Thursday, June 22, 2017

Stephen Florida (Gabe Habash)

 The most compelling horror narratives are without a doubt stories of obsession—the seminal text here being The Turn of the Screw—and often the horror comes from the claustrophobic, breathless inescapability of the character’s mind. The most terrifying film I’ve ever seen is Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, precisely because it captures Norma Desmond’s singlemindedness so precisely and painfully that, as she walks into the camera, face smeared by the closeup, I shudder involuntarily.

Gabe Habash’s Stephen Florida is like that. Our protagonist is a college wrestler in isolated North Dakota in his final year. He wants to win, to be the first champion from Oregsburg College, so he doesn’t eat and exercises like a demon and stays focused all the time. Like with any good horror story, we need a skewed perspective, someone we trust who cannot be trusted, and Stephen is that character, even down to the fact his name is actually Steven. Many of the reviews I’ve encountered say this novel works so well because of how strongly the narrative voice drives it (praise well-deserved). Stephen is funny, charming, strange, and disgusting all at once, like the handsome gentleman two tables over at dinner who suddenly sucks all his snot back up his nose as loud as he can. Riveting.

The standard approach to a story like this one would have been 250 pages of wrestling terminology, of visceral descriptions of the body and injuries, bloodlust writ large. As boring, dumb readers, we are dazzled by specialized knowledge, loving walking away from fiction feeling like we glimpsed into the catalogued aspects of a specific reality. Indeed, Habash includes scenes just like the ones I’ve described, and they’re enthralling for their technicality and rhythm. We are wrestlers when we read these parts because it is impossible not to steep yourself in these descriptions, to not lose your body and your mind to the pursuit of greatness.

We flit from these topics to others with ease, though: the carnality and masculinity of our main character are simply components of him, not defining features, and so Stephen tells us about the jokes the team makes about him and Linus, the freshman star wrestler; he tells us about his pledge not to ejaculate anymore; he pees on the heads of passersby a flight of stairs below him. Sentences later, we hear about Stephen perusing the SAT prep guide to learn new words, or his meditations about jazz and art.

There’s a richness to Stephen’s character, a fullness, but it feels off-kilter and askew. Like any good horror story, the way Stephen is forces us to ask questions about how people operate, whether Stephen is doing it or if it’s just pretend. Are his interests—any of his interests, including wrestling—genuine, or are they programmatic, suggestions from other people he takes on to fill his brainspace? Behind the depth, we have suggestions of a gaping, ponderous vacancy. Is there anything more terrifying than confronting a void, mental or otherwise?

Stephen’s influenceability—or willingness to be influenced—elevates the story because Habash uses it to take our protagonist down dark mineshafts. The narrator’s contact with other people warps his world as he consumes their suggestions and ideas: there are these nightmarish, quasi-surreal tangents we go down involving gorilla masks, career services, suspected murders, a specter called the Frogman, and resurfacing Australian aunts. They are spirals, tornadic black scribbles in the margins. They build and twist the tension, near-infinite turns of the screw, and they never resolve, to the point that we nearly feel as though we’ve drowned in Stephen’s chaos with him.

These offshoots of his demonized perception are madness, and there can be no resolution to madness. In perhaps Habash’s boldest commitment to the horror genre, the book continues for just a few pages after we’ve found out the results of Stephen’s final wrestling match. In a normal book about obsession, the 250-pages-of-wrestling-and-nothing-but version, this is where it ends. But this is a horror novel, I keep saying, so we glide past it and finish with a chilling, ambiguous non-ending that cracks the storyworld to pieces.

Rather than a book about wrestling, I might suggest Stephen Florida is a story about a person addicted to obsession that chronicles his horrifying hoarding of multiple interests at once. How much can a human brain withstand? How much reality can still filter through those mental thickets? It’s funny and scary, compelling and off-putting, and the end result is like considering a diamond: it’s beautiful, but how much blood was soaked into that stone? Gabe Habash won’t tell you—he’ll just show you the one spattered drop of blood on the backside and let you figure out the rest. And that’s what horror is.

My rating: 5/5

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Marlena (Julie Buntin)

Marlena is the kind of novel that I’d liken to a tumor: it grows inside you, insidiously; it’s an organic part of you; ultimately, it’s fatal. I diagnosed myself stage-by-stage as I read: I detected it, I biopsied it, it turned out to be malignant, and then it killed me.

This is a story about Cat, who moves to a new town and meets Marlena. Marlena is intoxicating: she’s the bad girl archetype fully realized, gorgeous and witty but careless and dangerous. She allows herself to be drawn into the darkness, and once she’s there, you don’t have much of a choice but to join her. It’s a character type that looms large in the contemporary imagination lately, but what makes Buntin’s take distinct is Marlena’s innocence. She’s portrayed here as vulnerable, teetering between intentional manipulation and casual naiveté. Marlena is not the femme fatale, not yet—she never gets wise enough to own herself in that way.

One of the most admirable qualities of this novel is its portrayal of adolescence. A word I see in many reviews is “unflinching,” though I’m not sure that’s the appropriate choice here: it’s not so much that Marlena shies away from anything as it’s so devoted to its perspective that we never question, never doubt, never stop engaging with the fantasy of teenage immortality. Teenagers are, of course, terrible, and they’re terrible here, too, but Cat is honest and clear in describing her friends and their particular terribleness. For a moment, for 300 pages (whichever comes first), you slip outside of your knowing right and wrong, your Adult Smartness™, and remember how infallible you felt in high school.

