The Abominable Mr Seabrook by Joe Ollmann – A Review

The Abominable Mr Seabrook
Joe Ollmann
Drawn & Quarterly, 2017, pg 296

theabominablemrseabrook_thumbPassion projects don’t always succeed. They can bog down in details that are only interesting to the idiosyncrasies of the author.  Fortunately, Joe Ollmann’s The Abominable Mr Seabrook is the opposite: a well written and sensitive exploration of a forgotten writer from the 1920’s and 30’s.

William Seabrook was a travel writer, adventure journalist, and a best selling author during the 20’s. He was also a self destructive man who drank too much, was in and out of asylums, and ultimately committed suicide.  The Abominable is at times a sad story, but it is an endlessly fascinating one, too. Seabrook’s adventures were impressive. He showed Crusoe around Atlanta. He was an ambulance driver during WWI. He lived with the Bedouins for a couple years, which he wrote about in his book Adventures in Arabia (27). He went to Haiti and studied the rites of Voodoo, the Magic Island (29). It was the book that introduced zombie to Americans. He traveled through West Africa and supposedly ate with the cannibals. Jungle Ways (30).

_seabrook_aWhile those feats might be interesting on themselves, what makes Seabrook interesting is his chaotic life. He was friends with many of the writers and artists of the Lost Generation: Gertrude Stien, the Manns, Man Ray. He was famous and moved amongst some of the famous people of the 20’s and 30’s. Seabrook both enjoyed the fame and let it ruin him. He was constantly at parties and was a raging alcoholic.  On top of all this, Seabrook was a sexual sadist. He derived pleasure from tying women up and though he was married several times, he never gave up his practices. At one point he and Man Ray worked on a project about bondage together.

Ollmann weaves all these threads together with skill and sympathy. While the entry point to Seabrook might be his adventures, its the exploration of his personal life that really makes the story stand out. This is where Ollmann’s extensive research and affection for his subject comes through. While this is not a scholarly biography. Ollmann is clear on his sources and as he narrates Seabrook’s life, he is also narrating the construction of a biography, showing us how each source viewed Seabrooks descent into alcoholism. Ollmann isn’t afraid to call out some of Seabrook’s lies of omission. Seabrook was a complex man and Ollmann shows him as such. It is what makes The Abominable Mr Seabrook such a good book.

My favorite part of the book, the one that shows Ollmann’s dedication to his subject, is at the end. It’s a two page spread. On one side is a photo of a stack of Seabrook’s books that Ollmann has bought over the years. The other is a little one to two sentence description of each. It captures the beauty of a well written passion project and celebrates the world of books. It’s also a bibliophile’s book: Ollmann mentions he has “spent thousands on out of print books and magazines.” A good book indeed.



Distancia de rescate (Fever Dream) by Samanta Schweblin – A Review

Distancia de rescate (Fever Dream)
Samanta Schweblin
Literatura Random House, 2014, pg 124

I’m not sure what I think of Distancia de rescate. My uncertainty is not a backhanded way of saying the book isn’t that good. Normally I am a big fan of Schweblin as you can see in my writings on her work. Moreover, her approach to writing does not fundamentally differ in Distancia from her short stories. If anything the narrative mystery that propels many of her stories is even stronger in this short novel. Which brings me back to my original statement: I’m not sure what I think about her work and by that I mean is there something I am missing in my reading, or do I think the book is flawed in some way? Let me see if I can answer that for myself and in that way develop an appreciation of the novel that you, my reader, will find useful.

The title for the English language translation, Fever Dream, is more suggestive of what the novel is: a feverish dream from someone who very ill, perhaps about to die. The title also gives away too much, sets a direction for interpretation that while it exists, is more subtle in the Spanish original, roughly means keeping someone close for safety. The Spanish title reflects fear that pervades the novel, the English title the structure of the novel.

