We are All Guests on Earth

Lee Smith’s Guests on Earth purports to be about that most Gatsbyesque of couples, Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald. But that’s only a superficial reading, because the novel is narrated by Evalina Toussaint, who early on asks and answers the most essential question in story telling. “Is any story not always the narrator’s story, in the end?” That’s undeniable. And in Guests on Earth, it’s fortunate because Evalina is a delight.

The book opens with a newspaper clipping about a fire in 1948 that destroyed Highland Hospital, a mental clinic in Asheville, North Carolina. Then the story jumps back to the 1930s in New Orleans where the reader is introduced to Evalina when she was a young girl. But, still, the reader knows that inferno awaits.

Evalina’s mother is larger than life with a string of lovers that seem to support her until each relationship ends. When her mother commits suicide, the last of these lovers, Mr. Graves, rashly takes Evalina home with him – begging her to forgive him as he says God has forgiven him. But instead, Evalina just loses all respect for God. Like we said, she’s a delight.

No one is happy that Mr. Graves has brought Evalina home. Not Evalina. And certainly not Mrs. Graves and her children. Sensing that the house is a grave (it is Mr. Graves’ house, after all), Evalina stops eating. Soon she is shipped to Highland Hospital. The year is 1936, and Evalina is 13. She spends much of the next 12 years at the hospital inching towards that fire.

Evalina meets Zelda Fitzgerald, another patient, who early on advises her that it is “far better to be dead than a princess in a tower.” That’s bitter medicine, but we gather Zelda knows what she’s talking about. At times Zelda is kind and generous. At other times, she is remote and cruel. At one point Zelda grabs a salamander from a child’s hand and throws it into a fire (there’s that motif, again) – much to the horror of the surrounding children. But Zelda claims she did not harm the salamander, because salamanders live in fire. She tells the children that she, also, is a salamander. Time will tell.

The hospital provides Evalina with a window on the world – where life is a kaleidoscope forcing her to continually adjust to new patterns. She also witnesses and at times experiences love’s many variations. She comes to understand that love, like life, is impossible to predict. It is A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where a lover enters the forest with one person but come out with someone else.

Guests on Earth has much to say about the harsh treatment of girls and women, who either can’t or won’t conform to societal norms, during the 1930s and 1940s. This is the book’s great strength. Surprisingly, it has little to say about the rabid racial discrimination throughout society. This is the book’s weakness, and it is rather glaring.

Ms. Smith’s research is meticulous. And though the book is fiction, we believe she has captured the true character of the people who actually lived – especially Zelda and Scott. The title comes from a letter Scott wrote to his daughter, in which he states the “insane are always mere guests on earth, eternal strangers carrying around broken decalogues that they cannot read.” For once, Fitzgerald’s imagination fails him, because it isn’t just the “insane” who are mere guests on earth.

Gladiola Overdrive, Chief Editor

A Prayer for Less Love

   I've heard what you say in the name of love
   and your favorite word is no.

   I've seen what you do in the name of love
   because the purple bruises still show.

   You say you're a man of love
   but that sounds dangerous to me,

   so bring me no more love
   and show me simple courtesy.

   Luvgood Carp, Editor-in-Chief 

   First published in Ariel Chart 

William Gibson and the Benefits of Agency

The internet says William Gibson writes speculative fiction and is widely credited with originating cyberpunk, a subgenre of science fiction. That means nothing to us. All we know is this. He excels at creating believable worlds/alternative universes that resemble ours but are different in fascinating and disconcerting ways. And as always, even if the story takes place in the future, it is really about us in our current times.

We picked up Agency, a follow up to The Peripheral (which is wonderful), at our favorite Roanoke bookstore, Book No Further (booknofurther.com). As is typical with Mr. Gibson, the reader is immediately thrust into a world that seems familiar but is different in many striking ways. The story takes place primarily in two timelines with a third one providing a supporting role (because why have only two timelines when you can have three?). So don’t get comfortable because you will be jumping between a London in 2136 and a California in 2017. The 2017 timeline is a “stub” that broke away in 2015. For good measure there are characters from the 2017 timeline that the “stub” broke away from, and they make hit and run (literally) appearances. Got it? Yes, of course I do – it’s all so obvious. Good. Now, let’s talk about AI.

