February 9, 2016

Book Review: "sometimes i lie and sometimes i don't," by Nadja Spiegel

Title, by Author

sometimes i lie and sometimes i don't
By Nadja Spiegel
Dalkey Archive
Reviewed By Chris Schahfer

[Note: Nadja Spiegel chose to stylize this collection's title without any capital letters. Out of respect for her wishes, I have preserved this formatting decision.]

Yep, it's time for another one of my trips into the Dalkey Archive's new releases! I have to say, this is the one I've liked best so far, even though I have a few reservations about it. On the other hand, it's Spiegel's first book, so I guess it's understandable that she's not cranking out genius quite yet. She's quite good, though! These are all bite-sized stories, the longest of which is around ten pages; most clock in around five. A lot of their shortness comes via Spiegel's style. She favors snapshots, sometimes zooming in on a small moment ("What Bjorn Didn't Imagine" seems to entirely take place after the title character's girlfriend leaves him), other times chopping a longer moment up into small chunks, like the disintegrating relationships chronicled on "Flickering Lights" and "Nighthawks." A lot of this shortness can be attributed to her writing style, which is almost minimalist but not quite: her descriptions and metaphors are more lyrical than Carver's, like in "A Sliver of Moon" where the narrator "watches the lake bleed" (45). She is, in short, a pretty good writer at the prose level, although sometimes her metaphors wander off into overly abstracted thickets. I also find her a little too mannered, but I find minimal writing mannered even on a good day, so there you go.

I'm also willing to admit that some of my reservations to embrace this book as enthusiastically as the summary wants me to -- they've got her pinned as a "virtuoso," which I'm not quite onboard with -- is because the collection hews a little too closely to the sort of standard realism I can't get too enthusiastic about. Grandparents near the end of life, sibling rivalries, and the creative child vs. the domineering parent are among the conflicts we get here, and they all strike me as pretty standard, although some of them are quite well-turned: take the portrait of an elderly woman's collapse in "Auntie Anna and Selma and Selma and..." or the now-warm, now-devastating "Death and Ophelia." Still, by the time we get around to "Pine Shoots and Fish Cans," the young-narrator-talks-to-older-relative formula frankly runs dry. So maybe I wasn't the ideal reader for this book, but plenty about it still satisfied me.

For instance, I appreciate Spiegel when she digs into a smaller moment, even a simple interaction, and twists it around until it comes out appealingly bizarre. A good example of this, maybe the best around, is "It's About Crocodiles, Stones and Diving, Says Hans." I think this is the sort of thing fans of conventional realism tend to adore: take a common moment and reveal it as strange. She even sells me on the "under-the-surface" approach to character and emotion from time to time. For instance, "Ginger Light" is a killer anti-love story whose last line, which I won't reveal for fear of ruining it, honestly does pack in a lot of meaning, instead of drawing the reader to meaning that isn't there by playing too close to the tropes. On the topic of love stories, both "A Sliver of Moon" (with the bleeding lake) and "Someplace Else" both have the sort of funny-sad effect that I admire so much from Lorrie Moore. In short, Spiegel's quite good, and fans of this hyper-realist thing will likely find her great. Great title, too, although it makes me wish she'd played around with her narrator's reliability more.

Out of 10: 8.3. Might be higher if you're the right type of reader, though.

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Filed by Chris Schahfer at 7:00 AM, February 9, 2016. Filed under: Chris Schahfer | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |