Some of my work on Updike was discussed on The Dish with Andrew Sullivan.
Some of my work on Ross Macdonald was discussed on Pretty Sinister Books.
Here is my interview with superstar music impresario Wendy Starland.
Here is my interview with Pulitzer Prize nominee Olympia Vernon.
Here is my interview with the editor of Best American Short Stories, Heidi Pitlor.
Here is my interview with acclaimed artist Emil Kazaz.
My musing on John D. Macdonald, Travis McGee, and the chicks was picked up on The Rap Sheet.

Inter Ice Age 4 by Kobo Abe

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When I was a kid I was very into Existentialism; having read somewhere that Kobo Abe was an important Existentialist type of novelist, I would go to the 8th Street Bookstore in the Village and grab as many of his novels as I could (at that time they were published by New Directions).  When I wrote this cringe-inducing article for Patsy Moore in 2008 I was well over my Abe period.







Kobo Abe's Inter Ice Age 4



                                    There are a few universal features of outstanding fiction that most readers will readily identify as providing the most pleasure and satisfaction, that make the reading experience a fulfilling one.  Some of these will likely be: subtlety and nuance of characterization; skillful plotting; vivid descriptive writing; insightful communication of feelings; excellent facility with language.  Any fiction that contains a majority of these is likely to be of quality.  Interestingly though, it is not necessarily the case that a novel almost totally lacking in any of them will be a poor one or one disqualified from major status.  It is possible that a novel can contain wooden characters, plotting that is just OK, be emotionally aloof, and writing that is merely competent and not much more, and still, in spite of all that, force us to put our ear to the wall of infinity and listen for the music of meaning.  Inter Ice Age 4 by the great Japanese author Kobo Abe is just such a book.  Its power comes from the fact that  it is a virtual intellectual explosion, and a prescient one.  Written under the guise of science fiction, this tale foresaw - in 1959!!! - the eventual importance that issues such as cloning, genetic manipulation,  and global warming would take on for the human race; it also anticipated - and this is pretty incredible - important work in late twentieth century  analytic philosophy done by thinkers such as Thomas Nagel in What Is It Like To Be A Bat? and John Searle with the Chinese Room experiment.  This in and of itself is fascinating, since  virtually every piece of reference material available in English about Abe goes out of its way to stress his interest in Continental philosophers such as Kierkegaard and Jaspers, which is in many ways the completely opposite tradition.
                                    Yet we can see that it is so.  Abe is often compared to Kafka, probably because the work of both is greatly concerned with the loss of individual identity, but I think that where Kafka approaches this question by means of psychological probing, Abe puts a different spin on it - he's totally about the increasingly dominant role science and technology are assuming in human affairs.  Abe had a scientific background, being an M.D., but he never had any interest in practicing medicine.  He seems to have gotten the degree out of a sense of obligation to his father, who ran a hospital in Manchuria after Japan was destroyed in World War 2 (Abe once wrote "I will never forget that my adolescence began amidst death and ruins.")  In retrospect, from the perspective of 2007, we can see that Inter Ice Age 4 is not science fiction at all, though that would not have been possible to declare in 1959.  Amazing!  And the fact that it isn't points to Abe's ability to wed his capacity to foresee how science can both help and harm humanity with an overall pessimistic, materialistic view of human life itself.  (He believed in discredited ideologies like Marxism and Socialism.)  At one point the narrator, Professor Katsumi, tells us:


                                                            However, the more we worked, the more we realized how few areas were unrelated to politics.  If, for example, we attempted to predict the extent of arable land, then that involved the problem of the specialization of the farming class.  If we tried to investigate the distribution of completely paved roads
some years from now, then we became entangled in the national budget... I was thoroughly disgusted.  It was like a spider's web: The more we tried to avoid politics, the more we became entangled in them.



                                   
                                    Earlier I mentioned some characteristics of great fiction and stated that this novel has none of them.  However, there is one that I left out, and it does have that one, in excess - imagination.  In truth the sum total of Abe's novels shows that  his imagination was inexhaustible.  The book that made him famous all over the world, The Woman in the Dunes, illustrates  that nicely.  There, a scientist falls into a hole in the ground on a beach and encounters a community of people who spend their entire lives fighting against the encroaching sand.  There is a minutely detailed synopsis of the plot of Inter Ice Age 4
at this website   www.ibiblio.org/abekobo/synopses/daiyon.html    Without being quite so thorough, I'll outline it here just to fortify the point about imagination (remember - this is 1959):
                                    A computer scientist named Katsumi and his assistant Tanomogi are working on a computer that has the ability to predict the future..  As it happens, scientists in Communist Russia have developed a similar machine which, after making extremely accurate predictions about world events, foretells the global triumph of communism over capitalism.  Katsumi is ordered to have his computer try something on a smaller scale - to predict the future of one individual human being.  He and Tanomogi pick a man at random and follow him.  The next day, the man turns up murdered.  His mistress, confessing, is arrested for the crime.  Katsumi's machine had already been able to download the contents of the man's mind, and in these "memoirs" the dead man had observed that his girlfriend frequently seemed to have amounts of money in her possession that were out of all proportion to her quotidian job.  Confronted with this, she tells a fantastic story to account for the cash - when she was pregnant some people from a hospital had approached her to abort the fetus and hand it over to them in exchange for seven thousand yen. Moreover, each time she provided a referral of another pregnant woman for the same purpose she was paid an additional two thousand.  No one believes the story, and in short order she commits suicide.  Eventually Katsumi's wife, herself pregnant, is approached and offered seven thousand yen for her fetus.  Clearly this is no coincidence, but Katsumi is unable to make sense of it all.  Tanamogi keeps making covert suggestions about organizations that do work on animal fetuses to breed new species.  Katsumi at first brushes this off but eventually he comes to uncover a situation that is quite sensational - an effort to breed human babies with gills, able to survive underwater, because the polar ice caps are melting and Japan will soon be entirely submerged.  The fish children, called "aquans", are cultivated in a breeding farm; Katsumi has the unpleasant experience of seeing his own child, whom his wife sold, in the "birthing room."


