Reviews, Books

The Painting and the City

Booklist starred review by Ray Olson: “At a friend’s party in Manhattan, sculptor Jacob Lerner sees an 1842 portrait of a young woman and quickly becomes obsessed with it. He sets a librarian friend searching for information about artist and subject, which eventuates in finding the painter’s journal of his New York sojourn for the commission. Philip Schuyler’s testimony (which appears in two separately paginated inserts in a different typeface) discloses that the painting is one of five that together constituted a threat to the subject. That threat is tangentially related to the commercial growth of Manhattan, another of Lerner’s obsessions and the motive behind a pair of installation pieces, one a dour vision of modern New York, the other a serener conception. As he sleuths the painting and builds the installations, Lerner has hallucinations in which, guided by a glass marionette, he observes scenes related to Schuyler’s and his subject’s fates, in which a not-quite-conspiracy of property owners, dating from Manhattan’s Dutch colonial days, is implicated. Seemingly informed by an artist’s eye and driven by its fantastic elements, this complex, enthralling novel is concerned with relations between art and commerce, and nature and commerce; the importance of the past; the everyday oppression of capitalism; and how art may shape history.”

Matt Denault in Strange Horizons: “Certainly one highlight of The Painting and the City is the city—the cities—that Wexler has built, the surreal aesthetics of their construction. Wexler captures the surrealism latent in the modern city: the odd juxtapositions; the hyperawareness of constant change; the sense that anything can happen. His amplification of these intrinsic qualities is, at first, subtle—the gradually dawning perceptual wrongness of Magritte’s Dominion of Light rather than the flamboyant distortions of Dalí (or the blatant absurdism in several of Wexler’s own short stories)…To call Robert Freeman Wexler a writer’s writer would be both a kiss of death and insufficient, but as represented by The Painting and the City it may aid understanding to call him a creator’s writer—of particular interest to those who create art in its many forms.”

Lisa Tuttle in the Sunday Times (London, UK) August 1, 2009: “At the heart of Robert Freeman Wexler’s rich and strange novel are ideas about art: its power to influence and reshape reality, the place of the artist in society, the influence of money…Wexler’s description of the daily life of a working artist in modern New York has the tang of authenticity. Into this very real, detailed setting, fantastic elements appear, such as an animated marionette made of red glass. Although they are strange and startling, they are incorporated into Lerner’s life even as his musings and dreams and personal experiences feed into the production of his art…This is an unusual, haunting tale from a distinctive new voice.”

Larry Nolan at OF Blog of the Fallen: “Wexler’s novel felt as though it were a briskly-paced story that had been stripped of any extraneous fat, leaving the reader with a story that moves at a falsely languid pace until s/he realizes just how quickly things have developed and how engrossed s/he is with what has transpired.  If I had read this book last year, The Painting and the City certainly would have made my year-end Best Novels list.  Highly recommended.” Click for full review.

Faren Miller in Locus Magazine August 2009:  “Leaving epic realms for something like the brink of our current hard times in the contemporary US, Robert Freeman Wexler’s The Painting and the City uses a work of art from the 1840s as a modern New Yorker’s mysterious path back to a Manhattan Island both earlier and different from the one we know. From the moment he first sees it at a friend’s home, sculptor/art teacher Jacob Lerner is obsessed by its lovely “Madame Burgundy,” the sinister man who seems poised to do her harm, and the artist himself–an obscure Dutch-English fellow called Philip Schuyler. […] The Painting and the City explores the artistic/writerly temperament even as it moves deeper into the fantastic of both the 1840s and a 21st century that has nearly reached our current age of ruined greed and glorified Green…portrayed with a genuine sense of wonder, as well as the grotesque.”

Peter Tennant in Black Static 12: “Wexler’s novel is uniquely his own, a slippery thing that, just when you think you’ve got a firm hold on it, is off somewhere else entirely.”  Characters “all come alive on the page. There is a feeling of truth about the various relationships, the suggestion of more depth than the book portrays…Like a painter himself, [Wexler] brings colour and verve to the story, using a palette of words to embody the burgeoning life force lurking beneath the city streets, waiting its moment to erupt in verdant splendour. He writes of events both ominous and marvellous, that capture something of the feel of surrealism, the quality of dreams, even as they use those things to tell us the things we need to know about the world in which we live.”

Charles Tan in Bibliophile Stalker:  “Wexler conjures an unfamiliar but welcome atmosphere as well as combining elements of literary fiction with genre. There’s a layer of sophistication and complexity in The Painting and the City but at the same time, one can simply enjoy it on the most basic of levels.”

Jason Pettus in The Chicago Center for Literature and Photography: “the literary equivalent of a rich dessert, something to be regularly added to our reading diets but only on special occasions, requiring an extra-large commitment but delivering extra-large rewards…one of those books that has the possibility of getting really under your skin depending on who you are, one of those titles that continue to pop up randomly in your mind for years after you finish it.”

