Marshall N. Klimasewiski, The Cottagers, W. W. Norton & Co., 2006.
A debut novel of literary suspense when a man disappears, people are not who they seem and everyone is a suspect.
Cyrus Coddington, age nineteen, suspects that he may be a genius without a calling. He is a year-round resident of East Sooke, Vancouver Island, and has a natural resentment for the summer cottagers who descend on its rocky beaches. When two vacationing American couples arriveold friends with a complicated historythey become his obsession. Greg and Nicholas are engaged in an academic collaboration that looks more like competition; Samina and Laurel are old friends who have grown apart and developed a strange jealousy. Cyrus spies on the cottagers through their windows, then begins to insinuate himself into their lives. When one of the cottagers goes missing, no one will look at any of the others the same way again.
Combining the eerie suspense of Patricia Highsmith and the literary fortitude of Ian McEwan, The Cottagers is about the discrepancy between the lives we live and the versions of those lives that trail behind us.
In 1992, I was in a creative writing programme with Ha Jin and Jhumpa Lahiri - wonderful writers, both, but the pick of our bunch, in my opinion, was Marshall Klimasewiski, a consummate stylist, who last year published his first novel, The Cottagers. A haunting, psychological study, in the vein of early McEwan or Ruth Rendell, it slipped under the radar in the US, perhaps because of its settings in Canada and India, most likely because it defies easy categorisation (a Chekhovian character study hijacked by Dostoevsky, with some Lewis Carroll thrown in for good measure). The result is by turns gorgeous, mesmerising and deeply unsettling - a true original. - Peter Ho Davies
Two couples, academics with a tangled history, rent a cottage on a remote stretch of Vancouver Island, hoping to write their books while sampling the simple life. It doesn't work out that way. Relations between locals and vacationers are strained at best--American versus Canadian, urbane versus provincial--but the bar is raised from tense to threatening by a strange teenager, 18-year-old Cyrus Coddington, a self-styled genius who is alternately attracted to and repulsed by the easy freedom with which the vacationers move about the world. As Cyrus immerses himself in the lives of the cottagers, we await the impending catastrophe, and when it comes, we watch transfixed, like gawkers at a car crash. A subplot about Cyrus' father, a crackpot scholar who may be in possession of Lewis Carroll's missing diaries, seems unnaturally melded to the main plot--its purpose mainly to justify the "literary thriller" description--but it's not enough of a distraction to kill the eerie mood, which is the main attraction here. This definitely fits snugly into the Ruth Rendell and Minette Walters camp. - Bill Ott
Cyrus Collingwood, 19, a lifelong resident of Vancouver Island, spends most of his time spying on the vacationers in their East Sooke holiday cottages with a mix of curiosity and resentment . He becomes fixated on Brooklynites Samina, Nicholas and their three-year-old daughter, Hilda, and their friends Laurel and Greg from St. Louis. Cyrus insinuates himself into their lives, acting the proud local eager to share the island with the visitors, and begins picking at their insecurities, including the professional jealousy among Nicholas, a successful historian; Greg, a struggling biographer; and tenure-track English professor Laurel. Only Samina, with her exotic beauty and reserved manner, remains a puzzle to him. One day Nicholas does not return from a walk along a secluded beach, and everyone becomes suspicious of everyone else. Using an omniscient narrator who unevenly reveals his characters, debut novelist Klimasewiski illustrates the who-really-knows-anyone? angles nicely, but they overwhelm the narrative voice, making the book feel idea-driven. - Publishers Weekly
IF novelists gamble when they create main characters who are difficult to love, then they cheat when they invent characters who, unlike you and me, are wholly endearing. After all, isn’t serious literature stuck with the challenge of denying readers an escapist fix? One of the strengths of Marshall N. Klimasewiski’s first novel lies in his willingness to create a cast of characters who are unlikable in very human ways — and who become less sympathetic as their story unfolds.
Cyrus Collingwood is the reluctant resident of a quiet town on Vancouver Island. Nineteen years old and believing he has entered that “pivotal year” when “geniuses find their minds,” he thinks he may be on the verge of something grand — a seismic shift, a blossoming into “some dedicated life.” But while the epithet “the Great” dangles unsaid off the end of Cyrus’s name, those words come to seem less promissory than ironic. He’s a recognizable type, the bright idler who spends his time dismissing others instead of making something of himself. A hybrid of two very different literary loners, Holden Caulfield and Raskolnikov, Cyrus sees most other people as mediocre and complacent phonies, while idealizing the innocence of children and his one female friend. He’s torn between Napoleonic self-importance and louse-like abjection, feelings that will eventually involve him, like Raskolnikov, in a crime of some motivational complexity.
