MixedWashington Independent Review of BooksTh[e] section of The Librarianist, where Bob discovers he’s not even the center of his own love story, is where deWitt’s prose is most impressive ... The rest of the novel, unfortunately, pales a little in comparison.
PositiveChicago Review of BooksAgain and again, Porter’s men—all who could well be the same man, besides a variation in job or home city or relationship status—play through the stages of dissolution ... This leads to a gradual effect of dilution, and in some cases, the recurring motif quickly calcifies into cliché ... Given this repetition, it is the stories that shift gear a little that are more memorable ...
In the first story of Andrew Porter’s latest collection, The Disappeared, the narrator is a guest at a house party in Austin, Texas. He is middle-aged with a wife and two kids, and it’s his first time seeing his old friends together for some time. While they sit around a fire pit smoking cigarettes and drinking, he watches them through sliding glass doors: “I’d known most of these people close to twenty years, and yet at that moment I barely recognized them.” Alienated, he slips unnoticed from the party and follows his wife home, only to later find himself out in their garden, investigating a strange noise, from where he “could see the house about twenty yards away and the faces of my children and Laura framed in the kitchen window. […] I realized that they were staring at me but couldn’t see me. They had no idea where I was.”
Many things, both physical and abstract, slip quietly into the night in The Disappeared. Like the narrator of “Austin,” Porter’s characters live in a perpetual state of Irish goodbye, finding that memory, friends and careers have dissolved without a number to call, sometimes gone for years before anyone has realized. This is unsurprising when you begin to notice a recurring theme in these stories: the arrival of middle-age. Populated mostly by artists or by the friends of artists, Porter’s idea of disappearance seems first and foremost to be one of youth; of the dreams borne through the first three decades of life that are cliched because so many—particularly artists—carry them. In the excellent short story “Jimena,” an older couple find themselves trying to live vicariously through the title character, a charismatic young ceramicist living what seems like “a teenage artist’s fantasy.” Near the end of the story, the husband finally admits to his wife that “Sometimes I find myself trying so hard to hold on to that idea of who I used to be, you know? It’s so painful to let that go.”
In other stories, there are locally famous artists who live next door, or the narrator is married to the “virtuoso” cello player whose dreams are being lost to a neurological disorder. They tend to live the lives of professionals, academics and creatives in San Antonio or Austin, collecting succulents and suffering through cancer. Meanwhile, Porter develops an atmosphere around his fiction, a sun-starched mist of desperate nostalgia, where each ending feels like a loss. He does at times play his hand a little too heavily, where closing lines undo some previous delicacy. Other times, however, he finds the perfect exit from a scene, leaving behind only a low ache in the gut. At the end of the eponymous story, the narrator floats in a pool with his disappeared friend’s girlfriend, having spent two days boxing up a missing man’s belongings. The narrator opens his eyes to see that:
“She was just staring at me, and I gathered that she was probably thinking what I was thinking, that we had just spent these two very strange days together, and that after I left we would probably never see each other again. […] and yet for now, we still had about a half hour or so before that happened, a half hour or so to pretend, a half hour to float here on our backs in the darkness, in silence, but together.”
Of all that disappears across this collection, though, it is interesting that the most consistent is that of the narrators themselves. Again and again, Porter’s men—all who could well be the same man, besides a variation in job or home city or relationship status—play through the stages of dissolution. You realize that this is his almost-obsessive consideration: becoming the passenger in one’s own life. It gets to a point in the book where each successive narrator follows like a ghost behind the last. This leads to a gradual effect of dilution, and in some cases, the recurring motif quickly calcifies into cliché. As quoted from “Austin,” the narrator there watches his friends through that sliding-glass door. This image crops up in The Disappeared no less than five times, and always to the same end” a man, watching some aspect of his own life from the outside.
Given this repetition, it is the stories that shift gear a little that are more memorable. Because while Porter’s men remain a little irritating, sometimes petty and often passive to the point of inertia, they are fantastic examples of modern character and all its necessary anxiety. When they are allowed more space to be difficult in, the stories feel more difficult and rewarding also. One of the best examples of this is the story “Breathe,” an account of a man’s failure to act when his five-year-old falls into a swimming pool. Gavin is both anxious to the point of hypochondria, and unreactive when his son disappears beneath the water. Porter’s obsessive eye treads over the brief event for sixteen pages, mapping the route of Gavin’s guilt, so that when his son finally does what had been feared the most and asks his father, “Why weren’t you there?” you are able to feel both the gratification of a reader and the incredible punch of guilt delivered to a parent.
Girlhood’s Repression in “Brutes”
Porter might well have drawn the walls of his fiction too closely in The Disappeared, that’s true. But what is lacking in range has been traded for the complications of depth, and in the process... he has been able, like Chekhov before, to reach an aesthetic of regret.
Selby Wynn Schwartz
PositiveChicago Review of BooksAfter Sappho is not an attempt to rework or adapt its inspiration. Instead, Selby Wynn Schwartz’s book is more of an ekphrastic text, using Sappho as a well to draw from, rather than an artist to imitate. Schwartz, to her credit, leaves any imitation to her characters ... For a reader, even aware of the tidal wash of names and dates as an intention, it might have helped to have a character list made available, somewhere in the text. This, of course, suggests countering the form of After Sappho, and indeed its political bent. The point of a book like this is to confound and to reject taxonomy, to refuse the dull binary norms of gender and experience ... Schwartz’s strengths are clearer in the macro view. She is excellent at threading her stories together, collecting people, dispersing them across the world, drawing lovers and friends under one roof to explore an alternative, sororal history. Schwartz’s voice is one of dry wit and cocked eyebrow, mocking the man-made record.
RaveThe Montreal Review of Books (CAN)Manoeuvring so many people at once, particularly in a graphic novel, is a risk for both the writing and the imagery – so many heads in panels, so many voices to define. But Drnaso’s work is distinguished by its commitment to character and expression. The deceptive simplicity of his illustration permits for much more subtle emotion; the fact that he spends so much time lingering on these faces, and that they are made up of such basic shapes, allows for constant reinterpretation. What was previously a half-smile might later be a blank stare, and where there was once affection might now be concern ... Some of these lives are developed so meticulously that it is hard to disentangle what reality might be in the face of such invention and internal trembling. Others, however, seem to peter out, or hit a ceiling. Lou’s identification with his role as a dog is at first the most fascinating story of the group, but it doesn’t take long to plateau, and is eventually submerged beneath fleshier, more captivating stories ... Within a book as ambitious and beautifully told as Acting Class, though, these criticisms are practically negligible. Combined with Sabrina, and some elements of Beverly, Drnaso is capturing the palette and the pathos of everyday America, in a way that easily suggests comparison to Edward Hopper. His mastery of small talk and silence, and the vein of aggression that runs through so much of our interior lives, proves that he is deeply embedded under the skin of his characters. It means that even in a setting as artificial and as self-aware as an acting class, Drnaso’s work never reads false.