Books

Shiva is Satisfied

An epistolary novel as prelude to a series of novels entitled Trickster, this present novel set against the events of our times, Shiva Is Satisfied follows the lives of a narrator and his family and close friends as they struggle with the seemingly most catastrophic of times–today’s worldwide destruction by global warming, endless wars of death and refugee camps for millions, ceaseless acts of terrorism, universal fear. A senior official at the Institute for Advanced Science and Creativity, Dr. Dante Mariano, his sisters Tristessa and Ariel, his brother Mariusz, and closest associate I.T .Donovan try to cope with this ubiquitous upheaval, their stories culminating in a surprising conclusion to the novel, involving Dante’s beloved Alessandra, which perhaps resolves his ambivalence towards living.
As he has in his more recent works, Congemi adds to this novels dashes of magical realism. A poor endlessly hardworking woman shrinks in size until she disappears and no one cares or even notices. A lawyer in mid life crisis argues with Apollo over the lawyer’s diminishing sexual life, as well as does another family womanizer, the lawyer’s grandfather, with Erato, until both men are sentenced to appropriate sexual fates. Nagasaki children incinerated by the atom bomb inconveniently appear in real life.
As for himself, Dr. Mariano scurries among the people of his life, trying to comfort everyone by his efforts, and might have said, mordantly and angrily: “I’ve become a rabbit—no, better, lesser, a squirrel looking for carrots or nuts. And in the process I misunderstand a tragic youngster, reach out to a hermit for comfort, bedevil an angelic woman for my own needs. O, I could I channel Shiva and Lear: ‘Blow, hurricanoes; roar; conflagration; perish, moribund earth!’”

The Spirit Flies Wonderful Distances

With his twelfth book, The Spirit Flies Wonderful Distances, Robert Congemi moves somewhat away from realistic literature to writings to one degree or another of magical realism. Realistic pieces appear here and there in the book—”I Know You Now,” “Combat,” “The Homeless,” “The House of Cripples,” but so do stories that begin using the non-realistic to enhance story interest and theme–“In Shadows, “Karmic Riddle,” “Teddy and the Gods.” In these writings, sudden blindness wrecks havoc on sighted people, consciousness floats between the minds of several people, Zeus and Hades and Erato meddle in human lives, so do Justice, Injustice and—surprise—Mark Twain! With other stories, the presence of the magical is majorly increased, as in “Letters from an Ancient Traveler,” “The Great Marathoner,” “At Nighttime, They Come Alive at the Mall.” Manikins do come alive, Time shows up at family get-togethers, Jefferson and Washington appear at coffee breaks, while Archangels, immortal space travelers, and superhuman athletes lend a hand to or bedevil mere mortals. For instance, in “The Great Marathoner,” the world’s greatest runner ever to be materializes on the track of a small town YMCA. “In Letters from an Ancient Traveler,” an eons-old citizen from a star at the center of our galaxy on his way home lingers in Manhattan to discuss contemporary world conditions.

The First Day of the World

The First Day of the World, Robert Michael Congemi’s tenth book, tells the stories of young men and women at the start of their adultlives and careers, marriages and artistry. It is a world of the past, the late 1950’s, a simpler time where comedy and romance, mysteries and epiphanies abound. Set on Long Island and Albany and south eastern New York, Congemi’s stories tell of first insights of teenagers into the adult world, the further epiphanies of young graduate students and civil servants, and, favorites of Congemi—young, aspiring writers and actors coping with the cost of pursuing their artistic dreams. He also presents stories of the early life of Paul Scriber, the writer and teacher who figures in much of Congemi’s fiction, stories of Scriber’s early marriage, teaching days, and personal resolutions. Finally, Congemi includes in The First Day of The World, Scriber’s first novella, “The Bridge Dwellers,” written when Paul was twenty one about his college days in the late 1950’s. The novella captures a part of this time in American history, the character of early ‘hippies’ and their encounter with the world. Scriber writes of three young men on a philosophical bridge between the conservatism of the 50’s and the cultural explosion of the 1960’s.

