Book Reviews, 04/2013


This issue

Steve Amsterdam, What the Family Needed
David Shields, How Literature Saved My Life
Dan Magers, Partyknife
James Salter, All That Is
Jessica Francis Kane, This Close


Steve Amsterdam | What the Family Needed

Riverhead, 2013

by Brian Gebhart

WhatTheFamilyNeeded_Cover As you might guess from the title, Steven Amsterdam’s second book of fiction centers around a family. But you might not guess what the family needed: superpowers, which are bestowed on each character at a different point in his or her life. Even more surprising is the fact that these supernatural gifts—flight and invisibility, those two old standbys, among others—do not overwhelm the characters themselves. In fact, the moments when a character’s superpower first manifests itself are so smoothly integrated that they can easily escape notice on a first read.

I know, I know: the premise sounds gimmicky. And when, early in the book, one of the younger characters appears wearing Superman underwear—not to mention the miniature lightning bolts that grace every space break—I worried that Amsterdam was peddling a kind of gee-whiz sensibility, where the superpowers themselves are the whole point of the story. But the novel’s first section, in which fifteen-year-old Giordana gains the power of invisibility, puts any such worries to rest. She uses her invisibility to spy on her friends, and what she discovers is unsettling. Suddenly an outsider, Giordana feels disgusted by her friends’ frivolity, and it occurs to her that “her friends should be paying closer attention to real things, those random events that could change the arithmetic of their lives.” In an attempt to shock them out of their complacency, she lifts one end of a table “enough to tip their water.” But their mild reaction doesn’t satisfy her. “Giordana waited half a minute and did it again, harder. That made them silent. There, Giordana thought, that’s what the world is like.

This scene effectively poses a question that lingers for the rest of the book. Is that what the world is like? How much power do random events have over our lives, and does an invisible hand guide those events? How much control do individual humans really possess?

Many of the gifts bestowed on the characters appear, initially, as solutions to fairly narrow problems. Giordana, caught at an awkward age in a broken family, wishing she could know what people are saying when she’s not around, yearns to disappear from view and…BAM, she’s invisible. And while this does lead her to greater knowledge—of her estranged father, her family, her friends—it’s unclear whether she gains any greater agency over her own life. The other characters’ experiences tend to follow a similar pattern.

Amsterdam gives each family member a chapter, and the chapters progress in a (mostly) linear fashion. The gaps in time between the chapters are years long, so we see each character, and the family as a whole, age over a period of several decades. During this span of time, their fortunes change, often for the better. But while their superpowers sometimes help them escape a bad situation, they never serve as the panacea one might expect. Their struggles never abate, and sometimes grow more acute as they realize the limitations of their powers. With each successive episode, we see the family grappling with the same mundane villains that any ordinary human being might face: an alcoholic parent, an unruly child, an overbearing spouse, and, finally, the death of a loved one. The magic of the novel’s premise grants the characters a palliative remedy without granting them a cure for the underlying problem. Turning invisible, in other words, won’t make your dad quit drinking. Or as the youngest character, Alek, remarks: “Just because it was magic didn’t mean it was easy.”

Amsterdam’s previous book, Things We Didn’t See Coming, employs a similarly episodic structure. But that book, set in a post-apocalyptic world, focuses on a single character. While the subject matter makes for a compelling read, it doesn’t feel nearly as rich or fully realized as What the Family Needed. Here, the multiple points of view allow us to see the family from different angles. We hear the characters speak for themselves, but we also hear what the other family members think about each other when nobody’s listening. This makes for a revealing, and often poignant, reading experience, as our perceptions of the characters shift gradually over time.

No shift is greater than the one revealed in the final chapter, told from the perspective of the family’s youngest member, Alek. I won’t say anything more specific, other than to mention that it’s one of those endings that makes you want to go back to the beginning and read the book over again in a new light. Alek is at once the novel’s most interesting and most troubled character, and one can’t help but suspect the two qualities are related. He is one of those people—like many writers and perhaps Amsterdam himself—who cannot stop wondering how his life might have played out differently. If he’d made different choices, would he have been happier? Would the world be a better place? Ultimately, Alek seems to conclude that such musings are futile:

“Anything can happen, anywhere. You can be flying over your neighbor’s house and looking in the windows, or you can be dying on your bed upstairs…All I mean is there’s no profit in worrying. By the time you get where you’re going, the story will have changed anyway.”

