FAMINE COMES AT a perfect time to cash in on the zeitgeist of paranormal phenomenon. Even if its only metaphysical activity is the ghostly presence of an emotionally crippled teen, this story about the need for human interaction in the increasingly hostile Big City (the Big Apple, in this case) gives the rigors of daily survival an almost otherwordly feel. Death is palpable throughout.
A filmmaker currently working on two projects, Todd Komarnicki marks his second novel with the spare, clipped style of a screenplay. Detective Bell, one of the two first-person narrators of the story, investigates the curious death, due to malnutrition, of a young man in one of Manhattan's posher neighborhoods. In alternating chapters, the dead Daniel Rowan plays second narrator, leading the reader to clues of the crime while detailing his family's neglect and distancing after the death of his younger brother. Komarnicki weaves the two lives together with stark grace as middle-aged Bell, struggling with his own emotional starvation and troubled family life, increasingly identifies with Rowan.
Defining Bell, the author paints a cold but vulnerable portrait: "Mothers murder children. Priests rob banks. Wrists slit. Bombs shred. This comforts him. The chaos. He needs it. Keeps him above the believers, the ones who call 911, seeking answers... And he comes by, whispers to widows, takes down statements like recipes, all the time calmed by new evidence of the random. He is a satisfied man."
Famine creates a world similar in its overall sense of alienation to the 21st-century Los Angeles of Blade Runner. And like that film's replicants, this story's pivotal character, Emma (the prime suspect in her husband's uncanny death), is an unearthly spirit of a young woman. It's her devotion to and control over the victim that gives this tale its ghostly edge. (Matt Keppel)
WHEN SUFFERING AN emotional loss, the physical world seem irrelevant; you throw rocks at birds and curse the blue skies, although in the end it must be admitted that neither the birds nor the skies are to blame. Margaret, the hero of Claudia Casper's The Reconstruction, does things common to the newly divorced: She sleeps for hours on end, forgets to pay bills, fails to keep appointments, and stops seeing her friends. But instead of withdrawing to dwell on the "relationship," on her "emotions," and on what it means to have loved and lost ("Better never to have lost at all. Loss was bigger than love."), she obsesses with increasing intensity on what it is to be a physical body.
Asked by the science museum's Chief of Exhibits to build a full body reconstruction of a female Australopithecus afarensis for the Hall of Human Origins, Margaret replaces all social contact with live humans for physical contact with bones--of humans, chimpanzees, and the Australopithecus afarensis. Margaret's husband, a doctor, had long before lost his ability to appreciate the physicality of his wife ("When he looked at people, their whole biological history rose before his eyes, from the bloody mess of their birth to the morbid sweet smell of their infirmity")--so Margaret already has sympathy for spirits trapped within flesh and bones. By the time our droll hero has finished the reconstruction, both she and the reader are revived and happy to have gotten through the ordeal without much psychotherapy and to have, both literally and figuratively, constructed a female with a past filled with infinite possibilities. (Amanda Ferguson)
Waist High In the World:
Life Among the Nondisabled
HAVING NAVIGATED THE world from her wheelchair seat for the past decade, Mairs considered calling this essay collection Cock High in the World, but then thought better of it: wrong lyrical ring. The humorous musings that salt these writings have enough odd rings, though--by good-girl standards--to put off more timid readers. In signature style, Mairs shucks the do-good, PC-hushed tones "normals" use when talking about physical handicaps, especially those that leave a woman's body as twisted as severe multiple sclerosis has left hers. Enough of the vacuous "people with differing abilities" niceties: Mairs is a cripple with a ruined nervous system, four feet high on the landscape, taking no prisoners.
The best of these 10 essays is "Body in Trouble," in which Mairs takes issue with the mind/body dichotomy. "Conceptualize the body," she was advised once, some years back. Whose body? A physical or an abstract one? This one I'm in or some other, ideal one? "The body in trouble, becoming both a warier and a humbler creature," she writes, "is more apt to experience herself all of a piece: a biochemical dynamo cranking out consciousness much as it generates platelets, feces, or reproductive cells." The split dissolves as, in her case, does the separation of her body from the mechanized equipment and the series of intricate maneuvers required to wheel it out the door and into the public realm.
But this is no pity party. Mairs argues not only for consideration (navigable public bathroom stalls, for instance) but a greater regard for handicapped people in a society that tends to dismiss and exile them as useless. She rips on the growing practice of aborting fetuses with "deformities," and the ever-more-popular notion of physician-assisted suicides as a means to rid the healthy masses of deteriorating bodies. Get with it on public transportation, grab bars, ramps, and phones, she writes, and get rid of the tired perception of cripples as out of the sexual running, worthy only of fear or condescension--or as true-grit troopers chinning up to bear their loathsome lives. In all, Waist High is a refreshingly bold take on the blind spots the nondisabled cultivate, rendering those with MS invisible. (Josie Rawson)