                                    There are many details of plot that I'm electing not to get into here because, honestly, while the plot is involved it's not especially exciting or suspenseful.  The ideas that Abe takes up are what make the book so richly stimulating.  The whole idea of being able to look into the future, for example, raises questions about free will and human freedom that have been debated for thousands of years.  This rather long quote examines the question of free will, how knowing the future would affect it, and, at the end, a view of abortion that you'll never see advocated, for example, in American politics:


                                                            "While we're at it, I wonder if you'd use me as a sample case and forecast my future."That would be interesting.  If she had been a sample case, I would have known about the affair with Tanamogi and been able to avoid all this fuss.
                                                           
                                                            "I'm serious," she said, running her long fingernails slowly around the edge of the machine.  "There's no rhyme or reason why someone should have to go on living."

                                                            "Come, come.  It's usual enough...with someone."

                                                            "By 'with someone,' I suppose you mean getting married."

                                                            "Oh, anything you like.  It's not that we live because everything can be explained.  We want to
explain things because we're alive."

                                                            "Everybody talks like that.  But I really wonder if one would want to go on living after having his
future told."

                                                            "Are you saying you want to know your future expressly to put the proposition to the test?"

                                                            "Well, what about you, sir?"

                                                            "What do you mean?"

                                                            "Since you don't know what your future will bring, you can live now.  If living is all that important, how is it possible to abort children who should be born?"

                                                            I swallowed hard and shrugged.  Back of my ears there was a sound of something breaking.                                                      Wada had spoken in a terribly casual voice.  Of course, it was the combination of                                                                                  happenstances.  I said:"There's no reason to treat something that has no conscience yet the same as a human being."

The suggestion that the only reason to carry on with life is the state of being in love with another human being ("It's usual enough...with someone")  is, like much of the dialogue and many of the ideas, almost clinical, aspiring to be objectively detached and scientific, but we notice here that it's put forward as a rebuttal to the idea that knowledge of one's future would cancel one's desire to keep living, which is an interesting idea in and of itself.  And the suggestion that humanity, or personhood, is contingent upon the existence of a conscience is a startling hypothesis to say the least.  Of course, it's impossible for most of us to study, or to talk about, these subjects in a calm, aloof way.  They stir up our deepest emotions.  This dichotomy comes up again and again, in almost every conversation in the novel.  At one point someone says, "Murder is not bad because you deprive the victim of physical life, but because you deprive him of his future."  At another juncture Yamomoto, the head of the aquan project, tells Katsumi just before he shows him the breeding farm, "I should like you to take an intellectual rather than factual interest in what you're going to see."  The clash of knowledge versus emotion, of intellect versus feelings, never stops.
                                                            I want to briefly touch on an idea that underlies the whole tale, which is that the human mind is essentially a very sophisticated computer or, if you like, that computers can emulate human thought exactly, or, in yet another formulation, the question of whether or not a computer can be said to have consciousness and thoughts in the exact same way that a human being does.  These questions were first seriously proposed by the English mathematician Alan Turing in the 1940s, and they have obsessed scientists and philosophers every since.  In popular culture some of this usually surfaces under the term AI, for Artificial Intelligence.  This issue is nowhere near as familiar to the average person as global warming is, but its inclujsion by Abe in a novel composed in 1959 is just as astonishing.  The computer that lies at the center of operations strives to be like the one in Moscow, about which it is remarked "Until now computers have had to be fed by humans.  But Moscow I has apparently advanced to the stage of being able to self-program."  These are big questions that reach way out of the scope we have here, but serious readers should be aware of the issues being raised.

                                                            Inter Ice Age 4 is one of the most provocative novels by one of the most provocative authors in twentieth century world literature.  The questions it examines are among the most important of our time, and it examined them many years before they became widely shared concerns.  As an introduction to Abe's fully mature, fully realized novels like The Box Man and The Ark Sakura it is highly recommended.  This is a book you can read with profit every year or so for a lifetime.


Get Down by Asali Solomon


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This is an article I wrote in 2008 about Asali Solomon's remarkable first story collection.






                                    Asali Solomon's Get Down (2006)




                                    Have you ever heard the song Me and Mrs. Jones by Billy Paul?  What, in your opinion, are the lyrics about?  File this question away for a few minutes while we consider a couple of the stories in Asali Solomon's first collection Get Down.  By the way, if I tell you that this collection is about groups of African-American and Hispanic teens and young adults in Philadelphia you'll probably think that the title is as in "Do a little dance, make a little love, get down tonight," right?  If so, you're  only partly right.  One of the central concerns of this book is language itself and how often it can be malleable, bendable, shapeable, take on forms and meanings that catch us off guard.  Herein, words are not just vehicles of expression but marvels, objects of fascination; sentences, wondrous carriers of emotions and thoughts that are not so easy for the characters to put into communicative speech.  (Which is a possible explanation for why seemingly everyone is so into music.)


