Friday, September 04, 2015

Arna Bontemps Hemenway's Literary Book Debut: Elegy on Kinderklavier

Arna Bontemps Hemenway

I'm reading a collection of short stories by Arna Bontemps Hemenway - in fact, the stories comprise his literary debut as a book writer, or even as a "bookwriter," depending on how literally we take the title, Elegy on Kinderklavier (Sarabande Books, July 15, 2014). The man's name, "Arna Bontemps Hemenway" - the middle name "Bontemps," anyway - makes me wonder if he's at least partly a 'good-time' Cajun. No offense intended - I'm a good-time hillbilly, moi.

Anyway, I was curious about trying out his work because he's been praised to the heavens for this book's literary style and because he teaches creative writing at my alma mater, Baylor University, which is perhaps consistent with being "praised to the heavens." Here's a sample I thought interesting since it sparks memories my own experience from a few graduate seminars in which I sat and listened to feminist analysis that seemed intended to challenge men to defend themselves from the critique being directed their way and at the same time seemed intended to undermine any right for men to defend themselves at all, but that was likely all due to my own male-ist insecurities and masculinist assumptions, of which feminism has made me so well aware:
Abrams had assumed Lara was a lesbian mostly because she had a girlfriend, and a face that featured prominent, martial cheekbones. She was writing her thesis on some inherently boring, ultraspecific example of gender politics in government language usage, and her comments in seminar were always throbbing with disgust and carefully curated anger. Abrams hated her. He hated her comments. He hated gender politics in general, and especially her diluted third-wave, recherché feminism which was really, he'd always suspected, just a collection of exceedingly normal personal anxieties. He had no idea what Lara was really like, or where she'd come from. He only really knew that she'd gone to Brown.
This is from the story titled "The IED." Abrams, now on patrol in Iraq, has just stepped on one of these improvised explosive devices, and his life is passing before his eyes even before the coming of the explosion that he knows is coming. I thought the sample interesting in part because I've also sometimes wondered if some sorts of feminism are nothing more than "a collection of exceedingly normal personal anxieties," but also by the fact that scenes of Lara flashed before his mind's eye in his final moments.

As for literary quality, I was unsure at first. I felt that some expressions didn't sound quite right, for example: "word . . . petered out"; "the crowd got up and petered away"; and the dinner petered out." Almost as if written by a non-native speaker. Or have I - living abroad so long - become that stranger? But aside from this occasional weird linguistic experience, the stories drew me into them and grew so much in depth and power that I sometimes felt I were reading David Mitchell's writing, though I wouldn't wish to conflate their respective artistry.

Reading recommended. Highly recommended.

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