literary fiction

The Guest Room by Chris Bohjalian

by Casee Marie on January 5, 2016 · 2 comments

in Fiction, Reviews


“Me? I was never good at hatred. I felt it. I knew it. But it did not live inside me the way it lived inside them. Maybe things would have turned out better if it had. If I had been better at hatred.”
Chris Bohjalian, The Guest Room

Throughout his career, Chris Bohjalian has taken readers on literary thrill rides through time and space, offering spellbinding glances into the emotional complexities of both past and present, all with an intrepid honesty that catapults his fiction into a realm of literary truth. The one thing he never does: shy away from the hard stuff. In his examination of human nature, and the flawed cultures that are born over and over again as a result, Bohjalian goes into great and challenging depths to pay homage to the unthinkable truths that, as they say, are so much stranger than the fiction built upon them. This was especially true of his 2012 novel, The Sandcastle Girls, with its unforgettable romance set against the backdrop of the unconscionable Armenian genocide. His newest work, The Guest Room, is in keeping with such tradition.

With the palpable tension that comes naturally to Bohjalian, combined with his willingness to “go there”, he shares a story of shattered dreams and shattered realities when the seedy world of sex trafficking breaches the boundaries of New York’s upper-middle class. The result is a novel that engrosses readers in a fast-paced story of suspense even as it chills their blood with its observations on the lives of women forced into sex slavery, and the culture that allows it – maybe even promotes it.

“He saw the world was starting to lighten outside the eastern window, a thin, quavering band of bleached sky. He realized he was dreading the sunrise. It would illuminate just how much his world had changed since yesterday – and how damaged was the little bark that carried his soul, how far it was from shore, and how menacing were the waves in between.”
Chris Bohjalian, The Guest Room

The Guest Room is the story of Richard Chapman, an investment banker with a solid marriage, a happy family, and few troubles – until his brother’s bachelor party, hosted by best man Richard in his own home, becomes first a lascivious scene of debauchery, and then the scene of a murder. Simultaneously, it’s the story of young Alexandra, whose childhood in Armenia – a childhood spent with Barbie dolls and dreams of being a ballerina – vanishes into a world of heartbreak and unspeakable violation. Alexandra and Richard’s lives each seem to have entirely separate points of orbit, until she and another girl are taken by their captors to work the bachelor party in well-to-do Bronxville of which he is the host. As Richard’s life reels from the catastrophic impact of the party, he must face a once-pristine marriage now impaled with the shame of his actions. And while he works to salvage his relationship with his wife and daughter, Richard must also wrestle with the realization of Alexandra’s plight and, ultimately, his culpability in her fate. Alexandra, whose story is told in first-person interludes between chapters, is on the run with Sonja, her fellow captive, in a desperate attempt to both evade the police they fear will arrest them and escape the Russian gangsters they’re certain will kill them.

“I wondered if I would have been brave enough to help the police guy if he had come to me. I couldn’t decide. But I did know this: Crystal may have been into him, but she was taking a chance for all of us. She was thinking of Sonja and me and all the girls they were bringing to America. I knew that in my heart. If she had gotten free, we all would have gotten free. I thought about that as I smoked, and I went from very, very scared to very, very sad.”
Chris Bohjalian, The Guest Room

By telling the story from parallel perspectives that follow both Richard and Alexandra (with additional focus on Richard’s wife, Kristin, and – most jarring – their nine year-old daughter, Melissa), Bohjalian is able to reach the core of his characters’ experiences. This is a style he has used with great skill in several of his past novels, shaping the stories around it in entirely different ways, and it continues to serve him well here. The reader is, as a result, pulled into myriad emotional directions as the vast difference between Richard and Alexandra’s lives – and their ultimate collision – plays out before them. Much of the material here is challenging, from the descriptions of Alexandra’s circumstances to the ribald way Richard’s brother and his friends handle the reality that the presumed strippers at his bachelor party were not, in fact, strippers at all. But the challenges are Bohjalian’s strength; they represent his creative fearlessness at work as he allows his readers in these moments to bear witness to the harrows of the sex trade and to question how civilized their broader society actually is.

Told with warmth and extraordinary insight, The Guest Room reinforces Bohjalian’s reputation as a courageous storyteller, a terrific handler of genres, and a master of literary suspense.

