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“The day, a compunctious Sunday after a week of blizzards, had been part jewel, part mud. In the midst of my usual afternoon stroll through the small hilly town attached to the girls’ college where I taught French literature, I had stopped to watch a family of brilliant icicles drip-dripping from the eaves of a frame house. So clear-cut were their pointed shadows on the white boards behind them that I was sure the shadows of the falling drops should be visible too. But they were not.” ― Vladimir Nabokov, “The Vane Sisters”
It took me an embarrassingly long time to stop being terrified of trees. When I was a young child, that scene in The Wizard of Oz with the talking apple trees sent me into almost hysterical fits of screaming and crying. Even as an adult, playing videogames like The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time, trees made me deeply uneasy. The Great Deku Tree, with its almost-human face and bizarre mustache, followed me into my nightmares despite the fact that it was intended by the game’s designers to be some kind of benevolent presence or nurturing “earth spirit.”
During the summer of 2012, as I was beginning work on these illustrations for Heart of Darkness, I was spending a lot of time jogging in Highbanks Park, near Columbus, Ohio. Several of the most challenging trails led through patches of forest so deep and dense that the silence was almost total. Even on a brutally hot summer evening, in the immensity of that solitude, the forest was a presence. Simply put, I did not feel welcome there. Not by any stretch.
I’ve always been struck by the way that Conrad elevates nature, or Nature, from a concept to a kind of character in Heart of Darkness. The presence of Nature is subtle, but constant, and Conrad minces no words in positioning Nature as cleanly, unmistakably, and unapologetically hostile. Of the forest, he writes “…this stillness of life did not in the least resemble a peace. It was the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention. It looked at you with a vengeful aspect.” I knew that I needed to address this very early in my illustrations, to begin building, through repeated but consistent visual symbols, the hostile presence of Nature.
Since ultimately all of my illustrations are conversations with myself and references to my own inner world of image and meaning, all of those terrors from my earlier years came back to me very intuitively – the snarling trees from The Wizard of Oz, the brooding Great Deku Tree, and even a being from my own early self-Xeroxed comic book Spudd 64. It was almost as if I was aware of Conrad’s ideas about Nature before I was aware of Conrad. Or perhaps, as with all the best writing, there was such universality in Conrad’s ideas that they would continue to resonate with all readers for all time. I’ve long since given up trying to dissect and deconstruct why these things affect me so deeply, because to do so drains the sense of wonder from reading in such a way that a book becomes little more than a machine to assemble.
So, Conrad’s “greenish gloom” became my first intimation at the role Nature would play in my exploration of his work. The Africans in this “grove of death” are little more than empty husks, abused and assaulted by the invaders, spat out and rejected by Nature, at the intersection of a trinity of hostility, hatred, cruelty and greed. Which needed a face. Like those trees from the movie, like that Tree from the game. A face that could pull the attention of the viewer down and in from the sky and the leaves and the wooded hills and banks and in to a single baleful threatening presence. This tree. My tree. Nature.
Matt Kish was born in 1969 and lives in the middle of Ohio. After stints as a cafeteria cook, a hospital registrar, a bookstore manager, and an English teacher, he ended up as a librarian. He draws as often as he can, often with whatever he can find. He has tried his hand at 35mm black-and-white photography (with real film and real chemicals), making comics and zines, a bit of collage, and lots of pen and ink.
Jakob Vala (Graphic Designer): Shirley Jackson must have disliked taking the bus as much as I do. In her world, public transportation is the domain of fitful dreaming, uncanny companions, and hallucination. The price of a ticket may very well be one’s sanity. In “The Bus,” which I think is one of Jackson’s most frightening tales, the peevish Mrs. Harper finds herself on a very unpleasant journey. Left at the wrong stop, in the middle of a thunderstorm, she is forced to accept a ride to the nearby roadhouse in Ricket’s Landing. The town could be some sort of underworld or maybe old Mrs. Harper is just caught up in her own fears and imaginings. As in much of Jackson’s work, the dangers build slowly and I’m not always sure why I’m creeped out, just that I am. This is a story that comes to my mind again and again. Each time, I’m both glad and terrified.
Matthew Dickman (Poetry Editor): My favorite Shirley Jackson story is “The Witch”. People will talk on and on about The Lottery but Jackson’s short story “The Witch” is, for me, much more disturbing, elegant, and strange. Be brave! Go read it tonight.
Lauren Perez (Tin House Marketing Intern): Come Along with Me: Classic Short Stories and an Unfinished Novel by Shirley Jackson. It’s fall, so it’s time to read Shirley Jackson again. It’s always time to read Shirley Jackson—from the sentence level up, she’s a fantastic writer—but there’s something especially bittersweet about her comic, creepy unfinished novel Come Along With Me, about a widow and medium who spins free after her painter-husband’s death and remakes herself in an unnamed city. It’s funny enough to make you snort with laughter on the bus and the ending (or lack thereof) gestures towards so much promise and richness. Like Fitzgerald’s Last Tycoon or Dickens’ Edwin Drood, it’s a piece that invites obsessing puzzling over what happens next. The collected stories that follow are a great consolation, too. Particularly if you like your consolations shadowed and spooky.
Masie Cochran (Associate Editor, Tin House Books): In September, I finished reading Shirley Jackson’s Life Among the Savages and this week I dipped back into Shirley Jackson’s Just an Ordinary Day: The Uncollected Stories. I’m blown away by the range of this collection—the opening stories had me laughing and the last stories (written in the period just before Jackson’s death) left me checking the locks on my doors. One that just won’t let go is ”The Story We Used to Tell,” about two young women trapped inside a picture on a wall. ”The Story We Used to Tell” is weird, wild, and wonderfully Jackson.
I. How during the Hunger Winter the Dutch ate their tulips. How they peeled away the bulbs’ dry and papery tunics, licked their lips, and counted their children’s ribs. How they shaved smooth the hairy roots, sliced out the riotous yellow buds at the center, diced and fried the tulip meat with brown beans and salt. All winter long, how they sacrificed beauty to need. This is how much you want my father.
II. The things my father gives you are few and far between: a faded cashmere sweater, a necklace that turned your throat green, half afternoons in hotels of his choice. And me, although not immediately. You are alone in this country, you have no one to look out for you, you don’t know the words for mistress or wife or even please. You are still too young to know what happens to women as pretty as you. He is twice your age, an ad exec for a chocolate company, a powerful businessman who touches your skin in a way that is both hungry and reluctant. Every minute you spend with him feels like your last.
III. That same winter, February 1944, a Dutch man died refusing to eat the tulip bulbs. His stomach cramped around the sugar beets he ate instead, their small prickly heads sticking in his throat. He was saving the bulbs to plant; he wanted his fiancée to have something to hold for their wedding day. At night his friends and family snuck into his house, ground the bulbs into meal and baked them into a bread like wet sawdust. His fiancée covered her face and did what you never would have: demanded her fair share. That spring they ate tulips at his funeral, petals sticking to their teeth like wet paper. When asked by the gravedigger, the family reported that the pink blossoms were the sweetest.
IV. This is how you know my father will leave you: the way he says you look so good I could eat you up. The way he covers your entire body with flower petals and refuses to let you get out of bed until he’s wrung every last drop of pleasure from the afternoon. Right from the start, you understand that no one this desperate will find what he needs in a single woman, and in fact you suspect he has several other lovers, although you can prove nothing. Tonight you are three months pregnant, and he is leaving the hotel in a hurry, running away from your news. While you are getting dressed alone, he is stepping, unseeing, into the path of an oncoming car, his ribs crumpling like the cartons of eggs you used to buy at the corner shop. Unaware, you remain in the room until a bellhop comes and asks you to leave.
V. Soldiers boiled shoe leather. Sailors devoured rats. In various times and states of hunger, people ate yellow vetch, mountain ebony, wild cowpea, tick trefoil, false indigo, crooked broad bean, and blue fenugreek. In 1849, Mormon settlers dug up the sego lilies that sprouted from the Utah desert and they survived on the roots. During the Siege of Paris, the French ate their zoo elephants, although in times of plenty they turned to songbirds, to tiny ortolan fed on millet and figs and drowned in brandy. During World War II, the Italians ate their pet cats. All of which is to say that, for the brief moment after you tell my father the news but before he runs away and is fatally wounded by the car, you can envision a future where the three of us are enough.
VI. Imagine this. Imagine it’s you and not the wife who’s notified of the accident. Imagine it’s you who rushes to the hospital in a hired car, your hair undone, your lipstick smeared away, to sit by my father’s side as he dies. Imagine you bend low, your lips touching his ear. Imagine you describe the slow toxicity of tulip bulbs, blue brushing the skin of everyone who ate them. The Dutch dunes and polders bare of their flowers, the Tuscan alleys empty of their cats. And all the knives that bent and snapped in elephant hides, and all tiny bones sticking in quiet throats, and all the people who ate song, wanting only to hold something close enough.
Gabrielle Hovendon is an MFA candidate in fiction at Bowling Green State University, where she teaches creative writing and composition. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in publications including Baltimore Review, wigleaf, SmokeLong Quarterly, and apt. She is currently at work on a novel about the lives of two nineteenth-century mathematicians.
Tin House Reels is proud to screen Corrie Francis Parks’s sand animation, “A Tangled Tale.” A two year labor of love, the film was funded through a Kickstarter campaign and a Big Sky Film Grant by the Montana Film Office.
For each frame of the film, Parks maneuvered beach sand on an illuminated lightbox, a technique she credits to the artist Caroline Leaf. Parks captured each frame with a digital camera before reworking the sand, a process that destroys each image as the she progresses. “It’s a high consequence form of animation, because there is no way to go back and make corrections,” Parks said from her Montana studio. “That forward momentum is what carries me through the long hours under the camera.”
“A Tangled Tale” was an official selection for this year’s Annecy International Animation Film Festival, the longest running animation festival in the world. It has also screened at several other festivals including AnimaMundi, DOK Leipzig and the Palm Springs International ShortsFest.
Sound for the film was created by Chicago artist Cole Pierce and Mark Orton, a founding member of the eclectic chamber group Tin Hat and a Sundance Institute Fellow.
As a bonus, we are also including this wonderful behind the scenes look at the making of the project.
Next in J.C. Hallman’s series of Q&A’s with Story About the Story contributors is writer Dagoberto Gilb. Dagoberto Gilb is the author of a number of books, including The Magic of Blood, Woodcuts of Women, and The Flowers.
Gilb’s contribution to The Story About the Story I, “The Border Trilogy by Cormac McCarthy,” first appeared in The Nation and was reprinted in Gritos: Essays. His most recent book is Before the End, After the Beginning: Stories.
J.C. Hallman: Do creative writers have an obligation to act as critics, to offer up alternatives to traditional critical methodologies and assumptions?
Dagoberto Gilb: I cannot say I know what “creative writers” think (a college major or grad degree I didn’t come up on), but intelligence that I’d like to think reaches back got me wanting to be a writer. Reading about this puzzle of human interaction with and awareness of existence, admiring what the brilliant said, fired up by whatever exclusivity the comfortable haughties and snots celebrated—I’d say to a point of aggravation—that made me aspire to respond. I studied philosophy and religion. I chose to write fiction. And I have opinions about the implications and cultural, social, and ultimately power assumptions of certain fiction the same as I do when ideas are asserted in nonfiction.
JCH: As you see it, what happened to criticism? That is, how did we move from Arnold and Pater and Wilde to the kind of academic criticism produced in Literature departments?
DG: What isn’t for academics but also isn’t that light form of marketing or PR for a book or a writer, what looks at literature as it engages a culture, its time in history, an essay that has its own expectations and demands and wants? Where is that now? It still exists a little in Harper’s and The Nation and the little mag The Threepenny Review. But for all the paradigm shifts of new tech, isn’t lit itself locked in by the stodgy restrictions of an old industry? What if the only music considered “good” were from Julliard? I’m not saying that music or musicians from Julliard aren’t very good, but I am saying that it’s not where we found jazz, blues, rock’n’roll. Not punk. Clearly the very cool music coming out of Mexico is not generated there. I happen to also like French chanson. But if “criticism” is and can be only about that and those from Julliard, it’s not what lots of us are going to be reading.
JCH: What was it that first gave you license to approach criticism more creatively?
DG: Hadn’t thought of this before, but probably in my case, someone without an academic specialty job and its metrics guiding me, my approach has been what I learned is called the personal essay (done by me much the same as I answer here). I read and like them, as I do good poetry or fiction, when they’re at their best. And for me, I find ideas and artistic pre-conceptions personal. Essays I’ve written are driven to fight against colonial-like assumptions that have made my existence—as a stand-in for the many of those just like me—and family history less American than others.
JCH: To your mind, what best characterizes writerly or creative criticism?
DG: Quality writing, that care for sentences to be equally valuable and detailed as the ideas presented. In a word, craft.
JCH: Are books and literature in a state of crisis these days? If so, does that have anything to do with how we write about literature?
As Xenophobic as we Portlanders can be, we know our city is not alone when it comes to having a vibrant and eclectic and wild poetry community. In an effort to discover these territories, we have reached out to some of our favorite poets, asking them for an introduction to the city in which they write, read, and live in.
Matthew Lippman, whose poetry appeared in our 2007 Winter Reading issue, takes on a tour through poetic Beantown.
Tin House: Where do you live?
Matthew Lippman: Boston, MA.
TH: Are you from there?
ML: No. I am from New York City
TH: Describe the poetry scene of your city in one line.
ML: There is a nice mixture of the old and the new. It is alive.
TH: What are a few of your favorite collections or poems to come out of Boston?
TH: What local poets are you most excited for the rest of the country to read?
TH: Is there a poem that best describes your city?
ML: “Boom I’m Home” by Sophie Weissbourd
TH: Do you have a favorite local press?
TH: If we were visiting, what reading series would you take us to?
ML: Blacksmith House Poetry Series
TH: If you could choose one poet to move to your city, who would it be?
ML: Michael Morse. He loves to play with language like it is some kind of refined Play Dough. His material is both super crystallized and wonderfully malleable. Morse’s poetry is a poetry of brotherly love, birds, baseball, and, of course, the big human heart that everyone is afraid of and everyone wants a piece of at the same time.
Matthew Lippman is the author of three poetry collections. His latest, AMERICAN CHEW, won The Burnside Review Book Prize (Burnside Review Book Press, 2013), MONKEY BARS (Typecast Publishing, 2010), and THE NEW YEAR OF YELLOW, winner of the Kathryn A. Morton Poetry Prize (Sarabande Books, 2007).
When I was a young girl, I devoured books about horses. Black Beauty may have been the first – how better to draw in the reader than a story told in the voice of the creature himself? Sewall’s novel led me to Marguerite Henry’s Misty of Chincoteague and King of the Wind, Enid Bagnold’s National Velvet and Walter Farley’s The Black Stallion. But my hunger for horse stories proved insatiable and hardly relegated to the classics; on my knees before the bookshelf at the school library, I hunted down middle-grade paperbacks, preferring stories of girls who rescued mustangs and mucked out stables in exchange for riding a neighbor’s horse to Velvet Brown training to become a steeplechase jockey. On my birthday and at Christmas, I tore open wrapping paper and gleefully exclaimed over the latest installments of The Saddle Club series; in the cafeteria I would secretly look down my nose at the preponderance of my girlhood peers, their dog-eared copies of The Babysitter’s Club in hand. Who wants to read about babysitting and boys, I thought, when you could be reading about horses?
What was it about horse stories that appealed? Certainly not all budding bibliophiles become enraptured by the genre; my younger sister, also a voracious reader, consistently chose books with animals—The Wind in the Willows, Watership Down, the Redwall series. Yet never can I recall her immersed in a “pony book,” which first began to appear in the 1920s, and largely in Britain. While animals abound in children’s literature, the novels about horses and young people somehow occupy their own territory, one that speaks to a particular yearning, perhaps even a worldview. How does the impact of such stories linger, especially when that young, engrossed reader grows up to become a writer?
Curled up on the couch, the dismal grey skies of Pennsylvania winter greeting my glance every time I looked up from the page, horse stories offered exoticism and escape. A boy and a sleek, wild stallion shipwrecked on a deserted beach, on the far side of the world, where the boy earns the horse’s trust and rides along the crashing waves remains The Black Stallion’s most striking, iconic scene, both in the book and the film adaption. Farley writes:
“His mane was like a crest, mounting, then falling low. His neck was long and slender, and arched to the small, savagely beautiful head. The head was that of the wildest of all wild creatures—a stallion born wild—and it was beautiful, savage, splendid. A stallion with a wonderful physical perfection that matched his savage, ruthless spirit.”
Despite the overzealous prose, the story is memorable and moving. As a young reader, stuck within the confines of a school and home life relegated by adults, in a rural area, The Black Stallion, King of the Wind and similar fictions provided a taste of freedom—not just the physical freedom of being able to imagine oneself galloping away on a powerful, newly-tamed creature, but of the promise of adventure in faraway and unknown places.
King of the Wind, Marguerite Henry’s Newberry awarding-winning book of 1949, is perhaps a superior read to Farley’s novel, with the additional intrigue of being based on a true story—that of the Goldophin Arabian believed to be the ancestor to the modern Thoroughbred. Agba, the Moroccan stable boy who accompanies the horse to Europe after the Sultan chooses six of his best mounts as a gift to the French king, proves a compelling, relatable character, his struggles to shepherd the horse in the foreign lands of Europe a conflict grounded in gritty reality. Agba’s situation contrasts greatly to that of The Black Stallion’s American city boy, Alec, having the good fortune to get flung onto a pristine tropical beach with a gorgeous horse he is then able to adopt and train for the racetrack. Both are stories of exoticism and escape, but the stakes are higher for King of the Wind’s Agba, for the Sultan has ordered the stable boys to remain with their horses until death. His fight to protect the animal as it is bought, sold, and at times, cruelly treated not unlike Black Beauty, allows his character the opportunity for greater agency and growth.
Something new for you and your beverage.
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Taking history for granted is easy. The American Revolution, the bloody beginning of our nation, was fought over two centuries ago. It’s easy to lock those patriots in the past, to regard them as stuffy white guys who built a government that currently can’t get its act together. But there’s more to our founding fathers than that. George Washington was a warrior who fought in many vicious battles and overcame great odds. These are the stories we want to tell, and comics are the perfect medium to do so. On top of loving history, we’re big fans of Wuxia, a style of Chinese narrative that involves factual people from the past possessing superhuman fighting abilities (for example, the “Red Cliff” films). What would it be like to combine that traditional Chinese genre with the mythology of America? Find out more at badasswashington.tumblr.com.
Jim Hill is a graphic designer and illustrator currently living in Portland, Oregon. He’s a recent graduate of the Pacific Northwest College of Art and co-founder of Working Class Press.
In the last decade, Christopher Tucker has moved from Western New York to Portland, Oregon, and then to Chicago, creating all the while. Besides working on “Washington,” he is contributing to The Billfold, shopping around a novel and designing a board game.
Richard Brautigan’s The Weather in San Francisco
It was a cloudy afternoon with an Italian butcher selling a pound of meat to a very old woman, but who knows what such an old woman could possibly use a pound of meat for?
She was too old for that much meat. Perhaps she used it for a bee hive and she had five hundred golden bees at home waiting for the meat, their bodies stuffed with honey.
“What kind of meat would you like today?” the butcher said, “We have some good hamburger. It’s lean.”
“I don’t know,” she said. “Hamburger is something else.”
“Yeah, it’s lean. I ground it myself. I put a lot of lean meat in it.”
“Hamburger doesn’t sound right,” she said.
“Yeah,” the butcher said. “It’s a good day for hamburger. Look outside. It’s cloudy. Some of those clouds have rain in them. I’d get the hamburger,” he said.
“No,” she said. “I don’t want hamburger, and I don’t think it’s going to rain. I think the sun is going to come out, and it will be a beautiful day, and I want a pound of liver.”
The butcher was stunned. He did not like to sell liver to old ladies. There was something about it that made him very nervous. He didn’t want to talk to her any more.
He reluctantly sliced a pound of liver off a huge red chunk and wrapped it up in white paper and put it into a brown bag. It was a very unpleasant experience for him.
By using her bones like the sails of a ship, the old woman passed outside into the street. She carried the liver as if it were a victory to the bottom of a very steep hill.
She climbed the hill and being very old, it was hard on her. She grew tired and had to stop and rest many times before she reached the top.
At the top of the hill was the old woman’s house: a tall San Francisco house with bay windows that reflected a cloudy day.
She opened her purse which was like a small autumn field and near the fallen branches of an old apple tree, she found her keys.
Then she opened the door. It was a dear and trusted friend. She nodded at the door and went into the house and walked down a long hall into a room that was filled with bees.
There were bees everywhere in the room. Bees on the chairs. Bees on the photograph of her dead parents. Bees on the curtains. Bees on an ancient radio that once listened to the 1930s. Bees on her comb and brush.
The bees came to her and gathered about her lovingly while she unwrapped the liver and placed it upon a cloudy sliver platter that soon changed into a sunny day.
Walter Kirn’s books include Up in the Air, Thumbsucker, and, most recently, Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever. His essay included in The Story About the Story I, “Good-Bye Holden Caulfield. I mean it. Go! Good-bye!” first appeared in With Love and Squalor: 14 Writers Respond to the Work of J.D. Salinger. Here Kirn shares his thoughts about the nature and current state of creative criticism.
J.C. Hallman: Do creative writers have an obligation to act as critics, to offer up alternatives to traditional critical methodologies and assumptions?
Walter Kirn: Creative writers have no obligation do anything, including their own creative work. That’s what makes them “creative” in the first place, not merely productive. That being said, a novel or a short story is an implicit piece of criticism. It suggests that the job – some job; that of telling a story, say, or representing reality with language, or torturing reality with language – can be done better, or at least differently, than it has been done before. I think I learned that from Harold Bloom. Or James Joyce. Ulysses is a splendid work of criticism, and more influential, I dare say, than any piece of criticism proper written during the same period. Criticism proper is simply an attempt to catch up with the latent criticism offered by such exciting, fertile artifacts.
JCH: As you see it, what happened to criticism? That is, how did we move from Arnold and Pater and Wilde to the kind of academic criticism produced in English departments?
WK: What happened to criticism is that it became a profession, even a guild, heavy on trade craft and jargon and dedicated to exclusion and self-protection. It became a way of credentialing an insider class and assuring its members of an income inside of the academy. As such, criticism took up a specialized vocabulary whose chief function, as I see it, was to signal loyalty to the executive board of the approved critical class. There are all these words in contemporary criticism – “gendered,” “hegemonic,” “interrogate,” etc. – that strike me as verbal secret handshakes. They might have been meaningful once, but more and more they feel like coded transmissions between the troops and their leaders. And they make for very ugly sentences. Critical prose of the type that includes them is singularly ugly prose, and I’m with Einstein and similar physicists in believing that elegance bears a close relation to truth.
JCH: What was it that first gave you license to approach criticism more creatively?
Cheston Knapp (Managing editor): Karen Green’s Bough Down. What can I say but the book floored me. For those few who don’t know, Green is David Foster Wallace’s widow, and though it’s not formatted this way, the book is basically a journal of her grieving. The entries are jagged and raw, jump around tonally, from lyricism to a kind of throat-punch bluntness, and they accrete in such an overwhelming way that I found myself having to put the book down from time to time. Green is, first and foremost, a visual artist, and she’s intercalated pieces of her art and it’s fascinating to watch how the visual and textual gears click together, how they’re in conversation and develop. Basically, I felt like as I was reading, the book was carving out a kind of alcove or hypogeum in my mind, where it alone will sit, singular and self-assured and so, so haunting.
Heather Hartley (Paris Editor): Erik Satie’s works for piano are vivid and limpid and unadorned. At a time when Paris was a little bit dandy and then a little bit Dada, Satie composed works like “Les Gymnopédies” and “Les Gnossiennes” that followed their own lyrical and wistful directions. Living in Montmartre, he was a regular at the cabaret Le Chat Noir and a friend of Claude Debussy. “I came into the world very young,” he said, “in an age that was very old.” And whatever age you are and wherever you may be in the world, his music is a delight to listen to.
Jakob Vala (Graphic Designer): I had the office plague for a good chunk of the month and the only cure was equal doses of echinacea and television. I took advantage of the quality time with my couch and rewatched a significant portion of Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the series, not the also great, but somewhat vapid movie, featuring Luke Perry).
It’s easy to downplay a horror-themed teen drama. Yes, the show is about a teenage vampire slayer and her gang of misfit friends, but it’s really about the terror and awkwardness of growing up, as well as the pressures of finding your place in the world (whether one is fated to fight demons or not). While the special effects and fashion are dated, the series is just as smart, campy, and often deeply moving as it was when it aired. (Season five’s “The Body” is one of the most realistic portrayals of grief in television.)
Whedon is, as usual, a master of quip and interaction. His characters are complex and genuine in the face of ridiculous situations (a pack of roving hellhounds is out to ruin prom and maybe your boyfriend is a werewolf …). The series is full of groundbreaking content and risky stylistic choices (a musical episode and another with 23 minutes of no dialogue). I may have felt terrible for most of the month, but at least I had the Scooby Gang to keep me company.
Thomas Ross (Editorial Assistant): Sometimes it’s just happenstance and the good taste of others that leads you to something new and amazing. This month I read for review xo Orpheus: Fifty New Myths, Kate Bernheimer’s anthology of contemporary fiction writers writing new/to/through classic myths and mythological subjects. Anthologies are difficult to review, but this one gave me plenty to write about, due in no small part to Kate Bernheimer’s introduction, which is thoughtful, illuminating, and—I think—wrong about the relationship of myth and fiction. My review/rebuttal clocked in well over my poor editor’s imposed word limit. But I have to thank Bernheimer for putting together such a stellar group of writers, including my new infatuation: Manuela Draeger.
Draeger is a French author of adolescent fiction, but she’s also a fictional character created by Antoine Volodine, which is a pen name of an anonymous French writer. In Volodine’s stories, Draeger is a containment-camp librarian who writes stories for children, but in France she’s published without that backstory. Thank god for The Dorothy Project, who published three of her stories in the US in a delirious, playful Brian Evenson translation called In the Time of the Blue Ball. The stories follow Bobby Potemkine, a makeshift detective who lives in a post-apocalyptic world with startlingly few signs that it was actually our world pre-apocalypse. In my favorite story, Bobby searches for a mother pelican to solve the inexplicable plague of morbidly placid but endearing baby pelicans that have appeared in the city. That turns out to be a tall order, as Bobby soon learns, because it seems “nobody has invented mother pelicans yet.” Language means something different in this world, but maybe meaning means something different, too. It’s fascinating and fun and I’m going to learn French immediately just to read more.
They called her La Baudilia, because she was the exact female version of her brother, that famous Baudilio Cartablanca, who later ended a long career as a Venezuelan revolutionary, dying a renegade. She had the same sharp nose, the same bulging eyes, and the same measured and gentle way of speaking that hid, or tried to hide, a naive self-sufficiency.
I met her at the Quintelas’ home, in the Apolo neighborhood, and I quickly hit it off with her because of her open and aggressive spirit, and the fact that she was a great storyteller.
One of those stories was about her own life.
She said she had come to know love late in life because, as a girl, her brother scared off her boyfriends. She said it with a smile, although with a distant note of bitterness. The last of her suitors was a young man, Consolación, from her town, who dressed very elegantly, and always showed up with a handful of roses, smelling of French cologne. He seemed like one of the knights of old. His relationship with her did not go beyond an inoffensive clutching of hands and a whispering exchange of songs. Their courtship lasted three months, until the day on which Baudilio, her ferocious brother, came home early from a political meeting and confronted the young man with a disdainful expression.
The suitor was a refined young man. He crossed his legs in the English manner and spoke with the voice of a provincial poet. Baudilio looked him over, found out he was a symbolist poet, touched the feeble muscles of his arm, and at last said mockingly, “So this is the little fag you found for yourself.”
It was the end. The young man wanted to protest, but he couldn’t. Instead of daring to respond to the insolence with a strong word or a punch in the mouth, he left the house in shame, tears in his eyes, and never returned.
“Right there, I decided to become a nun.”
She decided it in silence, counting on her Roman Catholic and Apostolic mother’s complicity. First, she was put in a convent on Calle 23, in the heart of Havana that didn’t let in sunlight or even the sound of swallows chirping.
Her brother Baudilio went there with four drunk friends to rescue her and bring her back to the outside world. But the nuns refused to open the doors; they didn’t let him see her, and everything ended when her brother, sauced with rum, unloaded the cartridge of a machine gun on the convent’s old wall and left, cursing the priests and swearing he would return one day to remove her by force.
Perhaps that was why the convent’s superior decided to send La Baudilia to Madrid, to a convent on San Cosme and San Damián Street, where they worked hard and only spoke of essential matters. That was where La Baudilia’s crisis of conscience began. Why was she there? Why should she hand her life over to God in such an absurd way? She endured some very agonizing days due to the immensity of her doubts. She even doubted Saint Teresa, who was her inspiration on dark nights. On one of those nights, she couldn’t take it anymore and went to the convent’s altar, seeking an answer.
The altar was dark, only a small candle at the feet of a plaster Saint Teresa shed a little light.
La Baudilia fell in desperation before Christ on the cross and said:
“Lord, take pity on me. If you are real, if you exist, show yourself right now and give me the strength to follow this path.”
But God did not show himself, nor was his voice heard, nor did any light flicker strangely.
Then she turned toward the darkest part of the chapel and spoke thus:
“Satan, I am not afraid of you. If you truly exist, turn yourself into flesh and blood so I can see you and be your eternal servant.”
But the devil didn’t appear either. Nothing.
The next day, she packed her belongings, dressed in lay clothes, and went straight to the airport to return to Cuba, to her brother, and to the revolution.
