Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned

I’ve been a big fan of Wells Tower since I first read his short story, “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned” in a fiction -writing workshop. The story is incredible–really up there with one of my favorite short stories of all time. It’s basically about a pack of aging, disenchanted viking marauders who go on a raid of a local village in part because they are trying to keep up with their younger, blood-thirsty counterparts, and in part, because they’re bored. The prose is beautiful–even when the events being described are anything but–and the voices and dialog are incredibly funny. They sound like surfers half the time, which is also just jarring and hilarious and unexpected and totally perfect all at once.

The surprising part, though, was that although Tower had been published in a variety of high profile journals (like The Paris Review) and was the recipient of a number of impressive awards (like the Pushcart Prize), he didn’t have a book of short stories out for quite a long time. He wrote quite a bit of journalism–including a wonderful piece for Harper’s which tells about his experience attending a young Republican convention called “The Kids Are Far Right,” which I highly recommend reading–but it didn’t look like a fiction collection was going to be available any time in the near future.

And then, to my utter delight, his collection was released in April 2009. I’ll admit–not all of the stories are near as good as the title story, and one of his stories (“On the Show”) was rewritten (there was a previously published version) in a way which I felt really didn’t work. But overall, it’s a really stellar collection, and Tower seems to me to be the heir to the Southern Gothic tradition that I love so much. So go read the book. But first, read my review, which was published for The L Magazine, either on their site, or below.

There’s also a review of the book in The New York Times, although I actually think it’s more of an extended summary than a review.

And…last thing, I promise…there’s also a great “book trailer” for the title story on YouTube, awesomely animated and read by Tower, here.

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In his debut collection, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, Wells Tower paints a fragmented portrait of domestic upheaval and uneasy reconciliation. Peopling his darkly humorous, deadpan stories with estranged husbands and senile fathers, neglectful caregivers and aimless children, Tower explores the inadequacy of familial relationships and the anxiety provoked by ever-present yet inscrutable threats to one’s safety and happiness. A leopard stalks the woods outside a young boy’s home. A rapist lurks around a traveling carnival. A group of malcontent Vikings enact a brutal raid on a peaceful island village out of sheer boredom.

The tension rarely breaks the surface of the stories, but rather (with a nod to the grotesqueries of the Southern Gothic) manifests itself in the physical degradation of the collection’s cast of psoriasis-ridden, pimpled misfits. In “Executors of Important Energies,” a young man’s young stepmother becomes the sole provider for her rapidly degenerating husband. Our first image of her is of “…her sparse, dry hair, her mottled cheeks… her right eye… bloodshot and brimming with brine.” We meet a predatory hiker with a severely scarred arm in “Wild America,” and a child with a knack for lying who wakes up with a fungal infection on his lip in “Leopard.” It’s emotional poverty made visible, internal conflict inescapably displayed on the body.

It is this threat from within that comes to define the collection. For Tower’s characters are not only at odds with wildcats and menacing strangers. Ultimately, they struggle against their own worse impulses, their own cruelty. It’s a conflict most clearly expressed in the title story. A cadre of cynical marauders are party to a raid on a nearby village. Unimpressed by their younger, enthusiastic counterparts, the veterans still watch unfazed as a monk is subjected to what is inventively known as a “blood eagle,” and local daughters are swept away for brides. “…I got an understanding of how terrible love can be,” muses the narrator, once retired from his life of pillaging. “You wish you hated those people, your wife and children, because you know the things the world will do to them, because you have done some of those things yourself.”

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Doghead

Shortly after I reviewed Morten Ramsland’s Doghead I went to see a PEN World Voices panel that he participated in. The panel was a bit of a bust–Ramsland unfortunately got a bit of a brush off compared with the other participants (including the charming Peruvian author Santiago Roncagliolo)–but it was very interesting to hear Ramsland talk about his experience reading his own book in English. The PEN dispatch has a nice quote from him on this:

…Danish author Morten Ramsland described what it felt like to read his own novel Doghead in English. “It was not a good experience,” he said. His own long sentences had been chopped into shorter ones, a chapter had been split in two, and, what was worse, many things were stated outright which in the original he had merely implied.

Now, I would like to say that the (American) English translation of Doghead was done by the phenomenally talented Tiina Nunnally, and I’m not totally sure if the above comments were in reference to her edition or a previous one, another version published in the UK, or what. But Nunnally is responsible for a great many wonderful translations from Swedish and Danish, and has been lauded and recognized for her efforts on repeated occasions. So with all of  this in mind, here’s my review of the English translation of Doghead, which was published on Three Percent. The full text is below; the published review can be read here.

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When first published in Denmark in 2005, Morten Ramsland’s Doghead was a staggering success. Although Ramsland’s prior poetry collection and first novel had been largely overlooked, Doghead received widespread popular and critical acclaim, winning numerous national prizes, including the prestigious Danish Booksellers’ Golden Laurels Prize. Four years later, Doghead has now made it to the United States, and has already garnered its author the perhaps well-meaning, but dubious title, of “Denmark’s John Irving.”

A sprawling, dark-humored, frank, and stringently cynical novel, Doghead traces four generations of the Eriksson family, whose vividly offbeat members include wayward sailors, epic drunks, would-be painters, over-attentive mothers, adulterers, accomplished liars, orphans, and escapists. It’s a generally unhappy clan, a collection of almost-strangers who find themselves bound together not so much by blood ties or loyalty, as by common history.