Released as a companion to The Guest Room, Bohjalian has also written a compelling short story, Nothing Very Bad Could Happen to You There, which features Alexandra in a time just before the events of the novel. The short story reads very well as a prequel to The Guest Room, but could also be read afterward. Or, perhaps, considering especially that despite the nature of the story it has an air somewhat lighter and sweeter to that of the novel’s atmosphere, readers will enjoy the short story both before and after the novel, as a chance to once again share in Alexandra’s experience as a certain famous Manhattan jewelry store works its inexplicable magic on her imagination. Nothing Very Bad Could Happen to You There is available to read for free in PDF format from Doubleday.

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For more on Chris Bohjalian, see also his wonderful novels The Sandcastle Girls, The Double Bind, The Light in the Ruins, and Midwives.

After an acclaimed debut, Hanya Yanagihara returns with a story that emerges as one of the most challenging and thought-provoking to come along in some time.

One of the facets of great literature is its ability to create an experience that transcends life, that winds through the emotions, the possibilities and impossibilities with which we share our collective existence. Often when a book goes to a place of impossibilities, of tragedies and profound sadness, we wonder why it’s necessary, why the author felt the need to turn their gaze onto something painful. If an artist controls their creations then why would they choose to create art that evokes pain? On this subject, I know two things: one, the idea that we control our own creations is something every artist learns – quickly – to be a falsehood; and two, that sometimes art exists to bear witness to pain, because every emotion and experience in life shares this sphere and none has a greater claim than the rest. This perception was on my mind consistently as I read Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. In it, she tells a story not only of extraordinary pain, but also of singular importance. Upon finishing this 720-page tome I couldn’t recall a book that had ever stricken me with this same combination of emotional highs and lows, one that challenges and somehow embraces the reader, that disturbs them and yet reminds them of the astounding necessity of humanity and human connection.

The story of A Little Life revolves around Willem, a handsome actor with a patient heart; Malcom, an architect who seems always on the cusp of perpetual longing; JB, an ego-centric artist with his own personal brand of flamboyancy; and Jude, a deeply intelligent lawyer who has always kept his friends at arm’s distance from his past. Yanagihara has an extraordinary way of making the unremarkable remarkable even in the basis of her story: here are four people – unfamiliar to the reader – that are living essentially normal lives with an unspoken undercurrent, and here we are, completely and suddenly and inexplicably absorbed. With profundity and eloquence, Yanagihara unveils the heart of each man, lingering as the other three also seem to do on Jude: Jude, who never lets anyone see the scars of his past, whether physical or emotional; Jude, who never shares even the most commonplace memory from his childhood. As the gut-wrenching truth of his youth is revealed, the devastation threatens to derail the reader. Here, the story delves into its most difficult layers, a seemingly fathomless ocean of grief.

Yanagihara handles her novel’s most challenging subject matter with an honesty that makes it feel even more raw – subject matter which ranges from physical and sexual abuse of both children and adults (committed, one should note, by people in trustworthy positions of service) to depression and self-harm. There is no question of the brutality of this material, though the author is sensitive and respectful at every turn, adopting a certain vagueness at some of the most harrowing topics while others are portrayed explicitly. It falls to the reader, of course, to determine their level of comfort with committing to this sort of book; or rather, how uncomfortable they are willing to be. It was an unquestionably emotional experience – at times I felt I wanted to hug the book as a way of reaching my compassion through the pages to Jude, and at other times I found myself with a strong resistance to where the story was going. Ultimately, though, I think Yanagihara places a thin but solid stretch of hope in the story through the dependable characters who truly love Jude: his mentor Harold and Harold’s wife, Julia; his resilient doctor, Andy; his many friends and colleagues, particularly Willem, Jude’s greatest protector. Not only do these characters create a warm presence in the midst of Jude’s cold circumstances, but they are each so richly imagined that they’re a pleasure to read about individually.

Yanagihara tells the story of Jude, Willem, Malcom, and JB with exquisite artistry, in some ways quietly unexpected in its delivery. The narrative chooses its own pace languidly, sometimes switching tense and occasionally changing entirely to a first-person perspective; the timeline, too, swirls with just enough chronological nonchalance to resemble a life being remembered piecemeal, memories being recalled by unremarkable things: a look, a sound, a touch, a daydream. Despite its gloomy trajectory, the story maintains a gray-hued lightness and what ultimately seems a story of a sad history, a sad present, a sad future, manages to carry traces of important things: the small, sometimes graceless moments of simplistic contentment, of happiness that seems fleeting but ultimately carries us through our darkest hours. In many ways it shows, rather than how darkness stands in battle against light, how the two exist together, both equally tangible, both equally overwhelming. And while we might feel swayed by one, while our actions might be dictated to by another, we are ultimately at the mercy of something greater: an ethereal combination of fate and love.

In some ways A Little Life takes on a fizzy halo of magical realism, in part because we would like to believe that the reality of the story where such tragic things might befall a person doesn’t actually match the bearings of our own reality. This is sometimes bolstered by the quirkiness of Yanagihara’s imagination: the names of characters, names like Rhodes and Citizen and Phaedra, which take us a bit out of our perception of the everyday. Even the creation of blockbuster films in which Willem plays a covert spy, a legendary ballet prodigy, a hero from some far-off time in history, all seem to render a sense of separation from “real life”. But, ultimately, as it veers off toward a safer non-reality it catapults into the reader’s world with a thoroughness that only happens once in a while, only with truly great, lovingly crafted, painstakingly detailed books. And as it lingers, it lays down its roots in the reader’s heart, strong enough to allow it to stay with us well after the final pages.

A Little Life culminates as a superb piece in every way: through its unique construction, which seems to turn the basic workings of a novel into something more liquid in form; through the authors aching, luminous prose; through the striking pain of its story, as well as the striking resonance of love’s existence in the face of great desperation. It showcases Yanagihara’s tremendous ability not just as an artist utilizing words as her medium, but as a visionary whose fearlessness will undoubtedly continue to take her to places of uncommon beauty. With this novel, she turns emotions into visible things we can hold in our hand and allows the story to create a sort of three-dimensional diorama of its own world within the reader’s mind. In the end, while I fully expected A Little Life to be what I would categorize as a sad novel – and from a literal perspective I suppose it is, undeniably – I found that it instead does something quite unique: it balances the colossal frailty and unthinkable pain of life with the tremendous wonder of the gifts we exist to receive.

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Thank-you to Doubleday for providing a copy of A Little Life for me to read!

Lucky Alan and Other Stories by Jonathan Lethem

by Casee Marie on February 26, 2015

in Fiction, Reviews

Prolific writer Jonathan Lethem explores the absurb and the arcane in his new short story collection, Lucky Alan.

Jonathan Lethem’s career in writing has garnered him much praise for his ingenuity and his handling of both the novel and short form. More than anything, his new collection, Lucky Alan, is an example of his diversity as a storyteller, or rather of his refusal to adhere to rules and structure. With a Salingerian total of nine stories, the new book charts a rambling journey across surrealism and pop culture, through sharp observations and comic absurdity alike. Its diversity is both its strength and weakness insofar as it shows off much of Lethem’s literary scope, yet requires much commitment and elasticity from the reader. The first story, which takes its name from the collection’s title, finds the narrator entranced by a famous theater director named Sigismund Blondy, with whom he begins to develop a comfortable camaraderie over bad films and wine bars. Blondy is an elusive figure who radiates a certain New York brand of charm. When he disappears for several months, he returns to regale the narrator with his happenings of late, a tale about Blondy’s former neighbor, Alan Zwelish, who “walked in a fiery aura of loneliness” and enchanted Blondy in much the same way that Blondy himself enchants the narrator.

In the story, Lethem handles placid comedy and seriousness with an existential focus, not unlike the penultimate story, “Pending Vegan”, which charts a family’s rather simplistic visit to SeaWorld. This visit, in which Lethem doesn’t refrain from poking at the hyper-commercialized hysteria of domestic tourism, is a black-and-white scenario colored in by the father’s existential yearnings and aspiringly vegan insights. Recently weaned off of anti-depressants, the father grapples with the depravity and disconnect around him, and the reader is offered many puzzle pieces to put together in an attempt to unravel the father’s reality from the subconscious unreality of his withdrawal.

Similar in style, “Lucky Alan” and “Pending Vegan” serve as strong anchors for the collection while the stories in-between expound on a heady selection of the bizarre. Stories like “Their Back Pages” and “The Dreaming Jaw, The Salivating Ear” leave nothing to connect them to reality; the former introduces a selection of comic book tropes who’ve crash-landed on an island, while the latter explores a blogger’s vengeful mission to bring down a troll. Both sometimes wrestle with indiscernible hyperactivity, though there’s plenty to observe beneath the service; ultimately, by sojourning so far to the outskirts of reality, they could tarnish the collection for readers more interested in realism.

