Out in Print will be taking a small vacation from 5/20 to 6/2, so no new posts until we return from our annual intellectual debauchery at Saints and Sinners in New Orleans. Come visit us on Monday, June 3rd, when we’ll resume our regularly scheduled posting duties with reviews and interviews. We’ll have reviews of The Other Man, edited by Paul Alan Fahey, Lee Thomas’ new collection, Like Light for Flies and, of course, our Spring Poetry Roundup, so stay tuned. We’re still all you need to read about all you need to read.
Buy it now from Lethe Press
Is it tickle-torture? Is it speculative fiction? Is it a deep exploration of relationship dynamics? Or an examination of submissive behavior and helplessness? Well, it’s actually all of the above, and if those elements sound too disparate to blend together, don’t discount the talents of Wayne Courtois.
On a future Earth, a formula called Solution 9 has been
added to the water supply to eradicate disease. One of the side effects is that
it has also eliminated ticklishness except in a very few individuals. One of
these is our hero, Wade, who becomes the coveted object of tickle fetishists
Robert and Sloan and their Internet friends David and Glenn. Sloan, however,
wants Wade for himself and devises a fiendish plan to achieve that end.
On a future Earth, a formula called Solution 9 has been added to the water supply to eradicate disease. One of the side effects is that it has also eliminated ticklishness except in a very few individuals. One of these is our hero, Wade, who becomes the coveted object of tickle fetishists Robert and Sloan and their Internet friends David and Glenn. Sloan, however, wants Wade for himself and devises a fiendish plan to achieve that end.
I must admit, tickle-torture is brand new to me. I know Courtois’ first novel, My Name is Rand, also features this kink, but I haven’t read it. I was intrigued as to how a storyline could be built around it, and Courtois comes through with an involved, yet not convoluted, plot that takes us from Earth to an asteroid somewhere in space and back, complete with pseudopod-bearing aliens and a holographic overlord. This, obviously, is the speculative fiction part.
Relationship dynamics? When Wade meets Robert and Sloan, a
seed is planted that will eventually affect the couple’s partnership, and this
is further complicated when David and Glenn are introduced into the mix. This
portion of the novel concentrates on both couples, leaving Wade a rather flat
character. However, this appears to be a conscious choice on the part of the
author—and one wholly in keeping with the objectification of Wade as an
instrument of pleasure. His personality is secondary (even tertiary).
Relationship dynamics? When Wade meets Robert and Sloan, a seed is planted that will eventually affect the couple’s partnership, and this is further complicated when David and Glenn are introduced into the mix. This portion of the novel concentrates on both couples, leaving Wade a rather flat character. However, this appears to be a conscious choice on the part of the author—and one wholly in keeping with the objectification of Wade as an instrument of pleasure. His personality is secondary (even tertiary).
Though Wade is entirely submissive, many of the other
characters also have submissive aspects, especially when one considers that in
relationships of this nature, the most submissive member actually has the most
power. Without Wade and his acquiesence, the reason for his objectification
wouldn’t exist, and the irony that emerges when Sloan finds himself equally
powerless is absolutely delicious.
Though Wade is entirely submissive, many of the other characters also have submissive aspects, especially when one considers that in relationships of this nature, the most submissive member actually has the most power. Without Wade and his acquiesence, the reason for his objectification wouldn’t exist, and the irony that emerges when Sloan finds himself equally powerless is absolutely delicious.
In the Time of Solution 9 is a thought-provoking, well-envisioned read, as interesting as it is inventive. Just the sort of genre-busting book expected from both Courtois and Lethe Press.
©, 2013, Jerry Wheeler
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The poor human animal. Buffeted by technological advances and fishbowled by social networking, his response in many cases is to disappear into anonymity—surfing secretly behind IP scramblers and stalking friends and enemies alike online. Taking that a step further, what might it be like to actually be invisible? Seth Harrington finds out in Marshall Moore’s sardonic Bitter Orange.
Seth is a moderately wealthy San Franciscan living with his Korean roommate Sang-hee, wandering aimlessly through life with the aid of his friend Elizabeth, a tattoo artist. Only she really isn’t his friend. Harrington discovers his powers of invisibility quite by accident but rather than be elated by his newfound abilities, they instead cause him even further distress and confusion.
One of Moore’s greatest gifts is his ability to isolate and illuminate societal anomie. He finds the very heart of our disconnectedness, distills it into a character like Seth Harrington, and puts him through the paces of life (not plot, though there is some of that here). The result is both intriguing and reflective, and you might find yourself putting it down, as I did, just long enough to digest an experience before picking it back up with either recognition or denial of your own response.
If this sounds boring or too deep for enjoyment, it doesn’t take into account Moore’s second biggest asset—his enormously smart-assed sense of humor. This manifests itself in chuckling asides as well as broader slapstick. All are on Moore’s pallete, and he paints Bitter Orange in wide swaths of funny.
But Moore is almost always at his funniest when he’s being mean—his characterization of the Asian woman who runs the convenience store Seth discovers his powers in (by stealing a bottle of wine) is so devestatingly real that you know this is someone who’s pissed Moore off in real life. His other characterizations are equally adroit. Seth comes off the page quite well, as does his roommate Sang-hee.
