Thomas Chatterton Williams always knew there was something off about the simplistic race classifications he was forced to deal with since childhood. The son of a light-skinned black man and a white woman, Williams understood he was different, that he inhabited an interstitial space between the rigid racial categorizations society imposed on him. For years he performed intellectual work to break away from those impositions. However, holding his newborn daughter, a pale baby with blazing blue eyes, triggered a need to finally come up with a solution. Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race is the result of Williams’s quest for answers.
Bohumil Hrabal’s All My Cats is a bomb wrapped in gift paper. The cute kitties on the cover, the innocuous title, and the synopsis, which mentions the book is about the writer tending to “a community of cats,” all contribute to making the book seem harmless. It’s not. Instead, the narrative is a brutal chronicle of a man’s descent into madness because of his cats. Bloody, violent, and dealing with themes like fear, suicidal thoughts, and mental illness, All My Cats is a wild, explosive read that should contain a warning: many cats were harmed in the making of this book.
When we think of the baroque, we tend to think of complexity wedded to fineness. Images of darkened ballrooms extending indefinitely into the distance, mirrors framed elaborately in gold, and candle-bearing chandeliers as spindly and diffuse as ancient jellyfish come to mind. Fiction-wise, though, there’s not really an immediate image to latch onto, mostly because the novel as we understand it today (especially in English) didn’t crystallize as a form until the eighteenth century. There are, however, plenty of books being written today that could comfortably be classified as baroque, works by writers like Javier Marías and W.G. Sebald that have in common a respect for antiquity and an elegant, unfolding prose style, as well as a certain covetousness, as though the world were constantly slipping away and needed to woven together again by language.
You know this already when you encounter the title (the cover an elegant, minimal design by Patrick Delorey; evocative of modernist flourishes found in municipal buildings throughout Latin America and the Caribbean); Estoy Tristeza’s grammar is both disjointed and highly conscious, it takes the verb ser, which signals impermanence, in place of the prescribed sentir or tener, which would have the subject possess tristeza rather than be it. This grammatically estranged reconstruction amplifies the phrase, compels the reader to consider the ways that sadness courses through us. The poet’s first gesture asserts a stability in her unmooring; a grace in her own winding path, and this is how we begin, in a state.
You learn something new every day. In the case of today, it’s that multiple H.P. Lovecraft-themed parodies of Chick tracts exist. That probably shouldn’t have surprised me, though: when you’re dealing with cosmic horror, one of the expected elements is a sense that human religion is beside the point, that prayers and supplications will do no good in the face of some sort of limitless eldritch evil. Alternately: that theology and cosmic horror don’t mix.
What happens with the quotidian and the uncanny collide? There was a point in my early 20s, when I’d started writing fiction but was still highly impressionable, when I began considering what it might be like if one combined a Raymond Carver-esque realism with Lovecraftian forays into cosmic horror. Behold, suburban repression with eldritch horrors glimpsed in the background, never quite making their way forward to devour souls and drive people to madness.
Literature that makes me uncomfortable holds a special place in my heart. This year I’ve been lucky enough to read two books that have dug their way underneath my skin and stuck with me like angry chiggers hellbent on never letting go. The first book was Rachel Eve Moulton’s Tinfoil Butterfly. The second was my most recent read, Matthieu Simard’s The Country Will Bring Us No Peace. A bleak, strangely poetic narrative full of mystery that explores the darkest corners of human emotion, The Country Will Bring Us No Peace is an outstanding novel with a depressive atmosphere that sticks to your ribs and refuses to let go.
When it comes to finding ugliness, unexpected beauty, and weirdness in everyday life, no author does it quite like Mary Miller. Her understated, straightforward prose is a treasure trove of illuminating morsels that strip away pretense and reflect humanity in all its glorious range: unpleasantness, pettiness, aching, love, hope, heartbreak, longing, lust, depression, humor, and confusion abound. At once a novel and a sociological treatise of loneliness and heartbreak, Biloxi, Miller’s latest novel, is a hybrid narrative that’s part novel, part love letter to human darkness, and part ethnographical observation of an old man and his dog. Oh, and it’s all strangely beautiful and engrossing.