Tag Archives: Twelve Winters Press

A Hot and Cold ‘Frost’

CBR_Logo2An Untimely Frost (or, The Authoress)
A Novel
by Ted Morrissey

An Untimely Frost is prefaced by two quotes on loneliness, one from Washington Irving, the other Mary Shelley. These quotes serve both to set up one of the major themes of the novel and to nod toward its inspiration: the rumored hint of romance between the aforementioned authors.

an-untimely-frost-front-coverWritten by Illinois author Ted Morrissey, An Untimely Frost concerns Jefferson Wheelwright, an American author hailing from a family of industrial wealth, traveling Europe to promote the impending publication of his latest work, and on Margret Healey, a mysterious, reclusive British author whose only published novel to date, Dunkelraum, regards a German scientist who built a man from the body parts of dead people and reanimated him. The two authors’ lives of solitude intertwine when Wheelwright visits Healey’s house in an attempt to meet her, having been a fan of her work since he was a boy. Events conspire to leave Wheelwright a resident of Healey’s house, serving as her companion. The authors’ quick-to-develop, complicated, but somewhat platonic kinship for one another provides the bulk of the novel’s plot. But it is with their artistic struggles, self-doubts, and suffering that Morrissey most concerns himself.

This is primarily a novel about novelists, for novelists. Long passages of the book are devoted to reading, writing, editing, and the struggles and revelations therein, and the depiction of the relationship between the authors and their art provide some of the novel’s most exhilarating passages. But Morrissey reaches beyond the analysis of artistic creation to examine the effect upon the authors of their varying levels of success and, moreover, the effect a truly great work of literature can have upon society at large, with his depiction of the fictitious novel’s absorption into Britain’s cultural consciousness.

The true stroke of genius in An Untimely Frost comes with its head-spinning ending, which acts as a compelling meta-analysis of the writing process, breaking the fourth wall and adding a whole, third dimension to the novel, casing everything that had come before it into doubt, and adding a clear concept to the novel in its dying moments.

Although its analysis of writing is at times enthralling, it seems Morrissey himself got too caught up in the act of it. An Untimely Frost is frightfully overwritten; each scene is described with exhausting detail, every movement carried out by every character, the smallest details of every setting, Wheelwright’s every thought, are ruminated upon at length. The scenes themselves seem to go on endlessly, with some passages contributing but the smallest details to the narrative. Scenes such as the one in which Wheelwright and his doctor, Carter, visit a carnival and then a hospital could be cut down to half their length and the novel as a whole would lose nothing. The same can be said of Wheelwright’s and Healey’s day out in London together.

Author Ted Morrissey

Moreover, Morrissey constantly gets caught up in dream sequences, describing—or, worse—relaying word-for-word plays and novels Wheelwright is watching or reading. It doesn’t take long for these digressions to become unbearably tiresome, particularly when they concern plays such as Romeo and Juliet, the description of which could have been dispatched with one paragraph or less.

At times, the over-written nature of the novel can make it feel more like a cartoon pastiche of the ramblings of a lonely grandfather than a work of literature. Any momentum the story builds, any excitement or intrigue at the moments of surrealism injected into this otherwise realist work is drained by Wheelwright’s incessant narration. Wheelwright is a character with depth, and Morrissey’s development of him is excellent, but the novel itself would not suffer from concision on the character’s part.

There are moments of true brilliance in An Untimely Frost. It reads like it was written by a post-modernist emulating Henry James, which proves to be an intriguing combination. The story’s ending is as strong as many, and the author’s writing is in turns funny and harrowing. But one can’t help but feel that these attributes can’t help save the novel from the monotony of its first and much of its second acts. Perhaps with more ruthless editing, the novel could have been a triumph. As it stands, it is a wonderful idea that wasn’t quite pulled off.

