Jacob Appel's Miracles and Conundrums of the Secondary Planets: A Review by Justin Goodman

            Percy Lubbock may have died in 1965, but The Craft of Fiction haunts the attic; Jacob Appel’s one-off essay “Naming Matters” is as much a creaking floorboard as the critic James Wood’s How Fiction Works. Our house of fiction was built by Vitruvius. Appel is a 2002 MFA graduate from NYU—not to mention a physician, lawyer, and bioethicist—whose newest short story collection, Miracles and Conundrums of the Secondary Planets (Black Lawrence Press, 2015), is a continuation of the positivism that marks his style. Marks the style of MFA America: rooms of white men (Junot Diaz: “that shit was too white”) embracing either Hemingway’s truncation or Carver’s blue-collar majesty. Appel’s collection clings to these debts still, in fact, if not as obsessively as Einstein’s Beach House, his second collection, does. What is uniquely compelling about Miracles and Conundrums is the pervasive sense of uncertainty that resonates throughout with the power of an agoraphobic’s first half-step out the house.

            Appel is stepping away from the slice of life. Whereas his previous collection, The Magic Laundry (Snake Nation Press, 2015), dabbled in urban realism’s muddy grief, a zaniness and light-heartedness tend to inflect these new stories, partially due to the crispness of the plots themselves.

            The titular story, for instance, is front-loaded. A Latvian restaurant owner, Zigfrids Imants Lenc, actually an undercover alien researcher who “did not have a name on his home planet” and who is dubbed by his Alabaman customers as Red Ziggy (an homage to the late David Bowie, perhaps), meets an unusual and attractive woman during protests against the abortion clinic across the street. It’s the way of Appel’s stories where, instead of a steady accumulation of brushstrokes, you are given the plinth to build from. “The Resurrection Bakeoff” begins on a condensed note: “Word came of the third resurrection while Amber’s mother was serving tea.” This collection’s stories are ridiculous, ludicrous, entirely unexplained, and yet these openings swallow the reader. These openings also howl of schooling to the point of distraction, though.

            But the howling is merely unfamiliarity, the soreness of muscles stretching genres, seen even in writers far more attuned to the supernatural (Karen Russell) or lightly sci-fi (Ray Bradbury) in short bursts. For the most part, Appel has avoided non-realist modes—the closest he’s been is Scouting For the Reaper’s (Black Lawrence, 2014) “Hazardous Cargoes,” about a trucker for zoo animals—and you can tell that, confronted with them, he reverts to an American penchant for domestic unrest: an alien story focusing on the alien’s feelings for a college girl, a story about resurrection in which the narrator obsesses over his one-time mistress. In “Phoebe With Impending Frost,” a cli-fi story about a blizzard closing the university where climatologist William Deutsch teaches, he reminisces how “in the days before professional forecasting, the divining of sunshine… formed the crux of communal life.” But, again, shortly after the school’s emergency meeting, Phoebe’s husband refocuses the story on the ménage a trois. They are stories that grey the lily, using the complex materials to spin tales of burgeoning and spurned love.

            However unfortunately plot-less these stories are, however underused the philosophical issues at hand—resurrection would pose ethical questions beyond adultery, no doubt—what Appel has continuously shown a talent for is building compulsive, chaotic characters confronted by their urbanized psyche. A single mother finds an ad for ‘housekeeping and discourse’ and ends up on the farm of the cheery, apple-aphoristic (“the history of civilization is the history of apples”) widower Grover ‘Happy’ Gallows and his granddaughter, Oleana. The bitter, sexually-charged, T.S. Eliot-quoting narrator is drawn into make-out sessions with Oleana. When he tries going further, she stops him. “You’re practically my brother,” she say, invoking Appel’s history of supporting unpopular legalization opinions, like incest. He eventually uncovers that Gallows has terminal cancer. Oleana begs Gallows not tell her mother as he plans on proposing to her. “The Orchard” ends with the narrator stepping into the “tragic mire of crushed windfall fruit.”  

            No doubt beautiful, and Appel’s penchant for ending stories mid-step gives them silent weight (“The Orchard,” “Phoebe With Impending Frost,” and “Measures of Sorrow” all literally end with walking). But it also illustrates the conflict of urban psychosis murmuring beneath the descriptions of “the neighborhood [as] thriving, yet as much a ruin as Petri or Pompeii.”

            A murmuring that reveals its origins— that’s to say, New York Jewish—in a story like “Measures of Sorrow.” A graduate student working on his Judaic Studies dissertation on the amount of tears to be shed before the Messiah’s return (“No layperson in their right mind could have cared less,” he says) teaches an immigrant enfant terrible taxi driver, Ollie, “everything” so that he can woo a woman he’d picked up twice. Before being abruptly fired from his teaching position, the student fails to convince Ollie that mentions of Chamberlain are not the Nobel laureate Owen Chamberlain. The conclusion is as laughably self-effacing as anything written by Philip Roth or Grace Paley: the woman, a physics student, is won over by the taxi driver’s knowledge of Owen Chamberlain.

            Miracles and Conundrums of the Secondary Planets suggests a wackiness that is only the veneer of the collection’s stories. What appears lacking is a political stance. A surprising lack. Not only because Appel is a vocal advocate of numerous politicized causes, but also in the era of George Saunders and grassroots activism. Yet, in Sianne Ngai’s now-classic Our Aesthetic Categories, she argues that the zany is a product of labor and play melding together problematically: far away, “Red Ziggy” is friendly; up close, bougie. “’Sometimes neutral isn’t neutral at all,’” his love interest shouts. And it’s this that is unforgettable.

            Appel seems to appeal to the Ionic columns of Percy Lubbock’s neoclassical intent with stories so consistent as to be mechanical. Stories around characters like Ollie, who wanted “a teacher to place [his] knowledge in order,” while hoping to give the sensation that “the simplest of earthly life forms,” as Appel’s alien notes, “might contain mysteries grand enough to defy an eternity of painstaking observation.” Meanwhile, his foot hangs heavily in the threshold.


You can purchase a copy of Miracles and Conundrums of the Secondary Planets here.

View Appel's website here.