But if Dostoyevsky’s antihero struggled with his conscience in an age when a strong moral consensus was just starting to fray, and Caulfield broke down at a time when what remained of it was disintegrating, Cyrus inhabits our postmodern moral vacuum — all the while fancying himself a sort of moralist. Believing that “people should sometimes pay — for living half blindly and . . . thinking their little thoughts,” he spies on and terrorizes the tourists who rent local cottages, breaking in on them at night. Although he believes that nothing about these people can surprise him, he’s sufficiently intrigued by two American couples, who rent a cottage together, to postpone his customary raid. Perhaps all along he has been spying in hopes of being surprised by just such an emotion — of finding someone to respect, something to aspire to.The new cottagers, while longtime friends, are also “competitive people. . . . academics, three of the four.” Greg and Laurel feel themselves to be, in every way, a less successful unit than Nicholas and Samina, who seem financially solid and happily married, and who have a child. Samina — the daughter of immigrants from India — attracts Cyrus’s attention because she strikes him as exotic, self-contained, mysterious, a possible agent of escape from his stalled life in a boondocks town. As he inserts himself into the couples’ routines and becomes a sort of buddy to Samina and Nicholas’s young daughter, he also becomes a witness to the growing tension between the couples. For their part, they treat him with condescending affection as the quaint local mascot of their vacation — or so Cyrus interprets it.
That things are not what they seem, that people keep secrets, that our assumptions about others are usually wrong and never exactly right — these are not new insights. But in “The Cottagers” Klimasewiski does a fine job of dramatizing them. The plot is cleverly conceived and succeeds in integrating the novel’s varied elements — its long (all right, sometimes too long) sessions of psychological examination, a kind of coming-of-age story, and a mystery. While Nicholas’s disappearance is a metaphor for the way we’re all ultimately absent from one another, unfindable, it also works in narrative terms, and Klimasewiski manages to maintain a degree of mystery, despite having shown us just how Nicholas vanished.
The prose is intricate (the book’s long opening sentence is a kind of anthology of English punctuation) and, especially when deployed from Cyrus’s viewpoint, its jagged, skittery progress captures the involutions of our mental lives — the non sequiturs, second guesses, qualifications and rationalizations. A friend tells Cyrus, “Sometimes you lack transitions,” and while these synaptic leaps are often effective, a few unnecessarily awkward lines take committed unraveling.
“The Cottagers” is a novel of grim insights and troubling pronouncements. At one point, Cyrus reflects that “nobody does the really hard things.” He means others, of course — the hypocritical majority. Yet by the surprising, if not fully convincing, finale of this dark modern parable, he seems to have embraced the age in all its glib self-interest. Here again Klimasewiski himself “does the really hard thing,” taking the risk of frustrating his readers. It’s not so much that evil is rewarded, merely that banality is. Cyrus doesn’t look back on his story from a psych ward, like Holden Caulfield, or from a prison camp, like Raskolnikov — bleak sites, showing that things have come to a head, so that change may now be possible — but from a place of a very different sort. The one viewpoint that Klimasewiski shrewdly withholds till near the end is Samina’s. When he finally sets us behind her eyes, she emerges as a woman of depth and dignity, lending a grace note of hope to the latter part of this flawed, complex, intelligent novel. -https://www.nytimes.com/2006/07/30/books/review/30heighton.html
Whatever happened to Nicholas Green? The disappearance of the American vacationer from a Canadian village is a crisis for the other characters but a yawn for the reader, who’s in on the secret.
Welcome to East Sooke, a coastal village on Vancouver Island with a mix of year-rounders and summer rentals, but watch out for Cyrus Coddington. The unemployed 19-year-old islander is a voyeur and petty thief capable of terrorizing harmless renters, bursting into their cottages at night but allowing them to escape. Now he’s watching some new arrivals: Nicholas and Samina, their little girl Hilda and houseguests Greg and Laurel. They’re academics on sabbatical. Greg is cheating on Laurel, who’s a liar and troublemaker; their brittle marriage is juxtaposed to the indestructible union of their hosts. Cyrus watches their cottage constantly; he’s fascinated by Samina, who is Indian. What else does he have to do? His absent-minded father is holed up writing a book, and his best friend Ginny is out of town. Cyrus is a half-formed creation. Klimasewiski can’t decide whether to make him a truly sinister creep or just an aimless jerk, not beyond redemption. He is similarly ambivalent about whether Cyrus or the academics—with their low-level intrigue—are his primary focus. By now, Cyrus has a casual relationship with them. Alone on the beach with Nicholas, he accidentally swings a stick so hard it kills the guy. The body will wash out to sea. Strangely, the American’s death does not change Cyrus. He actually joins the search party, and eventually confesses to Ginny, who’s shocked. Back at the cottage, Samina is devastated, but gets no support from Laurel, who turns vicious, or Greg, more interested in whether Cyrus’s father has the goods on Lewis Carroll (that’s biographer Greg’s field). The role of Cyrus will never become public knowledge in a story that withholds both suspense and catharsis.
