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We spent ourselves and each other like pocket change, and we spent that, too. We weren’t supposed to be in this city, nevermind with each other. We’d ended up here on a weeklong vacation almost haphazardly, after the mutual friend who had introduced us bailed at the last minute. I said I wanted to go anyway—I was trying to be the sort of person who was spontaneous and loose.
The first evening we stumbled into the dirty yellow motel room and I tore our guidebook into pieces and tossed them about the room. We didn’t need anything to show us the way, because we didn’t know where we were going or even care. At sunrise I awoke with my head like a heartbeat and stared at the vertical lines of sun hitting the still-made extra bed we hadn’t ended up using. The scraps of paper shined in the light, announcing the different places we could go: The Opry Land Hotel, The Frist, The Country Star Wax Museum. I didn’t know where any of those things were or how to get to them. I knew nothing at all about the city except a few bars we’d already been to, and even those we seemed to travel into and out of as if by some magnetic force rather than by directional knowledge.
Very quietly and without touching him, I arose wrapped in the sheet that I must have stolen for myself in the night. I sat on the unused bed and tried to put the pieces of the guidebook back together, but it was useless, as I should’ve known.
Soon we both stood unsteadily in the motel parking lot, shielding our eyes from the morning sun as we swallowed bad coffee and aspirin, waiting for things to come into focus again.
“What should we do today?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. I closed my eyes and looked towards the sun so that I could see the colors in my eyelids, orange and red.
We found a free map at the motel’s front desk, but it didn’t tell us anything about where we were, nevermind where we were going.
We faced each other, holding opposite sides of the map. “How about The Country Star Wax Museum?” I said finally. I didn’t know anything about country music. “I think the map is upside down?”
“Let’s just go,” he said finally. “We’ll find it.”
We walked and walked. Roads led to more roads and once to a river. We found ourselves in an art museum, but we just sat on a bench before a painting of some pale, naked, voluptuous saint with long blond hair. Her eyes were kind of rolled up in her head—ecstasy or agony, I couldn’t tell which.
“She looks a little like you,” he said, yawning.
“I think she’s pretty,” he said. He’d closed his eyes and was lying on his back with his feet still on the floor. I wanted to hold his warm, smooth hand. In the dark, his hands had felt like the idea of hands, but now they were here in the light.
There was hardly anyone in the museum but us. I often go to new places and think I see someone from home, but in that museum—in that whole city—I never even saw the mirage of someone I thought I knew from real life.
“Should we go?” I asked.
He shrugged. I guess we had no real place to be.
Outside again, the air smelled like fried chicken. We found some to eat at a corner diner that shined with grease. “Where’s The Country Star Wax Museum?” we asked the waitress, holding out our map.
“You’re a long way gone,” she said. “You can’t walk.” She showed us that depending on how you held the map, the scale changed. One side was an up-close view of the downtown, the other was a far away view of the whole city. We had to take a taxi.
The only real person in the wax museum was the woman who sold us our tickets. Her lips were bright pink and her face looked firm and shiny.
The country stars smiled. Some of their hands had broken off and lay severed on the floor beside their resting guitars. I listened for music, but there was none. We left without taking pictures or buying souvenirs.
Outside again, the sun was already low. What had we done all day? “Hey,” he said, pointing. A neon light winked in the distance, calling to us. I followed him towards it.
We took shots of whiskey and chased them with beer. “Where will we be tomorrow?” I asked, but what I wanted to know was where we’d be when we returned home. It was no use asking. The whiskey began to say what it had to say—it seemed to be the only thing that knew what it was doing.
Maria Adelmann‘s writing and art can be found in national and international literary magazines and in stores across the country. She has an MFA from The University of Virginia and a BA from Cornell University. She is working on a novel and a screenplay. Visit her at mariaink.com.
A businessman blowing an octopus
for the pure taste of the sea.
A glad man eats a writhing fish—
fingernails scrape out a cheek.
Through a cut in the skin, live tiny clams
inserted, sewn in. It’s late—
the small square window warm and loving,
the city and sky dark gray.
Will Butler studied poetry at Northwestern University. He is a member of the band Arcade Fire.
When my book,Our Endless Numbered Days was published I didn’t think I was going to enjoy getting out there and talking to strangers. It was a frightening thought—having to answer questions, explain why I had done something, justify what I had written. The first event I attended as an author was a literature festival and I was terrified at the idea of even getting on stage. But when it was over I was pleased I had managed to talk about my book to an audience who stared back at me with what at least looked like interest. But it was the opportunity I was given to meet these people after the event that I discovered I enjoyed the most. They seemed so excited to be able to talk to an author and I too was excited to meet actual readers.
I’ve since realised that more than anything book related I’ve attended so far, I enjoy interacting with people who like reading. And the best events are book clubs.
As a writer it’s so energising to meet, talk, Skype or email with people who ‘get’ your book; to debate the real nitty-gritty detail of, for example, whether Peggy carved the name Reuben in the cabin herself or if it was already there; to discuss the breadcrumb trails I left and to hear who found them and who didn’t.
And for the readers, they get to hear the story behind the story, they get answers to all those questions that other book clubs wonder about: why did the author end it that way? Why did she include that character? Or even, I wonder what her writing process is?
“Having Claire’s answers to our questions was a real game changer,” says Dawn Landau, who is a member of a book club based in the Bellingham, Washington area, in the Pacific Northwest. “It was exciting to have concrete answers to things we had wondered about as we read the book. Claire gave us insights that really helped us flesh out questions we’d had when reading. Having Claire’s responses to our questions helped us all feel much more connected to the story and its characters. A few of us said we were tempted to read it again, now knowing some of these details.”
Of course, nothing beats going to a book club meeting in person, but since I live in England and many of my readers are in the US, Skype is a good alternative. And if the time difference is too much to deal with I’m happy to answer questions by email.
“Initially, when I contacted Claire, we discussed doing a Skype meet and greet with her,” says Dawn. “However, it quickly became clear that with the enormous time difference (we always meet in the evening, as several book club members work full time), this would be impossible, and Claire offered to answer questions by email instead. Admittedly, our group is not the most organised – our focus is on fun, with books as the thing that brings us together – so we didn’t get the questions to Claire until right before our meeting, but she still answered them all.”
Naturally, not everyone is going to like every book. And of course I’ve come across readers who didn’t get on with Our Endless Numbered Days, but if they can express in a constructive way what didn’t work for them, I’m still interested. It might even spark a bit of debate. Sylvia Conway-Jones is a member of a book club in Winchester, England that I visited recently: “As a group we differed in which aspects touched us and Claire was extremely gracious in allowing us our individual interpretations and opinions.”
And it’s not just the story that can be a source of discussion: “Finding out about the writing and publishing process was fascinating and an added bonus,” says Syliva.
Whether the meeting happens face to face, via Skype or email, a little organisation will help it run smoothly: someone acting as the host (especially important if it is a Skype call or via email); some kind of structure to the evening rather than a free-for-all with questions; and since I won’t be expecting payment, it’s really appreciated if all the members buy and read the book.
If you’re in a book club you’ve got nothing to lose by contacting an author and seeing whether they’ll be interested in answering some questions. Chances are they’ll be just as excited to meet you, as you will be to meet them.
Claire Fuller lives in Winchester, England. Our Endless Numbered Days is her first novel.
In 2010, I attended a rousing, weeklong workshop at the Sarah Lawrence Summer Writing Seminars with the illustrious Charles Baxter. We remained in touch. I sent him a children’s art book about faces I thought he would appreciate; he sent me a link to a hilarious South Park episode that related to my work. Periodically, I updated him regarding progress on my novel. Because he is as kind and generous as everyone says, he always wrote back with empathy and encouragement.
A few weeks ago, I took part in the inaugural craft intensive workshop with Tin House’s spectacular assistant editor Emma Komlos-Hrobsky. The possibility of interviewing Charlie came up in conversation, as the Tin House folk revealed themselves as “great fans” of Mr. Baxter. I contacted Charlie, and he graciously agreed. Our email exchange follows.
Susan Tacent: In Emma’s craft workshop, we talked about the appeal of humor in literary fiction. You do humor gloriously in your writing, like Benny Takemitsu in “Chastity,” imagining how the baby that will result from the young couple in the next apartment would soon provide its own version of their audible “love-yelps.” There are countless examples that range from subtle to laugh out loud. You make the humor look simple and we all know it’s not. Why is writing funny so difficult?
Charles Baxter: Because you can’t labor at it and let the labor show. It has to look easy, light as a feather, effortless. Comic moments are usually great pieces of luck when they arrive, and sometimes they come out of nowhere. Trying to be funny is the death of comedy: Nothing is less funny than the person dressed up in the clown suit honking his air-horn and doing a pratfall while reciting The Gettysburg Address. Wit and humor are famously elusive; it’s a gift that’s easy to lose. Even some of Shakespeare’s comedies have not aged well. For comedy, you have to get the timing exactly right and catch the reader unawares. The character that is being funny should rarely realize that he’s funny; usually he’s terribly serious: monomaniacs are hilarious. Comedy is a product of sudden incongruity, and I just don’t think you can force those moments. But if you’re careful, you can arrange them, using invisible wires.
ST: Another elusive element of fiction is narrative voice. I’ve been trying to think of it as an integument, a container that turns pieces into story. For instance, in “Loyalty”: “Actors can’t duplicate this look. It only happens in real life.” This is Wes, observing his wife Astrid while she tries to make sense of the arrival of his ex-wife Corinne, reappearing after a long absence and in mental disarray. This is the kind of strong assertion I mean, handed to a character but somehow to the story as well. It inspires confidence in the reader. It’s writerly control. How do you do it?
CB: Voice: you could write a book about it, and people have, but like comedy it should arrive naturally and not be forced. Isn’t voice really an outgrowth of a stance and point of view, both of which get transmogrified into a characteristic way of saying something? I don’t think a writer can fashion a voice, just as you can’t fashion your own face. Tony Soprano didn’t work to sound the way he does; he just sounds that way. I never worried about voice that much and instead thought that voice probably wouldn’t be a particularly distinctive part of my fiction, as it is in some other writers. My fiction should slowly creep up on you. It doesn’t announce itself in the first sentence. You try to make the sentences serve the story and the situation and not blast out from the first paragraph. You don’t have to set a Chevrolet on fire in the first sentence, and you don’t have to make an assertion that turns the volume up to eleven, either. I know that some writers think that voice is everything, but that strikes me as a kind of narcissism. Speaking of narcissists, Harold Brodkey wrote great sentences with a high-volume voice, and nobody reads him anymore. Brodkey was supposed to be writing the Great American Novel? Okay: where is it? The Runaway Soul? Guess not. It’s 800 pages of beautiful sentences and a strong voice, and it’s unreadable. By contrast, I like that pale neutrality of Chekhov’s prose.
ST: I facilitate a book club at an assisted living residence near my home; we’ve read four of your stories so far. “Winter Journey,” “Royal Blue,” “Scheherazade,” and “Gryphon.” The women – they are all women, with a collective age somewhere around 900 years – love your writing, and, by extension, you. I told them what a lovely person you are and they said of course he is. But they argued over “Gryphon.” Would they want their children or grandchildren or great-grandchildren to be in a fourth grade classroom with a substitute teacher like Miss Ferenczi? The Miss Ferenczi-haters wanted to know how she could be a force for good. There was an Aha moment when I pointed out that the narrator of “Gryphon” was speaking from the future. To my mind, this is a story in part about how a child learns to value a certain type of rule-breaking creativity. Still, a few of them remained disgruntled.
