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April was a great month. We paid our taxes, various people we really like won Pulitzer Prizes, and we found a plastic egg with money in it in the bushes by the office. Here are some other highlights from our staff and interns.
Tony: Leave it to Jim Shepard to take the challenge of writing about something like the Holocaust in 2015—the fact that we’ve read so much, seen so much, had so many nightmares about it before—and turn it into one of his novel’s strengths. The Book of Aron is claustrophobic in the very best of ways. From the opening line (“My mother and father named me Aron, but my father said they should have named me What Have You Done, and my uncle told everyone they should have called me What Were You Thinking”), we’re deep in the head of our narrator. And while we readers are very-much aware of the broad swath of atrocities taking place and about to take place, the narrow perspective (the discursions and misdirection, personal affronts and jokes) through which we see the Warsaw ghetto creates an uncanny tension and lets us feel the horror in a way that feels fresh and freshly devastating. There’s something in how he weights or refuses to weight his sentences, how brutalities materialize without the expected windup, that allows Shepard to build a world between what Aron sees and what we know, until finally, tragically, that divide collapses. Normally if you say something feels longer than its page count, you mean it’s a slog; but The Book of Aron doesn’t let you put it down, doesn’t let you stop reading until you get to the end, and still, after just 272 pages, you’ve lived a lifetime with Aron—for better and for worse, you’ve done what he’s done and thought what he’s thinking.
Michelle: So I have to admit that my first response when I heard about Meghan Daum’s anthology Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids was the tiniest bit of outrage. Not at the anthology itself, which is excellent, but at the idea that there is still apparently any need to justify this decision at all. Well, it’s nice to think we’ve evolved past the days when any childless adult was considered stunted, but really the topic is still fraught. What’s fascinating about this particular moment in this particular culture is that it’s no longer taken for granted you’ll rear children—which means what was once a fait accompli is now a decision, and it’s a baffling one at that. There is no comparison a prospective parent can make to know if she should go for it. There’s nothing to do but consider and guess. That’s a process these writers explore in a variety of ways, with special props to Laura Kipnis and Lionel Shriver for placing this whole childrearing thing in historical and biological context. But nearly all of the essays are captivating as they tell the writers’ story of near misses, slow dawnings, and lifelong convictions.
Meg: As much as I love to read, I often feel that music (and, as its frequent side effect, dancing) is the art form that affects me the most, that gets me out of my head and taps into me in a purely emotional way. I was walking home one night in April when I got a text from a friend: Hey! Wanna be my date to Belle and Sebastian tomorrow night? I hadn’t even known they were coming to town, and I’d never seen them live, but my reply was immediate: YES. My soul needs that. And my soul was not let down. Their renditions of “Judy and the Dream of Horses” and “Sleep the Clock Around” filled the house with light, but I think this was my favorite song of the show. Don’t worry about seeing it coming. Dance. You know you want to surrender. Plus, this might just be the prettiest video ever.
Claire: This month I’ve been revisiting Richard Siken’s Crush, and diving into his newly released, long-awaited second collection, War of the Foxes. The two books are staggeringly different; in the foreword to Crush, Louise Gluck writes, “This is a book about panic.” And it is, it’s a book about frantic longing, love, desire, loss, if they can be so named. But if Crush is about panic, War of the Foxes is about control: here Siken demonstrates an exacting and analytic style. These new poems are more concerned with the naming and placement of objects and people (as opposed to the erotically-charged Crush). Siken is a literal artist here, painting a series of beautiful, albeit boundary-troubling, discreet scenes. War of the Foxes is debatably a more evolved, mature approach to many of the themes that Crush hinges upon, but after flipping back and forth between the two, I keep coming back to the confused, passionate, desperateness of the first. I guess I like my poets a little unhinged.
Marie: I recently caught a bartender friend reading a book called Art & Lies after her shift. With a blunt-yet-seductive title (ART! LIES!) I couldn’t resist pummeling her with questions about it. She said it was taking her psyche by storm and the following week she bought me a copy.
The novel is written in a poetic prose and the plot (if you want to call it that) follows three characters named Handel, Picasso and Sappho—except they’re not the people that you think they are. Picasso is a painter, yes, but also a teenage girl. Handel is a Catholic priest-cum-breast surgeon, and Sappho is part Sappho, part married lady of the twentieth century. The experience of reading its meditative, surreal chapters feels like the experience of reading a great poem: impenetrable and divine, gathering momentum through association and suggestion. There are vanishing cities, mythical libraries, and paints that leak through dreams to implicate their dreamers:
“As I painted, intent on umber and verdigris, cinnabar and chrome, the colours, let out from their tight tubes, escaped under the studio door and up and down the public staircase to the black and white family rooms. My mother broke from her flannelette sleep to cry out the name of a man she hadn’t seen for twenty years. She reared up from her matrimonial sheets, infidelity colouring her cheeks. My father slept in purple.”
It’s a book you want to read slowly in order to savor the sounds of its language, then read again to take in the wisdom it carries.
In his groundbreaking book, Roots: The Saga of an American Family, Alex Haley tells the story of Kunta Kinte, a young man from Gambia sold into slavery in America in the 18th century. The book—published in 1976 and adapted into a popular television series in 1977—is largely based on true events and real people, as Haley claimed to have traced his own lineage all the way back to Gambia, back to the Mandinka tribe, back to Kinte himself.
As a slave on a Virginia farm, Kunta Kinte—who is given the name “Toby” by his slave master—makes multiple escape attempts, and is thwarted each time. After his fourth and final attempt and apprehension, the slave catchers give Kinte his choice of punishment: being castrated or having his right foot cut off with an axe. Kinte chooses his foot, thereby preserving his remaining sense of manhood.
As a crippled, though still prideful slave, Kinte remains not only distrustful of whites, but to the other blacks on the farm, who have been living in slavery longer than Kinte, and who try to convince Kinte to acclimate and become a dutiful slave. Following his last escape attempt, and after losing his right foot to the slave catchers’ axe, Kinte is lectured by an older man, of a lighter brown complexion than Kinte, known only as “the Fiddler.”
“Give it up,” the Fiddler tells Kinte. “You ain’t goin’nowheres, so you might’s well face facts an’start fittin’in, Toby, you hear?”
Kunta Kinte has once again made his way, somewhat obliquely, into popular culture, with the appearance of “King Kunta,” the first single off Kendrick Lamar’s latest album, To Pimp A Butterfly. “I got a bone to pick,”Lamar begins. “I don’t want you monkey mouth motherfuckers sittin’in my throne again,”he continues, effectively declaring himself the once and present ruler of hiphop. Who these “monkey mouth motherfuckers”are, however, is more ambiguous. Lamar could be making reference to the familiar stereotype of black people resembling monkeys—leveling the most hurtful of racist insults against those who would dare challenge his lyrical supremacy—or he could be dismissing his rivals’ talent by claiming their lyricism is no better than the chattering of monkeys.
After this introduction, Lamar proceeds directly into the song’s hook, which begins, “Bitch, where were you when I was walkin’? / Now I run the game, got the whole word talkin’/ King Kunta.” In these lines, Lamar addresses those who dismissed him when he was still an unknown, still trying to make himself heard in a highly competitive culture. But, where once he was “walkin’,” or making small steps, Lamar now runs—the industry, his own creative output—and his talent has made him world famous.
“Everybody wanna cut the leg off him /Kunta,”the hook continues, “Black man taking no losses.”
Even as a successful artist, a black man living in America, including Lamar, still faces routine discrimination and opposition, by whites as well as other black artists, contending for the same level of success. Lamar not only addresses himself as “Kunta,” in homage to Kinte, who defiantly refused to acknowledge his slave name, but by adding the honorific “King,” Lamar accomplishes two goals: he recalls when black men in Africa were once kings and queens, before being decimated by the Atlantic slave trade and the exploitation of the continent; and he proclaims himself superior to his peers. King Kunta, then, is a man of royalty in a land of slaves.
During the 1992 riots in Los Angeles, following the acquittal of LAPD officers involved in the beating of Rodney King, one man, during a taped interview, offered his opinion on the wider implications of the verdict: “That’s what they told us today, in other words, you still a slave (the quote was later sampled in Dr. Dre’s “The Day the Niggaz Took Over”). “No matter how much money you got, you still ain’t shit.” To be a King in America, it would seem, can carry many different meanings.
To be a successful entertainer in America is the dream of many young black men and women, with its promises of wealth and fame. With limited resources and few education opportunities, one of the highest levels of achievement a boy or girl born in the inner city can hope for is to be either a professional athlete or a recording artist. The record industry, much like the sports industry, capitalizes on black talent, while offering the illusion of independence and self-determination. Mainstream hiphop artists, from Lil’Wayne to Jay-Z, frequently namedrop their record label and claim ownership of their music. Kendrick Lamar claims to “run the game,” in “King Kunta.” But most of the biggest hiphop labels, including Cash Money, Def Jam, Aftermath, Roc-A-Fella, GOOD Music, G-Unit Records, Disturbing Tha Peace, Top Dawg, and Bad Boy, are subsidiaries of Universal Music Group, the world’s largest music company (To Pimp A Butterfly is under the UMG umbrella). Many people are making money from the reinforcement of negative stereotypes of young black men and the glorification of inner city crime, but—as UMG posted a revenue of five billion dollars in 2014—it’s clear that some are making more money than others.
After the violent amputation of Kunta Kinte’s foot in Roots, the Fiddler offers Kinte guidance that could be applied to America in general and the American entertainment industry in particular:
“Niggas here say Massa William a good master,” the Fiddler says to Kinte, “an I seen worse. But ain’t none of ‘em no good. Dey all lives off us niggers. Niggers is the biggest thing dey got.”
Santi Elijah Holley’s short stories and nonfiction have been published in VICE, Monkeybicycle, Straylight, and SmokeLong Quarterly, among other periodicals. He is an arts and music writer for The Portland Mercury, and he works in the Publicity department at Powell’s Books.
Andrew Ervin’s debut novel (Ed. Note-Out Today!), Burning Down George Orwell’s House, follows his critically lauded trio of novellas, Extraordinary Renditions. We chatted the old-fashioned way, by email rather than by Skype, and I’ve excluded the part of the conversation about the possibility of staging a revival of our sock-puppet theatre production of Sartre’s No Exit mashed up with Rocky IV and the butter scene from Last Tango in Paris, which was canceled after only one performance in Bowling Green, Ohio, in 2011. Three audience members were in attendance, and only two stayed until the end of the show. But I digress.
Kyle Minor: I was struck immediately by the difference in material and approach between Burning Down George Orwell’s House and your first book, Extraordinary Renditions. I was wondering: What happened in your creative life in the period between the two books, and how did you get started with this one?
Andrew Ervin: I finished Extraordinary Renditions while I was in graduate school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which was also when and where I began writing Burning Down George Orwell’s House. The tonal difference between the two books derives from my personal exhaustion at that time. My first book was so full of rage and self-righteousness that living in that world for so long made me want to write something lighter. I’m not sure if that happened, though.
Burning Down George Orwell’s House began as an independent study project with Richard Powers. I think it’s fair to say that he stands as of one of our truly great American literary voices. At its best—Gain and The Gold Bug Variations and The Time of Our Singing—his fiction both explains the times in which we live and offers profound new possibilities for where we’re headed. That he’s also one of the most genuinely giving and warmhearted people I’ve ever met made the genesis of this novel all the more rewarding.
For our project, he assigned me some books to read and we spent the semester—the fall of 2006—talking about them and about novel writing in general. I didn’t do any actual drafting of the book during that time. In the semester that followed he taught the graduate fiction workshop and I began writing the Chicago sections. I had some ideas Walden-esque ideas about Welter’s escape to Scotland, but didn’t get many of them on the page until much later.
After grad school, I accepted a two-year position at The Southern Review down in Louisiana. A number of different factors made that a tremendously difficult—even traumatic—time for me despite the fact that I sold Extraordinary Renditions then. My wife Elivi stayed behind in Illinois for a one-semester visiting professor job, which ended up being fortunate. Hurricane Gustav blew through town shortly after I arrived in Baton Rouge. An uprooted oak tree came a few feet away from crushing my house with me inside it. It also knocked out my electricity. If you’ve spent any time in the Deep South in summertime, you have some idea of what the heat is like. The humidity. After three days without air-conditioning, most of my romantic notions about life off the grid went out those open windows. After a week, I was cursing the name of Henry Thoreau.
Around then, I began to focus more on the subtle similarities between the wired world of Chicago and the pastoral expanses of the Scottish isles than on the obvious differences. That might not have happened were it not for the difficult experiences. Welter went from being a sexist jerk (I donated those traits to his boss) to someone more nuanced and complicated. He remains a damaged man in many ways and his obsession with Nineteen Eighty-Four may or may not be especially healthy.
KM: The novel seems to invite the reader to consider the uses of George Orwell. I was thinking about how the CIA secretly financed the 1954 animated version of Animal Farm, or how the right-wing English teacher at my religious high school taught Nineteen Eighty-Four as though it was meant to be a completely uncomplicated allegory of the then-contemporary “far left” (as they estimated it) takeover of American politics by the Clinton administration.
AE: George Orwell has become the patron saint of paranoia, which is understandable given the utter prescience and genius of Nineteen Eighty-Four. That there exists a reality TV show called Big Brother about people being watched around the clock is both grotesque and perfect. I can’t open the newspaper—and I still get one delivered every day—without reading at least one superficial reference to thoughtcrimes or memory holes or Newspeak. What’s missing from the Orwell-this and Orwell-that commentary is the fact the he wrote things other than Nineteen Eighty-Four. The term “Orwellian” refers to one aspect of one novel, albeit a profoundly great and important one.
Eric Blair did his best writing in his essays and personal correspondence. His generosity of spirit, his unwillingness to brook lazy thinking, his pristine clarity of expression—those are the things we should consider “Orwellian.” I hope readers of my novel will be moved to pick up Keep the Aspidistra Flying or The Road to Wigan Pier or Down and Out in Paris and London or, especially, the Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters. Those books contain many of the best sentences ever written in English.
Everyone should feel free to skip the Diaries that got published a few years ago, though. They were tedious.
I was crying when I first met Maggie Nelson. I’d spent the night before reading Bluets in one sitting, and then reading it again, and then again, until it was morning and I was out of tears and out of cigarettes and the sun had crawled back up to the sky, a giant bright lid over Portland. This was at the Tin House Writer’s Workshop a few years ago. It was a period in my life characterized by a fair amount of ineffable pain and imprecise longing. I was prone to hysterics and I was unmedicated. I cried a lot. Every day I danced a passive ballet around what I knew was an impending breakdown. I felt consistently unmoored from myself and from others. Then Bluets found me, and at the risk of sounding overly hyperbolic, nothing was ever the same. I was simply gutted by Nelson’s prose, the way she’d wrangled her heart and her mind onto the page. I hadn’t seen anything like it before. I had never encountered a writer so lionhearted, so exact. Never had my own pain felt so—not necessarily manageable, but located. Not healed, but given language. So, that morning when I saw Maggie in the cafeteria, I approached her with all the charm of a sleepless open wound and said who knows what through my tears. I think she advised me to get some coffee. I know she hugged me. She was so gracious then, and continues to be in the years that have followed.
Her work, for me, has been and will always be a harbor I value more than I could ever say. The Argonauts, her latest, out now from Graywolf, is no exception. Maggie was kind enough to talk with me about it by email.
Vincent Scarpa: Being, as you are, completely disconnected from all things social media, I’m wondering if you had any sense of the feverish anticipation surrounding The Argonauts? It seemed—and for very good reason—that no one had ever been quicker to boast (myself chief among them) about getting their hands on an advanced copy. You say, in the book, “I don’t want to represent anything,” but you must have at least some understanding of just how important your work is to so many writers and readers, and that both it and you do represent something brand-new for so many people: this wonderfully lawless, deeply personal, and ferociously intelligent space for writing which ricochets and reticulates from the heart to the mind; writing which inspires, teaches, indicts, moves.
Maggie Nelson: Wow, I have no idea if any of the things you say are true! Especially because not thinking about audience has been and still is almost a condition of possibility for me to write. But I would be very glad if my writing has been important to writers and readers in the ways you describe. There’s a kind of sacred alchemy around the issue of reception that I sometimes worry will get fucked up if I think too hard about it, or get egoic about it. So I try not to.
But I am always happy to hear that my work gave someone a sense of permission; that seems like an incredibly important, even life-sustaining gift. (As Eve Sedgwick says in Fat Art, Thin Art, “In every language the loveliest question/ is, You can say that?”) Over the years I’ve noticed that whenever I say to myself while writing—go ahead and write it, you don’t have to publish it, no one besides you ever has to read this—that’s often the stuff that ends up meaning the most to other readers.
Artist Moyra Davey is fond of quoting Fassbinder on this account: “the more ‘honestly’ you put yourself into the story, the more that story will concern others as well.” (That may sound like writing program drivel, but remember, it’s Fassbinder—and remember also, what “putting yourself honestly into the story”means is completely wide open, and may apply to criticism and fiction as much as to autobiography, etc.)
VS: I think the fandom you inspire probably has a great deal to do with something you spoke about briefly at AWP, where you identified yourself as being “post-shame.”(Of course there’s a great deal of gender-specific politics around what John and Jane Q. Public even identify as something about which to be ashamed in the first place, but that’s another conversation.) Regardless, your writing does not limit or censor the immensity of human experience—pain or pleasure—nor what ways we get there, and I think that’s something that magnetizes a lot of readers. Were/are their writers whose work affects you in the same way?
MN: My first writing teacher Annie Dillard always told her students to leave it all on the floor, every time. Or as she put it: “One of the things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.” I believed in this then and I believe in it now, with something akin to religious fervor.
There are so many writers who have given me this same sense of permission, without which no magnetizing or probing writing would be even remotely possible. How could I ever forget my first encounter with the Marquis de Sade in a friend’s bathroom when I was 17? How could I ever forget reading David Wojnarowicz’s Close to the Knives when I was 19, a book which meant everything to me then and still does? Then there are my literal teachers, Eileen Myles and Wayne Koestenbaum . . . there’s everyone from James Baldwin to Antonin Artaud to Angela Davis . . . I could go on and on. I tried to pay homage to many of these folks in The Argonauts.
VS: Tell me a bit about how you landed on the term “autotheory.”What do you see it as signifying, beyond it being a way to shirk the inherently limiting and reductive categories of so-called genre? How does a piece of autotheory function? At AWP, you described it as “the self as guinea pig for trying out thought”—is that about the size of it? Is it a concept you came to while writing the book or a way to speak of it after it was completed?
MN: Autotheory is just lifted from Beatriz, now Paul, Preciado’s Testo Junkie. So is the guinea pig line: “As a body—and this is the only important thing about being a subject-body, a techno-living system—I’m the platform that makes possible the materialization of political imagination. I am my own guinea pig for an experiment on the effects of intentionally increasing the level of testosterone in the body of a bio-female.” This sentiment resonates with Herve Guibert’s amazing line (which Preciado actually uses as an epigraph): “I am, as always in writing, both the scientist and the rat split open for his research.”
I think what I was getting at, on that panel, was that instead of the boring exposure/concealment spectrum, what if we talked instead about the relation between being a subject-body and the materialization of political imagination; what if we talked about ourselves as scientists and slit rats. Maybe I’ve already lost you. But this genealogy feels more native to me.
VS: I’d love to know what your research-gathering process is like. The Argonauts is textured with so many different voices, from so many different spaces—from Judith Butler to X-Men: First Class and so much in between. I have the suspicion that there’s probably nothing you in your mastery could not bend to fit into the book perfectly, so how do you go about deciding what feels most essential, most resonant to include? How much of the research surrounding the project was left on the cutting room floor? Can we get a deleted scene?
As his train hurtled toward Latvia, Peter Carl Fabergé mustered an ounce of gratitude: for it was night. In this darkness, he would not see his beloved Russia disappear. They’d departed Saint Petersburg at dusk, and he’d been lucky to board. His feet guarded no briefcase, and no suitcase sat overhead. His person alone would make the trip. In that way, today’s trip felt no different than his empty-handed travels to Nice, where he’d strolled freely, eying collarbones and wrists, keeping tabs on the Riviera’s jewels. He was disappointed, always; contemporary jewelry bored him.
The Tsar had saved him from a life of boredom. And now, His Imperial Majesty Nicholas II was dead.
Mr. Fabergé retrieved a notebook from his breast pocket and steadied it against his knee. Years ago, he’d explained to his son that you never start by drawing an oval. The next morning, at breakfast, little Eugène lay an egg on his school book, and traced it over his arithmetic drills. “I start this way, Papa,” Eugène announced. Inside the oval, the boy’s chicken scratch looked purposeful, and by Easter the next, Mr. Fabergé had reworked the scratchings into flowers and vines, and overlay them with a lattice of diamonds. Mr. Fabergé knew then that his son would one day take over the family business, as he had done for his own father.
Today, he started with the oval. The train challenged his steady hand but he eked out an egg that then sprouted seven smaller eggs. At Saint Basil’s, the domes were onions, but here, they were egg-shaped. Nicholas, Alexandra, Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia, and Alexei: all dead. And now, the House of Fabergé belonged to the Committee of the Employees of the Company K Fabergé. The Bolsheviks had taken everything, including his name.
Darkness hugged the train, and Mr. Fabergé reached for his spectacles. He’d left his better pair in the shop the day he first heard the rumors. He’d sent everyone home and locked up, but three hours later, he returned for his invoice book. That night, he shut himself in his study and turned to the book’s last page. He’d made a mistake, and he wanted it gone. He lit a fire and collapsed to his knees, trembling. As the flames ate his careful ledger, Mr. Fabergé worried that his misstep, his attempt at self-preservation, had cost the Tsar his life.
Now, as Mr. Fabergé filled the first egg-shaped-dome with alternating rows of rubies and emeralds, he yearned for his pigments. Traveling empty handed had been foolish, but in the moment he had stared at his suitcase, he decided his possessions would remain, and he would someday return to Saint Petersburg. He would.
Next, he tackled the blue and white dome. In his workshop, he had tested how the colors played off one another, but now, he only reminded himself in words: sapphire, diamonds. Rumor said that his jewels had spared the Duchesses for an instant. They’d sewn diamonds into their corsets, planning to escape with part of their fortune. The bullets had ricocheted, and then—His graphite split against the page, and when the steward returned, Mr. Fabergé asked for another writing utensil—he received a pen—and ordered a vodka.
He pressed his cheek to the window. The glass was cool, and so was the vodka. It reminded him of the cool day, some thirty years before, that he’d been given access to the Hermitage. Its halls became his to roam freely, and the late Empress Catherine’s treasures became a playground for his mind. The Bolsheviks had taken all of it.
His grip firmed, fighting the sway of the train. He never designed in ink. But his pen danced, assigning jewels to the rest of the egg-domes: more emeralds, more rubies. Opal-laid-in-gold. Soon diamonds lined the crosses that jutted from every dome. His last egg had been fashioned out of birch. The peasants were starving, and the Great War ate up what resources could have quelled their riots. As austerity seeped into his workshop, he had chosen chestnut-colored wood. But he was the Goldsmith by special appointment to the Imperial Crown, so he framed the birch in gold.
The birch had been his first mistake. The second was the invoice. Eighteen months ago, just after the Tsar was forced to abdicate, Mr. Fabergé invoiced a one Mr. Romanov, Nikolai Aleksandrovich for the birch egg. Mr. Romanov dutifully paid the bill of 12,500 Roubles before fleeing to the Urals.
Mr. Fabergé crumpled his sketch, balling the inked Saint Basil’s into a fist. He imagined the birch egg alone in the palace, or worse, in the hands of scoundrels. He kicked the balled paper beneath his seat, suddenly frightened: what if, in that moment, his fist had brought down the domes of Saint Basil’s?
He would not cry. He had forfeited that right. The Tsar had given him everything, and Mr. Fabergé had done nothing but betray him. The Tsar was no Mr. Romanov, Nikolai Aleksandrovich, and Mr. Fabergé was a coward for capitulating to the Bolsheviks’ language.
For the second time in his life, as his train hurtled toward Latvia, Mr. Fabergé dated a page April 25, 1917. 12,500 Roubles were due, payable to the House of Fabergé.
Mr. Fabergé’s pen dug into the page. To: The Tsar of All Russians.
He wrote it again. And again, until he filled the page.
To: His Imperial Majesty, THE TSAR OF ALL RUSSIANS.
From our Rejection issue, Leslie Jamison looks back on the geometry of junior high friendships.
November 15, 2014
Who were we kidding? Back then, friendship was nothing but musical chairs. You’d steal anyone’s spot if it meant you got a seat. Or at least, I would. I did. This was fourth grade. You were best friends with N when I came onto the scene and made it a triangle. I remember sleepovers at N’s little bungalow, its lush lawn with sprinklers always running in the drought. I remember getting pissed when we had to write reports on famous writers and you got Shakespeare and I got stuck with Twain, which wasn’t even his real name anyway—Samuel Langhorne whatever—which was all salt on the wound of our president reports the year before, when I got stuck talking about FDR right after Evan Roosevelt talked about FDR, and it turned out Evan was his great-grandson, or something. So that sucked. And then you got Shakespeare, a guy I felt I had a lot to say about.
You were a tomboy, with your shorts and baggy T-shirts, and your meticulous, almost robotic intelligence. You were on the front end of the braces curve. N was our femme queen, indisputably, cased like a sausage in tight pink jeans, with her faux-pearl-beaded headbands.
Triangles have trouble holding. I learned that more than once, the first time at your expense. N and I broke away. We made a straight line, no room for a third point. You were hovering in a distant, stubborn orbit. I remember there was crying. By which I mean: you cried. One of our teachers said we should make an effort to include you because it was a hard time in your family—your parents were getting divorced. Do you know they told us that? Did you tell them to? Back then, “divorce” was still an exotic word to me—it sheened your plight, your exclusion, with a kind of savage radiance: commuting to homeroom each day from your broken home only to show up for our abandonment.
A few years later, when my own parents told me they were getting divorced, I thought about you. This was supposed to get her special treatment? I thought. It’s not so bad. Or maybe it wasn’t It’s not so bad, so much as When will the world turn up some special treatment for me?
So N and I left you behind. We got close with M. This was the next triangle, its eventual collapse inevitable: I got left. I was the third point dangling in space. I don’t know if it made me regret playing the game. It just made me wish I’d played it better.
Maybe this isn’t a letter to you so much as M, anyway: What was your secret? Or to N, that serial de-friender: What the fuck? I just Googled her. Turns out she works at an elementary school. She married a woman in a beautiful ceremony last January, both of them in white dresses, beaming.
