Heartwood 8:4 – People in the Room by Norah Lange

Norah Lange’s short novel, People in the Room is told from the perspective of an unnamed seventeen-year-old girl living with her family in Buenos Aires in the early part of the twentieth-century. The reader senses in the early pages that this is an imaginative narrator eager to escape the stultifying experiences of her family life. She’s afforded an escape of sorts when a lightning storm suddenly brings together the flash of the girl’s reflection in a mirror with her awareness of three women seen through the sheer curtains of their drawing room in the house across the street. This initiates in the girl a sustained obsession with spying on the three women over a period of weeks.

Very little happens – the women seem to always be at home, sitting in the same chairs and doing little more than lifting a cigarette or glass of wine to their lips – but there is palpable tension in the protagonist’s account of what she observes and imagines regarding the women, and she eventually intervenes in their lives by intercepting a telegram addressed to them and is soon paying them daily visits. Some of the more unusual and enigmatic scenes include: the narrator hearing her own voice come from one of the three women who is speaking to a clerk at the post office; watching through the window as a mysterious stranger arrives at the women’s house and is handed a package (presumably of letters) by the eldest only to immediately transfer it to the youngest; and the narrator’s panic when she wakes to a passing funeral procession for three neighborhood children who had died in a house fire, and mistakenly assumes the caskets contain the bodies of the three women.

The narrator at times is quick to assign fault or blame to the women, claiming they didn’t deserve this or that, and she also vacillates between feelings of intense love for them and wanting to see them dead, or imagining them as criminals, as wayward, or as having something to hide. She makes statements that imply she holds a certain agency over the women; that it is her imagination and inventiveness that gives them their lives, gauzy and understated though they are. Particular objects (such as a spider, or a blue dress) can trigger a kind of associative transfer in which the objects take on importance beyond themselves, or are charged with evocative power – for example, causing the narrator to think of faded letters, or instilling in her the urge to travel in the dining car of a train. There are also scenes and expressions of loneliness, anxiety, forebodings of something tragic, and talk of the slit wrists of suicides.

Finally, there is something like a psychic blending or assimilation of the three women who are “collected” and combined with the world of the narrator, as can be seen in this passage in which her mostly inattentive family notices how she has changed: ““It must be her age” others would whisper, while the three faces settled into my own, becoming accustomed to strange conversations, forever leaving their mark on my seventeenth winter.”

Lange has indicated that she started writing this novel after seeing a reproduction of a portrait of the Brontë sisters painted by their brother Branwell, who originally included himself in the portrait but later painted himself out (though leaving a ghostly trace). Given this inspiration, People in the Room could be considered a very imaginative, extended, and daring work of ekphrasis, and it’s interesting to see the protagonist also frequently referring to the three women as lifeless sculptures, or portraits, or even eerie ceramic dolls.

People in the Room, first published in 1950, appears to be the first English language translation of a work by Norah Lange, an Argentine author who was related to Jorge Luis Borges and was influenced by him and other ultraísta writers and poets with whom she associated in Buenos Aires. Readers, however, may well find the influence of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw at least as evident in this atmospheric tale that to some degree resembles an oneiric, gothic, ghost story.

But let’s not limit by comparison a work as captivating, unsettling, and poetic as this. Readers of English will want to discover this long-neglected novel, and we are fortunate now to have access to it in this nuanced translation by Charlotte Whittle.

Spot-Lit for October 2018

Some definite treats are in store this October: from the frightful (Dracul, Devil’s Day), to the monumental (Anniversaries, The Novel of Ferrara), to sharp and shocking collections of short stories (Toddler Hunting, Friday Black), to excellent new work from bestselling authors, and more.

Click here to see all of these titles in the Everett Public Library catalog, where you can read reviews or summaries and place holds. Or click on a book cover below to enlarge it, or to view the covers as a slide show.

Notable New Fiction 2018 (to date) | All On-Order Fiction

900 Words about Vox

As someone who is a loud supporter of reading for fun and the joys of happy story endings, it came as a complete shock to me that I very much enjoyed reading a dystopian novel that had me yelling out loud and, at one point (sorry, colleagues!) throwing the book across the room. Literally threw it like it was on fire. One of the most powerful books I’ve read this summer is set in a dystopia. I’m still grappling with this reality.

Dystopian novels are not known for happiness and wit, but the discerning reader can find both in Vox by Christina Dalcher.

This dystopian mind-f*ck posits a creepily plausible near future where the American government has created a series of laws restricting women. Women are no longer allowed to travel outside the United States. They can’t work or hold political office and their daughters are only taught basic math and home keeping in schools. Their brothers, however, get a robust education including religious indoctrination and bias-affirming readings that brainwash them into seriously believing men are superior to women and that keeping women silenced and in the home is for the betterment of society.

