The Outlook for Earthlings

The Outlook for Earthlings
Joan Frank
Regal House Publishing 2020

Reviewed by Bob Wake

Melanie Taper and Scarlet Rand are Northern California-raised, self-searching, not always in sync, but supportive of one another since they were teenagers talking about boys and books at the school bus stop. Joan Frank’s ambitious new novel, The Outlook for Earthlings, is a puzzle-perfect narrative of interlocking flashbacks and flash-forwards, chapters qualifying and revising one another, circling elusive truths, charting the vicissitudes of Melanie and Scarlet’s decades-long friendship. Our perceptions and sympathies are jerked and jolted. Perspectives multiply. Consider a character’s anxiety when she ends a college affair with a married professor: “She felt like a cubist painting, pieces of her broken off and floating about the room. Mouth here, hand there, eyeball there.” The cubist dysmorphia foreshadows a medical illness.

Friendship cannot function without a measure of confoundedness. Melanie might privately think of Scarlet, “Heavens, the woman wore her emotions like a sandwich board.” Scarlet, in an unkind moment, casts Melanie as a “docile homemaker” to Scarlet’s “globetrotting roustabout.” (Just as quickly, Scarlet retracts the labels as “vain, reductive.”) As a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, Scarlet lives her dream. Both women will eventually hold down unfulfilling jobs to make ends meet. Melanie Taper, one of the most enigmatic characters in recent fiction, becomes a prodigious autodidact:

Mel knew all of Shakespeare, much of it by heart. She was reading Walter Benjamin, Nietzsche, Musil, Unamuno. She listened to postgraduate lectures on cassette while she drove to work: Philosophy of Religion, Foundations of Western Civ. She had lately told Scarlet, in perfect seriousness, she thought she should learn Italian so that she could read Montale and Morante in the original. 

Melanie writes stories and novels and never seeks their publication. She’s preternaturally selfless in marriage and love. (“Subjugating oneself like some wretched servant” is Scarlet’s interpretation.) Melanie’s endlessly expanding and long-delayed graduate school thesis on Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot is conceived as a kind of emotional rescue of the epileptic Prince Myshkin. (“She felt this way about others, literary or real: poor Raskolnikov; poor Van Gogh. Somebody needed to make them some soup.”)

Joan Frank has a painter’s eye for the natural world. (“The early sun struggled through the fog, a light of dirty wet coins.”) And a keen appreciation for the way our senses are assaulted by institutional spaces, such as academic administration offices. (“Smells of cleaning fluid, aging paper, bookbinding, overcooked coffee.”) The Outlook for Earthlings doesn’t discount the possibility of spectral visitations within the naturalistic confines of our world, but neither does it comfortably decipher them for us when they perhaps appear. The author’s tough-minded body of work, which includes numerous award-winning novels, short story and essay collections, has long refused to do the reader’s necessary work. Our task is clear. Each of us must answer for ourselves when this forceful and singular novel, arguably Joan Frank’s finest work to date, asks of us, “Did any ending ever befit the life it capped?”

Mudstone: The Facebook Live Reading

I had the pleasure on July 30, 2020, of reading an excerpt from “Mudstone,” my first-place winning short story in the 2017 Wisconsin People & Ideas Fiction Contest, as part of a Facebook Live series hosted by the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters. The video is archived on their website here.