A limp first novel, shallow in its characterizations and lacking narrative energy. - Kirkus Reviews
Marshall N. Klimasewiski, Tyrants: Stories, W. W. Norton & Co., 2008.
Brilliantly evocative stories about tyrannies―political and intimate, historical and domestic―and about the unpredictable delinquencies of lust.
The grouped stories in Tyrants trace the many forms of emotional inheritance―cultural, romantic, and historical. Some deftly portray both time and place, while others mine interpersonal relations with such intimacy and truth that they could be set anytime, anywhere. In the first sequence of stories, a son inherits and reconsiders his father’s convoluted and extravagant notions about love, sex, wealth, and fatherhood. In the second, an American man and his Korean wife confront the cultural implications of a romantic, self-imposed exile. And in the historical fictions that complete the collection, love and flight, ambition, exploration, and exile intertwine in a helium balloon above Sweden, in an Italian airship at the North Pole, and in Stalin’s dacha during the Nazi invasion. Marshall N. Klimasewiski’s talent for “deft psychological triangulations” (New York Times Book Review) and for capturing “the subtle dynamics between people” (St. Louis Post-Dispatch) is on full display here.
Tyrannies large and small dominate Klimasewiski's powerful stories, from the real-life dictators who feature in two stories (the title story and opener Nobile's Airship) to domestic wars fought over kitchen tables and via long-distance phone calls. Three stories depict with a cold precision the bitterness, bottled rage and emotional aloofness that flow through three generations of WASPs after a family tragedy: Henry, a working-class college dropout, is charmed by the iciness of the blue-blooded parents of his girlfriend (and, later, wife) Angela, each parent differently affected by the long-ago drowning of their sons. Henry and Angela's marriage has its share of similarities to her parents', and their son grows up to be more like his father than either of them would have liked. Another series of three stories follows a young couple: Tanner, who's American and Jun Hee, who's Korean, as they build a comfortable isolation from the weight of family expectations and the pain of separation, only to find their isolation more costly than they had expected. The collection is bookended by two strange stories of early aeronauts: one, the captain of a dirigible on an Arctic mission for Mussolini, the other, an early ballooning pioneer. Klimasewiski (The Cottagers) has talent to spare; every story is good. - Publishers Weekly
There’s something about the high sheen of Klimasewiski’s elaborately wrought, often historical short fiction that leads you to expect an excess of cleverness and not much else. But his stories are less about their shiny surfaces and tricky narrative strategies than the emotions underneath. He’s closer in spirit to neo-Victorians like John Irving and T. C. Boyle, in fact, than to Kafka or Borges; there’s plenty of style here, but it always serves a certain psychological realism. The result is highly polished yet unmannered pieces about young, unformed protagonists wriggling in the grip of older, savvier opponents. In the riveting title story, the narrator is a pretty Russian girl sent to seduce and spy on Joseph Stalin during World War II. Their game of cat-and-mouse is delectably unnerving. (“I won’t kill you if you don’t kill me,” she tells him. “No deals between lovers,” he says.) Even better is “The Third House,” in which a young man hopes to insinuate himself into a family that turns out to be terrorized by its grief-stricken matriarch. Be careful what you ask for. --Kevin Nance
Klimasewiski (Creative Writing/Washington Univ.; The Cottagers, 2006) offers a collection of nine short stories previously published in magazines and anthologies.
The stories are divided into groups of three. Familial ghosts haunt tales that make up the body of the book. The first grouping, comprised of “The Third House,” “Some Thrills” and “The Last Time I Saw Richard,” tracks the psychic wreckage of Henry Korbusieski, a dissatisfied husband whose dalliances mark his unhappy life and that of his son Brian. Obsessed by a pivotal evening in his childhood, Brian suffers a disconcerting sense of déjà vu when comparing his romantic travails to those of his father. The second grouping measures the self-realizations of a culturally conflicted married couple during their time in New England. In “Tanner and Jun Hee,” the husband, Tanner, wonders if he really knows his wife Jun Hee, a Korean émigré, his concern escalated by the death of her mother in Korea. “Tanner” finds the husband balancing his aging mother’s suffering with his wife’s grief. In “Jun Hee,” the misgivings of the wife are confessed following her miscarriage. These dramas are constructed around the things that people don’t say to one another, with silences and gestures carrying meaning. Finally there are the historical works. The stories that bookend this collection, “Nobile’s Airship” and “Aëronauts,” track the rise and fall of two ambitious, tragic explorers: Italian airship captain Umberto Nobile and Swedish polar explorer Salomon August Andrée, respectively. The centerpiece and title story, “Tyrants,” is a neat bit of spy fiction that follows a reluctant recruit into Stalin’s house at the climax of World War II.
