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Jodi Angel, author of You Only Get Letters from Jail and Matthew Spektor, author of Amerian Dream Machine reading at Powell's Books Monday, July 22, 7:00pm
Friday, April 5, 2013:
I’m parked in the University of Houston’s chancellor’s office, on the red-and-gold carpeted floor, participating in a sit-in organized by the graduate students. I’ve been here less than two hours, and yet I have no sensation whatsoever below my navel. Occasionally there’s a tingling in the toes of one foot—I’m not sure which one. I will need a forklift to get out of here. The students have good reason to protest. They are creative writing graduate students in one of the best programs in the country, but those who teach are among the hardest worked (2 classes per semester, 27 students per class) and they are absolutely the poorest paid teaching fellows anywhere.
For being fully responsible for the teaching of four classes of composition per year, the MFA students take home roughly $7800 per year (salary minus $1600 in fees charged by the U and taken out of their paychecks). The creative writing PhD students make a couple thousand more than that, which still puts them in the cellar nationally. TF salaries have not been raised at the University of Houston in twenty years. They make less than I did in the early 80′s when I was getting my MFA at the University of Arizona.
If this sit-in is a fair example, then protests have become a lot more hygienic and polite than my days as an undergraduate protesting the Vietnam War. And the participants are a lot better dressed. I definitely remember the smell of sweaty bodies, along with many rude, crude, and unkind comments voiced loudly. Well-dressed was not an issue, though fully dressed might have been.
Here, students and faculty line the walls but leave plenty of room for people to walk by comfortably. They have freshman essays with them to grade, and they have their laptops open (as do I) writing their lit papers and maybe their stories (presumably about revolt and revolution) for workshop. The administration is none too happy about these campers, but they seem especially worried about the social media sites that are covering the sit-in, including the grad students’ Facebook page: UH English TFs Unite. The page hasn’t been up long and the number of “Likes” is multiplying daily.
The protests back in the day were long before Facebook or email or cellphones. Communication, in fact, was often the most difficult issue in organizing and maintaining the desired tone—poor communication led to nonviolent protests turning violent, for example, and for a focused protest becoming unfocused and chaotic.
Those days are over.
Everyone involved in the sit-in signs up online. Protesters are advised to wear dress attire appropriate for teaching, to leave in time to teach their classes, and to take work along to permit quiet, friendly cohabitation with the president’s staff—a wonderfully friendly group. “I worry about y’all sitting there all day,” one said during my first day of the sit-in. She was concerned for our physical comfort. “Do you need anything?”
Q: How successful is this mannerly sit-in?
A: The faculty has tried all semester to get a meeting with the provost over this matter without any success; the students parked themselves on the president’s carpet and got a meeting with the provost in 90 minutes. Now the provost wants to meet with the
Power to the cordial, brothers and sisters.
To support the sit-in, like the following Facebook page: UH English TFs Unite.
Robert Boswell is the author of eleven books, most recently The Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards and The Half-Known World: On Writing Fiction. His novels include Century’s Son, American Owned Love, and Mystery Ride. His stories have appeared in the New Yorker, Best American Short Stories, Best Stories from the South, Esquire, Ploughshares, and many other magazines. He shares the Cullen Chair in Creative Writing at the University of Houston with his wife, Antonya Nelson
Matt Bell’s visionary debut novel In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and Woods is one of the most singularly strange and beautiful and wondrous books to come along in a long time. I picked it up one afternoon just to read the opening paragraph—
“Before our first encounter with the bear I had already finished building the house, or nearly so.”
—and finished the book before going to sleep that night. It took over my life for any number of hours and it’s one I continue to go back to from time to time, surfing the pages for the many passages I underlined. I drew checkmarks and more checkmarks in the margins. Consider yourself warned: do not pick up this novel if you have other commitments that day.
In the House is impossible to categorize. It’s impossible that anyone else could have written such a thing. It’s a novel that—as Borges wrote of Kafka—invents its own precursors. Of course, there’s a tremendous amount of fabulist fiction in our midst these days; in fact, there’s so much of it right now that fabulism is beginning to taste a bit like the flavor of the month, a fad resulting from a natural and reasonable distrust of realism and a desire to return to pre-commercial methods of telling stories. But what Bell accomplishes here is something that doesn’t happen very often: he has invented an entirely new rhetoric of fiction and marked unique territory of his own.
No plot summary can do this novel justice, so please let it suffice to say that a man and woman build a remote house where they plan to raise a family. Their efforts are complicated by a series of biological occurrences that make even the noisiest scenes in Eraserhead feel like an episode of Sesame Street. There’s also a bear that talks, sort of, and something menacing in the lake. You just have to read it.
Bell is the also the author of a novella and a collection of stories. We met a few years ago at the Winter Wheat Literary Festival in Bowling Green, Ohio, where we were late to an event because we stopped in a dive bar for a drink with Kyle Minor. I ran into Bell again a year or so later outside of a hotel room during the MLA conference, where we were both applying for the same job. Neither of us got it. I’ve followed his career with awe and jealousy and more jealousy—he’s an amazing writer—and absolute respect. He answered these questions via email in March.
Andrew Ervin: What impresses me the most about In the House is the immersive experience you’ve created. The first-person voice carries a mythic or timeless quality, and it’s sustained beautifully for hundreds of pages. Tell me how you found that and how you pulled it off so well.
Matt Bell: There’s a glib answer possible here, where I just say, “Slowly,” and then leave it at that—but of course I’ll go on. I suppose it really did take a long time to flesh it all out, but I had a kind of sketch of the voice early on—I can’t usually get very far into a story without having the story’s way of speaking at least partially in hand. Before I was finished, a lot of other influences had been mixed in: there’s a little bit of King James Version, some Greek myth, a little bit of Old Norwegian, a smattering of unusual words lifted from nineteenth-century dictionaries, some Cormac McCarthy and Brian Evenson and Hiromi Itō and Christine Schutt, all these writers who work so well at the sentence level, who write so wonderfully about the body. I’m sure there are plenty of other influences on the voice, ways of speaking I’d never be able to untangle from the novel’s, some of them there for the beginning, some folded in later.
One thing that I’m sure helped me: I was constantly reading aloud from the book, from the first day of drafting to the last day of revision, years later. I’ve read the book out loud cover to cover multiple times, at the end of every major draft, and there was never a day when I worked on the book in silence.
I think that there was also some want on my part to prove wrong a truism I’d heard too often in grad school and in other places: When I was in school, it seemed to be a given that an intense focus on language and acoustics couldn’t be carried over an entire novel, that this kind of voice was the province of the story, the poem, that it was too difficult for the writer, too exhausting for the reader. From the first time I heard someone say that, I didn’t believe it—there are plenty of books out there that prove otherwise—and I think I wanted to find out for myself what I could do at this length, with the kind of voices I’m drawn to.
Michelle Wildgen (Executive Editor, Tin House Magazine): I really wish I had read John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead in time to give the book to my nonfiction students last fall. It’s not just that he’s extremely funny on subjects like a Christian rock festival or MTV’s Real World complex, though he is. For three days now I have been laughing at the line, “I’d assumed that my days at Creation would be fairly lonely and end with my ritual murder,” but Sullivan reaches well beyond obvious music fest targets and into something more expansive when he meets up with a crew of very devout, maybe crazy, but mostly kind and welcoming guys. An essay on his brother’s recovery from accidental electrocution feels haunting, strange and funny, but I think my favorite writing in here is on pop culture. Sullivan is particualrly wonderful at considering figures like Michael Jackson or Axl Rose, and hitting upon what it was like to see experience their iconic performances and the oddities into which they devolved. He manages to encompass it all: the physical presence of a performer, the emotional states they evoked and out of which they seemed to spring, and he makes the moments that stick in our collective cultural head feel both new and familiar. It makes me want to randomly assign him subjects just to see what he’ll do with them. “Specialty foods shows! Arthur Murray’s Dance Academy! Software development! Go!”
Heather Hartley (Paris Editor): Jacques Réda’s The Ruins of Paris guides the reader through the city’s neighborhoods and suburbs–from beautiful to gritty, noble to popular, spirited to silent. A true flâneur (stroller or walker or loafer), Réda moves from Montmartre to Belleville to St. Germain des Prés to everywhere in between. His love of jazz music is evident in his syncopated, lyrical and at times disjointed prose. “A courtyard, no, an impasse that is illuminated by a solitary tree–I stop. But it’s not out of curiosity that I keep walking past the dark wood . . .”
Emma Komlos-Hrobsky (Assistant Editor, Tin House Magazine): Seeing Maggie Nelson read with Wayne Koestenbaum at St. Mark’s a few weeks ago inspired me to dip back into some (relatively) vintage Nelson, her collection Something Bright, Then Holes. This book holds a particular charge for me in its second section, where Nelson writes about a trauma in the life of someone I happen to know. At St. Mark’s, Nelson was asked whether her willingness to bring her readers so close to fraught personal material has lead them to tell her that they ‘feel like they know her.’ I understand exactly the reading experience behind that question. Yet even more astonishing to me is the closeness and care and perceptivity with which she attends to the emotional life of the world on beyond herself. Nelson is so deeply smart and fearless that it’s easy to look past how deeply kind her writing is, too, and there’s maybe no better reminder of that than this book.
Jakob Vala (Graphic Designer): What if Robert Oppenheimer’s famous declaration, “Now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds,” was not just a reflection on the creation of the atomic bomb, but a warning of intergalactic proportions? In The Manhattan Projects, a comic series by Jonathan Hickman, the Project serves as a front for more mysterious experiments. The solid cast of characters (Einstein, Feynman, Fermi, Von Braun) is made stronger by Hickman’s knowledge of real history and by his addition of fictional complexities (Hint: Oppenheimer is not what he seems).
Artist Nick Pitarra has a style that complements this disturbing alternate history in a way that is both gritty and refined. His use of color, especially his technique of changing palettes to tell parallel stories, is effective and striking. And, I will admit that my initial interest in the series was based entirely on Pitarra’s gorgeous minimalist covers.
I just finished the first trade edition (issues 1-5) and can’t wait to see where this story of the world’s most elite and insane scientists takes me.
