All this desert

— Charif Majdalani. Dernière oasis. Roman. Actes Sud / L’Orient des livres, [2021].

Dernière oasis is an excellent novel of menace, in which a cosmopolitan art expert describes his descent into uncertain territory (somewhere northeast of Mosul, in the summer of 2014):

Le plaisir de la découverte des objets clandestins, mon déplacement jusqu’aux lieux où on me les dévoile et, après ça, l’aventure que représente leur rocambolesque transport, chaque fois suffisent à mon bonheur.

The setting is exotic, the prose is beautiful and musical, the pacing is deft, and things are just falling apart.

— — —

[A few days later]

Tout ce désert, c’est la faute des hommes qui ont gouverné la région, dit-il. Des irresponsables et des bandits.

And now, having experienced the full arc of the narrative arc of this very present and cosmopolitan novel (which encompasses old Lebanon, the fission of Iraq, the international art market, and the onset of the coronavirus), I remark upon how beautifully and precisely and evocatively Majdalani’s prose turns upon memory and place. There are many sly doublings of image and mood, intense conversations in unusual settings in this contemplative thriller. In his own head and with others, the narrator engages in a recurring discussion of history and its agents. Having since listened to a conversation between Gil Roth and Charif Majdalani when his earlier novel, Caravansérail (2007), appeared in English translation as Moving the Palace (New Vessel, 2017), it is clear that reflection upon historical decline is an important aspect of his work.

À chaque nouvelle catastrophique parvenant d’Irak ou de Syrie durant les années qui suivirent, ou de n’import quel coin de la planète en rapport avec les événements de cette région, j’ai resongé à l’affair du convoi du du général Ghadban et de son changement d’itinéraire, à cet embranchement, et à cette autre voie qui, si le convoi l’avait prise, aurait peut-être conduit non pas seulement Ghadban mais le monde entier ailleurs que là où ils ont été.

The reader shares the narrator’s experience of teetering at the edge of an abyss of time and incident. I am thinking about why, suddenly, in reading the opening passages of this novel, it was the mood of Ernst Jünger’s Auf den Marmor-Klippen (1939) which came up in memory (I am not going to re-read that one just now). Majdalani intimates, subtly and not with a sledge hammer, what we know in our hearts: that to be anywhere in the world — not only during the collapse of order in north Iraq in late summer 2014 — is to sense the increasing entropy of a closed system. And how beautifully the story is told.

I look forward to reading other books by Majdalani.

The world whispers to you if you listen

— Josh Rountree. Fantastic Americana. Stories. Fairwood Press, [2021].

Fantastic Americana gathers 21 stories, with “Her Soul, A Dark Forest” and “In the Teeth” original to this volume, the others published in magazines and anthologies between 2006 and 2021. The twin lines of this wide-ranging collection are Rountree’s riffs on contemporary popular music and his dark, deep-rooted tales of Texas fantastika. There is also, as in Eugene Byrne and Kim Newman’s Back in the USSA (1997), the pleasure of messing with history. These aims do not necessarily exclude each other.

“February Moon” is  the concise narrative of an immigrant mother who knows well that the dangers of the old world have come with her family across the ocean to backwoods Texas. She knows how to deal with the werewolves and the ineligible bachelors. “In the Thicket, with Wolves” starts with a single mother in a contemporary setting and moves into primal folkloric territory. “Rewind” and “Rattlesnake Song” suggest the world is larger than we think while playing with the dead media tropes of video store and movie theater. In “Her Soul, A Dark Forest” a young boy recounts the flight of his mother from a stifling situation into the mesquite, for him as for us there are no answers, we can only experience another order of reality at odds with our own.

Among the unspoken concerns of this collection is what an earlier age would have call the domestic manners of the American family. Rountree will sometimes, as in “February Moon”, use a simple declarative sentence to suggest a monstrous situation that has nothing to do with shape-changers. The women know what’s what, the best of the guys try to put it together. And the worst of the men deserve what unfolds.

Your correspondent reads ventures into critical fiction sympathetically and yet with clear eyes. In “Chasing America”, where Paul Bunyan collides with Wild Bill Hickok, Steinbeck, Woody Guthrie, Kerouac, and the Kennedy assassination, the nature of American myth and myth-making is deftly illuminated. On the other hand, the juxtaposition of the Merry Pranksters and far future space war in “Intrepid Travelers” doesn’t work thematically or structurally for this reader, and is less fruitful. A few of the stories didn’t to compel this reader, but then there is “Escaping Salvation” where  unexpected supernatural phenomena define a post-collapse world and a new ecological order seems to hold sway.

The best stories are without question tales in which all these topics play with and against each other to make things happen. “Best Energies” plays with country music, Albert Einstein, and “old splinter teeth” — George Washington rendered immortal by control of the fountain of youth — and adds an independent Republic of Texas at odds with Washington, to create a fissile situation. “Fury Road” turns the songs of The Clash into a revolutionary toolbox, analogous to some of the transformations of popular culture in Michael Swanwick’s “The Feats of Saint Janis” or Jack Womack’s Elvissey. And “The Guadalupe Witch” is really something, a haunting river tale, the telling of which dismisses any epistemological ambiguities.

Fantastic Americana justifies its bold title. It’s worth looking for.