April 2011, Atticus Books, $14.95
I picked up an ARC of this book in February, at AWP. Took me a minute to get to it with my unbelievable to-read stack, but I'm glad I finally did. Part of the reason I was excited about this book--I freely admit this--is that Steve Himmer has long been a friend to my own rantings, blog-publishing mentions about enjoying the work in my chapbooks and in Prose. Poems. a Novel., as well as selecting a story of mine to appear on Necessary Fiction, the online lit mag Himmer edits, and, on top of that I can tell he's just generally a good guy. Despite this seeming nepotism (which is really ridiculous anyway, right? I mean if two or more people who do the same sort of thing know each other, that's really surprising to you? It's like being surprised that Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley actually personally know one another and sometimes might even talk on the phone), Steve Himmer and I do not personally know one another. We've exchanged some brief emails, but we've never met personally. Anyway. Another reason I was excited about this book is that Himmer and I share some affinities for what is typically called "nature writing," but we might call it "place-based literature," or "ecocritically-friendly lit," or "Post-Thoreauvian Post-Post-Modern American literature." I just made that last one up. I actually have a Master's degree from the University of Nevada's Literature and Environment Program. So, I'm interested in this stuff. After this long preamble, let me say honestly, that while I have some points of small criticism of this book, it is, in all, a fine and enjoyable read, an edifying book, one that satisfies and leaves the reader thinking about our place on the planet in Western society.
It somehow happened that things I want to talk about with this book I broke up into the following areas:
I'm a stickler for a fine sentence. I care about verbs, a lack of passive voice, lyricism. I understand a Gardner-esque point of view, that the sentence shouldn't draw too much attention to itself, that it should be easily readable, so we're not distracted from the "vivid and continuous dream" of the novel. But, I want a little attention paid to the beauty of language, too. This is not to say that Himmer has not done that. In some passages, especially toward the end--"After dinner, while the evening sky bruised as if its body, too, had worked a long day, I walked down to the river for a rare sunset swim."--he nails it. Sometimes I just wanted Himmer to get rid of filters: Finch "sees" things (in the sections when his sight isn't failing him), smells things, feels things, etc. I often simply want the sensory detail to be immediate. Instead of "This morning I stepped out of my cave into a world that still smelled like fresh rain and burnt hair"; I want it to be "This morning I stepped out of my cave into a world reeking of fresh rain and burnt hair." This is symptomatic of the kind of tightness I require, I suppose. but let me qualify this criticism by saying that this is a relatively minor point, considering the elements in this novel that supercede such trivialities. Also, for all I know, many sentence-level issues were taken care of with the final product, as I'm reading an ARC.
This book has a distinct political agenda. Typically, that's not something that I care to read. Granted, it's arguable that anything, no matter what you write, has an ideology behind it, but in this case it's right there in your face: " . . . I turned up the news. It was about the economy like it always was, interspersed with bits about wars that were either good for or bad for economics depending on who you asked, depending on which network you watched and which side you were on . . ." The rest of the scene in which this passage occurs outlines perhaps the ideology of the entire novel: the narrator becomes more entranced with a nature program about emperor penguins because he's bored with numbers, with the heads squabbling over human endeavors.
I don't disagree with Finch--our protagonist, also named after a bird--that the things of everyday humanity are insufferably boring, that the entrapments of our world keep us from tuning in to the non-human around us and thus it's no wonder that we suffer from global climate change, that, very likely, a good portion of the human population has decades of bad waiting for it due to our industrial negligence. But I don't think the solution is dropping out and tuning in--or whatever the fuck that Hippy said in the 60s.
The narrator (a first person narrator, which sometimes brings with it an obligation to explain the reason for the telling of the story; think Lolita, or Invisible Man, or something) uses a simple, but effective device, revealed to the reader about a hundred pages in, as the Old Man, which is a personification of the narrator's man-made river, and is the narrator's "scribe" to whom he ascribes his memory for, presumably, this telling of his story. Why the narraotr decided to do this in the first place is unclear and never explained, although it seems implied that it is an extension of his internal monologue brought on by his employer-enforced (and later self-imposed) vow of silence. This is tremendously interesting in its ironic implications. Here we're reading a novel--the antithesis of silence--written by a character who consciously chooses not to talk to anyone but himself in the form of his "Scribe," who informs the events of the novel, insuring a kind of unreliable/reliable narrator who we can trust/not trust to tell us this version of truth. At the same time it satisfies--however transparent it might be--the basic need for a reader to have a reason for the story being told in the first place.
The book moves back and forth: at one time the narrator tells us the story of his here and now, after his former employer has met his downfall and the garden has been relinquished to Finch, only to be infiltrated by a couple of hikers; these chapters alternate with Finch's history leading up to this moment. These latter chapters tell of how Finch ended up in the garden, how Mr. Crane asked him to perform certain endeavors such as Tai Chi, painting, woodcarving, and gardening, along with brief interactions with Crane, his wife, and Smithee the butler. This structure works well in that both moments come to a culmination: Mr. Crane meets his fuzzy downfall (we're not sure what happened but it's implied something illegal has gone on); and Finch ends up embracing his new garden companions who seem to have taken on Finch's own hermit-like qualities of silence and self-reliance. One thing we're never told is why Finch is losing his eyesight. It's implied that this simply has to do with age, but you don't get the sense that Finch has been in the garden an inordinate amount of time. Years, certainly, but enough for him to get old?
The only named characters, Finch and Crane--as has been previously mentioned at least for one of them--are named after birds. Finch, of course, being small, delicate, beautiful; and Crane is larger than life, somewhat stoic, representative of ideas more than an actual person. The symbolism here smacks you. I'm actually surprised more reviews haven't mentioned this.
Ultimately, it's no surprise to me that this book, smart as it is, was not picked up by a large New York house. It's too smart. I don't think they like thinky books. Fortunately, it landed in Atticus Books' hands, where they did a fine job producing this beauty. The book is yet more evidence that what popular culture--that what Finch does not sacrifice, but what he disdains--is useless, and won't carry us through the troubling years ahead. The bees, of course, which suggest our downfall due to their own rapidly shrinking numbers (hence our species' inability to rely upon agriculture, which bees' pollination insures), briefly fill this novel with a resounding blue uncertain stumbling buzz.
Tuesday, May 3, 2011
I want to give away some copies of The Book of Freaks.
I'm thinking that the most entertaining way I might achieve this is to have other people write their own entries to The Book of Freaks.
For examples, some of the entries that I wrote can be found
at Robot Melon (x2)
at Mad Hatter's Review
Write your freakish entry. It can be about anything you damn well please. Post your entry in the comments at HTMLGiant or here. Entries will be judged by Roxane Gay and Mike Young. Three winners and a runner-up will be selected to receive a signed copy of the book and some other junk that I decide to send your way.