Desiree Andrews (Assistant Editor, Tin House Magazine): This week I read A Room with a View for the first time. Victorian literature sure knows where a girl’s heart lies, which is to say that men who are emotionally unavailable, vaguely troubled, and certainly unattainable, are attractive, even when they don’t get much time in scene. This book cashes in on the romantic imprint that forbidden love/radical freethinking is sexy and conventional thinking is not; it does it in a pretty brilliant way and I ate it up like candy.
The honey bee licks her forelegs and combs the pollen from her head. She stretches down the length of her thorax. What was once taut and hirsute now resembles the plundered stamen of a speedwell. She has been lost for six days. Her wings ache; an abnormal spasm pinches her bowels. She can hardly clock the sun as it passes across the sky. She senses a portent of cold in the air. She is nearly three weeks old and knows that winter is fast approaching.
Her life has not been marked by any great serendipity. Her birth did not come during an interregnum nor did gender grant her the chance for a proud mating death. She sustained the ancestral course: nourishing the young, extending the hive, performing housework. When her royal jelly had dried and her beeswax was spent, she was taught to fly great distances and sent out with the other spinsters to forage pollen and nectar.
Pressing the pollen into a ball with her hind legs, she affixes the golden nugget to a single hair on her corbicula. She has excelled at collecting foodstuffs from the start, searching faster than her peers, farther, but now it weighs on her like a fading talent. She has no use for so much food, let alone the stacks of nuggets she has abandoned along the way. Her hunger has waned with age. These daily rounds sate an instinct as immutable as the setting sun, but in her solitude, serve no greater purpose than relief.
She knows she will never again enjoy the thrill of a hunt with her comrades. She will never savor the proffering of a meal or the joy of welcoming a newborn child, and when the frosts inevitably come, she will not share in the warmth of the swarms shivering corporation. She knows this like she knows dark. She sails a sympathetic zephyr toward the blue horizon thinking of her first flight. The smell of nectar, green at her feet; she stepping off into the blue void, her body weightless, flying beyond the sounds of the hive buzzing somewhere behind to a place that only existed in the dreams of dead bees.
Sam Katz was born in Korea and came to the US at the age of 2. His fiction has appeared or will soon in The Good Men Project, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Per Contra, and Southern Humanities Review.
The Tin House Seminar is the product of a partnership between Tin House and the MFA Program at Portland State University. It offers a term-long intensive study of an author’s body of work, culminating in a public reading and staged interview with the author. The 2012 seminar, taught by Charles D’Ambrosio, focused on the work of the award-winning fiction writer Anthony Doerr.
The 2013 Tin House seminar, taught by Leni Zumas, will focus on the work of Maggie Nelson, a writer whose intellectual ferocity and wildly divergent work is tailor made for sustained study and discussion.
This year, for the first time, we are excited to offer readers of The Open Bar the ability to participate in the 10-week graduate seminar being taught at PSU. We encourage our readers to follow the syllabus, read the texts, and post your thoughts/comments/questions to the Maggie Nelson Seminar Blog, where Leni and students taking the course will engage with the community on the work. Towards the end of the term, Maggie, who will give a reading and interview at The Little Church in Portland on May 31, 2013, will be answering some of the questions posted to the site.
Most supplementary materials—reviews, interviews, essays, audio clips, etc.—will be accessible via the seminar website. Course members will help fill out the body of the website, adding content to the site in the form of links, images, PDFs, and/or posts related to that week’s texts.
Class begins on April 4th (today!) with an examination of Maggie Nelson’s “A Sort of Leaning Against,” an essay taken from The Writer’s Notebook II: Craft Essays from Tin House.
This is a fabulous opportunity to read (or reread) Maggie Nelson’s work—Bluets, Jane: A Murder, Shiner, Something Bright, Then Holes, The Art of Cruelty, The Latest Winter, The Red Parts: A Memoir, Women, the New York School, and Other True Abstractions—and engage with the material in a unique and exciting way.
We hope to see you in class!
Hey Tin House Hoopsters, picture this as we enter the final week of March Madness!
Your bracket is nearly entirely busted, but for a team or two hanging by a thread.
Your favorite team is out.
You won’t win the office pool, but you may still claim victory in the last game of smack talk with your neighbor whose team lost in the round before yours.
Nothing left now but to go back to the daily grind.
Nothing left but the old-fashioned joy of the game.
But in basketball, as in life, you ask yourself: how much joy is there?
Depression sets in, and as a matter of fact even here so near spring, Nature turns a cold eye on you and it begins to snow. You do a double-take out the window.
Snow, of all things, falling in heavy sheets that cloak the land in white. You need to get right with the game again, you say, shaking your head.
Get your heart right. But why is one team better than another? What makes a team great? How do we rise and how do we fall? Will it be Louisville, Michigan, Wichita State or Syracuse? Your mind spins as you stare at the keyboard, the pencil, the pen. When does prose or poetry enter the mythical Final Four? You wonder if you’ll ever write what you were meant to write. You click something obscure into the search engine, something about the definition of great writing. Fools gold, you think, but you come across William Giraldi, words that strike with the blunt force of a forging hammer.
Don’t let anyone tell you that it’s impossible to prove how one book is better than another. The difference between a major poet and a minor one is that the major poet writes into the density of language while the minor one merely floats on top of it, and the same holds for prose writers. “[Gerard Manley] Hopkins,” (Geoffrey) Hill said, “enters language as a bird takes off into the air,” and that’s exactly what you feel when reading Nabokov and Bellow at their most vibrant. You know when you’re holding a novel whose language betrays a staggering lack of register, every noun and verb the available jargon, every adjective limply obvious, a morass of cliché without vigor or revelation, abrupt sentences that have arrived on the page without a commitment to the dynamism and dimensions of language. What’s the chief defect that makes Tom Clancy vastly inferior to Nadine Gordimer? The lame inevitability of his language, flogged sentences that disclose a mind incapable of activating self-knowledge or delighting in analogues, and a pandering to the simplistic and reductive, which is precisely how propaganda works.
Serious smack talk, right there in the online ether.
In the war between man and the natural world, it would appear, judging from Brin Levinson’s unpeopled, postapocalyptic cityscapes, nature has won. Levinson’s worlds—washed in dour grays, ochre, and sepia brown—suggest the landscape before us is already becoming a relic. The brightest colors, the occasional burst of blue sky that breaks out from behind cloud-crowded sky, the flash of red graffiti on a rhino, pop off the canvas.
Our own Elisaa Schappell talked with Brin via email to discuss a graffitied walrus, our latest cover (for which he supplied the image), and the use of humor in his work.
Elissa Schappell: Your recent paintings have a very post-apocalyptic feel. It would seem a global environmental catastrophe, or war has, as far as we can see, wiped humankind from the planet. Either because of man, or in the wake of man, wild animals roam an industrial landscape. The rhino on our cover, tagged with graffiti, appears to have both suffered at the hands of man, and survived him. Do you foresee a future that looks like the one you capture? Are the paintings visions of that future or warnings against it?
Brin Levinson: I don’t necessarily foresee a future that looks like my paintings. This theme has evolved into them over the last few years, but I’m careful about it. There are many possibilities for what the future world will look like. Maybe my images are of a specific extraordinary circumstance. If cities do become ghost towns without human maintenance, the plants and animals will surely come back. However, at the point where humans are on the decline, I’m sure most large animals will already be extinct. I painted “Empire Builder” (on the cover) around the time that the Western Black Rhino was declared extinct. We are currently living and participating in the Holocene extinction event in which species are dying faster than the dinosaurs did. So, by painting animals taking over our abandoned cities, I’m painting a very optimistic idea. That’s why I think my paintings have a hopeful tone. This is the moment of calm after the storm when nature has a chance to come back.
ES: In one of your paintings fish swim down a city street completely underwater–you might imagine that this is the aftermath of a flood or some other natural disaster. After Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy it seems rather prescient.
BL: “Deep Streets” is a painting I did after visiting Venice Italy last summer. As we know, Venice is sinking. It floods every year and you can see the high water line on the bricks. At night, the city has a greenish glow and a sort of watery feel as though it’s getting prepared for going under. Our modern coastal cities are going under too but they’re not ready for it. They still have an all-powerful arrogance even in the wake of rising oceans and hurricanes. But maybe that’s starting to change with more disasters being so devastating.
ES: For as dark as some of the work is—the graffitied walrus in the switching yard made me terribly sad—the work is quite often slyly funny—witness the graffitied walrus in the switching yard. How important is that humor to the success of the work?
BL: I like to have a certain amount of absurdity in my work because it’s interesting. If someone thinks an image is funny and another thinks it’s troubling, that’s great. If it’s the same person that has both reactions, that’s probably even better. A painting can be like a story with high points and low points, drama and humor. If it all works together, then it’s really successful. Some people see nightmares while others see beauty in the same piece. That’s really interesting to me and it’s great to hear different reactions. My main focus is on making images that are interesting and beautiful.
ES: Are there any particular artists, musicians, writers who have shaped your artistic vision?
BL: Yes, there are many and inspiration comes from pretty much everywhere. Currently, many of my favorites are contemporary painters and surrealists. Any good piece of art or music or photo is inspiring no matter who made it or what the medium is. I have a studio at the Falcon art community, which is filled with great painters, and it’s very inspiring.
ES: One of Portland’s nicknames is the City of Bridges. Quite of the few of the nicest ones are represented in your work. What is it about the bridges that appeal to you? Do you have a favorite?
BL: One of my main focuses is to make structures feel especially large. I really like the dynamic of scale. The bridges are huge amazing sculptures that are icons of Portland. Nostalgia is a feeling I try to create in my work so the older bridges are perfect to me. I love the Steel Bridge because it’s a 100-year-old artifact and has an awesome presence in the middle of the city. It’s like a grandfather clock. All the cables, weights and wheels that make it lift are exposed so you can see how it works.
On top of this incredible cover, we’re also thrilled to announce that we’re now able to fulfill digital subscriptions to the magazine. Every new print subscription comes with access to the digital version, which you can enjoy alone for $19.95. This has been a long time coming and we hope you’ll continue to enjoy the magazine in whatever format you prefer.