But I want to tell you about this thing that happened later. I think you were in a different class by then. We were studying Native Americans. I know, I know. You’re saying: Which time? Every year we studied Native Americans. We were a two-weeks-on-the-Mayflower, two-months-on-Hopi-kachinas kind of school. But this time we built our own mud villages, and then watched one Friday as Ms. C “showed [us] what it must have felt like” by kicking them into crumbled piles. It didn’t make me feel for the tribes we’d studied so much as it made me glad I hadn’t been part of them. Less a pang in the heart, more like Sucks to be you. I wish I hadn’t left you in the lurch. Or I wish I’d regretted it more. I wish I hadn’t begrudged you Shakespeare. I hope you did a good job with him. I’m sure you did. You’re a professor now. The Internet told me so. It’s strange to me that you even exist, still, that you survived being nine—that we all did.
Leslie Jamison is the author of The Empathy Exams and The Gin Closet. In her spare time, she enjoys stalking former classmates on the Internet.
I’ve known Brian DeLeeuw for the better part of two decades, though we’d likely crossed paths any number of times before actually meeting, since we grew up within a block of each other in Manhattan. We took creative writing courses together in college, and we followed similar post-graduation literary paths, getting MFAs from the same school, publishing our first books within a year of each other, and both finding our ways into the Tin House family. (I worked only briefly as an intern at the magazine, though Tin House Books published my first novel; Brian had a longer stint as an editor at the magazine.)
So I was disappointed on a personal level when Brian left New York for Los Angeles a few years back. The person I’ve probably spent more time talking writing with than anyone else on earth would now be on the other side of the country. But I was also disappointed as a reader by the prospect of a great novelist giving himself over to the dark art of screenwriting, and especially the prospect of a great New York novelist–in the sense not just of a novelist from New York but of one who render the place so expertly in his first novel, In This Way I Was Saved–giving up our native city. It turns out that I needn’t have worried. This week Brian publishes his second novel, The Dismantling, which is not just another great book, but another great New York book, traveling to parts of the city not usually represented in fiction or popular imagination. (Which isn’t to say his move out west has been fruitless: Brian’s first feature film will be debuting just days after the novel comes out.)
Brian and I chatted over email about The Dismantling, writing New York, and the life of a novelist turned screenwriter.
Christopher R Beha: The Dismantling is a thriller about the black market for organ donors. When I started the book, my first thought was that this is such a perfect vehicle for exploring the central themes of contemporary culture that I was surprised I hadn’t seen it before. How did you come to this material?
Brian DeLeeuw: I came up with the character of Simon Worth first—a young man who is carrying around an enormous amount of guilt and shame, someone who feels that he is not capable of living a regular life with a regular job, friends, girlfriend. He feels defective in some way—psychically isolated—and yet he also has these large student loans to pay off from a failed attempt at medical school, so he needs to get his hands on money quickly. He can’t just retreat entirely from life. I knew I wanted take this character with very little to lose, somebody who feels as though a vital part of himself has already died, and place him in the center of a criminal underworld, turn him into an unlikely criminal.
This dovetailed with my more general desire to write an internally-focused, slow-burn crime novel. In 2008 and 2009, I started noticing articles about the organ trade popping up more frequently in mainstream newspapers and magazines; the more I read, the more I was intrigued. The idea that everything is up for sale now, that you can put a price on absolutely anything—that was of course part of the fascination. I also thought the question of individual autonomy and agency was raised here in an interesting way: should people have the right to sell parts of their bodies? Or is there something inherently unethical about the market exchange of organs? The thinking against it seems to be that if we as a society legalize organ sales, we would be codifying or endorsing the idea that money can buy more years of life, that wealth can determine longevity. Given the way our screwed-up healthcare system works, this is clearly already true; but something about selling organs seems to reframe the issue in a way that appears to be objectionably explicit.
Most of these articles focused on the way illegal transplants tend to work internationally. In these cases the sellers are often from poor rural areas in South America, Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe, or the Middle East, while the recipients and surgeons are from Western Europe, Israel, or South Africa. The seller is paid five or ten thousand dollars—many times what they might otherwise make in a year—but they are often misinformed about the nature of the surgery and given little or no follow-up care. They return to areas with no access to clean water, jeopardizing the health of their remaining kidney; and they may be stigmatized and barred from working in their communities when they return. These were very compelling stories, but the exploitation here was too obvious for the kind of novel I wanted to write.
Less well-documented, but more ethically murky, are how these illegal transplants work in well-regarded American hospitals, with (mostly) American buyers and sellers. Here, someone could sell their kidney for $100,000, a portion of their liver for even more. The follow-up care would not be rushed, or ignored altogether. The surgeons would generally be unaware that they were transplanting an organ that had been purchased. The seller would be perfectly clear—as much as anybody who hadn’t done it yet could be—of the risks and difficulties of the surgery and recovery. This is a world, I thought, where it is not necessarily obvious who the villain is, or even whether there is a villain at all. It was exactly kind of morally confused setting that I wanted to drop Simon into the middle of.
CRB: Another thread in the book has to do with ex-NFL players who have been permanently damaged by their time in the league. There is a bit of a “ripped from the headlines” element to this plot line. There’s been a lot of talk in the past few years about the ethics of watching men hurt themselves in this way for entertainment. I wonder what you as a lifelong football fan think about this issue.
BD: Yeah, this is something I think about a lot. I actually conducted a lengthy interview on this topic—on this very website!—with Steve Almond last summer, when his Against Football book came out. At first, the issue of the NFL and head trauma seemed to resemble Big Tobacco and cancer: you had corporate interests that were ignoring research, hiring their own experts to spread questionable science, deploying a powerful media team to disseminate their own narrative. But now it’s pretty clear and out in the open that for a certain percentage of the population, especially those who may be genetically predisposed to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, playing football carries severe risks for long-term mental health. (And this is leaving aside the bodily damage—broken bones, slipped discs, arthritis, etc.—that everybody already accepted as the costs of playing the game.) And a lot of the ex-players most affected are not the stars whose declines and suicides we often read about, like Junior Seau, Andre Waters, or Dave Duerson; they’re people like the character I invented in The Dismantling, Lenny Pelligrini, an offensive lineman with a short career, no savings, and a rapidly deteriorating brain.
The onus is now on the fans as well: you can’t claim you don’t know about CTE and other brain damage anymore, so do you still give the NFL your money and attention? I’ve been slowly paring back the amount of time I spend watching and thinking about football, which is not a particularly strong or decisive ethical position. I still love the game. Can I be a politician and say my position is “evolving”?
CRB: Your first novel, In This Way I Was Saved, has a remarkably vivid sense of place. The book’s settings — the upper east and upper west sides of Manhattan, the Princeton campus, Fire Island — are all places where you have personal history. The Dismantling is also set in and around New York, but in entirely different pockets of the city — Roosevelt Island, the outer reaches of Queens. As far as I know, you don’t have the same personal connection to these places, but you’ve managed to render them in the same vivid way. How did you go about doing that? What made you choose these settings for the book?
BD: That’s true, In This Way I Was Saved used the places I knew most intimately from childhood, adolescence, and college, while with The Dismantling, I wanted to set the book in the parts of New York City I was most interested in learning more about, specifically Roosevelt Island and Rockaway Beach. Both of these places have very strange, complex histories, and both have—in the winter at least—a certain isolated feel to them that I thought matched Simon’s mental and emotional weather.
Roosevelt Island used to be a place where the city sent people it considered unfit to mix with the general population. Starting in the 19th Century, it was home to the notorious New York City Lunatic Asylum, as well as a prison and a smallpox hospital. These places are gone—although The Octagon, a condo, repurposes much of the Asylum’s main entrance—but there is still a strong medical presence on the island, with two hospitals and a number of residents working just across the river in Manhattan in the New York-Presbyterian and NYU medical complexes. So it seemed like an appropriate place to situate Cabrera Medical Center, the fictional hospital in my novel where all of the transplant surgeries go down. The island also has a kind of liminal status—not quite Manhattan, not quite Queens—that I thought was a good fit for Simon’s newly untethered life.
Rockaway Beach has an even more twisted history that involves institutionalized racism, Robert Moses’s grand designs, the rise and fall of New York City public housing conditions, the collapse of city governance in the 1970s, and, more recently, the influence of seasonal gentrification. And this is all before Hurricane Sandy decimated the area in 2012. Between Ocean and City: The Transformation of Rockaway, New York, a historical study by Lawrence and Carol Kaplan, was essential for my understanding the context of the place, as were conversations with a family friend who grew up in one of its neighborhoods.
When I first started writing the novel, I would take the A train from West 4th Street, near where I lived at the time, to Beach 116th, which took about an hour, and walk around the boardwalk and the various neighborhoods. I would do this only in the winter and early spring, when the beach was cold and empty. I took a lot of notes, some photos; those trips—just hanging out there—probably constituted my primary research. I can’t completely explain my attraction to the place. Sometimes you’re just drawn to a town or a neighborhood and you don’t really know why, although I would guess it has something to do with the juxtaposition of dense urban development and the open Atlantic.
Earlier drafts of the novel featured many, many more scenes set in the Rockaways, mostly during Simon and his sister Amelia’s childhoods. There was a whole storyline about Simon’s obsession with surfing that largely got axed, plus some scenes that involved the redevelopment into beachside cottages of a giant tract of abandoned land. The novel was at one point nearly five hundred pages long—it’s just under three hundred now—so plenty of stuff had to go, but the Rockaway passages were the hardest to see on the cutting room floor.
His mom said she’d disown him if he did. His dad, At least now when you’re talking out of your arse, you’ll be speaking the word of God.
It’ll be good, he said. But I want you to bury me ass-backwards, so when I’m received the first thing God sees is my devotion.
I think God has better things to look at.
Moon to moon.
Are you quite through?
He smiled. I guess I can’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery. Does that mean the Jewish God disapproves?
Why does it matter? You’re Catholic. On the face of it anyway.
Covering my bases is all. So. Where do you get buried in New York anyhow?
He found out and roped me into looking at plots.
The mole looked like Kyrgyzstan, though Ted liked to call it the frog. It did look like a frog swimming, his legs bowed open in a kick, two short arms out, amphibian nose pointed. But the frog was red, like rust, and eventually the edges bled out and bloated.
I want this one, here.
It was just me and him at the cemetery out in East Flatbush. His mother intended to come but at the last minute she thought she would faint.
Why this one?
It’s near the loo.
Well, I don’t want people running back and forth while they’re visiting. Takes away from the solemnity doesn’t it?
What about that one, near the Chestnut tree?
In the end he decided on cremation.
When they removed the mole from Ted’s back, it left a smooth, round pink scar. But then another popped up. And another.
Like frogs after the rain, he joked.
I told you to name it Kyrgyzstan. I felt angry at his mistake. There’s only one. It would have been the only one.
Ah, you know those Central European countries. They’re always starting new ones.
That doesn’t even make any sense.
He grinned and kissed my eyes, one at a time, and then the tip of my nose. Well you’re the history teacher.
Ted sat us all down around the kitchen table one Sunday afternoon. Now I want you to make sure that half of me goes back to Ireland.
His mother blew her nose.
Mum will ya please?
She honked harder.
With his long, red-haired arm draped over her, he continued. So like I said. Half in New York, Charlotte knows where. And half on the steps of Davy Byrne’s pub.
His father shook his head. This isn’t a joke Ted.
Who’s joking? I want it right there. Then eat yourself a Gorgonzola sandwich. I’ll leave you the ten quid. He slapped his knee. Ah that’s right, I can’t. They’re on the Euro these days. He laughed and laughed at his mistake.
When they called me in from the waiting room to join Ted in the doctor’s office, I knew. He could have told me good news on his own.
On our third date I brought Ted to that cobblestoned portion of Jane Street near the strange yellow door and the ginkgo trees.
Here it is, as promised. My favorite place in New York.
He looked around slowly, turning almost full circle.
“In case you’re wondering, I’m taking mental notes. They will be pieces of the puzzle called What Charlotte Loves About This Place.” He nodded, as in appraisal. “I’m thinking it’s going to be one of those 1000 piece puzzles that swallow the dining room table and look like a shit-mess until piece 899. I better start collecting.”
I take him with me at 5 am because I’m worried that someone will see me. In fact I don’t know what they would even guess I’m doing, pouring some ashes out of an empty tin of Hobbs Knobbs (Ted’s choice, of course.)
Why don’t you choose your favorite place? I asked.
Because I want to be your favorite place, he said. Who else gets to do that?
No one else. Never. Just you.
But halfway through I’m overtaken by the thought of dogs peeing on him and, in an instant, throw the rest to the wind.
Carrie Vasios Mullins earned her MFA from Columbia University. She writes about food when not working on her first novel. Her work has appeared in Serious Eats, Anamesa, Edible Brooklyn, and Two Serious Ladies, among other publications.
Everyone here at Tin House is excited to give a giant congratulations to Gregory Pardlo upon the announcement of his book “Digest” receiving the 2015 Pulitzer Prize.
We were honored to publish his poem “Philadelphia, Negro” in our 2012 Winter issue.
Alien-faced patriot in my Papa’s mirrored aviators
that reflected a mind full of cloud
keloids, the contrails of Blue Angels in formation
miles above the campered fields of Willow Grove
where I heard them clear as construction paper slowly
tearing as they plumbed close enough I could nearly see
flyboys saluting the tiny flag I shook in their wakes.
I visored back with pride, sitting aloft dad’s shoulders,
my salute a reflex ebbing toward ground crews in jumpsuits
executing orchestral movements with light. The bicentennial
crocheted the nation with the masts of tall ships and twelve-foot
Uncle Sams but at year’s end my innocence dislodged
like a powdered wig as I witnessed the first installment
of Roots. The TV series appeared like a galleon on the horizon
and put me in touch with all twelve angry tines of the fist
pick my father kept on his dresser next to cufflinks
and his Texas Instruments LED watch. I was not in the market
for a history to pad my hands like fat leather mittens. A kind
of religion to make sense of a past mysterious as basements
with upholstered wet bars and black-light velvet panthers, maybe,
but as such a youngster I thought every American a Philadelphia
Negro, blue-eyed soulsters and southpaws alike getting
strong now, mounting the art museum steps together
like children swept up in Elton’s freedom from Fern Rock
to Veterans Stadium, endorphins clanging like liberty
themed tourist trolleys unloading outside the Penn Relays,
a temporal echo, an offspring, of Mexico City, where Tommie
Smith and John Carlos made a human kinara with the human
rights salute while my father scaled the Summit
Avenue street sign at the edge of his lawn, holding a bomb
pop that bled tricolor ice down his elbow as he raised it like
Ultraman’s Beta Capsule in flight from a police K9 used to
terrorize suspicious kids. Your dad would be mortified too
if he knew you borrowed this overheard record of his oppression
to rationalize casting yourself as a revolutionary American
fourth-grader even though, like America, your father never lifted
your purple infant butt proudly into the swaddling of starlight
to tell the heavens to “behold, the only thing greater
than yourself!” And like America, his fist only rose on occasion,
graceful, impassioned, as if imitating Arthur Ashe’s balletic serve,
so that you almost forgot you were in its way.
Gregory Pardlo is the author of Totem, which received the APR/Honickman Prize in 2007, and Digest, (Four Way Books, 2014), which was nominated for the 2015 NAACP Image Award in poetry. His poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, Boston Review, The Nation, Ploughshares, and Tin House, as well as anthologies including Angles of Ascent, the Norton Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry, and two editions of Best American Poetry. He is the recipient of a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship and a fellowship for translation from the National Endowment for the Arts. An Associate Editor of Callaloo, he is currently a Teaching Fellow in Undergraduate Writing at Columbia University.
“I swear to you, sitting a throne is a hundred times harder than winning one.” —some probably dead king
Yesterday’s big announcement may have drowned out some of the excitement around Electric Literature and Vol. 1 Brooklyn’s epic Game of Totes competition. The best of the best literary tote bags were brought before a panel of esteemed judges—Cosmopolitan’s book-editor-at-large Camille Perri, poet Saeed Jones, Bev Rivero of New Press, and funny-guy writer Dan Wilbur. (We demanded a trial by combat, but they nixed it.)
As our first official decree, we’re offering a $5 discount on the winning tote bag until Sunday, when the next episode of Game of Thrones airs. Just enter the coupon code “gameoftotes” at checkout. Until then, remember the words of House Tin, copped from old Walt himself:
I Contain Multitudes.
We here at Tin House are big fans of Anthony Doerr and especially his novel All The Light We Cannot See, so we couldn’t be happier to see him awarded the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. And while he’s never given us the secret of how to be the most charming, disarming sweetheart of a writer we’ve ever met, as a faculty member at the Tin House Summer Writer’s Workshop, he has given us some insight on how to be a better writer. So maybe it’s time to revisit this lecture, which we’ve conveniently retitled on Tony’s behalf.
DEFAMILIARIZATION HOW TO WIN THE PULITZER with Anthony Doerr
Break the pre- off the –dictable
We are creatures of habit. A bald Russian army-commissar-turned-literary-critic named Viktor Shklovsky said in 1917, “Habitualization devours works, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war.” What he meant is that the mind makes a sort of algebra out of the world and in doing so robs us of some of the intensity of experience. To eat a banana for the thousandth time is nothing like eating a banana for the first time. To have sex with somebody for the thousandth time is nothing like having sex with that person for the first time. Shklovsky argued that the role of art is to remove objects from the “automatism of perception.” That is, successful art gives the sensations of life back to us. We’ll look at how words are arranged within sentences, the songs of baby white-crowned sparrows, a couple lines by Herbert Spencer, Doritos, and lots of other stuff to try to discover how we can use our work to crack apart the habitual and make the world new again
Y’all want something real. Y’all live in Austin, where autumn is one long festival weekend, and every thoroughfare is overhung with vinyl banners punched with holes so the wind can get to work, and y’all want out. Just for a weekend. Y’all want to leave behind the organic neighborhood Saturday markets and the middle-aged triathletes. Y’all want to see Texas, the way y’all always thought y’all would.
Y’all aren’t from Texas. Y’all are from LA, and Madison, and San Francisco via Madison, and Russia via San Francisco. Y’all moved to Austin for grad school, but also because it was Texas, and some part of y’all had always wanted that: cowboys, cowgirls, deserts. But Austin isn’t like that, and y’all realize, over margherita pizza and extra hoppy beers, that y’all could do something about it. Y’all could go west, to real cowboy country.
The way to Bandera isn’t easy. Y’all didn’t realize how long it would take (it looks so close on Google Maps). Y’all aren’t used to driving in a place that is neither a freeway nor a neighborhood. Y’all drive slow. There are hills that hide the setting sun and leave strips of night in their shadows. It’s pretty out here, where the green hills and mesquite open into horse ranch and broken homestead, half-gone log houses fallen into creeks. Y’all lose service. Y’all go in circles. Y’all laugh at the names of little hill country roads: Verde Creek, Prison Canyon Road, Dead Poacher Pass. It starts to rain, and by the time y’all find the cabin, y’all stick y’all’s car in the mud.
Y’all get drunk and talk about the drive, and the next morning y’all are hung over, but still make it out to Maple Leaf. The park isn’t crowded—y’all’re a long way from the city—and y’all manage to find a trail that’s out of the way, where y’all can smoke a joint and talk about the kind of thing y’all talk about: music, the idea of nature, the invention of landscape, and different kinds of high. The park must go on some miles, but in the low places y’all can still hear flat reports of rifle fire. Y’all have some vague notion that deer are hunted here, but none of y’all know exactly what that means. At a bend in the creek the water flattens into pond, and small fish flit nervous in the clear light. Y’all wonder how they got here: did they swim down the tiny rivulets as babies, or did someone put them here?
Y’all get a little lost in the park, but y’all still make it out before two or three, plenty of time to grab a bite. Only there almost isn’t any place where y’all can grab a bite. There are only one or two little dining rooms, Texas German places that stink of sausage grease, and y’all sure as hell aren’t getting anything vegetarian there. But y’all think y’all might have some food back at the house, and anyway y’all don’t want to take too long: y’all want to save the sunlight for y’all’s mushroom trip.
Of course y’all brought mushrooms. That’s the only thing y’all think about doingoutside the city, is eating hallucinogens and looking at trees—y’all don’t know how to look at them otherwise. So y’all pass out the mushrooms, and it’s a kind of game: first, y’all empty the baggie on the coffee table in the cabin; then, y’all take turns picking the pieces y’all want to eat, till y’all each have a little pile of dried fungus in front of you, grayish chunks and slivers marbled with blue veins. Y’all are so excited, y’all don’t eat anything else.
At first, y’all try to record what y’all say and do: y’all have iPhones and iPads and Androids with cameras and microphones, but half an hour in y’all are just laughing too hard to even remember. Y’all’s heads feel big. Y’all can’t decide whether to stay inside on the couches or outside on the porch. Y’all wander into the high grass, which ends up higher than y’all ever thought, high over y’all’s heads like a forest, and y’all take forever to reach the pond, and the sky is bright green and jagged.
Across the pond y’all see a buck. He is big and proud, and y’all have never seen anything like it. He disappears into the woods beyond, and before y’all know it, y’all are following him. At first he seems like a spirit guide, but then y’all lose him in the woods, and by then y’all have no idea where y’all are, and so it turns out he was the opposite of a spirit guide, he was a spirit decoy.
It’s getting cold fast. The red sun is melting through the branches, and the naked oaks are black lightning leaping from the hills. The grass is slick with cold sweat. Do y’all know where y’all are? Y’all think the cabin must be downhill, but it’s hard to say which way that is—the slope keeps yawing under y’all’s feet, and y’all can’t hear each other anymore, but y’all do hear the rifle.
It sounds like the whole hill cracking in half. Y’all are all shaking in different ways, and slipping through the mud and the roots, and y’all see the blood in the grass, and the blood is too bright. And y’all keep on asking, is this for real? And if y’all were a cabin, where would y’all be? And if y’all were a bullet, who would y’all find to bury y’all’s little metal head in?
Byron Landry was born and raised in Texas, and received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Texas at Austin. His fiction has appeared in Bat City Review, 3:AM Magazine, Spork, and elsewhere. He is an MFA candidate in fiction at Johns Hopkins University.
We were sad to hear of Eduardo Galeano’s death on Monday. He both described and shaped the cultural landscape of our hemisphere and our planet, and we are lucky to have those maps he left us in the form of journalism, novels, and poetry. Here, from Issue 37, is one of those in both English and Galeano’s original Spanish.
Lost and Found
translated by Mark Fried
The twentieth century, which was born proclaiming peace and justice, died bathed in blood. It passed on a world much more unjust than the one it inherited.
The twenty-first century, which also arrived heralding peace and justice, is following in its predecessor’s footsteps.
In my childhood, I was convinced that everything that went astray on earth ended up on the moon.
But the astronauts found no sign of dangerous dreams or broken promises or hopes betrayed.
If not on the moon, where might they be?
Perhaps they were never misplaced.
Perhaps they are in hiding here on earth. Waiting.
El siglo veinte, que nació anunciando paz y justicia, murió bañado en sangre y dejó un mundo mucho más injusto que el que había encontrado.
El siglo veintiuno, que también nació anunciando paz y justicia, está siguiendo los pasos del siglo anterior.
Allá en mi infancia, yo estaba convencido de que a la luna iba a parar todo lo que en la tierra se perdía.
Sin embargo, los astronautas no han encontrado sueños peligrosos, ni promesas traicionadas, ni esperanzas rotas.
Si no están en la luna, ¿dónde están?
¿Será que en la tierra no se perdieron?
¿Será que en la tierra se escondieron?
Eduardo Galeano was an Uruguayan journalist and writer. His works include Open Veins in Latin America, Soccer in Sun and Shadow, the Memory of Fire trilogy, and many others.
Meg Storey: How did you come to write this novel?
Cari Luna: On the evening of July 4, 1995, I came across a boisterous crowd at the intersection of Thirteenth Street and Avenue A in Manhattan. Squatters who had been evicted from two buildings on that block back in May had retaken one of the buildings. The intersection was choked with people cheering the squatters on, and there were more cops than I’d ever seen in one place before. I saw something then that had never before occurred to me might be possible: I saw police officers—who before that point had only been symbols of safety and protection for me—looking for a fight, hoping someone would throw a bottle or a fist so they could react.
At twenty-one years old, I didn’t fully understand what I was seeing or what the squatters were fighting for. I’m sorry to say that at the time I wasn’t curious enough to find out. But the images of that night stayed with me. The squatters stayed with me. Ten years later, I found myself writing a novel set in the building I’d seen the squatters retake.
As I wrestled with the idea of home through my characters, it became important to me to understand my home—New York City—and how it had changed. The big question in my mind as I undertook the writing of this novel was “What the hell happened to New York?” The eviction of the Thirteenth Street squats seemed, to me, to mark the beginning of the end of the Lower East Side as it had been when I lived there; the point when money won. And so I set about trying to learn more about what I’d seen that night in 1995, what had been happening and why.
MS: Talk a little about the research you did for the book.
CL: I was lucky that the historical events that I used as inspiration for The Revolution of Every Day occurred just as the Internet was becoming more widely used. I was able to dig up primary-source materials like list-serv postings warning the Thirteenth Street squatters of their impending eviction. That helped immensely in terms of getting a feel for the mood on the ground, a sense of the way events were being talked about leading up to and immediately following the eviction. In addition to list-serv posts and newspaper articles from the time, I read several excellent books about Lower East Side squats and Lower East Side activism in general: War in the Neighborhood by Seth Tobocman, Glass House by Margaret Morton, and Resistance: A Radical Social and Political History of the Lower East Side, Clayton Patterson, editor.
Something I very deliberately did not do was interview people who had been involved with the squats. I was concerned that if I did I would feel beholden to those people’s specific experiences and would get bogged down in “how it really happened,” perhaps losing more universal truths in the process. This is a work of fiction, and I gave myself permission to treat it as such.
MS: The Revolution of Every Day has been described as an elegy for New York City. As a native New Yorker, how has your relationship with the city changed and how is this change reflected in novel?
CL: I was born in Manhattan in 1973 and spent the first five years of my life in Stuyvesant Town in the Lower East Side. When it was time for me to start kindergarten, my family moved to New Jersey. As a parent I now understand the choice—the public schools in our neighborhood were a nightmare, but my parents couldn’t afford nonreligious private schools, and they didn’t want to send their Jewish kids to Catholic school—but at the time, and for my entire subsequent suburban childhood, I let them know they’d made a terrible mistake when they took me and my brother out of the city.
In 1991, I made my way back to Manhattan: first to a boyfriend’s apartment on Eleventh between B and C, and later to my own tiny rent-controlled studio on St. Marks and First. I would argue that I returned to my ancestral home at the beginning of the end of the New York that I loved: the beginning of the end of the Lower East Side as a place that was accessible and open artistically, culturally, and politically. I moved into a neighborhood that challenged my middle-class, suburban notions of how a life was to be lived, a neighborhood that pushed me to rethink assumptions and habits. A neighborhood that made me uncomfortable in some very necessary ways, that forced me to think—for the first time—about race and class and privilege. In the time that I lived there, the neighborhood grew more and more gentrified, more and more comfortable and unchallenging for the returning suburban-raised kids of the parents who’d fled for the suburbs in the seventies. Out went that vital spark, the friction that created art and social change and political activism.