That was her story.
“None of it exists,” she said to us, at last, leaning against the front door. “God, the devil, it’s all a lie.”
And she left. Rosa and I leaned out the window to see her walk off down Calle Mariel. She was wearing men’s jeans, a Caribbean cruise shirt that was too large for her, electrician boots, a hair-style like a cocky Frenchman, and her gait was aggressive and shameless like a tough guy from the Pogolotti neighborhood.
Then, the Quintelas and I looked down at our hands in silence, looked in each other’s faces again in silence, and understood, in silence, how terrible it was. How terribly and expertly the devil worked.
Guillermo Rosales (Cuba, 1946 — Miami, 1993) was a very well known writer within the Cuban and Cuban-American communities. Sadly, he destroyed nearly all of his work before committing suicide. Luckily, The Halfway House was spared and published posthumously. A collection of short stories, Leapfrog, is now available from New Directions.
Anna Kushner was born in Philadelphia and first traveled to Cuba in 1999. Beside her “commanding translation” (Words Without Borders) of The Halfway House (ND, 2009), her writing and translations have appeared in numerous other print and web publications.
Tin House Reels brings you a Halloween treat today in the form of Paul Kramer’s “Ligeia.” Based on the 1838 Edgar Allan Poe short story of the same name, the narrative centers around a writer who obsesses over his dead wife and and longs to“restore her to the pathway she had abandoned.”
Kramer made his film in response to The Poe Project, a contest organized by the Sacramento Public Library and the Capital Film Arts Alliance in which filmmakers adapted the works of Edgar Allan Poe into films no longer than thirteen minutes. “Ligeia” won Best Film and Audience Award for The Poe Project at the Sacramento Film and Music Festival in August 13, 2013.
Poe’s story about love and death called for black and white, Kramer said: “Why make the film in black and white? Because of shadows. In black and white, at least to me, shadows seem more potent. After Ligeia dies in the story, I still wanted her presence to be felt, and shadows allowed me to do just that. [In making the film, I visualized Rowland Lee’s] Son of Frankenstein [and] gave stills of Son of Frankenstein to the cast and crew for reference.”
“With [Poe’s] short story, there has been some debate about whether or not the main character imagines what transpires as through some drug-induced hallucinations. In my film, I still keep those questions alive. However, I think my last image gives a good indication as to what I think is the more interesting answer.”
Once the tornado touches down, there’s only so much you can do, and before it touches down, it’s all too easy to ignore. You teach. You tell Kira to put away her headphones, turn her music off, switch her cellphone onto silent and won’t Brody please turn back around? You insist. You say, Listen. The siren goes off all the time. You say, Our classroom is at basement level and anyway, it’s just a warning.
You insist this because it’s true, and because you have lived here for five years—the exact number of days since these students arrived in this Midwestern state. They are high school students from Portland, Seattle, Houston, Miami. They vacation in Nantucket and their dads drive Corvettes through rural New Jersey. They are here for summer camp and have never before heard what they’re now hearing.
The first time you heard the sirens, you were new to this state, too. You’d crossed the Plains and the Mississippi, left your East Coast home where it was only ever snow that cancelled school. Now there are tornados, and that first time, you lay there panicked—it was three thirty in the morning—and thought that out here, even the lightning was different, to say nothing of time or space. It was like a strobe light that first summer: incessant and far more frequent. You crept to your historic basement, not knowing what else to do, and for the thirty minutes that followed, you picked at scabs and watched the windows. You were scared, down there in your nightgown, but after a while, a pattern emerged: you only ever pushed open doors to downed tree branches, empty soda bottles, bags blown by wind.
This time, however, is different, and you know this because of your phone: how it rings once, twice, three times, but all the while, you just watch it light up. It is rude to answer your cellphone, most especially when you’re teaching a class. So a voicemail is left, and then another. And then another. And when at last the classroom rings—due to a phone you didn’t even know existed—you realize that this time is different, and you know then that it is bad.
…has touched down near Solon.
…has touched down in Tiffin.
These are places eighteen miles and five miles, respectively, from the very classroom where you stand, holding the corded phone looped round your wrist. This is a month only five weeks after an EF5 pummeled Moore, Oklahoma, only three weeks after another pummeled Oklahoma City. You were in a hotel that night in Ohio, drinking Coors from a tallboy can. You’d spent that day on the open road, the embankments steep and barren from where the worst summer storms had been. Still, sitting in that dingy hotel room, you watched everything they could find to show: cars crushed the way ice is crushed, houses toppled like Lincoln Logs. Days later, you watched it again, this time from a sun-lit East Coast living room, but all the while you thought of your home in Iowa, thinking, My god, and then: Not there.
Now you are here and the storms have joined you.
You want to tell your students that it will be okay, to settle down, to pay attention, but they are unsettled and right to be. They have every reason to be afraid. They’ve come here only to write: in composition notebooks and cafeteria napkins and in the marginalia of their new friends’ journals. They want to take photographs of native leaves and frosty mugs full of the town’s legendary Pie Shakes, the sticky faces of their new friends, sweet and red and sweaty from the long hours in the prairie’s heat. They don’t want to cower beneath a desk. They don’t want to worry about flying debris.
They never touch down here, you’ve said—how many times have you said this phrase?—and it was true for the longest time, until now, when it clearly isn’t.
In fear, you think of Asia: how on that long flight from Manila to Narita, the plane hit turbulence as you were eating, slurping soba and drinking hot, pale tea. It’s like when you stick your arm out of a moving car, a friend had once explained, and your arm waves up and down, but that doesn’t mean the car’s at risk.
But above Taiwan, above the Pacific, it felt nothing like a wavering arm. It was more severe than it’d been; it felt like the car was caving in.
You looked to your flight attendant, as you’d been told to do countless times before. Check on her expression. Evaluate her calamity. If she’s scared—if she can’t hide it—only then are you right to be.
That day above the Pacific, her outfit was well worn and blue and crisp; her hair was tied back in a stately bun. Even in another language, she remained fluid in calamity.
Now you must become her, pulling at your projector, buffering clips. You load first videos of yawning kittens, then K-pop videos, sloths fast asleep. Look, you say, it’s fine. We’re all just going to ride this out together. Because isn’t that the best that you can offer—to make these moments as light as possible? So you load bad karaoke and prankster red-heads, baby’s laughing as they tear at paper, and you do this all the while hoping, waiting, listening to the howls outside—all these storms both big and small you had no way of anticipating.
Amy Butcher is a recent graduate of the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program and Gettysburg College. She was the 2012-2013 Olive B. O’Connor Fellow in nonfiction writing at Colgate University and this past winter she was twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her work has appeared in McSweeney’s, The Rumpus, and Salon, among others.
Copyright © 2013 by Amy Butcher.
In her poem “Bon Dieu,” Rachel McKibbens writes, “…Because I do not believe/ in coincidence, because I know that every thing/ happens because someone has made it happen,/ we packed up our children and stayed in a hotel.”
This is the kind of fierceness Rachel McKibbens struts in her second book of poems, Into the Dark & Emptying Field, and in her life outside the book as a female poet. She does not fit neatly into any box or label. She is a force of nature and as such, is an element to be reckoned with.
As the poems in her first book Pink Elephant can attest, she is a master at suspense, imagery and storytelling. Her poems push your face up to the screen door. You can see the life, the beauty inside, but you can also smell the violence and the ugliness. When you read Rachel’s poems, you are seeing, you are feeling, but; moreover, you are believing.
