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The Ordinary and the Weird

August 22, 2016

AbundanceCoverLate in this summer of dismal news, I welcome a chance to leave off my political screeds (four of the last five posts, I’m ashamed to say) to discuss a new book of stories by a friend of mine, Larry Loebell’s The Abundance League.

First, let me say what the book is not. Loebell is old enough to have lived through decades when American fiction has aimed to dazzle readers with stylistic flourishes, inveigle them into literary puzzles, or transport them to fantastic or dystopian worlds that have never existed. There’s none of that here. The book is stubbornly grounded on the earth that we know.

Second, it’s important to state that these stories pull no punches. Don’t let the plain black wrapper fool you. This book is sometimes shocking. That may seem an odd thing to say about contemporary fiction—what could possibly shock today’s reader? Well, how about a disabled woman, a quadriplegic with no feeling below her chest, describing in detail how she pleasures her lover—and insisting that, despite her lack of sensation, it’s fully consensual, not a horrid form of sexual exploitation? If you’re a resolutely PC person, prepare to be scandalized on occasion, not because the author is illiberal but because he’s willing to explore beyond the boundaries where our culture tells us to stop looking and stop talking.

Many of the characters, like the author himself, are close observers, giving lots of attention to small details, the “stuff” of our lives. One, an aspiring choreographer, even creates a dance piece from the movements and sounds of people in airports: “she noticed people parting around a slow moving janitor in a kind of parabola, their speed of movement a contrast of determination to languor, of progress to indolence, travelers heading toward their destinations and a laborer stuck in the routines of boring work.” Similarly, an advertising executive who calls himself “a visual guy” sees a resort’s beach bar as resembling “a Noel Coward play, a tableau of spot-lit gestures, glasses, and cigarettes.” With all the details, these tend to be talky pieces, the opposite of compressed vignettes. Yet the accumulation of particulars fleshes out the author’s rich and unsentimental vision of the way we live in the world.

A number of the protagonists are casual about their relationships, unwilling to be tied down. As the choreographer puts it, “It’s a hook-up world out there. That’s the world I run in.” Another woman, once married and now involved with a married man, “refused to desire or consider more, and she did not miss what she did not have.” Correspondingly, those who experience genuine and lasting affection find themselves obstructed or marginalized by others. They get dumped, discouraged, ignored, and in fact their love often follows paths one might consider weird: profound attachment to a dog, to an ancient carousel in the park, to an ex-partner unseen for decades.

The romantic outlook isn’t 100 percent dismal, though. The title story gives us two characters who do succeed in both physical and emotional commitment: a supermarket butcher and a produce worker. These are ordinary schlubs with no career ambitions, no grand expectations. They agree to a marriage of convenience that over time becomes a union of love. Likewise, the final story describes a slow-moving but ultimately hopeful relationship between two characters in small-town Alaska who have escaped collapsed lives in the lower 48. This story, with the impossible and wonderful title “How We Failed to Stop the War and Other Consequences of the Adolphus, Alaska, Peace March, February 2003,” offers a vision of community and mutual support in sharp contrast to the acquisitive striving of earlier pieces.

Engrossed with our material world and critical of it, focused both on the ordinary and on the weird that lies just below the surface of the ordinary, these are fascinating and unique stories, unlike those I’ve seen from any other contemporary writer.

Models of Compression

June 3, 2012

Recent readings: three very different works that use compression to good advantage.

1. Larry Loebell’s short play Will and the Code, just performed by F. Murray Abraham in NYC as part of Resonance Ensemble’s 10th anniversary celebration.

The monologue presents one side of a telephone conversation: theatrical agent Phil O. Strait speaking to his client, Will, about changes Will needs to make in a script to accommodate the new theatrical code. It seems that Will’s play features fairies, enchantment, consciousness-altering substances, a character named Puck, and worst of all, explicit lust. Will gets livid about the recommended rewrites, but Phil, a true professional, handles him smoothly. Loebell, no stranger to politically inspired theater, has posted the entire hilarious piece online at http://loebell.com/will-and-the-code/.