CB: Yes. Miss Ferenczi is an ambassador from the land of imagination. In the land of imagination, you think at first that it’ll all be peaches and cream: wonderful oddball facts and images and poetry—a big relief from the usual. But if you’re going to cast your vote for the imagination, you had better be ready for the darkness and craziness, because that’s going to be part of the imagination’s landscape, too. All the visits that Ms. Ferenczi makes to that classroom get progressively darker until finally no one will allow her in the vicinity. I liked her, but I wouldn’t want her in a schoolroom with my granddaughter for more than an hour or so.
I have a recurring dream—a vision maybe—of my breasts removed from my body and hanging in the air. Independent of everything, and of each other. Floating against the backdrop of a brilliant blue sky. They’re beautiful there, and strange, like an art gallery painting, the bright green grass below them, and the brilliant blue behind them—a make-believe. The two perfect breasts, without a lump to speak of, perfect and suspended there in the emptiness. Supple, the round curves full, the nipples pink, cloud-soft, everything still. And though it’s like a painting, it’s not a painting, nor a picture, this vision. It’s rather like a film where the breasts have been directed to hold still. But a breeze moves the grass, and the nipples turn hard, and there’s an almost imperceptible jiggle to the scene. A soft flicker, sexy.
Then, out of nowhere, walking round the smooth green curve of the horizon, come Woody Allen and Phillip Roth, the two old—very old—Jewish men whom I’ve always associated with breasts. Woody Allen because of the movie about sex in which he, dressed as a priest, is chased by an enormous tit, all the while shielding himself with a Catholic cross. Phillip Roth, not because of the Kafkaesque satire in which the character wakes up as a breast, but instead because of a single phrase in his story Goodbye Columbus, in which a bikini top floats away from a young woman underwater and her boobs swim toward the protagonist like “two pink-nosed fish.”
I remember, too, John Updike writing about an A&P cashier’s breasts as two scoops of vanilla ice cream. No. Not the cashier, but the girl in the swimsuit walking barefoot through the grocery store. Beautiful to the narrator—the cashier—but the narrator is always a boy. Or so it seems. And neither they nor the female characters are in my vision. Just my breasts—unattached—and the two old Jewish men walking stiffly over the green horizon, their arms held behind their backs like professors. Prophets, sages, these armless comedians so close to death.
They walk across the green, beneath the brilliant blue, chatting in old man voices that I don’t understand. Dream talk. Both beckoning with their bald heads toward the two breasts hanging in the nothing. Dirty things they’re saying in Dream Yiddish. Or are they? What can be dirty in admiration? In utter devotion? These are worshipers of the bosom tribe, grown old and dressed as the ancient shamans of their sect. The loafers and khaki pants, the checkered shirts wrinkled behind cardigan sweaters. Bald and bespectacled, walking with their arms held behind their backs, shuffling right up to the two breasts. Taking their places behind them, and peering into the hollow concavity, letting their faces fall into the backs of the boobs—until the flesh acts as a suction cup and draws them in. Their wrinkled skin adhered, they wear my breasts as masks.
Both of them pink-nosed or pink-mouthed, or perhaps pink-eyed, each a Cyclops of femininity. The unintelligible chatter silenced. Now rising, the whisper of rustling feathers. I know what will happen, but I wait for it because it’s my favorite part of this dream. The two old men shrug their shoulders, release the hands clasped behind their backs. But instead of hands and arms, they spread magnificent rainbow wings, enormous and flapping in the bright light from the invisible sun.
They run across the green, as if in slow motion, their bony legs lightweight in their khaki pants, their loafers tiptoeing across the grass until free of the earth, then dangling beneath them in front of the blue backdrop as the men flap themselves higher and higher. Beautiful, these Icarus imitators, these old men who helped define beauty, finding the updraft and soaring toward heaven. Flashing red and orange and yellow. Green, blue, indigo, iridescent in the sunlight, the cotton-ball clouds now drifting happily in behind them.
Until an explosion rings out, shattering the silence. Then another, the two soaring birdmen stopped in the sky—still of a sudden as if waiting, as if they already know what I know. Time slows and I try to hold it, try to make the instant last. But it doesn’t slow down enough. So I try to black out the scene—try to make them vanish before it happens. But I can’t, and the breast heads burst—my breasts burst—splattering red the white clouds. Like water balloons filled with food coloring. Popped. The splash so vivid against the white. Bright polka dots with ragged edges.
Plummeting, then, the two men wrapped in their feathers like Joseph in his multi-colored coat, spinning out of the pages of their holy book. Spiraling down, down—headless but dropping head first. Down. Did they find the light before those gunshots sounded? Are they still of the breast-worshiping chosen tribe?
I don’t see them land, but I hear them hit the ground, and the sound is so much worse than seeing it. Two soft plops, lifeless damp thumps, one after the other. The sound of death itself. A shiver running up the knobs of the backbone.
Then I’m looking at the shooter. I’ve turned somehow without turning. The scene has rotated. She looks at me. Looks like me, but is not me, because I’m confident I am myself looking at her. Standing hunched atop a hospital gurney, she holds a shotgun and wears a paper gown. There are two bleeding holes in her chest. Burnt circles in the gown, wide open eyes fringed with red tears. I can see through the holes to the sky on the other side. Blue, brilliant, and beautiful. There’s nothing I can do but stand there—anchored—as she drops the gun and steps off the gurney, into the grass, the breeze blowing tight the gown around her body, blowing the hair in front of her face.
She makes a noise like laughing. Or crying. And it’s more terrible than anything to see her walking toward me with those two gaping holes in her chest, her arms outstretched—always—in an attitude of embrace.
Nathan Dixon lives and works in Durham, NC and is there a MA candidate in English Literature at NC Central University. He serves as assistant editor for the academic journal Renaissance Papers. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Trans Lit Mag, Bop Dead City, and the North Carolina Literary Review.
Rowan Hisayo Buchanan is an Asian American Writers Workshop Fellow. Her prose has been in NPR’s Selected Shorts, Public Books and TriQuarterly. Her art has appeared / is upcoming in The National Academy Museum, No Tokens Magazine, and The Indiana Review.
For the Murphys, there was always the house and the idea of the house, one relatively more stable than the other. From a distance it appeared camouflaged, a silver-gray box perched on stilts; beyond it the sea. To each side, other sea-weathered boxes, variations, one smaller, another with a single peak. The air smelled of salt, seaweed at low tide, smoke from charcoal grills or summer campfires on the next beach. From the deck and the beach below, one could see the Massachusetts coast stretching out and falling away, and in the space beyond, the sea, a vast openness, Massachusetts Bay merging with the Atlantic, the curving arm of Cape Cod reaching far to the southeast and the distant east, leaving the shoreline unprotected from Atlantic swells. A beautiful rough corner of the coast: a spit of land on which the town’s early residents would never have built, instead choosing the far side of the harbor, or the inland cliffs. But the longer one lived there, the more permanent the house seemed, even as it rocked in the wind. The storms might slam in directly, but there were long stretches of beach to walk, where small stones mixed with sand, and the sea’s blue, the mixed greens and grays, shifted with the light, going violet or sapphire or slate. Out unshuttered front windows, from the weather-beaten deck, from the east- and northeast-facing bedrooms, the sea appeared and reappeared.
Different years, different versions. First, the house had been a ramshackle summer outpost Nora and James had scrimped to buy from James’s uncle, a place of ease despite or because of the off-plumb doorjambs and slanted floors and salt-worn wood. Outside stairs led up from the narrow street to the broad wraparound deck, where in summer they drank cocktails with their friends; a windowed door opened into a large kitchen, drafty or breezy depending on the month. They renovated and winterized; still, the wind was undeniable, and at night the house swayed lightly, enough so that water in a bowl might register the smallest of tides. Grand ill-tempered swans moved between the shelter of the brook-fed pond to the beach, crossing the narrow bridge of land down the road from the house and into the shallows, startlingly white against the sea.
At first, the Murphys spent summers there. Or Nora and the children did. James drove down for weekends and August vacation time. Theo and Katy were in grade school then, the youngest, Molly, still at home. From one year to the next, the scenes of leisure blurred into each other, as if contiguous with the preceding summers, all other seasons forgotten. Cousins and friends arrived for beach days and barbecues and drinks out on the deck. And then, the year James’s promotion came through, they planned a shorter season in Blue Rock, to follow a two-week trip to Italy.
It was a slippery moment in their marriage, a crossroad. They had agreed to move from their small house in Newton to a place with more room, but only that. Where to remained vexed. James pushed for the wealthier cloistered suburbs; Nora missed Cambridge, where they’d once lived. In careful tones, they avoided the straining subtext, and when the Newton house sold, they put the furniture in storage, deferred. James had dreamed of travel; Nora had studied art. Rome would give them perspective. And there would be summer in Blue Rock, which from the vantage point of spring always seemed an endless unspooling of days, July a broad yellow plain with no apparent horizon beyond the brimming gold edges of August. For each of them, there was the pull of summer light over the sea, like something remembered from the deepest dream, a vast fluctuating gem that seemed to alter the rooms of the house, the narrow road, and, with luck, briefly, oneself, into their most vivid incarnations.
In June, just after the school year ended, the family flew from Logan Airport.
Nancy Reisman’s debut novel, The First Desire, was a New York Times Notable Book and a recipient of the Goldberg Award from the Foundation for Jewish Culture. Her story collection, House Fires, won the Iowa Award for Short Fiction. Her short fiction has appeared in many journals and anthologies, including Tin House, Glimmer Train, the Yale Review, SubTropics, Michigan Quarterly Review, Kenyon Review, Five Points, Narrative, The Best American Short Stories (2001), and The O’Henry Award Stories (2005). Reisman has received fellowships and awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Tennessee Commission on the Arts, the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. She teaches at Vanderbilt University and lives in Nashville, TN.
Once, as a child, I almost saw a man kill himself. The boys up at the wall looked down at him as he, weeping, put his head on the tracks. I stood back, watching them as they watched him. Or that’s how I remember it, but I also remember his face, so I’m not sure I believe my memory.
The boys were hollering with joy, as I recall, but that seems improbable to me now. What I know about people, even cruel children, is that amusement there, in that grisly context, it isn’t likely. I remember that they averted their eyes at the last second as the train passed, so none of them saw him die, either. But, yeah, we were all there.
Decades later, lying in bed with my girlfriend, I tell her the story and she says, “Jesus.” And I say, “But do you really believe they laughed?”
“I do,” she says, but I guess I already know that.
Later still, I drive over a goose, which walked onto the freeway and just stared at me. I slammed on my breaks, honked at it, but it just stood, staring, and I couldn’t stop, not there, so I drove slowly over it, my back left tire lifting a little. “In the rearview,” I tell my girlfriend on the phone minutes later, “it wasn’t dead yet, I saw one of its wings extend up toward the sky.”
“Oh, don’t tell me that,” she implores. “I don’t want to know.”
“But I didn’t kill it,” I say pulling over onto the shoulder, putting my hazards on. “Someone behind me—”
“Please,” she says.
But I’m not done, I need to tell her about the wing pointing upwards, like it wanted to tell me something. I need her to hear that yes, maybe we’re all dying, but it’s not my fault.
Peter Mountford is the author of the novels The Dismal Science and A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism. His work has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times Magazine, Granta, Best New American Voices 2008, Conjunctions, Salon, Southern Review, Slate, and Boston Review. He’s currently the events curator at Hugo House, Seattle’s writing center, where he also teaches.
