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Category Archive for 'Experimental'

For long-time readers of this website, it will be no secret that I regard James Sallis as far more than the “noir mystery writer” that he is often labeled. A specialist in spare, minimalist writing that is compressed, incisive, and often metaphorical, he is a writer who takes literary chances and whose recent work has been as experimental as it has been insightful. One of the best literary writers in the United States, in my opinion, Sallis has always been concerned with questions of innocence and guilt, strength and weakness, and the past and its effects on the present and future. He creates often sad, damaged characters doing the best they can in a noir atmosphere in which they must fight their own demons in order to have any chance of success. His main characters make mistakes, sometimes big ones, but at heart they have an intrinsic sense of honor despite their closeness to violence. Main character Lamar Hale, a physician who has lived in Willnot for many years, is one of over thirty characters introduced in the first thirty-two pages, illustrating the fact that there are no strangers in Willnot – Hale knows everyone. As Sallis individualizes these characters, Hale’s feelings about them become clear and the reader comes to know the town well. Many have secrets, including Lamar Hale himself. The arrival of a mysterious former resident and the discovery of a mass grave set the action in motion.

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In an electrifying novel that uses simple images and straightforward, often abbreviated thoughts to create deep emotions and subtle themes, debut novelist Max Porter revitalizes the whole concept of the novel, creating a work that is so unorthodox and so difficult to describe in its structure that it sometimes verges on the bizarre. Despite the constantly changing structural elements, however, the voices of Dad and his Boys remain direct, unpretentious, and completely realistic as they tell of their reactions to the sudden death of their wife and mother from an accident which has left them overwhelmed by events and not sure how to react or acknowledge what they feel. In a consummate irony, Dad, an academic writer, has been working on a book, overdue at the publisher, called Crow on the Couch: A Wild Analysis, which examines the poems of Ted Hughes following the death of his wife, Sylvia Plath. It’s been five days since the death, and Dad and the boys are alone now. All the family and visitors have left, the boys are asleep, and “Grief felt fourth-dimensional, abstract, faintly familiar. Suddenly the doorbell rings, and when Dad opens it, “there was a crack and a whoosh and [he] was smacked back, winded, onto the doorstep…There was a rich smell of decay, a sweet furry stink of just-beyond-edible food, and moss, and leather, and yeast.” He is lifted above the tiled floor and finds feathers between his fingers, in his eyes, and in his mouth. Crow has arrived. With Crow incorporating wild and unexpected elements, including humor, into this book about grief, the novel explores death and its aftermath in new ways. Unique and intriguing.

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As Israeli author Yoel Hoffmann begins his wild metafictional, and often metaphysical, tale, he invites the reader along with him, as he experiments with his format, lets his mind wander in new directions as one idea leads to the next, remembers the past and the people in it, thinks about God (or not) and death, and creates a tale that is both serious and full of fun at the same time – not a description which can be applied to many other novels these days. As the author himself says, later in the book, “At first glance this book would seem to be a hybrid. That is, a book that sometimes laughs and sometimes cries. But in fact (as logicians say), it’s laughing and crying at once, and to the same degree.” The book challenges the very nature of genre, emphasizing that all books are stories, just as life is, and the best way to distinguish between them is to classify them by their feelings – happy or sad, “a book that can laugh or smile or cry. The book itself. The reader can behave however he likes.” Through flashbacks, Hoffmann recreates his own life, imagines new lives, and returns to the image of his father wearing his Schaffhausen watch, emphasizing that the men who created this watch are now either dead or very old and that their wives are also dead. Music, and dreams, and poetry, and parallel languages also gain attention from an author so alive and so full of ideas that anyone who chooses to read this marvelous book will be profoundly affected.

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Always focused on questions of identity and loss, and of one’s vulnerability or resilience in facing these issues, Patrick Modiano’s work always feels autobiographical, and though he insists that each book is fiction, he also recognizes that his own reality is formed by his own past as described in detail in many of his novels. As his characters deal with whatever issues they face on a daily basis in his novels, they cannot help interpreting life through their memories, wondering if they have misunderstood events, and if they could have changed outcomes, “if only…” In the Café of Lost Youth, much of the action takes place at the Café Conde in the 1950s, “somewhere not far from the Carrefoure de l’Odeon.” An unnamed young woman enters the café through a back entrance and sits at the back of the room. In time, she becomes acquainted with some of the regulars there and sometimes sits with them, but her visits are at irregular intervals, and she never really becomes part of the group. The others in the group, three of whom, along with the woman, Louki, become the speakers here, are between nineteen and twenty-five, except for a few older men in their fifties – “bohemians,” who lead wandering lives “without rules or worries about the next day.” As the first speaker, a student, points out, most of them “lived in the sheltered world of literature and the arts.” In many ways the action here provides a microcosm of intellectual life in postwar France. The lack of direction for many of the country’s “lost youth,” as illustrated by the uncommitted lives of the youngest patrons of the Café Conde, parallels the many changing philosophical ideas occupying intellectuals and academics in Paris.

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On his way to Dorinish, the tiny Irish island which he bought ten years before, John Lennon, now thirty-seven, is in the midst of a personal crisis. It is 1978, and the Beatles have not been together for eight years. Lennon has watched his first marriage crumble and his son Julian disappear from his life. Married in 1969 to Yoko Ono, he separated from her for eighteen months, shortly after their marriage. Later reunited, they had a baby, Sean, with whom he now spends most of his time at home in New York, but he is otherwise at loose ends. He has not written any music since 1975, and he feels as if he has lost his way, both musically and personally. Famous, at this point, for his counterculture points of view, he has actively courted attention to publicize his anti-government agenda, and has become involved with drugs, Marxism, the Black Panthers, and behavior which has put him under the surveillance of the FBI, though he has otherwise tried to avoid publicity in his personal life. He now feels that if he can get away and spend time alone for only three days on Dorinish, that he might come to some new conclusions about his life and how to live it.

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