Literary Birthday: Etgar Keret

Etgar Keret (born today in 1967) made his name publishing stories of modern Israeli life that were riddled with black humor and painful absurdities.

In the title story of Keret’s collection Fly Already, a father is on his way to play ball with his son in the park when he spots a man who looks like he’s about to jump off a building. The father shouts at the man not to jump. Meanwhile his son asks whether the man can fly and begs for ice cream. Communication is mangled as the man turns out to be half-deaf. The father turns out to have suicidal thoughts of his own—guilt over the car accident that killed his wife years before. “I want to tell him … it’ll pass,” the father thinks. “I know what I’m talking about, because no one on this blue planet was as miserable as I was.”

Reader’s Corner: ‘The Passenger’

Ulrich Boschwitz first published his autobiographical novel The Passenger in 1939, basing its tale of a hapless German Jewish businessman running for his life on his own family’s refugee existence.

My review of the new translation ran in Rain Taxi Review of Books:

Silbermann is on the run in a country crawling with Gestapo, brownshirts, and Gentile citizens all too eager to volunteer their services to the National Socialist dragnet, and he is reaching the end of a rapidly fraying rope. In desperation, he riskily reveals his identity to the attractive woman sharing his compartment, setting into motion a quasi-absurdist chase narrative in which the man on the run is knocked from one dead end to another by forces not only out of his control but beyond his ken…

Reader’s Corner: ‘The Town’

In Shaun Prescott’s Kafka-in-the-outback novel, a writer comes to a nowhere town to write on a book that he doesn’t seem to have much interest in or chance of finishing. Meanwhile, a giant hole to nowhere opens up in the middle of town. Things get weird.

My review of The Town was published in Rain Taxi Review of Books:

Showing up in the nameless outback town without any past or future direction, the narrator describes the place in sanded-down lines that emphasize its dullness and discontent. Chain stores and lassitude rule the place, as does the sense that everything is dwindling and collapsing. He gets a job at a Woolworth’s, finds an apartment, and plots out his book about the disappearing towns in “the Central West region of New South Wales” (a phrase whose repetition eventually brings on the type of cold chuckle one gets from a David Lynch film)…

You can read an excerpt here.

Writer’s Desk: Put on the Clown Suit

Dave Eggers—who turned 48 last week—once gave a fantastic description of writing fiction:

It feels like driving a car in a clown suit. You’re going somewhere, but you’re in costume, and you’re not really fooling anybody. You’re the guy in costume, and everybody’s supposed to forget that and go along with you.

The best advice in such a situation feels like it has to be: Go with it. Suit up, fool everybody, and plow through until it feels feels absolutely normal.

Writer’s Desk: Write About Cats

This one should speak for itself. Per the Times:

The author of the short story “Cat Person,” which became a viral phenomenon after appearing in The New Yorker this month, has received a seven-figure book deal, according to a person with knowledge of the deal.

A collection from Kristen Roupenian, whose debut story in The New Yorker became the magazine’s second most-read article of 2017 despite being published in the Dec. 11 issue, will be published by Scout Press in 2019.

Roupenian’s story hit just about every meme-worthy topic of the age: Cats, dating, creepy guys, social media, intellectual insecurity masked by blithe confidence. It’s all there.

This is what they call a teaching moment.

Writer’s Desk: Know Your Facts

lefthanddarknessUrsula K. Le Guin (The Left Hand of Darkness) is one of our greatest writers of science fiction and fantasy. She’s one of only two living writers to have their work included in the Library of America; Philip Roth is the other.

Even though she’s renowned as a fabulist, though, Le Guin’s hackles went up when the troubling new political term of art “alternative facts” was compared to science fiction. Le Guin responded forcefully to the smearing of literature:

The comparison won’t work. We fiction writers make up stuff. Some of it clearly impossible, some of it realistic, but none of it real – all invented, imagined — and we call it fiction because it isn’t fact. We may call some of it ‘alternative history’ or ‘an alternate universe,’ but make absolutely no pretense that our fictions are ‘alternative facts.’

This might be a decent lesson for writers in trying times. Remember that while fiction must be based in emotional and physical truth to be successful, it should never try to pass itself off as truth.

That’s not fiction. That’s propaganda.