Two-Star Review

January 2014, Twelve Winters Press
$17.95, paperback, 362 pages
ISBN: 978-0989515115

—Reviewed by William Wright

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Big Questions in Small Doses

CBR_Logo2Extinguished & Extinct:
An Anthology of Things That No Longer Exist
Edited by John McCarthy

Extinction is a sad business, and poets have as much to say about it as scientists. Don’t mistake Extinguished & Extinct: An Anthology of Things That No Longer Exist for an elegy, however, because most readers will encounter more life forms here than they likely knew existed. The volume beckons readers to embark and reflect on a meditation regarding what it means to pass through this world and then pass out of it. The longevity of any given species is the least of the matter.

extinguished coverWithin these pages, everything these writers turn their attention to—from airships to nomadic tribes to lovers who have left to love someone else—feels more alive for being gone or its absence only imagined. A free-verse speculation of being the last surviving Jew follows upon a conjuring of the ghosts of the Falkland Islands wolf in five acts, which itself follows a brief prose history of the passenger pigeon. Humanity, we are reminded, not only remains this planet’s most ferocious predator but a species of animal equally as vulnerable as those we’ve plundered.

Fortunately, certain people can also summon a certain eloquence regarding the passage of all we’ve witnessed, lavishing an equally lapidary attention on a genus of orchids as well as a single flower with thousands of extant replicas. Unlike plants, we can sense the mortality in every birth from which nothing, particularly human history, can claim exemption. Yet the end inherent in every beginning only propels poets and storytellers to keep writing.

So, alongside long quondam Carolina parakeets and cave paintings of ancestral horses gone the way of the dinosaurs, we have in these pages Cambodian women who believe the ghosts of babies slain by the Khmer Rouge still live within the scarves in which they once were swaddled. Alongside scientific fact we have mythology—or stories from a world as close to deathless as humanity can fathom—and readers have only to turn a few pages to realize this book is far richer in anthropology than taxonomy.

The volume’s refusal to narrow its definition of extinction to anything as concrete as species of animals is both its charm as well as a potential source of frustration, depending on its audience or the reader’s mood at the time. There’s no continuous narrative here or plot to stoke interest, only an investment in contemplations of erstwhile phenomena, from a shuttered Chicago envelope factory to lost languages. As is also the case with anthologies, some voices also resonate more than others, irrespective of their subjects. Some writers prompt a desire to read more, some less, but the editor of the collection has allotted them all a roughly equal word count.

The cataloguing of the demise of mastodons, moas, and saber-toothed tigers interspersed among metaphysical speculation as to why we’re all here to begin with doesn’t demand much sustained attention. To those with fragmented lives and attention spans, this volume poses big questions but in small, digressive doses. Sitting in an armchair for a longer stretch, however, might leave some readers craving coherence; organizing the volume into related sections or by genre might have made some readers more comfortable. But then comfort is hardly poetry’s purpose, and though there’s some prose here as well, even the smattering of nonfiction essays are decidedly lyric.

twelve-winters-smallHad the editor divided the book into different categories of extinction, from cultural to botanical or scientific to anecdotal, Extinguished & Extinct: An Anthology of Things That No Longer Exist might appeal more to the left-brained among us, those who like organization to supply some teleological significance. It also might have calmed what feels like the chaos of subjects whose random presentation can feel a little profligate. Then again, if anything embodies chaos—if anything places us at the mercy of the gods, perennially determined to hew life from mud just to destroy it—it is extinction, whether taking the form of the flattening of a family home by a tornado or the disappearance of a certain birdsong from the forest.

Ultimately, given that extinction here conflates with everything literally under the sun, one also can’t help feeling randomness is also part of the point of this collection, because nothing leaves us helpless quite like absence, when our only enemy is silence. Nothing likewise leaves us freer to infuse the resultant emptiness with meaning of our own making, a possibility the volume’s lack of all organization may suggest tacitly.

The editor’s introduction to the volume stipulates that extinction itself is a concept predicated on materialism, that nothing can cease wholly to exist so long as it remains in the larger consciousness. A better, if clunkier, subtitle, he offers, would run more closely along the lines of “things that no longer exist in the traditional sense of existence,” which provides, if not exactly hope, a way of reframing loss. Had any of the subjects addressed survived in their old husks, their chroniclers would lack for material and perhaps miss something key to living in the present. Embedded in anything we perceive as beautiful, these poets daring to dabble in science softly whisper, is the awareness that it cannot last, however hearty its species. Each heart, after all, beats for only so long. All the more reason to grow quiet enough to hear its rhythm.

Three-Star Review

March 2014, Twelve Winters Press
$14.99, paperback, 130 pages
ISBN: 978-0-9895151-4-6

—Reviewed by Melissa Wiley

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Filed under fiction