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Thanks to our ace photographer, Cheston Knapp, we were able to document some of the shenanigans that took place during our recent Summer Workshop.
To take a full tour of our week at Reed, be sure to scroll through the entire 2015 Summer Album.
In honor of the upcoming New Directions release of Clarice Lispector’s Complete Stories, we decided to hand The Open Bar keys over to the Brazilian legend. Tune in all week for previously unpublished and newly translated stories, as well as reviews and thoughts on her work.
Today, Kim Adrian unpacks The Passion According to G.H.
Clarice Lispector’s novel The Passion According to G.H. chronicles—in maddening detail—one woman’s existential and alimentary encounter with a cockroach. Driven by a consuming curiosity and a “hellish love,” this woman—a sheltered, upper-middle-class lady living in Rio de Janeiro and known only as G.H.—kills the roach, then eats part of it, and in so doing enters a state of “primary, divine glory.” Lipsector (who, although born in the Ukraine, lived most of her life in Brazil and wrote in Portuguese) was a philosopher as much as a writer. She considered herself an existentialist, and The Passion According to G.H. belongs to the same tradition as Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea in that its true subject is neither G.H. nor the roach, but the slippery, painful juncture between individual consciousness and reality. In Lispector’s arrangement, that juncture is represented by the unholy “Eucharist” of the cockroach’s living plasma.
We first find G.H., who lives alone in a large, lavishly furnished penthouse apartment, lounging around in her bathrobe, aimlessly rolling “little, round balls out of the heart of the bread” as she muses distractedly on her latest romantic liaison. Eventually bored by these benign acts of “nonbeing,” she decides to clean the room of her recently quitted maid. But to her surprise, she finds this room perfectly tidy. Tidy, although not exactly immaculate: a healthy, gleaming cockroach soon makes its appearance, ambling slowly out of the dark depths of a wooden wardrobe and toward the light. In a fit of murderous repulsion, G.H. pinches the bug between the wardrobe’s door and door frame, only to acquire, by infinitesimal degrees, an irresistible appetite for the pulpy white goo that slowly emerges from the bug’s broken carapace.
Lispector’s method of storytelling consists mostly of relentless iterations of just a few images and themes—the obscene but jewellike opulence of the roach, for instance, is visited and revisited on almost every page, as is the barren desolation of the bedchamber in which the story takes place. All of this repetition creates a kind of manic echo, no doubt meant to reflect the struggle of G.H. as she psychically disengages from her everyday life and identity; but it also drives the reader—this reader, anyway—crazy, and not, I think, in the intended way. In fact, my frustration grew as I read, outlasting the novel’s final lines, so that when I finally shut the book’s covers, I found myself in need of a tall gin and tonic and some seriously lite entertainment.
Yet over the course of the next few days, my thoughts—working on one of those mute under-channels—returned again and again to Lispector’s novel, and my understanding of the book emerged as quietly and unexpectedly as the story’s central metaphor emerges from its dark hiding place.
That metaphor, Lispector’s roach, is nearly as touching, repulsive, and comic an insect as Kafka’s—although this roach is very much a real roach. Lispector’s most beautiful writing, at least as rendered by translator Ronald W. Sousa, concerns the physical properties of this primordial insect. Largish (my impression: about two inches long) it is
an auburn color. And all covered with cilia…The antennae were quiet…dry, dusty filaments…But its eyes were black and radiant. The eyes of a girl about to be married. Each eye itself looked like a cockroach. Each fringed, dark, live, dusted eye.
However fabulous the cockroach, the maid’s room in which it resides is so plain, so bleached and bare, as to remind G.H. of a “portrait of an empty stomach” or of a scene “after a flood.” In this austere setting, G.H. conducts her “Sabbath orgy,” submitting to “human martyrdom itself,” accompanied by the mute but nevertheless deafening strains of a “silent oratorio.” Religious terms like these surface in nearly every paragraph, so that when G.H. says she feels “curiosity…consuming” her as she studies the half-squashed cockroach, we think naturally of Eve. But Eve, of course, was looking for knowledge, while G.H. is looking for something else. And she finds this something—which she calls variously “God,” a “plasma,” the “real,” the “neutral,” and the “now”—in “that stuff…coming out of the cockroach’s belly.”
