I found my way to Binary Star, the debut novel of Sarah Gerard, through the author’s recent critical work on Hilda Hilst. Publishing an essay on Hilst in the Los Angeles Review of Books and taking the lead on a roundtable discussion in Music and Literature, Gerard caught my eye as someone prepared to venture out to provocative, challenging places in the pages of her own fiction. The subject matter of Binary Star only confirmed this impression. Based closely on the author’s experiences with a severe eating disorder, the novel introduces a young bulimic woman and charts the dissolution of her disastrous romance with an abusive boyfriend. It begins with a road trip devoid of any sense of direction and destination, then it swerves into drug and alcohol addiction, sadomasochism, and the ethics of doing violence to creatures of flesh and blood. Given that its narrator wrestles painfully with bulimia, there’s a temptation to say that Gerard simply refracts these other forms of bodily harm through the mindset of the bulimic. But since the narrator devotes so much of her attention to the anarchist politics of her boyfriend and the cultural maladies that ignite his indignation, it’s more accurate to say that Gerard’s true interest is the mindset of the obsessive, broadly conceived, and that the narrator and her boyfriend are possessed of variations on this mindset.
“Binary Star is in many ways admirable,” Dan Green concludes in his review of the novel, “although more in the way of a good deed performed well than as a flash of artistic brilliance.” I agree with that judgment and share the sense of disappointment it entails. The shame of it is that Gerard equips Binary Star with qualities of artistic distinction and the building blocks of something brilliant, but her stance towards her own material is finally too conservative to allow her to unleash its potential. Comprised of sharp declarative statements that cumulatively advance a rhythm of unrelenting, oppressive insistence, the novel stylistically asserts the confidence and certitude of a narrator whose disclosures repeatedly give voice to self-doubt, insecurity, and increasing desperation. And yet despite the focused concision of its every sentence, and despite the intriguing tension between the substance of those sentences and their stylistic gloss, the novel runs to an excessive length. Clocking in at 166 pages, it offers little that couldn’t have been offered in half as many.
I mean that in quite a literal sense, since Binary Star is structured in a way that leaves a good portion of the prose superfluous. Perhaps the novel’s most innovative feature is the narrator’s extensive recourse to an astronomical lexicon in an effort to articulate human interactions and experiences. As a graduate student and lecturer in the field of astronomy, the narrator repeatedly turns her gaze skyward to disclose her knowledge of celestial phenomena in a way that refers and corresponds to the turmoils of her life. She and her boyfriend correspond to a binary star system in which two stars in orbital proximity gravitate towards each other and collide with catastrophic results. She purges herself of nutrition to accentuate her beauty, corresponding herself to a nova burning brighter the closer it comes to exhausting its fuel supply — although she neglects to notice that, for human beings, starvation entails an agonising death and not a dazzling glory. In one way or another, the vocabulary of the starscape is inscribed throughout the narrator’s writing as the basis of her ability to know and express herself.
The stars in these pages therefore function as much more than simple, occasional metaphors for the narrator to elaborate on her state of mind or the state of her relationship at any given moment. She uses them to conceptualise her place in the world around her, her position in relation to others, and the general direction of the life she is leading. Ruminations on the beauty and behaviour of the stars appear on almost every page, and sometimes they even extend across several pages in succession. Indeed, altogether, they comprise perhaps one third of the novel’s total length as the narrator alternates between depicting her experiences and describing their starbound parallels. Here, however, the pattern of alternation, pursued to great lengths and adhered to inflexibly, ossifies Binary Star. Of course it is initially necessary to enable readers to become accustomed to the structure of the novel and to be guided towards understanding that, for example, the narrator’s dissection of the mechanics and movements of a binary star system is really her way of discussing the subtleties and intimacies of her relationship with her boyfriend. But because the pattern persists well beyond the point at which the narrator has established the double significance of celestial bodies, the bravery she demonstrates in her difficult choice of subject and her idiosyncratic style is not strong enough for her to fully commit to the logic of her structure.
