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Short Takes

Capsule reviews of three recent titles

“We must relearn how to see,” says Camille Paglia, to “survive in this age of vertigo.” The path to renewal — sensual, intellectual, aesthetic — begins with art. Starting with a passionate plea for art history (which she argues has been, at least in part, “a victim of political cross fire” between stodgy conservatives and anti-religious, postmodern liberals), Paglia sketches, in 29 brief chapters, a series of milestones in the history of western art. From Queen Nefertari, whose tomb is rich with “elegant apparitions who still haunt us,” through Greek columns fashioned of women’s figures (“[t]heir dignity shows how the Greeks honored their gods — not through genuflection or self-abuse but through assertions of human value and pride”), Paglia vigorously interrogates images: What does this look like and why? What does this artistic choice tell us about the people who made it?

The cultural critic, who made her name with 1990’s “Sexual Personae,” is still interested in the way aesthetics both reveal and shape our cultural relationship with the carnal. At times this leads her astray — she bypasses significant image-makers like Kara Walker or Mark Bradford to celebrate Renee Cox and George Lucas — but it also grounds her manic intellectual energy in an argument that still feels relevant.

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An underemployed sad sack agrees to housesit for his old friend Oskar, a pianist and composer whose flat is a monument to “design and modernity and expensive, extravagant simplicity” — especially the pristine French oak floors, which Oskar warns in a note (there are notes scattered all about the apartment) “must be treated like the finest piece of furniture.” In Will Wiles’s terrifically fun comedy of errors, the floors become the least of the narrator’s problems. Wiles constructs such a believable shambles of poor choices and accidents that we merely nod with understanding when the narrator remarks: “the wine, the knife, the dead body — it did not look good.” In its blend of mordant humor and grotesque symbolism, “Care of Wooden Floors” reads like Kafka meets Larry David.

Oskar’s flat is in his Eastern European hometown, a city that feels like “a Narnia beyond memory where the Berlin Wall still stood and all was reassuringly wrong with the world.” It’s not just a cultural barrier that separates the old friends, though: Oskar is an avant-garde composer, while the narrator is a would-be writer who creates pamphlets for a local recycling program. What gives Wiles’s debut its power is the nearly operatic scale of the unfolding disaster in Oskar’s flat, along with its minutely observed metaphysical fallout. Oskar’s final note — “When something goes wrong, you can trace back to a moment when it could have happened differently, a moment when a word, or silence, or an act, or a stillness, could have changed everything” — applies to so much more than floors.

In this lyrical, disturbing first novel, a young soldier and his comrades become obsessed with death counts: The Iraq war is nearing its 1,000th American soldier killed, and nobody wants to be that guy. A fellow soldier’s death almost feels like a relief, writes Kevin Powers; “[w]e didn’t know the list was limitless.” John Bartle, 21 when he ships off to Al Tafar, narrates his tale in a jumpy, jagged chronology that bounces between basic training, deployment, and post-war life in his childhood Virginia home. Of the three, it’s the post-war sections that feel the saddest. Feeling “like the curator of a small unvisited museum,” Bartle grapples with memories of duty and failure, of terror and rage, and — overwhelmingly — of anguish at the loss of his basic-training buddy, 18-year-old Murphy.

We know Murphy is gone from the book’s earliest pages, but the mystery over how he died and what happened after forms the core of Powers’s taut drama. As war novels go, this is a miniature: delicately constructed of small details and quiet, devastating observations. Powers, a poet as well as a veteran, excels at these, as when he describes a colonel’s speech to the men before a dangerous mission; what Bartle hears is the officer’s “pride, his satisfaction with his own directness, his disregard for us.” Ultimately, this is a novel about the gaping failure of speech itself in the face of war.

Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.
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