Is that true? Are we all—all of us writers—fans? Fan-like, do we not passionately—sometimes even obsessively—engage with our subjects? Do we not write in order to gain access and understanding? To be able to become part of the greater whole? But what about the freighted and fraught side of fandom? When our desire for access and intimacy creates a debit or comes at some other cost?
I put the question, as it were, to a variety of authors whom I admire and consider myself a fan. I asked them to describe their best or most interesting or most transformative experiences as fans. As the answers came back, I discovered another distinct and weirdly interesting pleasure: that of being a fan listening to fans talking about being fans.
Pauls Toutonghi (Evel Knievel Days): When I was fifteen, I was deeply submerged in a hormonal sea — sinking, in crisis, failing out of school, arguing with everyone and everybody about everything. Midway through that year, two things happened. The poet Sam Hamill gave me the Copper Canyon Press edition of W.S. Merwin’s First Four Books of Poems. And Nirvana released the album Nevermind.
I think that my fifteen year old soul was saved, quite honestly, by some alchemic combination of these two things. I became a fan — in the way that only a fifteen year old can — with impressively passionate ardor — and life-changing single-mindedness. I would read Merwin in my room at night and listen to Nevermind on my Sony Walkman. I intuited some solution, in these disparate sources, to my sense of existential despair.
To this day I can identify any song off of that album in one note. It sounded — to me — like something human set on fire in the dark. And these three lines of this Merwin poem, “The River of Bees” — I have never been able to explain their effect on me.
“In a dream I returned to the river of bees
Five orange trees by the bridge and
Beside two mills my house”
There you have it. Whatever it was, it saved my life.
A.N. Devers (www.writershouses.com): Not so long ago, I was asked if I ever got tired of visiting dead writers’ houses. I do visit them frequently, perhaps more than one would think sane or possible, and now I run a website about writers’ houses, and I have written essays about my visits to writers’ houses, given interviews about my visits, given talks about my visits, and am working on a book, etc. So it’s a fair question, for sure.
But the answer is no. I can’t get enough. I am a fan of writers’ houses and the reason is because visiting a writer’s house changed my understanding of Edgar Allan Poe, longtime one of my favorite authors. Soon I couldn’t stop visiting literary sites related to Poe, and not long after that I started revisiting them in chronological order from birth to death. And I started visiting other writers’ houses because I’d been so moved by the experience I had standing in an empty cellar that inspired Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat.”
I have written about this moment before, but I was changed in the experience, and became obsessed by the moment. And writers’ houses have become a kind of fuel for me and my work. It was all unexpected. But when a moment arrives it’s important not to look away or ignore the feeling that you are being smacked in the face with something central to your being. Fandom, for me, is a phenomenon that has struck me rarely in life. I’ve never waited in line overnight for tickets to see a band, for instance. But I have slept overnight outside Edgar Allan Poe’s cemetery. And that’s the experience that gives me an understanding into the motivation of the fan. It’s about obsession, passion, and love. My very physical obsession of visiting writers’ houses is complicated, but at the root level, it is about my love of other writers’ words and the possibility of standing in the same space where those words were pulled from air.
In October 2012, Tin House magazine poetry editor Matthew Dickman posted:
“I want to ask if you will join me in a small, inexpensive, but possibly life-altering experiment. Over the next thirty days, let’s all buy a favorite book of poems and send it to someone who doesn’t usually read poems. This could be a family member, friend, your local representative, whomever! I believe poetry enriches our lives and our hearts. I believe that by sharing poetry with others we are taking part in humanizing our culture.”
Inspired by this challenge and in honor of National Poetry Month, Tin House Books and Coffee House Press have collaborated with Archipelago Books, BOA Editions, Copper Canyon Press, Milkweed Editions, Red Hen Press, Sarabande Books, and YesYes Books to give readers the opportunity to share their love of poetry through a Buy One, Give One program.
It’s this simple: Participating publishers will give you a free book of poetry for every book of poetry purchased via their Web sites.
How it works for us: When you buy a copy of Alex Lemon’s Mosquito or Brandon Shimoda’s Portuguese, Tin House Books will send you a free copy of Satellite Convulsions: Poems from Tin House to give to someone who doesn’t usually read poems—a family member, a friend, your local representative, whomever.
Spread the love and share a gift that never stops giving.
It’s no secret that Matt Kish has been scrawling his way down the Congo for the illustrated edition of Heart of Darkness (keep track of his journey by checking out his tumblr); but since the alchemy of turning words into pictures is in itself a bit of a trip, we bring you (from Issue 29), one possible road map for how this type of amalgamation can take shape.
So . . . what the fuck?
So why does a guy best known for portraits of half-naked punk-porn chicks decide one day to sit down and illustrate every single page of a relentlessly difficult classic of twentieth-century literature?
Last year a newspaper wanted an article out of me on roughly that topic. If there was a punk-porn/Pynchon connection I didn’t know what it was but I told the guy I’d give it a shot and hung up the phone. I did know there was a go-go dancing, fire-eating, tattooed anarchist lying on my bed, and I knew she was busy reading Vineland out loud—and that was about it.
A few days later, I went to Los Angeles and met lots of pornographers. The first pornographer had the muted post horn from Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 tattooed on his arm. He told me to read Steve Erickson.
The second pornographer told me about a third pornographer who I had to talk to because he was like the original punk pornographer and he was doing it before anybody so I asked what’s this guy’s name and he said, “Benny Profane.” I called Benny:
“Benny Profane, you’re named after a character in V. and you make dirty movies. Can you please explain to me the secret connection between Thomas Pynchon and punk-porn?” Continue reading
The following is excerpted from J.C. Hallman’s Wm & H’ry: Literature, Love, and the Letters between William & Henry James, out now from University of Iowa Press.
ON SEPTEMBER 7, 1861, having lately abandoned a dream of life as an artist and enrolled in Harvard’s Lawrence Scientific School, Wm set out from his new, strange, rented room in Cambridge and walked mechanically to the P.O., hoping against all hope to find a letter from his brother. His box was empty. Wm turned heavily away. Before he could leave, he felt a modest touch. It was his landlord’s young son, offering an envelope inscribed with familiar characters.
“Mr. James! This was in our box!”
Wm tore open H’ry’s letter, read it right there in the post office. That evening, homesick and alone on a Saturday night, he began a reply: “Sweet was your letter & grateful to my eyes.” The first letter of the surviving correspondence contains snippets in French, Latin, and Portuguese, alludes to Shakespeare, reports on a visit to a collection of sculptural casts at the Boston Atheneum, and attests to an absence of “equanimity” (the presence of which, many years later, Wm would count among the defining traits of mysticism). He was nineteen years old.
They wrote often. They wrote letters about reading letters, letters about how much time had passed since they had received a letter, letters that depicted the moment of their composition. Wm’s first letter describes the table on which he writes (round, with a red and black cloth), specifies the number of windows in his room (five), inventories his bookcase (“my little array of printed wisdom covering nearly one of the shelves”), and lists “Drear and Chill Abode” as its return address.
The early letters often express frustration with the inability of words to truly convey experience. Correspondence pales beside conversation. Over the next few years, as Wm and H’ry each completed an initial solo Grand Tour, they cried out for each other’s company.
H’ry, from Lucerne: “I’d give my right hand for an hour’s talk with you.”
H’ry, from Venice, six weeks later: “Among the letters which I found here on my arrival was a most valuable one from you . . . which made me ache to my spirit’s core for half an hour’s talk with you.”
Wm, from Berlin: “What wouldn’t I give to have a good long talk with you all at home.”
Wm, from Dresden, after visiting the Gallery: “I’d give a good deal to import you and hear how some of the things strike you.”
In 1869, Wm advised H’ry, then in Geneva, not to yield to homesickness. “I wish I heard from you oftener,” H’ry had written. Wm told him to pay no mind to ennui, noting that his own “heaviest days were full of instruction.” The same letter opened with a borrowed stanza:
O call my brother back to me,
I cannot play alone
The summer comes with flower & bee
Where is my brother gone?
A few years later, Wm described H’ry as “my in many respects twin bro,” which serves as a fair description of the image he once sketched in the margin of a letter illustrating the proposed sleeping arrangements for H’ry’s then-impending visit to Cambridge:
The pleas for companionship persisted as Wm and H’ry grew older, taking up permanent residence on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean, and establishing very different social lives and almost completely incompatible aesthetics.
1876: “Your letter . . . quickened my frequent desire to converse with you.”
1883: “I would give any thing to see you.”
1886: “Would to God I could get over to see you . . . for about 24 hours.”
1889: “I long to talk with you—of, as you say, a 100 things.”
1896: “How I wish I could sit in your midst!”
1899: “Within the last couple of days I have wished you were nearer to me, that I might consult with you.”
In 1893, both brothers having recently passed fifty years of age, Wm reflected on the James family’s thinning ranks (mother, father, and two younger siblings having died in recent years), claiming that he now felt, more than ever before, that he and H’ry “formed part of a unity.” He was moved to quote from Matthew Arnold’s “The Future,” which had been formative in other ways. (“Where the river in gleaming rings / sluggishly winds through the plain / . . . So is the mind of man” anticipates the “stream of consciousness” that Wm articulated and H’ry employed.) Moved at impending mortality, Wm lifted snippets from the poem’s conclusion.
And the width of the waters, the hush . . .
. . . may strike peace to the soul of man on its breast,
As the pale waste widens around him,
As the stars come out and the night-wind
Brings up the stream
Murmurs and scents of the infinite sea.
They were closer to death, but not close. The exchange continued for another seventeen years. The letters contain spats, disagreements, and plenty of evidence of diverging intellects, but chart, too, a love growing ever fonder. In 1910, several months before Wm died, H’ry fell into a sour mood. He had been dabbling with a nutritional chewing cure fad that his brother had recommended, but now the cure had backfired, and he had been left with a stomach that had forgotten how to digest food. His letters took on a frantic tone; he streamed fear and loneliness. “Oh for a letter!” he cried. Wm made plans to visit. “An immense change for the better will come, I feel, with your advent,” H’ry rejoiced. “That will be my cure.”