Les Yeux

Les Yeux (the eyes) is author Robert Michael Congemi’s ninth book. Its theme is a modern one, the existentialist’s assertion that other people’s conceptions of us, so often reductive and hurtful, if not devastating, constitute a kind of hell. Going beyond expressing this theme only in fiction, Congemi demonstrates it in the two other principal literary genres—drama and poetry. Nor is the phenomenon of the eyes limited to what is done to us. We are guilty of it ourselves. As Congemi says in his book’s epigraph:

“The eyes, that second hell, which pin us down with their own perceptions. How we must struggle against this further Absurdity, consider our own misunderstandings!”

The author of Les Yeux pursues this theme in a variety of ways. Some of his writing focuses on our misconceptions of the poor, those beneath often comfortable and unchallenged bourgeois mentality. Other work traces his theme as it manifests itself with regard to those who are significantly different from ourselves or above us in social level and victims of our self-protecting stereotypes. A notable thematic variation is depicted in his writing that clarifies the identity of the traumatized, a reality often very far from our customary understanding. Still further variations provoke us to reconsider those who are most close to us or to uncover the invalidity of self-deception. In the eponymous story of Les Yeux, Congemi demonstrates, as if working through a theorem, the truth about this threat of arbitrary opinion and general viewpoint. Finally, the author invites us to a transvaluation of our sense of the past, particularly our own.

The Penny Garden

The Penny Garden, Congemi’s fifth collection of short stories, a sequel to his previous quartet of stories, are mostly short short stories, though they continue to present his overriding literary outlook, themes and formats. For Congemi, life is Absurd and can be cruel, but it also provides healing insight and its expression in literary art. He continues to believe in the value of short fiction for our times, fiction providing immediate meaning and at times at its best an intimation of scripture. In this regard, such stories as Congemi’s “Baby Doll,” “Candy’s Final Exam,” and “Salon de Beaute” highlight personal cruelties, while “Afterwards,” “The Night of Chekhov’s Dying” and “Amber and Danielle” depict existential suffering. On the other hand, the power of art is celebrated in such stories as “Meeting the Poet,” “Backyard Barbeque” and “The Gauguin Exhibit,” while a measure of heroism or happiness is shown in “Danny Boy,” “The Russian Weight Lifter” and “Pop’s Millennium.”

The Millennium Series

Millennium Blues

Harry Downs, the main character of Robert Michael Congemi’s Millennium Blues, the first of four novels together entitled The Millennium Series, styles himself as a man of his times in the year 2001—anxiety ridden, misunderstood, searching for meaning. A mysterious heart ailment first noticed after a 5k run by the sixty year old, book-reading landlord results in a more or less spiritual journey enacted before it is too late to mend his relationships with his ex-wife, children, girlfriends, tenants, etc. The journey is not easy, though he is somewhat guided by his alcoholic, thoroughly disaffected, philosophizing friend Reinhold Dearborne. Suddenly earnest in his thoughts and behavior, Harry tries decency, reasonableness, politics, and religion among other adult aspirations, in order to make himself right with his world before a possible killer heart attack resolves his issues for him. The novel approaches its end as Harry is in sight of his goals.

Millennium Dawn

In Millennium Dawn, which fictionalizes the years from 2001 until 2008, Congemi presents the stories of representative Northeast Americans from the catastrophe of 9/11 to the disturbing revelations of Abu Ghraib.  Whereas Millennium Blues, the first book of the trilogy, told the story of Harry Downs and his family and friends, Millennium Dawn adds  a cubistic, stroboscopic account of the lives of several more working class individuals and civil servants as they experience the bombings of the World Trade Center and continue their lives in the wake of this world-changing event.

Millennium Dawn captures first reactions and effects of the bombings on the lives of its characters, a U.S.-based view of the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and an analysis by some characters of their past lives in order to better understand their fate.  Relationships are examined, changed, exploited, newly begun.  The novel concludes with a series of public and personal resistances and adjustments to the war and the new times, as well as a retreat into Eastern philosophy.

In addition to the novel, the book itself includes a number of short stories related to the themes of Millennium Dawn–existential absurdity, evasion and confrontation, and redemption by love–”At the Parade,” “Merry Christmas,” “Carousel,” “A Question of One’s Brother” and “American Medley.”