The book, narrated from the present moment by a thirty-something Cat, alternates between glimpses of her life now and extended narration of the past. The structure is such an intelligent choice for this novel, since it teaches us about Cat’s mental space: this is a story about compartmentalizing and eulogizing and forgetting and remembering, and the balance between the past and the present (or lack thereof) gives us a meaningful understanding of how the past works as scar tissue. It’s not that Cat is, years later, still obsessed with her dead friend. She hasn’t devoted her entire life to memorializing Marlena.

But Marlena will not—cannot—be dismissed. Even in death she is a force of nature that wreaks havoc on someone who escaped her pull not by choice but by accident, and the consequences of those circumstances have left their mark. How can you attain closure when you weren’t trying to suture your wounds at all, but simply woke up to find them stitched?

Buntin avoids depicting loss as an overblown, chapters-long episode of sobbing. It’s far more nuanced, framing the idea of death as a narrative that cannot be rewritten. It rings true for anyone who’s ever played the what-if game: what if I’d just called the ambulance sooner? What if I’d insisted he go to the doctor? What if I hadn’t let her get in the car? It’s the desire to affect change stretched out over decades, and it’s painful and precise. The emotions in this book, and they run the whole gamut, are so genuine and earned—it’s dazzling to submerse yourself in a nonstop torrent of true feelings for and with made-up people.

The book is consistently written stunningly: breathtaking passage supersedes breathtaking passage. That kind of writing can get exhausting, but Marlena’s author is so controlled, so careful with her sentences that it never does. Buntin’s prose is so evocative, so rich with emotion, that inhabiting it for the course of a full novel has the effect of suspending the reader on a high-wire; you’re terrified you’ll fall, but you keep testing your limits to see how long you can hang on.

Ultimately, what I find so satisfying about Buntin’s debut is its willingness not to hide anything: our narrator does not obfuscate. We know early that Marlena dies. We know early Cat moves on. And despite it, the book shivers and shakes with tension—it takes over your body and kills you, page by page. Engrossing, horrifying, delightful.

My rating: 5/5

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Goodbye Days (Jeff Zentner)

Thanks to NetGalley for this eARC in exchange for my unpolluted review.

"Jeff Zentner is dangerous." That's how I began my review of last year's standout The Serpent King, and it turns out the label must still be applied. Jeff Zentner deserves to be locked up in his own corner at the bookstore labeled "Dangerous Writer," in a cage where snake tongues slither out and beckon you to reach your hand inside, where incredibly venomous fangs puncture your flesh.

Goodbye Days is all about dying and dealing with death. Carver texts one of his friends, who tries to answer the message while driving; he and two other members of the Sauce Crew (their friend group) die in a car accident. Carver must go on, as the living must, trying to understand his new world and the part he plays in creating it.

It's easy to suspect that this novel will be a mess: let me be clear that it is one of the least messy things I've ever read. It's careful, it's smart, it's thoughtful, it's heartfelt. There are feelings on every page, but they're emotions well-earned; they never demand you feel a certain way, they never feel inauthentic or superficial. What I'm trying to say is the characters in this book are shaped by grief, but they shape their grief, too--we see a dozen different shades and angles of sadness and loss in this story, each of them well-realized and painful. It's easy for grief in art to be melodramatic: it's our natural impulse, to express such a powerful feeling, by going big or going home. But it's not like that in real life, and where this novel really succeeds is in its small moments, tiny asides where a character weeps silently, talks or doesn't talk about their feelings, acknowledges or denies the suffocating, throbbing threat of death that looms in the air all the time. It's stunning.

As I said before, what makes Zentner so dangerous is his intelligence: the thing I appreciate most about his writing his how his characters call each other out when they're shitty. Someone's racist? Call it out. Someone's sexist? Call it out. Few authors are able to create characters who are flawed but learning--it's the kind of growing, changing world we hope for (insert a "this is the future liberals want" meme here). And it's nice to see that in fiction. 

What's also nice to see in fiction is friendship. The default idea about how to write is to pile strife and despair on characters, which of course is great and true because what story runs well on happiness and joy alone (answer: none). Zentner cleverly sets up his story, though, to interject love and friendship into this tragedy with interposed memories of the Sauce Crew just goofing around. These scenes feel so quintessentially guys-in-high-school that I caught myself rolling my eyes, which I mean as a compliment: I had no groups of guy friends in high school because I found their antics overwhelming, so the author really captures that interplay realistically. 

The shifting between Carver post-accident and his friends pre-death also works really well in creating a textual psychology; we're constantly careering between warmth and emptiness in a way that clearly mirrors Carver's own feelings--there's a moment when Carver says that every day, for the first five seconds of each morning, he wakes up forgetting that his friends are dead, and structuring Goodbye Days to include these memories drives that feeling home, submerges you into one character's perspective in a way that enriches your understanding of all the characters' perspectives. Shifting between narrative threads can feel gimmicky, but here it never does.

Perhaps the thing that wowed me the most about this book was its approach to handling love in conjunction with grief. Zentner renders love how it really is: full of yearning and hope but built on a foundation of panic and loneliness. There's a love story here (kind of), but we're also guided through parental and sibling love too, bumping shoulders with ideas of replacement and surrogacy and absence along the way. Too often is love boiled down to its brightest, shining moments; even in real life, too often do we ignore the pain and discomfort that being loved so hard can bring.

Last year, I'm sure Jeff Zentner heard a million times that he was "one to watch." But two books in, I think we can do more than just watch him: he's one to trust, he's one to believe, he's the real deal.

My rating: 5/5