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He couldn’t sleep. Beside him, the woman had shrugged free of the covers. Even in the dark, he could make out the rise of her hip and the long descent of her leg toward the blanket rumpled about her feet.
The man eased himself from the bed with both hands, hushing the creak of the mattress as he rose. The wooden floor, though, groaned under his foot. He knew the reason: the plywood beneath the oak strips had too few nails marrying it to the joists. In the first apartment he had rented after leaving home, his grandfather had explained to him the bowing of the floor in the entrance hallway; like any craftsman offended by imperfection, the retired carpenter had cursed the slipshod work. That was a long time ago, the man thought, motionless beside the bed.
The woman did not stir, so he took another step. His arms swept the darkness like a blind man’s as, wary of furniture, he felt his way through the unfamiliar room until he found the window. Concealing his nakedness behind the velvet folds, he curled back the edge of the curtain and checked his car, parked on the street below. The rundown neighborhood was growing fashionable with the opening of a few galleries and, just a month ago, a chic café two blocks over, but enough vagrants still haunted the area to make one uneasy after dark. He wondered why she would live here. She was an attorney, after all. She could afford more.
As he returned to bed, the floor creaked again. The subflooring, he remembered, that was what his grandfather had called it.
“Can’t sleep?” Her voice was tender, groggy.
“New bed,” he explained.
“Come get used to it,” she invited, pulling back the sheet for him.
Hunched over to find the mattress, he felt his way through the dark. His hand brushed the woman’s ankle, and she rolled onto her back.
He must have fallen asleep again afterward, because when the radio suddenly clicked on at 6:00, he was startled by the voice announcing that during the night, our bombs had begun to fall on Baghdad. Early reports indicated that not a single plane had been shot down. After months of ultimatums, the war was finally underway.
The woman was turning toward him, to kiss he guessed. Over her shoulder, he saw the light beginning to seep in along the edges of the thick curtain. She snuggled in the hollow of his shoulder.
“Maybe we should call in sick,” she whispered, nuzzling her face against his chest.
Just after lunch, he telephoned her.
She was pleased to hear from him. “Most guys, they don’t call so soon.”
He knew it wasn’t supposed to be cool, getting in touch the next day. It might make him look desperate.
Fuck it, he thought. “How about dinner?”
“When and where?” She wasn’t playing coy either.
“I’ll pick you up at seven.”
“Make it eight,” she told him. “No, we’d better say nine. One of the partners is going to want me to hang around late.”
“Nine at your place.”
They never made it to the restaurant. Instead, about eleven, they wrapped themselves in sheets and padded barefoot into her kitchen. He made an omelet with goat cheese and onions while she opened a bottle of Pinot Grigio. “It’s all I had in the fridge,” she explained, handing him a glass.
He turned on the little TV next to the food processor. The news had just begun.
The bombardment continued in Baghdad. Special forces were operating freely in the north with the help of the Kurds. Armored columns leading convoys of infantry had launched an invasion at dawn from staging areas in Kuwait. Resistance was crumbling, the White House assured the country.
The woman flicked a switch on the side of the television, and a cursing Iraqi cradling a dead baby in his arms seemed to be sucked into the pinprick of white light that remained in the center of the screen for a moment before it, too, faded to darkness. “It’s so depressing,” she apologized.
He eased the omelet from the pan onto a large plate.
She was impressed. “You’ve done this before.”
The next day, and the day after that, they spent the night together. At one point, he started from sleep, unsure in the darkness where he was. But little by little, he got used to her bed.
And eventually, though this took a good deal more time, he no longer noticed the groan of the floor underfoot.
It turns out, as we all learned over the next nine years, you can get used to anything.
An O. Henry Award winner, John Biguenet is the author of The Torturer’s Apprentice and Oyster, with two new books coming out this fall: The Rising Water Trilogy and Silence. More info at http://www.biguenet.com.
June in our Portland offices has been dominated by a heat wave that we’re all really into whining about. Whether escaping the heat by heading to the movies or embracing it with a good book by the river, here are a few of our early summer faves.
The alternative, of course, is not to go outside at all, like the family in a current staff favorite documentary:
Jakob: The Wolfpack documents the very strange story of the Angulo brothers, who along with their sister and mother, spent 14 years confined to their Lower East Side apartment, by a paranoid and controlling father. Allowed outside only once or twice a year, the brothers spent their time watching and brilliantly reenacting movies (they own thousands). In 2010, inspired by The Dark Knight, one of the boys snuck out and caused a full-blown rebellion. It was during an early group outing that director Crystal Moselle first caught them running through the East Village, dressed like characters from Reservoir Dogs. They struck up a friendship based on a mutual love of film. This story is obviously heartbreaking, but also very touching. The brothers are extremely talented and they live as if in a film: quotes and spot-on accents abound. Their attention to costuming is especially mind-blowing. (Where did those orchard outfits come from?) I don’t want to spoil anything, here, but Moselle met the family during a huge shift, a magnified case of typical adolescent discovery and defiance. There are many unanswered questions—Moselle skims over some of the darker aspects—but that feels okay to me. I have no doubt that the brothers, filmmakers themselves, will explore those themes someday.
Not all dads are Oscar Angulo, though. June saw Father’s Day come and go, and left us finding the good dad stuff in everything we read:
Thomas: 2015 is becoming my Year of Re-Reading Mason & Dixon. I take breaks now and then for shorter, easier books, but Mason & Dixon is, somewhat surprisingly, the emotional core of the year. I’m taking my time with it because it’s so funny, so complex and smart, but mostly because beneath all that Pynchon stuff, it’s a genuinely moving novel. For instance, among the dick jokes, Jesuit conspiracies, robotic ducks, talking dogs, and drinking songs, Pynchon dedicates a stretch of the novel to the baker Charles Mason Sr. and his namesake son, the baffling stargazer:
“What happens to men sometimes,” his father wants to tell Charlie, “is that one day all at once they’ll understand how much they love their children, as absolutely as a child gives away its own love, and the terrible terms that come with that,— and it proves too much to bear, and they’ll not want it, any of it, and back away in fear. And that’s how these miserable situations arise,— in particular between fathers and sons. The Father too afraid, the Child too innocent. Yet if he could but survive the first on rush of fear, and be bless’d with enough Time to think, he might find a way through….” Hoping Charlie might have look’d at him and ask’d, “Are you and I finding a way through?”
I haven’t been a father and can’t know how true this rings for all of them, but I’ve been a son all my life and sometimes probably a baffling one, so I thank my dad (and his dad and his dad’s dad—whose namesake I am—both good and loving fathers) and all the other dads who survived the fear and took the time and found a way through.
That may even apply to Oscar Angulo. Passing judgment is tough work, even as a viewer, as Michelle learned while watching one of TV’s most talked about new shows:
Michelle: After watching the first season of Rectify I am shattered. I need a breather of sweet stupidity and ice cream but I also can’t wait to return to it. The most impressive thing to me about this show—about a man who is released but not exonerated of a rape and murder form 19 years ago—is that it makes you face up to how hard it can be to look a person in the eye and maintain some deep judgment or distance about him. You don’t really know if Daniel, the released man who may still face a new trial, is a innocent or not of that old crime, but you do know the truth of his other actions and those of other people, and somehow you still can’t quite feel settled about any of it. It’s tough stuff, but beautifully done.
Heavy. Speaking of tough stuff beautifully done, Summer can also be a time to push yourself into unfamiliar territory.
Meg: In her 2003 essay “Someone Reading a Book is a Sign of Order in the World,” Mary Ruefle writes, “There is a world which poets cannot seem to enter. It is the world everybody else lives in.” I think it’s equally fair to say that poets live in a world that some readers do not know how to enter, and I am certainly one of them. Poetry has always intimidated me. I know if I like a poem, but I rarely know why or if that means the poem is any good. So last month, I decided to try to enter that world and read Mary’s Selected Poems. I won’t attempt to discuss the work, but I will say that after reading a book of her poems, any world that Mary Ruefle lives in is a place I want to be.
Meanwhile, our interns are feeling the summer crush, too:
Raisa: Summer officially means making a dent on all the books/music/movies that are on my list. I’ve finally had time to see Italian film La Sapienza, listen to The Vaccines’ What Did You Expect From The Vaccines, and read Katherine Larson’s collection of poems Radial Symmetry. But I’d like to give a shoutout to Carson McCuller’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Mick Kelly is the tough tomboy I’ve always wanted to be, and her skinned knees and loose trousers are pretty much the ideal uniform for summer. McCullers’ interrogation of loneliness, especially the ways we become connected through loneliness, is brilliant (plus, she was 23 when she wrote it, which is both inspiring and paralyzing). My favorite part of the book is the ending. It is August, in Georgia, without air conditioning. AKA, miserable. Mick walks into a cafe, takes off her earrings, and says, “I want me a sundae and a nickel glass of draw beer.” If that doesn’t summarize summer, I don’t know what does.
Boramie: An amazing documentary about Cambodia’s Lost Rock & Roll! This film is a must see. It just got released last month, with pop up releases in the U.S. The people who are interviewed describe the musical development of rock and roll in Cambodia through decades of influences from all around the world. The film is also laced with various interviews and clips of people who were a part of this time in history. It goes into depth with the importance of music for the Khmer society in the early 50s, 60s and 70s, before it was all stripped away by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. An intense look into the reality of war and genocide. Amazing insight into a culture so deeply rooted in its society . . . And great music.
Sophia: With her memoir Just Kids, Patti Smith has improved my cultural knowledge of the NYC hippie art scene of the 60s and 70s. But Mike Judge has kept me privy to a different type of culture, this one all about the now and the future. The second season of Silicon Valley premiered in April, and the show has rightfully earned a third season for next year. I am not that into following television shows, but this one has everything a comedy series could ask for. The core characters are a group of programmers living together in Palo Alto where they create their own startup in a rough and dirty world of tech competition. The humor is reminiscent of Big Bang Theory, but just a little hipper. Each episode ends with a cliffhanger that makes it easy to turn one 30-minute episode session into a binge of two or three or four . . .
And finally, Tony Perez gives voice to our staff’s wholehearted endorsement of the single best way to beat the heat.
Tony: It’s been 90 degrees for the last week and we’re creeping toward 100. I don’t do well in the heat, particularly in the brick oven of my third-floor-walkup apartment. Look: I want to read interesting books and watch interesting films and listen to revelatory music; I wish I had a moving cultural experience to share with you. But all I can do in my off hours is sit in front of my fan, bitching/whimpering/sweating.
STILL! I do have one recommendation, one salve for a heat-induced bad attitude: Pamplemousse LaCroix, the canned sparkling water that’s sweeping the nation (or at least somehow getting great placement in grocery-store endcap displays). I’ve begun talking about it like I’m a jaded smoker, not in terms of cans per day but cases. So cold, so refreshing, just a bit sweet (my beloved says it tastes like a grapefruit with Alzheimer’s, but her heart belongs to a stronger zero-cal beverage). With our workshop approaching in under two weeks, and no sign of the sun easing its assault, rest assured I’ll have a stockpile at Reed College . . . though if Karen Shepard thinks I’m going to share, she can pry one from my clammy, dead hand.
THEIR DAY HAD COME
August 21, 1910
The condemned man wore no shoes. He stood over the drain hole in his cell and hummed the low notes running swollen in his blood. He shed his trousers while he hummed, and his shirt and his undergarments too. Each he folded in a square and set upon the straw tick in the corner. The foul drain at the floor’s middle called out to him in the singing voice of his woman down the hall. He answered, a long weary-throated note, a brand of humming borne from a troublesome lot.
He was better than six foot two inches and sturdy despite incarceration. He’d turned thirty in January. Most considered him the handsomest man they’d seen, though he wore a wide scar across his jaw.
At the pith, the condemned man was good, but he’d forever run afoul of temperance and lawmen.
Daylight through the barred window marked his lower half. His feet were pale, and his pecker, in ordinary times a swag-bellied hog of considerable proportion, was, on this morning, contracted. His woman’s voice grew louder, and in his mind he could see her, and he hummed to his contracted pecker a snake-charmer tune fetched from a hoochie kootch show, and its furrows protracted, and it was made long and serpentine. And the condemned man imagined then that it grew longer still and mined the drainpipe clear to the cell of his woman, and it whispered to her there, Keep your temper. And this thought made him smile.
Down the hall, the condemned woman hummed along. When he crescendoed she did too. When he went so low she couldn’t hear him, she sang things like, There’s a hole in his pants, where the crabs and bedbugs dance.
It was the same snake-charmer melody the Alhambra house band had played seven years prior, on the night the condemned man had lit out of town, the night a big-name magician had levitated a woman on the Alhambra’s stage while the melody built. High above, crouched on the fly rig, the man who was now condemned had hummed along, and he’d spat tobacco juice down upon the stage from a height that caused much spatter, and he’d cursed the magician for having not paid the gambling debt he’d owed.
The tunes they hummed to each other down the corridor and through the drainpipes had meanings. They’d worked out a system of codes. The condemned woman knew then from his hum that the morning-shift hall guard had arrived, and that it was nearing time to change into her finery. She took off her underskirt while she sang. She took off her umbrella drawers. Each she folded in a square and set upon the straw tick in the corner.
She was graceful and everywhere arched proportionate. Her skin was tanned despite incarceration, and she stood above the drain hole and hummed some more, waiting for her man.
He felt the sound before he heard it. It was late, probably too late for boats to come into the bay from the lake. The sluice gates did sometimes freeze in winter. Perhaps he had heard the motor of the gate straining against the ice down in the narrow bay just to the south. Or else he had heard a truck or a bus slipping on an icy patch on the bridge, engines revved too high. But as the sound got louder, grew from a deep rumble to a more distinct hum, out of his body and to his ear, it took shape and he was able to picture the planes above. He could not be sure how many but there were several. For four years, Bent had been waiting for the war to arrive. He had watched it spread and smolder on the continent and the through the Pacific. Photographs and newsreels everyday depicted new horrors. The fighting had intensified in Finland in recent weeks. Early February, the Soviets and the Finnish had signed an armistice but the bombings on Helsinki had not stopped. They had intensified, obviously designed to force a Finnish surrender. He knew this was not a good sign that Sweden could stay neutral. The war had finally come. It was right above him. Yet, beyond the orange glow of the streetlamps he saw only stars in a clear sky, not the earthy shapes of low-flying planes he expected. He took a step into the street, checked to his right for oncoming traffic and, seeing that there was none, began to cross.
It was a quarter after eight in the evening. A storm had earlier cleared and there was a layer of fresh snow on the ground. He was on his way home from an evening out with Agneta, a woman he knew from Karolinska Medical Institute, where he was studying to become a pediatrician. She worked in one of the libraries. They had had tea and talked about the Continuation War. Tensions had not resolved following the Winter War in 1940 and by 1944, the Continuation War had broken out, consuming the Karelian Isthmus. The Continuation War was on everyone’s mind. Swedish newspapers reported casualties daily. The bombings were targeted farther and farther west, first Åbo, then Åland. Stockholm could be next. Bent feared that one way or the other this new war would spill across the Baltic, drag Sweden the way of Norway and Denmark. For three months in 1940, he had fought in Finland. His volunteer unit was assigned to a position near the line at Märkäjärvi. The fighting had shaken him, driven him strongly into support for a neutral Sweden. Even four years later, his attempts to forget were too easily pealed back to reveal images of icy blood and searing wounds from mortar shrapnel. He had never before and not since felt a cold like that winter. The branches of the pines were so heavy with snow they sagged lower than his head. The earth in the trenches was frozen solid and every morning new bruises appeared on his legs from crouching in the dirt.
The sound grew still louder. It was a wave pounding down on the city, impossibly close. He neared the other side of the street. A car was approaching from his left, so he took two short, quick steps toward the curb. A young woman on the sidewalk looked up at him just as he stepped onto the curb. Her hair was darker and her hips broader, yet she reminded him of Agneta. He was eager to see Agneta again. They had plans to meet the following day. The thought made him smile. Just as he did, he was struck in the face by the hail of an erupting window. He fell to his right side and could not hear. Snow soaked through his pants, clung to his coat and hair. Shoes rush toward him and away from him. Faintly past the blur of feet and legs he saw soldiers, white-capped, rifles drawn. He heard orders shouted into the thin cold air, steam billowing from open mouths. The round, aching pain in his shoulder brought him back to the pavement. He knew at once he had broken bones. This was a diagnosis he had no trouble making. He opened his eyes and saw that a man stood over him. The man shouted, “The blast knocked you over, the blast knocked you over.”
The pain in his shoulder made it difficult to see. He knew of no physiological reason for this but it was true. The young woman who had reminded him of Agneta stumbled back in his direction. She held her hands to her face. From between her fingers, blood dripped down the backs of her hands and over her wrists. He called out to her, not knowing what had happened, only that she needed help and that his shoulder hurt. The pain radiated outward in a dull circumference. His coat was soaked through with snow. He tried to stand. The woman kept her hands to her face. She backed up slowly to the corner of the building and leaned against the quoining. Her shoulders were even with one of the horizontal intersections. She began to slide downward into a sitting position. Her dress caught on the building’s facade and rode gently upward over her knees. Through his pain, he was aware of the tops of her stockings and the whiteness of her thighs. She dropped her hands to her side to brace against the sidewalk, and she sat. Blood pulsed from two deep lacerations to the right side of her face, one directly below her eye and the other stretching the length of her jaw. He looked for help but found only empty streets and smoke and flames rising from behind the trees at the edge of the park. He was in a Stockholm he no longer recognized, and he understood at once that here anything at all might reasonably transpire.
Jensen Beach is the author of the forthcoming Swallowed by the Cold (Graywolf 2016). His writing has most recently appeared in A Public Space, Cincinnati Review, Ninth Letter, and Witness. He teaches in the BFA program at Johnson State College, where is he also fiction editor at Green Mountains Review.
The night before my husband’s cancer surgery, I stay up to watch him sleep. In the featureless hotel room, I think of our first meeting, our college breakup, our marriage, our honeymoon, our reunions, our children’s births. We have been married for twenty-three years. I have been a child and a woman with this man. To imagine his death is to imagine the end of myself: I cannot know this loss. Instead, I will us to live with a kind of fierce presence I’ve never before achieved. I watch. I wait. I witness.
By 5:00 AM, he’s signing paperwork and I’m sipping stale coffee in the hospital lobby. Every room has a television. Every television resounds with a cheery morning news show. He’s moved to pre-op. He goes in to change into his hospital gown. Soon, a nurse calls my name and hands me a large white plastic bag marked PERSONAL BELONGINGS. The bag is heavy with his size 13 running shoes and tall-legged Levi’s jeans and wallet stuffed with discount cards. I don’t want to be left holding this dismal bag in the fluorescent waiting room with the televisions blaring Montel Williams and Judge Judy in a bizarre symphony while I clasp the last of his scent.
A few minutes later, I’m called to the curtained space where Richard is being prepared for surgery. His body spills over the sides of the gurney. We’ve waited forty-six days for this moment, assessing every medical paper, learning all we could from others with the same horrific rare disease.
I think of where Richard might go in the time his body is open to the doctors and nurses doing their work. I hope he’ll be in a dream, like the ones he has about running and flying and climbing, and not like the ones I have, which are about the end of the world.
