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In 1971, Tom Borders and his brother Louis opened a small, used bookstore on South State Street, in downtown Ann Arbor, near the University of Michigan campus. The brothers went through a number of minor location changes, switched from used books to new, developed an innovative inventory system, and quickly earned a reputation for their knowledgeable staff, both as booksellers and in business. Finally taking over the two-story, 44,000-square-foot, former department store building on Liberty and Maynard Streets, Borders Books reigned as the largest retail business in downtown Ann Arbor, effectively becoming the first book superstore.
Growing up in Ann Arbor, I spent nearly every day on Liberty Street, at the flagship store, known in the industry as Store Number 1. I would wander through the aisles and run my fingers over the spines of books, or I would sit alone in a quiet corner and read Toni Morrison or Jean-Paul Sartre or Lester Bangs or Maximum Rocknroll. Borders wasn’t just a retail store; it was a refuge and sanctuary from the pressures of adolescence and the noise of the city.
Borders was acquired by Kmart in 1992 for $125 million, and went public in 1995. By January 1999, the company had 256 superstores across the United States, and franchises in such varied international locations as the UK, New Zealand, Singapore, Malaysia, Oman and Dubai. In 2005, Borders posted an annual profit of $101 million. But Borders couldn’t keep up with rapid changes in the industry, and by February 2011, after numerous resignations, job cuts, and store closures, Borders filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. In September of that year, after 40 years in the book business, Borders announced they were closing Store Number 1. From the light fixtures to the bookshelves, everything was for sale, dirt cheap. What was once the heart of downtown Ann Arbor was reduced to looking like the worst garage sale in town.
Two years earlier, in June 2009, the independent Shaman Drum Bookshop had shut its doors, after 29 years on State Street. With the closing of Borders, Ann Arbor found itself without a place downtown to find new books. There were still a few used bookstores, Dawn Treader and West Side Book Shop among the longest-running (David’s Books, after 32 years in business, closed four months earlier than Borders.) Aunt Agatha’s, on South Fourth Avenue, continued to operate exclusively in mystery titles. Crazy Wisdom, on Main Street, specialized in New Age books (and a wide selection of crystals and tarot cards.) But to find the latest title by Philip Roth or Jesmyn Ward, you needed to drive miles from downtown, out to the Westgate shopping center, where the independent bookstore Nicola’s Books lives. Or, if you were hard-pressed, you could head east, where Barnes & Noble looms over Washtenaw Avenue.
I relocated from Ann Arbor to Portland, Oregon in 2004. Not long after moving to Portland I began working at Powell’s Books—first as a cashier and then as a bookseller. Working at the world’s largest independent bookstore, needless to say, had its benefits. I was not only permitted, but paid, to amble daily through teeming aisles of books. It was pure intoxication. But each time I would visit family in Ann Arbor, I would check on my Liberty Street Borders, peering through the windows and watching as it steadily emptied of inventory and customers until, like the broken carcass of a fish, it was finally gutted and cleaned.
Hilary and Michael Gustafson both grew up in Michigan. Hilary is from Ann Arbor; Michael comes from Lowell, near Grand Rapids, but has family in Ann Arbor. Their individual pursuits, school, and careers took them to Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, and New York City, respectively, but their paths came together for the first time in 2009, when—after a months-long, long-distance courtship—Michael joined Hilary in Brooklyn. Michael was a freelance writer and video producer; Hilary Lowe was a sales rep for Simon & Schuster. They were engaged in 2011. In 2012, upon learning of the closing of both Shaman Drum and the flagship Borders, Michael and Hilary decided to return to their home state and pursue their dream of opening a new bookstore in downtown Ann Arbor.
Literati Bookstore opened March 31, 2013, Easter Sunday—the day of resurrection—on the corner of East Washington Avenue and Fourth Street. At 4,000 square feet divided into three floors (including the third-floor café, Espresso Bar), Literati is not the largest bookstore to have made a home in Ann Arbor, but it might be the most intentionally curated and meticulously decorated. Inside you’ll find a black-and-white, checkerboard pattern—painted by hand on the hardwood floor—hand-lettered window signs, product design by local designers, artwork by local artists (full disclosure: my mother’s mixed-media illustration of the building’s façade is displayed in Literati’s events space) and the original bookshelves from Borders Store Number 1, purchased by Michael and Hilary on the last day of liquidation. Literati is not only a tribute to Ann Arbor’s rich history of art and literature; they have taken inspiration from the city’s past, in order that they might contribute to its future.
Literati has a staff of fourteen, including former employees of both Shaman Drum and Borders. Their store manager, Jeanne, is a twenty-five-year veteran of Borders, having first started at the original store on State Street. Joe Gable, who had worked alongside the Borders brothers at the beginning—and was instrumental in their success—has taken an active involvement with Literati, offering Michael and Hilary his assistance and counsel.
“Anytime Joe gives advice we’re happy to hear it,” Michael says. “He’s a legend in the book industry.”
In the two-and-a-half years since Literati opened their doors, the excitement and encouragement from the public has not diminished. On each of my visits, the store was busy—not just with gawkers but with actual book-buying customers. Much of their success has to do with Hilary and Michael’s shared vision, their careful attention to aesthetic, and their small staff of veteran booksellers. Their success also has much to do with their level of community engagement, whether with their four book clubs, their signed first-editions club, or their author events, which, for a relatively new bookstore, is formidable. Literati has hosted readings by such novelists as Matt Bell, Christopher Moore, and Kazuo Ishiguro, and poets Anne Carson and Anne Waldman. Marlon James will visit in October. In June 2014, David Sedaris chose Literati to debut his book, Exploring Diabetes with Owls.
Michael and Hilary were married in June 2013, two months after opening the bookstore. They live one mile away from their store. Literati is genuinely a labor of love, and one very much indebted to the city in which it has put down roots.
“I view what we’re doing here as just a continuation of the rich history of bookselling in Ann Arbor,” Michael says. “All the success and growth that we’ve experienced is because of the booksellers who’ve been here before.”
Downstairs, on Literati’s lower floor, a vintage Smith-Corona typewriter sits on an old, wooden desk, before a wooden chair. A fresh piece of paper is placed into the typewriter every day, and people are encouraged to compose their thoughts and musings. On the day I spoke with Michael, there was a young woman sitting at the desk. She looked to be the same age I’d been when I used to spend long days hidden away in the Liberty Street Borders. I waited until she finished, then I went to read what she had typed.
“I come here before my therapy sessions every Wednesday,” she had written. “A little extra calm to ease my mind. It is safe here. Thank you for this place.”
Santi Elijah Holley’s short stories and nonfiction have been published in VICE, Monkeybicycle, Straylight, and SmokeLong Quarterly, among other periodicals. He is an arts and music writer for The Portland Mercury, and he works in the Publicity department at Powell’s Books.
This post is dedicated to the loving memory of Susan Finley.
The leg juts at an unnatural angle from a mound of dirt in the middle of the rolling hills of Iraqi desert hardpan. We have not slept in some hours. We have been rained on for days. We have not been warm in weeks. We are out of smokes. We traded our last MREs to a village child—who might have been an adult—for some Gauloises and then our makeshift tarp roof collapsed from collected water and soaked the pack. We tried to salvage the cigarettes but the filament-thin paper disintegrated leaving our fingers sticky with tobacco shavings.
So when we find the leg, we think we might be delusional from any number of things. But the leg is there and we think we can hear one another’s thoughts about the leg: Where’d this fucking leg come from? Why’s it in the middle of the desert? Whose leg is it? It’s not mine. Is it mine? I bet whoever’s it is probably misses it. Is it wearing pants? Think there are cigarettes in the pocket? It is wearing pants. Linen, maybe silk—this could be a rich leg.
The unoccupied pant leg is bunched and flopped like a snakeskin on the mound of dirt, covered in mud and camouflaged by the recent rains.
We are in a draw where we found the leg. Behind us is a towering dune of mud and dirt and cracking desert and drying sand. We think we feel the dune shift and breathe and come alive and begin pushing us toward the leg.
The leg now maybe resembles something like an altar, where we are maybe supposed to pray. We are maybe supposed to fall at the leg altar and prostrate ourselves and throw our hands into the sky and pray to the leg to bring us cigarettes and food and a goddamned resupply.
Then as we begin to kneel and thrust our arms toward what we think might be our new god, one of us says, Maybe I remember Bible stories about the cradle of civilization between the Tigris and Euphrates. He says, Maybe I’m making up the stories entirely. He says, In the stories Southern California is one of two places where the Joshua tree grows—the other is here in Iraq. He says, Where the tree grows so exist the earthly gateways to heaven and hell. Or some such shit.
And so we think as the dune at our backs maybe pushes us toward the leg that it might not really be a leg but a Joshua tree. And then our tired eyes watch the leg begin to sprout limbs and nodules and fronds that resemble smaller legs.
And then we might be falling, but it feels like running. It feels like running because we are covered in sweat. But it is not sweat it is water because it is raining, and we’re running and falling and covered in mud, running toward a voice that might be Jehovah’s or Beelzebub’s, but might also be Sergeant Martin’s, whom we think of as both. The land has faded into the sky and the sky into the land and it feels like we are rising but with every step we still fall just a little, just a smidgeon, just a cunt hair.
Somehow we are back in the truck and our makeshift tarp roof is fixed and we sit across from one another, soaking wet knees kissing and catching on the hems of the reinforced fabric of our camouflaged utilities. Maybe we are thinking or maybe we are speaking or maybe it is just the sound of our teeth and bones chattering but it’s all saying the same thing. It comes through in layers compounding one on top of another. Like pound cake and concrete and lung tar and mud and mattresses and tree bark.
Which do you think it was?
Years later, we still ask the same question.
Matt Young is a veteran, writer, runner, and teacher. He holds an MA in creative writing from Miami University in Ohio and currently lives in Washington state. His work can be found in River Teeth, [PANK], BULL: Men’s Fiction, Midwestern Gothic, O-Dark-Thirty, and elsewhere.
The streets of Boston and Cambridge are running through my head again, and it is as effortless as dreaming. From 13 Ashburton place, on Beacon hill—where our family moved when I was fifteen—my feet lead me down steep cobblestone streets, polished by last night’s rain, the gold dome of the state house hovering behind and above me like a plump, gaudy moon. I pass hitching posts and dray carts, hear the clop-clop of hooves on cobblestone, the knife man chanting Knives sharpened.
I can slow it down and make out individual blades of grass, a chink in a stone wall, a button missing from the dress of an elderly lady on a park bench, the flies settling on the face of the horse pulling the milkman’s wagon. Perhaps in the absence of an outer life, the inner life shines brighter. My brother William ought to study this in his psychology.
With a throng of people I huddle at the intersection of Charles Street and Beacon to wait for the horse-cars. When they arrive, bells tinkling, I mount the steps behind a lady wearing a ghastly confection of marabou feathers and satin rosettes on her head and breathe in the familiar odor of dirty straw and old clothes, mingled with breezes from the river. If it is winter I look out upon a river glazed with ice, bluish in late afternoon; if it is summer I count the white sails of sailboats. In Cambridge I dismount at dusty Harvard Square, shaded by its great elm, with four roads radiating out to Boston, Watertown, Arlington, and Charlestown, like choices laid out in a fairy tale.
My nurse left a half hour ago to do the marketing and has not yet returned, which most likely means she has met someone and will come back with news from the neighborhood. I hope so, as her reports are my sole contact with the wider world for weeks at a time. Possibly she has not met anyone but has simply been caught up in a long queue in the bakery; there is no way of knowing.
While I wait, I slip back into the past again. I walk several blocks to Mrs. Agassiz’s school, at the corner of Quincy Street and Broadway, across the street from Harvard Yard. I sit at a scuffed wooden desk in a third-floor classroom, inhaling the odor of wet wool, chalk dust, and beeswax. I watch the way the girls shift in their seats while Mr. Agassiz, the great natural historian and the husband of Mrs. Agassiz, lectures us on glaciers, on which he is the world’s greatest expert. Despite the fact we are only girls, we are being taught by esteemed Harvard professors of mathematics, science, and Greek. (In Boston, even the maidens are supposed to be well-educated, although it is also true that an intel-lectual girl is assumed to be something of a pill and a poor addition to a social gathering.) Mr. Agassiz’s younger daughter, Pauline, who is Swiss, is our French teacher, and all the girls are in love with her. As she stands at the blackboard or sits at her desk to read the dictée aloud, we study her clothes, mannerisms, features, hair, noting every new shawl, hair-clip, ribbon, or locket. She has black hair, black laughing eyes, a rosebud mouth, and a perfect dimple in one cheek. Her perfections make us all wish we were Swiss.
Owing to my childhood immersion in French, I am one of the best French students. I would have been happy enough at school if I could have sat at my desk all day worshiping Mademoiselle Pauline as she spoke of Chateaubriand and Victor Hugo, alexandrines, the three unities, and explications de texte. I would not have minded the other classes, either, though I could never warm up to geology or mathematics. My bête noire was the other girls, who had known one another since infancy and talked in a dense Bostonian code I could not crack.
