New York City: Sarabande Books, 2015.
Reviewed by Doreen Thierauf
Hurry Please I Want to Know is Paul Griner’s second short story collection, following the release of his third novel, Second Life, in early 2015. This eclectic yet wonderfully coherent collection proves once again Griner’s acute grasp of the complex and slippery emotions leading from gladness to mourning. Throughout, his characters take the reader on rich and elegiac journeys, each of only a few moments’ duration.
The collection consists of twenty-two pieces of varying (but overall short) length. The shortest piece is a 100-word surreal drabble, the longest story—the collection’s best, “On Board the SS Irresponsible”—barely runs over twenty pages. True to its title and epigraph, both borrowed from T. S. Eliot’s Waste Land, the collection is a forceful but self-consciously impotent plea for emotional bulwarks that may help ground contemporary experience. Griner knows that the state and its institutions have ceased to provide meaningful guidance. In “Newbie Was Here,” for instance, a private in the Second Iraq War must risk his life and sacrifice an innocent to follow an irrelevant order.
Relationships appear to be the only other means to live a meaningful life, but Griner suggests that clinging to family or lovers is equally pointless. Unexpected pockets of loneliness and despair syncopate Griner’s characters’ lives, resembling accidental knots or cuts in otherwise predictable strings of trivial events. Although we all inherit our ancestors’ physical and temperamental traits —a theme humorously explored in “Lands and Times” where facial features and habits belonging to a lately deceased grandfather are distributed among surviving family members—the one constant in Griner’s stories is that the pain of loss is inevitable and unfathomably difficult to deal with. This is not to say that the stories, with their deadpan narrators, impossible ethical dilemmas, and often bizarre and dream-like internal laws, do not also manage to be hysterically funny. Griner understands that, at their core, emotions are physiological noise, and he expertly evokes situations in which the reader is invited to indulge in almost medical self-observation before responding to the stories’ absurdities and profundities with the same narrow embodied repertoire—laughter, sadness, confusion—as Griner’s protagonists and narrators.
About half of the pieces, among them the excellent “The Caricaturist’s Daughter,” are surrealist compositions that juxtapose Griner’s smooth and contemporary conversational tone with absurd, magical, or nightmarish plots reminiscent of Murakami or Borges. The stories are disorienting, but never become self-serving or obfuscating. “The Caricaturist’s Daughter,” for instance, tells the story of Bernadette, whose aging and increasingly reckless father must draw her features every morning to replace the “shallow pool” where her face should be. Bernadette’s father causes her pain both at school and at home: he draws her a glazed donut mouth or oversized clown-feet to punish her and allows his marriage (to a made-up wife) to disintegrate amid useless material wealth. Bernadette eventually learns to draw herself and, when the tables are turned, her alcoholic father appears “only in his absence, no matter how many times she sketched him in.” It would be too easy to read the story as a parable about flawed parental interventions or children’s suffering. The surreal world Griner creates is richer, and vastly more corporeal, than allegory.
Griner’s investment in corporeal reactions or materializations allows this collection to stand out. One particularly good surreal story, “Open Season,” follows two word hunters in a world increasingly bereft of complex vocabulary. Words in this story—Kentucky, silicone, lavender, and please—bleed blue ink and smell of childhood memories. The hunters slit their carcasses “from anus to breastbone” and mount them to their living room walls as trophies. One of Griner’s two-pagers, “A Sharp Winter, an Obese Smile,” investigates the physical sensations of being let down by family members, the mother’s anger turning “bigger and bigger, all chest and balls and sulfurous cologne.” In “Hotei,” a woman traumatized by three past miscarriages observes how another miscarrying woman offers food to Buddha, hoping for better luck during future pregnancies. The protagonist eventually offers herself to Buddha, praying for impossible completion through motherhood: “I turn, kneel, lay my wet face against the Buddha’s smooth swollen stomach. It’s in there, I think. What I want, what I need, what will make me whole.” Rarely do words feel so alive, fragrant, and bloody.
