Book Review


Elegy on a Kinderklavier, front cover

Elegy on a Kinderklavier

Arna Bontemps Hemenway
Sarabande Books, p.230, $15.95
ISBN 978-1-9396747-76-4


Reviewed by Trena Machado:

Elegy on Kinderklavier is a debut collection of seven short stories. The driving force across the stories is violence. The characters are forced to the edge of the world, intruded upon by one form of violence or another: war, terminal illness, loss of loved ones before their time, death and mutilation by explosives. Violence, in all its forms, is the hovering, unpredictable specter and Hemenway handles it with innovative, effective techniques.

“Absence” and “nothing,” the center of violence, make an appearance ubiquitously, “a suite of movement, a semaphore of nothing,” the characters feeling the destructive sense of absence in their awareness:

…the moment when the phosphorous strobe, nestled underneath the naked girl’s back and buried beneath the shroud of soiled bedclothes, ignites, and shatters the night into pulses of pure white light, and the absence of it.

A town square revisited where five friends were bludgeoned to death by men of the town for being gay, “…Soren looking over Sambul’s shoulder…at the center of the square, at the nothing of the dirt and the dust and the light.”

The omnipotence of events that control our destiny is expressed by melding events simultaneously from two different locations, each interpenetrating the other. Seeing the man, who brought the town’s families the news of their husband’s and father’s deaths, hiding behind the bleachers with a manila envelope, fifteen-year-old Samuel pitches a no-hitter game, trance-like, trying to remove the event of his father being killed in Iraq:

He always finished on his curve…seeing…the ball left his hand what the terrorists must be seeing: the convoy stopped below, his father getting out of the lead vehicle, the unseen man crouched above, raising his rifle just as the pitch….

Emotional interior states are combined with the blind events that change destinies. The cloud of helpless certain uncertainty of the connected events, not connected directly, but indirectly by awareness…and life is altered…a son pitching a ball and a father dying from a sniper’s bullet…intentional projectiles an inchoate disjunct of connection.

Instances of slowed down awareness become a magnifying glass. IED [Improvised Explosive Device] is a story that tells Abram’s life, and all the things he didn’t understand along the way, in the second of stepping on the IED’s metal plate to being gone. A reflection, in the instant, that refers to both his life and that he will no longer be at all, “It is the feeling of helplessness at time passing, of the loss of experience even as it occurs.”

The impact of trauma is lingering PTSD and the psyche must deal with it:

…the truth of the night will forever feel to Wild Turkey somewhere in between the fragmentation of experience and what he remembers: he will have both seen and not seen what he saw, what he smelled.

Soldiers from Iraq cannot assimilate their experience in intact memories that provide a stable view of reality. The memories are volatile going in and out of the present: “Approximation of experience…the distance between what happens…and the real experience (even then, something slightly Else or Other…).”

Hemenway’s characters live in a disembodied reality that comes through impersonal events, delivered by technology in an image-flow of digitized information. In these stories, we confront the new social dominion of the hyperreal, experience reduced to simulations, technological viewing of human actions (more socially valuable as information than the lived experience itself), “performance of reality,” “real video and fake village,” dissimulation, synecdoche, data-stream…the information society, a thin, digital, duplicated reality flowing on electricity.

Each story has a human interaction that strains realistic boundaries of the believable…in the town where six sons each lose a male family member in Iraq, the other boys take the newly bereft to a shed at night and beat him up (for which he is grateful); when bored, white Soren and African Sambul make up a game as adolescents in which they take turns standing on each other’s chests seeing how long each can take it; a mother leaves her dying eight-year-old son and travels around Europe sending him and her husband short videos of places she is visiting and saying “Do you know that I love you so much?”…each story has an atypical, wrenching boundary breaker like these. In such excellent writing, why imbed these pockets of contrived human actions that strain credulity? Purely speculating, two possible explanations: one, they are psychologically metaphorical catharsis of what people want to do to escape or alleviate pain; two, they point at our growing dislocation in the world of hyperreality and the fragmentation of the social organization. The usual bounds of community lost, all we have to do is step over its weakened boundary by theatrical artificiality such as these boundary-breaking scenarios…taking us into the hyperreal, a place to reflect on what the social world is becoming.

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