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Antkind

Antkind
Charlie Kaufman
Random House 2020

Reviewed by Bob Wake

Antkind.jpgAt 720 pages, Antkind succeeds as a large-scale comic novel. This is an impressive feat for a first-time novelist (albeit a first-time novelist who happens to be an Oscar-winning screenwriter). Line for line, page for page, Antkind is frequently deliriously funny. Kaufman’s 1990s TV scripts for comics like Chris Elliot are a clear influence. Antkind’s narrator and protagonist, B. Rosenberger Rosenberg, a self-important film critic, has the snotty arrogance that Elliot mastered so perfectly. Chris Elliot’s willingness to risk unlikeability is both his genius as a comic performer and probably his undoing with audiences (e.g. Cabin Boy). Charlie Kaufman seems to intuitively understand that an insufferable character is only as bearable as the jokes exposing the character’s pretensions and selfishness. Antkind has the jokes like Arby’s has the meats. As Kaufman has shown in his wildly inventive film scripts (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), he’s never met a meta gag that he can’t spin into comedy gold. Not unlike Martin Amis’s insertion of “Martin Amis” as a character in his novel Money, Antkind’s film critic is deeply hostile to the very real films of Charlie Kaufman (while extolling the more comfortably mainstream films, both real and imaginary, of Judd Apatow). Although the novel’s sci-fi trappings—time-travel and multiverses—seem at times like a lesser work by Philip K. Dick (name-checked in Antkind as an “American primitivist”), Antkind’s slapstick exuberance is like a live-action Tex Avery cartoon.

The Unexploded Ordnance Bin

The Unexploded Ordnance Bin
Rebecca Foust
Swan Scythe Press 2019

Reviewed by Bob Wake

Rebecca Foust’s The Unexploded Ordnance Bin is a ferocious work of poetry. The chapbook’s title and ominous cover design (by artist Lorna Stevens) connote urgency and dread. Its thirty poems, touching on a variety of charged topics and poetic forms, all share Foust’s fierce intelligence, sharpened wit, and an abiding reverence for the natural world and our place in it. The title poem begins like a Hitchcock movie about a family excursion that turns darkly comic with menace:

our son found the hollow shell
snub-nosed & finned
& looking like an Acme cartoon bomb
where we raked for clams
he wanted to keep it
& we wanted to let him

unexplodedAn author’s note chillingly informs us that U.S. coastal regions “harbor millions of pounds of dumped munitions” from military training exercises. The family in the poem visits the local police station to dispose of the shell. The mother is left discomforted. A chain-reaction of metaphors follows. She is haunted by her son’s autism and wonders “what it would look like / the bin for safe disposal of genes / that can ruin children.” These lines pack the kind of gut-punch that Rebecca Foust’s work never shies away from. She has addressed her son’s autism in poems over the years, at times with grace and understanding, and at other times with cosmic fury.

A triptych of poems, “spec house foundation cut into ridge,” “The Deer,” and “Vehicular” depict the effects of environmental and habitat destruction. Readers might be familiar with the experience of being behind the wheel of a car and striking a deer on a highway or rural road. “The Deer” slows down the moment of impact like a forensic examination of the Zapruder film:

It came mid-sentence, the blow so nearly not a blow, the light
shattered and flung into the fog, scattered shards
blooming chrysanthemum then dissolving away,
a Roman candle illuming the night

In the poem titled “after the dream act is revoked,” the refrain of “what can i do” begins a process of assessing our privilege and our community (“the people / I know are mostly decent / if catatonic with abundance & consumption & god / & their screens”). The prognosis is grim: “when will we admit the pogrom is here.” Some of the strongest work in The Unexploded Ordnance Bin focuses on the human cost of our immigration policies. “Requiem Mass for the Yuma Fourteen” memorializes the fourteen Mexicans who died of exposure in 2001 while trying to cross the Arizona desert into the United States. The poem is a villanelle, a classic form distinguished by its incantatory repetition of phrases. The rigor of the form combines with Foust’s unadorned language to create a biblical evocation of grief. The opening three stanzas:

Beyond the border they could smell the rain.
It smelled like freedom. Freedom and home.
The desert composes its requiem.

The oldest was sixty, his grandson thirteen.
One wore new jeans, one carried a comb.
Beyond the border they could smell the rain.

They got lost, then they lost their water. The sun
was a furnace blast. Dust. Thirst. Delirium,
the desert composing its requiem.