Structurally, the novel is a conversation between two voices. One is Carla the mother of a young girl. She is the narrator. The second voice is of David, a you neighbor. Or so we are told. The voice is presented in italicized font and does not identify itself. Only Carla identifies the boy, David. The obvious question is, is this narrative structure as it seems? To answer that you have to go father into Carla’s narrative state. This is where the idea of the fever dream comes. As the novel begins, her narration is even, matter of fact. As she goes deeper into the story, though, her fears mount. Is something going to happen to her daughter? How can she protect her, keep her close? Is the distancia de rescate (safety distance) sufficient to protector? Carla repeatedly wonders in the distancia de rescate is sufficient. Schweblin is an skilled writer and she keeps ratcheting up the tension as Carla slips farther into fear. Which returns us to the question of the narration. The conversation could just be feverish imaginings. Carla is very suspicious of David from the beginning. He is a menacing figure with seemingly supernatural powers. He’s a kind of devil child from a horror movie. Can we trust Carla’s description of events? Despite Schweblin’s facility with the fantastic, you could read the narration as either a conversation between a darkly evil child and Carla, or the feverish imaginings of a desperate mother.

What makes Carla desperate and David so threatening are the poisoned waters. In a recent interview in the Clarian Schweblin talked about the destruction of the Argentine country side with the use of glifosato, which in the English speaking world we know by its trade name: Roundup® by Monsanto. It adds an interesting element to what seems fantastical: poisoned waters that no one seems to know about. David’s mother tells Carla about the time he dipped his hand in a pool of water on the farm where they live, put them in her mouth, and took sick shortly after. The local villagers performed a rite to save the boy, but it mingled his soul with another. From then on David has never been the same. He is threatening. He’s often found burring dead birds and small animals. It is not clear if he killed the animals or if they died in the same way that David almost did.  Carla doesn’t want him near her daughter. The fear and suspense runs through the book and it’s the mark of Schweblin’s skill that it continues to the end of the novel.

As I read through what I’ve written I find that Distancia is a better book than I thought when I first put it down. The multiple approaches to reading is a mark of its many strengths. The narration is open ended and her use of the fantastic and a frantic narrator draws you in. It was the feeling of open endedness of the ending is what gives me pause when I think about the book. The nature of the narative’s construction can probably end as something open ended. All narratives continue after they have finished in the mind of the reader. But Distancia’s ending is unsettling. It is a strength of the book, but for me the unsettling end has the effect making me question if read it well enough. (I’m sure I did) Ultimately, Distancia de rescate is an excellent read, but I might have preferred her short stories just a bit more.

The Sorrow of War by Bao Ninh – A Review

9781573225434_p0_v2_s600x595The Sorrow of War
Bao Ninh
trans. Phan Thanh Hao
Riverhead Books, 1993, pg 233

If you are coming to Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War after seeing his interviews in Ken Burn’s The Vietnam War, as I did, you may have the impression that you are picking up a war novel. It certainly is that, but it is also something more: an exploration of the toll war takes years after.  Ninh’s comments during the documentary made it clear he had doubts about the wisdom of the heavy losses the Vietnamese suffered during the war. Reading the novel, it’s clear he has been unconvinced for a long time. Published 15 years after the end of the war, it is a raw book that has no illusions about patriotism or heroism.

The Sorrow of War is three novels: a story of war;  the struggle to survive PTSD; and the aftermath of war. Each is interrelated, obviously, but in each he gives you different registers that show a narrator who has survived not only years of war and a post war that only reminds him of war, but who is  completely damaged. Structurally, Ninh has written the novel as a series of unconnected episodes, moving between the war, his days as a relatively happy youth, and the nightmare of the war. The narrative arc for much of the book isn’t that important. Instead the glimpses of the war and his PTSD laced nightmares are woven throughout. The narrator is giving you impressions of a dazed mind. Much of it is quite clear, but in a very narrow view as if his mind is hyper attuned to precise details. In survivors accounts you often see an attention to the immediate detail as the intensity of the experience sharpens their memory. This pervades much of the book and gives it an impressionistic feel, as if we are watching a mind attempting to process what has happened.