In this self-involved age of ours—where the drive for self-improvement and the sculpting of one’s own narrative seem to be constant concerns—regrets about the roads not taken may consume our thoughts more than ever before. In What the Family Needed, Amsterdam demonstrates how this obsession with crafting the story of our own lives can devolve into a kind of madness. There’s no doubt that human beings have been asking “what if” for thousands of years, but never before has the range of possibility stretched so wide. Sure, the power to fly like Superman is probably beyond us (for now), but the chances for escape have never seemed so numerous or so close at hand. In this way, Amsterdam’s superpowers aren’t so much physical realities as they are expressions of the characters’ deepest desires.

It would be easy to conclude by saying that what the family needed was the family itself, that they all just needed the love of one another. But that’s not quite right, either. What they really seem to need—and what their superpowers provide, however fleetingly—is the ability to imagine themselves into other lives, other selves. Which also happens to be the gift What the Family Needed bestows on its readers.


David Shields | How Literature Saved My Life

Knopf, 2013

by Sally Franson

HowLitSaved_Cover Negotiating against myself

“All criticism is a form of autobiography,” David Shields writes at the beginning of How Literature Saved My Life, his follow-up to (and self-defense of) that pro-fragmentation jihad, Reality Hunger. This sounds pretty profound, don’t you think?

But actually, no, it’s not that profound. Because all writing is a form of autobiography, just like all rock songs are about love.

What’s sad about David Shields is that he seems unaware of how much his prose evokes isolation, particularly because he’s so smug about claiming the opposite. While he espouses the need for authors to expose their raw nerve endings in literature, he’s incapable of doing so himself. The whole ‘those that can’t do, teach,’ etc.

Language comes from the mess of the psyche. Whether we want to or not, when we speak – about anything! – we are unconsciously, embarrassingly, giving ourselves away.

So as Shields says he wants literature to crack the frozen, lonely sea within us, his narcissism rises out of the words like steam.

To prove this point, I thought I might try to embed myself in the Shields model of essaying, aping his syntactical and structural conceits to convey my impression of his work.

But then I thought, that’s boring and precious, and I went and caught up on Girls instead.

But then as I was watching Lena Dunham be hilarious and authentic I realized that the whole reason I hated How Literature Saved My Life was because it was boring and precious. So maybe to only way to convey the boredom and preciousness of the book was to embody it in the review?

That’s what the postmodernists would say, anyway.

Negotiating against solipsism

George Bush is David Shield’s “worst self realized.” This is because David Shields takes himself very seriously.

But also because, you know, they have a whole bunch of stuff in common. For example, both of them have made resolutions to eat fewer sweets. They both like to get proper amounts of sleep. They have bad knees and daddy issues and wives that are much smarter than they are. It’s uncanny, how similar they are. Isn’t it?!?!

Oh, but wait, it’s a lesson. The lesson is that Shields hates Bush because the latter’s worst qualities reminds Shields of his own. This is supposed to reveal something significant about human nature.

How stressful it must be, this viewing of world leaders solely through the prism of one’s own self-development!

A while back, a teacher of mine, author of the kind of old-school, detail-rich historical novels that are anathema to Shields devotees, threw his hands up during a discussion of Reality Hunger. “You know what this is?” he complained. “It’s shock and awe! He drops a verbal bomb and then runs away from it!”

Maybe George Bush and David Shields have more in common than anyone originally thought.

Negotiating with punctuation

There’s something about ellipses that bugs me, in a way that’s difficult to explain. As a Midwesterner I’m well-versed in passive aggression, and I can smell it, strong as my grandmother’s lutefisk, in passages like this one: “No one from my immediate or extended family died in the Holocaust, yet in a way that’s difficult to explain, it was the defining event of my childhood…”

The ellipses mark the end of this particular section.

To which, if I were in David Shields’s living room, swilling a glass of brandy, I would have to lean forward and say, breathlessly and adoringly so that he would continue, “Go on…”

But I am not in David’s living room, and he does not go on. Which is frustrating. Because things that are difficult to explain are the only ones worth writing about.

