Review: THE PAPER MAN by Gallagher Lawson

paperman

The Paper Man
Gallagher Lawson
Published: May 12, 2015
Unnamed Press
261 pages

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A man with a papier mâché body and hair made of yarn attempts to break out of his protected, isolated, and stagnant life and escape to an unnamed city. On the bus, a one-eyed man steals his belongings. Caught in a scuffle, the paper man’s arm tears, and on his own for the first time, he faces the menace of rain, which could turn him to pulp. A mermaid lies dead on the sidewalk and an unemployed fur model who collects (and smells of) mushrooms takes him in. Even this strange world full of outsiders is, it turns out, a dangerous place for a man made of paper, forcing him into dependence on others, vulnerable to becoming their “project,” made and remade by them.

This is the somewhat surreal and dystopian premise of Gallagher Lawson’s The Paper Man, in which lines between life and art and art and politics are not always clear. Part Frankenstein, part Pinocchio, attracting comparisons to Kafka’s Metamorphosis, The Paper Man resembles magical realism in its pairing of fantastical elements with a matter-of-fact, even earnest, tone. Michael, once human but rebuilt and reanimated by his artist father after an accident, evolves in the course of the story from creator to creation to creator again, constantly blurring life and art. Originally named Michaelangelo, becoming an objectified outsider fixed up, torn down, and re-created again by others, he is renamed David. Then, gradually if uneasily and somewhat horrifyingly, he triumphs over his own creation, Adam.

In an often nightmarish narrative in which every element feels representational, a stand-in for something else, a Symbol with a capital S, thematic with a capital T, there are moments that I wished Lawson had followed the advice of Michael’s sadistic childhood friend Mischa: “Stop thinking and feeling so much and just do your art.” But ultimately, this is a compelling story that sticks with the reader, examining art and its creation from a dizzying variety of angles and raising fascinating questions about ownership, celebrity, autonomy, the limits of self, and the essence of our humanity.

Lawson’s dark vision proves both intriguing and disturbing, partially summed up when one
character says to another, “Creativity is nothing more than transferring emotions, mostly
anxiety and fear, to the outside world.” But, of course, ultimately it is more than that. This is an unusual story about art’s costs and its capacity for exploitation, political influence, and profound change–and for its ability, finally, to humanize.

***

Nancy McCabe is the author of four memoirs, most recently From Little Houses to Little Women: Revisiting a Literary Childhood. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Gulf Coast, Fourth Genre, Newsweek, and many other magazines, won a Pushcart, and six times made the notable lists of Houghton Mifflin Best American anthologies.

Review: GUTSHOT by Amelia Gray

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Gutshot
Amelia Gray
FSG Originals
Published: 4/14/15
224 pages
$14.00

If Amelia Gray’s collection, Gutshot, was choreography, it would be comprised of violent, animalistic phrases: bodies smashing into each other and hands clawing into skin. But on the page, these assembled short stories use a vocabulary of the body to examine the manifestation of humanity’s deepest fears and darkest impulses. In this smart, irreverent collection, Gray’s language growls, hungrily; her characters express yearnings that can’t be satisfied through ordinary human interaction.

Gray’s characters recruit others into their fantasies to satisfy their own lust. In “House Heart,” a couple hires a girl and imprisons her in the air ducts of their home. “Fifty Ways to Eat Your Lover,” originally published in McSweeney’s, is a progressively grim meditation on how love consumes. “When he says goodbye,” Gray says, “eat his heart out.” “The Moment of Conception,” which follows “Fifty Ways” echoes its sentiments of two lovers becoming one, and pushes the boundary between metaphor and imagination. Gray’s impulse is to probe into difficult images. She wields discomfort like a narrative weapon.Continue Reading

When We Are Given a Feast of Flesh

Sunday_Book_Market,_Daryaganj,_Delhi

How do I remember spaces? Bedrooms, beaches, backseats, bazaars. The time between dreams. Night. The no-man’s land of a twelve-hour flight. I remember the world as words.

I spent my last few weeks in Delhi hunting for books. For relatives, for friends, but, finally, for my own sake: to call back India when I was back in the states, when I was back in the spaces that were so familiar they faded into blurred backgrounds. Reading often works as incantation: in a second I am summoned back to the bookshop where I first flipped through a novel or the waiting room in which I finished the final page.

