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We were thrilled with yesterday’s announcement that Lacy M. Johnson’s The Other Side was selected as a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. To celebrate the news, we thought it fitting to rerun an excerpt from her memoir that first appeared in our Memory issue. Check back tomorrow for an interview with Lacy.
Tell me everything, he says. Start at the beginning. He does not mean the playground at the preschool with the rainbow bridge. Or the kitten tongue like sandpaper on my cheek. Or the potpourri simmering in the tiny Crock-Pot on the counter next to the jar of pennies in the kitchen. Though any of these could have been a beginning to the story I tell him. I want to see it, his little notepad, but he leaves the room to make some calls. No, I can’t call my family. No, not any of my friends. Nothing to do but to look at my feet, which are suddenly very, very absurd. Someone should cover them with shoes and socks.
He returns to lead me down a dark hallway, where every office is a room with a closed door, through a kitchen, where coffee brews and burns, out a heavy steel door to a parking lot, an unmarked car. A detective’s car. He gestures, as if to say, After you.
While waiting in the unmarked car on an unlit street in the dark shadow of an oak tree I realize that real cops are not at all like movie cops. Real cops are slow and fat. Their bellies, in various states of roundness, hang over their waistbands, cinched tight with braided leather belts. They do not converge on buildings with sirens blaring. They do not flash their lights or stand behind the open doors of their squad cars and aim their guns at criminals. These cops, my cops, do not wear uniforms. From the car, where I am sitting alone in the shadow of an oak tree, they look like fat men who have happened to meet on the street, who are walking together around the side of the fourplex toward the gravel parking lot, where they will find a discarded car tarp, a screen door flapping, all the lights but one turned off.
Just inside the door, they will find a dog collar, construction supplies, and a soundproofed room. I have told them what to expect. Meanwhile, waiting alone in the car under the dark shadow of an oak tree I start seeing things: no shadow is just a shadow of an oak tree. I press the heels of my palms hard into my eye sockets, sink lower into the seat. My thoughts grow smaller and race in circles. The adrenaline shakes become convulsions, become seizures, become shock. When The Detective returns, he finds me knotted into thirds on the floorboard: hardly like a woman at all.
At the hospital, The Detective leads me through a set of automatic sliding glass doors, not the main ones that lead to the emergency room, but another set, down the way a bit, special, for people like me. He leads me down a fluorescent-lit hallway, directly to an exam room where the overhead lights are turned off. A female officer meets me there, and a social worker who looks like she might be somebody’s grandmother. The Female Officer and The Social Worker team up with a nurse; The Detective disappears without a word. The Female Officer, The Social Worker, and The Nurse ask me to take off my clothes. They unscrew the U-bolt from my wrist. The Female Officer puts these things into a Ziploc bag named EVIDENCE.
Nice to meet you, Evidence.
The Female Officer takes pictures of my wrists and ankles. She speaks in two-syllable sentences: Oh, dear. Rape kit.
The Social Worker wants to hold my hand. No thank you, ma’am. She is, after all, not my grandmother. Her skin is loose and clammy. She asks what kind of poetry I write as The Nurse rips out fingerfuls of my pubic hair, spreads my legs, and digs inside me with a long, stiff Q-tip. Another Q-tip in my mouth for saliva. She scrapes under my fingernails with a wooden skewer and puts the scum in a plastic vial.
The Social Worker invites me to stay at her house. Or it is not her house, exactly, but a half-house for half-women like me. After the exam, The Social Worker gives me a green sweat suit in a brown paper bag. I’m supposed to dress in the bathroom. The clothes are entirely too large: a too-large hunter-green sweatshirt, a pair of too-large hunter-green sweatpants, a pair of too-large beige underwear. Like my mother wears.
The Female Officer doesn’t acknowledge that I look ridiculous when I emerge from the bathroom. She doesn’t acknowledge me at all. I know to follow her out the door, to the parking lot, her squad car. I know to hang my head; it’s the price for a ticket to the station.
The phone call wakes my parents out of bed. Mom answers; her voice is thick, confused. She says nothing for a long time. In the background, Dad gets dressed. Yesterday’s change jingles in his pockets. His voice buckles: Say we’re on the way.
The Detective follows me to my new apartment in the unmarked car. He offers to come inside, to stand guard at the door, but I don’t want him to see that I have no furniture, no food in the fridge, nothing in the pantry, or the linen closet, or on the walls. I ask him to wait outside. I call my boss at the literary magazine where I am an intern and leave a message on the office voice mail: Hi there. I was kidnapped and raped last night. I won’t be coming in today. I call My Good Friend’s cell phone. I call My Older Sister’s cell phone.
While I’m in the shower, the apartment phone rings and callers leave messages on the machine: My Good Friend will stay with her boyfriend; she’s delaying her move-in date. Of course she hates to do this, but she’s just too scared to live here, with me, right now. You should find somewhere to go, she says. My Handsome Friend’s message says he heard the news from My Good Friend. He’s leaving town and doesn’t think it’s safe to tell me where to find him. The message My Older Sister leaves says she wants me to come stay at her place, which sounds better than sleeping alone in this apartment on the floor.
I pull back the curtains and see my parents standing in the parking lot talking to The Detective. My father shakes The Detective’s outstretched hand. My mother covers her chest with her arms, one hand over her mouth, a large beige purse hanging from her shoulder. She’s brought me a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a snack-size bag of Cool Ranch Doritos. I’m not hungry, but the thought of wasting her effort makes my stomach turn.
I nibble the chips in the backseat of their car while they take me to buy a cell phone. They want to do something, to take action. With the fluorescent lights of the store, all the papers I must fill out and sign, and the windows wide open behind us, I feel dizzy enough to fall.
Driving to My Older Sister’s apartment, I watch the road extending behind me in the rearview mirror and try not to fall asleep. The boulevard becomes deserted intersection, becomes on-ramp, and interstate. The clusters of redbrick buildings give way to strip malls, to warehouses and truck stops, to XXX bookstores, to cultivated pastures growing in every direction: wheat-stalk brown, tree-bark brown, and corn-silk green.
My Older Sister meets me in the parking lot with tears in her eyes. Her hug is both desperate and safe. As she carries my bag up the stairs she says, You look like shit. Under any other circumstances, I’d tell her to fuck off. Today it’s a comfort. I do look exactly as I feel.
She isn’t able to get off work tonight, so she shows me how to use the cable remote, loads her handgun, puts it in my hand. It’s heavier than I would have imagined. She’ll work late tonight, but if I need anything, her next-door neighbor, The Sheriff, knows what happened. He might come by to check on me. Please try not to shoot him.
The whole time she’s gone, I watch the closed-circuit channel showing the front gate of her apartment complex. I sit in the dark with the gun in my hand and watch cars drive through the gate. I don’t know what I’m watching for, but I keep watching. A gray conversion van looks suspicious. I peer through a crack in the blinds.
I don’t eat. I don’t sleep. Even after My Older Sister comes home, offers me a beer, falls asleep with her arm around my body in the bed, I fix my eyes on the dark and wait.
Here’s the tradeoff if you’re a male bee. The female honeybee does not need a partner to reproduce. She can lay an unfertilized egg, and it will hatch male. If she lays a fertilized egg, it will hatch female. Thus every male bee has one parent and every female bee, two. The male bee never has a father and never has a son. He can have friends, if he wants.
His reward is to anchor a delicate webbing. Tracing a male bee’s ancestry reveals a pattern of cracked glass: He has one parent, two grandparents, three great-grandparents, five great-great grandparents, eight great-great-great grandparents, and so on. Every male bee is the start of Fibonacci’s sequence: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, et cetera. Every number the sum of the two numbers before it. What Fibonacci said of rabbits, we can see in bees.
Fibonacci first posed it this way: If a newborn pair of rabbits is placed in a field to mate when they are one month old, and a new pair of rabbits repeats the sequence every month after, how many pairs will there be after a year? I don’t know the answer, but I like how he specified the rabbits have to be in a field. Writing a book meant to convince the public of the superiority of Hindu-Arabic mathematics, Fibonacci takes a moment to set the scene. What made him think it was important to put the rabbits in a field? Was it a memory from school? Some long-ago emphasis a favorite teacher placed on setting? Or was it the feeling, however latent, that these patterns respond to nature as it is, as much as they dictate how it will be?
Scott Latta‘s work has been published in Oregon Quarterly, Birmingham Arts Journal, and last year he was shortlisted for publication in the Master’s Review New Voices anthology. He is an MFA candidate in nonfiction at Oregon State University and lives in Corvallis, Oregon.
The Open Bar is currently accepting submissions for Flash Fridays and Flash Fidelity. Submissions to The Open Bar should be sent via email to firstname.lastname@example.org with the name of the category (e.g. Flash Fridays, Flash Fidelity, etc.) in the subject line.
There are men all over this town carrying piccolo cases and french horn cases. They grip the handles tight. They are white-knuckled, sweaty men with very little to lose, and inside their instrument cases reside all manner of absurdly illegal contraband.
These are not delivery men.
They travel in pairs on steel frame bicycles and are often mistaken––on account of their attire––as Mormons. They lock their bicycles to swaddling beech trees and staked baby evergreens, move on foot through farmers markets and the parking lots of coliseums. They have studied the various meanings of screams. When standing inside a forest, they will point at the next tree limb to come down in high wind, and should you wait there with them for high wind to arrive, you will know I am telling God’s truth.
But likely you don’t believe in God’s truth.
You want only to know what is inside the piccolo cases and french horn cases. I will tell you. Inside the cases are frog hearts and jackrabbit kidneys and whichever small game parts get deemed least edible in a given week, and each tiny organ is incised, and protruding from each incision is a slip of paper the size and shape and constitution of a common fortune cookie fortune. Three tiny organs, three fortunes.
When you ascertain that you are looking at relatively freshly-harvested inside parts, and you draw back in horror or hesitate or gasp, one of the two men will say to you, “Point to the one you looked at first.” You’ll hesitate further. He’ll say, “Don’t lie,” and “In a jam, go with your gut.” You’ll point, and the silent man will draw out the halved slip of paper sans touch of a single finger, and it will unfold itself while floating before your face, opening like a miniature greeting card, and you’ll read there the secret you’d always kept most locked at your core, the secret that, once revealed, will forever alter the pleasant trajectory of your existence.
You’ll ask the men, “How could you know this about me?”
And the one who speaks will answer: “Every camera was accessible to us. Every glass lens an eye through which we saw. As you sat for hours at your computer, we watched you watching. We knew. We recognized facial contortions and we categorized behaviors. Your masturbatory patterns, once sickening to us, became nothing more than an algorithm flowing as a stream that joins a river, as a tributary that forks to an estuary, flowing into millions of other algorithms, and from this confluence emerged an energy more powerful than the stoutest of hydroelectric dams.” Here, the man will smile ever-so-faintly before he farts and then continues. “But every block of cast concrete will crack, just as every secret will be found out, just as every sun is a star, forever exploding, forever consuming its own heart.”
You’ll pause. “Alright,” you’ll say. Then you’ll ask the men what their game is and they will not understand the question, so you’ll try different words, like angle, punchline, what’s the catch. Eventually, you’ll ask them, “What do you want?”
And at this, the men will smile an unabashedly tender smile, the kind we offer to babies and the very old who have forgotten everything but their own clenched hands.
And in the smile, in the wrinkles formed at the edge of their eyes, you’ll understand that what they feel for you is pity, for you are the most useless of all animals, and your dissection reveals nothing.
The one who had remained silent will speak two words. “You failed.”
Watch the little halved paper burn before you. Watch the frog heart drop to the red felt lining of the instrument case and there turn to ash before the men close the lid and snap the latches and walk away from you, humming the melody of the song that played on a delivery room boombox the night you were born, the same tune the embalmer hums in his basement as he fills you up with preservation juice.
Hum along. It’s high time you orchestrated your life.
Glenn Taylor is the author of the novels The Marrowbone Marble Company and The Ballad of Trenchmouth Taggart, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. He was born and raised in Huntington, West Virginia, and he now lives with his wife and three sons in Morgantown, where he teaches at West Virginia University. His new novel, A Hanging at Cinder Bottom, will be published by Tin House Book in July.
The Open Bar is currently accepting submissions for Flash Fridays and Flash Fidelity. Submissions to The Open Bar should be sent via email to email@example.com with the name of the category (e.g. Flash Fridays, Flash Fidelity, etc.) in the subject line.
We kickoff 2015 with “The Furniture Appears to be Dreaming,” Matthew Zapruder’s attempt to spectacularly fail, for once and for all, to define poetry.
Other topics covered included Keats, chimney sweepers, Bishop, line breaks, and blue antelope.
In other words, all the essentials.
Matthew Zapruder is the author of four collections of poetry, most recently Sun Bear (Copper Canyon, 2014). His poems, essays and translations have appeared in many publications, including Bomb, Slate, Poetry, Paris Review, and The Believer. An Assistant Professor in the St. Mary’s College of California MFA program and English Department, he is also Editor-at-Large at Wave Books.
Not being from L.A., and not being a hundred years old, I figured I’d better do some serious legwork before trying to write a novel of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s time in Hollywood. Along with the glossy photo essays and scratchy newsreels and high-flown histories of the studio system’s golden age, I combed through a survey of novels from the period, fastening on details but also trying to see how that long-gone L.A. was portrayed. What were the cliches I should avoid and where could I find new opportunities?
While Southern California seems like a garden spot to someone from the Midwest, the major works mostly focus on falseness and squalor. While John Fante wallows in the seediness of Bunker Hill and San Pedro, John O’Hara in Hope of Heaven and Budd Schulberg in What Makes Sammy Run? key on the cheesiness of the city’s architecture and its business of creating empty illusion. Raymond Chandler finds nothing but perversion and corruption in picturesque Bay City (Santa Monica), much as James Ellroy would fifty years later. Though the city was much smaller then, the neighborhoods not yet cordoned off by freeways, there’s no sense of community, only loners and outcasts isolated and at the mercy of greedy politicians, crooked cops and religious charlatans. Shabby, ugly, secondhand, materialistic, vapid–there’s not a lot of love for the city, even in the best work set there, with one exception.
Despite the underlying plot laying bare the ruthlessness of American business, in The Last Tycoon Fitzgerald does his damnedest to give his lovers a romantic backdrop, featuring the Hollywood Hills and Stahr’s unbuilt house overlooking the Pacific, as well as sweeping aerial views of the mountains surrounding the city (in anticipation of a fifth-act plane crash). I latched onto this as a cue to include more of the natural world in West of Sunset, especially as seen through a transplant’s eyes. Fitzgerald also has a soft spot for movie magic, unlike a harder-edged satirist like Nathanael West. As a writer whose first love was the theater, Fitzgerald finds the stagesets and the backlot ingenious and enchanting rather than fake. His love of illusion and need for romance, especially at this time of his life, colors his novel, and seemed a good guideline for mine.
The Big Sleep (1939)
Often imitated, never improved upon, Raymond Chandler’s first book introduces Philip Marlowe, a tarnished knight for a fallen world. As with George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, a sizeable chunk of our current entertainment is based on this one work. Chandler’s voice is neatly deadpan and then flowers into baroque metaphor. Like most of the authors on this list, not a native, but a wayward Brit.
The Last Tycoon (1941)
Fitzgerald regained his form in this unfinished novel of Hollywood, a cousin of Gatsby, proceeding–as he wrote in his notes–by situation and mood. A tragicomic opera focusing on the inner workings of the studio system, the soullessness of which provides the perfect background for his last-ditch romance between his hero Stahr and Kathleen.
With its psychopathic first-person voice, Dorothy B. Hughes’ fog-soaked noir predates Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me and bears only a nominal resemblance to Nicholas Ray’s film. Hughes keeps us stuck in her twisted narrator’s head, at the mercy of his swimming thoughts. Maybe the best portrayal of a predator ever.
The Day of the Locust (1939)
Native New Yorker Nathanael West’s second masterpiece is a biting, grotesque nightmare of the underside of Hollywood–what happens to the foolish who come west expecting fame and fortune. At a gala premiere, his have-nots erupt in one of the most frightening riot scenes ever written. The birthplace of Homer Simpson.
Depression L.A. was at once the capital of glamor and the last hope for tens of thousands of Dust Bowl refugees seeking work. Like West, Horace McCoy finds the new arrivals terrifyingly naive. His portrayal of the young and desperate culminates in a life-or-death dance marathon on Santa Monica pier–literally the end of America.
The Loved One (1948)
Evelyn Waugh’s satire of American burial customs may be less savage than West or McCoy, but–as only an ex-pat Brit can–he takes catty glee in showing us a culture that’s lost any sense of the sacred. Who wouldn’t want their final resting place prepared by Mr. Joyboy?
Stewart O’Nan’s award-winning fiction includes Snow Angels, A Prayer for the Dying, Last Night at the Lobster, and Emily, Alone. Granta named him one of America’s Best Young Novelists. His latest novel, West of Sunset, was published earlier this week.
Steven Church’s fourth book of nonfiction, Ultrasonic: Essays, is a sublime meditation on the act of listening. With stunning range and an uncanny ability to speculate beyond the objective facts, Church transforms and personalizes cultural noise and everyday news stories. In the award-winning essay, “Auscultation,” he re-imagines the first pulsing sounds of life detected by rescuers after a 2002 Pennsylvania coalmine collapse. “The King’s Last Game” invites the reader to listen while Church conjures a boisterous game of racquetball with Elvis—his authorial attention pinging between Americana kitsch and major existential questions about birth, death and grief. Ultrasonic does more than confirm Steven Church’s status as a major force in the world of creative nonfiction: it broadcasts the message like a sonic boom in a subway tunnel.
Church teaches in the MFA Program Fresno State University, where he is a Founding Editor of The Normal School Magazine. On a recent visit to celebrate The Normal School’s seventh anniversary, we spent an afternoon touring Fresno’s legendary Forestiere Underground Gardens. Using nothing but a pickaxe and shovel, visionary Italian immigrant Baldasare Forestiere spent forty years carving the exquisite system of catacombs and subterranean citrus orchards. This historical site felt entirely appropriate for our subsequent conversation: sound and noise are primary concerns in his work, but Church is also a tunneler of sorts, an explorer of depths and echoes, a tour guide through the alcoves of the human heart.
Justin Hocking: The subject matter of the essays in Ultrasonic is wide-ranging and pleasantly digressive, with riffs on fatherhood, heavy metal, infant cardiology, Elvis, and personal loss, just to name a few. Can you discuss how you employed the concept of sounding to navigate and unite all this disparate material?
Steven Church: Sounding has this really interesting etymology as well as a variety of meanings. It’s a word with literal and figurative weight, a word with physicality, defined in part by the human body. And one of its meanings is to “measure the depth” of a body of water (measurements recorded in fathoms), and I kind of think of what I’m doing in the book as taking measurements, dropping lines down into a deep well of meaning, gauging the depth, and occasionally dragging sediment or other stuff up from the bottom. Much of the form of the book was a kind of reaction to the traditional analogies used to talk about form in nonfiction, most of which relied heavily on allusion to visual form—line, collage, thread, web, braid, etc. I wanted to think about form differently, in terms of the creation of echoes, where there are recurring sounds throughout the book, patterns of meaning, rather than solid linear threads or narrative lines.
JH: The first essay, “Auscultation,” was chosen for the Best American Essay anthology, and it’s easy to see why: The narrative performs a kind of brilliant alchemy by combining the history of the stethoscope, two mining collapses, and the moment you first heard the wish, wish, wish of your unborn daughter’s heart. This feels a little like asking a magician to reveal his his tricks, but I’m wondering if you can trace moments when these associations first began to click for you?
SC: That piece started, I think, with an imitation assignment given to my students after we read Eula Biss’s wonderful essay, “Time and Distance Overcome,” and talked about the subversive history of everyday objects. Around the same time, for reasons that hard for me to articulate or explain, I became obsessed with stories of trapped miners. There seemed to be a succession of these incidents in the news, and I’m a somewhat obsessive reader of the news and I often find that my writing is an attempt to explore and understand why certain stories stay with me, lingering around in my consciousness or commanding my repeated attention. So I think I started doing research into rescue efforts for some of these trapped miners, focusing on how they “listen” for life beneath the surface using things called “geophones,” and I think this led to me thinking about “life beneath the surface,” “chambers” in the earth and the human body, and eventually to stethoscopes and how they are used to listen for life beneath the surface of the human body or to diagnose sickness dysfunction, which then led (inevitably I suppose) to a consideration of my own personal connection to the subject matter, to my role as a father. When I discovered that the stethoscope is a relatively simple and new technology, it got me thinking a lot about how the stethoscope is tied to the formation of identity. I knew pretty early on that the essay would have four parts or “chambers” to correspond to the subject matter in some way, but I played around with the organizations of the sections a bit. Much of it came together pretty quickly, which makes it a bit of an anomaly for me. Most of my essays take much longer to find their shape, form, and focus.
In France, Hervé Guibert was widely recognized as a transgressive, unflinching writer who interwove fact and fiction in his various novels published through the 1980s. As part of Paris’s cultural milieu, he quickly became friends—and even lovers—with the philosopher Michel Foucault. When Foucault died in 1984, purportedly to cancer, Guibert swerved from his violent phantasmagorias to a “scrupulously accurate” depiction of Foucault’s death—from AIDS—in a time when the disease was being ignored and reviled. The resulting book, To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life (1990), caused an uproar in the French media and reignited popular debate over the ethics of secrecy and of AIDS. In the following year, Guibert would chronicle, in the public eye, his own surrender to the same disease. With the posthumous publication of his collected journals, The Mausoleum of Lovers, now translated into English by Nathanaël for Nightboat Books, Hervé Guibert’s legacy was cemented in French history as a writer, a photographer, an outspoken activist, and a figurehead of the AIDS generation.
Marie Darrieussecq, who later became one of France’s bestselling authors, wrote her dissertation on autofiction and tragic irony in the works of Georges Perec, Michel Leiris, Serge Doubrovsky, and Hervé Guibert. In this essay, “Guibert’s Ghost,” Darrieussecq discusses the relationship she wishes she could have had with the author who profoundly affected her. —Jeffrey Zuckerman
I would have liked to know Hervé Guibert. Or rather: I’d have just liked to lay eyes on him. Have a drink a few tables away from him. See him with mutual friends, hear him talk. He’d no doubt have intimidated me. He’d no doubt have irritated me, too. The guys who liked him lovingly said that he was cruel. I’m imagining this kind of French cruelty, of witticisms, of political incorrectness, this man who hated pity, charity. This one who preferred real friendship, never apologized, hated cowardice, betrayed like Genet, was intoxicated by freedom. That’s how I imagine him. Guibert. “Secrets have to circulate,” he wrote. That’s not the image of friendship I have in my head. That’s not exactly my idea of writing. But I see what he means. Some sort of devastating clarity. Declaring everything. The horror of cooped-up families, of rancid sex, of small shames. Guibert was enmeshed in beauty, in glimmering bitterness. In the harsh blankness. In the flush of desire. Yes, I’d have liked to lay eyes on him. He scared me a little. And I regret it, that it never happened, that it is now impossible, because for fifteen years now he has been dead. Paradise, his final book, is a masterpiece. I read it with a lump in my throat. A quick, urgent book, seamless and yet delicate, subtle, nuanced, filled with love.
I’d have liked to take the time to explain all that to my grandfather. Why my grandfather? It’s a strange story. My grandfather never read anything but one book which was his bible: Journey to the End of the Night. Not a bad choice. He suddenly, graciously took interest in my teenage reading habits. I threw out the name: “Guibert.” I wasn’t thinking. I was passionately within Guibert. So the old man wanted to know about me? He’d just have to read Guibert. My grandfather went to his neighborhood bookstore. He could have found Gangsters and Mauve the Virgin. The twenty books already written by Guibert. No. Of course the only book by Guibert this bookstore had was Phantoms Have Arisen in Me.
The title is from one of Sade’s letters in prison to his wife: “Owing to you phantoms have arisen in me which I shall have to render real.” I hummed this phrase in my head; it enchanted and terrified me. It doubtlessly would have been hard to publish such a book today. It’s an impressive, magnificent, unbearable book. I can only think of three or four books like that, books I have to set down when turning the pages to gulp for breath: Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, Pavel Hak’s Sniper, Dennis Cooper’s The Sluts, Gabrielle Wittkop’s The Child-Trader. So my grandfather, in full innocence, began reading this story of “vile men” who keep little boys in bags, train them for battle, rape them, dismember them. Guibert’s novel is phantasms pushed to their limits, which words incarnate in the act of Writing. Which isn’t an act of killing. Which is precisely the opposite. My grandfather didn’t finish the book. He called to tell me that he didn’t understand me. I could tell from his voice that he was trying to stay calm. I loved him for that. And to the day of his death, we never managed to talk to each other again. Because of a book. A book by Guibert.
The performative power of literature. The divisive, silent power. Its Rousseauian evocativeness, its meaning, its style, its sentences’ strength–my grandfather saw none of that, or wanted to see none of that. He wasn’t prepared for that. He didn’t have the background for that. He was at the end of his life and explaining the book would have been impossible, explaining it as a teenager to an old man. I’d have liked to, anyway. A missed opportunity. A failure. But, with Guibert’s harshness, a long misunderstanding had begun. I went in other directions with the books I read, with the words I wrote. Into betrayal, far from family.
I’d have liked to tell Guibert all this. But what good would it have done? Often readers bore me, telling me their stories. A good reader is a mute reader. A reader who knows the difference between writing and speaking. But some letters, however. Particular sentences that touch you just so. I only wrote once to Guibert. I was twenty years old. A friend took a picture of me, an odd picture: my face was hidden behind the book I was reading, and this book was Incognito. I sent that photo, just that, without any explanation. I don’t know if it ever reached him. But today, as a writer, receiving such an envelope makes me uneasy: no matter how pleasant, I hate anonymous notes. Books attract crazy people. Certain books. No, I’d have liked to just drink a glass a few feet away from him. Hear him talk. Keep on reading him. I’d have liked for him not to have died.
Marie Darrieussecq was born in 1969 in Bayonne, France. Her debut novel, Pig Tales, was a breakout success, selling 3,000 copies per day. Many of her subsequent novels have also been translated into English, including My Phantom Husband, Breathing Underwater, A Brief Stay with the Living, White, Tom Is Dead, and All the Way. She lives in Paris with her husband and children.
Jeffrey Zuckerman is digital editor of Music & Literature magazine. He previously translated Marie Darrieussecq for Best European Fiction, and his other writing and translations have appeared in the Yale Daily News Magazine, 3:AM Magazine, The Rumpus, The White Review, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. In his free time, he does not listen to music.
*This text originally appeared in the French magazine Senso, issue 29, winter 2007, in response to the prompt given to writers: “I would have liked . . .” and has been translated from the French by Jeffrey Zuckerman.
Tin House was saddened to learn about the death of Robert Stone, one of the giants of American fiction. A clear-eyed chronicler of our county’s disfunction and simultaneous beauty, Stone’s wisdom will be missed. Last year, Rob Spillman interviewed Stone for issue #58 of Tin House, which we are happy to share with you today.
Robert Stone has been there. And he has come out with clear-eyed dispatches from the soul of dark America. Born in 1937, raised by a schizophrenic mother in Brooklyn, with a few stops in Catholic orphanages, Stone went from high school into the navy, and after his four-year stint traveling the globe, came back to New York to work for various tabloids, from the Daily News to a National Enquirer rip-off, before sending a story to Stanford’s prestigious Stegner Program. There, he honed his craft and befriended Ken Kesey, who introduced him to the early experiments with the new research drug LSD. Married and with a young child, Stone watched the Merry Pranksters take off in Further, Kesey’s psychedelic school bus, and greeted them many months later at his Upper West Side apartment. He was in Mexico with Kerouac and Cassady, and in 1971 he went to Vietnam to write magazine pieces, which he used as the raw material for his National Book Award–winning novel, Dog Soldiers.
For his previous eight novels and two story collections, Stone has twice been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and once for the PEN/Faulkner. His 2007 memoir, Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties, vividly recounts his time in the navy and postservice life on the edges of the psychedelic and Beat scenes. His latest novel, Death of the Black-Haired Girl, taps into his many years of teaching at prestigious universities, including ten years at Yale. Death of the Black-Haired Girl takes place at a very Yale-like university, and is centered around the affair between the charismatic ex-seaman professor Brookman and his student Maud, the daughter of a Queens cop, which threatens to explode both of their families. The novel goes head-on at class and privilege, the New Haven–like town engulfed in a “terrifying atavistic cloud enfolding shame and resentment, even humiliation and murder.” Like much of Stone’s work, his characters know better than to give in to self-destructive impulses, yet still throw themselves into compromising positions, trapping themselves in webs spun by their own delusions: “What brought him to the office and the meeting with Stack was akin to every other high-risk adventure he had ever undertaken. Maybe the temptation of oblivion, or an obsessive curiosity about the ineluctability of fate. And an ancient anger he had been born with, an insatiable rage against himself, his cast of mind—a sense that he had been born out of line, raised wrong, lived deserving of some unknownable retribution that it was his duty and honor to face down, prevent, overcome.”
I caught up with Stone on an unusually pleasant August day on New York’s Upper East Side, in the modest, comfortable apartment he shares with Janice, his wife of over fifty years. Art posters line the walls, and oriental carpets dot the floors. Lately, Stone has been dividing his time between Manhattan and Massachusetts, where he is undergoing regular CPOD treatment for his chronic emphysema. Our conversation was occasionally interrupted by his shallow coughing, the only sign of his hard living during the late fifties and sixties. Otherwise, the seventy-six-year-old is sharp, measured, and gracious, with a lively twinkle in his eye.
Tin House: One of the things I most admire about your new novel is the multifaceted way it deals with class and privilege.
Robert Stone: Aspects of class and privilege persist on elite campuses and are manifest in many ways to a greater extent than most of us realize. I wonder if there isn’t a greater social and cultural division between young people at the most prestigious schools and kids in our underfunded, undemanding public system than there was fifty years ago.
TH: Both Maud and Brookman are class outsiders at the university.
TH: In the crucial scene, you have a powerfully ambiguous moment of violence. I imagine it could be seen as a Rorschach test for readers as to who is most culpable. Are you clear on what happens at that pivotal moment?
RS: I’m quite clear about what’s happening physically in the violent moments. I’m less clear about the chain of guilt and desire that brought the violence down.
TH: So you are not in the Nabokov camp of treating your characters like “galley slaves”?
RS: Well, I don’t treat them very well. But, no.
TH: You’ve said in the past: “Ambiguity is not the absence of morality. It’s just a confusion about morality.”
RS: The confusions about morality in fiction come from attempts to resolve the whirl of motive and desire in life with a vulgarized formula of “good actions/bad actions, good people/bad people.” It’s not that moral choices don’t exist—it’s that they can’t be expressed in the kind of theatrical shorthand with which slack writing attempts to resolve moral questions. Obviousness in this regard is subversive of good prose and good fiction because moral elements are the core of our great stories.
TH: At the end of Dog Soldiers, you echo the marine motto “Kill them all and let God sort them out.” As fictional god, do you pass judgment on your characters or let the reader, God, or history make up their minds?
RS: To some extent I’m passing judgment. I can’t not. I can’t escape that. But it is more incumbent on the reader to make a moral call on the characters. And of course it is about how well the characters behave, how corrupt they are, and to what degree they fail each other.
TH: There has been a spate of absurd articles lately about the “likeability” of fictional characters, and this being some kind of litmus test.
RS: Well, it is absurd. Their relative likeability is silly. Likeability is something else altogether. It reminds me of a student’s story. I can’t remember if he had been in the military. He had been in one of those situations where there are a lot of young males competing for survival. It might have been a boot camp. And in such a group there is always a scapegoat, a persecuted figure, the one guy whose case everyone is on, the tormented figure. So all kinds of things are done to this person who is inadequate in some way—he can’t keep his gear in order, that kind of thing. So when this person in the story is persecuted, pranks of various sorts are played upon him, and they are meant to be funny; the reader is invited to enjoy the persecution of the persecuted. Well, it spoils the story, because it makes the narrator look like such a no-good son of a bitch that we don’t believe him. This is close to the issue of likeability. There’s a naïveté. The writer is failing to understand that when the writer is inviting the reader to enjoy cruelty, this really spoils the reality and usefulness of the narrator as a narrator. The same thing happens in Waugh. But Waugh, who was a complete no-good prick, knew perfectly well that in order to have a viable and reliable character, useful as a point-of-view character, it wouldn’t do to have him rejoice in the sufferings of the victim. So he makes a POV character, the narrator, actually helpful and kind.
TH: The moral presence in much of your work comes through the female characters. Brookman’s wife, Ellie, reminds me of Grace in my favorite story of yours, “Helping.” But Ellie seems tougher, her religious faith unshakable. What drew you to her and the Bezeidenhaut?
RS: Well, Ellie was born into it—into one form or another of Mennonite. Grace is the kind of Catholic that she has chosen to become. There’s more magic around Ellie. Ellie’s religion is quasi-pagan. It is really a subarctic Hutterite religion touched by Indian beliefs.
TH: It feels otherworldly.
RS: It reminds me that I have no business writing about places like Peru, places I’ve never been. But there too it is deep Indian magic.
TH: Do you admire people with absolute faith?
RS: I think they are lucky up to a point. I wouldn’t say that absolute faith is worthy per se. Sometimes absolute faith is a good guide for life and useful to the world; sometimes it just makes everything more of a drag. It depends on which faith you invest in.
TH: Did this novel start with a character, an image, a word?
RS: It had its origins in a scene of a room with two young women. It just began to happen.
TH: Is this typically how you work, starting in scene?
RS: Yes. Something outside of the narrative structure of the novel that happens before the main action, that isn’t sequential.
For me, the holidays are for catching up on correspondence: in particular, someone else’s. These past weeks, I’ve been reading letters between Groucho Marx and T.S. Eliot collected in The Groucho Letters. Although they might sound like unlikely correspondents, in the 1960s they exchanged a series of letters, autographed photos and quips about cigars: (“I just want you to know I’m rooting for your quick recovery,” Groucho wrote to Eliot, because “under the most trying conditions you never stopped smoking cigars.”)
Eliot was an enthusiast of the Marx Brothers and part of the correspondence includes mutual invitations for a dinner that finally happened in London in 1964 after years of trying to get together. “Speaking of asparagus,” Groucho wrote to his brother Gummo, “the dinner included good, solid English beef . . . Eliot insisted on pouring the wine himself.” While the letters that I read didn’t give specific details about what was decanted or imbibed, from Groucho’s animated description, it appears to have been a festive evening. “Eliot and I discovered we had three things in common: 1) an affection for good cigars and 2) cats; and 3) a weakness for making puns—a weakness that for many years I have tried to overcome.”
Although none of these surprising, sensitive and often hilarious missives were written anywhere near France and despite no direct mention of Paris (at least in the letters that I read), which puts their correspondence a little outside the realm of a column that talks about literary Paris, some Francophile affiliations can be found in the work of both artists. Eliot wrote some poems in French and Groucho played the part of Napoleon in his first stage hit, I’ll Say She Is!, that includes this pithy jibe:
Empress: Napoleon, when you go, all France is with you.
It would take more than one month’s column to try to more fully express the complex friendship, affection and admiration between these two men who together rocked the twentieth century with everything from Duck Soup to The Waste Land. Their letters are part of a long and rich epistolary tradition that might sound like some fancy practice but is just another name for good old letter writing, something that I’ve been pretty sluggish about lately.
Reading their correspondence makes me think that this might be a good time to get back to writing some letters longhand, sealing envelopes and actually sending them out, because it seems to me that whether the missive/dispatch/friendly yoo-hoo is written on swanky cardstock or scribbled on a scrap of paper, it can serve as cordial greetings and salutations for the New Year, or far beyond. And then you could always lean a bit on the words of Groucho to Eliot: “My best to you and your lovely wife, whoever she may be;” or take a little inspiration from one of Eliot’s postscripts to Groucho: “Your portrait is framed on my office mantelpiece, but I have to point you out to my visitors as nobody recognizes you without the cigar and rolling eyes. I shall try to provide a cigar worthy of you.”
Heather Hartley is Paris editor at Tin House and the author of Knock Knock and Adult Swim (forthcoming), both from Carnegie Mellon University Press. Her poems, essays, and interviews have appeared in or on PBS NewsHour, The Guardian, and The Literary Review, among others. She has presented writers at Shakespeare & Company Bookshop’s weekly reading series and lives in Paris.
Each year, we
force ask our staff to contribute a few favorites to a list of the “best” non fiction, music, poetry, film, television, and fiction of the year (with a few cheaters from years past).
Yesterday, listing our favorite film and television of 2014, our staff tended toward nonfiction. Even the most popular flick, Boyhood, feels more like a document than a piece of fiction. So maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that the cake-taking novel is a piece of what I think we’re supposed to call “autofiction?”