Artfully crafted, if emotionally disconnected tales. - Kirkus Reviews
....Klimasewiski is somewhat of a legend around BG, especially when I was there in the mid-nineties. He had graduated just a few years before I had arrived, yet he was the guy who had one of his workshop stories accepted by The New Yorker and soon after had a story in Best American Short Stories. I think that’s rare for MFA workshop stories, even at some of the bigger programs, a story workshopped in class to make it—surely after much revision, but still—into the hallowed pages of that golden goose in such a short amount of time. I mean, I was putting stories up in workshops at Bowling Green. If he could do it, couldn’t any one of us? Couldn’t I? Well, no, apparently, as I’m not sure I’ve seen anyone else from BG in The New Yorker, save my pal and former teacher Jean Thompson, so what Klimasewiski did was pretty special.
Yet, I’ve never met Klimasewiski, corresponded with him, or even seen him on social media. He’s not the FB type, it seems, and has never read or hung around at AWP, to my knowledge. Now that I’m in Springfield, he’s just up the road from me in St. Louis, where he teaches at Washington U., and just maybe, I’ll have him to MSU one day as part of our Missouri Authors Series. Until then, though, I have his writing, particularly Tyrants, which I enjoyed reading today very much. This book, Klimasewiski’s only collection, contains that famous New Yorker story, “Jun-Hee,” as well as two other related stories, “Tanner and Jun-Hee” and “Tanner,” included here as a triptych of sorts. I ventured into the other pieces and immediately fell in love with the title story, “Tyrants,” my favorite piece by Klimasewiski so far.
“Tyrants” is about Katia, a Russian woman who loses her husband and father to Stalin’s oppression at the start of World War II. Her husband, Sasha, is a professor and is shot by soldiers in their living room, while her father, who teaches with Sasha, dies in a labor camp. Katia, a beautiful young woman who can read and translate German, English, and Latin into and out of Russian, is suddenly a valuable commodity for the Russians, who are fighting the Germans and allied with the Americans and Brits (the Latins, however, remain neutral). Katia is taken under the control of a Soviet government operative named Beria, who forces her to learn the tricks of the espionage trade: lock picking, skulking, and tricks; Beria, seemingly a patriot for his homeland, is also a rapist, taking advantage of Katia under the guise of it being something she’ll have to do, for her country, to get close to the enemy. This is Katia’s new life, no longer the daughter and wife of academics, but a prostitute slave spy for her country.
Beria may be a rapist, but he was right about Katia’s future missions. Under the cover of a cleaning woman, Katia is placed in one house, where she housekeeps, before being transferred to the big job, a mole inside Stalin’s palace in Kuntsevo: Beria’s branch of the government is apparently keeping tabs on its own General Secretary. Katia is trained by a new overseer, Vlasik, to care personally for Stalin, including the difference between making his bed and making his cot, how to address him, how to serve when he entertains. It isn’t long before Stalin, at the outset of the Nazi invasion, comes to Kuntsevo. Katia is soon in his presence, though he thinks her someone else, a longtime employee. Whomever Beria and Vlasik and Katia are, what angle of the government they’re working for, their plan has worked: Katia has full access to Stalin, and it’s very possible, she is told, she will be asked to assassinate him.
Soon after Stalin’s arrival, she is eventually discovered by the Secretary himself snooping around his quarters, cleaning without her cart, in the dark. Thus begins a complicated series of interactions—which might even be described as a budding relationship—between the two. Stalin is not as forward as Beria in asking for sex, but it seems as if this is imminent at all times. Katia, knowing her ultimate mission, can’t help but be in awe of this man, horrible and great, quite the historical presence no matter who you are or what your job may be.
I won’t go any further here, as things happen after Stalin finds Katia going through the drawers in his room. The ending is worthy of the rest of the story, this historical gem that I couldn’t stop reading, all thirty-one pages of it, sad when I got to the end, that it was over. Marshall N. Klimasewiski has that power, the ability to draw us into this intricate, foreign worlds. Writers at BG who I knew who also knew Klimasewiski were astounded by this young kid writing about such complicated matters, such mature and intricate stories. The Jun-Hee and Tanner stories are about an interracial couple and the troubles they face, nothing, I was told, Klimasewiski had any personal experience with, yet he was able to write so convincingly, in his early twenties, that The New Yorker jumped right on his work. All of the pieces in Tyrants are of this level, masterful strokes, each original from the other, each set in a different place in the world, in a different time in history. What a book. -