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.
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.
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.
This review concerns two different texts: Carmilla, a novella by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, serialized in 1871-2, and the edited, introduced text of Carmilla, published in paperback by Lanternfish Press this month. The second text encloses the first, but the two remain distinct. Carmilla’s editor for its new release is Carmen Maria Machado, whose blazing reputation illuminates the 150-year-old text, and whose canny notes on Carmilla make the reading experience at once more playful and more mysterious than it would otherwise be. Both texts are intriguing and resonant, even if they never do entirely mesh into one.
I first met Lisa Carver in 2013 when she came through town to do a reading. Perhaps no single event had more of an influence on me as an artist than seeing her indescribably wild performance art “band” Suckdog in the late 1990’s, so I asked her to meet me at a bar for a drink before her reading. She agreed, even though she made it clear that she didn’t drink. Carver arrived at the bar, and despite her claims of being dry, she immediately ordered a round of drinks. By the end of the day (yes, day. It was only about 3pm) she put $65 worth of fireball whiskey shots on my tab. This was an important lesson in reading Lisa Carver: Nothing is what it seems, so just take a deep breath and dive into life’s experiences that words are merely subjugated to decorate and communicate to the best of their rascally ability.
The title of Nathan Ballingrud’s debut collection, North American Lake Monsters, simultaneously conveyed a sense of the pastoral and an abundance of menace. The stories within spanned a broad stylistic range, establishing just what Ballingrud could do — everything from deadpan surrealism to forays into the horrific. Collection number two opts for a different approach: this one’s called Wounds: Six Stories From the Border of Hell. Were you to guess that this ventures more overtly in the direction of horror, you’d be right, but even then, Ballingrud’s fiction showcases an impressive tonal range.
I really ought to dislike duncan b. barlow’s writing. He writes in tiny punchy sentences, and to make them, he sometimes divides complete sentences into ungrammatical clauses. I am a Proustian all the way, insisting as I do on long winding sentences with many joined clauses, using commas to get my way, breathing only when necessary. (See?) But goddamn if I don’t love barlow’s writing anyway. Goddamn if he hasn’t done it again, whatever incredible thing he does as a writer, with his new novel, A Dog Between Us. It’s an intense piece of work, revolving as it does around two people in the narrator’s life who are dying in different ways. Its shape and symmetry remain elusive, and its plotlines taper instead of ending. But the reading experience is akin to—if you’ve never done this, I pity you—sitting on a plastic sled attached to the back of a moving vehicle. Joy and danger mixed together, roped to an unfailing engine dragging you along.
Michael Carroll’s writing spine is as sturdy as mountains. It has to be to stride the tidal wave of ultra-conservatism currently holding this country underwater, seeking to erase fifty years of progress, conspiring to send us back to our caves. Stella Maris: and Other Key West Stories flips the bird at what has become a sterile, bloodless America. Sex (dirty raunchy, unapologetic sex) jumps off every page of these tales. You smell its deliciousness the way you smell it the second your nose hits Key West. Stella Maris is sexual medicine for the infuriating return to Puritanism we are seeing these days.