6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on March 26, 2010
When I first read the back cover blurb for This Other Eden by Michael Hemmingson, I was hesitant about plunging into the story and novella collection. "Terrorism, crack cocaine, and rape. Failure, miscarriages, and suicide." Though I've read plenty on these subjects, I didn't feel up for disillusionment about life. Maybe I'd been having a bad day.
I'm so glad I opened the first pages. These tales are not about disillusionment, though they almost seem that they should be. They're about surviving all the things that happen in our lives, even as we plug along in the repetition of bad luck and bad choices.
The titles of the three stories and three novellas in the collection all feature the word "happen" in some way: "Nothing Like That Ever Happened," "What Happens When Things Happen to People," and "Where He Was the Day It Happened," to name three. "Happen" suggests that our lives are not in our control, that we're part of events that we react to and adjust to and quarrel with, and the characters in these stories all follow the same patterns of letting life pull them along, coping or not coping as life "happens" to them. Yet, in each tale, I was surprised by genuine love that unfolded, by quiet emotions that surfaced, and the feeling that something good could still happen.
In "Nothing Like That Ever Happened," the narrator tells the story of his prodigy child who writes successful novels at age nine. The tone is a rather contented resignation. He says, "I'd given up on my dreams ..." and "I'd convinced myself I was better for it." He sits alone in his chair "and watches everything," while the reader get glimpses of what the daughter writes about, the story she needs to tell. And what's unveiled should be more disturbing than it is; but it comes subtly in the form of quiet, unspoken love, which left me startled at my own reaction.
"What Happens When Things Happen to People" begins with a woman Ivy taking firm, assured steps toward a planned destination to become an editor in New York; she has a dream she plans to follow, and her partner Edmond is happy to tag along: he shrugs and says "Sure." Edmond is a self-professed "day-to-day guy." They go to New York and each meets new people, with relationships developing and breaking apart, and goals pushed aside or squashed. These personalities are strong forces, stronger perhaps than their own will and determination can combat.
It's partly through authentic, energetic, idiosyncratic dialogue that Hemmingson creates the force of people that work for and against the characters. Alonzo, an editor Ivy meets, takes her out one night and, humorously, in third person, provides a long monologue of his life: "But Alonzo had dreams, yes he did, and although, like yourself, he met many closed doors when trying to find a job in publishing, he was determined as holy hell. So what did he do? What did I do? ..." And as Alonzo is schmoozing her, a stockbroker Mark is selling Edmond on a new job: "Listen, you don't have to be some MBA whiz-kid and you don't have to be from some prep school with a father in the biz. Look at me. I'm a guy from Hoboken. Now I live in Manhattan." And his new sponsor says, "Ninety-nine percent of the time you'll meet rejection. You'll live for that one percent when a sale is made; you make your living off that one percent; we keep the firm going on that one percent." As the story goes on, we see that people are living off that one percent their entire lives. With each new person Ivy and Edmond meet, their lives become more complicated and they fall into situations--"choices" is a difficult word to use in these stories--that become harder, darker, and sadder.
"Where He Was the Day It Happened" begins with Martin Tucker having sex with a married woman as the violence of the Trade Center happens. And he realizes he's at the end of another affair. He wants to connect with his daughter who's afraid, as he's afraid, as everyone's afraid, but at the house he only encounters more violence and hatred from his ex-wife, and back on the streets, it's not connection he finds but a release of his own frustration.
In "Now That I Know What Happened, Could You Hold Me, Please, and Say This Is Love?" Paul takes what little money he and Karin have and heads to the grocery store, only to be sidetracked as he meets an old friend. We learn then about his affair and later more affairs, and as in other stories, each new person the characters meet seems to bring new complications. Temptation seems too much to combat; small incidents escalate into disasters, betrayals, and violence. The woman Paul is having an affair with says, "Free will got in the way. I made the wrong choice." But all of life seems to be not choices but patterns. When Karin finally leaves him, Paul says that "days just blended."
