In many ways, the greatest praise we can bestow on a piece of art is to say it inhabits its world so fully as to define it. Whether we’re talking about Flannery O’Connor or Jane Austen, Charles Dickens or Ernest Hemingway, the writers we come back to, the ones who maintain readership and critical attention, often capture their environments to such an extent that their claim on the territory comes to supplant the reality they once sought to depict.
What would 19th century England mean to us without David Copperfield and Oliver Twist? What would 20th century Paris be without The Sun Also Rises? Even though film’s more overt, incandescent iconography has overtaken the literary in the popular consciousness, one of the written word’s chief uses remains its role as historical document and anthropological source, a record of the things that animate geographies and eras, nations and civilizations. And let’s be clear: Even today, there would be no cinema without writing. Whether in the form of novels and stories that provide jumping-off points for screenwriting or the scripts themselves, the production of the images that become our shared memories could never happen without the written word.
The Nervous Breakdown’s inaugural Microbrew showcases the diversity of American letters. Realist and fabulist, lyrical and metafictional, novels and stories, novellas and poetry. Drawn from small and big presses alike, this is a group of writers engaged in the work of claiming their territory, defining their worlds with such linguistic precision and clarity of vision that those worlds, if we’re lucky, begin to feel like our own.
Mongrels by Stephen Graham Jones
If you think the literary genera lupus literarus has been done, and done, and done into the ground it’s only because you haven’t seen what Stephen Graham Jones’s has to say about lycanthropy. Part fable, part coming-of-age story, his new novel, Mongrels, brings grim humor and a violent beauty to the semi-hallucinatory terrain occupied by America’s transitory underclass.
Always on the outside, constantly on the run, Jones’s “mongrels” dwell in a sort of socioeconomic half-light. Their lives spent in the shadows cast by low-rent shanties and broken down cars, their identities informed by war between day and night, civilization and nature; this is the mythology of the werewolf twisted, reformed to become more modern, more relatable as both myth and metaphor. In muscular prose that seems always to be thinking ahead, searching for more, Jones explores America’s relationship with its poor like he’s dissecting a predatory brotherhood between hunter and hunted.
There’s long been an idea that true magical realism can only be born of the economic hardships and totalitarian governments masters like Garcia Marquez and Kundera endured in the less-developed world. The concept has been “the First World” doesn’t know enough pain to write honest magical realism. Jones stands that theory on its head, at least as it relates to America’s oppressed. In Mongrels you hear the echoes of Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. You see the desperate magic of a world constructed as an antidote to this one.
Witch Hunt by Juliet Escoria
Juliet Escoria’s first poetry collection, Witch Hunt, picks up where her first book, the story collection Black Cloud left off. That is, in a semi-autobiographical universe in which the author’s humanity is constantly on display. This isn’t woman magically ennobled, a made-up version of Juliet Escoria, heroine, but a largely unadorned testament that puts Escoria at the center of her own experiences without spending too much time moralizing on where she finds herself, what she does, or what’s done to her.
Witch Hunt’s presentation is fresh, the book’s architecture and delivery blurring the lines between poetry and short fiction, nonfiction and novel. From section titles like “Bipolar National Anthem” to poem cycles like “Haikus for Horse Haters” you get that there’s an air of comedy here, or if not comedy a sort of bemused acceptance of life’s insanity. Though many of these poems are delivered in blunt language that defies you to find much beauty in the world it presents, that’s by design. This is a collection that eschews “prettiness” in favor of truth. Perhaps this is a statement on gender, the title evocative of the stalked woman pursued for her innate beauty, her very femininity. In the face of that continuing hunt, these poems respond with brutal honesty.
The quality that sets this above other similarly confessional collections is its voice—infectious, reflective, and matter-of-fact—a voice that grows in power with re-readings, suggesting not only that the collection holds multiple layers of meaning beyond the superficial, but that this is a writer with a lot more to say. From semi-madness (medicated and not-so) through substance abuse, physical abuse, suicidal episodes, and the overarching struggle to simply fit into the world, Escoria displays a shocking lack of self-pity, the rare, fundamental truthfulness that assures you this is not a slick piece of personal advertising designed to make her look or feel better than she is. This is Juliet Escoria’s reality—her truth—on the page.
Tyler’s Last by David Winner
Fans of Patricia Highsmith and her literary creature “Talented” Tom Ripley will recognize this as an homage of sorts. A metafictional duet between a semi-closeted author and the semi-closeted character she’s made her career on—refereed with icy detachment by Winner’s narrator—Tyler’s Last is a literary thriller that hits on both counts.
Tyler (not his real name) is a semi-retired bad guy who’s spent his life defrauding people (and much, much worse; up to and including a string of murders). His toney wife having left him (maybe for good) to gallivant across North Africa with her girlfriend, Tyler is already reeling emotionally when he receives a series of ominous phone calls that send him winging off for New York.