For this is a family that is irrevocably steeped in its own lore. Each person is defined by several stories that are repeatedly told to nephews, nieces, and grandchildren—by the three or four nicknames that each of them have been christened with. (The narrator, Asger Eriksson, is known at various points of the novel by no less than five titles: The Liar, The Latchkey Kid, The Bastard Boy, The Danish Shrimp, and The Bandit. Each name is the product of its own story.) It’s a hermetic mythology, as illuminating as it is often reductive. But it is only by retelling (and painting) these family legends that Asger can connect with his family and finally reconcile with the years of misunderstanding, neglect, cruelty, and obliviousness that have characterized most of the Erikssons’ interactions. “It’s as if the stories have started taking control of me,” he admits. “They’re driving me back towards my own birth and motives that I’m not sure I’m quite ready to confront.”

In her recent New York Times book review, Clare Clark declares Doghead to be a “bleak book” which “. . . while enthusiastically engaging with the coarser aspects of life, displays a grimly pessimistic view of human nature.” And though she’s certainly not wrong in her estimation of the novel’s resignation to the realities of familial callousness and vindictiveness, Clark does perhaps disregard the book’s real motives. This is not a novel that seeks to redeem its characters, so much as it is a story about the possibility of catharsis through art. Asger’s grandfather struggles all his life to have his cubist-inspired paintings accepted, only to find peacefulness in mundane pastel landscapes in his old age. His grandmother Bjørk is for decades the family storyteller, weaving tales not only about the family’s history, but also the beauty and magic of her Norwegian homeland. Asger himself runs away to art school in Amsterdam following a grim adolescent episode.

Where the book does ultimately misstep, however, is in its failure to flesh out this catharsis for its readers. Rather, the novel seems to collapse under its own weight by the last third of the book, when Asger begins to relate his own role in the family history. Rattling off one tragedy after another, Asger’s personal revelations feel mechanical and disconnected, and at times, unnecessarily dramatized. Where Asger, The Narrator, was a perceptive and empathetic figure in the novel, Asger, The Character, reads far less truthfully, even in the midst of his most intimate disclosure—a story in which the eponymous “Doghead”—the monster that he believed lived under the basement stairs of his childhood home—is finally revealed.

Despite its shortcomings, Doghead remains an impressive tribute to the complexity of familial relationships, the profundity of art, and the importance of a shared history. “The stories were the glue holding our family together,” Asger explains at the end of the book, “it was only after they vanished that everything began to disintegrate, and slowly we were scattered to the winds.”

Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist

I know that this book is considered something of a classic and teens love it, so forgive me for being heretical, but Nick and Norah was pretty ho hum for me. In part, I think this can be chalked up to a few of my own inescapable biases (more anon), but honestly, I think that the quality of the writing had more to do with it. And that’s not to say that both authors Rachel Cohn and David Levithan (of Boy Meets Boy fame) aren’t talented writers. It’s simply that the general prose style–aggressively clever dialog, laden with cultural references which were trendy about two decades ago, and dripping in irony, delivered via the mouths of super-informed, super-progressive, super-cute teens–doesn’t work for me. It’s a little irksome to have a couple of teenagers holding forth on The Cure while cruising around in a Yugo to various amazing Lower East Side hot spots. But, in fairness, teenagers can be irksome, and in double fairness, I would have cut off my big toe to be able to hold forth on The Cure while cruising around in a Yugo to various amazing Lower East Side hot spots when I was 16, no questions asked.

So in order to give the book a fair shake, I’m simply going to provide a Pro/Con Playlist, if you will:

Pro: Rachel Cohn has amazing taste in apparently everything. Her Norah quotes My So-Called Life at length, which I think sums it up for me.

Con: Rachel Cohn writes annoying females. They use the word ‘bitch’ all the time–for friends and enemies, when happy and angry. They are also devious, manipulative, and not terribly loyal to each other. I know teen girls are like this, but honestly, even Norah, who is supposed to be above all this, is constantly sunk in the mire of girl-drama. Oh, and she is constantly referred to as being ‘totally stacked,’ but has a front-clasp bra. Both things cannot be possible. It’s a little thing, but it bothered me to no end.

Pro: Both Cohn and Levithan really ‘get it’ in terms of the immediacy of teen emotions–particularly love and heartbreak. Nick is crushed because his girlfriend–of six whole months!–breaks up with him and life as he knows and remembers it will never be the same. Likewise, both Nick and Norah fall head-over-horny-heels for one another after spending one ebullient night together wandering around New York. And it’s true–spending a whole night with a crush is overwhelmingly sexy when you’re young. It all happens, like that.

Con: Everyone in this book is too goddamn cool. Norah’s father is a record exec and her godfather owns punk clubs. Nick is the ‘non-queer bassist in a queercore band.’ They all know everything about great music and movies and places to hang out in New York. Even when they are awkward and nervous and totally freaking out on their wacked-out hormones, they have something extremely funny and sophisticated to say to one another.

Pro: The characters have a refreshing approach to sex. Straight, gay, gals, guys, in relationships and out–characters have an open, embracing, safe, but not ridiculously advanced relationship to sex.

Con: The whole ‘Nick and Norah’ homage falls terribly short of its reference.

Pro: The Nick sections were written by David Levithan and the Norah sections by Rachel Cohn. This creates unique voices for each, a nice little dash of gendered perspective, and a cute method of rendering moments in which both characters basically want the same thing but can’t figure out how to communicate this to each other.

Con: Nick and Norah are both self-righteously straight-edge. I went to high school with those kids. They annoyed me then, they annoy me now.

Pro: Any books taking place over the course of one night and involving punk clubs, drag queens dressed in nun garb and singing The Sound of Music tunes, underground secret shows, and Velselka is inherently at least a bit fun.