The collection’s most memorable stories thematically revolve around experiences of mourning. Griner seems particularly interested in capturing the painful sensation of life carrying on in violent disregard of one’s inability to cope with having lost a loved one. In “Balloon Rides Ten Dollars,” for instance, a recently bereaved woman’s trip in a hot air balloon feels like a doomed ascent to heaven; a mourning husband must physically transform into his dead wife in order to weep in “The Builder’s Errors”; and, in “Mum on the Rock,” a son drinks up the frozen water that used to be his mother, feeling her clairvoyant wisdom flow through his body. “On Board the SS Irresponsible,” perhaps the collection’s most haunting tale, details a divorced father’s perfectly planned outing with his three children, the consequences of an oversight, and the day’s fatal conclusion. In the collection’s final and devastatingly beautiful piece, “Three Hundred Words of Grief,” a woman begins to say goodbye following her mother’s diagnosis of terminal leukemia. In all of these stories, Griner makes clear that loss has no solution: it demands to be faced and it will likely leave permanent traces. Weaving in his personal memories throughout this excellent collection, Griner is well aware that happiness is brittle, a knowledge that simultaneously elevates and burdens our all-too-brief periods of joy—as well as Griner’s stories.
reviewed by Adam Palumbo
The latter half of the twentieth century saw television and film arise as the dominant media vehicles in American culture, and Patrick Ryan Frank’s poetry collection The Opposite of People seeks to interrogate the way these performance media are reflected in the modern consciousness. With the re-casting of typical television and film tropes (commercials, recognizable personalities, and genres-in-caricature), The Opposite of People is as enlightened and poignant to the media-saturated mind as it is relevant to the digital age.
Beginning with the poem “Silent Film,” the book is divided into three sections, reflecting the television time slots—“Day Time,” “Prime Time,” and “Late Night”—a construct that does well to gird the conceit of the entire book. Frank enlivens characters, actors, and genres from throughout the world of film and television, including Marilyn Monroe, Gary Cooper, the Marlboro Man, and Frank Sinatra, to explore the ideals and sins of the past.
Frank also constructs stories-within-stories, like in the poem “Action/Adventure,” which is actually about an insurance adjuster’s fantasies upon seeing his office building blown up by a villain, his henchmen, and “one unkillable cop.” In “Midnight Cowboy,” the poet re-imagines a scene from the eponymous 1969 movie:
The two men sitting in the coppered dark
of the skin-flick theater know their knees will touch.
And then? An empty wallet at your hip
will only buy a lonely night. And this
is the awkward, desperate truth of sex and cash:
without some, you can’t get some; without any,
you die. . . .
This framing device of film and television means that the book is not as autobiographical as many typical contemporary lyric collections, but there are brief admittances of a personal past or a real self lurking backstage. Frank uses himself as the subject of several poems to study stereotypical roles that might be found in various plots: “Patrick Ryan Frank as the Detective,” “Patrick Ryan Frank as the Other Woman,” or “Patrick Ryan Frank as the Russian.” The reader can’t help but think the obsession with television and the movies must have come from somewhere—as the author bio at the end of the book states, the poet “grew up in front of a television set in rural Michigan.”
Besides the characters he revives and the plots he constructs, Frank’s poetry is marvelous with a turn of phrase and it is, in fact, technically rigorous. Like in the poem “This Must Be The Place,” where he says, “It eats at you, the fact that you’ve been fooled / into believing what you have is real / quietly asking the movies how to feel.” Frank’s poetry makes use of a wide range of half-rhyme and slant rhyme, consonance, and delightful wordplay. His line breaks are crisp and controlled, but he employs enjambments and caesurae with as equal power as end-stopped lines. In “Miss Cleo Can Help,” the poet says,
Bad times. A birthmarked man. A broke-down car.
I see it all: the cards laid out, the stars
laid out in lines. I’ll tell you what they mean
while the TV frame gets smaller and my face,
resigned like someone’s mother, fills the screen
as if you, with every word that I say,
were coming closer. What do you want to hear?
The money’s coming, the baby’s daddy’s gone.
You’ll be alright if you just get over that fear
. . . .
In this poem, Frank reimagines the infamous psychic interacting with a caller on her pay-per-call psychic service program, popular in the late 1990s. While several of the poem’s lines are end rhymed (“mean”/”screen” and “hear”/”fear”), Frank also employs internal rhymes and consonance (as with “lines”/”resigned,” “cars”/”cards,” and “coming closer”). There are also several poems that could fall into the broad categorization of “fourteeners,” with just as many lines but none of the rhyme scheme of the sonnet. These technical constructions do exactly what they should: provide the language of the poetry a structure from which to reach out to the reader.
Netflix, HBO, and the specter of Hollywood as presented in The Opposite of People make for a very pressing examination of American culture and life. By way of screens silver and golden, Patrick Ryan Frank makes his readers confront the way in which these cultural touchstones have been threaded into their lives. In these powerful and precious poems, the accumulated influence of performance media are put on show until the curtain closes once more.