Having been educated at home, largely in Europe, with only brothers for playmates, I’d apparently missed out on absorbing the cru- cial girlish pastimes. I mean autograph books, commonplace books, secret diaries, coded letters, cat’s cradles, Jacob’s ladders, cootie-catchers, blood oaths of eternal sisterhood. I might as well have been an Esquimaux for all I knew of these female mysteries. Someone would ask if I could do ‘Double Flying Dutchman’ and I did not even know it was a maneuver in jacks.
My personality was well concealed under a mask of Well- Brought-up Young Girl. Inside the mask I was terrified. The rowdiness of the girls on the omnibus and on the street frightened me. I lived in terror of these self-confident Boston girls finding out that our family did not summer at the Shore because my one-legged father could not keep his balance on sand; that my parents had once lived in a Fourierite commune in France; that Father had suffered a “Vastation” before I was born, turning him into a mystic; that our family tree included a gallery of tipsy, strange, and dissolute relatives whose lives were frequently cut short by madness or drink.
Despite our peculiarities and semi-foreignness, however, my parents were warmly embraced by the Boston Brahmins. Father seduced Boston society with his charm and mesmerizing talk and was invited to join the Saturday Club, mingling with the scions of Boston’s oldest families. We were quickly taken up by people like the Nortons, the Childses, the Holmeses, the Fieldses, the Lowells, the Appletons. Father especially doted on and flirted with the beautiful, learned, and witty Annie Fields, wife of the editor of the Atlantic Monthly, who ran the closest thing Boston had to a literary salon in those days.
If it hadn’t been for my interesting brothers (William and Harry effortlessly became part of Boston’s jeunesse dorée, as did Wilky and Bob later), I should probably have remained a nonentity in Boston. I would study my face in the looking glass for protracted periods, analyzing its defects, hoping that time would improve the picture. I don’t mean to say that I was ugly; I was (I thought) a bland pudding of a girl, lacking definition. A complexion without roses, hair a lackluster brown, eyes nothing special, a mouth already hinting at a disposition to turn down at the corners and look discouraged. All that would have been workable if bolstered by charm, vivacity, and a pleasing personality, but these qualities seemed to elude me as well.
One rainy morning, while tugging off my galoshes in the school cloakroom, I overheard a conversation around the corner. A giggling girl was quoting from William Dean Howells’s review of Father’s latest book, The Secret of Swedenborg, in the Atlantic Monthly. In a stagey voice, she quoted a line from the review—Henry James has kept the secret!—sending her two companions into paroxysms of mirth. I did not understand why this was so hilarious—and then, suddenly, shamefully, I did. You could read the whole book, Mr. Howells meant, and fail to learn the secret of Swedenborg, because Father’s prose was impenetrable. Although he was a good friend of our family’s, the popular novelist was unable to suppress this deadly truth.
Until that moment I had not realized this about Father’s books. I had never thought to read them myself, but I assumed they were very eloquent and wise, as Mother assured us they were. Separated from me by a row of wooden cabinets, the girls went on laughing hysterically, snorting through their noses. When they caught sight of me, one of them had the decency to blush while the other two gathered up their books and dashed into the classroom, arms linked, whispering to each other. My face burned. What I would have given for the gift of invisibility!
“The trouble with your looks, Alice, is that you have too much forehead.” A casual comment, some months later, by Charlotte Dana. She meant no harm; she intended to be helpful, and advised curls in front. After that I became obsessed with the vast expanse of my fore- head, which I saw gleaming from every reflective surface. My whole life would be marred by it, I foresaw; wherever I went, whatever I did, this great shiny dome would accompany me. Some years later, my brothers’ great friend Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who was never happier than when he could humiliate me, said, “Alice, one is simply blinded by your forehead. What a lot of knowledge you must keep in there.” (Pretending it was a compliment. And to think we let this man make our laws!)
When I confided my misgivings about my forehead to my beloved years later, she said, “What are you talking about?”
“Well, look at me.”
She studied me from every angle, then said, “Your forehead looks quite unremarkable to me.” I saw that she was right. Either the rest of my face had caught up with my forehead, or it had never been as pre- dominant as I thought. So ended that fixation.
Nurse’s entrance cuts short this wool-gathering. I have become fascinated with her character, for she is, after all, the only other cast- away on my desert island. Yesterday I asked her if I was different from English ladies, and she said, “Yes. Not so ’aughty, Miss.” This morning she wears a secret smile, which must mean she brings interesting news from the street.
Twice, I have given fake phone numbers to men I met in bars. The first must have been fifty. He bought me a drink; and, offended by how little I talked to him, took it back half-drunk. Ballsy. The second was a film director in Berlin. He was sweet and well-dressed; ever since, I’ve been looking in vain for a coat like his; square-shouldered cut, rich gray flannel.
I was twenty. We met in the bar I used to stop by to end my nights. It was nobody’s idea of clean, but fun enough in the dark. Most visible surfaces were covered in pink shag. Someone had done a half-assed job of gluing naked Barbies to the walls. Red and yellow bulbs swung from fraying wires. People fucked in the women’s bathroom. The bartender—obese, English, blue-eyeshadowed—started winking at me every time I showed up. I’d tell myself it was for a nightcap, but she knew.
Stefan—the director—had just come in from a film festival or award ceremony or something. They’d given him a gift bag which he held awkwardly in his left hand. We started talking. His film had lost. He must have been thirty, but his eyes were still soft around the edges. It was winter and cold enough that everyone had his coat on inside. We talked about movies; Fellini, Fassbinder, Sirk. I think the pretense to our leaving was that he was going outside for a smoke. As we walked, our breath made puffy clouds. We didn’t say much. We stood for a while on the willow-lined banks of the Landwehrkanal. A boat or two passed by, a few other figures advanced and retreated through the fog. We were drunk and holding hands.
Then we were in his bed, Hitchcock posters on the walls. I’d never kissed anyone with a full beard before, and was surprised by the softness and the scrape of it on my neck, my chest, my legs. He fucked me, which is unusual; often, I tense up, resist the loss of control.
We’d just finished, and he looked up at me, smiling.
“May I piss on you,” he asked.
I thought about it for a minute. On the one hand, I like to think of myself as someone who will try anything once. Then again, on the other hand, there is a line you cross.
He sighed and rolled away from me. I grabbed him and pulled him in, feeling his back against my chest, kissing his neck a little. “It’s okay,” I said, “I’m just not really there right now. It was almost six and I was drunk and twenty and in a foreign country, not up to my usual standards.
We slept like that for a few hours. When I woke up, he was stretching on the floor in his boxer shorts. The light made the hairs on his legs glow, on his chest, the shadows of muscles danced underneath a thin layer of hair and fat. “Look at the time,” I said, suddenly conscious of my breath, my belly, the smell.
He looked up at me as I dressed, untangling my clothes from his. One of his socks and one of mine had clasped themselves together, and it took me an ungraceful moment to separate them. He laughed.
Then I was dressed, and he asked for my phone number. I quickly wrote a few random digits down, careful to separate them in the German manner and use the Berlin area code. I handed him the piece of paper, and he smiled at me. “I will call,” he said, and kissed me, and then I left.
It was snowing that day, light flakes, easy to brush off. I bought a coffee and a newspaper and walked home through a park full of laughing German children playing in the snow. A little boy, maybe five, in a red snowsuit, pointed up and laughed at me. Foam from the coffee had become stuck in my beard. I laughed, smiled at his mother, and wiped it off with my glove. Right then I almost turned around and went back, but I’d forgotten which apartment it was. I wasn’t going to ring all the bells, so I walked.
It came back to me now, a few years later, because I was talking to my friend Oliver at a party last night in Crown Heights. Michael Jackson was playing, everyone was dancing, we were sitting one out on the couch. The year before, he told me, he’d been in Turkey and met a South African guy in his forties who’d left everything behind, bought a Land Rover, and driven north. It had taken him five years to get to Turkey, driving days and sleeping nights on the roof of the truck. Now, we figured, based on drunkly estimated distances, he was probably in Iran. The destination was Beijing, and then he was going to sell the Land Rover and fly home and see what was left. The South African had given Oliver a ride for a few days, from Istanbul out to Cappadocia, where people lived in houses carved into the soft limestone cliffs.
After that, the conversation turned to Hitchcock blondes. We were talking about Tippi Hedren. “Didn’t she lose her career after she wouldn’t fuck Hitchcock?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said. “That’s the thing with Hitchcock. Even if you aren’t into it, if he wants you, you gotta go for it.”
“I guess,” I said.
“No guessing,” he said. “You do it. You just reach out, grab on, and pull until you hear something. Otherwise, you’ll have regrets.”
Ben Miller writes short fiction, history and essays – and curates and directs classical performance – in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.
September is already over? It seems like just yesterday we were living in an idyllic summer world, one where we hadn’t yet imagined what seventeen Republican Presidential candidates looked like lined up in front of Reagan’s airplane. But now . . . well, now we’ve seen some things, and we’ll never be the same. Here are some of the other things we’ve seen, including some poems to lean on, songs to psych up with, and surprise Youtube finds. But let’s start with an artificial intelligence that isn’t Ben Carson:
Diane: My husband and I recently rented Ex Machina, a 2015 British sci-fi thriller written and directed by Alex Garland. Whoa, creepy. I didn’t know the plot before watching it and won’t give it away here, but it’s worth watching if you’ve ever been intrigued by artificial intelligence or the people intent on creating it in humanoid form.
Thomas: The other night, in search of a quiet place to read a couple hundred pages before an editorial meeting, I took a drive out to a riverside park behind the Portland airport. On the way, I thought I’d listen to the new Battles album, hoping to be inspired by its dancey momentum, but when my clumsy thumbs accidentally started playing the new Kurt Vile record b’lieve i’m goin down, I let it ride. The first track on the album is a weird maze of loopy depression: “I woke up this morning / didn’t recognize the man in the mirror / then I laughed and I said “Oh silly me, that’s just me” / then I proceeded to brush some stranger’s teeth / but they were my teeth and I was weightless.” The title of the song comes when the narrator, third-person observer of his own life, notes that his clothes are “Pretty Pimpin.” It felt about right for the stack of pages in my immediate future, and I dove back in infected not by Battles’ chugging groove, but by Vile’s wry wink.
Lance: It feels naive to say that I never thought I would have the opportunity to see Kraftwerk live. I mean, this band . . . wait a minute. Wait just a minute. In Googling “This band is still touring” I came across this cover, which I feel obliged to share with you right now:
Anyway, Kraftwerk live was about 81% more amazing than that.
Jakob: Without getting too sentimental, I’ll just say I was in need of some mournful poetics this month. Like anyone, I reached for Bluets, but like everyone, I’ve only read it in borrowed form (it’s the sort of book that’s passed on, not bought or kept for oneself). So I turned to Gregory Orr’s Concerning the Book That Is the Body of the Beloved. The volume is based on Orr’s concept of the Book, a vast collection of all the world’s lyrics: a “testimony about human experience, suffering, mystery, joy.” The Book reads like an expansive breath, a repository of the past, where the beloved—the world—outlasts:
The poem is written on the body,
And the body is written on the poem.
The Book is written in the world,
And the world is written in the Book.
This is the reciprocity of love
That outwits death. Death looks
In one place and we’re in the other.
Death looks there, but we are here.
Meanwhile, the interns have been busy pre-screening movies and plays for us to make sure they’re worth our time. Cameron reports on the newest Johnny Depp transformation, Nicole heads to the theatre-with-an-r-e, and Marie and Claire dig into some of our favorite poets.
Cameron: In the newly released film based on Boston’s Winter Hill Gang, Johnny Depp plays kingpin James “Whitey” Bulger. To the relief of some, Depp has finally broken out of his offbeat pirate persona: from the gait-wobbling, gypsy gestures of the recent Jack Sparrow, not to mention his other odd-ball roles, we see a new guise emerge. In fact, there are hardly any idiosyncrasies left from the old Johnny—Johnny is Jimmy now: slicked back gray hair, bluestone bug eyes, sepia aviators, a sober animal clothed in black leather, and “strictly criminal.” Whitey’s résumé: he’s a convict out of Atlanta, Alcatraz, Leavenworth, and Lewisburg Federal Penitentiaries; CIA-test subject for eighteen months of LSD mind-control research; mob boss who smoked rats upon a scent of betrayal; ironclad Catholic; older brother to then President of the Massachusetts Senate, William Bulger; and family man who taught his son to “punch when no one’s looking.”
In this story of loyalty and territory, an old friend from the projects, FBI agent John Connolly, offered Whitey federal protection from the Italian mafia in return for some help. The Feds would fight his turf wars against the Angiulo family, traceless fugitives embarrassing the police force, if Whitey could provide information to their arrest. However, the FBI soon recognized the shade in this alliance: informants who incriminated Whitey died off, and as Whitey corroborated the crimes of threatening associates, he consolidated the power; he played the FBI. Black Mass is a gripping gangster saga, but beware: smoke and mirrors are around every corner, and Depp’s bluestone, buggy eyes just might pawn off your soul if you stare too deeply.