His long, summer-tanned legs stretch from beneath a mint-green gown. A drip is flowing into his arm. He’s suddenly scared. I stare straight into his eyes. Steady, smiling, subdued.
“You’re going to be okay,” I lie.
“You need to say good-bye,” says the nurse.
I kiss him like we aren’t being watched.
A tear descends across his cheekbone.
I walk back to the surgical waiting room and nod to my sister, who has come to be with us for the first week. Christie is a nurse; she’s Grace Kelly on the outside and the warrior Boudica on the inside. You want her on your side in a crisis. We’ve already talked about this moment. There’s nothing left to do but pray and meditate in silence while we wait for the surgery to end some ten hours from now, if everything goes as planned.
Every medium has its limitations, and the central limitation of writing is that readers can only apprehend one word at a time, in order. Because of this, we are denied the grand simultaneities permitted to other arts. A symphonic chord, with its dimensions of harmony and tone color and dynamics and duration, can be heard all at once; a landscape, with its dimensions of form and color and scale, can be seen in an instant. But we have to talk a world into being. Ours is a spare art, an art of losses, and even our grand monuments are built one brick at a time.
Our response to this limitation is to resist it. One way we do so is through echoes: a text moves forward, but a repeated element moves backward. In a poem, for example, a rhyme can reach backward across a stanza, a later image echo an earlier. Against the linear, forward rush of the text, a positive charge arcs backward, illuminating a landscape under construction.
Another way we resist the forward, linear motion of texts is to exploit the radial possibilities of language. Even though readers can read only one word at a time, each word can radiate in multiple directions. Through context and figurative speech, writers put pressure on words so that they radiate, rising above the Flatland of the page.
What simultaneities we have, then, are the residue of a strict ongoing: landscapes of meaning and meaningful landscapes, constituted word by word in the reader’s mind, with the reader’s help. It follows, then, that the pleasure of reading is not just that of entering a world of meaning, but of seeing that world being built, and participating in the construction.
In Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “At the Fishhouses,” for example, repetition is an undertow against the stately forward motion of the poem: words (“fishhouses,” “silver,” “iridescent,” “stones,” “water”) and lines, repeated, develop a precise and not-quite-static scene:
Cold dark deep and absolutely clear,
element bearable to no mortal,
to fish and to seals…
. . . .
Cold dark deep and absolutely clear,
the clear gray icy water . . .
. . . .
. . .The water seems suspended
above the rounded gray and blue-gray stones.
I have seen it over and over, the same sea, the same,
slightly, indifferently swinging above the stones,
above the stones and then the world.
The effect is incantatory, a disturbing lullaby. The world is seen with, and sung about, with absolute clarity, and it is recognized as something other, nonhuman: element bearable to no mortal. Near the end of the poem, Bishop transforms this clarity. Extending the image, and repeating the words that have echoed through the poem, she both extends and interrupts her incantation; what was a lullaby becomes suddenly, intensely wakeful:
If you should dip your hand in,
your wrist would ache immediately,
your bones would begin to ache and your hand would burn
as if the water were a transmutation of fire
that feeds on stones and burns with a dark gray flame.
. . .
It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free. . .
A landscape of meaning, a meaningful landscape. What I love about Bishop’s poem is the way that she makes her landscape stand for the human—but that, in so doing, she does not domesticate the landscape so much as make the world, and the people in it, seem even more strange. To truly perceive the world is to be burned by it; and human knowledge itself is strange, can only be approximated by metaphor. Note Bishop’s elegantly skeptical hedge: It is like what we imagine knowledge to be.
From our 50th Issue, Crystal Williams navigates our culture’s notions of beauty and race.
Mirror, Mirror: A Guide to Pathos
I have a friend whose voice changes when he talks about his wife. Each time he says her name, it moves from hard to wispy. Sometimes he whispers, “beautiful,” and it is not awe lodged at the edge of his mouth, but something more profound, as if he comes to a deeper understanding about the nature of things whenever he considers her. I think he is in a chronic state of discovery, so maybe what I hear is humility, since discovery requires humility. When you look at his wife, you see a petite woman whose face is an odd gathering of asymmetries, cultures, and histories. “Beautiful,” he says. When I first met her, I bit my lip, supposing “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” and that he must have been talking about her inner self. Now, after years have passed, after coming to know the intricacies of his voice and its inflections, I’ve come to believe that he’s talking not about her inner life but about a complex intermingling of the physical and spiritual and emotional and intellectual. He’s not making a distinction.
I also think I’m late to the party, but I’m finally coming to believe that the theory of beauty and the reality of it are distinct animals that are too often conflated. One, the theory, is governed by the stuff we human beings need and so impose on one another: order, symmetry, a system in which to believe. We decide that X is beautiful and so we place all others in opposition to X such that M, A, and D are defined not by their own sets of characteristics, but by how closely they approximate X. This is our system, and in this system, sociocultural norms inform our standards—and definitions—sometimes so subconsciously that we act in response to what our culture thinks is beauty without understanding that beauty is at the root of our actions. So a white brunette dyes her hair blond not because she dislikes brunette but because it isn’t the color of X (and X = beauty) and while, in the schema, she may have been a V, which is certainly close to X, V is not X. More complicated still: a black woman has a long weave installed not because, she says, it makes her look white—short of Michael Jackson, physical whiteness is not an attribute to which most black people aspire—but because long hair frames her face nicely and is simply prettier. “Prettier” according to what standard, you ask? According to the standard of X.
The reality of beauty, however, is governed by pure emotions that, yes, overlap with and are informed by the cultures in which we live, but that are themselves often, at least to our conscious minds, unexplained, like alien planets overrun with all sorts of magnificent plants and animals and caves and waterworks.
The reality of beauty is my friend’s perception, which is a complicated, nearly impossible to navigate jumble of intersections that all result in his wavering, wispy voice when he talks about his odd-looking wife. The theory of beauty is me calling his wife odd-looking.
In my life, the theory and the reality of beauty are in constant conflict, such that sometimes I stand in front of the mirror unsure of everything—especially what to think about the reflection staring back at me or why I care.
In the fall of 2009, I spent five months in my hometown of Detroit writing. Everything people write and say about that city’s life and decay is true, in part. It’s a city complicated by social and economic forces, yes, but also by something less tangible, something even my poet’s tongue finds hard to describe, a mix of grief, pride, and a unique sense of self-actualization, even though the car plants are now largely closed. What remain with me are the facts of life beneath the life the country is so eager to photograph and hear about. It is a fabulous and wildly wonderful town.
As of summer 2010, there was no big-box grocery store within the city limits of Detroit, but beauty supply stores are as omnipresent as Starbucks in Manhattan. In each store, whether small or cavernous, the same template exists: near the register, which might as well be an altar, are small jumbles of merchandise such as headbands, nail polish, lip gloss, conditioner bags for perms, rat-tail combs, socks, and rollers. In the middle of the store, aisles full of products like conditioner, perms, setting lotion, hair oil, pomade, and shampoo that sit on shelves, though never for long. Without fail, the walls are lined with long plastic packets of synthetic and human hair named Hollywood, Velvet Remi, Outre, Milky Way, Bohyme, Sensationnel, Freetress, and so on. If it is human hair, it is invariably from India. If it is synthetic, it is invariably made to look as if it has come from India. Sometimes there are two beauty supply stores within a single shopping plaza. Sometimes on a retail block where there is nothing else but windows covered with plywood and padlocked doors, the beauty supply store’s light blinks Open. Small churches everywhere, if churches are places people go to articulate, to honor, and to fuel their hopes and dreams, their desires for a better life.
Figures vary, but a 2009 documentary on the hair-weave phenomenon proclaimed that black people spend nine billion dollars a year on hair care, a majority of that dedicated to weaves and weave-related products. On the streets of Detroit, beside pop cans and Coney Island takeout containers, are wefts of Bohyme Deep Wave hair, fallen from the heads of black women. Sometimes in parking lots near clubs you can find wefts mangled and visibly trodden by car tires. I imagine the wefts loosening over time, the glue used to bond them to their owners’ heads finally giving way. Or, sometimes, I imagine a weft being torn from the owner’s head by another woman as they fought. I once saw a fight like this in the Northland Shopping Center parking lot. It was unintended symbolism of the highest sort: two girls, heads literally and figuratively full of self-hate, yanking out the great Western ideal. In any event, the lost wefts, as I started calling them, are always a surprising and sad reminder of what we believe, what has, literally fallen from our heads. Detritus. Detritus of an aspiration that demands that the thing you were born with be braided up tightly and covered with the hair of a woman from across the globe, a woman who is probably poorer than even the poorest Detroiter. They are the detritus of a society that says: “The beauty that we value is not your short, tight, kinky hair. You are not X. You are not W. You are not even S, sister.”
Welcome to Tin House’s Bookseller Spotlight, a new series of interviews with indie booksellers across the country. This week, we talk to Stephen Sparks of San Francisco’s Green Apple Books.
Stephen Sparks: I read a lot as a kid, but didn’t know I capital-L loved reading until I was in middle school and an uncle lent me Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy. Science fiction was my gateway drug to the pleasures and reaches of the imagination–and escape.
THB: If you could spend the day with a character, who would it be and what would you do?
SS: I’m going to cheat by imagining a three-on-three pickup basketball game. On my side, Beckett’s Watt (“a red-nosed potbellied little old fellow of unknown origin and nature”) and Djuna Barnes’ transexual raconteur and questionable man of medicine, Dr. Matthew-Mighty-grain-of-salt-
On the other, Flann O’Brien’s philosopher De Selby, who argues that the world is sausage-shaped (I can’t imagine this theory helping his post-up game); Bellow’s Herzog (that guy needs to have some fun and, probably, exercise); and Dezső Kosztolányi’s Kornél Esti, an incorrigible doppleganger known for his destructive antics, narrow yellow ties, and atrocious puns. I’m not sure any of these characters would stick around on the court long enough for us to get a game in.
SS: I’ve been a bookseller my entire adult life, so a more interesting experiment might involve imagining my relationship to reading otherwise. But then, an intense curiosity and love of books led me to bookselling, so it’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation. I can say that as one of two book buyers at Green Apple, I have a responsibility to keep up with the new, which often feels like being caught on a treadmill: the galleys pile up and the books on my shelves collect dust. As far as dilemmas go, this ranks pretty low.
THB: What’s a recently released book you keep recommending?
SS: I can’t speak highly enough of John Keene’s Counternarratives, a collection of stories and novellas published in May by New Directions. I recommend it without reservation, even though it has the feel of a book more likely to fly under the radar, gathering readers by word of mouth.
THB: What’s a book you love that not enough people know about?
SS: Just one? I wish more people read Rikki Ducornet’s Fountains of Neptune. It’s one of the most magical (in the best way) and haunting novels I’ve ever read. I’ll add a couple more for good measure: Gerald Murnane’s The Plains and Dino Buzzati’s The Tartar Steppe, both richly imagined works of fiction. I’d also recommend Keith Thomas’s Man and the Natural World, a tremendous work of research studying our changing understanding and appreciation of the natural world.
Stephen Sparks is a bookseller and writer in San Francisco.
The calliope crashed to the ground. The cowboys gaped.
The calliope was smoldering and shuddering and making a faint whizzing or wheezing or maybe it was a whining sound. The pipes were bent and cracked, the steam boiler badly dented. Its painted panels caved in on themselves, perverting the circus scenes once so delicately depicted into something much more sinister. A disaster, yes, but it did make a beautiful ruin.
“I didn’t see that coming,” said One, “did you?”
“No way I did,” Two answered. He adjusted his hat and spat on the ground. “What should we do now, do you think?”
“Keep riding, I think.” They kept riding.
The cowboys were performance artists. They believed themselves to be the first true men of the west to attempt the genre. The frontier was good and closed, it was heartbreaking but true, and thus they resolved to seek adventure in sonic and aesthetic realms. They met through mutual friends, who, recognizing the deep affinities they shared, put them in touch, their partnership all but a foregone conclusion. Thus did they leave wives and children at home on the ragged remnants of the range to devote themselves to creation. That some judged them harshly for having done so only served to bond them further.
The calamity was ill-timed, as calamities often are. Their schedule held no room for error; if they rode their horses as hard as they dared, they would reach Dallas mere hours before their most important happening yet. They were booked to play an important sock hop there for an audience of some 500 souls. (The choice of Dallas wasn’t made to avenge the Kennedys, or not entirely so, though the cowboys did take considerable exception to the embrace the city once gave the John Birch Society, and suspected its complicity, however unwitting, in the deadly events at Dealey Plaza).
They mourned the calliope quietly, each to himself, as they rode. The instrument had been the centerpiece of their collaboration, its creation thoroughly documented, its transport considered fundamental to their project. Some of the better blogs took note, precocious fans had appeared alongside their path to catch a glimpse. At the moment of the crash, no fans were in evidence. Could the crash signify without being observed? Should they reverse course, and document it? But that was for others to do, and yet there were no others now. The cowboys were utterly, irredeemably, alone. They had sent their guitars on ahead, by the post.
They discussed ways the calliope might have been holding them back, how reliance on spectacle might diminish their artistry. They discussed the potential for the use of other machines.
“Maybe we should not have abandoned it,” One said. “Maybe no other machines are in the offing.”
“Maybe machines just aren’t the thing for us,” said Two. “Maybe they’re limiting us, after all. From what we can do on our own steam, so to speak.” They shared a rueful chuckle.
Or perhaps they should have dragged it, maybe that would have been edifying, would have proved after all to be the work itself. What had previously seemed to be sanguinity was perhaps instead a colossal failure of nerve. Had cowboys’ stoicism failed them? It was true that they communicated best through music, which has, in point of fact, been the way of things on the range for a very long time.
But as bodies in motion tend to so remain, they rode on, adjusting their plans, their set lists, and their expectations. They sang to each other, trading new melodies and suggesting new sonic structures, and marveling at the landscape as they passed through it.
On the last night of their ride the cowboys found a town to ride into around sunset. They hitched the horses, not being picky as to where, beat it for the nearest bar and drank one bourbon and one beer each. Then they rode to the far side of town and made camp, the better to get a head start on the next day’s ride.
Each dreamed of the destroyed calliope through the night, recursive, looping affairs, the machine ablaze in sunlight so pure as to make you cry, images that shape-shifted and slipped between their two brains. The next morning they were out with the sun, moving confidently through the final leg of their journey while the warm tones of the sunrise enlivened the mesquite.
When day’s end came, they were at the appointed place, and they were more than ready. News of the calliope disaster had reached Dallas via Twitter, and ratcheted expectations for their performance to a fever pitch. The horses were outside, cared for by experienced minders. Handlers and Yes Men fluttered about the cowboys, saying this and that, and then finally saying, “It’s time,” and so it was.
They took the stage. Dallas was going crazy for them.
Jenny Staff Johnson’s fiction, essays, and journalism have appeared in New Dead Families, Literary Mothers, and Houstonia Magazine, among others. She lives in Houston, where she’s working on a novel and tweeting @htownjenny.
I am eight. The lights of the farm across the road from my home are an archipelago of hovering dots.
Moos float disembodied in blackness, startling me. White noise in the dark night. My father works there. The family business, generations old, the farm Upstate. He is inside one of those lights, birthing a calf. The phone had rung in the middle of the night summoning him to pull the bloody legs and slick body out of the wailing mother, lying in a bed of hay. She would get 24 hours with her mom then would be separated.
I was born the lactose intolerant daughter, granddaughter and great-granddaughter of dairy farmers. I wonder how I got here. I want to move to a city. I know I won’t work the farm, won’t continue the lineage. Neither will my special needs little brother. I want to bridge the space. I feel guilty about it, but mostly just odd.
My biggest wish is a neighbor will appear, building a house to break up the endless trees and fields, bringing perhaps a girl my age to play with.
My mother lines the house with art supplies and saved empty yogurt cups to bring to school for her job as an art teacher. One day her teacher friend comes to visit. I see the car trailing dust up the farm road as she arrives. She has brought her friend, a Japanese woman who is here on vacation.
I’m excited. Not many people visit the farm, and never anyone from Japan. Japan has gongs and chimes and whirling neon tv shows. Rice and geisha paint. Japan is the sound of paper in the wind, hanging off Kiyomizu-dera, wishes twirling whirly gigs, dropping stars.
My brother is a whirling boy in the bedroom next to mine. He hides Ritalin in sofas. His static fills the empty spaces in my family. He is a bomb that won’t stop going off. No one talks about it.
The Japanese woman is happy to meet me. She says she has a neighbor back in Yokohama who is my age, a girl named Mika. She is sure Mika would like a pen-pal. And wouldn’t I like one too?
She takes my address and a picture at the kitchen table. It is summertime and I’m wearing a short-sleeved white T-shirt with different colored hearts on it. I have my red hair up in a pony tail and am wearing long pink dangle earrings.
When she leaves I watch the dust stir back up and settle, the car eaten by distance. Japan has never seemed so far away, and so close.
Later, while wandering alone after school in the small white calf hutches, pretending they are an apartment complex, I spot a Jersey calf, brownish red instead of black and white. I, too, have brownish red hair so imagine we are related. Her marble eyes roll toward me, fringed with enviable lashes, her pink tongue wraps around the bar she is kept behind, wishing hopelessly for milk from the metal.
I love her. “This is Butter,” I reintroduce her to my father with the name I’ve chosen. I try to pet Butter in between the metal lattices. I want to be a farmer in this moment, like him, to please him. Yet Butter recoils, knocking her body against the plastic walls.
“Be more gentle,” Dad says. He reaches out his hand and she steps forward, unafraid. He has worn, hardworking farmer’s hands. I mirror him. I aim to pet her small nose. Then she disappears.
On Saturdays I ride to the cattle auction with my father. I pretend it’s a field trip, in a pickup with a rollicking tractor trailer of doomed animals strapped behind us, into the green mountains of Vermont. I am the only girl there. A cow is led into the center of a sawdust covered ring. Men wearing dirty denim yell out bids. My father never leaves the house in his dirty farm denim. He always cleans up, even if he’s just going to the grocery store. But here everything seems soaked in blood and mud. An auctioneer rattles words and prices like he’s slinging something heavy. Another man hits the animal’s hind bones with a wooden cane to keep it moving. Hearing the slap hurts my own body. The bovine pirouettes, like a ballet dancer in a music box.
After, Dad and I walk across the parking lot for pie and milk.
When Butter disappears I assume she’s escaped. She must be in the big barn, absorbed into the invisible crowd. But one day while riding my pink Huffy bike down the long farm driveway it hits me: Butter has been killed and no one told me.
My first letter from Mika arrives with neat handwriting on the envelope and a puffy cow sticker sealing the back.
“Mrs. Fukagawa told me that your father has many cows on his dairy farm,” she writes. “I will try to tell you about Japan and my life. Your friend, Mika.”
Friend. I write back. I trace the kanji at the top of her stationary, asking what it means.
But even then I understand: distance and closeness are roughly translated things.
Sarah Herrington‘s work has appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Poets and Writer Magazine. She is at work on a novel.
From our Science Fair issue, Cheston Knapp on C. P. Snow’s The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution and John Brockman’s The Third Culture: Beyond the Scientific Revolution.
