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Notes from a Crusty Seeker

Original Voice: Jeffrey Euginedes, Amanda Filipacchi, Bradley Somer

About a year ago I attended a Jeffrey Euginedes lecture on the subject of writer's voice (Columbia University School of the Arts, Heyman Center for the Humanities Creative Writing Lecture series). If you have about an hour, by all means listen; it's rich. [He stops reading and turns loose, funny, and charming during the Q&A which starts around 40:00. (My questions are at 52:58—about the nature of the personal "starter yeast" that brought him to commit years of life to researching Middlesex. His wonderful answers involve Latin class, Ovid's Metamorphosis, whether men or women enjoy sex more, and having a hopeless existence.)]{POSTSCRIPT: THIS VIDEO HAS BEEN PRIVATIZED. I'M SO SORRY. BELIEVE ME, IT IS WONDERFUL}

I start reading a lot of books and nothing makes me abandon them faster than a generic voice; to my eyes and inner ear, it's like fingers with no fingerprints. Not only is something off, but there is no feeling of surprise for me when I hit that kind of writing; no pulse. And the majority of books fall into this category. Why? Probably for the same reason so few of us generally and regularly express who we really are from our deepest essence. Which makes me all the more grateful when I land on a writer with a voice like no other—as unique as their fingerprints, so resonant with pulse that the words vibrate off the page and throughout my physical/spiritual system. I recently discovered two such writers: Amanda Filipacchi and Bradley Somer. Here are my reviews of their magnificent new novels:

The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty by Amanda Filipacchi
(W.W. Norton, Feb. 2015)
Deliciously entertaining, funny, skillfully written, and deeply moving.

To say anything about the characters would spoil the story, because their eccentric behavior is constantly surprising and as powerful as good plotting. Amanda Filipacchi’s unique characters' are eccentric but true, because their idiosyncrasies sprout from a foundation of human confusion, pain, and struggle.

The story involves a group of friends and their distress about appearance vs. reality, obsessive desire mislabeled as unrequited love, masks and murder. Also it unreels one of the most screamingly funny dinner party scenes I’ve ever read. People might categorize aspects of the book as social satire, magical realism, or a twisted contemporary adult fairytale, but these labels don’t describe what is here.
"You took the few pieces of [a person] that were visible to you and you put them together into this little grotesque being that you assume is [the person you see] . . ."

says a character in this little snippet, necessarily without context in order to preserve the mystery of this wonderful plot. This tiny excerpt describes what we do, and what I believe this book is really about: how we confuse the tiny bits that we manage to see for a whole truth. With such a light and delighted hand that you might miss it, Amanda Filipacchi presents all the fractured pieces of our broken humanity. Her book is her literary gift to readers who understand what it is to be blind and shattered and who appreciate good writing, human complexity, and wild humor.

Fishbowl by Bradley Somer
(St. Martin's Press, Aug. 2015)
Fishbowl is the magnificent tale of a fish's fall from a top-floor balcony and of all the apartment building's inhabitants' up-and-down-the-stairs travails. "Delicious" is the word that comes to mind to describe Bradley Somer's exquisite prose. He expands moments, detailing fleeting actions or sensations. Here's a taste:
Garth draws a deep breath to steady his heart and gives the package a squeeze, pinching it between the crook of his arm and his torso. It gives a reassuring crackle in return. He takes it in both hands and gives it another squeeze. The softness compresses to a point, and then he can feel something solid and hard in the middle. He repeats the motion and decides he has to run up the remaining flights. He needs to move through this horrible space as quickly as he can. He needs to get to his apartment and recapture the full excitement he had felt before the stairwell sucked it out of him.

That’s where she met Matt, her first crush. Matt lifted weights every day and was on the high school football team. Matt worked the same shifts that she did. He looked so good in his work uniform. The company logo bent so slightly around the curve of his sculpted pectoral muscle. An embroidered little man in a waiter’s uniform dashed away from Matt’s armpit and toward the cleft in his chest, carrying a burger the size of his head on a platter. Three embroidered steam lines on the logo implied the food was fresh and piping hot.

Ian [the titular fish] is torn from the scene when, as he falls past the eighteenth floor, he discovers the final betrayal of his body. His instinct for freedom has led to several such revelations so far. Even in the short second of his flight, the experience has been more edifying than the months he spent in his bowl. He not only has found that he can’t breathe in this atmosphere but also that eyelids are handy devices and evolution has left him ill prepared for flight. Now he learns that the aerodynamic nature of his body, which allows him to slice through water so effortlessly, with the right amount of wind shear transforms him into a streamlined, nose-down golden rocket. It pushes his tail to the sky and forces his head ground-ward. The turbulence compels his body to wiggle in a fashion not dissimilar to swimming in a strong current. No longer does he tumble. His descent becomes much more sinister and direct through the shrieking air.

All these examples probably take the time of a thought, but the writing is so luscious and juicy and sometimes even crunchy and crispy that you want to read slowly. Hard, since the story is equally tasty and you want to know what happens next. This is a gentle, compassionate, exquisitely written look at life from a falling fish's eye view. I loved it!

I had an interesting personal experience reading: Time in this story is altered in many ways—perception is slowed down, while events concurrently unfold in and out of real time. The quantum mechanics notion that time simply doesn't exist as we experience it is played with and discussed. While reading Fishbowl my private sense of time was altered. Slowed perceptions plus events in real time became my "real" time, to such an extent that when I put the book down, I felt as if my actions, thoughts, and reactions were like slogging through molasses. Imagine being away from gravity and then returning to it. I'd love to know if other readers had this experience.

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