Bookmarks: Brief reviews of new and overlooked books

Branwell: A Novel of the Brontë Brother
by Douglas A. Martin
Soft Skull, February 2006, 232 pages, $13.95 [paperback]

Douglas Martin’s novelization of the little-known life of Branwell Brontë, brother to authors Charlotte and Emily, is a delicately paced meditation on the expectations of greatness. As the family’s only son, Branwell is set up as its shining representative, “the pride and joy of them all”. This burden of excellence, saddled by his father, leads Branwell on a convoluted quest of self-discovery. His resulting identity crisis manifests itself in attempts to master painting, poetry, the railroad, and, most disastrously, tutoring. His own self-sabotaging flaw is, as Martin notes, that “he doesn’t know how to contain all he doesn’t know what to do with”. As Branwell navigates himself through a life riddled with drifts into fantasy, an appetite for opium and alcohol obscure even the most halfhearted bits of botched potential.

The follow-up to Martin’s debut novel Outline of My Lover, Branwell is more experimental fiction than generic biography. Martin’s simple, abstract compositional style frequently betrays the biographical element; his subject often becomes a malleable figment of a fictive imagination. Branwell’s sisters provide the historical and literary context (not to mention the star power, so to speak), which allows Martin to thread a dreamlike narrative through well-known pillars of fact.

Branwell’s story is set up as a musky, candlelit tragedy from the start. He’s preoccupied with the early deaths of his mother and sister, so much that his later years never seem to progress beyond a shadowy state of grief. Martin’s language is palpably incandescent, the sensuality of its poetics curtailed by a terse fatalism. The book’s episodic snapshots — each so brief and tactful that it’s vaguely profound — illuminate the beauty in a life’s inevitable ruin. It’s a consuming and haunting read, one that hides its dark allure in ghosts, insinuations, and recessed crevices of human nature. Branwell, Martin writes, is “a shining example of romantic self-destruction, and of all his sisters’ hopes, an embodiment of the fears they each chose to see there, those sides of their characters.” Besides the conceptual fodder he comes to represent, Branwell is imbued with flesh and blood, a character whose own misfortunes are as much the product of human anguish as they are high art.

Zeth Lundy Amazon

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Nice Big American Baby
by Judy Budnitz
Vintage, February 2006, 304 pages, $13.95 [paperback]

Judy Budnitz is a writer with a wide and varied perspective. In her latest collection of short stories (most of which first appeared in lit mags and journals), she build superb narratives around everything from a mail-order Russian bride to an island made up of only mothers and daughters. Even the title, Nice Big American Baby, has a full quality; the words strung together carefully, yet unexpectedly. The gentle, surprising nature of her writing is exactly what makes it so engaging.

Budnitz uses metaphor and broadly themed language to inform her stories, many of which are politically themed. The author’s technique is successful, for instance, in “Where We Came From”, a story following a nameless pregnant woman through her unsuccessful attempts to cross a particular international border and give birth to an American citizen. As her belly swells, the character takes on an almost mythical persona, and yet her story remains realistic, and ultimately quite painful.

This story, like so many of Budnitz’s, are enjoyable due to the author’s canyon-deep imagination. The author is skilled at altering standard narrative techniques to suit her quirkiness and build her rich comedic dramas. Entirely without direct dialogue, “Immersion”, for instance, is a fragmented story related from the perspective of a child growing up in a racially segregated town. In contrast, “Visitors” is virtually all dialogue — a phone conversation between a mother and daughter with an underlying sinister quality.

Budnitz’s creativity is undeniable. Still, her more abstract tales are less successful than those mentioned above. Something about “Preparedness”, for instance, feels forced — the story is, in essence, a post-9/11 mockery of the government’s inability to control catastrophe. It’s an intriguing but ultimately redundant idea that lacks original conclusions regarding the event and its aftermath. Part fairy tale and part fable, “Elephant and Boy” is another failure, revealing its moral before setting up its conflict and potential consequences. These, however, are minor lags in an otherwise excellent collection.

As the literary world continues to push non-fiction, it’s story collections like Budnitz’s that remind readers how engaging and informed well-crafted fiction can be. Budnitz is a writer and social critic who combines her keen and distinctly modern insight to create deeply imaginative and thought-provoking stories.

Christina Clarkson Amazon

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Portable Altamont
by Brian Joseph Davis
Coach House Books, September 2005, 88 pages, $11.95 [US], $14.95 [CAN] [paperback]

Brian Joseph Davis is a Toronto author, a piece of trivia you might never have known were it not for the publication of Portable Altamont and this subsequent review. This is not just a post-modern self-referential trick on the behalf of PopMatters, either; bits and pieces of this book were actually originally published as part of the limited edition, matchbook-sized Pocket Canon Anonymous Book Series. Focus, if you will, on the word “anonymous” in the last sentence for a moment. Then zero in on the fact Spin magazine somehow found a copy of Davis’s Altamont, which had been quietly published by a small Canadian press, and awarded it an A- letter grade in a December 2005 review. Something happened in the transition from the ‘zine fair to the bookshelf: media-prescribed legitimacy. Which is a bit unfortunate because this seemed somehow to work better as an unsigned pocket book.

This very slim, unheimlich collection — said to be three years in the making — is but a thrown-together jumble of postcard stories starring various low and highbrow celebrities. Thus, you have Margaret Atwood and Björk in one corner tagging off against Nancy McKeon and the Swedish Chef in swift, nonsensical narratives. (Sample storyline: James Spader gets arrested for pretending he’s a cat. The end.) This volume comes complete with ironic footnotes, though they only offer a largely unnecessary director’s commentary on many of the subjects presented here. Additionally, the book has perhaps what can be called the world’s first self-referential index at its back.

One’s enjoyment of Altamont thus probably runs parallel to one’s enjoyment of ironic post-modern fiction of the sort Dave Eggers has popularized. You either love it or you don’t, though the book does feel like one great big extended in-joke by frequently name-checking largely unknown Torontonians like Christian Bök and Darren Wershler-Henry. If you know the minor players, you can quickly twig onto what this book might really be about. Could it be Davis imagining he and his Toronto friends as being part of the world’s much larger pop culture milieu, as being equals and peers of the very celebrities he appears to simultaneously mock? If so, this position seems vaguely hypocritical and shallow when strung out over and over again in book form.

While Altamont is funny, clever and intelligent in bite-sized chunks, it unfortunately seems content to overly wallow in references to itself. If only it bothered to illuminate the world with the front-cover’s Molotov cocktail — if only it were slightly more critical of its celebrated subjects and of itself, it could have been a contender. Instead, Portable Altamont goes down like a Shirley Temple: sweet, but lightweight; a mere paean to celebrity and self-worship.

Zachary Houle Amazon