I was born into a house divided. In college, Mom studied history and English, and Dad did biology. Growing up, when we needed help with our homework, my brothers and I razzed Mom for not knowing her math and mitochondria, and Dad for mangling the past’s facts. Her occasional miscalculations and his sometime solecisms thrilled us, because we relished correcting them. We switched sides seamlessly then, our childhoods an idyll of curiosity.
But then school betrayed us, and the divide turned inward. Earnest educational bureaucrats had built the bridges to our future, and in sixth grade, we encountered our first riddled troll: the squat and blotchy standardized test. We sharpened number two Ticonderogas and bubbled in our Scantron sheets, which were mailed off, probably to Texas, to be scored. And we waited for our prophecies as to which bridge we would cross: were we to be men of math and science, or were we better built for arts and language?
In his Rede Lecture at Cambridge University in 1959, later published as The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, C. P. Snow, who was primarily a novelist but who also had a background in science, laments this division.
His core idea is simple enough, as simple as breaking bread. There are two cultures: “Literary intellectuals at one pole—at the other scientists, and as the most representative, the physical scientists. Between the two a gulf of mutual incomprehension.” Snow claims that the literary intellectuals suspect the scientists of being ignorant of man’s tragic individual condition, that we all die alone, while the scientists accuse the literary intellectuals of being unconcerned with man’s social condition and in deep denial of “the future”—“If the scientists have the future in their bones, then the traditional culture responds by wishing the future did not exist.” Literary intellectuals don’t know the second law of thermodynamics and scientists have trouble reading Dickens, let alone Shakespeare. Things are a mess!
The anxieties around science and literature and the possibility of their coexistence aren’t new, and they weren’t new when Snow spoke at Cambridge University in 1959. Before him, there was Plato, who famously expelled poets from his republic. There was Descartes, who, with the thin blade of his radical doubt, sundered subject from object and helped ratify (along with the other rationalists and empiricists) what Alfred North Whitehead later called “scientific materialism” as the only trustworthy, i.e., verifiable, way to know the world. And eighty years before Snow, the poet Matthew Arnold gave a Rede Lecture, called, simply, “Literature and Science.”
If we ignore some of Snow’s careless reasoning (can there be a social condition without an individual one?) and cloudy terminology (“culture” slips in and out of definitions as though they were ball gowns), we see it is the simplicity of his main idea that guaranteed its longevity. Whether or not people know who C. P. Snow was, they seem to know his phrase, those few freighted syllables: “The two cultures.” It has become shorthand for the force fields of insecurities surrounding the two pursuits and the kerfuffles that break out when they cross paths.
There have been minor skirmishes here and there, but the most recent significant run-in between the cultures happened during the mid-1990s. It’s referred to ominously as the “science wars.” Postmodernist academics and philosophers, embracing Thomas Kuhn’s paradigm shifts and Karl Popper’s notion of falsifiability, made aggressive animadversions on the very idea of objectivity and claimed scientific knowledge was socially constructed, “relative,” subject to change. Much ink was spilled. Tenured titans tussled in a kind of trench warfare. Dispatches from the front lines were published in academic journals. Out of the strife, there rose a resistance of sorts, a loose movement called the third culture. In 1995, John Brockman, a literary agent and head cheerleader of science, edited a book named after the movement that showcases conversations with some of the scientist-writers we now recognize as influencing our imaginations and shaping our conceptions of the world, including Dawkins, Dennett, Pinker, and Gould—names that line up like a law practice.
The Third Culture intends to be an anodyne to Snow’s dichotomy. “Literary intellectuals” still aren’t talking to scientists, but the scientists featured in the book say they no longer need them to serve as middlemen to the public (although it’s unclear when this was ever the case). And the introduction does seem like a parade of bruised egos: Stephen Jay Gould calls the literary intellectuals’ putative dominance a “conspiracy,” Richard Dawkins a “hijacking,” while Nicholas Humphrey has them running in fear, dropping their Derrida and berets as they head for cover in juice bars. With a tone of finality, Brockman writes, “What traditionally has been called ‘science’ has today become ‘public culture,’” which is a direct rebuttal of Snow, who writes, “It is the traditional culture [read: “literary intellectuals”], to an extent remarkably little diminished by the emergence of the scientific one, which manages the western world.”
Everyone on the block knew that the longer the rat tail, the flyer the guy. Lefty’s rat tail wasn’t as long as his older brother Pedro’s but it was getting there. We all noticed.
It was summer and the action started at the basketball court in front of IS 147. By then everyone had put away their roller skates and stopped playing kick the can. Instead, we leaned against the chain link fence and passed judgment on everyone. This was before things got serious. Not that summer. That summer it was about memorizing the words to Kurtis Blow’s “The Breaks” and wearing your name belt real low on your waist.
The plan was this: Buy a dime bag. Cop some Heinnies and listen to new music at Lefty’s apartment. That night, our perfume was tight. Our Lee Jeans perfectly creased. We applied lip gloss over and over until our lips were as shiny as disco balls.
The first album Lefty pulled out was by Sugarhill Gang. A classic. Something to warm us up. Then there was some Lady B, The Treacherous Three. He even tossed in some Fania All-Stars, showing the PRs some love.
We didn’t dance right away because we wanted to play DJ too but Lefty said, You’re girls. You don’t own any turntables. You don’t know what to do.
And we had to fall back but we kind of hated him after that.
Then he pulled out a new album like it was some secret weapon. What do you know about this? he said.
The album pictured a shirtless guy. All serious, all sex, staring at us like he knew how to pop our still intact cherries.
Who’s that? we asked.
That’s Prince, Lefty said. I heard he’s Puerto Rican.
We wanted to claim him but all that chest hair. The eyeliner rimming his almond eyes. The long feathered hair. This was something else. Something all together different. We giggled.
Yeah, but he got one silver hoop earring on his right ear, we said. You know what that means, right?
Listen to this, though.
Prince sounded like Michael Jackson but grittier, talking about “I want to be your lover I want to turn you on turn you out.”We wanted to claim him but that meant we had to pick a side.
That guy es un maricon, we said. If you like him, that makes you one too.
Although he tried to hide it we caught that flicker of sadness that spread across Lefty’s baby face. And after a long minute, he did what he was supposed to do. Lefty took that record off and buried it behind a stack of LPS.
When Lefty cut off his rat tail, we all shook our heads. Others asked if he gave it to us to bury it but there was never a ceremony. Only Lefty walking past us with a new stack of albums underneath his arm, wearing black eyeliner and sporting a bandana tied around his neck, like he was some urban cowboy.
Lilliam Rivera is a 2014 Pushcart Prize nominee and a 2013 PEN Center USA Emerging Voices Fellow. Her work has appeared in Los Angeles Times, Bellevue Literary Review, Tahoma Literary Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, Midnight Breakfast, among others. Lilliam lives in Los Angeles.
When I travel, once I’ve rounded up my documents and stuffed the carry-on to bursting, the last thing I pack is a book. I slip whatever I have chosen between my change of clothes and my blanket, and close the zipper. I appreciate that e-books have, for some people, erased the need to make an absolute decision on what single piece of literature will accompany them on a journey. But on the road, I prefer a tactile, 3D, lick-my-finger-and-turn-the-page hard copy, the kind I’ve toted around for decades, stealing sentences in cafes, train stations and hotel beds all across the planet. For me, a book is a well-considered traveling companion, and in this realm I always travel light.
There is no math in the mystical equation of what to bring where, but it always resolves itself neatly, and logically. It depends on where I’m going–on assignment, on vacation, a beach or a city. Whether I’ll really–really–have time to read. Sometimes, I’ll bring literature about the place I’m headed, to bring depth and dimension to my trip. Others, I’ll grab something enticing I’d yet to crack from the bookshelf. Or, I’ll bring a classic that I want to cross off my list. If I’m in a rush, I’ll poke around the airport bookstore and pick up a blockbuster that excites me. Either way, the nexus of books and travel has the remarkable effect of strengthening both the reading and the voyage.
On a recent morning, I experienced this double sweep of context and memory. While cleaning out my library to make some much-needed space, I found snippets from my travels preserved inside many of the volumes. It seems I’ll use anything as a bookmark. Boarding passes and cocktail napkins were wedged between the pages, allowing me to recall the parallel story to the one in the actual book: where I was on earth when I read it. I continued to riffle through rows of paperbacks and hardcovers. When I found some relic, the discovery cracked – then blew – open a door into my past. These scraps unearthed the narratives of my own forgotten history. As if we need a new reason to love real books, I found the spaces between the pages to be another one, to remind us in the most tactile way of who we were and therefore who we are. We know that books contain stories, and sometimes even our own. I uncovered lots of treasures in my library, so I asked my photographer friend Kate Uhry to document some of what I found.
1. Many of my books have a price tag from W. H. Smith, the English bookstore on the rue de Rivoli in Paris, where I was a journalist from 1989 to 1993. Scoop is a novel every international reporter knows well, so I brought it along to my first assignment, a story about Prague’s samizdat press. I left Paris on November 6, 1989 – the Velvet Revolution began ten days later. Obviously my story had to be updated many times before it was published. Within two months, I returned to Prague with Barbara Walters, who had been my boss at ABC, to interview the new president, Vaclav Havel. The korunas are made of thin paper, and were folded flat.
2. When I was in college, I had a boyfriend who went to school in Boston. Most weekends, we were bunked up in one or the other’s dorm, so we decided to splurge on a night of privacy in New York City. Since I was a Russian Studies major, I pretty much always had one of these Penguin Classics in my homework bag. This one contained the room confirmation for April 11, 1981 at the rate of $75.00. I recall our reunion in the lobby of the Plaza, our lazy Saturday in Central Park, and the tears (mine) when we said goodbye at Penn Station.
