By Gabe Durham
Reviewed by James Yates
The concept of an e-book flight is, from a reading standpoint, brilliant: the pairing of novellas and story collections with similar themes is entertaining, but it makes a reader pay a special kind of attention to craft, ideas, and the overall atmosphere of the works at hand. This might seem obvious, since those details are essential to any reading, but with three books served in one package, there's a lot of mental cross-referencing to consider. From a review standpoint, this can be difficult, but the first batch of offerings from Publishing Genius Ebook Flights series provides an excellent challenge, since the three books (from Lily Hoang, Gabe Durham, and Bob Schofield) are so different, yet they blend so well. Instead of focusing on minute similarities, the attention should be paid to the details that make the books work individually, which adds up to a full reading experience as a whole.
Gabe Durham's Locked Away is literally timeless, written with old-fashioned themes and characters that suggest a world centuries ago, or perhaps centuries in the future, when a return to a more practical existence has become necessary for potentially dire reasons. The characters include a local farmer, his family, a marauder, abductees, and even a quaintly named "doormaker." In a village, the construction of cellars offers the potential for protection and crime, often with an overlap of the two:
For every ten men who hate a marauder, there's one who hates that he himself is not the marauder. So it was with Lubis, a local fig merchant, who had neither the girth nor the boisterousness necessary for such a career change.
Deftly, Durham crafts the story as if the marauder will be the main source of fear, but turns this on its head with the appearance of Katar, a terrifying figure whose daughter is kidnapped and kept in a cellar. This turns into a sort of literary "What's Behind That Door?" game, as families are protected, the daughter is kept hostage, and another cellar turns up full of kidnapped old men. Durham plots this very carefully, but ultimately, the novella is not about revelations, but rather a study of old-fashioned metaphors, descriptive roles, and the blurred line between safety and danger. It's a story told with a deliberate mythology at its core, an updated fable that puts a unique spin on old foundations of storytelling.
Bob Schofield's Man Bites Cloud is delightfully weird, a collection of slightly connected flash pieces and poetry that use seemingly random images and emotions to create a satisfying, experimental collection. The best example of Schofield at his strongest:
All my life I've waited for the zoo to claim me. As a baby I grew antlers in a frozen church. Now I feel the bars grow cold around me, and I couldn't be more excited. My back smells like new fur and gasoline and love. I know I'll be safe here, as long as there's enough grass to make my hooves sing. One wire to pump this vicious lightning through my heart.
Where Durham uses classic storytelling to get his themes across, Schofield uses strange associations, definitions that don't make literal sense, but show a beautiful way of considering life and emotions without the standard vocabulary. I had the feeling that Man Bites Cloud was a mix of a meticulously-crafted collection as well as a daily exercise in free writing. There are no throwaway segments in this collection, and while it's impossible to determine what literary experiments are "better" than others, some of the chapters are stronger than other ones. I liken this to a comment by poet Terrance Hayes in his interview introduction to The Best American Poetry 2014: in discussing some of the poems included, he states that he can't literally explain what goes on in some of them, but he has a "hunch" as to what works. In Schofield's prose and poetry, as in the passage shared above, there's a definite hunch of experience being illuminated in new ways; at other times, I can appreciate a given chapter, but I'm not as consistently moved, despite an appreciation for his risk-taking.
The final book is Lily Hoang's Invisible Women, a stunning collection of portraits, framed by interactions between Sigmund Freud and the psychoanalyist/writer Lou Andreas-Salomé. The other portraits detail unnamed women (for example, "the woman down the hall") as they move through their lives, accumulating memories, reflecting on mistakes and successes; this is done in fragments, shorter and longer chapters that are slightly weird at times, but highly philosophical and vivid:
The woman down the hall is never home, and when she is, she pounds the wooden floors with her hammer shoes, gal-loping here and there in constant battle with some voice in her Bluetooth. We wish it didn't sound like a carpenter's shop up there when she is home, but we respect the reserved anger in her voice, the steady metronomic clop of her step.
She is the woman that all women want to be. She is what they desire. She is strong and powerful. She is rich.
She is lonely.
Rather than sleep, she computes this or that argument until it rests itself resolved, but once this or that mess has been untangled, the woman down the hall finds some other flaw and starts pacing anew.
This book is one of the more compelling pieces of feminist art I've encountered this year. The historical context (Lou Andreas-Salomé as a contemporary of older male thinkers, rather than the token woman who associated with them), plus the honest looks into women's lives, places Invisible Women along other unique fictional depictions, most immediately the recent books by Suzanne Scanlon, Chloe Caldwell, and Lauren Becker.
In their differences, these three books are actually a terrific, collective example of how contemporary literature is combining forms to highlight new and old ideas and philosophies. From experimentation, to fragments, to a return to classic narrative forms, these books are comforting in a time when it's easy to write a clickbait essay about the problems of storytelling. There are so many options available, so many styles to inhabit and pay homage to, and continually unique ways of highlighting humanity to further answer the questions of who we are. This has always been a central question, and the works of Durham, Schofield, and Hoang come at the perfect time, in a form that acknowledges our digital worlds and our continual yearning for the evolving powers of literary narratives.