(Subscribers will notice a new title for this publication, as well as an altered scope: while the reviews will remain only modestly long, they will no longer be restricted to 500 words—a restriction I previously failed to fully observe, anyway. I hope to renew regular publishing, but am not currently sure how regular regular will be.)
Fantasias of Familial Unease
The stories in Marcus Pactor's Begat Who Begat Who Begat situate themselves in the domain of domestic realism--family responsibility, particularly on the father's part, underscored by the book's title--but they are realistic only in their underlying emotional fidelity to the complications and anxieties induced in both parents and children by ordinary family life. They are fantasias of familial unease, transformations of recognizable family dramas into askew parables of parental confusion. Although there is certainly a palpable sense of urgency connected to the various characters' attempts to cope with the attendant obligations of their circumstances, ultimately these situations seem to serve more as the sources of the stories' narrative flights of fancy and formal variations than of novel insights into prevailing family dynamics.
The fathers in these stories are engaged in the most mundane sort of fatherly activities: installing toilets, mowing lawns, sorting screws in the garage. But the toilet somehow starts flushing up toys, jewelry, and other favors, the lawn mower begins speaking to its rider, and the screws, it turns out, are for a box inside of which the narrator is attempting to preserve the family's dead dachshund. Several of the fathers construct elaborate defenses against thinking directly about their parental fears. One engages in a disquisition on artificial intelligence (especially android bodies) as a way of displacing his anxiety about his daughter's budding sexuality. Another thinks constantly about food as a distraction from thinking about the loss of his family through a divorce. One is obsessed with bugs and other vermin after moving in to a new home, which seems a manifestation of insecurity in his masculinity (his wife appears to be the sexual aggressor in the relationship, and his neighbor, Dave, treats his lack of household handiness with some condescension). Some such implicit apprehension, in fact, seems to beset most of the protagonists in Begat, which Pactor adeptly exploits throughout the book for its comic effects.
Quite a few of the stories conspicuously employ unconventional structures and adventurous formal devices, although a focus on family dynamics and paternal equivocation remains prominent. "Archeology of Dad"--in this case recounted by the son about the father--departs from a present-day setting and relates the story of the narrator's father, a lesser-known neoconservative writer and intellectual of the Reagan-Bush era. The story of the father's rise and fall from grace as an influence at the Reagan White House is punctuated with textual "holes," which the narrator son uses to, in effect, spy on the otherwise unspoken "backstory" of the recollected narrative he is assembling. In "My Assets," a college-age daughter takes stock of her life by toting up her "assets" while reading her Econ 101 textbook. In an equally indirect manner, a father in "Do the Fish" considers his own rather confounding circumstances: his daughter has forsaken him for the mothering of a trans woman, Olive, who until recently had been the father's lover. The story is coaxed out of the father as responses to a questionnaire of sorts, although it remains uncertain just who is directing him to respond--quite likely himself. In a story that combines the graphical insertions of "Archeology of Dad" with the question-answer format of "Do the Fish," "Remainder" presents a dialogue between two men, Q and P, who discuss "American daughters" (as well as their recently deceased neighbor) in a less than fatherly way.
The father in "Sponsors" is also somewhat less than fatherly. "While his daughter was out on a date," it begins, "Berg went to her apartment, slept with her roommate, and left with his head shaved to skin." We don't really get much in the way of follow-up to Berg's introductory transgression, as the story depicts his generally aimless activities in its wake--related by a friend, who by the end of the story actually usurps attention away from Berg to his own concerns. "More Fish than Man" is not the only story in the book to hint at same-sex attraction on the father character's part (in one story, more than just a hint), in this case seeming to directly link it to the doubts about the performance of masculinity expressed to a greater or lesser degree in numerous stories in Begat. The final story in the book, "Known and Unknown Records of Kip Winger," appropriately enough recapitulates some of the more prominent motifs employed throughout Begat Who Begat Who Begat: a protagonist uncertain about his masculine libido in contrast to his more sexually adventurous wife, a problematic relationship between the protagonist and his own father, a father anxious about his own parenting skills. At the story's conclusion. the protagonist (here named Bergen) envisions three scenarios for his future, in each of which his wife leaves him. "He understood that Eva would leave no matter [how much he endeavored to keep the marriage intact]", leaving perhaps a final, sobering impression of the fragility of family.
By the time we have reached this concluding story and its concluding flourish, the book's title has come into clearer focus: the biblical chronicles of family lineage serve as elemental testimony to the ancient human imperative to create families, an imperative that has had as a secondary effect the creation of literature to register the influence of family life on human experience. Marcus Pactor's book both exemplifies the perennial relevance of stories about familial complications and demonstrates that such stories can be told in inventive and unexpected ways.
The Artifice of Story
It seems accurate to call Jen Fawkes, at least on the examples offered by her first two books, Mannequin and Wife and Tales the Devil Told Me (the former published in 2020, the latter in 2021) a fabulist, in a line of fabulist writers that has been joined by more and more writers over the past 20 years or so. Perhaps the emergence (or reemergence) of the fanciful and dreamlike in American fiction--to call this sort of fiction "surreal" would tie it too closely to the 20th century literary movement that made the term popular, with which it really shares only a preference for the distortion of reality--can be understood as a reaction to the rise of minimalist neorealism as the prevailing practice in the 1970s and 80s. But while among those adopting fabulation as an approach could be counted a writer such as George Saunders, the practice seems to have been especially appealing to a burgeoning number of women writers, who have found it more compelling than realism as a way of representing women's experiences, especially as way of challenging social, cultural, and psychological stereotypes.
Although the current writers we immediately identify with such a tendency might include, say, Aimee Bender and Karen Russell, arguably the real precursors to this mode of contemporary fiction are, arguably, Angela Carter and Rikki Ducornet. Their work directly invokes fables and fairy tales, evoking female sexual desire in a way that seems in tune with the liberatory cultural energies of the times (1960s/70s) but also, given expectations of women writers before them, still seems truly transgressive. Their fiction has a complexity and allusiveness that transforms the elemental simplicity of the fabular into a poetically suggestive kind of tale that retains the allegorical ambience of the fable but conveys meaning indirectly through the beguiling potency of the imagery. Subsequent writers showing the influence of the approach taken by Carter and Ducornet have affirmed the pursuit of an "alternate reality" as a valuable strategy in evoking facets of women's lives largely glossed over in American fiction, but the depth of vision to be found in the earlier writers is more difficult to emulate.
Jen Fawkes seems more inclined to the complexity of perspective found in Carter and Ducornet, even if at first glance the stories in a book like Tales the Devil Told Me might be characterized as simple reversals of the viewpoint associated with traditional fairy tales (substitute as protagonist the evil character for the good one). The first book, Mannequin and Wife, does not so explicitly cross over into the fabular world of make-believe but instead injects elements of the fabulous and the uncanny into what might otherwise be ordinary situations, as in "Sometimes, They Kill Each Other," the first story in the book (told in the plural first-person by the secretarial pool), in which the executives in a corporate office express their competitive impulses by literally engaging in duels staged in the office for the spectatorial pleasure of everyone assembled. In "Iphigenia in Baltimore," the "strength" of the title's mythical character is again literally figured in the story's protagonist, a fourth-grade teacher described as the "strongest woman alive" who must refrain from romance out of her fear she may unwittingly injure her partner, as once she had done in the throes of passion, wrapping her legs around her would-be lover and crushing his pelvis.
Other stories in Mannequin and Wife are less fanciful, although still disposed to the odd and eccentric. In "Rebirth of the Big Top," the owner of a drive-in theater begins to hire the former employees of a defunct Sideshow Carnival ("Miranda the Elephant Girl," "Julius the Lobster Man"), whose presence begins to revivify his business. The protagonist of "Call Me Dixon" (ultimately an unreliable narrator, to say the least) assumes the identity of a code-breaker (whom the narrator tells us he found dead by suicide) during the London blitz of World War II, but discovers that he is not the only one who might be suspected of operating under a counterfeit identity. In general the stories in this book effectively contest the boundary between the real and the fabulous, but ultimately they are somewhat various in tone and structure, ranging from paragraph-long flash pieces to longer stories (such as "Call Me Dixon") that have the looser discursive structure (if not the length) of a novel rather than a more strictly controlled linear narrative.
The stories in Tales the Devil Told Me also vary in length (the longest story in the book, "The Tragedie of Claudius, Prince of Denmark," Fawkes's retelling of Hamlet from Claudius's perspective, is almost novella-length), but the stories are thematically and structurally unified by the book's underlying conceit: the stories are essentially "twice-told tales" by which well-known fables, fairy tales, and other famous narratives are retold from the point of view of the stories' ostensible antagonists or narrative foils. The recompositions include the stories of Rumpelstiltskin (of a race of creatures called "rumpelstilts), Peter Pan, and Hansel and Gretel, as well as more modern works such as Moby-Dick, The Jungle Book, and Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca. Some of the narratives retain their original settings, while others are updated to a more contemporary scene ("Never, Never" is a sequel of sorts to Captain Hook's sea adventures, after he marries and settles down in an American suburb). Almost all of them intelligently and provocatively explore the potentially more complex and ambiguous imagined realities of characters who in their original incarnations played the narrower and more reduced role of villain.
Especially effective in realizing this ambition are "The Tragedie of Claudius" and "A Moment of the Lips," the latter the story of Polyphemus the cyclops and his encounter with Odysseus and his crew on their voyage back to Ithaca. It could be said that "Claudius" humanizes Claudius just by showing that, perhaps, there is another side to the story of Hamlet père's betrayal, necessarily inaccessible to the son, but the effort doesn't really critique Shakespeare's lack of interest in this other story; rather, it illuminates the way in which Shakespeare had to ignore this part of the story so that his play could focus on the psychological deterioration of the title character--and thus fulfill the requirements of tragedy. As with many of the other pieces in the book, by providing us with an alternative version of an established story, Fawkes highlights the artifice of story, perhaps prompting reflection on the contingencies in narrative, the varied purposes that determine both what is built into a story and what is left out. "A Moment of the Lips" makes us especially aware of the stark differences between the requisites of epic narrative and those of modern psychologically-directed fiction. Polyphemus doesn't mean to eat Odysseus's men: he just can't seem to escape his cyclops nature. His actions appall, but his sincerity appeals.
Fawkes reports that she will be following up these two collections of short fiction with a novel that sounds like it will continue in the fabulist mode but also be formally adventurous in a somewhat more conspicuous way (Tales the Devil Told Me in particular relies necessarily on essentially traditional narrative conventions). This surely is something worth anticipating, after this very engaging pair of first books.
If we identify as an "experimental" literary work one that avoids almost all of the customary markers of established form in works of fiction, Michael Winkler's Grimmish would indisputable qualify as experimental. In the mock review of the book we are about to read that acts as a preface--the first sign that this will not be literary business as usual--the anonymous reviewer notes that it has "no narrative arc, close to zero love interest, skittish occasional action, incident rather than plot, and a narrator who is intermittently compelling but prevaricates and self-deludes like a broody prince at Elsinore," but such observations don't really begin to encompass the unorthodox qualities of Grimmish, which actually do begin in determining exactly what literary genre should claim it.
The book's publicity copy calls it a work of "experimental non-fiction," while the introductory faked review refers to it as "fictionalized history" (in a metafictional excursion in the middle of the book, the narrator identifies it as an "exploded non-fiction novel"). Reviewers have referred to it variously as fiction and nonfiction, and in an interview Winkler himself called it a "hybrid of fiction and non-fiction, memoir and whatever else is in there.” It seems to me that a "hybrid" of fiction and nonfiction is perforce fiction (a little bit of fiction goes a long way), although to be sure it is indeed its gallimaufry-like assemblage of a verifiable historical record (as far as it goes) and a clearly fictionalized frame-tale both reconstructing and transmuting it that works to make Grimmish such a distinctive sort of work.
Thus if Joe Grim, an immigrant Italian-American boxer on tour in Australia during the early years of the 20th century, is the ostensible protagonist of this novel, it could be argued that the actual protagonist is the narrator's Uncle Michael, a sherry-guzzling old man holed up in a book and paper-filled room who as a young man knew Grim and who relates Grim's story to the narrator over the course of several drink-fueled sessions. Uncle Michael's story is--to say the least--unreliable, featuring, among other dubious details, a talking goat and a Joe Grim who often sounds more like a professor than a rough-and-tumble prizefighter. The narrator himself, a barely disguised double for the author (or is "Uncle Michael" a version of Michael Winkler?), holds the text together as the inquisitive examiner hoping to compile a full portrait of the somewhat mysterious Grim, but ends up providing an even fuller picture of his uncle (who's probably not actually his uncle) and of his own authorial effort to redeem the years sitting "in a room alone writing words no-one wants or will ever read" with this unorthodox amalgam of history and audacious fancy.
The fanciful conceits, however, do not muffle the impact of the book's depictions of hypermasculinity and its attendant violence, which are the necessary corollaries of its more direct meditation on the experience of pain. Joe Grim is not much of a boxer, except for his apparent ability to endure pain, to the point that no other boxer, not even the great Jack Johnson, has been able to take him out: Grim always gets back up, even if he rarely wins. Not only are we witness to the punishment Grim takes in several of his bouts, but while traveling with him and the young Uncle Michael across Australia we are also treated to an extended and quite brutal scene in a bar depicting a head butting contest (which Grim wants to join but is refused) that on the one hand would seem to encapsulate a certain sort of Australian macho culture that fetishizes pain, but on the other also renders most forcefully the social and cultural degradations more generally prompting human beings to inflict pain (and enjoy seeing it inflicted). Ultimately Joe Grim himself is less a martyr to these degradations than someone determined to exploit them to his own advantage, even as he remains their victim.
Such a perspective on Grim is of course an impression created by his portrayal in this book, not a verifiable fact about him that can be gleaned from the historical record. Grimmish does incorporate information about Joe Grim derived from secondary sources (primarily newspapers), and this is supplemented with citations to other sources (historical and otherwise) that do reinforce the book's tentative identity as nonfiction, but the episodes arising from Uncle Michael's narrative are plainly fictional (it is unlikely the historical record documents a visit by Grim to the "Ladies' Lounge," where he observed a head-butting contest). Perhaps we could still regard Grimmish as a nonfictional work of historical recreation if the fictional flourishes were simply attempts to fill in lacunae with a sort of speculation, but this book clearly goes beyond such minor manipulations: the attributable history is really just the foundation for a work of imaginative fiction whose value is not directly determined by questions about its historical authenticity or fidelity to fact.
But it is precisely this melding of the historically situated and the freely invented that is itself the most compelling achievement of the book, more so than the evocation of the character Grim (who emerges as an appealing comic grotesque but who doesn't seem to have much to do with the "real" Joe Grim) or the ruminations on the human capacity for pain (which, in my reading, at least, eventually become somewhat routine). If "exploded non-fiction novel" doesn't finally seem a particularly meaningful label for a work like Grimmish, in its very inadequacy as a genre marker it signals what is most impressive about the book as a literary provocation.