Fat Books & Thin Women


Review: Colson Whitehead’s Zone One

Colson Whitehead manages the seemingly impossible in Zone One, injecting the zombie novel with a literary bent. He takes this idea of the undead, the afterlife taken to its most gruesome conclusion, and uses it as a filter to look at a city, to look at the people who survived the apocalypse (or rather, the people who have survived longer than the others have), to look at the reasons for their survival, and to examine what hope means when there seems little reason to hope. What’s more, in doing these things he makes them seem obvious – how did no one think, sooner than this, to do with zombies what Whitehead has done so well in Zone One?

As it opens, the novel is almost a love affair with New York City, with “Mark Spitz” (a nickname, but the only way we know our main character) looking back on visits to his uncle and the ever-changing city. This image of New York, of wreckage followed by new buildings, again and again, are eerily prescient of the later images of the zombies walking the New York streets, apparently capable not only of endless arrival but of endless development. This early image of New York, though, retains a sort of quiet beauty in its vision of endless restructuring:

In every neighborhood the imperfect in their fashion awaited the wrecking ball and their bones were melted down to help their replacements surpass them, steel into steel. The new buildings in wave upon wave drew themselves out of rubble, shaking off the past like immigrants. The addresses remained the same and so did the flawed philosophies. It wasn’t anyplace else. It was New York City. (6)

The world Mark Spitz inhabits, a New York that’s been decimated and cleared of its former inhabitants, a New York that has been divided into zones now being painstakingly cleared of “skels” (the zombies) and “stragglers,” who aren’t quite zombies but exist in some nether world, standing motionless at some post they’ve selected for reasons Spitz and his compatriots will never be able to understand, is one with moments of hope. Though Spitz suspects the world has been left with only the people who were mediocre in their former lives (like him, whose “most appropriate designation” in a high school yearbook “would have been Most Likely Not to Be Named the Most Likely Anything” [10]), and though his life at the moment consists of little but walking through building after building, seeking the stragglers missed by the marines who did the first run-through of Zone One, he also finds some cause to hope for a better world as a result of the crushing defeat of the former system. Brief as these moments may be, Whitehead’s vision of the indominatibility of both human hope and despair is powerful:

There was a single Us now, reviling a single Them. Would the old bigotries be reborn as well, when they cleared out this Zone, and the next, and so on, and they were packed together again, tight and suffocating on top on each other? Or was that particular bramble of animosities, fears, and envies impossible to recreate? If they could bring back paperwork, Mark Spitz thought, they could certainly reanimate prejudice, parking tickets, and reruns. (231)

Whitehead occasionally uses this zombie plague as an opportunity to comment on these issues of race and class and the bigotries humans can’t seem to help holding. He’s never heavy-handed with this, though, and the New York Mark Spitz is working in now is at times crushing for the ways it is similar to the previous world, and the ways in which it is different. Though Spitz and the others trying to clear Zone One of skels and stragglers are, on paper, the survivors of the old order, Whitehead suggests, too, that the skels are blindly keeping that old world alive, that in them you can see some true New York story.

The damned bubbled and frothed on the most famous street in the world, the dead things still proudly indicating, despite their grime and wounds and panoply of leaking orifices, the tribes to which they had belonged, in gray pin-striped suits, classic rock T-shirts, cowboy boots, dashikis, striped cashmere cardigans, fringed suede vests, plush joggings suits. What they had died in. All the misery of the world channeled through this concrete canyon, the lament into which the human race was being transformed person by person. Every race, color, and creed was represented in this congregation that funneled down the avenue. As it had been before, per the myth of this melting-pot city. The city did not care for your story, the particular narrative of your reinvention; it took them all in, every immigrant in their strivings, regardless of bloodline, the identity of their homeland, the number of coins in their pocket. Nor did this plague discriminate; your blood fell instantly or your blood held out longer, but your blood always failed in the end. (243)

Zone One is an extraordinary novel, one of those rare concerted mashups of literary and genre fiction that doesn’t cheapen either genre but rather brings both to new heights. Whitehead’s zombies are zombies, literally, but they are also a marker of something else – of the way the things and stories we hope to bury have a way of endlessly renewing themselves.

