September 5, 2014

Book Review: "In the American Night," by Christopher Bernard

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In the American Night, by Christopher Bernard
In the American Night
By Christopher Bernard
A Press of Rabble
Reviewed by Karl Wolff
Christopher Bernard is one of the most unique voices in American literature today. If you haven't heard of him, it's because his work is primarily self-published. His latest, the short story collection In the American Night, is a sampler of what makes Bernard a fascinating literary figure. Bernard runs Caveat Lector, an arts and literature website, and has written two previous works, A Spy In the Ruins and The Rose Shipwreck. Spy, published in 2005, was a dystopian novel that challenged and experimented with the novel form. Shipwreck was a book of poetry and photographs. In the American Night presents the reader with shorter prose works.

While fitting under the loose rubric of short story, the pieces in American Night range from more traditional narratives to experimental pieces to dramatic monologues. The collection begins with "Wallenda Descending" and "Stendahl's Copyist." "Wallenda" focuses on the family relations and performances of the Flying Wallendas, a high-flying trapeze act. In the story, Bernard intertwines family discord with a slowly unfolding catastrophe. We feel the family fray and the trapeze artists plummet to the ground. "Stendhal Copyist" is about a young copyist working for the famed novelist, philosopher, and womanizer. Beneath the standard historical story one begins to question the truth of the copyist, who in turn had begun to question the truth Stendhal allegedly relates. Literary biography unravels into the chaos of relativism and subjectivity.

"The Old Man and the Nymph: a Fairy Tale" interlaces the romantic with the erotic in a story both sweet and sad. As with many of Bernard's stories, it exists in dreamlike ambiguity. Throughout the story, the reader has to make up her mind about whether the story was real or simply a dream. "At the Greek's (Fragment of a Scrapbook)" is closer to a prose poem than traditional narrative. It is a snapshot of a Greek celebration, sound and sensuality unhinged from the confines of prose storytelling. It tells a story, but in fragments, impressions, and shadows. Like certain montages in Eraserhead or Samuel Beckett's shorter works, it comes at you sideways.

The title piece is composed of journal excerpts of an anonymous man. Like King Lear crying at the sea, this man blasts the alienation, hypocrisy, and idiocy that make up modern existence. The journal begins as a frontal assault on modernity and how it grinds down good people, turning them into soul-less automatons, then gradually transfigures into a more traditional tale of office romance. The man pines for a comely office worker, but lacks the social graces to win her heart. In failure, he lashes out at everything. One is reminded both of Robert DeNiro's socially stunted taxi driver Travis Bickle and the misanthropic romances of Alexander Theroux. (If you like Alexander Theroux, you should read Christopher Bernard.) Bernard occupies the same moral space as Theroux (respecting religious feelings, albeit skeptical of its institutional practices; detesting the chaos of postmodernism) minus Theroux's penchant for obscurantist vocabulistics.

The only fumble, albeit minor to the point of inconsequential, is the last story, "A.A." Told as a dramatic monologue, it is the story of an artaholic. While the pun made my eyes roll, the story itself is by turns comical and harrowing. In the story, the artaholic descends from culture connoisseur to derelict vagrant. The art he so desires becomes an all-consuming obsession, leading to pretentious poems being written, jobs lost, and eviction. His lack of self-awareness is tragic, but also tragicomic, since one keeps wanting to grab him and shake him out of his pretentious tunnel vision. Hipster as Sacred Monster. My only issue was with the term "artaholic." Despite the word working as an accurate descriptor, it undercut the power of the story. It made the story feel tonally inconsistent. Is this a parody of A.A. culture? Did I not get the joke?

Overall, In the American Night is a wonderful short story collection. The pieces come together in their stories about obsessives, aesthetes, and victims. It is a Dutch angled group portrait of modern American culture in all its corrosive brilliance.
Out of 10/9.0
Read even more about In the American Night: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads

Filed by Karl Wolff at 9:00 AM, September 5, 2014. Filed under: Karl Wolff | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |