Saturday, January 6, 2018

Bryon MacWilliams

Bryon MacWilliams is an American writer who was a Moscow-based foreign correspondent for more than a decade. His latest book is With Light Steam: A Personal Journey through the Russian Baths.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. His reply:
Poet Derek Walcott said so much of his work depended on inspiration that he envied prose writers who returned, day after day, to the same project. But so much of my day-in-day-out prose can feel like Work that I find myself searching out especially imaginative, even playful, reads.

Over the past month I've started, continued, revisited or finished:

In Sandy Gingras's first collection of poems, Not Even Close to What She Planned On, men fall out of the sky (“He hit at her feet like an issue resolved”), God rallies everyone for a Christmas card photo, a giant egg appears in a driveway, a brother brings a stripper to Thanksgiving, and a mother tranquilizer-darts an escaped lion at a local pond. Another (the same?) mother wants her head cryogenically frozen, to which the speaker says: “I go, 'What if they can't grow you a body, / and you're stuck being an alive head forever.' / ' She says, 'Then you'll have to carry me around.' / I knew it. I knew it.” Sometimes factual and emotional truth seem to bob at the same water line in this collection, but who knows? Like all good poets, Gingras knows how to lie.

In The Last Pub on Earth, one of Peter Murphy's two recent poetry collections, Garry Morgan falls off bar stools (and gets up) in Wales in the times of “Thatcher closed mines.” Sometimes he's tossed out – like the time he tries to climb into a painting in a museum: “Apple trees. Soft grass. / A stream he could sink his feet into – ”. Morgan, formerly the author's real-life pseudonym, roams Wales longing for resurrection. But everyone, including Morgan, knows his chances aren't good. Trudging up a valley he tells a(n inquiring) dog, “I am always breathing in two places. / My heart is a symphony of stones.”

The essays and riffs in Barbara Hurd's latest collection, Listening to the Savage, speak nominally to the Savage River near her Allegheny Mountains home. But, really, the collection speaks to acts of listening anywhere – to life examined, and the examined life. The River Notes and Half-Heard Melodies in the subtitle oscillate between discord and dissonance (“completely bred out of domesticated canaries,” we learn), reason and resonance, overfitting and underfitting, presence and nonpresence, extroversion and introversion, loves and past loves. From little-known words (crypsis, dehiscence, ear-soul) and little-known makers (poets, composers, philosophers) to little-known facts (the variations, say, in adaptive silence and acoustical camouflage among the 90,000 species of insects that use sound “to court and to warn”), Hurd knows that “God's in the details,” but “so's the devil.”

Readers have been seeking out books that explain Russia ever since the 2016 U.S. general election, but editors haven't been much help – safely turning to think-tankers and long-familiar names. To really get a feel for today's Russia, though, read Peter Pomerantsev's memoir, Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible. Pomerantsev, the son of former Soviet dissidents in Great Britain, worked high in the sky in the Moscow television and radio tower, Ostankino, with the brain trust of non-independent airwaves, feel-good stories and fake news (that, yes, even reaches America). That's OK, even good, at first: Who is the West to teach anyone how to behave? But years of navigating the many ways the system “wraps itself around you” – of rewriting history to suit the president, of political opponents designed and paid to make the president seem sane, of businesses and so-called nongovernmental organizations loyal to the president – take their toll on Pomerantsev. When positive stories can no longer be found, and “factual entertainment” yields to sitcoms (and canned laughter) that reflect a life “so spotless and shiny it could almost be teasing the viewer,” he leaves Russia for what might be forever. Ordinary Russians leave, too, even a well-known performance artist: “What role could there be for a performance artist, where to watch a piece of grotesque performance art you just have to switch on the TV?”

Even before I finished (Lee Klein's translation of) Horacio Castellanos Moya's novel, Revulsion, I was buying copies for friends. I haven't laughed out loud, as often, reading a book since, maybe, never. One friend calls it a “romp.” I've never read anything like it, and I've read the novel that inspired it: Thomas Bernhard's The Loser. Moya's Revulsion, subtitled Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador, begins in a San Salvador cafe in which the expatriate narrator, Vega, tells his childhood friend, Moya: “I have to tell you what I think about all this nastiness, there's no one else I can relate my impressions to, the horrible thoughts I've had here.” And they are horrible, the thoughts. The slim novel is populated by rare words – vomitous, calamitous, pernicious, detestable, monstrous – that are applied to nearly everything, and everyone: monuments, universities, cities, war, foods, drinks, words, artists, communists, the military, relatives, and especially a sister-in-law. The book is funny in the vein of the Russian saying, “Every joke is only part joke,” the rest is truth. If there weren't so much truth in Revulsion the book's real-life Moya wouldn't have gotten real-life death threats. Whereas Bernhard seemed to love Austria, though, Vega doesn't seem to love anything. A lot of the heart in Revulsion is supplied by the reader, who can't help but look at his or her own country through a Vega-like lens – can't help but see much of the same, not least of which the “party of thieves disguised as politicians.”
Learn more about Bryon MacWilliams at the With Light Steam website.

The Page 99 Test: With Light Steam.

--Marshal Zeringue