I mean, worth writing about…

Love is a brief, navel-gazing scrutiny

It sure is funny, isn’t it, how much some male writers seem to get off on detailing their sexual exploits. Can you think of any women writers who do the same? I can’t…

If you would like to know if David Shields has had anal sex, you will find the answer in this book. Don’t worry, no spoilers here!

It sure is funny, too, that the best writing in this book comes from a discussion of sexual conquest. Six pages of non-fragmented, narrative-driven prose, a rueful tale of a boy and a girl and the journal that comes between them.

The reason it’s so successful? Shields lets the story be a story. His ego gets out of the way and in its absence the language sings.

Books that saved David Shields’s life, most of which he’s discussed ad nauseum a bunch of times before

Renata Adler’s Speedboat, Proust, Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes, Montaigne’s essays, anything by David Markson, etc.

Oh, but by the way, no books can save anyone’s life, for life is sad and we are bound to be lonely.

How David Shields’s literature won’t save anybody’s life

It’s like this: once upon a time, a man named David loved to read books, and in fact told everyone he only read books in which the author laid himself bare, because Americans are hungry for reality.

Young people in MFA programs were very excited about this and wrote “laid bare” in their margin notes, but most Americans really couldn’t have cared less about David’s taste in books, because they were busy with March Madness and Us Weekly and big box office movies and James Patterson novels and other things that made them happy.

David kept writing though, mostly about himself, and heavily borrowing ideas from other writers, which were often more illuminating than his own. He deserved some credit, though, because he arranged the ideas quite nicely. ‘Those that can’t write, arrange,’ etc.

David had a Post-It affixed to his computer screen, a quote by Denis Johnson: Write yourself naked, from exile, and in blood. This quote was important to David, but when he wrote discursively about the importance of writing naked, from exile, and in blood, it was a very different result than just doing that naked, exiled, bloody kind of writing. He wanted to bleed onto the page, loathed the writers that didn’t, but could never step outside himself enough to do it.

I believe this, as David himself teaches me in How Literature Saved My Life, during a long-suffering discussion of Oedipus, is called a tragic flaw.


Dan Magers | Partyknife

Birds, LLC, 2012

by Kevin O’Rourke

cover-partyknife-optOne should never judge a book by its cover, but what about the blurbs that grace it? What if they come from famous rock stars, what then? For instance, what about the one on Dan Magers’ Partyknife’s cover, from Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, whoseblurb reads like it was written by a precocious high school student, in which the word “scribes” is used as a synonym for “writes”? [1]And how about a book’s architecture, is that up for discussion? Even if, in Partyknife’s case, the table of contents looks remarkably similar to Chuck Klosterman’s Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, with its use of record “sides” and listing of titles as if they were tracks on an album? What if it was the blurbs and the architecture that interested us in the book in the first place?

The first time I read Partyknife, I was extremely exasperated. It reminded me why I left New York, how tiresome always trying to be hip can be, and how long Brooklyn nights filled with too much Rheingold are inevitably followed by mornings of nausea and headaches. It reminded me of the fact that, for all of its good writing, Vice magazine can come across as insufferably cooler-than-thou. To wit, one of Partyknife’s many untitled poems:

Some serious dudes place amps
            in full-circle manner of Stonehenge.

            The amps are the band. The dudes are the roadies.

            Noise through another
            all layered and decayed.

            We tried to achieve hypnosis
            and one of us levitated.

            If you’re doing it with that girl right now
            then this message means jackshit, but probably
            you’re not — probably she’s like, “Where’s the beer?”
            and you’re like, “I don’t got any,”

            but we’ve got the beer right here.

I truly didn’t know what to make of poems like this, and this book is filled with them. I mean, it’s funny, but why write this poem? What is, ahem, its occasion? Not that every poem need contain some nugget of wisdom, but the romantic part of me would like to believe that good poems at least hint at some manner of understanding, experience, and, that dirtiest of words, beauty.

On first read, many of the poems that make up Partyknife don’t seem to hint at much. The tone of the above poem is representational of much of the book in its humor [2] and its slightly sneering attitude; at times, the book’s speaker comes across as something of a bro. In addition, some of Partyknife’s many pop-culture references include video games (Call of Duty and Guitar Hero), Journey’s frat-rock anthem “Don’t Stop Believin’,” and a description of the drinking game Wisest Wizard [3]. These references ground the book in a particularly young male world, in a hipster’s paradise of bands and beers and bars, and evenings spent arguing over whether or not Television’s Marquee Moon is the greatest guitar rock album ever, which it is.

