As you may have seen in our recent interview, Arna Bontemps Hemenway doesn’t seem boxed in by the typical constraints of the established writer. That’s probably on account of his newness, but perhaps a bit of it is just rule-exploding ambition.
“I wanted to try and get out into that territory that is maybe not dictated by what has become traditional narrative expectation,” he mentioned in our interview. Challenge well met, Hemenway. The stories in Elegy On Kinderklavier (Sarabande Books, 2014), his debut collection, are astonishingly confident. Two different pieces are set in separate places called New Jerusalem—a strange and deliberate choice—and one isn’t even on Earth. His erudite sentences don’t run circles around other writers; they do donuts. Granted, some of it feels a bit show-offish, and I don’t say that just because I needed to read this with a dictionary, but I’d much rather read a writer taking chances, playing with the boundaries of “literary” fiction, than one trying to keep it nice and tidy. Hemenway is an assistant professor at Baylor University and the recipient of a half-dozen writing awards with long prestigious names. And no, he’s never been to war, but some of his most memorable characters are soldiers in the theater of the Iraq war, and many of the rest stand right on the periphery.
Passages fetishizing dispassionate governmental technology and tactical military programs call to mind David Foster Wallace’s love of the cold, soul-crushing “boredom” of systems and how those things ultimately can say a lot about modern society. But that same techiness is evident in Hemenway’s acute sensory awareness, as in this microsecond-by-microsecond description of the soldier in “The IED” stepping on the landmine:
The heel strikes—it has no reason to pause. Even when the mid-sole falls, is pressed into the dirt—still no cause for hesitation. But then, finally, the ball. The hinge of the cuneiform bone (beautiful term) extending into the gentle metatarsal has predetermined Abrams’ fate. The application to the ground of the plantar fascia (horrible term) may not be stopped. And so the ball of the foot, the ball of the boot’s outsole, falls, and Abrams’ weight begins to shift onto its pad, and the strange texture beneath.
As George Carlin would’ve said, “your life is in your foot’s hands.” Similar sections within the story also encompass the sorts of technical time-movement wizardry Nicholson Baker cut his teeth on. And did I mention that it’s also heartbreaking? And that there’s a very funny sex scene? Remember: this is just one story.
But it’s this same welcome creative restlessness that drives much of the stories in this collection. The novella-length title story is so faithfully descriptive of an illness that I was convinced it was a work of Cronenberg-ian body horror until I realized it was actually a deceptively straightforward portrait of a family falling apart, albeit with brutal, no-holds-barred descriptions of childhood disease.
With a title that sounds like the translated-from-Latin name for a little-traversed section of moon acreage, I should’ve been prepared for the celestial setting in “The Territory Of Grief.” But I was too fascinated by the bizarre set-up: a lone bureaucrat stationed in a simulacrum of Jerusalem is meeting the new wife he’s been assigned. My initial thought went to Dino Buzzati’s The Tartar Steppe, the Italian writer’s masterpiece of proto-magic realism. Setting it on a distant planet, though, shifted my viewpoint entirely but didn’t take away any of the tenderness. I could’ve read an entire book of just this world. But it isn’t only the sci-fi lite angle that hooks you. His descriptions of the New Old City are as vivid and inventive as his descriptions of the small town Army base in “The Half Moon Martyrs’ Brigade of New Jerusalem, Kansas” or the grand African safari lodge in the touching “A Life.”
He’s spoken in interviews about a “secret dream” to write novels in each prose genre. Fingers crossed he makes good on that goal; it is already evident that no matter which genre he turns to, he’ll likely bring the same ambition and verve.
Publisher: Sarabande Books
Publication Date: July 15, 2014
Reviewed by Andrew Wetzel