Roy Kesey Lingers in “The New Automaton Theater”

Roy Kesey’s All Over is technically the second book from new independent publisher Dzanc Books; the first was a reprint of Kesey’s novella Nothing in the World just a few months ago. Tonight he’s in New York, reading at the Happy Ending series with Ben Percy and Min Jin Lee, but before that, he wants to share with you his enthusiasm for Steven Millhauser…

roy-kesey.jpgImpossible thing, this thing about a favorite! Can other people do this? Who are these people, these favorite-havers, and with which sort of knife do they cut the list down to one?

But, okay. So. Speaking of knives: Steven Millhauser, The Knife Thrower, “The New Automaton Theater.” Because, how does he do that?

By which I mean: the story is a house of cards, but not the usual kind: it is a reverse pyramid balanced on a single card.

By which I also mean: this story walks blindfolded to the end of the gangplank, and we hold our breaths. The swords unsheathed just in case, the eye-patches and parrots and peg-legs, et cetera: the story wipes the sweat from its inky brow, and steps forward for the last time on earth. Except it doesn’t fall. Instead, it takes another step. And still doesn’t fall. Another step. Another. Still not falling, and now it starts to jog.

By which I really mean: this story, this new automaton theater, it expands and expands beyond its already ingenious premise until we almost (but never quite) want it to stop expanding so that we can get our heads around what just happened in that paragraph right back there. The narrator starts off talking about real historical objects that exist at the far edge of our capacity for understanding and wonderment–the mechanical songbirds of Hero (or Heron) of Alexandria, the mechanical duck (four hundred separate pieces per wing! Fully functional intestines!) of Jacques de Vaucanson—and then says that in his (the narrator’s) town, such things are small beer. Now, that is not a hard thing to think or write. But Millhauser actually imagines and describes these farther machines, and then farther, and then farther.

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24 October 2007 | selling shorts |

Robin Romm’s Grimm-ly Realistic Inspiration

The current issue of the literary magazine Tin House is dedicated to “Fantastic Women,” writers who are blurring the lines between fantasy and literary fiction, and Robin Romm would fit right into that crowd. based on the short stories in her debut collection, The Mother Garden. Here, she reminds us that the early experts on fairy tales knew the power of realism, too.

robin-romm.gifWhen I was young, my grandparents sent me a book of fairy tales. My grandfather, a bit of a scholar, treated books at least as well as he treated members of his family and so the book arrived swaddled in cellophane, wrapped twice in butcher paper, in a padded envelope. The pages were thick and the illustrations, if my memory can be trusted, depicted realistic children in lederhosen amidst flowers and rocks. No ordinary book, this. It was the real Grimm’s. Cinderella’s stepsister hacked off her toes when her foot failed to fit the glass slipper Bluebeard’s closet nearly erupted with the ghosts of his decapitated wives. But the story I most vividly recall—the story that stayed with me through my entire childhood, informing my stories into adulthood—is a story entitled “Babes in the Woods.” The story runs parallel to the story of Hansel and Gretel. A stepmother urges a brother and sister to go searching for berries, or some such delight, in the autumn woods. They scatter crumbs behind them to mark their path, but when they reach the end of the day, the birds have feasted on the crumbs. No witch house appears on the horizon. Not much, if my memory serves me, actually happens in this tale. The children are lost. No one finds them. The night grows cold and they die.

I loved this story. My mother, crouching by the bookshelf obliged my longing to hear it a couple of times, but soon she refused.

“It’s morbid,” she said.

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20 October 2007 | selling shorts |