But of course Partyknife is a book of poetry, and deserves deeper consideration. Though many of the poems in Partyknife might seem, on their own, to consist of unconnected pithy observations, a sort of narrative is established through the book’s treatment of its characters. In particular, “Cecilia” is an especially important character: she is the first person we meet, a “smart person among smart people. / She’s a pulsing brain,” and there is the suggestion of a complicated unrequited love for her. The speaker also discloses more and more about himself as the book progresses. Though the poems never fully abandon their standoffish-mocking-observer tone, lines of what seem to be self-lacerating honesty, sometimes bordering on the emo, become more frequent:

  • I’m so lonely I could die. (17)
  • I don’t know how to be someone you miss. (45)
  • My mix tapes mostly touch only me. (74)
  • There are so many Wii characters of people I don’t see anymore. (84)

This last one brings up another point, that many of this book’s pop culture references are used to hint at some sense of inadequacy. For example, the context of the aforementioned Guitar Hero reference is:

I can’t be psyched to play Guitar Hero,
because it reminds me that I can’t play real guitar.

So while the speaker of Partyknife may exist in a fratty, bro-ish hipster world, he may not be fully comfortable there. Indeed, many of the poems in this book seem to have been written from the point of view of someone looking in on a group that he is not fully part of; the vague condescension for that being viewed is a mask that hides the speaker’s true feeling of being an outsider and possibly fat (“My fat is warm and surrounds me like a mother.”) and inadequate and on and on.

Maybe. As tempting as it is to read this book that sympathetically, I can’t but wonder if I’m seeing smoke where there’s no fire. Rather, another way of reading Partyknife is that just what makes the book problematic for me — its detached coolness, and some of its subjects’ banality — is the point, that this book is not interested in traditionally poetic, “Ode on a Grecian Urn” beauty. Instead, Partyknife is interested in some of poetry’s other uses: in being incisive and cutting; in dissembling and obfuscation; in being absurd for absurdity’s sake; and in a vision of the poet as a mysterious man who shows up at a party late dressed in all black, and who, aside from the occasional whispered profundity, stays mysteriously silent all night, until he leaves for another, cooler, party with his friend, the rock star Thurston Moore.

1. Full disclosure: I own fifteen Sonic Youth records.
2. One of the book’s few titles is “MIND QUEEF, A ONE-ACT PLAY BY HITLER”
3. “You drink a can of Natty Ice, / then tape each one you finish to the bottom of the last.”



James Salter | All That Is

Knopf, 2013

by Kate Petersen

jsalterJames Salter was working on his latest novel, All That Is, when I met him several years ago in Minnesota. October, cold and windy; the first few technical snowflakes of the season fell that day. It’s snowing again now, a late winter storm, and I’m writing in the same room where we talked, a room lined with shelves of dusty cloth-bound classics and the odd literary magazine. I have left the lights off, but the snow is doing the work of bulbs.

Salter told me then that this novel had been inspired by a Christopher Hitchens quote: “No life is complete that has not known poverty, love, and war.” He asked me about Bob Dylan, about whom I knew embarrassingly little, and when he asked what I did know, I sang a few bars of Oklahoma! the musical.

I’m buying time. How does one talk about the work of the first writer she really took up, loved? The first book by Salter that I read was his 2005 story collection, Last Night. I’d known that stories were a thing of economy, I guess, because people said such things, but before Salter I didn’t understand that economy could work in service of devastation, could be a source of light.

Forgive my nostalgia, but I think it’s at the heart of the matter.

Because All That Is, Salter’s sixth novel, is an acutely nostalgic project. It can be a difficult book to approach as a contemporary reader. Not only is it highly allusive—Tolstoy, Gidé, Genet, Proust, Buñuel, Millay, Lorca, and Sontag appear, just to name a few—but it reads as an artifact from another epoch. Like an antique map of some Mediterranean port town, its interiors and oceans left blank, the world Salter illuminates is bounded, limited, dated even. To judge it against a modern Rand McNally would be impossible, or foolhardy.