But really, this is a novel populated by characters in a plot which really can’t be encapsulated in a review. But keep reading until the end. The last thirty pages are marvelous and revelatory. If you’ve liked Moore’s other work, you’ll find this to be all of a piece with it.
And if you’ve never read him before, this is a most excellent place to start.
©, 2013, Jerry Wheeler
Buy it direct from Bold Strokes Books
new author, Ashley Bartlett definitely should be on your radar. She's a really
fresh, unique voice in a sea of good authors.
I first met Ms. Bartlett briefly two years ago before she became a published author. My impression was that she lived off coffee and cigarettes. (I thought about checking her ID to see if she should even be smoking.) I wondered if those piercings hurt as much as they looked like they did. I wanted to pull her pants up to cover her underwear and give her my belt. And, I was sure she would wear white jeans with no regard to whether it’s after Easter and before Labor Day. It’s a Southern thing. But I read her books anyway, and I’m so very, very glad I did.
Don’t misjudge this first book in the Dirty Trilogy because of its title. “Dirty Sex” isn't erotica, even though there are several hot sex scenes. It’s about intrigue. It’s about twenty-somethings trying to find their way into the adult world. It’s about relationships between best friends, twins, and lovers. Did I mention there’s also an amazing “tough girls don’t like to admit they can be really sweet” romance that burrows its way into the story?
Vivian Cooper and Reese DiGiovanni have hated each other since the second grade. Too bad Reese’s twin brother, Ryan, is Cooper’s best friend.
Cooper and Ryan will do anything for each other, even when it’s illegal, suicidal, or just plain stupid. Which is why, when Cooper and the twins stumble upon millions of dollars in gold bars, they take it and head for Las Vegas. Soon they find themselves running from some very angry and very organized criminals. Which turns out to be not nearly as sexy as it looks in the movies.
“Dirty Sex” isn't Ms. Bartlett’s debut. I enjoyed her first novel, "Sex and Skateboards," but "Dirty Sex" turns it up about a dozen notches.
In short, I found this story to be flawless. The characters are deep and the action fast-paced. The romance feels real, not contrived. There are no fat, padded scenes, but no skimpy ones either. It’s told in a strong first-person voice that speaks of the author’s and her character’s youth, but serves up surprisingly mature revelations.
"Dirty Sex" released at the end of 2012, and “Dirty Money” followed close behind in February. You’ll have to wait until August, however, for the conclusion of the series in "Dirty Power." That gives you plenty of time to read “Sex” and “Money” beforehand.
If you’d like to read the author’s thoughts about concluding the series, check out /
©, 2013, D. Jackson Leigh
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Perry Brass belongs to that rarified group of writers including myself and Leslea Newman (Heather Has Two Mommies) who have been nominated for five or more Lambda Literary Awards and never received a single one.
That all three of us work in different literary forms and genres is a given. We write prose, poetry, drama, non-fiction, even children’s books. Literary judges, unable to look beyond the page in front of them, don’t know what to make of us. Up till now, Brass has written science fiction, religious fiction, erotica, you name it. With King of Angels, however, Brass has finally written a more or less acceptable piece of “literature”—although it’s actually more than that—and the book is a finalist for the Ferro-Grumley Award* and who knows what other honors may fall upon it.
Why? Simply because it’s a growing up and coming out story.
Everyone knows what to make of one of those, right? Except that Brass spins
several variations on the theme that makes it increasingly, excitingly, odd.
The little boy protagonist is growing up in a good-sized town in the South. His
mother is a Gentile, gentle, Southern, almost sophisticated woman of her
generation. But his father is a Northener and a Jew, handsome and somewhat
suspect, who travels a great deal, and whose sources of income are unclear,
uncertain, and eventually even criminally prosecutable. This, naturally, makes
Benjy a most interesting misfit, even amid the small, ingrown Jewish community
in his town.
Why? Simply because it’s a growing up and coming out story. Everyone knows what to make of one of those, right? Except that Brass spins several variations on the theme that makes it increasingly, excitingly, odd. The little boy protagonist is growing up in a good-sized town in the South. His mother is a Gentile, gentle, Southern, almost sophisticated woman of her generation. But his father is a Northener and a Jew, handsome and somewhat suspect, who travels a great deal, and whose sources of income are unclear, uncertain, and eventually even criminally prosecutable. This, naturally, makes Benjy a most interesting misfit, even amid the small, ingrown Jewish community in his town.
To make it all even more complex, his father places the boy
into a Catholic Academy for his middle years, saying it’s the only superior
school around. So Benjy’s life becomes even more splintered, and he is a
complete outsider, even more so than the one beautiful and doomed Puerto Rican
scholarship boy in his class. His most natural mentors are grown Christian
religious teachers, and or his father and his father’s best friend Solly. But
the teacher is questioning his faith, and the adult friend is even more suspect
than dad and probably a betrayer too.
To make it all even more complex, his father places the boy into a Catholic Academy for his middle years, saying it’s the only superior school around. So Benjy’s life becomes even more splintered, and he is a complete outsider, even more so than the one beautiful and doomed Puerto Rican scholarship boy in his class. His most natural mentors are grown Christian religious teachers, and or his father and his father’s best friend Solly. But the teacher is questioning his faith, and the adult friend is even more suspect than dad and probably a betrayer too.
Let’s hear it for Benjy: he goes through all of the expected
tropes of growing up, being a boy who is becoming a man, finding himself
academically, physically, sexually, and he does so with curiosity, panache, and
a refreshing sense of his own self esteem. Along the way as tragedy occurs and
near-tragedies mount up, Benjy also develops a strong sense of self
preservation, along with a slow-growing conviction—as every adult fails
him—that he can only rely upon himself.
Let’s hear it for Benjy: he goes through all of the expected tropes of growing up, being a boy who is becoming a man, finding himself academically, physically, sexually, and he does so with curiosity, panache, and a refreshing sense of his own self esteem. Along the way as tragedy occurs and near-tragedies mount up, Benjy also develops a strong sense of self preservation, along with a slow-growing conviction—as every adult fails him—that he can only rely upon himself.
The reader is quite entertained by all of this: not only with all the contradictions and mix-ups natural to such an individual, but also by the way Brass delineates several small, often opposite, families and societies that Benjy falls into and out of. The Catholic kids are, for the most part, put upon, hassled, and controlled to within an inch of their lives, but then strangely free in many other respects. So it’s no wonder that they act out in bullying, aggression, and other boy-on-boy mishaps. But the Jewish kids Benjy hangs out with are portrayed as spoiled and smug and they utterly lack independence. His one wiser older cousin who refuses to conform ends up in and out of institutions. By the way, each child is wonderfully characterized, even the girls Benjy is expected to romance are well (and humorously) individualized.
That would be enough to make King of Angels a good book. But lurking beneath this veneer, Brass uses his novel to ask a variety of questions about how children see the world for themselves and eventually how they make various choices—despite parents, despite teachers, despite society, despite religious teaching, and despite each other. That has been for decades how almost all LGBT kids grew up in America, and I applaud Brass for making his Benjy such a little mensch. King of Angels is a sobering, truthful, yet subversive text and Perry Brass’ most accomplished work.
* Editor’s Note: Trebor Healey won the 2013 Ferro-Grumley Award for “A Horse Named Sorrow.”
©, 2013, Felice Picano
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I closed (or “turned” the last Kindle page of) Beyond Innocence last night quite satisfied with the read and anxious to begin my review. Browsing Facebook the next morning, I came upon a picture of Carsen at a lesbian fiction festival brandishing a copy of Battle Axe, HER BRAND-NEW BOOK. Crap, I thought, she has another one out already? Nevertheless, here it is—despite the fact that Carsen writes more words weekly than I say in a month, and I’m a book behind.
Cory Lance is a Texas prosecuting attorney who has been suspended for some questionable tactics and, as penance, has been temporarily demoted to work a public defender clinic. Enter one Serena Washington, whose brother is on Death Row for a murder he didn’t commit. Cory, of course, is assigned to the Washington case, and she and Serena fall for each other—or they would if they could get out of each other’s way. Can Cory switch career gears and defend Serena’s brother? Will they get together in spite of the obstacles they keep throwing in each other’s path?
It’s reasonable to assume they will, but Taite keeps you guessing with delicious delay until the very last minute. Typical of a real life lawyer. However, Taite’s time in the courtroom lends Beyond Innocence a terrific verisimilitude someone not in the profession couldn’t impart. And damned if she doesn’t make practicing law interesting.
This would be nothing, however, if the story and the characters were slight but Taite comes up a winner here as well. The plot works nicely, but it’s the characters that made me keep turning pages—chiefly Cory and Serena. Cory suffers a comedown both personally and careerwise, and the lessons she learns from this provide some palpable growth.
Serena is more of a mystery—and more of a frustration. Her brother Eric follows many of the same paths as their junkie mother, but Serena was taken from that environment and raised by an adoptive family. Both experiences have left Serena in emotional denial, rendering her incapable of personal commitment. The miscommunication between Cory and Serena provides for some of the most insurmountable obstacles to romance I’ve ever seen. I shook my Kindle severely—no, you idiot, I shouted, she didn’t mean that. For Chrissakes, go talk to her! Now, that’s getting me involved in the story.
The wear and tear on my electonics notwithstanding, Beyond Innocence was a great read with a very satisfying conclusion, and I can heartily recommend it. And next week, she’ll have something new out, and I’ll be two books behind.
Thanks, Carsen, for inspiring me to write faster.
©, 2013, Jerry Wheeler
Speculative fiction isn’t like it was when I was a boy. H.G. Wells was just starting out, and Jules Verne was but a pup. Well, not quite that long ago…but it was still called science fiction and wasn’t taken as seriously as it is today. What hasn’t changed is the wonder of it all, and editor extraordinaire Steve Berman has collected some wondrous pieces indeed for his latest edition of Wilde Stories.
The opener (“Breakwater in the Summer Dark” by L. Lark) and closer (“Keep the Aspidochelone Floating” by Chaz Brenchley are reprised from Berman’s own The Touch of the Sea collection as are a couple of other items here, but their second appearance does nothing to dull their sheen. “Breakwater in the Summer Dark,” in particular, is a beautiful, haunting story of awkward adolescent love against the backdrop of publicity over a “lake monster” at a summer camp. Lark’s boys are achingly real, and I found myself just as involved this time as I was the first. Similarly, Brenchley’s “Aspidochelone” is as involving a pirate story as any I’ve read. These stories are perfect for this collection.
Also making second appearances…well, they all are as this is a reprint series…are “Tattooed Love Boys,” featuring Alex Jeffers’ trademark gender and genre bending, the post-apocalyptic pirates of Vincent Kovar’s “Wave Boys,” and Ray Cluey’s brilliant story of a San Francisco suicide and his rescuing boyfriend, “Night Fishing.” Cluey’s prose is so evocative, I nearly fetched a blanket against the chill of the bay—all the way in Denver.
But the chills in Wilde Stories 2013 are not all marine. K.M. Ferebee gifts us with a medical student with some interesting quirks in “The Keats Variation,” Richard Bowes shows us a man who is able to confront his own dark side in “Grierson at the Pain Clinic,” Rahul Kanakia’s “Next Door” immerses us in a world of futuristic squatters, and Laird Barron takes us into a haunted prison to expose us to “A Strange Form of Life.”
However, I was totally capitvated by Hal Duncan’s “Sic Him, Hellhound! Kill! Kill!,” a clever story of love and devotion between a vampire-hunting werewolf and his boy. Told from the werewolf POV, this story is as smart as it is smart-assed, with a powerful, unique voice and an action-packed climax that will have you on the edge of your chair. It’s impressive fiction, the speculative label notwithstanding.
But Berman and Lethe Press have done much to expand that rather limiting label, providing us with collections that mystify, astound, and inspire. I can’t wait for the next one.
"Breakwater in the Summer Dark" is from Steve Berman's "Boys of Summer."©, 2013, Jerry Wheeler
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I’ll confess to being an Anglophile. I have box sets of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” “Absolutely Fabulous,” “Keeping Up Appearances,” and “Are You Being Served?”I do not, however, follow the royals as slavishly as some of my fellow lovers of the UK. That did not prevent me from thoroughly enjoying Nell Stark’s The Princess Affair.
Kerry Donovan, Rhodes scholar, is in Oxford to study. Her
distractions should only be football and an occasional sightseeing excursion,
but she never counted on falling in love with a princess—especially one so
stunning as Princess Alexendra Victoria Jane, who the British tabs have
nicknamed “Sassy Sasha.” But Sasha’s well-publicized flings with male members
of the jet-set are meant to obscure her true sexuality. England is used to
commoner/royal romances, but what about between two women?
Kerry Donovan, Rhodes scholar, is in Oxford to study. Her distractions should only be football and an occasional sightseeing excursion, but she never counted on falling in love with a princess—especially one so stunning as Princess Alexendra Victoria Jane, who the British tabs have nicknamed “Sassy Sasha.” But Sasha’s well-publicized flings with male members of the jet-set are meant to obscure her true sexuality. England is used to commoner/royal romances, but what about between two women?
Stark breathes some new life into this old storyline by
marching her complex characters through their paces with startling verisimilitude.
Since she has studied at Oxford, she has first-hand knowledge of the
surroundings, and she uses her not-inconsiderable gift for setting the scene to
give us a perfect backdrop for a love story.
Stark breathes some new life into this old storyline by marching her complex characters through their paces with startling verisimilitude. Since she has studied at Oxford, she has first-hand knowledge of the surroundings, and she uses her not-inconsiderable gift for setting the scene to give us a perfect backdrop for a love story.
In addition to her lesbianism, Sasha has another secret that
drives the plot. She’s dyslexic, an unfortunate condition for someone called
upon to memorize and recite speeches. This antipathy to studying and
intellectual exercise has wrongly branded her stupid, another obstacle to
loving a Rhodes scholar. Her testy relationship with her father, the King, is
also a lovely complication.
In addition to her lesbianism, Sasha has another secret that drives the plot. She’s dyslexic, an unfortunate condition for someone called upon to memorize and recite speeches. This antipathy to studying and intellectual exercise has wrongly branded her stupid, another obstacle to loving a Rhodes scholar. Her testy relationship with her father, the King, is also a lovely complication.
Stark’s writing is not histrionic or given to the hyperbole
sometimes found in romances. That’s not to say it’s flat or emotionless—quite
the opposite is true. In true British fashion, it’s restrained but still packs
a punch. Her dialogue is also superb—always conversational and never feels
Stark’s writing is not histrionic or given to the hyperbole sometimes found in romances. That’s not to say it’s flat or emotionless—quite the opposite is true. In true British fashion, it’s restrained but still packs a punch. Her dialogue is also superb—always conversational and never feels scripted.
So even if you’ve read this particular plot before, I can
guarantee you that Stark’s fresh take will have you cheering for Sasha and
Kerry to get together in the end. Will they? Well, you’ll just have to find out
So even if you’ve read this particular plot before, I can guarantee you that Stark’s fresh take will have you cheering for Sasha and Kerry to get together in the end. Will they? Well, you’ll just have to find out for yourself.
©, 2013, Jerry Wheeler
Alex Jeffers is the author of the recently released novel Deprivation; or, Benedetto furioso: an oneiromancy. He’s also published a collection of wonder stories, You Will Meet a Stranger Far from Home, a book-length story sequence, The Abode of Bliss, the epistolary novella Do You Remember Tulum?, the short science fiction novel The New People, and the novel Safe as Houses. His short fiction has appeared in magazines such as the North American Review, Blithe House Quarterly, Fantasy and Science Fiction, M-Brane SF, and Icarus, and many anthologies. Alex lives in Rhode Island.
GA: Hi, Alex. Thanks for talking to Out in Print. First, Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” supposedly formed for him in a dream. Did aspects of Deprivation arise from dreams or take form in a huge rush of inspiration?
AJ: Both, in a way. Deprivation occurred to me at a peculiar, susceptible time in my life, many years ago during the recession of the early 1990s. A recent (belated) college graduate with a useless liberal-arts degree, I lived in Providence, RI, but worked as an office temp in Boston, fifty miles away. Getting to work on time required catching an ungodly early train for the hour-long commute. I’ve always suffered from insomnia—my natural cycle is nocturnal—so for over a year I was lucky to get four hours of sleep a night. Sleep deprivation functioned for me as laudanum addiction did for Coleridge. Life was hallucinatory.
One January morning on the train in my usual sleep-deprived daze, I remembered a dream from the night before. Now, as one of the characters in Deprivation remarks of himself at one point, I seldom recall my dreams in any detail because dreams are mostly image but I think in sentences and paragraphs. This was different, compelling, full of arbitrary, sensual detail: a vision of entering a tiny room within an abandoned warehouse, spread with antique Turkish and Persian carpets, where a little girl watched an Arabian Nights movie on a silent TV while her handsome elder brother slept in a corner, bundled up in bolts of silk brocade and velvet. In the dream, I became convinced the brother was (would be) my heart’s desire, my lifelong companion. I have no clue where my subconscious came up with any of it.
Taking out the pad of graph paper I always carried and a pen, I wrote out a narrative version of that dream as the train rattled through eastern Mass. Partly because most of the fictions I was futzing with at the time were written in the first person, partly because the material was so intensely, peculiarly personal and I have a horror of autobiographical fiction, I wrote in third person and created a viewpoint character who was like but not me. Then I put it away, not thinking much of it except that it was strange, unprecedented.
A week or so later the same thing happened. In the second, possibly more fantastical dream, I was trapped on the battlements of an inaccessible mountaintop castle which I knew to be in Italy, Umbria or the Marches. As I attempted to find a way out, I heard a strange cry, looked up, and saw in the air flying toward the castle a Renaissance knight mounted upon a hippogriff. The source for this imagery was more comprehensible: I’d recently started rereading the Orlando furioso of Ariosto, in which the hippogriff and its various riders figure prominently. Again, the dream was so vivid and compelling I wrote it out on the train—half unconsciously choosing the same narrative strategy of substituting a third-person “he” for “I.”
On the return commute that evening, I pulled out my pad of graph paper and reread both scraps of dream narrative. All at once they belonged together, the improvised third-person stand-in was a person in his own right (his name was Benedict, Ben for short), and it was absolutely necessary for me to work out how he got from that warehouse to the castle in Italy…and then what happened afterward.
I wrote like a demon for three months, mostly on the train. Then reality intervened, as it tends to do: I acquired a permanent day job, moved to Boston—losing the daily two hours of writing time on the train—and my then-agent made impatient noises about the novel I was supposed to be restructuring and revising, Safe as Houses, so I had to spend several months on that. Ben had not yet reached the Italian castle but the overall shape of the book had come clear to me in a way it hardly ever does (even for a short story) and I knew the last lines: “Come to Italy with me, caro, next week. We’ll never come back.” Once I dispatched the penultimate draft of Safe as Houses to my agent, I finished Deprivation in six months. It’s the work of mine most true to its original conception, which demanded no major revision or restructuring: written straight through at white heat, almost without hesitation.
Finding a publisher for it took twenty years, though. Thanks be to Steve Berman, Lethe Press, and their tutelary deity Daulton.
GA: I’ve had critique partners say things like “you shouldn’t write epistolary novels” or “don’t use dream sequences because there are no stakes”. I could wave copies of Alice in Wonderland and Dangerous Liaisons in their faces, but coming from me, saying “the masters can do it” doesn’t feel like a great defense. How do you know when a “rule” can successfully be broken? How do you feel about writing rules overall?