In his 2011 Summer Workshop lecture titled “Making The Black Dog Sit,” Tin House poetry editor Matthew Dickman tackled the complicated subject of suicide by examining poems which engaged with the often misunderstood act, illuminating how the shadow of suicide affects both the life of the artist and his or her work.
Using poetry as a mending device, Matthew transforms the taboo into something more like benevolence.
Matthew Dickman is the author of All-American Poem (American Poetry Review/ Copper Canyon Press, 2008), 50 American Plays (co-written with his twin brother Michael Dickman, Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and Mayakovsky’s Revolver (W.W. Norton & Co, 2012). He is the recipient of The Honickman First Book Prize, The May Sarton Award from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Kate Tufts Award from Claremont College, and the 2009 Oregon Book Award from Literary Arts of Oregon. His poems have appeared in McSweeny’s, Ploughshares, The Believer, The London Review of Books, Narrative Magazine, Esquire Magazine and The New Yorker among others. He is a 2015 Guggenheim recipient. He serves as the Poetry Editor of Tin House Magazine. He lives in Portland, Oregon.
It does feel like the work gets harder every day. He had thought that after a few years, after a few millennia, he would be able to scoot through tasks, scoot like a worm through dirt. He thought that way at the beginning, when the work still celestial. The Cartographer of the Universe lives in the basement of his brother’s house; he pays for his cable and does his own laundry. He has begun to wonder if his job is worth the time and energy.
“So quit,” his brother says. His brother, Miles, has a toddler and an infant. Miles is tired all the time, and his wife Fran is tired all the time, and so the Cartographer does not like to complain when he goes upstairs for Sunday brunch. Brunch, last week, was strawberries, bagel pizzas, and seltzer.
The pencils are expensive, too, and are getting more expensive. He tried to chart zodiacal light in a cheaper, more durable graphite, but the mist was too fine. The cashier at Art4Less told him it wouldn’t work.
“The last guy went with the Temper 9,” the cashier said.
He should have listened. The Cartographer gave the graphite to Miles’ almost-three year old, who tried to stab his sister with it. Fran, eyes perpetually closed, interceded with the agility of a cartoon ninja. “No stabbing,” she murmured.
He had wanted to be a sculptor. He did a BFA at a good school. He interned at gallery. He sold a few of his own pieces, and had a show in a parking garage in Astoria. He had thought, maybe I can do this! Beauty, truth, truth, beauty. Urns! Lascaux . . . etcetera.
The Cartographer marks the trajectories of starlight bouncing through the Magellanic Clouds’s dust. He charts them—off a fraction of a degree—and starts over again. He washes out his coffee mug and walks back to his desk. He measures the depths of deltas in the dry basins on twinned planets. When he looks up, the planets have been absorbed into the black mouth of M15. He rubs his jaw. He takes a shower and shaves. “Hey, good-looking,” he says to himself in the mirror.
Some days start well. His back doesn’t hurt, and he’s never really appreciated that little bend of that galaxy before, and it reminds him of a song, which he hums. He bends over his desk, serious and calm, and when the star is born he is there is map it. His map ponders the birth in its heart. The Cartographer leans back and stretches his arms and feels good. Good job, he thinks.
But as he stretches the muscles of his neck, everything is different again. The universe grows and changes faster than he can set his pen to the map. Above and below, the universe rolls and crashes. He can never draw fencelines in the same universe twice.
On Tuesday nights he babysits so that Fran and Miles can shower, go to dinner and Rite-Aid. He and the almost-three year old play on the floor: do a puzzle, build blocks, and do some coloring. They do not complete the puzzle; they destroy the towers. Big Bird is green and purple and black. This takes two hours. Every so often the baby makes a noise and the Cartographer carries her around the living room, bobbing up and down. His back hurts. He lies on the floor and watches the ceiling fan. The almost-three year old climbs on top of him and stares into his face. He tickles the almost-three year old, who laughs. The Cartographer laughs and, hearing laughter, the baby laughs. When Fran comes home, she steps over the mess and says, “Okay! Time for bed. No baths tonight.” Everyone is happy.
Wednesdays are busy days. He fills out his timesheet online and, when it is sent back, calls the office and argues for his overtime. He tries to keep up. His bedroom is filled with scrolls of infinitely wide paper, the loops and legends of the topography of the universe. On the inside of his middle finger, where he holds his Temper 9, he has grown a callus like a golfball.
Upstairs, in the living room, the naked almost-three year old climbs up on the couch and stands beside his dad. “Hi Papa!” he says, and Miles kisses his kid on the belly.
Downstairs, the Cartographer is drawing, labeling, measuring, furiously. Around him and the house and the family, the stars die and suck inward and Miles and Fran and baby and toddler are forced to clasp their hands together as the sheaves of the map are pulled up around them and they are caught inside a paper boat map of the universe.
“You need to tell him to take it easy,” Fran murmurs to Miles. She takes her naked kid and puts socks on him. “Cold floors!” she says.
Downstairs, the Cartographer rests his pencil and flexes his wrist. He squints at a cluster of light in the distance, past the violaceous streaks of blue comets, left of the gasping black holes, two squidges further than the whizzing pink planets spinning themselves dense: three staid yellow stars in a row like ducks.
“Shit,” he says. It is not right. It is close, but it is not right. It is very, very, very rarely right. It is so rarely right that it has become not even exciting when it is right.
“So quit,” his brother says to him upstairs. Miles is looking at his hairline in a mirror.
“I should,” the cartographer sighs. His back hurts. The almost-three year old is dancing to a Youtube video: Bert and Ernie singing a song about tooth-brushing. Fran, from the bedroom, is singing the song. The universe is very big. The universe is very small.
He begins to sketch the wake of two supermassive black holes, light years apart, dancing in galaxy 3L 95.
Zana Previti was born and raised in New England. She earned her MFA in fiction from the University of California, Irvine and is currently pursuing her MFA in poetry from the University of Idaho, where she won the 2014 Academy of American Poets Prize and the Banks Award in Poetry. She was a 2014 Tin House Summer Conference Scholar, where she studied with Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum. Her short fiction has been published in The New England Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Los Angeles Review, RHINO Poetry, and elsewhere. Her poetry will be forthcoming in Poetry International and Ninth Letter.
April was a great month. We paid our taxes, various people we really like won Pulitzer Prizes, and we found a plastic egg with money in it in the bushes by the office. Here are some other highlights from our staff and interns.
Tony: Leave it to Jim Shepard to take the challenge of writing about something like the Holocaust in 2015—the fact that we’ve read so much, seen so much, had so many nightmares about it before—and turn it into one of his novel’s strengths. The Book of Aron is claustrophobic in the very best of ways. From the opening line (“My mother and father named me Aron, but my father said they should have named me What Have You Done, and my uncle told everyone they should have called me What Were You Thinking”), we’re deep in the head of our narrator. And while we readers are very-much aware of the broad swath of atrocities taking place and about to take place, the narrow perspective (the discursions and misdirection, personal affronts and jokes) through which we see the Warsaw ghetto creates an uncanny tension and lets us feel the horror in a way that feels fresh and freshly devastating. There’s something in how he weights or refuses to weight his sentences, how brutalities materialize without the expected windup, that allows Shepard to build a world between what Aron sees and what we know, until finally, tragically, that divide collapses. Normally if you say something feels longer than its page count, you mean it’s a slog; but The Book of Aron doesn’t let you put it down, doesn’t let you stop reading until you get to the end, and still, after just 272 pages, you’ve lived a lifetime with Aron—for better and for worse, you’ve done what he’s done and thought what he’s thinking.
Michelle: So I have to admit that my first response when I heard about Meghan Daum’s anthology Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids was the tiniest bit of outrage. Not at the anthology itself, which is excellent, but at the idea that there is still apparently any need to justify this decision at all. Well, it’s nice to think we’ve evolved past the days when any childless adult was considered stunted, but really the topic is still fraught. What’s fascinating about this particular moment in this particular culture is that it’s no longer taken for granted you’ll rear children—which means what was once a fait accompli is now a decision, and it’s a baffling one at that. There is no comparison a prospective parent can make to know if she should go for it. There’s nothing to do but consider and guess. That’s a process these writers explore in a variety of ways, with special props to Laura Kipnis and Lionel Shriver for placing this whole childrearing thing in historical and biological context. But nearly all of the essays are captivating as they tell the writers’ story of near misses, slow dawnings, and lifelong convictions.
Meg: As much as I love to read, I often feel that music (and, as its frequent side effect, dancing) is the art form that affects me the most, that gets me out of my head and taps into me in a purely emotional way. I was walking home one night in April when I got a text from a friend: Hey! Wanna be my date to Belle and Sebastian tomorrow night? I hadn’t even known they were coming to town, and I’d never seen them live, but my reply was immediate: YES. My soul needs that. And my soul was not let down. Their renditions of “Judy and the Dream of Horses” and “Sleep the Clock Around” filled the house with light, but I think this was my favorite song of the show. Don’t worry about seeing it coming. Dance. You know you want to surrender. Plus, this might just be the prettiest video ever.
Claire: This month I’ve been revisiting Richard Siken’s Crush, and diving into his newly released, long-awaited second collection, War of the Foxes. The two books are staggeringly different; in the foreword to Crush, Louise Gluck writes, “This is a book about panic.” And it is, it’s a book about frantic longing, love, desire, loss, if they can be so named. But if Crush is about panic, War of the Foxes is about control: here Siken demonstrates an exacting and analytic style. These new poems are more concerned with the naming and placement of objects and people (as opposed to the erotically-charged Crush). Siken is a literal artist here, painting a series of beautiful, albeit boundary-troubling, discreet scenes. War of the Foxes is debatably a more evolved, mature approach to many of the themes that Crush hinges upon, but after flipping back and forth between the two, I keep coming back to the confused, passionate, desperateness of the first. I guess I like my poets a little unhinged.
Marie: I recently caught a bartender friend reading a book called Art & Lies after her shift. With a blunt-yet-seductive title (ART! LIES!) I couldn’t resist pummeling her with questions about it. She said it was taking her psyche by storm and the following week she bought me a copy.
The novel is written in a poetic prose and the plot (if you want to call it that) follows three characters named Handel, Picasso and Sappho—except they’re not the people that you think they are. Picasso is a painter, yes, but also a teenage girl. Handel is a Catholic priest-cum-breast surgeon, and Sappho is part Sappho, part married lady of the twentieth century. The experience of reading its meditative, surreal chapters feels like the experience of reading a great poem: impenetrable and divine, gathering momentum through association and suggestion. There are vanishing cities, mythical libraries, and paints that leak through dreams to implicate their dreamers:
“As I painted, intent on umber and verdigris, cinnabar and chrome, the colours, let out from their tight tubes, escaped under the studio door and up and down the public staircase to the black and white family rooms. My mother broke from her flannelette sleep to cry out the name of a man she hadn’t seen for twenty years. She reared up from her matrimonial sheets, infidelity colouring her cheeks. My father slept in purple.”
It’s a book you want to read slowly in order to savor the sounds of its language, then read again to take in the wisdom it carries.
In his groundbreaking book, Roots: The Saga of an American Family, Alex Haley tells the story of Kunta Kinte, a young man from Gambia sold into slavery in America in the 18th century. The book—published in 1976 and adapted into a popular television series in 1977—is largely based on true events and real people, as Haley claimed to have traced his own lineage all the way back to Gambia, back to the Mandinka tribe, back to Kinte himself.
As a slave on a Virginia farm, Kunta Kinte—who is given the name “Toby” by his slave master—makes multiple escape attempts, and is thwarted each time. After his fourth and final attempt and apprehension, the slave catchers give Kinte his choice of punishment: being castrated or having his right foot cut off with an axe. Kinte chooses his foot, thereby preserving his remaining sense of manhood.