Kyle Ellingson lives in Saint Paul, MN, where he works for Garrison Keillor’s Common Good Books. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in journals such as Sou’wester, Bluestem Online, Euphony, and Pacifica Review. His short story, “Our Employer,” is forthcoming to Carolina Quarterly and centers around the life of a young male celebrity as he is observed by a group of caretakers and handlers who narrate and form the celebrity’s identity. Observations of stardom, the representation of luxury, and the disturbing hypocrisies of being in the public eye come to bear in creating an “employer” both recognizable and uncanny.
CQ: I really enjoyed your story, “Our Employer,” and found it quite fascinating in a number of ways. One thing that is immediately striking about the story is the narrating voice – an undefined “we,” six people who are never distinguished from one another, apparently speaking in unison. Most people are familiar with traditional first-person singular narrators and third-person narrators, and Junot Diaz is known for his second-person narration, but first-person plural narration is rather rare. The only other example I can think of is Joshua Ferris’s novel Then We Came to the End. What drew you to this mode of narration for this story? Are there any other authors you’re familiar with who have also used first-person plural? Is there something particular to the contemporary moment that makes first-person plural narration appealing?
KE: In part, it’s an economical thing. I didn’t want to use up paragraphs individuating the bodyguards—I wasn’t interested in the ways they might differ from or disagree with each other. I wanted to heap focus (six dudes’ worth) on the employer, to help him seem important. Also I found it funny, in a maybe cartoonish way: six big interchangeable men with maternal feelings converging on this one weirdly unguided kid. The fact that the six are settled into a common voice exaggerates their concern, sentimentalizes it, as if they carry the good intention, like many parents, of not showing disagreement—of presenting, in a phrase from my own parents (by way of Dr. Phil), “a united front.”
Then We Came to the End is the only example of first-person plural I’ve read. I liked how it nailed that particular workplace dynamic, where some we or another is always conspiring to comment on a she or he or they. A nimble way to navigate a group. But the neat thing is that every use of first-person plural is unique to the group dynamic it presents. Every we exists via specific, personal terms. A we is always developing or devolving. I’d like to do more of that with fiction—tracking the birth and death of wes. The we of a couple; of some lady janitors; of a goatherd and goats. (Please don’t, if listening to this aloud, hear wee.)
What makes “the we” especially relevant to our present culture, I think, is our abundance of methods—new, untested, many fated for obsolescence—of constructing we-dom. The other day I spoke to a Wisconsinite who met her Australian husband playing W.O.W. So—do they sit at dinner parties and narrate the story of their meeting? The in-game circumstances that brought their avatars together on-screen for the first time? They must. (And could their relationship also end more or less via W.O.W.? I don’t see why not.) Other modern wes are unprecedentedly brief and tiny—the we between you and a twitter follower, or between you and your IT-services instant-message center representative. My question: does it elevate or magnify those passing relationships in an interesting way, to use we instead of I? And how many of our narratable feelings are “shared” enough to justify use of we? What separates a genuine we from a schmaltzy, wishful one?
CQ: The titular “employer” in the story seems to live in a world of privilege so extreme that it’s like a fundamentally alternate universe to the one most of us inhabit. Certain things about the story, especially the way the “brudes” airbrush reality and language for their employer, reminded me of science fiction. Do you see this as a science fiction story in some way? Do you see any other genres at play here?
KE: My favorite kind of sci-fi—which is maybe still called “soft-sci-fi”—parodies elements of the everyday (like the mood-machine in the first chapter of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which presents anew to us, for our review, the freedom/burden of using drugs to alter our behavior).
“Our Employer” is, most outwardly, a parody of celebrity, of life inside a 24/7 lucrative machine that places no emphasis on the subject’s privacy or emotional health—basically scavenges the surface of their lives for marketable narrative. In this case, it falls to the bodyguards to stabilize the celebrity’s life—they being already in a position of care (over “the body”—“the merch”). They sense that if they don’t humanize this little dude’s emotions, no one will. The point being that in every life, but especially a celebrity’s life, someone has to keep things real. And probably this someone is getting paid, one way or another. Which ideally doesn’t diminish the reality of their care. Ideally.
The story might’ve read a bit more like science fiction fifty or a hundred years ago, before mega-luxury and -stardom really skyrocketed in American culture. But you’re right—compared to the average American life, much less the average global life, wealth and celebrity is a bizarro world. But the things that matter in “our” world matter there, too.
CQ: I was really intrigued by your story’s depiction of social media and the ways in which it can be used to manipulate perception.
KE: Yeah. It’s strange how we curate our own profiles—representing ourselves on a daily basis through images and text and favoriting of content. Fussy self-portraits. I think sometimes we, feeling a little fidgety or dissatisfied in life, examine those portraits to confirm things about ourselves.
CQ: Fantasy and reality collide in really clever ways in your story, particularly towards the end. By the end of the story, do you think the “employer” is genuinely living in the real world, or is he still in his fantasy version of it? Do you think he’ll ever make it to the real world? Does it matter one way or the other?
KE: I wanted, by the end, to highlight how our (or at least my) “real world” resembles his fantasy world more than we (I) might notice.
A lot of people like to say—or have said and, like me, are tired of saying—that they “might’ve been an actor” or “would someday like to act.” We think we have some idea of how to inhabit roles well enough to make a career out of it—to deserve an audience. And, big surprise, we do. Down all avenues of life, we track our ability to play roles we want to play. When I was first dating my wife and we were en route to visit her parents, I had all sorts of scenarios play in my head of being a sweet dude. I was rehearsing for scenes no one was directing.
When the “employer” is clerking at a hardware store, he’s no different than his coworkers—all are playing the role of a clerk. Trying or failing to be a good clerk. The difference being that the “employer” experiences it as an act. He’s actor first, clerk second. He is convincing an audience, however small of one. And he knows how to derive pleasure and meaning from this. Many of us (I, at least) don’t.
CQ: How do you think Justin Bieber (or Zac Efron, or any of the other such precociously famous stars) would react if he read this story?
KE: They’re used to being portrayed in ways they don’t control, ways that don’t ring true to their experience. Probably they would read my story as just another of those ways. But that’s what celebrity is: volunteering to have one’s image mishandled. Enduring wildly reductive depictions of self.
Still, we tend not to care how major celebrities feel. None of them quite resemble failures. Talented or not, they aren’t overlooked, and that’s hard to relate to.
CQ: Are there any less well-known authors out there you’ve been especially influenced or impressed by recently?
KE: I’m looking forward to Greg Jackson’s debut collection Prodigals (March 2016). He’s the first writer I’ve really gotten hooked on before much work is out. I keep searching his name every few weeks to see if new work is published. He’s overshadowed on Google, for now, by MMA trainer Greg Jackson.
Jackson’s piece in VQR, “Serve and Volley, Near Vichy” is consistently vivid and patiently structured and does a sweet riff on a scene from Antonioni. Jackson is interested in flawed scenarios, self-made embarrassments, slow-burning confusions, fresh language. His New Yorker story, “Wagner in the Desert,” was insanely good—lots of “modern” moments (friends with filmmaking schemes, a snarky park official, the friend zone, masturbation as relief from the friend zone, drug use as fun delay of adulthood). I try only to read writers who sink me into a jealous stupor, an intelligent-feeling unrest. Delillo’s White Noise does it, Miranda July’s The First Bad Man does it, Edward P. Jones’ Lost in the City does it, DFW’s “Good Old Neon” does it. I’ve got Greg Jackson’s Granta issue coming in the mail, and I’d better wrap up whatever I’m writing before it gets here.
CQ: Facets of the mythic appear in several of your poems (“Daedalus Builds a Treehouse” and “This City Hands Me Myths; I Hand Them Back”), not only evoking and playing with Joseph Campell’s understanding that “It has always been the prime function of mythology and rite to supply the symbols that carry the human spirit forward,” but also through the sense of wonder that invades that which is unknown and larger than ourselves. How do you conceptualize the mythological in your poems? What work do myths do in your writing?
Ben Goldberg: It’s interesting, because I often feel like myths shrink in my poems, and the mundane becomes more myth-sized. When I write (at least in early drafts) I happen upon the mythological unintentionally and usually through something mundane. It’s been that way in my life, I think. When I was about twelve years old, I read an article in science class about a self-powered plane called the Daedalus. It took off in Crete and had a successful flight of over seventy miles before “crashing” a few meters offshore near Santorini. At that age, I was unaware of all the ways the event echoed and subverted the myth of Daedalus and Icarus. To be honest, I was unaware of the myth. I just liked the word Daedalus. It wasn’t even a word to me really, or a name. It was a grouping of sounds I found pleasing. I enjoyed it so much, in fact, that I called my dad Daedalus that evening at dinner. Over the following weeks, this became a habit and the name stuck, though it would be several years before I understood the significance of “renaming” my father this way. Nearly two decades later, I still call him Daedalus, and he’s quite patient about it. That’s how the mystical and the mythic work on me, though. They stick to the bottom of a sensory experience or memory and dissolve in my subconscious. They become habits and obsessions. They catalyze poems.