The result is a novel that disappointingly retreats from exploiting all of its structural possibilities. Gerard invests Binary Star with the potential to become something risky and radical — a novel that focuses on a narrator whose mind, body, and lover punish her on a daily basis, but also a novel that details the narrator’s trauma solely through her discussions of phenomena occurring at a vast distance from her own life — and yet this potential remains only that, exactly that, right through to the final page. Encased within Binary Star is a novel very different to the novel it becomes, a much less conventional novel that is structured into existence by an author who does not then withdraw from convention so that this other novel may exist more fully and completely. Because Gerard holds the hands of her readers for the duration of Binary Star, because she does not set them free to inhabit its structure at length, she effectively neuters its early capacity for innovation. Binary Star is a feral novel forced into domestic behaviour, a novel rendered far less adventurous than it wants itself to be.
It’s often said of Gerald Murnane that his mature period began with the publication of The Plains in 1982. What followed were four volumes filled with metafictional introspection and a sustained preoccupation with the act of writing that culminated in Emerald Blue in 1995. When Barley Patch appeared in 2009, ending a run of some fourteen years during which Murnane published no fiction at all, it swerved Murnane’s metafictional focus from the present tense to the present perfect: from the act of writing, here and now, to the fact of having written much over many years. In doing so, Barley Patch announced the arrival of Murnane’s late period, a period that continued through A History of Books in 2012 and continues now, this month, in A Million Windows. Of the three volumes that comprise this loose trilogy of self-reflective fictions, A Million Windows is the most lucidly written, the most conceptually successful, and the most emotionally invested. It is also what one reader described to me as “Murnane to the power of Murnane,” making it by far the least likely of all of Murnane’s books to appeal to readers not already familiar with him.
A Million Windows takes its title from Henry James’ declaration that “[t]he house of fiction has in short not one window, but a million,” and the image that dominates the book is “a house of two or, perhaps, three storeys” whose occupants are continually gazing out of its windows at the grasslands that surround it. Readers of Barley Patch and A History of Books will not be surprised to learn that these occupants are, once again, the “personages” and “image-persons” who Murnane’s eloquent yet formal narrator remains reluctant to identify as characters, but what is surprising here is who these people are and where they happen to come from. Although the origins of its title may lie in the work of Henry James, A Million Windows takes the image of the capacious house from an article about a Swedish film director who, “late in his career,” directed “a film set in a castle many a room of which was occupied by one or another chief character from one or another of the many films directed by the Swede in earlier years,” meaning that the occupants of the house are the chief characters and narrators of some of Murnane’s earlier publications. Most recognisable among them are the narrator of ‘Stone Quarry,’ arguably the finest of Murnane’s short fictions, as well as middle-aged or elderly versions of Clement Killeaton and Adrian Sherd — the protagonist of Murnane’s début, Tamarisk Row, published in 1974, and the protagonist of A Lifetime on Clouds, published in 1976. But while the appearances of these characters may make A Million Windows look like merely the most recent iteration of what Peter Craven calls Murnane’s “revisiting, with endless variegations and minute tonal shifts and dislocations and re-emergences of patterning, the apparent tiny variations of his obsessive compass,” Murnane incorporates them into the book in ways that have repercussions for re-readings of the books in which they first appeared.
As they congregate to debate the metaphysics of literature in much the same way that the plainsmen of The Plains collectively articulate the meaning of a barren landscape, the occupants of Murnane’s house give voice to various ways of approaching the activity of writing fiction. Their discussions invariably involve the close analysis of the most simple and most common elements of fiction — characterisation, point-of-view, dialogue, plot, theme, and so on — and they usually conclude with a consideration of the efficacy of a given element with reference to a particular work of fiction that they deem either successful or unreadable. Over time, then, they reach a sort of consensus on the essential elements of a work of fiction, the most important of which is what Murnane’s narrator calls a “narrative presence,” “the personage seemingly responsible for the existence of the text [who is also] seemingly approachable by way of the text or seemingly revealed through the text and [who] seem[s] to have written the text in order to impart what could never have been imparted by any other means than the writing of a fictional text.” Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum and the work of the Latin American magical realists are thus designated as fiction written in bad faith, “mere text[s that are] the seeming work of no recognisable personage,” whereas Henry James, the champion of the embodied first-person narrator, is held in special reverence. So while the house of fiction may have not one window but in fact a million, the discussions of the occupants of Murnane’s house of fiction bring about the closure of all but one of those windows while at the same time articulating many ways of appreciating the landscape onto which it opens.
What, then, of Murnane’s own work, especially his earlier work, when held to the standards articulated in this book? Neither Tamarisk Row nor A Lifetime on Clouds displays a “narrative presence” of the sort that the occupants of the house require in a work of fiction. A Million Windows therefore seems to be, on one level, an attempt on Murnane’s part to elucidate and justify the aesthetics of his mature work and so to find space within his body of work for the markedly different aesthetics of the two novels he published prior to entering his mature period. The suggestion that A Million Windows was written with this objective in view appears early on, when the narrator shares some remarks made by “a university lecturer in Islamic philosophy” who taught him during his time as a student nearly fifty years earlier:
He asked [his students] to call to mind a motor-car travelling on a road across a mostly level landscape. A person standing close beside the road and looking directly ahead would be aware for some time that the car has not yet reached him or her, then, for a brief time, that the car is present to his or her sight and then, for some time afterwards, that the car is no longer present, even if still audible. The lecturer then asked us to call to mind a person looking towards the road from an upper window of a building at some distance away. This person is aware of the car as being present to his or her sight during the whole time while it seems to be approaching, present to the sight of, and then travelling away from the person beside the road.
What the lecturer shared with his students is an image of hindsight in its most literal sense, hindsight of a spatial rather than a temporal nature. One result of the narrator’s inclusion of this image in A Million Windows is the implication that A Million Windows itself is looking out on its own author and watching him watch his own books fly past, over the course of several decades, while he remains unable to perceive them long beyond the moment of their writing or to see the place they might come to occupy in the broader landscape of his life. Yet the narrator assures his readers that he has no desire to “repudiate any fiction of mine the narrator of which has the viewpoint described above” — a viewpoint tantamount to third-person omniscience — “but I have wanted, for almost as long as I have been a writer of fiction, to secure for myself a vantage-point from which each of the events reported in a work of fiction such as this present work, and each of the personages mentioned in the work, might seem, at one and the same time, a unique and inimitable entity impossible to define or to classify but also a mere detail in an intricate scheme or design.”
While not exactly rewriting or revising Tamarisk Row and A Lifetime on Clouds, A Million Windows does attempt to incorporate their idiosyncrasies into the design of what has become the Murnane oeuvre, revisiting Clement Killeaton’s marble horse races and Adrian Sherd’s masturbation fantasies and then reconceptualising them as early manifestations of Murnane’s more recent metafictional interests. And while it does not shy away from the imagistic preoccupations of Barley Patch and A History of Books, it supplements their associative and recursive reminiscences with questions about the worth and value of fiction, with backward glances at bygone literary achievements and cold assessments of the likelihood of their longevity, which altogether involve its narrator subjecting himself to emotional risks that make A Million Windows more emotionally invested than either of its two predecessors. The result is an account of an author’s vexed ownership of all of the work that bears his name, a reconciliation of his early aesthetics with those of his more mature period, and a late attempt to unify, reconsider, and assess the lasting value of the fiction to which he has devoted his life — all without ever approaching these subjects directly or free of doubts and misgivings. A Million Windows is, in a sense, a retrospective manifesto written with an eye towards retroactive application: the last word on the work of a writer, written by the writer himself, so as to force readers to return to the first words he wrote and to cast a shadow over their readings of all the words that have appeared thereafter.
