The Physics of Imaginary Objects
Tina May Hall
University of Pittsburgh Press:
160 pp., $24.95
In hard times, as you well know, fewer risks are taken when it comes to potential profit and potential loss. In the publishing world, this means less experimental fiction published by large houses. It also means an upwelling of creative new houses and imprints that publish raw experiments with language. Tina May Hall's pungent writing breaks down walls between poetry and prose, narrator and reader, humor and horror. These stories, a daunting cross between Rikki Ducornet and early Jayne Anne Phillips, reveal the author's fascination with life and death, the confusion of hunger with other needs, and the bureaucratic tyranny of forms: sonnets and novellas, chapters and verses. Relationships in most of the pieces are conducted beyond language; as for location — it's often "flyspecked" and swarming. They are narrated by a medical expert in a murder trial, an ex-nun, a group that offers the "Skinny Girls' Constitution and Bylaws": "We will know each other by the way our watches slip from our wrists, the bruises on our knees, our winged shoulder blades tenting silk dresses." Fierce, huh? And brave — both writer and publisher.
All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost
Lan Samantha Chang
Norton: 208 pp., $23.95
"The room was slowly filling with the ghosts of poets. At age thirty-eight, Federico Garcia Lorca had been executed during the Spanish Civil War. At age thirty-nine, Dylan Thomas had drunk himself to death with eighteen shots of whiskey. At age forty, Frank O'Hara had been run over by a dune buggy on Fire Island. Also at forty, Edgar Allan Poe had been found delirious on the streets of Baltimore and died shouting a name no one knew." Here is a novel populated with those ghosts: the purists, the ones who wrote for fame, the ones who had a burning thing to tell, the ones who needed someone's approval.
Roman Morris takes a graduate seminar in creative writing with the famous poet Miranda Sturgis. They are lovers and she gives his career a major head start. It's all a bit much, a bit narcissistic, self-conscious — all the smarmy quagmires that have given the pursuit of poetry a bad name. But below all that, there's so much more — the need for an honest response to one's writing, the vulnerable student-teacher relationship, the perils of writerly friendships, the pressure cooker of graduate writing programs, the questionable ethics of the prize world. So much at stake! So small a pie! Lan Samantha Chang treats her characters with great respect. She takes them seriously, unraveling Roman's need for approval; his friend Bernard's garretted isolation and disdain for the business of poetry; Miranda's power and her fall from grace. It's a world within a world like any other, nestled in a culture that, for the most part, does not value what it has to offer.
Salter Reynolds is a writer in Los Angeles.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun