What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah (Riverhead Books, 2017)
Have you ever read a book and felt like the author inserted their stories straight into your mind, and you can’t quite shake them after? That’s how I felt after reading Lesley Nneka Arimah’s debut collection of short stories, What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky. I read this book about a month ago now, but the characters and stories still follow (haunt?) me.
The stories are all told from the perspectives of women. Men play key or supporting roles in some of the stories, but relationships between women—mothers and daughters especially—take the main stage here. The culture of Nigeria infuses many of these stories—some as the actual setting, others as familial/cultural ties. Many of the stories also employ magical realism, which adds to the way these stories stick to you. Arimah suspends reality in the details to achieve the big picture reality, placing her finger on the intuitive truth of the matter.
Some of the most haunting stories are the ones where the main characters seem to fight against their own nature, or their inherited nature/gender/class/grief, all the while circling around the inevitability of it. Stories such as “Who Will Greet You at Home”, which was originally printed in the New Yorker here. This story achingly embodies the way Arimah uses magical realism to suspend reality to better highlight the truth:
Women like her had to form their children out of sturdier, more practical material if they were to withstand the dents and scrapes that came with a life like hers. Her mother had formed her from mud and twigs and wrapped her limbs tightly with leaves, like moin-moin: pedestrian items that had produced a pedestrian girl. Ogechi was determined that her child would be a thing of whimsy, soft and pretty, tender and worthy of love. But first, she had to go to work.
As Ogechi crafts baby after baby, our hearts break as we watch in horror the cycles passed on by class and gender. This is what I mean: these stories will latch onto you, not unlike Ogechi’s baby. These stories reveal truths that are sometimes hard to see; yet Arimah tells these difficult truths in such a way—through gorgeous, crafted, precise language—that her reader can’t help but digest them.
Another factor of these unrelenting stories lies in their surprise. Despite some element of inevitability that I described earlier, Arimah still finds moments to flip the reader upside down, disorient, and surprise. An example of this is the opening story, “The Future Looks Good”, which starts with a woman knocking at a door, and the rest of the story backtracks leading up to that moment. The final sentences deliver a swift shock. Yet other stories take their time and don’t upend the reader with surprise, but rather, coax us along with their slow build. With this mix of styles, Arimah deftly balances the danger of over-exerting her reader while calling our attention to difficult, soul-wrenching things.
I had the opportunity to meet Lesley and hear her talk about this book in my role as producer of The Loft Podcast, where she was a guest recently (you can listen to the episode here). One of the things she said that I immediately felt echoed my own experience, was how there was an early point in her career as a writer where she knew what and how she wanted to write, but didn’t have the skill to write it yet. I feel that particular sense of frustration in my own current capacity as a writer. I was talking to my dear friend Timothy (yes! our same dear Hazel & Wren friend and past contributor!) about this recently, who in response sent me this article/video featuring a quote from Ira Glass on success. In it, Glass says, “Nobody tells people who are beginners […] that all of us who do creative work … we get into it because we have good taste. But it’s like there’s a gap, that for the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good, […] It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not quite that good. But your taste—the thing that got you into the game—your taste is still killer”.
Clearly Arimah has found the sweet spot where her work has met up with her taste and ambition to create this magical, haunting, groundbreaking collection of stories. And, my fellow worrying writers: maybe there’s hope for us, too.
This week, let’s study the dog. Here are three pooches to get your pen started!
Álvaro Sánchez-Montañés, Untitled, from Unprepared & Unsorted series. Photograph. www.alvarosh.es
Jasper Oostland, Pug, 2008. Acrylic on canvas. www.jasperoostland.com
Anna Ådén, Untitled from Midwinter Night series. Photograph. www.imable.se
We’re back with another discussion of Alan Moore’s Jerusalem, this time dealing with “Rough Sleepers” up to “Atlantic.” Roughly, that’s pages 98-207.
Josh: We open this section with Freddy, a character who, in many ways, exemplifies the class struggles that seem to exist for everyone in this novel. He moves about this worn-down city in his own worn-down way, finding meals and comfort wherever he can. He’s an interesting character to thread into our expanding cast, and one that echoes with the others already presented. There’s the plot element that recurs—the builders, but there’s also the way Freddy’s relationships with other people (I’m thinking of his entirely unsexy sex scene with Patsy) swirl around use and abuse of one another, the way people become handholds for one another to stay just above the crumbling foundations of their own lives.
Aaron: But he’s not above those foundations, right? Because Freddy and most of the people he interacts with are ghosts. With this chapter, Moore piles another genre into the book. And with it, he does to time what he’s been doing to space. For Freddy and his ghost friends, time exists all at once, piled together like muck; and interacting with it is, once again, a matter of perspective. And ghost drugs, I guess? Does it mean anything that, to interact with all of time, one has to be dead? Regardless, he’s the one whose feet we saw briefly in the previous chapter, sticking out from under a church gate in the “modern” world. But because he’s unstuck in time, he also meets the 9th century Brother Peter.