Cheston Knapp (Managing Editor, Tin House Magazine): Gotta be Ben Lerner’s 10:04 here. There were novels that told better stories, probably, but Lerner’s was one of the very few recent books I’ve read that so successfully shrinks the distance between story and life, bringing one into asymptotic relation to the other in a way that felt fresh and alive and honest. Also it’s pretty funny.
Rob Spillman (Editor, Tin House Magazine): Ben Lerner’s 10:04 is the novel that has stuck with me this year. On the surface, the self-referential novel about a successful Brooklyn writer writing about being a successful Brooklyn writer would appear to be as annoying and inviting as jumping into a bag of tacks. Yet Lerner asks how he/we are to live a life of artistic, intellectual, and political engagement. 10:04 walks the walk. And if the price to pay for reading this is suffering through the hundreds of pale imitations that will inevitably follow, so be it.
Emma Komlos-Hrobsky (Assistant Editor, Tin House Magazine): 10:04 hardly needs another endorsement, but it deserves every one it gets. What fascinated me in reading the book was seeing the realities of a city I navigate daily rendered with a level of attentiveness that surpasses even my most alert real-life experience of those same places and situations. How strange, how on-beyond uncanny, to step so totally into someone else’s perceiving mind, to not just see my world through Lerner’s character’s eyes, but see it more completely than I did before. I wonder sometimes if the draw of the writing of someone like Lerner or Maggie Nelson is the chance to inhabit the hyper-intelligence that fuels their work; I almost feel like I’m flattering myself when I read one of their books and ride shotgun to their synaptic quickfire, pretending as reader that I’m the one driving that car. But I’m not, and will never be, and am so glad for the Lerners and the Nelsons of this world who’ll let me tag along with them.
I think we can agree to be thankful for the Lerners and Nelsons. Who else?
Thomas Ross (Editorial Assistant): 2014 was the year I finally read Lydia Millet. Happily, it was also the year her biggest, brightest, and most fun novel Mermaids in Paradise was released. Millet excels at couching the sublime in the subtle, but with Mermaids she flips the script: a fast-paced caper involving real mermaids, corporate corruption, and staight-up kidnapping serves as window dressing around beautiful revelations on the nature of happiness, class, the environment, marriage, history, and the heartland. And in the last few pages, Millet takes a last unexpected upward turn, one that had me wanting to hug this book until the binding broke.
Jakob Vala (Graphic Designer): I’m having a hard time writing about my love of Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, imbued as it is with lines so masterful and heartbreaking as to leave me floundering in my own inadequacies as a speaker of the English language. Instead I’ll leave you with this line about the sea, written from one character to another: “It is my favorite thing, I think, that I have ever seen. Sometimes I catch myself staring at it and forget my duties. It seems big enough to contain everything anyone could ever feel.”
Meg Storey (Editor, Tin House Books): All I knew about Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven was that it entails a roaming troupe of actors, it was nominated for the National Book Award, and it has a pretty cover. I am not usually drawn to postapocalyptic fiction and I am a slow reader, but I read the first 150 pages in one sitting. Mandel evokes a post-pandemic United States in which a “prophet” and his followers are terrorizing communities. She tells the story mostly through Kirsten, an actress with the troupe who was a girl when the plague hit, but she also interweaves the stories of an actor who died of a heart attack the night people started dying of the flu and of the man who jumped on stage to try to save him. The narrative jumps back and forth in time, showing how these people’s lives intersected before the apocalypse and how they continue to. And even though the reader senses who the prophet is before the climatic scene, the mystery and the tension are nevertheless satisfying and palpable. A couple of days after I read the first half, I thought I would read a few pages before going to sleep and ended up finishing the book way past my bedtime. And as soon as I did, I wanted to turn to the first page and start reading again.
Michelle Wildgen (Executive Editor, Tin House Magazine): Lily King’s Euphoria sounds like one of those books that will be a massive doorstop, but it is light and swift and completely engrossing, and when people wonder how to balance science or research with story, I send them this way, to King’s wonderful Margaret Mead-inspired heroine on an anthropological trip up the river in New Guinea.
Esme Hogeveen (Editorial Intern): How to Be Both is a story about layers, grief, time, love, art, and above all, how narrative is uniquely able to capture the simultaneity of emotions and thoughts related to these themes. Divided into two technically self-contained stories, How to Be Both is being published in two different versions, with the order of the stories switched in either edition. One story is about a teenage girl, George, whose feminist mother, a creator of internet intervention art, called “Subverts,” has recently died. The other story is based on a real Italian Renaissance fresco painter, named Francesco del Cossa. George’s mother was a fan of del Cossa’s work, and in one memorable scene, she describes how the fresco images are full of gender ambiguity. The opacity of meaning and the impossibility of a single story are part of Smith’s broader experimentation within the novel tradition. As in her earlier work, including Hotel World and The Accidental, How to Be Both sees Smith directly engaged with the coalescence of formal and content concerns in writing. Playful and enormously erudite, How to Be Both recalls Woolf’s innovative depictions of female perspective and Munro’s nuanced characterization. Smith’s narrative, however, is emphatically unique and its layered assemblage is destined to delight readers who love reading.
Meanwhile, in shorter fiction . . .
Michelle: Neil Gaiman’s retelling of Hansel and Gretel, illustrated by Lorenzo Mattotti, is somehow utterly faithful and yet new—Gaiman teases out the subtext of war and grasping hunger that the fairy tale has always had. By making the wicked stepmother a mother instead, and by showing her move from pretty young wife to desperate parent, he sends a deep unease through a reader. It’s not a shudder so much as bone-level fear that nothing is okay. Add in the sweeping, pitch-black illustrations in which feathers of whiteness stand out among the darkness, and you have yourself a classic that I chose not to share with my child until she is in college.
Meg: It is not often that I read a book more than once, but Elizabeth McCracken’s novel The Giant’s House is one of the books that I do. It’s been a favorite of mine for years and always reminds me that love comes in many shapes and sizes (literally, in this novel) and that our ideas of who someone is and what she is capable of are often wrong. So I was very excited that McCracken’s second story collection was coming out this year. Like all of her work, McCracken’s stories follow quirky characters dealing with love and loss. Surprising friendships are formed and family members disappear. But as the New York Times Book Review puts it: “The fact that there is nothing depressing about the ubiquity of accident and disaster in Thunderstruck and Other Stories is a powerful testament to the scratchy humor and warm intelligence of McCracken’s writing.” These are stories that explore our weaknesses and desires and yet leave us hopeful that while the outcome may not be happy in the traditional sense, it is the truest one.
Diane Chonette (Art Director): Jess Walter’s, Mr. Voice, which appeared in Tin House #61 (Tribes) is an unexpectedly sweet coming-of-age tale that kept me entertained from the start. I love the way Walter’s develops his characters and brings you into their time and place with twists and turns along the way. I guess I’ll need to add Beautiful Ruins to my must read list now!
Each year, we
force ask our staff to contribute a few favorites to a list of the “best” non fiction, music, poetry, film, television, and fiction of the year (with a few cheaters from years past).
In a year that saw the release of the beautiful, stirring film adaptation of the very first Tin House book (Amy Jo Albany’s memoir Low Down), the movies were an even bigger part of our lives than usual. And we’re already the types that frequent theaters on the weekend and revel in regular basement movie nights. For our Portland staff, of course, it helps that like all other businesses in Portland, the theaters pretty universally serve beer, so you can bring that partially-finished-basement feel with you. Which made our big frontrunner that much more effecting:
(Fair warning: most of these links are to autoplaying trailers on YouTube!)
Rob Spillman (Editor, Tin House Magazine): A different kind of ambition is on display with Boyhood, Richard Linklater’s stunning, twelve-years-in-the-making film that follows a boy from six through eighteen. A boyhood marked not by huge events, but by the everyday moments that form one’s textured memory, the movie asks and demonstrates “how can I/we exist in the world in an authentic way?”
Emma Komlos-Hrobsky (Assistant Editor, Tin House Magazine): I can’t say that Boyhood had the best acting or writing of the movies I’ve seen this year, but I can’t think of a film that’s moved me more, this year or any maybe any other. There are times when the seams show in the actors’ performances, especially those of the kids, and yet I’d feel like I was doing the movie an injustice to fault them there, because to me a perfectly crafted performance is at odds with what the movie is about. For me, those imperfections return us to Boyhood‘s big idea: using film to record the reality of the passage of time, the span of a life. The fact just of the years and years it took to film Boyhood–a span of time so long that the actors’ contracts couldn’t cover it, such that the whole project hinged on good faith–testifies to the generous spirit with which it was made. Maybe particularly because I saw the movie at a moment of personal flux, watching however many years’ worth of moments accrue in the life of Boyhood’s boy made me almost sappy-grateful for the progression of time, for the fact that things keep on happening–at least, until they don’t. When I first saw the film, in the midst of a couple of disorienting weeks, I kept telling myself, “Just think of Boyhood,” of that fact that there’s more life waiting for me beyond what I can see, that the movie keeps going, and that in itself is worth watching. Four months later, I’m still thinking of the film and telling myself the same thing.
Michelle Wildgen (Executive Editor, Tin House Magazine): For me and pretty much everyone else this was all about Boyhood: the slow physical evolution of the actors, the drama and disappointment of daily life. Somehow Richard Linklater managed to make a three-hour epic about a pretty normal life into something I couldn’t tear my eyes away from.
Cheston Knapp (Managing Editor, Tin House Magazine): So everyone’s gonna say Boyhood, right? Maybe the question should be, rather, “After Boyhood what was your favorite movie of the year?” And the answer is, I don’t know, probably Stardust Memories.
Correct answer to his own question from Cheston. Moving on from the fictional twelve-year document to the legitimate documentary crowd:
Matthew Dickman (Poetry Editor, Tin House Magazine): Citizen Four. Unlike any documentary I have seen, this story of real-life espionage and drama unfolds while you eat your popcorn on the very fucking edge of your seat. This is our recent history in real time and brings up questions about our nation’s values that need to be constantly discussed.
Meg Storey (Editor, Tin House Books): The ongoing conflict and the futile attempts at a peace process between Israel and Palestine became even more horrific and discouraging this past year. Regardless of your political stance, one thing is certain: children on both sides are suffering from the traumas of war and racism. The documentary Dancing in Jaffa follows Pierre Dulaine, a ballroom dancer whose family left Jaffa, Palestine, when he was a boy, before it became a neighborhood in Tel Aviv, Israel. Dulaine returns for the first time to Jaffa to teach Palestinian and Jewish children to dance, together. The movie is heartbreaking and heartwarming as it shows the children (as well as their parents) at first resistant but eventually won over by Dulaine’s charm and his insistence that dance can bring people together in a respectful and joyful forum. I dare you to watch this trailer and not become convinced that if there were more dancing, there would more peace in this world. Here’s to much dancing in 2015.
Esmé Hogeveen (Editorial Intern): Art and Craft, directed by Sam Cullman and Jennifer Grausman, is a documentary portrait of Mark Landis, the recently exposed art forger. Landis, 59 years old, conceives of himself as a “philanthropist.” In various falsified personas—including a bereaved brother and a benevolent priest—Landis has donated work to dozens of reputable galleries in the United States. The film, while acknowledging Landis’ mental health challenges and his Bates-like affection for his dead mother, portrays him as a Kafka-esque hunger artist. Or rather, a wannabe hunger artist. To the filmmaker’s credit, an answer is never provided to the question: Is Landis brilliant? Or merely a fake? Most fascinatingly, perhaps, is Landis’ reverence for art and his resolute opinion that he himself is not an artist, despite his astounding abilities. Several shots of Art and Craft are close-ups of his hands and eyes, flickering between prints of the image he is replicating and its copy. If unintentionally, Landis’ project and his eventual exposure by the film’s quasi-antagonist, a curator named Matthew Leininger, draws attention to some of the most pressing questions facing contemporary artists and art institutions: what does it mean to create something new? How can art, and craft, be effectively evaluated in the era of the mash-up? What is the worth of an image in relation to the context of its creation? Bizarre, hilarious and bittersweet, Art and Craft is a compassionate portrait of an unconventional art lover.