2. Hugh Nissenson’s first novel, My Own Ground (1976), a 181-page tale of a 15-year-old orphaned immigrant, Jake, in the Lower East Side of 1912.

I first discovered Nissenson through The Tree of Life, his amazing 1985 novel of the Ohio frontier. Since then I’ve read Days of Awe, a tender 9/11 novel, and The Song of the Earth, a futuristic fable about a genetically engineered artist. Nissenson’s books roam through time and place. He’s deliberately, perhaps obsessively, innovative, so that he’ll take you into what seems like a generic tale and then bend all of the conventions. Two of his major works include his own strange illustrations, supposedly created by the protagonist. Yet, through all these experiments and variations, his preoccupation with morality and violence remains constant.

In My Own Ground, Jake gets involved with protecting beautiful young Hannele, a rabbi’s daughter, from the pimp who is after her; but Hannele’s self-destructiveness complicates matters. Other characters include a Russian revolutionary who tries to raise Jake’s political consciousness. Though there are plenty of vivid details about immigrant life on the Lower East Side, and even time for a digression or two, Nissenson compresses transitions and omits nearly all of Jake’s self-reflection. For a first-person narrative there’s surprisingly little of the personal in Jake’s fact-driven account; author and narrator let us draw the conclusions ourselves, as in this simple description of Jake’s job and his coworker:

I got eight cents for pressing a tweed jacket and a woolen skirt. The iron weighed fourteen pounds; it was one of those things you knew. I used two of them. There was always one heating up on the stove. I worked at a big table opposite Spiegel, another presser, who’d been at it for six years. His right shoulder was three inches lower than his left; the forefinger of his right hand reached his knee.

“What is it?” he asked me Wednesday afternoon. “What’s the matter with you?”

“Nothing.”

I’d been staring at him. He turned a skirt without pleats inside out, spread it on his board, covered the seam with a strip of canvas, and then reached into the tin pail on his right, squeezed the water from the brown sponge and swept it up and halfway down the canvas, leaving a wet trail. It went on and on: a continuous movement of the lowered shoulder, the elongated arm, the hand wrapped in a wet rag. I saw the swollen blue veins on the inside of his wrist as he tossed the sponge back into the pail. When he picked up the iron, he grunted “Oy” under his breath, and a drop of sweat from his temple ran down the left side of his face; another hung from the tip of his nose.

On the way home, I bought a pack of Tolstoys—ten cigarettes for a nickel…

No comment on the implications of Spiegel’s work, minimal transition away from the scene. Perfect. Nissenson deserves more attention as one of our best novelists; I’m eager to read his latest, The Pilgrim, set in 1622.

3. Farthest North by Todd Balf, a short digital history of Elisha Kane’s disastrous 1853 Arctic voyage in search of the lost Franklin expedition of the 1840s.

As a committed armchair adventurer, I enjoyed this brief—and cheap ($1.99!)—tale of derring-do and unlikely heroes. A sickly sort from a prominent family, Kane drove himself to extraordinary feats. Balf writes some crystal-sharp prose in describing the otherworldly Arctic landscape, the jagged cliffs of ice, the myth of an Open Polar Sea to the north beyond the claustrophobic bergs. Here, though, the need for compression—the publisher’s requirement, I suppose—means that Kane’s background and psychology receive less development than I would have liked. I’m curious to learn more about his love affair with Maggie Fox, one of the three spiritualist Fox sisters of the mid-nineteenth century. Maggie was the one who renounced her séances as fake, and then, after Kane’s death, retracted her confession and went back to conning people. I’d also like to know more about some of the subsidiary characters on the expedition, both those who survived and those who didn’t. But for $1.99, I’m not complaining; Balf has done a fine job with this short-form bio-saga.