However, to really experience the full power of her work, you need to see her read in person, or second-best, view her Ted Talk from this past summer. Her voice is thunderous, in the most magical of ways. I am very fortunate to have met her in “real-life,” and am grateful to say that her words and her genuine spirit have deeply impacted my life as a woman and a poet. (I’m not just saying that because she has fed me pie and ginger-lemon whiskey when I read for her Series).
Leah Umansky: What is your earliest memory concerning poetry?
Rachel McKibbens: I was never read to as a child, but once I learned to read on my own, I consumed every story I could. I remember sitting in the dentist office and finding a poem in Highlights magazine about a casserole bowl. The word ‘bowl’ rhymed with ‘cold’ and that really stuck out for me. I was in third grade at the time. That same year, my class was taught enunciation through nursery rhymes and tongue twisters. “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.” Pure magic.
LU: Last year, I took some of my 10th grade students to Student Day at the Dodge Poetry Festival. We were all absolutely devastated that your first book, Pink Elephant, had sold out. How does being so well-received by teenagers make you feel?
RU: It’s probably a good thing I had no idea what Dodge was when I signed on to be a part of it. I’d heard of it, but there is no way to actually describe what it’s like until you’re pushing through the crowds.
Student Day was life altering. How many chances do you get to read to a packed opera house at 9 am, and on a weekday no less? It was astonishing. Shortly after Student Day began I found out there weren’t any of my books left to sell, so I sat at the book signing table feeling pretty useless, but then students started asking me to pose with them for photos and we started talking and I immediately felt like I belonged there. When they would remark, “I didn’t know you could be like… like YOU and write poems,” there was no need for them to clarify. I understood what they meant. I’m visibly working class. A Latina woman with a tattooed face and knuckles who clearly gives zero fucks about making people feel comfortable. I never went to college. I am un-academic. What am I doing, reading alongside such highly-acclaimed wizards?
I’ve worked with teens for more than a decade. I respect them, immensely, and trust them. And I like to think that, they hear that through my poetry. I opened my set on Student Day with a poem, “For Carol, Who is No One” and in the first five seconds, I call my estranged mother a “muddy old bitch.” Sweet Mary, I will hold that sound those students in the audience made ‘til the day I die. The sound of acknowledgement and acceptance. I needed to ask them, Can I go there? And their collective ooooooos said YES, GO THERE! They understood I wasn’t fluffing up a thing, and I understood that they had my back in that. Opening with that poem was deliberate. The response was going to determine whether I did Set A (the set I wanted to) or Set B (the set your average school official would deem appropriate for high school-aged children.) I was thrilled to do Set A.
LU: That was the poem that made me originally email you! My students could not stop talking about your reading on the NJ Transit train back to Manhattan. I promised I would find that poem for them, and you sent it to me. I included it the following year in my 10th grade poetry unit and students were flabbergasted.
Let’s talk a little bit about Pink Elephant. Your poem “The Last Time,” is one of the most powerful poems I’ve ever read. Its tone and imagery are haunting. It begins, “I did it alone,/ without leaving.” What was your experience in writing this poem?
Nicholson Baker is the author of more than a dozen books. His third book, U and I: A True Story, about John Updike, is a common frame of reference for many who write creative criticism today. “Defoe, Truthteller,” reprinted in The Story About the Story II, was first published in Columbia Journalism Review, and appears in Baker’s The Way the World Works: Essays. His most recent book is Traveling Sprinkler.
J.C. Hallman: Do creative writers have an obligation to act as critics, to offer up alternatives to traditional critical methodologies and assumptions?
Nicholson Baker: Well, I feel obliged from time to time, but I wouldn’t want to impose my perceived obligations on anybody else.
JCH: As you see it, what happened to criticism? That is, how did we move from Arnold and Pater and Wilde to the kind of academic criticism produced in Literature departments?
NB: What happened was that people like Pater and Swinburne overdid the rapture and tired everyone out. The idea grew up that we had to set aside our likes and dislikes, and even our knowledge of biographical context—and sometimes that impulse was helpful. New Criticism and Close Reading aspired to be a little like the f/64 school of photography, where everything was in focus. No softness, no mists of emotion. Panovsky was searching for iconographical symbols with a magnifying glass, and I.A. Richards was, if I remember right, making diagrams that supposedly demonstrated the neurological effects triggered by lines of poetry. After a few decades of poking at lyrical joys with the tools of forensic prose, we’d had enough of pseudo-objectivity and instead spiraled out into the deep dark-mattered space of Franco-Grecian vocabularies and learned, humorless puns. Now there are fewer English majors, and we’re back to square one—reading and writing reviews, celebrating and spurning.
JCH: What was it that first gave you license to approach criticism more creatively?
NB: An empty page is license enough. Write about what interests you, and what you genuinely want to think about, and what you love or don’t love. Acknowledge your frailties and non-omniscience. Novels, because they’re about all of life, are big and buoyant enough to ferry carloads of what we think of as criticism to the far shore.
JCH: To your mind, what best characterizes writerly or creative criticism?
NB: It’s more inclusive and loosey-goosey, open to the temptations of distraction. When it’s good, it shows tenderness, humility, and the occasional burst of fierceness.
Trick or Treat? Either way, we have slipped out of the office again to meet you for another quick burst of storytelling. So close the curtains, pour yourself a drink, unwrap some candy, and listen to Jess Walter’s “Don’t Eat Cat.” First published by Byliner, this wickedly funny send-up of zombie fiction also appears in Jess’s We Live in Water.
If it was really Shelley who listened to the skylark, it was not Shelley in any important sense. —Mary Oliver
On the first day of my M.F.A. degree program in non-fiction writing, my teacher made the following announcement: “Unless you’ve been fortunate enough to make out with your father, odds are good you don’t have memoir material.”
He was referring, of course, to the plot of The Kiss, a memoir in which Kathryn Harrison recounts a clandestine affair she had with her father. The implications of his comment fell heavily on my literary aspirations. Though I have not made out with my father, I’ve always seen the world through a distinctly subjective lens. Years ago, pre-MFA, I tried to pass off a third-person story about attending family therapy with my adult siblings and aging parents as “fiction,” only to have my teacher return it with a hearty laugh. “Nice try!” he said as he slapped me on the back. When I pled ignorance, he explained patiently, “You’re not a fiction writer. You’re just not.” Perspective, I learned then, does not a camouflage make.
Just ask Salman Rushdie or Paul Auster. In their respective memoirs, released last year, each sidestepped the first-person point of view. Joseph Anton, Rushdie’s account of his life under fatwa, is told in the third person, while Winter’s Journey, Auster’s exploration of his life as lived through the physical body, is told in the second person. In a radio interview, Rushdie explained that the distant third person fit his tale. What could be more surreal than being forced into hiding after learning that a religious leader has given one a death sentence? He was living someone else’s life. Auster, on the other hand, told Fresh Air’s Terry Gross that the second person was his way of inviting the reader in, making his tale more “universal.”
I tried that once. In Much to Your Chagrin: A Memoir of Embarrassment, my memoir about the year I spent collecting embarrassing stories on the streets of Manhattan, the protagonist is “you.” But the question of perspective in memoir has always intrigued me, long before I sat down in front of my laptop to chronicle the missteps of my wonderful, blunder-full thirtieth year, which was colored by an inappropriate, adolescent, and yet wildly fun romance I had with my literary agent. After all, perspective reveals not only one’s view of the world, but also one’s view of oneself in that world. What could be more intimate?
