Just a note before the book reviews to let you know that submissions for TLR issue 10 are now open. Send us your poetry, fiction, and nonfiction now through April 30 to be considered for our summer issue. Fiction and nonfiction also offer feedback options. Check out the submission guidelines page for more info.
by Jaimee Wriston Colbert
A book more apropos to our country and our times, in light of the results of the November election, would be hard to find. Colbert’s connected stories offer insights into the dissatisfied, disappointed existence on which we’re all so focused now—if you want to get a feel for the hopelessness that drives the choices some of us shake our collective heads at, read these stories.
As a professor of English and Creative Writing at State University of New York Binghamton, a city of 46,000 located in the heart of New York’s rust belt, Colbert knows of where she writes. The characters in Wild Things illustrate the desperate antagonism that comes from living outside the centers of power and culture, the places that like to dictate how we all should think and feel. But such people do not—as we might like to believe—simply accept their fate. They find other ways to rebel, whether that means escaping through drugs and drink, some other self abuse, through violence, through voting against their own interests in order to gum up the works everywhere else—in such a bizarro world even giving up is a form of rebellion.
Colbert’s writing is often spectacular. The density of thought and emotion in stories such as “Wild Things I—Ghosts” and “A Kind of Extinction” creates a voice for a people we think of as voiceless. Many of the pieces are held together by the slightest of connections; there’s no single plot device to drive them, and in fact the characters in the individual stories don’t know each other, but it hovers over the book, haunting the players like an evil spirit. A missing young woman; a solitary man who thinks he is saving her by imprisoning her. It’s fascinating to read—perhaps a paragraph or two in each story—how the girl simply melts into the collective mind’s oblivion—so easy to accept a disappearance as an escape when that’s all you want too.
Boris Vian Invents Boris Vian
Translated and edited by Julia Older
Black Widow Press
It’s pleasurable sometimes for we students of history to recall those times in which intellectualism was all the vogue, when the public respected new forms of art and new ideas about existence and its meaning, even if they didn’t understand them. One such place and time was Paris in the post-WWII years, when a nation, and a continent, began to reinvent themselves, in part by rejecting the values and governments that had allowed the war to happen.
Critical to this period were thinkers and performers like Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Edith Piaf. Among them, although not nearly as well known now, was a young writer named Boris Vian, whose puckish stories and poems established a humorous and satirical front in the intellectual debates of the time.
Writer Julia Older has devoted much of her career to bringing the art of Vian to light in both individual form and book-length works. In this volume, which features her translations side-by-side with the original French, there is plenty of sniping at the bourgeois way of life, although she pays special attention to the writer’s infatuation with American art forms, which is the connection that makes him important to readers today.
He takes a fantastical trip down the outside of the Empire State Building in New York to assess life across the pond in a series of descents past every tenth floor. He penned an amazingly prescient poem titled “Some of us have trumpeteeny” (remember this was about 70 years ago) that, while not directly referencing our new president, does seem to comment on the type of man. But most interesting is his take on that all-American phenomenon, jazz. “Jazz is Dangerous: the Physiopathology of Jazz” begins with “As far back in antiquity as you go one finds the sclerosis and necrosis of jazz on living cells and the macro-molecules of cytoplasm.” The sarcasm of this brief essay simply bubbles.
Perhaps it’s because Vian died at so young an age (in 1959 at 39) that he is not as well remembered as his artistic and philosophical contemporaries. Too bad. Vian’s wit filled a niche and complemented the more serious pursuits of the Paris art scene. His wickedly astute power of observation would have been well appreciated in these (supposedly) more modern times.