their most disturbing—are self-described in her afterword as “speculative fiction”—the current trend-word for those authors unsettled by starker genre descriptions—but the author diminishes the strange and wondrous world she creates by doing so. These are science-fiction and fantasy, horror even, but shot from such odd angles and told in such a distinct, original voice that they transcend the trappings of genre. The gentle pulse of the otherworldly in Tidbeck’s stories slips off the page and into the reader, drawing them unaware into situations so much stranger than they first believed.

Review: The Largesse of the Sea Maiden by Denis Johnson


The Largesse of the Sea Maiden
by Denis Johnson
Published 2018 by Random House
$27.00 hardcover ISBN 978-0812988635

By Noah Sanders

I’ll be frank: I don’t really know how to write about Denis Johnson’s posthumous collection of short stories. We are talking about one of the great American writers of all time; a dark, scathing, death-obsessed author who plumbed his own demons—religious or otherwise—through his work; a National Book Award-winning author who’s helped to shape the landscape of American letters since the 1980s. I’ve read a lot of Johnson—some I’ve loved, others I haven’t—but now with his death still fresh in all of our little literary minds, how does one look at his final pieces of work with a critical eye? If this is the last new writing we ever see published from Denis Johnson it seems nearly impossible not to imply that his last words—possibly written as he slowly died from liver cancer—aren’t rife with greater meaning, greater insight than what he ever truly intended. In the end though, it doesn’t matter really. At its heart, The Largesse of The Sea Maiden is very much about Johnson’s favorite subject: death, how its inevitability is always the sword hanging above us and what we do as humans to move forward regardless.

In the five short stories in the slim volume, death seems close, ever-present, weighing down on the shoulders of each of his protagonists as they slog from one point in their lives to the next. There’s a sense of remembrance in these pages, of lives lived and not, coupled with a need to know what our legacies will be, what we’ll leave behind when we pass. In “The Starlight on Idaho” an Antabuse-addled rehab patient writes letters he’ll never send to everyone in his life, sometimes apologizing, sometimes ranting incoherently. His letters—written to the “fifteen or sixteen hooks in his belly with lines leading off into the hands of people I haven’t seen since a long time back”—amount to a record of his existence, of what’s come before and what it means moving forward.

Death comes in many forms in these stories—sudden, lengthy, obsessed over or slowly eased into (oftentimes in the same story)—but Johnson focuses on how omnipresent the inevitable succumbing to the great beyond is and how his characters, and his readers must find ways not to buckle under its weight. “The Largesse of The Sea Maiden” exists in the few short days of the grayer ends of a famed ad-man’s life. In the days before he’s set to receive a prestigious award, the ad man grapples with the death of mysterious friend and its implications, its quiet reminder of what happens when someone stumbles to the end of their rope. The ad man sees death everywhere—of his wife, Johnson writes “At any moment—the very next second—she could be dead”—and there’s the implication that the only way to continue moving forward towards all of our inevitable conclusions is ignorance, even self-deprivation of our own knowledge. In a reflective moment, the ad man remembers a story told to him by a journalist friend about a death row inmate whose wife lied to him about her life outside. “Thanks to all her fabrications,” Johnson writes, “William Donald Mason had died a proud and happy husband.”

This is a collection of stories within stories within stories, each narrator looking back, always looking back, through their own histories, trying to find something to make their futures worthwhile. It’s difficult not to think that these short stories are Johnson staring down his final days in literary form. That each sentence about his character’s encroaching end of life is Johnson speaking to his own situation. “Triumph over the Grave” features, in response to a laundry list of those people whom the narrator has lost, this line: “It doesn’t matter. The world keeps turning. It’s plain to you that at the time I write this, I’m not dead. But maybe by the time you read it.” Though Johnson may be forecasting his own death, he also seems to be implying that through his words, he’ll always be around. That death is coming regardless, and all we can do is live the life we have and hope it amounts to anything in the end.