We are thrilled to announce that Tin House is now the Gideons Bible of Ace Hotel.
Look for our magazines in their Portland and Midtown Manhattan rooms.
In honor of the upcoming New Directions release of Clarice Lispector’s Complete Stories, we have decided to hand the keys to The Open Bar over to the Brazilian legend. Tune in all week for previously unpublished and newly translated stories, as well as reviews and thoughts on her work.
Kicking off Lispector week is a new translation (by Katrina Dodson) of Praça Mauá, which concerns itself with an argument between a stripper and her transvestite friend over who is the better woman.
The cabaret on the Praça Mauá was called “Erótica.” And Luísa’s stage name was Carla.
Carla was a dancer at the “Erótica.” She was married to Joaquim who worked himself to death as a carpenter. And Carla “worked” in two ways: dancing half-naked and cheating on her husband.
Carla was beautiful. She had small teeth and a tiny waist. She was utterly fragile. She had hardly any breasts but her hips were nice and curvy. It took her an hour to do her makeup: afterward she looked like a porcelain doll. She was thirty but looked a lot younger.
She didn’t have children. She and Joaquim didn’t have much to do with each other. He worked until ten at night. She started work right at ten. She slept all day.
Carla was a lazy Luísa. She’d show up at night, when it was time for her to perform, she’d start yawning, she felt like wearing a nightie in her own bed. It was also because she was shy. As incredible as it might seem, Carla was a shy Luísa. She’d strip, sure, but those first moments of dancing and gyrating were filled with shame. She only “warmed up” a few minutes later. Then she pulled out all the stops, gyrating, giving it all she had. The samba was her specialty. But a really romantic blues number also got her going.
She’d get called over for a drink with customers. She got a commission for every bottle. She’d pick the most expensive one. And pretend to drink: it wasn’t alcohol. She’d let the customer get drunk and spend money. Chatting with them was a chore. They’d caress her, run their hands over her tiny breasts. And she’d be wearing a sparkly bikini. Gorgeous.
Once in awhile she’d sleep with a customer. She’d take the money, tuck it away safe and sound in her bra and the next day go shopping for clothes. Her closet was overflowing. She’d get blue jeans. And necklaces. Tons of necklaces. And bracelets, rings.
Sometimes, just to mix it up, she’d dance in blue jeans and no bra, her breasts swaying among her glittering necklaces. She’d have bangs and make a little beauty mark near her lips with black eyeliner. She was darling. She’d wear long, dangly earrings, sometimes pearls, sometimes fake gold.
Whenever she was feeling down she’d be saved by Celsinho, a man who wasn’t a man. They really got one another. She’d vent bitterly to him, complaining about Joaquim, complaining about inflation. Celsinho, a popular transvestite, listened to it all and gave her advice. They weren’t rivals. Each had their own partner.
Celsinho came from an upper-class family. He’d left everything behind to follow his calling. He didn’t dance. But he wore lipstick and false eyelashes. The sailors on Praça Mauá adored him. And he played hard to get. He only gave in at the last second. And he got paid in dollars. He invested the money he exchanged on the black market at Halles Bank. He was terribly afraid of growing old and helpless. Especially because an old tranny is a pitiful sight. To keep up his strength he took two packets of protein powder daily. He had wide hips and, from taking so many hormones, had acquired a facsimile of breasts. Celsinho’s stage name was Moleirão.*
Moleirão and Carla made good money for the owner of the “Erótica.” The smoky atmosphere reeked of alcohol. And there was the dance floor. It was rough being dragged out to dance by a drunk sailor. But what could you do. Everyone’s got their “métier.”
Celsinho had adopted a four-year-old girl. He was a real mother to her. He didn’t sleep much because he was taking care of his little girl. She wanted for nothing: everything she had was the very best. And a Portuguese nanny. On Sundays, Celsinho would take Claretinha to the zoo, in the Quinta da Boa Vista. And they’d both eat popcorn. And feed the monkeys. Claretinha was afraid of the elephants. She’d ask:
“How come their noses are so big?”
Celsinho would then tell a whimsical story involving evil fairies and good fairies. Or then he’d take her to the circus. And they’d suck noisily on their candy, the two of them. Celsinho wanted a brilliant future for Claretinha: marriage to a wealthy man, children, jewels.
Carla had a Siamese cat that gazed at her with hard blue eyes. But Carla hardly had time to take care of her pet: she was either sleeping, or dancing, or shopping. The cat’s name was Leléu. And it lapped up milk with its delicate little red tongue.
Joaquim hardly ever saw Luísa. He refused to call her Carla. Joaquim was fat and short, of Italian stock. He’d been given the name Joaquim by a Portuguese neighbor women. His name was Joaquim Fioriti. Fioriti? there was nothing flowery about him.
Joaquim and Luísa’s maid was a cheeky black woman who stole as much as she could. Luísa hardlyate, to maintain her figure. Joaquim would drench himself with minestrone. The maid knew about everything but kept her mouth shut. And she was in charge of polishing Carla’s jewelry with Brasso and Silvo. While Joaquim was sleeping and Carla was working, the maid, named Silvinha, would wear her mistress’s jewelry. And she was a somewhat ashy black color.
Here’s how what happened, happened.
Carla was telling secrets to Moleirão, when she was asked to dance by a tall man with broad shoulders. Celsinho lusted after him. And was green with envy. He was vindictive.
When the dance ended and Carla came back to sit with Moleirão, he could barely contain his anger. And there sat Carla, innocent. It wasn’t her fault she was attractive. And she’d taken quite a liking to that big hunky man. She said to Celsinho:
“I’d sleep with that one without charging a cent.”
Celsinho silent. It was nearly three in the morning. The “Erótica” was full of men and women. Lots of housewives went there for fun and to make a little extra cash.
Then Carla said:
“It’s so nice to dance with a real man.”
Celsinho jumped up:
“But you’re not a real woman!”
“Me? what do you mean I’m not?” gasped the girl who that night was dressed in black, a full-length gown with long sleeves, she looked like a nun. She did it on purpose to turn on the men who wanted a pure woman.
“You,” Celsinho sputtered, “aren’t a woman at all! You don’t even know how to fry an egg! And I do! I do! I do!”
Carla turned into Luísa. Pale, bewildered. She’d been stung in her innermost femininity. Bewildered, staring at Celsinho who looked like an old hag.
Carla didn’t say a word. She rose, stubbed out her cigarette in the ashtray and, without a word of explanation, ditching the party at its peak, left.
There she stood, all in black, on the Praça Mauá, at three in the morning. Like the cheapest of whores. Alone. With nowhere to turn. It was true: she didn’t know how to fry an egg. And Celsinho was more woman than she.
The square was dark. And Luísa took a deep breath. She looked at the lampposts. The empty square.
And in the sky the stars.
* Clumsy, lazy; a softy
Clarice Lispector was born in 1920 to a Jewish family in western Ukraine. As a result of the anti-Semitic violence they endured, the family fled to Brazil in 1922, and Clarice Lispector grew up in Recife. Following the death of her mother when Clarice was nine, she moved to Rio de Janeiro with her father and two sisters, and she went on to study law. With her husband, who worked for the foreign service, she lived in Italy, Switzerland, England, and the United States, until they separated and she returned to Rio in 1959; she died there in 1977. Since her death, Clarice Lispector has earned universal recognition as Brazil’s greatest modern writer.
Katrina Dodson’s (translator) work has appeared in Granta, McSweeney’s, and Two Lines. She holds a PhD in comparative literature at the University of California, Berkeley.
Perimenopause, have you heard of it? I heard about it today on NPR. It explains why women go demented as they get older. They compared it to puberty, how you go into it one way and come out of it another. But instead of cue ball breasts and fecund loins this “transition,” as they call it, leaves you fucked in the head.
This is what I want to say to Ralph as we sit in the art gallery with Teddy’s photos, side-by-side on a marble bench designed to torture the buttocks of post-perimenopausal women. Funny how my doctor says I’m fat, yet my ass is as bountiful as a jailhouse mattress. Just another injustice of this brave new world I’ve entered, like the condescending “Miss” that younger men have started using when addressing me in restaurants and shops.
“I could be your grandmother,” I told the new bagger at the Safeway yesterday. “Don’t Miss me.”
I want to tell Ralph about this, too, and how the worst part of being “Missed” is that for a split second I believe it, before I look over my shoulder for someone other than the cranky old bitch it surprises me that I am. I still wake up sometimes with the smell of my childhood bedroom in my nostrils, that sweet smell of an old house, of drying laundry and the lavender sachets my mother made for my underwear drawer. I stretch my legs and curl my toes and listen for long gone voices coming from the kitchen.
I forget if it’s better to talk to Ralph about the past or the present. Lately, time’s been pumping along like an accordion, stretching and folding in on itself. If I nod off in the early evening I have to make a mental list when I wake up: who’s alive, who’s lost, what do I know for sure and what’s make-believe?
“Present and accounted for,” Ralph tells me on his good days, when he notices my eyes have opened.
Now, in this big white room with my brother’s photographs on the walls, I could talk about my mother. How she was a glamorous housewife back when that was one of the better options for a woman. How she liked to tell Teddy and me about the time before we were born, when she went swimming in the river with the neighborhood’s artists and their “artistic” wives. How her friend Ed, the famous photographer, had taken her photograph. I picture my mother like he did: white arms cutting through the inky water, the sun low, humidity curling her hair into a nest at the nape of her neck. Back then the river sprouted tender grass and green frogs and you could sunbathe on the little island that’s now a settlement of ragged tents.
“It’s Jenny.” Ralph says. His finger, thick and gnarled as a knob of ginger, is caught in the exhibition catalog. I tug it free and open the book to the place he was marking.
“Yes, it is,” I say, remembering the doctor’s suggestion to “meet him where he’s at.” The truth will just confuse and frighten him, make him cry and scream until I have to give him a pill. And then we’ll relive it again tomorrow.
“Doesn’t she look pretty?” I say, looking at my own, much younger face squinting up into the camera. My hair’s flying to all corners and half submerged under the sand because I’m lying on the beach without a towel. That was the summer my brother got his Brownie and I learned to drive. I can’t remember if we’d gone to Santa Monica or Venice. Our parents were gone for some reason that Sunday and Teddy had talked me into taking the car out. I can see the floral print of my church dress at the bottom of the composition.
It is just a family photo. Why it was printed in this book, or hanging on the walls of this gallery along with the others is a mystery to me. I knew of Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange, and my mother’s famous Ed. I knew Teddy too, of course, but only as my jumpy little brother. He passed away last year and I’m still getting used to the idea that he will live on indefinitely in these black and white images of our past.
“You think there’s a photo of the two of us?” I poke Ralph’s coat sleeve with a corner of the book. I hold it between us, front cover on his knee, back cover on mine, and flip the pages forward with my thumb.
But he’s gone, his eyes on a patch of floor, his scarf dangling loose from the knot I tied before we left the apartment this morning. The smell of chicken soup from the lobby sandwich shop is coming off the wool. I put the book down on the bench and look around. There are a surprising number of people milling about, and I have the same disorienting feeling I had at Teddy’s wake. Like I should recognize them but I don’t.
“I wonder who she was.” I hear a young woman’s voice and turn to follow it. She’s standing in front of a print of my beach photo that’s hanging on the wall.
“Did you hear that Ralph?” I say.
Honor Rovai has written for Akashic, The Daily Gullet, Not For Tourists: Los Angeles, GOTOTENNIS and the Awkward literary journal. She recently completed her first novel, inspired by her day job planning galas for the one percent. She lives with her family in San Jose, California.
Some cover designs feel impossible until the final moment, when each person’s vision aligns. Other covers are so straightforward that we, in the art department, hold our collective breath and wait for something to go awry. The design process for A Hanging at Cinder Bottom was as smooth as its poker-playing protagonist, Abe Baach.
