I recently read “The Flame Alphabet” by Ben Marcus. The book looks great, the title is good, and the premise (the language of children has become toxic) got me on a bus in search of it. Additionally, it has Big Names (Chabon, Sfran Foer) on the back pumping the book’s Awesomeness. And there is some awesomeness to the book–there’s a lot of great descriptions and the quality of writing is A+. There’s just…too much of it. And nothing really happens.
There are comprehensive (uncomfortable) reviews already out there, so I won’t go on, but reading “The Flame Alphabet” got me thinking of all the really great books I’ve read lately.
Here (in the order they came to me) are a few:
1. The Sisters Brothers ~ Patrick deWitt
A Western that doesn’t go where you expect it. Dark, funny, and surreal. A book that inspires writing (read: I wish I wrote this)
2. Breath ~ Tim Winton
I’ve admired Tim Winton’s prose since discovering his short stories “The Turning”, and while his stories seem well-knit I haven’t always loved the structure to his novels. This one, though, was fab: a lesson in retrospective.
3. The Golden Mean ~ Annabel Lyon
A novel about Aristotle, this book convinced me to try first person point of view (thank-you, Annabel.)
4. Civilwarland in Bad Decline ~ George Saunders
Bleak, funny, heartful; classic Saunders plus ghosts.
Tea Obreht, another “20 Under 40” has published her first novel: The Tiger’s Wife.
I read Tea’s short story “Blue Water Djinn” in the New Yorker’s collection, was immediately impressed by the control of the language and structure, and went and bought her novel. Many things I loved in her short story turned up in the novel as well: the descriptiveness and location choice, the control of language, and the use of animals as characters where they also keep their animal-ness (think Life of Pi’s tiger or Cloudstreet’s pig.)
At the same time, the animals and the layered descriptions paired with the multiple fairy-tale style story threads made me feel like I was reading several fables at once. The structure cut itself off at times with start-stop entries, and I’m not sure I was convinced when the narrative dipped into the history of minor characters, although those dips did add motive.
But back to good: the novel feels as if it’s holding up several fantastic moments, many small stories that aren’t properly fluid, but are worthy of being lifted anyway. And Tea runs sorrow throughout, which unites the tone.
It took me longer than I thought it would to finish this (I was frustrated by the length of some of the side stories) but it was worth the read.
I recently read Karen Russell’s new (first) novel Swamplandia! Karen has been anthologized in the New York Times 20 under 40 as a writer to watch, and with her first story collection titled St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, her new novel featuring an alligator wrestling family in the swamps of the Florida Everglades, her astonishing control of rococo prose, her age around the same as mine–I find I watch her wishing her words were my own. This isn’t a bad envy, though, (I’m eagerly waiting for her short story collection to land in my mailbox) rather it’s the sort of envy that inspires. In her opening to Swamplandia! she writes:
“Nights in the swamp were dark and star-lepered–our island was thirty-odd miles off the grid of mainland lights–and although your naked eye could easily find the ball of Venus and the sapphire hairs of the Pleiades, our mother’s body was just lines, a smudge against the palm trees. Somewhere directly below Hilioa Bigtree, dozens of alligators pushed their icicle overbites and the awesome diamonds of their heads through over three hundred thousand gallons of filtered water.”
Despite being pulled in and delighted by the prose of the story I did find myself asking a few questions: why does Ossie’s ghost-boyfriend Louis Thanksgiving get a whole huge chapter when Ossie herself is never pulled open (as her siblings Ava and Kiwi are)? is the Bird-man right for the story? (I ask that one because when I reached his chapter everything else felt like a beautiful lead-up.) Kiwi’s section is great, and I admire how Karen blended third person into a very first person story, but is it overdone? (I felt myself impatient with the huge whale and the flying gig)
I think the problems are that (at least) two of these chapters were written and published as short stories first: Louis Thanksgiving’s chapter and Ava and the Birdman. I have only read Louis’s short story (waiting on the other to arrive in the mail, as I said) but empathize with Karen not wanting to take the backspace key to any of that prose. I’m guessing the Birdman section suffered a similar what-to-keep problem when it slid into the novel. I suppose that that is the danger of baroque prose–more is more, but more doesn’t fix little structural problems.
This is a beautiful, creative, and tender read by an author with obvious talent.