Review: Red Clocks by Leni Zumas


Red Clocks
by Leni Zumas
Published 2018 by Little, Brown and Company
$26.00 hardcover ISBN 978-0316434812

By Noah Sanders

So much speculative fiction (née sci-fi) these days centers around a catastrophic change to the world we know. A humanity ending drought, a nuclear war, a shift in the balance of human/robot relations—a massive event that renders the world and our place in it almost entirely unrecognizable. Leni Zumas’s Red Clocks, a book that just barely dips its toes into the pond of speculative fiction, does quite the opposite. Instead, Zumas leaves Earth, the small rain-soaked coastal town of Newville to be specific, physically intact, instead positing an alternative (though very possible) future where abortion has been made entirely illegal by the United States of America. Into this altered America, where one can go to jail for murder for aborting a fetus and be considered an accomplice for assisting in one, Zumas weaves the stories of four women in the same small town, all of them somehow affected by the want, need, or presence of becoming pregnant. Red Clocks uses the smaller stories of its beautifully crafted characters to show the cascading effects on the individual, and in part society, when the right to express the individuality is stripped away from us.

Zumas doesn’t force the concept at the center of Red Clocks on to the reader; instead each of her characters—The Wife, The Daughter, The Mender and The Biographer (the characters reduced to simple abstracts like the women of America)—grapple with the effects of the law on their own small lives. The Wife, a mother of two who seeks to extricate herself from a loveless marriage, is tangled within the amoral implications her choice would bestow upon her. The Mender, a witch-like herbalist who specializes in the gynecological needs of her patients, finds herself at the mercy of the law when her methods become public. The Biographer, a 42-year old woman writing a biography of a 19th century Arctic explorer, wants nothing more then to have a child, but is betrayed by a deadline and by her own body. The Daughter, a pregnant high schooler, simply wants to rid herself of a child, but must thread the dangerous needle of a newly principled America. Though each character is a marvel to behold—Zumas bestows each with a richly unique voice—it is their interactions with each other and the imposed boundaries where the book truly shines.

Again, Zumas weaves together the women, and their various states of being almost seamlessly. The Daughter is a babysitter to The Wife, voyeur on the life of a women with children. The Wife’s husband—a deliciously awful French-Canadian named Didier—works with The Biographer who teaches The Daughter and uses The Mender to try and improve her chances of pregnancy. These are just a few of the connections—some fleeting, some generational—that Zumas threads through the book, each allowing more insight, more emotion on the subject of pregnancy, and the opportunity to move the narrative of each character steadily and often times surprisingly forwards. These are characters who deeply want—a baby, the lack of one, escape from their lives or just to ability to continue living them as they see fit—and the paths they stride to get where they want are fascinating and sometime shocking.

Though it may seem that Red Clocks is a book hammering home a pro-choice agenda—and its portrayal of the sterile world of gynecology and the government’s ham-fisted dismissal of a woman’s right to choose can be scathing—it is more so about being deprived of being able to live a life the way you choose. Zumas’s deeply flawed, beautifully human characters struggle—sometimes under the yoke of the abortion laws, sometimes in accordance with them—to live their lives as they see fit. Each is held back and each fights with varying degrees of success to move forward, to take control of what they quietly know is theirs. It is to Zumas’s credit that not all of her characters end where they hope. Instead, though many have failed at their intended goals, and the ominous decree of the United States government still hangs above them, as the book closes, the needle for each, and for their abilities to exist as individual women has inched slightly forward. And in the small world Zumas has crafted, it feels monumental.

Review: Indictus by Natalie Eilbert


by Natalie Eilbert
Published 2018 by Noemi Press
$15.00 paperback ISBN 978-1934819715

By Luiza Flynn-Goodlett

[I hesitate to foreground myself but want to provide a brief disclaimer: As a reader and survivor of sexual violence, those two parts of myself rarely intersect, and when they do, it’s likely due to an author’s harmful blundering instead of their careful engagement. This book is one the few that does the hard work of dwelling in those dark, sticky places, and so, it isn’t something to approach casually or without forethought. I read it over several weeks, putting it down frequently to catch my breath. What Eilbert does in these pages is remarkable, and I wish there was a better word for it than brave, but I did feel her being brave on my behalf, excavating and confronting specific personal violence, and in so doing, showing readers that this confrontation is both possible and necessary. So, fellow survivors, approach this book with all possible care and gentleness toward yourself, but please, do approach—you need it.]