Marie: This weekend, I finished reading Mary Ruefle’s book of prose, The Most of It. The book is filled with miniature pieces that use the sharp shears of logic to cut a hole through the everyday and then plop us on our bums like babies, seeing the world for the first time. In “The Dart and the Drill,” she writes about being “darted in the head” by her brother when she was six years old, then uses that as a metaphor (along with trepanning, gold mining, and her parents courtship) to point out what she sees as a generalized lack of self- reflection in the people around her, but does it in an unexpected way. She steers clear of preachy and leaves you laughing. My favorite piece in the book is either “Some Nondescript Autumn Weekend,” which, in four paragraphs, gives a series of directions that alter you in your seat, or “A Half-Sketched Head,” a portrait of a hermit told through scraps of paper found throughout his house. The book is a pleasurable blend of poetic imagination and perceptual specificity that makes you want to write up your own half-sketched lists and leave them around the house.
Claire: This month, mostly all I’ve been reading are tech articles and anatomy manuals. I did manage to sneak a break in between these and pick up Morgan Parker’s new book of poems (her debut collection), Other Peoples Comfort Keeps Me Up at Night. I love these poems. I find it really exciting that we’re starting to listen more when women talk, especially women of color. A Publishers Weekly reviewer writes: “Parker displays mettle when, instead of writing a simple ode to the Moon, she spits bourbon at it: ‘you said you’d never disrupt space/ I said hell I own it.’ It’s all the more exciting because that mettle reveals itself to be vulnerable and desirous, to be as set on understanding the world as on changing it. Like the best poets, Parker moves conversations forward—conversations about poetry, race, femininity.” These poems are just so good. Everyone should go read them. [Claire's excitement is doubtless further stoked by the news that Tin House Books will publish Morgan's second collection, There are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce, in 2017. —Ed.]
Nicole: Do not go into Fondly, Collette Richland, the new play by the celebrated Elevator Repair Service, expecting a plot or any kind of drama in the traditional sense. Beginning with a standard domestic scene, albeit one with a piano accompaniment, it quickly descends into mayhem and messiness. It eventually moves to a hotel so strange that it could have been invented by Wes Anderson — if he were on every hallucinogenic under the sun. The last twenty minutes are so surreal and bonkers that I would applaud anyone who can keep a straight face. Go, see, marvel that this came from somebody’s mind. (Paul Murray’s new novel The Mark and the Void is equally surreal, but slightly more sobering. Focusing on the Irish financial crisis, Murray tackles a tough subject with great humour.)
While in the process of cleaning out the Tin House garage, we uncovered a previously unreleased recording of
Dick Cheeseburger and the Sliders From Mars a local musician’s attempt to create a Tin House “theme song.”
Left on our porch with no note of explanation, the record was quickly discarded and thought lost to time. Until today.
A Tin House Feeling . . .
A paean we can get behind, from Tin House #49: Tribes.
I Like Weird-Ass Hippies
I like weird-ass hippies
And men with hairy backs
And small green animals
And organic milk
And chickens that hatch
Out of farms in Vermont
I like weird-ass stuff
When we reach the other world
We will all be hippies
I like your weird-ass spirit stick that you carry around
I like when you rub sage on my door
I like the lamb’s blood you throw on my face
I like heaping sugar in a jar and saying a prayer
And then having it work
I like cursing out an enemy
And then cursing them in objects
Soaking their baby tooth in oil
Lighting it on fire with a tiny plastic horse
I like running through the fields of green
I am so caught up in flowers and fruit
I like shampooing my body
In strange potions you bought wholesale in Guatemala
I like when you rub your patchouli on me
And tell me I’m a man
I am a fucking man
A weird-ass fucking man
If I didn’t know any better I’d think I were Jesus or something
If I didn’t know any better I’d sail to ancient Greece
Then go to Rome
Murder my daughter in front of the gods
Smoke powdered lapis
Carve pictographs into your dress
A thousand miles away from anything
When I die I will be a strange fucking hippie
And so will you
So will you
So get your cut-up heart away from
What you think you know
You know, we are all going away from here
At least have some human patience
For what lies on the other side
Dorothea Lasky is a poet and the author of four full-length collections of poetry: Rome: Poems (Liveright/W.W. Norton), as well as Thunderbird, Black Life, and Awe. She has also written several chapbooks, including Poetry is Not a Project (Ugly Ducking Presse, 2010). Her writing has appeared in POETRY, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The Atlantic, and Boston Review, among other places. She is a co-editor of Open the Door: How to Excite Young People About Poetry (McSweeney’s, 2013).
Author Julia Elliott talks about dystopian satires, Southern gothic tall tales, brain enhancements, and feral-hog hunting in this Q&A with her editor.
Meg Storey: The New and Improved Romie Futch is an epic novel about brain enhancement, genetic modification, feral-hog hunting, and lost love. What was the original spark for the work? Where did you begin?
Julia Elliott: This novel sprang from a failed short story that was too big for its britches. When I wrote the original story, I was teaching an English class on dystopian fiction, and I began each session with a “real” dystopian fact and a “fake” one, challenging the students to distinguish between the two. Googling for futuristic factoids, I happened upon many articles about “mind uploading,” “brain computer interfaces,” and cybernetic pedagogies that may one day allow lazy humans to download “knowledge” and “skill sets” into their brains. Instead of envisioning a humorless dystopia in which somber characters experience the dark side of enhanced consciousness, I imagined the comic potential of the material, which led to the vision of a South Carolina taxidermist suddenly armed with the equivalent of a humanities PhD. This convenient trope allowed me to synthesize my upbringing in rural South Carolina with my experience in academia, two seemingly unharmonious aspects of my life that were fun to mix. I was also inspired by the work of my cousin Carl Elliott, a bioethicist who writes popular nonfiction about the medical industrial complex, including an amazing piece called “Guinea-pigging” (originally published in the New Yorker) that explores the subculture that has sprung up around pharmaceutical drug testing. Carl’s work helped me flesh out the Center for Cybernetic Neuroscience, a fictional research facility in Atlanta, Georgia, where impoverished and desperate men undergo experimental downloads for pay.
MS: This is your debut novel. How was writing Romie Futch different for you from writing short stories? What elements of the way you approach writing short stories, if any, do you think contributed to the making of Romie Futch?
JE: I should confess here that I have two failed novels rotting in my desktop dumpster. Before I wrote The New and Improved Romie Futch, I approached novels as though they were gigantic mutant short stories, which led to amorphous plotting, sluggish narratives, and self-indulgent tangents that contributed little to the overall structure of the work. Using a finished short story as an outline for Romie allowed me to have a stronger grasp of organization and plot momentum before I got lost in the writing. When I did get lost, my brilliant editor was always there to yank me out of the badlands.
MS: Like many of your short stories, Romie Futch is set in the South. Do you think this story could take place anywhere else? Or is there something inherent to the South that is necessary to the novel?
JE: For my story collection, I spun loony Southern yarns, wrote cerebral dystopian satires, and sometimes combined both modes—Romie is definitely a combo of dystopian satire and Southern gothic tall tale. As I mention above, the brain-enhancement trope allowed me to reconcile growing up in a small Southern town with my graduate studies in English, equipping my inner hick with fancy diction and critical theory that hopefully express the complexities of living in the contemporary South. In the past, Southern writers have been fetishized as holy fools, semi-feral backwoods prophets that give voyeurs a glimpse of the wilderness below the Mason-Dixon line. Even today, readers sometimes forget that Southern writers inhabit the same technologically complex world they do, where the Internet inundates the mind with diverse forms of information, where the line between science and sci-fi is blurry, where “reality” is a mercurial hodgepodge of tech-mediated experiences and encounters with the natural and postnatural worlds. Romie enabled me not only to voice my own conflicting cultural experiences but also to meld the diverse ecological and cultural realities of the contemporary South. While this novel could, hypothetically, take place in a non-Southern setting, I couldn’t have written that version.
MS: There’s a wonderful musicality to your language and your word choices are often especially evocative. Are there any writers whose work, on a sentence level, influence your writing? Who are some writers whose use of language you admire?
JE: I fell in love with Vladimir Nabokov in high school, with Angela Carter in college, and with Thomas Bernhard and English Renaissance literature in grad school. At an impressionable age, I spent obscene amounts of time reading sixteenth- and seventeenth-century gynecological and obstetric texts, which often contained elements of grotesque magic realism. I was a bad poet in high school and a hyperpoetic writer of purple prose in college and grad school. The combination of Bernhardian verbal repetition and baroque Renaissance lit infected my diction for over a decade, making my fiction unpublishable. When I learned to chill out with the linguistic excess, edit for “overwriting,” and focus on narrative craft, I began to publish my work. While linguistic obsession and rhythmic hysteria were at first debilitating, the lingering pathologies sometimes work for me.
MS: The main character is a recently divorced taxidermist whose business is failing and who spends a lot of his time drunk, drug-addled, and watching Internet porn. (In other words, he’s nothing like you!) How did you go about creating this narrator and was it difficult to inhabit his mind?
JE: First of all, thank you for assuming that I’m nothing like Romie, though I do envision him as my inner hick animus. Ripping off Flaubert, Romie Futch, c’est moi! The Wilds is a feminine and often feminist collection of stories in which all of the main characters are female except for a transgender robot who struggles with various socially constructed gender personas. While inhabiting an assortment of female narrators, my repressed macho-hesher-badass-warrior side was struggling to burst out onto the page. Ironically, I was pregnant with a female child when Romie was conceived, my estrogen levels at their height. During this time, Romie’s voice came very naturally, perhaps because I’ve internalized the “male gaze,” perhaps because I’d hitherto repressed literary masculine gender performances, perhaps because I listened to a lot of metal and pop-prog during my adolescence, male-dominated musical genres that often glorify a contrived masculine swagger. On the other hand, Romie’s encounter with some of aspects of academia are similar to my own as an “outsider” who has spent much of her “career” on the margins in adjunct and instructor positions. While Romie feels liberated by theorists like Foucault, who give him tools to understand postmodern subjectivity and the power of corporations and other institutions, he’s also suspicious of the graduate students who design the tests he takes.
MS: What kind of research, if any, did you do for the book?
JE: When I wrote the original (failed) short story, I did a lot of research on potential methods for downloading information into the human brain, finally settling on a blend of various techniques. In the novel, the technicians use bioengineered brain parasites (Naegleria fowleri) to revamp Romie’s brain, making it compatible with the master biological computer and “wetware” accessories that transfer data “nanobiotically,” i.e., by rebuilding neural pathways and altering the biological structure of the brain with swarms of microscopic bioengineered robots. The original short story also contained a shorter version of an ATV sporting event that I expanded for Romie, and I vaguely remember surfing the net for sites and forums on which real ATV enthusiasts voiced their passion for quads (four-wheelers), used specific terms for stunts and driving techniques (“whoops” and “monster jumps”), and demonstrated a surprising eloquence in their description of XXXtreme driving. In order to narrate Romie’s epic quest to slay a genetically modified feral hog called “Hogzilla,” I conducted research on recombinant DNA technologies and boar hunting in general, spending hours on hog-hunting websites and message boards, bowled over by the knowledge, wit, and lyricism of some of the “tusker” enthusiasts who ranged from primitivists who worked with arrows and spears to “night hunters who installed remote-operated corn feeders and rifle-mounted target illuminators.” I pored over gun catalogs and online hunting supply emporia, which sold, among other things, special hog attractant potions like “Feral FireTM Sow in Heat Spray.” Finally, since Romie is a taxidermist, I continued earlier research on this art, finding online taxidermy supply stores to be the most useful and surreal, an elaborate deconstruction of nature into artificial “lifelike” components, many of which had vivid details and poetic names. For example, among the thousands of products offered by McKenzie Taxidermy Supply are “WASCO Wild Boar Eyes . . . [, which] feature an accurate oval-shaped pupil with the precise corneal bulge and over-sized white base.” When the enhanced Romie Futch returns to his hometown ready to revolutionize his taxidermic dioramas into elaborate, animatronic “postnatural” extravaganzas, he “deconstructs” the “nature-culture binary” and questions the “Disnifeyed . . . farce” of “lifelike mounting styles,” enterprises that are, ironically, already embedded into the process of taking an animal apart and putting it back together again.
MS: Technology of all kinds appears in Romie Futch, both on a large and a mundane scale. Can you talk a little about how the book is commenting on the ways in which technology affects our lives? How far-fetched do you think this story really is, in terms of the kinds of scientific experiments being conducted today by major corporations?
