Nature and Humankind Collide in The Lightkeepers

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Originally published at the Chicago Review of Books.

The Islands of the Dead—“bare, bald, and broken”—are ripe with mystery, musk, and blood in Abbi Geni‘s debut novel, The Lightkeepers. A small but harsh wilderness, the islands are home to great white sharks, whales, seals, birds, mice, and six eccentric biologists living beneath a 150-year-old lighthouse.

When a nature photographer, Miranda, arrives for a year-long stint to capture the local wildlife, she’s stunned by the surreal nature of the place. “I am half-convinced the islands are not rooted at all,” she says, “but move around whenever my back is turned, taking up brand-new positions elsewhere.” 

The Lightkeepers is similarly chimeric, constantly shifting from mystery to travelogue to natural horror and beyond. For the first one hundred pages, Geni is content to build tension and atmosphere through pure, distilled prose, forgoing any direct attempts to kickstart the plot. And then, violence. In the end, Geni’s transcendent novel is as merciless, strange, and coldly beautiful as the islands she describes.

Thanks to their otherworldly nature, it’s easy to think the Islands of the Dead a figment of Geni’s imagination. But the Farallon Islands are a very real archipelago thirty miles off the coast of San Francisco. “There were no sandy beaches. The shores were streaked with seaweed, the peaks fragmented and craggy,” Miranda says, and judging from Devil’s Teeth, a journalist’s real-life account of the islands in 2006, they are as inhospitable to human life as an alien planet.

Miranda is a bit of an island herself, unmoored from family or friends thanks to a nature photographer’s nomadic lifestyle. She exchanges postcards with her father, usually just one or two words. She writes letters to her mother—who never receives them, having died when Miranda was young. Miranda used to put them in the mail, addressed simply to “Mom,” but in recent years she’s gotten more creative. “While hiking in the mountains, I have folded my messages into origami flowers, hanging them in the trees.”

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Sea stacks off the coast of Southeast Farallon Island, where most of The Lightkeepers takes place.

The Farallon Islands, however, are a crucible of human and animal intimacy. Miranda’s aloofness is challenged by the constant din of elephant seals and storm petrels, by the recurring violence of shark kills, and by the cramped, 19th-century living arrangements she shares with six scientists. Before long, her curiosity is spiked. The islands are soaked with secrets.

From the book’s back matter and other reviews, which use words like “murder mystery” and “ghost story,” it should come as no surprise that people die. But readers expecting a traditional representation of those genres will be disappointed. There is plenty of mystery, and perhaps a ghost, but The Lightkeepers contains neither the linear, streamlined plot of the former, nor the Victorian, squeaky-door antics of the latter.

Further, the ubiquitous comparisons to The Lovely Bones are misleading at best, lazy at worst, as was the case with Scott Blackwood’s See How Small last winter. There are no scenes in heaven or Hollywood endings. The Lightkeepers is a haunting, brutal, rain- and blood-soaked story of humans at the mercy of nature. Miranda doesn’t seek divine justice for the violence she endures, she seeks a deeper connection with the islands than she’s able to find among people. The same islands that are intent on killing her.

genibookIt’s not the first time Abby Geni—a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop who lives in Chicago and teaches at the School of the Art Institute—has explored the natural world through her fiction. Her debut collection of short stories in 2013, The Last Animal, also tackled the connections between humankind and the rest of the animal kingdom. Both books beg comparisons between human and animal intelligence, in our capacities for intellectual and emotional experience. Like the biologists in her stories, Geni’s fiction implies the differences may be in kind rather than degree.

With The Lightkeepers, Geni joins the ranks of Barbara Kingsolver and Annie Proulx—novelists for whom nature is a driving narrative force instead of a backdrop. However, Geni’s debut is a few shades darker than Prodigal Summer or Close Range, and instead of Kingsolver and Proulx’s architectural prose, Geni writes in small, perfect sentences stripped of ornamentation, often single clauses. It’s a beautiful effect; pages pass quickly and effortlessly. By the novel’s end, you’ll crave another journey with Geni to some other wild, forgotten corner of the globe.

Note to our Chicago readers: To celebrate the release of The Lightkeepers, Abby Geni will be speaking and reading at several events in the Chicago area in February, March, and April.

FICTION
The Lightkeepers by Abbi Geni
Counterpoint Press
Published January 12, 2016
ISBN 9781619026001

You’ll Never Want to Leave: TRAVELERS REST by Keith Lee Morris

morrisOriginally published in Bookpage.

Time and space are fluid as water in Keith Lee Morris’ labyrinthine third novel, his first since 2008’s brutal The Dart League King. This time, a family road trip goes awry in the small town of Good Night, Idaho thanks to a hotel that rivals The Shining’s, a book with which Travelers Rest will inevitably be compared, though there are more definitive answers here.

