Review: The Ghost Notebooks by Ben Dolnick

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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

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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

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Jagannath
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

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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

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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.