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Jacob M. Appel: Einstein's Beach House: Stories.

Jacob M. Appel: Einstein's Beach House: Stories.

Indianapolis: Pressgang, December 2014. 188pp.

Jacob M. Appel is a notoriously prolific writer, Renaissance man, and workaholic who collects degrees from elite universities at a rate at which other people discard their old cell phones. His understated website lists his nine postgraduate degrees, among them two history MAs (Brown and Columbia), two MFAs (CUNY and NYU), a Harvard JD, and an MD from Columbia. Throughout his latest collection, Einstein's Beach House (2014), Appel's characters tend to wear some of the author's own and very diverse professional hats: there's the ex-attorney in the superb "La Tristresse des Herissons," the superior court judge in "Limerence," a real and a fake doctor in "The Rod of Asclepius," a stern public health officer in "Paracosmos," and a failed linguist in the collection's titular story. But searching for Appel in these eight stories is probably as pointless as trying to pin down Appel's favorite area of specialty, even though the author's credentials and his considerable knowledge of, well, everything pop up all over. This sprawling collection has it all, from epidemiology jokes ("Paracosmos"), to questions about convicted sex offenders' right to privacy ("Hue and Cry"), to the dynamics of couples' everyday fights ("Einstein's Beach House").

The impression that lingers after perusing this too-short book is that Appel's prose manages to be hilarious and devastating, cynical and candid, highly polished and fast-paced, all at the same time. Appel writes clearly, unpretentiously, yet allows his first-person narrators a bitingly sarcastic remark here and there, usually to highlight the absurdity of everyday social interactions. Sometimes it seems as if Appel's first-person narrators know too much about their own or other people's inner states; it might have sufficed to hint at, rather than to articulate, heavy-handed psychological diagnoses. These are moments when the author's own training as a psychiatrist refuses to stay hidden.

Nevetheless, Appel's sharp insight into what binds--or fails to bind--people together across generations connects the thematically varied stories in Einstein's Beach House. His stories are populated with siblings--sister pairs abound--and their dying or dead or at least deeply flawed parents; there are spouses filing for divorce, couples trying to stick it out, children realizing the magnitude of their parents' moral or legal transgressions. Children, in this collection, tend to inherit their parents' pathologies, such as schizophrenia ("Sharing the Hostage"), depression ("La Tristesse des Herissons"), the impulse to control other people's fates ("The Rod of Asclepius"), or, if they're lucky, the pursuit of safe and boring suburban cul-de-sac existences ("Limerence"). Many of Appel's characters are haunted by their childhoods, from his late-twenty-somethings to protagonists in their fifties. Aided by the author's unflinching psychological realism, they painfully realize that past selves or the influence of one's parents can never be shaken off entirely; that something in us remains stubbornly, sickly stable over time, and that it will manifest as a symptom when communication--or marriage, or life--breaks down. Appel's stories are very much interested in what gets transmitted in families, and that is not only disease or property but our ways of dealing with our loved ones.

Trying to make the best decision under situational pressure, most of Appel's protagonists usually find themselves running out of time or with only one chance to do the ethical thing, some of them failing miserably. Thus, a hug, a tearful breakdown, a brief, ambivalent reunion half a life later, or a one-sided conversation with a tortoise serve as funny-yet-profound turning points in these impeccably plotted stories, and Appel convincingly turns seemingly prosaic, everyday situations into individual catastrophes worthy of continued rumination. What we learn from Einsteins Beach House, at the very least, is that all relationships are precarious and uneasy arrangements that might implode if we keep scratching at old scars.
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Author:Thierauf, Doreen
Publication:The Carolina Quarterly
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2015
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