Jenn McKee

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Nobody can accuse Dennis McFarland of not listening to his readers. He wrote his new novel, Singing Boy, in response to a woman who sent him a letter regarding one of his previous novels, The Music Room. In that narrative, McFarland suggested that tragic loss improves those who remain behind, and this notion angered the woman. She had lost a son to suicide, and in her letter, she emphasized how tired she had become of everyone constantly checking for "signs of progress" regarding her grief.

Sarah, the main character in Singing Boy, seems to have sprung directly from this mourning mother's missive. At the novel's outset, Sarah and her eight-year-old son, Harry, witness a maddeningly random act of violence that yanks Malcolm, her husband, from both their lives in an eye-blink. Deckard, Malcolm's best friend, steps in to try and help Sarah and Harry through the aftermath of this crisis, but he often ends up being the voice of our prescriptive society, much to Sarah's vexation. She repeatedly resists his attempts to spur her and Harry's return to the living world, keeping Harry home from school for weeks while refusing to resume her own work until she feels ready.

The relationship between Sarah and Deckard becomes increasingly strained, and although Deckard appears to embody the voice of reason, his own demons return to plague him during this critical time. Between his service in Vietnam, a difficult relationship with his father, and a previous alcohol and drug addiction, Deckard finds himself suddenly consumed, after Malcolm's murder, by flashbacks and images that he had successfully shut out for years. Though McFarland sometimes flirts with sentimentality, the narrative on the whole works to question our accepted boundaries of grief, suggesting that when we urge others in mourning to return to their "normal" lives, we do so for our own benefit and comfort, not theirs.

The landscape is inevitably bleak, but McFarland's prose often evokes moments of beauty from that very darkness, as when Sarah sits in the hospital after Malcolm's death: "Sarah, chilled and chilled again, thought in a kind of dreamy stupor that the room was a great lung, its breathing through the automatic doors erratic because it, like the whole world, was dying into the same strange dream." In such passages, McFarland deliberately haunts that which is banal, demonstrating vividly how loss taints our perception of the familiar.

Jenn McKee teaches at Penn State University.

 

Nobody can accuse Dennis McFarland of not listening to his readers. He wrote his new novel, Singing Boy, in response to a woman who sent him a letter regarding one of his previous novels, The Music Room. In that narrative, McFarland suggested that tragic loss improves those who remain behind, and this notion angered the woman. She had lost a son to suicide, and in her letter, she emphasized how tired she had become of everyone constantly checking for "signs of progress" regarding her grief.

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"We are held together by threads of dependence," writes A. S. Byatt's protagonist, Phineas G. Nanson, in her new novel The Biographer's Tale. This idea, as it applies to the characters' interlaced lives, underscores both the structure and narrative trajectory of Byatt's spiraling plot. Phineas, a postgraduate student in England, becomes disillusioned with academic abstractions, so he decides to strike a new course. After reading a biography of Elmer Bole, Phineas refocuses his energies toward writing a biography of Bole's biographer, and his pursuit of information makes the novel resemble a set of Chinese boxes; each life that Phineas examines opens up doors to the lives of several others.

Phineas struggles at first to find any information about biographer Scholes Destry-Scholes, who seems to have left almost no trace of himself behind except two shoeboxes full of notes and photographs. Vera, Destry-Scholes' niece, keeps these boxes in her attic, and when she answers Phineas' advertisement, a strange relationship evolves between them. This is later mirrored by Phineas' other relationship with a woman Fulla, a taxonomist who initially translates and answers questions for him.

With the help of these two women, Phineas eventually pieces together a triptych of Destry-Scholes' research: before Destry-Scholes disappearance, he had been gathering information on Carl Linnaeus, the legendary taxonomist; Francis Galton, whose unfortunate contribution to science was the field of eugenics; and Henrik Ibsen, the Norwegian playwright. Phineas concludes from Destry-Scholes' notes on these figures that he had intended a project that combined the lives of all three.

In this clever but demanding novel, Byatt shows that we are not isolated individuals, but rather the sum of each others' lives. Though Phineas often protests (too much): "I am not interested in myself," The Biographer's Tale ends up being wholly about him while simultaneously focusing on others in his life and research. In the spirit of Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler, Byatt's blur of multiple biographical accounts demonstrates both our commonalities as human beings while also showing, in strong relief, how we can never truly know each other, or ourselves, with any degree of certainty.

Jenn McKee teaches at Penn State University.

