Thursday, April 24, 1997

Fugitive Pieces, by Anne Michaels

A review of Fugitive Pieces, by Anne Michaels

Originally published in The Minnesota Daily’s A&E Magazine,
 April 24th, 1997

Picking Up the Pieces

By Anne Michaels
Knopf, $23

Canadian poets must be under some kind of curse—or maybe call it a blessing—that condemns them to be known for their novels. Margaret Atwood, who’s written more books of poetry than of any other genre, is mainly famous for her novels The Handmaid’s Tale and Cat’s Eye, and poet Michael Ondaatje is known almost solely for The English Patient. Maybe this disparity signals a loss of prestige for poetry, but then again all these novels are deserving of the attention they’ve received. And now, with her debut novel, Fugitive Pieces, add Anne Michaels, author of the award-winning collections The Weight of Oranges and Miner’s Pond, to this group.

It’s hard not to call this novel poetry, though. Mostly narrated by Michaels’ invented poet Jakob Beer, Fugitive Pieces is an exploration of both the surface and the substance—the meanings and the words to describe them—of twentieth-century history. Lost in the absurdities of postwar Europe—and then in the academic world of Canada—Beer is a survivor in every sense of the word. He survives World War II; he survives the guilt of survival; and, most of all, he survives—mainly through poetry—the nearly overwhelming sense of meaninglessness this bloody century gives him as his birthright.

Beer surfaces (literally) in the buried Polish city Biskupin:

“So hungry. I screamed into the silence the only phrase I knew in more than one language, I screamed it in Polish and German and Yiddish, thumping my fists on my own chest: dirty Jew, dirty Jew, dirty Jew.”

His entire family killed by the Nazis, Jakob travels the wilderness by night, like the unnamed boy in Jerzy Kosinsky’s The Painted Bird. But unlike in Kosinsky’s horrific masterpiece, where all humanity is completely lost, Jakob finds a single human figure in the darkness of Hitler’s Europe: a Greek geologist named Athos. Finding himself with no alternative—it’s either save the boy or let him be killed—Athos smuggles Jakob to his native island Zakynthos, where they wait out the war, reading and starving.

The novel then follows them to Canada, where Athos gets a teaching job and Jakob grows into manhood—and into poetry. Jakob also eventually becomes a professor; he marries, divorces, despairs at Athos’ eventual death, and then finds a kind of soul-mate/savior in the almost too luminous Michaela.

Although probably the novel’s coolest character, Michaela is way too good to be true. Jakob desperately needs to connect—both physically and emotionally—because his faith in humanity is repeatedly shattered by reality, but introducing Michaela is a bit of a cop-out on Michaels’ part. She’s young (twenty-five years Jakob’s junior), brilliant, gorgeous, and amazing in bed, and she mostly spends her time dazzling the reader rather than rehabilitating Jakob. There’s not a part of their courtship and marriage that’s less than brilliantly written, but Michaels seems to be avoiding some key issues by making their relationship so physically idealized. Still, despite Michaela’s resembling a mid-life crisis affair, the connection of the flesh is a vital part of how Jakob finds himself among the world of the living.

But the reader knows, from the first page, when and where Jakob will die, and this point occurs only about two-thirds into the novel. The latter third of the book, narrated by the younger scholar Ben, is the search for the Jakob not known in the literary or scholarly world—the personal Jakob hidden behind the page.

The second section, although Michaels imagines it ingeniously, seems a bit disjointed from the rest. The novel is fragmented, almost irreconcilably so. But this is undoubtedly Michaels’ plan, and there’s a kind of gestalt to the various fugitive pieces of Jakob’s life that makes for a powerful vision of the elusive poet. The reader imagines the whole from his parts, and despite Fugitive Pieces’ few flaws, it’s a pretty amazing whole.