In 1999, I moved to Prospect Heights in Brooklyn because I couldn’t afford Manhattan rents anymore. By the time I sat down to write what would become The Revolution of Every Day in 2005 at the age of 32, the New York I’d loved was gone.
And so I began this novel as a love letter to my lost New York. Every generation of New Yorkers mourns the loss of their version of the city. The city is a living, changing thing. But the way it changed—the way it went over to money so completely—that felt new and drastic. And it felt personal. By the time I left for Portland in 2007, the novel had become a Dear John letter. And then, through writing and revising the book, I found my way back to the love letter it had initially been. But it’s a different kind of love now. I love New York the way I love an old boyfriend who betrayed me horribly, then died years after our last contact. Which is to say: with nostalgia, a warm fondness for the good times, lingering resentment, and a profound sense of loss.
MS: Do you think the Occupy Wall Street movement has increased New Yorkers’ awareness of the existence of squatters and their rights?
CL: I think OWS has heightened Americans’ awareness of and interest in radical politics in general. The camps ended up casting light on the issues of homelessness and housing rights, and many Occupy groups turned to activism related to the foreclosure crisis following the evictions of the camps. One of the favored protest tactics involves squatting foreclosed homes.
MS: Were there any positive outcomes you witnessed in the gentrification of the Lower East Side?
CL: Safety, maybe? It’s hard to say. In The Gentrification of the Mind, Sarah Schulman writes, “What is this thing that homogenizes complexity, difference, dynamic dialogic action for change and replaces it with sameness? With a kind of institutionalization of culture? With a lack of demand on the powers that be? With containment? My answer to that question always came back to the same concept: gentrification.”
The Lower East Side is now safer in terms of muggings, etc. in the post-gentrification era, but it’s also “safer” in that it’s culturally and politically less challenging. Without the friction there is no vibrancy, no life. The Lower East Side, once a hotbed of grassroots activism, has become suburbanized, homogenized. I don’t think that greater safety from crime—or greater perceived safety—is a worthwhile tradeoff for everything that was lost.
MS: Is there a lesson to be learned from The Revolution of Every Day? Can squatting be a successful enterprise or does its roots in anarchy doom it from the start?
CL: Not all squatting has its roots in anarchy. It’s hard to define success in terms of squats, because there isn’t one unified, agreed-upon goal. What I found in my research, and what I continue to learn through my volunteer work with the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space (located in C-Squat), is that each squatter had their own reasons for being there, some purely political, some purely personal. I’d venture to guess that for most it is a mix of the two. It doesn’t make for easy generalizations, though. This is by no means a homogeneous group or cohesive political movement.
In the documentary Captured, Jerry the Peddler, an activist squatter, says, “New York City squatters held more land longer than any other leftist group anywhere in the United States, and holding the land is what revolution is all about.” So in that sense, even the evicted squats were a success.
And there are eleven remaining squats, including C-Squat, which were sold to the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board for the symbolic price of one dollar in 2002. These buildings are in the process of being converted into low-income co-ops, owned by the squatters. So they are now or soon will be legal buildings. That is, no longer squats. This can be called success, or it can be said that now that the squatters are, themselves, landowners, they have become part of the system they fought against. It depends on perspective.
From our Science Fair issue, an amateur astronomer daydreams about constellations and lets her imagination run rampant.
Bright star, you’re a gas!
Several centuries ago the stars reconstellated into figures more relevant to the times. The Earth had been industrializing, mechanizing, electrifying, while the stars were still trotting out swans and goats and bears every night. Men of the world advised the stars to update their subjects, to figure forth printing shops and electricity generators. Obligingly the stars complied, and for a while the sky was up to snuff; the stars were sophisticated and worldly; but then shops supplanted shops and machines surpassed machines and the sky was left behind, littered with musty antiques.
Thereafter were the stars persuaded to depict compasses and quadrants, stripped of their names, given numbers, all but regimented into a grid, before they had had enough and reverted to their old subjects: dogs, dragons, herdsmen, bears. Take heed, worldly fashion—someone may trust you up to a point, but if you push him too far you will lose all the power you ever had over him and he will blaze up and turn into a bear.
The bear in the sky is sometimes mistaken for a prawn, or the government, while the bear on the ground rarely is. There are a few discrepancies between the bear in the sky and the bear on the ground—for one thing, bears on the ground are not nocturnal; nor do they have long tails; nor are they stalked by ravening chickadees who cook and eat them once a year. (Chickadees are good cooks but they do not usually own cooking pots.) The long tail of the Great Bear is also the handle of the Big Dipper, which is an asterism, less distinguished than a constellation, lower down in the hierarchy of starry patterns. Any goose can make up an asterism. Constellations are superior to asterisms and asterisms are superior to asterisks.
There is an even higher order than constellations, though. Many of the stars in the bear are leaving the bear: they belong to the Ursa Major Moving Group. If you saw an assortment of red berries in the air, all floating the same way and perfectly maintaining their configuration in relation to each other, you might surmise that they were all growing on the same invisible drifting hedge. Sometimes, in the pool, dispersed among the randomly paddling people, is a secret synchronized swimming team, not singing and smiling and exhibiting their legs but all heading the same way and all possessing an inward resemblance if not the same mass. As they move across the pool it may look like they are part of miscellaneous social clumps, but watch carefully and you will be able to discern that they are associated with each other and share a common drift, perhaps toward the slide.
That is what the Ursa Major Moving Group is like. Ostensibly members of the bear and the giraffe and the water carrier and the rabbit and the harvest maiden, these stars are secretly committed to the Ursa Major Moving Group. Like brother and sister berries, the stars of the Ursa Major Moving Group are chemically homogeneous, with unusually high levels of yttrium, and they came from the same cloud. They are slowly drifting toward Sagittarius; as they drift, they will wrench apart the bear, the giraffe, the harvest maiden, the tresses of Queen Berenice, Apollo’s goblet, the man in the coils of a snake, and the snake itself. Thus are many identities, over time, shown to be temporary alignments of components involved in a deeper allegiance. Goodbye to my goblet, goodbye to my bear; identity must yield to deeper identity. Goodbye to my giraffe, goodbye to my girl; local association gives way to an association of travelers across the firmament.
Stars, like thoughts, are not inevitable. Out of the diffuse dusty disorder something may or may not coalesce; floating specks in space find each other very escapable. Think how easy it is to escape the gravitational field of an animalcule. When consolidation does happen, it is usually precipitated by an outside force: a density wave, a nearby supernova, two colliding galaxies send the specks reeling, clustering, concentrating into collapsing factions, and those specks that once were strangers, easy come easy go, are now drafted into the same turbulent, raging-hot, high-pressure project—not just pressed close but pressed into each other, their previously repulsed protons fusing, four hydrogens becoming one helium. Out of these violent conjunctions are born the least violent, most oblivious things in the universe—neutrinos, rushing by the trillions through your person every second. Runners-up are oblivious to persons, tarantulas, silver and gold, landslides, dust bunnies, disapproval, hearsay, the cheese cart rolling by, but neutrinos are oblivious to all this and geraniums.
The other byproduct of nuclear fusion, besides neutrinos, is light. All bodies are radiant but not all radiance is visible: stars radiate visible light; planets and donkeys and couches radiate infrared waves. (If your couch is emitting visible light get up immediately.) Some condensing assemblies in space never get big enough to radiate visible light. A star will not shine until it has assembled enough self; once it has enough self it cannot help but shine; once it starts to shine it cannot help but burn the self up, and blow the self away upon the stellar winds. Some stars are so windy they lose a Sun’s amount of mass every 100,000 years—at that rate, if you weigh one hundred pounds, you could be selfless in two yoctoyears.
Dubhe, the red giant at the front of the Big Dipper’s bowl, is not a member of the Ursa Major Moving Group. In fact it is drifting in the opposite direction. But Dubhe is not all alone in the universe; Dubhe has a companion star, Dubhe B. If you want to know how it feels to have a companion star, find a stone that weighs as much as you do, about 100 pounds, or less if you want to be the primary star. If your name is Ruby you can call the stone Ruby B; then get a strap and call it Gravity—it will be what holds you together. Now place Ruby B in the strap and swing her around and around. At first you will feel like you are doing all of the work, but after a while Ruby B will start reciprocating and you and Ruby B will be a mutually slinging sensation.
Yes plus No equals a circle, where Yes is coming together and No is flying apart. Two stars in mutual orbit feel equally the forces of Yes and No, of gravity and inertia. If Yes were stronger they would crash together; if No were stronger they would go tearing off into the wild what. Ambivalence is an engine, a motion machine.
I teach the geology class that you go to in your dreams. I have never graded an assignment, scored a midterm. No one shows up until the day of the final exam. You must identify 3,827 types of rock indigenous to earth terrains and some space rock. That was our week five unit, which you missed. You need 3,827 correct answers plus the extra credit question in order to receive a passing grade in my course.
I’m not here to discuss the final. You should have come to my study sessions. You stare frantically at the paper as the questions rearrange themselves. The classroom is a large laboratory, all hard surfaces, and when your stool squeals under you, its echoes bounce in agony. You spy a familiar Greek root and try to bubble in the scantron, but your pencil turns into a flaccid worm. I warned about worm-pencils on the syllabus. Why didn’t you read it?
I wrote that syllabus in my apartment last winter, sitting cross-legged on my patched velvet couch, with my fawn-colored bulldog cuddled up beside me whining for supper. Cataracts wall her eyes like basalt, which you wouldn’t recognize. The sound of her breathing is a network of steam pipes. To you, I am an old crone or your seventh-grade crush or the large Mexican woman who failed you on the driver’s test. My dog, sightless, still sees me more clearly than you do. I’m not going to tell you her name. You wouldn’t care.
You watch the clock do its melty spiral dance. You drop your head down over your paper, anchoring it against the breeze of the classroom door that’s thrown open twice a minute by other panicked dreamers seeking calculus exams, semiotics finals. A girl walks in naked and shy, clutching a satchel over her vagina. You gaze at her breasts and move your mouth as though in prayer, hoping this will turn into another kind of dream altogether.
You cannot leave. You enrolled in this course. You will fail this test and it won’t be my fault. I am not an unkind woman but you have made it my job to watch you suffer.
While you whimper, I make notes on the index cards spread on the desk, revising my reading list for next semester. There’s a new translation of Volokhnrenik’s seminal text on marble-cutting, and I have ordered 28 copies into the bookstore. I read it in my breakfast nook while Topaz yelped for strips of maple-glazed bacon that I can’t feed her in good conscience because of the diabetes that has claimed her eyes. Next semester, twenty-eight copies of that textbook will be returned, spines uncracked, but the book is valuable and necessary.
You approach my desk with the test, all two hundred pages bound with industrial staples. “Can I just go to my car?” you ask. You have the wild panic look.
“Once the test has been administered, no one is allowed to leave. Are you done?”
You riffle through your pages. The text drifts like a reflection on an agitated pond. You have drawn pictures in the answer boxes, remarkably deft ink sketches of your dead uncle’s hands and face.
My grade report is already filled in: a column of F’s. In the Instructor Comments field for every student I have written the same note: You could have tried harder.
I didn’t mean to tell you the name of my dog before, Topaz. It’s the answer to the extra credit question. You won’t make it that far through the test packet.
Every semester I submit these grades, wondering how I have failed. In my long years teaching in this laboratory on the fifth floor of the labyrinthine school-castle with its erratically shifting classrooms, I have never lost my dangerous hope. In a few weeks, I will wait for a new crop of students on the first day of class, holding a stack of syllabi warm from the copier, and I will press my face to the pages as the dervish clock ticks its endless dance and one by one my students fail to arrive.
I will show up twice a week at my appointed hour, reading lectures off of my index cards, listening to the click of the projector slides, no louder than the clearing of a throat. Perhaps my voice will float under the crack of the door and these important facts about rocks will get learned.
For the week-five unit on space geology, I will bring in the moon rocks that I found in my husband’s bowling bag after he passed. He worked for NASA—accountant, not astronaut—and received these moon rocks as a secret santa gift the same Christmas he surprised me with Topaz. This anecdote is written neatly on an index card that I will read aloud at the end of a Thursday lecture, before assigning the homework.
I will stay late in week ten to offer the first of my four study sessions for the final. There’s no one at home to walk Topaz, so I will bring her to school with me. She and I will settle in the classroom to give our study session, me reading the gentle teacherly jokes off of my index cards and pausing for laughter where I have written myself notes to pause. During office hours, I will eat a small bag of dried raspberries. When the cellophane crinkles, Topaz will yip aggrievedly, running her cold slick nose up my calf. I wonder, some days, the sense in withholding these small treats from her. She has only a few months and I care for her so. I worry, at times, that in trying to protect her I am failing in my greater obligation, to ease her suffering.
Kat Lewin earned her MFA from UC Irvine, where she was a recipient of the Henfield Prize for fiction. Her work has appeared in PANK, Word Riot, Flaunt Magazine, and other publications. She is currently revising her first novel.
The Open Bar is currently accepting submissions for Flash Fridays and Flash Fidelity. Submissions to The Open Bar should be sent via email to email@example.com with the name of the category (e.g. Flash Fridays, Flash Fidelity, etc.) in the subject line.