Part of Tyler’s mission is a secret known only to his criminal sensei, Delauney, the rest is Tyler’s daring (read, insane) plan to impersonate his first murder victim, the long-dead Cal Thornton, whom Tyler’s mysterious caller claims to be. Once in New York, events take a Nabokovian turn, a series of violent episodes, Tyler’s growing black-comic sense of detachment (from his actions and his reality), and an impromptu trip with an emotionally volatile teen recalling the sort of erudition and (almost) innocent evil of Lolita’s Humbert Humbert.
Juxtaposed with Tyler’s narrative, Winner tells the tale of Tyler’s creator, the Highsmith-esque surly “old woman”, making it quite clear that the old woman’s refracted view of her own life has a habit of materializing on the page, sometimes consciously, sometimes not. This convention dominates the book from a literary standpoint, ensuring that readers not only experience the excitement of Tyler’s unraveling criminal lifestyle (a lifestyle his author ultimately seeks to emulate) but the author’s love for her character, the fact that in many ways he is her, a literary fact that will be in some ways proven, some ways contradicted, as the story unfolds.
The Nethers: Frontiers of Hinterland by M.E. Parker
M.E. Parker’s The Nethers: Frontiers of Hinterland follows his 2015 novel, Jonesbridge: Echoes of Hinterland. A literate (though still taut) series, Parker’s Hinterland trilogy is slated to end next year with Bora Bora: Escape from Hinterland.
Known to the literary community as former editor and publisher of the esteemed journal Camera Obscura, Parker brings the same sharp editorial eye to his own work. Refusing to settle for simple genre content, this is sci-cli-fi at its best, literary quality balanced meticulously with dramatic tension. Though there is a substantial amount of worldbuilding here, it’s not done with the same leisure you often find in genre work, which makes for a much more exciting, immediate read.
At the heart of Parker’s drama sit Myron and Sindra, lovers desperate to be together, destined perhaps to survive apart (if at all). The primary tension of The Nethers and Hinterland as a whole being whether Myron and Sindra can thrive against the machinery arrayed against them, a sort of amalgam of limited remaining technology and the humanity it has largely destroyed, a humanity that nevertheless remains unable to see that technology for the danger it is.
Heat & Light by Jennifer Haigh
While Jennifer Haigh is still early enough in her career that lauding a book as her masterpiece comes with a lot of risk, her fifth novel, Heat & Light, may just deserve it. A return to the geography of her previous novel, Baker Towers, Haigh sets Heat & Light in Western Pennsylvania, in what was once deep coal country. Still feeling the collapse of its primary industry years earlier, the recent discovery of the Marcellus Shale natural gas deposit means the town of Bakerton may have a second chance economically. But at what cost?
Haigh’s strengths as a writer are the beauty and uncanny seamlessness of her prose, her ability to see her characters as they are rather than as she wants them to be, and the topography she chooses, the fact that she writes “what she knows” in a very real sense, focusing on the area of Western Pennsylvania she once called home. This is the truth of Western Pennsylvania’s coal country, every sentence tinged with a mixture of fond remembrance and the desire for escape; a quality that turns Heat & Light into a perfect example of how a writer can claim a literary geography as her own.
Complex and multi-tiered, Haigh’s narrative brings together socio-economic issues, concern for the planet, and the dramatic emotional lives of her characters into a mix that may leave readers saddened not just by the fact that it’s over, but by the realization that the ease with which Haigh pulls it all off stands in stark contrast to the difficulty with which we handle so many competing priorities as a species. All you have to do is look at the stripped, blighted land of Western Pennsylvania to know that as the truth.
The Unfinished World and Other Stories by Amber Sparks
Amber Sparks is an artist of the impossible, a sort of science fictional sorceress who pursues her unique visions with the mind of a philosopher and the relentless determination of a (pleasantly) monomaniacal miniaturist. In a time in which many short story writers (both inside and outside MFA programs) are unrecognizable from each other, Sparks stands apart. Having published much of her early work online and in journals, she’s now beginning to find a larger audience with her second collection, The Unfinished World and Other Stories.
With conceits that range from custodial sci-fi (“The Janitor in Space”) to an evil, time-travelling “art critic” (“Thirteen Ways of Destroying a Painting”), a reverie for World War I’s Lost Generation (the beautifully desolate “The Fires of Western Heaven”) to a modern faerie tale about the confusing, even maddening, sexualization women experience moving from childhood to adulthood (“The Lizzie Borden Jazz Babies”), Sparks delivers fresh ideas in tellings that are likewise indelibly her own. Her abilities to compress narrative and to weave significant detail into an often poetic prose are impressive, qualities you don’t see in many writers.
Readers of Sparks’s earlier collection May We Shed These Human Bodies, won’t be surprised at how well The Unfinished World succeeds. They will be pleased, though, that her art continues to develop. In that sense, it’s her engagement with the greater world that most impresses, the way her miniatures serve as an examination of the human condition, of our need to connect with the cosmic, to understand our place in the unfinished worlds we must all invariably leave behind.