As Foust showed in her 2015 book-length sonnet sequence, Paradise Drive, she is skillful at linking poems thematically. The third, and final, section of The Unexploded Ordnance Bin returns to family with a series of deeply personal poems on gender and identity charting her now-adult daughter’s transgender journey. “Shall I mourn one, seeing the other?” she asks in “Moon.”

Two by Joan Frank

Where You’re All Going
Four Novellas
Joan Frank
Sarabande Books 2020

Try to Get Lost
Essays on Travel and Place
Joan Frank
University of New Mexico Press 2020

Reviewed by Bob Wake

The publication of two new books from writer Joan Frank offers readers a not-to-be-missed opportunity to experience the range of her literary gifts. The four novellas in Where You’re All Going demonstrate the author’s eye for observational and psychological detail. Frank’s characters, no matter their documented flaws or shortcomings, are often mesmerized and transported by music and art. A character swooning in revery describes jazz singer Johnny Hartman as having a “blackberry-syrup voice.” Viewing portraiture by the painters Thomas Eakins and John Singer Sargent is “like a form of time travel.” Observational and psychological detail are also the qualities that bring an immersive richness to her travel essays in Try to Get Lost. She spurs herself, and all of us, to follow “Henry James’s injunction—to be someone on whom nothing is lost.” While adding, with the flinty wisdom of a seasoned traveler, “Understand you will continue to fail spectacularly at this.” (“Resolve it anyway,” she advises.)

Frank.GoingFrank’s well-received 2017 novel, All the News I Need, introduced us to one of the most memorable characters in recent literature. Splenetic, yet fulsomely life-affirming, Frances “Frannie” Ferguson. Frannie reappears in Where You’re All Going, in the novella “Open Says Me.” Retired and unmoored in Northern California since the death of her husband, Frannie marks time, literally, singing and performing with a local choral group. Music sustains her. Buoys her. (“Melodies like currents, pushing away everything that is not them.”) Deliriously profane. “Christ on a cracker,” is a milder locution. An imbiber of whatever’s on hand, such as diet ginger ale laced with “long quantities of Cuervo Gold.” Frannie’s attraction to a thirty-something D.J. is fueled less by alcohol and poor judgment than enthrallment to their shared deep-cut knowledge of American pop music. She invites the D.J. to a choral concert and an after-show meet-up. Humiliation and self-loathing ensue. A children’s park train is involved. The story’s final image is grotesque, wistful, and wildly hilarious all at once.

Writer Richard Ford, in his introduction to The Granta Book of the American Long Story, tells us that novellas (typically running between sixty and a hundred and twenty pages in length) are “nicely suited to stories of character disintegration.” Frank deploys this trajectory with skill. As well as its opposite: characters circuitously winding their way toward wisdom and insight. In Frank’s novella “Biting the Moon,” the narrator shares memories of her romance years ago with a celebrity composer. The story grows increasingly fraught as she recalls drunken and abusive behavior from him. Her memories shift and mature as she confronts and interrogates them. Joan Frank’s novellas crystalize the passage of time in profound ways. The final two stories in Where You’re All Going, “Cavatina for Passenger X” and the title novella, channel Chekhov in their microcosmic portraits of community, friendship, marriage. (“Every marriage contained the seeds of its own end, happy and unhappy in almost equal measure until, by whim or accretion, the balance tipped.”)

Frank.LostImpersonal travel essays are nowhere to be found in Frank’s deeply personal collection of travel essays, Try to Get Lost. She is blessedly blunt about this turbulent era “of perhaps the most frightening protofascist ever to assume office in American history.” Her essay “Red State, Blue State” is a Baedeker for bad times. Survival strategies include everything from exercise to charity work to “you drink.” Pulling up stakes is an option, not a panacea. “Travel beats us up,” she admits in “Shake Me Up, Judy.” “Sleep’s elusive. Stress is amped.” Her sketches of European cities benefit enormously from shoe leather reporting (and the accompanying shin splints). The verisimilitude is breathtaking. Shop windows in Italy (“In Case of Firenze”) inspire a cinematic cascade of history and culture:

Itemize what you see: dusty, crumbling books, violins and mandolins, vases and dishes, forged bells, paintings from centuries-old flea markets, maps, inscrutable scientific instruments, decrepit birdcages, flags, buttons, globes, chess sets, rusting anchors, pulp paperbacks in multiple languages, bed-frames, empty bottles, belts, sconces, trays, mirrors, cracked pages from old botanical texts of hand-tinted prints torn out and framed. Etchings and woodcuts. Bad art. Bad furniture. Exquisite art. Exquisite furniture, draped with insanely expensive tapestries. Chandelier crystals. Kitchen appliances. Living room sets. Faience. Crates of tarnished, unmatched jewelry. Gilt sculpture. Murano glass. Religious icons. Life-sized statuary. Broken toys, cheesecake photos, unclassifiable objets from the 1950s. Wooden clocks painted in garish designs, pendulums ticking away.

“Place becomes, finally, the only subject,” she writes in “The Where of It.” “Place is identity, style, faith, cosmology.” Joan Frank’s own story is threaded throughout Try to Get Lost. “Cave of the Iron Door” is a searing essay about hard family memories evoked on returning after many years to her childhood home in Arizona. “Here was the original world,” she writes. “Your big bang.” Sadnesses endure. They travel with us. A lost museum ticket on a trip to Germany in “Little Traffic Light Men” triggers a welling up of grief for her recently deceased sister. (“Here’s a fact I can offer with authority: it is very hard to find places in a museum’s rooms where you can cry in privacy. Corners seem to work best, if you face into them.”) Try to Get Lost is superb travel literature. It might also be one of the best memoirs you’ll read this year.

In the Land of Men

In the Land of Men
Adrienne Miller
HarperCollins 2020

Reviewed by Bob Wake

AdrienneMillerAn instant classic. Adrienne Miller was the fiction editor at Esquire magazine in the late-90s when she was still in her twenties. Crossed paths with Mailer, Updike, Bret Easton Ellis, Dave Eggers, and, the real subject of her book, David Foster Wallace, whom she edited (some of his best short stories appeared in Esquire, including “Adult World (I),” “Adult World (II),” and “Incarnations of Burned Children”), and with whom she shared a romance, off and on, for several years. It’s something of a lurid tell-all (one review is titled “Infinite Jerk”), but offers lots more about the era, its literature, its sexism, and the rise and fall of glossy magazine publishing at a time when the Internet was just taking hold. Miller chose not to talk with D.T. Max for his biography of Wallace, so the material presented here is largely uncharted and eye-opening. Her respect for Wallace as a writer is worshipful. The mind games she endured during their wildly complicated relationship are jaw-dropping. The richest, fullest portrait of David Foster Wallace that has so far appeared in print. Highly recommended.

Flights

Flights
Olga Tokarczuk
Translated by Jennifer Croft
Riverhead Books 2018

Reviewed by Bob Wake

The risk reward ratio can be perilous for both reader and writer when embarking on something nebulously described as a “fragmentary novel.” Flights is a win-win. Olga Tokarczuk builds her novel thematically. “Constellation, not sequencing, carries truth,” she writes. Disparate narrative pieces cohere around the theme, or constellation, of travel and dislocation. One strand tells a mystery that unfolds like an Antonioni film. A husband grows frantic when his wife and son fail to return from a morning walk during a family vacation on the Croatian island of Vis. The story line itself disappears for pages at a time while other narrative threads emerge. Later, the mystery returns with the husband searching photographic evidence for signs and clues.

flightsThere are deadpan sections of Flights outlining in utterly plausible detail an academic pursuit referred to as travel psychology, whose practitioners meet in airports for their conferences and workshops. “Practical travel psychology investigates the metaphorical meaning of places,” we’re told. Another recurring element of Flights investigates the human body itself as a landscape of infinite inward exploration. The history of phantom pain and the embalming of bodies for medical study are discussed at length. The encyclopedic flurry of anatomical and geographical info must have presented a challenge for Jennifer Croft, who translated the novel with evident eloquence from Olga Tokarczuk’s Polish. No surprise that Croft shared with Tokarczuk the 2018 Man Booker International Prize for Flights. A masterful literary work that feels like a contemporary classic in the making.