When, the narrative is pieced together, The Sorrow of War has the typical arc of innocence, to experience, to dissolution. The innocence is not one of heightened patriotism. The novel follows Kein, a reluctant soldier, naive to its horrors, but at the same time indifferent. What little excitement he has, is quickly lost when the war starts after the Gulf of Tonkin. He spends years in the war, loosing all his comrades in devastating battle after another. It is a savage war that has no quarter, even when he liberates the Saigon airport in 1975 one of his friends dies pointlessly at the hand of a civilian. For Kein, though, the war is not over. He is part of a MIA and graves registration team that goes through the country looking for the dead and missing. Even after the war, the war hasn’t ended, and highlights the complete devastation that the war left. It is from this nearly 15 year long immersion into killing comes the compulsion to drink and write. In general, the arc works well, except for one small issue I’ll come to latter.

The story arc I’ve pieced together is not linear at all. Moreover, Ninh frames the story in several layers of narrator. There is the author of the fragmentary war stories. Maybe it was someone like Kien, perhaps it is meant to be autobiographical. The unknown author, the one who has created the Kien stories lives in an apartment with a mute woman and writes and drinks. Then he disappears, leaving his novel scattered over the apartment. Here we get a new narrator. He doesn’t know where the Kien narrator has gone. He pieces the novel together. The pages are unnumbered and each page seems independent of the other, he says, which gives the book its fragmentary structure. It is a mostly successful literary device. Given the already fragmentary nature of the book and its continual sense of the futility, to have the author disappear, one more casualty of the war, only seems fitting. The final narrator also provides a closure on the war without having to resolve anything. Did the Kien narrator die? Is war so traumatic there are no survivors? It certainly eliminates any kind of heroic uplift.

Those who survived continue to live. But that will has gone, that burning will which was once Vietnam’s salvation. Where is the reward of enlightenment due to us for attaining our sacred war goals? Our history-making efforts for the great generations have been to no avail. What’s so different here and now from the vulgar and cruel life we all experienced during the war?

Is Ninh’s approach successful? I ask because although the first 2/3 of the novel is fragmentary, impressionistic, the last 1/3 is a pulsing narrative that follows Kien and his girlfriend as war breaks out. It is the longest sustained writing of the book and it is horrific, detailing an American bombing of a troop train, and his grilfriend’s rape at the hands of some train workers. It could be easy to dismiss this as laziness on the part of Ninh: an author who couldn’t sustain the full novel. However, Ninh is a better writer than that. He has used different registers to suggest a mind unable to focus on a coherent narrative. Kien can describe specific traumatic events, but he has no overarching sense of story. Why else does the organizing narrator say he had a hard time putting the book together? A war that long and brutal with that many dead is too difficult to make sense of. This is something Hemingway even picked up on in The Soldiers home 70 years before. Personal experience needs to be welded to a larger narrative or it fragments, as it does for Kien.

The Sorrow of War is a successful novel. The only element that seems a little much is the rape. Kien’s reaction to it, definitely complicates the man, but it has, given its placement in the book, the effect of dropping something as traumatic into the middle of the story without really exploring it. That aside, Ninh has constructed a solid novel of war and aftermath that is as brutal, dark, and hopeless as any of the classics of the genre.

The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton – A Review

The Custom of the Country
Edith Wharton
Library of America

At the heart of it, Wharton’s novels are about freedom. It isn’t an existential freedom, it’s a practical one, one that assumes money and love are really what influence a person. For a Lilly Bart in the House of Mirth it is a serious matter, one that leads to her destruction. With The Custom of the Country, Wharton takes a different approach, one that is not as immediately tragic as Mirth, but when looked at from a distance, is as devastating.

Undine Spragg is a young woman from Apex who comes to New York to climb the social ladder and be someone. With Undine, there are only a few things she is interested in, clothing and parties, and those are really just so she can fit in amongst the best people, the ones she reads about in the society pages. She doesn’t belong to New York society and Wharton obviously has fun contrasting her manners against those of the old line New York families.

Nevertheless, she does worm her way into a social scene thanks to her parents who seem to live for her and think nothing of living as high as they can. She marries into one of the old line families, but as often the case with Wharton, that status doesn’t come with money. Her husband Ralph only has a small income and would rather write poetry (I wonder what dreamers in our New Gilded Age will want to do?). It’s not a match for the ages. He makes it for love; she for status. Neither of them get what they want. For Ralph, it slowly destroys him. He has a lover, but he is too bound to convention. Undine, though, doesn’t really care. As long as she has money, she’s happy. She ultimately divorces him, a move that shows her as a scandalous money grabber. She will marry two more times, each time increasing her income.