Antiquarian booksellers are a breed of odd, voluble people who’d seem to make better extras in a film adaptation of Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop than as the catalysts of anything remotely dangerous. High-end mysteries are generally dominated by the visual arts, wherein the instant recognizability of a Rembrandt or a Brueghel heralds all sorts of mayhem. But the Kelmscott edition of Chaucer’s works? Audubon’s Birds of North America? The unassuming first edition Dracula, in yellow cloth, identifiable as a true first simply by the exclusion of an advertisement? These are not the stuff of havoc. Art heists are all about convoluted plotting and usually are depicted in fiction as almost balletic in their pulling off. On the other hand, thievery in the antiquarian book trade requires only a slightly large overcoat. In real life, bibliomysteries are acts of unromantic solitude perpetrated by people like William Henry Ireland, an eighteenth century aper of Shakespeare, or of John Charles Gilkey, the subject of The Man Who Loved Books Too Much, a contemporary bibliomaniac scattering rubber checks around the world. With a little bit more exoticism, there’s Harry Gold, who hired a bunch of Bowery thugs to steal an ultra-rare 1829 poetry collection by Edgar Allan Poe. Travis McDade’s Thieves of Book Row highlights Gold’s grand-scale renaissance of crookedness in the depression-era book trade. The first and only instance of biblio-crime altering the course of history, though, belongs to Onomacritus (530-480 BCE), a forger whose screwy divinations prompted Xerxes I to go to war against Greece. These examples are, however, exceptions to the common view of bookselling as a staid occupation.
In fiction however, bookishness has its own small niche of murder and violence. From nefarious bibliophagy in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose to Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, fabricated bookmen and bookwomen make up for their unadventurous non-fabricated colleagues. Possibly the first bibliomystery is an obscure 1840s pulp fiction called Clement Lorimer; or, The Book with the Iron Clasps, notable primarily for its illustrations by George Cruikshank, and which is, as far as I can tell, the only book to blend mind-altering drugs with horserace fixing. There’s the diabolism of The Club Dumas (reworked for film as The Ninth Gate, with Johnny Depp as the book scout tracking down a grimoire). The Big Sleep has a lengthy exchange between Marlowe and a bookseller on the flummoxing first edition states of Lew Wallace’s Ben Hur; while the 2004 thriller The Rule of Four is about an enigmatic tome by Aldus Manutius, the early printer who’s believed to have originated modern semi-colon usage and italic type. However, few biblio-centric mysteries showcase the actual purveyors themselves. Here are a half dozen that do.
The Haunted Bookshop by Christopher Morley:
This is possibly the most charming novel about anything ever, let alone bookselling. (The title refers to “the ghosts of all great literature”found in the store, and isn’t an actual ghost story). Morley’s 1919 sequel to Parnassus on Wheels sees opinionated second-hand dealer Roger Mifflin embroiled in the affair of a vanishing and reappearing biography of Oliver Cromwell. Cheesy romance between an advertising salesman and the daughter of a businessman, serious commentary on the necessity of books, post-WWI intrigue—it’s all here. The Haunted Bookshop is as erudite as a trunkful of scholars, with some early-period Hitchcock suspense thrown in for good measure. An earnest rumination on the culture of literariness, it’s also as breezy and winsome as is humanly possible.
The Bookman’s Wake by John Dunning
Raymond Chandler meets Nicholas Basbanes in Dunning’s second title to feature detective-turned-bookman Cliff Janeway. Arguably the best of the series, this one has Janeway tracking down a rare limited copy of The Raven and Other Poems, printed at a fine press in North Bend, Washington and a bibliophile who’s been murdering people for decades to get it. Along the way he’ll tangle with some nasty book-hunting figures and tease out the enigma of Eleanor Rigby, the girl’s he’s been hired to find. The author, a renowned Denver bookman, has the interior knowledge of the trade, a mastery of tough-talking dialog and a knack for totally labyrinthine plotting. It all equates to a smart, Edgar Award-nominated entry in the world of hardboiled book dealing. You’ll learn a ton about remainder marks and first edition states, and feast on lines like this: “Bookscouting gives you the same kind of thrills as gambling. You flirt with the Lady in much the same way. You get hot and books won’t stop coming; you get cold and you might as well be playing pinochle with your mother-in-law”.
Death’s Autograph by Marianne McDonald
The somewhat inappropriately named “Dido Hoare, the world-famous soft-touch antiquarian book dealer”is the hero of McDonald’s series of bibliomysteries. It begins not innocuously enough when Dido is tailed and nearly killed on her way from an appraisal. Then her shop is ransacked and a bunch of shady bookmen become fixated on getting their hands on a scrap of forged Shakespeare ephemera, which may turn out to be not quite so forged. The aforementioned William Henry Ireland lingers on the periphery of this thriller, a man whose forgeries are today avidly collected in their own right and the subject of Doug Stewart’s The Boy Who Would be Shakespeare. McDonald’s debut grazes the philosophical nature of genuineness and fakery—of people and of books. The novel, however, focuses less on the London antiquarian trade and more on the thrills of disrupting it’s rarefied setting.
Like a Hole in the Head by Jen Banbury
A scarce first edition of The Cruise of the Snark is the centerpiece of Banbury’s frenetic bibliomystery starring equally frenetic bookseller Jill. Finding herself in perpetual harm while trying to locate a Jack London first edition that was sold to her and subsequently stolen back. She’ll find herself face-to-face with a giant thug named Joke Man, a host of oddballs, one jittery dwarf, and some “central casting rejects”. If that weren’t enough, she’ll end up being tortured and seduced, while keeping her sarcasm well-honed in the process. Beyond all the madcap eccentricities, Like a Hole in the Head looks at Jack London’s habit of signing his works with others’names and especially at the weirdos who’d go to all the trouble of caring. This is definitely the funniest, most spastic bibliomystery in the canon: madcap, uneven and filled with the eccentricities of the trade.
The Bookman’s Tale by Charlie Lovett
Peter Byerly, an antiquarian bookseller, is looking through a tome of forgeries when he comes across an illustration that resembles far too closely his dead wife, a discovery that leads back in time to the origins of the Shakespeare debate. Lovett’s who-done-it moves from Byerly’s rare book internship to the late 16th-century roguishness of bookseller Bartholomew Harbottle (he who wrongheadedly, though cleverly, called Shakespeare an “upstart crow”), thence on to a murderous family feud in the drear English countryside. Lovett’s present-day mystery is overshadowed by the book’s forays into the sordid dealings of the Elizabethan age: Harbottle’s schemes, theatrical rivalries, Christopher Marlowe, literary poaching, debauchery, and a play called Pandosto that could settle the question of Shakespeare’s identity once and for all.
The Forgers by Bradford Morrow
“They never found his hands” is the terrifically memorable opening line of The Forgers. Morrow’s short novel smacks of all things antiquarian; the author’s very name conjures visions of gilt leather and badly-lighted bookshelves. Among criminals, there’s possibly no more respectable pursuit than literary forgery, and here that forger (and our narrator) is Will, a former bookman whose specialty is penning and then proffering Arthur Conan Doyle facsimiles to unwitting dealers and collectors. The novel opens when Will’s ex-lover’s hermit brother, Adam Diehl, is found murdered, sans hands, in a mess of manuscripts. Will starts receiving threatening letters from deceased literary celebrities, executed by a blackmailer who knows more about the narrator than Will is letting on. The Forger’s pseudo-Victorian tone and mood lends itself flawlessly to this bleak exploration of veracity and fraudulence. After all, who could make a finer unreliable narrator than a confessed, though unrepentant, falsifier?
Michael Peck is the author of the novel The Last Orchard in America. His work has appeared in The Believer, Los Angeles Review of Books, Pank and elsewhere. He lives in Oregon City, where he deals in rare books at Blue Roof Books.
Each month, we ask our staff to fill us in on some interesting content they’ve consumed recently. (That’s what we do now, right? Consume content?) We dig deep and think of what books, movies, TV shows, art, music, or other bits of culture stood out to us and inspired us, at least before we saw Fast 7 over the weekend. We can’t all just pick Fast 7.
Michelle Wildgen: So this month the book I was most desperate to return to was Richard Price’s The Whites, which he published under the pen name Harry Brandt. (I have spent more time speculating on the purpose of this hiding in plain sight than perhaps it warrants. I figure he’s using a pen name to tide us over with slightly shorter, more plot-heavy books while the next opus is still in the works.) I’ve been a big Price fan since Freedomland, which showed me how expansive the Price fictional world is. The man puts the “novel” in “crime novel.” And yes, there’s a crime, and yes, there’s mystery, but that’s never the point. The point is the deep reach of community and history, the culture of every neighborhood or profession no matter which side of the law it’s on. Don’t mistake any of this for sentimentality about the old neighborhood, either. The Price universe is a tough one, but people live in it—which means they have sex and families and children in it, they fuck up in it, they fail in it, they dramatize themselves in it, they commit loving acts and violent acts in it. If anything, Price is like the old nineteenth century narrator who sees all, goes anywhere, and doesn’t play favorites.
Conveniently, Guernica just published an interview with Price and David Simon. Or you could go back to this oldie in the Paris Review. Meanwhile, a huge portion of our staff spent March with Paul Beatty’s new book:
Thomas Ross: I’ve been rereading Mason & Dixon now for what feels like decades, but I took a break recently because Paul Beatty came to town. Our whole office has been waiting impatiently for Beatty’s The Sellout since we first read the prologue and were lucky enough to publish it in our current issue, The Rejection Issue. In The Sellout, Beatty rejects everything. From the Little Rascals to Condolleezza Rice, The Sellout tears relentlessly into America’s racist past and present, hitting every target imaginable and inventing a few extras to hit, too. Yes, there are characters, and yes, they’re actually identifiable, sympathetic, and compelling, but this book lives in its jokes. There are long passages where Beatty’s narrator seems to forget there’s a narrative going on and just bounces from one punch line to the next, but it never feels like quality over quantity, he’s never just carpet bombing with jokes, hoping one or the other lands right. Beatty’s more about the precision takedown. These are mean jokes, most of them, jokes about Colin Powell and George Bush, yes, but also jokes about everyday people and how thoughtless and destructive they can be. The book is like a thousand laser guided, nuclear-payload-carrying jokes, and by the time you realize the target is you, you’re toast.
Sometimes a book is hard to talk about because, like The Sellout, it’s too challenging, too third-rail for the water cooler. Other times, you can’t talk about what you’re reading because you’re deeply, passionately ashamed of how completely unchallenging it is: Continue reading
To read more lengthy responses to the prompt, check out our latest issue, which is filled with sad sack tales, essays, and poems dealing in rejection and regret.
One of the very first rejection letters I ever received was from Tin House. When I say letter, I mean unsigned, photocopied quarter-slip of paper. This totally unencouraging wisp of a thing took no more than three lines to deal its death blow:
Dear Writer, thanks for your submission, unfortunately we must pass, etc., etc., scene.
I know because I still have the letter. It’s taped into the earliest pages of my Notebook of Failure and Triumph, right alongside nearly identical slips from New England Review, Mid-American Review, and Zoetrope All-Story. All say the same “thanks, but no thanks.” The Tin House specimen is pinned down with care, as if extra-young writer me knew I’d struck out on a new hobby—not writing per se, but collecting rejections like butterflies.
I started keeping the Notebook of Failure and Triumph in my sophomore year of college in an effort to take my own work seriously. I wanted more than anything to be in the game. I had some sense that part of professionalizing was learning to be secretary to my own work. I also had the sense that I needed to, um, write something worth publishing.
In high school, I had decided that if I wanted to be a writer then I should be writing, and so I wrote a novel. I can say how certifiably not-good that book is now not because I’ve reached the vantage point of some much greater accomplishment, but simply because I’ve (thank god) gotten some distance from it, and because (thank god) I’m no longer in high school. The scene I most relished writing was about the main character dyeing her hair black in an act of willful rebellion. The runner-up was about kissing. I showed the book to a neighbor who had some tenuous connection to the New Yorker from a previous work life. I seethed as she told me what a great English teacher I could still be.
In college, the stories I was sending out were not a lot better. The one Tin House shot down was about sexual awakening at a school production of a play about the life of Sylvia Plath. New England Review rejected the one about clandestine supermarket lobster liberation and two kids who’ve apprenticed themselves to a saint. There were lots of Neil Young lyrics as titles, lots of sexual tension between couples who professed to be friends. They were all a little bit Wes Anderson, a little bit rock n’ roll. The darkest ones make me think of Francie’s stories in Lorrie Moore’s “How to Become A Writer,” with old people dying “idiot deaths” in freak electrical accidents and yogurt stand disasters.
For these college stories alone, I must have thirty pages of taxidermied rejection slips. If I was daunted, I don’t remember it. What I do know is that I feel daunted more now, eight years and an MFA and three publishing jobs later, when the rejections come in for whatever latest weird thing I’ve made. I’ve staked a bet on writing that very well could not pay off, and that carries a hell of a lot more consequences than it did for me as a sophomore English major. The Notebook of Failure and Triumph keeps growing—both parts of it. (Maybe because I keep on writing about lobsters?)
That bad book, though, remains one of the things in my life that I’m proudest of, along with my Tin House letter. I wish I could say I look at them now and feel smug about having ascended beyond them to some far-greater writing plane. What I can say is that they’re my favorite proof that I’ve played the game. I hereby add a Triumph page to the Notebook in honor just of that.