—David Wiley

Thursday, April 10, 1997

Lives of the Monster Dogs, by Kirsten Bakis

A review of Lives of the Monster Dogs, by Kirsten Bakis

Originally published in The Minnesota Daily’s A&E Magazine,
April 10th, 1997

A Dog’s Life

By Kirsten Bakis
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, $23

“But the hands of one of the partners were already at K.’s throat, while the other thrust the knife deep into his heart and turned it there twice. With failing eyes K. could still see the two of them immediately before him, cheek leaning against cheek, watching the final act. ‘Like a dog!’ he said; it was as if the shame of it must outlast him.”
—Franz Kafka, The Trial

In Franz Kafka’s world the lives of humans and animals are intimately connected—and usually in creepy ways: Gregor Samsa wakes to find himself transformed into a giant beetle in “The Metamorphosis”; in “Investigations of a Dog” the narrator is a reasoning canine that finds itself alienated from its essential dogginess; in “The Burrow” a giant mole-like animal finds itself in a horrifyingly human existential terror. These stories can be read as human parables played out in animal shapes, but they are also pointed comments on the interrelatedness of the biological world. And now, with modern science negating many of the meaningful differences between humans and animals (if any biological being can be cloned, do we have individual human souls?), the relationship is all the more dramatic.

In her debut novel, Lives of the Monster Dogs, Kirsten Bakis revisits and updates some of the ground Kafka laid, creating a terrifying vision of biology for the new millennium. The book mostly takes place between 2009 and 2011, when a group of 150 monster dogs moves to New York City. At first nobody knows anything about them except that they walk upright, wear nineteenth-century clothes, have mechanically human hands, and can talk. They’re reclusive and extremely wealthy, and because of their shyness they almost disappear into myth during their first year in New York.

Through a strange coincidence the narrator, Cleo Pira, happens to form a friendship with Ludwig von Sacher, a German Shepherd who functions as the dogs’ historian. Through Ludwig, Cleo meets Klaue, the dogs’ self-appointed leader, and she unwittingly becomes the dogs’ human liaison and chronicler.

As she becomes closer friends with Ludwig, she learns about the dogs’ history. Ludwig has the only surviving written documents from the dogs’ past, and he is putting together a history he plans to call “Lives of the Monster Dogs.” It seems the dogs were the brainchild of a mad Frankenstein-esque biologist from nineteenth-century Prussia named Augustus Rank. Rank imagined an army of perfectly obedient soldiers—dog soldiers—that would help him conquer Europe. Befriending Wilhelm II, the future ruler of the German empire, Rank gets funding to work on his invention. But he’s eventually forced to flee—to Canada—when he doesn’t succeed.

Setting up a remote town called Rankstadt with embezzled money, Rank spends the rest of his life working on his dogs. He never lives to see the final creation, but his followers carry on his dream and eventually perfect the dogs. In his absence, the followers—and then the dogs—set up a complex mythology around Rank, expecting him to return and lead them all to world domination.

Cleo learns all this by reading Ludwig’s papers, and eventually she finds out that the dogs rose and slaughtered the humans in Rankstadt, deciding to go out into the world by themselves. But what happens in the present is just as shocking. The dogs, while they are as genteel and refined as Prussian aristocrats, are still dogs, and try as they might, they will never be human. As Bakis writes, “It is a terrible thing to be a dog and know it.”

Lives of the Monster Dogs is a virtuoso pastiche of literary styles—part history, part memoir, part correspondence, part diary; it even includes a twenty-page libretto for an opera written and performed by dogs. Bakis is an ingenious mimic, but what’s even more impressive is her understanding of how to put together a compelling narrative. She’s slyly old fashioned, working the bizarre, postmodern mishmash into an absolutely thrilling series of progressions. What results is a kind of Calvino-meets-Dickens novel that simply explodes with meaning and style.

The word “explodes” might also be just the right way to describe how this book ends. In trying to deal with their increasing alienation from the canine and human worlds, the dogs throw a bash even more saturnalian than the one at the end of P.D. Eastman’s classic kids’ book Go Dog Go. Without giving away any of the ending’s substance, lets’ just say that Lives of the Monster Dogs is the dog party to end all dog parties.

—David Wiley