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Review: Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River

Dennis Lehane’s novels may be shelved in the crime section, but what you begin to sense as you read his fiction is that many of his overarching concerns – in family, in community, and in how people use these things to define themselves and their decisions – would be at home in the “literary fiction” genre. To point this out isn’t to suggest that literary fiction is “better” than crime novels, but rather to say that Lehane is an extraordinary writer producing works that are at once accessible, plot-driven, and thought-provoking.

Mystic River is his best novel to date. Hand this one to anyone who speaks about genre fiction with their nose in the air and you’ll have a convert to the world of mass market paperbacks. Mystic River is as well-plotted as any of Lehane’s Kenzie & Gennaro detective novels, but because he follows his three main characters from youth he is able to explore more deeply those issues of community that have appeared in his other works.

Mystic River opens in 1975, with three friends who will in time be divided by community (who’s from the Point? who’s from the Flats?), differences of personality, and what happens when one of them, Dave Boyle, gets into a car driven by “policemen” who are in fact child molesters. After Dave escapes his captors, we leave them until 2000. All three remain in Boston: Dave, married with a child; Sean, a police officer separated from his wife; and Jimmy, an ex-con whose daughter is murdered the same night Dave comes home to his wife covered in blood, claiming to have been mugged.

Lehane’s narrative loops us back in history, pointing to the ways long-ago events (not just the day Dave got into the car when the other two boys wouldn’t, but Jimmy’s two-year sentence for robbery and what got him there) color seemingly unrelated moments in the present. Near novel’s end Jimmy reflects on the karmic nature of his daughter’s death, how her seemingly random murder can in some way be viewed as the only natural response to something Jimmy did shortly after his long-ago release from prison.

Lehane’s skill lies not only in carefully plotting so that these loopings through time and history read as naturally as actual events, but in fully exploring his characters’ motivations and the ways they’ve been formed. There’s Dave, who initially seems not greatly affected by his molestation as an eleven-year-old, but who, as novel progresses, reveals himself to be a scarred and flawed man seeking some form of redemption; Sean, who is unable to let go of his pride to find a way to get back the wife who left him a year earlier, and who has to investigate the lives of two childhood friends; and Jimmy, whose grief over his daughter’s death is coupled with a desire for some revenge, as well as a redemption for his community.

After Jimmy’s daughter, Katie, is found murdered after a night out, the police speak to Dave Boyle only because he happened to be in one of the bars she visited with her friends. Long before Jimmy begins to suspect that Dave was involved in Katie’s murder, Lehane reveals the ways Dave’s seeing Katie is painful, somehow wrong, to Jimmy:

It was this knowledge – that someone other than Jimmy possessed an image of Katie that postdated Jimmy’s own – that had finally allowed him to weep in the first place. (263)

Although we see Jimmy’s grief for his daughter, it’s the married couples that gain most of Lehane’s attention, and where we see the most powerful relationships taking place. Jimmy and Annabeth compare themselves to Dave and his wife, Celeste; they are able to mark themselves as different, better, than the other couple, because of the strength of their belief in one another.

No character in Mystic River is entirely clean or free of blame in either Katie’s death or Dave Boyle’s story. Lehane explores their degrees of guilt without judgement, and while the characters pass judgement on one another there is little temptation for the reader to do the same. Lehane writes, as ever, about deeply flawed individuals who are trying to somehow better themselves and their worlds. Lehane suggests, at the same moment, that there is little possibility of his characters escaping their pasts and their communities, and that these ties and faults are what make them worth knowing.

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Story Sunday: Daniel Orozco’s “Orientation”
January 22, 2012, 7:27 pm
Filed under: Story Sundays | Tags: , , , ,

Story Sundays is a weekly feature at Fat Books & Thin Women. Always short stories, always ones available online for free.

Daniel Orozco’s “Orientation” is a compact and perfect example of what a short story can do. In format, the story is similar to one featured here a few months ago, John Jodzio’s “This is All the Orientation You Are Gonna Get”: a monologue directed at a new employee. Orozco’s picture of the office is spot-on and sometimes hilarious for how clearly it highlights the miseries (and endless minutia) of office work:

If you must make an emergency phone call, ask your supervisor first. If you can’t find your supervisor, ask Phillip Spiers, who sits over there. He’ll check with Clarissa Nicks, who sits over there. If you make an emergency phone call without asking, you may be let go.

Orozco captures, too, the tendency of office-ese to verge into redundancy or meaninglessness:

We have our Biannual Fire Drill twice a year, and our Annual Earthquake Drill once a year.

In reviewing the office’s employees, though, there’s a certain sadness, a sense of all that goes unsaid and unknown at the office; everyone seems to be in love with someone else, who is barely aware of their existence. Orozco has his narrator review these hoped-for romances and personal problems in the same tone as he goes over copy machine etiquette. In doing he highlights not just the divide between the bland standards of office life and how each person in that office considers his or her life, but the inevitable way those inner stories and longings are tamped down. These are stories and facts the narrator considers worthy of note, but no more so than any other detail of the office.

John LaFountaine, who sits over there, uses the women’s room occasionally. He says it is accidental. We know better, but we let it pass. John LaFountaine is harmless, his forays into the forbidden territory of the women’s room simply a benign thrill, a faint blip on the dull, flat line of his life.

“Orientation” is a five-minute read by turns funny and crushing and eerie. This office, this idea of knowing – but not really knowing – the people you work alongside of, will be familiar to anyone who’s ever faced a baffling list of rules regarding everything from bathroom breaks to using the office scanner.

Read “Orientation” online

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Review: Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot

Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot is a good college novel. It’s a good novel about a few kids their first year out of school, and it’s a good novel about relationships and about, duh, “the marriage plot.” But it’s a novel that suffers for what we might expect it to be; however good Eugenides’s latest may be, it doesn’t, it can’t, approach the quality of Middlesex. Unfair as it may be to compare the novels, it’s impossible to read The Marriage Plot (just as it’s impossible to read The Virgin Suicides) without Eugenides’s best novel in mind.

The Marriage Plot opens on graduation day for Madeleine, an English major who wrote her senior thesis on the marriage plot. Though Madeleine may first appear in the novel a hungover disaster, it’s soon clear that her life, and the life of this novel, is going to follow the same topic as her senior thesis. Which of her two (unsuitable) suitors is she going to end up with? What does a contemporary novel, taking marriage as its theme, look like? Her two suitors, Mitchell and Leonard, appear on the periphery of her life when the novel opens, but it’s evident that Madeleine is going to go for one of the two. Mitchell, a friend who’s been in love with Madeleine for years, appears about as well suited to her as her (momentarily) ex-boyfriend, the unstable, recovering Lothario, Leonard.

The biggest problem with Eugindes’s novel isn’t that it pales in comparison to Middlesex, but that Madeleine as a character appears a shadow compared to Leonard and Mitchell. Mitchell is by far the most sympathetic and best developed character of the novel, and it’s his post-graudation year-long “journey of self-discovery” that forms the most enjoyable part of the novel. And unlike Madeleine and Leonard, Mitchell seems most out-of-place at Brown University, the most in awe of this world of assumed success (not to mention expensive clothes and ice cream). Visiting a friend’s home for the first time, Mitchell is overwhelmed by the offerings of their kitchen; in some way, Mitchell feels like our guide to this world, the one member of Eugenides’s group of characters who doesn’t quite belong in Madeleine’s circle.

He still remembered the thrill of it: coming down to the kitchen one morning, the majestic Hudson visible in the window, and opening the freezer to see the small round tub of exotically named ice cream. Not a greedy half gallon, as they had at Mitchell’s house in Michigan, not cheap ice milk, not vanilla, chocolate, or strawberry but a flavor he had never dreamed of before, with a name as lyrical as the Berryman poems he was reading for his American poetry class: rum raisin. Ice cream that was also a drink! In a precious pint-size container. Six of these lined up next to six bags of dark French roast Zabar’s coffee. What was Zabar’s? How did you get there? What was lox? Why was it orange? Did the Pleshettes really eat fish for breakfast? Who was Diaghilev? What was a gouache, a pentimento, a rugelach? Please tell me, Mitchell’s face silently pleaded throughout his visits. He was in New York, the greatest city in the world. He wanted to learn everything, and Larry was the guy who could teach him. (133)

Leonard doesn’t quite fit into Madeleine’s upper-crust world either, but there’s a sense that he could, if not for his mental illness. Eugenides does an extraordinary job following Leonard over the course of the novel, his collapses and recoveries, his attempts to self-medicate and how his illness influences his feelings for Madeleine. Though Leonard is presented, from Mitchell’s view, as a womanizing asshole who doesn’t deserve Madeleine, he emerges later in the novel as a profoundly decent person who may not deserve Madeleine but recognizes his failure to be what he should be.

Madeleine, though, remains an enigma. We see her largely through the eyes of her two suitors, and when a section of the novel is told from her point of view, it’s not about her life as much as it is about her life with Leonard, or her lack of a life with Mitchell. Although Mitchell’s college memories of Madeleine are of someone determined not to marry, to find some independent course for her life, her actions point to a desire to define herself through her relationships. Madeleine may stay with Leonard during his bouts of illness, but she’s with him as much for duty as for love; it is, she seems to believe, what she is meant to do. That Eugenides based his entire novel around a character who only exists through the eyes of others is troubling, and points to some failure in the attempt to breathe new life into the marriage plot. He may take the plot on a different course at novel’s end, but The Marriage Plot remains a novel that views Madeleine as existing mostly for the benefit of the men surrounding her. And when Madeleine, at novel’s end, begins to take some more independent path – we think, we hope – it’s not because she realized the need to find her own way, but because Leonard and Mitchell each, independently, realized that Madeleine deserved to be on her own.

The Marriage Plot captures elements of the college experience, of intellectualizing our lives, of attempting to find ourselves through work and travel and relationships, more clearly and exactly than any other novel in recent memory. Where Eugenides fails is in having a main character who is nothing more than a canvas for men to project themselves onto. Madeleine exists not as a person in her own right, but as someone who offers to others a chance to better themselves, a chance for redemption. Eugenides may suggest that Madeleine’s bout with the marriage plot has led her to some understanding of the need for self-development and -discovery (following Mitchell’s path, in spirit if not in manner), but that remains only a suggestion, overshadowed by 400 pages of Madeleine living for everyone but herself.

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Review: Jean-Patrick Machette’s Fatale

If Jean-Patrick Machette’s Fatale represents the height of French noir (this is what the cover tells me) then, hell, I don’t want to read any more. The 90-page novella has its moments – at first there is an appeal to the inscrutable nature of the main character and killer, who we know only as Aimée, and moments verge on the comically absurd – but there is not enough plot or enough coloring of the scene to make this a rewarding read.

Fatale opens with Aimée murdering a man hunting in the woods, then follows her as she travels to her next town, Bléville, refashioning her image on the way. (Changing her hair color seems a standard post-job affair.) The translator’s notes make clear that there’s some meaning to the town’s name, which translates roughly to “Doughville.” Even before arriving Aimée views this town, picked at seeming random, as offering some unique money-making opportunities, a chance for a last big job before she retires. Her relationship with her chosen work and with money are the most interesting things about her character, as when she is traveling to Bléville with the payment from her last job:

She leaned over, still chewing, and opened the briefcase and pulled out fistfuls of banknotes and rubbed them against her sweat-streaked belly and against her breasts and her armpits and between her legs and behind her knees. Tears rolled down her cheeks even as she shook with silent laughter and kept masticating. She bent over to sniff the lukewarm choucroute, and she rubbed banknotes against her lips and teeth and raised her glass and dipped the tip of her nose in the champagne. And here in this luxury compartment of this luxury train her nostrils were assailed at once by the luxurious scent of the champagne and the foul odor of the filthy banknotes and the foul odor of the choucroute, which smelt like piss and sperm. (6-7)

Apart from this, Aimée reads as a dishearteningly one-dimensional character. There’s some reference to an earlier husband and an abusive relationship, but the novella offers no room to explore this history. (Nor is it certain that a novel two or three times the length of Fatale would ever get around to it, Aimée not seeming like a person who cares to reveal herself.) We’re informed that she’s killed seven men before arriving in Bléville, but there’s little to suggest how she came to commit murder for hire. We know only that Aimée doesn’t separate herself from her killings, that she likes to arrive in a town and insinuate herself into the social structure in order to learn who wants who dead; or who, perhaps, most deserves to be dead.

Machette’s vision of Aimée’s world is of one in which only social graces hold people back from killing each other. This allows the action to move quickly, Aimée scarcely arriving in town before finding the affairs and tensions that precede her work, as well as a man who despises the town’s residents as much as she does. The fault here is that Machette’s world, while dark and at times extraordinary, is wholly unbelievable. There is a cartoonish nature to Aimée, the town, the nature of the murders she commits, that is hard to overcome. These things could well make for a novella that is as extraordinary as the oversize world it contains, if only there were a single character in Fatale who reads as more than a broadly-drawn character sketch. Fatale may well be a fine representative of French noir; it’s not, unfortunately, one that makes me want to further explore the genre.

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Story Sunday: Nathan Englander’s “Free Fruit for Young Widows”

Story Sundays is a weekly feature at Fat Books & Thin Women. Always short stories, always ones available online for free.

Nathan Englander’s “Free Fruit for Young Widows” is a story that takes in a father-son relationship, an opaque but long-running friendship (of sorts) between two men, the concentration camps of World War II, misplaced loyalties, and how cruelty and wrongness can shape a person throughout life – without ever seeming to take on too much.

The story’s framing structure is that of a father-son relationship, centered on a family-run produce stand. The owner of the stand, Shimmy, gives produce for free to war widows, and to one man, Professor Tendler. Shimmy’s son, Etgar, knows little of Professor Tendler except that one day, during the 1956 Sinai campaign, he shot four Egyptian men who had mistakenly sat down at the wrong table for lunch – the table where his father, Shimmy, sat eating. He knows, too, that Tendler then beat Shimmy to a pulp, so much so that when Shimmy and the four dead Egyptian men were found “it was the consensus that a pummelled Shimmy Gezer looked to be in the worst condition of the bunch.”

What Etgar wants to know, what we spend the story learning, is why Shimmy gives free produce to this man who beat him, to this man who shot four Egyptian men dead though it was not clear they had any intention to do harm to Etgar’s father – or that they even realized he was not one of them. (Soldiers in both the Egyptian and Israeli armies wore identical French-supplied uniforms.) As Etgar ages, Shimmy begins to tell him more of the story, Englander masterfully describing this father-son relationship and the way stories are passed down, developed, made anew. Professor Tendler’s story, after all, does not start with shooting the four Egyptian men, but years and years before, when he hid for days under a pile of dead men at a concentration camp, emerging only when sure that the newly arrived soldiers were American. Englander pushes us to consider how this man was formed; whether he was even meant to emerge from that pile of dead bodies when he did, and how differently his actions can be read based on the degrees of his story known by the listener.

Englander, by the way, has a new collection of stories coming out February 7th, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank.

