As I read Going Dark, Selected Stories by Dennis Must, (Coffeetown Press, 170 pages) I saw a realistic foundation in each story. Here is a recognizable world with real people suffering real-life anguish. What interested me, however, was the way the author then handled time, space, and imagination. To come to grips with it, I had to invent a literary term—lyrical surrealism—to distinguish Must’s work from fantasy which, to my mind, means dragons and dragonspeak, time warps, elves and men with long beards carrying oaken staves and speaking some dialect of incomprehensible origin.
The protagonist and narrator in Minimum Maintenance (Bonnie’s Mews Publications, 240 pages) by Carolyn Colburn is a thirteen-year old girl named Sugar, named so because her mother didn’t want to say “shit” on camera. Sugar bumps along in the wake of her untethered mother from Minneapolis to Up North to Montana, Oklahoma, Nevada and parts in between, smoking cigarettes and joints, working on a tattoo and making fleeting friendships along the way. The title indicates the nature of Sugar’s childhood along the back roads, where dead cars pile high and outliers hang onto reality for dear life, doing what they do with drugs, booze, guns, sex, and hair dye.
It is easy to understand how The Conductor (Vintage, 303 pages) stayed on the best seller list for weeks and weeks in New Zealand. The story is compelling, and Sarah Quigley knows how to tell it. Against the background of the siege of Leningrad during the Second World War Dmitry Shostakovich is writing his Seventh Symphony, struggling to finish it while German bombs are falling all around him. Meanwhile, the main character, Karl Il’ich Eliasberg (1907-1978), the second-rate conductor of a second-rate orchestra, goes about his life of quiet desperation, unaware that circumstances are coming together so as to place him at the center of history.
I’ve read all of Aleksandar Hemon’s books. They have been blurbed and reviewed by the most enthusiastic of blurbers and reviewers: “dazzling, astonishingly creative prose” with “remarkable, haunting autobiographical elements.” The latest Hemon offering, Love and Obstacles (Riverhead Books, 210 pages), is a series of short stories, most of which continue in Hemon’s now familiar reminiscent strain. They amount to a kind of Bildungsroman, the story of a guy from Sarajevo who comes to America—in a word, Hemon’s own story, and therein lies the problem. Or, to put it more precisely, there may have been no problem when he started writing in this nostalgic, reminiscent vein, but by now the problem is obvious. What I’m writing about below is, primarily, that problem.
The Betrayers (Little, Brown & Co, 267 pages) begins with a Russian expression on a young woman’s face. A pretty blonde woman working as hotel clerk in Yalta is berated by a young woman from Israel, who insists she be given a room. The clerk “endured the assault with a stiff, mulish expression. A particularly Russian sort of expression, Kotler thought. The morose, disdainful expression with which the Russians had greeted their various invaders. An expression that denoted an irrational, mortal refusal to capitulate—the pride and bane of the Russian people.”