Here’s the latest installment of Baltimore writer Joseph Martin’s Ivy Bookshop-sponsored column for the Baltimore Fishbowl, “The Lit Parade,” a celebration and thoughtful examination of the epic local lit scene that too often goes unreported, unread.
Located somewhere between a short story’s brief epiphanies and a book-length manuscript’s meaty heft, the novella — a strange, pidgin form of fiction — has always defied clear rules or expectations. As an unsurprising result, its greatest lit-historical examples tend to whip along with an odd, enticingly elliptical push-pull, jackknifing between the sorts of mysterious characters (Gustave Flaubert’s “A Simple Soul”) and purgatorial plots (Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener”) more common types of fiction tend to abhor. At its all-too-rare best, a novella can trick a reader into caring less about a story per se than its aura, so to speak: a persistent state of grace (or lack thereof) whose inevitable burnout allows for a unique fictive torque. A bad novella, by contrast, can feel perverse, coming on like rambling short fiction or, worse, a novel caught in utero; even at its most inspired, the novella’s liminal existence often demands a bit of literary MacGuyvering to come off.
That said, some writers can’t help but heed the novella’s odd siren song — Jen Michalski, for one. Offering up two fine, convincing specimens, her new book, Could You Be With Her Now (Dzanc), harnesses the novella’s interstitial power by, ironically, embracing — and exploiting — its awkward rhythms, often to spectacular effect. In “I Can Make It to California Before It’s Time for Dinner,” for example, mentally challenged, 14-year-old narrator Jimmy murders a girl he mistakes for a TV character before readers have a chance to blink:
She puts her hands on my hands but I am bigger. Her face turns all red and it’s kind of funny how red. We are up half the way when she falls asleep on top of me. She is so heavy I let her fall and then I wait for her to stop make-believing because people on TV are always doing make-believe.
It’s a brutal scene. But, well aware of her form, Michalski keeps the moment abrupt, letting it act as an engine of familial agony and road movie-via-Deliverance action on the horizon, not a short story spark or an Of Mice and Men-style brick wall. Even more, she lets Jimmy’s childlike view of his situation dictate the tone of the story, putting readers in a distinctly novella-ish discomfort zone; “Dinner” gets bleaker, but Jimmy’s head, juvenile and cheery,– demands an eerie slapstick.
Still, while the Stephen King-like perversions of “Dinner” do make their uneasy mark, Now’s other novella, “May-September,” feels like the collection’s true keeper. Slowly tracing the rise and fall of a romance between an old woman and a 20-something hired memoirist/tech assistant, “May-September” feels alive — perhaps by design — to its taboo in a way that “Dinner” never does, shoving its pan-generational romance into the public sphere and letting it sweat. Unhindered by her other novella’s limited narrator, Michalski deepens her bag of tricks, and her text is (by her name-dropped admission) colored with Woolfian memory drifts and concerned with achieving an Alice Munro-like scope. While “Dinner” feels like a celebration of its form’s nervous charms, “May-September” expands on its “state of grace” strengths, lending Now a certain comprehensive sweep; taken as a whole, the book feels like a tour de force statement on how — and why — novellas continue to be written.
Riding high on Now’s mid-January publication, Michalski has at least two readings planned on the immediate horizon: a stint at her very own 510 Reading Series (with Roy Kesey, Justin Sirois, Tara Laskowski, and guest host Joseph Young) on February 16th, and an official March 8th book release event at Atomic Books (with JHU alumnus/literary cause celebre Jami Attenberg, who published The Middlesteins late last year). Michalski’s minor blitz isn’t the only Charm City lit excitement going this year, however, as 2013 has already been strikingly good to our local scribblers. Witness:
+ Screenwriters Amy Belk and Matt Porterfield premiered their new film, I Used to Be Darker, at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this month, resulting in at least one New Yorker review, plenty of other American and continental buzz, and a deal with distributor/conglomerated movie monster Monterey Media. We wish them the best (which, as they say, is almost certainly yet to come).
+ Local lit mag/broadside Espresso Ink, always a modest presence on the scene, has been rapidly branching out of late. Beyond prototyping a Bohemian Café-hosted lit series (Read with a Crowd, currently in its fetal stages) and a monthly happy hour-cum-workshop (Gin & Ink), the Inksters are also in the midst of printing their very first InkPress chapbook: Tracy Dimond’s Sorry I Wrote So Many Sad Poems Today. More info can be found here.
+ Speaking of Tracy Dimond, the erstwhile was just added to the WORMS series’ February 19th reading, an event that will also include New York’s Chris Stackhouse and local lit citizen Jeremy Hoevenaar. As always, the reading will take place at Station North’s Metro Gallery and lead into action around 8:00 P.M. Get there early — WORMS devotees are a punctual bunch, so seats fill up quickly.
+ Hot off his tour for last year’s Big Ray, Fishbowl fave Michael Kimball is already dropping a new book, albeit one full of well-loved old material: Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (on a Postcard) (Mud Luscious Press), the long-awaited physical manifestation of his bloggy (and NPR-approved) collection of 300 random life stories. The pub date is February 28th, but you can get a taste of his quirky biographical oeuvre here.
+ The Wham City Lecture Series will resume its idiosyncratic mix of writerly know-how and off-topic topics Feburary 13th at the Yellowsign Theater (formerly the Zodiac). Speakers include Craig Coletta, who will unpack linguistics, and Ben O’Brien, a local authority on Superman. The whole shebang starts at 7:00 P.M. and, as with WORMS, it will likely fill up quickly — get there early!
+ Famed lit mag Ploughshares recently gave Charm City the time of day, devoting a few pages of its “Literary Boroughs” section (with local fictionist Laura van den Berg’s help) to our burgeoning scene. The article can be found here.
+ And, last but definitely not least, local poet Stephanie Barber will host a release party for her new book, Night Moves (Publishing Genius), at Atomic Books on February 15th. The book, a Flarf-ish collection of culled YouTube comments on, yes, Bob Seger’s “Night Moves” looks to be 2013’s social media-era answer to Joe Wenderoth’s classic Letters to Wendy’s; fans of the avant garde at it smartest and most maddening might are encouraged to drop by and pick up a copy before this thing becomes a phenomenon.
Lit Parade is sponsored by the Ivy Bookshop, 6080 Falls Road. Visit the Ivy Bookshop website for more information.
- Lit Parade’s Special Spring Issue: Sterritt on Spike Lee, Michalski’s Magic Streak, van den Berg in “Vogue,” and More - May 3, 2013
- The Baltimore Lit Parade for January, Part II: Jen Michalski’s Double-Novella Smackdown, Stephanie Barber’s “Night Moves,” WORMS News, and More - January 31, 2013
- The Extra-Large Baltimore Lit Parade for December: John Barth, Stephen Dixon, Justin Sirois, Jen Michalski, and More Greats! - December 28, 2012