Mekiya Walters

TRIANGULUM

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TRIANGULUM BY MASANDE NTSHANGA

Come for the unexpected convergence of Afro-futurism, eco-terrorism, alien abductions, and more. Stay for the unsettling meditations on South Africa’s dystopian past and present, the grandiose yet subversive re-imagining of humanity’s relationship to nature, and the poignant impulse, from which no character is spared, to make aliens of each other and of themselves.

Come for the classic spy thriller-cum-bildungsroman: a teen trio explores their sexuality while following breadcrumbs in pursuit of missing children (inexplicably free, of course, from adult supervision). Stay for the narrator’s hapless quest to understand her vanished mother—carrier of mental illness as well as mathematical genius—even as she herself begins to vanish, too, into a set of Russian-doll personas.

Come for the pleasure of any good puzzle. Stay because after delving so deeply into so many narratives and narrative frames, each with different sets of rules and competing conceptions of truth, you’ll want to keep questioning what’s real within the novel instead of just questioning what’s real.

Come for the high-stakes proxy wars between competing corporations and terrorist cells and megalomaniacal visionaries. Stay for the quiet assurance that novelists and readers have a quantifiable bearing on the future, too.

Come for Triangulum. Stay for next masterpiece that Ntshanga’s sure to turn out, and the next, and the next after that one. Once you open this novel, there’s no walking away.

Two Dollar Radio.

—Review by Mekiya Walters

ROUGH MAGIC: RIDING THE WORLD'S LONELIEST HORSE RACE

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ROUGH MAGIC BY LARA PRIOR-PALMER

“Somehow,” writes Lara Prior-Palmer in her debut memoir, Rough Magic, “implausibly, against all odds, I won a race labeled the longest and toughest in the world—a race I’d entered on a whim—and became the youngest person, and first female, ever to have done so.” In 2013, she indeed won the Mongol Derby, a grueling, 1,000-kilometer race on horseback styled after the medieval Mongol postal system. Any prosaic record of this improbable victory would sell plenty of copies. But Rough Magic doesn’t just describe one triumph: it constitutes another, and in a whole new territory. “Because my competitiveness is like a kite I refuse to pull down from the sky and examine,” Prior-Palmer writes, showcasing both dexterous imagery and hapless ambition, “it has power over me.” Through arresting landscapes and many awkward moments, she rides a muscular yet floaty prose, replete with deftly mixed metaphors and off-kilter verbs. Dogs “snorkel” along the ground and cameras “drink color” from the land.

The memoir draws much of its energy from Lara’s escalating rivalry with the frontrunner, Devan Horn, which, we begin to understand as she paints the Texan “devil-woman” in increasingly cartoonish hues, is really a rivalry with her own vices—fear and self-consciousness, pettiness and ambition. “Who’s worse?” she asks at one point, “Devan or Lara?” On the page, the main difference is that Devan keeps her mask on, but Lara lets hers slip so that readers can peer beneath. If we still have trouble grasping her, it is only because, as she writes, “[t]his being human means inhabiting an unfinished form, forever moving on to the next thing . . . What use is a conclusion, or an understanding, when all I want to do is open up, mess up, unpack, and unreel?”

What use, indeed?

Catapult.

—Review by Mekiya Walters

THE ARCHIVE OF ALTERNATE ENDINGS

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THE ARCHIVE OF ALTERNATE ENDINGS BY LINDSEY DRAGER

Lindsey Drager’s latest novel, The Archive of Alternate Endings, makes a needle of Halley’s Comet and a thread of its tail, along which are strung the beads of myth and history. Hansel and Gretel, Edmund Halley, Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm, Johannes Gutenberg, a dancer, a programmer, multiple witches, and a space probe that transmits folktales into the abyss, all shuffle across the novel’s stage, which spans a millennium, taking place in the years that the comet returns. “[N]othing in this life is unbent,” Wilhelm Grimm remarks one evening in 1835, “and as such all things intersect.” These intersections, somehow, make the novel cohere.

