Sunday Review: The Queen of the Night
a novel from Alexander Chee
[ Houghton Mifflin Harcourt / 2016 / 576 pp ]
The Queen of the Night is a masterpiece. It is exceptional in its genre, immaculately weaving history and narrative until they are of the same thread. Not for a single moment does the voice of Lilliet Berne stray, not once does it seem out of character, context or time. Her ‘I’ pulls you in and never lets go; she is a triumph, a woman the reader will look for each time they visit Paris—I know I will.
Genre is important, since the historical novel is truly a difficult beast. It demands relentless amounts of research, and then asks that this research be somehow brought to life. The novel should be accurate but not dull, meticulous but not overburdened, true to its epoch yet accessible. In the midst of these near impossible, tightrope walker constraints, you’ve also got the novelist’s concern with form: how does action unfold, when history holds no surprises? All this, and in the best instances, the roman should possess the reader so utterly that they never want to leave the book. I’ve found myself delving back into French history, learning more about the opera and its famous sopranos. And so, the novel lives on.
Alexander Chee has produced a triumph, a story as dramatic and exuberant as the operas in which Lilliet sings, a novel that soars. Set in France’s Second Empire and its aftermath, we feverishly read the story of a girl whose life unfolds in extraordinary circumstances. Extraordinary, but never for a second illogical: this is a period of great changes and migrations, where heady, rich life courts scarlet death on every corner. A period where one’s dresses carry enormous import; where lives are toyed with as in a gigantic, whimsical game of chess; where an Emperor’s mistress can stop and start wars as she pleases. It is difficult for me to write a review and not give anything away—I want every reader who picks this up to be as swept away as I was.
The Queen of the Night demanded 15 years of research and writing; the novel shows this, of course, but it is so fluent that you are taken in without a second thought. Just look at the opening line, for instance—look at how graceful it is, and how strong:
‘When it began, it began as an opera would begin, in a palace, at a ball, in an encounter with a stranger who, you discover, has your fate in his hands.’
Never once is the novel bogged down in detail: many, many dresses are described, all of them a pleasure to read. Take the first, for instance:
‘The dress was a Worth creation of pink taffeta and gold silk, three pink flounces that belled out from a bodice embroidered in a pattern of gold wings. A net of gold-ribbon bows covered the skirt and held the flounces up at the hem. The fichu seemed to clasp me from behind as if alive – how had I not noticed?’
I was particularly impressed by the novel’s intricate plot: you think you’re somehow caught up in Lilliet Berne’s underclothes, as it were, since this is of course her story. Gradually, you become aware of the tulle, the stitches, the darts and the lining, until you’re staring at her and history in the face. It is grandiose.
Visit Houghton Mifflin Harcourt to purchase the book.
Reviewer / Alexandra d’Abbadie
Five Things with Don Mee Choi
1. The last thing that made you smile.
Brunndi, my neighbor’s black doodle. Her full name is Brunnhilde of Wagner’s Ring. Another neighborhood poodle that used to make me smile was called Trotsky.
2. A secret.
I have many and they are all terribly boring.
3. The last thing you wrote.
I’m translating a short story by Yi Sang with Joyelle McSweeney, so that is what I just wrote. The story is called “True Story.” It really is a true story of Yi Sang’s life, his literary influences and his contemporaries of the colonial period of 1930s.
4. Favourite city.
Seoul-Hong Kong-Frankfurt-Sydney-Seattle. They’re linked, sewn, in my mind.
5. What you’d place in a time capsule.
The vapours of Raul Zurita’s sky poems over Manhattan.
Don Mee Choi is the author of Hardly War (Wave Books, 2016) and The Morning News Is Exciting (Action Books, 2010).
a poem from Sarah Nichols
“I feel the burn on my face, already beginning”
What I’ve come to understand about ekphrastic poetry is that the successful ones not only transcend the visual narrative of its origin, but also add new meaning and understanding to the artwork. Sarah Nichols’s poem in the inaugural issue of the too-cool magazine Bad Pony reveals itself as a powerful companion to the famous Diane Arbus photograph, as well as providing a new layer of context and appearance.
Without even looking at the original photograph, we receive strong associations of reality, touch, and sense: the observation that “[a] storm is coming” to the “low mosquito drone” coupled with the “ice cream truck jangle of nerves”. In just a few stanzas, we experience the hazy summer-dream of living in suburbia. How everything in this scene will eventually fade in real life, and yet this internal moment is forever captured because of this poem.
Visit Bad Pony to read the poem.
Contributing Editor / Hannah Cohen
a photoessay from Miggy Angel
In my Tucson Writers Studio Master class, one of my students started an amazing art/writing project chronicling the life and death of her parents, and while I work as a graphic designer, the primary function of my work is to communicate information—so I was struck anew, first by my student’s new project, and then by Miggy Angel’s ‘Strange Light’ photo-essay, how well story can come through images. Angel’s essay is a narrative about place. Moving from morning into an evening of a single day in London, the photos catch strangers in transit, hustling, grim faced along gray sidewalks, down stair wells, up escalators on their way to other places. And even when people pause, caught looking up from cell phones or smoke, they’re pausing—perhaps only as long as it took to take the photo—in public liminal spaces: terminals, bridges, and underground stations. The photos are candid and gritty, prioritizing movement and energy of occupied spaces in lieu of flattering portraiture. That stylistic choice of how to frame the story of London-in-a-day is a technical choice that supports the narrative of a lovely, frenetic, lively, diverse London.
Visit Burning House Press to look at the photoessay.
Contributing Editor / Reneé Bibby
The 2016 VIDA Count
I’d like to take a moment to recommend that everyone have a look at the 2016 VIDA count which came out today. VIDA are doing important, necessary work in highlighting the disparity still prevalent in the literary community. Take a moment, let the facts and figures sink in, then spread the word.
“The ‘body politic’ is exactly that: a body. If only part of the body is attended to, the rest of it will suffer, and society as a whole will be bankrupt.”
Visit VIDA to read more.
Journal Editor / Michelle Tudor
On Lynn Melnick’s Landscape with Sex and Violence
an essay from Rosebud Ben-Oni
There’s been an on-again, off-again conversation in the literary world (you know, Twitter) about poetry reviews—do we need more of them, do we need more critical appraisals, why are we writing them in the first place, etc. It’s a good conversation, one without a clear conclusion.
From my small corner of the world, what resonates for me are values of generosity, inquiry, and respect. That might seem a little mushy, but the stakes are not. How we talk about the art we make might not be as important as the art itself, but it comes pretty damn close. The responsibilities that inform one’s basic humanity don’t disappear in critique and analysis because there is no vacuum for art; as such, there is no vacuum for talking about art.
Rosebud Ben-Oni's two-part review of Lynn Melnick’s poetry collection Landscape with Sex and Violence takes on the duel-role of looking inside the work in question and looking outside at a certain response to it. Ben-Oni found an egregiously ungenerous (in other words, shitty and sexist) review of Landscape with Sex and Violence and wove a response within the review itself.
Case in point: Lynn Melnick takes on the patriarchy within her work, and we then witness how fragile the veneers of the patriarchy. Someone took her book very personally; someone didn’t like it.
Let me explain.
The review in question is short (233 words, including a correction I’ll get to in a minute) and has no byline. We don’t know anything about the author other than their response, and the anonymity has the unfortunate and immediate parallel with the internet’s unceasing flood of nameless misogyny and violence. Accountability has never been so important and so lacking.
What happens when she speaks from such a landscape like rape culture, a landscape she did not create, a landscape to which she never agreed, but nevertheless one that she must confront?
What happens is this: the patriarchy does not listen to her, or seriously consider her point-of-view. The patriarchy figures out a way to make itself heard when she ignores the rules—which are always his rules.
What is so infuriating about the review is how it shrugs off the realities the poems spring from, as if this were a mental exercise, maybe a bit of speculative literature. The critique pointed at the triggering reality, not the poems themselves and found it unconvincing. The correction is particularly cutting:
Correction: This review has been updated so as not to conflate the poet and the speaker of the poems.
That correction speaks to the laziness and unseriousness of the review and the surrounding culture from which it sprang. I’ll save you the rest of my anger, because Ben-Oni brings it much clearer than I—and even in the voicing of my anger I’ve yet to point out what should be the central point: this collection of poetry looks wonderful and important and necessary. That it seems more so because a shit review should be unnecessary. But here we are.
Visit the Kenyon Review to read Part One and Part Two of the essay.
Contributing Editor / Andrew Sargus Klein
The Black Joy Project
a photoseries from Kleaver Cruz
In trying to break the bad habit of letting social media ruin my day before it’s even started, I now choose Instagram over Twitter as my first look, and the Black Joy Project has some of the best curation I’ve seen across the app. Each portrait gives us an intimate encounter with black joy along with a definition from each participant. This often sparks me to consider what in my surroundings offers joy, what brings me more fully home to myself.
Adilah Muhammad mentions that we’re born with black joy and it is “something that lives beyond us.” I recognize that for me, true joy usually comes from being in community. It’s that strong connection where you feel completely seen and held in a moment, unbothered by how time is moving or the world outside is shifting. In fact, no one could tell you or your kin that y’all weren’t the cosmos crystallized to the perfect size. These spiritual collisions not only shift perspectives, but give a vibrancy that trails you and spills over into anything you touch. When I remember that black joy is an active response to all that seeks to dismantle, harm, or erase our existence, the idea of asking for permission becomes laughable. Rather, fully experiencing and documenting these moments where we feel full is necessary; it makes us believe that this joy is not only possible, but can keep coming.
My current fave portrait has a uniting thread of red across the rose in the hair, nail polish, and the mesh that sits on collarbones easily draws the eye across the body—head to lips to chin to neck to chest. The gold also spans finger to finger, then down the arm. Color tricks our eyes to sense fluidity and movement, even in a portrait that remains still. Every fabric, metal, and petal here feels consciously chosen. The sheen across skin, hair, and metal, along with the pop of color, gives this a luxuriousness that you just want to feel. In a world of quick first impressions, there’s a particular joy in being able to control how others take you in, in balancing colors and fabrics to highlight assets instead of hiding them. I feel this across all the portraits: there’s a real focus on the smiling, smirking, or otherwise engaged black people more than anything.
This project always leaves me with one main idea: when we validate and actively seek out joy (not just for ourselves in the short-term, but for our communities at large across time), we have the power to lead & create fuller emotional lives. Every moment of joy causes an echo, waiting to be answered & continued. How will you heed the call?
Find ‘The Black Joy Project’ on Instagram.
Contributing Editor / Nix Thérèse