I’ll admit to being a tad nervous when I sat down to read the manuscript and saw that Glenn Taylor had already sent along a cover idea. Author input is important, but I worried he’d set his mind on a direction too early in the game. Fortunately, Glenn’s idea was an instant hit in the office. While researching, he’d spotted a monkey-decorated joker card in The Hochman Encyclopedia of American Playing Cards. It stuck with him and inspired the devil-backed playing card passed between two characters. The image also references the character of Baz, a capuchin monkey.
While the original card is charming, it doesn’t quite match the feel of the book. So we commissioned Allen Crawford, the intrepid illustrator of Whitman Illuminated, to create a custom image. We gave him the original card as well as Glenn’s description, from the book:
Little Donnie studied the card. No black ink was used in its manufacture. It was a three-color print, primarily red. Its yellow company sign was bright as summer squash and was held by a dancing green monkey on a pedestal, while the pedestal was striped in a color that was neither red nor green nor yellow.
Allen’s initial sketch was wonderful, but I had a list of my own nitpicky requests: more texture, rougher linework, move the monkey’s paw, etc. The monkey felt too playful. In the book, Baz is described as being a 41 year-old, white-faced capuchin. He’s friendly, but fiercely protective of his owner. Capuchins tend to resemble old men so Allen added a little wisdom and removed the snaggletooth.
Allen’s next iteration was exactly what I’d pictured. To add authenticity, he colored the final art as if he’d used the three-ink printing process described in the book. The color of the pedestal was made by layering red and green.
The card in the book also contains a secret message, only readable with a magnifier. Allen changed the stripes in the pedestal so I could make space for the text.
Little Donnie brought the card close, the lines an inch from his left eye, the one folks referred to as “lazy.” It was anything but. It rolled sometimes, but it could see things no one else could. On that night, in the striped pedestal of the devil-monkey, the eye saw:
Little Donnie Staples,
Tell Trent I gave you
invite to Baach game.
Come to saloon back door
on Friday 4 am sleep break
Cinder Bottom editor, Tony Perez and I were excited about including this detail, but we weren’t sure it would turn out. After a bit of experimenting and a trip to the toy store, to purchase a magnifying glass, we were satisfied with the outcome.
Allen had also drawn a beautiful back for our card that I’d hoped to include on the back cover. In the end, we didn’t have space, but I couldn’t let it go to waste. I turned it into a pattern of scattered cards and we printed the image on the inside cover, as faux endpapers.
We ended up with a cover we’re all happy with—one that jumps off the shelf, while remaining true to the story.
Jakob Vala is the graphic designer at Tin House. He grew up in a small cabin in the middle of the woods and attended a one-room schoolhouse where he learned to bake soufflés and recite Shakespeare. He has a BFA in Communication Design from Pacific Northwest College of Art.
In Montana the gaping sky dazzles like a baby’s mobile above our outstretched fingers. But what’s interesting to me is how the plateaus got here, Randy says, before recounting numerous myths, beginning with UFOs that flattened out the mountains in the 60s, leaving dozens upon dozens of alien refugees that fled to Billings, Missoula, Bozeman, you name it. You’ll still see them there, he tells us. Refugees? we ask. No, UFOs.
Randy says he’s not paranoid. He tells us this after detailing his tenure as an army nurse in three wars, including his latest stint in Afghanistan, after which he returned to find his wife and his 2007 Chevy Silverado gone, relocated four miles away to the county sheriff’s buffalo ranch where Randy says he can see, if he passes by slowly enough, the slope of his wife’s body against the hood of the truck. The sheriff behind, necking her. I still miss that son of a bitch, Randy says, and we cannot tell if he means his wife or the Chevy.
PTSD? Fuck nah, I don’t have that shit, Randy tells Kim. Kim has been our rock the entire trip; cut from a lineage of Pittsburgh steel and alpine callousness, she asks the hard questions, like this one: Randy, are you sure your wife didn’t leave you because of the PTSD? What she means are the night tremors, abrupt changes in mood, paranoia, dreams of drones crashing into army barracks. Shit nah, Randy says. Those are symptoms of marriage, those are effects of people, not war. If there’s one thing the army taught me it’s that you persevere through those problems, you get over the humps, you get it?