To justify this is a throat-clearing waste of time, which is why my grad school teacher’s incest joke made me cringe for reasons other than the disturbing images that flashed through my mind. Did I have to prove I’d lived through something “narrative-worthy,” such as a plane crash or life-threatening illness? If I did have to pass a test of memoir-validation, how might this alter my relationship to the story itself? Would I then seek to have experiences so that I could write about them, as opposed to exploring stories that carried intrinsic meaning? Only once in my life did I make a decision based solely on the fact that it might be a good tale later—and making out with a squirrely drummer in a dingy, stalled Holiday Inn elevator outside of Boston when I was a mere twenty-one years old (and thought wearing short skirts and knee-high boots was a swell, not slutty, idea) didn’t cut the narrative, not to mention romantic, mustard. There was no story, just an unforgettable, regrettable five minutes. I’ll never do that again. Or, at least I don’t think I’ll do that again. Taking a page from David Foster Wallace, one potential title for a forthcoming memoir (mine or anyone else’s) could be A Funny Thing I’ll Never Do Again…Supposedly.
Let’s face it: this notion of having done something notable to merit a memoir is faulty. As a teacher, I’ve had many a student come to me with dramatic stories. They’ve fled burning buildings, discovered their spouse had a second family, survived not one but two life-threatening illnesses, crossed the border from Mexico alone and pregnant in the back of a flatbed truck. “Everyone tells me I should write a book,” the students say, carefully gauging my reaction. Often, I offer advice antithetical to what my own teacher told me: When the story itself is so grand—with high drama, crazy-sounding details, inconceivable developments of our external reality—we should consider ourselves in dangerous territory; writing from this place can easily become a labor of the lazy.
I myself discovered this challenge when my older brother, who has an undiagnosed developmental disability, called to tell me he’d just gotten married in a Wiccan ceremony in Salem, Massachusetts to a woman no one in the family had ever met. Seconds after I heard his new wife in the background calling me her “sister-in-law,” he said, “Oh, my god, Sue. I gotta go. She’s having a seizure.” Click. I would later learn more details: the wedding ceremony was non-binding, thanks to the high priestess’ foresight; my new “sister-in-law” was pregnant and I was not to tell my parents. Oh, and my alleged sister-in-law also told me that the father of her first child was in jail for arson and attempted murder. This time, she said, would be different. And it was. When my brother learned she’d lied about the paternity, they broke up.
Years later, I tried to write the story, expecting the surreal facts to do all the heavy lifting. Conveniently skipping over the whole reason that this set of circumstances mattered to me, as well as any semblance of real emotion, the words, the mood, my perspective, they fell flat.
Addressing larger-than-life stories is trickier than it seems. In The Fourth State of Matter, Jo Ann Beard artfully recounts her proximity to a harrowing tragedy, but she does so by first depicting the everyday texture of her life, pre-catastrophe. (If one has not read this essay, one should.) What makes the piece so moving is not that is passes the memoir-worthy bar (which it surely does), but her ability to revel in a sliver of her life, before the tragedy; in doing so, she invites readers to experience what might otherwise have been an unimaginable turning point.
Unlike Beard’s essay, my own memoir was borne of a ho-hum place. I had dating stories so fantastical (or so mundane to New York City, depending on your vantage) that one married friend said, “Your stories are like a modern day Notes from the Underground.” This particular comment came after I’d spotted my recent ex-agent/boyfriend, for whom I still pined, through the kitchen window of my new boyfriend’s apartment, just after we’d engaged in amorous contact on his couch, blinds open. In a city of nearly nine million people, they shared a backyard.
Let the spine-tingling prose begin!
Not only are we thrilled to be publishing one of Shirley Jackson’s unfinished stories on the Open Bar today, we are giving you, our talented and somewhat macabre fanbase, the chance to complete Mrs. Jackson’s vision.
The Contest: Create your own ending to the unfinished Shirley Jackson story below.
Submission Guidelines: Submissions should be 2,500 words or fewer (not including Jackson’s prose). Entries must be received on November 17th by midnight Pacific Daylight Time and should be sent, with the text of the story pasted into the body of the e-mail to shirleyjacksoncontest@tinhouse.
The Judges: Tin House Editorial Staff, the family of Shirley Jackson, and our finals judge, the fantastic short-story author, Kelly Link.
The Grand Prize: The winner of the Shirley Jackson Contest will be announced on Friday, December 13th and will win publication on the Tin House Open Bar, a Tin House gift bag, and The Works of Shirley Jackson from Penguin Books
Click here for detailed Rules & Regulations.
Shirley Jackson’s Unfinished Story
“Snowflakes salted the early dark, the street a white field cut by tires and boots. A siren, laughter, throbs of music from the takeout. Our mother thought my brother’s apartment was too loud, not guessing that Riley used the noise for company. Snow was an ear feather. Airplanes blinked in the sky.” —Leni Zumas, The Listeners
When I first read Lucy Corin’s novel Everyday Psychokillers (FC2 2004) I kept thinking, “Did she really just do that?” Actually, that’s a lie, because the feeling—the thought—was something more subtle, but just as wonder-struck. It had something to do with the fact that the book intersperses chapters about preadolescent girlhood with chapters about ancient Egypt and slave revolts, and that some sections that feel like chapters have titles, and some don’t. It had to do with the girl protagonist narrator having crushes on other girls and women but not needing to call them crushes, or freak out about them. It had to do with a relationship to time that felt rangy but defined, like dust floating in the crisp angle of a sunbeam. I trusted Corin that the container for what she was doing, thinking, writing was there, even if it was often not visible.
And trusting a writer in that way is a relatively rare occurrence. Traditionally realist fiction can make me bristle when I feel as if it’s trying to hard to convince me that reality looks one flattened-out way. And work that’s self-consciously experimental can feel too much like a challenge, a test. But what makes me trust Corin is that she doesn’t privilege one mode of creating stories over another. In her 2007 Tin House collection The Entire Predicament, some stories look like conventionally crafted short fiction, and others look like nothing I’ve seen before. Many are both. A story like “Mice,” if it’s going to be good, is always going to show us that the narrator’s obsession with eradicating the mice from his kitchen is also about some other kind of obsession, but no one else is going to put that narrator on a reindeer in Yakutsk and have us believing, through a narrative mode I can best describe as “confessional film theory,” that the mice are him, and us, and everything. No one else writes a story called “My Favorite Dentist” that funnels all possible longing in the universe into the desire for the specific, stinging clean that only a session with the most unimpeachable dentist can provide—and does it in a second person address, no less.
Corin’s newest collection, One Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses (McSweeney’s 2013), is as it says: three longer short stories and 100 shorter ones, which are both “about” what we might think of as the conventional, end-of-days-style apocalypse, and also the soft, apocalyptic decays and disappointments we always endlessly suffer. In “Godzilla Versus the Smog Monster,” a 14-year-old boy has, for the first time, discovered something about his father that he can’t make sense of—a video of the titular sci-fi movie in his father’s dresser drawer—and meanwhile, all of California, on the TV news, is burning to embers. Some of the apocalypses look eerily like today: in “Coming to Life,” Circuit City has gone under, and no one has jobs or health insurance. “Recall,” a six-sentence story in which pistachios have been recalled, seems a prescient description of where our food supply is headed: “People gathered in fields to remember the food that fed them and killed them.”
But it would be foolish to simply play “find the apocalypse” with each of these 103 stories. What feels magical, intellectual, and utterly convincing about this book is the idea of apocalypse not as content, but as container—that hazy, strident sunbeam I mentioned above. The container is apocalypse-as-mode-of-thinking-and-writing, as wildly generative paradox: the end of everything means both that nothing is left and anything is possible. I spoke to Corin over Skype to find out what she believes the container of the apocalypse can hold.