JE: The novel’s epigraph from Donna Haraway’s Simians, Cyborgs, and Women, a quaint quote from the end of the last millennium, sums it up pretty well: “By the late twentieth century, our time, a mythic time, we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we are cyborgs.” When I was teaching the class on dystopian lit, we often distinguished between “clean” dystopias and “dirty” dystopias: i.e., between soulless efficient robotic cities and feral postapocalyptic scenarios. To me, our current reality (especially on a global scale) seems like a mix of the two: clusters of sophisticated technologies that are either on the rise or entropic, changing contexts and meaning. Romie Futch becomes a commodified cyborg when his brain is enhanced with computer technologies, and every facet of his existence is mediated by corporate technologies—the social world of E-Live (this novel’s version of Facebook); the scattered contract research organizations that hop between the commercial and academic realms, inventing half-assed products and marketing them before their properties and potential functions are fully understood; the biotechnologies that change the nature of flora and fauna, turning plants, animals, and, finally, humans into products. In the novel, even the hog-hunting scene is rife with newfangled gadgets like remote-operated feeders and infrared tracking lights. In the “real” world, technologies sometimes work, sometimes they malfunction, and, in my opinion, they will never reach a stable totality and have a coherent meaning in human lives. The future is already here; the future will never be here. Perhaps Romie’s obsession with bagging Hogzilla, a genetically modified feral hog escaped from a biotech lab, is symbolic of the human desire to control technology not only physically but also mentally. Framing his hunt in terms of the classic epic quest gives Romie’s life (and hopefully my novel) a narrative coherence that reality lacks. Corporations are clearly the most powerful entities on the planet, inundating every facet of human life through marketing, technological developments, the commercialization of natural resources and the infiltration of national, state, and local governments. Nevertheless, I don’t envision them as an organized ruling class, i.e., as a dark international illuminati in cahoots, but more as a global clusterfuck of constantly shifting alliances due to marketing patterns, availability of resources, unstable and surreal economies, and human revolutionary pushback.
MS: What are you working on now?
JE: I’m currently writing a novel set at a surreal American research institution in a semidesert region on the Horn of Africa or the Arabian Peninsula, the habitat of hamadryas baboons, who play a central role in the narrative. The main character studies a troop of hamadryas whose feeding and social habits have changed due to their foraging from fast food dumpsters. The novel chronicles the primatologist’s research, her encounters with others scientists and artists at the institution, and also the research facility’s relationship with a fictional oil-rich country (I haven’t pinpointed the region and its politics yet, though the institution is financed by an international oil conglomerate). To prepare for this novel, I spent a summer studying hamadrayas baboons at the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro, which boasts the largest troop in the country.
She is currently working on a novel about Hamadryas baboons, a species she has studied as an amateur primatologist. She teaches English and Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, where she lives with her daughter and husband. She and her spouse, John Dennis, are founding members of the music collective Grey Egg.
In Vanessa Blakeslee’s debut novel, Juventud, lost love and family secrets are set against the backdrop of sociopolitical upheaval. The story follows Mercedes Martinez from the dangerous activist meetings of her youth to her search for connection in a world haunted by the conflicts of her past.
I recently spoke with Blakeslee about the drug war in Colombia, her fascination with family photographs and how people are shaped by the negative spaces in their lives.
Hunter Choate: The novel functions both as a coming-of-age-story and an exploration of political turmoil. What attracted you to that pairing? Do you see parallels between the emotional traumas of youth and the social upheaval explored in the book?
Vanessa Blakeslee: In many respects, I see this novel as an homage to the 19th century literary fiction that I read voraciously as a teenager — tragic romances with twisted plots and brooding heroes, from Wuthering Heights to nearly everything by Thomas Hardy, as well as classic murder mysteries such as Rebecca. Hemingway was also an early influence, especially The Sun Also Rises and his short stories set in Spain. I, too, am a born traveler, and I admired how he could write from inside another culture, and do it well. When the premise for Juventud took root in my imagination and I knew the story largely took place in Colombia, I had two main concerns: 1) how to set high dramatic stakes (life or death) and 2) how to keep my own interest in the material for the months or years it takes to write a novel. Many Americans have a cursory, if erroneous, understanding of the conflict in Colombia, gleaned from sound bites they’ve picked up about the drug war, cartels, perhaps the FARC, but little else. The more I researched the history of the guerilla movement and the formation of the cartels, and the key incidents on the timeline, the more riveted I became in telling a story that more truly captures the sociopolitical landscape of Colombia — one that shines a light on the atrocities of the paramilitaries as much as the guerillas, and includes the millions of displaced alongside the wealthy. The depictions we’re so used to seeing from the movies play up the “sexy danger” of Latin America: armored cars, bodyguards, lavish estates, gorgeous women. Those exist in Juventud, too, but in a way that I hope is much more balanced, lyrical, and revelatory.
So I had my young lovers and I had my war. Are the two inextricably linked? I think so, if you look at how in the novel, the Millennial generation mirrors the backstory of Diego and Paula, Mercedes’ parents. It is the trauma of the poverty surrounding a young Diego — and yes, poverty is a trauma — that feeds his insatiable desire to better himself and his family by whatever means necessary. And certainly the FARC’s killing of Uncle Charlie’s family members in his youth (his character is based on the real terrorist, Carlos Castaño Gil) ignites him to raise his “peasant army” in retaliation. These men’s actions directly contribute to the social upheaval in the book, and conversely, so do the idealistic actions of the young, devoutly Catholic brothers, Emilio and Manuel, who lead the social justice group, La Maria Juventud. Hence the inevitable clash. After leaving Colombia, Paula dedicates her life to helping victims in a similar zone of decades-long conflict, Israel and Palestine; Mercedes is driven to facilitate change but via a different career field, that of State Department policy and journalism. It’s fascinating how the female characters assert themselves in such different ways than their male counterparts — the men’s response is to band together and “rally the troops” so to speak. While the women’s response to righting wrongs is more of a spiritual journey: to each do her own small part, whether her path is psychotherapy, dance, foreign policy, or writing.
HC: References to photographs appear at key points in the novel, including the opening. What is it that elevates a photo to the sacred? How would the novel be different without these visual links to the past?
VB: I’m glad you pointed out the photographs, for several reasons. I hadn’t before thought of them as sacred, but for a household where few photos exist, in the case of Diego and Mercedes Martinez, those images would carry a greater weight, indeed. Without the photos, especially the one at the beginning, I suppose Mercedes could carry Manuel’s CD with her yet, and play his songs. But except for lyrics, how a song sounds is difficult to capture in literature. I found the task cumbersome enough to describe the guitarists and dancers performing without the language sounding stilted or clichéd. And I don’t know if it would be plausible that she’d still be carrying around Manuel’s CD after all those years from laptop to laptop, uploading his old songs to iTunes. I don’t know about you, but I’ve lost track of more CDs than I can count!
But I digress. Invite me over and you’ll catch me spying on whatever pictures are hanging from your refrigerator door, because I’m utterly fascinated by how people choose to display pictures. My first boyfriend’s parents had a lovely home right out of Martha Stewart Living but with zero photos anywhere, and I remember finding this disturbing, coming from a house which practically had shrines in every corner. And certainly I’ve visited plenty of homes where the family portraits fall somewhere in between starkly nonexistent and obnoxious. So from early in the drafts I was drawn to this contrast, and what that might mean. I suspect a home bursting with photos is likely hiding just as much pain as a home featuring none.
Damage flowed from my fingernails, which I’d painted a bright shade of indigo. I was obsessed with indigo back then, a time I can barely reconstruct now. I named my rescue cat El Salvador. That country is the world’s largest producer of indigo. I squandered time back then, down Internet holes. India is a name related to the word “indigo.”
Why was I hell-bent on sabotaging every good thing? Consider Keegan. Keegan stepped up when a ladder truck turned the corner on a very hot day. He’d called for the ladder truck. On the sidewalk, panting, my darling Indigo looked at me accusingly, a stab deep into my heart, identifying my betrayal. Whenever I go into a downward spiral, a ladder truck seems to be somewhere nearby.
But Keegan wrapped me in his wiry arms and assured me that we would climb the steep path to the summit together. He brought me to the cemetery to build up the muscles in my legs, to acclimate myself. We climbed the spiral staircase. Leaning against the parapet, I broke into a smile. Keegan had just told me that he loved me, and I felt something shatter deep inside, a quietly ecstatic shattering accompanied by a sense that I’d been waiting forever to hear that something shatter, break apart.
Downstairs again, we chanced upon a body. I touched the body with my fingertips and suddenly breath flowed from its mouth. As a part of me knew must happen. Our phones declined to place a call, out of respect for the interred. Keegan told me what to do. Keegan had told me that he loved me and a part of me knew that I’d just lost Keegan.
I sprinted down the hill at breakneck speed, dodging the grave markers that the earth had begun to swallow, the moss-covered markers and all the dead beneath them oriented so as to be gazing blindly at the sky.
I was lost. A gate was somewhere, an exit out into the street and away from that lethal rasping breath I’d brought into being through my hesitant touch. I couldn’t find the gate. I ran from path to path until I came upon a vehicle, an ordinary parked car, in the shade of ornamental trees, beneath the ornamental clouds, the summer afternoon clouds.
Later, Keegan told me that the face of the body had changed in hue, from an ashen gray. The mouth had opened and words reached Keegan, but Keegan didn’t understand the words. No matter. By then, Keegan and I were no longer speaking.
I tapped on the window of the car. I did so even though under normal circumstances it was a car whose window plainly said “Do Not Disturb.” An innocent car parked in an isolated glade. I didn’t need to tap a second time. I apologized. I was out of breath.
It was awkward and at the same time my fingernails had tapped the window. I was delivering a message and my messages were always about damage. I watched the couple speed off, flustered, doomed, making a beeline for the exit from the cemetery.
I should have left then, walked out on Keegan, followed the car, gone back to El Salvador, moved the inevitable along, transformed my life so that my messages were all about, say, azure.
But instead I retraced my steps—I climbed again to the base of the tower and I fell in with Keegan and the reviving man. From the top of the tower everything looked different: the city was revealed as a dense forest in which tiny clearings had been made to accommodate the lives of hemmed-in people. At the base, the forest contracted into a park laced with winding paths. Keegan radiated the obliviousness of someone who has just professed his love. Soon we heard sirens. A little later, we watched as a bright red ladder truck attempted the impossible and bent itself around the switchbacks on its way to where we huddled.
Fortunato Salazar lives in Los Angeles, and his writing is or will soon be in/at Guernica, New World Writing, McSweeney’s, Nerve, Mississippi Review, Los Angeles Review and elsewhere.
There are dozens of memoirs about raising children with Down syndrome, hundreds of blogs, a galaxy of status updates. But in the beginning was Angel Unaware.
Angel Unaware was written by Dale Evans and published in 1953. Evans, an actor, celebrity, and writer, was married to Roy Rogers, with whom she starred in movies and TV shows. Robin, their daughter, was born in 1950 and died at the age of two, with an unrepaired heart defect, from mumps encephalitis.
Angel Unaware is a vision of care in another time. Written before the advent of prenatal diagnosis and the disability rights movement, Evans faces enduring questions in a lost context: How is this person to be imagined? What is her place in the world? What does it mean to care for her? And why tell her story?
To a secular reader in 2015, Angel Unaware is a spectacularly weird book. It is written in the first person, with Robin as narrator. As Evans explains in the Foreword, “This is Robin’s story. This is what I, her mother, believe she told our Heavenly Father shortly after eight p.m. on August 24, 1952.” The book asserts that Robin was “a tiny messenger,” sent by God “on a two-year mission to our household.” Evans, then, becomes a New Journalist of heaven, offering an imaginative reconstruction of a divine interaction. Angel Unaware was intended (and received) as an inspirational memoir, but from a genre point of view, the book is a hybrid of science fiction, Westerns, sermon, and reporting from the Beyond.
Angel Unaware tries to depict a stable world: one in which God has a plan, suffering has a purpose, Heaven is for real, and the meaning of experience is clear. But reality keeps breaking through, and so, in practice, the narrative projects ambivalence, uncertainty, and unresolved contradiction. The book’s central conceit, for example, treats heaven as fact, time- and date-stamping Robin’s words from the eternal. And yet when Evans writes, “This is what I, her mother, believe she told our Heavenly Father,” the word “believe” wavers between reportage and invention. It implies knowledge of a literal heaven, while highlighting the mother’s inability to know for sure.
Evans’ device also offers an early example of a parent resisting a purely medical narrative. By giving the exact time and date of Robin’s words, the sentence transforms the monotone of medical record (“the patient died shortly after eight p.m….”) into a transcendent rebirth. Death is a new beginning, a deeply Christian idea that is mirrored by the book’s form: Robin’s death occurs in the Foreword, prefiguring her rebirth as text, as a message and a voice.
The book’s approach also implies a deep ambivalence about Robin herself: Evans can only assert her daughter’s value by erasing her, can only write her by overwriting her. Angel Robin, in Dale’s telling, is idealized: sweet, thoughtful, childlike, intelligent, wise. She is naïve about history: “I wondered what Mongoloid meant. They seemed to think it was something awful.” She is Christlike, a child that redeems, a divine human on an earthly mission. And yet Actual Robin and Angel Robin coexist side by side, unreconciled. They are juxtaposed in the title—“angel” describes the heavenly Robin, “unaware” the earthly one—and the juxtaposition is even clearer in Angel Robin’s memories of language and development: “I had eight big teeth and I could chew crackers, which I called ‘cack-cack.’” A nurse is named only by Robin-as-Human-Baby: “Cau-Cau.” Her inability to speak is couched in fluent sentences; disability is nested in ability.