It was in this novella that I began relating the tales to Waiting for Godot, with characters waiting as life happens, falling into whatever takes them. Paul starts to realize that people are waiting for that dream, that sunray shining down. He takes a job on a psychic hotline and tells people lies so life still seems possible. And then he meets Olivia and her daughter Ella, and we get that glimmer of hope, of potential. There's no smooth going here, with much drinking and self-destruction, but through it Paul's underlying kindness and caring begins to take shape as something that can, perhaps, finally move people to something good.
When, in the final story "And Then It Happened," Harry M. Evans wins the lottery, it feels like life is changing. He speaks in assertions, commands, and Hemmingson separates each assertion as a new paragraph, as definite, assured statements:
"So he said, `Fire me.'"
"He said, `I don't care.'"
"He said, `Do it.'"
But as the people start to call, as greed kicks in, Evans's short statements are melded in one questioning line, his assurance quickly zapped: His stepmother says of the win "This is grand news" and Evans replies, "It is; it is. Isn't it? It is."
Equally masterful is how Hemmingson captures the manipulations of greed through dialogue: Evans's cousin calls wanting money for his grand plan: "I think it would be good for you to listen to me, listen to my voice, hear me out, hear what I have to say, cuz your old cuz has the big ideas, he knows what is what. Am I right, or am I right?" Evans's ticket, the reader finds, was won through quick-pick, all chance, and it begins to feel that what happens to us isn't really ours unless we make it happen. But amid all the clinging friends and relatives, Evans finds one woman who loves him knowing nothing of his money. The hope we feel is welcome but tamed by the knowledge that dreams, as we've experienced throughout the collection, are very fragile in a world where so much else keeps happening.
I came away from the collection not disheartened but knowing that amid all the failures and sad patterns of life good things still happen; Hemmingson's tales refrain from despair and offer a way up and out. And please don't let the length of this review fool you into thinking the collection is a long, slow read as well. The tales move quickly, led by fast-paced dialogue and sprinklings of humor. Once you start them you don't stop.
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on March 16, 2010
The back cover copy of Eden promises that "here is Hemmingson at his most brutal." While technically this could be true it is only because Hemmingson's deft use of language is so streamlined and precise, the resulting impact is often not easy to take. There is no buffer between you, the reader, and the story being told. And more often than not, bad things are happening to unsuspecting people. But Hemmingson navigates the mire of helplessness and ignorance with skill; creating characters that we want to see rewarded with some sort of peace. And when the peace is at last bestowed upon them, we experience that peculiar chill shooting straight down our spines; that tiny shout of rejoicing.
For that very reason, my favorite story in this collection was the novella, "Now That I Know What Happened, Could You Hold Me, Please, and Say This Is Love?" where the protagonist, Paul Augustine, searches for something -- anything -- that might make sense in his world. He misplaces his affections in the lovelessness of empty women; he even loses an eye. But in the end, his determination to survive his struggles lead him to the simplicity of a loving family, finally, and the birth of his first son. It was a beautifully balanced story whose hopeful ending was crafted with a confident touch. For me, that's what stands out about this entire collection: Hemmingson is a damn good storyteller who will carve his way into you with considerable skill.
5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
Author Michael Hemmingson, whose works range from noir (Wild Turkey) to erotica (The Amateurs) to pop-culture scholarship (William T. Vollmann: A Critical Study and Seven Interviews), puts his wide-ranging pen to the medium of short fiction in the Dybbuk Press collection This Other Eden. All of the stories in this collection of short stories and novellas contain the word "Happen" in the title, and they all feel linked by tone if not always subject matter (though some themes do recur throughout).
Five of the tales in This Other Eden have been printed (and reprinted) in various media. (Only "What Happens When Things Happen to People" appears to be original to the collection.) Sometimes it feels like Hemmingson is trying to shock with his extreme characters; other times it merely seems like normal people aren't worth writing about (though it's often the "regular guy" who is swept up in the events).