Reader’s Corner: Michael Chabon’s ‘Moonglow’

moonglowMy review of Michael Chabon’s latest novel, Moonglow, which is hitting stores tomorrow, is at PopMatters:

Chabon starts Moonglow in a great, glowing gush of reminiscence and incident. The narrator character that he has created for himself adheres to the broad outlines of his biography, though one who keeps himself surprisingly small in the background; no Philip Roth-ian excavations of the self to be found here. Instead, Chabon places himself at the bedside of his grandfather who is near death in the late-‘80s. This is just after The Mysteries of Pittsburgh has come out, and Chabon is there to hear the tales of his grandfather’s life. They come pouring out in a rush, “Dilaudid was bringing its soft hammer to bear on his habit of silence”…

Shameless Self-Promotion Dept.: ‘St. Louis Noir’

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For over ten years now, the good folks at Akashic Books have been publishing a fantastic series of city-centric collections of noir fiction that cover dozens of locales, everywhere from Baltimore to Beirut.

This month sees the publication of their newest volume, St. Louis Noir. Edited by the inestimable Scott Phillips (The Ice Harvest), it’s a crackerjack anthology of stories that cover the dark and seedy underbelly of the Gateway City.

There are some fantastic new pieces by Phillips, John Lutz, and Laura Benedict.

My short story “The Pillbox” is also included.

Buy it now wherever noir is sold, like here, here, or here.

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Writer’s Desk: The Point of Fiction?

Defining the difference between fiction and nonfiction gets overly reductive fast. The former as entertainment and the latter as information.

Lee Child, author of the Jack Reacher series of novels about a former military policeman who wanders from town to town dispensing rough justice, breaks it down in terms of early human history:

Fiction evolved for a purpose. Warnings and cautionary tales could be sourced from the grim nonfiction world. A sabre-toothed tiger will kill you. O.K., got it. Fiction pushed the pendulum the other way. It inspired, and empowered, and emboldened. It said, No, actually, there was a guy, a friend of a friend, who came face to face with a sabre-toothed tiger, a huge one, and he turned and outran it, all the way back to the cave, safe as can be. So don’t panic. It doesn’t always turn out bad. Then, perhaps a hundred generations later, the story evolved, and the friend of the friend killed the tiger. The action hero was born. Strength and courage would save us. And it worked. Fiction in its various forms proved just as powerful to our survival as any other factor.

So remember that when you’re putting a final polish on your dyslexic detective novel or zombie romance trilogy, you’re not just helping people to kill time, you’re helping out the species.

Weekend Reading: November 6, 2015

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Weekend Reading: October 30, 2015

Weekend Reading: October 23, 2015

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In Books: The Best Fiction of 2014

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redployment1Now that we’re fully into January 2015, it’s time to think about all the books we never got around to reading in 2014. To that end, the book staff at PopMatters have compiled their annual list of the Best Fiction of 2014, with short writeups of all the year’s most notable novels and collections of poetry and short fiction.

I wrote about:

  • The Peripheral, William Gibson
  • The Book of Strange New Things, Michael Faber
  • Redployment, Phil Klay

You can find the feature here.

Writer’s Corner: James M. Cain

doubleindemnityAlthough famous for skillful thrillers like Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice, James M. Cain was at heart a higher-toned sort of writer than his output might have suggested. A onetime managing editor of the New Yorker, he left for California and a different style of writing. Although his novels were full-on potboilers about cynical but ultimately foolish men and the women who dragged them into murder, Cain had the heart of a true literati. Unlike his contemporary Raymond Chandler, though (who often appeared to think himself above what he wrote), Cain seemed more at home bridging the two worlds.

In this Paris Review interview, published not long after his death in 1977, Cain holds forth on a great number of topics, tossing off the bon mots like confetti. To wit:

  • New York is not even a city, it’s a congerie of rotten villages.
  • Editorials (we called them idiotorials) were written by trained seals whose only qualifications were that they be in favor of motherhood and against the man-eating shark.
  • I slip into the Vulgate every once in a while—an affectation I only half-understand. There I am speaking impeccable English and suddenly I lingo it up.
  • I tried to write the Great American Novel, and wrote three of them, none of them any good.
  • I just don’t like movies. People tell me, don’t you care what they’ve done to your book? I tell them, they haven’t done anything to my book. It’s right there on the shelf. They paid me and that’s the end of it.

Reader’s Corner: Sci-Fi Goes to War

slaugherhouse5The military has ever been one of the structural supports of much American science fiction. Whether they’re heroically battling off alien invaders or corrupting scientific research for their nefarious and war-mongering needs, the boys in green have a long history in the genre.

That’s why it’s particularly interesting whenever you run across a science-fiction writer who actually served in the military and then brought that sensibility to their writing. The responses can vary widely, from the jingoistic Reagan-era militarism of Jerry Pournelle to the ironic action of David Drake to the highly satiric and jaundiced Kurt Vonnegut.

Over at i09, Charlie Jane Anders does a superb job of studying all of the ways these authors brought their experience of war to bear in their fiction, as well as other fantasy and sci-fi authors who were less vocal about their military service (from Tolkien to Clarke).