The novel follows Philip Bowman, a navigation officer in the Pacific who becomes a book editor after World War II by way of a via negativa (his real desire was to become a journalist). After a young, failed marriage, Bowman loves three other women, is left, betrayed, betrays. The narrative also moves in and out of the lives of publishers, lovers, family around Bowman, but the story is finally his. With the exception of The Hunters, perhaps, Salter’s novels do not lend themselves to plot summaries, and All That Is is no exception. As in his 1975 novel Light Years, the action does not seem to drive forward as much as unspool through some mysterious, filamentary process. There are engines on the page, but the trains and planes they power are always leaving.

Even if you don’t need to know where you are going, old maps can be problematic. Some are dotted with colonial names, marked or marred by flags of expired empires. They may be beautiful, but they also foreground an incompleteness, an innocence or unawareness of what we know now. Unlike a map, All That Is attempts, dangerously, I think, to decouple the aesthetic from the political. At one point, a writer Bowman visits describes seeing children “sprawled” on library desks in St. Croix like this: “You could understand what slavery was about.” And a Manhattan bookseller, a minor character, is described this way: “He liked women writers, even those whose reputation was based on second-rate or even political work. Men had had all the advantage for centuries, he felt, and now women were having their turn. The excesses were to be expected.”

Even political. If we are to read this at face value—and I don’t think the book provides sufficient cues to do otherwise—then the novel seems weirdly unaware that its attempts to de-legitimize the political in favor of the aesthetic are, in fact, grounded in the politics of gender and class.

As a writer interested in the nostalgic impulse myself, I am often the one piping up among friends, asking: what’s so bad about nostalgia?

All That Is provides a kind of answer: a little nostalgia’s okay, but too much can blinder a character, cause him to repeat his own life. Nostalgia is necessarily a sort of reluctance toward the present, and if it comes at a cost, then it’s a cost the book’s ending seems to both concede and refuse:

“He believed in love—all his life he had—but now it was likely too late. Perhaps they could go on as they were forever, like the lives in art.”

But nostalgia is also a sort of loyalty, and loyalty is central to the book’s worldview. As Bowman’s friend Eddins says, “You have to have loyalty to things. If you don’t have loyalty, you’re alone on earth.”

The one domain nostalgia doesn’t enter is the bedroom. We see men missing the women they have loved and lost as they go about their day’s work, but in the bedroom, old lovers hold no power; they go unremembered.

As in A Sport and a Pastime, Salter’s heralded erotic novella, sex is a man’s sport. Described as countries, possessions, and at one point, “half woman, half vase”—women are literal and figurative vessels into which men exhaust themselves, from which they draw their virility and selfhood.

Salter’s depictions of sex may not have changed, but on the canvas of this novel their effect is different. In the short stories and A Sport and a Pastime, the erotic was contained: to one or two luminous paragraphs, or to two people and a bedroom the reader/narrator could not bear to leave. Here, without the keyhole voyeurism of A Sport and a Pastime’s narrator, the psychic motivation for watching is gone, and the sheer repetition of the act between different pairs dilutes the strange specificity of sex that lends Salter’s past writing of the erotic its power.

This generalizing of sex may be tied to the novel’s interest in myth-making: in lastingness, and the failure of people and the power of art to withstand time: “You lived, Lorca said, by dying and being remembered.”

In its resistance to time, the book blots it out almost entirely. Years must be passing, but when the rare clock chimes—a news bulletin that President Kennedy has been shot, or a chapter that begins “In the summer of 1984”—the effect is something like being awakened, mid-dream, by radio voices.

The book is also all about time—filled with meditations on death and, more importantly, diminishment. After Bowman’s mother, whose dementia is worsening, breaks her hip, Bowman visits her and they confront the inevitability of a nursing home: “It was worse than dying. As she had said, what happened was what you believed would happen. You were yourself until the end, until the very last moment.” Some of the most poignant passages in the book go like this: a character is permitted long vision, a glimpse of the world without himself in it.

I look up from the table. The snow has stopped. At the very center of one of the shelves is a gold-leaved edition of Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel, a book Salter mentioned when he was here. In Wolfe’s preface to the reader, I find this again:

…But we are the sum of all the moments in our lives—all that is ours is in them: we cannot escape or conceal it…

Perhaps Salter drew his title from these lines. But the phrase also calls to mind a passage from the Nicene Creed: …maker of heaven and earth,of all that is, seen and unseen.