In California, Verity Jane has been hired by a shadowy corporation (an agency?) to test a new form of artificial intelligence. The AI has a name, Eunice, and she is a brilliant composite of the best minds in espionage and military tactics. Though she is referred to as AI, she is more like a human-machine hybrid. Fortunately, her remarkable deductive reasoning skills come with an ethical core (that must be the machine part). Verity quickly determines that Eunice is way too intelligent and powerful to be left in the hands of her creepy employer. Eunice agrees. So they run. The employer, of course, chases them – because the story would suck if that didn’t happen. The folks in London decide to help Verity and Eunice, because not helping will result in nuclear holocaust. Yes, shit gets real, real fast.

Eunice (the name appropriately means “Joyous Victory”) is easily the best character in the book. She would be the best character in lots of books. She is snarky, intelligent, and not at all artificial. Though she is initially confused about her background, she is fully capable of responding to the threats swirling around Verity and her. And that’s the problem. Eunice is more than formidable. She is invincible – always two steps ahead of her foes. So it never seems that Verity and Eunice are in true danger.

Despite this, Agency is a fun ride right to the end – in part, because the characters are smart and engaging and, in part, because the worlds associated with each timeline are so interesting and convincingly depicted. But remember, the book is called Agency, meaning the capacity to act. It is not titled The Agency – a collection of shady former government employees willing to kill to get even richer. And in this story, Eunice has all the agency. Everyone else just reacts.

Gladiola Overdrive, Chief Editor

Let the Poets Sleep Guilt Free

   Love takes nothing I don't freely give -
   so let the poets sleep guilt free.
   Though they tell shameless lies 
   and unwelcome truths,
   they can't grow roses on the moon.

   A poem won't cure cancer
   or stop a middle-aged man
   from being a bore.
   Poetry can't make me see 
   what I would rather ignore.
   And I choose to ignore a lot:
   how that look on your face is smug;
   or how you're the salt of the Earth
   and I'm the slug.

   Luvgood Carp, Editor-in-Chief 

   First published in Scarlet Leaf Review

Tengo Leche

Titmouse Beak, here – CEO of Pungent Sound Technical College of Technology. One of the real treats of living in Roanoke is Breadcraft. http://breadcraftbakery.com. Every morning before work, I go there for a cup of freshly-brewed coffee and a delicious breakfast. Today it was mushroom and asiago cheese quiche. Wonderful! I am pecking at the crumbs now.

Then I go on Facebook and look up former girlfriends; check on former students – sometimes they are one and the same. Today I saw a post from Tengo Leche. No idea who he is – except he is a former student who has gone on to do great things. Just goes to show that a degree from Pungent Sound Technical College of Technology is well worth the mountain of debt you will have after you leave. Here’s Tengo’s post.

Neptune Returns Home

   Lord, could it be I'm not as great
   as they've been telling me?

   I was told at an early age
   that I'm better than the rest.
   I have the trophies that prove it true.
   But now in every single contest
   I'm beaten by more than a few.

   For years I splashed in a tub
   pretending to rule the wine-dark sea.
   But now when I go to Dad's club,
   no one confuses Neptune with me.

   So here I am back in my old room
   (having finished my education)
   with an hourly job and minimum pay
   and these trophies say "participation."

   Lord, club-footed Byron couldn't dance
   but You gave him eloquence and artistry,
   and now he's the avatar of romance.
   So, Lord, what will you do for me?

   Lord?

   Tengo Leche, Former Student of Pungent Sound Technical College of Technology
    

American Pastoral: Who are You?

Philip Roth was a very important American writer, and no one knew that better than Philip Roth. If you have read only one sentence of Mr. Roth’s, then you know he was born in Newark, New Jersey, where he appears to have spent much of his life wandering the streets making prescient observations about humanity. He wrote many books, but American Pastoral is the only one that has a legend attached to its creation.

The legend is this. One day, while Mr. Roth was roaming Newark, a vagrant challenged him. “I bet you could never write a short and sweet tale about this town.” So Mr. Roth wrote American Pastoral, and the vagrant won the bet. But be forewarned, despite what the title may suggest, the book has little to do with farming (the small amount of farming that does happen takes place in northern New Jersey – putting this book firmly in the Fantasy genre).

In American Pastoral Mr. Roth argues that we know very little about people beyond the superficial exterior they present of themselves – even the people we have known our entire lives. Now, you may be thinking this is patently false. Has Mr. Roth heard of the internet? Why, I can go to the internet or turn on talk radio or cable news and immediately learn how worthless and evil anyone is. If the person is noteworthy for anything (or nothing at all), there will be thousands of people (if not more) prepared to tell me how awful the person is, even if they have never met. And if the person is a nobody, there will still be a dozen people prepared to blithely inform me of the nobody’s moral and ethical failings. To which Mr. Roth would reply, “I have heard of the internet, you idiot. And everything you have said is entirely correct. And all of it proves my point. Now leave me alone, I am dead.”

Mr. Roth uses a lot of words in American Pastoral, and some of them he uses quite well. But a single paragraph will often trudge across several pages as he tracks and bludgeons his theme. This leaves the reader somewhat impressed but mostly exhausted. However, all those words culminate in a second curious thought. Perhaps the fact that we do not really know other people is not all that surprising considering how we actually know very little about ourselves beyond the superficial exterior we present to others.

Alison Wonderland, Chief Editor and Adjunct Professor for Student Loans

Talk Radio – What’s Not to Love?

We have been listening to a lot of talk radio lately AND WE LOVE IT! What a delightful and responsible way to educate people about America’s virtues! And it happens 24/7. And incredibly the hosts never run out of things to say – perhaps because they repeat themselves repetitively and then attack others for not repeating what they have said multiple times. No doubt – it is a winning formula and America is better for it. As Alexis de Tocqueville states in his semenal work Democracy in America: Love It or Leave It, “talk radio is why America kicks Europe’s flatulent ass every single day of the year.” (Can’t find the citation right now). He then notes how talk radio has enhanced the marketplace of ideas by teaching Americans (i) to be judgmental without using good judgment, (ii) to disagree disagreeably, (iii) to be knowledgeable without being factual, and (iv) to be immodest while pretending to be modest. (Citation to be provided at a later date).

Here are some other lessons from talk radio that de Tocqueville extols:

1.  don't piss of sponsors,
2.  don't whisper when you can shout,
3.  don't use 3 words when you can use 20,
4.  your opponents are never mistaken; they lie,
5.  the host is never mistaken; his comments are taken out of context,
6.  people who disagree with the host are evil,
7.  the host should never hesitate to promote himself, even if he doesn't like to do so (fortunately, he likes to do so),
8.  if the host has any flaws (and he doesn't), he should never admit them - or acknowledge any doubts (because he doesn't have any - duh), and
9. don't piss off sponsors (here at Pungent Sound, we don't have any sponsors - need to work on that).

Sorry - got to go.  The commercial just ended.

Luvgood Carp, Editor-in-Chief 

Facebooklandia

   Uncle is an incontinent scold from a sanctimonious country
   inhabited by howler monkeys and screech owls
   who love to lecture but hate to listen.

   In this brave new world
   virtual friends are actual strangers
   who prance, preach, and provoke
   (but mostly they just preen)
   while weaving outrage and electrons
   into a community quilt so thick it smothers.

   Luvgood Carp, Editor-in-Chief

Homeland Elegies – When do You Qualify as American?

Ayad Akhtar’s Homeland Elegies is several things. Part memoir. Part economic treatise. Part fiction. All of it is factual, but the reader is left wondering how much is fictional. For example, the narrator and the author have the same name. So are they the same person? Did the author’s father (a doctor) actually treat Donald Trump (as the narrator’s father did) for heart problems in the 1990s? Or is that simply a metaphor for a presidential administration with heart problems? Does it matter? Did the author actually have syphilis (as the narrator does)? We’re just asking for a friend on that one.