Sara Jaffe: Many of the stories in your new book—particularly in the apocalypses—have to do with the body in some way: babies and birth feature in a number of stories, in one short apocalypse “[o]ur mouths swapped spots with our assholes,” in “Time Machine” the guy gets in the time machine, doesn’t know what to do, and ends up jerking off. Bodies bring the possibility of discovery and of trouble. Is there something in your thinking about apocalypse that relates to bodies, specifically?
Lucy Corin: My conscious relationship with my interest in apocalypse is as narrative structure—if the simplest conception of story is beginning-middle-end, apocalypse takes that to the extreme: end of everything as beginning. I’m actually thinking more about bodies in the book I’m working on now. Our bodies are the most nearby structure in our experience—the doll in a doll in a doll shape of being a body, in some clothes, in a house, in a town, in a country. Those sorts of armatures. The shape we’re in is the shape of our body, and another shape we’re in is the shape of the narrative, and another shape we’re in is the shape of our culture. So I’m interested in playing out those parallels until they don’t work anymore.
SJ: Is thinking about bodies like that—and their relationship to “the shape of our culture”—in some way a political gesture for you?
LC: I do think my work is political. It’s not polemical, it’s not prescriptive, it’s political in the sense that the choices of what it witnesses and records are made consciously. I try to own where I’m standing. And I think it’s really interesting that it’s only recently that I’ve had anybody say my work is political. When my first book came out, all of the attention to it was about its aesthetic choices, whether or not it was being formally innovative, and I was like, this book’s about something, you guys. Yeah, my heart is in form, and my heart is in form for a reason. And I’m not just in form to see if I can come up with something that somebody didn’t do. I know that’s foolish. I know that can’t be the point or you might as well just go drown yourself.
SJ: Right, and it’s so easy to hide in conversations that make the assumption that there’s such a thing as pure aesthetics, or pure form, or pure craft that’s devoid of these concerns.
LC: My aesthetic interests are informed by the same thing that informs any writer of ambition, which is to try to put into the world things that they think are missing, and that people aren’t noticing, to say, “Wait a second,” say “Look over there! Look over there!” And that’s a political move, as soon as you’re gong to disrupt somebody’s vision, or steer it in a direction that you think is important. If you’ve got a bowl full of stuff and you want it to be a bowl that you like better, what are you going to put in the bowl?
Lauren Perez (Tin House Marketing Intern): Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townshend Warner, a great read for someone slowly drifting into the life of a recluse, shamefacedly refusing to go out with her roommates in favor of doing laundry. It’s the story of an aging single woman, who, after the death of her father, is consigned to live with her brother’s family and help with the management of his household and the raising of his children. After nineteen years she abruptly leaves to lead her own life out in the country—only to have even that refuge invaded by her nephew Titus, who upon arriving to Great Mop (the fantastic name of her rural retreat) immediately begins demanding his aunt take care of him and keep him company. The novel opens up from the quiet despair of a life given away in inches when the heroine discovers she is a witch, and makes a pact with the devil to finally have a life of her own, not encroached upon by family or polite society. The book ends with Laura “Lolly” Willowes explaining to the devil why so many women become witches: “One doesn’t become a witch to run around being harmful, or to run around being helpful either, a district visitor on a broomstick. It’s to escape all that – to have a life of one’s own, not an existence doled out to by others.” It’s a terribly funny book that manages to laugh at the quiet desperation and stupidities under which the heroine must live, with an ultimately triumphant end. The reader can’t help but cheer for evil.
Holly Laycock (Tin House Marketing Intern): I started Villa Incognito by Tom Robbins after I finished In Cold Blood, and it is just the break from reality that I needed. Tom Robbins’ whimsical world of tanukis and American MIAs at times leaves me scratching my head, enough that I sometimes am not in the mood for it. However, it is the perfect book to get me out of my head, away from my troubles, and when I need a good belly laugh, I read the scattered poetry throughout:
“Meet me in Cognito, baby,We’ll soon leave our pasts behind us.The present is always a mystery,
As the future never fails to remind us.
(Those who travel in Cognito
—Their very lives can depend on a hunch.
They eat intuition for breakfast
And sip cold paranoia for lunch.)”
No matter how unlikely the concept of this book, the sheer command Robbins has over language boggles my mind, and I’m intrigued as to how he will tie these separate narratives together. The quote on the front cover says it all: “Impossibly imaginative.”
Curtis Moore (Tin House Books, Editorial Intern): I’m deep in my final semester of college, submerged under several feet of Faulknerian criticism, but I peek my head up now to catch a breath and share with you one of my new favorites: As I Lay Dying. Advancing his initial experimentation with perspective in The Sound and the Fury, Faulkner’s tale is of an impoverished country family fighting a flood, a fire, and their own duplicitous motives to fulfill their dead matriarch’s final wish to be buried in her hometown, many miles away. Though the characters are unschooled and barely literate, Faulkner lends them the full breadth of his language, creating richly drawn mental landscapes where the novel can explore themes of death, birth, time, and the very nature of being, all the while complicating just what it means to try and capture those experiences in words.
Victoria Savanh (Tin House Books Intern): A few months ago I picked up all of Jennifer Egan’s novels, beginning with Look at Me and now ending with her first novel, The Invisible Circus. It’s 1978 and Phoebe leaves foggy San Francisco to retrace her romantic hippie sister Faith’s path through Europe, eight years after Faith died in Italy. The Invisible Circus confronts memory and grief, the end of the 60s, and strikes a perfect balance between nostalgia and reality. While Phoebe’s insecurity is painful at times, the raw honesty makes this a very satisfying coming-of-age novel. Not to mention, just sinking into Egan’s fluid prose. At the end as Phoebe looks back on hers and Faith’s journey, “she still ached to transcend it, cross the invisible boundary to that other place, the real place. But you couldn’t have that every day. No one could sustain it.” Thankfully we have writers like Egan who can bring us, even if just temporarily, across that invisible boundary.
Veronica Martin (Editorial Intern, The Open Bar): Barely back from the tropics and already I’m itching to travel again, this time to John Berger’s kind of city where the dead are as present as the living in Lisbon, Geneva, Madrid, Krakow. There is a mood to Here Is Where We Meet, this gem of a book by Berger, that holds a kind of wanderlust for the interim realm of the dead and the past and the in-between. And, I like to think—by way of that past tense, by it’s very momentary disconnect from the now—for the present. Berger captures the kind of personality a place takes on when you are traveling alone, revisiting places and memories alone, feeling the presence of another’s absence… alone. His cities are haunted and haunting, a platform through which to experience his deceased mother, ask her questions, learn from her journey through death the way we so completely, so physically, wish we could have a conversation with some of our own deceased beloved. This book shivers along the spine of surrealism, imagining the act of cooking and serving a meal as a way for the already dead to connect with other already dead in a sort of melting of time and space. To feel, through cooking, the presence of someone’s absence: “He’ll eat it, wherever he is, when he happens to think of me. Just as I think of him when I’m preparing it.” Indeed, the presence of John’s mother is as real when she is appears—on a park bench with “the kind of stillness that draws attention to itself,” as an old woman, a seventeen year old voice, all knowing at times—as when she is nowhere to be found. The idea that the dead choose the city in which they want to live, as she explains, is wildly romantic and so, to me, is this book in the same way a sustained note of heartbreak can be romantic: indulgent and pure and grounding. This book’s presence in a room in a hand in a mind is hushed, Berger so takes you into the particular world of his protagonist. And there, time and presence is apart, the world’s human sound outside the vacuum of some in-between into which you as reader have slipped without even realizing it: “You can either be fearless, or you can be free, you can’t be both.”