Jakob Vala (Graphic Designer): In 2006, Kate S. Logan, a film student at the evangelical-based Biola University began shooting a documentary about a Christian therapy program for troubled youth in the Dominican Republic. Her film was supposed to tell a straightforward and heartwarming story, but it became a disturbing exposé on the abusive practices of these off-shore (and, often unrestricted) organizations. Even as a traditional documentary, Kidnapped for Christ would be an important film. But, as Logan unearths the truth about the program, she begins to question her own faith and, ultimately, makes the decision to intervene. The results are literally life-changing. When Logan breaks the established rules of objectivity, she questions standards of journalistic integrity and the responsibility of observers. Kidnapped is upsetting and angering, for sure, but also inspiring as it speaks to the power of filmmaking as activism. (Other favorites of the year were Only Lovers Left Alive, Under the Skin, I Am Divine and Advanced Style.)
Alright, enough facts! Let’s get to the fictional (to the point of fantastical) flicks we think are worth representing:
Thomas Ross (Editorial Assistant): If you’d asked me in 2013 how Anna Kendrick would cement my fanboy crush on her in 2014, I’d have guessed it’d be her Twitter account, because it’s amazing. Who’d have thought the correct answer would be “Singing about moral relativity vis a vis giant slaying in Into the Woods. Now, I’ll readily admit that my mother raised me on Sondheim and Les Miz, and so I might be speaking with nostalgic hyperbole when I say this, but Stephen Sondheim is a national treasure. Even in this necessarily abridged (and slightly sanitized) version, Sondheim and James Lapine do an incredible job pulling all these typically black and white, heavy-handed morality tales together into a deep gray area. It’s like a fairy tale that actually applies to the real world, where there’s no good vs evil, just a lot of humans who need help overcoming their own weaknesses. But also fun songs and Chris Pine finally delivering the Shatner swagger he lacks in the Trek movies. The best thing is, it works. Here’s my little nephew’s review: “I loved it. It was different, though. It was really fun, but also sad.” Which is exactly right.
Colin Houghton (Editorial Intern): Birdman: This film was incredibly entertaining, but I would be lying to you if I didn’t tell you that it stressed me out. For starters, it asked big questions about art, and what it means to have an artistic legacy, and there’s a cool line from Macbeth, but it’s set against the backdrop of what I can only call, for lack of a better term, a ticking time bomb. This time bomb, which might as well be Michael Keaton’s life, feels like its pretty much ready to go off the entire film, and by the end I wasn’t quite sure if it did.
Lance Cleland (Workshop Director): While being submerged in a sea of black liquid with Scarlett Johansson has its certain sex appeal, anyone who viewed Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin can attest to how unnerving that turned out to be. In this age where so many of our best visual storytelling experiences take place on the small screen (see below) it was such a pleasant jolt to encounter something that demanded to be projected. And how equally enthralling to be presented with ideas and brush strokes rather than plot twists and jump cuts. There are countless scenes from the film I wish I could frame and hang on my wall, with the last five minutes (the forest shots) being my favorite sequence of cinema in 2014. (If you would allow me to split my vote here, I would also add Steven Soderbergh’s The Knick, an equally hypnotic and horrifying visual wonder.)
We will not allow that, and thus Lance submits one full vote for Under the Skin. And now a little love for new media from our resident Youth Culture Expert, Tony Perez, who sticks to his guns:
Tony Perez (Editor, Tin House Books): Back in the early summer, I shouted out High Maintenance as a favorite recent viewing experience. Nothing in blockbuster or oscar-bait season has since unseated it. The little internet show has since moved to a paid model, and damn if that sweet-faced pot dealer didn’t earn it.
Each year, we
force ask our staff to contribute a few favorites to a list of the “best” non fiction, music, poetry, film, television, and fiction of the year (with a few cheaters from years past).
Every year is a big year for poetry, because poetry never goes out of style. 2014, though, felt bigger than most. Every major issue of the year seemed to have a collection of poems attached to it, and it felt right. Maybe it was the way poetry seemed to bring vital subjects to the dinner table, or the way it devoured them once it got them there, or the way it shook them around and played with them before eating them. All we can say is poets were hungry this year, and they show no signs of satiation.
Matthew Dickman (Poetry Editor, Tin House Magazine): Dorothea Lasky’s newest book Rome is a remarkably honest and rich spin-out relationship book that makes the human inside me growl and the beast inside me wash his hands and brush his teeth. Lasky’s energy and wild images takes no prisoners. People will talk about Rankine, Gluck, and others this month but for my money Lasky is the voice we should be listening to.
Thomas Ross (Editorial Assistant): There are certain truths that can only be reached alone, often late at night, on the third or fourth semiconscious mental leap. Reading Matthew Zapruder’s Sun Bear is like someone else doing that for you and recording it, with the added bonus of being beautiful. Traveling tangentially from one subtle epiphany to the next, the images and ideas in these poems feel genuinely unpremeditated. Zapruder’s power is in the way he strips everything away from his poems, eschewing even punctuation, until every poem is as immediate, intimate, and casual as the actual thought it describes. Like Basho or William Carlos Williams, Zapruder’s the kind of poet we’re always going to need, one of those quiet laureates of being alive.
Rob Spillman (Editor, Tin House Magazine): In this politically-charged year, the work that has hit home the hardest for me is Claudia Rankine‘s Citizen: An American Lyric, poetry/art/social commentary that examines micro- and macro-aggressions with cool clarity and precision.
Lance Cleland (Workshop Director): Of all the books I read this year, in any genre, no collection of words or images altered my physical state more than Saeed Jones’s urgent debut collection Prelude to Bruise. You taste every mouth on body, flinch every time the belt lash comes down, and hear the jagged cut of every “sissy” insult given as a raging father storms through your bedroom. But this isn’t just a recounting of violence inflicted by bigotry and homophobia, there is a sprouting of beauty here, a reconciliation with what was and what could be. To read it was to feel something alive in my hand.
force ask our staff to contribute a few favorites to a list of the “best” non fiction, music, poetry, film, television, and fiction of the year (with a few cheaters from years past).
Whether we’re pairing local bands with our authors for events, scrounging up vinyl for the office turntable, or practicing year-round to scream on the karaoke mic at our Summer Writer’s Workshop, the Tin House staff spends a lot of time crate-digging. We’ll start out with Cheston, whose enigmatic answer is simple but subtly haunting, much like its subject:
Cheston Knapp (Managing Editor, Tin House Magazine): Randy Newman.
That’s all he said, despite the fact that Randy Newman hasn’t released an album in like six years. Moving on!
Matthew Dickman (Poetry Editor, Tin House Magazine): D’Angelo’s Black Messiah. I couldn’t stop listening to this. I’m listening to it right now. One of the most beautiful R&B albums recorded in the last few years. It takes Beyonce and others to task. Pure and moving.
Sophia Archibald (Editorial Intern): I wasn’t too familiar with the the powerhouse that is Run the Jewels before their second self-titled album was released a couple of months ago, and it saddens me to think of all the eargasms I’ve been missing since 2013 when the hip-hop duo formed. A product of El-P and Killer Mike, Run the Jewels 2 is a highly unique, and at times abrasive, experience. Their lyrics range from silly to serious, on pop-culture to politics, but it’s the bass-heavy beats layered with experimental percussive sound that caught my attention for weeks before I finally found their free download for myself.
Tony Perez (Editor, Tin House Books): Nothing in my itunes library got as much burn this year as Run The Jewels 2. And nothing else felt so urgent, so essential, so fun. But then, like most of the country (or at least most of the people on my twitter feed) I was raptured by D’Angelo’s Black Messiah and I’ve been worshipping at its alter ever since. The jury’s split, I suppose, which makes room for a darkhorse (if a Pulitzer-winning recording can be called a darkhorse): John Luther Adams’s Become Ocean. I’m kicking myself that I missed the early performance here in Portland, and only discovered the orchestral piece later when Alex Ross raved about it on his (excellent) blog. His line that convinced me to track it down is also the line that stuck with me through my now many listenings: “It may be the loveliest apocalypse in musical history.”
Rob Spillman (Editor, Tin House Magazine): Perhaps because it is still fresh in my mind, the best musical experience of the year was seeing tUnE-yArDs at the Music Hall of Williamsburg the day after the Eric Garner non-indictment. On the emotionally raw day, Merrill Garbus laid down a fierce set. Somehow, during the middle of the show there was a spontaneous moment of silence, a space in which art and politics could co-exist. Like all my favorite works of the year, the show expanded what I think of as possible in art and engagement.
Esmé Hogeveen (Editorial Intern): With their most recent full-length release, Picture You Staring, TOPS, signed to Montreal’s Arbutus Records, hits one out of the indie ballpark. Replete with shimmery synths and eighties-inspired beats reminiscent of band members’ previous involvement with groups like The Silly Kissersand Makeout Videotape, Picture You Staring is the kind of album that you could play either at bumping house party or later, while recalling the dance floor dynamics on the bike ride home. Richly layered and impressively restrained, TOPS champion a counterpoint of cool sincerity that has fallen out of favour in recent pop. Singer Jane Penny’s perceptive lyrics and unshowy vocal confidence achieve an impressive balance of simple and sophisticated. In “Way to be Loved,” Penny describes the perspective of a lover questioning their affections over blithely grooving guitar hooks. “Change of Heart” might make you dance; “Outside” might make you cry. TOPS is playing a New Year’s show in L.A. with Devonté Hynes, so take note now, because it seems like it won’t be long ‘til everybody loves them.
Jakob Vala (Graphic Designer): Lucinda Williams released a new (double!) album this year. Enough said. But I’ll go on . . . The first song of Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone, an adaptation of one of her father’s poems, acts as a sort of introduction. Tonally distinct from the rest of the album, it’s almost a warmup to the signature gritty swagger that we expect. Most of the album isn’t as narrative-driven as her past work, but Williams is still a master story-teller—a patron saint of the eternally sad—a late-night, bluesy badass—a growling sage at the end of the line. (Also, please listen to the soundtrack for Only Lovers Left Alive. It’s incredible.)
Diane Chonette (Art Director): Our Love, the 2014 release by Caribou has been playing on our turntable for the past couple of weeks and I’m smitten. The album’s homage to love (and all its corresponding emotions) is perfectly suited for a houseful of people or a solo serenade.
Lance Cleland (Workshop Director, in-house DJ): In a musical year that found me dancing with Sinkane, swaying with Angel Olsen, trying to dunk to Run the Jewels 2, driving to the river with Mac DeMarco, and late night vibing with Madlib ,I still have to say my favorite album was Juan Wauters’s N.A.P. (North American Poetry). The former Beets frontman offers up twelve catchy, yet delicate spins around the turntable, each one a perfect postcard of early morning calls and late night responses. Simple in their construction, nervy and charming in their execution, Wauters’s songs blend cultures, genres, and languages to create a deeply personal and infectious celebration of being alive. I don’t think a week has gone by without my wife or me dancing to “Sanity or Not” in our living room.
Each year, we
force ask our staff to contribute a few favorites to a list of the “best” non fiction, music, poetry, film, television, and fiction of the year (with a few cheaters from years past). We’re kicking it off today with our non fiction picks. Check back in tomorrow for our picks for album of the year.
Last month at Electric Literature, Jason Diamond pronounced 2014 “The Year of the Essay.” Whether 2014 was a watershed, just a lucky year, or the beginning of a resurgence of the genre (fingers crossed), it was a pleasure to read the essay this year. For our staff, there was a certain book that came up in conversation after conversation:
Rob Spillman (Editor, Tin House Magazine): It was a great year for the essay, and Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams stood out for me. Assured yet questioning, Jamison shows us what intellectual engagement can be. As Jamison writes: “I wanted the abyss, not the verdict.” Bring on the abyss, please.
Sophia Archibald (Editorial Intern): I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking that The Empathy Exams was the most powerful collection of non-fiction to come out this year. Beautifully weaving personal anecdotes and raw confessions with academic research and fresh insights, her essays scratch the reader’s soul with passion and vigor.
While we’re on the subject, Tin House Books was honored to contribute to the essay groundswell with an expanded edition of a cult classic collection by hometown hero of the Pacific Northwest, Charles D’Ambrosio. Handily, our man Cheston Knapp knows when our own horn needs tooting:
Cheston Knapp (Managing Editor, Tin House Magazine): Is it too much like wearing a shirt of the band you’re going to see if I put Loitering down here? I mean, I, too, was excited by new voice essayists like Leslie Jamison and Michelle Orange, read both of their books with glee and respect, but Charlie, well, his work feels as rigorous and unapologetically smart and sensitive and warm and giving and plain edifying as anything out there. His sentences are real gems and as rare.
Of course, non fiction doesn’t end at the essay. Here are a couple picks from our Wisconsin contingent:
Michelle Wildgen (Executive Editor, Tin House Magazine): I was totally absorbed in Helen Thorpe’s Soldier Girls, which follows several women through their lives and careers in the military. I don’t know a great deal about military life, but the book does a stellar job of showing how these women chose it, the lives they would have had without it, the careers they had within it, and the lives they tried to build around it. In some ways it was heartbreaking: one woman is a single parent who could make a reasonable living as a soldier instead of sub-poverty level at home, but who then had to scramble to find care for her children every time she was deployed. At least one son seemed not to quite recover, either from those upheavals or from other factors, but the asides in which his story is glimpsed, from childhood to crimes and incarceration, stayed with me. If the purpose of nonfiction, or one of them, is to lay out the breadth and detail of a life, and to demystify it for the people outside the life in its pages, then this book succeeds.
Runner up is a memoir that is not new but was new to me in 2014, Mary Allen’s The Rooms of Heaven, which tells the story of a precipitous love affair and engagement, an addiction, a suicide, and a dive into grief and even madness. As I write this it sounds like a potboiler, but the book is compressed and faceted, artfully made and delivered, and deeply affecting. I read this on a plane on a cloudy gray winter day and emerged thinking, “Well, fuck it, all is grief.” And yet I mean that as a compliment. (I later recovered.)
And then there are the wild cards. Like the graphic memoir:
Emma Komlos-Hrobsky (Assistant Editor, Tin House Magazine): At risk of diagnosing myself as prematurely neurotic, I have to confess that I’ve been a Roz Chast groupie since elementary school. I love her wit and self-deprecation and acuity; I love the antsy quality of her line, a kind of perfect visual translation of emotionally fraught handwringing; I love her fezzes and lumpy ponies and charts. All of this is to say that I was always going to be excited about a book-length Chast project, but I had no clue that Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant? was going to hit as hard as it did. Chast talks about taking care of dying parents with honesty even when that honesty flatters neither her nor them. Her humor never avoids or deflates but instead brought me back to the particular painful weirdness of having a parent lose their memory or sorting through their hoardings. Maybe most incredible of all the pages in the book are the ones Chast has made of her mother at the time of her death, where Chast’s illustrative style warps into something darker, more realistic but also not of this world. It’s hard to believe she could draw at all in such a moment, but the pictures are proof of what’s always been great about her work: the empathy and perceptivity beneath her antic-ness, a willingness to show us the dicey stuff, big and small.
. . . or the bilingual illustrated papercut proverb:
Heather Hartley (Paris Editor, Tin House Magazine): Although The Expressionist Bestiary by Benoît Jacques dates to 2012, this spirited, bilingual French and English tiny tome of proverbs is definitely worth the read this December (and well beyond). Illustrated with Jacques’s paper cutouts, his artwork has its own visual spin on some of the more common sayings, including the playful paper cutout of a lone wolf really grooving out on being dressed up in sheep’s clothing. Among other menageries, Jacques lets you know that if you’re eagle-eyed in English, you’ll be lynx-eyed in French. As François Jacqmin says in the forward, Jacques makes animals “leap over the language border . . . whether his translation looks like a paraphrase, a literal rendering or any linguistic whatnot.”
Of course, the best thing about a “best of” list is what’s not on it . . . yet. What great non fiction did we miss this year? Fill us in in the comments!
I progressed, improbably, from preparing for a career as a professional violist to a position running a social justice foundation. Anyone who’s spent their formative years in music knows the training to be relentless and indelible. Ever since then, I’ve been on a quest for fiction that transmits classical music to the page. I crave writers who reach beyond the emotional clichés that have a nasty way of inserting themselves regardless of musical genre. I want music that’s so finely tuned it’s inseparable from the overall composition. Is it surprising that I’m rarely satisfied? It turns out that some of my favorite music books are not about music. Instead, music drives their exploration of intractable political, and ultimately, human problems.
“Democracy is not on the program” for Marian Anderson’s iconic concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. In this spectacular novel, Delia Daley, a black singer from Philadelphia, meets her life partner that auspicious afternoon on the Washington Mall. He is David Strom, a physicist orphaned by the Holocaust. Their son Jonah becomes a star-touched tenor whose fast passages hang “motionless in flight, every note audible, one of those stop-action photographs.” Against accelerating social upheaval, Jonah and his pianist brother Joseph fight their way through classical music’s racist thickets. “Black or white?” their sister Ruth asks, which “is what the world asks of her.” The novel covers the vast uneven sweep of the Civil Rights movement as music’s splendor collides with craven racial violence, and family goes head-to-head with community. Written in soaring harmonies, The Time of Our Singing details our country’s conflicting legacies of hope and despair as the “American Dream and American Reality square off.”
(If you love this book, I recommend Richard Powers’ the Gold Bug Variations and Orfeo as well.)
Less successful, but interesting for its social commentary, Dvorak in Love is an early, experimental novel-in-linked-stories so popular today. Different characters narrate each chapter, recounting their interactions with the great composer primarily during his sojourn in New York and Iowa. Dvorak hovers like negative space in the middle of a painting as his friends, patrons, and family share insights and stories about him; his compositions integral to the plot. The novel notably explores xenophobia and prejudice, including America’s cavernous racial divide. Renowned African American violinist and composer, Will Marion Cook, who was, in fact, a student of Dvorak’s, figures prominently. One Bohemian (Czech) character comments incredulously about America, “It’s not true that they won’t let you into the fancy restaurants just because of the colour of your skin. You can be as white as Sam [another African American character], and they still won’t let you in. It’s not your skin but your blood.”
(Josef Skvorecky immigrated to Canada following the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and wrote two wonderful novellas, published under the title The Bass Saxophone, that use jazz to probe Nazi and Communist oppression.)
As his beloved city disintegrates under bombs and snipers, a cellist goes out once a day to bear musical witness to the twenty-two people killed beneath his window by a mortar shell. The piece that the cellist plays may derive from Albinoni, but has been reconstructed by someone else; it is a piece with no identity. This is war, where claiming a true identity is an unbearable reminder of a shattered, tranquil past. When she imagines being asked the origin of her current name, the sharpshooting girl whose sole goal is to kill occupying soldiers answers, “I am Arrow because I hate them. The woman you [once] knew hated nobody.” This is less a story about music, and more one about the ravages of war, diminished, perhaps, by real life cellist Vedran Smailović’s claims that Galloway appropriated his story without permission.
Mendelssohn is on the Roof is a much more complex literary work. A Nazi officer orders the removal of Mendelssohn, a “Jewish statue,” from the Prague Academy of Music. Two bumbling workmen mistakenly remove the statue with the biggest nose—Wagner—the Nazi’s musical emblem. The novel progresses from the seemingly comedic to Nazism’s deadly underbelly. In a chilling melding of history and fiction, “Acting Reich Protector” Reinhard Heydrich, assigned the job of liquidating European Jewry, kicks back in a concert, listening to Mozart and planning the Terezin (Theresienstadt) concentration camp just outside Prague. Poor Heydrich, who must “renounce everything personal,” in service to the Leader (Fuhrer). Concerts and opera performances no longer bring him much pleasure. Heydrich’s assassination by Czech partisans falls at the book’s center, sandwiched between Prague’s set up as a once “golden city” peopled with a range of quirky and lovable characters, to a besieged “Protectorate” that attacks its children and forces its Jews into acts of betrayal before murdering them. “Life had become the common price for everything.” Music gets pushed farther and farther into the background as war trumps all. Weil, a Czech Jew, writes with the power and sensitivity of one who survived.
Us Conductors is perfectly pitched between music and politics. Lev Sergeyvich Termen, inventor of the eponymously named theremin (an apparatus the musician plays hands free, seemingly conducting air), narrates his story sailing from New York to Soviet Russia in protective custody. The music in this book rings true, never more so as when Termen recalls his lost love, Clara Rockmore, violinist turned theremin player. Termen speaks of Clara in the second person with simple language that never fails to convey his longing. “You were there to perform Schelomo, by Ernest Bloch, a rhapsody for cello and orchestra…. It is a composition of sustained and devastating yearning, a wavering conversation between one voice and the ensemble. Your right hand was a fist. You opened it one finger at a time, asking and withdrawing…. In the heart of that hall, you were utterly solitary. I could not have given myself to you even if I had tried.” Summing up his lost freedom, youth, and romance, as well as his tortured present, Termen asks “How do you listen to a closed room?” This may be a love story, but it’s also a novel about the horrors of Soviet totalitarianism.
Poor and fatherless in New York, Claude Rawlings overcomes the odds and ascends to the piano world’s firmament. Claude’s trajectory is one long melody with very little dissonance, although along his musical journey, the novel explores 1950s red baiting, his mother’s mental illness, his mentor’s broken German past, and the gap between rich and poor. Conroy, a jazz pianist and legendary director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, described his challenge in this, his only novel: “[T]he experience of music is hard to convey in words.” A sample of how Conroy tried to meet that challenge: “The first three notes–the root, the fifth, and the minor third—seemed entirely magical. In their simplicity he heard the implication of the whole piece itself, and from that, from his awareness of the fugue, came an awareness of all-of-music, as if all-of-music were the overtones of any small part of music, as if all notes were contained in any single note. The perception was evanescent, but so powerful as to wipe away any thoughts of himself. Music is here!”
This is a book about music, accurately and beautifully rendered, that strikes the right balance between sentiment and music’s arduous demands. Here’s what it feels like to play in a string quartet. Details are satisfyingly accurate—from the fraught solo practice sessions, to the hothouse atmosphere of a string quartet, to the difficult professional choices forced on classical musicians. The novel unfurls the achingly gorgeous romance between violinist Michael Holme and pianist Julia McNicholl, characters whose problems may not be political, but are all too human. This book is a moving investigation of loss and love; the relationship between father and son; and the meaning of commitment to marriage, children, and above all music. In spare, elegant language Seth describes Julia’s playing as “a beauty beyond imagining – clear, lovely, inexorable, phrase across phrase, phrase echoing phrase…. It is an equal music.”
Martha Anne Toll is a professionally trained violist and writer. Her essays have appeared on NPR, in The Millions, Narrative Magazine, the Washington Independent Review of Books; and her fiction in Wild, Poetica Magazine, Referential Magazine (forthcoming), and Inkapture Magazine (forthcoming). She is the Executive Director of a nationwide social justice foundation based in Washington, DC. Please visit Martha at www.marthaannetoll.com or tweet to her @marthaannetoll.
They talked about writing important things. Some wrote very popular things and could talk so as to make the very popular things they wrote seem important. They winnowed. They channeled. They allowed for marginalia.
Brown water, vomitus, sloshes up running boards, foams into door cracks, saturates floor mats. Engine side of the F-150 sinks first. Shoulder strap clicks snug. He tries the key. Spit of pink light on the dash. Tries the window.
The janitors boxed up the newsroom, powercleaned the cubicles, laid the typewriters finally ad acta. The remnant hung like winter fruit, noble scribes, spare and defunded, abandoned in the wilds to reflect the mutations of mankind, the sorrows of the Second Flood.
Three inches now, cooling his socks. Creeping teawater. He tries the key again. The window.
He wrote convocations on phytoplankton, algal blooms, oyster habitats. Wanted to believe “the children” would save the lagoon. On paddleboard through labyrinthine mangrove atolls, nights of bioluminescence, he wilded out schools of mantis-lit ghosts, comets, went breathless at the sight of the river mammals.
He unclicks his belt, tries the door. The river pushes back on him, pours in over his shins. Traceless surge, born from nothing. Virginal cloudburst. Gaia flushing herself clean.
Together now: the downward lurch of the vehicle, the plunging suck of glass, and the horrifying realization that the talking might have meant more than the writing in the end.
Dan Reiter‘s sudden fiction has appeared in Spork Press, McSweeney’s, Word Riot, Burrow Press Review, and other places. His story of the Shoah won The Florida Review Editor’s Award.
The Open Bar is currently accepting submissions for Flash Fridays and Flash Fidelity. Submissions to The Open Bar should be sent via email to firstname.lastname@example.org with the name of the category (e.g. Flash Fridays, Flash Fidelity, etc.) in the subject line.
This summer, I received a galley proof of Claudia La Rocco’s selected writing called The Best Most Useless Dress. Scrolling through pages of text, I thought to myself, this is some Frank O’Hara shit. The first line of the epigraph read: I am the least difficult of men.