For Undine, freedom is something to be bought. She is unable to see that is the case. She is a primal person; one who is incapable of thinking beyond the immediate social circle needs. It leads her to surprises when her assumptions fail to be true. Her marriage to the French count is a failure because she assumes because he is rich he can spend his money as he wishes. But for him, the family is an obligation he must honor. Each in their way, is constrained by the structures they are part of and they have accepted as the way the world is. Wharton makes this even more clear when the Count spends a fortune to pay his brother’s gambling debts, but won’t allow Undine to stay in Paris for the season.

Undine, despite her avarice, might seem the most free. She isn’t tied down by convention. She gets divorce three times; doesn’t commit suicide like Ralph; survives every society snub. Wharton doesn’t find anything redeeming in it, though. Her tone isn’t a moralizing, nor is wild like a Thackery in Vanity Fair, although Undine is like a Becky Sharp, but there is a very dry sense of satire. It is so dry it is easy to miss. For readers who want to relate to their heroines, this is not the book; try The House of Mirth. It’s in that dryness, the realistic depiction of a woman so consumed by status and money, that Wharton creates a character who is so untethered to reality, she has no idea what she really wants. She destroys everyone, unintentionally, of course, and when she has gotten everything she wants, or says she wants, Wharton reveals Undine’s true desperation.

The Custom of the Country contrasts the two competing approaches to living: fidelity to tradition, what ever those might be; or a careless disregard for all rules. In both cases, though, the characters are trapped in worlds they come from or think they are joining. While the case of Ralph Marvell holding on to a family honor is tragic, that of Undine who does not know who she is, is even more tragic. It’s an illusory freedom. She has no idea what she truly wants and that leaves her after she has married the multi-millionaire uncertain if she has enough yet. It’s a dark ending. She has bought into fashion without understanding the fashion is always changing.

Wharton’s work always meets at the intersection of wealth and freedom. At her best her works are cautionary tales. Although Undine’s passage through the aristocracy of Europe might seem unrealistic, translate them to pop cultural icons, and you have glimpses into a new Gilded Age. The Custom of the Country is a dark and dry satire, which makes it a little bit more difficult to approach like Mirth and the Age of Innocence. But it is one of her better works and worth a read after Mirth and Innocence.

Southern Cross by Laurence Hyde – A Review

Southern Cross
Laurence Hyde
Drawn & Quarterly, 2007, pg 255
Original Publish Date Ward Richie Press, 1951

Laurence Hyde’s Southern Cross is a wordless novel made from wood cuts. Much as Lynd Ward, Frans Massreel, and Otto Nuckel before him, Hyde wrote his novel with images, relying on his skills as an artist to create a visual language. It is a difficult art, as he points out in his survey of the art included with the book. One that takes careful planning. A rewrite means he has to recarve one or more of his blocks. The results, though, can be evocative.

Southern Cross is fiction, but it tells the story of the American atomic bomb tests at the bikini atoll during the 40s. He tells the story from the perspective of the native islanders and sees the tests as not only an invasion, but a literal rape of a peaceful people. Hyde contrasts idelic drawings of the islands and its sea life with the arrival of the Americans. While the Americans seem peaceful, not only do they want to take the people from their homes, an American rapes one of the native women. Nothing will stop the bomb. The woman’s husband kills the American and they hide on the island. When the bomb is detonated they die.

A shark

Hyde is none too subtle in his criticism. While his story of an ideal people destroyed by the modern world at its most destructive is well tread, for its time, 1951, it is a brave statement. The rape seems a little over the top, as if the crime of stealing someones home for atomic tests wasn’t bad enough. Is rape really the only crime that make Americans look bad? The escaped to a doomed freedom is the much more compelling aspect of the book and on its own might have been enough.

Firing the bomb

The plot aside, the contrast between the beauty of the natural world and the ferocity of the bomb is the most striking aspect. It is also the easiest to render visually and in pure symbolism holds up the best. Hyde sees such destruction as an obscenity and in rendering the natural world so carefully he seeks to reconstruct and lament what was lost.