A place is defined by what I read when I’m there, the words wrestling for attention before memories awake. My months in India involved a mix of glum history, map-filled guidebooks, critical theory with cracked yellow spines, and poetry. So much poetry, in fact, that I bought another grey duffel to check to ship it all back. “What’s in here? Bricks?” asked a friend, hefting one of my bags as we headed to the Indira Gandhi International Airport. Bricks of books that weren’t yet architectures of recollection, reminders of cows crowding the street, cars hugging curbs and honking hello, city skies shot through with smoke and sun.

Give Us This Day a Feast of Flesh by N.D. Rajkumar took up only a little space in my grey duffel. The volume, at barely one hundred pages, contains poetry translated from Tamil by Anushiya Ramaswamy and is bookended by a critical essay examining the history of Dalits in India and their literature.

I bought the Rajkumar at the Oxford Bookstore in Delhi. At the time, I thought Oxford was affiliated with Oxford University Press, and I shrank at the idea of supporting a historically colonial enterprise with my purchase of “alternative” Dalit poetry, a poetry that rallies against caste and hierarchical Brahmin values. The Oxford Bookstore chain actually shares no affiliation with the Press, nor is it even based outside of India. The colorful and clean stylization of the bookstore’s orderly insides betray the ecstatic violence and vulgarities of Rajkumar’s verses, where “I watch the old woman in the moon / Clinging to her walking stick / Bend, spread her legs / And piss into the moon” (50). The next poem ends: “I strike the master in his heart.” Perhaps Rajkumar sings of insurrection, but could I even begin to approach this song in this place that sold expensive infused teas and cappuccinos? “If anyone not our kind / Happens to read this manuscript: / Heads will roll,” Rajkumar raises as an omen in the third song. The poems of Give Us This Day a Feast of Flesh are not named, but numbered, like tallies struck against a maker.Continue Reading

Review: Michael Jordan and the New Global Capitalism

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Michael Jordan and the New Global Capitalism
Walter LaFeber
W.W. Norton, 1999
191 Pages

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It doesn’t take very long for a revolution to seem quaint. In 1999, the year that Michael Jordan and the New Global Capitalism was published by Cornell Professor Emeritus of history Walter LaFeber, the concept of a cellular telephone was enough to count for a revolution. No wires! Conversations outside—anywhere! Woah! Fifteen years later, one is only enamored with that original, novel lure of the cell phone when willfully strolling down memory lane. Remember when we were so simple.

So it goes with Michael Jordan’s basketball career—or, to be more accurate, the societal impact of Michael Jordan’s basketball career. In the book, LaFeber bestows revolutionary language upon the types of business deals that fueled Jordan’s career. Considerable time, for instance, is spent detailing the newfangled business strategies from Nike, the shoe company that helped propel Jordan to global fame, and vice versa. Nike, an American company, produced and sold most of their shoes in other countries, which LaFeber identifies as a revolutionary new way of doing business, of the world interacting with itself.

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Blood Memory

“There is only one of you in all time; this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost.”—Martha Graham

Dance was my first foray into art, and I studied it for sixteen years with the kind of blind passion you can only cultivate before puberty, before cynicism and self-doubt set in, gnawing at your dreams.

Though humble, those years of dance training gave me my first taste of expressing myself through art, of channeling meaning. Though I wobbled and my turnout failed when I danced en pointe to Vivaldi’s “Spring,” I understood the rapturous feeling of new growth, the sun on one’s skin after winter. Vivaldi translated his feelings about spring into music, and we small town Carolinians tried our best to bring those ideas to life with the body. Though our results were what you might expect from a studio that shared space with a gas station, our effort was noble.Continue Reading

The Summer of Salinger, A Review

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My Salinger Year
Joanna Rakoff
272 pages
Knopf
$25.95

buy: here

J.D. Salinger: The Escape Artist
Thomas Beller
192 Pages
Icons Series, New Harvest
$20

buy: here

 

As a boy in Manhattan, Thomas Beller frequented the Museum of Natural History, struggled with his Jewish identity and didn’t apply himself in school. Now he’s our, “ideal guide to J.D. Salinger’s world.” As a young woman from Brooklyn, poet Johanna Rakoff stumbles into this world, testifying, “We all have to start somewhere.”  Last summer both authors released books with Salinger’s name in the title, but that’s about all they have in common.

With J.D. Salinger:The Escape Artist (New Harvest, June 2014), Beller embarks on a “quest biography…as much about the biographer as the subject.” It’s a questionable premise. Does Beller think he’s that interesting? There’s no denying Salinger—from Manhattan, to Normandy, and New Hampshire—lived an intensely singular life. How can Beller expect to measure up?

We never get answers to those questions (or any others), because The Escape Artist is more literary walkabout than author analysis. Our guide wanders off near Riverside Drive.

Beller acknowledges an, “aura of trespass,” yet he slogs on, describing Salinger as he’s been described to oblivion: “consummate outsider,” “genius recluse,” and—of particular significance to Beller—“half-Jewish.”Continue Reading

Naming as Paying Attention

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Names can be hard for the tongue to wrap its head around. I say this with the conviction of my full being as a male, a poet, a twin, and a slight stutterer. (Of course I stutter. My brother and I lived our early lives assuming that the world, too, would understand our twin-speak. And why shouldn’t I—whose name that world was always mistaking for his, thus for whom the right name was sacrosanct – be a poet?)

*

There was the DJ at my little cousin’s bar mitzvah, a lively man who went around introducing himself to everyone during hors-d’oeuvre hour and who, on the dance floor an hour later, forbid us from taking our seats until he’d spoken our names, prompting us to exchange raised, incredulous eyebrows, and he proceeded to point to every person, first the one hundred thirteen-year-olds clustered together, one by one he said each name into the microphone, and when the dance floor was empty he pointed to each slack-jawed uncle and aunt at the surrounding tables, faces he’d never seen until an hour before, and could even tell my brother and me apart from thirty feet away. When I asked him later in the night with awe how he did it, what the hell his secret was, he said, almost lovingly, “I pay attention.”

Did his background in music sensitize him to the individual song of a person’s name? Or was his brain, so unlike a sieve, just bigger? Did he invent stories to remember that room of bodies? Did he recite each name three times under his breath? Does he go around whispering all words three times over? “Saying blackberry, blackberry, blackberry”?

*

When I asked Roger Reeves, who was generous enough to visit my class last year, why the pages of his first book King Me were flecked with the word “tongue,” he said that it is the origin of creation. A thing named now exists. For the DJ to listen, the tongue first has to speak.

*

The person who’s ever been teased knows that a mean name can be a fist, a quiet stoning with bone-breaking effects no X-Ray can spot. A pet name can be a touch to the cheek. How big we feel when a person we’ve met once before, months ago, in a dim room, remembers our name on the street. And how small we feel when we’ve forgotten theirs.

A few years ago—far from the DJ’s luminous mind—a student in one of my writing classes called me Andrew. This was two months into the semester. My name had been on the syllabus in large font, possibly emboldened. There was awkward murmuring among the other students, who knew me as Alex, and I let it ensue until she looked around and blushed, perhaps not realizing what she had done, and I let her blush for a moment longer before rescuing her. She had no excuse. The room, brightly lit, must have been blinding to this poor freshman, outmatched by her first semester, whose name for the life of me I can no longer remember.

*

Ask anyone wearing an inmate number whether names matter. In a life often where so much has been decided for them, naming is the privilege to sculpt a piece of their identity. “Street names” may be favored over their “government names.” In the classes I teach through the Cornell Prison Education Program, I try to remember the NuLeadership Policy Group’s exhortation to “stop using these negative terms (inmates, convicts, prisoners, felons) and to simply refer to us as people. People currently or formerly incarcerated, people on parole, people recently released from prison, people in prison, people with criminal convictions, but people.” Being aware of such a basic reality means paying deep, ceaseless attention.

*

Do names matter? Ask Leah, fellow clarinetist and my first ever date, who wondered aloud after the movie was over why I used her name so much in conversation. I didn’t have the language—as Richard Rodriguez did in his essay “Aria: A Memoir of a Bilingual Childhood” to describe his family’s “private” use of Spanish at home while English thudded beyond their doors—to call it “intimacy.”

But had this word occurred to me, “intimacy,” I would never have uttered it, not even alone in my room. A self-conscious adolescent male is always in the presence of others. “Lovely” was also off-limits. So was “beautiful,” unless what was beautiful was a female body. I think my high school baseball teammates teased me precisely because they figured that as a poet I went around declaring the trees’ green leaves lovely, everything intimately felt, and dammit they were right. My teammates thought me soft, though, not perceptive or brave, as I preferred to frame it. But how brave was I, who’d never speak those words aloud except on paper, out of the baseball diamond’s earshot.