Psychological Methods To Sell Should Be Destroyed (mini-collection)

Paul Witcover in Realms of Fantasy magazine: “Wexler…builds his stories around flesh-and-blood people, human beings who, amid their bizarre surroundings and off-kilter circumstances, engage our feelings as well as our intellects.” and

“The final story in the collection, “The Sidewalk Factory: A Municipal Romance,” carries this theme further than the others.  It is a dystopian satire that skewers the absurdities and cruelties of the present U.S. administration while serving up a love story between a nameless bureaucrat and the captain of a merchant ship.  It is hopeful, but at the same time elegiac, as if the author were bidding an old lover a last goodbye.

These are not stories of grand awakenings but of small epiphanies. They are as much about disenchantment as they are about enchantment. And they are funnier than you might think, especially “Tales of the Golden Legend,” which features such sage advice as “We can’t always do what bread says.”  How true!”

Rae Bryant in The Fix: “With a wink and nod for Wexler’s anti-conglomerate marketing themes, Methods’ innovative fiction pushes physical boundaries, speaks to bread, belays jungle walls, listens to disembodied sages, and escapes anti-utopias.”

Charles Tan in Bibliophile Stalker: “Wexler’s prose is fresh and quite different, engaging in very human concerns filtered through the lens of literary style and technique that’s neither condescending nor blatant yet quite accessible.”

Paul Kincaid in Interzone 222 May/June 2009: “Best of the…‘The Sidewalk Factory: A Municipal Romance’, which is worth the whole of the rest of this chapbook put together. It is a sort of anti-utopia: the inhabitants of an island state subject to increasingly absurd government decrees. The geography of the island, its regimented social structure, and its relationships with the client states along the mainland all recall Thomas More’s novel, but then it is twisted to distort the image just enough to make it interesting. I loved the fact that if you were able to accept the surreal elements of the world, the whole thing made a coherent sense. This was a place just on the edge of being believable, and within that shape everything the characters do and everything that is done to them makes perfect sense. This could become one of my favourite stories of the year.”

Maria in Fantasybookspot: “The point, for me, was often lost inside the great literary points that were being made. It was often difficult to tell whether the story teller was in a dream state or a waking one”

Jason Pettus in The Chicago Center For Literature and Photography: “Wexler brings a nuanced, mature voice to the sometimes scattershot world of absurdist literature; no matter what the quality of any particular story here, all of them are written with a confidence and mastery over language much needed within this genre in order to be truly great, a gravitas that sometimes eludes younger and more inexperienced Weird writers.”

John Enzinas in the SF Site: “…about half way through “The Green Wall,” I managed to dump an entire container of Won Ton soup onto the book and I remember being pleased that there would now be some substance on the pages.”

Stephanie in Someone’s Read it Already: “Mr. Wexler is a highly imaginative and creative writer, and these stories are rather unlike any others that I have read.”

Joe Sherry in Adventures in Reading: “‘Tales of the Golden Legend’ is easily the best story of the chapbook. There are people in the world who can speak with bread. Literally. There’s even a section narrated by bread. Simply awesome in every way. This is the sort of story I had hoped to find in the chapbook. There is probably nothing more you need to know about this story besides ‘talking bread’. ” and “Wexler began to lose me, however, with ‘Valley of the Falling Clouds’. I suspect half my problem was character names of Moonsocket and Apple Jane and the other half is that I have no idea what happened in the story. My last problem is that I cannot possibly describe or analyze the story because I don’t remotely have an idea what happened. That frustrates me even if it is a failing of mine as a reader.”

Paul Di Filippo in Asimov’s: “quietly stunning assemblage of six stories (one of which appears here for the first time) wears its magical-realist allegiances on its sleeve. And a fantastically embroidered sleeve it is!”

Circus of the Grand Design

Booklist: “Looking for a quick getaway from his girlfriend and his grinding job in the city, public relations specialist Lewis rents a house on Long Island from an eccentric artist–and accidentally sets fire to the living room. Fleeing to the nearest local diner, he by chance encounters the ringmaster of a circus that he suddenly finds himself running away to join. When, as the company’s new marketing guru, he hops aboard the caravan of the Circus of the Grand Design, however, he unhappily finds little that resembles the Ringling Brothers milieu he expected. While interviewing an assortment of odd and dysfunctional characters, from a promiscuous juggler to a triad of abusive trapeze artists, he falls for the enchanting and beautiful Cybele, who may or may not be real, and who forces him to confront his own darker nature. Although the narrative occasionally drags, newcomer Wexler excels at lucid prose and provocative ideas, giving the Bradbury-ish carnival-comes-to-town theme a new twist and showing promise as an original fantasist.” Carl Hays Copyright (c) American Library Association. All rights reserved.