AJ: If I followed the standard rules my bank account would probably be a whole lot happier…and I a whole lot more miserable. Aside from the conventions of grammar and syntax, the only rule I hold sacred is: Be true to the work. If, like Do You Remember Tulum?, the work wants to take the form of a single, unreasonably long love letter or, like Deprivation, a series of dreams that bleed in and out of each other and “real life” until there’s no telling which is which, how much less interesting they would be if, spirits broken, they were forced into the shapes of traditional, plot-driven novels written to an eighth-grade vocabulary.
It seems to me, if I may be bitter for a moment, that the contemporary “rules” of narrative fiction intend primarily to enforce the creation of raw material for movies or HBO. Not to deny the artistry of visual narrative—it seldom speaks to me, usually gives me a headache, but I recognize its worth—but a film or television serial is an entirely different animal than a work of written fiction. The things film does best written fiction can’t do at all and vice-versa. I feel pretty strongly that the filmification of culture has deeply, probably irrevocably impoverished literature.
On the macro, structural and strategic level, most writing “rules” nowadays are about either not performing tricks that visual narrative can’t imitate or not testing the attention span and concentration of readers conditioned by the half-hour, hour, two-hour limits of TV and movies. Break ’em all, I say, break ’em again and again. Ninety percent of the time you’ll fail and make an unreadable botch, but that’s fine. That’s how you learn what your limits and capabilities are and, crucially, how you keep yourself interested. Keep in mind the Platonic definition of the novel (paraphrased from I don’t remember who): an extended work of narrative fiction that has something wrong with it.
On a micro-level: Strunk & White? Go stick your heads in a well. Plain American style is but a single tool in the writer’s box and about the least flexible or entertaining.
GA: Early in Deprivation, you describe a series of paintings in a hallway, mentioning, if not for a visual joke or anachronism, one could have been executed by Lorenzo Lotto, one by Hans Holbein, and another from the school of Giorgione. You obviously love fine art. So, say a handsome thief enters your life and offers to win your heart by obtaining any two or three famous paintings for your home. What might you choose?
AJ: To start out modestly, almost any of Canaletto’s views of Venice, preferably one that included either the Bacino or the Grand Canal and a gondola or two. Venice is one of the two centers of my imaginary geography of the world. Unfortunately there aren’t a great many excellent visual depictions of the other, Ottoman Constantinople.
Combining the two geographical obsessions with a fixation on portraiture, I’d ask the handsome thief to steal from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum the gouache portrait of a Seated (Ottoman) Scribe attributed to the Venetian painter Gentile Bellini. Poor Gardner Museum, to be robbed of another masterpiece! (I do have a nicely framed postcard of the Seated Scribe, but it’s not the same.)
El Greco’s portrait of Fray Hortensio Felix Paravicino, in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, is a painting that ripped my soul out of my body the first time I saw it, but I don’t think I could actually live with it.
And I don’t expect I’ll ever reside in splendor fit to house any of the splendid Italian Renaissance and Mannerist portraits of Titian, Bronzino, Lotto, Giambattista Moroni (impossible to pick favorites), but if I one day end up in a villa in Tuscany or the Veneto—watch out, museums of the world.
GA: Could you tell us about your character, Dario? What inspired you to create him, and what do you like about him?
AJ: Dario is the handsome sleeping brother in the first dream that inspired, and opens, Deprivation. According to him, he’s one of three children of an unconventional Italian painter who sent her kids to America because it wasn’t done for an unmarried woman to have and raise children by three different men. His father, he believes, was a Lebanese Christian Arab—but it’s all mythology, whether invented by Dario (the dream) or Ben (the dreamer).
Because he stepped out of a dream, I don’t really know what inspired Dario other than my attraction to Mediterranean and Near Eastern men. Ben’s attraction, aside from the physical, has a lot to do with Dario being needy at a time when everybody else in Ben’s life (or so he feels) wants to take care of him and run his life. Dario needs somebody to run his life. He claims he knew before they met that Ben existed—that he had been searching the streets of Boston for Ben.
One reading of Deprivation—possibly the easiest and a reading Ben himself subscribes to now and then—sees his dreams as a form of self-analysis and therapy. In that reading, Dario (in different ways his sister Gioia and brother Laud, also) embodies Ben’s own insecurities, his sense of being unready to function in the grown-up world, overwhelmed by it. Because Ben believes he can’t take care of himself, his subconscious creates Dario as somebody he can successfully care for. When he ultimately says goodbye to Dario it’s because he’s finally ready to take responsibility for himself without a crutch.
One reading. Somewhat reductive if not entirely wrong. Because Dario is a person too, as real to Ben as his parents and friends and the other men he gets involved with in the course of the novel, as steeped in mystery and contradiction—as inexplicable and wondrous as any human being.
As for what I like about Dario…. He’s a fascinating conundrum for a writer because he’s deliberately unfinished and unfinishable, ambiguous, self contradictory. As a character, he’s unashamedly implausible and yet entirely himself. Also amazingly hot, if far too young.
GA: I’ve heard that you are a voracious reader. Can you tell us about any favorite works you feel are undeservedly obscure?