Jerry Stahl has just released OG Dad: Weird Shit Happens When You Don’t Die Young with Rare Bird Books. Lydia Lunch has just released her musical retrospective LP, Retrovirus – Urge to Kill. This conversation was conducted in a manner not appropriate to reveal to the fair readers of Tin House. What you don’t know… well, does it even fucking matter?
Lydia Lunch: You’ve written novels, short stories, screenplays, columns, song lyrics and for TV. Any interest in writing plays?
Jerry Stahl: Actually did one, in the 80s, called Jackie Charge. It was about a Peeping Tom, played by the late Fox Harris (the one eyed man from Repo Man) who becomes a kind of hero, spawning peep cults all over the world. It was supposed to run for two weeks but ended up doing six months at the Gene Dynarski Theater on Sunset Boulevard. Timothy Leary came a couple of times. It became kind of a Thing.
How it happened to even be a play is maybe a better play. My writing partner, the director Stephen Sayadian (AKA Rinse Dream) and I did this X-rated movie called Café Flesh. Café failed miserably as a porn movie – I still remember Japanese tourists running out of the Pussycat Theater screaming, my proudest moment. But then, a year later, it ended up replacing Pink Flamingos at midnight theaters and became a cult smash. After that, there were all kinds offers for movies, and for no reason that I can remember, we didn’t pursue any of them and did a play instead.
Last week I read DeLillo’s The Day Room, which was fantastic, in all the DeLillo-y ways, and it hit me all over again, plays and poetry—much as I admire and envy them—require a kind of math that exposes me for the finger-counter I am.
LL:When we first met, you mentioned you had something like seven unpublished books. I was stunned. In 2015 it’s just as difficult to find a publisher you can trust, that will promote or pay any kind of advance or who will follow through on their initial interest. Will books eventually go the way of 8-track tapes? Why is it still important to have something manifest in the physical form as opposed to online?
JS: Yeah, six or seven. I would always publish the first chapters as short stories, a couple in Playboy, the others some little lit mag or another, and then I’d write the whole fucking book. I guess I was in love with the characters. Who were, no doubt, were some version of whatever weirdo I was at the time. Anyway, since then I’ve had people ask about publishing them. But, you know, I moved around a lot, pretty much lost everything ten times over, and a box of writing can really slow you the fuck down if you’re trying to get of somewhere fast. Especially if there are stairs involved. I pretty much lost everything ten times over. Though I didn’t think of it as losing stuff, I thought of it as moving.
That said, I’ve had books with busloads of promotion, and I’ve had some that come out and it’s like dropping a baby on the steps of a fire station and hoping it doesn’t get eaten by homeless guys. I have no expectations.
Doesn’t matter if it’s indie or corporate—whatever that means any more—at this point every book is like a one-night stand that might turn into something. If it doesn’t, then you hopefully had a good night. (And by good, I mean clawing your own eyes out, mumbling to yourself, and reading the same sentence out loud 9,000 times.) I think it was Mailer who called writing novels sanctioned schizophrenia. Everybody’s good at something.
As to physical pages versus online, it’s not something I sweat. Words are words, however they make their way into your tainted little brainpan. And vinyl’s making a comeback, so who knows?
LL: What’s the last book you read that made an impact on you?
JS: Man, outside of the ones I read over and over—your Celine, your Denis Johnson, your Flannery O’Connor, Selby, and Tosches—there are a ton of writers who have blown me away. The last one that floored me was Jim Givens’s short story collection, Middle Men, which is such a strange brand of tormenting and funny I can’t even describe it, plus every story mentions Del Taco. Continue reading
From our Memory Issue, a poem by Caroline Knox.
When I was about your age,
my great aunt, who was the
librarian of Vassar College,
gave me an old navy-blue book,
The Oxford Book of English Verse.
It was from 1942. Back then,
it was amazing that a girl could
have a major librarian job like
hers, but she did. So I read and read it,
and lots of the book was in very
weird-looking English. About
a third of the way through there is a
poem called “The Rime of the Ancient
Mariner,” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
I think you’d like it a lot, because
you’re an experienced cruising sailor,
and you have a great science sense,
and you like challenges. It’s about
a cruise to the South Pole, it’s told
by one of the sailors, to a man he meets;
it’s a ghost story and a nature story.
It’s full of surprises, like this one:
“The Sun came up upon the left,
Out of the Sea came he!” Really?
The sun came out of the sea?
Well, no! But it’s a
great way to talk about
the power of the sun.
Anyway, there was an
artist in France, Gustave Doré,
who loved “The Rime,” too, and
he made pictures, engravings,
to show us what he thought
the voyage was like. Please
Google Doré and see what
aaaaaaa Coleridge and Doré
both loved to be scared, and
they loved joy too. They
loved to make fear and joy
in art. Coleridge
would go on walking
tours with his friends
by lakes and mountains.
Another poem in
the OBEV, much shorter,
is “Kubla Khan.”
Kubla was king
in China. He built
a palace called
“a stately pleasure-
dome,” which meant
a regular palace and
a palace of poetry
both at the same
loved to do several
things at once.
this book, The Oxford
Book of English
Verse, used to be
mine, and now it’s
yours; your name
is in it for good.
Caroline Knox’s eighth poetry collection, Flemish, appeared from Wave Books in 2013. Recent work has appeared in A Public Space, Fou, and The Common.
The ostrich has its head in the sand when it hears a high-pitched noise. It looks up to see a large spherical object come in for a landing nearby.
The ostrich watches as it settles to the ground, then wanders over for a closer look.
The object is silver, and very shiny.
It doesn’t smell particularly good.
The ostrich taps on the thing with its beak.
A door opens and an alien looks out.
Yeah, it’s definitely a life-form, it says to a second alien inside.
Well, ask it! says the second. Bring it on in!
The first alien extends a ramp.
Come on up! he says.
He waves for the ostrich.
The ostrich walks up the ramp into the ship.
Welcome, says the alien. We’re hoping you can help us. We’re trying to find the Promised Land.
The ostrich blinks. It stares at the alien.
Do you know where it is? says the other alien.
The ostrich looks around at the saucer’s blinking lights. It reaches out and pecks the steering console.
No! says the second alien. Don’t touch that! Please—those are very important!
Here, says the alien. We have this map.
He spreads it out on the floor.
We’re here, he says. But where’s the Promised Land?
The ostrich turns and looks out the door.
No, here, says the alien.
He taps the map.
The ostrich goes over and looks at it.
Then it turns and runs down the ramp and sticks its head back in the sand.
The aliens stand there, staring down at it.
I’m not sure he’s very intelligent, the second says.
He does seem a little strange, says the first. But perhaps it’s just the language barrier.
The two walk down the ramp and stand by the ostrich.
The ostrich lifts its head out of the sand. It blinks at the aliens, sticks its head back in.
Now come on, the first alien says. We’re strangers here—be a good guide.
Yeah, the second alien says. There’s something wrong—our charts don’t work! We have to find the Promised Land!
The ostrich makes a strange, strangled sound. It lifts its head out of the sand.
It starts running away.
It glances back.
I think it wants us to follow, the alien says.
All right, says the second, and the two take off—on their tentacles, scurrying across the sand.
The ostrich leads them across the desert for miles.
The creature’s legs are very long! the first alien says.
Yeah, says the second, who’s starting to gasp. My tentacles weren’t designed for this!
Mine neither! says the first. And this place is a nightmare—imagine, a whole planet made of dirt!
Just then, up ahead, the ostrich stops.
Both aliens collapse in the sand.
Hey, what’s that? the first alien says.
There’s a strange shape ahead on the horizon.
The two aliens lie there, staring at it.
Is it the Promised Land? the first alien says.
No, says the second, after a minute. No, it isn’t.
It’s their flying saucer.
Shit, says the first alien.
They both look at the ostrich.
The ostrich stares back at them. It blinks.
You’re a stupid animal, the alien says. But I suppose you’re happy with yourself.
I don’t know, says the second. Maybe there’s something more.
Something more? says the first. Like what?
Maybe it’s a parable, the second alien says. Or, you know, like a metaphor.
I don’t get it, says the first.
Yeah, me neither, says the second. But let’s just think on it a bit.
They walk towards the ship.
They stand there a minute.
Then they both look at their feet.
You don’t think . . ? says the first.
The second shakes his head.
I don’t think, but it’s possible, he says. Maybe there was a great big sandstorm or something and the Promised Land got buried beneath?
They look at the ostrich.
The ostrich stares back. It looks from one alien to the other.
Then it looks at the ground.
Then up at the aliens.
Then down at the ground again.
Well, says the first alien. Who’s going first?
I’m not doing this alone, the second says.
Fine, says the first, we’ll do it together.
And together they lower their heads.
The ostrich watches as their heads slide into the sand, and then, abruptly, it lays an egg.
Then it walks up the ramp and into the ship. They don’t even look up as it flies away.
Ben Loory is the author of the collection Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day (Penguin, 2011), and a picture book for children, The Baseball Player and the Walrus (Dial Books for Young Readers, 2015). His fables and tales have appeared in The New Yorker, Gargoyle Magazine, Wigleaf, and the Antioch Review, and been featured on NPR’s This American Life and Selected Shorts. He lives in Los Angeles, where he is an Instructor for the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program.
Like sands through the hourglass, so are the months of our lives. It is once again time for our staff to heap praises on a few of our favorite books, movies, albums, and TV shows from the last month.
Emma Komlos-Hrobsky: Sjon’s Blue Fox is everything you’d want from an Icelandic novella of menacing folk magic and fable written by the lyricist for Dancer in the Dark. That is to say, it’s not quite like anything I’ve ever read; it’s buoyant, fabulist, and chilly at once. I was disturbed, for example, when I realized the vixen of the book’s title is being hunted when we meet her. You know what they say about guns in the first act, but that’s just the start. This is a book where a gun shot triggers an avalanche, literally and otherwise. Come for the lush Roderigo Corral cover art, stay for the frosty Scandi-magical realism.
Diane Chonette: I have nothing but good things to say about Ana Lily Amirpour’s debut film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. It lives up to the quirkiness you would expect from a movie that has been dubbed “the first Iranian vampire Western” but I wasn’t prepared for how rich, gorgeous and powerful the black and white film would be. At its core it is a love story between the unnamed vampire girl and the lovable protagonist Arash (think James Dean) set in a fictitious town called Bad City, but it is so much more than that. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is an amazingly fresh and inspired take on the best of noir, spaghetti western and vampire thriller genres, yet it still finds a way to speak of Iranian cultural traditions and gender roles and how they are ripe for reform. And the soundtrack is the delicious icing on the cake.
Thomas Ross: After a little solo vacation time at the end of May, I came back with a good half dozen books knocked off my to-read list. The Argonauts changed me, The Book of Aron wrecked me, Post Exoticism in Ten Lessons: Lesson Eleven sucked me in, but Loving Day was the most fun. It’s funny, irreverent, full of the kind of jokes I’m not sure I’m allowed to laugh at as a 21st century white guy—you can always laugh at a pun, right? even if it’s also cutting racial satire?—but most importantly, it’s as human in its comedy as it is in its drama. “Funny” novels sometimes feel like the author’s excuse to tell some bawdy jokes, but I think the real key to Loving Day is that Johnson writes such unabashedly real prose about love and sex, swinging freely from sappy to cynical sometimes in the same sentence, often in the same word. The novel’s satirical edge is hard and there’s no doubt that it wants to burn you down, but it feels as honest and emotional as the best fiction. Plus a lot of comic book references.
Lance Cleland: I could go with any number of current masterpieces- Jim Shepard’s Book of Aron, A$AP’s Electric Body, or Bartolo Colon’s hitting- but I would like to rewind the clock and remind you of the breathtaking genius that is Meryl Streep’s The River Wild. As somewhat new dog owners, my wife and I have discovered the joys of
grabbing poop through a thin veil of resin early morning walks which lead to Saturday morning films. Lately, we have been going back through some 90′s classics (shout out to Joyride, RIP). Let me tell you, there is no greater combination on earth than good coffee, pancakes, and a ripped Streep threatening to murder a peak weasel era Kevin Bacon. Add some John C. “I didn’t sign up for this ride” Reilly, David “Mr. Emasculated” Strathairn, and a wild river, and you have one hell of a good start to your day.
Jakob Vala: Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts is the first book that’s ever made me wish I were the type to write fan letters. I want to share it and reread it. But I also want to hold it close and imagine that I’m the only one who knows its secrets.
Meg Storey: Elie Wiesel famously said that the opposite of love is not hate; it’s indifference. I wonder if he would have known what to say to Marina Keegan, the Yale grad whose essay “The Opposite of Loneliness” went viral after Keegan was killed in a car accident two weeks after graduating. Keegan writes, “We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I could say that’s what I want in life.” It’s often the indefinable that most haunts us, and Keegan’s words haunt doubly now. While some of the pieces in the posthumously published collection of her short stories and essays of the same title are clearly the work of a young college student writing (well but predictably) about family dynamics and boyfriends and friendships, there are several that indicate that Keegan already possessed an empathy for, as well as an ability to inhabit, a wide range of perspectives. The story “The Emerald City” is told from the point of view of a Coalition Provisional Authority officer working in Iraq’s Green Zone. “Challenger Deep” is about a group of people trapped in a submarine that has lost its power, learning to navigate by touch in the deep dark and aware of the unlikelihood that they will be rescued. And in the essay “Why We Care about Whales,” Keegan beautifully recounts a day spent trying to save beached whales on Cape Cod and looking into the eyes of a dying whale. Perhaps, unknowingly, Keegan did find a word for the opposite of loneliness: empathy.
Since our first issue, back in 1999, we have prided ourselves on recognizing new voices. It has been a thrill to discover writers such as Victor LaValle, Justin Torres, and Dylan Landis, and then to watch their careers unfold and blossom. It speaks well of the current literary climate that we are continually surprised and excited by previously unknown writers. For this issue, five New Voices caught our eye. Poets Diana M. Chien and Cody Carvel dazzled us with their energy and wit, while Mary Barnett grabbed our attention with her essay about a decades-old trauma and her continuing struggle to heal. We admired the confidence and precision of the prose in the short stories of Sarah Elaine Smith and Matthew Socia—Smith’s “Pink Lotion” following a problematic addiction recovery, Socia’s “American Tramplings” being the tale of a stampede epidemic.
While discovering emerging writers is always a thrill, it is a different excitement reading the work of masters who are in full command of their powers. For readers unfamiliar with the latest Nobel Laureate, Patrick Modiano, his “Page-a-Day” (beautifully translated from the French by Edward Gauvin) is an ideal introduction, wherein the author explores his favorite subject—Paris—and obsesses on time, memory, and the legacy of World War II. In “Forgetting Mississippi,” Lewis Hyde revisits the brutal 1964 murder of two young black men. Hyde, who was a civil rights activist at the time, not only puts the crime in context but also does the seemingly impossible—searches for forgiveness. Kimiko Hahn, the author of seven volumes of poetry and winner of numerous awards, demonstrates in her four poems how she continues to push her art, reminding us that no matter how accomplished, discovery is experienced poem to poem, word to word.
Here’s to renewal and discovery.
Existential Scavenger Hunt
Salt Lake City, I love yr Mormon versions of my favorite gay men,
tailored to make me nostalgic for pussy & God! Both come
in hundreds of flavors—cowboy, purple-haired, crying
at a Sex Pistols concert. I could have loved them all.
The purple-haired one tasted like home. We traveled
to Boston, where she watched a violet-coiffed old woman watch
herself in the windows of the Institute of Contemporary Art.
Now, I buy her a postcard. Photo of the Salt Lake Library.
We went there, once, stood toe to toe
on the roof-bound stairs. The beginning. Upside-down: The end, cemented
like delinquent hands. If I send her this note, have I preserved
my outlawness— how retain it?
When my boyfriend calls I warn him that
it’s one of those days—I want to hump the legs of all the girls
on this plane. He never feels threatened—we even cuddle
while we meditate, & meditation reminds me of him. Even when I sit
alone, several cities away. Even when I pray to be a dyke
who dates men. Back in Boise, half-lotused, my boyfriend
calls me cliché. He says that Buddhism says
identifying with anything is silly, that true Buddhists don’t identify
as Buddhist. He asks me to reconsider.
Megan Williams received her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College, where she served as poetry co-editor of LUMINA. Her poems have appeared in PANK, Ducts, Tin House, and Mudlark.
The cover of our 2015 Summer Reading issue features Shanon Playford’s Nereid, a painting from her Oh My Gods! series of classical figures depicted through modern imagery. In Greek mythology, the Nereids were the fifty daughters of Doris, a sea nymph, and Nereus, the Old Man of the Sea. They were also companions of Poseidon and patrons of sailors—guiding them through tumultuous seas to safe shores.
Playford positions her art within the Chameleon School of Painting, a fictional movement that encompasses her versatile style and the ways in which she adapts her methods to suit whichever theme she is currently exploring. Working in collections, Playford first selects a concept and then determines the best way to express it. She says that “with every new series, there is usually a new challenge” in the form of a previously untouched subject, style, or medium.
Lately, Playford also aligns with a kind of Poetic Realism. That is, she’s “not interested in painting just what’s before [her], but something more elusive.” She achieves this in a seamless fusion of contemporary aesthetics with “close associations to the rich history of painting.” This richness is nourished through research and a wide range of influences. A self-professed “Vermeer geek,” her inspirations span art history, from the Dutch masters to the etchings of Goya to the para-realism of Lucian Freud.
Playford, a sixth-generation Portlander, is currently working on a series of one hundred views of Oregon. You can see more of her art at www.shanonplayford.com.
“Don’t eat it,” he said. “Don’t eat the pussy.” This from the man who’d shuffled in into the liquor store after me. The counter was walled in plexiglass except for the revolving window at the register, so that he and I were cooped there as though in a terrarium. It was dark out and the store would close in a few minutes. The man was missing his front two teeth, so that I could see an alarming amount of his tongue’s movement as he spoke. He’d told me, “I know two things about life: smoke em when you got em”—I’d traded him two cigarettes, from the pack I just bought, for seventy five cents—“and don’t eat the pussy.” Then he shook a finger at me in a fatherly way.
I was drunk. We were all drunk it seemed. Everyone I knew. We drank until we felt like copies of ourselves, which would vanish, and whatever plans we’d made too, in the morning’s first blue light. I saw the man, and the cashier and the store, which was plastered, ceiling to linoleum, with liquor, beer, cigarette, and cigarillo adverts in bleary swathes of imagery, as through a fogged window polished with your hand. And in the corner near the door, there was a coin-operated candy machine half-full with jellybeans, except where were the children? Where were the mothers who’d dug through their purses and found one last quarter?
“That’s not very gentlemanly,” I managed.
He laughed wildly and slapped my shoulder and raised his head so that I saw into his open mouth—into his gummy-tooth holes. And then, with a terrifying abruptness, he was quiet and bent toward me conspiratorially. “I’ve never known a gentleman. My daddy was a real killer,” he said. “Where’d you come from?” Not from here,” he ventured. “No. Somewhere with pretty girls, huh? Real hygienic girls, huh? Breaks your heart how good they smell.”
I thought about this a moment. “Hygienic. Sure. She was hygienic.”
