I’ve been so lucky lately to get to read new books by friends and/or former classmates: Kristen Witucki’s, Leah Umansky’s, now Adrian Van Young’s. The streak will continue soon with new or forthcoming releases by Alex Dimitrov and Jonathan Callahan. In college, Adrian and I were in Paul Russell’s Narrative Writing class together, which was a formative experience. Although it was ten years ago (OMG), I remember so much about that class–all fond memories, which aren’t always the ones that are indelible. There was the time that Paul said (I think I’ve quoted this on this blog before): “If I could caution you against one thing, it would be…well, heroin. But if I got two, the other would be adverbs.” There was the Jonathan Franzen debacle (I know I’ve written about that, like eight times), after which we were banned from mentioning his name for the rest of the year, his Joyce Carol Oates impression, in which he made his eyes large and raised his fists into a boxing stance, the time he brought to class an exotic chicken catalogue that he’d inexplicably received in the mail; rather than simply show it to us, he delivered an operatic interpretive performance of each page while we, the class, sat awed and paralyzed with delight. I remember some, but happily not all, of the mortifying, ridiculous stories I wrote in that class (I was 21…) and definitely remember Adrian’s story in which the heist of a Gutenberg Bible featured prominently. We read Mrs. Bridge, Pnin, The Bridge of San Luis Rey and Street of Crocodiles, which I hated because I felt like all of the sentences were so elevated there was no room for the reader and I’m pretty sure I remember Adrian loved because of those same elevated, dense sentences.
So, although I haven’t read his work (except for an essay…or two? in The Believer) in a while, I wasn’t surprised to discover that his first story collection is also a collection of extreme sentences. Filled with clauses and incredible word choices, they look meandering but aren’t; they’re purposeful. I should know from all the workshopping we’ve done over the years but I don’t–do these sentences come out this way in first drafts or does it take rounds of revising to shape them? Open any page, point to any spot, and you’ll hit one. Here–I’ll try it: “But I wanted to be by myself, and he sensed it and looked pretty crushed to know the truth, and besides, had I said to myself, Aw, hell, why not let him sit and read, he would’ve gabbed about his battles right through the bulk of the Sunday night roster, and there was nothing on earth I liked better after sixty plus miles of riding rough than a couple senseless hours of tube without Leander on the scene.” What a sense of voice in just one sentence, right? This is from page 83, the story “Them Bones,” and though I did indeed pick it randomly, I happened to select it from my favorite story in the book. While there is a strong Gothic sensibility in this collection–Poe-esque (also, Chris Adrian-esque) otherworldly interventions, murders, slavery, burning plantations, the backdrop of the Civil War–that era enters this story in the form of a soldier’s skeleton found by two contemporary boys. The ensuing complications were unexpected, at times funny but also very sad. Leander, the narrator’s droopy stepfather, and his thwarted attempts at bonding made me clutch my heart.
Trying the random sentence selection again, I came to this, from the title story, page 47: “But one of the bearers lost his footing–Clemens thought the elder of the Mexicans, Jesus–and the coffin when tobogganing back through the mud and slammed into the grave’s far wall, the impact of which sent its lid flapping open on the side of the box nearest Clemens.” This story involves a sketchy crew digging up graves, a mysterious protagonist, a beautiful woman who’ll climb into a sleeping bag in the middle of a cemetery with a super-filthy man, a young runaway and his dangerous father. Adrian really goes for it–his characters tumble into graves, are driven mad by real estate, wander a city populated by men with no necks, and drown in bloody bathtub water.
Literally as I write this, an Electric Literature email recommending The Man Who Noticed Everything just rolled in. The subject line? “Get your fucking boots on, there’s something awful outside you need to see.” Jeez. With an endorsement like that, I think you all know what you should do next.