The Exchange & Other Stories

The Exchange & Other Stories
Yuri Trifonov
Translators: Ellendea Proffer, Helen P. Burlingame,
Jim Somers, and Byron Lindsey 
Northwestern University Press 2002

Reviewed by Bob Wake

Yuri Trifonov (1925-1981) was a mainstream Soviet writer whose work grew increasingly subversive during the 1960s and 70s. Remarkably, a celebrated novella like “The Exchange” walked a surgically fine line that kept him from being banned or censored as a dissident. Trifonov seems to have accomplished this by focusing on the moral dilemmas and frustrations of his characters, whose limitations make them appear less victims of an oppressive state than flawed and sometimes foolish careerists oblivious to the political compromises that define their lives. 

Call it a brilliant authorial head-fake. To understand the insanely deft mechanics of Trifonov’s fiction—and his clever use of third-person intimate narration—is to appreciate why he was a contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature. “The Exchange” (1969) is a stark depiction of a quarrelsome Moscow family scheming to game the rigid Soviet bureaucracy controlling the housing shortage. (There are as many sinister acronyms in “The Exchange”—OZHK is the General Housing Commission—as a David Foster Wallace story.) A dying relative is used as a pawn to barter for a larger living space, with the idea that the relative will soon die leaving an additional empty room for the downsized family to occupy.

John Updike was particularly fond of Trifonov’s novella “The Long Goodbye” (1971), also included here. The story charts an unconventional marriage between an up and coming Moscow actress and her struggling writer husband. Less overtly political than “The Exchange” (although the residency permits required for government housing reappear as a bureaucratic headache), it nevertheless was met with criticism for its harsh naturalism suggestive of a generational post-revolutionary moral rot in place of idealized socialist realism. Updike admired the story’s complex Chekhovian characters, surprising psychological depth, and Trifonov’s trademark urban melancholy. “Indeed,” writes Updike in his 1978 review of “The Long Goodbye,” “under the iron skies of their governments the Russians have nowhere to look for amusement and mercy but toward one another.” (Updike’s review can be found in his 1983 collection of essays and criticism, Hugging the Shore.)

Rounding out the volume are two brief autobiographical sketches. “Games at Dusk”(1968) recalls Trifonov’s Moscow youth as an eleven-year-old tennis fan obsessed with the players at a public tennis court (shades, once again, of David Foster Wallace). “A Short Stay in the Torture Chamber” (1986) is especially powerful in dealing with the author’s tragic familial history: Trifonov’s father was executed during the Stalinist purges of 1938. Although his father’s reputation was rehabilitated in the 1950s, a former schoolmate of Trifonov’s tried to sabotage the author’s budding literary career by charging he’d lied about his father’s past. The “torture chamber” of the story’s title is actually a tourist site in a Medieval Austrian castle where Trifonov confronts his slanderous ex-friend when they were both visiting the region as sports journalists.

Interior States


My review of Meghan O’Gieblyn’s debut collection of essays, Interior States, appears in the Winter 2019 issue of Wisconsin People & Ideas.

Mudstone

Thrilled and honored that my short story “Mudstone” won First Place in this year’s Wisconsin People & Ideas fiction contest. The story will appear online and in print next month in their summer issue. [Update 7/18/17: “Mudstone” can be read online here.]

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Mudstone

Recall: A Short Story

Walden West and the Twilight of Transcendentalism

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Caffeine & Other Stories by Bob Wake

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