The Addison family—mother, father, son, and alcoholic uncle—are driving from Seattle to South Carolina when a snowstorm forces them to look for lodging in Good Night. The eponymous hotel, Travelers Rest, was once a palatial second home for the town’s high society, but fell into disrepair when the local mines dried up decades ago. After checking into the hotel, the Addisons quickly become separated in ways that are hard to describe, thanks to the shifting nature of time, space, memory, and dream in Good Night. The town is a lot like that grand staircase in Hogwarts, always rearranging itself depending on who enters and what they want.

Tonio, the father, wanders outside in the snow and follows a strange woman in silver shoes. Julia, the mother, finds an oddly familiar room on the third floor with an open roof, where she’s content to lie down and dream. Robbie, the uncle fresh out of rehab, bolts for the bar across the street, where he can’t tell if it’s the booze or the town that’s playing tricks on him. And Dewey, Julia and Tonio’s 10-year-old son, searches for his family, glimpsing them from a distance from time to time, but never quite able to reach them.

If you feel lost after the first 100 pages (and you will), don’t worry. The story is worth your confusion. In fact, it requires it. Proustian in theme but not in form, Travelers Rest is the definition of dreamlike prose. Morris’ writing is clean and cold as snow. The pages drift by just as effortlessly, lulling you into a quiet cocoon that you realize, too late, is actually something much more sinister.

FICTION: LITERARY, MYSTERY, THRILLER

Travelers Rest by Keith Lee Morris, Little, Brown and Company

2015 Review Roundup

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I wrote about a lot of books and plays this year (and interviewed a lot of authors). If you’re looking for some reading material over the holidays (or hoping to see a show in Chicago), here’s a categorical list of everything I covered in 2015.

BEST-OF LISTS
“Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of 2015” SF Signal, December 2015
“Best Chicago Novels by Neighborhood” Gapers Block, September 2015, featured on WGN Radio

BOOK REVIEWS
Ghostly, edited and illustrated by Audrey NiffeneggerGapers Block, October 2015
Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson, Strange Horizons, September 2015
The Killing Lessons by Saul BlackBookpage, September 2015
Not on Fire, But Burning by Greg Hrbek, Bookpage, September 2015
Marvel and a Wonder by Joe MenoGapers Block, September 2015
Above the Waterfall by Ron RashBookpage, September 2015
Little Pretty Things by Lori Rader-DayBookpage, July 2015
Time Salvager by Wesley ChuGapers Block, July 2015
Bell Weather by Dennis Mahoney, Bookpage, June 2015
The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha PulleyBookpage, June 2015
The Water Knife by Paolo BacigalupiBookpage, June 2015
I, Ripper by Stephen HunterBookpage, May 2015
The Harvest Man by Alex Grecian, Bookpage, May 2015
The Making of Zombie Wars by Aleksandar HemonBookpage, May 2015
House of Echoes by Brendan DuffyBookpage, April 2015
The Fifth Heart by Dan SimmonsThe Denver Post, April 2015
The Only Words That Are Worth Remembering by Jeffrey Rotter, Bookpage, April 2015
Cat Out of Hell by Lynne TrussBookpage, March 2015
See How Small by Scott Blackwood, Bookpage, January 2015

AUTHOR INTERVIEWS
Adam Morgan Chats with Sarah Lotz, Author of Day FourSF Signal, June 2015
An Interview with Chicago Author Lori Rader-DayGapers Block, June 2015
An Interview with Saad HossainBookslut, July 2015
Garth Risk Hallberg Came Up with City on Fire in 90 SecondsLiterary Hub, October 2015
Dominic A. Pacyga Talks About SlaughterhouseGapers Block, November 2015
Lynne Raimondo Talks About Her Third Chicago Crime NovelGapers Block, November 2015

PLAYS & COMEDY
“Steppenwolf Tackles Faith and Suffering in Grand Concourse Gapers Block, July 2015
“The Second City’s Soul Brother Outshines Panic on Cloud 9″ Gapers Block, July 2015
“Steppenwolf’s East of Eden Misses the Forest for the Trees” Gapers Block, October 2015
“The Second City Tries Something Different with Fool Me Twice
Gapers Block, December 2015
“Unlike Scrooge, Goodman’s A Christmas Carol Never Gets Old” Gapers Block, December 2015

Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Books of 2015

VermillionOver at the Hugo award-winning SF Signal, I listed my 13 favorite science fiction and fantasy novels of the year.

“2015 was a great year for speculative fiction. Plenty of household names (e.g., Kim Stanley Robinson, Neal Stephenson, Margaret Atwood, and David Mitchell) put out great books, and several relative newcomers established themselves as writers to watch. Perhaps most encouraging, however, is the abundance of diverse voices available in bookstores, online, and awards shortlists (minus the whole Hugo Awards fiasco). Science fiction and fantasy is undoubtedly more representative of the world population today than at any time in history, and that’s something to be excited about. Not just as a human being, but as a curious reader, too.”