Of all of George Saunders’ story collections, why was this the one that received the most media coverage, the most rave reviews, the most prestigious awards, the most commendations in end-of-year retrospectives, and arguably the most readers? Saunders’ theme, as usual, is the degradation of lives lived under the boot heel of neoliberal economics. His characters are typically embroiled in the bitter yet petty disputes of local commerce and neighbourhood politics, or in the minor scandals and absurd shenanigans of workplaces designed to humiliate their employees, and in story after story these characters are compelled to ‘chin up’ — with a smile — or else incur some even more humiliating punishment. Impoverished parents lavish unaffordable luxuries upon ungrateful, arrogant children. The most vulnerable members of a society are subjected to human experimentation or turned into ornaments or fashion accessories for their social superiors. Minimum wage workers dress up in extravagant costumes and embarrass themselves in front of spectators at outlandish theme parks that seem geared towards systemic dehumanisation. Tenth and December makes room for all those sorts of stories and more, but the problem is that the same is true of Saunders’ previous story collections. Except perhaps for ‘Puppy’ and ‘Home,’ his two brief forays into something approaching conventional realism, there’s nothing in Tenth of December that Saunders hasn’t done better elsewhere. In his very best work — in the theme park stories ‘Pastoralia’ and ‘CivilWarLand in Bad Decline,’ and particularly in ‘The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil’ and ‘In Persuasion Nation’ — he not only depicts the degrading effects of neoliberal economics but eviscerates its logic, painstakingly and hilariously, by exposing its internal contradictions and satirising its pretensions to fairness and lampooning the preposterous claims of its Panglossian defenders. Here, however, the satire is in disastrously short supply, and the focus drifts amongst various snapshots of the sufferings of neoliberal economics without pulling back to explore the line of thought that would rationalise them. In other words, by Saunders’ own standards, Tenth of December plays it very safe — it is by far his most conservative book — and yet it has received more attention than any of his other titles and is repeatedly declared to be deserving of still more. Why?
I suppose it’s one of the perils of writing about the natural world that, on publication, your work ends up as ‘nature writing’ regardless of how reductive the genre label may be. Such has been the fate of Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain. Written in the early 1940s, locked in a drawer for twenty years, published at last in 1961, and promptly forgotten for several decades, Shepherd’s work has recently been retrieved from obscurity by Robert Macfarlane and hailed as an unjustly overlooked masterpiece of the genre he cherishes most. Yet Shepherd aims for something more, more literary, than most of what typifies the genre and even more than the best of the titles to which the genre lays claim: Roger Deakin’s Wildwood, for instance, or Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard. Far less invested in describing her perceptions of a natural environment and reporting the sensory and spiritual experiences they afford her, Shepherd’s overriding concern is the search for words of adequate force to reverse the sensory flow. To halt and peel away the sensory stimulation she receives from the natural world, and then to apprehend the meaning she imposes on the world in the process of stimulation, and so to wonder whether, by an effort of the will, it might be possible for her to sense the world in ways not circumscribed by human subjectivity: this is the task she sets herself.
“This changing of focus in the eye, moving the eye itself while looking at things that do not move, deepens one’s sense of outer reality,” she writes in the book’s early pages to explain her approach to her surroundings:
[S]tatic things may [thus] be caught in the very act of becoming. By so simple a matter, too, as altering the position of one’s head, a different kind of world may be made to appear. … From the close-by sprigs of heather to the most distant fold of the land, each detail stands erect in its own validity. In no other way have I seen of my own unaided sight that the earth is round. As I watch, it arches its back, and each layer of landscape bristles—
But here, where she might have allowed herself to be swept up in the lyricism of her own descriptive prose, she pauses to reconsider her words and goes on to revise them. “[B]ristles is a word of too much commotion for it,” she concedes. “Details are no longer part of a grouping in a picture of which I am the focal point, the focal point is everywhere. Nothing has reference to me, the looker. This is how the earth must see itself.”