Indictus is breathless, urgent, and unmistakably contemporary. Although, it’s not so much “contemporary” as from the future its speaker calls into being, a time when all things that must be said can be, and we don’t stop others or ourselves from saying them. There’s such intimacy here—a girl telling you something terrible, so unbelievable that it can’t be spoken above a whisper. But, instead, imagine the girl screaming that terrible truth at the top of her lungs, in front of the whole school, and you’ll have a sense of the thrill and unease this book inspires.

The long poem “Man Hole” that comprises the first half of the book frames the speaker’s history of sexual violence, and that of the other women in her life, as a study of holes—what they are; what goes into them; what comes out. As the speaker observes, “True emptiness doesn’t exist on the planet—isn’t that something? Holes / are essayistic then,” and “The beauty of holes is that I cannot enter one without ceasing to / exist in the outside world.” This framing transforms the violence described and its consequences into something primal and mythic. But there are no ancient gods or fates here, just a cultural system of misogynistic oppression that robs sexually violent acts of their specific harm, making them appear to be without cause, and thus, inevitable: “no one speaks of girls’ bodies as anything but accident . . . The van doors slam, the men disappear,” and the gutting sentiment, “They called her fine.”

She also examines how women whose violations are deemed both nonexistent and inescapable continue to limp into the future: “To believe what was done to me is curable / assumes a shape. This assumes / what was done to me is truly done.” Sometimes moving forward involves the all-too-familiar state of repression: “Do I remember when he brought my face to his sheets and demanded / I smell what I made? I do not and I loved it. I pushed a disk over memory / so I could breathe freely over it.” (That made me gasp.) Other times, it’s merely a matter of survival: “Dumb little smart girl / walks with both hands against her thighs. Others cover their asses with books. / Women hurt themselves to turn their wars inward.”

Eilbert excels at representing the cyclical nature of trauma, how survivors live with the paradox of their experiences meaning both nothing and everything, how they’ve changed profoundly and yet outwardly remain the same person: “Years and years went by like this. My childhood was decent. / Years and years went by like this. My childhood was decent. / And yet.”

For me, being seen in lines like the following was like a gulp of air after drowning for decades: “I grew up disappearing into a body. Then several. I want to tell you what happened to me . . . But what should I say?” Beneath the final line of “Man Hole,” I scrawled: “I’m dead.” Looking back at it now, I think I meant that Eilbert took me to the very edge of what I could bear, shredded society’s understandings of sexual trauma and women’s bodies, and assembled something entirely new from the scraps. I wrote “dead,” when what I meant was “reborn.”

The book’s second half, comprises the sections “The Men Fall Away” and “Liquid Waste: A Postscript,” is by no means a reprieve from the intensity of “Man Hole”; however, in “The Men Fall Away,” Eilbert’s speaker turns inward, foregrounding her own emotional terrain instead of those who intruded upon it. In poems like “Genesis,” she reflects:

a man led a girl into a closet and bit down.
Her cat escaped his leg when he left. It isn’t
much of a story. It never became a story at all.

There’s such canniness toward linear narrative and how trauma remakes the brain to subvert that narrative, as in this unbearable section from “In Truth I Wish Him Harm”:

Then the man removes her pants and tells her to watch the television.
It radiates blue light.
The girl develops a paralyzing fear of dark blue storm clouds.
She misses her bus.
Years later she will write with the deep worry it was only the color she saw.
No man.

There are numerous other standouts in “The Men Fall Away,” including “Testament with Water under the Bridge,” “Judges,” which contains the breathtaking line, “How I’ve gnawed the rims of cups. My desire to forget / left me a cast-iron mouth,” and “World’s Tiniest Violin,” with the line “my small wrists that are still so small,” the brutality of which I keep returning to. “Liquid Waste: A Postscript” also has many bright spots, such as, “To forgive, I poured milk in a saucer for a creature that never came.” There’s no clean resolution here, no tidy bow to tie it all up with, just a dogged keeping on.

This is a book that returns the reader’s gaze (whether they’ve suffered sexual violence, perpetrated it, or simply been forged by our misogynistic culture), so it can’t help but be a deeply personal book to encounter. As Eilbert’s speaker states in the final section, “I was born with black eyes / open, meaning I peeled back and stared through vaginal light.” Eilbert doesn’t spare herself or her readers, and I’m so grateful for that. Both timely and timeless, this howl of truth will echo for years to come.