Wm arrived to comfort his brother in May. He was dead by August. H’ry lived another six years.
J.C. Hallman is the author of several books, including The Chess Artist, The Devil Is a Gentleman, The Hospital for Bad Poets, and In Utopia. He’s also editor of the anthology series The Story About The Story, the second volume of which comes out this October.
Unless I have some precise sequence or starting point in mind, which is rather uncommon, I like to start from a single image or reference. From there I try and think about the story that that particular image tells me, what kind of atmosphere it creates, what kind of mood is imbedded in it. It’s a really good practice I’ve developed for my artistic process. I love to see how things naturally evolve that way. I actually did this piece right before I left for Mexico too, so I was starting to imagine existing in a tropical climate and meditating on how that alters your state on mind.
Aidan Koch is an illustrator and comic artist from the Pacific NW.
Diane Chonette (Art Director): In the brief window of time between putting Oliver to bed and tucking myself in, there is room for a bit of mindless entertainment. If we are between seasons on the current favorites, our go-to Netflix choices oscillate between anime, old sci-fi, and old British travel shows. In the last month, we’ve been heavy on Doctor Who, which covers nearly all those categories. We are in the David Tennant years now and have most definitely fallen for his quirky charm and boyish good looks. Most recently we saw one of my favorite Doctor Who episodes yet, featuring a little of The Doctor and a lot of Carey Mulligan (as Sally Sparrow). The episode, titled Blink, was smart, scary and full of the time travel puzzles that keep you awake at night. Decidedly different from the corny plots and ridiculous effects that make Doctor Who so fun to watch, this one had me truly engaged. Come to find out it was an anomaly of the 2007 series, written by Steven Moffat, who later becomes the main writer for the 2009 series. A diamond in the rough, as it were. Now, back to the Tardis!
Tony Perez (Editor, Tin House Books): I’m probably a few years late in recommending Luis Alberto Urrea’s The Devil’s Highway: A True Story, but I think it’s worth mentioning how wonderful the audio version is. Urrea reads the book himself, and if you’ve ever seen the man read–or perhaps it’s more appropriate to say orate, recite, preach–you know he can perform. I’ve been on a audio-nonfiction kick, but I typically avoid books where I want to savor the sentences. Here, however, I feel like Urrea’s voice and intonations only add to the effect.
Rob Spillman (Editor of Tin House): Aleksandar Hemon’s The Book of My Lives. Memory is the material for Hemon’s memoir-like first book of nonfiction, and he packs a lot–linguistically, stylistically, and emotionally–into the short pieces.
Michelle Wildgen (Executive Editor, Tin House Magazine): I just came off a glorious spate of neglecting other duties in favor of tearing through a pile of books, and I must say it did me good. At the top of my list was Ty Burr’s Gods Like Us: On Movie Stardom and Modern Fame, which examines the bizarre cult of Hollywood celebrity, from silent films’ Florence Lawrence to Angelina Jolie, and Burr is especially wonderful at illuminating the particulars of each star’s appeal, breaking down what feels like mere gut feeling into a complex convergence of physical and dramatic characteristics, our own desires and perceptions, and cultural contexts.
In Michael Hainey’s After Visiting Friends: A Son’s Story, the GQ deputy editor delves into the mysteries surrounding his father’s death back in 1970. This isn’t a murder mystery, so it’s less the uncertainty in the cause of death that carries such weight than the silences and blank spots surrounding the man himself, where he was that night and why, and the long shadow cast by his absence.
Heather Hartley (Paris Editor): Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of Boris Vian tunes, the French trumpeter—and also novelist, poet and singer—who played in Paris nightclubs like Le Tabou and Le Caveau de la Huchette (still in existence) in the 1940s and 1950s. Running with the Left Bank jazz-loving crowd, Vian was friends with Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, and Raymond Queneau and is probably best known for his whimsically dark novel, Foam of the Daze: L’Ecume Des Jours. His songs range from purely delightful jazz numbers like “Jazz Me Blues” to the anti-war song “Le Deserteur” to pure blues with “Rose Room.” Spring seems a particularly wonderful season to listen to Vian, windows open, light leaning longer into the night.
Devon Walker-Domine (The Open Bar Intern): On the poetry front, I’ve been thoroughly enjoying the anthology The Gift of Tongues. In this rather hefty volume, Sam Hamill, one of the founders of Copper Canyon press, assembles an array of real poetic gems from over 150 different titles the press has published since its inception in 1972. The poets range from Su Tung-p’o (11th-century China) to W.S. Merwin to Lucille Clifton, and each voice is as stirring and stilling as the next. The themes, feelings, even moods found within these poems are as diverse as the body of poets from which they are drawn, though many of the individual poems share an interest in the complex relationship between humans and nature, exploring with a sense of wonder and reverence both the pleasures and pains we derive from our interactions with natural world.
Hamill says in his forward, which is in many ways as artfully drawn as a poem, that he selected each piece in this collection because it moved him in some way, because it defied forgetting. And after reading just half of the poems in this collection, I can see why he chose the ones he did. Each poem presents itself in such a memorable way it saddens me that I don’t have enough time to just hunker down in a comfortable armchair for the day and memorize line after beautiful line.
Cheston Knapp (Managing Editor): Peter Rock’s new novel, The Shelter Cycle, follows the lives of several people who were brought up under the influence of the Church Universal and Triumphant, in Montana in the late-’80s, early-’90s. While the organization is often referred to as a cult, Rock remarkably manages to skirt all such judgment and, more importantly, avoid any whiff of parody. The characters earnestly search and you search with them. They’re haunted by the residue of their former beliefs, as are you. The prose is spare and lyrical and the book as a whole is strange and wild and luminous, often literally. I’ve been recommending it so much it sounds like I’m chanting. If you’re intrigued, check this out and this.
Jakob Vala (Graphic Designer, Tin House): I read Ray Bradbury’s story “The Small Assassin” as a kid and was both amazed and terrified at the idea of an evil infant terrorizing his parents. The story has stuck with me for years and I credit Bradbury with giving me my first taste of the creepy kid genre of horror. Murderous tots have been used successfully in movies like The Brood, Children of the Corn, The Omen, and recently The Children (2008).
It’s Alive (1974) is not so successful, but it is a schlocky classic, nonetheless. The plot—a homicidal newborn that is somehow able to survive on its own in LA—is not nearly as ridiculous as the fact that no one in the film doubts the existence of such a creature. The production values and acting hover just above B-level. It’s entertaining and unintentionally campy, with just one genuinely horrifying scene—mostly when viewed as a critique of institutionalized birthing practices.
It’s Alive is most interesting as an artifact of the 70s. Made a year after Roe v Wade and in the aftermath of the Thalidomide tragedies, ideas of reproductive rights and personhood feature prominently, as does a concern over the increasing use of pesticides and chemicals. In more capable hands, the film could have been a smart critique of social and environmental issues. Unfortunately, the follow-through is frustratingly weak and we’re left with an amusing late-night horror film, but not much else.
Lance Cleland (Pickup Basketball Star): There are endless amounts of people who have amazing stories to tell. The number of people who can construct those stories into a compelling narrative is considerably less. It is what separates your stoner friend Ralph from Denis Johnson. The reason I mention this is because I recently watched a documentary where this dichotomy was frustratingly on display. The story of The Imposter is astonishing. In fact, it might be the strangest story I have ever encountered. A serial French child imposter, a loose cannon detective, a family who may or may not have buried their troubled son in the backyard; this is tailor-made edge of your seat material the filmmakers were handed. So why muck it up with cheesy reenactments, a terrible score, and a story arc that reveals everything too early? I can’t remember the last time I was so riveted by a narrative yet so irritated in its telling. I absolutely urge you to seek this out on Netflix. Just don’t blame me when you throw your remote at the screen.
We set out in the middle of the night and arrived at the station by daybreak. The two men we’d been promised awaited us in black jackets and red caps, standing alone together on the empty platform with their hands behind their backs.
Once the train set off she asked the waiter for a glass of ice water. He brought the water to her boiling but dropped in ice cubes from a gilded bucket until it cooled. They left the bucket and the little golden tongs they’d used to withdraw the ice on the carpet of our cabin. I tried to read the book I’d brought but the pages kept moving every time I looked up. Outside the window the fog would clear for a moment and set in again.
Once as we rocketed past a line of telegraph poles she said, “At the rate we’re going we could run someone over and not notice the bump.”
I slid through our cabin door. The floor of the car was all bare concrete. Someone had retrofitted the dining car into three lines of computers running through spotty plasma monitors.
When we pulled into the city he looked up what he’d come to find but learned that the library had burnt down the night before. The firefighters were kind enough to let us under the cordon wire. “Just watch your step,” they said.
The drizzling rain of the morning turned the fine layers of ash into mud around our shoes.
The door to the records in the basement was intact in its frame but the stairs had all collapsed in. He spoke very rapidly for awhile about getting in from the basement of the department store next door but then abandoned the idea for some reason he never told me.
At our hotel I traded the empty ice bucket and tongs left to us on the train for an elevator ride to the roof and we stared down at the city and at the city that mirrored it on the opposite coast. Everything stayed in place while the fog cleared.
John Fram writes from an apartment within his price range in Texas.
For those devoted to basketball, the game sometimes comes alive before our very eyes, and transforms us. In such moments we fall in love with basketball all over again, and perhaps regain, for a moment, a renewed hope in the possibilities of life.
In this year’s March Madness, a relative unknown, Florida Gulf Coast University, has captured the dreams of the nation. The FGCU Eagles have done it with a high flying style of play, full of acrobatic maneuvers that reside in the stratosphere above the rim: pinpoint alley oop passes and thunderous dunks, soaring rebounds and hard boned hustle. In defeating 2-seed and Big East conference powerhouse Georgetown, as well as 7-seed San Diego State, the Eagles became the first 15-seed in tournament history to advance to the Sweet 16 (check this out for a taste of the FGCU stratosphere).
Deep discipline resides below the mystery.
When I was young I did not know how to see my father, and I thought he did not know quite how to see me. On the reservation, the game that involves a hoop, a net, and a ball, seemed to clear our clouded vision. I spent part of my childhood on the Northern Cheyenne reservation where I learned to play basketball with speed and precision passing, and a form of controlled wildness that is often hard to come by in non-reservation basketball circles. The Northern Cheyenne teams I played on played with great passion and uncommon unity.
We all love teams that play with passion.
And in this sense art, strangely enough, is not unlike basketball.
We thirst for art that shows full-bodied love.
In this world, we suffer. We are burned. We often fall. We sometimes rise.
We say basketball is only a game. We discover basketball is more than a game.
President, Wrangler International
Ron Currie, Jr.
Principal, Deadbeat Deity Marketing Strategies, LLC
1. Situation Analysis
Since the mid-1970s, Wrangler International has ceded every denim-buying demographic aside from middle-aged white men who watch NASCAR, pronounce the “t” in “Merlot,” and enjoy thinking of themselves as self-made individualists despite the fact that most of them carry more debt than they could pay off in three lifetimes. Long gone are the days when Newsweek coined the word “teenager” in a cover story featuring a photo of a young woman clad in Wranglers (though to be fair, long gone, too, are the days of Newsweek). Since then, Wrangler has lost considerable market share to other major-brand manufacturers, including Levi Strauss and Lee, as well as to boutique premium denim manufacturers such as Calvin Klein, Gucci, and Ellen Fisher. Rather than attempt to diversify its offerings, though, Wrangler has instead opted to retreat to white male values voters and defend this haven tooth and nail.
The resources expended on protecting this already-safe portion of the market are vast and unjustifiable. Great sums of money have been paid to spokesmen such as Brett Favre and Dale Earnhardt Jr., as well as on sponsorships with the National Barrel Horse Association, Miss Rodeo America, and the World Series of Team Roping. We believe that an innovative new product line, coupled with a bold marketing plan, will break Wrangler out of the white trash ghetto it has relegated itself to, and position the brand for steady growth well into the 21st century—as well as giving it the opportunity to play the role of good corporate citizen by helping out in the War on Homelessness.
Today’s young consumers crave authenticity. Unfortunately, authenticity takes time, and who has enough of that to sit around waiting for authenticity to show up? No one, that’s who. There’s a hot DJ at the club tonight, and if you’re going to make the scene you need a pair of well-worn jeans tonight, not in two years when you’ve gone to the trouble of wearing them in yourself. Sure, prior to the 1990s people often wore in their own jeans, but that was before inventions like jobs, telephones, and children came along and started making us all so very, very busy. Denim manufacturers other than Wrangler recognized that their customers wanted jeans that looked like they’d owned them for years, but were far too busy to actually own jeans for years. Their solution? They began selling jeans that were ready to be turned in to Goodwill the moment one paid for them. Blown out knees, wallet holes in back pockets, and eroded dyes became the industry standard. For two decades, these products have dominated the 18-29 demographic, across genders. But they have one fatal weakness, a weakness that Wrangler is poised to exploit.
Remember what we said a moment ago, about authenticity? What’s authentic about a pair of jeans that have been worn in by a machine? The answer: nothing. Nothing at all. And today’s savvy young consumers know this, even if they won’t admit it to themselves. They experience a niggling dismay every time they look at the too-symmetrical abrasion on their right-hip pocket or, worse, discover that one of their friends has the exact same hole in the exact same spot on her Levi’s. Alas, no one has yet offered them a more genuine alternative to these tragedies of automation, so they continue to buy what’s on offer and cross their fingers that they won’t encounter the rare soul who thinks buying pants with holes already in them is kind of stupid.
Wrangler’s objective will be to offer these busy young adults jeans that have been worn in not by machines, but by actual human beings.
Ben Schrank’s latest work, Love Is a Canoe, centers around the idea of marriage but it is also about desire and ambition and what grows when these things are absent.
I find Schrank to be a confident, intelligent writer, who seems to know his characters well, always revealing a truth at precisely the right moment in the story. He is particularly adept at creating strong female characters who are nuanced, a rarity in fiction about love, sex, and marriage.
We recently had the opportunity to talk, via e-mail, about his latest book.
Roxane Gay: I was particularly interested in Emily Babson. I don’t know that I’ve seen a more fully realized character in recent memory. There were so many odd details about her that felt very true. One detail I cannot let go of is how she loved calling 311 and felt satisfaction when she saw that one of her calls was successful. Where did this character come from and how did she fit into what you wanted to do with Love Is a Canoe?
Ben Schrank: Thanks about Emily. She was the hardest character for me and the one that my wife and my agent and my editor had me work on the most. Perhaps because she was a needy case in earlier drafts, I overcompensated, and gave her more texture than the other characters. I wanted Emily to be shy and involved and determined to be in New York and also always wanting more from New York and able to explain things that are not animate. I wanted people to trigger anxiety in her. I wanted her to duck down behind cars when she saw people she knew from college. But most of all I wanted her to marry because she believed in a construct and trusted that construct. This is, I think, not a good reason to marry. A close friend of my wife sees me in Emily. I also love 311.
RG: The structure of Love is a Canoe was really interesting, both in using a beloved, very sentimental self-help book on marriage as a narrative frame, and by writing each chapter in the point of view of the character whose story is being told at a given time. Why did you choose this frame and structure?
BS: This structure felt modern and necessary to me. I understand now that I took a risk that some readers didn’t embrace by indulging in very sentimental material (in Marriage is a Canoe) but at the time, I didn’t know that. And regardless, I don’t care. I know that a lot of the book is interior (a whole lot if you analyze it) and breaking it up give it some momentum. Also, because I work full time, I wanted a ‘kitchen sink’ of a novel, that, hopefully, would stretch to accept all I could throw into it—so that I could write at different times with different intentions. With three months at MacDowell, for instance, a very different novel would have come out of me.
RG: Do you read self help books? Can they help?
BS: No, and I doubt it. But I heard a good writer speak on a panel last week who said that we all think self-help books are dumb until it’s 4am and we’re desperate and hopeless and then we turn to them. So I suspect that there will be, undoubtedly, a time for me when my answer will seem unforgivably glib. Future self: I am sorry.
RG: Even though there’s this cynical undertone, that Peter Herman “wrote” a book about marriage, and was pretty terrible at marriage himself, that he didn’t really believe in his own words, we also see somewhat of a happy ending. Each character seems to get some approximation of what they want. Do you believe in happy endings as a writer?
BS: Well, I don’t know that getting what you want leads to a happy ending. It’s just an ending. Hopefully, my characters stumble into events that may feel like choices to them. Some end up happy, and some are, perhaps, over-served with happiness. Some spoilers: One character is fired, one is dating a rebound guy who isn’t too sexy, and one ends up with a lady who is mean. I don’t look for happy endings in books. I hope for endings that are true.
RG: Did you feel like the ending in Love is a Canoe was true?
BS: I know it’s true for Emily Babson. I crossed my fingers that readers would ‘get’ what I was trying to do in the last few pages, which is that, though the ending may seem happy, if you look a little closer you see that the characters are moving on with their lives, by which I mean that they are setting themselves up for new problems. A few readers embraced the ending I was trying to achieve. That felt good.
“At any hour of the day or night, I can shut my eyes and visualize in a swarm of detail what is happening on scores of streets, some well known and some obscure, from one end of the city to the other—on the upper part of Webster Avenue, up in the upper Bronx, for example, which has a history as a dumping-out place for underworld figures who have been taken for a ride, and which I go to every now and then because I sometimes find a weed or a wildflower or a moss or a fern or a vine that is new to me growing along its edges or in the cracks in its pavements, and also because there are pleasant views of the Bronx River and of the Central and the New Haven railroad tracks on one side of it and pleasant views of Woodlawn Cemetery on the other side of it or on North Moore Street, down on the lower West Side of Manhattan, which used to be lined with spice warehouses and spice-grinding mills and still has enough of them left on it to make it the most aromatic street in the city (on ordinary days, it is so aromatic it is mildly and tantalizingly and elusively exciting; on windy days, particularly on warm, damp, windy days, it is so aromatic it is exhilarating) or on Birmingham Street, which is a tunnel-like alley that runs for one block alongside the Manhattan end of the Manhattan Bridge and is used by bums of the kind that Bellevue psychiatrists call loner winos as a place to sit in comparative seclusion and drink and doze and by drug addicts and drug pushers as a place in which to come in contact with each other and by old-timers in the neighborhood as a shortcut between Henry Street and the streets to the south, or on Emmons Avenue, which is the principal street of Sheepshead Bay, in Brooklyn, and along one side of which the party boats and charter boats and bait boats of the Sheepshead Bay fishing fleet tie up, or on Beach 116th Street, which, although only two blocks long, is the principal street of Rockaway Park, in Queens, and from one end of which there is a stirring view of the ocean and from the other end of which there is a stirring view of Jamaica Bay, or on Bloomingdale Road, which is the principal street of a quiet old settlement of Negroes called Sandy Ground down in the rural part of Staten Island, the southernmost part of the city.” -Joseph Mitchell
This is the fourth sentence of “Street Life,” from the fragment of Joseph Mitchell’s unfinished memoir that appeared as an unannounced Valentine in the February 11/18 issue of The New Yorker. It’s a perfectly typical Joe Mitchell utterance—unhurried, modestly insistent upon pace and detail, clear as glass despite the length, quietly lyric in its pedestrian cadence, hugely ambitious under its placid, ambling surface.
It starts as map, naming six locales in New York City’s five boroughs, starting “up” in the Bronx (Webster Avenue) and ending “down” on Staten Island (Bloomingdale Road). Certain streets and buildings “haunt me,” Mitchell writes; to “wander aimlessly” in his chosen, cherished city is a special pleasure. Later, the prose lifting to superlatives, Mitchell mentions his particular affection for “the ornamentation of the older buildings of the city.” Some of these, he says, are “sacred objects.” “I revere them,” he adds. The sight of them “will lift my spirits for hours.” Aimless wandering here acquires definition—taking shape as pilgrimage, a form of worship, circumambulation devout as any Buddhist’s. If it often opens in malaise, in a “headache” or “some horrifying or unnerving or humiliating thought that came into my mind while I was lying awake in the middle of the night,” it characteristically closes in reverence, a sense of “living connection” (“step by step, out of my depression”). He’s playing hooky, he says (“I lose my sense of responsibility”), but the play is for mortal stakes—Mitchell walks as Ishmael goes to sea. It’s at last a secular commedia, and no accident that in the course of his wanderings Mitchell visits so many churches and attends so many services.
As readers we accompany this walker, accept his implicit invitation. Let us go then—match your gait to mine and plan for all day. I will go with you and be your guide. The initial movements, as in Dante’s journey, are downward. The Webster Avenue scene is Weegee turf, infernal, a “dumping-out place for underworld figures.” Ahead are the addicts and pushers of Birmingham Street, where “loner winos” doze like Belacqua. But on this earth upper worlds mix with lower, and along Webster Avenue our Virgil in Brooks Brothers suit and fedora, scribbling notes on New Yorker letterhead, sometimes encounters “a vine that is new to me,” as if even rubbed-out mobsters are deserving of decent burial. Give lilies with full hands. The North Moore Street spice warehouses on good days seem redolent of frankincense and myrrh, are “so aromatic it is exhilarating,” and Beach 116th Street in Queens features at each end “a stirring view” of ocean or Jamaica Bay. Emerge to see again the stars. The “rural part of Staten Island,” given these uninsistent parallels, acquires echoes of Earthly Paradise. Matilda strolling Bloomingdale Road, singing and gathering flowers, would hold little surprise.
At heart, “Street Life,” with its signature Joe Mitchell sentence as welcoming portal, the places linked by “or on” (“Webster Avenue . . . or on North Moore Street . . .or on Birmingham Street . . . or on Emmons Avenue . . . or on Beach 116th Street . . . or on Bloomingdale Road”) as the people are linked by “and by” (“by bums . . . and by drug addicts and drug pushers . . . and by old-timers”), is the closest thing in print to a Mitchell Apologia Pro Vita Sua, an oblique account of what led The New Yorker’s star writer, author between 1933 and 1964 of forty-nine bylined pieces, to abruptly cease submitting new work after 1964, even as he continued for thirty-one years to report to his office, where editors were too respectful of the man or too awed by his work to inquire closely into what he was working on or when it might be ready; the best answer’s right here, in the revered “ornamentation” at the center of so many walks, since as it turns out Mitchell over the long years of his writerly silence was mostly visiting abandoned buildings and demolition sites, often with his spouse, the photographer Therese Jacobsen Mitchell, salvaging thousands of “sacred objects,” shards and fragments of the “carpentry or brickmasonry or stonemasonry or blacksmithery or tinsmithery or tile setting” so able to “lift my spirits” that they were worth year after year of shared gathering (what adventures husband and wife must have enjoyed together!), careful labeling (there’s what that typewriter was doing, along with writing “Street Life”), and packaging in jars, Brooks Brothers boxes, and Tiffany boxes best understood as reliquaries preserving a precious material archive complementary to the verbal record of the earlier articles and books, Joe and Therese actually putting into practice the goal set almost half a century earlier by James Agee—“If I could do it, I’d do no writing here. It would be photographs; the rest would be fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth, records of speech, pieces of wood and iron, phials of odors, plates of food and of excrement”—for the not dissimilar project he shared with Walker Evans, and in the process establishing Mitchell as at once arguably the greatest and without doubt the most unostentatious American modernist writer (look one last time at this large and lucid sentence, as plumb and solid as good brickwork), builder via word and artifact of his own New Jerusalem in Gotham’s “smoldering city, the old, polluted, betrayed, and sure-to-be-torn-down-any-time-now city.”
Robert Cochran is a teacher and writer living in Fayetteville, Arkansas. He is the director of American Studies at the University of Arkansas.
The first time I finished reading Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, I was sitting in Caribou Coffee on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill, ducking my college orientation. I had skipped every session that weekend to read; the final 30 pages of the book are the first time I can recall having one of those really out of body reading experiences. It’s happened to me maybe only three or four times—the text appears as if at the end of a brightly lit tunnel, my hands light with adrenaline. Probably caffeine plays a large role in the feeling. My point is that The Moviegoer was a formative reading experience for me, as important as any since I finished Put Me in the Zoo in my grandmother’s breakfast nook the summer before kindergarten.
At the time, I felt as if Walker Percy were reading my diary to me. I was eighteen and prone to seeing the world as tailored to me personally, but even still the novel was a perfect fit. The muted raciness and frustrated lust of it (it is as much about sex as any novel whose most graphic phrase is the supremely unsexy “flesh poor flesh failed us” can be) feels like a beacon to readers at the age where sex still feels like a secret. I recall feeling as if the book were the most perfect and grandest social commentary I’d ever read. I tested the word “prescient” out on my father after I’d finished it.
Sometime after that, I was talking to my former high school principal, a Dr. Humble, whom I’d idolized in a distant sort of way for a few years. Dr. Humble is a huge man with stooped shoulders and a monk’s encroaching baldness, with a dry wit delivered in a baritone so professorial as to be laughable given how well it fits his whole gestalt. From time to time during my freshman year, I’d visit my high school and try to impress him with the books I’d read. I knew that he’d written his Masters’ thesis on Percy, and so I told him that The Moviegoer was my new favorite novel.
Humble has a self-parodying way of speaking to students with exaggerated pauses and obscure devices. He told me in his halting way that of all the Percy books he’d read, The Moviegoer was the one he understood least, and then he made some jokes about how it was an obvious sign of my own intelligence that I’d enjoyed it. Dr. Humble is a good principal for many reasons, not least of which is his ability to flatter the egos of insufferable budding young intellects.
At the time I thought: what is he talking about? What could be simpler than this book? It’s about the passivity of consumer culture, and women’s asses. Open and shut, I thought, and appreciated Humble’s sly compliment.
The second time I finished The Moviegoer was a little more than a week ago, on a flight back from Boston. I’d started it again on the flight there, and gulped it down by the time I was somewhere over St. Louis on the return. Except now I couldn’t recall exactly why I remembered the book the way I did. In the parlance of the book, I was vexed by a repetition:
“What is a repetition? A repetition is the re-enactment of past experience toward the end of isolating the time segment which has lapsed in order that it, the lapsed time, can be savored of itself and without the usual adulteration of events that clog time like peanuts in brittle.”
To re-read the book, I’d gone as far as finding the same edition that I’d read five summers ago. It’s a blue-spined Avon edition with a watercolor of a man standing outside a theater on the cover. The print in the book is tiny, and the overall effect of the edition is a sort of cheapness in keeping with the sweltering New Orleans setting and tawdry escapism Binx pursues. Without remembering the repetition passage per se, I had the sense that I wanted to control as many variables as possible to re-discover what was so entrancing about the novel. But even with an exact replica of the original artifact in my hands, I couldn’t connect to that feeling I’d had inside Caribou Coffee. Not the pleasure of the reading—that remains wholly intact—but the particular excitement of having been singled out, and my conviction of the book’s “prescience” were now a mystery to me.
Emma Komlos-Hrobsky (Editorial Assistant, Tin House Magazine): Everyone told me how seismically great Dana Spiotta’s Stone Arabia was; everyone was right. Spiotta does the most deft work in evoking the vagaries of a completely original set of family relationships. I’ve never quite met any of these characters before, and I feel like I know them perfectly. I cannot believe it took me this long to read this book, and I cannot justify doing anything else until I’ve finished it. (What the heck am I doing writing this? I have to find out what happens to Nik.)
This hardly does it justice, but like I said, I have to go read!
Masie Cochran (Associate Editor, Tin House Books): I just started Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree and I can’t believe I am just now getting to it. I was born in Knoxville, TN, the setting of Suttree. While McCarthy’s world—early on there’s already drownings, and brawls, and (off-page) sex with watermelons—doesn’t feel like a recognizable homecoming, the prose puts me at ease. It’s wonderfully dark and terrifically funny and I’ll follow wherever it goes.
Devon Walker (Open Bar Intern): Everyone, it seems, has a copy of Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove in hand, and I’m ashamed to say, as of last week, I had only ever read one of her stories, Reeling for the Empire, which appeared in our Winter Reading issue. That one story, however, was more than enough to catch my attention and make me want to read more: I both fell in love with and was unnerved by the narrator’s voice, with its artful intertwining of cunning escapism with the innocent longing for home. Equally compelling and unsettling in this story is the transformation that begins with a sip of tea and works its way through the fingertips, transmogrifying female bodies into lepidopteron and literally self-contained silk factories.
After reading and falling for Reeling for the Empire, I picked up a copy of Russell’s first book of short stories, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, at my local bookstore. It has most certainly not disappointed. Once again, I have been immediately beguiled by the originality of Russell’s prose; the strange shifty nature of her characters, all of whom are as bizarre as they are believable; and the elegant and sometimes circuitous progression of events that spiral out of themselves in supernatural bursts of sound and imagery. Each story asks the reader to suspend his or her disbelief in a new way, and I imagine most readers, if they are anything like me, are nodding in agreement, saying yes, yes, I’ll believe anything so long as you keep telling this story to which I am utterly addicted.
Matthew Dickman (Poetry Editor): Dan Chelotti’s debut book of poems X (McSweeney’s Poetry Series, 2013) is like a direct line to our inner-lives! An inner life of someone who lives on earth but was, perhaps, born on the moon. There are streets and donkeys here but also dark matter and starlight.
Heather Hartley (Paris Editor of Tin House): I just picked up an old copy of James Joyce’s Chamber Music, a book of thirty-six poems published in 1907. “When I wrote Chamber Music,” Joyce wrote to his wife in 1909, “I was a lonely boy, walking about by myself at night and thinking that one day a girl would love me.” Maybe a girl or three loved him back in the day for verses like, “What counsel has the hooded moon / Put in thy heart, my shyly sweet,” [XII] and beyond the women, this first book publication received a fair amount of critical acclaim from the likes of Yeats and Pound. And it doesn’t stop there: musicians ranging from Peter Buck (REM/Minus 5) to Lee Ranaldo (Sonic Youth/Text of Light) paid homage to Joyce on a double CD released by Fire Records in 2008 eponymously called, “Chamber Music: James Joyce.” Thirty-six poems interpreted by thirty-six different musicians–Joyce in so many different voices. Both the book and the CD are delightful and refreshing, just in time for spring.
