Monday, November 24, 2008

Temporary People by Steven Gillis

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

· Hardcover: 203 pages
· Publisher: Black Lawrence Press, 2008
· Price: $20.95
· ISBN-10: 0976899361
· ISBN-13: 978-0976899365

Years ago, I saw a Jim Carrey movie called The Truman Show. It was about a man whose entire life, unbeknownst to him, played out on a movie stage while the rest of the world watched. Steven Gillis’s novel, Temporary People, reminded me of that movie … only with a much darker palette of colors. Much darker. Add a touch of the surreal, and you have Gillis, likened to Kurt Vonnegut by some (and I would agree with the comparison).

Temporary People is called a fable by the author, explaining the designation in the first pages of his unfolding story, in which the island of Bamerita, floating unattached some 2,000 miles south of Iceland, has become a movie set directed by a madman, called Teddy Lamb a.k.a the General:
“The scenes for Teddy’s movie are shot out of sequence and no one can say for certain what the film’s about. Even when the soldiers come and order us into our costumes, we’re not shown a script. At best, we hear rumors that the movie’s a multi-generational saga weaved through the telling and retelling of a 3,000 year old fable. The focus of the fable changes, however, each time the rumor’s repeated. Teddy reviews all the daily rushes, assesses the caliber of our performance. Everyone’s uneasy about how they appear. The perception we give is not always intended. Our fear isn’t artistic but rather a concern for our safety. In evaluating the scenes, Teddy’s impatient with people who disappoint him. Those found deficient are removed from the film and rarely heard from again. ‘That,’ Teddy says, ‘is show biz.’”

Under this guise of movie-making, Teddy rules as a slaughtering dictator would, even while doing so with a perverted sense of humor. Madness, if you will. The previous government officials are filmed as they are tied to logs, then pulled in two, set to float on the ocean waves. The population of Bamerita falls quietly into place after that. Until, of course, they rise to revolt. As any population, given time and wearing away of patience with brutality, will. A crew of “actors,” i.e. citizens, take the lead, with characters such as Andre Mafante, an insurance salesman who tries to promote non-violent means of revolt, and his friend, Emilo, whose rebelliousness culminates in sewing his own ears, eyes and mouth shut. One of Gillis’s most disturbing scenes is when Teddy torments Emilo into unwilling laughter and pained screams, effectively tearing up his stitched mouth into meaty shreds.

The satire is effective. Gillis is successful in painting the madness, the irrational behavior of an oppressive government, the mass fear in response, and the distortion of reality that taking away basic liberties must involve when one manipulates the many. If this echoes of current political scenarios, it should. In his characters, Gillis illustrates different forms of resistance and rebellion: indifference, self-serving cowardice, passive and active resistance, heroic if perhaps misguided protest and bloody coups. All done with a touch of Hollywood.

Steven Gillis is the author of two prior novels and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize six times. He has also published a story collection and has a second one due out in 2009. Gillis is co-founder of Dzanc Books (in partnership with Dan Wickett), with all proceeds from his publications going to Dzanc.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

The Maytrees by Annie Dillard

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Hardcover: 224 pages
Publisher: HarperCollins, 2007
Price: $24.95
ISBN: 978-0-06-123953-3

It was long ago that I bought the book, on a long, lone roadtrip southwest, in a favorite bookstore alongside the Rockies. I held it, carried it, kept it on my coffeetable, my nightstand, prolonging the sweet anticipation, knowing the coming reward. I have been (no hyperbole) in awe of Annie Dillard from the first encounter, decades ago, with Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (winning Dillard the Pulitzer Prize). Finally, oh finally, picking up what I expect may be her final novel (I heard her interview on NPR at the very beginning of my trip southwest, in which she spoke of the arthritis in her fingers, the agony of the mechanics of writing), now immersed in the solitude of a retreat, I read. I read throughout the day, into the night, until I was done.