On a Friday evening in June, stoked by the awesome weather, Chip, Lee, and I were doing tequila shots on the patio of Noah’s Ark Taxidermy. Out on the blood-spattered bricks, we talked about old times—when we’d skip biology and get baked in the parking lot of Swamp Fox High.
“Back when I turned you two dorks on to metal,” said Chip.
“You got it backwards,” I said.
“Yeah,” said Lee. “Romie had that Rush tape.”
“Rush is for pussies,” said Chip.
“Rush wasn’t the only one,” I said, wanting to hash out the differences between King Crimson’s metal moments and the lameness of he-hussies like Mötley Crüe, but, as usual, I found my tongue paralyzed by weed.
“As I recall”—Chip grinned like a donkey—“old Romie was into the Moody Blues.”
When Chip started bellowing “Nights in White Satin,” we all had a decent laugh.
There we were, three bachelors of a certain age, none of us remotely successful. I was a year into my divorce, a fortyish animal stuffer, balding and childless, though pregnant with a beer belly. The heavy-metal mane I used to flaunt had dwindled to a puny ponytail. Bank of America was threatening to seize my house. AAA Financial, who’d “bought my debt,” had, just that morning, offered to “renegotiate” my payment plan. And three irked customers wanted to know when I’d have their specimens stuffed—buck head, mallard, coon—each animal currently chopped and scattered, hides in pickle baths, organs rotting in thirty-gallon Hefty SteelSaks.
Chip Watts, an ex-jock turned pothead turned drunk, had long since flunked out of Clemson and returned to Hampton to marry several festival queens (Watermelon, Okra, Cooter), divorcing one for the other before running to fat and losing his mojo. But that summer he was on Atkins. He’d lost twenty pounds. He popped testosterone supplements like Tic Tacs. Hiding his sagging gut under the pleats of his Duck Head khakis, he pranced around, bragging about how much poon he was pulling, how many ATVs he’d unloaded that week, how many touchdowns he’d scored back in high school, when his body was still a beefcake and he sported a mullet with a body wave.
Chip had always been a talker. He knew how to bait the ladies, how to floor them with tales that featured him wrestling grizzly bears, tracking wild boars over rough terrain, grabbling sixty-pound catfish from their nests and dragging the thrashing monsters to shore with his bare hands.
Lee Decker was a much chiller dude. An aspiring surrealist painter in high school who now painted houses, he was skinny and still had enough hair to show off. An inch or two of sun-streaked shag casually brushed the collar of those olive shirts he ordered from camping catalogs. His smiles came quick, without nervous tics. He slept like a NyQuil-dosed baby and never fussed much over life.
We were in high spirits that evening, just because it was June. The grass was thick, the fruit trees were starting to put out, and a million cicadas buzzed in the pines. I thought I might call my ex-wife, Helen, just to catch up, or at least whip out my phone and check her E-Live status, gawk at her latest round of photos, even though I knew she had certain settings in force to keep my nose out of her butt.
Her relationship status still taunted me: DIVORCED. She still worked at the Technomatic Quick Lab (doing mostly paternity testing, which she hated with all her soul). The girl still enjoyed swimming, moonlit walks, Art with a capital A, and deep-sea creatures (watching them on the Internet, at least). In fact, her latest profile pic was of a vampire squid blinking three thousand feet below sea level, its weird arms covered with threatening spikes. When I first saw it, I choked out a bitter laugh. That was Helen all over: too prickly to hug, sulking in the dark, making herself invisible, but then bam—a burst of light so beautiful it knocked the wind out of your lungs.
“Stop thinking about Helen,” said bastard Chip.
“What makes you think I was?”
Chip raised a wild eyebrow. That day his face seemed to droop from his sticky hairdo. Unlike me, whose hairline receded in a heart formation, exaggerating my widow’s peak with a Dracula vibe more comic than sexy, Chip had a low hairline and was balding from the crown down. His take on the comb-over involved gelling the fuck out of his auburn hair and finger-brushing the clumped bristles straight up, like Billy Idol circa 1983, but with scalp patches galore. He also sported a hick-van-dyke, the facial hair that aging country singers and motorcycle dudes often cultivate to downplay their jowls.
“Y’all ready to rumble?” said Chip, who was already walking crooked—half due to tipsiness and half to a ruptured disc. We piled into his monster Escalade, RATT blaring on the stereo—“Round and Round” mocking me with its stupid lyrics.
I first met Charlie Williams during a poetry festival at Sarah Lawrence College the summer my first book came out. I was there with my brother Michael and our poetry mentors Dorianne Laux and Joseph Millar. I was excited and nervous to meet this man who had written so many poems that seemed to, and did, affect my life: how I looked at love and how I looked at every-day grief. I remember standing outside one of the halls, maybe I was smoking a cigarette, maybe I was drinking coffee and trying to decide which reading I might go to when I heard Joe and Dorianne call my name: “Matthew! Get over here and meet Charlie.”
I was frozen for a second and then grabbed all my nerves up into my hands and walked over. What I couldn’t know at the time was that I was walking over not only to meet a great poet but to enter a kind and benevolent friendship. From then on Charlie became a mentor, on the page, through emails and letters as well as the too brief and not often enough visits to his home in Hopewell, NJ. I knew Charlie was sick, had been sick for a long time, my brother Michael would call after visiting Charlie or meeting him for coffee in Princeton, to pass along a hello from him and to tell me how Charlie seemed: tired or not, thin or not. Still I don’t think I ever considered that he would die. And that is my own insensitivity, that’s my own eight-year-old self not wanting any man who has ever come close to treating me in a fatherly way to die.
Charlie is not on this planet anymore and so I feel the planet spinning a little faster, a little more out of control. I will miss him terribly, this man who once wrote “I’m working as fast as I can I can’t stop to use periods/ sometimes I draw straight lines on the page because the words are too slow/ I can only do one at a time don’t die first please/ don’t give up and start crying or hating each other they’re coming/ I’m hurrying be patient there’s still time isn’t there? isn’t there?” -Matthew Dickman
I’m seven or eight and I dig my hand into the wet sand in search for clams. The water on Playa Guacuco is cool, with small waves that crash so consistently, you could count time with them. My sister, one year younger than me, is doing the same thing. She’s wearing a bathing suit with Minnie Mouse on it. Whoever gets more clams will win one fuerte, a five-bolivares coin. My dad will cook espagetis con guacuco, using the bag full of clams that Emiliana and I gather.
I’m sixteen and I’m asking my friend Jorge if he’s seen the pineapple juice. In my hands is a big plastic cup with ice, Smirnoff and Blue Curaçao. I need the juice to finish making my drink. The car, a 1994 Toyota Samurai (Land Cruiser in America), is backed up into the sand while speakers blare Bob Marley. My first girlfriend, Corina, wears a flowered sarong on top of her yellow bikini. That night we are both flushed and excited as we awkwardly explore each other’s bodies for the first time. She thinks I have already had sex, but it is a lie told to mask my inexperience.
I’m twenty-two and standing on a cliff overlooking the Caribbean. A colony of seagulls are flying so close that I can almost touch them. One of them drops a half eaten snake by my feet. That night we will all laugh at my friend Goza, who has a huge steak in his plate but has hidden it under a mountain of salad. Goza will die two years later under suspicious circumstances and the gathering of young people mourning a close friend is still one of the saddest images I can recall.
I’m twenty-four and my sixteen year old brother, Manuel, has been kidnapped for the first time. My heart is like a war drum, and I can feel my veins throbbing to the beat. Two hours later he comes back in a taxi, the robbers gave him some cab fare so he could get home.
I’m twenty-five and falling in love with a girl. She is intense and confused and cries of rage watching the news. We take part in protests and marches that fill Caracas streets with thousands waving Venezuelan flags. I feel safe in the crowd, but she knows better. She’s been in the front lines before, throwing tear gas canisters back at military police, a vinegar-soaked handkerchief covering her mouth and nose. She knows that tear gas is odorless, but every time she watches the news the pungent smell of vinegar and b.o. comes rushing back. We marry and move to Austin together, we will be back soon, we promise — when things get better.
I’m twenty-seven and separating CD’s in two piles. My ex-wife’s pile is a lot larger. We’ve been to a couple’s therapist twice but we both know we will never go again. I don’t know if the pressure in my chest is mostly due to the sense of failure or the oppressive Austin summer.
I’m twenty-nine and my mom is crying on the phone. My brother is being held hostage by four armed men inside a house. Policemen, who are just as poor as the criminals inside, surround it. Manuel is talking to one of the robbers, asking him to turn himself in; otherwise they might all die in the ensuing firefight. The robber cries and apologizes to my brother for what he has done. After they turn themselves in and my brother is safe, I think about how — if we had been born to the poverty and misery that most in Venezuela are — it could have been us holding the guns.
I’m thirty-two and looking at the Caribbean through an airplane window. I’ve done this trip so many times that when I think of the Caribbean I no longer picture my hand digging for clams. I think of a small blue rectangle 25,000 feet up in the air.
I’m thirty-three and I’m on the phone with my sister. She lives in California. It’s impossible to concentrate on work. My dad is in court, fighting a second lawsuit for being the owner of an opposition newspaper that dares to publish damning information on Venezuela’s Assembly President. My sister is so angry with my father she is no longer speaking to him. She doesn’t understand how he hasn’t left Venezuela yet. That country has gone to shit, she tells me. It’s no use, she says. I don’t understand how she can be so right and so wrong all at the same time.
I’m thirty-four and somewhere in Caracas there’s a long line in front of a supermarket with people trying to buy toilet paper. In Universitario Stadium a nineteen-year-old is having batting practice, scouts say he might be the next Miguel Cabrera. In Petare there’s a fourteen-year-old kid loading a revolver for his older brother. In Juan Griego an old man is mending a fishing net with the help of his nephew. In Miami a young middle class woman, just graduated from law school, is being picked up by her aunt at the airport — she has a job lined up in a coffee shop in Doral. In Maracaibo, a single mom is cleaning the house of an oil executive; tomorrow her son will be the first in their family to graduate from college. On the highway, a group of students wearing masks are burning tires and closing off traffic, a sign reads “release imprisoned students.” This morning my dad is scheduled to go to his weekly mandated court visit as an assurance that he hasn’t left the country while his lawsuit is pending. It’s spring in Austin and there’s a nest with baby birds chirping somewhere in the yard. I can smell the tear gas from across the sea.
Alejandro Puyana grew up in Caracas, Venezuela but lives in Austin, Texas. His work has been published in The Butter and adapted for radio by NPR’s The Texas Standard. He makes a living as a writer for progressive causes and is a sporadic contributor to TheAustin Chronicle. He’s working on a novel about Venezuela.
[ Glyphs ]
I work in the city’s tallest building, so tall its penthouse is completely ensconced in clouds. The man who lives there is a famous recluse, an engineer or a stockbroker who worked his way to the top, but in doing so drove himself mad. He communicates by sending messages through the tubes that connect the city. The messages are innumerable, arriving one after another, written in a language whose words are unknown because the glyphs that might indicate them change with each message. My job is to decipher these glyphs. Some are lazy scribbles, others complex pointillism, but if you analyze them closely enough, a pattern does emerge. It turns out the man is not crazy, nor a recluse. He’s not even rich, he’s just lonely. He says the food up here is bland, the water too minerally. He says he’s disappointed that clouds are just vapor and not the sputum of fat-cheeked angels, as he had once been promised. He says things were better before.
I took pity on him, how could I not? I wrote him consoling messages, constructing special glyphs for the new thoughts and emotions he inspired in me. I told him that things aren’t much better down here, that everything is upside down, that the steam system has been broken for months now, years maybe. I told him about the protests and the complacency that followed. I told him about the dogs, how they all go to the cane fields to die and how no one can explain it. How we too are so very lonely. I told him everything. For a time his messages stopped, and I worried that maybe I had pushed him over the edge. That I had revealed the grass is not greener, but grayer. But then the messages started again, in familiar glyphs more perfect than I could’ve imagined: I work in the city’s tallest building, so tall its penthouse is completely ensconced in clouds.
[ Manifolds ]
I have dedicated much of my time to determining what lies outside the city. The locals are not particularly helpful. They’re always talking about weekend road trips to the lost beaches up the coast, or maybe catching a monorail to the vineyards for a day trip, but when I ask how it was they tell me you had to be there.
Maps are deceptive. Go far enough in any one direction you’ll discover the same streets you’ve already passed: Klein, August, Roman, Tonnetz—names of cartographers who once drew our peninsula as an island, but this is not a mistake. The natives grow restless with themselves. No matter how a gecko thrashes about, there’s always another to mimic it, so that they might tile this bathroom floor.
I board the monorail only to find it is actually a centrifuge, separating our selves from ourselves. The boy sitting next to me is taking his ant farm to school for show and tell, and suddenly it’s obvious why humans can lift so many times their own weight. The monorail keeps accelerating and the ants are now proving the existence of exotic particles that appear to them as wobbling discs. The ants build and raze statues in likeness of the boy, who has since become a manifold.