Head over to SF Signal for the list, complete with previews.

Interview: Garth Risk Hallberg, Author of CITY ON FIRE

06BOOKHALLBERG-master180-v4Originally published at Literary Hub.

Garth Risk Hallberg’s debut novel—sold for $2 million in a 10-publisher bidding war—has been the most anticipated, hyped and ballyhooed book of 2015. If the literary gods are fair, it’ll wind up on many shortlists. But unless you’re a connoisseur of literary criticism, you’ve probably never heard of the author.

Hallberg grew up in the small college town of Greenville, North Carolina, where he was the “resident beatnik.” Until now, he’s had a quiet career as an award-winning book critic for The Millions and a writing professor at Sarah Lawrence College. That’s about to change with the arrival of his first novel.

City on Fire is a postmodern epic in the vein of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. Beginning with a mysterious shooting in Central Park and culminating in the real-life New York City blackout of 1977, Hallberg weaves a complex story with an ensemble cast. The book’s seven parts are divided by and interspersed with letters, news clippings and images, similar in form to Marisha Pessl’s Night Film. City on Fire encapsulates the many cities that are somehow one New York City during its most dramatic moment in the 20th century.

I spoke with Hallberg about City on Fire, New York City, and how the book was inspired by September 11th.

Let’s start with the obvious: most debut novels aren’t 900 pages long. Did you set out to write something so sprawling in scope?

The scope of the book was very much a part of the initial conception. The whole idea came to me in a period of about 90 seconds in 2003, and one of the things I saw about the book was that it would have the scale and sweep of Bleak House. And that was almost scary for me, so after writing a single page of it, I shut the notebook and said, “Oh boy, I don’t have the chops to do something like that. I’ll come back to it in 10 years.” But I came back to it about four years later. It had been building in my subconscious until the world was fully formed, so when I sat down to write, it was like going through the wardrobe into Narnia.

You’ve already been compared to DeLillo, Franzen and David Foster Wallace. What does that feel like as a debut novelist?

It’s sort of like asking a fish how the water feels. You’re inside it, but not necessarily aware of what’s being said around you. If there’s one predominant feeling, it’s surprise.

I loved the book’s interludes with letters, news clippings and images. What made you decide to play around with those?

I had a dream in which I saw the finished book, and I was giving it to someone. And as I was flipping through it, I could see that some pages weren’t just pure type. So I woke up and thought, either that’s a crazy dream that I’ll just forget about, or there’s something to it, and I’ll figure it out down the road. But I had written this letter, and it started to revolve around a magazine article, and I knew I had to write it, and I knew where it went.

As a native of a small town, what drew you to New York?

I used to go up to New York with my friends as a teenager and just drive around, and it was completely intoxicating. New York was a place where everything that had been repressed or frowned upon or discouraged in the town I grew up in was given freedom of expression.

You’ve said New York seemed like a fantastical place when you were young. Why?

When I first started to read, New York was where all the books came from. Almost every book that I encountered as a kid was like a doorway to the wider world, and a world that I would return to the real world enriched by. Stuart Little, Harriet the Spy, Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street—in many of those books the world that you walk into is altered and exciting and transformed.

This might be a strange analogy, but your conception of the city reminds me of the “multiverse” in Marvel and DC Comics, with all these different continuities and realities that somehow coexist in the same city at the same time.

I think that’s a good analogy! In my experience, we actually live in a multiverse, but that’s so challenging to keep remembering. We’re constantly tempted to imagine that we live in a world that’s less complex, or that’s just about us.

Do you think the New York City of 2015 is a less magical place than it once was?

I’m hesitant to pontificate on what New York might be in general. After September 11th, there was this extraordinary feeling that everyone was still grieving. And for that reason, people seemed vulnerable and more open to change, in the same way people do at a bar after a funeral, this feeling that it would be a tribute to the people we lost to change your life for the better. But that feeling didn’t last. You can’t live inside that feeling forever. In 2015, it’s hard for me to say what New York means to anyone besides me.

I’ve heard you say that September 11th partially motivated your writing. What do you mean by that?

September 11th was seeing something I cared deeply about suddenly put in risk of not existing. I was just out of college, so it was my first initiation into life as an adult in America. Between then and 2003, there was a lot of ideological work going on in the culture, trying to say what September 11th really meant, and increasingly what people were saying was not what I knew to be true. So I think, subconsciously, I was looking for a way to talk about that period from September 2001 up until 2003, about what it meant for me.

This might be way too early, but what’s next for you?

Another writer asked me that a few months ago, and when I said I couldn’t answer, he said, “Good, if you were able to talk about it now, I’d think you were crazy.” So I’m among the healthy minority who won’t answer that question yet!

FICTION: LITERARY

City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg, Knopf