Yet never done. Dillard's ability to evoke light from dark, to remind us in an age when books wane in entertainment value against modern technology, of the divine in artistic creation, is, still, without comparison. I remain in awe of her gift. For half a century of bookworming, I have yet to find an author who can stand beside her.

See, nothing much happens. That in itself enthralls me. The literary master can paint a scene with words, leave out the excess of action (how I tire of it in our current entertainment venues) and the bore of high drama, yet evoke in us the deepest emotion, eventual revelation. Consider these opening lines in the prologue of the novel, introducing us to the Maytrees, a couple living on the very hook of Cape Cod, in Provincetown, the bohemian town of charming misfits and artists:

"The Maytrees' lives, the Nausets', played out before the backdrop of fixed stars. The way of the world could be slight, then and now, but rarely, among individuals, vicious. The slow heavens marked hours. They lived often outside. They drew every breath from a wad of air just then crossing from saltwater to saltwater. Their sandspit was a naked strand between two immensities, both given to special effects."

And so we enter the lives of these two, from their meeting in their youth, to the unfolding of their love, to its unfolding (not breaking), as Toby Maytree leaves his wife, Lou (along with their small child, Petie), for her best friend, (flaky, flashy, and flirty) Deary Hightoe. Only to return again when both near the end of their lives, and not without Deary (who somehow manages to remain humorously oblivious to how she has affected these two in what for her seems to be on the level of a change in scenery). Because by then, when Toby needs, when his world wavers, when his second wife falls fatally ill, and he himself equally so, where should he go but to the woman he knew he could depend upon, always. All of this against fixed stars. All of this against the backdrop of slow heavens.

Dillard never falls into a trap, never gets sucked into making the common, common. Without once naming the pain in Lou's heart at this infidelity, she still conveys its shattering. Its enduring. Its opening again in the wisdom of women. We sense only how this feminine wisdom and patience and strength is what holds the slow heavens in place. Why foolish acts fail to make the stars fall from that fixed place. And she does it with the precision of a poet.

While Dillard's dialogue is spare and infrequent, when she does use it, she allows the Maytrees to convey all we need to know in a quick moment, then moves on. When the errant once-husband returns home, now an old man, asking Lou's help to care for his ill wife, Deary, and him, this potential land mine moment becomes an elegant ballet:

"Not going to slug me?"

"I considered it, when Petie was a baby and you wore earplugs."

"Earplugs? I don't remember any earplugs. Actually, I ran off with Deary."

"I did notice that. You brute. Get some sleep."

"You're wonderfully ..."

She growled and he stopped. He was treating her like a stranger who was helping him change a tire.

Not that the fractures of a shattered heart were gone. Such wounds remain forever. Alone in her bed, her once-husband sleeping in the next room, Lou lies awake, tossed by the waves of twenty-year old ache. Such is love, however, if real. She remains loyal in the face of disloyalty, and so we witness what never wins medals, rarely receives acknowledgement or reward, but is the axis of a universe tossed by whim and impulse and sheer human stupidity.

A kind of loyalty in Toby returns, too, as if back on its compass needle to this, his north star. After Deary passes, Lou cares for Toby as he, too, grows ever more ill. Finally, he is bedridden, and because he had always so loved the ocean crashing against the spit of sand, there on the tip of the hook of Cape Cod, Lou moves his bed outside their graying, old house. They sleep together on the deck, under those same stars, to the sound of incoming and outgoing waves. She holds his hand. She reads to him. They trace together the patterns of constellations.

"Lou lay beside him, silent as bandages, her immense solitude so gloriously - he might say, for who will fault a dying man's diction? - broached. 'I wither slowly in thine arms, here at the quiet limit of the world.' She got up to stretch her long dress, and his body drooped to the low and midgey spot she left warm ... Around him her body, sawgrass, trash, seas, and skies altered, reeled, and gave way to dark..."

It is impossible to read Dillard without being changed. Moved. Transcended to a place where, for a too short moment, the stars reel around us, then move back into their rightful place, again.