"We are held together by threads of dependence," writes A. S. Byatt's protagonist, Phineas G. Nanson, in her new novel The Biographer's Tale. This idea, as it applies to the characters' interlaced lives, underscores both the structure and narrative trajectory of Byatt's spiraling plot. Phineas, a postgraduate student in England, becomes disillusioned with academic abstractions, […]
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The newest offering from Jim Harrison—best known for his novel-turned-film Legends of the Fall—is titled The Beast God Forgot to Invent, which features three novellas, each centering on a man assessing past mistakes.

The first novella, which shares the book's title, features Norman, a retiree who becomes caretaker to a local man named Joe. Closed head trauma had left Joe with not only what Norman refers to as a "bruised brain" but also a new, intimate connection to the wildest elements in nature. While looking out for Joe, Norman analyzes the choices he has made and the life he has lived, realizing his mortality by way of spending time with a man who is no longer, in the sense of human community, of this earth. As has been true in much of Harrison's previous work, the landscape of the northern Michigan region looms large here, saturating the prose in much of the first, as well as the second, novella.

"Westward Ho" recounts the brief but perspective-altering California journey of Brown Dog, a Native American from Michigan's Upper Peninsula. After being abandoned outside Los Angeles by his partner fellow activist Lone Marten Brown Dog temporarily becomes a driver to a generically decadent, shallow Hollywood screenwriter named Bob. Travels with Bob eventually lead Brown Dog back to Lone Marten, who has sold B.D.'s prized bear skin to a powerful Hollywood producer-director. While B.D. plans and executes a batty scheme to get his bear skin back, he comes to greatly value his home while achingly far from it.

Lastly, a man who is convinced that his first, nine-day marriage to an 18-year-old might have been the love of his life narrates the third novella, "I Forgot to Go to Spain." At 55, this rich author of throwaway paperback biographies feels restless and decides to contact his ex, who he hasn't seen in 31 years. A meeting is arranged, and the narrator finds himself facing choices about continuing in the pattern of his established life or trying to go back to the ideals he had at the beginning, before both death and life interfered.

Harrison is at his best when dealing with the philosophical questions that surround art and aging issues that likely strike close to home for the aging writer. When the narrator of the last novella says, "I forced myself to believe that I was more than I had written," the reader briefly glimpses the compelling struggle that plagues not only the character, but the author, and such moments consistently provide the work with its moments of strongest resonance.

Jenn McKee teaches at Penn State University, where she is pursuing an MFA in writing fiction.

 

The newest offering from Jim Harrison—best known for his novel-turned-film Legends of the Fall—is titled The Beast God Forgot to Invent, which features three novellas, each centering on a man assessing past mistakes. The first novella, which shares the book's title, features Norman, a retiree who becomes caretaker to a local man named Joe. Closed […]
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A Box of Matches is both the title and central metaphor of Nicholson Baker's new novel. The narrator uses matches each morning to build a pre-dawn fire, and his small matchbox also represents the contained days of an ordinary life.

While conventional novels have a central conflict that builds to a crisis point, A Box of Matches works on a cyclical, postmodernist plane. Readers are directly greeted by the narrator's cheerful "Good morning," as well as his report of the time, in chapters that read like fireside diary entries. We hear his observations on such mundane activities as showering, washing dishes, feeding pets, watching condensation on a glass and repositioning his toes to avoid a hole in his sock. Baker renders these common tasks in beautiful and strangely heartbreaking fashion, as in this description of his son: "I gave Henry a bath, and saw all of his forehead, as you do when your child is in the bath all that high, smooth forehead, as I rinsed out the shampoo, and I pointed toward the back of the tub, meaning Look way back,' so that his head would tip back enough for me to rinse the shampoo from the hair just above his forehead, and I saw his young face, trusting me not to drip water in his eyes . . . and I thought, I've got only a few years of Henry being a small boy." In such passages, the narrator's ordinary experiences quietly echo flashier ones thus examining the relentless passage of time and the logic of the novel's cyclical form comes to light, revealing a subtle conflict, existential in its nature.

Baker's experimental approach to fiction makes A Box of Matches a challenging read despite its brevity. The author aims to make his audience experience, the very sameness of days the narrator is coming to recognize. Thus, though Baker's conflict isn't immediately apparent, it couldn't be more universal. After all, we're all going through our allotted days just as the narrator works through his box of matches with contentment, dread and resignation.

A Box of Matches is both the title and central metaphor of Nicholson Baker's new novel. The narrator uses matches each morning to build a pre-dawn fire, and his small matchbox also represents the contained days of an ordinary life. While conventional novels have a central conflict that builds to a crisis point, A Box […]
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In spite of the current American frenzy for all things World War II– Tom Brokaw's Greatest Generation books and the theatrical release of the bombastic Pearl Harbor, to name two examples– we have heard relatively little about the Japanese WWII experience. In his debut novel, The Ash Garden, Canadian writer Dennis Bock works toward a more comprehensive depiction of events by examining, through the stories of three people, the emotional, physical and intellectual consequences of America's unleashing of the atomic bomb.