Even if we did exist in higher dimensions, we wouldn’t. Instead we all share the same memory of a tired woman, crying quietly into her teacup. Her papers stacked under a paperweight—everything in its place, but therein lies the problem. Snow comes to rest on a palm frond, until it doesn’t anymore.
[ Objects ]
Somewhere in the depths of the city is The Object. It’s difficult to say from which epoch The Object originates because it appears in writing from the city’s past, present, and future. Before their languages were subject to the decree of Romanizar, the Xibipiio tribe told the story of qinchibri, a mythical bird whose feathers, when plucked, could draw mountains and forests into being, even animate the spirits of the dead. The conquistadors knew The Object as piña, which they found growing on a bayside beach. It was even sweeter than the cane they would soon cultivate, and it revealed to them, in terrible visions of pestilence and splendor, God’s intentions for mankind. The stockbrokers of our day make pilgrimages to The Object, hoping to read Taurus and not Ursa in its shimmering constellations. Years from now the same men will be stripped of their fortunes and take to the underground. They will trail the musk of sweat and sandalwood through the steam tunnels, rehearsing the speeches they’ll deliver when they do finally find The Object. You took everything from me, they pray as they walk this labyrinth of no entrances or exits.
Is The Object god, some have asked. In a sense, yes—it is whatever we want to see, whatever we need, whether we know it or not. On the nights I follow my yarn into the city’s belly, I find what I’ve been looking for all along. Contained within The Object is a city, so perfect it can only exist in miniature, its glassy surface the same firmament that contains it. Get close enough to this other world and your breath might become its fog, which is to say something whose beauty mustn’t be explained. Remember when you were a child, and you’d spin a globe on its brass axis, let it rotate until you stopped it by placing a finger on the location you were born or where you would die, which are really the same happening, obverse and finely etched as the sides of a coin? That’s when you’ll think to look over your shoulder and there it is, that sad, abstract face in the stars. He’s spinning out of control and there’s nothing to hold onto, no totem, no crystal ball, just the grooves of your own tiny shell.
Nick Greer is writer living in Tucson where he is pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Arizona. His writing has appeared in Anamesa, Cleaver Magazine, and PLINTH. He has received awards, fellowships, and scholarships from the Academy of American Poets, the University of Arizona, Tin House, and the NYS Summer Writers Workshop.
When I was 16 I discovered subculture and went at it voraciously. I wanted to send away in the mail for every zine. I wanted to buy every 7-inch record of every band I heard and liked on WNYU’s New Afternoon Show, or on Terre T.’s show on WFMU. To find those records, I wanted to hit up every record store mentioned as a sponsor on NYU, and I think I made it to most of them (my favorite was Adult Crash on Avenue A). I wanted to go to every all-ages show I could get away with going to at Maxwell’s in Hoboken and, eventually, at venues in the City like Under Acme, the Cooler, and Dumba.
The weird thing was, though I had been a committed reader since forever, my quest for the best of the indie world did not extend to books. In fact, I remember thinking, until well into college, that it was too bad that there didn’t exist similarly DIY subcultures around the publication of literature, that there were no punk rock presses or bookstores where you could go specifically to find the books not everybody knew about. That’s not to say that I didn’t feel self-satisfiedly obscure in my love for Even Cowgirls Get the Blues or for colored girls who have considered suicide… but what moved me was what was inside of those books, not the objects themselves. There was no underground glamour to their means of production.
The fact that I didn’t realize that cutting-edge, punk-rock small-press publishing existed was even weirder because I actually spent a fair amount of time right in the midst of it, at St. Mark’s Bookshop. I think I’d been taken there first by Phil F., the possibly lecherous older stoner who worked at Pier Platters and had befriended me by saying, the second time I went to the shop, “I was just thinking about you earlier today. How did you like that Grifters record?” Or maybe I went there first with Douglas W., also older but definitely not lecherous, just so enthusiastic about music that he made monthly mixtapes of his favorite music and passed them out to all his friends, or jumped up in the middle of dinner to declare we were going right now to get me a copy of Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions… or Can’s Cannibalism because it was actually inconceivable that I should go another day living without having heard them. I wish I could say I remember what either Phil or Douglas had taken me into St. Mark’s to show me, but all I remember is that I went back. It became a regular stop on my circumscribed wanderings through the East Village, before a show or on a weekend afternoon, always done in time to catch the last bus back from the Port Authority.
So what was I doing at St. Mark’s if not soaking up the vitality of the independent literary scene? I think I was looking at magazines. The racks at St. Mark’s were full of music and culture magazines I had never heard of, or had only heard about. And while glossy, non-xeroxed magazines didn’t have the talismanic appeal of the zines I mailordered, they offered testaments that the bands I loved existed, that the queer punk and riot grrrl scenes were made up of actual people who could be interviewed and photographed. At St. Mark’s I bought Chickfactor, Ben is Dead, Raygun. I felt more comfortable standing in front of the magazine racks than I did elsewhere in the store, maybe because elsewhere I didn’t know what else I was supposed to be looking for. St. Mark’s wasn’t a warm, cozy, cats-and-eccentric-salespeople kind of store. It was sleek and austere and very, very cool. I didn’t feel at home there, but at home was the last way I wanted to feel.
Over the years my engagement with literature deepened, and I learned about Soft Skull and Semiotext(e) and the Feminist Press and all the other incredible small presses that I guess I just wasn’t ready to know about in high school, and of course I looked for and found those books at St. Mark’s. It felt like the most perfect serendipity a few years ago when I discovered, in the window of St. Mark’s, a volume of stories by Denton Welch and Jane Bowles, two of my favorite writers, put out by Four Corners Press. When I heard that the shop was about to go under because the rent had been raised a gazillion percent, it seemed, at first, impossible—how could such an institution disappear? Luckily, their community of book lovers who felt the same way rallied, and the shop survived and moved to a new location. I don’t live in New York anymore and I haven’t made it to the new spot yet. I’ll try to go the next time I’m back east. I hope the new shop makes me feel the same way the old one did: a little nervous, out of my element, on the verge of discovery.
Sara Jaffe is a fiction writer living in Portland, Oregon. Her short fiction and criticism have appeared in publications including Fence, BOMB, NOON, Paul Revere’s Horse, matchbook, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. She coedited The Art of Touring (Yeti, 2009), an anthology of writing and visual art by musicians drawing on her experience as guitarist for post-punk band Erase Errata. Her first novel, Dryland (Tin House, 2015) published this month.
It can be tempting to believe you’ll increase the tension of your prose if your characters over-emote: cry, weep, wail, explode with joy. But it’s often more effective to convey emotion with a matter-of-fact tone and highly controlled language.
In this craft talk from our 2015 Summer Workshop, Debra Gwartney discusses ways to allow the reader to feel for herself, rather than be instructed by the writer.
Debra Gwartney is the author of Live Through This, a memoir which was a finalist for the 2009 National Book Critics Circle Award. She has published essays in American Scholar, TriQuarterly, Prairie Schooner, Salon, Tampa Review, Kenyon Review, Crab Orchard Review, The New York Times (“Modern Love” column), and others. Debra is currently a member of the nonfiction faculty for Pacific University’s MFA in Writing program.
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Intrepid eating in the Magic Kingdom with Katie Arnold-Ratliff, from Tin House #56: Summer Reading.
We were a family obsessed. Every spring until I was fifteen, my parents minivanned me and my two siblings from the Bay Area to Anaheim, where we would hole up in a motel and visit Disneyland for a solid week. We never went anywhere else on vacation. I could find my way from Splash Mountain to It’s a Small World even if I were in a coma. I know the fragrance of Pirates of the Caribbean (dank cave, with a singed soupçon of wood smoke), the exact intonation of the Matterhorn’s safety message (“Permanecer sentados, por favor”), and the taste of every dish at every restaurant—because I have eaten it all, twice.
The park’s food was as much an attraction for me as any of the rides. I lived for the churros, the mint juleps, the Mickey-shaped pancakes, the massive turkey legs. But above all, I cherished our annual lunch reservation at Blue Bayou café, where I would order the hallowed Monte Cristo sandwich: an overstuffed turkey, ham, and Swiss creation that gets battered, deep-fried, and dusted with powdered sugar. This greasy love child of croque-monsieur and French toast was, to me, the highlight of the trip.
The glory of the park’s food is what brings me to Disneyland today: I am in LA on vacation and have detoured to Disneyland to revisit the dining options that held my preadolescent self in thrall.
This is the day I will learn that memory is a form of self-deceit.
When I arrive at the Mickey and Friends parking structure with my friend Laura—a foodie of similar enthusiasm, sentimentality, and caloric recklessness—attendants direct us to level “Goofy.” We’re nearly thirty, highly caffeinated, and genuinely excited. We can appreciate irony, sure, but neither of us is too cool for sincere delight. The day before, we’d gone to what Laura called “Secret Breakfast,” which turned out to be a diner hidden inside the Los Angeles Police Academy. As rounds were fired in the shooting range out back, we walked through the lush Spanish-style courtyard and then dispatched our eggs while gazing at photos of fresh-faced cadets from the ’30s and ’40s. It was like we were eating in L.A. Confidential. As Laura and I enter Disneyland, I realize we’ve come here for a similar reason: to be transported.
This is Disneyland’s objective, and food is key to its mission. You return to the quaint Main Street of your small-town childhood (whether you had one or not) via an ice-cream sundae; to the Old West by way of a rack of ribs; or to the pastel splendor of Disney’s animated films with a Technicolor Mickey lollipop. Disney understands that a transcendental experience requires absolute consistency. You won’t see a Haunted Mansion cast member in antebellum dress walking through Critter Country on her way to a smoke break. The illusion must be carried through—visually, musically, olfactorily (the urban legend that they pipe in the scent of waffle cones on Main Street is indeed true), and edibly.
“It’s surprising how good the food is here,” I tell Laura. We’re eating churros while in line for Indiana Jones Adventure; it’s 10:30 AM. “The Plaza Inn on Main Street has the best fried chicken, and this place”—I point to nearby Bengal Barbecue—“does awesome meat skewers.”
“Ooh, fried chicken,” she says.
We do the Jungle Cruise, Enchanted Tiki Room, Haunted Mansion, and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, and then our lunch reservation at Blue Bayou—which is located inside Pirates of the Caribbean—is upon us. We’d gotten coffee and pastries in LA and we ate churros an hour later. We’re full, but forget that. It’s Disneyland. Continue reading
Come join Tin House for a fresh batch of Craft Intensives in our Brooklyn office! The Tin House Craft Intensives are a series of Sunday afternoon classes focused on specific facets of craft, each led by a Tin House editor or writer. Less lecture and more laboratory, the Intensives combine close reading, discussion, and writing exercises to study what makes writing work when it works. You’ll leave with honed writerly chops and a sweet sucker punch of inspiration, ready to write audaciously.
This fall, Helen Phillips will help your flash–and all your fiction–to dazzle; Rob Spillman offers expert advice on establishing authority; Jess Row takes your writing to the next plane with a class on metafiction; and Emma Komlos-Hrobsky leads your work to the frontiers of form. Plus, you’ll take a peek inside our offices,* talk with a Tin House editor, and get a subscription to the magazine.
We want you on board! Applications are rolling, and filling fast, so APPLY HERE A.S.A.P! Final deadline is midnight, September 23rd. Questions? Email Craft Intensives Director, Emma Komlos-Hrobsky, at email@example.com.
*Please note that while we guarantee the intern desk is haunted, cameos by the ghost and the aroma of rose petals are subject to its whims.
During a few years in which I went to bed half-heartedly wishing not to wake up and woke up whole-heartedly hoping to be the person I believed I would someday be, I worked for eight months at the Muscular Dystrophy Association’s Telecommunications Headquarters for the Southwest Chapter, Region 8, calling local business leaders and begging them to be jailed for charity. We were paid $6.75 an hour, not including our state-mandated lunch. We were never to place the phone on its cradle between calls. We had scripts into which we were encouraged to inject our own charm. A rotating cast of twenty-four Outreach Associates sat at long desks lining a warren of rooms connected by riot-proof hallways hung with portraits of Jerry Lewis smiling next to children. Our room sported two tall windows that let us gaze at the office park’s internal courtyard whenever we opened the vinyl mini-blinds, which we were allowed to do but often did not.
My deskmate Raya and I had become friends during training, when we were the only pair who neglected to brainstorm a list of five persuasive interjections for keeping targets on the phone. Raya had the wide-set docile eyes of an herbivore and a cleft in her round chin. A few times each day, as a respite from harassing strangers, we made cheerful scripted conversation with her voicemail. One day at lunch, while we shared Lotaburger fries from a torn-open white paper bag transparent with grease, she told me that she could whistle low in the back of her throat without opening her mouth. She had done so throughout middle school and, she admitted, some years into high school, just to watch her teachers whirl and pace the classroom in frustration. I recognized in her a thing I had suspected about myself, a stubborn, blinking detachment from the splatter of pain, panic, desire, striving, vulnerability, joy, lust, bloodshed, heroism, obsession, grief—something that let her witness without participation the spectacle of human unraveling. I had been thinking a lot about it at the time. I felt I had to monitor this quality the way you watch and wait for swelling to go down.