And if, in the process of that keeping on, I’ve leveled up enough to be on the business end of Submittable and draft a less snotty form letter for Tin House, that’s good news for Notebooks of Failure and Triumph everywhere.
Emma Komlos-Hrobsky is assistant editor at Tin House magazine. Her writing has appeared in Bookforum, Web Conjunctions, The Story Collider, Hunger Mountain (and Tin House! Find an essay from her in the Rejection issue on newsstands now). Her only known natural enemy is the velociraptor.
We sat on the steps waiting for the storm. Rachel spit watermelon seeds into the twilight. Lightning flashed behind a bank of clouds and I got to 10 before thunder rolled.
“Hand me a slice,” I said.
We slurped cold melon, searching for seeds. Juice trickled down our wrists.
“Got one,” she said. “You?”
Mine didn’t make it past the bottom of the stairs. Rachel’s we lost sight of out in the darkness. Best of three turned into best of five then seven. She had the knack, I didn’t.
We were celebrating her resignation. Nineteen years as a psych nurse in a residential facility for kids, burnt out since year number two. At home, she’d talk on the phone for hours, to friends, her sisters, rehashing the stories she’d told me at dinner: boys who lit the classroom hamster on fire, twelve-year-olds who railed Ritalin. She made light of it, her left ear all hot and red from the phone. “The solution to pollution is dilution,” she’d say. I worked in waste water treatment, I taught her that. The edge to her voice cut a little, or maybe she was just being funny.
Lightning strobed across the prairie. Eight seconds later, thunder rumbled. Rachel shivered, although it must have been seventy degrees. I held an imaginary microphone up to her, a thing we used to do with spatulas in the kitchen. “Rachel Stevens, besides champion seed-spitting, what’s next?”
Raindrops began to fall so wide apart you could hear each one hit the ground. She stood to go inside.
“It’s hardly raining. Don’t go.” I wiggled the ghost mic. “What next?”
She sat down again. Her hair brushed my bare arm.
“I want to go away.” She sighed the words into the clouds.
More lightning. Raindrops fell faster, closer together. Wind sent some of them in under the porch to hit our foreheads and cheeks. Seven seconds until thunder.
“How about someplace the weather can sneak up on us for a change? A cabin in the Rockies, the sequoias in Kings Canyon?” I said. We would fly out of Kansas City, rent a car big enough to sleep in, like the old van back when we followed the Dead, sleeping bags zipped together, cooler stocked with beer.
“Not a vacation. Just away.” She leaned forward, hugged her skirt around her legs.
I swatted a mosquito from my ear. Seconds later the damned thing came back. I flipped up my sweatshirt hood. “You mean from everyone?”
“I do.” Wind blew strands of Rachel’s dark hair straight into the air.
I could only see the back of her, shoulders hunched. I’d wondered sometimes if it was me. What if after all the cheering her up and on, telling her: go back to college, study something new, just quit, Rach, we can manage, your happiness is worth more than $22.50 an hour, I’d been helping her solve the wrong problem?
“You waited till now to tell me?” I wanted her to sit up. Look at me. An hour ago she moaned at the first bite of the ribeye I’d grilled for the occasion, used her fingers instead of her fork on the asparagus. She’d smiled across the table at me when her teeth split the skin of the perfectly boiled baby potatoes.
“Was there a better time?” She sounded surprised that it mattered.
I pictured our rooms impassable with stacked boxes, hers and mine, how we’d sort and separate our accumulations. She’d take the cat, the piano, and probably the avocado green colander. We’d have to tell people. Jesus, was there someone else? Was she fucking around with someone else? I couldn’t breathe. I waited for lightning, counted till thunder.
“I’m staying at my sister’s next month,” she said.
Ants crawled over the melon rinds. June bugs dashed their clumsy bodies against the screens where light poured from the living room. Otis Reading crooned about his yearning arms from our stereo (my stereo, my Otis). We were supposed to be dancing now, in the storm, passing the champagne between us, the mint of Rachel’s lip balm on the bottle making every sip taste like her kiss. The rain eased, blew south. Lighting pulsed. I forgot to count.
“Tom, say something.” She sat up. Our arms touched.
“How long’ve you been planning this?”
“Thinking about it since my notice last month. Maggie needs someone for the horses and gardens when they go to Nantucket. It fell into place, you know?” She said it so casually, like telling me she needed to pick up a gallon of milk.
I’d looked at a place, a few years back – studio with two burners and a mini-fridge – over in Lawrence. The rental agent noticed my ring, asked did my wife know what I was up to. Just seeing what’s available, you never know, I said. He shook his head and left me standing on the porch in the flat light of winter.
I cleared my throat to make room for words. “And after that?”
“After that?” The crease between her brows deepened. “I’ll come home.”
I leaned forward, dropped my head into my hands. “I thought—“
“Hey, hey.” Rachel reached into my hood and squeezed the back of my neck. “It’s just a month and then I’ll be ready.”
“Ready for what?”
“Anything, I guess.”
A shiver chased itself from her fingertips to the top of my head. In my mind, I unpacked the boxes I’d filled with hers and mine. The cat and the piano would stay. The colander returned to the kitchen, ours again but off-kilter, a little out of place.
Lightning flickered against my eyelids. I counted to twelve, still waiting for thunder.
Jennifer Audette lives in Vermont, where it’s still possible to have friends who don’t own Smartphones, or cell phones at all, and who navigate using collections of paper maps called gazetteers. You can read more of her work in Stoneboat, Crack the Spine, and Fiction Fix. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
So the plot of Charles Jackson’s The Lost Weekend goes something like this: A guy named Don gets drunk. He’s gotten drunk before. He’ll get drunk again. He drinks, passes out, wakes up; keeps drinking till he runs out of money, finds some more money, and gets drunk again. And so on. At some point he tries to pawn his typewriter for cash. Another time he steals a woman’s purse to see if he can get away with it. He doesn’t get away with it. But that’s pretty much the plot: drinking. And more of it. There are no spoilers here to keep.
Even Don knows how predictable his story has become. Monotony isn’t a failure of his story but the point of it. If his story were interesting, its interest would distort the essentially tedious texture of its subject. That’s the thing, though—The Lost Weekend is oddly enthralling, in an aggressive sense of thrall, a state of servitude or submission. Addiction is a disease so unrelenting its repetition becomes a kind of tyranny: “there was only one thing: drink, and more drink, till amnesty came; and tomorrow, drink again.” We readers feel that tyranny like drunkards. The story of addiction pushes every other plot thread into the margins, and Jackson isn’t afraid to stay in the mangled, claustrophobic tale that remains once those threads have been lost—lost along with all that money, those friends and days, that whole weekend and the lost life it foretold.
Since its publication in 1944, The Lost Weekend has itself been nearly lost. Most people who know it only know it for the movie, a Billy Wilder flick that won the 1945 Oscar for Best Picture. The movie ends with Don putting out his cigarette in a glass of whiskey. The novel refuses any similar suggestion of closure.
Perhaps the book has been largely forgotten because its vision of alcoholism as pathology no longer seems as revolutionary as it did back in the forties, when AA was still new and the “disease” model was only gradually gaining traction in the public imagination. The Lost Weekend was one of the first novels to dramatize alcoholism as an illness—not simply a lifestyle or tragic backdrop, à la Fitzgerald or Hemingway. Jackson wasn’t drinking when he wrote it, but he wasn’t done with drinking either. He fell off the wagon five years after he wrote about a guy who couldn’t even get on it.
For the course of these pages, however, Jackson is drinking vicariously through Don. We see our antihero drinking whiskey in an uptown bar and then a downtown bar; we see him stealing money from the maid, wheedling money from the laundry lady and the bodega guy, trying to beat down the doors of a pawnshop closed for Yom Kippur. We see him settled into his favorite drinking pose—curled up in his leather chair with a full tumbler and some classical music—and we see him pissing his pants two days later, on the other side of the same bender.
You could say this is a book about a guy fighting his disease, and you’d be right; or that it’s a book about a guy fighting himself, and that would be right too. You could say the fact that both of these explanations are right means neither one is right—on its own, each occludes the other—because in truth the man and his disease are so intertwined it is hard to trace their boundaries in the dust of battle.
Really, in the end, this is a book about a guy afraid of being the protagonist in a bad book. Don is constantly thinking of his life as a story, and he constantly finds the story lacking; it seems melodramatic or trivial or both. He’s an aspiring writer who wants to tell the story of his drinking, but he also wants to pawn his typewriter for cash to buy another drink. When he imagines writing the story of his life—“if he were able to write fast enough, he could set it down in all its final perfection”—he conjures a story first punctuated by alcohol (“the long affair with Anna, the drinking”) and eventually overwhelmed by it: “the books begun and dropped, the unfinished short-stories, the drinking the drinking the drinking; the foolish psychiatrist.” Alcoholism is attended by stories without endings and flanked by the futile handmaidens of narrative and psychology. The disease can’t be explained by literature or psychiatric treatment. The drinking the drinking the drinking. Drinking isn’t just punctuation between other plot points. It’s no longer punctuated by anything else.
Don plays with possible titles for the autobiographical novel he might someday write: “Don Birnam: A Hero Without a Novel,” or “Total Recall: An Anthology,” or “I Don’t Know Why I’m Telling You All This.” He questions whether anyone would even want to read it—“Who would ever want to read a novel about a punk and a drunk!”—and the question feels rhetorical, capped by an exclamation point rather than a question mark. But the joke is on us, his readers, who are doing exactly what he can’t imagine anyone wanting to do: reading a novel about a punk and a drunk who can’t summon enough sobriety to tell the story of his own intoxication.
Don helpfully catalogs all the aesthetic failures of his story, deeming it a melodrama without suspense or climax or closure. It holds no suspense because he already knows how he’ll feel during all of its repeating chapters—after the first drink, after the tenth, after he wakes up hung over the next morning. During a particularly embarrassing “climactic moment” near the end of the book, he finds himself facing off against a maid, trying to get her to unlock the liquor cabinet, and is overwhelmed by a distinctly literary self-loathing: “Melodrama! In all his life he had never been in any situation so corny, so ham. He felt like an idiot. His taste was offended, his sense of the fitness of things, his deepest intelligence.”
Jackson withholds from his protagonist the satisfaction of a tragic climax, punishing Don—and perhaps himself, as well—with the abasement of melodrama. Don is ashamed not simply of his actions but of his genre, the fact that his own tragedy doesn’t amount to anything compelling: “It wasn’t even decently dramatic or sad or tragic or a shame or comic or ironic or anything else—it was nothing.”
Except it must have been something, because here we are—readers holding a book between our hands that is telling us we should probably put it down and pick up something else. The book makes addicts of us all, in our reading, precisely because we don’t put it down, because we can’t.
What are we waiting for, anyway? For death to end the whole thing? For salvation to present itself? Because it does. It comes in the form of a male hospital nurse, and returns fifty pages later—this time dressed as a woman. It fails both times. The drunk stays drunk. Or rather, he gets dry but can’t wait to get drunk again. He tells everyone not to make such a fuss. He tells us over and over again why we shouldn’t be reading about him. I Don’t Know Why I’m Telling You All This.
Why, Don? Because all this won’t let go of you. Because you have no other story to tell.
Leslie Jamison is the author of the essay collection The Empathy Exams, and a novel, The Gin Closet. Her essays have appeared in Believer, Harper’s Magazine, Oxford American, and Tin House.
This essay was originally published in our This Means War Issue.
When I met Nicholson Baker, at last, after two years of reading and writing about him for B & Me: A True Story of Literary Arousal, I told him that I thought his choices of subject matter, throughout his career, demonstrated an instinct to occupy the taboo. To this point in our conversation, Baker had been largely poker-faced, but there was something about this he liked so much he echoed it back to me.
“Occupy the taboo,” he said, with a boyish grin.
In teaching Vox and Checkpoint, you might begin with this: One is a love story, the other is a loath story. Or you might begin with the observation that both books were reviewed quite poorly on their initial release, yet, like saviors or martyrs, their critical crucifixion – their critifixion – served only to ensure that they would survive and continue to be discussed, years later. Or you might simply assert to your students, by way of a “hypothesis,” and perhaps with some hope that you will be able to make some persuasive arguments to this effect, that both books are actually about storytelling.
On the one hand, they’re practically identical. Vox is one-hundred-and-sixty-five pages long, and Checkpoint is somewhat thinner at one-hundred-and-fifteen pages, but they’re both quite short and the fact that they are short was held against them when they were first published: “Slim, strange and nearly plotless” and “Scummy little book,” respectively. Both are dialogue books, or mostly dialogue books, and both limit themselves to a single conversation that follows a simple Freytag triangle or pyramid or whatever clunky visual you’d like to use to represent the beginnings, the middles, and the climactic, purgative ends of stories. And the characters of both books, a man and woman in Vox, and two men in Checkpoint, have something of a cardboard quality to them – they’re not quite people – and while this was, again, used to indict the books, it should have been the first sign that neither aspired to the realism their reviewers appeared to expect.
On the other hand, while both books were backed by innovative marketing campaigns – the phone sex novel was sold wrapped in brown paper; the presidential assassination novel was initially scheduled for release on the eve of the 2004 Republican National Convention – Vox was a bestseller, while Checkpoint flopped. One is about sex, the other about death. One is a conversation that takes place only in electronic ether, the other is an actual conversation in a hotel room. One is “live,” in the sense that you read it as though you are eavesdropping in real time, the other is a document, a transcription prepared, somehow, after the fact.
Anyway, you get the idea: Vox and Checkpoint are a study in contrasts. But once you’ve read them both – and you can make your students do that – it’s hard to imagine having read either in isolation.