In graduate school we read O’Hara’s criticism and went for picnics on his grave. We need someone like him again.
The first time I met Claudia La Rocco was at an Italian restaurant in Bed-Stuy one July afternoon. I was exasperated. I lamented the nightmare of looking for an apartment in New York. Claudia doesn’t remember asking me to describe the quality of the nightmare and I don’t remember how I answered but we ended up being neighbors later that summer and I see now the kind of sacred attention Elizabeth Robinson describes in her introduction to the book.
I hope this interview matches the sophistication and sincerity of Claudia’s work, while communicating my ineffable admiration.
Whiskey Blue: In the introduction to The Best Most Useless Dress, Elizabeth Robinson asks, “what is it to be swept up passionately but uncomprehendingly in art without controlling its meaning?” Robinson (and I would posit your work, too) looks to not knowing as a mode for interacting with art. This unknowing describes a state of utmost attentiveness; of simultaneous blankness and hyper-engagement which Robinson calls “deep attention, writing that such attention, deep attention, redounds once again to desire.”
I want to know what it means to you, to be “swept up passionately but uncomprehendingly in art without controlling its meaning.” How would you describe the quality of this swept up-ness? How do you, as a critic and as an art maker, access this state? And how do desire and not knowing interact here?
Claudia La Rocco: The quality, it’s luscious. Whether it’s by art or a stranger or sleep or the tennis stroke whose perfection you cannot explain, even though it was yours—what is better than being swept up? I’m writing slowly and when I stop I notice that I am rubbing my finger tips together—so I guess I would also say that it’s tactile. Its itness is tangible, even if you can’t grasp it. I am not sure there is a way to ensure that you can access it, but I think to give oneself time, and to give oneself over to things, are important preparatory steps. Time and attention, so you can slow down enough to see what’s floating around in your mind and in your surroundings, and look at how the two worlds intersect, and how they don’t.
I always think about dating; how you can go on 100 dates and the first 99, they’re terrible, zero chemistry, you can’t even understand how people do this, or why … and then that 100th comes along. It’s so simple—could you explain why it works though? We resort to all the clichés about chemistry and timing. But, I don’t know. I think the fact that we can’t break it down is a big part of its magic. Desire and not knowing are both moments of immortality for mortals. Maybe they’re the same thing?
WB: Elizabeth Robinson also observes that there are “three formal strategies that recur throughout the book: parataxis, repetition, and theft.” When I read this, I thought it was an interesting insight into how, perhaps, you build your work; how you make a text; the way a choreographer approaches movement when making dance.
Parataxis is described as “the placing together of sentences, clauses, or phrases without a conjunctive word or words.” Would you agree that parataxis is a recurring strategy – to quote Robinson – in your work? For example, with a writer like Joan Didion, terseness and cadence come to mind when thinking about her style. Do you think your style is characterized by parataxis? Is this deliberate? If so, what does it serve?
CLR: What’s not to love about parataxis? Just the word itself … it’s beautiful. I love collage. I love the two things together that make a third thing.
I’m not sure what it serves, exactly. Maybe my adoration of parataxis comes from having to be a well-behaved journalist for the first part of my writing career. And also of course it’s a poet thing, a way to construct narrative that isn’t linear, that doesn’t depend on understanding step by step.
And of course choreography is shot through with parataxis. I mean, so much art … and I think one could make the case that this is simply because it’s a common way in which people seek to decipher experience. To translate it into manageable terms.
I think one could also make the case (I like making cases) that it’s a weakness of mine, or a limitation. That I might be well served by leaning on parataxis a little less. But I just like it so much. It’s a darling I’m not at this time prepared to kill.
From issue 46, Winter Reading.
The King Won’t Kill Me
today. He’s cleared
the court, torn up
the last treaty, trounced
the villages bordering
the empire’s southern-
most state, shackled
their dark denizens
and given the hundred
skinniest to split
among his governors.
I wore shackles once
on a boat across
the largest ocean
in the universe,
but I was the last
among my captive
people to forget
how to laugh
and the first
to remember our tribal
names. In that time,
I learned the whip man’s
slang, for when the noble
children came to gawk,
I’d listen to them, mimic,
until I was good enough
to speak back, ask
questions, chat them up
for fairy tales, prayers,
ridicule, and lies.
Dumb luck, one runt
traded me a book
for my right thumb
through the bars
of my cage—an even
barter, if you ask me.
In it were all the secrets
Patrick Rosal is the author of three full-length poetry collections. His most recent, Boneshepherds (2011), was named a small press highlight by the National Book Critics Circle and a notable book by the Academy of American Poets. His other two books are My American Kundiman (2006), and Uprock Headspin Scramble and Dive (2003). His collections have been honored with the Association of Asian American Studies Book Award, Global Filipino Literary Award and the Asian American Writers Workshop Members’ Choice Award. In 2009, he was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to the Philippines. He is co-founding editor of Some Call It Ballin’, a literary sports quarterly.
The day ended like any day—at midnight. Mike, Ted, and I rolled up to the movie theater in Mike’s MGB GT, a junky 60s hatchback that looked like James Bond and his crew hadn’t made the grade. Mike was just a regular guy, like me, but Ted was a skinhead. His girlfriend was a Mexican. She was a skin too. She wore a Chelsea cut and creepers and homemade tattoos on her hands. How they tolerated her, I still don’t know, but she and Ted had been going together for a while, so she might have been grandfathered in.
We were at the midnight movies. There were a lot of other kids roaming the lobby looking for trouble while the security guard flirted with the night manager. Mike was getting popcorn and I was standing next to Ted who was waiting, arms crossed, like a real bad ass in his flight jacket and Docs. Then this Mexican dude walked right up to us. He might’ve been our age but he wore a man’s bushy mustache and a wife beater. He was built.
The Mexican said, “Hey, you bald bastard.”
I thought Armageddon was about to unleash in the lobby of the Regal 6. Instead, Ted and the Mexican did that same bro slap Arnold Schwarzenegger and Carl Weathers do in Predator. The Mexican rousted his homies and they all came over and Ted and the guys re-lived old times.
“We go way back,” Ted explained later. “Used to fight his gang in Hayward. Not anymore.” We were sitting in the theater waiting for the feature to begin. It was Surf Nazis Must Die. This black granny was laying waste to the Aryan scum who killed her grandson. Ted laughed it up every time one of his guys died. Either the movie was some kind of reverse-propaganda I didn’t understand or Ted hadn’t fully bought into the charter. Later, I asked him about it as was we drove home in Mike’s MG.
He shrugged. “It’s just a movie,” he said. Then he got out and walked up the driveway to his dad’s huge house on the golf course.
That’s not how the day began. Like most days that summer between junior and senior years, it began at the Round Table on Crow Canyon where Ted made pizzas and I worked the ovens. Ted and I were on lunch break. While I devoured a toasted salami and gorgonzola sandwich, Ted was making a face.
“I guess you don’t have a girlfriend,” he said.
Right then, a middle-aged guy ambled in through the dining room’s side door. He looked like that writer Denis Johnson on a bad day. Dark glasses, big overcoat, paper bag tucked under his arm. Ted and I watched him walk down the hall past the banquet room and into the toilet.
“Homeless shower,” Ted said. While he was eating pizza, I could see Ted working up to something in that complicated shaved head. He pushed the crust into his mouth, then went into his pocket to show me a small knife. It was a shiv, I guess. He said he got it when he was in JDC for fighting on BART. He also got hand-foot-and-mouth disease and had to wear Chucks for a few weeks until the fungus went away.
“Come on,” he said.
I followed him to the men’s restroom. Inside, the guy was slicking back his hair with a comb. The dark glasses were resting on the sink.
“Whaddya want?” he said in the mirror. He glanced at the shiv in Ted’s hand.
“This isn’t a bus station,” Ted said.
“Oh, no?” He stopped mid-comb. We all stared at each other in the mirror, waiting for someone to make the next move. The guy’s face was impassive, and pitted, like a moon scarred by meteors.
“It’s a pizza parlor,” I said.
He nodded as he put the comb away inside of his coat. He wore a self-satisfied look, like we were right where he wanted us. “Whaddya think I got in that bag?” he said. The bag was sitting on top of the paper towel dispenser. It was crushed and greasy.
“Nothing,” Ted said.
The guy just smiled. He put on the dark glasses, then picked up his bag and waved us aside like a royal on his way to somewhere important. We watched him limp down the hall and out the side door. Later, we found the bag sitting on a nearby bench. Ted looked inside. He was right.
Aaron Peters is a graduate of UC Irvine’s Programs in Writing and a recipient of the Henfield Prize for fiction. He lives in Los Angeles.
Now that the holidays are approaching, the days are turning cooler here in Houston, which means it’s time to begin saying goodbye to the jalapeño bushes in my garden. Earlier this year, on Mother’s Day, we planted a few small bushes, which have supplied my family with fresh jalapeños all season. In June, I was chopping handfuls of jalapeños into guacamole. In early July, I was slicing stout jalapeños onto giant cheeseburgers. And now that the bushes are offering their last fruit, I’ve started making jelly.
That’s right: Jalapeño jelly.
When I got the idea, years ago, that I wanted to make try making jelly, the Jalapeño Jelly recipe from the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving was the first one I tried. The recipe calls for exactly twelve jalapeños, two cups of cider vinegar, six cups of sugar, two packets of pectin, and an undisclosed optional amount of green food coloring. For my very first batch I followed Ball’s instructions to the letter. Or, at least I thought I followed them to the letter. Probably I did not, since the jelly was a complete disaster: too sloshy, too mild, too green.
Over the years, I’ve tinkered and toyed with the Ball recipe — sometimes adding more jalapeños, sometimes more sugar or vinegar — and now have it down to a science. I’ve learned to slice the piles and piles of jalapeños longways, flicking out the seeds with the point of my knife. I have learned to wear gloves to avoid capsaicin burns and to wear protective eyewear, since I have experienced no pain quite like that of jalapeño juice droplets in my eye.
And what do I do with this spicy, dangerous, jelly?
I almost don’t go to the the reading of my grandfather’s will, but it’s important to my sister.
The lawyer reads my name and adds, “Scrimshaw, one,” and with both hands passes me a carving of a caribou antler—not one from a large bull, but a simpler cow’s. Tracing my finger along the almost-ivory, I notice the antler’s bowed slope has occurred naturally without having to be carved. And at the base, its long and smooth grain blisters into the pocked shell of a sand-dollar.
My grandfather hunted humpbacks for six months off the west coast of Vancouver Island—a year after the ‘68 moratorium—and killed most of his time idling in international waters since everything had been dead for a while. There was an emptiness in the ocean’s fluidity that he had once tried to explain to me. Something about how, in just a few days, he could see the vacancy within the waves and knew that nothing was there.
The antler is really just a whale’s vertebra, halved and cut off at the spinal canal. But it must have taken months to carve away that much bone.
I store the whale-antler atop the bookshelf. Over the next couple months, I try placing it in other spots—the kitchen table, my desk, the toilet tank—but everywhere is too conspicuous, and I feel bad, because I never correct anyone when they ask if it’s a real antler. It goes back onto the bookshelf.
Next month, picking up my sister at the university hospital, I’m a half hour early so I pay two dollars for the biology building’s basement museum. Floating through the isles of animal fragments, I see a glass case holding an elk skull with its cerebral plates all dyed rainbow colours.
And the sign beneath it, no bigger than a shoulder-blade, explains how the skull’s configuration correlates with a humpback’s, how it demonstrates that whales descended from a small deer, and that they and even-toed ungulates have a closeness of being you can only have by sharing an ancestor.
If he realized in a few days that the ocean had been sieved of everything, why did he stay for six months? Waves shrugging defeated, the gravelled pull of a knife, the sawdust of calcium. A dull ache in his back.
And what keeps me up at night, watching a raccoon’s planetary eyes orbit beyond the streetlight, is the vague understanding that everything has its own shape, a form entirely unto itself; and how my hand fluidly intuits how to hold their bodies, like I have always known them.
Richard Kelly Kemick has been published or has work forthcoming in TNQ, CV2, The Fiddlehead, PRISM, Prime Number, and Vallum among several other magazines across Canada and the United States. Richard won both Echolocation’s 2014 chapbook and Grain’s 2013 Short Grain contests. A recipient of an Alberta Foundation for the Arts grant, his debut collection of poetry, Caribou Run, is set for publication Spring 2016 by Goose Lane Editions.