AJ: There are, I believe, two perfect prose stylists of twentieth-century English-language letters: M.F.K. Fisher and Jan Morris (Morris edges into the twenty-first). Both are widely and deservedly known for their non-fiction—Fisher for works on food and appetite, Morris on travel, history, and appetite. Both have also published a very few pieces of deeply odd fiction that keep being forgotten and rediscovered and forgotten again. Fisher’s Not Now, but Now, an interlocking series of tales of the amoral, self-absorbed Jennie raising havoc around Europe and the States without regard for chronological plausibility, and Morris’s Last Letters from Hav, a sequence of magazine dispatches from the decidedly peculiar city-state of Hav somewhere on the Mediterranean coast of Anatolia, are neither novels in any conventional sense and both at once brilliant and obscure, like stars sunk in the whorls of a vast interstellar dust cloud.
I could evangelize the works of Anglo-Irish novelists Elizabeth Bowen and Molly Keane (early books published as by “M.J. Farrell”) for days, neither as well known as they should be. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who died at eighty-five early this month, is sadly better known for her Merchant-Ivory screenplays than her magisterial novels.
I won’t even start on the speculative fiction that’s always been a big chunk of my reading.
Finally, two words: Orlando furioso.
GA: I read that you enjoyed Charlotte Bronte’s Villette, and I think overall you love books with imaginary cities or countries. Can you explain that fascination? Is creating a whole city or country like getting to play with a dollhouse except multiplied by a thousand?
AJ: Well, Brontë’s city of Villette and country of Labassecour aren’t strictly imaginary: they’re Brussels and Belgium wearing fake spectacles with funny noses and fuzzy eyebrows attached. But yes, Villette (the book) stands high in my canon of perfect novels that every English-speaking person should read at least twice. Why Jane Eyre is more popular passeth my understanding.
And yes, like Charlotte and her sisters and brother, I spent large parts of my childhood and youth inventing imaginary cities, nations, whole worlds. Doesn’t every imaginative person? (Well, before the invention of tabletop RPGs and video games.) At first because one doesn’t know enough about the real world to situate one’s games and adventures in it, later because one finds the real world small and disappointing.
The latter is, in the end, the underlying theme of Deprivation, although Ben’s imagination works differently than mine so his ideal world is an impossible vision of Italy instead of a distant planet in the far future or a never-never kingdom where magic works and mass media were never invented.
Every novelist plays with imaginary dolls in novel-size dollhouses. No matter how closely setting and history resemble the real world and real experience, the world the characters move through is made up—it exists only in the writer’s head and the words she chooses to render it on the page. The realist mode is only one possibility. Magical realism, surrealism at the so-called high end, science fiction and fantasy at the low: each mode provides different tools to the writer, different rewards to the reader, different joys to both.
A quote from a recent column by acclaimed fantasy and science-fiction writer Jo Walton at Tor.com seems apropos:
There's a way in which fiction is about understanding human nature. It's about more than that, of course, but that's a significant part of it. I feel that you can tell more interesting stories about human nature if you can contrast it with alien nature, or elf nature, or what human nature would be like if you had nine thousand identical clones, or if people could extend their lives by sucking life force from other people. There are more possibilities for stories in genre, more places for stories to go. More ways to escape, more things to think about, more fun.
It’s a fluke and in some ways a puzzle I’m known (insofar as I’m known) for fiction set in the real world of the present day and recent past. Long ago in the dark ages I started out writing science fiction. The first book I sold was a big SF novel. For several good reasons it was never published, thank merciful and compassionate God, although I reused its core conceit of a planet where all the women died in The New People. Most of the short fiction I’ve written in the last five years falls under the rubric of speculative fiction: SF or fantasy or magical realism. The stories in You Will Meet a Stranger Far from Home walk edgewise to reality: they’re set in the future or the mythic past or in countries I’ve never visited (some countries nobody’s ever visited).
My ostensibly realistic books are constantly testing the limits of the real world. Aside from his family, the realest things in the mind of the narrator of Safe as Houses are his husband’s illustrations for children’s fantasy novels. Do You Remember Tulum? pretends to be a single hundred-plus-page letter handwritten over a span of four or five days, an unlikely accomplishment, and the characters are all mythic, impossible figures—not least the narrator, “Alex Jeffers.” The narrator of The Abode of Bliss is a Turk from İstanbul, a city I’ve never set foot in so it had to be imagined from the ground up. Deprivation may, or may not, be a dream from beginning to end.
The real world of the twenty-first century—the US in particular—fascinates, bores, revolts, inspirits, horrifies, exhilarates, terrifies me all at once. It’s too big and too small. I appreciate the marvels, abhor the petty uses they’re put to. The noise has overwhelmed the signal. I can’t comprehend this country, this world, anymore. More than that, I no longer wish to work at attempting to comprehend it. (If I ever did, which is doubtful.) As a setting for fiction, it’s rendered itself unusable. I can’t talk about the things that are important to me in the terms it requires. It’s back to Marianne Moore’s “imaginary gardens with real toads in them” for me. (If I ever left them. Which is doubtful.) Although real gardens with imaginary toads work, too.
I have emigrated to Hav.