Raya and I began to carpool to work and go for drinks after. Over whiskey sours with extra cherries at Cowlicks we imitated our boss Marlene and the way she said “Receptionists are your friends,” even though they did not seem to be my friends when I called them in the middle of their morning coffees and said “Hello, has your boss committed the crime of having a big heart?” or “How would you like to see your boss behind bars for good?” or “Hasn’t your boss always wanted the chance to meet Jerry Lewis . . . in the slammer?” In line for the bar’s bathroom we said “Oh-kay” the way Marlene did after the lunches at Souper Salad that amped up her iron levels. When driving home a little drunk we patted each other on the bulge of spine where neck became back, the way Marlene did when she was being encouraging, her rings cold on our skin.
If we got to work before Crystal, who had short blonde dreadlocks and a permanent dignity, one of us would toe her phone’s plug from the wall on the way to fill up our water bottles, but we rarely got to work before Crystal. Her name was at the top of the office whiteboard next to a forest of tally marks and a jaunty malformed star that said Shine—for Muscular Dsytrophy. She wore blue blazers with slip dresses and Timberland boots and at lunchtime she sat alone in the courtyard no matter the weather, eating pasta salad studded with red peppers and breathing deeply. Although Crystal was in her early twenties like the rest of us, she had a dandelion-headed daughter named Mavis, who stared back at her each day from a frame covered in plastic jewels and hot pink foam dolphins I assumed Mavis had cut with safety scissors at the after-school program she attended while her mother reminded targets about the limo ride to and from La Quinta Inn, and the hot appetizers from Chili’s, and the keepsake pictures in prison costume.
We made fun of these keepsakes, which Marlene sometimes printed and taped up near the whiteboard for motivation. At biweekly team meetings, when Marlene passed around glossies of gap-toothed kids enjoying the camp we’d helped pay for, Raya and I had to force ourselves to coo before we passed them along. When Denise from down the hall’s mother died of a heart attack while sitting in traffic and Raya and I caught Denise sobbing in the break room with a knot of white lilies twisted and dripping in her hands, Raya told me she worried she wouldn’t cry for her own mother, and I told Raya I worried I might be secretly cruel, two things we said we’d never said to anyone.
By winter Raya had left for another job, a receptionist’s position (“Receptionists are your friends!” we said on her last day), and without her I only lasted a few weeks. I moved on to no great success but no great failure; sometimes I catch sight of myself in store windows and see evidence of some subtle improvement that by the next moment has lifted like mist. When we stopped calling each other, I still liked to think about running into Raya, liked to decide that she had on a whim or out of passion broken up a series of marriages, that she had adopted a yowling houseful of dogs or moved to Nebraska and made a fortune in fracking, that she had begun following some band and leaning forward in the crowd at overseas shows while sweating from devotion, or scattered her mother’s ashes in the grass of her backyard and stared into the night dry-eyed.
Marta Evans teaches fiction writing at Washington University in St. Louis, where she recently received her MFA. Her work is forthcoming in Fence.
Sagan is best known for her slim, stunning 1954 novel Bonjour Tristesse, published when she was only eighteen. The book quickly became a succès de scandale and Sagan became a celebrity. In the novel, seventeen-year-old Cécile is vacationing on the Côte d’Azur with her widowed playboy father Raymond and has her first romantic experiences with an older boy who is a law student. Anne, a close friend of her deceased mother, comes to visit and Anne and her father fall in love. Cécile comes up with a plan to ruin the relationship and have things return to the laissez-faire ambiance that reigned in their holiday house before Anne arrived.
One of Sagan’s first luxury cars in the 1950s — most likely after the success of Bonjour Tristesse — was a Jaguar XK 140 (or an XK 120 by some sources — in either case, a mega-fast gorgeous sports car with record acceleration speeds from 0 to 60 miles per hour in 10.0 seconds for the XK 120 and 8.4 seconds for the XK 140). Sagan is credited to have said, “Money may not buy happiness, but I’d rather cry in a Jaguar than on a bus.”
The Jaguar was just one of numerous sports cars that she had, including an Aston Martin in which she had a serious accident in 1957. Michael Seidman — author of The Imaginary Revolution: Parisian Students and Workers in 1968 — recounts that someone making a speech asked over the loudspeaker, ”Have you come in a Ferrari, Comrade Sagan?” to which Sagan replied, “No, it’s a Maserati.”
Sagan liked speed. A lot. So much so that she dedicated a chapter to it in her 1984 book of reminisces of famous writers and cherished ideas called With Fondest Regards. In her brief chapter entitled “Speeding,” she writes, “Whoever has not thrilled to speed has not thrilled to life — or perhaps has never loved anyone.” (Over the years, she had a tumultuous love life — two husbands and numerous affairs with both men and women.) She writes about speed as pleasure and this seemed to spill out into other areas of her life that she wrote about in With Fondest Regards: “Games of Chance,” “The Theatre,” and “Saint Tropez.”
Sagan died at age 69 in 2004 and left large debts behind. She also left behind a prodigious output of twenty novels, nine plays, three volumes of short stories, two biographies and many non-fiction collections. And she left behind her personal philosophy, summed up in the last line of “Speeding”: “Well, that is everything that I believe to be true — speed is neither signal, nor proof, nor provocation, nor challenge; it is a surge of happiness.”
Heather Hartley is Paris editor at Tin House and the author of Knock Knock and Adult Swim (forthcoming), both from Carnegie Mellon University Press. Her poems, essays, and interviews have appeared in or on PBS NewsHour, The Guardian, and The Literary Review, among others. She has presented writers at Shakespeare & Company Bookshop’s weekly reading series and lives in Paris.
I had the fortune of meeting Matthew Neill Null at the Jentel Foundation’s residency a couple autumns ago. Looking back, it’s a delight to realize that I was watching him go into his cabin to churn out the pages that would be become this fantastic novel, Honey from the Lion. We couldn’t lure him to movie night. He was as warm as anyone could be, but there was a little blue flame over his head, a spark in his eye. Dude was touched.
Reading it now, you see how the book was a loving and easy commitment. Every page is vital and vivid and rich with history, character, and conflict. A lot of books require the reader’s tacit commitment to the artifice—you push too hard on some and you realize that they are gossamer, that all books might be made of pretty frail stuff. But when you encounter a book like Honey from the Lion, you know you’re knocking on something hard and real.
Which is another way of saying, I can only imagine what it must’ve been like to have this novel pour out of Matt’s head. It’s a beautiful craft. It’s an achieved thing.
Smith Henderson: Some of my admiration surely stems from the overlap of our preoccupations and backgrounds. My father is a logger, so your book is right in my wheelhouse. We’re both from the same kind of calloused-nearly-from-birth stock—yours in West Virginia, mine in Montana. That plaid-collar upbringing makes for a very self-suspicious writer. You always feel like you might be trying to dodge real work with this art crap.
But I’m curious about how your pedigree plays into your work.
Matthew Neill Null: Smith, we get along well because we’re from unloved redneck America, where the best birthday present someone can give you is a chainsaw, followed close behind by a generator. The other day, I saw on the news that a woman from Grafton, West Virginia, shot her husband in the stomach because “she was tired of looking at him.” When the other people in the room got all het up for gun control, I said, “Well, marriage is hard, and marriage in Grafton is even harder. There’s not much to do.”
You’re in Los Angeles, I’m on Cape Cod. In places like Montana and West Virginia, the population loss has been staggering as people have left for cities and suburbs and the military. This is the great story of social change in the last one hundred years of American (and global) life, but it is not discussed. My family has been in West Virginia and southwestern Pennsylvania from the colonies on, and our fortunes have basically shared the boom and bust of extractive industry. We’ve lived in the big shining house, and we’ve been broke. It’s sometimes pointed out that my work wants to comprehend long expanses of time and character, using an omniscience that can go anywhere and see anything, and that comes from a desire to comprehend a longer history than a single human life can provide. A shifting vantage is important to me.
Honey from the Lion takes place circa 1904, when ten million acres of virgin forest were clear-cut in West Virginia in a brutally short span of time, and explores how it challenged and changed the people. The leveling of the old forest upended our social order and created a new political-industrial class. I’m interested in communities, not individual lives. I could never write a Portnoy’s Complaint. I’m allergic to solipsism, my generation’s presiding spirit. I was lucky—in a small place, there’s porosity between classes. I had blue-collar grandparents, but my dad was a small-town lawyer and my mom was a nurse. We socialized with miners and doctors, mechanics and judges, foresters and teachers, old and young, teetotalers and drunks. A great education. The best was the talk. Everyone could hold court. If you stopped at the gas station, it didn’t matter if the line was five customers deep—the clerk wanted to know where you came from, what year you graduated high school, who you’re going to see, etc. In Ireland, I saw the same social dynamic. (Ireland and West Virginia also share the august literary genre of the sheep joke.) The population is thin, and the houses are widely spaced, so when you do meet someone on the road, you share your gossip, news, and jokes in one long gush. Then you move on, still alone.
“Aren’t you glad you don’t live there anymore?” I’m asked from time to time. In some quarters, places like West Virginia are viewed with suspicion, if not contempt, for political and cultural reasons. Personally I’ve found fiction writing to be corrosive to political belief. Ambiguity is the novel’s lifeblood. We have too narrow a conception of what literature should be and how life should be lived. The artist should be a resister of consensus, the last one yelling, “Stop!” Instead, we keep our work between the buoys, offend no one, and choose to be relentlessly middlebrow in our art and palatable in our social lives. “To be everyone’s friend is to be no one’s friend”—one of my characters wonders this before he is killed. Let’s give literature back to the cranks.
When I consider my pedigree, the division between the city and the country comes to mind. Besides a few college towns, the literary culture is New York City, that provinciality on steroids. Anything outside of the I-95 corridor is regionalism, as quaint as grandma’s quilt. Why do we cede American Letters to a handful of corporations that exist on a single concrete patch? In college, I thought I’d be a scholar and write an epic on this urban/rural tension; my touchstones were Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project, Edmund Wilson’s Patriotic Gore, and Susan Howe’s The Birth-mark. It was meant to be a rock cheerily thrown at our conceptions of land use, power, and control; I’d thread Faulkner and the Army Corps of Engineers, Haussmann and Robert Moses, lending libraries and Methodism, turnpikes and slums, Huey Long and the Huguenots, the New Deal Coalition and LBJ. But then I realized I’d have to give twenty years of my life to it, and that like most academic works it would die unread. If I was going to sink that much time into writing, I might as well do novels and have some fun. (I overestimated the fun involved.)
SH: Amen. I think you’re spot on about the narrowing of literature. I always had the sense that I didn’t belong in the world of letters. In retrospect, I was damn lucky that my folks were so working class, but as I was coming up, it sure felt like nothing I had to say was relevant. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve given less and less of a damn.
Speaking of which, we’re also around the same age, and have that same sadness that the world has begun to rapidly disappear. No, I didn’t say “change”—what is here now isn’t the world, but some reduction of it, and I feel the same kind of outrage and astonishment in Honey from the Lion that I know in my bones. That said, the book has a sort of sad inevitability to it, but not resignation. This is all good for art (lucky for us) but you’re a new father, so I wonder about the evolution of your thinking around the deteriorations that will be permanent—if that’s not too depressing to think about.
MNN: My novel is a shout and a warning, but it’s like shouting into a well—will anyone hear it? No. But let’s shout. My characters are culpable; they realize what they’re doing; they will live on in the wake, in that white oblivion of aftermath, but not before trying. Seldomridge the pastor is troubled but brave. Zala sacrifices her own hard-won security. The union men are willing to give up their lives, let the walls catch their blood, be the grease on history’s wheel. It is easy to resign yourself, especially those of us with an ingrained country fatalism, but for my characters, the fever breaks. They try to take the world in hand and bend it like a hoop of iron. Everyone fails in his or her own way, but they have found the will to choose their own destruction. Could you call it a Pyrrhic loss? Better than sad, slow dissolution. Continue reading
Welcome to Tin House’s Bookseller Spotlight, a series of interviews with indie booksellers across the country. Up this week is Anmiryam Budner of Main Point Books.
Tin House Books: What was the first book you read that made you fall in love with reading?
Anmiryam Budner: Like many avid readers, I learned to read quite young so it’s hard to remember my first loves. Some of the books that became a part of the fabric of my reading life early on and that I still recommend are The All-of-a-Kind Family series, and From the Mixed-Up Filed of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. They are still touchstones for many women I meet; secret decoder rings of the bookish of a certain age.
THB: If you could spend the day with a character, who would it be and what would you do?
AB: Temeraire from Naomi Novik’s series of fantasy novels that read like Patrick O’Brien’s Aubrey/Maturin novels, but in which the the Napoleonic Wars are spiced up with the aerial maneuvering of a corps of dragons and their riders. Temeraire, a rare Chinese Imperial Dragon, is the friend we all wish we had—wise, loyal, compassionate, questioning, curious — with the added bonus of being able to fly. And fly around the UK is exactly what we would do before spending an evening discussing recently read books and a smattering of international politics.
THB: How has being a bookseller changed your relationship to books?
