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04/19/2007


Tatamkhulu Afrika’s ‘Bitter Eden’: Book Review

BY GARTH GREENWELL

On the first page of Tatamkhulu Afrika’s intense and passionate novel, the narrator, Tom Smith, receives a package from a man he hasn’t seen in half a century. What it contains will send him back to the years he spent in Italian and German POW camps during the Second World War, camps that, for all their horror, Tom remembers as a “Bitter Eden.”

Bitter EdenThe book’s depiction of the day-to-day life in those camps is extraordinary. Captured in Northern Africa, Tom finds himself in a desperate world of starvation and ingenuity, of lice and cigarette economies and amateur entertainments. It’s “a place where anything unclaimed is everyone’s prey,” and where in their hunger men become nothing more than “meat wanting more meat so that it can go on being meat.” It is a brutal place, and yet it allows for intimacies and affections the broader world prohibits.

In this exclusively male world, men pair off with their “mates” to form ambiguous domestic relationships. The heterosexual Tom grudgingly allows himself to be claimed by Douglas, who disgusts him with his “almost womanliness,” and whose eagerness for Tom’s friendship reminds him of “a drowning clown or a tart desperate for trade.” That such relationships are often sexual is an open secret, and Tom’s cruelty to Douglas is a way of keeping at bay what he fears is Douglas’s desire for more intimacy than he can offer. 

This uneasy domestic arrangement is disrupted when Tom meets Danny, a British prisoner who makes Tom question what he thinks he knows about his own desires. “Sometimes I try to face up to the amorphous beast of how I feel,” Tom says, “lend it shape, substance, of which I can ask questions, have hope of a reply.” Increasingly anxious, he asks himself, “Am I one of them? Am I in love with a man?”  

The triangle between Tom, Danny, and Douglas will eventually turn tragic, but the book is most interested in the love between Tom and Danny, which will surprise both of them with its ferocity. That intensity is reflected in Afrika’s prose, which often takes on a hothouse lyricism that throbs with emotion.

In the book’s most beautiful moment, Danny wakes Tom to an eerie midnight scene: “a host of thousands of us are standing between the huts, motionlessly and silently as though bewitched, faces upturned under the full moon to the flank of the nearby hill.” Tom is confused until he hears the song of a nightingale, whose beauty has drawn the men from their beds: “‘So small a throat!’ I am thinking. ‘So small a throat!’ as the soaring gusts of sound, pitched a note’s breadth this side of sense, flood, copiously as the moon’s light, effortlessly as that which needs no struggling breath nor fiddling hand, out over hills, churches, shrines, our ragbag selves.”  

Afrika has a distinctive voice, a strange mixture of coarseness and composure, with a cadence informed by the Old Testament. At times, especially as he describes the deprivations of the camps, his sentences fall into a psalmic lilt: “and the skeletons we pretended we did not have begin to show, and our lips crack like the old mud’s heaving apart, and our tongues are the tumescences our loins no longer need.”

Tatamkhulu AfrikaWhile the book has met with great acclaim, some reviewers have complained that it suffers from melodrama, and it’s true that Afrika is drawn to extreme situations and the emotions they evoke, emotions he isn’t inclined to express with understatement. But I found myself increasingly entranced by this novel, which draws on Afrika’s own experiences as a POW. In its final sections, which recount first a forced march and then Tom’s initial days of freedom, including Danny’s remarkable and surprising courage in facing up to what he feels, I found myself harrowed and extraordinarily moved.

Bitter Eden appeared in the UK in 2002, just weeks before Afrika’s death. It has taken twelve years for the novel to reach the United States, and this very handsome hardcover edition is a labor of love for Stephen Morrison, the head of Picador, who wrote about the book’s long journey in Publishers Weekly. American readers are lucky to have the chance to read this beautiful book, a record of a man’s attempts to explore “the unpredictable thickets of my self,” where he finds that “a nothing that is everything is continuing to be said.” 