Southern Cross is a fine example of the art of the wordless novel. Perhaps a little one sided; still, an important addition to any collection of these works. Drawn & Quarterly should be commended for their high-fidelity reprint. Not only is it printed on high quality paper, it preserves every detail of Hyde’s original addition, including his overview of the wordless novel up to that point.

War, So Much War By Merce Rodoreda – A Review

War, So Much War
Merce Rodoreda
Open Letter, 2015, pg 185

war_so_much_war-front_largeMerce Rodoreda’s late works are magical miniatures of madness, destruction, and authoritarianism. Much like a Death in Spring, War, So Much War creates a condensed claustrophobic world where the inhabitants are given to a petty violence that is rooted  in jealousy as much as it is custom. Its a dark novel and Rodereda paints war time Catalonia in a less than flattering light. Published in 1980, several years after the end of the Franco regime, it is both a criticism of the events and an act of witness. War, So Much War is not a novel of the righteous lost cause or a golden era. It is a vision of cruelty for cruelty’s sake. She wrote in Death in Spring, “men who are eager to kill are already dead,” and it is an apt description of the characters in War, So Much War. No one wins here.

Structurally, and much like Death in Spring, the narrative is a kind of picaresque and the reality feels as if it is part of a fable as much as it is a description of a given reality. From the few details she teases us with the war is taking place in Catalonia. There is one mention of Barcelona, which is the main link. The only reference to the Spanish Civil War is when she mentions Moroccan troops, which were employed by the fascist side. (It is possible there are more clues in the original Catalan that a Catalan would pickup on.) Other than these small clues, the book is isolated, cut off from any larger world, giving a sense of madness to every remote location the narrator ventures. While Death in Spring had its own unique and terrifying reality, War uses what should seem familiar, farms, fishing communities, and imbues them with terror and violence. Its as if the war is not a singular event, but a reflection of what the normal order.

The start of War, So Much War shows just what Rodoreda thinks of war and soldiers. The protagonist, Adria Guinart, runs away from home with several other boys and join a the army. Militia might be a better term since it is a woefully inadequate group. They are sent into battle and are immediately routed. They flee into the woods where Guinart finds himself on a journey through the war ravaged land. He stumbles on farmers who try to kill him, others who want to make him into a slave. Occasionally, he meets a good person, a farmers daughter who wants to make love to him, a hermit who wants company, and the wounds he receives at the hands of the violent heal before circumstance sends him on his way. In one of the longer sections of the book, he takes up with a man who lives alone by the sea. The relationship is one of trust and when the man dies, he gives everything to Guinart. He lives in the house for a while and he has a chance to examine what it is he is searching for. The moment allows Guinart to become more than a cork floating on the sea as he is in much of the novel and shows that Rodoreda is looking for something more than just a caustic criticism of war.

Ultimately, War, So Much War is a dark book. At times I wonder if there was an urban versus rural dynamic, not just a vision of war. Much of what happens has nothing specifically to do with war. Is the world she has created a result of a war, or war is the result of such a society? Either way, Rodoreda’s late works are magical, brutal, and richly evocative.

Entre malvados (Between the Wicked) by Miguel Ángel Muñoz – a Review

Entre malvados (Between the Wicked)
Miguel Ángel Muñoz
Páginas de Espuma, 2016, pg 146

MUNOZ_EM_C_IMPRENTAEntre malvados is the Spanish author Miguel Ángel Muñoz’s third collection of short stories, and represents a return to the short form after two novels. His recent work has been concerned with the intersection between art and identity, best expressed in his last book, the transgressive La canción de Brenda Lee. Entre malvados marks a change of direction towards stories that are concerned with recent history, not necessarily political, but engaged in the events that have shaped recent Spanish history. The title is quite clear in stating where his focus lies; however, the stories are richer and more ambiguous explorations of recent events than a simple reading of the tile might allow. It is also worth noting, that several of the stories were either written or started almost a decade ago. Their collection here, though, does seem well timed.