As a crippled, though still prideful slave, Kinte remains not only distrustful of whites, but to the other blacks on the farm, who have been living in slavery longer than Kinte, and who try to convince Kinte to acclimate and become a dutiful slave. Following his last escape attempt, and after losing his right foot to the slave catchers’ axe, Kinte is lectured by an older man, of a lighter brown complexion than Kinte, known only as “the Fiddler.”
“Give it up,” the Fiddler tells Kinte. “You ain’t goin’nowheres, so you might’s well face facts an’start fittin’in, Toby, you hear?”
Kunta Kinte has once again made his way, somewhat obliquely, into popular culture, with the appearance of “King Kunta,” the first single off Kendrick Lamar’s latest album, To Pimp A Butterfly. “I got a bone to pick,”Lamar begins. “I don’t want you monkey mouth motherfuckers sittin’in my throne again,”he continues, effectively declaring himself the once and present ruler of hiphop. Who these “monkey mouth motherfuckers”are, however, is more ambiguous. Lamar could be making reference to the familiar stereotype of black people resembling monkeys—leveling the most hurtful of racist insults against those who would dare challenge his lyrical supremacy—or he could be dismissing his rivals’ talent by claiming their lyricism is no better than the chattering of monkeys.
After this introduction, Lamar proceeds directly into the song’s hook, which begins, “Bitch, where were you when I was walkin’? / Now I run the game, got the whole word talkin’/ King Kunta.” In these lines, Lamar addresses those who dismissed him when he was still an unknown, still trying to make himself heard in a highly competitive culture. But, where once he was “walkin’,” or making small steps, Lamar now runs—the industry, his own creative output—and his talent has made him world famous.
“Everybody wanna cut the leg off him /Kunta,”the hook continues, “Black man taking no losses.”
Even as a successful artist, a black man living in America, including Lamar, still faces routine discrimination and opposition, by whites as well as other black artists, contending for the same level of success. Lamar not only addresses himself as “Kunta,” in homage to Kinte, who defiantly refused to acknowledge his slave name, but by adding the honorific “King,” Lamar accomplishes two goals: he recalls when black men in Africa were once kings and queens, before being decimated by the Atlantic slave trade and the exploitation of the continent; and he proclaims himself superior to his peers. King Kunta, then, is a man of royalty in a land of slaves.
During the 1992 riots in Los Angeles, following the acquittal of LAPD officers involved in the beating of Rodney King, one man, during a taped interview, offered his opinion on the wider implications of the verdict: “That’s what they told us today, in other words, you still a slave (the quote was later sampled in Dr. Dre’s “The Day the Niggaz Took Over”). “No matter how much money you got, you still ain’t shit.” To be a King in America, it would seem, can carry many different meanings.
To be a successful entertainer in America is the dream of many young black men and women, with its promises of wealth and fame. With limited resources and few education opportunities, one of the highest levels of achievement a boy or girl born in the inner city can hope for is to be either a professional athlete or a recording artist. The record industry, much like the sports industry, capitalizes on black talent, while offering the illusion of independence and self-determination. Mainstream hiphop artists, from Lil’Wayne to Jay-Z, frequently namedrop their record label and claim ownership of their music. Kendrick Lamar claims to “run the game,” in “King Kunta.” But most of the biggest hiphop labels, including Cash Money, Def Jam, Aftermath, Roc-A-Fella, GOOD Music, G-Unit Records, Disturbing Tha Peace, Top Dawg, and Bad Boy, are subsidiaries of Universal Music Group, the world’s largest music company (To Pimp A Butterfly is under the UMG umbrella). Many people are making money from the reinforcement of negative stereotypes of young black men and the glorification of inner city crime, but—as UMG posted a revenue of five billion dollars in 2014—it’s clear that some are making more money than others.
After the violent amputation of Kunta Kinte’s foot in Roots, the Fiddler offers Kinte guidance that could be applied to America in general and the American entertainment industry in particular:
“Niggas here say Massa William a good master,” the Fiddler says to Kinte, “an I seen worse. But ain’t none of ‘em no good. Dey all lives off us niggers. Niggers is the biggest thing dey got.”
Santi Elijah Holley’s short stories and nonfiction have been published in VICE, Monkeybicycle, Straylight, and SmokeLong Quarterly, among other periodicals. He is an arts and music writer for The Portland Mercury, and he works in the Publicity department at Powell’s Books.
Andrew Ervin’s debut novel (Ed. Note-Out Today!), Burning Down George Orwell’s House, follows his critically lauded trio of novellas, Extraordinary Renditions. We chatted the old-fashioned way, by email rather than by Skype, and I’ve excluded the part of the conversation about the possibility of staging a revival of our sock-puppet theatre production of Sartre’s No Exit mashed up with Rocky IV and the butter scene from Last Tango in Paris, which was canceled after only one performance in Bowling Green, Ohio, in 2011. Three audience members were in attendance, and only two stayed until the end of the show. But I digress.
Kyle Minor: I was struck immediately by the difference in material and approach between Burning Down George Orwell’s House and your first book, Extraordinary Renditions. I was wondering: What happened in your creative life in the period between the two books, and how did you get started with this one?
Andrew Ervin: I finished Extraordinary Renditions while I was in graduate school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which was also when and where I began writing Burning Down George Orwell’s House. The tonal difference between the two books derives from my personal exhaustion at that time. My first book was so full of rage and self-righteousness that living in that world for so long made me want to write something lighter. I’m not sure if that happened, though.
Burning Down George Orwell’s House began as an independent study project with Richard Powers. I think it’s fair to say that he stands as of one of our truly great American literary voices. At its best—Gain and The Gold Bug Variations and The Time of Our Singing—his fiction both explains the times in which we live and offers profound new possibilities for where we’re headed. That he’s also one of the most genuinely giving and warmhearted people I’ve ever met made the genesis of this novel all the more rewarding.
For our project, he assigned me some books to read and we spent the semester—the fall of 2006—talking about them and about novel writing in general. I didn’t do any actual drafting of the book during that time. In the semester that followed he taught the graduate fiction workshop and I began writing the Chicago sections. I had some ideas Walden-esque ideas about Welter’s escape to Scotland, but didn’t get many of them on the page until much later.
After grad school, I accepted a two-year position at The Southern Review down in Louisiana. A number of different factors made that a tremendously difficult—even traumatic—time for me despite the fact that I sold Extraordinary Renditions then. My wife Elivi stayed behind in Illinois for a one-semester visiting professor job, which ended up being fortunate. Hurricane Gustav blew through town shortly after I arrived in Baton Rouge. An uprooted oak tree came a few feet away from crushing my house with me inside it. It also knocked out my electricity. If you’ve spent any time in the Deep South in summertime, you have some idea of what the heat is like. The humidity. After three days without air-conditioning, most of my romantic notions about life off the grid went out those open windows. After a week, I was cursing the name of Henry Thoreau.
Around then, I began to focus more on the subtle similarities between the wired world of Chicago and the pastoral expanses of the Scottish isles than on the obvious differences. That might not have happened were it not for the difficult experiences. Welter went from being a sexist jerk (I donated those traits to his boss) to someone more nuanced and complicated. He remains a damaged man in many ways and his obsession with Nineteen Eighty-Four may or may not be especially healthy.
KM: The novel seems to invite the reader to consider the uses of George Orwell. I was thinking about how the CIA secretly financed the 1954 animated version of Animal Farm, or how the right-wing English teacher at my religious high school taught Nineteen Eighty-Four as though it was meant to be a completely uncomplicated allegory of the then-contemporary “far left” (as they estimated it) takeover of American politics by the Clinton administration.
AE: George Orwell has become the patron saint of paranoia, which is understandable given the utter prescience and genius of Nineteen Eighty-Four. That there exists a reality TV show called Big Brother about people being watched around the clock is both grotesque and perfect. I can’t open the newspaper—and I still get one delivered every day—without reading at least one superficial reference to thoughtcrimes or memory holes or Newspeak. What’s missing from the Orwell-this and Orwell-that commentary is the fact the he wrote things other than Nineteen Eighty-Four. The term “Orwellian” refers to one aspect of one novel, albeit a profoundly great and important one.
Eric Blair did his best writing in his essays and personal correspondence. His generosity of spirit, his unwillingness to brook lazy thinking, his pristine clarity of expression—those are the things we should consider “Orwellian.” I hope readers of my novel will be moved to pick up Keep the Aspidistra Flying or The Road to Wigan Pier or Down and Out in Paris and London or, especially, the Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters. Those books contain many of the best sentences ever written in English.
Everyone should feel free to skip the Diaries that got published a few years ago, though. They were tedious.
I was crying when I first met Maggie Nelson. I’d spent the night before reading Bluets in one sitting, and then reading it again, and then again, until it was morning and I was out of tears and out of cigarettes and the sun had crawled back up to the sky, a giant bright lid over Portland. This was at the Tin House Writer’s Workshop a few years ago. It was a period in my life characterized by a fair amount of ineffable pain and imprecise longing. I was prone to hysterics and I was unmedicated. I cried a lot. Every day I danced a passive ballet around what I knew was an impending breakdown. I felt consistently unmoored from myself and from others. Then Bluets found me, and at the risk of sounding overly hyperbolic, nothing was ever the same. I was simply gutted by Nelson’s prose, the way she’d wrangled her heart and her mind onto the page. I hadn’t seen anything like it before. I had never encountered a writer so lionhearted, so exact. Never had my own pain felt so—not necessarily manageable, but located. Not healed, but given language. So, that morning when I saw Maggie in the cafeteria, I approached her with all the charm of a sleepless open wound and said who knows what through my tears. I think she advised me to get some coffee. I know she hugged me. She was so gracious then, and continues to be in the years that have followed.
Her work, for me, has been and will always be a harbor I value more than I could ever say. The Argonauts, her latest, out now from Graywolf, is no exception. Maggie was kind enough to talk with me about it by email.
Vincent Scarpa: Being, as you are, completely disconnected from all things social media, I’m wondering if you had any sense of the feverish anticipation surrounding The Argonauts? It seemed—and for very good reason—that no one had ever been quicker to boast (myself chief among them) about getting their hands on an advanced copy. You say, in the book, “I don’t want to represent anything,” but you must have at least some understanding of just how important your work is to so many writers and readers, and that both it and you do represent something brand-new for so many people: this wonderfully lawless, deeply personal, and ferociously intelligent space for writing which ricochets and reticulates from the heart to the mind; writing which inspires, teaches, indicts, moves.
Maggie Nelson: Wow, I have no idea if any of the things you say are true! Especially because not thinking about audience has been and still is almost a condition of possibility for me to write. But I would be very glad if my writing has been important to writers and readers in the ways you describe. There’s a kind of sacred alchemy around the issue of reception that I sometimes worry will get fucked up if I think too hard about it, or get egoic about it. So I try not to.
But I am always happy to hear that my work gave someone a sense of permission; that seems like an incredibly important, even life-sustaining gift. (As Eve Sedgwick says in Fat Art, Thin Art, “In every language the loveliest question/ is, You can say that?”) Over the years I’ve noticed that whenever I say to myself while writing—go ahead and write it, you don’t have to publish it, no one besides you ever has to read this—that’s often the stuff that ends up meaning the most to other readers.