Whether the allusion is intended or not, I think Salter’s power comes from a fine balance of that line: seen and unseen. In All That Is, more is “seen” than in Salter’s past work, and a reader may long for the mystery of the unseen, the elided, “the impression on a sheet of paper beneath the one you are writing on.”

Finally, though, Salter’s book is less interested in the life of the world to come than in what has passed, something like the postwar moment described early on after Bowman returns from war:

Now their fears were over, and the world was as it should be and also, it seemed to Bowman, very much as it had been, familiar and ordinary, the same houses, shops, streets, everything he remembered and had known since childhood, unremarkable, yet his alone.”

Here is the sacred gone place the book longs to return to, to preserve and console, to bring back to life, even, with remembering.


Jessica Francis Kane | This Close

Graywolf, 2013

by Brian Gebhart


In This Close, her second collection of stories, Jessica Francis Kane proves herself a virtuoso of the unvoiced, a keen observer of the quieter parts of life. Instead of pushing her characters toward climactic confrontations, Kane illuminates the silent exchanges, mistaken assumptions, and unspoken resentments that guide so many of our decisions. In Kane’s stories, small gestures—a woman checking her watch, a man unfurling a newspaper, an elderly woman brushing her hand through a child’s hair—often communicate far more about her characters’ desires and fears than any of their more deliberate actions.

In “Lucky Boy,” for instance, a young man who has just moved to New York from a small college town finds a dry cleaner near his apartment. Over time, and without really intending to, he befriends the dry cleaner’s son. When he brings his fiancée to the shop one afternoon, her quick glance at her watch—perhaps an involuntary tic, perhaps a calculated movement—signals the chasm of class, race, and lifestyle that separates their worlds.

In Kane’s deft hands, these small moments grow to momentous stature, looming over her characters’ lives and delineating the boundaries between them. These details—which might seem insignificant in the hands of a less able writer—divide the struggling from the thriving, the healthy from the ill, those who have figured out how flow with life’s currents from those who seem to be constantly swimming upstream.

Upon closer inspection, of course, none of these characters are thriving unambiguously; none are perfectly healthy and normal. One of the collection’s most successful stories, “American Lawn,” addresses this question by introducing a non-American to the mix. Kirill, a native Croatian, has survived war and torture and the loss of his family. Now in the United States, he tells an acquaintance, a young woman who has just bought a home with her husband and given birth to her first child, that he’s still trying to figure out how to “win” the American Dream. The young woman, Janeen, corrects him, saying it is something to be strived for, not won. When Kirill asks what the American Dream means if not a house and a car and a baby, Janeen reveals her naïve assumptions: “They come with the striving, if you’re lucky, but it’s the trying that’s important.” Kirill tells her that she is lucky.

It is clear that Janeen is either too young or too sheltered to understand Kirill’s sense of the American Dream. But the entirety of This Close suggests that she will someday. The collection includes characters in many different stages of life, facing a wide array of problems. Kane embeds two longer narratives among the collection’s standalone stories. These narratives string together a few stories that focus on different moments in the lives of the same characters. At times, I found this structure frustrating, as it asks the reader to switch gears in the midst of the book. Just when you think the connected stories are building toward something larger, you’re thrown back into an unrelated story. Still, there is a broad sort of structure that transcends the individual characters, as the concerns of younger people early in the book give way to those of characters staring down their approaching old age.

And maybe it’s fitting that the stories in This Close don’t form a neat and tidy arc. After all, Kane’s stories are often more notable for what doesn’t happen than what does. In “Stand-In,” a man and his daughter go on vacation in Israel, leaving his clinically depressed wife behind. They hire a vivacious young woman as a guide, but, contrary to the usual logic of fiction, the relationship does not turn into an affair, even after the teenage daughter gives her tacit blessing. In situations like these, the inherent tensions do not necessarily portend any larger conflicts or dramas. Life, these stories seem to say, rarely follows the grandiose narratives of our desires and fears. Many conflicts remain unresolved because the battles are never joined. And so Kane leaves us with a collection of smaller skirmishes—tentative and partial battles, often without clear winners and losers—to try to make sense of the whole.