The object of Shepherd’s boundless fascination is the Cairngorm Plateau in northern Scotland, a plateau long ago fragmented under the pressure of the glacial drift that shaped the heights and carved out the valleys of the spectacular Cairngorm Mountains. In The Living Mountain, treating the whole of the plateau as one enormous mountain crowned with multiple peaks, Shepherd describes some of her experiences in the Cairngorms, albeit with a tighter focus on their quotidian details than on the eventful scaling of summits. The title, however, is slightly misleading in its suggestion that the book sets out to simply catalogue the varieties of life on the plateau. A more accurate title would be Living the Mountain, since the book in fact records an attempt to delve within the mountain and live as the mountain lives, to become the mountain itself and thereby bring to expression its view of the life that thrives on and around it. “So there I lie on the plateau,” Shepherd writes at the end, “under me the central core of fire from which was thrust this grumbling grinding mass of plutonic rock, over me blue air, and between the fire of the rock and the fire of the sun, scree, soil and water, moss, grass, flower and tree, insect, bird and beast, wind, rain and snow — the total mountain.” But while all of those elements of the Cairngorms are detailed in The Living Mountain, poetically and often adoringly, the purpose of their detailing seems to be for Shepherd to attempt to do what she now says she feels she has done. “Slowly,” she declares, “I have found my way in.” She wants not simply to experience the Cairngorm Plateau, nor to recount or convey an experience of it, but, having already experienced it, to retrospectively reach towards becoming the source of experience and to do so via an articulation of an appropriately suprahuman view of this part of the world.
Page by page, chapter by chapter, Shepherd works her way through the various aspects of the Cairngorm Plateau: its creation during the glacial age, its erosion by the elements, its resultant geology and geography, its plentiful plant and animal life, its metamorphosis under human hands. In each instance, though, looking beyond the surface of these aspects of the plateau, she finds her own vision imposing upon them a meaning they otherwise lack — reading significance into them much as one reads it into the symbols forming the words of a book — and then she casts about for ways in which to purge herself of this tendency to impose, all the better to see the plateau as it is in itself, in total, and stripped of onlookers’ preconceptions. “How can I number the worlds to which the eye gives me entry?” she marvels:
the world of light, of colour, of shape, of shadow: of mathematical precision in the snowflake, the ice formation, the quartz crystal, the patterns of stamen and petal: of rhythm in the fluid curve and plunging line of the mountain faces. … [But p]erhaps the eye imposes its own rhythm on what is only a confusion: one has to look creatively to see this mass of rock as more than jag and pinnacle — as beauty. … A certain kind of consciousness interacts with the mountain-forms to create this sense of beauty. Yet the forms must be there for the eye to see. And forms of a certain distinction: mere dollops won’t do it. It is, as with all creation, matter impregnated with mind.
Occasionally, Shepherd defends and even romanticises her admiration of the natural world, naming it as very literally her raison d’être. “[T]he resultant issue is a living spirit,” she writes, “a glow in the consciousness, that perishes when the glow is dead. It is something snatched from non-being, that shadow which creeps in on us continuously and can be held off by continuous creative act. So, simply to look on anything, such as a mountain, with the love that penetrates to its essence, is to widen the domain of being in the vastness of non-being. Man has no other reason for his existence.” Ultimately, though, Shepherd finds herself drawn back to the tactility and integrity of the mountain, to its feeding of her senses, to her recurrent immersion in its surroundings, to her accretive appreciation of its quotidian being, and to the suprahuman view of the mountain that this appreciation allows her to achieve, piecemeal, over the course of a lifetime. “If I had other senses,” she writes,
there are other things I should know. It is nonsense to suppose, when I have perceived the exquisite division of running water, or a flower, that my separate senses can make, that there would be nothing more to perceive were we but endowed with other modes of perception. How could we imagine flavour, or perfume, without the senses of taste and smell? They are completely unimaginable. There must be many exciting properties of matter that we cannot know because we have no way to know them. Yet, with what we have, what wealth! I add to it each time I go to the mountain — the eye sees what it didn’t see before, or sees in a new way what it had already seen. So the ear, the other senses. It is an experience that grows; undistinguished days add their part, and now and then, unpredictable and unforgettable, come the hours when heaven and earth fall away and one sees a new creation.
