Indexing: Talking “Veep,” Awesome Tapes From Africa, Jac Jemc’s “My Only Wife,” Unreliable Narrators, Benjamin Disraeli, And More

Items of interest from Vol. 1 contributors.

Tobias Carroll
I’ve been waiting for a while to read Jac Jemc’s debut novel My Only Wife; after picking up my copy from WORD earlier this week, I sat down to read it. I’m not a neutral source here — Jemc is a friend of mine — but I’d recommend this one highly. It’s the story of a courtship and marriage, told from the husband’s perspective after his wife’s abrupt departure. At this week’s Matt Bell reading, I heard some comparisons made between Jemc’s novel and the work of Michael Kimball, which I can see — that sort of incredibly focused prose emanating from a wounded narrator. But there’s also a joy in here — a theme of storytelling, and running images of bibliophilia. And, for all of the adoration and love that the narrator projects in the text, the novel’s structure itself prompts tension: is the title character’s disappearance wholly irrational? Is our narrator — this seemingly kind, warm, loving man — writing with less veracity than he believes himself to be? Is this a novel of love with a similar touch of the uncanny at the center (akin to Haruki Murakami’s chamber pieces), or is the story itself much darker — a novel of an unsalvageable relationship rendered in idealistic terms after the edits of memory and time?

Maybe the week’s reading theme was unreliable narrators, because Ellen Ullman’s By Blood is something of a master class in how to write one well. Or perhaps more than one — Ullman’s book nimbly incorporates a number of nestled narratives, many of them told by people who might not be entirely accurate in their storytelling. Or maybe not — one of the impressive aspects of the book is the way in which some of its character can narrate a story with precision and accuracy while still being entirely delusional about aspects of themselves. So far, it’s led to a long discussion with Ms. Filgate about the nature of unreliable narrators, and prompted me to revisit Jen Vafidis’s excellent interview with Ullman, as well as WORD’s Q & A with the author.

Even Norman Lock’s A History of the Imagination can be said to have an unreliable narrator — or, at least, a reliable narrator of an unreliable landscape. It’s set largely in a 1910s version of Africa — but it’s a version of Africa (intentionally) filtered through a particularly Western sensibility; a variation on a place filtered through the collective imagination of a very particular group. Through this, Lock’s narrator woos women, learns to raise the dead, and fights God; it’s in a similar vein to Lock’s Pieces for Small Orchestra. And there’s a headiness, a fondness for dream logic (and nested narratives of dreams within dreams) that at times recalls some odd and beguiling fusion of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. Alternately: all of you should be reading Norman Lock.

After the headiness of those novels, I ended up following Molly Templeton‘s suggestion and reading Adam Rex’s The True Meaning of Smekday, which abounds with odd aliens, amusingly mangled syntax, languages based on punching, and inscrutable cats. And I’ve just cracked Albert Cossery’s A Splendid Conspiracy, which will be my first encounter with said author’s work. Looking forward to sitting down this weekend with Mad Scene’s Blip and Broken Water’s Seaside and Sedmikrasy.

Jason Diamond
I picked up Christopher Hibbert’s Disraeli: The Victorian Dandy Who Became Prime Minister at the library, and maybe it was due to a friend warning me that he found the book “stale” in comparison to other Disraeli biographies he’s read (I believe the number is around six).  Sadly, he was right.  Not really the most interesting thing I’ve read.

Started in on Traveler of the Century by Andrés Neuman, and also getting through The Ivory Tower by Henry James.  The latter I picked up because I was curious what James wrote when he returned to America, and also what an unfinished novel of his would read like. I found Alan Hollinghurst’s introduction to be fascinating, and a welcome reminder that I really need to read The Stranger’s Child pretty soon.

I’ve been listening to Bola’s Volume 7 on repeat all week. I seem to love anything with the Awesome Tapes From Africa seal on it.

Jen Vafidis
This week flew by for me, and I can’t really remember what made an impact on me. I read what must be one of the best pieces Rookie has published, Life Skills 101, in which Krista instructs the readers on how to throw a punch, scale a fence, really and truly apologize, and tip people. News you can use even if you are not under the age of 20. I also read that fascinating Sarah Phillips scam article by John Koblin in Deadspin. What an amazing piece of reportage: it seems to be entirely constructed with emails, Gchats, Facebook chats, texts, and message board drama, often deleted so that no one could find the evidence. I’ve been following the fallout since—her partners coming forward, her Twitter press conference—but the first story is still the most impressive to me in its investigative persistence. It’s a gossipy story, sure, but it’s also a pretty remarkable expose of how out of whack freelance hiring practices are. There’s also this Orwell essay that someone tweeted, How the Poor Die, which got me all riled up, as Orwell is wont to do.

Offline I whizzed through Fear of Music by Jonathan Lethem (more on that to come, I think!) and I have been rewatching Chappelle’s Show on Netflix when I am tired. Both comforting in their own ways. Also, are you watching Veep? Why aren’t you watching Veep? It’s really, really good. The last episode ended with a miraculously realistic poop joke, and all the characters are allowed funny lines and jokes without seeming like cartoons. It’s nice to watch a comedy that is firmly of its setting, even if they’re not filming in DC proper.

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