And then Randy does something mystifying: he flattens his coarse left hand inside of Kim’s until only the copper-tinted arch of his wedding ring peaks out. See this? he asks. I sold my ‘69 Mustang to buy my wife this ring. All of the soldiers thought I was nuts to do it. I didn’t care, still don’t. I’ll get her back.
This is how the plateaus were created: one small act multiplied by a dozen small acts, streaks of light like debris in the Montana sky, a ring that glints like the arc to love or war. Crashes, refugees.
I love my country and I love love equally, Randy says, before he disappears again.
Matthew Daddona is a poet, fiction writer, and reviewer residing in New York City. He is a founding member of FLASHPOINT, a spoken word group, among other collaborative projects. His most recent writings have appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rumpus, Gigantic, and Forklift, Ohio. He is currently working on his first novel.
We were disheartened yesterday to learn of the death of the writer James Tate. He was a longtime favorite of ours, who surprised us regularly by showing us not some new thing that a poem could do, or even that a poet could do, but something new that poetry could do. Poem by poem, he carved out a new territory for poetry, and we will miss exploring it with him.
Here, from our seventh issue back in 2001, is one of his poems.
So Much Alike
When I got home I could tell somebody
had been in my house. Something about the
air was different. I checked the kitchen
cupboards and, sure enough, a can of creamed
corn was missing. I always keep ten on hand
in case of emergencies and now there were nine.
In my study the lead in my pencil had been
dulled and a piece of paper was missing. In
my bedroom there was a crease in the bedspread
that wasn’t there this morning when I left.
And a page had been turned in the novel I
was reading. In my workshop in the basement
some nails had been rearranged, rather attrac-
tively, I thought. I spent most of the evening
going over the house with a magnifying glass
wondering just who the hell I thought I was,
adrift in the minutiae, and then happy to be
anybody at all, worthy of a visitor from time
James Tate was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Pulitzer Prize winner for his Selected Poems, and a Guggenheim Fellow. He was the author of over 25 books of poetry and prose.
Sonya Lea: Identity is almost always on our minds because we had a rather shocking experience. (After an incident related to his treatment for cancer), my husband, Richard’s, core historical narrative disappeared both in the short term and in the long term, which is rare. It also disappeared in his sexual history, which is even more rare. Sometimes we talk about what happened to Richard as a “personality change” and sometimes we say “loss of personality.” I’m not sure that his personality got rebuilt as much as that he learned how to get along in the world. He learned all the little tricks that we do for holding story and for being in relationship but what it feels like to me is that he had his personality neutralized to the extent that his identity went missing.
As a result of his long term memory loss, Richard was retold stories over and over and over again & he was given mix tapes and he did interviews with people. There were all of these ways he went about trying to reconstruct who he was as this person. He looked at photographs and he looked at films.
And so it was everything to us to have that personality disappear entirely and then to sit questioning what is it that comes back. Who is that who comes back? And some years after Richard had the experience, I could also question what this experience has made of me.
KMA: I know that some people have called your story subversive. Why do you think that is?
SL: When you’re in the caregiver role, you’re given only two options. You can stay and be the long-suffering partner or you can leave. You can’t really go in and say, “I’d like to have a wild adventure. Can we figure out how to do this together?”
Compared to who I was before, which was a much more fearful, reticent woman who was more careful about perception…not more than an ordinary Southerner, where you grow up knowing what your place is, knowing not to talk back, knowing what the rules are. And there’s a lot to be said for that but I certainly didn’t find any liberation from any of those things. With Richard being in this ongoing present state…if you have no ties to the past, you also lose your projection of the future. So you’re living in a real good strong present moment and when I watched him show up that way, over and over again…still a lot of generosity, still a lot of love…still a lot of ability to relate. Though this book is much more about the anger and the grief and the sadness over losing that, at this side of it, I can say that I have an extraordinary acceptance of what life is.
KMA: You are one of a cadre of (primarily heterosexual) women now publishing work that speaks more frankly about sex and intimacy. Do you think things are opening up a little bit? Are you part of that opening process?