Is it futile for Shepherd to attempt to articulate what she sees when she stands in awe of such moments? On occasion, it is, and as a result her articulations can contradict one another. But perhaps futility is simply the price to be paid by those who would seek to do what she does. Bending her own mode of being to better encompass that of something far beyond the human, she cannot help but bend and sometimes break the language through which she would channel this mode of being into human expression. It is, above all, this warping of both the woman and the words she uses that sets The Living Mountain apart from the bulk of that with which it has been forced to share a genre. Much nature writing, and much writing in general, is the echo of an author’s impulse to sit down and write. Some object sparks the imagination, the mind lights up with a glow, and the writing elaborates on the qualities of the vista newly illuminated. Rather than echoing that impulse, however, The Living Mountain turns towards it in order to strike at its very core. Shepherd’s imagination, sparked by the object of the Cairngorm Plateau, fixes its gaze on the spark itself to advance a conflation of subject and object, to burrow deep down inside the thing that both impels the writing and is written about, and so to investigate, rather than elaborate on, how and why it gives off the glow that lights up the imagination in the first place.
Bewilderment is more than just confusion or perplexion. It is, in its most literal sense, the paralysing disorientation of waking to find oneself lost in the wild and overwhelmed, overawed, by the encompassing wilderness. Perhaps one follows a path through the world that is suddenly swallowed up by a forest or perhaps the path dwindles away, losing all distinction, as barren expanses surround it and stretch out towards the horizon. When brought to a halt by some obstruction of one’s intended course, bewilderment is the fog that descends and occludes all avenues for onward movement.
Bewilderment of this sort is the soul of Dylan Nice’s Other Kinds and the closest thing to the narrative centre of this baroque and disquieting debut. Across twelve prose snapshots, each one pristine, the fog settles upon a nameless narrator and a young man named Tom whose lives are so alike as to be interchangeable. A boyhood spent in the mining towns of the Pennsylvania Allegehenies is cut short by a mother’s illness and the trauma of her painful death. Adulthood is marked by a westward migration, a flight towards some idealised liberation from the past, which strains a relationship with a father left at home to mourn the absence of his wife and his son and to seek comfort in an increasingly rigid Christianity. Time and again in Other Kinds, a young man awakens to find himself lost in the wilderness of a world that has reconfigured around him and wiped away the path he presumed to follow. What makes this collection so powerful, though, is the deftness with which it repeatedly reaches for something beyond simply conveying the young man’s bewilderment. Its power flows from the compounding of his figurative bewilderment, his standing dumbstruck before the thwarting of his intentions, with both a literal bewilderment whereby the mystery and magnitude of unfamiliar surroundings overwhelm him and a stylistic bewilderment whereby the drift from sentence to sentence, from snapshot to snapshot, stirs up an experience of disorientation for readers which echoes the experiences captured on the page.
“I am named after the place I’m from,” the narrator says in the third prose snapshot, ‘Thin Enough to Break,’ which typifies the governing aesthetic of Other Kinds:
It’s a lot of fog and smokestacks. Trailers parked in mud and dog shit. The roads circle places you don’t want to be. We had left the Chinese restaurant. The subject changed in the car to Christ.
“The man spoke in riddles,” Dad said, “for ears that could hear.”
Leafless trees dripped water and there was a war somewhere. The onions gave me indigestion, and this year the ladybugs were bad. Dad would vacuum them off the windowsills.
Posters on the campus I went to had asked me if Jesus was a Republican. The campus was far from the place I’m from. It was cleaner, more cluttered, full of people who knew enough about God to say he’s on their side. I spent my time there alone. Some days Dad called and said he hadn’t spoken to anyone all day. Birds pecked at the brown grass outside my apartment window.
“That happens to me, too,” I would say.
It was spring break and rain fell slow most days that week, melting mounds of dirty ice at the edges of parking lots and driveways. Our street stretched into the woods and each driveway had its own name. Smoke rose from a row of off-white houses.
I painted in my bedroom. The same canvases over and over. I tried to paint a vision I had. I was a little boy and I was in a field looking up. And up there, the sky was gray and an airplane was taking off. The plane seemed to be everything. It wasn’t flying away, or leaving me alone.
The bewilderment of the narrator is front and centre here. Having fled the decaying town in which he spent his youth, he finds himself alone and abandoned in a place he supposed would be more hospitable and then, returning briefly to his roots, he finds his father as deeply enamoured of theological trivia as the very people who alienate him in the place that is now his home. Crucially, though, his figurative bewilderment is compounded by both his literal bewilderment and the bewildering effect of the style in which he narrates events. His literal bewilderment manifests in the disjuncture between the world as he expects it to be and the aspects of the world that contradict expectations. Springtime brings with it the promise of natural vitality, and yet a slow rain falls over trees that are still leafless while birds in search of sustenance peck at lifeless grass. His stylistic bewilderment manifests in his attempts to strike parities between disparate and disorienting aspects of the world by focusing on them and naming each of them in succession — an attempt that produces only a stream of non sequiturs which suggests, deep down, an impulse to master the overwhelming world.
Consider the trailers parked in mud, the small-town Chinese restaurant, the conversation about Christ, the war “somewhere,” the melting ice and the driveways with names, the painting and the vision of the airplane snared in stasis. How is any one of these things related to any one of the others? They are related only by the observing presence of the narrator himself, by his having associated them in prose and by his stance as the subject around which they coalesce. His attention is drawn to each of them as various aspects of an overwhelming world, and the act of naming them all implies an urge to alleviate his sense of being overwhelmed, but his failure to name them without elaborating on the relationships he sees between them extends the experience of bewilderment from the narrator himself to those who hear what he has to say. Stylistically, then, his use of words illuminates his desire to cope with his bewilderment even as the words themselves, shot through with non sequiturs, reinforce that bewilderment and experientialise it for readers by forging superficial connections between aspects of the world whose sole substantial connection is their having equally left him bewildered.
For some readers, perhaps, Other Kinds will seem to be little more than a catalogue of things that capture the attention of its wayward young men and burden them with their feelings of disorientation. Dirt roads running behind power substations in the middle of nowhere. A river overflowing its banks and blackening the nearby grass. Parking lots reeking of gasoline and the threat of impending rain. Chunks of ice in a stream, swept along by the strength of the current, slamming hard against one another, and tropical plants that smell “worse than rot because of something sweet in the stink.” ‘Ice Floe,’ the sixth prose snapshot, gives clear expression to the bewilderment that arises from these sorts of worldly phenomena. Having relocated to the Midwest, which is described elsewhere as a place in which “you can see the size of the weather, the long breaths of wind,” a young man stands paralysed both in and by his new surroundings:
There was enough wind that the clouds moved fast above the buildings. The town was on the plains and the flatness there changed the shape of the sky. It had been smaller at home. The wind felt different coming in from the emptiness out there — it was like he was standing at the spot where the world began to get round. He was exposed.