Drager has managed to synthesize the meta abstractions and intricate structures of experimental fiction with the rich, warm, living essence of good, old-fashioned, character-driven prose. Alternate Endings is unapologetically Borgesian, at once a library of Babel and a garden of forking paths, but its ideas hold meaning because real people live and die by them, caught up in spirals of shame and compassion, always on the verge of—but never quite tipping over into—understanding. Always siblings strive to protect each other. Always outcasts lose themselves in murky woods. Always the same story with different endings—or different stories with the same one. You get the distinct impression, upon closing the novel, that you could open it again and find that the stories inside have been evolving and metastasizing, new concepts cropping up on every page. You might be tempted to try this. Do.

Dzanc Books.

—Review by Mekiya Walters

COMPANIONS IN CONFLICT

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COMPANIONS IN CONFLICT: ANIMALS IN OCCUPIED PALESTINE BY PENNY JOHNSON

We’ve heard the African proverb of what happens to the grass when elephants fight, but what of the donkeys and ibexes, the boars and hyenas, the cows, camels, jackals, and gazelles, when hominids take up arms against each other? Penny Johnson’s Companions in Conflict strives to answer this question, interrogating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the eyes of large mammals, domestic and otherwise, whose commercial licenses are revoked, migration routes are barricaded, and find themselves on an increasingly regular basis bombed, exiled, or jailed.  

Don’t worry, homo sapiens, you’ll find this book interesting because it’s about you, too. On every page of Companions in Conflict, we come face to face with our human selves—infiltrating the lines and the spaces between them, occupying territory that’s not really ours. From Mahmoud Darwish wishing he were a donkey to Kafka’s jackals exhorting travelers in the Holy Land to murder Arabs with sewing scissors, Companions in Conflict, overrun with beasts of the imagination, surveys centuries of narratives that we’ve spun about ourselves, our relationships to other species. Even our piecemeal efforts to rescue these mammals—a vegan Israeli refusing to enlist in the army unless she’s issued synthetic boots; PETA calling for terrorists to stop using donkey bombs—remain oddly oblivious to the endangered among our own species.

Somehow, Johnson ends this nonfiction tragicomedy on a high, if tremulous, note, invoking Terry Eagleton’s notion of “hope without optimism.” “[T]hose animals who are the most like us,” she writes, “in their ability to adapt, survive, and even thrive amid our garbage and detritus . . . will persist and flourish.” She calls for “Acts of environmental imagination,” not just to “reviv[e] a desolated landscape” but also to “resurrect . . . memories, preserve . . . what is left, [and] envision . . . possible futures.” Deep in the Negev desert, wolves and hyenas—historic enemies—have been spotted hunting together, getting along. Maybe we shouldn’t read too much into this. But then again, maybe we should.

Melville House.

—Review by Mekiya Walters

NIGHT SCHOOL: A READER FOR GROWNUPS

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NIGHT SCHOOL: A READER FOR GROWNUPS BY ZSÓFIA BÁN, TRANSLATED BY JIM TUCKER

Jim Tucker’s translation of Zsófia Bán’s 2007 story collection, Night School: A Reader for Grownups, doesn’t read like a translation at all. Nor does it read like anything you’ve ever perused—unless you’ve read Night School in another language. A frenetic homage to the textbooks Bán once encountered in German class that “skipped from transportation to the Holocaust to Gummy Bears—in that order,” Night School takes readers on a wild romp through a kaleidoscope of postmodern fairy tales. We learn the just-so story behind Kahlo’s The Two Fridas, encounter the 19th-century naturalist Henri Mouhot trekking through the Laotian jungle, and find ourselves privy to an email exchange between the characters of the 18th-century epistolary novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses. All flaunt their meta-awareness: Mouhot’s wife quotes Heart of Darkness, which had not yet been written, and predicts his impending death, as Victorine Meurent predicts Manet’s, and Laika the Dog stoically predicts her own.

Night School might not seem to lend itself to translation, so bursting with slang, neologisms, tongue-in-cheek zingers, and off-the-cuff historical and literary references, yet one cannot deny the sheer Dadaist power and Seussian flare of lines like this one from “Motherwhere”: “They searched for her […] in the cold turkey clinic, in the Wild Turkey still […] in the market square, in the market research center […] in the ash cans and trash cans, under the bumps and in the sumps.” Assignments and images litter the collection and frequently, we are instructed to argue pro or con. Bán’s humor transcends language barriers, and Tucker’s translation never leaves us wondering what we’ve missed out on by not speaking Hungarian. A must-read for anyone who needs a break from the grim currents of contemporary literature, yet still craves the heady thrill of a really smart book.

Open Letter.

—Review by Mekiya Walters

THE FEMALES

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THE FEMALES BY Wolfgang Hilbig, translated by Isabel Fargo Cole

At one point in The Females, the narrator thrusts his hand into a garbage can and feels “a fleshy hairy mound . . . a labial circle . . . firm and sucking, around [his] lower arm.” The most erudite critic would be hard pressed to find a better metaphor for the experience of reading this slim novel, penned by the East German author Wolfgang Hilbig in 1987. Cast adrift on the sea of the narrator’s consciousness, we grope for meaning in the depths, and what seizes us throbs not with love or even lust, but with something primordial, libidinous, Freudian. The Females offers a dizzying tour of a psyche tormented by totalitarianism, distorted by loneliness, and beset by impulses far more complex than any mere sexual urge.

But why on earth is the narrator putting his hand in trashcans? He’s been reassigned to garbage duty after losing his factory job; but more importantly, the factory women he used to ogle—all the women in the city, for that matter, and all the female nouns in German, too—have disappeared. And he’s desperate to find them. His quest for anything remotely feminine leads him to phallic champagne bottles, memories of a poor performance review, and speculation that he’s “hidden in the bowels of [his] mother . . .” Yet somehow, despite his relentless and disturbing visions, one can never quite imagine the narrator harming anyone but himself. Hilbig teases a thread of tenderness from the midst of his madness—tenderness that renders the prose uncannily irresistible.

Hilbig’s genius, long obscured from the Anglophone eye, has only recently gained visibility thanks to Isabel Fargo Cole, who launched a slew of Hilbig translations in 2015. Her efforts have introduced English readers to the fruits of a literary career that racked up nearly every major German literary prize, yet so irritated East German officials that they readily endorsed Hilbig’s exodus from the Soviet Union in 1985. He died in 2007. Yet for English readers, Cole’s commitment to his legacy and meticulous prose have granted him a sort of resurrection.

Two Lines Press.

— Review by Mekiya Walters

AMERICAN FICTIONARY

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AMERICAN FICTIONARY BY DUBRAVKA UGREŠIC, TRANSLATED BY CELIA HAWKESWORTH AND ELLEN ELIAS-BURSAC

Twenty-four years after its debut in English, a new edition of Dubravka Ugrešić’s 1993 essay collection American Fictionary is here. Previously published as—Have A Nice Day: From the Balkan War to the American Dream—Ugrešić’s American Fictionary displays the darkly comic, genre-bending prose that has long established her as a commentator on the breakup of Yugoslavia, the rise of mass consumerism, and the plights of displaced persons. Celia Hawkesworth and Ellen Elias-Bursać, established Ugrešić translators, offer English readers a deft rendering of her prose, marked by wry observations and a dizzying associative capacity.

Ugrešić presents each essay as an entry in a fictional dictionary, but her organizing principles are poetical, not alphabetical. Careening through, we swerve from tyrannical hairdressers to Bollywood television to the degeneracy of muffins and the supremacy of bagels. En route, we pass a smorgasbord of mundane objects imbued with insidious meaning (instruction manuals, closet organizers, Coca-Cola bottles). Between these pages, “white is black” and “loss is gain,” New York collapses into Zagreb, and the homeless mingle with the bourgeois. American Fictionary captures not only the chaos of war-torn Yugoslavia—which “transforms its history into senselessness”—and American capitalism—which “transforms its senselessness into history”—but also the yawning space between, a realm inhabited by those like Ugrešić: lost, seeing double, born in a place that no longer exists.

In the years since Ugrešić penned these essays, they’ve only grown more relevant. The chaos of the Balkans has sprouted tendrils in Syria, Myanmar, Iraq, and the White House. Reality television continues to remake reality. The phrase have a nice day has gone global, but Americans have dropped “that exaggerated yodel at the end of the phrase” and now utter it “with far less feigned enthusiasm than before.” As Ugrešić writes in “P.S.,” “the point of republishing this book is to encourage a new reading of the earlier text, a dialog between two moments that are a quarter century apart.” We can hardly imagine a more opportune time to revisit American Fictionary.

Open Letter.

—Review by Mekiya Walters