A series of brief but wide-ranging interviews with authors about ancestry.
Saeed Jones’ Prelude to Bruise is an astonishing poetry collection, furious, tender, and true. It’s a book about hatred, desire, and love, about the past and present and the blurring of the two. “Boy,” says a burly man in Birmingham, “be / a bootblack. Your back, blue black… / I like my black boys broke, or broken./ I like to break my black boys in.” The speaker of several poems, the strongest presence in the book, Boy grieves the loss of his mother, provokes his father’s violent rage by wearing a whalebone corset, and sees flashes of his father’s face in his own. “I turned the family portrait facedown/ when he was on me,” he confesses in one poem about a tryst he imagines in a clawfoot tub, and then he wakes in his room, “Father standing at the door.”
Images from these poems linger, changing shape and color over time, like a bruise. I first read the book on the subway, savoring it from from start to finish on the way to my destination, and then I read it again on the way home. Lately I keep it on the shelf above my desk while I work to show myself how much detail and feeling it’s possible to pack into five or ten words.
Maud Newton: “I’m the self-portrait of my father,” says the speaker of “Hour Between Dog & Wolf,” standing before “the only unbroken mirror, cobalt kimono/ undone.” “Even the rage is his.” In “History, According to Boy,” Boy’s father approves of him only after he does well at the shooting range, when Boy makes a “perfect little hole in the black paper body.” “It is their one good thing.” Later, Boy’s father finds a gay porn magazine and his “fist comes down like war itself.” The idea of violence as a legacy passed from father to son permeates Prelude to Bruise, not just for Boy, but for a white lover with a racist father in “Body and Kentucky Bourbon,” and for the Biblical Abraham in “Isaac, After Mount Moriah.” Can you talk about that?
Saeed Jones: One shard of inspiration for Prelude To Bruise is the fact that my father (who I haven’t seen since 1999) and I look very similar, more so as I’ve grown up. At a family reunion several years ago, I walked into my aunt’s living room and an older relative, who was sitting on the corner, looked at me and said my father’s name. For a brief moment, she actually thought I was him. It broke my heart in a quiet and permanent way. That moment definitely led to the scene in “Hour Between Dog & Wolf,” but more broadly, it got me to thinking of the various inheritances — desired and undesirable — fathers bestow on their sons. My father and I also have the same first name; I go by my middle name (Saeed) for a reason.
MN: In one poem, Boy wears a stolen evening gown in the cornfields, switches his hips for a “Sir who is no one, sir who is yet to come.” In another, he “dreams he has the/ body of a girl,/ a song only he can hear.” When he creates a profile to chat with boys, none are interested until he changes his profile picture to “a white boy with a similar height and build.” Then the flirtatious messages pour in. One of my (other) favorite contemporary poets, Brenda Shaughnessy, writes of your ability to take the reader “deep into lived experience, into a charged world divided among unstable yet entrenched lines: racial, gendered, political, sexual, familial.” Do you think growing up in the South, having a family from the South, gave you a different kind of awareness of the instability of these categories?
SJ: Lately, in part because of the book I’m writing now, I’ve been thinking about 1998. I was twelve years old that year; Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. were both killed that year. To learn about that kind of violence existing in the world — both racist and homophobic — it changed me. I don’t know if I fully understood it at the time, but I was terrified. And terror does many things but it also clarifies. (I’m reminded here of Claudia Rankine meeting a young man while she was in Ferguson, MO during the protests. He pointed to a picture of Michael Brown and said “I look just like him.” I know that feeling very well. I don’t wish it on anyone though I suspect far too many of us have had it.) Though I didn’t totally have the language, I was suddenly deeply aware of what it meant to be a black gay man in America, in the South, in this era. So, part of the project of Prelude To Bruise was examining all of the facets of my identity, and all of the desires and terrors that illuminate them.
MN: You’ve written about your mom’s spirituality and your grandmother’s more punishing fundamentalism (a kind I’m intimately familiar with). Do you find yourself tending toward belief or away from it? And do you often think about their approaches to religion in reckoning with your own?
SJ: I’ve practiced Nichiren buddhism, the faith my mother raised me with, for most of my life, but — I will be honest — in the last few years I’ve lapsed. I’m not sure that’s the word for it exactly. I still look to Nichiren buddhism as a life philosophy, but I haven’t been practicing very consistently for the last couple of years. When my mother passed away in 2011, chanting became very difficult. I wavered without her; I had doubts I’d never had before. And, though I’m not grief struck anymore, I’m more ambivalent. Maybe this will change; I’m not agonizing over faith or anything. My mother’s best friend, who I consider to be an aunt, continues to practice buddhism and I speak with her about it often. She listens; she doesn’t pressure or push; she is patient. Growing up, my family treated religion like taking sides in a war. It was awful and deeply hurtful. My mother was treated as an outcast from her family for most of my childhood. I never want to recreate that dynamic.
Josh and I were having lunch at a sandwich shop in Pike Place Market, Seattle—it was the end of February, and the two of us were on shore leave from the AWP Conference up the street—when I interrupted the conversation to say, “We should be recording this.” It’s not that either of us had said anything particularly striking. But the intimacy of twice having worked together on Josh’s fiction for AGNI, and having met in person periodically over the years, had set us up for something unusual. We knew the shape of each other’s thinking without being overly familiar with its contents.We were friends enough to ask each other pretty much anything, but not so close that the answers could be given in hints and nods. And so the idea of recording ourselves—and doing it without preparation, to see where our curiosities would lead.
Fast-forward to August, Josh on book tour for The Great Glass Sea. By luck, the tour included a stop at Newtonville Books, several T stops outside of Boston and just a short walk from my house. We met in the afternoon before walking down to the store, and, over beers on the side patio, talked again, about writing, editing, and a bit about geography too—as freely as we could with an old-fashioned tape recorder sitting between us.
Josh Weil: It’s nice to see your home. I was just thinking, the way the business is, you meet people on the road, you meet people in bookstores, but you don’t often get to see inside someone’s home, and it’s nice.
William Pierce: You remember our lunch in Seattle. A lot of what we talked about is stuff you’re probably not talking about that often. Somebody comes out with a new book, and everything ends up being about the book.
JW: Yeah, and it’s all repeated—you get the same questions in all the interviews.
WP: One thing we discussed in Seattle is this way you have of transferring your emotional ecology into stories that seem completely unrelated to your life. A lot of those stories are set in Russia or feel displaced in other ways, even in time. The Great Glass Sea is an example of that, I think.
JW: Yeah, absolutely. I find I’m almost unable to write about stuff that feels too close to my life. I don’t think it’s because I’m scared of that—I’m just not interested in it, you know? So I wind up—I remember when I was in Scotland, I was writing about Southeast Ohio. I went to Egypt on a Fulbright, and while I was there, doing research on the novel that was set there, and banging my head against the wall with that, I had the urge to write about other stuff. So I wound up writing about Virginia while I was living in this little town, Tunis. Foreigners weren’t supposed to live there at all. My friends would come out on the bus and be turned away by the Egyptian police, but I had gotten permission for various reasons. It was fairly poor, a lot of irrigated farming, and the city of Fayoom nearby, around Lake Qarun, was the center of the Muslim Brotherhood. Mubarak was still in power, so—
WP: So the Muslim Brotherhood was banned at the time.
JW: It was banned at the time, considered a terrorist organization, anti-Western, and so Egypt was concerned about a Westerner going out there. Anyway, I was living there, wrapped in my gallibaya and my scarf and my little Muslim skullcap, and the khamsins were blowing, and I found myself writing about Virginia and the Civil War in the U.S. Somehow, I’m in this weird place as a writer—I’ve got to step out of my own life in order to take in, to be interested in, what I’m working on. Yet at the same time, I have to have enough familiarity with the place that I feel like I can accurately depict it. So it’s kind of a dilemma.
WP: I feel like when you step out so completely, those may be the times you’re writing about your life most directly. You particularly, I mean. In other words, there are two—broadly speaking there are two ways that you write: the one is displaced, and the other not at all displaced. Somebody who knows your life more intimately than I do may see that even those latter stories aren’t taken directly from your world in the United States, but still, they are set here and now.
JW: They’re pretty close—and the funny thing is, the short stories that AGNI published, both of those are closer to my life. With short stories, for whatever reason, I feel that there’s enough of a nugget of interest that I can grab onto. In “I Want You to Know That I Know That He Loved You,” I was essentially writing about my great-great uncle.
WP: The grandfather in the story was your great-great uncle?
JW: Yes. Born in Camillus, New York—all of it was exactly who that character is. And the apartment was my great-great uncle’s apartment. And then, in order to feel like I can really maybe just be brave enough—but also just detached enough that I can really dig at whatever feels most important in my own life—I have to have enough distance that I can feel like I’m not just writing memoir, that I’m not just putting my own shit out there, you know?
WP: You’ve mentioned that when you feel you’re getting closest, displacing is the only way your imagination can let itself go. When you’re writing short stories or novellas that are not displaced—talking about a great-great uncle doesn’t have the same tricky immediacy for you as taking on your relationship with your brother, for instance.
JW: I think that’s true, and I mean, I’ve written another short story, probably the closest to my life that I’ve written—it was published in Glimmer Train,and I actually regretted publishing it. It was great to have something in Glimmer Train, and I’m proud of the story, but it was so close to my life and to some personal stuff with my dad that it felt like something of a betrayal to put it out there, even though he’d read it already, of course. Somehow you feel like you’re using people in your fiction sometimes, and that doesn’t feel good. The further that I can get from my own life, the further the characters are from the people in my life—then I’m just using someone as inspiration for a character that is not that person, in a story that is not about that person. I think that distance is important for the quality of that writing, too. With my novel, the two brothers are not my brother and me. And because they’re not, I can look at the younger brother, who’s kind of taking my role, and it’s a better book, I think, if I allow that younger brother to be less sympathetic, if I can see the ways that the younger brother is problematic, which would be more difficult if that character was me, do you know what I mean?
WP: Sure, but do you feel that you’re able to do that partly by looking at your relationship with your brother from a different angle?
JW: Yeah. It forces you to, absolutely. In The Great Glass Sea, the entire story was told from the younger brother’s perspective in the first draft, and now it switches back and forth. I find that, although I feel aligned with Dima, the younger brother, a lot of readers find Yarik more sympathetic and find it easier to understand Yarik’s reasons. He’s the one who actually has pressures put on him by his younger brother. I think I couldn’t have gotten all of that without stepping outside my own life a little. I just did a reading yesterday in my hometown and my brother was there, and afterward everyone was milling around and he got asked a bunch of times, “So which brother are you?” And he had a really good response. He said he thought he was the germ of Yarik, and he had read an early draft where he felt that he and Yarik were more closely linked, but in the finished novel, five drafts later, Yarik feels like a totally different being. That’s a lot of what the process is about: finding how you can get away from your own life and fictionalize it. And then, as the fictional characters and their concerns become real, you’re just naturally going to be listening to them shape the story. In a way it’s necessary for good character development, I think, to step aside. But that’s just the way I do it—I mean, a lot of people don’t. What do you find with your writing?
WP: I was just thinking of a story that I wrote called “Compotes.” The inspiration was my parents’ relationship, or one aspect of it, and I worried I’d savaged them in it without wanting to. I guess the story was still raw enough for me—it wasn’t exactly their story, but recognizably similar—that I didn’t let the characters develop as independently as I should have. And, as you say, “should” not in order to avoid something, but the opposite: to get at something more three-dimensionally. I never showed it to them.
JW: I’ve written before with the hope that someone would recognize the story.
WP: That’s a twist. Why?
JW: It was my ex-wife. (both laughing) I was heartsick and busted up over our divorce, and I wrote this novel which is really kind of self-therapy. The book is too deeply flawed to ever be saved, but the story was about a couple who are dealing with the same kind of stuff that we’d dealt with. And although I made them different people and all of that, the trajectory of the novel was kind of, almost like proving to her, see, we could have dealt with it this way, we could have changed it this way, this is how I could have been. It was almost like I was offering up this proof of—if she had read it, she could see—
WP: But she didn’t read it.
JW: I don’t think she ever read it. Geez, you know, I don’t think so, which is kind of shocking, because I got back together with her after I’d written it. I know she read a short story—I took the thing and tried to turn it into a short story, and she read that—
WP: But didn’t recognize herself?
JW: I think she did. I think she did. And the truth is, we were back together, right?