Think of Shapero instead as a kind of poetic Louis C.K. — the misery is part of the act. Yes, you’re supposed to laugh: “All I have coming in this / world is a joke that hits me later.” And like the best stand-up comedy routines, her poems have solid opening hooks, a finely wrought structure, and a resonance, a truth, beyond what is directly expressed.
“I think that I have always resisted the idea of objective cultural criticism in a vacuum. The subject lends itself to drawing connections to yourself — when I look at someone like Britney Spears, it isn’t just at the level of public scrutiny.”
There’s an emphasis on character action in fiction that I’ve always found hilariously American. We don’t read for historical perspective, for philosophy, for abstraction or allegory or poetic language as readily as readers elsewhere. Instead, there’s something distinctly boot-strappy about our attentions. The sense that we follow a character through their various arcs and impacts on the world seems somehow inextricable from our belief in self-made millionaires, our shark tanks and injunctions to “be all that you can be!”
The use of foreign language in this book is worth mentioning—Greenwell includes Bulgarian not just as a cheap device to evoke place (although it does lend the story much realism and authority). The words are deployed with poetic precision: such as in the rhythm of chakai, chakai, chakai (wait, wait, wait); they are used to characterize people, such as Mitko’s love for the word podaruk (gift); and to reflect the narrator’s to make sense of his world (strahoten means awesome, a word “built from a root signifying dread”). Most importantly, it is used to cut deeper into the core of the narrator’s emotional question: priyatel means both friend and lover—which one is he really to Mitko?
In one of the last visual narratives to grace the pages of Richard McGuire’s 2014 graphic novel Here, a woman in 1957 is depicted walking across a room over the course of several spreads. Her walk is juxtaposed with and transposed over fragments of other scenes from years ranging from 1620 to 2005, scenes that—through their shared space on the page—take place both throughout the prism of the past and also simultaneously in a static present. The woman walks across the room until she reaches for a book and, in the novel’s final frame, states, “…Now I remember.” Readers can only make sense of this phrase by returning to the book’s beginning, where the first line reads: “Now why did I come in here again?”