#tobyreads: Myths and Realism and Where They Meet


Earlier this week, I went to go see Kate Bernheimer read at Brooklyn Bridge Park. Afterwards, I started her collection How a Mother Weaned Her Girl from Fairy Tales. As with much of her work–and as the title might indicate–fairy tales are central here, sometimes as narrative elements, sometimes as narrative inspiration, and sometimes both. And this leads to an impressive array of unfolding logic: sometimes dolls come to life; sometimes lost children in the woods are kidnapped by a witch, with press conferences resulting. The way that the collection’s surreal elements collide with a consistent psychology put me in mind of Miranda Mellis’s collection None of This is Real. Some of the stories here take place in recognizable spaces; others shift the rules of logic: in one example, a man pilfers a cigarette from a sleeping woman, only to find that he himself becomes a woman when he smokes it; shrugging it off, he goes to play basketball, confident that he won’t be recognized. In each case, the way the rules of realism are rewritten makes for a thrilling experience.

Moving from the surreal and mythological to the deeply realistic, Sam Pink’s Witch Piss follows an unnamed narrator and his encounters with a group of (mostly) homeless (mostly) men in Chicago. Over the course of this short novel, questions begin to arise about his relationship with them: is he interacting with them out of compassion? Though we learn a lot about the men he encounters, we learn far less about him; this seems to be a deliberate choice on Pink’s part. For all that this is a realistic novel, there are certain conscious omissions: the names of superhero movies, for one, which are handled via bracketed placeholders. And so that question hangs: what brings him there? Is he in a similar position on society’s fringes? Is he encountering these men out of empathy, or is it more a kind of tourism? These questions don’t go away, but they’re also makes this novel more than simply a dose of realism. It doesn’t hurt that Pink is also one of the few writers I know who can write stylized, sometimes phoenetic, dialogue and not have it come off as cringe-inducing.

The economic anxieties that underlie Pink’s narrative are also present in Noah Cicero’s new novel, Go to Work and Do Your Job. Care for Your Children. Pay Your Bills. Obey the Law. Buy Products. It begins as deadpan workplace comedy, as narrator Mike takes a job after college working at a prison, and discovers a strange hierarchy of rules and regulations. It’s a panopticon as devised by Kafka, and it’s juxtaposed impressively with Mike’s relatively warm relationship with his family, which leads to a number of scenes both awkward and moving. Eventually, Mike strikes up a relationship with one of his coworkers, and the disappearances of several prisoners at their workplace ramps up the plot. It’s an ominous work, and one with interesting things to say about the current state of society and how historical legacies still reverberate.

If Bernheimer and Mellis represent one approach to fiction, where emotional realism and surreal environments mesh, and Pink and Cicero opt for a more realistic approach, the synthesis might look something like Michael J. Seidlinger’s The Fun We’ve Had. Like his earlier The Laughter of Strangers, this balances realistic spaces with the metaphysical: the novel is set on a coffin floating through open waters. On it are two people, neither of whom seem to be in the right body. Consciousnesses shift, lives are reviewed, and danger never seems far away. There are no easy comparisons to be made here; Seidlinger is charting a particularly surreal course that’s equal parts fever dream, heightened psychological realism, and archetypal study.


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