There’s one more thing Vox and Checkpoint have in common: if you’re going to understand them, you’re going to have to set aside prejudices and assumptions, and truly, as Goethe demands of every book we read, “yield yourself up entirely to its influence.”
And that’s not easy. As a writer, Nicholson Baker has some kind of internal divining rod for the things that “push our buttons” or “get our backs up,” or otherwise cause us to erect an emotional wall between ourselves and whatever might challenge our prejudices and assumptions. (I should not need to add that this kind of reaction is a prerequisite for censorship.) Baker’s career is consistent in this regard. Whether he’s a writing a book devoid of plot (The Mezzanine), or upending our romantic notions about the true motives of librarians (Double Fold), or contesting the fundamental rationalizations that enabled, for example, World War Two (Human Smoke – can you feel your fingers inching toward your pistol?), Baker has made a career not out of bombastic claims, I would argue, but out of a recognition that difficult truths are the kinds of truths that we can discuss only in the context of literature, which is the place we go when all other forms of human discourse fail.
So it can, and should, be said that both Vox and Checkpoint, on some level, are about freedom of speech. This is probably truer of Checkpoint than Vox, at least overtly, as threatening to kill the President of the United States is an actual restriction on the speech of United States citizens, a restriction that no one, not even Checkpoint, is clamoring to do away with it. (Incidentally, we really need an updated version of the metaphor we use for the other widely accepted restriction on speech: yelling “Fire!” in crowded theatres. It seems to me that people are more or less constantly yelling “Fire!” in the crowded theatre of the internet.) Somewhat similarly, Vox discovered, via its critical reception, that not all freedom of speech is the same, and apparently not everyone wants the kind of freedom of speech that Lenny Bruce fought and perhaps died for.
I became aware in a single whiplash instant both that there existed an opera of Invisible Cities and that there was a Pulitzer Prize granted in music. I’m admitting this shamefacedly—how reflexively I free-associated “Pulitzer” with magazine articles and books, and now that I’m working on a novel about composers, it seems that much more myopic. But it couldn’t possibly be THAT Invisible Cities, the one I’d held so ardently since I was a teenager, attempted to film in high school with my beloved English teacher, Morrow Jones, driving out to Coney Island in the dead of winter for a whiff of one of Calvino’s landscapes (probably one of the “Cities and the Dead”). That project still exists somewhere, a reel in a dusty canister, or at least some synaptic loose change. Seeing this opera as a finalist, though, was a bit like seeing an old friend, long fallen out of touch, achieving some greatness—it could hardly be…
Craziest of all, I couldn’t listen to it, because it had been written for headphones and live performance at L.A.’s Union Station. That helped, in a way—otherwise, how else to reckon with the impossible, and anyway, since at least Keats we’ve known that “unheard melodies” are the sweeter, right?
When I finally got to hear clips of it on the CD release, though, I was greedy for it. As far as I was concerned, the composer, Christopher Cerrone, had, indeed, accomplished the impossible—he’d taken Calvino’s spirit and the words in Weaver’s English translation, and made it seem like the most natural thing in the world, brought it into musical being as though music were merely one more language in which Calvino could speak. But what a language! What dialects, and what morphemes, and what unfamiliar, haunting inflections.
Over Skype, Cerrone was generous enough to talk about how the project came about, and to zig and zag with me over the shifty terrain where music and literature share and dispute their borders.
Tim Horvath: To begin with, I’m wondering what the origins of your opera Invisible Cities were. Had you read the book when you were much younger? Did it percolate for a long time? How did it actually come to be?
Christopher Cerrone: I started the opera when I was 24. What happened was that I discovered Calvino in college. I started writing all these pieces that were inspired by him. I wrote an orchestra piece based on a story found in If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler; I wrote another for chamber ensemble that was based on Mr. Palomar, and then finally I came across Invisible Cities. I was taking an opportunity to do this opera-writing class when I was in grad school, and was like, “This book seems kind of cool. I didn’t have a really clear idea that I was actually going to write a whole opera on it. I thought, “This is a beautiful book. I love the language, let me try something with this.” It was very low commitment at the time. I thought: “I’ll write seven minutes of music, and, worst-case scenario, it doesn’t come out well.” But quite the opposite, I found that there was this thing in the language that brought something completely different out in what I was writing. It was a huge, huge catalyst for me as a composer.
TH: Typically, when we think of adaptation, we think of books being transformed into films, or short stories into films, maybe into a television series nowadays. Hence the prevailing wisdom that by now verges on cliché, “the book was better than the film.” But I don’t think writers nor the general public are accustomed to thinking about what it means to adapt a text into music. Into an opera! One thing that struck me in going back and revisiting Calvino is that even though the book doesn’t really have that much of a narrative structure, being comprised, rather, of these philosophical vignettes and meditations, your opera takes on a definite trajectory. I know that the loose, filigreed structure was part of why you were drawn to it originally. At the same time, though, I think that your piece gives it this shape, this narrative momentum that the book doesn’t necessarily have.
CC: I’m not totally sure how I feel about that. I was actually drawn to the piece because I love the architecture of it. The alternations of the cities and the descriptions of the interactions between Kublai Khan and Marco Polo…that was something I really wanted to take from the book. And also, and maybe it’s partly that when you try to adapt something, your personality goes into it a lot, in the way that you try to…well I was like, “I’ll do a pretty straight adaptation.” I always saw the book as having this kind of shape, from a very light tone, and that the book grew more and more morbid and morose, and that was a really big thing that I wanted to take from the book, but maybe I just brought more and more of my own moroseness into it.
TH: When I first read Invisible Cities I was much younger, so Kublai Khan looking at the ruins of his empire and contemplating death felt like much more of an abstraction to me, the stuff of myth and imaginative pathos. But now as I stand here that much closer, well, it’s substantially more palpable and real, and those passages come into a starker relief. They feel more imminent. Even in the opening of yours, you capture that sense of ruin…and it’s harrowing to behold the empire in that state.
CC: Yes, I tried to. I know this sounds kind of like a corny story, but I remember very distinctly opening to the first page, and sitting down to the piano in graduate school and playing the first few notes of it. It really came to me in a way…and my music really changed in that moment. It was denser, and more complicated. And I felt like that music and the need to evoke the melancholy of that opening—something changed in terms of what I do as a composer.
TH: How would you describe that change?
CC: I think I was writing much more complicated music, and I suddenly felt a strong desire towards clarity. And that was sort of the thing that made the turn for me—the desire for transparency and clarity. Calvino, of course, talks about that stuff a lot too, so I felt that it was a legitimate pursuit. What are the Essays for the New Millennium? There’s “Lightness,” “Exactitude,” “Multiplicity”…all of those became more significant for me at that moment. I simplified things, which didn’t mean that it became less complicated. I just became more transparent. So that’s the thing I tried to do: create a music of more direct emotional expression. Because that’s the other thing I love about Calvino, which is that despite the fact that it’s very heady, there tends to be a lyric strain running through it, and that really struck me about his work
TH: Undoubtedly related to that is Calvino’s use of space on the page, which seems particularly pronounced in this book. He almost seems to demand the reader participate in a certain way. I, for one, tend to forget that Kublai Khan is being regaled with these stories and I start to read “you” as “me” as the book goes on. And really stop between cities to ruminate and reflect and let it sink in. I wonder if musically you see some parallels with that in terms of how the listener experiences your work?
CC: I initially read the book very quickly, and I always had a very clear idea that I wanted to do something with it. And then I reread it, and I read one page a day, or one story a day, for a summer. Because I felt as though there was no other way for me to actually understand all the depth of that book unless I read it really slowly. I was like, “I can only handle one story per day, I’m going read three pages and I’m really going to think very hard about those three pages.
TH: That leads naturally into another question, which is…you’re reading one of these every day. You’re sort of digesting it, ruminating over it…how did you come to focus on the cities that you did choose, because I could imagine that that would’ve been a really difficult decision? I’m guessing that almost any one of those cities could’ve become, in your mind, a springboard for a section.
An excerpt from Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Adult Onset, coming soon from Tin House Books.
She hung up to see her mother cannoning from the crowd, all four-foot-eleven-and-a-half of her, jaunty in her beret, her bling, her snow-blindingly new running shoes, hurrying toward them with a funny splay-foot walk that reminded Mary Rose of Maggie. Was that new?
Duncan came into view behind her, walking stolidly as though over rugged terrain, his mouth set in the Highland perseverance that peopled the globe and its boards of directors, dapper in his peaked cap, yellow windbreaker and rubber-soled brogues.
Dolly’s brows arched above her big dark eyes, her mouth formed an O! of astonishment, she raised both hands, framing her face with delight, and swooped down on Maggie, assaulting her with “Sitdy kisses”—this used to make Matthew cry, but Maggie screamed with laughter. Duncan looked on, amused, then after the first flurry he crouched, took Maggie’s hand and said softly, “Hi there, Maggie, how are you, sweetie-pie?”
“Jitdy,” said Maggie, just as softly, and reached for his cap. He gave it to her.
Jitdy was Arabic for “grandfather,” a name that, for Mary Rose’s blue-eyed father, was a source of pride and amusement.
Dolly cupped Mary Rose’s face in her warm hands and looked up into her eyes. Mary Rose looked down into the familiar overheated expression of affection; the old eye-laden look that staked mute claim to martyrdom. She formed a smile and received the slightly too-long hug, registering a guilty yet inexplicable annoyance with her adorable little mother.
Duncan rose with an attempt at spryness. “How are you, Mister, you’re lookin’ great.” He bonked her on the head with the flat of his hand like a shingle—the Scottish equivalent of a hug. She was almost feverishly glad to see her father. It was always this way, as if an engine revved inside her, stoked with an urgent message. Dear Dad, I!
“How was your trip, Dad?”
“Like the fella says, ‘uneventful,’” he replied heartily if a mite hoarsely, she thought.
No sooner had she lost the battle with him over who would carry their overnight bag—it was on wheels, but he insisted on carrying it by the handle—than she turned to see the stroller standing empty.
“I let her out,” confessed Dolly with a mischievous glint.
“Jesus Christ, Mum!” Mary Rose swung to face the crowd—a blur, a black inland lake. “Maggie!”
“Relax.” Her father’s voice behind her, the one he used on her mother. “There’s no panic, Rosie.” Paneek.
She looked down. Maggie was sitting on the stone floor, going through Dolly’s purse, grown-up legs scissoring past her.
When out looking for antlers in Wyoming in January, it is important to walk slow. You are not exercising, you are out looking for antlers, and antlers won’t appear to you if you are too focused on breaking a sweat. Your feet will slide on the snow where it is packed, and they will sink where it is loose and pillowy. Usually you will go in up to your ankle, but sometimes you will fall all the way to your knee or even your hip, a quick drop that leaves you breathless, your exhale still floating somewhere above your head. Sometimes you will step forward, ready to sink, but the snow will be unexpectedly hard. It will not even crack under your weight, and you will wonder about the physics of snow, why it sometimes holds you up and sometimes pulls you down.
It is important not to expect to find anything. Antlers do not reward greediness. Pick up every little bit of fuzz you spot, no matter how un-antler like, no matter how soft and wispy. Hold onto it even though each passing breeze threatens to loose it from your grasp. Little bits of fuzz come from animals, too, even if they lack the hardness of true bone.
If you’re only in it for the antlers, you are bound to be disappointed.
When you come to a fork in the road, take the way that calls to you, even if the map says otherwise. Remember which footsteps are yours. Bring enough water and dress in layers. Even though it is fifty degrees and sunny when you set out, the temperature can drop fast once the sky moves from bright to dusk. Dusk is when the mountain lions come out, so walk tall and sing a song to yourself, loud enough that they can tell you are person and not prey. If one does come, remember you are supposed to fight, not flee.
Out here, the deer shed their antlers in December, January, February, the cold, white months that reward a watchful eye. How they shed, you don’t actually know, but you picture them dancing in the snow, a careful choreography that involves no pain, only joy, the way you used to feel sometimes but now feel less and less. You can’t remember the last time you felt the way a deer dancing on its hind legs in the snow must feel.
When out looking for antlers in Wyoming in January, it is easy to get discouraged, when you have spent days walking past neat piles of scat and weaving patterns of tracks but have found nothing but antler-like sticks. It is easy to think that you are simply not the kind of person who finds antlers in Wyoming in January. It is easy to give up.
But then you will crest the summit, and as you walk straight into a ceiling of blue sky, you will see something up ahead, on a patch of ragged grass where the snow has melted. Probably it is a stick, you will think, but your heart will beat faster, your body overruling your reason. Your reason will remember all the letdowns of the past, but your body will know only this moment, the creaking of the snow, the movement of the clouds overhead, the stick-like object that has awakened an electricity that runs through your flesh.
Still, you will tell yourself it is a stick until the moment you are right above it, standing over it in wonder – wonder at its curving prongs, its desiccated stump. Wonder that you could have ever mistaken a stick for an antler, the latter so much more solid, impossible to break, impermeable to decay. Wonder that you are the person standing here, on this day, in this spot.
You will feel a weight that you did not know you were carrying fall away. A lightness will rise from the base of your spine. And as you pick up the antler, its surprisingly smooth surfacealive in your hand, your legs will start to move towards home.
Claire Miye Stanford‘s work has appeared in Front Porch, Word Riot, Booth, Necessary Fiction, Paper Darts, Grist, The Millions, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among others. She holds an MFA from the University of Minnesota and is based in Minneapolis.