                                    There are seven stories in the volume.  I'll concentrate on just two here for reasons of economy, and in regard to one I'll focus on something that is admittedly not the crux of the story but something I find personally fascinating.  These  two are the stories that bookend the volume;  of course, the other five are equally interesting. ("The Star of the Story" operates at perhaps a different level of sophistication and observation than some of the others.  I heard Solomon read from this great story at the KGB Bar in New York).  All seven share some elements, naturally.  One, "Save Me," is experimental.
                                    "Twelve Takes Thea" and "First Summer" both develop unexpected endings (the second moves on the last page to a kind of reflexive metafiction not previously seen anywhere in the volume; there, Solomon inserts herself- as-storyteller into the tale and speaks directly to the reader) but not the kind of surprise, shocking twist endings of thrillers; instead, these endings are revelations.  The happenings contribute to the emotional educations of the characters and make us, the readers, reflect back perhaps on similar events in our own lives.  The ongoing process of the acquisition of maturity is the phrase that comes to mind.  A seventh grade girl has her first experience with deliberate, calculated lying  that's designed to be malicious, and is mystified to discover that the same capacity exists within herself; a young man is amazed to learn, many years after high school, that a girl in his high school class was infatuated with him all those years ago. 
                                    Thea is a sixth grader.  When her best friend Nadja transfers to another school at the end of the year it seems like the end of the world, though her new school is not so far away and they can still see each other and talk by phone often.   Seventh grade begins with some new girls, among them Frances Dyson and Beth Johannssen, whose name is a curiosity and mystery because she is clearly of Indian background.  Frances replaces the departed Nadja as the second black girl in the group, though, as Thea thinks, she looks so ghetto (Thea's word) and Thea is not sure what to make of her.  The rub:  Thea's parents try to force a friendship between Thea and Frances:

                                                            Eventually, the Black Barrett parents (the BBPs) were going to get together, and if my
parents went to the first meeting, or tea as it was sometimes called, and met Frances' parents, and if there was any indication that I wasn't carrying her on my  back, saving her seats, or showing her how to flush the antique middle school toilets, I would be very sorry.t's a given that racial identity is a great concern in Thea's life  - although, at her age, it seems to be an open question as to what degree she can effectively deal with perceptions of the self in this way - and this is established definitively and immediately within the first fifteen pages or so:  

                                                - Thea's  brother Stephen derisively calls her "Jane" as a kind of derogatory name for white girls;
                                               
                                                - a teacher in the school cannot tell Thea and Nadja apart;
                                               
                                                - Thea takes the bus from urban Philly, where she lives, into Bryn Mawr, where the school is, every day, prompting one schoolmate to remark "I hear there's pools of blood on every corner in Philadelphia"  - the implication being the whole city is a violent black slum; 
                                               
                                                - Nadja's new school is one where nuns still dish out physical punishment upon the children - she observes to Thea, "Your parents would never let you go anywhere white people get to beat you.";
                                                 
                                                - when Nadja is about to leave Stephen says "Now you're really gonna be a wanna Jane."

                                                - upon first seeing Frances Thea thinks, "Frances was black.  I knew that my parents would be very excited about this."

                                                - when Nadja and Thea gossip on the phone about Beth Johanssen Nadja observes, "She probably thinks she's white."

                                                - Thea and Beth have a little game where they pretend everyone at the school looks like an animal;
when Beth identifies Frances as a monkey Thea wants to protest this cruel racism but doesn't, for fear of hurting her own relationship with the 'cool' Beth.



                                    This leads to the story's second major theme, which has to do with issues of peer pressure, acceptance, being a part of the in crowd, etc. - things which are so desperately important to kids of this age.  The magnitude of Thea's adolescence is perhaps best symbolized by the incredulous awe she exhibits on learning that Frances has a boyfriend.   Then, when Frances calls her an Oreo, she's stung but  seems to conveniently forget her own earlier characterization of Frances as being too ghetto.  But the real point has to do with the web of relationships Thea has with a few of the girls - Nadja, Frances, Beth, and a girl who is only peripherally introduced as one of the most popular at Barrett, Liza.
                                    Thea veritably worships Beth Johanssen to the point where she begins to copy her habits like wrinkling her nose or the way Beth dances ("I tried to do what she did.')  She whines to Nadja every time they speak, her inability to deal with the latter's move to another school simply consuming her emotions ("You never want to go anywhere with me.")  In the end Beth, Nadja, Liza and Frances all connect to Thea in a surprising way, through a sequence of lies which are impossible to anticipate.  It happens, however, that Solomon has thoroughly prepped us for the finish in a kind of under the radar way ("Incidentally, Nadja was the sole Barrett girl my brother didn't call Jane" and "A lot of people hated me there," she (Beth) once told me at lunch.) Interesting too is the depiction  of  the manners, etiquette and ritual behaviors of the school dance.
                                    One of the really remarkable things Solomon can do here is transfer us back to grade school with such accuracy it hurts - it's almost painful to be reminded of what we regarded as important then.  Thea says of Beth Johanssen, "Even wearing some off-brand of tennis shoe, she was clearly the prettiest girl in the class."  And though Nadja has gone off to another school and hasn't met Beth, by the end of the story Beth has penetrated Nadja's circle of communication somehow, within a small degree of separation, and the results are unsettling for Thea.  Sensitivity to language, and thus to the objects and concepts in the world that it refers to, gives us insight into Thea's  very soul - italicized appearances of sadistic, psoriasis, and East Hell flow through her consciousness with ease once she gets their meanings as spoken by others.  (This comes up again in "Party On Vorhees!", in which the character Sarah has her hypersensitivity awoken by spoken nonsense such as "Around the way.")  Sentences that express familiar adolescent thoughts and behavior such as "I decided to wait out the slow songs in the bathroom" (at the dance - Thea has this idea because none of the boys ask her to dance and she's embarrassed) get the whole mood so right that they are both aching and gladdening at the same time. We come to see that the author, from the perpsective of an adult, is able to put an objective twist on the narrative that the characters themselves would be unable to understand.
                                    In "First Summer" race is more of a blunt issue than in "Twelve Takes Thea".  Delayna works  the register at a clothing store called Urbanicide, causing Rufus to remark "I didn't know they let black folks get near the money there.  They sure don't like me getting near the clothes."  Part of Delayna's rejoinder to that is, "It's basically my job to make sure black people don't steal."  The racism and racist policies under discussion here don't need to be finessed, nuanced, or danced around as in the earlier story - and part of the reason for this is that the characters here are more grownup, although school days indeed play a role once again. 