That realism is still to be had – bent and twisted into various manifestations – throughout the collection. “King of Sentences” follows a farcically obsessed couple in their attempts to align themselves with their overtly revered favorite writer, a reclusive and cranky sort whom they’ve dubbed the King of Sentences. Meanwhile in “Traveler Home”, a man and his terrier are snowed in when they find themselves the caregivers of a baby delivered by uncanny means. While Lethem departs into a sort of Gothic magical realism for portions of this story, his energetic nature is largely focused on the sparse, disorderly language of the narrative. A gem of the collection is “Procedure in Plain Air”, in which a man witnesses the bizarre imprisonment of a presumed criminal in a hole in the streets of Manhattan. Preternaturally compelled, the man takes up a vigil to protect the prisoner despite the unconcerned reactions from everyone else in the city. Beneath the layers of wordplay and visual stimuli in this story, the reader gets the sense that profound observations are being made on the inaction of society against injustices and what this could mean for its future.

The two remaining stories in the collection, “The Porn Critic” and “The Empty Room”, handle realism with leanings toward the profane. The former is an account of a young book nerd’s unusual career as a sex shop clerk and reviewer of porn, zeroing in on the imbalance of his muddled romantic life and the salacious reputation afforded him by his job, while “The Empty Room” tells of a family’s obsession with a room quite literally intended to be left empty. In many cases throughout the stories, Lethem’s characters remain consistently unremarkable while the crux of his artistry is fed into the underlying observations, the hyper-stylizations, or the explorative narrative voice. There are strengths and weaknesses in each story which will undoubtedly shift with every reader. Ultimately, though, Lucky Alan is a showcase of what makes Lethem so uniquely Lethem.

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Thank-you to Doubleday for providing a copy of Lucky Alan for me to read!

The Ground Beneath Her Feet by Salman Rushdie

by Casee Marie on October 31, 2014 · 1 comment

in Fiction, Reviews

In a recent conversation about Salman Rushdie’s work I said that the best word I can think of to describe him is “inexhaustible”. “Inexhaustible or exhaustible?” I was asked. “He’s an inexhaustible writer,” I said, “But his writing is exhaustible.” I’ve never read someone as positively relentless as Rushdie, and sometimes his work is borderline unreadable for me; when his narrative slips into that long-winded place, it takes a long-winded reader to be able to keep up. Even so, challenging and energy-tapping as Rushdie’s work may be, soaked as it is in his own tirelessness, the challenge and the exhausting nature (and, yes, maybe even the ego) are what keep me unable to commit to disliking his books. (On the contrary: I loved The Enchantress of Florence.) The opulence of Rushdie’s prose excites me, and there’s a thrill of standing waist-dip in one of his paragraph-long sentences that I find somewhat unique to him. There’s a hardly-veiled confidence in his writing – some will even call it conceit or narcissism – but it’s Rushdie’s blatantly unapologetic celebration of his own ability that begets his brilliance (though brilliance is, of course, subjective). The first person who must believe in your own genius, in your absolute right to be here, is you. That’s what the extravagant nature of Rushdie’s work teaches me.

Of my somewhat brief experience with Rushdie (so far), The Ground Beneath Her Feet seems to emulate what I’ve come to know as the defining factors of his unique artistry. It’s the story of Ormus Cama and Vina Apsara, legendary rock stars whose collaboration changed the shape of music and whose love affair changed the shape of their lives. Complicating an already complicated relationship is the novel’s narrator, Rai, the mutual friend whose love for Vina has haunted him all his life; he is, as he says, the only one of their trio who was able to jump into the abyss of music and survive the fall. Written with Rushdie’s practiced and ever-unpredictable brand of magical realism, The Ground Beneath Her Feet leaves reality behind to submerge its characters in an entirely new world, yet one breached by the musicians, songs, and figures of the eras that cannot help but transcend time and space. It’s a world where Kennedy’s assassination was a failed attempt; where Elvis Presley’s legendary aura is occupied by the fictional Jesse Garon Parker; where songwriters Carly Simon and Guinevere Garfunkel penned the timeless classic “Bridge Over Troubled Waters”. In the way that he intersperses the real world with his own creation, Rushdie exercises his mischievous aptitude for dramatic play, his singular brazen that puns its way toward what some would call rare literary achievement. It’s this quality that, I think, makes Rushdie such a seminal writer, but it’s also the same quality that sometimes makes him a challenge for me to enjoy. There’s a sense of rich entitlement that comes with spinning something as vital as the history of rock music into your own story, but even so, Rushdie’s work is carried on the sort of cheeky charisma that I find myself consistently intrigued by. Sometimes he loses me, but nevertheless I find myself pulled in by curiosity again and again.