Artist Moyra Davey is fond of quoting Fassbinder on this account: “the more ‘honestly’ you put yourself into the story, the more that story will concern others as well.” (That may sound like writing program drivel, but remember, it’s Fassbinder—and remember also, what “putting yourself honestly into the story”means is completely wide open, and may apply to criticism and fiction as much as to autobiography, etc.)
VS: I think the fandom you inspire probably has a great deal to do with something you spoke about briefly at AWP, where you identified yourself as being “post-shame.”(Of course there’s a great deal of gender-specific politics around what John and Jane Q. Public even identify as something about which to be ashamed in the first place, but that’s another conversation.) Regardless, your writing does not limit or censor the immensity of human experience—pain or pleasure—nor what ways we get there, and I think that’s something that magnetizes a lot of readers. Were/are their writers whose work affects you in the same way?
MN: My first writing teacher Annie Dillard always told her students to leave it all on the floor, every time. Or as she put it: “One of the things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.” I believed in this then and I believe in it now, with something akin to religious fervor.
There are so many writers who have given me this same sense of permission, without which no magnetizing or probing writing would be even remotely possible. How could I ever forget my first encounter with the Marquis de Sade in a friend’s bathroom when I was 17? How could I ever forget reading David Wojnarowicz’s Close to the Knives when I was 19, a book which meant everything to me then and still does? Then there are my literal teachers, Eileen Myles and Wayne Koestenbaum . . . there’s everyone from James Baldwin to Antonin Artaud to Angela Davis . . . I could go on and on. I tried to pay homage to many of these folks in The Argonauts.
VS: Tell me a bit about how you landed on the term “autotheory.”What do you see it as signifying, beyond it being a way to shirk the inherently limiting and reductive categories of so-called genre? How does a piece of autotheory function? At AWP, you described it as “the self as guinea pig for trying out thought”—is that about the size of it? Is it a concept you came to while writing the book or a way to speak of it after it was completed?
MN: Autotheory is just lifted from Beatriz, now Paul, Preciado’s Testo Junkie. So is the guinea pig line: “As a body—and this is the only important thing about being a subject-body, a techno-living system—I’m the platform that makes possible the materialization of political imagination. I am my own guinea pig for an experiment on the effects of intentionally increasing the level of testosterone in the body of a bio-female.” This sentiment resonates with Herve Guibert’s amazing line (which Preciado actually uses as an epigraph): “I am, as always in writing, both the scientist and the rat split open for his research.”
I think what I was getting at, on that panel, was that instead of the boring exposure/concealment spectrum, what if we talked instead about the relation between being a subject-body and the materialization of political imagination; what if we talked about ourselves as scientists and slit rats. Maybe I’ve already lost you. But this genealogy feels more native to me.
VS: I’d love to know what your research-gathering process is like. The Argonauts is textured with so many different voices, from so many different spaces—from Judith Butler to X-Men: First Class and so much in between. I have the suspicion that there’s probably nothing you in your mastery could not bend to fit into the book perfectly, so how do you go about deciding what feels most essential, most resonant to include? How much of the research surrounding the project was left on the cutting room floor? Can we get a deleted scene?
As his train hurtled toward Latvia, Peter Carl Fabergé mustered an ounce of gratitude: for it was night. In this darkness, he would not see his beloved Russia disappear. They’d departed Saint Petersburg at dusk, and he’d been lucky to board. His feet guarded no briefcase, and no suitcase sat overhead. His person alone would make the trip. In that way, today’s trip felt no different than his empty-handed travels to Nice, where he’d strolled freely, eying collarbones and wrists, keeping tabs on the Riviera’s jewels. He was disappointed, always; contemporary jewelry bored him.
The Tsar had saved him from a life of boredom. And now, His Imperial Majesty Nicholas II was dead.
Mr. Fabergé retrieved a notebook from his breast pocket and steadied it against his knee. Years ago, he’d explained to his son that you never start by drawing an oval. The next morning, at breakfast, little Eugène lay an egg on his school book, and traced it over his arithmetic drills. “I start this way, Papa,” Eugène announced. Inside the oval, the boy’s chicken scratch looked purposeful, and by Easter the next, Mr. Fabergé had reworked the scratchings into flowers and vines, and overlay them with a lattice of diamonds. Mr. Fabergé knew then that his son would one day take over the family business, as he had done for his own father.
Today, he started with the oval. The train challenged his steady hand but he eked out an egg that then sprouted seven smaller eggs. At Saint Basil’s, the domes were onions, but here, they were egg-shaped. Nicholas, Alexandra, Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia, and Alexei: all dead. And now, the House of Fabergé belonged to the Committee of the Employees of the Company K Fabergé. The Bolsheviks had taken everything, including his name.
Darkness hugged the train, and Mr. Fabergé reached for his spectacles. He’d left his better pair in the shop the day he first heard the rumors. He’d sent everyone home and locked up, but three hours later, he returned for his invoice book. That night, he shut himself in his study and turned to the book’s last page. He’d made a mistake, and he wanted it gone. He lit a fire and collapsed to his knees, trembling. As the flames ate his careful ledger, Mr. Fabergé worried that his misstep, his attempt at self-preservation, had cost the Tsar his life.
Now, as Mr. Fabergé filled the first egg-shaped-dome with alternating rows of rubies and emeralds, he yearned for his pigments. Traveling empty handed had been foolish, but in the moment he had stared at his suitcase, he decided his possessions would remain, and he would someday return to Saint Petersburg. He would.
Next, he tackled the blue and white dome. In his workshop, he had tested how the colors played off one another, but now, he only reminded himself in words: sapphire, diamonds. Rumor said that his jewels had spared the Duchesses for an instant. They’d sewn diamonds into their corsets, planning to escape with part of their fortune. The bullets had ricocheted, and then—His graphite split against the page, and when the steward returned, Mr. Fabergé asked for another writing utensil—he received a pen—and ordered a vodka.
He pressed his cheek to the window. The glass was cool, and so was the vodka. It reminded him of the cool day, some thirty years before, that he’d been given access to the Hermitage. Its halls became his to roam freely, and the late Empress Catherine’s treasures became a playground for his mind. The Bolsheviks had taken all of it.
His grip firmed, fighting the sway of the train. He never designed in ink. But his pen danced, assigning jewels to the rest of the egg-domes: more emeralds, more rubies. Opal-laid-in-gold. Soon diamonds lined the crosses that jutted from every dome. His last egg had been fashioned out of birch. The peasants were starving, and the Great War ate up what resources could have quelled their riots. As austerity seeped into his workshop, he had chosen chestnut-colored wood. But he was the Goldsmith by special appointment to the Imperial Crown, so he framed the birch in gold.
The birch had been his first mistake. The second was the invoice. Eighteen months ago, just after the Tsar was forced to abdicate, Mr. Fabergé invoiced a one Mr. Romanov, Nikolai Aleksandrovich for the birch egg. Mr. Romanov dutifully paid the bill of 12,500 Roubles before fleeing to the Urals.
Mr. Fabergé crumpled his sketch, balling the inked Saint Basil’s into a fist. He imagined the birch egg alone in the palace, or worse, in the hands of scoundrels. He kicked the balled paper beneath his seat, suddenly frightened: what if, in that moment, his fist had brought down the domes of Saint Basil’s?
He would not cry. He had forfeited that right. The Tsar had given him everything, and Mr. Fabergé had done nothing but betray him. The Tsar was no Mr. Romanov, Nikolai Aleksandrovich, and Mr. Fabergé was a coward for capitulating to the Bolsheviks’ language.
For the second time in his life, as his train hurtled toward Latvia, Mr. Fabergé dated a page April 25, 1917. 12,500 Roubles were due, payable to the House of Fabergé.
Mr. Fabergé’s pen dug into the page. To: The Tsar of All Russians.
He wrote it again. And again, until he filled the page.
To: His Imperial Majesty, THE TSAR OF ALL RUSSIANS.
From our Rejection issue, Leslie Jamison looks back on the geometry of junior high friendships.
November 15, 2014
Who were we kidding? Back then, friendship was nothing but musical chairs. You’d steal anyone’s spot if it meant you got a seat. Or at least, I would. I did. This was fourth grade. You were best friends with N when I came onto the scene and made it a triangle. I remember sleepovers at N’s little bungalow, its lush lawn with sprinklers always running in the drought. I remember getting pissed when we had to write reports on famous writers and you got Shakespeare and I got stuck with Twain, which wasn’t even his real name anyway—Samuel Langhorne whatever—which was all salt on the wound of our president reports the year before, when I got stuck talking about FDR right after Evan Roosevelt talked about FDR, and it turned out Evan was his great-grandson, or something. So that sucked. And then you got Shakespeare, a guy I felt I had a lot to say about.
You were a tomboy, with your shorts and baggy T-shirts, and your meticulous, almost robotic intelligence. You were on the front end of the braces curve. N was our femme queen, indisputably, cased like a sausage in tight pink jeans, with her faux-pearl-beaded headbands.
Triangles have trouble holding. I learned that more than once, the first time at your expense. N and I broke away. We made a straight line, no room for a third point. You were hovering in a distant, stubborn orbit. I remember there was crying. By which I mean: you cried. One of our teachers said we should make an effort to include you because it was a hard time in your family—your parents were getting divorced. Do you know they told us that? Did you tell them to? Back then, “divorce” was still an exotic word to me—it sheened your plight, your exclusion, with a kind of savage radiance: commuting to homeroom each day from your broken home only to show up for our abandonment.
A few years later, when my own parents told me they were getting divorced, I thought about you. This was supposed to get her special treatment? I thought. It’s not so bad. Or maybe it wasn’t It’s not so bad, so much as When will the world turn up some special treatment for me?
So N and I left you behind. We got close with M. This was the next triangle, its eventual collapse inevitable: I got left. I was the third point dangling in space. I don’t know if it made me regret playing the game. It just made me wish I’d played it better.
Maybe this isn’t a letter to you so much as M, anyway: What was your secret? Or to N, that serial de-friender: What the fuck? I just Googled her. Turns out she works at an elementary school. She married a woman in a beautiful ceremony last January, both of them in white dresses, beaming.
But I want to tell you about this thing that happened later. I think you were in a different class by then. We were studying Native Americans. I know, I know. You’re saying: Which time? Every year we studied Native Americans. We were a two-weeks-on-the-Mayflower, two-months-on-Hopi-kachinas kind of school. But this time we built our own mud villages, and then watched one Friday as Ms. C “showed [us] what it must have felt like” by kicking them into crumbled piles. It didn’t make me feel for the tribes we’d studied so much as it made me glad I hadn’t been part of them. Less a pang in the heart, more like Sucks to be you. I wish I hadn’t left you in the lurch. Or I wish I’d regretted it more. I wish I hadn’t begrudged you Shakespeare. I hope you did a good job with him. I’m sure you did. You’re a professor now. The Internet told me so. It’s strange to me that you even exist, still, that you survived being nine—that we all did.
Leslie Jamison is the author of The Empathy Exams and The Gin Closet. In her spare time, she enjoys stalking former classmates on the Internet.
I’ve known Brian DeLeeuw for the better part of two decades, though we’d likely crossed paths any number of times before actually meeting, since we grew up within a block of each other in Manhattan. We took creative writing courses together in college, and we followed similar post-graduation literary paths, getting MFAs from the same school, publishing our first books within a year of each other, and both finding our ways into the Tin House family. (I worked only briefly as an intern at the magazine, though Tin House Books published my first novel; Brian had a longer stint as an editor at the magazine.)