While we do not know the answers, the uncertainty over what is fact and what is fiction, which runs throughout Homeland Elegies, is one of the essential queries of our times. It also drives a compelling story. But be careful of your conclusions, because (as Mr. Akhtar informs us) “interpretation has more to do with the one interpreting than the one being interpreted.”

There are two homelands in the novel: Pakistan and the United States. Both have problems. The narrator’s parents left Pakistan as young adults and immigrated to the U.S. And the book is filled with many other characters who immigrated from Pakistan, with each having varying degrees of trouble assimilating. As the narrator’s mother states, “[i]t’s not our home. No matter how many years we spend here, it won’t ever be our home. And maybe this brings out things in us that were never meant to be brought out.” Now a natural response for any American, whose family has lived in the U.S. for more than two generations, is go back to where you came from, you ingrate. And that would be one of the more polite renditions. However, Homeland Elegies makes clear that anyone whose family has lived in the U.S. for more than two generations should just shut up when it comes to opining on how easy it is for immigrants in this country. We don’t know what we’re talking about – and we should be thankful for that. Even the narrator, who was born in the U.S., has trouble considering himself American – and that is in no small measure related to how people react to him after the attacks on 9/11.

The author/narrator (again, not entirely sure there is a distinction) is several kinds of American, including Muslim-American and Pakistani-American. The question is this. Is he American-American? And that question (wonderfully) is not answered until the final sentence of the book. And even then the answer is not definitive. Throughout the book, Mr. Akhtar is concerned about how the majority of Americans perceive him. At times his physical safety depends upon it. “If all this sounds somewhat paranoid, I am happy for you. Clearly you have not been beset by daily worries of being perceived – and therefore treated – as a foe of the republic rather than a member of it.”

We can tell this is a serious book that demands being taken seriously because the narrator quotes the 20th century’s seventeenth most famous sociologist, Norbert Elias. “The established majority takes its we-image from a minority of its best, and shapes a they-image of the despised outsiders from the minority of their worst.” So what does that mean? No idea. But perhaps white Americans should stop pretending that we are all like Abraham Lincoln – just better looking.

Finally Homeland Elegies also makes clear that it doesn’t matter whether you are Muslim-American, African-American, Irish-American, or Obnoxious-American. If you are Thinking-American, there is cause to be concerned about the current state of our country.

Alison Wonderland, Chief Editor and Adjunct Professor for Student Loans

Discharging Student Loans – Just Say No

Lately there has been some discussion about the U.S. Congress passing legislation that makes it easier for individuals to discharge student loans they can’t pay. On behalf of all the for-profit colleges in the country, let us assure all prospective college students that this is not a good idea.

Currently getting a student loan is easier than getting pregnant – assuming you are trying to get pregnant. If you are trying to avoid pregnancy, yet not using condoms or other forms of birth control, then getting a student loan is harder than getting pregnant. We seemed to have digressed.

The point is this. Student loans are like STDs. They are everywhere, and they are pretty easy to get. That’s because lenders don’t have to do any due diligence. They do not need to worry about whether you may not be able to pay the loan back. That’s because it is ridiculously hard to discharge student loans. They are like ex-spouses. You always have to pay them, and they never go away. They will attend your funeral and dance on your grave.

If you’re a lender or a college, that’s great. But it is great for a student, too – especially if that student wants to major in Celtic Clog Dancing or the Mythology of the Icelandic Yule Lads. If lenders need to start doing due diligence and if they need to worry about whether the student can get a job to pay the loan back, students may not be able to get loans for those majors. And that simply isn’t fair to colleges – especially for-profit ones that really rely on the student loan industry to make gobs of money.

So lobby your congress member to vote against any legislation that makes it easier to discharge student loans. You can trust us on this, because we really care. About our shareholders, that is. We really care about our shareholders.

Titmouse Beak, President of Pungent Sound Community Bank

Treacherous Gulp, Esquire – Counsel for Pungent Sound Technical College of Technology