Read “Free Fruit for Young Widows” online

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If you’d like to join in to this weekly meme and run your own posts about short stories, available for free online reading, email story.sundays@gmail.com. We’d love to have you!

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Review: Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin
January 12, 2012, 11:50 am
Filed under: Book Reviews, Literary Fiction | Tags: , , , ,

As Robert at 101 Books wrote in his review of The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood’s writing style here is what makes the novel. The novel gives us three stories (that of Iris Chase, an 83-year-old woman living under the weight of her family history; that of Iris’s family and the Griffen family she married into; and a novella titled The Blind Assassin), and Atwood’s tremendous narrative skill keeps all the story lines rotating in tight relation with one another, each character’s voice clear and unforgettable.

The novel opens with the death of Iris’s sister, Laura: “Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge” (2). It’s what led to Laura’s death that Iris explores in the course of her novel. She reaches far back into family history, back to her grandparents, up to the present-day at the time of Laura’s death, when she was married to Richard Griffen, “the prominent manufacturer”, up to her true present-day, living alone, the last surviving member of her family, in Port Ticonderoga. Iris is a woman who has watched all those around her vanish or die: her father, her sister, her daughter, and her granddaughter, and Atwood creates for her the voice of a sometimes bitter woman riffling through her family’s history as she attempts to explain The Blind Assassin, the posthumously published novella by Laura Chase.

It’s this Blind Assassin within The Blind Assassin that provides us with some clue as to where Iris is taking us with the story of her family history. The Laura Chase novel takes place largely in a series of borrowed bedrooms and apartments around Toronto, with a woman and her lover meeting and him, during these meetings, telling a story of a sci-fi bent. It’s from this story that The Blind Assassin takes its name, there being an actual blind assassin here – one forced by his past and his city’s culture into being what he is. Early on the lover says of the town (which may have been destroyed, or may have been shrunk to a fraction of its former size) and its inhabitants that

The King knows what’s happened and it gives him nightmares, but the rest of them don’t know. They don’t know they’ve become so small. They don’t know they’re supposed to be dead. They don’t even know they’ve been saved. To them the ceiling of rock looks like a sky: light comes in through a pinhole between the stones, and they think it’s the sun. (12)

There are moments throughout the novel-within-the-novel – more and more as we progress in the book – that seem to comment on Iris’s life and the lives she’s narrating. There’s a sense, throughout, that Iris has some knowledge that no one around her does, that she alone knows why Laura drove her car off a bridge in 1945. And though Iris’s present-day life consists mainly of taking short walks around town, stopping to pick at a donut and drink a coffee, there’s some beauty to Atwood’s writing of her aging and of Iris’s younger self. While Iris never states this explicitly, she writes of Laura as someone who is in some essential way a braver and better person than she is; it is only through writing that Iris gains her voice and the ability to say those things she never said in life. The posthumous publication of The Blind Assassin is key in allowing Iris’s escape from her husband, Richard Griffen (a man she married at 18, when he was 35; a business competitor of her father’s who, rather than trying to keep her father’s business running through a partnership, destroyed the competition and thus led to the death of Iris’s father), though his sister Winifred will manage to get her claws into both Iris’s daughter and granddaughter.

The Blind Assassin is the story of a family’s decline, but through the interior novel we gain some sense of the moments of beauty that came during that fall. Because, the longer you read, flipping from 83-year-old Iris to her younger self to a few chapters from The Blind Assassin to a clipping from the newspaper, the more it becomes clear that The Blind Assassin was not written in a vacuum but was, rather, directly influenced by the events of the family’s life. Iris’s “big reveals” at novel’s end, not just of what led to Laura’s death but of the history of the interior novel, are ones that the reader can see coming, but that remain remarkably satisfying.

This is a book to read and reread, a book that deserves to be loaned out to all who will take it. It’s an extraordinary family history, flush with lasting images and stories (in particular those from the Laura Chase Blind Assassin) that suggest the power of memory and family, and of the power of the written word to provide a way through histories and of regaining lost control over a life.

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