Previous reviews...
Rabih Alameddine’s ‘An Unnecessary Woman’
Edmund White’s ‘Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris’
Randall Mann’s ‘Straight Razor’
Janette Jenkins’ ‘Firefly’

Garth Greenwell is the author of Mitko, which won the 2010 Miami University Press Novella Prize and was a finalist for both the Edmund White Debut Fiction Award and a Lambda Award. His new novel, What Belongs to You, is forthcoming from Faber/FSG in May 2015. He lives in Iowa City, where he is an Arts Fellow at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. Connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.

 


Rabih Alameddine’s ‘An Unnecessary Woman’: Book Review

BY GARTH GREENWELL

Aaliya Selah, the irreverent, vibrant, hilarious, and fiercely solitary narrator of Rabih Alameddine’s brilliant new novel, has practiced a strange, consoling ritual for fifty years. Over the course of twelve months, beginning on January 1st, she translates a book, perfects it, seals it in a box, and places it in the back room of the apartment in Beirut where she has spent her entire adult life. No one reads these pages, including Aaliya herself: “Once the book is done,” she says, “the wonder dissolves and the mystery is solved. It holds little interest after.”

RabihIn a world where women’s lives revolve around husbands and children, Aaliya has lived alone since her husband divorced her after four failed years of youthful marriage. In her 70s now, estranged from her family, almost friendless, no longer working in the bookshop she tended for years, Aaliya has become the “unnecessary woman” of the title. “I am nothing,” she says at her most despondent; “I’m a wholly nondescript human.”

But the space of the “unnecessary” is also the space of art, and in the absence of the usual obligations Aaliya has dedicated herself to literature. She fills her days with reading, and she works on her translations in a kind of absolute innocence, free of any taint of commerce or fame. “I’m committed to the process and not the final product,” she says. “It’s the act that inspires me, the work itself.”

One of the wonders of this novel is how, from the perspective of such an outwardly circumscribed existence, Alameddine offers a rich, variegated portrait of a community. Though she hardly talks to them, Aaliya participates in the lives of her neighbors, women who gather daily for coffee and conversation, which Aaliya follows from her room. Though she doesn’t like to admit it, she weeps with both their sorrows and their joys.

She also, at least from time to time, descends into the streets of Beirut, a city for which she feels a deep and ambivalent love. “Beirut is the Elizabeth Taylor of cities,” Aaliya says, “insane, beautiful, tacky, falling apart, aging, and forever drama laden.” She remembers its many recent traumas, including civil war and Israeli siege, the marks of which are visible in bullet holes and armored stairwells. Her own apartment was broken into by looters, which prompted her to take steps toward her own defense; for years she “slept with an AK-47 instead of a husband.”  

But it’s a different kind of intruder that disturbs Aaliya’s peace in Alameddine’s novel. Startled one afternoon by a knock at the door, Aaliya finds her brother’s family, with her elderly, senile mother in tow. They insist that it’s Aaliya’s turn to care for the old woman; Aaliya, her need for independence outweighing her remorse, even horror, at her own cruelty, refuses: “‘No,’ I say, in a low, sticky tone. ‘She is not mine.’”

But it’s the mother’s response that is most shocking. When she sees her daughter and realizes where she is, she screams, “a defiant skirl of terror that does not slow or tire.” This scream will haunt the rest of the book, finally compelling Aaliya to undertake a journey into her past that may also, in unexpected and surprisingly tender ways, be an opening toward her future.

AlameddineAaliya constantly expresses her disdain for the tidy endings that mar so many literary texts, the revelations and epiphanies that allow for the kind of resolution that real life almost never achieves. But as the novel progresses it’s clear she is approaching her own reckoning, an increasingly desperate sense that, instead of giving meaning to her life, her devotion to literature may have kept her from the work of living.

“I made myself feel better by reciting jejune statements like ‘Books are the air I breathe,’” she writes, “or, worse, ‘Life is meaningless without literature,’ all in a weak attempt to avoid the fact that I found the world inexplicable and impenetrable.” While she has prided herself on being above the myths of politics and religion that have wreaked such havoc in the world, Aaliya comes to feel that she may have made her own false idol of art. 

But this won’t be Aaliya’s final or immutable judgment, and the book bears witness to the uncounterfeitable joy she has taken in literature, a joy I found myself sharing as I read this extraordinary book. Aaliya Saleh’s voice is an indelible addition to the literary chorus she so loves, and An Unnecessary Woman is the most remarkable new novel I have read in many months.