No one knew quite what to do when they found the blonde-haired monkey with the thin golden face that looked like a byzantine saint. Large eyes – positioned close together in a flat profile resembling that of a painted idol – and a serious mouth set it apart from any image of a monkey the townsfolk had seen before. Perhaps they were waiting for it to initiate a conversation, since it looked so knowing, so human. But it didn’t speak, just bobbed its head once in a mournful fashion and ran up the tree in the copse at the centre of the town square.
It was decided that first they would name it. But they only had grainy pictures in yellowing library books of byzantine art and so couldn’t decide which saint it most resembled. The man in the stocks said it should be called Bob, because he thought that would be the funniest name, profanities notwithstanding, but he was ignored because he was an attention hoarder and being ignored was part of his punishment.
A list of saints was made along with a brief summation of their attributes, but still no one could decide because they could not tell what the attributes of the monkey were. It mostly sat in the tree copse, silent, and ate anything they offered up with shaking hands (it had rather large teeth). People grew tired and grumpy of staying out in the heat of the square so it was determined that they would reconvene in a couple of day’s time to discuss the name of the monkey further.
But once they were back to their regular lives, excuses began to be made about the timing of the next meeting. Too early in the morning and it would clash with milking the herds and gathering the eggs, too late and the tradesmen would be falling asleep on their feet from weary days of work. Meanwhile, people had taken to using the well at the corner near the cafe instead of the one in the town square a stone’s throw from the monkey copse (as it was now becoming known).
Enough people still passed the copse, those brave enough to ignore the churn of unease at the base of their stomachs, to give a report of the monkey’s actions. It sat, they said, swung gently between branches, ate any food that was offered. Its large owl eyes followed you right across the square when you walked past. Occasionally it would roll them back into its head and make a chittering sound with a wide grin. But then people stopped visiting the town square at all, skirting the alleyways around it instead. It was the man who was back in the stocks again who told them that the monkey had gone.
When they sent the chimneysweeper up the branches of the sturdiest trees to check, he couldn’t find a trace of the monkey, not even a wisp of fur. This unsettled the townsfolk so much that they started going regularly to church; donating to charitable funds. The priest, perceptive and cunning as always, began a campaign for a new saint’s icon for the west alcove, where a forgotten family used to have their chapel. Soon enough, a painted saint, in the byzantine style, sat at right angles to the congregation. They felt its gaze upon them when they were reaching into pockets for sweets or nodding off behind a raised hymnbook. And, in turn, they experienced guilt for the nameless monkey that they had spurned.
The woodcarver chopped down the copse, once a source of much needed shade and a popular place for lovers to linger, and nailed the wood into a cross for the church. But still the monkey did not come back, the barman’s wife said one winter night. Voicing a desire that no one had dared to say yet. Then, when a sickness visited the elderly of the town, the woodcarver’s son (who was not quite as pious as his father) used the remainders of the copse to make a statue of the monkey, slightly larger than life, and secured it in the space where the trees once grew. The townsfolk approved wholeheartedly, but the priest did not.
The head teacher of the school announced that she had found the saint that the monkey had resembled most, and that it would no longer be nameless. But a name was useless to the townsfolk now. They contemplated the wooden cross in the church on Sundays, saint’s face in the corner of their eyes, and stopped to gaze upon the monkey statue when they passed through the town square. They turned their palms up towards the skies both times, lips tightly closed. They prayed.
Jane Healey is a British writer based in New York. She is currently studying for an MFA in Fiction at Brooklyn College.
*Tin House is now accepting flash fiction (under 1,000 words) for FLASH FRIDAYS. Please send to email@example.com with FLASH FRIDAY as your subject line.
Welcome to March Madness at Tin House!
In the back lot, Sherman Alexie strokes money J’s like he breathes air.
Jess Walter shoots a rainbow jumper that is pure butter.
Natalie Diaz posts you up and makes you look like a fool as she lofts a jump hook as cool as the other side of the pillow.
John Edgar Wideman knows the sound of the net by heart.
C.K. Williams strides down the lane like a king of the finger roll.
Look around you. Check with your people, your poets and prose writers, your nonfiction crowd. Yes, there is a common bond beyond words that resides somewhere on a hardwood floor between two panels of glass and two metal rings, where a net, a ball, and the sound of leather popping into a pocket of cotton makes people weep.
Who would have thought so many writers love basketball?
I have a theory about this, borrowed from Dostoevsky.
Here it is: “Beauty will save the world.”
And basketball is a beautiful game.
We witness the astounding elegance and profound power of the human body.
Something in the heart of basketball lovers everywhere rises when March comes around. Every year about this time, at night at the solitude of the writing desk I think of basketball and the rhythm and movement of women and men. The brotherhood I’ve found in basketball is akin to the sisterhood and brotherhood of the writing life when I go to the shelf and pick out a great book and listen to the gorgeous sequence of breaths and beats that rises from the page. I am brought into a sense of gratitude for the exquisite discipline of the writer and the gift they’ve given the world.
Similarly, March Madness draws me to appreciate the exquisite discipline of the athlete and the gift that comes of watching young women and men emerge as if from a fiery crucible, more passionate and more refined.
At Montana State, I played shooting guard on the last placed team in the league my freshman year. Our team: seven young black men from all across the country and five white kids mostly from Montana. We had a marvelous, magical point guard from Portland named Tony Hampton. He was lightning fast and had wonderful ball-handling skills and exceptional court vision. He brought us together with 7 games left in the season. Our record at the time was 7 wins, 16 losses. Last place in the conference. “We are getting shoved down by this coaching staff,” he said, and I remember how the criticism and malice issued from the coaches mouths. Their jobs were on the line. They’d lost touch with their players. Tony said, “We need to band together right now. No one is going to do it for us. Whenever you see a teammate dogged or beat down, go up and give that teammate love. Tell him good job. Keep it up. We’re in this together.”
A team talk like that doesn’t typically change a season.
This one did.
Is that true? Are we all—all of us writers—fans? Fan-like, do we not passionately—sometimes even obsessively—engage with our subjects? Do we not write in order to gain access and understanding? To be able to become part of the greater whole? But what about the freighted and fraught side of fandom? When our desire for access and intimacy creates a debit or comes at some other cost?
I put the question, as it were, to a variety of authors whom I admire and consider myself a fan. I asked them to describe their best or most interesting or most transformative experiences as fans. As the answers came back, I discovered another distinct and weirdly interesting pleasure: that of being a fan listening to fans talking about being fans.
Aimee Bender (The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake) Years ago, I went to see Canadian singer/songwriter Jane Siberry perform, as I have done many times before. This one was at the El Rey on Wilshire in Los Angeles—a performance with her band. Whenever I heard her I felt lifted and filled by the music and presentation. In the 90′s in particular, I listened to Jane Siberry CDs and tapes all the time, and found her inspiring on many levels.
But at this show, at the end, after the bows, I felt a curious pang of longing as she exited, a desire to go have dinner with her and her band, to lean in with intensity and tell her what her songs meant to me. To try to convey something that would be difficult to convey. It was curious, even odd, because I felt such acute loss even at the same time that I felt full and nourished by what had happened at the concert. So why did I care? I wanted, at that moment, to be her friend, to be in the inner circle.
She had been a little more accessible in her latest tours by holding salons at people’s houses and that slightly confused the relationship for me. Did I know her? Did she know my name? For one of those salons, I was given the instruction to make her a baked potato. I probably put more care into that baked potato than any I’ve ever made.
But that night at the El Rey, my pang seemed to have more to do with fame and longing, the desire to be her buddy, to know her, to have her know me, to have my love for her music—and therefore myself—validated somehow.
But—and I can’t recall if she said anything to this effect or if it just clicked into place for me, it struck me as I was leaving the theatre, returning to the feeling of the music itself, that the intimacy had already happened. That what I experienced with her singing and songwriting was where I met her, where she taught me something and moved me. It was so incredibly unlikely that hanging out at a restaurant would have anywhere near the impact that I felt when listening over and over to her songs.
I’ve thought of this too on occasion at readings, when signing books. Sometimes someone will seem moved by the book, and I will feel the same pang—that we can’t quite access the connection that has already happened via the page. That that connection is deeper and is acknowledged simply by the act of it happening. That reader and I connected. Jane Siberry and I connected. But it’s invisible.
The whole concept of fandom switched in my mind that night. I think the longing to be someone’s friend, to be seen ‘back’, is a denial of the reader or listener’s role in the process. The listener matters. Is essential. Without the listener, the music doesn’t exist. If the music or book is understood deeply, that is because the reader/listener has brought a lot to it. As Paul Auster says, writer and reader both make the book.
Historical fiction, we’re told, always says more about the era in which it’s written than that in which it’s set. Yeah, yeah. Set in Egypt in the waning years of the nineteenth century, Ken Kalfus’s glimmering new novel Equilateral takes a different approach in that it isn’t content to only offer commentary on who we are now but, also, on who we might have been. The premise is deceptively and beautifully simple: a British astronomer named Sanford Thayer is overseeing the construction of an equilateral triangle, three hundred feet long on each side, in the Egyptian desert. His purpose—for which nine hundred thousand Arab laborers are toiling night and day in advance of a June 17, 1894 deadline—is to demonstrate human intelligence to the people of Mars and “petition for man’s membership in the fraternity of planetary civilizations.” (14) There are, as you might guess, complications.
Kalfus offers a staggeringly intelligent re-imagining of what have become out-dated scientific principles; the entire novel is steeped in an intellectual world that no longer exists. He has exhumed an entire and extinct intellectual worldview, one that arose in the early years of what has become the secular era heralded by Friedrich Nietzsche, among others. With God dead or busy or indifferent or away on business, humankind has been forced to make meaning in other ways and attempt to find connectivity to other things, even Martians.