SL: Oh I hope so, but also I have mentors. People who I admire for the way that they are writing about this include Maggie Nelson, in The Argonauts andLidia Yuknavitch in Chronology of Water. One of the fantastic essays that influenced me was Cheryl Strayed’s “The Love of My Life” (published in The Sun).
I think it comes about from writing honestly about the body. If you are writing about body experiences, how can you deny the sexual aspects of it, particularly in an intimate relationship? It’s like cutting out something that is usually central to the expression of the whole relationship.
This kind of false propriety broke down with feminism but hadn’t really broken its way into a lot of (women’s) memoir or personal essay traditions. I think this is the time of women being honest in essays. I haven’t lived through a time like this.
At the beginning when I was trying to find an agent, I had a number of rejections from people who looked at the manuscript and said it was too honest and too intimate. And I remember reading these rejection letters with other people, including Priscilla Long, who’s another mentor. I understand that they want you to contain this story within a certain type of narrative…
KMA: So they’ll feel comfortable.
SL: Right and I actually got told, “I don’t think the sex is going to sell to the Midwest.” What would I have to do? Fictionalize this? It’s not this fantasy of what sex and intimacy is, it’s an actual woman’s life. To me that’s more exciting and interesting. It was tough for a while but I did find a good agent.
There was a noticeable buzz (and a few hoots) in the office yesterday as we learned that Namwali Serpell had been chosen as the winner of the 2015 Cain Prize. Namwali contributed one of the more memorable stories in recent memory for our Science Fair issue. “Bottoms Up” tells the story of, well………just give the first few lines a spin around the old block.
This would never have happened if it weren’t for herpes. The other ones didn’t bother us as much. Gonorrhea, chlamydia, hepatitis, syphilis. They sounded too archaic, too exotic to be a direct threat. They were reassuringly difficult to spell. Not herpes. Herpes is not complex.
We met through our cleaner. Her name was Felicia. Maybe. We were never completely sure of this at the time, and later, we disagreed about whether she was from Haiti or the Dominican Republic. Neither of us ever actually met her. She had put up a flyer advertising cleaning services in the apartment building where we both lived. Her low rates appealed to us: we each needed a cleaner to come in several times a week. We rang her up, separately; we hired her, respectively.
She was very good at first. Precise, invisible. We gave her spare keys and tipped her generously. Then one day, she mixed up our laundry. We each of us found a pair of mismatched socks. It was a small mistake. They were the same kind of sock; they were mismatched only in size, not color or pattern. Our two pairs of blue argyle socks had traded one sock. We each called Felicia and left messages. She called back, sounding afraid, saying that she knew exactly who had whose sock—it was the first we’d heard of each other—and that she would fix it.
Having reunited the matching socks, she made another mistake. She misdelivered the pairs.
“What am I supposed to do with these?” I said to myself as I unrolled my sock knot to find perfectly matched socks that were nevertheless the wrong size. I called Felicia and I fired her.
When I saw him in the elevator that Sunday afternoon, it was obvious. We were both carrying laundry baskets. We were both wearing sandals and argyle socks. The heels of the too-short socks were squinched on my feet like burst blisters. The heels of his too-long socks protruded like new ankle bones.
“Hello,” we ventured tentatively.
It took us a moment to confess our suspicions, though we both knew the second I stepped into the elevator. The fact that we both took the time to confirm what we already knew was outrageously erotic. Later, in bed, we confessed how erotic the whole thing had been, our words tripping over each other, then falling in step as we giggled and sighed to a stop.
Apart from sock size, it was amazing how well matched we were. Education, hair, politics, food, sex, fear. It was like glancing out a window and being surprised to see yourself, the window actually a mirror. That we had met without the intervention of a database or a mastermind was remarkable. We raved about it. Soon we moved together into a larger apartment. There was more mess, more dirt. But we cleaned as a pair and four hands are better than two.
There was no real reason to suspect that either of us had herpes. We had both spent a great deal of time making doctors speak slowly so we could understand in great detail all of the tests we had asked them to perform. We each had a clean bill of health. But herpes, so simple it can be transmitted across glass and porcelain—herpes became a source of tension between us. Herpes is forever. There are two kinds and they are both forever.
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