So I was disappointed on a personal level when Brian left New York for Los Angeles a few years back. The person I’ve probably spent more time talking writing with than anyone else on earth would now be on the other side of the country. But I was also disappointed as a reader by the prospect of a great novelist giving himself over to the dark art of screenwriting, and especially the prospect of a great New York novelist–in the sense not just of a novelist from New York but of one who render the place so expertly in his first novel, In This Way I Was Saved–giving up our native city. It turns out that I needn’t have worried. This week Brian publishes his second novel, The Dismantling, which is not just another great book, but another great New York book, traveling to parts of the city not usually represented in fiction or popular imagination. (Which isn’t to say his move out west has been fruitless: Brian’s first feature film will be debuting just days after the novel comes out.)
Brian and I chatted over email about The Dismantling, writing New York, and the life of a novelist turned screenwriter.
Christopher R Beha: The Dismantling is a thriller about the black market for organ donors. When I started the book, my first thought was that this is such a perfect vehicle for exploring the central themes of contemporary culture that I was surprised I hadn’t seen it before. How did you come to this material?
Brian DeLeeuw: I came up with the character of Simon Worth first—a young man who is carrying around an enormous amount of guilt and shame, someone who feels that he is not capable of living a regular life with a regular job, friends, girlfriend. He feels defective in some way—psychically isolated—and yet he also has these large student loans to pay off from a failed attempt at medical school, so he needs to get his hands on money quickly. He can’t just retreat entirely from life. I knew I wanted take this character with very little to lose, somebody who feels as though a vital part of himself has already died, and place him in the center of a criminal underworld, turn him into an unlikely criminal.
This dovetailed with my more general desire to write an internally-focused, slow-burn crime novel. In 2008 and 2009, I started noticing articles about the organ trade popping up more frequently in mainstream newspapers and magazines; the more I read, the more I was intrigued. The idea that everything is up for sale now, that you can put a price on absolutely anything—that was of course part of the fascination. I also thought the question of individual autonomy and agency was raised here in an interesting way: should people have the right to sell parts of their bodies? Or is there something inherently unethical about the market exchange of organs? The thinking against it seems to be that if we as a society legalize organ sales, we would be codifying or endorsing the idea that money can buy more years of life, that wealth can determine longevity. Given the way our screwed-up healthcare system works, this is clearly already true; but something about selling organs seems to reframe the issue in a way that appears to be objectionably explicit.
Most of these articles focused on the way illegal transplants tend to work internationally. In these cases the sellers are often from poor rural areas in South America, Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe, or the Middle East, while the recipients and surgeons are from Western Europe, Israel, or South Africa. The seller is paid five or ten thousand dollars—many times what they might otherwise make in a year—but they are often misinformed about the nature of the surgery and given little or no follow-up care. They return to areas with no access to clean water, jeopardizing the health of their remaining kidney; and they may be stigmatized and barred from working in their communities when they return. These were very compelling stories, but the exploitation here was too obvious for the kind of novel I wanted to write.
Less well-documented, but more ethically murky, are how these illegal transplants work in well-regarded American hospitals, with (mostly) American buyers and sellers. Here, someone could sell their kidney for $100,000, a portion of their liver for even more. The follow-up care would not be rushed, or ignored altogether. The surgeons would generally be unaware that they were transplanting an organ that had been purchased. The seller would be perfectly clear—as much as anybody who hadn’t done it yet could be—of the risks and difficulties of the surgery and recovery. This is a world, I thought, where it is not necessarily obvious who the villain is, or even whether there is a villain at all. It was exactly kind of morally confused setting that I wanted to drop Simon into the middle of.
CRB: Another thread in the book has to do with ex-NFL players who have been permanently damaged by their time in the league. There is a bit of a “ripped from the headlines” element to this plot line. There’s been a lot of talk in the past few years about the ethics of watching men hurt themselves in this way for entertainment. I wonder what you as a lifelong football fan think about this issue.
BD: Yeah, this is something I think about a lot. I actually conducted a lengthy interview on this topic—on this very website!—with Steve Almond last summer, when his Against Football book came out. At first, the issue of the NFL and head trauma seemed to resemble Big Tobacco and cancer: you had corporate interests that were ignoring research, hiring their own experts to spread questionable science, deploying a powerful media team to disseminate their own narrative. But now it’s pretty clear and out in the open that for a certain percentage of the population, especially those who may be genetically predisposed to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, playing football carries severe risks for long-term mental health. (And this is leaving aside the bodily damage—broken bones, slipped discs, arthritis, etc.—that everybody already accepted as the costs of playing the game.) And a lot of the ex-players most affected are not the stars whose declines and suicides we often read about, like Junior Seau, Andre Waters, or Dave Duerson; they’re people like the character I invented in The Dismantling, Lenny Pelligrini, an offensive lineman with a short career, no savings, and a rapidly deteriorating brain.
The onus is now on the fans as well: you can’t claim you don’t know about CTE and other brain damage anymore, so do you still give the NFL your money and attention? I’ve been slowly paring back the amount of time I spend watching and thinking about football, which is not a particularly strong or decisive ethical position. I still love the game. Can I be a politician and say my position is “evolving”?
CRB: Your first novel, In This Way I Was Saved, has a remarkably vivid sense of place. The book’s settings — the upper east and upper west sides of Manhattan, the Princeton campus, Fire Island — are all places where you have personal history. The Dismantling is also set in and around New York, but in entirely different pockets of the city — Roosevelt Island, the outer reaches of Queens. As far as I know, you don’t have the same personal connection to these places, but you’ve managed to render them in the same vivid way. How did you go about doing that? What made you choose these settings for the book?
BD: That’s true, In This Way I Was Saved used the places I knew most intimately from childhood, adolescence, and college, while with The Dismantling, I wanted to set the book in the parts of New York City I was most interested in learning more about, specifically Roosevelt Island and Rockaway Beach. Both of these places have very strange, complex histories, and both have—in the winter at least—a certain isolated feel to them that I thought matched Simon’s mental and emotional weather.
Roosevelt Island used to be a place where the city sent people it considered unfit to mix with the general population. Starting in the 19th Century, it was home to the notorious New York City Lunatic Asylum, as well as a prison and a smallpox hospital. These places are gone—although The Octagon, a condo, repurposes much of the Asylum’s main entrance—but there is still a strong medical presence on the island, with two hospitals and a number of residents working just across the river in Manhattan in the New York-Presbyterian and NYU medical complexes. So it seemed like an appropriate place to situate Cabrera Medical Center, the fictional hospital in my novel where all of the transplant surgeries go down. The island also has a kind of liminal status—not quite Manhattan, not quite Queens—that I thought was a good fit for Simon’s newly untethered life.
Rockaway Beach has an even more twisted history that involves institutionalized racism, Robert Moses’s grand designs, the rise and fall of New York City public housing conditions, the collapse of city governance in the 1970s, and, more recently, the influence of seasonal gentrification. And this is all before Hurricane Sandy decimated the area in 2012. Between Ocean and City: The Transformation of Rockaway, New York, a historical study by Lawrence and Carol Kaplan, was essential for my understanding the context of the place, as were conversations with a family friend who grew up in one of its neighborhoods.
When I first started writing the novel, I would take the A train from West 4th Street, near where I lived at the time, to Beach 116th, which took about an hour, and walk around the boardwalk and the various neighborhoods. I would do this only in the winter and early spring, when the beach was cold and empty. I took a lot of notes, some photos; those trips—just hanging out there—probably constituted my primary research. I can’t completely explain my attraction to the place. Sometimes you’re just drawn to a town or a neighborhood and you don’t really know why, although I would guess it has something to do with the juxtaposition of dense urban development and the open Atlantic.
Earlier drafts of the novel featured many, many more scenes set in the Rockaways, mostly during Simon and his sister Amelia’s childhoods. There was a whole storyline about Simon’s obsession with surfing that largely got axed, plus some scenes that involved the redevelopment into beachside cottages of a giant tract of abandoned land. The novel was at one point nearly five hundred pages long—it’s just under three hundred now—so plenty of stuff had to go, but the Rockaway passages were the hardest to see on the cutting room floor.
His mom said she’d disown him if he did. His dad, At least now when you’re talking out of your arse, you’ll be speaking the word of God.
It’ll be good, he said. But I want you to bury me ass-backwards, so when I’m received the first thing God sees is my devotion.
I think God has better things to look at.
Moon to moon.
Are you quite through?
He smiled. I guess I can’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery. Does that mean the Jewish God disapproves?
Why does it matter? You’re Catholic. On the face of it anyway.
Covering my bases is all. So. Where do you get buried in New York anyhow?
He found out and roped me into looking at plots.
The mole looked like Kyrgyzstan, though Ted liked to call it the frog. It did look like a frog swimming, his legs bowed open in a kick, two short arms out, amphibian nose pointed. But the frog was red, like rust, and eventually the edges bled out and bloated.
I want this one, here.
It was just me and him at the cemetery out in East Flatbush. His mother intended to come but at the last minute she thought she would faint.
Why this one?
It’s near the loo.
Well, I don’t want people running back and forth while they’re visiting. Takes away from the solemnity doesn’t it?
What about that one, near the Chestnut tree?
In the end he decided on cremation.
When they removed the mole from Ted’s back, it left a smooth, round pink scar. But then another popped up. And another.
Like frogs after the rain, he joked.
I told you to name it Kyrgyzstan. I felt angry at his mistake. There’s only one. It would have been the only one.
Ah, you know those Central European countries. They’re always starting new ones.
That doesn’t even make any sense.
He grinned and kissed my eyes, one at a time, and then the tip of my nose. Well you’re the history teacher.
Ted sat us all down around the kitchen table one Sunday afternoon. Now I want you to make sure that half of me goes back to Ireland.
His mother blew her nose.
Mum will ya please?
She honked harder.
With his long, red-haired arm draped over her, he continued. So like I said. Half in New York, Charlotte knows where. And half on the steps of Davy Byrne’s pub.
His father shook his head. This isn’t a joke Ted.
Who’s joking? I want it right there. Then eat yourself a Gorgonzola sandwich. I’ll leave you the ten quid. He slapped his knee. Ah that’s right, I can’t. They’re on the Euro these days. He laughed and laughed at his mistake.
When they called me in from the waiting room to join Ted in the doctor’s office, I knew. He could have told me good news on his own.
On our third date I brought Ted to that cobblestoned portion of Jane Street near the strange yellow door and the ginkgo trees.
Here it is, as promised. My favorite place in New York.
He looked around slowly, turning almost full circle.
“In case you’re wondering, I’m taking mental notes. They will be pieces of the puzzle called What Charlotte Loves About This Place.” He nodded, as in appraisal. “I’m thinking it’s going to be one of those 1000 piece puzzles that swallow the dining room table and look like a shit-mess until piece 899. I better start collecting.”
I take him with me at 5 am because I’m worried that someone will see me. In fact I don’t know what they would even guess I’m doing, pouring some ashes out of an empty tin of Hobbs Knobbs (Ted’s choice, of course.)
Why don’t you choose your favorite place? I asked.
Because I want to be your favorite place, he said. Who else gets to do that?
No one else. Never. Just you.
But halfway through I’m overtaken by the thought of dogs peeing on him and, in an instant, throw the rest to the wind.
Carrie Vasios Mullins earned her MFA from Columbia University. She writes about food when not working on her first novel. Her work has appeared in Serious Eats, Anamesa, Edible Brooklyn, and Two Serious Ladies, among other publications.
Everyone here at Tin House is excited to give a giant congratulations to Gregory Pardlo upon the announcement of his book “Digest” receiving the 2015 Pulitzer Prize.
We were honored to publish his poem “Philadelphia, Negro” in our 2012 Winter issue.