Review: The Job of the Wasp by Colin Winnette


The Job of the Wasp
by Colin Winnette
Published 2018 by Soft Skull Press
$16.95 paperback ISBN 978-1593766801

By Noah Sanders

Colin Winnette’s novel The Job of the Wasp is, to some degree a ghost story. It is also a locked-room murder mystery and a gothic horror story all entangled within the dimly lit hallways of a purgatory like orphanage. It’s narrator, an ill-fitted boy—lacking both a name and a past—arrives at his new home, seeking nothing but some form of acceptance, but instead is pulled into a madcap hall of mirrors where no one—the children or the ominously vague staff—are to be trusted. Yet all of this—the hunt for an elusive ghost, the murders (which there are many), the pounding storm and the dank, often dour atmosphere—are a mere smoke screen for a story about the elusive nature of acceptance, what we will do, what we might even give up to feel a part of something bigger. And though Winnette—an able veteran of literary genre writing—handles the snarl of spirits and death with aplomb, the reader’s urge to unravel the relatively superfluous “mystery” distracts from the pulsing heart at the novel’s core.

The orphanage in which Winnette thrusts his nameless narrator is a transitional place, where parentless children and troubled kids are sent to be bettered for reemergence into society. Through awkward conversation and the blandly dire monologues of an anxiety-ridden headmaster, our narrator learns that every so often, when the number of students exceeds the capacity of the space, people start dying. His appearance pushes the number into the red and quite quickly, murder is afoot. Accusations are thrown, but many believe it to be the work of a ghost amongst them, costumed as a student, but killing in secret. The narrator—cold and distant, his every conversation a tool to discover more—discovers a buried body and commits a murder of his own and then, his own life hanging in the grips, must do what he can to discover the culprit.

The Job of the Wasp reads fast and sometimes funny, but there is a sense of longing in the character of the narrator, a perpetual maladroit coming to reckon with his own need of fitting in. The other boys (or are they ghosts) shun him at first, turn against him later and finally turn towards a sort of youthful mob justice once they’ve narrowed their suspicions. “Young boys are barbarians,” the narrator says, and he is the outsider amongst them, navigating this suddenly dangerous world as well as the slings and arrows of teenagers confined to a small space. “Young boys are barbarians,” Winnette writes, and The Job of the Wasp portrays them as such, escalating from teasing to attempted murder at the merest suggestion.

Winnette’s narrator is a fascinating, almost otherworldly perspective on the unfolding events, trying as he might to find allies of any yolk, even as those he gets “close” to continue to turn up dead. If he is surrounded by the erratic energy of young men, he is entirely separate from it as well. If the ghost could be anyone, then our narrator could be as well, and Winnette doesn’t shy from portraying him as askew from the other orphans. At times the reader wonders, “Is this narrator even a child? Is he even human?” “This was the very essence of innocence: a willingness to believe,” the narrator speaks at one point describing his fellow students, his perspective so alien, so above the simpler minded objectives of those around him.

And because of the genre(s), reading The Job of the Wasp, becomes an exercise in trying to figure out what’s true and what’s not, who’s a ghost and who’s not, who at the very least can be trusted. Which is unfortunate, because the journey of the narrator, how his attempt to insinuate himself into an established group for survival blossoms into something bigger, is a smaller, more poignant story smothered beneath the, albeit pitch perfect, atmosphere and mystery Winnette has devised.

This becomes clearest in the end of the book, when questions are answered (kind of) and the villain of the piece (maybe) is finally revealed and the strange world Winnette has crafted becomes even stranger. Because even as Winnette unboxes the mystery, lays all his cards on the table, it is the small shift in the narrator’s mind set the reader is drawn towards. The answers Winnette gives will not satisfy those thirsty for a neatly tied up conclusion. They are vague and as mysterious as everything that’s led up to them, and though this is clearly the author’s intention, it only adds to the distracting nature of the book’s genre elements. Even as the narrator begins to understand his place in the school, and perhaps in the world, one’s mind is drawn away from the emotional revelations and towards deciphering the cryptic explanations being laid on the table. And though Winnette has done a fine job crafting his bizarre, haunting world, in doing so he’s pulled the focus on what really matters: the fascinating interior dissection of his narrator.

