Thursday, January 25, 1996

An Interview with Madison Smartt Bell (my first author intervew)

An interview with Madison Smartt Bell, discussing his book All Souls’ Rising
Published January 25th, 1996, in The Minnesota Daily’s A&E Magazine

Rising Star
Madison Smartt Bell Leaves the Pack Behind

By Madison Smartt Bell
Pantheon, $25.95

Any list of the most important contemporary American authors will undoubtedly include Madison Smartt Bell. The dark vision of Save Me, Joe Louis, the brilliant formalism of The Year of Silence, and the explorations of personal salvation in many of his other novels have assured him a place among today’s brightest young writers. But with his new book, All Souls’ Rising, everything has changed.

No longer simply a great American author, Bell has written a novel of staggering proportions, in one leap joining the ranks of the best novelists of our time.

All Souls’ Rising centers on a single player in history, François-Dominique Toussaint-Louverture, and builds a labyrinthine narrative around his role as the leader of Haiti’s 1791 slave uprising. Bell first became interested in Toussaint-Louverture while doing research on terrorism for his novel Waiting for the End of the World. “Any study of terrorism,” Bell told me in an interview, “inevitably leads back to the Haitian slave rebellion… because of the atrocity level.”

The more he researched, the more fascinated he became with Toussaint-Louverture, first because “the rebellion was the only successful slave revolt in history,” but ultimately “because Toussaint-Louverture’s life fit perfectly the form of classical tragedy.”

Educated, charismatic, and, above all, subtle, Toussaint-Louverture was a natural leader, and the novel chronicles his difficult ascent, focusing on the terrible choices he had to make in order to free his people. Initially chosen by plantation owners as a puppet leader of a bogus revolt, Toussaint-Louverture soon finds his loyalties torn between the slaves and the owners who offer him liberties in exchange for his services. Toussaint-Louverture must choose either to keep the slaves in check, thus helping the owners tighten controls, or to act as the wholehearted leader of the revolution.

As the novel progresses, the choice becomes an easy one, because the revolt soon grows far beyond his or the owners’ control, and Toussaint-Louverture is thrust into power.

As with Bell’s other novels, the range of characterization is impressive. While Toussaint-Louverture is the central character, the novel is built around him rather than solely upon him or his experiences. Bell creates a vast world of characters who circle the scene, at times colliding with each other as they try to make sense of what’s going on. There’s the free-thinking Doctor Hébert and his mulatto paramour, the sinister Monsignor Cigny and his mad wife, Isabel, a host of slave leaders, and, most significantly, a runaway slave named Riau.

The narrative jumps around from third to first person, and much of the novel is told in Riau’s voice, which Bell describes as the novel’s most difficult creation. Riau is so heartbreakingly believable that his astonishing and terrible deeds transcend right and wrong, taking the reader on a journey into the depths of love, hate, and survival.

All Souls’ Rising,” Bell says, “is the first book in a trilogy focusing on the life of Toussaint-Louverture.” Bell originally projected 4,000 pages of material for the whole cycle, but pared it down considerably, and after writing this first section, cut even more, leaving a modest 530 pages. With this in mind, it’s easier to see how a novel of this length can sustain such acute potency: It’s distilled.

Be warned: This novel is not for the squeamish. As the rebellion and counter-rebellions shift and escalate, so does the carnage. What’s even harder to handle is the intensity of the hatred (both personal and social) that this novel encompasses. At its most physically gruesome, the characters’ underlying motives and psychologies are even more horrifying.

In All Souls’ Rising, Bell’s prose is sharper than ever, and despite—or because of—the awesome terror it portrays, this novel is a beautiful creation. Lyrically, thematically, and structurally diverse, All Souls’ Rising carves itself into the reader.

—David Wiley

Phosphor in Dreamland, by Rikki Ducornet

A Review of Phosphor in Dreamland,

by Rikki Ducornet

Originally published January 25th, 1996,

in The Minnesota Daily’s A&E Magazine

By Rikki Ducornet
Dalkey Archive, $12.95

For those of us who can’t get enough magical realism in our lives comes Rikki Ducornet’s outrageous Phosphor in Dreamland. Truly a renaissance woman, Ducornet has written novels, stories, poetry, children’s books, and has illustrated books by Jorge Luis Borges and Robert Coover. With this new volume, Ducornet has drawn equally from her immense reservoirs of talent to craft a new kind of creature.

Set in the mythic Caribbean island Birdland (a not-too-distant cousin to Vonnegut’s San Lorenzo and Nabokov’s Zembla), this epistolary novel chronicles the life of a seventeenth-century poet/inventor/artist named Phosphor. Written by a current inhabitant to his friend in another slightly less mythic land, this series of letters is both a study of the island’s history and an ardent examination of human connection through time. Having the narrator fall in love as he sifts through the island’s evidence is an example of this kind of connectedness, a metaphor for the affinities of history.

Rikki Ducornet
As the narrator examines the remnants of Phosphor’s past, he finds that love was also the main motive for his life—love of art, beauty, knowledge, and, most crucially, for an almost unearthly woman, the beautiful Extravaganza. This is much more than a romantic stroll through the past, though, because Phosphor’s love of beauty puts him in some strange territory. He’s forced to deal with the consequences of his art, such as the exploitation and simplification that can occur when the powerful get their hands on it.

One of his inventions is a mock-up of a camera obscura that can reproduce reality so clearly that Fantasma, the local tyrant, decides to use it to capture the entire island for his personal collection. This leads Phosphor to unwittingly comply with pornographers and, even worse, the ancestors of TV producers.

In addition to his art being exploited, it’s also attacked by the church as heretical. Phosphor’s work is eventually confiscated by Rais Secundo, “Grand Inquisitor, and Ecclesiastical Judge,” in an attempt to eradicate the island’s “pornography.” This confiscation, infuriating as it is, leads to possibly the most hilarious, outrageous, and ironic scene I’ve encountered in fiction. Let’s just say it involves Rais Secundo and the Pope’s hat.

As wonderful as this novel is, it does take some time to really get rolling, so give it a few pages to catch your attention. Phosphor in Dreamland is one of those books that builds until it’s virtually bursting, and with Ducornet’s richly crafted prose and considerable intellectual and techical skills, this novel can barely contain its teeming cargo.

—David Wiley

Thursday, January 4, 1996

The Unconsoled, by Kazuo Ishiguru

A review of The Unconsoled, by Kazuo Ishiguru
Published January 4th, 1996, in The Minnesota Daily’s A&E Magazine

By Kazuo Ishiguru
Knopf, $25

It’s been six years since Kazuo Ishiguru released the triumphant Remains of the Day to universal acclaim, and now, with the publication of The Unconsoled, his fourth novel, it seems there’s nothing this author can’t do.

The story concerns one Mr. Ryder, an internationally renowned pianist who arrives in an unnamed city for a performance about which he has no information. He’s too embarrassed to ask for a copy of his itinerary, so for more than 500 pages, the reader gets to follow him in his blind descent into the town’s inner machinations.

The style of this novel is virtuosity itself. Ishiguru employs astonishing literary tricks, and his tone is so well sustained that even at its most bizarre, the novel’s progress is seamlessly inevitable.

Although Ishiguru denies it (admitting that he’s never read the whole thing), this novel has a definite affinity to Franz Kafka’s The Castle. Don’t let that sway you either way, though, because The Unconsoled is a truly vital and original work. Its strange beauty left me reeling and extremely satisfied.

—David Wiley