Alien-faced patriot in my Papa’s mirrored aviators
that reflected a mind full of cloud
keloids, the contrails of Blue Angels in formation
miles above the campered fields of Willow Grove
where I heard them clear as construction paper slowly
tearing as they plumbed close enough I could nearly see
flyboys saluting the tiny flag I shook in their wakes.
I visored back with pride, sitting aloft dad’s shoulders,
my salute a reflex ebbing toward ground crews in jumpsuits
executing orchestral movements with light. The bicentennial
crocheted the nation with the masts of tall ships and twelve-foot
Uncle Sams but at year’s end my innocence dislodged
like a powdered wig as I witnessed the first installment
of Roots. The TV series appeared like a galleon on the horizon
and put me in touch with all twelve angry tines of the fist
pick my father kept on his dresser next to cufflinks
and his Texas Instruments LED watch. I was not in the market
for a history to pad my hands like fat leather mittens. A kind
of religion to make sense of a past mysterious as basements
with upholstered wet bars and black-light velvet panthers, maybe,
but as such a youngster I thought every American a Philadelphia
Negro, blue-eyed soulsters and southpaws alike getting
strong now, mounting the art museum steps together
like children swept up in Elton’s freedom from Fern Rock
to Veterans Stadium, endorphins clanging like liberty
themed tourist trolleys unloading outside the Penn Relays,
a temporal echo, an offspring, of Mexico City, where Tommie
Smith and John Carlos made a human kinara with the human
rights salute while my father scaled the Summit
Avenue street sign at the edge of his lawn, holding a bomb
pop that bled tricolor ice down his elbow as he raised it like
Ultraman’s Beta Capsule in flight from a police K9 used to
terrorize suspicious kids. Your dad would be mortified too
if he knew you borrowed this overheard record of his oppression
to rationalize casting yourself as a revolutionary American
fourth-grader even though, like America, your father never lifted
your purple infant butt proudly into the swaddling of starlight
to tell the heavens to “behold, the only thing greater
than yourself!” And like America, his fist only rose on occasion,
graceful, impassioned, as if imitating Arthur Ashe’s balletic serve,
so that you almost forgot you were in its way.
Gregory Pardlo is the author of Totem, which received the APR/Honickman Prize in 2007, and Digest, (Four Way Books, 2014), which was nominated for the 2015 NAACP Image Award in poetry. His poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, Boston Review, The Nation, Ploughshares, and Tin House, as well as anthologies including Angles of Ascent, the Norton Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry, and two editions of Best American Poetry. He is the recipient of a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship and a fellowship for translation from the National Endowment for the Arts. An Associate Editor of Callaloo, he is currently a Teaching Fellow in Undergraduate Writing at Columbia University.
“I swear to you, sitting a throne is a hundred times harder than winning one.” —some probably dead king
Yesterday’s big announcement may have drowned out some of the excitement around Electric Literature and Vol. 1 Brooklyn’s epic Game of Totes competition. The best of the best literary tote bags were brought before a panel of esteemed judges—Cosmopolitan’s book-editor-at-large Camille Perri, poet Saeed Jones, Bev Rivero of New Press, and funny-guy writer Dan Wilbur. (We demanded a trial by combat, but they nixed it.)
As our first official decree, we’re offering a $5 discount on the winning tote bag until Sunday, when the next episode of Game of Thrones airs. Just enter the coupon code “gameoftotes” at checkout. Until then, remember the words of House Tin, copped from old Walt himself:
I Contain Multitudes.
We here at Tin House are big fans of Anthony Doerr and especially his novel All The Light We Cannot See, so we couldn’t be happier to see him awarded the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. And while he’s never given us the secret of how to be the most charming, disarming sweetheart of a writer we’ve ever met, as a faculty member at the Tin House Summer Writer’s Workshop, he has given us some insight on how to be a better writer. So maybe it’s time to revisit this lecture, which we’ve conveniently retitled on Tony’s behalf.
DEFAMILIARIZATION HOW TO WIN THE PULITZER with Anthony Doerr
Break the pre- off the –dictable
We are creatures of habit. A bald Russian army-commissar-turned-literary-critic named Viktor Shklovsky said in 1917, “Habitualization devours works, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war.” What he meant is that the mind makes a sort of algebra out of the world and in doing so robs us of some of the intensity of experience. To eat a banana for the thousandth time is nothing like eating a banana for the first time. To have sex with somebody for the thousandth time is nothing like having sex with that person for the first time. Shklovsky argued that the role of art is to remove objects from the “automatism of perception.” That is, successful art gives the sensations of life back to us. We’ll look at how words are arranged within sentences, the songs of baby white-crowned sparrows, a couple lines by Herbert Spencer, Doritos, and lots of other stuff to try to discover how we can use our work to crack apart the habitual and make the world new again
Y’all want something real. Y’all live in Austin, where autumn is one long festival weekend, and every thoroughfare is overhung with vinyl banners punched with holes so the wind can get to work, and y’all want out. Just for a weekend. Y’all want to leave behind the organic neighborhood Saturday markets and the middle-aged triathletes. Y’all want to see Texas, the way y’all always thought y’all would.
Y’all aren’t from Texas. Y’all are from LA, and Madison, and San Francisco via Madison, and Russia via San Francisco. Y’all moved to Austin for grad school, but also because it was Texas, and some part of y’all had always wanted that: cowboys, cowgirls, deserts. But Austin isn’t like that, and y’all realize, over margherita pizza and extra hoppy beers, that y’all could do something about it. Y’all could go west, to real cowboy country.
The way to Bandera isn’t easy. Y’all didn’t realize how long it would take (it looks so close on Google Maps). Y’all aren’t used to driving in a place that is neither a freeway nor a neighborhood. Y’all drive slow. There are hills that hide the setting sun and leave strips of night in their shadows. It’s pretty out here, where the green hills and mesquite open into horse ranch and broken homestead, half-gone log houses fallen into creeks. Y’all lose service. Y’all go in circles. Y’all laugh at the names of little hill country roads: Verde Creek, Prison Canyon Road, Dead Poacher Pass. It starts to rain, and by the time y’all find the cabin, y’all stick y’all’s car in the mud.
Y’all get drunk and talk about the drive, and the next morning y’all are hung over, but still make it out to Maple Leaf. The park isn’t crowded—y’all’re a long way from the city—and y’all manage to find a trail that’s out of the way, where y’all can smoke a joint and talk about the kind of thing y’all talk about: music, the idea of nature, the invention of landscape, and different kinds of high. The park must go on some miles, but in the low places y’all can still hear flat reports of rifle fire. Y’all have some vague notion that deer are hunted here, but none of y’all know exactly what that means. At a bend in the creek the water flattens into pond, and small fish flit nervous in the clear light. Y’all wonder how they got here: did they swim down the tiny rivulets as babies, or did someone put them here?
Y’all get a little lost in the park, but y’all still make it out before two or three, plenty of time to grab a bite. Only there almost isn’t any place where y’all can grab a bite. There are only one or two little dining rooms, Texas German places that stink of sausage grease, and y’all sure as hell aren’t getting anything vegetarian there. But y’all think y’all might have some food back at the house, and anyway y’all don’t want to take too long: y’all want to save the sunlight for y’all’s mushroom trip.
Of course y’all brought mushrooms. That’s the only thing y’all think about doingoutside the city, is eating hallucinogens and looking at trees—y’all don’t know how to look at them otherwise. So y’all pass out the mushrooms, and it’s a kind of game: first, y’all empty the baggie on the coffee table in the cabin; then, y’all take turns picking the pieces y’all want to eat, till y’all each have a little pile of dried fungus in front of you, grayish chunks and slivers marbled with blue veins. Y’all are so excited, y’all don’t eat anything else.
At first, y’all try to record what y’all say and do: y’all have iPhones and iPads and Androids with cameras and microphones, but half an hour in y’all are just laughing too hard to even remember. Y’all’s heads feel big. Y’all can’t decide whether to stay inside on the couches or outside on the porch. Y’all wander into the high grass, which ends up higher than y’all ever thought, high over y’all’s heads like a forest, and y’all take forever to reach the pond, and the sky is bright green and jagged.
Across the pond y’all see a buck. He is big and proud, and y’all have never seen anything like it. He disappears into the woods beyond, and before y’all know it, y’all are following him. At first he seems like a spirit guide, but then y’all lose him in the woods, and by then y’all have no idea where y’all are, and so it turns out he was the opposite of a spirit guide, he was a spirit decoy.
It’s getting cold fast. The red sun is melting through the branches, and the naked oaks are black lightning leaping from the hills. The grass is slick with cold sweat. Do y’all know where y’all are? Y’all think the cabin must be downhill, but it’s hard to say which way that is—the slope keeps yawing under y’all’s feet, and y’all can’t hear each other anymore, but y’all do hear the rifle.
It sounds like the whole hill cracking in half. Y’all are all shaking in different ways, and slipping through the mud and the roots, and y’all see the blood in the grass, and the blood is too bright. And y’all keep on asking, is this for real? And if y’all were a cabin, where would y’all be? And if y’all were a bullet, who would y’all find to bury y’all’s little metal head in?
Byron Landry was born and raised in Texas, and received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Texas at Austin. His fiction has appeared in Bat City Review, 3:AM Magazine, Spork, and elsewhere. He is an MFA candidate in fiction at Johns Hopkins University.
We were sad to hear of Eduardo Galeano’s death on Monday. He both described and shaped the cultural landscape of our hemisphere and our planet, and we are lucky to have those maps he left us in the form of journalism, novels, and poetry. Here, from Issue 37, is one of those in both English and Galeano’s original Spanish.
Lost and Found
translated by Mark Fried
The twentieth century, which was born proclaiming peace and justice, died bathed in blood. It passed on a world much more unjust than the one it inherited.
The twenty-first century, which also arrived heralding peace and justice, is following in its predecessor’s footsteps.
In my childhood, I was convinced that everything that went astray on earth ended up on the moon.
But the astronauts found no sign of dangerous dreams or broken promises or hopes betrayed.
If not on the moon, where might they be?
Perhaps they were never misplaced.
Perhaps they are in hiding here on earth. Waiting.
El siglo veinte, que nació anunciando paz y justicia, murió bañado en sangre y dejó un mundo mucho más injusto que el que había encontrado.
El siglo veintiuno, que también nació anunciando paz y justicia, está siguiendo los pasos del siglo anterior.
Allá en mi infancia, yo estaba convencido de que a la luna iba a parar todo lo que en la tierra se perdía.
Sin embargo, los astronautas no han encontrado sueños peligrosos, ni promesas traicionadas, ni esperanzas rotas.
Si no están en la luna, ¿dónde están?
¿Será que en la tierra no se perdieron?
¿Será que en la tierra se escondieron?
Eduardo Galeano was an Uruguayan journalist and writer. His works include Open Veins in Latin America, Soccer in Sun and Shadow, the Memory of Fire trilogy, and many others.
Meg Storey: How did you come to write this novel?
Cari Luna: On the evening of July 4, 1995, I came across a boisterous crowd at the intersection of Thirteenth Street and Avenue A in Manhattan. Squatters who had been evicted from two buildings on that block back in May had retaken one of the buildings. The intersection was choked with people cheering the squatters on, and there were more cops than I’d ever seen in one place before. I saw something then that had never before occurred to me might be possible: I saw police officers—who before that point had only been symbols of safety and protection for me—looking for a fight, hoping someone would throw a bottle or a fist so they could react.