CQ: Your work juxtaposes the ordinary with the extraordinary: “another tunnel turned gospel by headlight,” “any trash bag swept / from a storm grate can apotheosize above skyscrapers,” etc. Why do you give such everyday things this sacred element of the divine?
Ben Goldberg: I feel I’m a pretty vehement agnostic, but people I trust tell me that my poems suggest otherwise. To be sure, my answer to the question of “god, yes or no?” varies considerably (often from moment to moment), as does my belief in the relevance of such a question. However, I am fascinated by spiritual dichotomies—sacred vs. profane, mystical vs. mundane, transcendence vs. presence—and have been for much of my life. It occurs to me, though, that dichotomizing such ideas is a reductive way of engaging with them. They are so much larger than our binaries. I feel like many belief structures teach to us to do this with them, though—to pit them against one another and insist that we choose.
Certainly there is an intrinsic conflict arising from these sorts of words being in such close proximity, and simply subtracting the word “versus” won’t change that. But does this make these words irreconcilable? For me, sublimity is any moment opposing ideas coexist without producing dissonance. Perhaps that’s what I’m trying to write toward. I want my doubts, faith, rationality, unreasonableness, and wonder to belong on the same pedestal. Then I want to kick the pedestal out from underneath. I want my ugliness to be as praiseworthy as my virtues, the state of ruin to be as holy as that of reclamation. I want a religion that keeps its deities in a spray paint canister. I want a heaven I can root through a dumpster for when I realize I’ve accidentally thrown it away.
CQ: Building off of the contrast between the everyday and the divine, “Daedalus Builds a Treehouse” has a tension between the peaceful innocence of youth and the peril of growing older. The son is safe with his father but we also get a glimpse into the danger that his future holds, because we witness him in a time “before the pills that douse what he can’t name, / before the feather in his hand means blade.” How do safety and danger interrelate for you, and why do you choose to focus on the transition from innocent to damaged?
Ben Goldberg: I guess it goes back to opposing ideas, the way they so often contain one another. There’s a danger in safety, and a safety in danger. I think sometimes of the tradition at Jewish weddings of smashing the glass. I find it brilliant and devastating. Yes, the temple is destroyed. Yes, to forget this, even in our joy, is to potentially invite sorrow to blindside us once more. But it will, regardless of our vigilance. Really, then, what does our awareness prevent? What does it honor, and at what cost?
However, the genius of the tradition, I feel, lies in how attuned it is to the psychology of loss. There’s something achingly human about the need to remember our traumas, personal or cultural, as a way of exerting agency over the pain they continue to cause us. Or is it humbler than that—a way of laying claim to that pain, or even offering oneself to it?
As all this relates to the poem, the speaker’s father stands at the edge of what will hurt him most in the world: the suffering of his child. The autobiographical aspects of this poem reflect my attempt to look from a (my) father’s perspective upon a moment during which a (his) son is unreservedly safe, if not happy. Of course he knows that neither this kind of safety nor happiness exists, let alone endures. Yet, the breaking of the glass works both ways. Or at least it should. The father is going to see his temple smashed. I want him to have a memory of joy, however splintered, to bring into that future.
CQ: This contrast between the innocence of youth and the danger that comes along with growing up highlights the use of time in your work. We see the son in “Daedalus Builds a Treehouse” simultaneously as a child and as an older, struggling person. “The City Hands Me Myths; I Hand Them Back” references both the past –“Someday I’ll stop measuring / my distance from certain memories in fire escapes,”— and the future— “Tomorrow, I’ll go to where I laid beside a woman / I’d never see again outside of sleep.” The narrator also says, “our windows keep a kind of time.” What’s happening with the blurring of the boundaries of time and stepping beyond chronological order?
Ben Goldberg: Lucidity so often feels like a luxury to me. I guess I’m looking for ways of presenting this as authentically as I can, of lucidly (for the most part) rendering the state of not being lucid. In this regard, I’m definitely trying for a sense of destabilization and dislocation—geographical, psychological, sensory, temporal. Time, I believe, is one shade of lucidity. The nature of time, like that of lucidity, is negotiated within and among individuals, and thus requires some kind of consensus. So yes, time exists objectively to the extent that societies rely on it as a construct, and individuals within those societies schematize it similarly enough to belong, more or less. But I’m interested in less.
