Friday, March 15, 2024

Honey Mine (Collected Stories) by Camille Roy


There’s a lot of brilliant writing in this book. Camille Roy has a remarkable style: crisp, vivid, energetic. Although the subtitle of Honey Mine is Collected Stories, this is a profoundly hybrid collection. Short stories, memoir, poetry, essays, all of these ways of writing weave in and out through individual pieces and the text as a whole so that genre categories never remain stable.

One of the key themes of this book is that underground and alternative communities, whether based in sexual identity or identities and politics of other kinds, can form genuine and meaningful alternative values. And if Roy wants readers to understand that those communities and values sometimes thrive by being opaque to the rest of the world, everything in Honey Mine communicates powerfully, even when it chooses what not to speak of.

Monday, February 12, 2024

The NIght Before The Day On Which, by Jean Day


This is the first book of hers in which Jean Day’s work finally “kicked in” for me at a higher level of connection and understanding. Her poems have always been evocative, disruptive, oddly bent, never going where I imagine them going, Ashbery-like in their elusiveness. But somehow The Night Before The Day On Which is the one in which I could feel all the writing in the book gathering together into something that felt cohesive, a vast yet tight pattern, however much any given line turned away from a previous line.

A twisting and twisted Americana.

There’s something about the accumulation of one detail after another, of metaphors that jump away from each other, that add up to a world view that I can feel as connected, a strange mesh of identifiable context. It’s a context that reaches far into the past, that branches out into speculation and query, and and yet still always has a firm, even harsh, critique of the limits that people and their values impose on each other, now, here, and in other times and places: Inside the kernel’s a tiny game.

You can hear a Timex pound fifty feet away

It’s not music

not even microscopic

but plain speeches of the fish and branches

of LaCrosse, Wisconsin

midway across the Miss.

from a circus of fleas

to flat-out wilderness

Our foes

don’t want us in their schools “No worries.”

God has decided to withdraw his tiny hands (p. 54) There’s a incisive take on politics and culture throughout the book, especially if you can imagine what it might feel like to be a nested doll stuck inside another nested doll, layer after layer, none of us ever getting free, each one of us brilliantly done up for a festival of the freedom of lights that is often promised but never arrives. In the poems, I feel myself present in many contexts of struggling to understand, of not always knowing what I don’t know or what I might know, of not becoming what I might. In a way, these are tragic poems, but not of the obvious kind, sort of like a tragedy you didn’t know was a tragedy until long after it happened. There’s a lot of space out there in the world, both inside and outside the human, but the openness that one might imagine from it feels, in this powerful book, almost endlessly deferred.

Thursday, January 11, 2024

Doppelgänger by Daša Drndić


I’m not opposed to “depressing” books. When people complain that a book is depressing, I usually like to say that one of the key things about literature is that it can explore the full range of human experience, and some human experiences are very sad.

That said: wow, Doppelgänger is a depressing book. It combines two novellas focusing on several central characters struggling with age, bodily collapse, and suicidal impulses. They’ve been mistreated by others, including often enough their families. They’ve been abused by the Nazis or post-WWII Eastern European communists or (lucky people) both. They live in cold places and in various degrees poor and sometimes disgusting environments among broken things that don’t work. They’re not even good people really, although they do helpful things a few times maybe among many other unhelpful things. There are going to be some moments of hopes and dreams and glimmers of possibility in each tale, but not many. 

What made it possible for me to read this book was the humor (no kidding; it’s frequently hilarious), the tight, high energy sentences, and many of the genuinely brilliant and compassionate (if often enough unbearable) insights into human behavior and the failing of the human body. What made it full of surprises were the clearly experimental, avant context-jumping and formal oddities. There’s an amazing long section that comes from who knows where (but belongs perfectly) about Foucault and Althusser, and a long list-like conversation about artists and suicide. There’s not a huge amount of narrative tension to take anybody’s mind off the relentless trouble of the characters, not much dramatic conflict (though there’s plenty of conflict as such) to take readers away from the cold facts. You can put up with it or put it down. When reading it I often couldn’t stop, it was that compelling. But when I would stop, I often wasn’t sure I wanted to start again.

The author Daša Drndić, a Croatian who died in 2018, called it her “ugly little book.” It is truly almost unremittingly ugly. But not entirely ugly somehow, as trying to tell the truth can never be an entirely ugly desire, and because laughing at or with the worst things possible makes them more possible to bear. I can’t say I would recommend Doppelgänger to anybody who isn’t prepared for what they’re going to read. But I can’t say I’m going to forget it, either. There are a lot of books that are more easily enjoyable that I barely remember at all.