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Prose Roundup

The Lodger Shakespeare
Charles Nicholl (Penguin, 2008)

Four hundred years have passed since Shakespeare plied his quill. In the interim, we have published him, lauded him, Bowdlerized him, edited him, and possibly forgotten who he was. One has the sense that the historical documentation is worn thin with the jittery handling of Ivy League professors. Every generation—every few years—Shakespeare is remade from the same stuff.
A court case in 1612, a dispute over an unpaid dowry: Shakespeare is called to testify. The testimony makes for the only known record of Shakespeare’s spoken word, and while the testimony itself is of a limited nature, the circumstances of the case extend to a larger exposition on the life of Shakespeare. In The Lodger Shakespeare, Charles Nicholl is able to sketch an inclusive account of Shakespeare’s life, when he lodged in a house on Silver Street, and worked on Othello, Measure for Measure, and King Lear.

Nicholl’s narrative technique is one of exhaustive research and elegant prose; the end result is nearly a story, and a fascinating recreation of a time and a court case that might well make for the centerpieces of their own book-length investigations. Shakespeare’s long shadow is cast throughout The Lodger Shakespeare, and the insight is of a man who walked, and worked, and was very much human in the way the rest of us are human; a man prone to “the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.”

Nicholl’s take is quietly pioneering: a new lens and an unaired episode. But beyond a claim to academic innovation, The Lodger Shakespeare is a brave and spotless statement on how we view W.S., and the subject of those we deem “great.”

—Dan Fall

Correction of Drift: A Novel in Stories
Pamela Ryder (Fiction Collective Two, 2008)

Pamela Ryder’s Correction of Drift: A Novel in Stories deals with splintering interpretations of what is, at its foundation, a well-known, yet elusive, historical event—the lives of those involved in the famous Lindbergh baby kidnapping— and includes everyone from Charles Lindbergh and Anne Morrow Lindbergh, to the family maid, to the kidnappers. The novel layers meaning, becoming less a sequential, linear progression of stories than an interlacing of dreamlike symbols to build a whole: from Charles Lindbergh’s trans-Atlantic flight, to Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s shells and love of the sea, to the almost bizarre public response to the kidnapping of the Lindbergh’s first child, which Ryder deftly addresses with contradictory newspaper reports.
It’s an expected postmodern desire to use the past, to appropriate it, and to make it our own. What is real, Ryder insists, is both imagined and factual. Nobody escapes; even the family maid is lost forever: “A smooth and seamless sea where the wake closes over her. And she vanishes in the spray. And the sea becomes air. Foam on the crest. Frost at the lip. Far cloud. Pillow fluffed.” The lines could describe Lindbergh—had his flight turned out differently—yet here it is a description of a mind gone awry, unhinged from grief.

Ryder moves beyond fact—the kidnapping of a child—to explore the echo between the real and the unreal, between the historical and the imagined. The result is less amorphous: a fully realized work, which reveals Ryder as an irresistible, lyrical storyteller.

— Renée E. D’Aoust

Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S.
Roland Kelts (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007)

Roland Kelts’s book reads much like the way he describes Star Wars and anime. He approaches Japanamerica’s theme through “many guises and spin-offs,” provides “multiple, detailed points of access to a fantasy world, and [holds] out the constant promise of more to come.” Kelts guides the reader through the inner and outer world of Japanese pop culture with enough insight and sparkle to convert the curious, and absolve the adult fan of that guilty pleasure feeling.
In part, Japanamerica is about Japan’s “Gross National Cool” and how 9/11 may have allowed Americans to share Japan’s post-apocalyptic sensibility—one of less certainty, more sincerity. The author lets his interview subjects speak for themselves, and the result is a deconstruction of Japanese aesthetics, history, and culture. He discusses incidental subjects, like Japan’s hard lessons in intellectual property rights, with the same earnest reportage that he employs to elucidate manga.

Kelts uses the Mobius strip as a metaphor to describe an interrelated Japan and America; historical details bear him out. One example: Japanese fans learned cosplay (costume play) from Trekkies back in the 1960’s. Behind-the-scenes stories and interviews with pop-culture icons—Toru Iwatani, the inventor of Pac Man, for example, or Hayao Miyazaki, the writer/director of Spirited Away—make for much of the appeal of the work. Impressions of corporate culture or an aging artist’s personal concerns are drawn with clean lines, in the same frame.

By the book’s close, the reader feels concern for a precious national resource that by definition cannot be replenished by a younger generation, or accurately replicated by non-Japanese visual artists, even as otaku (obsessed fans) and doujunshi (comics made by otaku) multiply around the world. But what is true in anime is true for anime; there is always more to come. To echo Studio4C’s Eiko Tanaka, anime and manga will continue to borrow and liberate the imagination of the viewer to make it work, and will continue to appeal as the interactive form of visual media it has always been.

—Mia Eaton

James Lewelling (Calamari Press, 2008)

One of E.M. Cioran’s many nihilistic aphorisms is “We can endure any truth, however destructive, provided it replaces everything, provided it affords as much vitality as the hope for which it substitutes.” This seems an apt motto for James Lewelling’s new novel, which does not shy away from the harsher aspects of the human condition, and does not provide a hopeful diagnosis either.
Lewelling is a patient, crafty writer, building up his story slowly, as if by accidental accretion, the minutia of human experience laid bare with a pleasing revelatory exactitude. Absurd, impossible conclusions are frequent, but only in denouement do events themselves become fully unreal, and by the time they do, reality seems no less strange.

The awareness of mortality, and the fear of going off one’s head, permeates the book, both as an undercurrent and as flat pronouncements such as “…it won’t matter how long you were sane or how long you were healthy before, once you lose your health or your sanity, that’s it.” In spite of the bleakness of such lines—and there are several just as disheartening—the novel is often hilarious, and the act of reading it strangely soothing. The many repeated phrases are often fatalistic—some possible outcomes are described as “not in the cards,” for example. Other pronouncements edge into silliness: “A mess of eggs is more than three;” “…the sun was pounding down like there was no tomorrow.” Though the lexicon relies upon these anachronistic turns of phrase, the voice is oddly robotic, arriving at feelings via cold logic.

Toward the end, the narrator’s father fulfills what seems by now to be every father’s obligation: to inform his children that they are doomed. “God can’t save you, or rather, He won’t … If He were going to save you, He would have already done it.” The story neatly tightens every joint loosened by the alternative logic with which it operates. The physical and the metaphysical join forces in the penultimate scene, in which the protagonist searches in a dark canyon for his father’s inexplicably decapitated head.

Like Beckett at his most charming, Lewelling takes as a starting point the extreme ends of human experience, and sweetens, with folksy language, repetition, and humor, the bitter pill we all must swallow.

—Matt Everett


Dan Fall

Renée E. D'Aoust

Renée D'Aoust's essay “The Air Must Circulate” appears in a 2010 issue of the Collagist.

Mia Eaton

Matt Everett


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2008

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