J: Yeah! Moore is doing some cool stuff, I think, with introducing or typifying different characters via different genres. It reminds me of China Mieville’s attempts to write a book in every genre, except Moore is doing it all inside his one gargantuan book! It’s cool, and speaking of genres, what about Brother Peter? There’s something here about Moore’s ability to tell about a place through vast stretches of history, but there’s also something here about the great power of Moore’s mythologizing. Here’s a character who has been through much, who’s looking for the mythical “centre,” and who moves through our narrative like a shaping, purposeful force. Yes, we know that something bigger is at stake in the narrative because of Alma’s art show, because of the Builders—but this brings home the point in a cool, unique way.
A: Between the Freddy and Peter chapters, we’re pretty sure that the Builders are archangels, right? Michael and Uriel, the boss angel and the angel of death, are named indirectly by Freddy. They’re the Builders represented by the cross and the skull. Any guesses on who the tower and dick angels are? There are traditionally seven archangels, but the only other two named (I think) are Raphael and Gabriel. Raphael is a healer, and Gabriel has a trumpet, right? And he spoke the Qur’an to Mohammed? Neither of those seems particularly dickish (unless we’re talking about Raphael the Ninja Turtle).
Or maybe they’re not angels. Maybe they’re something else, and we only think they’re angels because of the wing-like afterimages they leave as they move their arms through time.
Or does all this even matter?
J: Oh, definitely angels. They’ve gotta be angels: beings who have been working on the foundations of this place—apparently the center of space and time—since, well, forever apparently? Maybe it doesn’t matter, but I’m putting my money on angels.
How are you feeling about the nigh-encyclopedic style/approach now that we’re 200 pages in? Is it grating on you at all yet? For my part, I’m liking the book a lot, though each time we start a new chapter/character, I feel just the slightest bit of irritation. I want to trust Moore, and I do, but there’s a part of me that remembers the very opening of the book, the art exhibit that’s meant to frame this whole thing—and I wonder whether or not the continuous addition of characters and narrative lines and psychogeographical perspectives isn’t, in some ways, onanistic. In other words, stories are shaped things, right? The difference between a narrative and a dictionary is one is shaped by a beginning, a middle, and an end and the other attempts to tell everything about everything; one is curated and the other isn’t. Jerusalem was seriously hyped before publication, and Moore has done enough great stuff that he could publish his holiday card ideas as best sellers. And yet part of me wonders if I’m reading this very unshaped (at least thus far) thing and thinking, “wow, so good,” *because* it’s Alan Moore and I know he’s done great things so I must be not thinking hard enough/reading closely enough if I’m thinking some of this is unfiltered indulgence. I don’t know. What do you think?
A: For real thank you for defining “onanistic.” That’s one of the words (along with epistemological, logos, and many others) that just sit in a compost brain in my head, getting their juices all mixed together.
I actually really like the idea of a dictionary being a story, and I think a lot of decolonizing movements would say that some sense of story—some subjective life narrative—is implicit in the dictionary. Or in a textbook. But I don’t think that’s what you meant, so sorry for saying all that in bad faith.
But I’m all for stories that don’t have shapes or have weird shapes. Don Quixote is a rambling mess with no sense of building action, but I love it. Pale Fire is basically an annotated poem with an index, and it’s riveting. But I also come from a background of reading RPG sourcebooks for fun. They’re hundreds of pages of gazetteer entries, monster stats, maps, and fictional histories, and I used to eat them up as a teen. It’s sort of an emergent storytelling approach? Maybe? Like, Jerusalem is to fiction what Legos are to toys. It’s a box of parts, and it’s up to us to make it “about” something. The chapters jump around, and in doing so, they set bounds for us to talk about perspective or religion or art.
I’m feeling really hipster after writing all that, so I’m gonna go have a drink and play some video games.
J: I agree with everything you say here, and I’ve spent plenty of time enjoying strategy guides and reading through either dictionary-esque texts or just plain old dictionaries. And I like that sort of thing, but a novel still seems different to me. A dictionary is governed by the alphabet, right? And that’s it? It doesn’t privilege one letter over another, it doesn’t build toward anything, and entries are arbitrarily connected. Now sure, maybe you could come along and curate some cool story out of dictionary entries, but there’s no authorial will or effort behind arranging words/entries/etc in any sort of way: the alphabet decides it and that’s it. Pale Fire is incredible, I think, because it seems to be just an annotated poem but it reveals this dark, weird story behind it, the relationship between Shade and Kinbote, how it went wrong, what really happened, etc. That’s a narrative curated by Nabokov, and I’m not sure you get something like that from a dictionary (though I would love it if that existed!).
Anyway, I guess I’m just not yet sold (so it’s good we’re not done with the readthrough!) on everything Moore is giving us. If anything, it feels like he’s thrown out a whole bunch of raw material to the audience with a command of “build whatever you want with that,” which fits into your Legos idea. It’s weird and interesting and I don’t know if I like it yet!
I don’t have any video games to play, but I’ll take after you and have a drink.
Next month, we’re reading to “Hark! The Glad Sound!” Please join us!