AB: It’s intensified the pace of my reading and makes me read with an eye to who else would like a certain book and why. Since I also lead one of the store’s book clubs I’m also reading to discover if a book is “discussible”. I’m also realizing I’ve become more sensitive to the elements within a book that some readers will find disturbing and unpleasant in a way that I don’t when reading for myself.
THB: What’s a recently released book you keep recommending?
AB: Book? A single book? Ha, I usually try to load any unwary questioner with an armful. Some of the recent favorites on my recommendations shelf include: A Reunion of Ghosts by Judith Claire Mitchell, The Last Flight of Poxl West by Daniel Torday, Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller, Re Jane by Patricia Park, The World Before Us by Aislinn Hunter, and The Sunlit Night by Rebecca Dinerstein. I could go on; I have a tendency to colonize other booksellers shelves as well.
THB: What’s a book you love that not enough people know about?
AB: New book: The World Before Us by Aislinn Hunter. At fifteen Jane is minding a five year old who vanishes during an excursion in the woods. Years later she comes face-to-face with the child’s father and tries to understand what happened and how it has affected her life. Interwoven with the present day narrative is the story of another disappearance in the same woods more than a century before. This lyrical tale that unites the present with the past and confronts what it takes to heal from a traumatic event. It’s got a chorus of ghosts, a Victorian mystery and even some lovely connections to the plight of the trapped Chilean miners who were eventually rescued. It’s a quiet book and one that just didn’t make as big a splash as I could have wished for it.
Old Book: Pilgrimage by Zenna Henderson. Classic science fiction that is as wonderful a meditation on belonging and immigration as much literary fiction on the same topic. The stories are beautiful evocations of Henderson’s beloved New Mexico, and confront the combination of community spirit and individual resilience required to survive in a harsh landscape. Her humanoid settlers from another world have special talents — loved the talents when I was eleven, and still do, but now I have fallen for the more human concerns that all her characters confront.
Anmiryam Budner is a reader, writer, knitter, feminist.
From the time I was very young, I knew I’d be famous. This conviction was different from wanting to be famous, or wanting to be good at something that would make me famous. My impending fame was constitutional. It lodged within me and bided its time as I sat in all the plastic chairs of childhood, static electricity pulling my arm hairs delicately away from my body. My ankles knocked loosely against the chairs’ metal legs, and I waited for the future to float up and meet me.
My patience stood in contrast to my fame-seeking classmates, who devised their personalities as advertisements for their future selves. These spotlight-chasers were my best friends. They saw something in me they couldn’t put their fingers on, and so their hands were always on me. Is it normal to knead a friend’s shoulder so robustly, to intuit endless knots in a best friend’s hair and allow one’s fingers to work their way into the waves to debarb them? Normal wasn’t a viable bridle path for any of us. They loved me and I let them.
When I did become famous, it was for doing something I never thought I’d do. It was the thing that when I was doing it I thought less about my fame than when I was doing any other thing. One of my best friends who was famous for her work with crystals had given me a polished crag of lapis lazuli. She’d told me that lapis activated the higher mind and encouraged honesty of the spirit, so I put it on a windowsill in my workroom because I liked the color. It was the color blue of the earth from space—that warm and distant. I missed it even when it was in front of me. The stone filled me with a hopeful desperation that made me produce the best work of my life. It was only a matter of time before the phone started ringing.
For the first few months I played a game I invented: I picked up a magazine from the stack on my coffee table and allowed my body to foam with surprise when I turned the page to a mention of my name or a photo of my face. In the game, I felt famous to myself. Because I had never felt anonymous, the new attention I got from fans and neighbors didn’t bother me. Because my friends had never befriended me disinterestedly, I wasn’t suspicious of my increased popularity. I became known for always wearing a startling blue.
Q: Do you think being famous is the same as being loved?
A: I think being famous is a form of love. I think wanting love isn’t a way of getting love.
Q: Do you consider fame to be an extra or an essential part of your daily life?
A: Soon after becoming famous, I bought a farm on 100 acres. The real estate agent told me that the barn—my current workroom—has the capacity to hold 40 grand pianos.
Of my dear old friends who are now also famous, I see many of them misplacing aspects of their former selves. They are no longer from Florida, they never did stints as accountants. They never loved women. Sometimes, the women they loved come to me and ask me what they should do: Should they go to the media? Should they try the talkshows? I tell them the sort of fame they’d gain from doing this would likely be unflattering and aggravatingly long-lived. I offer to name them as my former lovers at the next available opportunity, and most of them take me up on it.
My sex life, since you’re wondering, is as fine as it’s ever been. I’m far from lonely. I keep my hair long enough to build up some knots.
Q: Where were you when you first realized that you would be famous?
A: When I was three years old or so, I was out to dinner with my parents in the city where we lived. A woman came up to us and gave my parents a business card. She said that she was a photographer, and that she was making a book of photographs of children in the neighborhood. Some days later, my parents took me to her studio. They sat on a couch to the side and were offered soft drinks while the stylists dropped me on a tall stool, flipped my hair back with gel, clipped on heavy pearl earrings. They dabbed on some makeup. Instead of a shirt they wrapped me in a feather boa that they made to fly around by pointing a fan at it. Most of this I know from photos and from what my parents told me. What I remember most is that the fan blew a hard wind and the feathers of the boa flew around me, like a bird trying to take off, though the photographer had asked me to keep very still.
Sara Jaffe is a fiction writer living in Portland, Oregon. Her short fiction and criticism have appeared in publications including Fence, BOMB, NOON, Paul Revere’s Horse, matchbook, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. She coedited The Art of Touring (Yeti, 2009), an anthology of writing and visual art by musicians drawing on her experience as guitarist for post-punk band Erase Errata.
As ever, the Tin House staff spent the end of its summer catching up on new releases, finally reading Scandinavian classics, chilling out with jazz, and—oh, right, visiting the pencil store:
Emma: A New York Times article alerted me to the presence of an all-pencil, all the time shop in my midst: CW Pencil Enterprise, on Forsythe Street in Manhattan. I made a visit, and it’s great. My list of favorite holidays ranks thus, in ascending order: 5.) Plath’s birthday 4.) The Oscars 3.) Valentine’s Day 2.) Halloween 1.) Back To School Shopping Day, so you can imagine my feelings about a store that sells nothing but the best and strangest stationary from around the world. I went home with a Big Dipper, three Bugles, an eraser shaped like a river stone, a Blackwing, an Edelweiss, and a Maharaja wrapped in a pink marbleized paper, plus a Wolverine Boots pencil that fate dealt me via the store’s vending machine. But the real gift of CW Pencil Enterprise that keeps on giving was a podcast recommendation from the store’s owner, Caroline Weaver, which she made while wrapping up my haul. Apparently my Bugles were very on-point having recently been featured in Erasable, a pencil podcast, because there is such a thing, and it is also great. Episodes feature check ins-on what the hosts are drinking and what they’re writing with, cameos by Weaver herself (no introduction necessary, evidently, for those who’d be tuning in), and talk of incendiary plans to crash pen conventions. Highly recommended for the pencil-committed and the casual scribbler alike.
Heather: Jazz, calypso, swing, post-punk—Italian trumpeter, singer and composer Roy Paci has played a lot of just about everything at some point in his long career and with great verve and charisma. He’s worked with countless bands, musicians and DJs including Manu Chao, Gogol Bordello and Shantel. In 2002 he formed his own band, Aretuska, and there’s a fresh sound to his music that is both traditional and super new. His version of “Cantu siciliano” rocks in any and all seasons and his suave “Bonjour Bahia” is excellent. Paci’s tunes are a superfine and smooth way to start September.
Cheston: For as much as I pride myself on being punctual, I’m a persistent latecomer, culture-wise. I often have to be practically girded by recommendations before I’ll give in. And since I finished The Long Ships, I’ve been kicking myself for not having succumbed earlier. This isn’t likely news to anyone but me, but the book’s a faux Nordic saga set in the 10th century, written by the Swedish writer Frans Bengtsson and originally published in two parts in 1941 and 1945. It follows the adventures of a man named Orm, who at the book’s beginning is kidnapped by Vikings and has to win their respect. I don’t want to despoil any of the book’s many pleasures by summarizing them here, so consider yourself goaded.
Tony: I remember that morning at AWP when Cheston—lacrosse shorts hanging off those sturdy thighs, hangover musk wafting from his Air-BnB’d bedroom–clutched a stack of manuscript pages, looked at us terrified, and went on and on about the 10K-word story he’d just read: a story that painted a not-unsympathetic portrait of a child-porn addict. Not surprisingly, I had some doubts. But that piece, “Dark Meadow,” became one of my favorite’s that appeared in Tin House, and my favorite in Adam Johnson’s excellent new collection of similarly long-ass short stories, Fortune Smiles. I don’t think there’s a miss in the book (and it’s particularly fun to read a story that nods at “Dark Meadow”‘s origin), but someone should teach an entire master’s class on one of Dark Meadow’s early sentences—the one that sent shivers down my spine, and I’d wager it was the one that filled Cheston’s sleep-boogered eyes with terror: “But I’ll admit this now, because this is going to be a certain kind of story: the Cub activates.” [We all remember AWP '14 differently, but I recall walking in on Cheston reading "Dark Meadow" at night, alone, and knowing looking at him that he needed a hug he wasn't going to get. The lacrosse shorts thing is accurate, though. —Ed.]
Meanwhile, the interns have had a busy month, too:
Jess: I just saw The End of the Tour, the film adaptation of David Lipsky’s Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, which itself is a transcription of a few days–long conversation between Lipsky and David Foster Wallace. Lipsky was interviewing Wallace for a Rolling Stone profile that never ran, and it’s pretty easy to see why the editors decided to chop it; Wallace’s everyday speech (so, excepting, of course, his excellent 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College), circular and complicated and tangential, is nearly impossible to distill to the two- or three-sentence chunks that profiles require. But the material is perfect for a book and even more perfect for a film, as the dialogue comes, literally, straight from the source and his sweat-hiding headband. I really loved the film, and if you’re worried about Jason Segel playing your hero, I understand you, I was you once, but please go see the film anyway and count the ways you are wrong. See it for the Alanis Morrisette talk and for Segel-as-Wallace saying “Mi Pop-Tart es su Pop-Tart.” It’s delightful, but it’s also soul-crushingly sad to be reminded that we’ll never get more brilliant, empathetic work from Wallace.
Nicole: This August there was a lot of youth, but very little beauty. First-up was Ottessa Moshfegh’s much-anticipated debut, Eileen. Moshfegh, known for her intense, dark short stories does not disappoint with her descriptions of the disturbed mind hiding behind young Eileen’s death mask. Next up was Geoff Dyer”s 1980′s dole memoir The Colour of Memory which may have my favourite opening paragraph of all time: “The weather was getting people down. I wasn’t keen on the weather either but what really put a dampener on things was being thrown out of my house and sacked from my job.” Finally, Thomas Morris’s brilliant debut We Don’t Know What We Are Doing, a collection of interlinked short stories set in the Welsh town of Caerphilly. A personal favourite is “Fugue”—the familiar story of a disaffected millennial returning to her hometown becomes something unexpected and twisted.
Cameron: Modest Mouse defines so much of my emotional, spiritual, and existential background that I am inescapably—and at times somewhat pathetically—a “die-hard.” I remember lying in the bed of my family’s RV in the sixth grade imagining my then (twelve-year-old) girlfriend waving her hair seductively on the beach. I was staring at the pocket-sized swim team photo she had given me and listening to “Float On” for my first time.
Twelve revolutions around the sun later and here I am: still in love . . . with a band. In Strangers to Ourselves, lead singer of Modest Mouse, Isaac Brock, pines for our common thread as humans and our relation to the natural world. Known and celebrated for his profound, penetrating, and shrewd lyrics, Isaac’s words have made hairs stand on my back more than once. And once again, their new record is a miracle in intellect: it masks tragedy with exotic drum sections and metaphor; it cradles you in sweet, abstract nostalgia, acknowledging the coyotes that still tiptoe untroubled through the great forests. The record makes me feel as though I’ve returned to my private Catholic middle school: my stiff collared shirt tucked under my green shorts and brown, dress-mesh belt, my converse too big for my feet as I listen dutifully to my sagacious teacher. (I’ll always be twelve when listening to Modest Mouse.) Isaac’s guru advice by the end is to find a fence to lean on, rub your eyeglasses clean, and be brave, because the life you put out will produce the world around you.
Claire: I have nothing but admiration for My Body is a Book of Rules, the shimmering new autobiography by Elissa Washuta: Open, ruthless, and more self-critical than any other non-fiction writer I’ve read recently. The book is both dark and hilarious, sometimes in the same sentence. Even when the events of the narrative seem to repeat themselves, it isn’t an editorial oversight or sloppy writing; the repetitions are signals of what matters, the writer picking them up again, holding them at a different angle, searching for new answers. It feels honest and intimate. Maggie Nelson writes in The Argonauts: “I do not yet understand the relationship between writing and happiness, or writing and holding.” Washuta writes with the same urgency and fiery curiosity. A gift for those who appreciate a good autobiography and fine, precise writing.