Staff Picks: Death, Dávila, and Darkness

Amparo Dávila.

Last Friday, when temperatures dropped into the bone-chilling teens, a crowd of about thirty people dipped out of the cold into Aeon Bookstore on East Broadway and Essex, where they sipped tequila with lime and listened to Audrey Harris and Matthew Gleeson read from their translation of Amparo Dávila’s The Houseguest, the first collection of her short fiction to appear in English. The lead story, “Moses and Gaspar,” was first published in The Paris Review in 2016, and readers of the magazine will remember it for its strangeness: a man inherits what at first glance appear to be his dead brother’s two pets, but slowly they reveal that they are not pets at all but beings otherworldly and sinister. Harris and Gleeson read “Oscar,” which is about a family being slowly destroyed, both figuratively and literally, by whoever (or whatever) lives in their basement. The eleven additional stories in the collection are just as tense and creepy, bristling with uncanny subtlety. Dávila’s psychological realism is spare in style and, despite all the demonic creatures, grounded in deeply human paranoia and fear. —Lauren Kane 

T Fleischmann’s Time Is the Thing a Body Moves Through begins on a long bus ride out of Buffalo. Fleischmann explains that they have trouble reading on transit because of “the presence of so many other people demanding a half-attention.” Here, they name a failure, but in generous terms: the inability to read is due to a wealth of attention rather than a deficit. Written in both prose and verse, this book-length essay weaves from personal narrative to analysis of artworks by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, yet never in a perfectly linear or alternating fashion. In other words, the story, while seeking answers, refuses to be predictable or productive. Sometimes Fleischmann is able to say what they mean; with a friend, they reflect: “this is the most directly we have spoken of ourselves / to date.” Other moments are left more tenuous; encountering an interactive piece by Gonzalez-Torres, they say: “I am aware that I take something away / I am not certain, however, of what I contribute.” This is a book about paying attention and sometimes failing to, about showing the ways in which attention, no matter how well focused, can be or feel insufficient. Fleischmann is not wringing their hands but instead leaning into the world, constantly pressing at the corners of language. In one section of verse, they write: “The room is every / color that is in the room.” I am astonished here, and elsewhere, by how Fleischmann folds written language, as constrictive and limiting as it can be, into an open form. The room is every color because we have been drawn back to take a wider view—with the understanding that even wider views are always possible. Watchful of its context and position, this book is able to pose increasingly interesting, urgent, and difficult questions. It holds us accountable to the world. What are we doing about our global climate crisis? How can we pay reparations? How and when are we complicit in state violence? How do we move forward? —Spencer Quong

 

Christian Kiefer.

 

I was on a flight from New York to California when I read Christian Kiefer’s third novel, Phantoms, which Liveright will publish in April. Hurtling toward California felt appropriate—the novel is set in Placer County, where Kiefer, this magazine’s West Coast editor, lives with his family—and the descriptions of the verdant landscape, the ridges and orchards, the bright, big sky of the Central Valley put me in a California state of mind. In Kiefer’s telling, even the dark of night compels, such as this blackened view of the narrator’s backyard: “We moved to the porch off the back of the house then, its nightscape comprised of a small box of overgrown grass—I should have cut it but had not—and a gnarled old plum tree laden with fruit … From the dark shadows of the yard’s shaggy verdancy came the overlapping chirp of crickets beyond which drifted the occasional shush of a car on the interstate.” The man loves him some Faulkner. I could have lingered with sentences like these for the entire flight but for the story that unfolds on those porches and in those fields, which feels too pressing not to follow. The novel encompasses two American families, one white and one Japanese American, and two wars—World War II and Vietnam. It is not a happy story, as a student of history might imagine, but the culpability of Americans in both conflicts is examined with unflinching honesty and a dose of empathy. By the end, the idyll of Placer County is not so pure, but the place still holds a kind of beauty, one more complicated and true. —Emily Nemens

The South Korean poet Kim Hyesoon’s collection Autobiography of Death, translated by Don Mee Choi and published by New Directions in November, is composed of forty-nine different poems meant to portray the forty-nine days the human spirit roams before entering the cycle of reincarnation, according to Korean tradition. It’s an intense and lyrical meditation on the nature of death, women’s writing, and the relationship between the body and the soul. In an interview included at the end of the book, Kim delves into how her poetry reacts to and deals with contemporary Korean political scandals—such as the 2014 Sewol ferry incident—alongside questions of gender and the history of Korean literature. “Which individual narrates my death?” she asks. “Can I call my death ‘I’?” It’s a question I’m still dwelling on. —Rhian Sasseen

Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise is aptly named. The novel demands an unrelenting faith in its author, a faith that Choi repeatedly breaks and rebuilds. To partake in Choi’s “trust exercise” is to watch her stretch the boundaries of the mimetic frame and create an unsettling experiment in perception. Even now, I’m still searching for a way to uncover the truth of this story, to offer an honest assessment of an elusive work. Trust Exercise is about students at a performing arts high school and the trust they place in adults and one another, which isn’t always deserved. Choi situates her initial narrative within the ambiguity of adolescence, her characters old enough to make life-altering decisions but too young to fully understand their consequences. Within an environment that emphasizes theatrics, layers of fictions entangle Choi’s characters beyond their chosen stage, and when readers are suddenly thrust forward in time, those roles change in a way that is destabilizing and unprecedented. Choi creates a disturbing and complex inquiry into the various forms coercion can take that left me unsure where to turn, or what to think, by the final page. —Nikki Shaner-Bradford

 

Susan Choi. Photo: Heather Weston.

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