The absolute worst part? All American women (yup, kids and babies too) now have to wear a locked wrist device that monitors their words. Each female is allowed 100 words per day–this includes sign language, gestures, and other non-verbal communication. If you speak past 100 words before your device resets at midnight you get a shock. Another word? Another shock–only stronger this time.

It’s a damn nightmare.

The book is told through the eyes of Dr. Jean McClellan. Before the silencing, she was a well-respected linguistic scientist. During the silencing Jean is like every other American woman, which is to say she is held hostage in her new role: being a nearly-wordless woman whose only job is to serve her husband and raise her kids. When the book opens we’re about a year into the silencing and though Jean feels that bucking the system is an impossibility, she is strong of spirit and still possesses the quick-witted mind that made her the incredibly renowned linguistic expert she was before society imploded. She wants a better life for all women, but especially for her three-year-old daughter who is growing up with this as her reality.

The narrative switches back and forth from present day to the past. I often find this jarring in books but Dalcher does this nearly seamlessly and the slow burn reveals of the past, along with foreshadowing of the horrors that are to come, keep the suspense building even when you think you know what’s going on.

Jean reflects throughout the book on her previous complete political apathy. Back in college she scoffed at her roommate’s attempts to get her involved in grassroots political rallies against social injustice, preferring instead to study and focus on her boyfriend, her future. She bathed in privilege but, as privilege goes, was so cocooned from marginalized and concerned folks that she didn’t even realize how sheltered she was. Her future was guaranteed, so why should she spend time worrying about it or fighting against the mere possibility that future society could go sideways? She thought it was pointless to vote–a waste of precious time–and considered it completely unlikely anyone so overzealous would be voted into the Presidency in modern times.

Jean also discovers that monsters aren’t born, they’re made–and often through no ill intentions, but through apathy. In particular, she’s horrified to recognize her oldest son has evolved into a monster. In flashbacks we see him slowly over time vocalizing increasingly demeaning opinions about the girls in his class and women in general. Back when she could talk, sometimes Jean would challenge him at the dinner table. He’d then mention the readings they were doing in school and how religion is now a required class. Jean would think “School is weird now” but never questioned the school administration about requiring misogynistic opinion to be taught as the law of nature or why one specific religion was taught as a required class in a public school

Her husband wasn’t much help either. He often brushed off Jean’s comments as ‘boys will be boys’ but the saying silence is acceptance proves true here. By the time Jean realizes what her son has started to believe, she literally doesn’t have enough words to talk him back off the ledge because she’s required to wear that damn wrist device. Like Jean, I refuse to call it a bracelet and diminish the horrifying evil the device represents: both in the physical pain it creates but especially in representing the completely upside-down reality that made this device a legislated mandate.

This is all to say that the flashbacks peppered in with the book’s current reality are a great way to let the reader see how the dystopian society got to where it is and allows us to draw parallels between that fictional America and the one we’re living in today.

Creepily. Plausible. Near. Future.

Despite this dark tone, the very first line of the book gives you hope throughout this thrilling adventure through a desolate society. If it seems unlikely that one essentially enslaved woman among millions would be able to bring about the downfall of a patriarchal society, well, dear reader…just pick this one up and thank me later.

Spot-Lit for September 2018

These titles – from established, new, and emerging authors – are some of the most anticipated new releases of the month, based on advance reviews and book world enthusiasm.

Click here to see all of these titles in the Everett Public Library catalog, where you can read reviews or summaries and place holds. Or click on a book cover below to enlarge it, or to view the covers as a slide show.

Notable New Fiction 2018 (to date) | All On-Order Fiction

Heartwood 8:3 – Fancy by Jeremy M. Davies

Fancy, by Jeremy M. Davies, ostensibly presents us with nothing more than an older man interviewing a young couple in the foyer of his house for the job of house-sitting and caring for his twenty cats. But it may (or may not) give you a better understanding of this novel to say that it orbits around quantum mechanics, ontological doubt, repetition and minimalism, the instability of selfhood, and (as Davies himself has said in an interview) toxoplasmosis. Or it might be said that this is a novel in which Schrödinger’s cat attempts to open the lid of the box it may or may not be inside of. However you cut it, this is a compelling, fluent, disorienting, and audaciously inspired work.

But to start again, the book opens with an isolated older man, Rumrill, who lives in a decaying town on the mid-western plains sometime in the pre-Internet era, interviewing a young couple in the foyer of his house as potential cat-sitters – for cats who never put in an appearance over the book-length course of the interview.

In the interview – really a monologue – we hear about Rumrill and his work at the public library, where he had trysts in the stacks with his supervisor before she left the library and moved from town. His library work also brought him into contact with a Mr. Brocklebank, who enlisted him, initially, as a cat-sitter for his thirty cats, but soon enough employs Rumrill as factotum and caregiver – full-time work (performed with active disregard) that required Rumrill to bring his library work to an end.