CQ: In your work, words themselves come to life. You describe a relationship with a woman in which “every word we never spoke was either a city I hoped / we’d live in, or a cinder dusting an ashtray / whose smoke I woke to, and then you “throw down the only holy word I know. I’ll see if it becomes a dove before it hits the pavement.” Why do you choose to write about words?
Ben Goldberg: I really do believe words are magic; I believe it as literally as I can allow myself without feeling embarrassed. But why am I qualifying this? Honestly, if I were writing this in a journal, I’d delete every word of the first sentence after magic. How original, right—a poet who believes in the magic of language? But really what else is it (even after all the ways one might rationally answer or evade this very question)? And why is the trope of words as magic so perennial? In so many belief structures, words are the codons of the cosmos as well as catalysts for the forces governing it. I’ve always been compelled by this idea.
But let me make it a little more personal. A word is, among many things, an affirmation until it becomes reality or doesn’t. We name a city we want to live in, and wherever we end up, we align ourselves more closely (for a moment, at least) with a reality in which living in that city is more possible. We say “love,” and if we mean it, it’s immediately physiological, just as when we say “over.” The emotion precedes the words, of course, but the words concretize the emotion, which is part of what makes using them is so terrifying and exhilarating.
I also believe that some sensations are too large for the body to process, and that some experiences don’t entirely fit within the consciousness. For me, words have been the best vessels I could find to hold these sorts of things while I clear space for them. So, I’ll continue to attempt making memory-shaped vessels until my life and I fit one another.
Benjamin Goldberg’s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Best New Poets 2014, TriQuarterly, West Branch, Ninth Letter, Salt Hill, Blackbird, and elsewhere. He is the recipient of an award from The Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and was a finalist for the 2014 Vinyl 45 Chapbook Contest, the 2013 Third Coast Poetry Prize, and the 2012 Gearhart Poetry Prize. He lives with his wife outside Washington, D.C., and currently attends the MFA program at Johns Hopkins University. Find him online at www.benrgold.com.
Paul Metcalf. Genoa: A Telling of Wonders.
Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2015. PP. 264
Reviewed by Eric Meckley
We humans have a strange attraction to round numbers, and a penchant for marking the decades. En route to a sacred centennial we satisfy ourselves with intermittent end-zeroes, and what tastes sweeter on the tongue or rings more melodiously in the ear than “half-way?” It is no surprise, then, that Coffee House Press has chosen to publish a 50th anniversary edition of Paul Metcalf’s Genoa: A Telling of Wonders. Although the book is billed as a novel, it may only qualify as such because of its substantial, if not massive, length at 264 pages, and its fragmented fictional narrative.
Metcalf, a descendant of Herman Melville, sets passages from his great-grandfather’s works alongside selections from the diaries of Christopher Columbus, L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics, and other sources to narrate the ruminations of lapsed Hoosier M.D. Michael Mills, who sits in the attic of his ancestral Indiana farmstead ignoring his children until his wife returns from her shift at the GM factory. His thoughts meander from the books on his desk, to the minute sensations of his club-foot, to the tragic life of his brother Carl, who––after surviving the Spanish revolution and a stay in a Japanese prison camp––is finally executed in a Missouri gas chamber for murder.
While the story is sparse, Metcalf’s command of the source material is extraordinary, and the book displays a remarkable literary, geographic, and temporal dexterity. Many may find Genoa novelistically lacking; as a textual collage, however, it is a striking and evocative work of literary art. What is more, the capacious temporality and prodigious referentiality has allowed the book to age remarkably well. The book’s suburban Indiana setting, for instance, thrums with the same flat, frigid, spacious liveliness of my own teenage years spent there at the turn of the 21st century. The book thrives on its oddity, and even as I heartily recommend Genoa to adventurous readers, I realize that my fondness for this text depends upon my own devoted obsession with all things Melvillian.
In his essay “Hawthorne and His Mosses,” Melville wrote: “It is better to fail in originality, than to succeed in imitation. He who has never failed somewhere, that man can not be great. Failure is the true test of greatness.” Certainly this wisdom is proven in the pages of Genoa as the originality of Metcalf’s derivative text transcends mere imitation. Ultimately, the success and failure of his art form a Melvillian joint-stock company; happy bedfellows in a text that defies definition, even description, sure to polarize its readers to the end. For fans of experimental fiction, Herman Melville, 15th Century explorers, and Ik Marvel’s Reveries of a Bachelor.