At twenty-one years old, I didn’t fully understand what I was seeing or what the squatters were fighting for. I’m sorry to say that at the time I wasn’t curious enough to find out. But the images of that night stayed with me. The squatters stayed with me. Ten years later, I found myself writing a novel set in the building I’d seen the squatters retake.
As I wrestled with the idea of home through my characters, it became important to me to understand my home—New York City—and how it had changed. The big question in my mind as I undertook the writing of this novel was “What the hell happened to New York?” The eviction of the Thirteenth Street squats seemed, to me, to mark the beginning of the end of the Lower East Side as it had been when I lived there; the point when money won. And so I set about trying to learn more about what I’d seen that night in 1995, what had been happening and why.
MS: Talk a little about the research you did for the book.
CL: I was lucky that the historical events that I used as inspiration for The Revolution of Every Day occurred just as the Internet was becoming more widely used. I was able to dig up primary-source materials like list-serv postings warning the Thirteenth Street squatters of their impending eviction. That helped immensely in terms of getting a feel for the mood on the ground, a sense of the way events were being talked about leading up to and immediately following the eviction. In addition to list-serv posts and newspaper articles from the time, I read several excellent books about Lower East Side squats and Lower East Side activism in general: War in the Neighborhood by Seth Tobocman, Glass House by Margaret Morton, and Resistance: A Radical Social and Political History of the Lower East Side, Clayton Patterson, editor.
Something I very deliberately did not do was interview people who had been involved with the squats. I was concerned that if I did I would feel beholden to those people’s specific experiences and would get bogged down in “how it really happened,” perhaps losing more universal truths in the process. This is a work of fiction, and I gave myself permission to treat it as such.
MS: The Revolution of Every Day has been described as an elegy for New York City. As a native New Yorker, how has your relationship with the city changed and how is this change reflected in novel?
CL: I was born in Manhattan in 1973 and spent the first five years of my life in Stuyvesant Town in the Lower East Side. When it was time for me to start kindergarten, my family moved to New Jersey. As a parent I now understand the choice—the public schools in our neighborhood were a nightmare, but my parents couldn’t afford nonreligious private schools, and they didn’t want to send their Jewish kids to Catholic school—but at the time, and for my entire subsequent suburban childhood, I let them know they’d made a terrible mistake when they took me and my brother out of the city.
In 1991, I made my way back to Manhattan: first to a boyfriend’s apartment on Eleventh between B and C, and later to my own tiny rent-controlled studio on St. Marks and First. I would argue that I returned to my ancestral home at the beginning of the end of the New York that I loved: the beginning of the end of the Lower East Side as a place that was accessible and open artistically, culturally, and politically. I moved into a neighborhood that challenged my middle-class, suburban notions of how a life was to be lived, a neighborhood that pushed me to rethink assumptions and habits. A neighborhood that made me uncomfortable in some very necessary ways, that forced me to think—for the first time—about race and class and privilege. In the time that I lived there, the neighborhood grew more and more gentrified, more and more comfortable and unchallenging for the returning suburban-raised kids of the parents who’d fled for the suburbs in the seventies. Out went that vital spark, the friction that created art and social change and political activism.
In 1999, I moved to Prospect Heights in Brooklyn because I couldn’t afford Manhattan rents anymore. By the time I sat down to write what would become The Revolution of Every Day in 2005 at the age of 32, the New York I’d loved was gone.
And so I began this novel as a love letter to my lost New York. Every generation of New Yorkers mourns the loss of their version of the city. The city is a living, changing thing. But the way it changed—the way it went over to money so completely—that felt new and drastic. And it felt personal. By the time I left for Portland in 2007, the novel had become a Dear John letter. And then, through writing and revising the book, I found my way back to the love letter it had initially been. But it’s a different kind of love now. I love New York the way I love an old boyfriend who betrayed me horribly, then died years after our last contact. Which is to say: with nostalgia, a warm fondness for the good times, lingering resentment, and a profound sense of loss.
MS: Do you think the Occupy Wall Street movement has increased New Yorkers’ awareness of the existence of squatters and their rights?
CL: I think OWS has heightened Americans’ awareness of and interest in radical politics in general. The camps ended up casting light on the issues of homelessness and housing rights, and many Occupy groups turned to activism related to the foreclosure crisis following the evictions of the camps. One of the favored protest tactics involves squatting foreclosed homes.
MS: Were there any positive outcomes you witnessed in the gentrification of the Lower East Side?
CL: Safety, maybe? It’s hard to say. In The Gentrification of the Mind, Sarah Schulman writes, “What is this thing that homogenizes complexity, difference, dynamic dialogic action for change and replaces it with sameness? With a kind of institutionalization of culture? With a lack of demand on the powers that be? With containment? My answer to that question always came back to the same concept: gentrification.”
The Lower East Side is now safer in terms of muggings, etc. in the post-gentrification era, but it’s also “safer” in that it’s culturally and politically less challenging. Without the friction there is no vibrancy, no life. The Lower East Side, once a hotbed of grassroots activism, has become suburbanized, homogenized. I don’t think that greater safety from crime—or greater perceived safety—is a worthwhile tradeoff for everything that was lost.
MS: Is there a lesson to be learned from The Revolution of Every Day? Can squatting be a successful enterprise or does its roots in anarchy doom it from the start?
CL: Not all squatting has its roots in anarchy. It’s hard to define success in terms of squats, because there isn’t one unified, agreed-upon goal. What I found in my research, and what I continue to learn through my volunteer work with the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space (located in C-Squat), is that each squatter had their own reasons for being there, some purely political, some purely personal. I’d venture to guess that for most it is a mix of the two. It doesn’t make for easy generalizations, though. This is by no means a homogeneous group or cohesive political movement.
In the documentary Captured, Jerry the Peddler, an activist squatter, says, “New York City squatters held more land longer than any other leftist group anywhere in the United States, and holding the land is what revolution is all about.” So in that sense, even the evicted squats were a success.
And there are eleven remaining squats, including C-Squat, which were sold to the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board for the symbolic price of one dollar in 2002. These buildings are in the process of being converted into low-income co-ops, owned by the squatters. So they are now or soon will be legal buildings. That is, no longer squats. This can be called success, or it can be said that now that the squatters are, themselves, landowners, they have become part of the system they fought against. It depends on perspective.
From our Science Fair issue, an amateur astronomer daydreams about constellations and lets her imagination run rampant.
Bright star, you’re a gas!
Several centuries ago the stars reconstellated into figures more relevant to the times. The Earth had been industrializing, mechanizing, electrifying, while the stars were still trotting out swans and goats and bears every night. Men of the world advised the stars to update their subjects, to figure forth printing shops and electricity generators. Obligingly the stars complied, and for a while the sky was up to snuff; the stars were sophisticated and worldly; but then shops supplanted shops and machines surpassed machines and the sky was left behind, littered with musty antiques.
Thereafter were the stars persuaded to depict compasses and quadrants, stripped of their names, given numbers, all but regimented into a grid, before they had had enough and reverted to their old subjects: dogs, dragons, herdsmen, bears. Take heed, worldly fashion—someone may trust you up to a point, but if you push him too far you will lose all the power you ever had over him and he will blaze up and turn into a bear.
The bear in the sky is sometimes mistaken for a prawn, or the government, while the bear on the ground rarely is. There are a few discrepancies between the bear in the sky and the bear on the ground—for one thing, bears on the ground are not nocturnal; nor do they have long tails; nor are they stalked by ravening chickadees who cook and eat them once a year. (Chickadees are good cooks but they do not usually own cooking pots.) The long tail of the Great Bear is also the handle of the Big Dipper, which is an asterism, less distinguished than a constellation, lower down in the hierarchy of starry patterns. Any goose can make up an asterism. Constellations are superior to asterisms and asterisms are superior to asterisks.
There is an even higher order than constellations, though. Many of the stars in the bear are leaving the bear: they belong to the Ursa Major Moving Group. If you saw an assortment of red berries in the air, all floating the same way and perfectly maintaining their configuration in relation to each other, you might surmise that they were all growing on the same invisible drifting hedge. Sometimes, in the pool, dispersed among the randomly paddling people, is a secret synchronized swimming team, not singing and smiling and exhibiting their legs but all heading the same way and all possessing an inward resemblance if not the same mass. As they move across the pool it may look like they are part of miscellaneous social clumps, but watch carefully and you will be able to discern that they are associated with each other and share a common drift, perhaps toward the slide.
That is what the Ursa Major Moving Group is like. Ostensibly members of the bear and the giraffe and the water carrier and the rabbit and the harvest maiden, these stars are secretly committed to the Ursa Major Moving Group. Like brother and sister berries, the stars of the Ursa Major Moving Group are chemically homogeneous, with unusually high levels of yttrium, and they came from the same cloud. They are slowly drifting toward Sagittarius; as they drift, they will wrench apart the bear, the giraffe, the harvest maiden, the tresses of Queen Berenice, Apollo’s goblet, the man in the coils of a snake, and the snake itself. Thus are many identities, over time, shown to be temporary alignments of components involved in a deeper allegiance. Goodbye to my goblet, goodbye to my bear; identity must yield to deeper identity. Goodbye to my giraffe, goodbye to my girl; local association gives way to an association of travelers across the firmament.
Stars, like thoughts, are not inevitable. Out of the diffuse dusty disorder something may or may not coalesce; floating specks in space find each other very escapable. Think how easy it is to escape the gravitational field of an animalcule. When consolidation does happen, it is usually precipitated by an outside force: a density wave, a nearby supernova, two colliding galaxies send the specks reeling, clustering, concentrating into collapsing factions, and those specks that once were strangers, easy come easy go, are now drafted into the same turbulent, raging-hot, high-pressure project—not just pressed close but pressed into each other, their previously repulsed protons fusing, four hydrogens becoming one helium. Out of these violent conjunctions are born the least violent, most oblivious things in the universe—neutrinos, rushing by the trillions through your person every second. Runners-up are oblivious to persons, tarantulas, silver and gold, landslides, dust bunnies, disapproval, hearsay, the cheese cart rolling by, but neutrinos are oblivious to all this and geraniums.
The other byproduct of nuclear fusion, besides neutrinos, is light. All bodies are radiant but not all radiance is visible: stars radiate visible light; planets and donkeys and couches radiate infrared waves. (If your couch is emitting visible light get up immediately.) Some condensing assemblies in space never get big enough to radiate visible light. A star will not shine until it has assembled enough self; once it has enough self it cannot help but shine; once it starts to shine it cannot help but burn the self up, and blow the self away upon the stellar winds. Some stars are so windy they lose a Sun’s amount of mass every 100,000 years—at that rate, if you weigh one hundred pounds, you could be selfless in two yoctoyears.
Dubhe, the red giant at the front of the Big Dipper’s bowl, is not a member of the Ursa Major Moving Group. In fact it is drifting in the opposite direction. But Dubhe is not all alone in the universe; Dubhe has a companion star, Dubhe B. If you want to know how it feels to have a companion star, find a stone that weighs as much as you do, about 100 pounds, or less if you want to be the primary star. If your name is Ruby you can call the stone Ruby B; then get a strap and call it Gravity—it will be what holds you together. Now place Ruby B in the strap and swing her around and around. At first you will feel like you are doing all of the work, but after a while Ruby B will start reciprocating and you and Ruby B will be a mutually slinging sensation.
Yes plus No equals a circle, where Yes is coming together and No is flying apart. Two stars in mutual orbit feel equally the forces of Yes and No, of gravity and inertia. If Yes were stronger they would crash together; if No were stronger they would go tearing off into the wild what. Ambivalence is an engine, a motion machine.