Reimagining First Contact: A Review of Cadwell Turnbull’s “The Lesson”

Cadwell Turnbull’s novel The Lesson is a solid entry in the reliable genre of novels telling the story of humanity’s first contact with extraterrestrials. What helps to make it stand out even more is its intense humanism: Turnbull’s characters fervently debate religion and philosophy even before the aliens show up, and there’s a generosity that he extends to nearly all of his characters that help accentuate his themes of community. Turnbull also benefits from the specificity of this narrative: there aren’t a whole lot of science fiction novels set in the U.S. Virgin Islands, but Turnbull uses the setting to his advantage, furthering his chosen themes as this novel’s plot deepens.

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The Uncanny Metonymy of Helen Phillips’s “The Need”

Sara Ahmed argues that fear behaves like a metonymy. It is a sticky, parasitic attachment to objects that slides easily from sign to sign and, in the process, remakes how matter are named, and hence how they exist in the world. This is how “terrorist” sticks to “Islam, Arab,” or “criminal” to “Mexican,” even in the face of arguments (with facts!) that should otherwise unmake them. Whereas anxiety is static, it becomes fear when the object recognizes the fearful (or the other way round), and approaches. Ahmed, citing Freud, explains that these affects are responses to a love that can disappear, that connection which “secures the subject’s relation to the world.” Because fear expects pain, the fearing subject is split psychically between a present and a future, and is felt intensely in the former at the same time they are dissociated from it. Fear may unveil how absent we are in the present. In the moment of fear, the body wants to flee in the face of the feared object. To whom does it turn? Ahmed writes that fear also turns us towards love, towards protection and care for an other. “In this way,” Ahmed argues, “fear is that which keeps alive the fantasy of love as the preservation of life, but paradoxically only by announcing the possibility of death.” At the instance when the body erects a wall between it and the threat, fear also intimates the possibility of a love as intense as fear. 

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It Bears Repeating: Lydia Lunch’s “So Real It Hurts”

Anyone can be a provocateur for a day. All it takes is a single inflammatory word to ignite the frenzy of distractible dopamine junkies, who quickly move on. Maybe you can spin another day or two out of the pushback. Maybe you live on in the digital stockades after you burp up a few mea culpas that no one believes. But real sustained provocation, the kind that sears and twists and deepens over years, is another matter altogether.

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Bodies Haunted by Stories, Bodies Remade: A Review of John Langan’s “Sefira and Other Betrayals”


John Langan’s fiction brings together two seemingly disparate strengths: his way of structuring narratives is often revelatory, and his stories and novels themselves are frequently unnerving. Langan writes horror fiction, but his isn’t so much about jump-scares as it is about being in the presence of the inexplicable. There are uncanny hauntings and bizarre fatalities in it, to be sure, but Langan’s horror takes a very different form from many writers in the genre, past or present.

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Where Landscape and Horror Converge: A Review of Ilaria Tuti’s “Flowers Over the Inferno”

Ilaria Tuti’s Flowers Over the Inferno is an action-packed thriller with a unique serial killer and a multilayered, deep, and incredibly entertaining main character battling at its core. Set in a quiet village surrounded by ancient woods under the shadow of the Italian Alps, this novel also possesses a superb sense of place and an atmosphere that places it head and shoulders above most of its contemporaries.

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Exploring Nelson Algren’s Literary Legacy: A Review of “Never a Lovely So Real”

The other day at the coffee shop, a young woman asked me what I was reading. When I told her it was a new biography of Nelson Algren, she drew a blank. It wasn’t until I mentioned Algren’s long affair with Simone de Beauvoir that her face lit up with recognition. This woman is well-read and has lived in Chicago a few years, but she’d never heard of arguably the city’s greatest chronicler. And she’s not alone. Though Algren won the very first National Book Award in 1950, and was considered a top tier writer for a decade or so thereafter, he’s rarely mentioned in the same breath as Hemingway or Faulkner anymore. I’m hoping that Colin Asher’s definitive portrait of the man might change that.

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The Rebellious Profanity of Katherine Dunn

How does language speak truth to power? More specifically, how can language be used to rebel against power? The protagonists of Katherine Dunn’s three novels — 1969’s Attic, 1971’s Truck, and 1989’s Geek Love — are all positioned on the outskirts of society, sometimes by choice and sometimes not. (Dunn also wrote extensively about boxing: her 2009 book One Ring Circus collected her nonfiction about the sport, and her unfinished novel The Cut Man bears a title that alludes to the sport.) At the time of her death in 2016, Geek Love had been a cult classic for decades. In a lengthy article exploring its influence for Wired, Caitlin Roper called it “a dazzling oddball masterpiece.” She’s not wrong. It’s a novel that was nominated for both the National Book Award and the Bram Stoker Award, and that juxtaposition speaks volumes about Dunn’s aesthetic even if you haven’t read a word she’s written.

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Tragedy and Critique: A Review of Laila Lalami’s “The Other Americans”

Moroccan novelist Laila Lalami tackles the big stuff with her novels and characters—justice, race, class, familial identity, and religious sectarianism, among other weighty matters. Don’t even get her started on historical erasure. In her most impressive take on the topic, 2014’s The Moor’s Account (which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist and a Man Booker Prize nominee) she narrated the story of Mustafa ibn Muhammad ibn Abdussalam al-Zamori, a Moroccan slave who traveled with Cabeza de Vaca and is considered the first black explorer of the New World, but who was reduced to a footnote in de Vaca’s writings. Lalami created a narrative and an interior life for al-Zamori in that book, animating him into what can only be his rightful place in history.

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