Millennium Rose

Millennium Rose narrates the lives of his New Yorkers from 2004-2008. With the second presidency of George W. Bush as a backdrop, Millennium Rose presents the story of a young philosophy professor who journeys to Albany, New York, to retreat from the world and regain his equilibrium by trying to learn what indeed is the fundamental nature of being and how he might live according to it.  Instead he meets several characters from Millennium Dawn and experiences with them the galvanizing sight of Hurricane Katrina upon New Orleans, the escalation of laws and prohibitions post–9/11, and the sudden possibility of the presidency of Senator Barak Obama.  The author treats this experience from multiple viewpoints to better capture the dislocations of the period.  Millennium Rose also includes a long short story entitled “My Dear Alexander,” which depicts the young professor’s days during his tenure review some time previous to that of Millennium Rose.

Millennium Noir

Millennium Noir is the conclusion of Congemi’s Millennial Series, which addresses the experiences of American north-easterners from 2000 to 2012. This book details another young American in his struggle to cope with the contemporary world, as the country’s exhilaration for the future is contested by extreme world events. The protagonist of Millennium Noir, Simon DeVere, an intellectual representative of his generation, fights to stay existentially positive as he not only combats personal shortcomings, but also a professional wasteland, world-wide economic crisis, and Global Warming. The novel climaxes as DeVere fully confronts his own failures, a seemingly collapsing society, and a series of natural disasters that appear endless.

In These Times

Dreaming Mother into Existence

The stories collected in Dreaming Mother into Existence seek to pay homage to the art of the short story, being suggestive, textured, varied. While the august and elegant novel carries complexity to substantial length, the short story may choose to provide succinct attention to theme, sudden turns of plot and startling epiphany. Nor is meaning neglected. In this volume, such stories as “Once I Saw the Calypso Star” and “The Overlooked Man” note the random in life. “The Pumpkin Eater,” “The Story of My Creativity,” and “…It’s All in your Mind” describe resistance to this existential fate. “Chocolate Cake” and “Aunt Beatrice” seek to illuminate life-affirming transcendence.

Vagaries of Fate

In his second book, Vagaries of Fate, Robert Michael Congemi continues to express his sense of contemporary life as existential absurdity, as well as to present individual attempts to deal with such a condition. This collection of short stories gives new emphasis to two themes associated with his conviction—the role that human beings at times negatively play in adding to absurdity, and to the moderating, even redeeming quality of appreciating or creating a micro-moment of meaning. Vagaries of Fate features ordinary working and middle class people fo diverse ages and ethnic backgrounds, including civil servants, teachers, tradesmen, social outsiders, and—rather surprisingly—cats.

The Absurd Heart

In this third volume, The Absurd Heart, of his short-story quartet entitled In These Times, Robert Michael Congemi has written a collection of stories set in New York City, Brooklyn, Long Island and counties nearby. The Absurd Heart adds to issues, characters, and relationships presented in the first two volumes of the quartet, Dreaming Mother Into Existence and Vagaries of Fate. In these New York stories, Congemi presents further epiphanies and transformations, paradoxes, and tragicomic variations on this principal themes. Stories concern re-evaluations of the past in order to create present meaning, the seductiveness of religious need, and the often mystifying behaviors of loving. Rebellion leads to self-actualization and punishment, pain to wisdom. In this volume, a Columbia University graduate student in philosophy rewrites moments in the Bible to parallel his own ontology, a Westchester County social worker composes haiku to help himself through his personal and professional day, and an indefatigable author seeks validation for earnestness from an old, magus-like scholar.

Temple of a Thousand Buddhas

In this fourth and concluding volume of his short story collection quartet IN THESE TIMES, Robert Michael Congemi further extends his thematic considerations. In this volume, he investigates relationships between generations and social classes, the nexus of history and individual experience, the alliance of humor and tragedy, and the depth of self- and epistemological deception. Additionally, he goes on to explore variations on his aesthetics and philosophical outlook, including the fictionalizing of the essay and the calculus of learning. On the one hand, in The Temple of a Thousand Buddhas an aged and failed bohemian deems existence a trickster god, an artist experiences the exorbitant price of intellectuality, and the husband of a dying wife fails to render cancer in any way intelligible to his family. On the other hand, a vaguely-perceived narrator bears witness to the working class, a cluster of women strive to comprehend the unfathomable, and an academic insists on the grace of insight and love.

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