Don Quixote (1605) by Miguel de Cervantes
Pale Fire (1962) by Vladimir Nabokov
Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Planescape Campaign Setting (1994) by Zeb Cook, et al
China Mieville’s assorted works
Spring is slowly stretching out its green tipped limbs here in Minnesota. With the new season comes renewed curiosity, and that translates to everything from daily decisions to my book selections. I think you’ll see that echoed in today’s staff round-up, too. What are you reading that is fulfilling your curiosity these days?
Allegedly by Tiffany D. Jackson (HarperCollins, January 2017)
Reviewed by Cassidy
Mary Addison brutally murdered a baby. Allegedly. At least, that’s what the judge decided when he sentenced her to “baby jail” when Mary was just nine years old. Now Mary is 15, and though she’s stuck in a group home with a crew of her violent and volatile peers and a case officer who couldn’t care less, she’s determined to make the most out of her life. . . until she becomes pregnant with her boyfriend, Ted. Mary is suddenly faced with a choice: stay in the system and give up her baby, or tell the real truth of what happened that night that three-month-old Alyssa lost her life. This book is one part thriller and one part searing indictment of the prison industrial complex (think Orange is the New Black meets Walter Dean Myers meets The Bluest Eye), rattling along at breakneck pace until the very last page. Oh, and no spoilers, but if you’re a big fan of twists, this book contains the be-all, end-all of surprise endings.
The Twenty Days of Turin by Giorgio De Maria, translated by Ramon Glazov (Liveright Books, 2017)
Reviewed by Josh
I’m caught between two books, one nearly finished and one nearly started. Giorgio De Maria’s The Twenty Days of Turin (translated by Ramon Glazov) is a weird, scary story that combines a strange, Borges-esque Library, a pseudo-Woolfian collective, temporary psychosis, and a narrator trying to uncover how all of this strangeness disappeared into the past. It’s a small book, and I’m savoring every little bit of it. Once I’m out of this nightmare vision of Turin, I’ll leap into Yoon Ha Lee’s Hugo-nominated science fiction novel Ninefox Gambit, about which I know very little but for which I am totally excited!
The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness by Sy Montgomery (Atria Books, 2016)
Reviewed by Taylor
Despite my fascination with octopuses, I didn’t know much about them before reading this book. First of all, I learned that it’s octopuses, not octopi. I learned that octopuses have complex nervous systems that dominate the arms, where they have an excellent sense of touch—and taste. I learned that octopuses taste with their suckers, passing food from arm to arm to mouth, where they have a sharp beak like a parrot. I learned that there’s still so much more to discover about these intelligent, playful, problem-solving, color-changing, shape-shifting escape artists.
Intrigued by octopuses, author and naturalist Sy Montgomery makes regular visits to the New England Aquarium, followed by a sudden ambition to get scuba certified, all along the way meeting people who share her unexpected love for the eight-armed creatures. In The Soul of an Octopus, Montgomery chronicles the observations and intimate encounters she shared with each octopus she came to know, weaving together thoughtful, moving stories of her friends—humans and underwater aliens alike—while exploring the question of consciousness and the remarkable connections made between species.
Shade the Changing Girl #1-7 by Cecil Castellucci, Marley Zarcone, et al (DC Comics/Young Animal, 2017)
Reviewed by Aaron
Take one birdlike alien from a parallel dimension. See her adopted by the most boring parents her sci-fi world has ever known. Then drop her
into the body of a hateful (and hated) Earthling teen. This is the formula that Shade the Changing Girl is built on. The series inherits a name and aesthetic from comics that positively ooze the times they were made: Steve Ditko’s psychedelic Shade the Changing Man from 1978 and 1990’s mad, bad, and dangerous-to-know reboot, the Changing Girl incorporates its forerunners’ lore without being bogged down by it; in fact, Shade queers just about everything: sci-fi, adoption, sexuality, family, and home. It’s a comic about the people that exist between and outside of accepted norms. Shade’s world is a Guillermo del Toro fantasy colored by Lisa Frank, and I can’t get enough.
Abandon Me: Memoirs by Melissa Febos (Bloomsbury, 2017)
Reviewed by Wren
Melissa Febos visited the Loft (where I work) last month. I hadn’t read any of her work prior to her visit, but let me tell you: I have officially reached fan-girl status. When researching prior to her visit, I came across this essay, “The Heart-Work: Writing About Trauma as a Subversive Act” and immediately signed up for her full-day short essay workshop and bought Abandon Me. I also found out via Twitter that not only do we share the same first name (ICYMI, my real name is Melissa, not Wren), but we also share the same Myers Briggs classification of ENFJ. YUP, FAN GIRL, HI. One thing (out of many things) Febos said in the workshop that really stuck with me was (paraphrased): tell your story with enough specificity that it reveals a universal truth. Her essays and memoirs do exactly this. Febos has a very different background than my own, but each essay resonates with a thread of universality within my own experiences. The essays in this collection juxtapose the legacies left by both her birth father and the sea captain father who raised her, and delve further into her relationships with drug addiction, love, and other familial relationships. Abandonment is an overarching theme that runs throughout these essays, and Febos doesn’t shy away from the raw, tender spots of her own story. This is a beautifully lyric, heart-opening exploration of her life and the universality of vulnerability.