GA: If the muses or gods of literature and the arts came to you and said, “Alex, you can change one thing (only one) that you find terrible about 21st Century culture” what might happen? The end of Real Housewives shows? People Magazine has to give as much space to book reviews as celebrity scandal?
AJ: I haven’t turned my TV on since 2008, which was also the last time I went out to a movie. Even before then, the TV wasn’t connected but only served as a screen to display DVDs—I haven’t lived in a house with cable since 2005 and had no television at all from about 1980 to 1998. Really, I’m so disconnected from pop culture it’s stupid. What are these Real Housewives you speak of?
Is there some single cultural thing I could change that would fix the unequal distribution of wealth in the world, so that artisans and laborers, restaurant and retail workers, clerk-typists and other office serfs, mid-list and small-press novelists, minor painters, sculptors, actors, poets, playwrights wouldn’t always be barely scraping by, if that, and the great and small nations of the world wouldn’t be held hostage by Wall Street?
That. Please. Yesterday.
GA: I understand you enjoy cooking. If you could have a few celebrities, historic figures or literary characters come over for dinner, who would you invite? And what would want to serve?
AJ: I love to cook. I loathe and fear strangers and conversation. (Social anxiety and introversion? I invented them!) I would prepare something complicated and Turkish, South Asian, or Italian, and eat it by myself while reading a good book about fascinating personages.
GA: And last, what’s next for you in terms of goals, plans, or adventures?
AJ: In the terrifyingly short term, deadlines loom for several anthologies I’d quite like to submit (unwritten) stories to. In the middle distance, I owe somebody the fourth story in my series about Liam Shea, a fairy raised by humans in present-day Massachusetts (real garden, imaginary toad). Whenever I get around to completing all seven planned Liam stories, that’ll be a (small) book. Away beyond the horizon, Steve Berman of Lethe Press wants to publish a volume of stories set in an imaginary world of mine where historically appropriate technology (long-haul sail-powered merchant ships in one era, mobile phones and motorscooters in another) butts up against gods, demons, ghosts, and saints. But I’ve only completed three of them so far and one of the unfinished ones keeps threatening to become a novel.
As soon as the weather turns enough toward summer that I don’t spend half my life obsessing about how fucking cold I am, I plan to embark on a third revision of The Unexpected Thing, a big novel set partly in southeastern Massachusetts, partly in the fifth-smallest nation in Europe, a place I made up (real and imaginary gardens, inhabited by toads of both types). Then try to sell it for lots of money. Upkeep on a townhouse in Hav is brutal.
GA: Thank you, Alex!
AJ: Thank you (and Jerry and Bill) for the opportunity to rave and ramble.
Buy it direct from Lethe Press
Books with local color are always lots of fun, and I rarely get to read one set in Denver for some reason. Injustice, set in Capitol Hill, is all over town—from Littleton and Aurora and back—and name checks Denver landmarks, like Racine’s and Queen Soopers. Oh, the book? I think the cover, which depicts a gun pointed at the reader, says it all. It’s action-packed from first page to last.
Riley Connors, formerly a government operative, is now a law
student/bartender with a dark past and lots of connections willing to help her
right wrongs, including getting revenge on her girlfriend wanna-be’s
ex-boyfriend. But that injustice only whets Riley’s appetite for taking a firm
hand and doing the right thing.
Riley Connors, formerly a government operative, is now a law student/bartender with a dark past and lots of connections willing to help her right wrongs, including getting revenge on her girlfriend wanna-be’s ex-boyfriend. But that injustice only whets Riley’s appetite for taking a firm hand and doing the right thing.
Injustice is not a slow, deliberate book whose purpose is to deeply explore Riley’s character and emotions about fighting evil. The subject is broached, but to agonize over it would be counteproductive to the main thrust of the book, which is action. And Injustice has that in spades. From the attempted rape on page two to the drug overdose on page two hundred and forty-three, it only slows down long enough to allow you to catch your breath before it’s off on another caper.
In fact, there are several capers going on here
simultaneously. It’s to Kron and Leffler’s credit that the various endeavors
are never crossed or at cross-purposes, and they feature the most wonderfully
intricate surveillance toys. And Riley also has an able accomplice named Charlie,
a grizzled ole cuss who was a compadre of hers in the black ops. Their
relationship is a father/daughter/BFF/co-worker/psychic bond kinda thing, and
they both show up for each other at the most opportune times.
In fact, there are several capers going on here simultaneously. It’s to Kron and Leffler’s credit that the various endeavors are never crossed or at cross-purposes, and they feature the most wonderfully intricate surveillance toys. And Riley also has an able accomplice named Charlie, a grizzled ole cuss who was a compadre of hers in the black ops. Their relationship is a father/daughter/BFF/co-worker/psychic bond kinda thing, and they both show up for each other at the most opportune times.
Deep reading? Nope. But it doesn’t pretend to be, and that’s refreshing. It’s a quick, fun, breathlessly fast read that I went through in two sessions, and it’s also subtitled Book One of the Nemesis Series, so if this is your thing, I’m sure you’ll be looking for Book Two when it comes out.
Action, baby. That’s where it’s at.
©, 2013, Jerry Wheeler