I’ve admired the work of Nicole Monaghan for a long time, so I was very excited when she asked me to provide a blurb for her first collection of fiction, Want, Wound. The blurb I provided reads, “A loving exploration of the tender corners of the human heart and the empty spaces we all long to fill.” While this blurb does a decent job of capturing what Nicole does so well in all of her work, I’m not sure it does her book justice. Throughout the volume, she takes every opportunity she can to inhabit the skin of “the other.” Sometimes this involves imagining what it must be like to be a man. Other times, she explores the inner world of children yearning to impress their parents or insecure teens trying to make sense of the world or adult women struggling with addictions. In every instance, Nicole come across as a true empath, an author with a preternatural ability to feel the pain and love and longing of every character she imagines. As a result, Want, Wound is a moving, touching, tiny wonder of a book.
In many ways, Joshua Isard’s Conquistador of the Useless offers the perfect counterpoint to Spencer Dew’s Here Is How it Happens (reviewed here two weeks ago). Where Dew’s protagonists are college-aged rebels doing their best to avoid making the leap to post-college mainstream society, Isard’s novel finds a somewhat similar similar pair of lovers adjusting, at times uncomfortably, to a bourgeois suburban lifestyle about a decade after graduation.
The novel begins with narrator Nathan Wavelsky and his wife Lisa moving into a new home and learning upon meeting their new neighbors that the beloved music of their youth has been reduced to the status of a glorified tchotchke in the form of a Fender Jaguar signed by the members of Nirvana and mounted behind a thick pane of glass. That Nathan makes a good living as a corporate hatchet man only adds to his growing sense of ennui, and Lisa’s sudden desire to start a family makes matters worse.
The problem isn’t necessarily that he ever saw himself as a rebel, nor is it that he sees settling down in suburbia as a sign of giving up on his dreams. The problem, as far as he can tell, is that he never really had any big dreams to begin with — so he does what any red-blooded American would do. He goes out and gets one. Or at least he stumbles upon one when his old college buddy shows up with a scheme to climb Mount Everest. What follows is a journey of self-discovery that allows Nathan to recognize that what matters most in his life. (Hint: It has nothing to do with the mountain.)
In terms of style, Isard’s writing reminds me of Shaun Haurin and Curt Smith. Like Haurin, Isard places the musical tastes of his characters front and center through much of the narrative while, like Smith, he demonstrates a firm understanding of the compromises we all make on the long, winding path to adulthood. I’d mention that Nathan’s relative lack of direction and ambition echo the same traits in Charley Schwartz, the beleaguered narrator of my own novel, The Grievers, but that would be self-serving, so I’ll just say that on nearly every page of Conquistador of the Useless I found something that struck a chord. I’d even be willing to bet that anyone who grew up at the tail-end of Generation X will find something to love in this book — the protagonist’s angst over drifting, however late, into adulthood, his taste in music, or even his fraught-if-only-because-it’s-so-damn-pleasant relationship with his parents. All told, a fine novel about settling down without settling.
Consisting solely of dialogue, Sumanth Prabhaker’s A Mere Pittance is a subtle yet moving meditation on the transient and fragile nature of life and the relationships that make it meaningful. The novella follows a telephone conversation between a woman who’s lying injured–and possibly dying–in a hospital in an undisclosed country and her lover in the United States. As the pair talk to each other, at each other, across each other, and in each other’s general direction, what emerges is a tale of loneliness imbued with self-discovery. Ostensibly, the woman’s misery is a direct result of an accident involving a poison caterpillar, but her true despair stems from being an outsider not only as a member of her brother’s wedding party, but as a member of the human race. Her lover, meanwhile, obsesses somewhat selfishly over the meanings of words while taking occasional breaks to eat, drink, and be witty. His modus-operandi, it seems, is to keep the conversation light in order to avoid getting too deep with his wayward lover. Aesthetically, the result is a narrative that reads very much like a one-act play cast in the prose style of Don DeLillo or William Gaddis. Insightful as it is charming and bordering on the sublime, A Mere Pittance is anything but.
All proceeds from sales of A Mere Pittance benefit Helping Hands: Monkey Helpers for the Disabled.
In Nothing Serious, Daniel Klein presents the love song of Digby Maxwell, former pop-culture editor of New York Magazine and one-time darling of the Big Apple’s social scene. Divorced, jobless, and crashing on a friend’s couch, Digby lands an unexpected job as the editor of Cogito, a stodgy philosophy journal whose late publisher has left instructions from beyond the grave for his widow to jazz the publication up a bit. Desperately in need of a second act in his capacity as a self-proclaimed “professional bullshitter,” Digby jumps at the opportunity he’s been offered. Indeed, he sees his editorship of Cogito as one last chance at realizing his lifelong aspiration to do something useful. Upon accepting the job, however, he immediately finds himself embroiled in the petty politics of the small-town college that hosts the philosophy journal, and in love, somewhat unexpectedly, with a Unitarian minister whose personal life is nearly as complicated as Digby’s.
Needless to say, Nothing Serious has all the makings of a zany yet compelling novel of ideas. Throughout the narrative, Klein expertly balances the elements of a good page turner (plot, character development, intrigue) with thoughtful and witty commentary on the collective efforts of our species to make sense of the world. There’s Digby, whose firm belief that “sometimes the best course of action is just to toss a wrench into the works and see what kinds of havoc it wreaks” keeps the novel percolating at a healthy pace, and then there are the philosophers whose names and theories lend the book depth while, ironically, also leavening the proceedings. The “flinty optimism” of Leibnitz’s theory that we live in the best of all possible worlds, for example (and echoing Voltaire’s Candide), boils down to the old truism that things could always be worse, while Jean-Paul Sartre’s thoughts on love reduce the philosopher, in Digby’s eyes, to “a scumbag justifying his pigatude with some existential bafflegab.”
All told, Nothing Serious is an amusing and intelligent novel whose title and beguiling narrative belie the depth of the ideas that Klein is working with. Humanity, the novel ultimately suggests, will never figure it all out, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that we keep trying.