The stories fall into two general camps: ones that deal directly with an event; and ones that are more generalized sources of evil. In the later, Somos los malvados (We are the Wicked), the first story of the collection explores the origins of cruelty and how it propagates itself. The story is simple: a man is abused as a child by local bullies. As an adult his daughter is taught by one. All he has to do is spread rumors about the teacher and he will get his revenge. Obviously, the condemnation of bulling is there, as is a recognition of its power. But there is more here, more than a tale of satisfying revenge. The means of achieving that revenge is a new propagation of cruelty.

In a similar vein, Los hijos de Manson (The Children of Manson) is an exploration of evil, both extreme and commonplace. Muñoz describes four people who in their own ways brought evil to those around them. The firs is the  strange power of  Charles Manson and his manic evil. The  second is the mob killer known as the Iceman who lived with his family in middle class normalcy, but was vicious in his professional life. These two are traditional killers, evil men most people would despise. Then Muñoz turns to the father of the Enlightenment, Rousseau who is monstrously cavalier in his raising of children, giving them all away and convincing himself they would be better that way. Finally, he takes on Arthur Miller who refused to see his son who had Downs Syndrome for his whole life. The contrast between all of them is quite large, but it underscores the general theme of the book. The inclusion of Rousseau and Miller makes for a more nuanced collection and makes it difficult to say, of course they are bad.

Aguantar el frio (Putting Up with the Cold) is a transitional story, one that plays against the back drop of the real and the general. The story follows a cop who is looking for a missing girl. He’s seen this happen before, but in that case he found the girl after she had been killed. He won’t do it again. On a tip from the girl’s neighbors he arrests and brutally beats one a different neighbor. He won’t fail and he knows who did it. It’s just a mater of time before he gets to the truth. At the same time, his son has lost an eye in one of the big government protests in Madrid that happened during the height of the economic crises in 2009-2012. He doesn’t want anyone to know that. He is ashamed that his son has turned out the way he has. It is a classic crime fiction dilemma. Here, though the cop is blinded by the past, his own zeal, an the inability to understand that the same people he wants to protect are being damaged by the government he works for. Moreover, we have echos of the first story, Somos los malvados, that suggest the revenge that felt good in the first story, is perhaps being abused by the neighbors. It is an effective story about the tunnel vision and over application of the lessons of the past.

There are two stories, Los Nombres (The Names) and Un hombre tranquilo (The Quiet Man) that deal with the March 11, 2004 bombings at the Atocha train station in Madrid. Muñoz intended these stories to be part of a larger collection of voices of the event. In each he writes about the last few hours before the bombings. In Los Nombres he describes a man who is having his second child and is about to transition between a soccer playing good time guy, to a dedicated father. Un hombre tranquilo Muñoz  creates a kind of musical journey, as the protagonist surveys the train as he listens to El ultimo habitante del planeta. Its almost a montage from a movie. Where the Los nombres celebrates the life outside the train, Un hombre brings a kind of beauty to the every day. In each Muñoz finds the good and beautiful in the routine. The two stories show his strongest writing in a technical sense and make full use of his skills as a writer to get inside the lives of those who died.

Intenta decir Rosebud (Trying to Say Rosebud) is his most ambitious story. Based on the Spanish journalist Javier Espinosa’s account of his captivity as an ISIS prisoner, builds a compelling account of life as a prisoner and, more importantly, what life is like after the experience. There is more to the experience than survival and the continued reminders that even the simplest things in daily life are difficult moves the story from war to aftermath and touches on Muñoz’s general theme of the continual presence of evil. The actual depictions of life in the prison cell are chilling. The title is both a nod to Citizen Kane and to the power of art to calm. One of the prisoners tries to remember scenes of movies as a means of escape. Kane is his favorite movie and just remembering Rosebud offers him something outside the room. Intenta decir Rosebud is the most brutal and arresting story of the collection.

Entre malvados is a fine collection of stories. While they do give a sense of modern life in Spain, the traumas and the politics, they are more than just newspaper cut outs. There is a search for the darkness in everyone, and what makes the best us overcome it, if even temporarily. After such a long absence from the short form, Entre malvados is a welcome return for Miguel Ángel Muñoz.