Review: The First Church of What’s Happening by Miah Jeffra


The First Church of What’s Happening
by Miah Jeffra
Published 2017 by Nomadic Press
$10 paperback ISBN 978-0-9981348-9-5

By Noah Sanders

Miah Jeffra’s chapbook, The First Church of What’s Happening, is a deceptively slender volume of lyrical essays. The book, a collection of 10 short, lyrical pieces flits between both form and tone, with Jeffra peeling back the loose skin around his succinct, specific thoughts to expose the connections between what seems like nearly everything. With subject matter ranging from how to seduce a tech bro (“How To Seduce a Tech Bro in 13 Steps”) to Keith Haring (“Make Sure to See The Exit Door”) to an almost granular exploration of the memory of a rape (“Sunset, 1986”), there’s a lot to unpack in The First Church of What’s Happening. Jeffra, for the most part, is up to the task, managing a delicate balance of crass humor, poetic description, and academic insight (the author is a professor at Santa Clara) to untangle a dense knot of memory, perception, and life experience to great effect.

The essay “13 Ways To Seduce a Tech Bro” is, at a surface level, a satire of the emotional “how to” lists made popular by Cosmopolitan and other glossy lifestyle mags. And if you read it straight through, with your thinking hat laid neatly on a shelf, you would chuckle at the dismantling of the typical “tech bro” at his ” after-party bro jobs” or that the “white male donning Warby Parkers” is probably named “Bryan or Brad or Brent or Brock or Chett or Chip.” Jeffra is a skilled humorist and he will make you laugh, but you’ll do so with a lingering edge of discomfort as the author unravels his “tech bro” subject, exploring the politics of protest, gentrification, a boy named Chris Cortina (“His ass filled a pair of shorts like two planets.”) and much more before using the whole form to skewer the shallow representation of glossy mag, emotional “how-to” lists in general. And just when it feels like you’ve ingested too much, like Jeffra’s layers upon layers of meaning have filled you to the point of popping, he ties it all together—the tone, the style, the form—into a heart-breaking expression of universal human emotion.

When Jeffra turns inward and picks apart his own experience is when the book truly takes flight. “Sunset, 1986” recalls, in graphic detail, Jeffra’s rape in the woods around the Virginia home of his youth. The visual experience Jeffra is able to build on the page is both breathtaking and harrowing, each moment zoomed in on microscopically, immersing the reader in the brutality. “Dirt and grainy nature stuck wet inside my lips,” he writes, “and I could feel slobber move inside my mouth.” But as much as this is an essay about being raped, Jeffra uses the moment to investigate the permeance of memory, and how as a grown gay man and a writer, his recollection of the event has smeared, altered, and changed as he’s grappled with its implications. He intrudes upon his own memory like a director commenting on a film, peering at it from different points in time, dragging the reader into the hindsight, the emotional grappling he’s gained as the distance has grown. “And I wish I could admit that I only thought of this man’s pitiful, sorry boyness, awkward with the darkness of adulthood,” he writes, “or that I thought of my boyness, and became afraid then of what I would be, what all men become.” It is a harrowing piece of writing, and the very best in a collection full of strong pieces.

It isn’t that Jeffra ever overextends—his tangents are always interesting, his ability to wind them together strong—but on occasion they become too much to digest fully. As if Jeffra has so much he needs to say in such a short amount space, the essays become overindulgent, a table laden with themes, ideas and descriptions to the point of breaking. Some of this is in part the general concept of reading an essay collection: as soon as you’ve got your teeth fully sunk into one set of Jeffra’s ideas, you jump headlong into another and the effect can be dizzying for good and for bad.

As a whole though, The First Church of What’s Happening threads the needle of humor and pain, truth and perception, circling around and around its subjects before landing quietly on some gasp-worthy bit of thought and writing. And sometimes, sometimes Jeffra’s choice to describe shitting himself as dropping a “stink pickle in my drawers” will just make you laugh, and amongst everything else, it will, as I can only imagine Jeffra intended, it will feel like a breath of fresh air.