Previous reviews...
Edmund White’s ‘Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris’
Randall Mann’s ‘Straight Razor’
Janette Jenkins’ ‘Firefly’
Gengoroh Tagame’s ‘The Passion of Gengoroh Tagame’

Garth Greenwell is the author of Mitko, which won the 2010 Miami University Press Novella Prize and was a finalist for both the Edmund White Debut Fiction Award and a Lambda Award. His new novel, What Belongs to You, is forthcoming from Faber/FSG in May 2015. He lives in Iowa City, where he is an Arts Fellow at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. Connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.


Randall Mann's 'Straight Razor': Book Review

BY GARTH GREENWELL

Straight RazorThe elegant, savage poems of Randall Mann’s excellent third collection are filled with the unglamorous stuff of daily life, from a childhood of ketchup on quiche to the “Meat-Rack ambitions” of young adulthood in San Francisco. Mann is a rarity in current American poetry, a formal poet, committed to traditional structures of rhythm and rhyme. But there’s nothing old-fashioned in Mann’s mastery of old techniques, which he puts to use in poems that are moving and funny and vicious, and always electrically alive. 

The early poems in the book are full of the claustrophobia of gay boyhood in the suburban South. In a landscape of Supercuts and Pall Malls and Cinnabons, the speaker of these poems quickly stands out:                     

                        Bloody, slick, and fierce,
                        I slid out of the womb.
                        My heart was underfed.
                        My mouth began to foam.

                        At six I bit my lip
                        and took to backyard voguing:
                        I struck a rigid pose
                        in vigilante leggings.

School is a minefield of dangerous crushes on unobtainable boys (“my fear—Smear / the Queer”), of used towels snatched from locker rooms. At 20, he’s found different dangers in the bars he frequents, “the gin-soaked dread / that an acronym was festering inside,” as well as the cast of his own desires, which lead him to anonymous, sometimes brutal sexual encounters.

In the book’s title poem, a man holds a straight razor to the speaker’s ear as part of erotic play: 

                                                            ….Sticky, cold,
                        a billfold 

                        wet in my mouth, wrists bound by his belt,
                        I felt

                        like the boy in a briny night pool, he who found
                        the drowned

                        body, yet still somehow swam with an unknown joy.
                        That boy.

RandallMannThe poet seems shocked by his own reaction, the inappropriate, “unknown joy” that comes in place of the fear he knows he should feel. As in many of the poems in this book, form is cunningly bound to content, the careful control of the rhyme and the alternating length of the lines allowing for a sense of off-kilter command, an equilibrium on the point of giving way.

In his love of traditional form paired with decidedly untraditional subject matter, Mann recalls the great poet Thom Gunn, to whom he paid tribute in his second collection. (If you haven’t read Gunn’s The Man With Night Sweats, one of the finest books of poetry of recent decades and among the most powerful responses I know to the AIDS crisis, you should grab a copy right now.) But it’s to another gay poet, W.H. Auden, that he tips his hat in “Only You,” which transfers Auden’s marvelous “As I Walked Out One Evening”—rhyme and meter intact—to San Francisco:

                        As I skipped out this morning,
                        skipping down Castro Street,
                        the queens upon the asphalt
                        were racks of hanging meat.

Mann finds a kind of sexual wonderland in San Francisco, but what had seemed to promise freedom in the Florida of his childhood is soon enough revealed as another trap, what he calls in one poem “The Lion’s Mouth.” “I am so sick / of pretending to be me,” he writes in “Larkin Street,” exhausted by the erotic marketplace, and in “Civic Center” he offers a biting satire of certain shapes of modern love:

                        In bed, we only play together, because
                        this is the way we elude each other,
                        with the barback from Prague we’re thinking of adopting
                        by mail. We sometimes send our love.

Satire is one of Mann’s dominant modes, and he can wax cynical about both gay life and the literary world. But when the satire lifts what’s revealed (as in all good satirical writers) is serious, even moral feeling. In a book that lays claim to a huge range of tones, from high lyrical to queen-at-the-bar, repeatedly there occur lines that give voice to a finally tragic sense of the intrication of joy and pain. To quote again from “Only You,” Mann’s homage to Auden:                     

                        “The night is falling soon.
                        And love is never love
                        without a tub of ruin.”