                                     In summary: Rufus lives with his girlfriend Shanna and their newborn son in the house of Shanna's mother Alba.  One morning as he waits for the bus on his journey to work he meets up with Delayna, who recognizes him from high school.  At first she says nothing about this, waiting to see if he will recognize her, but he doesn't.   Only later, after they meet for a movie and go to her place, the exact degree of her interest in him comes out fully:


                                                            She says, "You can't go yet.  I'm not done telling you my stupid problems.  You know, I didn't get to do all this in high school, when you were dating cheerleaders and going to basement parties every night."

When Delayna lets Rufus in on a surprising secret, and he suggests they take sick days at work in order to be together to work on it, he has mixed feelings about betraying his family.
                                    Now, this story has texture sufficient to support a study just as long as the story itself, but I should like to stress  something that  jumped out at me as I was reading, something which must be very hard to do in  short fiction because we don't see it much.  I'm talking about secondary characters who are so strong that they exert  immense influence over the tale in spite of appearing only briefly, and stick in the reader's mind with exceptional vividness.  If you'd like clear examples from another medium, the movies, think of Mickey Rourke in Body Heat or Brad Pitt in Thelma and Louise - brief, but monster, impact.  Here the character of Tony, Rufus' friend, functions in that fashion. 
                                    Tony was a classmate of Rufus' and Shanna's in high school where, we're told, he cut classes so often that the other students gave cutting a name - "hangin' with Tone."  To have this universal student rite named after oneself is probably the ultimate way to confer status.  Tony is a mystery though.  In spite of being the champ of cutters and a pothead, "He's been employee of the month  in their department so many times that Rufus has lost track."  Not only is he a star at work, but when Shanna agitates Rufus the first thing Rufus thinks of is how Tony handled (or didn't handle) a similar situation  with his own girlfriend - his behavior is a standard to be compared to.  When Rufus meets up with Delayna and has to concoct a lie to cover himself, he says he's going to have a drink with "Tone and them"; Shanna later uses this exact expression, "Tone and them" - who is 'them'?  We're never told, they're never identified, and obviously they don't need to be.  It's not "Bill and them" or "James and them".  And Tony is the only person Rufus speaks to about Delayna. Although he can't quite bring himself to reveal the truth, Tony knows it anyway - "Rufus, man, all it takes is one false move."  In her book The Principles of Literature Christina Myers-Shaffer lists seven methods of characterization: stereotyping; exposition; the character's actions; the character's words; the character's thoughts; the words of others; and the use of setting.  Tony, in this story, is portrayed to us by all seven of these methods - a remarkable feat!  In The Art of Fiction David Lodge writes that "Character is arguably the  most important single component of the novel."  Notwithstanding that these are stories, but the idea applies equally, and this story in particular is a fantastic illustration of the claim.

                                    Sometimes the greatest way to appreciate an accomplishment in art is to feel the truth being extracted out of your own memories and experiences, almost like a tooth being pulled, and being brought to light as a more preponderant, ecumenical affair.  That happens here.  I can tell you I hadn't thought about episodes of my own high school years for decades, but these stories made me do that, made me reflect - and made me smile, nod, wince, and almost cry a couple of times in the process.


The Blue Taxi by N.S. Koenings


Another piece I did for Patsy Moore's in the late 2000s.




N.S. Koenings' The Blue Taxi (2006)





                                    There comes a moment of realization in every relationship where it dawns on us that our beloved isn't really a swirl of miraculous cosmic love dust that was sent  by divine powers for the sole purpose of making us dizzy with delight; we come to see that they're just another person who burps, passes wind, tells a lie here and there, and has very familiar and common flaws and foibles that we didn't see at first, when we were so captivated and enthralled.  In other words, they're a human being just like everybody else.  All along, on the sidelines, people have been whispering to each other, "I wonder what she sees in him?" - and now comes the time when we must ask this question for ourselves.   This is probably the point at which we discover whether the relationship has any buttress, any real strength, or not.  I think in many cases this kind of realization about the significant other can be brought on by observation of, or social experience or interaction with, other possible mates and lovers.  We observe others in action and their behavior opens our eyes to the way our partner is not; or, conversely, we observe the faults in our partner first and they cause us to actively seek out someone else.  The person caught in an affair is  always pulled in two directions, living in a state of conflict and confusion about what they really want (otherwise they would simply abandon the primary relationship).  Having some familiarity with a couple of  the great novels of our time that examine  this subject entirely from a distinctly male perspective,  Graham Greene's The End of the Affair and Bernard Malamud's Dubin's Lives, it was an interesting shift  for me to experience N.S. Koenings' debut novel, where we are told of Sarie, the protagonist, that


                                                            She knew her husband's body better than she wished to and was, she knew (the Sisters had proclaimed it, like a penance), duty-bound.

Here we receive a very strong female point of view on the issue of marital infidelity, as well as an acute dissection of the processes by which love and marriage disintegrate and change.  On the second page of the book Sarie is said to be "slow to see the obvious."  The remark has a double meaning.  Ostensibly it is about her witnessing a terrible accident, but it also refers to her inability  ( up to now ) to deal adequately with the staleness of her marriage.
                                    A preliminary page sets the time and place of The Blue Taxi: Vunjamguu, East Africa, 1970s.  It is obvious, then, that a such a mise-en-scene is going to be dealing with issues of Colonialism either straightforwardly or in the background, and that it has fantastic possibilities as a geo-cultural document and as a catalogue of a faraway land and its societies and people.  But mostly this is a novel about the human heart, and we can consider it as such here. I'm just going to point out a few observations the principals make about themselves and others because I think this is mainly intended to be a story about individuals, not countries and movements. (This is not to say that the book can't be profitably enjoyed on those other levels, because it certainly can be.  Reading this novel alongside a work of scholarship such as Edward Said's Culture and Imperialism, for example, would be a fascinating intellectual undertaking.)
                                    In making his films Alfred Hitchcock used to refer to what he called the "macguffin," meaning an incident that kick starts the plot and then fades into irrelevance as the story progresses forward.  The Blue Taxi makes use of what we might call a half-macguffin, or a semi-macguffin.  It involves a young  local boy, Tahir, who gets hit by a bus in the street and loses his leg. 
A white woman, Sarie Turner, and her daughter, Agatha, witness the horror and spend the next several days wondering about the boy.  Finally, overpowered by curiosity, they visit his home despite being warned that the boy's father, nicknamed Mad Majid, is a crazy man.  Sarie and Majid begin an affair, which constitutes the main action of the tale; the bus accident  thusly serves as the catalyst for their meeting.     Although I say "action," there is very little action as such, a fact that really speaks to the author's ability to practice the craft of writing.  Koenings has an MFA in creative writing.  This is always a good clue about an author because it shows that, at least in part, they acknowledge that there are some things about writing that can be studied and taught; yet at the same time it's obvious that the author is drawing on deeply felt personal experience as inspiration, which is something that cannot be taught.  It has to be lived through.  Consider the following exchange between Koenings and myself:

                                                            QUINONES: Without getting too personal, it seems to me that some of the feelings and thoughts you write about are not really knowable unless you've had them yourself...

                                                            KOENINGS: One general thing I believe is that if something is part of the human experience, any human should be able, with a lot of work and hard thinking and feeling and openness and asking questions, to at least try to imagine what it might be like to live through it.  It's important for
fiction writers to do that... Literally speaking, none of the things in The Blue Taxi have ever happened to me.  In another, vaguer, kaleidoscopic way, of course, all of those things have.


                                                           

                                    Each of the three principal characters have  their expectations and beliefs about life seriously changed and challenged in the unfolding of the narrative, which is what I would say is the single most important thing to watch for in the novel.  As briefly touched on earlier, readers will also keep in mind the rich backdrop of an East African country making the transition from colony to independent state.  The third big thing to seek here is the author's lush, lavish, wild and inventive use of prose and language.  She writes with an indulgence that is its own justification, that exists for its own sake, and in my opinion too few novelists strive for this - it's a great pleasure to see.
                                    The trio of characters at the center - the Belgian Sarie,  her British husband Gilbert, and the locally born and bred Majid, her lover, could exist in any country at any time.  In that sense the plot is deeply familiar to us all - a woman is bored to tears by her husband and seeks some excitement from an affair.  The initial meeting of Sarie and Majid  is prepared for by means of a powerful, violent opening scene in which Majid's son, Tahir, loses his leg after being run over by the bus.  Sarie and her daughter Agatha witness the event.  The immediacy of the suffering boy is communicated beautifully: "The sounds his body made, delicate and soft, would have - somehow Sarie and the gaspers sensed that this was so - put further screams to shame."  The graphic portrayal of the accident  quickly moves into a scene in Mansour House, in another part of the Kikanga neighborhood (Sarie and her family live on Mchanganyiko Street), where we meet Bibi, her son Issa, and his wife Nisreen.  Their busybody roles quickly become apparent..  Bibi is a neighborhood spy and gossip, and in introducing her Keonings sharply clashes the old ways  of life with the new, the traditional against the modern, by using  a simple everyday object, something that will seem as common to Western readers as  the sea and sky - a telephone: "...there lived a brand new telephone that was eager to be used.  Black, still smooth, not yet gummy from the air's thick oil and grime, the thing sat brashly on a table near the balcony; it was cushioned in high style by a yellow doily Bibi's son had asked his wife to purchase, to make certain Bibi understood the phone was there to stay."  Five days pass between the day of the accident and the day Sarie first visits Kudra House, where Tahir and his father live.  During this time we become acquainted with Sarie and Gilbert and their marriage:

                                                            Gilbert liked to think of himself as a strong man and an able husband. And so he often told himself that Sarie, no matter what she said or did, was a fragile thing, unsure of what she wanted, and that she needed him to tell her what to do.