Hemmingson has written over fifty books, and his experience shows. Not only does he inform the stories in This Other Eden with tangible details of the publishing industry, but he also imbues his characters with personalities that are displayed through his skillful use of highly individualized dialogue for each person.
"And Then It Happened" shows the dark side of winning the lottery -- or at least the dark side of people finding out you won the lottery. This story felt so real in the reading that I got stressed out whenever the phone rang for the rest of the night.
Two of the shorter pieces, "Nothing Like That Ever Happened" and "What Happens Between Literary Agents and Clients While in New York," feature barely pubescent bestselling female authors putting their sexual fantasies on paper. But each is approached in a completely different manner than the other, "Nothing" feeling more genuine emotionally while "Agents" takes a more outrageous tack.
In "What Happens When Things Happen to People" Edmond and Ivy move to the city, pursue careers, and get a hell of a lot more than they wished for. It's a terrifically told and totally engrossing story, filled with a detestable yet engaging supporting cast, that would fill a novel in the hands of a less strict prose-wrangler.
The centerpiece, at over a third of the book's length, is "Now That I Know What Happened, Could You Hold Me, Please, and Say This Is Love?" (recently expanded into the novel Shabby Town). It is the story of some time in the life of Paul Augustine, where he begins with thievery and ends with personal fulfillment. Yet nothing that happens inbetween feels forced or contrived purely to suit Hemmingson's purposes. It's a completely absorbing experience filled with real people, real problems, and really bad decisions that sometimes turn out OK.
These are stories of father and mothers, sons and daughters; of writers and teachers, agents and whores; of crack and pizza and champagne; of attacks variously political, physical, emotional, and sexual; of infidelity and loyalty; of friendship and love; of desire, ambition, and greed. Hemmingson covers the gamut of feeling and experience with This Other Eden, certainly the most impressive and consistently high-quality short fiction I've read in some time.
I didn't know anything about Hemmingson's fiction (apart from the private-eye/zombie story in Badass Horror) before I received this copy of This Other Eden for review. But based on the highly effective writing in this collection, I'm going to go searching for more very soon.
5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on December 24, 2011
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
***PROBLEM FIXED. LEAVING THIS REVIEW UP FOR POSTERITY. THANK YOU, TIM LIEDER!***
I debated about whether or not to write this review. On the one hand, I really enjoy Michael Hemmingson's writing. I read through several of the author's stories in other formats and I really enjoyed them. I even skimmed through the paper copy of this book with Amazon's "Search inside this book" function, and everything looked great there too.
On the other hand, the Kindle version of this book of short stories is absolutely awful. I am not entirely sure who is to blame for the state of this electronic edition, but there really is no excuse and they are only doing the author a disservice. I have a feeling that the problem lies with Dybbuk Press. I downloaded a copy of Teddy Bear Cannibal Massacre, also put out by Dybbuk Press, and it had some pretty major formatting issues as well.
The quote by Gordon Lish at the beginning of the book was doubled for no reason. Every line of dialogue has two sets of quotation marks, so that it looks like this: ""Can you imagine how much fun it would be to read a book where the dialogue looks like this?"" he asked. Except that one set is curly while the other is straight. There were misspellings and stray punctuation strewn throughout. At one point in the first story, a sentence ends with a period which is followed by a semi-colon. It really was a mess.
And it is a shame. Like I said, I love Michael Hemmingson, but this electronic edition is an absolute disgrace to the man and it also makes Dybbuk Press look bad.
I know Tim Lieder likes to hang around Amazon, so I hope he gets to read this. Tim, the book is fantastic and the price is a steal at $2.99, but there is no excuse for the way this e-version turned out. Please fix it so that us Kindle users can enjoy Hemmingson's work, too. I really appreciate all that you guys do at Dybbuk Press and I really want to support your authors, but you guys have to keep a better eye on your electronic formatting.