But additional structural features of Other Kinds amplify the affective power of these details, superseding the rote recitations of the form of the catalogue by calling forth variations in the sources of the bewilderment of its characters and in their responses to it. The twelve prose snapshots are broken down into three sections, each of which consists of a short italicised fragment preceding and thematically linked to three longer pieces. In the first section, a sense of shame about an impoverished upbringing, and the antagonising of that shame by others, is the source of a young man’s bewilderment. In the second section, under pressure to beat bach the silences that attend his bewilderment, he makes disclosures and personal confessions that only end up intensifying his awkwardness. In the third section, his difficult interactions with family members, with relatives who are ill or mean-spirited or somehow embarrassing, leave him flailing about in futile efforts to accept or ameliorate his troubling relationships. Yet, rather than appearing in three discrete sections, these variations on bewilderment work together in an accretive way so that, for instance, the shame experienced the first section becomes the prompt for the awkward attempts at speech in the second, and those awkward attempts exacerbate the family difficulties experienced in the third.
As Other Kinds unfolds, then, its bewildered young men increasingly strive to assert control over the very world that bewilders them and yet repeatedly meet with failures that only entrench and extend their disorientation. In the first section, for instance, the narrator, now at college in the Midwest, returns to the town of his boyhood and thinks over the time he spent with a girl he says he loved. Lost in a haze of emotional insecurity and unable to articulate his feelings for her, he recalls that he “made her a CD and labeled it Tonight and played it [in the car on the way to her house], thinking there were chord progressions that sounded like whatever it was I was pursuing.” His choice of music is therefore the voice through which he first attempts to steady his course through a world that leaves him alienated and adrift. In the second section, though, he inadvertently worsens his waywardness when he uses his own voice to try to steady himself. “She moved and talked in ways that made me feel smaller than I was,” he says of another girl who captures his heart. “I told her embarrassing things about myself. I thought saying them made them less true. As we flew to Chicago I had said I once tried to break up with a girl I wasn’t dating.” And later, in the third section, his failures of articulation resolve into a suppressed and inchoate frustration, a rage against the futility of living in a world that renders him insignificant. “As a child,” he admits earlier, shortly after having acknowledged the “war somewhere” out there, “I had imagined whole wars raging just out of sight, and my house rose from the violence as something sacred. … Out there men were dying and it was fine because they were just men and I was a little boy.” Now, towards the end of Other Kinds, the yearning for a war resurfaces. “There needed to be a war someplace close,” we are told in a glimpse of his boyhood thoughts. “The war, if it was a good war, would be in the summer.” Why should he not yearn for such a war? For someone so utterly bewildered by the world, the total chaos of war would extend his bewilderment to the world itself and so at last place him on a sort of equal footing with it.
Of course, with its undercurrents of war, its focus on the minutiae of disjointed experiences, its structuring of various prose snapshots around shorter italicised fragments, and its author’s stylistic preference for short, clipped sentences and plain, unadorned prose, Other Kinds channels no other work of literature more clearly than Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time. Often, too, its affinity with In Our Time even flows down from the stylistic and structural qualities of the collection of the whole to the various pieces that constitute it. In ‘We’ll Both Feel Better,’ for instance, when the narrator delivers a rebuke to a young woman who he believes he loves, his words are as shockingly understated and as devastating as those which deliver a similar rebuke in the final lines of Hemingway’s ‘The End of Something.’ And while I would usually hesitate to strike any association between a recent literary debut and In Our Time, one of the greatest debuts ever published, I made my way through Other Kinds with the sense that, for the first time in a long time, such an association would not be lazy, hyperbolic, or unwarranted. Almost every line, and certainly every space between one sentence and the next, simultaneously speaks to the bewildering experiences observed in words and strikes at the heart of the reader by making a bewildering experience of reading itself. Adopting a lack of self-assurance as an essential theme and absorbing that lack into its own aesthetics, Other Kinds takes bewilderment as a static state of being, a state subject to mere representation, and transforms it into a process of recurrent becoming by way of a dialogue with worldly phenomena whose own state of being is far from fixed. Rarely does the alchemy of subject, style, and structure produce results of such concentrated power, and rarer still is their combined effect as mesmerising, as involving, as intense, and as sustained as it is in this volume.