As the novel plays out its course we see that this line of thinking is completely delusional.  Koenings herself talked about the character of Gilbert to me this way:

                                                            ...the book is very much 'about' gender and masculinity...

                                                           
                                                            Gilbert, poor guy, has no mooring other than what he thinks people expect of a man (a white man, especially).  That he be a 'husband' and 'father.' He's got no idea how to be a person first, or how to face his wife as a person,
instead of someone whose behavior has to cement his social role.




                                    Majid, however,  does have these moorings in spite of having spent the last nine years mourning his wife and behaving in such a way as to earn the nickname "Mad Majid" around the neighborhood..  After her intial visit to his home, with her daughter Agatha, to see how the boy who lost his leg in the accident is doing, Sarie thinks of Majid: "He has a clock that marches!  And he writes!  He has a girl to bring him up the tea!"   She "felt seen, and cared for."    When the adultery inevitably comes we read that "Sarie had had scant experience with romance.  And so she mimed the movie actresses she had seen in one or two hot films at the Old Empire Cinema."  There is a remarkable scene in which, while Sarie and Majid make love for the first time, the little girl Agatha is on the other side of the door watching the amputee  Tahir sleep peacefully.  The moment brings momentous new experiences for everyone, and at its conclusion Sarie makes another double entendre remark to her daughter - "When we get home, your father will no longer be there."
                                      The seeds of Sarie's restlessness are sown early:

                                                            ...Sarie looked at Gilbert.  She weighed her knowledge of him with her eyes. J' complete, she thought.  Indeed: although he wore a singlet and a shirt, she
knew precisely where, below two ashen nipples, the flesh sagged from his chest. She could have pointed out exactly where the soft mass of his belly was dimpled and where it was not.  She knew without having to look how many ribs he had.  And she was tired of his talk.
                                   


                                    The initial meeting between the lovers is presented wholly form her point of view, but later Majid reflects:

                                                            How wild she was with me!  He recalled her as ferocious, nearly in a rage.  He even thought
she'd clawed him. growled a little in her throat.  That ardor!  It cannot have come from that pale woman alone.  Had it been called up in Sarie Turner by something within him, a force he had not known?  This thought pleased and jarred him.

                                    As the affair plays out we meet other characters as well who participate in, and comment on, the plot.  There's Gilbert's Uncle James in England, whom we never meet in person but who is a shaping force of destiny; a Greek named Kazansthakis, known as the Frosty King because he runs an establishment  in town called the Frosty Kreem which was founded by his grandfather;  Hazel Towsom, about whom Gilbert thinks "Didn't she have a way of being there when one just didn't want her?"; and the previously mentioned Bibi, Nisreen and Issa.  All  these, and others, contribute to the canourosness to be found within these covers.
                                    The Blue Taxi is big, ambitiously big - it shoots for a grand outline in many different ways, and it operates with vigor in every department of the fictive art - the prose is  spectaculary inventive; the characters are portrayed with sympathy yet with piercing, even brutal, honesty; important events are prepared for well in advance, and in such a way that what they reveal is as a lovely a process as watching a flower bloom.  But what is really noteworthy is the way Koenings employs the principle of unity and variety.  The construction of all art requires unity and variety.  We expect certain things from a story, and if we don't get them we tend to be frustrated (unity).  At the same time, rote, routine, and too much familiarity tend to be boring, and so a little bit of the unexpected satisfies us too (variety).  This equilibrium is achieved here with complete success.  Every one of us is familiar with tales of infidelity and love triangles and tales that show the lives of ordinary, every day people playing out against the bacdrop of major historical events as they unfold.  I think the constant possibility of seeing such wonted subjects handled in a fresh and unventured manner is actually part of what fires us up enough to constantly explore new vistas.  And The Blue Taxi is an almost inexhaustible new vista.


Golem Song by Marc Estrin

This is an article I wrote on the great novel by Marc Estrin, again for Patsy Moore's ezine.  In correspondence a couple of years later Estrin told me he's now a publisher, heading up Fomite Press with his wife.







Marc Estrin's Golem Song (2006)



                                    One of our most prominent living intellectuals, Professor Martha Nussbaum, makes an appearance
in this novel, as herself,  in a lunch time conversation with the main character, Alan Krieger, who disgusts her (as he does
almost everyone he comes in contact with).  I mention this because I myself once had a real life encounter with Nussbaum  in the mid 1990s, when I was one of several people  the Boston Review invited to write short replies to an article she'd written for them (you can read that here http://bostonreview.net/BR20.1/quinones.html )  I cracked up when I read the passage in Estrin:

                                                            "I was arguing that our primary loyalty should be to humanity as a whole,and not to some parochial national identity."
                                                           
                                                            "So what's wrong with that?"