At the outset, we hear from Emiko, who, at age six, drew mud pictures on her four-year-old brother's back while playing on a riverbank that fateful morning of August 6, 1945: "I enjoyed the way the black mud quivered like a fat pudding and glistened in the clear morning sunshine as I held it up to my face." Bock's descriptions are often sensual, so that reading becomes an almost tactile experience. His imagery also succeeds in quietly underlining the novel's broad themes, particularly regarding the irresistible pull of dangerous knowledge.

And though the other two main characters don't get to tell their stories themselves, Bock's calculated inclusion of them provides balance. Anton Bšll, a German physicist, escapes from Germany to America in order to help develop the atomic bomb. Along the way, he meets Sophie, an Austrian Jewish refugee who becomes his wife.

Sophie's story feels truncated and cloudy in comparison to Emiko's and Anton's -perhaps rightfully so, since the true focus here seems to be their fateful link to each other.

Their paths cross because, by 1995, Emiko is a semi-famous documentarian, and while making a film about Hiroshima, she seeks out Anton to convince him to tell his story on camera. To this end, Emiko travels to Anton and Sophie's home in Canada, and during Emiko's stay, Anton reveals a secret to her.

In this complex, intelligent and thoroughly satisfying novel, it is the Japanese character, Emiko, who gets the last word. Through her final thoughts, the book ends on the kind of contemplative, reflective note that it —as well as all people involved, intentionally or not, in WWII—deserves.

Jenn McKee teaches at Penn State University.

 

In spite of the current American frenzy for all things World War II– Tom Brokaw's Greatest Generation books and the theatrical release of the bombastic Pearl Harbor, to name two examples– we have heard relatively little about the Japanese WWII experience. In his debut novel, The Ash Garden, Canadian writer Dennis Bock works toward a […]
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Like Abbott and Costello and Laurel and Hardy, the fat man/thin man comedy duo of Carter and Sharp featured in Elizabeth McCracken's new novel, Niagara Falls All Over Again will do anything to earn the adoration of strangers sitting in darkness.

Mose Sharp narrates the story, starting with his Iowa childhood when a mentoring older sister infects him with the vaudeville bug, while his father grooms him to take over the family menswear store. When tragic consequences force Mose to choose between his father's hopes and a life in show business, he knows that his decision to run away might appear hard-hearted. But, as Mose explains, "People who manage to turn things down, jobs and marriage and children, love and steady meals, have hearts soft as velvet, hearts . . . never meant for work."

McCracken traces Sharp's journey to stardom, including his travels as a mediocre song and dance man on the vaudeville circuit, and his work as a "disappointment act," filling in for billed performers too drunk, sick or depressed to go on stage. But soon Rocky Carter spots Mose backstage and offers him a job as his straight man. They're a modest hit, and eventually, after some radio features, they move out to Hollywood to make films.

Together, they star in low budget, quickly made, formulaic films, and they become rich. But such success, of course, takes a toll on Carter and Sharp's personal lives, including the increasingly fragile relationship and dependency they share. McCracken, who was nominated for the National Book Award for her first novel, A Giant's House, well knows that pain lies at the core of every successful joke. As this concept is central to Carter and Sharp's success, it is also integral to the atmosphere created in the novel. Her observations consistently avoid sentimentality, as when Mose feels angry about his father telling Rocky a family story that Mose never heard himself. Near the end of his life, Mose comes to understand his father's actions: "Your own children and their questions! They interrupt you. Their eyes bulge when a relative in a story behaves in a way they can't imagine (and they can't imagine much). They interrupt again, though every question they ask, every single one, is the same: How exactly has this story shaped my life?" Such passages make familiar territory lifelong self-absorption a strange, new discovery.

Only the novel's conclusion feels slightly unsatisfying, in that some questions never even get asked (let alone answered). Overall, though, tagging along with straight man Mose Sharp, from the time of vaudeville through the age of television, is flat-out fun a heartbreaking and exhilarating ride.

Jenn McKee teaches at Penn State University.

 

Like Abbott and Costello and Laurel and Hardy, the fat man/thin man comedy duo of Carter and Sharp featured in Elizabeth McCracken's new novel, Niagara Falls All Over Again will do anything to earn the adoration of strangers sitting in darkness.

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