Naming things beautiful, even privately, was a kind of freedom from the silly linguistic strictures of being male. I suppose it stood for my never-to-be-shared belief that, to redact Susan Sontag’s final sentence of “Against Interpretation,” “we need an erotics of maleness.”

Naming—attentional naming—has always been for me a freedom to be accurate, which means a freedom to correct. I’m sure I need more time than most. Such naming is patience. But how beautiful to get it right.

Review: TWENTY THOUSAND PIGEONS by Justin Bigos

twenty_thousand_pigeonsTwenty Thousand Pigeons
Justin Bigos
iO Press, 2014

1st edition sold out; inquire here

When I think of twenty thousand pigeons, I think of Disney vacations
and city park picnics from childhood—precious memories ruined by grey birds pooping in my hair and stealing my French fries. But when I think of Twenty Thousand Pigeons, a stunning chapbook of poems by Justin Bigos, I’m instantly at home, no matter where I am. Bigos attacks familiar world-weariness with heart and personality in this collection about bereavement and place. He carries us from New York to Chicago, from Pittsburgh to Texas, sharing meditations on love and aching experiences with loss. Rather than offering an escape from life’s ailments, mishaps and tragedies—bad jobs, unhealthy relationships, death and doubt—Bigos’ haunting poems ask us to remember, question, and grow.Continue Reading

Review: Zen Bow, Zen Arrow by John Stevens

Zen Bow, Zen Arrow: The Life and Teachings of Awa Kenzo
John Stevens
Shambhala, 2007
101 pages
$12.95
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In John Stevens’ half-biography/half-koan-medley Zen Bow, Zen Arrow, we visit bamboo-fenced dojos, learning from early 20th-century Japanese master Awa Kenzo how archery can be a vessel that improves a whole person. In particularly zen fashion, piercing the bullseye doesn’t seem to be the primary requirement in demonstrating an improved self. Indeed: “Kenzo argued that in today’s world the true purpose of archery is to perfect the human spirit.”

Admittedly, some of the koans–spoken by Kenzo, translated by Stevens–read as much like a line of dialogue for a cross-legged yogi in a Saturday Night Live sketch as they read like actual wisdom. The tenth and ultimate level in shooting prowess is, I guess, achieving “a shadowless moon-mind.” Your guess is as good as mine here.

Plenty of times, though, it feels like Kenzo’s aphorisms scratch meaningfully beneath the surface of physical activity, recording the ways in which the spirit moves with the body. A personal favorite: “If you look at the target as your enemy, you will never make progress. The target is a reference point, not your opponent.” I’d like to think that “target,” here, can be read not just as the archery-specific bullseye but also as any of life’s targets that we, you know, aim for. Usually it feels like we’re doing battle with our goals in life–some days it would seem they have picked a fight with us–but in Kenzo’s approach these objectives aren’t battling with us any more or less than a mirror is battling with us. The mirror, the bullseye are reflections of ourselves as we truly are.Continue Reading

This Winter’s Must-Reads

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There is no better way to pass the coldest season of the year than by cozying up with a good book, and 2015 has started off with a bang. Here are our picks for this winter’s best literary offerings.

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Disgruntled
Asali Solomon
FSG, February 3
$26
Buy: bookebook

 

Meet Kenya: acute observer, recurrent sleepwalker, a young woman who feels the shame of being alive. Growing up in West Philadelphia in the 1980s as the daughter of a man obsessed with Frank Lloyd Wright’s butler, Kenya straddles her father’s subversive world and the more stable life her mother desires. After the abrupt dissolution of her parents’ relationship, Kenya attends a mostly white girls’ prep school where she’s forced to learn how to navigate a world she doesn’t have the freedom to call her own.

As she grows, Kenya’s mother and father take turns rescuing their daughter and needing to be rescued by her. Her imprisoned father doesn’t send a single letter; instead he entrusts her with the beginning pages of his novel. Her mother becomes increasingly oblivious as Kenya dodges the lecherously cheerful eye of her stepfather.  She falls for a young artist who is only interested in white girls, she takes a chance and befriends an estranged sister, and she learns the weight of a gun in her hand and the shock of pulling the trigger.

A cutting and contemplative coming-of-age story, Disgruntled deftly charts the lonely terrain of self-discovery and the impenetrable bonds that ever beckon us homeward.

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