Frontier Psychiatrist

All The Sad Young Literary Women: The Listeners and Flea Circus

Posted on: July 5, 2012

In their dark, quirky, and inventive new novels, Leni Zumas and Mandy Keifetz introduce readers to two women in crisis. In The Listeners, a woman in her 30’s mourns the death of her sister, the loss of her first love, and the dissolution of her almost-famous punk band. In Flea Circus, a woman in her 20’s mourns the suicide of her performance artist boyfriend. Both books illustrate how loss and grief make painful lives, but compelling fiction.

Published by small presses, both novels and their authors have been celebrated in literary circles. Flea Circus won the annual novel prize of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, judged this year by prolific novelist and critic Francine Prose. (A British production company has optioned her first novel, Corrido). Tin House Books, an imprint of the Portlandia-based literary journal, published The Listeners. Zumas’s 2008 short story collection, Farewell Navigator, won praise from quirk queen Miranda July and Karen Russell, whose debut novel Swamplandia! was a 2012 Pulitzer Prize finalist. Zumas also appears in the documentary 6o Writers 60 Places; the film’s co-director Luca DiPierro made the following trailer for The Listeners.

Both books derive their charm from their emo outsider heroines. In The Listeners, Quinn is an unattractive, anorexic, hirsute, chain-smoking, hard drinking vegetarian with synesthesia. In Flea Circus, Isabelle “Izzy” Oytsershifl is a foul mouthed Jersey Girl who is also a mathematician, or as she calls herself “a creature of reason.” Unlike Hollywood super heroines, neither Quinn nor Izzy are arm-candy or eye-candy, but independent women who struggle to salvage their lives, masking their wounded souls with tough outer shells.

Despite their Afterschool Special subjects (suicide, anorexia, addiction, breakups), Zumas and Keifetz avoid clichés and lighten their serious subjects with humor. In Flea Circus, Izzy has a cat named Altamont, a lover named Pudge Gorogchi and a client named Baby Doll Jones. The character names in The Listeners are even more unusual, including: Fod, Mert, Cam, Geck, Jupiter, Dagger, Riley a.k.a. Coyote,  Pine, and Uncle Seven.  The games she plays include: Nakedies, Curious, and Wake The Sister. She uses child-like slang (spark, nidget, pettles, and neezle), and like my girlfriend when we play Scrabble, makes neologisms from existing words (e.g. freakery, ancientry, okayness).  After a bad gig, Quinn compares her band to “the polka unit at the Penis Oaks Retirement Village.” The humor in Flea Circus is most present in the titular circus, which includes a miniature replica of the Trojan Horse with thousands of insects dressed as Greek soldiers.

While The Listeners is heftier (350 pages) than The Flea Circus (202 pages), both have similarly short chapters. Both books are experimental, but Flea Circus –subtitled A Brief Bestiary of Grief–is more formally so. Keifetz structures each chapter around a letter of the alphabet. Each chapter starts with an alliterative list of words that appear later. Each chapter’s first sentence follows the same formula, from “A is for Altamont” to “W is for Wall.” Spoiler: there are no X, Y, or Z chapters. What seems at first like a gimmick–as well as a callback to countless children’s books and Milosz’s ABC’s— ultimately gives the novel shape, herds its discursive style into discrete story units, and reflects Izzy’s desperation to solve her despair. The structure also makes the book more fun: reading each chapter is like playing a game of word search.

For all their strengths, the two books have a common flaw:  not much happens, at least not in the present. The key events—related in flashbacks, letters, diaries, and dreams—are all in the past.  (For contrast, see Chad Harbach’s fast-paced debut novel The Art of Fielding, 500+ pages of fast-paced, meticulously plotted action with minimal backstory.) While both authors rely heavily on internal monologues and riffs, Zumas pays more attention to dramatic scenes, which gives The Listeners a more cogent plot. Most of Flea Circus takes place within Izzy’s head. While the past-focused storytelling suits both books’ themes of memory, nostalgia, and loss, it slows the pace and at times makes the stories drag.

Nevertheless, at a time when publishers and critics often hype young authors to excess, The Listeners and Flea Circus are powerful books that merit praise and suggest the start of two bright careers.

Keith Meatto is editor in chief of Frontier Psychiatrist. His recent book reviews include The Secret of Evil and Religion for Atheists. His most recent piece for FP was an essay on 10 lessons artists could learn from Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist, activist, and subject of a new documentary film, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry.

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4 Responses to "All The Sad Young Literary Women: The Listeners and Flea Circus"

[…] Home All The Sad Young Literary Women: The Listeners and Flea Circus […]

[…] Meatto is editor in chief of Frontier Psychiatrist. He recently reviewed two new novels: The Listeners by Leni Zumas and Flea Circus by Mandy Keifetz. His last food-based article was a […]

[…] Psychiatrist. His recent book reviews include: Taco USA by Gustavo Arellano, a dual review of The Listeners by Leni Zumas and Flea Circus by Mandy Keifetz, and The Secret of Evil by Roberto Bolaño. He is not an executioner, except when […]

[…] to write about two things at once, including the movies Ted and Moonrise Kingdom, new novels by Leni Zumas and Mandy Keifetz, and a documentary about Ai Weiwei and an artists’ exhibition in Brooklyn. Share […]

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