The trio at the center of The Ground Beneath Her Feet are thoroughly complex, and their flaws run deep. I felt, despite the expanse of narrative, a constant distance between myself (the reader in general) and Vina; it struck me as intentional, maybe even necessary, to illustrate the unreachable quality of this woman whom the world obsesses over and deems a rock goddess, but whose troubles run unhindered beneath the surface. Ormus, alternatively, felt a bit more lethargic and even a bit uninteresting to me, perhaps because he is deemed the most extraordinary singer of his age – a rendering of both Elvis and Lennon with clear signs pointing to each – yet his spark didn’t quite blaze like Vina’s. I think, though, that contributes to their immortal connection, how one completes the other and how separated from each other they aren’t quite whole. Rai is the character the reader spends the most time with, being the one at the helm of the first-person narrative. There were moments when his perpetual inattention, his constant desire to drift off into meaningless asides, felt reminiscent of J.D. Salinger; and the rambling nature of Salinger’s narrators (especially Buddy Glass in Seymour: An Introduction) are one of my favorite things about Salinger. But, for me, there’s a reason why Salinger wrote mostly novellas and short stories. For such a long novel as The Ground Beneath Her Feet, Rai’s twisting-turning narrative takes a particularly patient reader. Nonetheless, some of those winding asides become interesting journeys into language; they had me both riveted and restless. One the whole, the novel is a complex examination of the small flaws in human nature and how they can, when pulled at by passion and excess, fray into oblivion. In that, I think The Ground Beneath Her Feet excels at its mission; but, of course, it fits to a very specific taste, and an even more specific taste yet when the book runs at close to six hundred pages.

For me, The Ground Beneath Her Feet is a labor of love; it simultaneously presents challenges while also providing some of the most beautiful, thought-provoking passages. That itself might sum up how I feel about Rushdie’s work in general. There’s extraordinary vision here that cannot be denied – the entire world Rushdie has created, that alone I would choose to live in for five hundred and seventy-five pages – but there’s also a complexity in its nature that expounded on both my patience and my ability to keep up with Rushdie’s voracious narrative. That can happen with any writer who harbors insatiable prowess, keen intellect, and a knack for mischief. Sometimes the challenge is worth it, sometimes it isn’t. For me, The Ground Beneath Her Feet is worth the effort of yo-yoing between inattention and absorption for the treasure of beautiful prose woven into a blazing world rendered from a tumultuous, iconic generation.

The Ground Beneath Her Feet by Salman Rushdie
Publisher Picador
Source: Personal collection
Release date: 2000 (1999, original)
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More on the author: Website | Twitter | Goodreads

The Ground Beneath Her Feet


The Children Act by Ian McEwan

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In his latest novel, The Children Act, Ian McEwan introduces his readers to Fiona Maye, a revered High Court judge with a stellar reputation. Fiona presides over the family division, exercising her keen intellect and learned wisdom for the betterment of London’s youth. Though her work focuses on children and families, she and her husband […]

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No Country by Kalyan Ray

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Kalyan Ray’s No Country is a special book, full of surprises at every turn of the page and bursting with emotion. An intricate tapestry of the human condition, No Country first tells the story of Brendan McCarthaigh and Padraig Aherne, boyhood friends growing up together in 19th century Ireland. Brendan is a bookish introvert while […]

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Midwives by Chris Bohjalian

August 29, 2014

Across the landscape of his career, author Chris Bohjalian has written novels about a murderer’s plight against a privileged family in World War II Italy, about a young social worker driven into Jazz Age Long Island by a homeless man’s photographs, of an American woman’s love for an Armenian man in early-twentieth century Syria, and […]

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Life of Pi by Yann Martel

July 30, 2014

Life of Pi, Yann Martel’s Booker-winning literary achievement, tells the story of sixteen year-old Piscine “Pi” Patel, the son of a zookeeper who, at sixteen, leaves his native India with his family and a menagerie of their zoo animals on a Japanse cargo ship. The Patels are bound for a new life in Canada, but […]

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