                                                            "Oh, there were all kinds of objections - from silliness like, How can you be loyal to the world at large when there is no world state to be loyal to..."

because it sort of kind of describes the reply I wrote for the journal.  I guess Nussbaum heard it often.  This brought home the power of this novel to me in a direct, contact sport kind of way.  While recognizing that this won't happen for everyone,  I nevertheless feel this book can hit almost anyone who is concerned about the modern world with almost equal force. 


                                    This is an extremely learned novel that covers a whole host of important topics which I can't possibly get to in an article of this length, and  on seemingly every page Estrin makes free use of folklore, religion, myth, literature, songs, poems, puns, allusions, and pop culture.  He is also hilarious, the sense of humor often being wickedly irreverent. Readers have to be alert here.  I'm going to limit my remarks, after a short observation of the novel's postmodern character,  mainly to the  issue of  Kreiger's racism and hatred of African Americans, and then condensedly talk about the disintegration of Krieger's relationships with his girlfriends and family.  There is a third large issue - Jewishness, the state and condition of Jews in history and in the contemporary world scene, as well as the fate of Israel as a state in the modern Middle East, which I'll just mentionin passing  here and not discuss fully, but it's no less important for that.
                                    As noted, this tale has a thoroughly postmodern identity, as the appearance of a well known living person engaging in dialogue with a character illustrates, but there's more to it than just that.  Estrin employs the device of "Paper Trails", which are documents and letters that provide information about Krieger and provide commentary on the events occurring within the world of the fiction;  he also uses chapter headings that sort of tease us by giving a litttle information about what the chapter is about (for example Krieger's home life is discussed in " Krieger Domesticus"); and finally there are seemingly endless references - some direct, some allusory - to classic works of literature from the "canon", if I may use that word.  By way of example - the novel begins with a nod to Joyce:" Stately?  No.  Ahh, but plump?  Decidely."


                                    So who is Alan Krieger?  He's an obese, chain smoking, foul mouthed, racist nurse in the ER of a large and busy New York hospital.  He lives with his mother and his pet snake Shlong in an apartment in the Bronx,  is darting back and forth between between two girlfriends, and despises his brother Walter and his family (who live in Vermont) mainly due to disagremeents over the situation in the Middle East and the state of Israeli politics.  It's hard to say exactly when it happens, but at some point Krieger's mind starts to tip sideways and he begins to fancy himself a new messiah for the Jews of today.  He also becomes fascinated with the Biblical concept of the Golem; thus the novel's title.  Here is an excerpt from the Wikipedia entry on golem:
                                   
The word golem is used in the Bible to refer to an embryonic or incomplete substance: Psalm 139:16 uses the word "gal'mi", meaning "my unshaped form" (in Hebrew, words are derived by adding vowels to triconsonantal roots, here, g-l-m). The Mishnah uses the term for an uncultivated person ("Ten characteristics are in a learned person, and ten in an uncultivated one", Pirkei Avoth 5:7). Similarly, golems are often used today in metaphor either as brainless lunks or as entities serving man under controlled conditions but hostile to him in others. Similarly, it is a Yiddish slang insult for someone who is clumsy or slow

                                    Some aspects of Estrin's work are extremely confrontational and may make a lot of readers uncomfortable.  Krieger slowly develops into a Kahane-like figure, a warrior Jew who advocates violence as a means of achieving socio-political goals and satisfactions.  In an interesting review of the book for Pop Matters Jason B. Jones points out that some readers, not knowing much about Estrin, may tend to assume that Krieger is just a thinly disguised version of the author himself, representing the author's own viewpoints and beliefs when in fact it seems that exactly the opposite is the case.  (Jones' review is also highly perceptive in talking about binary concepts that exist in the novel, something I'm not at all sure I would have picked up on).
                                     I'd like to briefly comment on the strategy of references Estrin uses. He uses it to get all his fundamental points across to us, but in particular to point up just how isolated and lonely Krieger is.  The vastness of his learning is an indication - we wonder if this guy ever does anything but read books.  His erudite temperament and lifestyle function as a wedge between himself and less scholarly folk (which includes almost everybody) but, more, it is here to show us how  quickly  an educated and  knowledgeable person can  become  a monster.  Simply as a fun exercise, readers might want to glance at the following list  of six things and determine how much they know about each item  without doing a Google; this is just a smattering of some of the unexplained allusions Krieger makes in the course of the story:

                                    - Toshiro Mifune
                                    - the Bishop of Hippo
                                    - Count Chocula
                                    - the Big Ham
                                    - Something to be desired
                                    - H.P. Lovecraft

When pellets of allusion such as these and many others are slipped into dialogue and interior monologue reading becomes both challenging and enjoyable.  It's an ordinary device done extraodinarily well.  Let's explore this just a bit further.