There are reasons for the reader to doubt the reliability of the narrative from the very beginning, and all kinds of things overlap and repeat with minor variations that bring everything into question. One begins to wonder if Rumrill and Brocklebank are not the same person living in parallel universes: both required cat-sitters for a clowder of cats whose existence is uncertain; both provide book-length cat-sitting instructions; both appear to have had a green sofa; both (apparently) were involved with women who seemed interested in having other partners; and in both men something like tape-looped obsessions cut grooves in their tenuous hold on reality.

Various madnesses or eccentricities are on display. A postal worker, having once failed to deliver his load of mail, finds himself completely unmoored, merely driving around in his mail van but unable to resume his deliveries. Rumrill is concerned that his house will not maintain its materiality if he is not there to perceive it – a situation he tries to ameliorate by creating a mirror corridor that will let him keep his house in sight even from as far away as the train station. As Brocklebank’s house burns, toward the end of the book, firemen do not extinguish the fire but instead entertain half a dozen speculative theories regarding whether Brocklebank is inside or not.

Davies has restricted himself to a form in which every longer paragraph begins with the words “Rumrill said” followed by short paragraphs (a mere sentence or phrase, often witty) that begin “He added.” In time, additional paragraphs appear, culled from Brocklebank’s cat-sitting manual, all beginning with “Brocklebank writes.” These latter pronouncements appear to be modifications of statements from 20th-century composers ranging from minimalists to serialists to avant-garde jazzmen, based on a list of sources at the back of the book.

Rumrill’s oratory is rhythmical and complex and will draw in readers who gravitate toward such authors as NabokovGombrowicz, BernhardBeckett, and Pynchon. As with books by these authors, Fancy is well worth reading, rereading, pondering, and discussing, and I’ll even boldly assert that it deserves a spot on any self-respecting 21st-century American literature syllabus. Mostly, however, the book deserves to be read for the pleasure and weirdness with which it captures the routines, locutions, agoraphobia, and perceptions of its main character – and, indeed, for allowing Rumrillian to emerge as a descriptor for the voluble expression of this constellation of existential, perceptual, and singular uncertainty.

Spot-Lit for July 2018

Spot-Lit

These titles – from established, new, and emerging authors – are some of the most anticipated new releases of the month, based on advance reviews and book world enthusiasm.

Click here to see all of these titles in the Everett Public Library catalog, where you can read reviews or summaries and place holds. Or click on a book cover below to enlarge it, or to view the covers as a slide show.

Notable New Fiction 2018 (to date) | All On-Order Fiction

Heartwood 8:2 – Philosophical Toys by Susana Medina

Susana Medina’s novel Philosophical Toys is told from the perspective of a young woman, Nina, about her alcoholic mother, who died when the narrator was six; her father, who develops full-blown Alzheimer’s in the course of the novel; and the time Nina spent in London where she was befriended by aspiring artist, Mary Jane. The story pops back and forth between London and southern Spain. In one of her trips home to Almería, to see her father and to help clear out his house so he can move into an assisted living “commune,” Nina discovers ninety-five shoeboxes containing all kinds of women’s shoes. As she tries to unravel why all these shoes are there, she looks back on her mother’s life and remembers her spell of work as a “foot extra” and that she, or her feet, may actually have appeared in one of Luis Buñuel’s films. She also wonders if her father might be a shoe-fetishist.

Back in London, Mary Jane convinces Nina to be a partner in a gallery show in which Nina will exhibit her mother’s shoes. She reluctantly agrees and is surprised later on when a collector who had seen the exhibit wants to purchase a particular pair of boots. He is building what he calls The Museum of Relevant Moments which is comprised of props from Buñuel’s films, and the boots are the same make and style of the ones that appear in Diary of a Chambermaid (and may be the actual pair).

Toward the end of the book there’s a fine chapter that focuses on problems of authenticity, and it circles back to an early scene where Nina and Mary Jane are in a café commenting on a reproduction of the Mona Lisa hanging there. They observe that what makes a painting valuable is the space in which it is displayed – the one in the café could in no way be valuable due to its mundane surroundings, but the one in the Louvre is valued precisely because it is there. This is true even if it were to turn out that the café iteration is the original and what hangs in the Louvre is a mere copy.

Nina feels a sense of dislocation in language and geography, desire and longing, and her journey includes coming to terms with a mother she barely knew and a father whose memory and life is being ravaged by disease. Medina presents Nina’s world through language that feels completely comfortable and lived in, even as she delves into rather esoteric terrain such as Freudian fetishism, simulacra, and our relationship with objects.

There are many other topics touched on in these pages; in fact, Medina has constructed a narrative not unlike the roped-together shoeboxes that appear on the cover. If you like novels of ideas, with a brainy central character, and an unusually nimble literary style, you should enjoy going through the shoeboxes of Philosophical Toys.