Also mixing with this satire, making it richer and more complex than mere ridicule, is a sense of others’ suffering, a compassion nowhere more evident than in “September Elegies,” one of the book’s finest poems. Dedicated to four gay boys who committed suicide in a single month of 2010, the poem is a pantoum, an extremely challenging form of multiple repeating lines. As the details of the boys’ lives reoccur—ages, towns, last words—an arbitrary formal scheme takes on devastating emotional force.

Not least among the distinctions of Mann’s poems is that they aspire to one of the oldest ambitions of art: to fix the transient moments of our daily lives—in all their banality and beauty, their reverence and ridicule—in enduring forms. Mann is among our finest, most skillful poets of love and ruin. You should read this terrifically accomplished book.

Previous reviews...
Janette Jenkins’ ‘Firefly’: Book Review
Gengoroh Tagame’s ‘The Passion of Gengoroh Tagame’
Jason K. Friedman’s ‘Fire Year’
David Levithan’s ‘Two Boys Kissing’

Garth Greenwell is the author of Mitko, which won the 2010 Miami University Press Novella Prize and was a finalist for both the Edmund White Debut Fiction Award and a Lambda Award. He is currently an Arts Fellow at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. Connect with him on Facebook and Twitter


Janette Jenkins' 'Firefly': Book Review

BY GARTH GREENWELL

This short, beautiful novel takes place over a brief period in 1971, as the British playwright and composer Noël Coward, in the final years of his life, suffers from a weak heart and a slipping mind. Having fled both the gray skies and the high taxes of London, Coward spends his days at his Jamaican estate, Firefly, sunbathing and painting and sharing the occasional dinner or (more often) drinks with friends. But mostly he reminisces, increasingly disoriented as he slips between his diminished present and his glorious past. 

FireflyI can think of only a few books (Paul Harding’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Tinkers among them) that evoke so movingly a consciousness adrift in old age. It’s a strategy that allows Jenkins access to Coward’s whole biography, while freeing her from any burden of biographical linearity or exhaustiveness. The book shifts with virtuosic fluency between the bright heat of Jamaica and London’s chill damp, bringing childhood memories, artistic triumphs, and sexual conquests to life with exquisitely curated detail.

We see Noël as a boy, speculating about the lives passing in the houses he can see from his bedroom window, and then, imagining himself being watched in turn, giving “a flick of a bow” as he lets the curtain drop. A little later, after his first sexual encounter, “colliding and laughing” with another boy on the wet rocks by a stream, “he can see a frog springing from the bank side; a splash as it leaps into the water.”

Jenkins’ Coward isn’t always a pleasant character, especially in the present-day scenes. He’s always ready with a withering remark, and he lashes out, at times violently, at the Jamaican servants on whom he depends for the most basic tasks. (When, with great difficulty, he manages to do up his own shirt buttons, “he doesn’t know whether to shout, ‘Hurrah!’ or to burst into tears.”) But he still possesses, at least in snatches, the quick and sometimes cutting wit that fills his plays. “Oh, you know everyone,” one unlucky acquaintance says to him over dinner. “‘No,’ says Noël, ‘Everyone knows me.’”

One of the most moving aspects of Jenkins’ portrait is how clearly she shows that the very wit for which he’s famous has become a prison for Coward, an elaborate armor that no longer enables expression, but prevents it. Coward tosses off stylish witticisms and ironic bons mots with ease, but statements of genuine emotion seem beyond him, even as his inner life throbs with feeling. When asked whether he loves his companion of three decades, Graham Payn, the best Jenkins’ Coward can manage is “We’ve certainly had our moments.”  

Janette-jenkinsPayn and other friends make appearances in these pages, but for the most part Coward has left them behind, retreating to a small studio at some distance from the main house. Here, through most of the book, he’s attended only by Patrice, his Jamaican servant. Twenty-two, desperate to escape Jamaica, excited by the prospect of life as a waiter in London (his dream is to work at the Ritz), Patrice’s chatter and enthusiasm are juxtaposed with the jaded cynicism of Coward, who at the end of a brilliantly accomplished life seems nearly finished with the world and its delights.

It’s the relationship between Coward and Patrice—patient and caretaker, patron and supplicant, master and servant—that provides the emotional center of the novel. Jenkins has made a vivid, caustic, funny, deeply sympathetic portrait of an artist who is finally as limited as he is brilliant. “Hearts aren’t meant to be noticed, they’re just meant to work,” her Coward thinks as he struggles to finish the afternoon walk his doctor has prescribed. As the novel comes to its at once delicate and devastating end, it’s a different working of the heart he can’t ignore.

Previous reviews...
Gengoroh Tagame’s ‘The Passion of Gengoroh Tagame’
Jason K. Friedman’s ‘Fire Year’
David Levithan’s ‘Two Boys Kissing’
Thomas Glave’s ‘Among the Bloodpeople: Politics and Flesh’
 
Garth Greenwell is the author of Mitko, which won the 2010 Miami University Press Novella Prize and was a finalist for both the Edmund White Debut Fiction Award and a Lambda Award. He is currently an Arts Fellow at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop.


Gengoroh Tagame’s ‘The Passion Of Gengoroh Tagame: Master Of Gay Erotic Manga’: Book Review

BY GARTH GREENWELL

PassionI tend to cover my eyes at horror movies, if I can’t avoid them altogether; I hate violence of all kinds; Law & Order has about as much gore as I can manage. And yet, when I first flipped through this collection of Gengoroh Tagame’s erotic manga, which is obsessed with the domination and  torture of burly, hyper-masculine men, all of it depicted in sexual explicitness, my reaction shifted quickly from cringing shock, to fascination, to something like amazement.

In the most brutal of the seven graphic narratives here (there are also helpful essays by Edmund White, Chip Kidd, and Graham Kolbeins), men are kidnapped, drugged, beaten, and raped in horrible ways, often for the entertainment of an audience. In no way is this book for everyone, as Tagame himself acknowledges in discussion with Kolbeins. But neither is it a book only for those whose fantasies tend in the direction of Tagame’s own. I loved this book by the time I finished it, and I found myself lingering over even very brutal panels, not out of titillation but wonder.

This has mostly to do with Tagame’s art. Even in depicting violence, his drawings have an extraordinary delicacy, conveying extremes of emotion—humiliation, pain, despair, but also arousal, relief and, in one story, heartbreaking devotion—with incredible economy. The essays offered here discuss Tagame’s debt to Japanese woodblock prints, and I found myself marveling at the fine textures of his work, the gorgeous patterning of clothing, floor tiles, landscapes, the hairs on a man’s legs or the sweat on his face. 

Most of Tagame’s panels are too explicit to be shared here. But my own introduction to his work came through this wonderful short video my brilliant friend Max Freeman made as part of an interview he did with Tagame for the Huffington Post. (Max is also one of the creators of the fabulous queer web series The 3 Bits, whose Kickstarter campaign you should rush over to support.) In the video, Max films Tagame making one of his sketches (this one is rated PG) and talking charmingly about how he became an artist. 

 

For all their beauty as art, the narratives collected in The Passion of Gengoroh Tagame—appearing here for the first time in English—are also compelling as stories. They range across genres, styles, and historical periods, and often have elements of fantasy or science fiction. (One story features a drug that turns men into sexual beasts; another has a detective who receives psychic revelations through sexual experiences of certain kinds.) Though all of them have at their center sexual interactions defined by domination and submission, not all of them are brutal. In four of the stories, the sex is consensual, and in my favorite, the very moving “Exorcism,” a world of samurai warriors is the unexpected setting for almost unbearable tenderness. 

TagameIt may be precisely this emotional range that lifts Tagame’s manga. In “Missing,” a story of political kidnapping that has some of the most excruciating scenes in the book, what seems like an unremittingly dark narrative transforms suddenly into a story of love, if of a disquieting kind. These kinds of moves elevate Tagame’s stories above simple narrative frames for sexual acts, and they kept me dizzied and invested as I read. As did the intelligence that's everywhere evident in these pages, a restless interrogation of phenomena with which we’re all complicit, whether the ritualization of violence in sport and entertainment or the cult of masculinity that Tagame’s stories repeatedly undermine and exploit.