                                    The question of what it means to be a Jew today, in modernity, has of course been investigated at length in  American fiction by three great twentieth century writers - Bellow, Malamud, and Roth;  Jewish theology and philosophy in the twentieth century had plenty of heavyweights such as Buber and  Fackenheim.  Estrin I think has clearly learned from all three of the novelists, not only thematically but stylistically as well. I mention this here only because I believe it shows that the author understands, and acknowledges,  some literary heritage and background and I feel that these small accedences are more subtle, more masked, than the numerous outright references he makes to other writers and musicians (Estrin  himself plays the cello).  The opening chapter of Golem Song nods to these three predecessors in three slyly differing ways.  In the staff room of the hospital Krieger finds a brownie, half eaten, left for dead, and he debates the best way to eat the remains of it without being seen.  This is strongly evocative of one of the opening scenes of Bellow's Herzog, where Moses Herzog leaves remains of his toast behind for the mice in his kitchen.  In quick order Krieger accidentally knocks a coffee cup off the table and it flies through the air and lands, bottom down, perfectly on the carpet with the coffee quivering inside, not a drop spilled.  This, again, recalls the kind of other worldly magic that the characters in Malamud stories such as The Magic Barrel or The First Seven Years experience; and finally the outrageous humor that Estrin employs in every chapter is channeling Roth, especially the earlier novels such as Portnoy's Complaint and The Great American Novel (the latter begins with a liitle nod to Moby Dick in the exact manner that Golem Song nods to Joyce).
                                    In Krieger's twisted mind the principal enemies of the Jews are African-Americans, specifically the Nation of Islam.  Now, there is all manner of lunacy and zaniness in New York  on the subject of Jews vs. Blacks, and in the 90s specifically (the novel is set in 1999) we had the Crown Heights Riots, Professor Leonard Jefferies, and the aforementioned Kahane and his followers.  Estrin sets up the later scenes of confrontation and dementia from the get go.  Much of significance transpires between Krieger and African-Americans.  In the first chapter he encounters a Mr. Brown who thinks he's Jesus in the hospital chapel.  In the second chapter he has nasty racial and sexual thoughts about a black woman in the subway; then the door to the subway car opens and "in swaggered two youths of color, equipped with acoustic accoutrments." who proceed to smoke in the subway even though there are signs everywhere announcing this is not allowed.  Later Krieger produces a rap lyric for one of his girlfriends, Ursula (a psychiatrist and a shiksa):

                                                            How you spell girl, girl with a G?
                                                            Well, you know I spell girl, girl, with a B!
                                                            Cause I know what the *@!$ you fo
                                                            Ain't no mischance you called a ho
                                                            Hey, a brother like me, he need only one thing
                                                            And that thing a target for mah .44 ding-a-ling!
                                                            Ain't my vernacular simply spectacular?
                                                            I'm a killa. a Godzilla, that's the ganze megillah...

                                    Krieger really starts to fall apart when it's revealed that Ursula has a black lover who's converted to Judaism.  Shortly after that he's attacked in the parking lot of St. Vincent's and of course assumes it's a black assailant without having any proof. He gets passed over for a promotion which goes to a black female colleague. Later, when a black patient named Eddie who has been stabbed and assaulted a policeman is brought into the ER, Kreiger threatens to emasculate him in a "joking" manner.  Perhaps what pushes his racism totally over the edge are some of the speeches he hears at a Nation of Islam rally at the Statue of Liberty:

                                                            "is none other than the black man.  The black man is the first and the last,the maker and the owner of the universe.  Allah is proving to us that the white race is not, and never will be, the Chosen People of God.  They are the
Chosen People of their father Yacub, the devil."
 
  And:

                                                             "Jewish victimization is part of a great hoax that explains how Jews have come to influence Western civilization out of all proportion to their  small numbers. Jews are
ot victims: they are victimizers.  They were the main people responsible for the genocide of the Native Americans.  They were one of the main slaveholders of our people before - and after - the Civil War."
                                   
And so Estrin presents us with all the usual justifications an imbalanced person will utilize in order to palliate their racism, culminating in the Rambo-like reaction to the racism and anti-Semitism of the Nation of Islam.  I'll quote just a couple of Krieger's rants here:
                                                            Violence is as Jewish as potato latkes, Calvin.  This world ain't Fiddler on the Roof.That was bad enough.  But after the Shoah show, non-violence doesn't cut it anymore.For Never-Again-ists, we need force and power, and not just brain power.


                                                            I have in mind blacks chanting, "More lampshades!" at a Cannibal demo in Crown Heights.  I have in mind my little Jewish nephew singing gangsta rap.  Makes
marrying a non-Jew seem like yeshiva.

                                                           

                                    However, the imagined tormentors of the Jewish People are not the only ones Krieger has serious issues with.  As we noted above, he alienates his girlfriends and family thoroughly.  He ruins a seder at the home of his girlfriend, Debbie Goldenbaum, shocking the guests with his contemptuous ridicule of their traditions and beliefs.  He fights with his brother over their conflicting views of Israel (the brother, Walter, is a pacifist who is appalled by the behavior of the Israeli military - as he puts it, the policy of  ' a thousand eyes for an eye'  - and who takes Krieger's 'JDL swagger and machismo' deeply to task).  The other girlfriend is a German psychiatrist, Ursula, who elects to dump Krieger for her long lost African-American Jewish friend Calvin, whom she happens to bump into in a restaurant where she and Krieger are having dinner (another miracle coincidence!)  And then  even his mother can't stand him anymoe and goes to live with her other son and his family in Vermont.  We learn of this from one of the Paper Trails with the subtitle of "First Epistle of Ma to the Floridians."

                                    Readers wishing to explore further should consult the Jones review mentioned earlier, as well as one by Gordon Hauptfleisch on blogcritics.org; there is also a long interview with the author at www.identitytheory.com  that gives quite a bit of exposition into Estrin's planning for the book.  The book, Golem Song, is fascinating and disturbing, and it may be the only hilarious novel about the possibility of a race war that you ever read.