Although things don’t go especially well for Thayer, by peeling away the twentieth century, Kalfus was able to imbue the novel with a lovely optimism missing in most contemporary fiction even though it never shies from the difficult questions about colonialism and imperialism. In addition to Equilateral, Kalfus is the author of two story collections, Thirst and Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies and the novels The Commissariat of Enlightenment and the National Book Award finalist A Disorder Peculiar to the Country.
He answered a few questions via email in late February.
Andrew Ervin: Equilateral is enlivened by a lovely kind of optimism that the twentieth century may have beat out of the scientific community. Because the novel’s so rich in its understandings of geometry and symmetry and construction (among other things), my first question is about form: how did you decide on its shape? Why does it have thirty-two chapters?
Ken Kalfus: The 32 chapters don’t have any numerological significance, and I hope you didn’t spend too much time looking for one! I can see how a book like this may invite some speculative search for symmetries and hidden formal structures. While there are certain geometries to the relationships in play, in fact the story grew more or less organically, and I wrote every chapter with the desperate desire to make it work, and make the story hang together as a whole.
AE: I’m reminded of John Aubrey’s description of Thomas Hobbes’s first encounter with Euclid:
“He was 40 years old before he looked on geometry; which happened accidentally. Being in a gentleman’s library, Euclid’s Elements lay open, and ‘twas the 47 El. libri I. He read the proposition. ‘By G–,’ sayd he, (He would now and then swear, by way of emphasis) ‘By G–,’ sayd he, ‘this is impossible!’ So he reads the demonstration of it, which referred him back to such a proposition; which proposition he read. That referred him back to another, which he also read. Et sic deinceps, that at last he was demonstratively convinced of the trueth. This made him in love with geometry.”
Mathematics and literature often make uncomfortable bedfellows, yet Sanford Thayer fully appreciates the aesthetic beauty of geometry and sees in it a vast potential for improving the human condition. How did the idea come about? What amount of research was involved?
KK: I love the Aubrey story, dramatizing that electric moment when a geometric proof suddenly reveals itself to describe a fundamental truth about the structure of reality. Hobbes has just fallen upon the Pythogorean Theorem—a good excuse to use the word hypoteneuse and a truth about the relationship between the sides of a triangle that comes up time and again in my novel. The philospher’s delight and the work of my novel rest on the notion that this theorem is true for all men and women, whether British or Hottentot, and true from one planet to the next. Thayer is convinced that a common knowledge of mathematics will allow us to share not only ideas between planets, but feelings of beauty and love too.
I’ve always enjoyed math, which isn’t the same as being good at it. One of my many pleasures in the pursuit of this novel was relearning my high school trigonometry (SOHCAHTOA!) and then performing some basic equations, for the dimensions of the triangle, the amount of sand being excavated, the positions of the planets in 1894, etc. I bought myself a decent compass and spent a lot of time on this, hunkered at my desk, filling in pages and pages of calculations, in many of which I did something like forget to carry the 1.
AE: Why do you suppose we have such an endless fascination with Mars?
KK: Since the 19th century, we’ve thought that if there were life elsewhere in the solar system, Mars was the place for it. It has solid land and an atmosphere, its climate is almost temperate, and astronomers like Thayer thought they discerned magnificent artificial waterways crossing its surface—which recalled the great terrestrial canal projects like Suez that had seized the public imagination. This was also the century in which European explorers heroically traversed the Earth’s most forbidding deserts, making the Red Planet’s parched landscape seem more familiar and more attainable.
Mars still drives us crazy with promises—witness the strong public interest in sending astronauts there, something whose cost is not justified by the scientific benefit and which is unlikely to happen in this century. The planet is passing behind the sun this spring but will reappear in our morning sky in a few months, a steady beacon for our hopes for interplanetary companionship.
AE: That need for companionship strikes me as a natural result of the newly (or relatively newly) secularized world of the late 1800s. Many of the tensions you’ve written about here—the colonizer v. the oppressed, West v. Middle East, scientific certainty v. faith—are of course still in the news. Do you buy the argument that historical fiction speaks more about the time it’s written than the time in which it’s set?
KK: I’m not sure my novel qualifies as historical fiction, since the central event is so far removed from anything that ever happened, but these historical themes were very much on my mind as I wrote Equilateral. The epic, generations-spanning struggle between the First World and the Third is the central question of our era. Meanwhile, the real news of this century may prove to be the discovery of alien life. Both these preoccupations led me to Equilateral. I don’t think writers can ever escape the moment in which they write, or that readers would want them to.
Your comment that the secularization of society has increased the need for companionship is an interesting one. I would say the need has always been there: that’s why human beings invented religion in the first place.
AE: What’s next for you? How quickly do you transition between projects?
KK: I’m always thinking about my next project, and I’m currently finishing a new collection of short fiction that will be published next April. The book’s anchored by a novella that fictionally reconstructs the events of a catastrophic weekend in New York, during which an international finance official sexually assaults a hotel worker. The story’s title is “Coup de Foudre.”
AE: Finally, what are the 2013 books you’re most excited about?
KK: In a short story frame of mind, I’m looking forward to reading Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove. I have Lynn Coady’s new epistolary novel, The Antagonist, waiting on my pile—it looks very funny and very compelling. Also, I’ve gotten an early look at Allison Lynn’s novel, The Exiles, which comes out in July. The first few pages are gorgeous, and the writing is intensely felt. I hope to get to them, soon or eventually. There’s so many good books out there, I always feel I’m playing catch-up.
Andrew Ervin is the author of a collection of novellas, Extraordinary Renditions.
Cocktails in Springtime Paris
Long before destination drinking had a moniker, Paris was already a hot toddy hot spot in the 1920s and 1930s. Drinks like the Whiz Bang, Green Hat, Sidecar, Blue Bird and Fog Horn were in circulation among the haute cocktail crowd and local lushes at places like the Ritz Paris, the American Bar in London and less posh spots. It’s no surprise that this timeframe between the two World Wars was called les années folles—among other nicknames. These are cocktails that don’t beat around the bush: sip a bit of the Depth Bomb, named after the M.L. Submarine Chasers of the First World War, made with brandy, Apple-Jack brandy, grenadine and lemon juice, and you’ll see stars in your eyes. Bored with teatime? Try serving Dirty Earl Grey Martinis to spike things up. Feeling groggy? If coffee doesn’t do the trick, maybe a Corpse Reviver No. 2 made with Pernod, Champagne and lemon juice will speak to you—or depending on how many you imbibe, it may take the words right out of your mouth. Spoken like a true habitué, F. Scott wrote, “First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you.”
But the early twentieth century isn’t all flapper fluff; drinking was serious business and boasts an exceedingly long, compelling history that would be impossible to explore in this column, if for no other reason than it’s the apéritif hour somewhere in the world and time for a toast. I’m delighted to write that this column celebrates its first-year anniversary this month, and right now seems as good a time as any to raise a glass—or coupe, flask or shot glass. And the Lost Generation certainly knew how to raise the stemware of their choice.
Were all of the drinkers back then writers? No, but all the writers were drinkers. (It’s comforting to know that some things haven’t changed.) Whether accusation or accolade, Zelda had her husband’s number when she wrote, “You were literally eternally drunk.” The Fitzgeralds shared a bed, bills and a deep love of Gin Rickeys (gin, soda and lime juice). Although Cole Porter sang, “I get no kick from Champagne / Mere alcohol doesn’t thrill me at all,” he must have christened the Sea Pea (anis, tonic and lemon juice), as it was created in his honor at his favorite Parisian bar, le Cambon. Hemingway was drinking at the top of his game during his Paris years and did a lot of reconnaissance in the Ritz—or at least the bar—and legend has it that he celebrated the end of the Second World War by liberating Shakespeare and Company then carousing his way over to the Ritz, knocking back fifty-one Dry Martinis before reeling down the stairs to liberate its splendidly well-stocked cellars. So much has been written about him by experts, expats and ex-wives, this little cameo doesn’t do justice to the man or the myth; he deserves at least one entire column dedicated to him, if not an entire year.
Recently, in pre-celebration of this March Apéritif moment, I was at a party with my good friend Pierre (name changed to protect the innocent) who makes lumberjack plaid look aristocratic and holds the distinction of being The One Who First Served Me A Sidecar And Told Me How To Make This Staggeringly Good Vintage Cocktail (Cognac, Cointreau and lemon juice). He’s also the one who told me that the Italian version that includes Limoncello was nothing more than a peck of lays, pack of lies, and whose text to me later that same night read, Thanks 4 coming! Drink & flours!
You lack wanderfoul darling! Pierre knows just how to make a girl swoon more than any Monkey Gland (Gin, absinthe, grenadine and orange juice, a delightfully anesthetizing cocktail from the 1920s named after “a surgical technique of grafting monkey testicle tissue into humans with the intention of producing longevity,” according to impeccably reliable source Wikipedia).
Another friend, Anne, (whose name has not been changed to not protect the not innocent), recently asked, “Wait a sec—you write a column about happy hour drinks and dead French writers? Sounds totally BO-ring. What. Ever.” A stiff Death in the Gulf Stream, Hemingway’s own potent potable, could possibly help untwist her knickers. A cocktail to be taken from eleven o’clock in the morning, it was created in 1922 in London—or was it 1937 in Key West?—such blurry beginnings . . . Hemingway might suggest you just drink it, not date it. He notes that, “Its tartness and bitterness are its chief charm[s].” (Not unlike Anne.) He continues, “Take a tall thin water tumbler and fill it with finely cracked ice. Lace this broken debris with four good purple splashes of angostura, add the juice and crushed peel of one green lime and fill the glass almost full with Holland Gin. . . no sugar, no fancying. It’s strong, it’s bitter . . . reviving and refreshing; it cools the blood and inspires renewed interest in food, companions and life.” And renewed interest in making it home alive—no sugar, no fancying necessary.
Heather Hartley is Paris editor at Tin House. She’s the author of Knock Knock, released by Carnegie Mellon University Press. Her poems and essays have appeared in or on PBS NewsHour, The Guardian, and elsewhere. She has been Co-Director of the Shakespeare and Company Bookshop literary festival and lives in Paris.