He squatted down and clasped his thighs and made a deep sniffing noise, as though he could inhale into his gut, and then he straightened up again. “She must have been. Kid, loverboy, I’ll tell you this: these girls aren’t like your girls. These girls taste like sour metal. Are you listening?”
And then it occurred to me that we had left the store together—that we were standing on the street corner.
“I’ve met kids like you, you know. “ He said, “I’ll bet your mamma traded you silver dollars for your baby teeth, didn’t she? I bet she smelled all over just like the palm of her hand. When I lost a tooth, when I put it beneath my pillow, do you know what I found in the morning? I found a tooth. And there was still a bit of blood on it. And it was mine. And I buried it in the yard like a dog.” He laughed madly again, which shook the whole of him and rattled his eyes.
I left him there, laughing and gasping, and hocking loogies into the stormdrain.
Taylor Koekkoek was born and raised in Oregon. He is an MFA candidate at Johns Hopkins University. His stories have appeared in Neon Magazine, Fogged Clarity, and elsewhere.
Forrest Gander: The Boatmaker is certainly a book about crossing borders. The protagonist crosses borders in himself, overcoming weaknesses, developing strengths. But he also launches himself from Small Island to Big Island to a Mainland that, at its southern limits, borders Europe, a place of noted culinary and cultural differences. Although the events take place far from America, they seem drawn from the Native American tradition of the vision quest. The boatmaker’s dreams, in fact, are his guides. That seems in keeping with the ambiguity you create about where the novel takes place. Would you say that borders are important to The Boatmaker more as symbols than as markers of particular geographies?
John Benditt: Something that is central to The Boatmaker is that it’s both specific and not specific in its geography. I think of it as being set on a border itself: the border between what is “real” in the ordinary sense and what is “unreal” in the ordinary sense. The Mainland is close to Europe but it’s not in Europe. It seems to hover in between. Symbols, on the other hand, do seem to belong to the world of the unreal.
FG: Both our books relate critical events brought on by anti-Semitism. In The Boatmaker, it is one of the stronger themes and connected to the boatmaker’s name, which we don’t learn until the end of the book. In The Trace, one anti-Semitic incident breaks down the defenses that have protected the main characters, Dale and Hoa, from their respective guilt and grief and blame. Did you think of your protagonist, from the start, as a representative of The Lost Tribe? Does his wandering and his search for his own identity parallel a Jewish story of diaspora and search for homeland?
JB: I was surprised to see anti-Semitism pop up at that crucial moment in The Trace. It has a great deal of force. It shakes your characters. Partly because it seems to come out of nowhere. After all, there aren’t any Jews around. But that’s one of the funny things about anti-Semitism: it persists and reappears in places where there aren’t any actual Jews. For instance, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion has always sold well in Japan, despite the fact that the number of Jews in Japan has historically been vanishingly small. The thing has a life of its own.
But I definitely did not think of the boatmaker from the beginning as a representative of the Jewish people. The book began as a short story that took place on Small Island, where there are no practicing Jews. At the beginning, it wasn’t clear to me that the boatmaker is a Jew. And even now, I have mixed feelings. I’m not sure there’s a single clear answer to that question.
FG: Your protagonist is one of the mutest characters I’ve encountered since I read David Malouf’s An Imaginary Life, about Ovid in exile. The boatmaker’s intelligence, his very consciousness, is intensely corporeal. He seems to think and feel with his hands. But that muteness increases his intrigue; it is, in part, what draws others to respect him. As you worked on the novel, what particular problems arose from creating a main character of so few words?
JB: It did present challenges in dialog. There are only so many times a character can say nothing in response to something that’s said to him. Only so many times a writer can write: “The boatmaker says nothing.” On the other hand, silence is powerful. It makes people think there is something important dwelling behind the silence; they want to get at that. It allows people to project their own wishes and dreams onto the boatmaker—as some characters do in the book.
Your novel, The Trace, is a wonderful evocation of a healing journey, undertaken by the two main characters, Dale and Hoa. For some reason, both the desert and Mexico seem to stimulate thoughts of this kind of journey. What drew you to these two things—the desert and Mexico—as the setting for your book?
To provide a brief biographical sketch of Luke Goebel would be like putting a campfire in a cardboard box. Luke’s debut novel, Fourteen Stories, None of Them Are Yours, plays with novel-as-memoir, the seriousness we attribute to biography, and the self-mythologizing of writers, predominantly white male American writers, from Twain to Hemingway to Kerouac.
The narrator of Fourteen Stories doesn’t quite fit in with earlier American writers scrambling for the pantheon. He is, above all else, earnest. My disposition to the narrator was similar to the Kid’s description of his brother in the following passage from one of the novel’s stories, “Apache”. When we read this novel we see “…a guy who was how he was, hardly a distance from himself and himself, there in front of you, knowing he was every inch, not putting on a show, laughing, owning a pistol he drove with, a giant with a laugh like a holiday.”
I had the chance to meet Luke in Minnesota and hear that laugh in person. The following conversation took place over landlines from our respective bread jobs.
WILL CHANCELLOR: Chronologically, which story in Fourteen Stories came first?
LUKE GOEBEL: Well it started with the ones I threw out. But, of the ones in the book, I think it was “The Minds of Boys,” which was a freer style, which makes sense because I wrote it on the beach in San Francisco. Ocean Beach, is that what it’s called?
WC: Yep. OB. Had some miserable paddleouts there.
LG: There’s also the Ocean Beach in San Diego, which is totally different. I guess there are a lot of Ocean Beaches. I guess I kept going back to that spot in my mind. But I wrote it at UMass Amherst on a typewriter that’s actually right here in my office. It’s a Coronet Super 12. Baby blue electric. And I stole it off Hannah Hudson–
WC: Luke hold off on the typewriter because I want to get back to that.
LG: And the case is right behind me. It’s got a piece of duct tape on it that says, Hudson.
WC: Luke, hold off on this because I want to…
LG: So I stole it off her and I wrote the story, I think I wrote it before I studied with El Capitan Gordo back when I was in the UMass program.
WC: Wait, I don’t know who that is.
LG: Oh. Gordon Lish. The dread pirate Gordon. My sweet friend who people seem to think lots of different things about.
WC: When was this?
LG: I took his class one summer, oh gosh I’m really bad with years. I think it would have been 2009.
WC: So you’re at Amherst…
LG: Yeah I went into the program with a novel, which I finished and then luckily abandoned on the side of a cliff just below the road to a sure death. But it was definitely included in Fourteen Stories. Rather than taking the novel whole hog, you smash it and make a mosaic of the little pieces. Which was great! To be able to let go of your story and then use the little pieces you want. I’m speaking metaphorically, metaphysically, ontologically, numerically.
WC: It’s interesting that “The Minds of Boys” came first because that one struck me as distinct from the central narrative.
LG: That’s definitely an outlier story in the collection. I know why I put it in there and I’m glad I put it in there, but it’s definitely a different style and a different type of story.
WC: Why did it need to be there?
LG: I included it because it’s a disappearing act. And the way you lose somebody and it feels like a trap door opened and they’re suddenly not there anymore. And that one’s obviously about how it feels to lose your only brother, but the narrative there is like a child getting punched in the face…in the book it comes after a good amount of adult reckoning with that loss, but then it hits you again like you just saw a kid get punched in the face…that’s us…kids getting socked open-eyed in the face.
WC: I read it as a biographical allegory with you as Cutlass and your brother as Keiko.
LG: I’d never thought of that. But I do identify a lot with Cutlass. I did cut my hair with a knife while driving in a piece of shit car through the desert in California, so that makes sense. It’s cool you used the word ‘allegory’ because that’s how I describe it when I give a reading or something. I think of the book as one central narrative, but then with these interruptions of stories that work as allegories, which allows us to explore what’s happening in the main narrative through story.
WC: Do you think it influenced you to start with an allegory that foreshadows the loss at the heart of the novel?
LG: Well, you know that’s the thing. It’s all accident with intentions. I didn’t plan to make a novel; I just wrote stories. And when I wrote that story I hadn’t lost my brother. Again, it’s that smashing something into pieces and then putting them together in a way that makes sense both from one’s own life and with the pieces that make the book. I just wrote that story trying to learn how to write. I didn’t really start with allegory. Or it was an allegory then about looking at clouds and not being a kid anymore. If I had to start with which story started the actual narrative, it would be “Insides” which is the first story in the book. That’s the first one I wrote that I thought, This is a decent story, maybe, and it’ll be the first one in the collection.
WC: So these began as stories and then they cohered as a novel? What was that realization like?
LG: It was always a collection of discrete stories–even through its acceptance. It became a ‘linked collection’ when I submitted it to a couple small little presses. I never thought I wouldn’t send it out to major presses. I just sent it to some smaller outfits and got a couple contracts and that was within a week of sending it out. But I forgot that I had submitted it to the Sukenick prize, which is the only place I sent it of any repute or whatever so I was already in a contract when they called me at 8 am and said, “Hey, you won the Sukenick prize!” And I said, “The what?” So then I had to talk to the outfit I was with, Yes Yes Books out of Portland and told them about this deal–and they were great and said, “Take the prize! Take it!” And when it won the prize it was still a collection without the narrative intrusions–the parentheticals and the double parentheticals and the brackets. I signed the contract with FC2 at the University of Alabama and bought that thirty foot RV and took my time on the road just to edit the collection.
WC: Still a collection at this point?
LG: I just thought I was going to clean up a collection. But then I started having these adventures: windstorms and tornadoes above and driving this thirty foot thing with the lights and horn going out and the pistol and just having another adventure. And I didn’t want to let go of the project yet. You know that fear of what’s the next book going to be? I wasn’t ready to look at that and I still felt like man, there’s more that could be done with this thing. Maybe I was just testing the waters of it too quick. Or I just didn’t want to let it go.