Publisher’s Weekly: “A traveling circus with an otherworldly pedigree serves as a supportive surrogate family for a directionless young man in this diverting traipse through the terrain of magic realism. Lewis, an amiable slacker, is fleeing after accidentally burning down a Long Island beach rental when he bumps into Joseph Dillon, enigmatic ringmaster of the Circus of the Grand Design. Dillon hires him for public relations work, but warns that there’s no coming back from a circus that “moves in the fourth dimension.” The circus crew includes Garson Gold, a rakish juggler with a seemingly supernatural talent for keeping aloft any item tossed him, and Bodyssia, a capybara trainer with Amazonian appetites. While Lewis spends most of the novel ingratiating himself with these two, he’s also tantalized by Cybele, an alluring sylph whose sexual attentions ease his integration into the insular circus society. Wexler (In Springdale Town) mostly avoids the familiar “circus of life” terrain already mapped out by Angela Carter, Ray Bradbury and other fantasists, concentrating instead on Lewis’s efforts to understand the temporal and spatial peculiarities of the train carrying the circus between towns and to find his place in its quasi-mythic design. Though the narrative sometimes moves as aimlessly as Lewis, its unaffected style and exuberantly eccentric cast keep the story as buoyant and airy as a center-ring trapeze act.” (Aug.)Copyright (c) Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

New York Review of Science Fiction, January 2005: “…reinforces the impression conveyed by his first book, In Springdale Town: we are witnessing the arrival of a new fantasist whose prose, in its clarity, warmth, and easily flowing progress, seems already fully matured….Wexler demonstrates a wonderful touch with his writing: to render Lewis’s lengthy inner journey through this dream-state without losing a sense of living, vital immediacy is an extraordinary accomplishment.”—Mark Rich

Locus Magazine, October 2004: “a fascinating, deeply bizarre adventure.”—Faren Miller

Strange Horizons: “….And as its claws close, so the novel becomes increasingly compelling, coming close to matching the sustained unease that distinguished Wexler’s earlier novella In Springdale Town (2003).”—Niall Harrison

The Agony Column: “….Wexler wedges the reader slowly out of this world and into a subtly surreal dreamscape dotted with marvels great and small. He keeps the focus tight and the action low-key even as unreality overtakes the narrative. Wexler breaks down the barriers between performers and audience, readers and writers, dreams and reality with a disarmingly assured ease. He creates an erotic otherworld that’s nonetheless grounded. Step into this tent and onto this train and expect a journey through a world at once symbolic and sensual.”—Rick Kleffel

Emerald City: “If you are the sort person who likes things explained, Wexler’s debut novel, Circus of the Grand Design is not going to make you any happier. Wexler doesn’t do explanations. In his work, things happen. They happen for creative purposes, or for allegorical purposes, or sometimes, I suspect, because they are very, very weird and Wexler likes the idea of disturbing his readers.”—Cheryl Morgan

In Springdale Town

Locus Magazine, October 2003: “…no need for Lovecraftian monsters or rampaging serial killers to transform Springdale into a seriously creepy place. An old ballad suggests that one death haunts this village, but Wexler deviously, almost casually, creates a sense of wrongness that goes well beyond some past saga of jealousy and murder. Don’t read this one right before bedtime–or your next road trip.”—Faren Miller

Locus Magazine, November 2003: “The basic idea is familiar, almost banal, but Wexler’s treatment is witty, his writing is excellent, his characters are really well captured—I was very impressed with the story.”—Rich Horton

The Third Alternative, Issue 35, Summer 2003: “File under ambitious failure rather than qualified success.”—Peter Tennant

Locus Online: “…Other writers, wiry and wry, as lithe as dragonflies, may seem more vulnerable, but their grace, their maneuverability, becomes its own kind of tensile strength. They can travel farther, faster, and in disguise.”—Jeff VanderMeer

Tangent Online (link no longer available): “…lovely Americana set-piece turned on its ear.”—Jay Lake

Infinity Plus: “…An emotionally scathing yet tender insight into the frailty, ignorance, and misplaced motivations of that most ridiculous of animals, the human being.”—William P. Simmons

Agony Column: “…Robert Freeman Wexler dives into the heart of Americana in his chilling and tender novella.”—Rick Kleffel

Dusksite (link no longer available): “…In a list comprising some of the biggest names in contemporary genre fiction the appearance of a novella by a virtually unknown author causes a certain interest. In Springdale Town represents its author’s first book publication (after only a handful of short stories) and yet it fits into the PS Publishing list with such subtle skill that its presence on the shelf feels as if an invisible gap in the collection has been suddenly filled.”—Lavie Tidhar

Steven Hunt’s SF Crows Nest (link no longer available): “…This extended short story hits just the right creepy note.”—Sue Davies