I don’t think it’s likely I would have found this collection without Max’s video and the recommendation of other friends. Had I stumbled upon it in a bookstore, I’m fairly sure I would have set it down after the briefest of glances. But reading it through I felt what is one of my measures of meaningful art: having spent time in Tagame’s imagination, I turn from it with a richer sense of the world. As I say above, this book certainly isn’t for everyone—but don’t be too quick to conclude that it isn’t for you. 

Previous reviews...
Jason K. Friedman’s ‘Fire Year’
David Levithan’s ‘Two Boys Kissing’
Thomas Glave’s ‘Among the Bloodpeople: Politics and Flesh’
Duncan Fallowell’s ‘How to Disappear: A Memoir for Misfits’

Garth Greenwell is the author of Mitko, which won the 2010 Miami University Press Novella Prize and was a finalist for both the Edmund White Debut Fiction Award and a Lambda Award. He is currently an Arts Fellow at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop.


Jason K. Friedman's 'Fire Year': Book Review

BY GARTH GREENWELL

Fire YearIt’s not surprising that a collection centered on gay Jewish experience in the American South would be filled with outsiders. The seven stories in Jason K. Friedman’s rich, funny and finally very moving debut all feature characters who feel like transplants in a strange land, even though often enough it’s the land to which they were born.

In several of these stories, sexuality is among the reasons for this sense of displacement. In “Blue,” the opening piece, a boy takes refuge in religion after a night watching hotel porn, when he realizes his excitements are different from those of his classmates. In “Reunion,” a forty-year-old gay man returns home from New York to find himself embroiled in a brief and bewildering affair with the star athlete of his class, now married with kids. “A little air started to leak in around the edges of the me who was filling the space of my body,” the narrator says, “the confident new me I was presenting." 

But these characters’ sense of apartness persists even when sexuality in itself is no longer a source of conflict. In “There’s Hope for Us All,” the book’s longest story and also one of its best, a young art historian finds himself working at a small museum in Atlanta, having failed to find an academic job after earning his Ph.D. from Yale. Adrift in the sprawling urban landscape of the New South, “a city of suburbs and ring roads,” and estranged from his Guyanese boyfriend, he makes a discovery that will bring him sudden fame and also a fuller sense of his own isolation. 

Friedman has already been compared to Philip Roth, and the first two stories here have something of Roth’s erotic comedy and brilliant sense of Jewish life in the suburbs. Salvatore Scibona, who selected Fire Year for the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction, also invokes Saul Bellow in characterizing Friedman’s work. But as I read this collection, I found myself thinking most often of the third in that trio of 20th-century Jewish American greats, Bernard Malamud, whose stories and novels are sriking, like Friedman's stories, both for their elegance and for the extraordinary compassion they show for their characters. 

Jason_Friedman_Photo This compassion is most evident in the book’s tremendously good title story, the last piece in the collection and the only one that takes place outside of America. In an unspecified country in an unspecified time, a boy comes of age in a Jewish town cursed to burn every seven years. The son of a great Rabbi, feared for his mysterious tie to the fires that plague the town, Zev’s own fears center on the desire that seems to blight his life, separating him both from his father and from the brother he loves, making him “a sapless tree, a dry well.” With its gorgeous, surprisingly redemptive end, “Fire Year” is among the best stories I’ve read all year.

Having recently published Caitlin Horrocks’s tremendous first collection of stories, and with Kyle Minor’s much anticipated second collection out in February, Sarabande Books is cornering the market on exciting young writers of short fiction. Fire Year is an excellent addition to their list. Friedman’s bio suggests that he may have a novel in the works; if it’s anything like these terrific stories, I can’t wait.

Previous reviews...
David Levithan’s ‘Two Boys Kissing’
Thomas Glave’s ‘Among the Bloodpeople: Politics and Flesh’
Duncan Fallowell’s ‘How to Disappear: A Memoir for Misfits’
Frank Bidart’s ‘Metaphysical Dog’



Garth Greenwell is the author of Mitko, which won the 2010 Miami University Press Novella Prize and was a finalist for both the Edmund White Debut Fiction Award and a Lambda Award. He is currently an Arts Fellow at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop.


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